One of the pleasures of living up here and out of town is watching the dial of nature slowly ticking through the seasons.
Over the past few weeks, the magpies have built a nest in our backyard, the geese and ducks have returned. We’ve spotted blue herons flying over our house, a loon on the river, muskrats busy in the wetland.
This morning, out with the dog, I saw red-winged blackbirds flicking their scarlet flags over the reedy swamp of Grace Lake shoreline that is our back-yard. Beautiful.
A month ago, I snapped a pic of the river for posterity. Ice shacks still out and road carved sturdily in the snow. Yesterday, almost exactly a month later, and the very day the ice started cracking up. I took another pic from the same spot. Here they are. It’s amazing what changes a couple handfuls of days can make.
So CBC’s Canada Writes put out a call for people to pin stories about their communities to places on the map of Canada. I decided to write about moving up here to The Pas and our trepidation over the potential of rising waters in the river across the road from our house.
You can read it right here. Or go here to see it (and the other Editor’s Picks) on the map. And while you’re there, write your own piece!
I wrote this just after April’s mid-point and since then the flood forecast has improved, largely because of our s-l-o-w melt. Minus 10 the last couple mornings. Snow in Saskatoon and parts south this past Monday. The warm weather will sure get a warm welcome, once it decides to show up.
Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about Saskatoon. How pretty it is; how artsy. So it was exciting for J. and I to drop Mowat off at the local kennel, arrange a cat-sitter so Griffy could maintain the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed and head south(ish)-west for a few days over the Manitoba March Break.
Understand that I grew up with distances. To see movies as a family or go shopping in a mall we’d head from Blind River to the Soo (Sault Ste. Marie) at least a couple times a month. That drive is about an hour and a half. This one took six hours – through lakes and forests and finally, into an eerie flat snow-blanketed prairie that struck both J. and I as entirely alien.
But it sure was worth it.
Funny enough, the main exhibit at the river-side Mendel Art Gallery was about home. Volunteers and staff at the gallery were asked what pieces in the permanent collection defined home for them.
This question has, of course, been on my mind a lot lately and has been echoing throughout the various short stories I’ve been working on. What is home? Landscape, relatives, belongings, certain places?
I suppose the image I would pick would be of Four Sands, a Lake Huron beach I walked to a few times a week when I was growing up but even that was a place I struggled to be in and often wanted to leave, longing for the big world I imagined to be somewhere along the ribbon of highway stitched through our town.
You can explore the gallery’s show here. Share your thoughts in the comments: what’s home to you?
After we left the gallery we went on to shoot a few new roots into the prairie soil that’s now part of our (big) backyard. At a poetry reading at McNally Robinson, we met and made friends with Saskatoon writers Andrea Ledding and (one of the evening’s readers) Jeanette Lynes who also gave me names of folks w-a-y up here who are writing, for which I’m grateful.
And we visited the office of Grain which turned out to be on an upper floor of the historic railway hotel, the Delta Bessborough, a Saskatoon landmark that showed up a couple times in pieces at the gallery and where we were lucky enough to stay.
At the end of our visit, we found ourselves on the lower level of the post office, at a music venue called The Bassment. We went there to see Madison Violet, a folk-country duo we both love who just happened to be in town. On our final night in Saskatoon, before embarking on the long drive back to our still new home in The Pas, I found myself not a little teary eyed when they performed this song:
Lately I’ve been off my blog a bit. The solidity of the winter’s grip has made the days seem almost the same – blue sky, white snow – as if the deep-freeze is having an effect on time.
But it’s not like things aren’t happening: J. and I danced with new friends until the wee hours at the Alouette last Friday night, a bar that brought me mentally right smack back to my hometown of Blind River.
That same weekend, I won a return flight from The Pas to Winnipeg in a raffle at the Kinsmens’ Ladies Night. And the other day I actually felt a frisson of thrill when I realized that one day it will actually rain (as in liquid, falling from the sky!!!)
But, by far, the most exciting news, is this:
I’m thrilled and kind-of awed by this latest step in the process of making physical the story I’ve been occupying for so many years.
The art is a mixed media collage called Footprints by California artist Natalie Egnatchik that seems to echo so many of the themes of my story – footprints, water, swarming bees, a kind-of wild chaos that’s both natural and human-made. I really love what the designers at Brindle & Glass did with it (and thanks to my mom for finding the image) and I hope the world loves it too!
FYI: for those who’ve been asking, Swarm is scheduled for a Sept 2013 release.
We’ve all heard it: I can’t get an e-reader because I’d miss the smell, the heft, the physical form of the actual book. I read it again somewhere recently and felt so incredibly annoyed that I opted to finally put this theory to the test. Hence, the book-snorting.
I wanted to try it for myself because I recently got an e-reader and absolutely adore it.
I bought my Kobo back in December in preparation for our move to The Pas. I knew that access to books would be limited. Sure, there’s inter-library loan at our local branch or ordering through the bookstore at University College of the North or, you know, Amazon, but I didn’t much feel like waiting the seven-odd years it might take to get the texts to me.
Turns out, I’m reading way more than I have for the last little while (although that could be because I’m no longer in the grips of a 2,500 kilometre move…).
In fact, I’ve reached the point where I think I prefer e-books to hard-copy books, and it isn’t just because of the immediacy of being able to buy/rent the thing within a few minutes of hearing about it.
Turns out I don’t at all miss trying to balance a 400-page tome while my cat attempts to worm her way onto my chest. Turning the pages on the thing is an easy tap as opposed to trying to bend an elbow (which said cat may very well be lying on). Simply put, I find the act of reading much easier, especially in bed, where I probably read the most.
I think that the e-reader distills the book to its essential self: words. There is limited physical obstruction.
Granted, this also means that, yes, you sometimes lose out on striking covers which I felt most poignantly when I purchased the e-book of Susan Swan’s The Western Light, therefore missing that lovely bright Group of Seven inspired cover (but I do plan on buying a physical copy). And I don’t think I’ll ever give up the thrill of wandering through those tiny used book shops with books piled all the way to the ceiling, lain horizontal on the tops of the shelves, or going to readings/bookstores to get a signed copy.
But to argue against e-books because of the smell of the thing is to me – with my perhaps obtuse olfactory sense – totally stupid. I believe it’s what’s inside that counts. What do you think?
Two days ago I finished the last edit of Swarm. A friend of mine asked me what exactly that means, because it seems like over the past few years I’ve several times said, I’m done!, only to dive back in again…
But this time is different. For the past month and a half I’ve been working with a Brindle & Glass editor, sending a scribbled (as ‘scribbled’ as MS Word track changes can be) manuscript back and forth. On Wednesday, we cleared the last of those notes off the pages and I did what I’ve been waiting several years to do.
I wrote the dedication and the acknowledgements.
Don’t you feel terrific? someone asked. Well… yes, of course, and no.
Because what happens now is all the fear. I’m dating myself here but do you remember that time that Sally Fields went up to the Oscar’s podium and gushed, You like me! You really, really like me!?
Isn’t that what every artist is looking for?
And aren’t we all terrified that we’re. not. going. to. get. it. That you’ll hate the book, that you’ll judge me, that I’ll become known in the small town I live in and the bigger town I just moved from as being the writer who wrote that book about terrorists…
(By the by, Swarm is also about discovering love, the yearning to be a mother, and coming to terms with bad choices…).
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few days, and to tell you truth, I wasn’t going to write about it. But then Angie Abdou, who posed for the 2014 Bare It For Books Calendar, wrote eloquently about her own experience dealing with the anxiety that comes with the exposure of publication.
Her story made me remember that every writer (every artist) feels this way. That it’s perfectly normal. That it’s just another part of the job…
I think it’s because of the fact that I can’t have a craving for stuffed grape leaves and go buy the canned version or pick up fresh lobster on a whim. And forget about goat’s milk, which we used to drink all the time. It’s soy or Lactaid now (at $7/2 L carton). I miss it so much I dreamt the other night that we bought a goat for our personal supply.
Gluten free pasta also doesn’t seem to be available (although to be fair someone suggested me today that I check the health food store which in itself is a bit of a mystery – apparently it’s downstairs at a main street location that doesn’t seem to have a sign). Until then we have a few packages to tide us over (my mother mailed us some).
I do love to cook and especially to eat but that interest has lately led me to re-watch Julie and Julia, catch up on the early episodes of The Taste, and tuck into Top Chef Canada. I also got a Group-On for the Fresh 20, a year-long subscription service which sends you five recipes every Friday and a shopping list of the 20 ingredients you’ll need.
This week is Mexican(ish) week so I set out this morning to find all the ingredients I needed, including turkey, spaghetti squash and kale. At Extra Foods I found avocados that looked weary and hard from their long journey and wandered the produce section longing for those days of grocery shopping in Orillia, with the lovely array of dandelion greens, arugula, beet tops, swish chard, kale… None of those are available at Extra Foods, except arugula, in one of those plastic-boxed salad mixes which I suppose travel quite well.
But I did find it: the kale, that is, and, also, the spaghetti squash. They were both at our other, independent grocery store, The Grub Box. People tell us both the meat and produce are better there and I learned that last week when I held up a bunch of parsley at Extra Foods that resembled a July tomato seedling that never made it into the earth. The Grub Box has fresher parsley; they also have cilantro. And, they had my spaghetti squash and the kale.
A fist-sized bunch of it for three bucks.
I don’t know the ins and outs and whys and hows of what we can get and what we can’t. I’m hunting now for bouillon cubes that don’t have hydrogenated palm oil and monosodium glutamate in the first five ingredients.
And this might sound strange but I’m rather frustrated with the ground turkey situation. Weirdly, neither grocery store seems to have it (unless it sells out super-fast… which would, in itself, be pretty odd). But I’ve still got one final option: the butcher just outside of town where J. and I need to pick up our next five-pound bag of locally caught pickerel (some good food news).
One thing I know they don’t have here: fantastic sushi, great Thai food, good beers on tap. I don’t mean to be negative but isn’t it always when you no longer have immediate access to something that you really, really, really want it? This is a human truth that might actually explain my current addiction to watching a bunch of stressed-out chefs compete in challenges like making a to-die-for sandwich and a perfect hollandaise.
I love Ian McEwan. Among other works, his short novel On Chesil Beach absolutely blew my mind with its delicious description, compassion, and nearly telepathic internal narrative of a young couple engaged in the young-couple drama and anxiety of their wedding night.
He schools me, does Mr. McEwan. So I was pleased to come across his article When I Stop Believing In Fiction in the New Republic. In part because I am at the stage he discusses: ending one novel, beginning another.
A sometimes treacherous ground for him, this sloughing off of one imaginary world and the emptiness before engaging with another. A time when, he says, he starts asking those Big Questions.
You know: what’s the point? Although, being a writer, his morph into what’s the point… of these made-up people and places, of the world’s huge burden of literature… “what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel beyond Henry’s remorse or triumph?” Teach me about the world! he says, meaning science, history, botany, and all those facts and happenings that really exist.
A loss of faith.
But it’s the details that bring him back – those delicious phrases, the art of the thing: the skillful description of a July heatwave, a man’s too-tight shoes…
I get that. Lately I’ve been reading a lot – finding those amazing details in The Antagonist by Lynn Coady and The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Wonderful, skillful books that have ushered me back into my own act of creating, even as edits continue on Swarm, a novel which is, pretty much, done.
It’s a weird thing, this profession of making stuff up. Really, in a place I don’t yet truly know and that’s so much about nature (my daily excursions are to walk the dog on the wilderness trail behind our house), my imaginary worlds sometimes seem a bit more real than the snow and sky of the actual.
This morning I wrote about a woman who grows chives that form those purple pom-poms in the first summer heat and yellow cherry tomatoes that glow like little lanterns. After the rain, all the plants on her fire-escape droop like discarded clothing…
And how great is that: to create summer while outside the world is a frozen tableaux of snow and poplar? To make another reality.
At 5 a.m., the sky studded with quartz flakes of stars, the snow creaking into the cold night. I’d just come in from letting Mowat out and heard them when I climbed back into bed. An eerie far-off howling that accentuated the silence.
It seemed fitting.
I’ve been thinking lately about the ruggedness of this place, the remoteness, and the history of the colonization of all this space…
Yesterday, to celebrate my first Louis Riel Day, I started reading Joseph Boyden’s biography of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. I vaguely remember going through the history in grade-school classes but not enough that it actually, you know, stuck. I was schooled in Ontario, after all: the province that sent the surveyors, settlers, politicians, and overseers who tried to put Riel in his place.
And I’d never heard of Gabriel Dumont before. From reading the history, I’ve been able to see how these two Metis men really straddled that split between the land as it was and what we now know as Manitoba. The “wild” west and the new world, divided by railroad, the depletion of the buffalo, white settlement.
For those who don’t know, here’s a wee summary:
After Rupert’s Land – the land which the Hudson Bay Company claimed ownership of for two hundred years, starting in 1670 – was purchased by the Canadian Government in 1869, government surveyors arrived to divide and sell off the territory.
Riel, fighting for Metis who’d been living on the land for generations, sent back the surveyors, set up a militia, and took possession of Fort Garry (the Hudson Bay Company trading post that’s now Winnipeg). This would become the Red River Rebellion, the first of Riel’s battles with John A. Macdonald and the Canadian government in Ottawa.
An educated man, Riel knew that he could not stop the tide of nation-building and instead lobbied to secure the rights of the Metis. It was through this effort that Manitoba was born.
Writes Boyden: “…on May 12, 1870, after direct talks between John A. Macdonald and Metis representatives, the Manitoba Act [drafted by Riel] becomes a reality. Metis grievances are heard, their list of rights is deemed realistic and acceptable, and on July 15, Manitoba is admitted into the Canadian Confederation.”
The new province was small, made up of the Red River settlement and surrounding area. A tiny box abutting the U.S. border with The Pas far, far to the north. The Act which made it a province ensured that the Metis would receive title to the lands they farmed (yeah, right…) The battles, of course, did not end there.
Riel went into exile in the northwestern United States, a bounty on his head for his role in the execution of a prisoner named Thomas Scott during the Red River Rebellion. Fourteen years later, Gabriel Dumont would make the journey to Montana to bring him home to lead the Northwest Rebellion in Saskatchewan, where the Metis had retreated from the swelling tide of settlers and where the native people were starving with the near total elimination of the buffalo herds.
The story is big. Too big to summarize. Many men died at those second battles. Riel believed himself a prophet. It’s all part of a narrative that makes up the western stories I think about when the wolves howl over this large, dark land.
Watch Joseph Boyden discussing these historical figures:
Picture this: 6 p.m. Friday evening at a table in the Legion (Fort-La-Party-It-Up) doing a shot of something red and treacly-sweet to celebrate the 29th birthday of a teacher I just met… Add to that one or two shared pitchers of Rickard’s Red and you end up with a lot of enthusiastic jigging with a banner-clad crowd of Fur Queen hopefuls by the end of the night (er, 10 p.m)! Me, that is, while J. played shuffle-board – or a table-top version of it – with a few of the guys. Probably wise…
We bought a whack of tickets to the epic four-part meat draw – a Legion tradition, I’m told – but didn’t win a single gizzard. I’m assured, though, that these events – while not as extravagant as the Trapper’s Fest bonanza – are frequent, fun and a great excuse to socialize and maybe go home with a few groceries.
Saturday we managed to crawl out of bed, get the dog out on the river for a run (where he thankfully avoided finding any frozen fish heads), coffee up and make it in to town just in time to see the dust from the final lap of the World Championship Dog Race settling at the starting line.
Wandering through the sledders’ area we ran into a few new friends who had amazingly roused themselves early enough to line up for tickets to today’s beer fest, an event capped at 200 where prizes are given for hairiest chest (the gym teacher at J.’s school won last year), best bedroom eyes (male and female), shiniest pate, and a few other hilarious attributes. Wish we could be there but standing on the freezing cold sidewalk in the dark at 7 a.m. is a bit too the-new-I-Pad-is-out-!!! for J.’s and my taste… Well, that’s the official excuse but my morning headache might have told another story….
We did, after all, get to see a dog race (a first for me) – the Junior Race took off half an hour after we got to the dog sled area, with a bit of a wobbly start. One racer’s brake was stuck and another tumbled off his sled and had to run hard to catch up to his dogs…
After that, we headed over to Fort-Whoop-It-Up to watch a few of the King Trapper and Junior Queen Trapper competitions: the tea boil and pan bannock contest.
No easy feat: getting a fire going with a couple logs and an axe (think ‘shavings,’ lots of ‘em) and keeping it stoked while balancing a pot of hot water or a frying pan… The winners were impressive: steady, patient workers who did not rest even when the flames were hot and high. You can see Rick Mercer hilariously try his hand at it when he visited The Pas.
The segment begins exactly where J. and I ended our day in town yesterday: on the frozen river, just west of the bridge, where we walked Mowat on a snowmobile track and drank our coffee-hot-chocolates from the Tim Horton’s drive-through that Mercer dog-sleds through in this clip: