My personal essays have won a number of awards, including the CBC Literary Award, The Prairie Fire Award and the John V. Hicks Award. As well, they’ve been shortlisted at The Malahat Review, CBC Literary Award, the National Magazine Awards and the Edna Staebler Award at The New Quarterly. If you have a minute, you can read the very short memoir Childhood: Five Wonders on-line at Numéro Cinq.
Or you can stay right here and read Curriculum of a Western Landscape, reprinted below.
This is a story about my father and me. I wrote it when I was writer-in-residence at Wallace Stegner house in Eastend, in southwestern Saskatchewan. It was shortlisted for the CBC Literary Award and later appeared in Brick: A Literary Journal. It’s a companion piece to The Occupations of Muriel Thompson, a memoir about my mother, which won a CBC Literary Award for creative nonfiction.
Curriculum of a Western Landscape
Bow-hunting season is over; now the muzzle-loaders are out. This morning I asked my neighbour if I’d be safe walking in the hills. He looked at my jacket and said, I wouldn’t wear leather. Good point, I said. Or a white tail, he said. This afternoon I stand, in a bright blue windbreaker, on a hillside west of town. I shade my eyes from the acute October sun and survey the slopes, the town below, the abandoned whitemud clay mine that remains as a dazzling cleft in the hills to the north.
Not far from here, Sitting Bull crossed the Medicine Line. Not far from here, Crazy Horse camped as well. A few miles the other side of town, Cowie opened a Hudson’s Bay Post, a community of Métis built a village, the Northwest Mounted Police established a post. Here the last great herds of bison ran, and riders drove cattle north and south along trails that ran from Texas to Alberta.
I’m a mere visitor, and to me this countryside at the eastern end of the Cypress Hills is exotic. But it might have served as home, for a while at least, to my father. Might have, but I’m not certain. Most of his life occurred before I was born, and much of it was spent in search of the big break that either refused to show itself or wasn’t recognized when it did. I hardly knew him. He was fifty-two when I, the youngest of his four daughters, entered the scene and he would die within fifteen years. He was, in his lifetime, inventor, cowboy, musician, square-dance caller, conman, mechanic, electrician, gambler, failed entrepreneur, holy terror. I think of him here, in this place, because much of his life is myth to me and any myth will do. Cowboy, for one.
From where I stand I can just make out the house where I’m staying, down on the banks of the Frenchman River. It’s the house where novelist Wallace Stegner spent six impressionable years of his childhood. His book Wolf Willow, set in this district, was the only work of proper literature I remember seeing my father read. He had a grade-five education, and for the most part his reading was limited to trade catalogues, get-rich-quick offers, and mail-order books about the paranormal. I think his copy of Wolf Willow was a Christmas gift. He would have been presented with it because of his own history as a cowboy around Mankota, Val Marie, possibly this town of Eastend.
Like the Stegners, my father’s family was American, come north to seek their fortune. Unlike the Stegners, my father’s people stayed in Canada. Stegner’s father, a figure as tragic as they come, spent his life chasing after the pot of gold and waking up with a spittoon in his hands: he ran speakeasies, ran rum, ran out of options. In the novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain, a character whose life looks an awful lot like Wallace’s life, asks, “What is my father? What is my mother? What is my brother? What am I? Those sound like fatuous questions, but they occupy our whole lives.”
The sign at the side of the road reads T-REX DEAD AHEAD, but that’s misleading: you have to turn left to get to the T-Rex Discovery Centre. Ha – dinosaur dead ahead – they like a joke in this town. Fossil-picking has gone on here for a hundred years, and it’s ramped up considerably over the last three decades. In the 1970s a grader operator caught his blade on a giant jawbone and, after calling in the scientists, found out the entire damn brontothere, minus one hip, was lying there just underneath the surface. I ramble on the hillside above the T-Rex Centre. Like thousands before me, I imagine making my own discovery. I know about the Heritage Property Act: if you find a fossil, it doesn’t belong to you, at least not personally; we all own it together. I’m happy with that, content to be the finder if not the keeper, but I wouldn’t know a dinosaur bone if it bit me either end; I won’t be making grand discoveries.
My cousin lives close by, my father’s niece. I’ve never met her, and I invite her around to the house. She’s a cowgirl, and for close to sixty years she’s studied this country from the back of a horse. She’s seen her share of fossils. Also, she tells me, for several years she volunteered in the dinosaur lab up on the hill, scraping away dirt from the vertebrae of the T-Rex the paleontologists call Scotty. I’m interested enough in her work on the dinosaur, but my preoccupation as I sit across the table is with a much more recent past, a pater-ontology. I’m struck by her resemblance to my father and his siblings; the family name is manifest in the structure of her face.
Seventeen years ago, in an act of heritage protection, I named my son after my father. That child now lives in Japan. Weekends, he goes hiking in the mountains. It’s nice, he tells me, but you don’t see much. You’re mostly walking inside a cloud; everything is grey. And there are a lot of people.
I drive out of town and up the pot-holed track to the breathtaking lookout at Jones’ Peak. I leave the vehicle and walk. The sky is a ringing, cloudless blue. I feel profoundly and happily alone standing here under the skybell, looking out over the deep coulees where the last orange, hanger-on leaves will soon fall from the aspen trees; out over the vast sunlit valley where the Frenchman loops along between its steep banks. I’m starring in my own private western. I raise my hand to shade my eyes, and I see a distant trail of dust, way over on the Ravenscrag road. Human being, I think. There goes another human being.
In these hills, the spine of the earth rises, sending rivers north and south. Not far from town is Chimney Coulee, where, before it was drained to allow the CPR line to cross the flats, a small lake sent its excess waters both into Swift Current Creek, to find their way north to Hudson’s Bay, and into the Frenchman River, to find their way south to the Gulf of Mexico. Somewhere in a shoebox there’s a photograph of my dad standing beside a sign that says Continental Divide. I’d love to find exactly that sign, but I expect it’s gone by now, or been replaced. My own first great divide happened when I was fifteen. Before that age I could have, if I’d cared to, asked my father the sorts of questions I’d like to ask him now: What do you wish for? What have your misadventures taught you? What do you love about this world, and why? But from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old, parents are irrelevant. Lying in the coffin, with undertaker’s rouge on his cheeks, he looked to me like no one I knew; he looked to me like no one I wanted to know.
These slopes, the wind, the smell of the river, the sweep of the valley, conjure in me a mix of awe and wonder, joy and yearning that, since childhood ended, visits only rarely. How welcome it is, how impossible to hold.
We girls went to Sunday school at the United Church, and our mother went occasionally to Sunday services. Our father didn’t attend, even at Christmas. The year I was fifteen, the two oldest sisters were home for the holidays, and we all slept under one roof for the first time in some while. We shared a rare and good family feeling. We seemed all to be in decent health, though Dad’s legs and feet were giving him trouble. One sister, who had a better imagination than I had, said to Dad, Will you come to the service Christmas Eve? I was surprised she had the nerve to ask, and taken aback at his answer: If your old dad can get his shoes on over his swollen feet, he’ll come along. The morning of Christmas Eve he lay down for a nap and didn’t wake up. He would’ve come to church, I like to think. My imagination’s made great strides since I was a teenager.
My cousin tells me the story her mother told about my dad’s conversion. He was down and out. This was probably during the thirties. He might have been in Winnipeg. He’d been working at a sawmill, and he had an accident, and he was hurt pretty bad. While he was in the hospital, everything he owned was stolen. Once he was out, he went looking for help. He needed clothes, needed food, a bus ticket home to where family would look after him. He’d been raised a Catholic. He went to a Catholic church and was turned away. He went to other churches and was turned away. He was sitting on a bench, hungry, desperate, and angry with churches in general and the Catholic Church in particular, when two people from the Salvation Army approached and asked him what he needed. They took him in; they fed him; they gave him a suit of clothes and bought him a bus ticket home. You were not, my aunt said, to mention the Catholic Church in front of Mike.
When I was sixteen, to impress a boy with the drama of it all – of being me, sensitive teenage girl – I asked if he’d drive me to the cemetery north of town. There, with the wind in the pines and an appropriately melancholy twilight sifting down, I collapsed in tears beside Dad’s grave. I recall, or believe I recall, the scent of the grass and the close-up view of ants as I rested my arms on the lawn, and my forehead on my arms, and sobbed. I don’t know if I managed to impress the boy; whether or not I impressed myself was not, at that time in my life, a question to which I paid attention.
In a town not far from here, I once met an old-timer who knew my dad back in the day:
Mike, yuh, he was the fellow with the very thick glasses.
That would be him.
Mike, yuh, he and that other fellow had that mouse race they took around to all the little fairs. Lotta people said that game was crooked. I never thought that, though. I never believed it was rigged. I always said Mike was an honest guy.
I asked the old-timer what it looked like, this mouse race. It was, if I interpret his description accurately, a terrain built inside a big box, a wooden frame closed in with wire mesh. The terrain amounted to a racecourse, with obstacles and tiny swinging doors and such, and people would lay bets on the mice. I’m not drawing conclusions, but it does sound like an apparatus that would allow a man with an aptitude for invention, a man like my dad, to predetermine the outcome.
Last evening I looked out the west-gable window in the room that Stegner’s writings identify as his bedroom when he lived here. It was the moment after sunset when the sky shines and the landscape stands black against it. The slopes lose their dimension and the view is a diorama, a lightbulb hidden behind cardboard-cutout hills. To stand on them would be to teeter on a thinness that would buckle under the weight of a human being. This afternoon I’m standing on that line where the land meets the sky, on top of a hill called Chocolate Peak. The hill is by no measure cardboard-thin; in fact, if time is the dimension beyond width, height and depth, this hill comprehends four dimensions, with era after era stacked one on top of the other. A few feet beneath me is a deposit of whitemud clay, the clay that’s still mined elsewhere in these hills and shipped to a factory in Medicine Hat. The man hired in the 1930s to scrape the overburden of dirt and lignite coal from this hill began with a tractor and a blade. Eventually he grew impatient with the time and tedium involved. Between him and the clay (Upper Cretaceous) remained a four-foot seam of coal (Paleocene). In order to dispense with it, he set it alight. Not only did it burn for years, it also created a fierce kiln that baked the clay into unusable lumps and shapes.
From this vantage point on top of the crust that is the present day, there’s no denying how sliver-thin is the slice of time that belongs to the lot of us, from Lucy on down. Mountains, seas and continents come and go. Classes of lizards and mammals and marine life rise, then fall extinct. Human beings make inventions, make war, make heaps of toxic trash, make possibly an end to civilization. A single human life can hardly be seen to matter – except to those it touches.
And those it touches will mine it for significance of any sort. Will, in this case, drag a pen through seven courses of study before admitting it’s too late. What’s left to say is best said straight up: I hardly knew him. He isn’t here. I won’t uncover him by sleight of metaphor. The entire damn skeleton does not lie just below the surface; the man does not reside in the bone structure of my cousin’s face; he probably didn’t make it through Wolf Willow; it’s possible he was a cowboy no longer than a single season; he may not even have laid claim to the glamour of creative dishonesty at the country fairs; he might never have, given the chance, succeeded with his shoes that Christmas Eve. My attempts at revelation leave a handful of fired lumps and shapes, none of which will answer the questions I failed to put to him: What do you wish for? What have your misadventures taught you? What do you love about this world, and why? I’m alone with the wind (always the wind here) and the sharp smell of sagebrush, descending the eastern slope of a nameless hill just to one side of Chocolate Peak. I check for cactus and find a place to sit on a tuft of grass. Of course it won’t come now, because I’m too much wanting it, but still I know the possibility exists: that brimming mix that surges only rarely, the unnamable unknowing that belongs to us all and refuses to be owned.