Category Archives: Saskatchewan

Remembering Our Book Fairy

Flying from East to West is our Book Fairy, but the truth is, she really didn’t look quite like this. And the other truth is, she began by travelling from West to East.

Our Book Fairy’s real name was Barbara. She was born in Kelliher, Saskatchewan in 1919. She gradually began to move East, beginning with University of Manitoba in Winnipeg where she trained as an architect, and eventually settling in Manotick, Ontario where she designed her family’s beautiful home and practiced architecture. I had the great fortune to grow up a few houses down the river from her. Once grown, I travelled from East to West where I eventually married and raised a family just 80 kms away from her birth place in Kelliher. For over two decades, our Book Fairy and her husband Doug sent parcels of books to our four daughters from East to West three times a year – every Hallowe’en, Easter and Christmas. Sometimes they even came to visit. Almost every second year, we packed into the family van, heading in the opposite direction with tents and sleeping bags, books and swimsuits, and great excitement to visit the Book Fairies. The collage above remembers Barbara the Book Fairy, who died this past February after 97 rich and marvellous years, many in the lovely home she designed. Here are some additional memories.

Barbara the Book Fairy was not a lone operator. Her husband, Douglas, is pictured flying a small plane on the right, in honour of his time as a navigator in WW2. He did not like to be called a “Book Fairy” but he was fully involved in sharing a love for books with our daughters. Our various thank you letters were addressed to “the Book Fairies,” “the Book Fairy and Hus(band),” and “the Book Fairy and Navigator.” Just below the plane is a parcel reminiscent of the many, many parcels we received over the years.

Look below the flying frog and see the four girls eagerly awaiting the parcel of books falling from the sky. There was such tremendous excitement in our home when a parcel from the Book Fairies arrived. It was an “Occasion.”  I used this opportunity to bribe my children – the Book Fairy’s parcel could not be opened until the living room was perfectly clean. Everybody had to be present. In each parcel there were specially picked books ( books about Egypt or Russia, books by favourite authors, books that were a complete surprise, books from their personal collection), an individual card for each girl, and candies or chocolates as befit the season.

 

Visiting them at their home in Manotick was another wonderful treat. Their home was filled  with beautiful objects and art, including a large statue of the Buddha in their basement. We enjoyed a tour of Mr. Humphrey’s garden followed by tea or ginger ale. Lunch out at a restaurant followed by shopping at Chapters was greatly anticipated by our daughters. On one such expedition, one of my children timidly asked if it was possible to have dessert. I was appalled at such cheek and immediately said no, but Mr. Humphreys interjected. “Absolutely! You can have any dessert on the menu.” (Note the large piece of cake with a cherry on top in the collage.) Shopping at Chapters was equally wonderful – the girls could select any book in the store. Imagine such a treat!

In later years, our lunches took place at Miller’s Oven in Manotick with mile high lemon meringue pie, and our book shopping happened at a used bookstore run by Watson’s Mill – both places very dear to our Book Fairy and her husband.

Seven years ago, when the Book Fairy and her husband turned 90, they travelled to Saskatchewan to attend Kelliher’s 100th birthday. I have many memories of that trip – amongst them, watching an endless parade of farm tractors and other vehicles on a day that was so hot “you could fry an egg on the sidewalk” – the only non-mechanical object in the parade was a Canada Post mailbox with two legs. The Book Fairies endured the parade and the heat with their usual grace and wry humour.

Barb and Doug had a special place in our home as Book Fairies, they were like parents and grandparents to many others as well. A love of books was central in our friendship, but they gave us much much more than books and chocolates and lunches out. They offered their genuine and keen interest in each girl. They offered glimpses into worlds far beyond the Saskatchewan prairies. They also loved and celebrated our farm world. They encouraged Shane and I as parents. They laughed at their foibles as they got older. They loved telling stories on themselves. They took such tremendous pleasure and delight in each other. Their many talents and accomplishments were only exceeded by their modesty. They made each of us feel special and interesting. They not only gave us a lifelong love of books and quest for knowledge, they brought magic and possibility and enchantment to our lives.

It is almost impossible to write about Barbara the Book Fairy without including the Book Fairy’s Husband because they were such a unit. The Book Fairy’s Husband, Doug, is still very much alive, and we will continue to share stories with him as well as enjoy his company.

To learn more about Barbara Humphrey’s contribution to architecture and heritage conservation in Canada, please read this tribute.

 

 

 

Tree Hugger (2)

 

“Aspen Rhythms” by Patty Hawkins, textile artist, http://pattyhawkins.com

East of our farm, a particular aspen bluff caught my attention years ago when a neighbouring farmer tried to burn it down. He set the bluff on fire twice, and after the second time, it appeared the trees would not recover. I felt heartsick. I noticed yellow lady slippers growing beneath the trees. I wanted to write the landowner but an older neighbour told me that the trees would come back. The trees did recover in time and the farmer stopped trying to burn them down. It took three or four years, but those trees began to leaf out and thrive once again.

Recently, the land changed hands again. Last fall, when my daughter and I walked down the road we were in no way prepared for the sight of a bulldozer parked by this same grove of trees which were partially knocked down. We went and had a look. Our hearts were heavy. My daughter was taking auto mechanics – we halfheartedly joked that she now knew what she could do to stop this bulldozer in its tracks.

A few days later, the bulldozer finished its work. Piles of uprooted trees, roots and brush dotted this field, and other fields around it.

The next spring, some of the trees tried to leaf out, even though their roots were in the air.

Late this fall , my neighbour set the brush piles on fire. Gas was poured around the circumference of the trees, then lit on fire.  Huge bonfires dotted the landscape. I cried as I walked that morning. When the tears subsided, I sang. Songs of lamentation.

“Aspen Seasons 1” Patty Hawkins, textile artist, http://pattyhawkins.com

Over the next few days, I visited each pile of smouldering trees and thanked them for their marvellous presence over the years, for all the animals and creatures and wild plants they had sheltered, for all the seasons they had lived through, for all of the life in their root systems which we could never see, for their beauty and their mystery and their steadiness.

A few days later, a larger semi truck arrived with a back hoes and a bulldozer. Large holes were dug in the earth and the trees were buried. The piles were gone. Not one wild spot was left on this field. It was as if the trees had never been there.

Each time I walk in that direction, I walk a circle around where these trees are. I  feel their presence. The bulldozer missed some willows stalks in one of the tree graveyards. I urge them to grow. Willow doesn’t need much urging!

I wondered what to do. How to express my grief and distress in some way that mattered? How to speak out? It just so happened that the burning and bulldozing was taking place during the week of Donald Trump’s election win. I was feeling very aware of the “echo chambers” many of us live in, especially those of us who are active on social media.

For this reason, I decided to call my neighbour and talk to him directly.  I wanted a respectful conversation. I wanted to tell him about my grief and distress. I didn’t expect my call to change him. He has invested hundred of thousands of dollars in equipment meant to alter the landscape. I wanted him to listen to how I felt. My call unnerved him I think, but we did have a respectful conversation. When I mentioned the lady slippers, he told me he hadn’t known they were there, that he had never visited that bluff of aspen. He told me it was better that I get this off my chest and not keep my feelings bottled up. He thanked me for sharing my thoughts as a neighbour. I invited him to hike with me the next spring, so he could see all the richness of life held in these aspen bluffs and wetlands.

I wrote a letter to our local newspaper. I am writing this post, a little more personal than the letter to the editor. I need to learn about the rules for cutting trees on Crown land which includes the road allowances.  That will lead me to more conversations – with those we have elected to represent us.

“Aspen Solace” by Patty Hawkins, textile artist, http://pattyhawkins.com

I think about the beauty of aspens, a tree we so easily overlook. I recall building a sweat lodge with Melody McKellar and how we asked each aspen tree for permission before we chopped it down. How we offered tobacco as thanks.  How we warmed up the trees by rubbing their trunks, so they would bend more easily as it was autumn, when their sap was flowing more slowly. How we bent them gradually so they would not snap. How it felt to work with the aspen, to get a feel for their flexibility.  How the aspen protected and held us as we prayed and sweated and sang and drummed inside. I remember what the aspen taught me about the ability to bend yet remain strong.

My friend Shirley tells me that the word in French for chopping down trees is “abbatre”. It is related to the word “abbatoir” and literally means “to slaughter”, to “cut down”, “to fell”. It refers both to animals and trees. My friend Philip explains that as a ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ nêhiyaw (Cree man), he sees the trees as his relatives.

In contrast, in rural Saskatchewan, we use the term “cleaning up”  to describe the act of removing aspen groves, bushes and wetlands. It is as if these wild lands are a larger version of “weeds” (defined as valueless plants growing where they are not wanted.) Those of us who live in the “aspen parkland”  may feel as though there are aspen bluffs everywhere we look. In fact,  the aspen parkland has seen a huge reduction of wild pockets of land (including both aspen bluffs, native grasslands and wetlands) in the last 40 years mostly due to the piecemeal removal I am writing about. A little bit here, a little bit there. It adds up.

Farmers, including my own farm family, have been altering the land since settlement.  What has shifted is the scale and magnitude of the destruction of wild places as both farms and farm machinery get larger. What has also shifted is our collective fragility in the face of climate change, extreme weather,  and other indicators of ecological vulnerability, such as declining bee populations. 

“Winter Walk”, batik on silk by Cathi Beckel

What has not shifted  is our attitude towards the earth. We continue to mistakenly believe that we are in charge, and do not understand how much we rely on Mother Earth. We often travel far distances to enjoy natural beauty and miss the beauty that is right down the road, or in the nearest coulee or ditch. Thankfully, there are still some farmers who take very seriously their responsibility to keep some wild spaces on their land. But, it is up to all of us to speak up about the “ecological deficit” that the removal of wild lands is leaving us with. We can all insist that governments create and enforce proper regulations. We can ask our governments  to provide farmers  with incentives and financial support to ensure that more wild lands are left intact.

Each trembling aspen tree removes up to 65.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during each year of its life.* Not only do their root systems help regulate water during flood or drought but they are an important refuge  for the wild things, whether they be yellow lady slippers or other wild creatures.

We can begin by exploring the small stands of aspen to get to know the richness of life that they support. 

These small pockets of wildness may save us. 

“Colorado Gold” by Patty Hawkins, textile artist, http://pattyhawkins.com 

I would like to thank Colorado textile artist Patty Hawkin for permission to use her beautiful images of aspen on this post.  I am so grateful to have discovered her. Something artists can help us to do is see what is right in front of us in fresh ways. Thank you Patty for your exquisite responses to the aspen. Thanks also to Saskatchewan artist Cathi Beckel, whose love and stewardship for the earth around us is unflagging and inspiring. Her beautiful images in watercolour and batik always help me to see the world around me with new eyes.  This post is a companion piece to Tree Hugger(1).

  • +Trembling aspen do need to be controlled or removed sometimes – they are considered an invasive species in native grasslands for example.
  • *https://www.fortwhyte.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Planting_Trees.pdf

Don’t Fence Me In

My friend Carol introduced me to the term “manure meditation”. It is Carol who mucks out the pens at Ravenheart Farms*,  a wonderful equine assisted learning retreat centre and ranch she runs near Kamsack. For Carol, mucking out is a meditative activity. I agree. Farm chores settle me – in part because of the physical work and in part because I love working close to animals. On a day like yesterday, when spring arrives full force and horse manure is in evidence everywhere, “mucking out” is the perfect morning activity.

My late mum, Sylvia, taught us that the smell of horse manure is as wonderful as the tang of salt air or green growing things. When we went birdwatching as a family, Mum would roll down the window, wrinkle her nose like a bunny and go “mmmmm, the beautiful smell of horse manure”. What great early conditioning!! There is no question in my mind that horse manure smells better than most other any other manure I can think of.

There is another reason I am drawn to the horses this morning. Our daughter’s horse, Gatty, has Sweeney Shoulder and has been confined for a few months in a small pen, while her companion Missy can go wherever she likes. Shane and I take turns walking Gatty as well as massaging her, offering her healing touch or brushing her. This daily contact has been a gift to both of us.

I am learning to “listen with” Gatty, to hear the sounds of our farm in a whole new way. As a prey animal, Gatty is alert to each and every sound on the farm – the swish of pigeon’s wings as they fly out of the barn, the cry of the merlin or the moo of neighbour cows, every move of our dogs, the opening and closing of doors, the sounds of vehicles, the croak of a raven, the gurgle of water in the bowl. She does not like the sound of the sleigh full of manure as I move it from her pen across snow and ice. On the other hand, Gatty and Missy seem to love it when I sing, unlike every other member of our family!

I am learning to “listen to” Gatty. To pay attention. To pick up the signals when she indicates “enough already.” Or the lowered head, sleepy eyes and relaxed stance which tells me that she is soaking up the way I am touching or massaging her. The way she yawns and makes goofy horse faces and stretches her gums and sticks out her teeth means that she is releasing endorphins. She is my teacher, an exceedingly patient one.  I like to watch her graze, to observe how her beautiful soft nose guides her to the most succulent (dead) grass found in the pasture. Grazing on a lead is about as free as she gets these days. Sometimes I think she would give all her treats for a good roll in the pasture to get rid of some of her winter hair. It must be itchy!!

I have been thinking of the word “tethered” recently. In light of Gatty, who is “tethered” but also in light of animals tethering us to the farm. Throughout my twenties, my theme song was “don’t fence me in”. Untethered was my modus operandi. Free as the wind. Recently, with our children off on their own, we decided to stop keeping chickens and selling eggs which we had enjoyed for over a dozen years. We did this because we wanted more freedom. We hoped to be less tethered to the farm. As they say, “animals tie you down.” It’s true. They do. My experience this winter with Gatty has helped me understand that I also value being tethered – the company of she and Missy, of our two dogs and of our old barn cat (recently retired to the inside) adds depth and comfort and joy and companionship that I cannot imagine my life without. We are not entirely tethered because we do hope to go away this summer, have someone care for our creatures and return home to see them all again.

With Gatty, these days, there has been another kind of tethering – a different kind. One which most of us are familiar with. It is more like the invisible tie that binds, the gossamer thread of heart to heart connection.  Sometimes I think of her and it is like she is right there. I wait for the day when she can have a larger area to roam in. In my dreams, she is galloping, full steam ahead, moving with no restraint whatsoever.

Gatty - fenced in

Gatty – fenced in

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the manure sled

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Oh give me the land, lots of land
Under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open
Country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

Just turn me loose let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the western skies
On my cayuse let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountain rise
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
I can’t look at the hobels and I can’t stand the fences
Don’t fence me in

lyrics by Cole Porter

*Read about an art and horses retreat at Ravenheart farm

 

Water, Colour, Paper

Water

Colour

Paper

And  a brush. (But not necessarily!)

“Follow the brush,” writes Lynda Barry. “The paint travels down the brush and the brush travels across the paper. Once I noticed this I found I enjoyed watching the paint meet the paper. I liked watching it so much, I forgot I had a part in it!”

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Here are some photos from a recent Fearless watercolour PLAYshop sponsored by the Lumsden and District Arts Council. With thanks to all who made it possible and for the fearless participants, teachers each and everyone of them.

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A maple bug loved this play sheet

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paying with the "rigger" (brush

paying with the “rigger” (brush

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