Category Archives: walking

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

Letter to the Editor – Elegy for the Trees

Letter to the Editor of the Fort Qu’Appelle Times, December 2016

I am concerned about the practice of removing trees, “pushing bush”, and draining sloughs that is happening at an unprecedented rate on farmland in our area and beyond.

I walk our road almost daily. This gives me a chance to observe the wildflowers, the varieties of wild creatures including butterflies, dragonflies, bees, deer, coyote, fox, skunks, frogs, snakes and birds of all kind who make their life here. 

Last fall, a landowner bulldozed a group of trees that I have come to know very well. Not only do yellow lady slippers bloom in the shelter of these beautiful aspen, but many other creatures find refuge there as well. This was just one of a group of aspen bluffs and low lying sloughs in this area that was bulldozed. A year later, the piles of brush were set on fire and left to burn for a few days, then buried under the ground. Walking past now, it looks as if there never were trees there.

I called the landowner to share how sad and distressed I felt about the loss of these trees, as well as the scale of the destruction of similar places. He listened respectfully and thanked me for sharing my thoughts.  I invited him to come for a hike with me next spring to see how these wild places are brimming with natural life. I cannot tell another landowner what to do on his land, but I can share how I feel about it. Having a conversation with my neighbour may not change anything but at least he knows how I feel.

I know farmers who love the natural world and think hard about how their decisions affect the environment. I acknowledge that farmers sometimes do need to remove trees on their land. It is the  increased scale of “pushing bush” and draining marshy areas that disturbs me. Some will argue that before settlers arrived, the natural prairie did not have these aspen bluffs, although there were certainly many more sloughs and potholes than we see today. While that is true, in this radically altered landscape,  these small areas of bush and marsh not only provide refuge for a diversity of natural life but they add pockets of ecological richness that we desperately need.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Great Plains region lost more grasslands (including bluffs and marshes) to agriculture in 2014 that the Brazilian Amazon lost to deforestation. When roots systems are removed, the water holding capacity of the land is reduced significantly, affecting us all during both drought and flood years.

I urge landowners to think carefully before altering or destroying the natural landscape. The loss of these areas impoverishes us all. I want to be able to show my grandchildren a clutch of yellow lady slippers. I want them to hear the now rare sound of a meadowlark singing. Each small wild place matters.

Sue Bland, Abernethy, Sask.

Listen to a western meadowlark sing!

Truly Home

How do you know when you are well and truly home? Three vignettes from my life in Treaty Four Territory, under the prairie sky.

I.

I am well  and truly home!

Our two farm dogs, Lady (mum) and Herc (son) fell into their own routines when I abandoned them and went to Ontario. That routine involves hunting muskrat in the dugouts, clearly an absorbing task for a pair of canines. I would head off on my morning walk, call the dogs and to my great dismay, nobody came. When I was a few kilometres down the road and on my way back, I would see two distant black dots racing down the road towards me, wearing signs of dugout activity when they arrived. Wet, with flecks of lime green duckweed on their coats!

Now, some weeks and many morning walks later, the dogs have caught on and have let the dugout go in favour of a morning walk.(Muskrat relief, to be sure!) They can barely contain their joy when I come out the door. All the way down the lane, they do doggie backflips, fall over each other, contort their bodies and tails in movements of joy and excitement and anticipation. Lady even smiles, a kind of ugly but sweet grimace. They trip over each other. Sometimes I can barely move down the lane. I occasionally remember kicking one of these dogs predecessors once because I was so frustrated that I could not move. (Shame!) The walk down the lane is a good a barometer of how crusty (or not) I might be feeling in the morning.

Two things: I am grateful that we have a short lane. The dog’s antics fill my heart with joy and are the best beginning to a morning walk.IMG_1681 IMG_1686 IMG_1698

I am now able to walk across the south field because it has been combined. Field walking is even more pleasurable than walking down the road. I like the unexpected dips and swells, the curves and surprises of walking across the fields. I like the wild untouched areas – a grove of willows here, a wetland there, an unexpected rise over here. The dogs follow their noses, read each other’s body language, their tails erect and a certain tension in their body when they pick up a scent. They bound ahead, disappearing at times, surprising me later by coming up from behind. Their movement is like a dance, is like the swoop of the grass birds as they fly hither, is like the curve of the land itself, under this vast bowl of sky.

II.

watercolour - Pheasant Creek Coulee

watercolour – Pheasant Creek Coulee

Last week, I was able to visit Pheasant Creek Coulee almost every day, sometimes with my paints, sometimes not. Colours are just beginning to change. The pinks of the bluestem grass on the hills is astonishing. This morning when I arrived, there were four Swainson’s hawks flying just over the hill where I often sit. I stopped and sat and watched them, listened to their sharp cries, wondered if they were a family or just a group of hawks who liked to hang out. The cry of a hawk is like the pungent scent of sage – no matter how many times you have heard it or smelled it, it catches you unawares, urges you to wake up, pay attention!

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I come to Grandfather Rock, a place where  I have painted often. In a certain way, trying to paint in this place is a way to come to know it better, to see all the shades alive in the pink of the bluestem, to wrestle with all of the troublesome yet beautiful greens. After some attempts to catch the feel and colour of the day, I return to what it is that I love most about this place – how to paint  the shape and curve of the land – the skeleton, the bones  beneath these hills.

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III.

Treaty Four Powwow, under the arbour. Flashing colours of dancers everywhere. Sound of drums beating here and there. A beautiful fall day nestled by Mission Lake in the folds of the hills of the Qu’Appelle Valley. Garbage floating off in the wind, or trampled underground. The smell of sweetgrass, of home fries, of deep frying. Powwow announcers trying to get people to come for the Grand Entry.

jingle skirts, Treaty Four Powwow. Photo courtesy of Kate Herberger,http://movingforwardlookingforthejoy.blogspot.ca

jingle skirts, Treaty Four Powwow. Photo courtesy of Kate Hersberger, http://movingforwardlookingforthejoy.blogspot.ca

I have just been to see our daughters, Jessie and Marina, and their horses Missy and Gatty. They have camped out here all weekend with other riders who made the trip here on horseback to honour the late Chief Irvin StarBlanket. Marina tells me that they have been asked to take part in the Horse Ceremony which will occur before the Special (Dance Competition) in honour of Chief Irvin. She is nervous. Gatty will do fine, she tells me. She is worried about riding in front of such a big crowd.

I am sitting directly across from where the riders will enter the powwow arena. Elder Mike Pinay, the announcer, shares something about the Horse Ceremony, and then says that two girls from outside the community have been asked to take part in this ceremony, to ride for the mothers and for the grandmothers. He goes on to say that it is unusual to ask outsiders to take part but that these girls are great friends of the community, and know some of  the ways of the community. It is a great honour for them to take part in this ceremony.

Mike then asks the StarBlanket Juniors drum group to begin their song and all of us stand. I stand tall, full of prayer, or pride, of love for these two daughters and the great honour they have of taking part in this. Marina nods in my direction as she rides by.The five horses circle the arbour four times, going slowly the first time around, then trotting, then loping. Drums beat, hooves beat, hearts beat…. I think of their grandmothers and great grandmothers….They look beautiful. Our daughters sit tall in the saddle.

When they are finished, I see them heading off towards the hills to let the horses have a good run, to let the horses loose. I have been proud of these girls many times before, but never like this.

These are not photos of the horse ceremony, but of the last part of the Memorial Ride.

These are not photos of the horse ceremony, but of the last part of the Memorial Ride.

some of the many riders and horses at Treaty Four

some of the many riders and horses at Treaty Four

 

Morning Walk/University of Toronto

this photo is for Jessie... her kind of sneaker even!

this photo is for Jessie… her kind of sneaker even!

 

from the Bata Show Museum (which I have never visited)...someday I will

from the Bata Show Museum (which I have never visited)…someday I will

IMG_0137 IMG_0138 IMG_0140This past week I have been in Toronto, learning about anti-racism theory and white privilege at the University of Toronto. The photos above make me think of my friend, Sheena Koops, and her blog TreatyWalks where she considers her place as a treaty person on her daily walk. In doing so, she educates and inspires us all. Sheena’s journey has provoked me to think about the shoes or sandals or sneakers or moccasins we all wear and how it is that our feet touch the earth – lightly? with a stomp? with a rhythm? with joy? with respect?

Dancing. Walking. Plodding. Hopping. Limping. Shuffling. Tiptoeing. Leaping.

Each morning this past week, I walked to my class through the verdant University campus…. meditatively, stopping to observe, watching as people practiced tai chi… stopping daily at the Pearson Pond of peace and friendship (I think it has another name). It amazed me that just 5 minutes away, people were walking in a totally different way on Yonge Street…it also delights me that such peace and beauty can be found in the heart of downtown Toronto. One of the great joys of being here is people watching……just watching feet, and footwear and the way people walk is like watching a chaotic and electric, sometimes sad, sometimes joyous human dance. Here are some photos of my daily walk…. the peaceful one!IMG_0142IMG_0188 IMG_0156 IMG_0152 IMG_0153 IMG_0154 IMG_0148 IMG_0144 IMG_0159 IMG_0151

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Good Medicine

*"Poached Egg Woman is Nesting" Photo by Cherie Westmoreland

*”Poached Egg Woman is Nesting” Photo by Cherie Westmoreland

I am an introvert (albeit a noisy one sometimes), so after my art show, I arranged to retreat, to curl up in my nest , breathe deeply, move into a quiet space and just be. Glenn Zimmer of the Qu’Appelle House of Prayer (one of my favourite places to retreat) likes to call this “useless sitting”.

This retreat however, I am headed  to the farm my friend Debra shares with her brother. I first visited Debra’s farm two years ago, during the memorable spring of 2011, when much of Saskatchewan overflowed and gushed with water everywhere. Debra’s farm, situated in the Qu’Appelle Valley, has natural springs coursing down the hill through woods of burr oak and other deciduous trees. I remember how amazing it felt on that first visit to stand on her back step – the back step of an almost 100 year old  prairie farm home and hear gushing, gurgling water!! I could not get over it. Prairie farm, abundant water. Flowing water, prairie farm. I don’t usually put those two things together.

This year, I can still hear the gurgle of the spring flowing by her back door, but it is not as loud. Arriving here two years ago, I felt as if I had somehow come home. Something inside of me lets down a bit, I sigh, and my body begins to relax. This is sacred ground.

I am here as a guinea pig of sorts. Debra is considering opening her home to people like me, people looking for a place of quiet and stillness. Previously I have visited as a friend. I am still here as a friend, of course, but we have had to change the rules somewhat. As I hope to enjoy what is mostly a silent retreat, we agree on when we will be silent, and when we might visit. We agree that Debra will prepare meals and clean up after. We agree on what I might pay her.

The first morning, I rise early and head out for a walk down the road. Or so I think!! The beautiful Qu’Appelle River beckons and the field looks dry enough, so instead I follow its contours singing a song of thankfulness at the top of my lungs! I am carrying my cell phone (my timepiece- I do not wear a watch) and I receive a text from Angela Bishop. One word – LOVE! I am feeling it, girl. The river is moving quickly, slowed down by bushes here and there. Splash… a cow moose sees me and in her gangly way disappears further into the bush. I head up the hill. All around the trees are bursting forth with their fresh tender new green. Even so, here on the north side of the Valley there is still a huge snow bank. I can’t help it. I slip off my runners and run across feeling the tingly snow in between my toes! I sit and let my feet dry in the morning sun. I begin to cross the hills when I see a large healthy coyote busy with something in the hollow beneath me. Something tells me to change course, and I do, but not until I have had a good look at her. She sees me, seems unconcerned. Further down the road, I bend down and pick up a clod of wet prairie clay thinking about the story of Creation I heard a few weeks ago. In this version, it is the humble muskrat who dives deeply enough to get the mud to put in turtle’s back to create Turtle Island. In another version, it is Otter. The mud feels wonderful and I spread it all over my hands remembering the springs when our eldest daughters would take off all their clothes and enjoy a mud bath. The mud eventually dries. Down the road a grader is coming. I do not want him to think I am a crazy person, so I stoop down at a puddle to wash my hands off.

I am also at Debra’s to do a little writing. I set up in her beautiful sun porch, a room full of windows, of light, of pale yellow and crisp white. The windows look out onto her front lawn, with trees and labyrinth, across the road to the fields, to the curve of the slate blue Qu’Appelle, the hills beyond. On the west side of the porch, there is a swinging couch. I grew up with a swinging couch on a screen porch located 2000 miles to the East. I have swinging couches deep in my DNA, I think. If you prop the pillows just so on Debra’s swinging couch, you can see the beautiful view  – that is until your heavy eyelids shut and are transported off to some dreamland. I call it the “Healing Couch”. I can be sitting at the table when I feel almost magnetically propelled to the “healing couch.” Once there, I sink into a deep sleep sometimes for 5 minutes, sometimes for an hour or two.

I wake to Debra bringing in lunch. Occasionally I feel like I should do dishes or something but this is our arrangement. It feels wonderful to receive. The gifts are many.

Wraps are tied with chive stalks and filled with curried egg salad.The food at Debra’s is organic, freshly made, and presented with the love and care for detail that infuses everything she does. The picture here is of a dessert so beautiful it made me cry. Greek yogurt (the only kind, really), with zest of lime, topped by sliced mango and johnny jump ups. It tasted even better than it looks! Eating in silence means I take my time and taste every morsel. Food for the soul.Dessert at Debra's - food to nourish the soul!

While here, I am writing a reflection for a service at the annual meeting of the United Church in Saskatchewan. The subject is the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. I appreciate the opportunity to focus on this one thing, to be freed for a while from the many distractions of daily life with my family. I appreciate that the writing unfolds naturally… I write for a bit, then I do something else. During my walks, thoughts about “right relations” unwind like long skeins of wool. Sitting in the sunporch by my laptop, I write and then gaze out the window watching the birds flit from tree to tree. I write some more. Time for a nap. I head out to the hammock, where I hear the tinkle of the spring, hear the breath of wind in the oaks and have an unfocussed view (glasses off) of the green world around. After supper, we take a silent hike up through the oaks to the flat land above and circle the large slough which is home to many birds and ducks. We watch the sun go down, the moon rise, the white tail of many a doe disappear into the woods.

Our last meal is a surprise – a “blessing meal” Debra calls it. We eat in silence. A blessing meal indeed – bison stew with wild rice and onions, “the three sisters” – squash, beans and corn, fresh bannock and for dessert, three kinds of berries.

Over a fire my last evening we talk. We talk about money. Debra is trying to fix a rate for people who may sometime come here on a retreat. It is difficult to figure out, and yet this income will be a part of Debra’s livelihood, her ability to stay here. How to place a monetary value on what Debra offers here? How to even put it into words? This beautiful place – river, hills, valley, fields, woods, springs, wetlands, sky – and all the creatures who inhabit it. The deep love Debra has for her birth home, the many actions, both big and small,  she takes each day to show this love and care. The immense courage of her living here, of her living her dream. A different view to catch the heart out of each window.  The small arrangements of beauty found around the house. The healing couch. The delicious meals prepared with love, care and great artistry. All of this, everything here, nourishes the soul. To be cared for in this way is a rare and precious experience. I am deeply grateful. The gift that Debra is offering, it seems to me, is GOOD MEDICINE.