Hmm, what could that mean? In so many different ways, and in so many places during the current crisis, it seems wheels have been falling off. If you’ve been here before, you’ll know I (mostly, haha) steer clear of matters controversial. So let me say, when the wheels are falling off, I mean the wheels are falling off…this:
A weekend or two ago, the walls were starting to close in a bit more than usual. Like many, we’ve been missing time on trails, and our usual visits to wide open spaces. For me, like many, positive mental health can be boosted by time spent in green and blue outdoor places. Alberta in late winter/early spring isn’t renowned for vibrant greenery, so we did the next best thing, and went to the gold and brown prairies – under vast blue skies.
Phew. A sneak trip out of the city, a drive along empty back roads, windows down, cold fresh air, and space, space, space. From above, our car bouncing along dusty ridge roads would have looked like a little black socially distanced insect. One badly in need of a wash.
We didn’t see many other people, but we did see a couple of red tailed hawks, numerous waterfowl bobbing on icy cold knob and kettle ponds, hundreds of geese overhead, and maybe best of all, a herd of bison up on a distant ridge.
We did stop to enjoy our cup of coffee and small(ish) bar of chocolate. Wondering where would be a good place for this, with great timing we came around a bend and saw a rusting relic sitting in a field. What a beauty, an old Mercury (I only know that because the rear badge was still visible) stranded in golden grass. The remains of a failed getaway, perhaps? There’s a good story here just waiting to be told.
What was slightly strange was seeing a set of what looked to be reasonably ok tires, one at each wheel arch. The car looked distinctly undriveable, but maybe someone out there on the prairies has plans to ensure the Mercury isn’t in its final rusting place? That would be cool. Next time the walls close in, maybe we’ll take another spin out there, see if the car has been saved. Wheels fallen off? Doesn’t have to be a permanent state of affairs…
Thanks for reading. I hope you’re well, please stay safe and enjoy the weekend ahead!
Let’s head away from the coast and into the interior this week. A title borrowed from Wallace Stegner, a recommendation to read the Stegner title, and some Saskatchewan memories. What brought this on? Friends from Alberta emailed us last week, catching up on recent events and checking in to see if we had plans to be in Alberta over the summer. Likely yes, and I hope we can mesh our summer schedules and meet up face to face. We’ll have to time it so we see them before or after their planned camping trip to Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan!
I have fond memories of a Saskatchewan road trip and cabin stay we did during our second summer in Canada. Big skies, long distances, empty roads, and the biggest bugs ever. Ever! Also, the week we had in our cabin provided me with some of the most restful sleep I can ever recall. Ever! It was quiet and the backroads cycling was easy. Apparently, parts of Saskatchewan are quite flat. That summer had been rainy just before we set off, so the prairies were a vibrant green and gold – and the abundant insect life was big and bold. The dragon flies were enormous, or so it seemed when cycling through them.
The following year we camped a few nights in the Cypress Hills area, a windswept and beautiful location straddling the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. We had a fun time camped down by the water, aside from some of the biggest mosquitoes ever. Ever!
So what about the title of the post? Wolf Willow? It just so happens I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner’s remarkable book about plains life around the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century. It is a spellbinding account of the trials and tribulations of settlers heading west. It also acknowledges the terrible devastation wrought by those early settlers, on people and place.
Storms, wind, fire, hard winters, dry summers, near starvation, genocide and environmental destruction – this is not a cheery account of that life and those times. Yet Stegner loved the several years he spent there as a child. His account of being a “sensuous savage” running pretty wild with his peers is quite a contrast to the experiences of many children today. There might be an argument made for the rough and tumble of his childhood being a more meaningful experience. Many true and a few tall tales are told, the secondary heading of the complete piece being “a history, a story, and a memory of the last plains frontier.” He had many exciting and striking memories, that’s for sure.
There is much on the nature of nature forging identity and character, how a landscape can define a person, even years after they have moved on. For all the tough times and challenging living conditions, Stegner has a real love for his brief – yet formative – years on the prairies, his family scrabbling to survive on what felt at that time like the last frontier. Or the end of the last frontier in North America.
There are any number of wonderfully descriptive prairie passages in the book. The wind is a constant companion:
“Across its empty miles pours the pushing and shouldering wind, a thing you tighten into as a trout tightens into fast water. It is a grassy, clean, exciting wind, with the smell of distance in it, and in its search for whatever it is looking for it turns over every wheat blade and head, every pale primrose, even the ground-hugging grass. It blows yellow-headed blackbirds and hawks and prairie sparrows around the air and ruffles the short tails of meadowlarks on fence posts. In collaboration with the light, it makes lovely and changeful what might be otherwise characterless.”
The central part of Wolf Willow tells the story of a cattle drive undertaken just as winter approaches. This fictional account is utterly compelling, a tremendous piece of writing about fighting to stay alive in a snowstorm and do a job of work. The main character is a fresh faced romantic recently arrived from England, and he is desperate to be recognized as being stoic and hardbitten like his work colleagues. A few days of driving cattle in plummeting temperatures forces a reassessment of what he saw as a romantic life, and as for achieving the stature he believes his colleagues have? Well, you’ll have to read Wolf Willow to find out. If you do, you won’t be disappointed, although you might find some of the attitudes and prejudices from the time of writing a touch off putting. Maybe treat it as a history lesson on past social attitudes, and then enjoy the tales told.
From when we were road tripping in Saskatchewan all those years ago, a strong memory is of how friendly people were. One morning we found ourselves in the tiny town of Tisdale, a few hours northeast of Saskatoon. (As an aside, I delight in writing or saying Saskatoon or Saskatchewan. Even better, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan!) Anyway, we were lost, which is hard to do in a small rural town, but soon knew where we were when we inadvertently turned onto a street and found ourselves driving at the head of a parade. Oops. For a few minutes, we headed the floats and marching band. Those friendly townspeople clapped and cheered as we drove on up the street, and was I ever happy to turn off as soon as possible. I’d love to visit again, but I don’t want the townsfolk feeling pressured about putting on a parade…
Ah, Saskatchewan! Land of Corner Gas, a show that told us all we needed to know before heading out on that particular vacation. Corner Gas shows that life has changed on the plains since Stegner’s day! I have to say, prairie life is still a tough business, maybe not Stegner period tough, but there is something so attractive about it nonetheless. Honestly, I’m as hopelessly romantic about it as that young Englishman in Stegner’s story…
Wolf Willow was one of the first prairie shrubs I learned to recognize when we moved to Alberta. One freezing November evening, a kind botanist walked me through a river valley in the prairie edge lands as preparation for a school field trip. The Wolf Willow and Red Osier Dogwoods were a delight, each standing out, even in failing winter light. I’ll be honest, it’s easy to remember a plant with a name as captivating as Wolf Willow. (A quick search earlier revealed it isn’t a willow at all, but that’s okay…)
I think I’ll leave it here, otherwise there’s a danger I could meander on like a slow and muddy river flowing in a summertime prairie valley. In Saskatchewan!
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful weekend!
All the photographs this week are from Alberta prairie visits in previous years. I have photographs from our SK trips, but couldn’t find them this week. Maybe we need to plan another SK trip…
Less of a promise and more of a hint? Of spring, that is.
I was sitting at the top of Dry Island Buffalo Jump earlier this week. The evidence for spring was all around. Prairie dogs were out in the bright sun, squabbling and tussling with each other. I didn’t know they scampered with a skipping jump. I’m more used to seeing them scurry for their holes. The jumping was fun to see. Maybe it was a spring thing?
It was human noise and nonsense free up there. A spring break Monday, I was in desperate need of space, wanting to be out of the city, and finding some quiet. Figuring the mountains might be busy, I headed east instead of west, and once off the highways and onto dirt roads, I could feel the tensions of a long term start to fade.
Some small ponds had a layer of ice, but like the banks of snow in ditches and sheltered spots, it seemed winter was receding. Empty ridge roads, bright sunshine, bare trees, brown fields with a glint of gold, and washed out blue skies were all sights to see.
When I stopped to take a photo of some old shacks (couldn’t resist), the racing shadow of a bird caught my eye. Spinning and scanning, I saw a hawk glide overhead, searching for a meal. At first I thought it was a red-tailed hawk, although the colouring seemed muted, so perhaps it was a rough legged hawk instead? Either way, it was a wonderful moment, and so positive. Unless you’re a prairie dog…
I was hoping to spot another hawk from the buffalo jump but it wasn’t to be. Instead, a wheeling raven soared over the badlands – I could hear the wings beating as it passed. All the sounds were soothing. Birds singing in the bare trees behind me, the grass being torn by the ground squirrels, the buzz of a bee (in March!) and the sound of the Red Deer river, in thaw and flow far below. The last might have been my imagination, or the sound of a light breeze, but I fancied it to be the river.
All the promise of spring! And a promise to myself to lighten up, and take the negative human constructs of our world less seriously. As I get older, I find the world harder to understand. It can’t always be ignored, but I aim to deflect some of the 21st century madness that appears to be on us. It seems far less pressing when you’re atop a prairie buffalo jump!
It was hard to drag myself away, so I didn’t, not immediately. I sat and wrote much of this piece, and hung out a little more with my prairie dog buddies. It was fun simply to hang with the buffalo jump gang.
The thread through this post is a little frayed, and a bit twisted – less thread and more like an old cassette tape that has unwound from the spool – but there is a line…
One thing leads to another, if I can borrow an old lyric. Where to begin? A splendid piece, Monster Blues and Salmon, Too, by Walt over at RivertopRambles was the starting gun – it got me thinking and following movies and music along a winding trail. A long and winding (oh stop it, PlaidCamper! Or get your own lyrics…) Walt linked to a video (you can go watch and listen to it at the link above) that had me jumping down a musical rabbit hole, chasing old memories and digging out old albums.
The Big Head Blues Club pointed me to John Lee Hooker, I took a detour with Van Morrison, and ended up traveling through Springsteen’s Nebraska. I heard and found echoes and traces of all these and more after Walt’s blues pulled the musical trigger. Hanging out in Nebraska got me back to the Terrence Malick movie Badlands, and that reminded me I was planning to watch Malick’s Days of Heaven. So I did.
What an astonishing movie! Set in 1916, it is a rural drama played out in the fields of the Texas panhandle. Murder, loyalty, poverty, identity, family breakdown, and the threat of industrial scale farming production are some of the themes in the mix. If that doesn’t appeal, don’t be put off, simply watch the movie as a series of painterly scenes. And Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, and Sam Shepard are all quite pretty.
The actual story is slight, fairly conventional, and the dialogue is rather stilted and spare. Fortunately, what overrides the plot and dialogue deficiencies is the voiceover delivered by the most interesting character, a teenage girl played by Linda Manz. Sometimes I find voiceovers irritating; it can seem as though the movie is unable tell a story effectively without a clunky voiceover explaining everything. The voiceover in Days of Heaven is exceptional. It reveals the real story in the movie, told almost in parallel to the events unfolding on screen, and the commentary presents the most affecting point of view.
Days of Heaven is beautiful, with frame after frame of striking images. For the look of the film, Malick was inspired by Edward Hopper, and if Hopper had ever made a movie, it might have looked something like Days of Heaven. The house in the movie was built as a set based on the painting below:
Malick’s aim was to shoot in natural light, which he mostly did and with striking results – the harvest scenes are breathtaking. The cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, won an Oscar for his lighting.
As I was watching, the natural lighting had me thinking about The Revenant, how that was filmed in a similar way, in natural light at the start and end of the day. I’m such a nerd – some quick research revealed the production designer, Jack Fisk, worked on both movies. The cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won an Oscar for his work on The Revenant. I ended up watching The Revenant again, wanting to see and compare the cinematography. What a nerd, but what a delightful landscape-heavy double feature. Shot in different seasons, and forty years apart, both movies were made (in part) in Alberta. Oh the winter grandeur of the mountains, and the late summer beauty of the rolling prairies.
What a wonderful music and movie journey I ended up taking. OK, so it was through an iPad screen, and the hour got exceptionally late, but it was as close to being out of the city as I could get midweek.
There you have it. I’m not so sure I’ve managed to wind the cassette tape back onto the spool, but the music and movie trip was good for me (and for Mrs PC – she didn’t have to listen to me complaining about my nature deficit – and she seems to like my noise cancelling headphones even more than I do. Apparently they really work…)
Little end note tangent: I stayed up late and watched movies because I didn’t have “real” work the next day. Instead of teaching, I attended a workshop designed to promote positive mental health in students (and teachers) – I was a little drowsy later in the day – and one repeated theme was about being outdoors and/or in natural environments and having time to play.
The profile of the class I’m teaching this year includes many students with a mental health diagnosis, and there are several others with mental health problems. It’s quite the challenge in our communities these days, and, sad to say, increasingly prevalent amongst our young people…
I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I firmly believe that being outdoors and involved in the natural world has a fundamental part to play in maintaining good (mental) health. We are better human beings as a result. In that spirit, we are planning on being out in the mountains and on the slopes this coming weekend. Winter playtime!
Thanks for reading, please feel free to share a story, a music or movie recommendation, or a tip for positive mental health, and have a wonderful weekend! If you are in the USA, or from the USA, and you celebrate, I hope you are enjoying a happy Thanksgiving.
Another little end note: to meet the overwhelming demand (erm, one request) the butternut and black bean chilli recipe will be included next week – there was no need (or demand, PlaidCamper) to squeeze in more squash after last week…