Revanchist Review

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Dog Days of Summer

Sirius, the bright evening star, is once again in ascendance - hence the origin of the term "dog days of summer". For this scribbler it also means time spent packing up boxes and readying for a move away from Vancouver, which has been home since 1971, to southern Vancouver Island. It is a bittersweet time, a mixture of excitement at the prospect of the complete retirement from professional and business responsibilities and a touch of melancholy due to the sons and friends and community left behind.

Business will be replaced by the busyness of varied undertakings - a massive new garden with all its attendant work, a daily row out to the prawn traps, learning the names of flora and fauna, hoping that long forgotten muscles will once again fire on command as fence posts get torn out, retaining walls get built, stubborn salal gets uprooted.

And along with the busyness, will come a renewed appreciation of the value of time spent in reading and thinking and writing. I shall hopefully renew my regular postings by the middle of August when all the boxes are unpacked and the dog days of summer are on the wane.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Prairie Perspectives

…if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not be…that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak? W.G. Sebald – Austerlitz

My wife Nancy and I kept some “appointments in the past” with a recent driving trip from Vancouver to Saskatchewan. Any lingering fears of a “you can’t go home again” experience were swiftly abated upon our arrival in Watrous where I lived for only two years before graduating from high school in 1965. I had been excited about this trip for many months now without really knowing why. Part of me feared I had been overcome by romantic nostalgia and the intensity of past friendships and the beauty of the landscape would, sadly, all be shown to have been the exaggerated constructs of an overly imaginative mind.

Happily, I discovered my feelings for the people and the places were even stronger than I had known or remembered - embraces and handshakes, tears both of mirth and affection, and above all laughter, abounded. And the land, the awesome beauty of the sky, the fields of green and lavender occasionally dotted with the crimson/orange glow of prairie lilies, the ribbons of highway running straight ahead for miles and disappearing into the curving horizon, simply overwhelmed me.

Sebald brilliantly describes the almost physical sensation of experiencing time. I felt it throughout the prairies but most palpably as I neared Watrous and began to recognize farm houses and landmarks and to link them to memories from my past. As we drove to Manitou Beach I told Nancy of a frightening ride 40 years ago around cemetery corner on the back of a friend’s 1954 Harley. A few hours later a number of us were sharing similar stories with the rider. Fortunately we had all survived those and other scary rides during our vainglorious youth.

Gravity and genetics had wreaked their expected havoc on the physical appearance of each of us – on some more noticeably than others – but without exception our spirits seemed to have remained indomitable. Nicknames were resurrected, old infatuations and secret attractions were confessed and welcomed, giving hugs of greeting and farewell more poignancy for some.

There we were gathered, farmers, nurses, teachers, biologists, corporate executives, lawyers, accountants – children of Saskatchewan one and all though some of us had long since been physically removed from our roots. Our past was our link to this present moment and we marveled at our good fortune to be back here sharing these memories and planning for the future when we will meet again.

Wallace Stegner’s memoirs of his childhood in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan accompanied us. In Wolf Willow he writes of a conversation he had with an English friend who had been raised in privilege, introduced to the classics of literature and art at a very early age. Stegner wondered how somehow raised in a small prairie town or farm could make up for having been deprived of the fruits of high culture. His English friend offered that “perhaps you got something else in place of all that”.

Stegner reflected and concluded, “I am not certain I would trade my childhood freedom and the outdoors and the senses for a childhood of being led by the hand past all the Turners in the National Gallery….anyone starting from deprivation is spared getting bored. You may not get a good start but you may get up a considerable head of steam.”

I agree with Stegner. Looking ahead to this trip it wasn’t clear to me why I was so eager to return. Was it simply that I missed my past, with its youthful optimism and the excitement of having most of my life ahead of me? Was it a longing to go back to a time and place where nothing seemed impossible or unattainable?

There was some of that, there is always that element in any homecoming; but I discovered there was much more which had brought me home. Only upon returning did I realize how much I missed the prairie - its redolence, the sound of the wind, the movement of the endless fields of grain and grass like waves in a vast sea, the dramatic and ever changing sky filled with majestic thunderheads – the combination producing almost a concupiscence.

I realized how much I missed the people of Saskatchewan - their optimism, their readiness to laugh and cry, their transparency, their freedom from smugness and conceit, their imagination and most of all their honesty.

Five of us sat in The Diner at Manitou Beach as our host and his wife entertained us after our dinner with You Are My Sunshine and Beautiful Brown Eyes, and other songs we each had grown up with and which our parents had sung to us. We were all moved to tears. These were not maudlin tears, but tears that honoured the genuineness of the care our hosts extended to us and that acknowledged the simplicity of our own beginnings – the ‘something else’ that we all shared.

My homecoming helped me to see the contrast between a prairie culture where the past is honoured and integrated into the present and the future, and the urbanized culture where the tendency is to break with everything which still has some living connection with the past, all in the name of progress.

This urban culture looks condescendingly at the prairie culture, which it considers to be anachronistic, perhaps even dull. Urban culture measures advancement quantitatively – how many restaurants, theatres, art galleries, cappuccino bars and beaches (nude or clothed, gay or straight) can you choose to go to on a given day.

T.S. Eliot wrote that “if we take culture seriously, we see that a people does not need merely enough to eat but a proper and particular cuisine.” We would do well as a nation to have more places like The Diner.