Thursday, November 4, 2010

On the Road

It seemed like a great idea at the time:  two readings in Alberta, Pages Books in Calgary on October 27 and Audrey's Book in Edmonton the next day.  But of course I live on the prairies, and nature will have her way with us.  So I shouldn't have been surprised by the snowstorm that blew in the day before I was supposed to leave, a storm that completely tangled up Regina's streets so that a trip which should have taken 7 minutes took 35.  Should I go?  Should I cancel?  I decided to drive to Moose Jaw.  If the road didn't get any better by then, I'd pack it in, turn around, and go home.

As an American who was happily transplanted to the prairies in the early seventies, I've often admired prairie people's helpfulness and sense of community.  This is an historical remnant, I concluded:  early settlers couldn't survive without the help and support of their often distant neighbours.  I only had to read Robert Kroetsch's "Seed Catalogue" or The Journals of Susanna Moodie to realize this was a reasonable hypothesis.  None of us could emotionally survive the frozen depths of winter without the cheer of the Safeway clerk or the helpfulness of the neighbour who shovels us out.  But you don't expect this sense of anonymous community on icy roads.  Yet if it weren't for the driver of a red pick-up in front of me who thought the TransCanada was as bad as I did  and whose response to the road warned me of particularly icy patches or drifts that had blown onto the road, I couldn't have made it to Chaplin, where the roads began to get better.

In the meantime, I thought about time.  First, that time didn't matter while the roads were bad.  All that mattered was staying on the road long enough to get west of the storm.  Then I thought that while nature unfolds in time--think of the laws of physics and the seasons--it can also play fast and loose with it.  It gives us the sublime moment that seems to stretch forward even while it snaps back on us  It also takes time away in a fearful storm.  While you can't pay any attention to the passing of time, only to your driving in the frightfully present moment.  You look up when the roads are better and find time suddenly gone.

But once the risks seemed past, I thought, uselessly perhaps, about the roads I'd just driven over.  It was the hardest text I've ever read:  every comma and ellipsis, every lump and drift and glare, meant something that I needed to interpret very quickly and very accurately.  Yet in spite of the storm that created human panic, the cows were so indifferent; they turned their backs to the wind and kept munching.

I haven't driven this stretch between Regina and Calgary in late October, so once I'd out-run the bad roads I studied the landscape.  In some places, the dusting of snow changed the texture and colour of the prairies, making them look more like a blank piece of old parchment that a Japanese calligrapher has inked in with lacy windbreaks, shrubs that have clustered in the hills' folds, with the odd spontaneous tree.  But the culverts by the side of the road also had their own beauty, particularly when the snow had passed them by. leaving their deep and subtle colours even more intense in contrast to the surrounding snow:  rusty reds, olive greens deep greeny golds, the whitish tan of dried grass. Could I pull that off in a quilt, I wondered?  Would it even translate?

The hills too are various.  Sometimes they're comforting bowls; other times you feel that fever-stricken giants have been plucking at the bed-clothes.  Long ridges follow you like old friends, one ridge folding into the next, until the line is suddenly cut by gravity or wind.

There's long been an argument about the relationship between landscape and beauty.  Some argue that we appreciate a landscape because artists, by representing it (or mis-representing it:  think of all those awful Krieghoff dayglo sunsets) have implicitly told us what's beautiful and we've simply taken the experts at their word.  Advocating a different relationship altogether, one in which nature seemed to trump culture, Eighteenth-century English gardener Capability Brown thought the formal plantings of roses or lavender in rows and lovers' knots were entirely unnatural and sought to return the English countryside around the houses of the wealthy to their former beauty.  Yet even the "natural" shapes of his gardens with their pleasant hills and judiciously placed trees were constructions.  Early Canadian poets had difficulty writing convincingly about the landscape they found because they saw it through the conventions of English Romantic poetry.  I'm not sure we can ever see the natural world without the cultural preconceptions we bring to it.  If we can, or if we can even get close, it's on the prairie, where we are prompted to look hard for the beauty--or let it pass us by in a snowstorm or a burst of speed.

That night, I read at Pages Books on Kensington with Lee Kvern and Freda Jackson.  Lee read from her new novel, The Matter of Sylvie, in which three narrators in three different time frames need to revisit and understand their relation with Sylvie, who is a mentally challenged and difficult child.  The novel shows how varied and chaotic and everchanging and dynamic family relationships can be, particularly when the arbitrariness of life arrives full force in the guise of Sylvie.  Lee read a humourous  passage in which Sylvie's father Lorne has to escort a drunken, beaten Jimmy Widman to the same institution where Sylvie lives.  It perfectly captured the knife edge on which the funny and the tragic balance.   Freda Jackson read from her second novel, For a Modest Fee; although the main character is Elizabeth Evans, she read--in kind honour of my trip that day--a haunting stormy scene in which a businessman hunts through the small fictional town where the novel is set, trying to find his wife, who is pregnant and struggling with mental illness.  I've had time to read Lee's novel since I returned; Freda's is next on my list.

I'm always nervous when I read, though I've learned to keep the nervous part of me just at the edge of my peripheral vision.  This pretense helps me believe that standing in front of a group of strangers reading words I've struggled over for years is exactly where I want to be right now.  This experience was even more weird in Calgary because I was not only fighting over who exactly is standing holding a book that looks vaguely familiar, but when she's doing it.  The white knuckle trip that morning seemed both so present and yet so far away; the woman following the little red truck and trying to figure out what is so beautiful about the prairie landscape was someone else altogether.

Let me give you the Pages Books link:  they've got some wonderful events planned, and it's a very tempting bookstore.  Congratulations to all of you at Pages for keeping readers informed and engaged!

I'll be adding pictures in a few days when I can figure out how to get my camera to talk to my computer

Pages Books on Kensington

Lee Kvern

Freda Jackson at Touchwood Editions


  1. Glad you made it safely, Kathleen, and wrote that dandy entry. Passing by, 30 miles of Swift Current, you gave toot hello to Herbert, didn't you?

  2. oh excellent blog/reading/driving all around. glad i got to both meet and read with you, kathleen!

  3. A wonderful sense of the moment and a passage through time . . .Calgary was a great success!

  4. That last comment was not from Kathleen, rather her spouse, me , Bill Ursel :)

  5. Kathleen,
    I was cruising around the U of R site today looking for the faculty that might be interested in paying some extra attention to Jane Austen in 2011. I didn't find that information, but I did find your Blog. We were caught in the same snow storm around Oct. 27 when you were heading to Alberta by car and I was heading to the Jane Austen Conference in Portland by plane. I so enjoyed your entries that I read all of them this morning and felt I must tell you that. I would love to attend one of your readings close by.