Friday, November 30, 2012

Time and the Land

I had one of my first Saskatchewan existential and historical  shocks galloping on a horse above Echo Lake on high grass prairie, the smell of sage stirred up by the horses all around me.  I had spent the afternoon riding through some of the most beautiful landscape I knew in the Qu'Appelle Valley, which I'd really only seen by car.  On a horse, you wind along the coulees filled with golden birch, you are part of the mysterious folding and winding of the land.

I was with my colleagues in the English Department on a Sunday horseback riding afternoon organized by Jeanne Shami at Clayton Cyr's ranch on reserve land.  As I looked at the landscape and at my colleagues--Jeanne Shami, Ken Mitchell, Barb Powell and her husband Dave, Nick Ruddick and his wife Britt Holmstrom, as well as our children, I tried to understand what complex threads had taken me from richly treed Ann Arbor Michigan to the Qu'Appelle valley.  The thread was obviously my education, which was why I tied one end of it to Ann Arbor and the other to the colleagues around me.  It was one of those moments when beauty shocks you into being profoundly where you are; at the same time the moment's intensity poses questions.  Why are you here, listening to the wind off the prairie and the breathing of horses, the flickering of birch leaves in your ears, the smell of sage in your nose, your eyes drinking a landscape whose beauty and mystery you could never have imagined?  Why are you here at all?  What mysteries of physics and biology have led to the creation of this world and your improbable existence in it?

I had a quieter echo of that shock last Friday when I found myself in room full of ranchers and farmers, environmentalists and poets and artists, civil servants and psychology professors, considering what it means for the province to sell off the fragile pastures that have been protected since the 1930s when farming practices that didn't take the quality of the soil or the possibility of drought into account led to huge clouds of prairie top soil falling into the Atlantic Ocean.

The night before, we had heard Candace Savage's description of this landscape's beauty and vulnerability.  Bad public policy decisions that led to breaking the soil in the Palliser Triangle, an area of mixed grassland in the arid southern portion of the province that some believe to be an extension of U.S. deserts, had led to extreme erosion and loss of native species of plants and animals. One of her many slides included a photograph from Canada's Atlantic coast of an immense black cloud over the ocean:  prairie topsoil.  Candace whimsically and incisively tied her talk both to her ancestors and to her descendants as a way of reminding us that we are but temporary stewards of this land and that we should seek to preserve it, not only for our grandchildren, but for the generations of native plant and animal species that come after us.

She also talked of how the PFRA land management was returning this land to its original austere beauty.  The Prairie Farm Reclamation Administration paid to put stewards on the land, pasture managers who, over the last seventy years have observed and questioned, developing the lore and the practices that allow this land to thrive.  Land that was originally grazed by buffalo still needs to be grazed--but not over-grazed.  Hence one of the jobs of the pasture managers is to organize cattle grazing.  Pasture patrons pay for the management of their herds, paying a large part of the costs for the management of the land; that land in turn supports the overall Saskatchewan rural economy. Pasture managers live in rural communities and their presence there is one of the things that keeps these communities alive.

The federal government no longer wants to manage these lands, so they have devolved to the province.  In turn, the province wants to privatize this rich and fragile ecosystem as quickly as possible, proving once again that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  (Thank you, Oscar Wilde.)  So spearheaded by naturalist Trevor Herriot, Katherine Arbuthnott, (a U of R psychologist who's passionate about the environment and is continually exploring how knowledge of psychology can help us see what nature contributes to our daily lives and how we can convince people to take better care of it), Emily Eaton (from the U of R geography department), and Naomi Beingessner (from RPIRG), a "Pastures Forum" was organized that included farmers, ranchers, the aboriginal community, the union representative of the pasture managers, and anyone else who cared.   So here was my second existential and historical shock:  what was I doing sitting behind a very tall man in a large black cowboy hat with a notebook tucked into the back of his jeans listening to the history of the PFRA?

We began the day with Doug Faller, the policy manager of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, quoting philosopher George Santayana:  "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  Initially, the Palliser Triangle was seen as too arid to farm, but when botanist George Macoun visited the area in the 1870s, there had been an unusual amount of rain, leading him to observe that it would be fine for agriculture.  There followed three dry periods during which farming and grazing on that land collapsed:  1906-7, 1918-20, and the dirty thirties.  May of 1934 saw the largest ecological disaster in the history of Canada, when dust clouds traveled all the way to the Atlantic.  From the size of the clouds, they calculated that the sky contained 300,000,000 acres before they gave up calculating. 

What began in the 1870s with a bad public policy decision was brought to an end in 1935 when the PFRA was created "to manage a productive, biodiverse rangeland and to promote environmentally responsible land use and practices."  Their first objective was to preserve environmentally sensitive land, though they soon recognized that cattle grazing played an important role in creating a healthy ecosystem. In the 77 years since its creation, pasture managers have observed and experimented with the land under their protection, evolving some of the best techniques for the management of the environment.  In turn, their work helped sustain mixed farms and the rural communities that support them.  According to Faller, the PFRA folks have a business plan:  the cost of managing the land is a mere 25% of the benefits to farmers, ranchers, and the Saskatchewan economy.  He pointed out that this was a remarkably good investment.

Not surprisingly, Trevor Herriot spoke of the 31 species at risk that live protected on the community pastures.  His list makes a kind of poem, so I'll simply paste it in.  There are three mammals in trouble, the swift fox, the black-footed ferret, and the black tailed prairie dog.  There are six plants at risk: smooth goosefoot,  western spiderwort, hairy prairie clover, buffalo grass, slender mouse-ear cress, and western spiderwort.  There are three reptiles: northern leopard frog, great paint frog, and the eastern yellow-bellied racer.  There are three lepidoptera:  the monarch dusky dune moth, the gold-edged gem moth, and the mormon metalmark butterfly.  Then there are the birds, which are closest, I think, to Trevor's heart:  the piping plover,the common nighthhawk, the long-billed curlew, the mountain plover, sprague's pippet, the  bobolink, the barn swallow, the chestnut-collared long spur, the barred sparrow, the loggerhead shrike, the peregrin falcon, the ferrugenous hawk, the sage grouse, (in real trouble), the short-eared owl, and the burrowing owl.  He described this land, with its rich and fragile ecosystem, as "our old growth forest.  They are a lily pad in a sea of disturbance," he told us.  The PFRA pasture managers have led the way in species at risk care in North America.  They've developed a model that other agencies have adopted.  It was developed in the field, with the pasture managers.  Cowboys and environmentalists.  But the Species at Risk Act is is a federal law and can only be applied to federally-owned land.  Once the land is sold, it ceases.

The provincial government has told managers and patrons that it has 5.7 million dollars to help them.  Help them do what?  As Chief Roland Crowe tactfully put it, the provincial government has been rather vague about what managers and patrons might do with these funds.  He was only the last in a long line of voices who begged the provincial government to slow down on this decision and consider all the sides.  Katherine Arbuthnott pointed out to me this morning that even businesses are incorporating a "devil's advocate" into their decision-making process when there isn't someone to play this role because they've learned that when you have a number of like-minded people, a homogeneous group, making decisions, you leap to conclusions and miss nuances.  

Voices.  Wise, complementary, nuanced voices.  That was really what the poet in me was at the Pastures Forum to hear.  You'll quit reading if I go on summarizing the things everyone said, but I need to tell you about the voices.  Chief Roland Crowe's velvety, patient voice, respecting the nature of time.  Joanne Brochu's matter-of-fact, well-informed voice.  Brent Cramer in his black cowboy hat and slow drawl observing that he didn't think "the university can tell me how to take care of my grass;  we've done it for three generations and I hope my kids will do it after I'm dead.”  Yes, he used the word dead.  No euphemisms here.  "A cattleman is one of the best managers.  He's got to be.  Ranchers are not in it for the money."  Inter-generational passing of the land is their raison d'etre, along with a good healthy life style and an ability to pay the bills.

Time was on everyone's mind.  The long time that the earth was here before we were, creating a rich ecosystem just for the hell of it, for the beauty of it.  The time it takes to wrap your head and your soul around the enormity of a prairie landscape.  The number of times--three, now--that prairie people have suffered because we've been bad stewards.  The provincial government's hurry, which can only be motivated by the desire to get this over and done with before people realize how stupid it is.  And the time until the next drought.  Because it isn't "if" there's a drought.  It's "when."

Friday, November 23, 2012


In Monday's Globe and Mail, as part of "the weekly challenge" feature, Courtney Shea wrote about a week's experiment meant to challenge her relationship with clothing.  She wore the same clothes for an entire week. Shea wisely chose a comfortable jersey dress that could be dressed up or down with accessories and that could be quickly washed.  Except for one colleague who asked "What's with the dress?" no one seemed to notice or to comment.  For Shea, this experiment had ethical overtones:  According to To Die For:  Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? most North American and many European women buy half their body weight in clothes every year and own four times as many outfits as they did thirty years ago.

I've flirted with minimalism over the years.  My first husband and I started our home in the early seventies, an age of slender glass canisters and sleek white china.  Perhaps most radical was our crystal, which, unlike any we received when we were married, lacked the curving almost human profile that has been traditional for centuries.  Ours was completely straight, and had a thick bottom rather than a slender stem, a single drop of air trapped in the base.  When we separated thirteen years later, I began an anti-minimalist rebellion, buying myself Christmas presents (to unwrap alone while my daughter spent the day with him): antique pillowcases with hand-knit lace, and china teacups, many of them, I now confess, appalled at my choices, pink.  These are slowly making their way into the annual Cathedral Village Arts Festival garage sales.  I can only give up so much of my past at a time.

Since our renovations, Bill and I have put things back into the rooms we emptied with more thought for what we value.  There's more art on the living room walls, but fewer quilts in the upstairs hallway:  I don't want to muddle the walls' serene pale blue.  Moving back into the kitchen, I put tools I seldom used into a box, with the promise that only if I used them six months after the reno was finished would I let them back into my drawers--which are now much clearer, though not up to IKEA standards.  My food processor and my blender are in cupboards, so I have a much clearer and more pleasant space to work in.  I had no idea how infrequently I used them.

The delight I feel with an emptier closet or clearer drawers or a blank walls that have only slices of sunlight or shadows of tree branches for their decor has drawn my attention to the fact that many of my happiest hours, weeks, or even months have been spent in spaces that looked very like Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond.  My first experience was my dormitory room at the University of Michigan, a small room with lead-paned windows that cranked outwards and that I kept open for most of the winter because the dorm was hot.  I also stored my bottle of port, bought to help me sleep, on the stone window ledge, six storeys up. A bookcase, a comfortable chair, a bed, and a desk:  what more do you need to explore the world of ideas other than simple furniture, a library card and challenging classes?  An electric typewriter and some paper, perhaps.

My two weeks at the Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, which the University of Saskatchewan has decided to close, may have appeared to an outsider to be a "retreat," but how can you explain the remarkable  inner voyages you can take when the encouraging layers of history and creativity all around you seem to speak every time you mind stills for an instant or trips over itself, momentarily lost?  In the workroom of my cabin, with its eight windows looking onto the lake and the boreal forest, I had a small yellow table splattered with paint and ink, traces of past inhabitants, probably artists or scientists--who really are fellow travellers, both of them attuned to wonder. I knew that Clement Greenberg and Barnet Newman had spent time there, that it had been a place for the Regina Five to gather, that Dorothy Knowles and William Perehudoff had found peace and inspiration there.  One of Greenberg's main tenets was that a painter's canvas was simply a flat space:  how vigorously Perehudoff and McKay challenged and realized that idea.  At the same time, can you think of two painters more radically different than Barnet Newman and Dorothy Knowles?  Here is one of the paradoxes of minimalism: that these simple cabins can give rise to such exuberant variety.

The monastic rooms at St. Michael's Abbey, where I spent a wonderful Sage Hill Writing Experience, similarly have a calm, supportive aura. The cabins in the Leighton Colony at the Banff Centre for the arts also resonate:  they have guest books for everyone to sign so that there is a kind of narrative linking the creative lives of the people who thrive there, whose work thrives there.  Yet this is a space devoid of your personality:  all I brought was a computer and a guitar.  I think it's that absence of self that's liberating in some almost Buddhist way.

I'm quite sure that minimalism can give rise to creativity, whether it's Thoreau's simple cabin on Walden Pond or Turner's eyrie at Petworth, which I've always envied.  Though realistically one needs to realize that the rigours of simplicity don't suit everyone.  Consider the studios of Picasso or Cezanne, full of props and ideas.

But I can't quite work out the relationship between the aesthetics and the ethics of simplicity.  In some ways, those who have chosen very simple lives, people like Thoreau or the monks at St. Michael's Abbey, conceived of an ethical component to simplicity that is almost Buddhist:  mindfulness, the freedom to reflect, observe, and imagine, they might say, is gained by a certain detachment from things, even while the simplicity created by that detachment is frequently beautiful.  There's also the practical fact:  if you're not interested in amassing things, you can work less and create or reflect more.  But David Claerbaut's video, "Sunrise,"which I wrote about last February, makes it quite clear that minimalism requires a lot of upkeep and can be both beautiful and alienating.  Frequently the most elegantly simple clothing is also the most expensive.  (Though jewelery these days is opting for the baroque and extravagant, almost as if it's flying in the face of the economic downturn..)

 "Less is more" pronounced Mies van Der Rohe, as he stripped down the high rise.  "A house is a machine for living," observed Le Corbusier as he built homes like the Villa Savoy.  My daughter, Veronica, who has studied "Corb," tells me that aesthetically appealing and simple spaces were both quite expensive and not very home-like.  He had hoped to help us strip down our own lives to what was important by providing a visual corollary for us to contemplate.  At the same time, however, there's no place to comfortably sit and contemplate in his houses; he's always moving you on to the next task in its perfectly-defined and designed space. He has not designed the modernist version of Thoreau's cabin at Walden.

I confess I love winter.  (Don't tell Bill.)  I love its minimalism.  I spend autumn engrossed in searching out the truth of the subtle greyed colours and the complex textures of trees, shrubs, grasses that have dried or lost their leaves.  Some days it is a stretch to see the beauty that I somehow cannot live without, cannot stop searching for.  Then one morning I wake to a new-made world.  There is a white harmony in the naked textures and more space to breath in the chilly air.

Friday, November 16, 2012

By the skin of our teeth

Here is my idiosyncratic news culled from the last couple of days:

  • The Americans approach the "fiscal cliff" because Republicans refuse to tax the wealthy.
  • Demonstrations occur in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where government cutbacks have created instability and high levels of unemployment.  In Spain, they blame the bankers.  Maybe we need to update Shakespeare's line from Henry VI about the lawyers:  "First thing we do, let's kill all the bankers."
  • My environmental network is telling me that the current managers of the PFRA lands, which the provincial government wants to sell, are being muzzled, forbidden to comment on the value of the million acres of native prairie and sustainably grazed pasture, in spite of the fact that they know that land and understand its importance and its management from the inside out.  Nevertheless Candace Savage, recent winner of the Hillary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction, will be speaking to interested people on Thursday November 22 at 7 in the Education Auditorium, and a group of people interested in saving the PFRA lands from the auction block will gather on Friday, November 23 at the Orr Centre, 4400 4th Avenue (on 4th and Lewvan Drive).
  • Meanwhile, Harper is calling into question the charitable status of any organization that doesn't tow the conservative line, particularly on environmental issues.
  • Then, of course, we come to the Faculty of Arts and the English Department.  In some ways, what is happening here is clear:  the provincial government is demanding that U of R become "more efficient," and is forcing that efficiency on us by threatening to give us no increase in our funding or by holding us to a 2% increase.  (A 2% increase is, in effect, a decrease, since our costs rise by about 5% a year.)  The other clear fact here is that Saskatchewan, currently a "have" province, ranks 9th among the provinces in the amount of money it provides to post-secondary education.  It is unclear whether the Faculty of Arts is being asked to take more of a financial hit than other, more profession-oriented faculties.  I am hoping that Paul Bogdan's excellent piece, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" in The Carillon and David Fraser's briefer piece in the Leader-Post will shake down some answers to our questions.
  • Chris Hedges believes, as do a number of people I respect, that governments are attempting to "silence" or "starve" the humanities and the social sciences because we're the ones who teach the troublemakers--if we aren't troublemakers ourselves.  We ask the uncomfortable questions.  We don't take the government or corporate line for granted, nor do we share their vision of "prosperity"--that it is synonymous with "profit." We don't believe that the lives and the societies and the environments they have in mind for us are either the best or the only possibilities.
This fall, just before the term began, the English Department met to consider the budgetary realities, and I found myself saying that critical thought, the arts, cultural institutions, and the natural world that so beautifully supports our existence, are hanging on "by the skin of our teeth."  My memory queried that phrase the minute it was out of my mouth.  It came from somewhere memorable.

It's the title of the first chapter of Kenneth Clark's Civilization, the one that describes the dark ages between the fall of Rome and "The Great Thaw" that began, from his perspective, in 1100 C.E.  I nodded inwardly, realizing that we are heading, possibly world-wide, toward a twenty-first-century Dark Age, one where the barbarian hordes are those who believe that profit and wealth are the only true "good," in spite of the fact that the economists of happiness and the cognitive psychologists will tell them that their hunger can never be assuaged.  So I went back to Kenneth Clark's book, and found both some disturbing parallels and some hope. 

First, the devout St. Gregory burned countless volumes of the Classical literature we had inherited from Greece and Rome because they "seduced men's minds away from the study of holy write" (17).  He is the precursor, then, of ideologues who want to silence dissent and free thought.  On the other hand, there was Charlemagne, who, with the "help of an outstanding teacher and librarian named Alcuin of York...collected books and had them copied....Our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne" (18).
I don't find despair exactly energizing.  At any given moment, it is probably as rational to say the glass is half empty as to assert that it's half full, and I fully respect this fact.  So I choose to take the "half full" view, even though sometimes it's initially quite a struggle.  In part, that means teaching with all the passion and joy I can muster, because for every politician or CEO who's on the wrong track, I can touch an Arts student who can reflectively maneuver us onto the right track. In part, it means looking out my window as I work, taking in the beauty of the natural world, thinking about my daughter's photograph of the church in King's Lynn on Ascension Sunday and about the potters who made the jars that unceremoniously hold pens and clips.  The natural world always reminds me that there's something bigger than myself, something as beautiful as anything humans have ever made.  So I also drive to work through the park, making my left turn off Albert at the Legislature and taking the long way in along the lake, where the geese still have a bit of open water they gather around and where the opposite shoreline is often shrouded in fog.  It means taking a different route through the park on the way home where I almost always see a rabbit out for for "silflay."  In the words Kenneth Clark uses to describe the wonderful Unicorn Tapestries, "nature goes on naturing."

In some ways, I keep hope alive by writing this blog, by finding a place where literally no one stands between you and me.  It means, unfortunately, trying to ignore the fact that Candace Savage won the Hillary Weston Non-fiction prize for a book published by Greystone, and imprint of the now-bankrupt and restructuring Douglas and McIntyre publishing firm.  That, in turn, makes me think of book stores...and forces me to take a deep breath before I spiral down yet again.

It makes me want to spend time with creative writers, as I will be doing on Saturday when the English Department hosts a Creative Writing Open House.  Creative people are the only ones who can get us out of this.  That's not only because they are the ones who will entertain us on the improbably dark nights that are ahead or who can make history live in our memories so we know where human progress left off.  They are the ones who will help us be subversive, if not the ones who come up with the solutions.  But more than that:  creative people know the joy of making something, not simply buying it.  They can't be bought off.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Music for an empty house

I have revised and revised and edited and revised the talk I am giving tomorrow on Woolf's aesthetics as they are revealed to us by the form of To the Lighthouse and by Lily Briscoe's painting.  I have spent considerable time on the last paragraph, of course, because late on a Friday afternoon, in the part of the term when people are very tired by the end of the week, I need not only to write a logical conclusion--difficult enough!--but to get the cadence of the words to say what I can only partially articulate. 

I am not happy with the last couple of sentences. I am trying to describe one of the paradoxes of art:  that in its humility, its uncertainty about its place in our private and civic lives, in its refusal to lay literal claims to us, in its desire to engage us in conversation, not to harangue us, it gains a kind of oxymoronic powerless power.  I have scoured my rather good thesaurus.  Do you have any idea of the extent to which power is associated with potency, powerlessness with impotence?  Words are going in the wrong direction altogether.

 So I came home to dine alone, since Bill is in Saskatoon for a meeting early tomorrow morning.  During the renovations we did not have our stereo, so now I am rediscovering music.  There was a CD I still hadn't played, recommended by my sister, Karen:  Arvo Part's "Alina."  There are five sections, the first third and fifth played by piano with violin or cello, the second and fourth by the piano alone.  The melodies are starkly simple, the accompaniment broken chords that aren't always pretty or predictable.  The solo piano interludes speak to me most powerfully.  Haunting, simple harmonies are played with a tentativeness that suggests how fragile beauty is, how tender our connection with time, how uncertain our grasp of what we feel. This is perfect music for an empty house, echoing in its space the way it echoes in our minds, with the mystery of its simplicity and restraint.

Hoping that Part wrote them for a person or an occasion that will explain their haunting quality, I turned to the liner notes to find nothing but a musicologist's meditation on Part's original voice.  But in tiny italics there was this:   "I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours.  Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener."

This metaphor would have suited Woolf perfectly.  The last chapter in my study of her aesthetics (not written yet) will be on her sense of the reader as a co-creator, the reader as an important part of art's integrity.  For it is readers thinking for themselves that, in her words "presses the weight of their consciousness" upon the writer, urging her on, being frank when she's being lazy, giving her a sense of her culture's anxieties, joys, pleasures, fears.  But it is perhaps even more importantly the writer who leaves suggestive spaces between her thoughts who makes the work that softly commands our attention.