by Lillian Ireland
“When are we going to get there?” I pleaded for the umpteenth time, as I sat huddled between my two brothers in the back seat of the Volkswagen Beetle. Through the eyes of a six year old, everything looked the same; the long road, blaring headlights, and blowing snow. How I wanted to see my Grama! I ached to be with her on her farm. From southern Saskatchewan, the endless road seemed to stand in the way.
She and Grampa homesteaded the land which they had cleared by hand and by horse. I’ll never know how hard they worked to make it livable, to build their tiny home from timber they cut, to draw water from a well they established, to grow crops and vegetables and to raise cattle to feed their many children.
There was respect for the Cree who lived on nearby land for a season each year. They brought their children and families, their horses and tepees, travelling annually to set up for a few months near Strawberry Creek on their journey through north central Alberta.
There was respect for the Hutterites who farmed nearby.
Grama couldn’t converse with many, but there was mutual respect for those who chose this part of Canada to live in. She knew very little English but through her heart and actions, I absorbed much of her love of life and her knowledge. She couldn’t read or write, but she was a profoundly wise, strong and tender woman, educated by her many experiences of survival. Her diploma was written in the deeply etched lines on her face and hands.
Walking with her in the nearby forests and bushes which edged the fields of hay, wheat, oats and barley, we picked wild strawberries, raspberries, mushrooms and Saskatoons. Walking silently through the bush, she would bend and try to explain by simple words and actions what was edible and what was not. Sometimes we munched on the berries and sometimes we would gently place them in her apron which became her basket. Even though the berries were miniscule in comparison to the commercial hybrid ones of today, my mouth still waters as I think back to their delectable flavours while we quietly walked hand in hand.
It was there I learned to revere the land.
I was always surprised how she could stretch everything to make it last until the next harvest. The berries miraculously turned into jam or preserves which she stored in her underground cellar. The root cellar was accessible through a tiny, creaky door on the side of the bank underneath her house. Even though I was a child, I had to lower my head getting into the tiny, earthy treasure store.
The year’s garden vegetables hid there too. When she wanted potatoes in the winter or spring, we’d put warm coats and boots on and I’d accompany her around and down the side of the house, remove the sun bleached, twisted branch which propped the door shut, and we gradually adjusted our eyes to the dim light offered by the small flashlight. Slowly we would find our way over to the large bins of dirt at the far end of the cellar.
Grama would ask me to reach into the mounds of dark, rich soil to pull out some potatoes. Sometimes I’d find other surprises which were stored there months earlier. She tenderly smiled at my amazement as I discovered huge, hearty carrots or plump, purple beets from which I excitedly brushed the dirt. To me, these were hidden treasures. To her, they were a necessity fashioned with patience, faith, fortitude and sacrifice.
At the side of the cellar, along with the jars of fruit, there were jars of canned chicken, fish, pork hocks and pickles she had canned earlier in the year. Even though the cellar smelled musky and was dark, it was an exciting place to explore. Years later, Grampa cut a hole in the kitchen floor and strung a ladder. A tiny light bulb was hung which made the treasure hunting not nearly as thrilling.
“When are we going to get there?” I wondered. I was now a teenager, living in Calgary and it was a much shorter ride. Yet, I still longed to go to the farm, especially in early autumn. The rich scents of fall on the farm continually captivated me, drawing me back. As a city girl, I yearned to get away from the busyness of activity which at times was too much. I longed for the quiet of the farm, sitting with Grama in the kitchen, shelling peas or making perogies. The primary audible sound was usually the drone of the buzzing flies at the window or occasionally a car driving by on the road, spitting up gravel and leaving a thick, gray trail of dust separating Grama’s farm from the neighbours.
By now, I had learned a little Ukrainian and Grama knew more English. Yet, even without many words, we still shared a quiet satisfying communion.
When the kitchen chores were finished, we’d go out to the fields where I couldn’t take in enough of the powerful fragrance of the freshly cut hay. I’d watch my Uncle Tony with the horses while brushing the annoying flies away from us. The hay which had stood nearly as tall as me only a few hours earlier had transformed the field into a stubbly blanket of yellow shafts.
I knew that very soon, with pitchforks in hand, we would stook the hay. We would excitedly lift the sheaves and stand them on end. To my brothers and me, it was something we looked forward to each year. Some years, we would heave the hay high onto the hay wagon. Standing at the edge of the hayfields, the wind seemed to blow the fresh, sweet scent deep into my soul. I stood and breathed it in. It filled me, this was home.
Again, I learned to revere the land.
Many years later, the scents and memories flooded back as we visited Grama’s farm with my own teenaged children. “How are we going to break it down?” they asked as we pondered the fresh beaver dam near the farmhouse.
Grama and Uncle Tony desperately needed help since their home and farm were endangered by the rising water. Strawberry Creek was no longer a gently meandering creek but a huge pool of foreboding water perilously close to their home.
Back then, a naive urban west coaster, how little I knew about the natural environmental landscapers! The beaver within days had changed the countryside. Even though beaver can establish flourishing, future marshes which benefit wildlife, farmers often wish they would do it in a different place! It was unbelievable how quickly her yard was converting into an infringing, unwelcome wetland!
Horrified by the news that the county was going to dynamite the dam, our children wanted to take the dam apart by hand. And they did! The three of them and my young Sister surveyed the situation, and with careful savvy, moved the various sized trees, branches and rocks. Many hours later, with dedicated teamwork, concentrated effort and heavy sweat, the creek flowed again. Grama’s home was spared. Her farm survived and so did the beaver. Surprisingly, they moved on and didn’t attempt a new dam in that area.
Another generation had learned to revere the land.
Twenty years later, I wondered, “How are we going to get there?” as I prepared for some important meetings regarding farmers’ rights on a return trip to Alberta. I yearned for solitude prior to the first meeting. I needed time to collect my thoughts while catching up with the latest readings about the Alberta Energy Regulator and its encroachment on the lives of many Canadians.
There seemed to be a strange parallel between the beaver and the oil industry. Both did what they wanted with little thought or concern given to the landowners. Both make unspeakable changes without long term consideration. People learn, sometimes grievously too late, that once major changes are implemented; it takes immense effort and resources to turn things around. And often that’s not possible.
The farm still exists, the wind still blows, and the flies are still annoying, but sadly, underneath much of Canada’s and the world’s fertile soil, damage is being done that will forever rob the soil of its ability to raise crops or feed cattle. These are changes which cannot be reversed by a few energetic young teenagers in an afternoon. These are changes made with a very narrow, short term viewpoint.
There is unprecedented damage to hunting, fishing and gathering areas of Aboriginal people, there is havoc to the water systems, there is widespread loss to animal, plant and human habitat, there is toxicity of the air we breathe, and there is irreversible destruction of soil.
We need long-term perspective, we need viable solutions, we need healthy, sustainable practices, and we need conscience with respect for the environment and Mother earth.