As the article in the Weyburn Review Saskatchewan Foundation for the Arts Award says, I received an award to be used toward completion of my novel and efforts to finding an agent/publisher. This kind of recognition is validating to say the least, and taken together with SAB and Canada Council grants I’ve received, makes me feel that I am on the right track in telling this big, crazy, difficult story.
As part of the journey, I plan to blog a little about Indonesia and the novel’s characters and themes. As well, bear with me if I indulge in some musings about how the writing happens. There. I’ve said it out loud. Now to just do it……..
Some writers create a playlist to inspire, reflect or accompany the writing they are doing at any given moment. In my case, I don’t have the technical patience to do a list; for me one song is enough, and Get Home, by Bastille is the song that speaks to, or for, my writing at present.
“How am I gonna get myself back home?”; the ultimate question for more than one character in my new work, Mengeti.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard both my parents talk about the importance of being ‘home’ during the occupation of Holland in WWII. A teenager at the time, my Mom insisted on riding her bike to her babysitting job, but could think only of home when she found herself in a crowded basement, cradling the toddler she was charged with keeping, huddled there with others while planes dropped bombs over their heads. She was safe there, but she ran out of that basement and crawled along the ditches, toddler in tow until she got away from the shelling and could run home because that is simply where she needed to be to feel truly safe.
My Dad, who was eventually picked up by the Germans and interned in a camp, then sent to work on a German farm, recalls his own trek home. He didn’t even know the war was over, was simply told by the farm woman to go home. So he did. Walking across a bombed out Germany to get there, ‘borrowing’ a German horse and cart, simply going home. He was eighteen. He speaks of another young friend who did the same. Sick, wasted away with disease, starvation and the effects of being worked nearly to death, this friend too, walked hundreds of kilometres to Limburg to be home. And promptly died. But he died at home.
Later on my Dad was a soldier himself, sent by the Dutch to Indonesia to reclaim the colony. Home never left him, but I wonder if his sense of it changed because of what he learned about himself over time and as a man who held a gun. Soldiers from all the wars, the ‘greatest pretenders”, their faces brave, their hearts needing home. Perhaps?
“We are the last people standing
at the end of the night.
We are the greatest pretenders
in the cold morning light.”……….
“The birds are mocking me
they call to be heard.
The birds are mocking me
they curse my return.”
What is this drive, this need for home? What indeed, is home? And why, always, do we want to get there? I know Bastille’s song is about the band keeping their sense of themselves, who they are, their metaphorical ‘home’. But I guess that’s what people in war are trying to do as well. Enjoy.
(This is the first installment in my series: Things Canadians Should Care About)
Wes Olson pokes the spaces between the rocks on the grassy hillside, checking for rattlesnakes, before letting us sit down. With that potential threat out of the way, he warns us about the bison. There are a few standing a good half mile away and the massive beasts are not likely to run you down for no good reason. But Wes tells us a good rule of thumb, literally, is to hold that digit out in front of you, look at it through one eye, and if any bison parts are visible on either side of your thumb, YOU ARE TOO CLOSE! Bison are deceptively fast, and given their size, well you just don’t want to be in the way.
He looks like his name sounds. Wes Olson: tall, rugged, sun-baked and mustached. I suppose that could also describe an outlaw, but his quiet and intelligent confidence speak to a character comfortable in his own skin and his own knowledge, and mostly at home in the nature that surrounds him. He is very, very wise and speaks of the bison as an elder might, with wisdom and grace. I have a sense that if he were to get a chance to actually talk to the politicians who decided not to replace him when he retired from Grasslands National Park in 2012, he would simply shake his head in wonder at the ignorance of humankind.
Because Wes knows bison. After thirty years of working with these ungulates in various parks across Canada, he’s come to understand and admire the bison in a way only someone truly in tune with them can. Their mating rituals; how their habit of constantly moving while grazing maintains native prairie grasses; how a bison’s skeletal structure supports its massive head and chest while giving it lightning speed; the ways in which bison manure supports dung beetles which in turn support bird species; that bison hair is the second warmest fibre in North America and is also water repellant; how the unique olfactory masking of this hair used in bird nests enhances chick survival from predators. These are just a few of the facts he shares with our eclectic group which includes authors, ranchers, scientists, and environmentalists, all interested in preserving grasslands and the species they support both within and outside the park.
Along with other senior staff in the park, the position Wes left was not filled. He has no one to pass his wisdom to, no one to care, in a single-minded way, about the bison which were re-introduced to the park in 2006. At that point there were 71 bison. In 2013 the total numbers were at 344, according to Wes. The objective was to hit 350 and study their effect on the native grasses in the park, how their grazing habits might help sustain pristine native prairie that is vital habitat to a multitude of species-at-risk. But this year there will be few park staff to watch, to count or to care.
Grasslands is a long way from anywhere. It’s one of few dark sky preserves in the world. It’s a huge expanse of hills and draws covered in grasses and shrubs and lichens and wildflowers whose numbers I can’t begin to count. There are more than 12,000 archeological sites in the area, including teepee rings, effigies and burial sites. It is wondrous place, impossible, really, to comprehend. But that’s the point. It is only when you look out over the vista and then get up close and personal with the bison through the knowledge Wes offers, that somehow you too can feel it, just a little. A sense of history that remains little marked by the present, a feeling that here we have something awesome in the truest sense of that over-used word, a national treasure.
Much as Wes Olson is. More than one of the group referred to him as such, their faces crumbling in despair at the thought his knowledge and skill will be lost. But apparently if you live in a place isolated by geography, a national treasure means little and the bison he watched over even less. It is worth the trip to the grasslands of Southwest Saskatchewan to see and judge for yourself; see the animals, listen to the birds, touch the grasses and the flowers. They will make your heart sing. And when you’re inclined to dance to the rhythm, remember to let others know and to insist an apprentice is hired for Wes to mentor, and to understand that we are all responsible for the protection of those things worthy of preservation.