Hidden in the Grasslands

Dec 10, 2012

By Geoff Hancock
The grasslands of southwest Saskatchewan along the Montana border are simultaneously open and exposed, yet offer great concealment. In this unique and fragile environment, the “place where words stop,” Sharon Butala began her remarkable pilgrimage.

Despite her admitted hesitancy and uncertainty, Sharon’s major works emerge from a feeling of assurance. The ancient Greeks called such destiny the Fates or Moirae, her life intimately intertwined with this semi-arid Canadian steppe-land. Not the northern bushland of her birth, not the central wheat lands iconic imagery of “the prairies,” but the mixed grasslands where she saw deeply, generously, thoughtfully.

With second husband Peter, a second-generation rancher, she learned the ways of local ranchers. The Butala cattle ranch, grazing 3,000 head on 13,000 acres, is now protected in perpetuity by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. In describing her transformative experiences, she introduced a generation to a new regionalism, not separate from urban spaces and culture, but interconnected with the world.

To experience the living fibre of this land, she trusted the local, the unwritten, the uncollected. Not clinging to one story, she relied on interconnections. To create a life, she examined her every thought. She resisted the known. She was not reliant on youthful nostalgia or childhood memories. Though she might draw upon intellectual argument, hard science or economic empirical data, her basic mode was discovery of the concealed. To be an artist here, she developed a dialogue between what has changed and is changing. Her conclusion was to preserve the grasslands; remind us of what was nearly lost; and how we must reconnect in a spiritual way. Of course, Sharon is quick to retort this wild place is not an ashram or a spa. You could bash a thumb, be gored by a steer, kicked by a horse, run over by a tractor, or suffer the extremes of weather.

In 1857, Captain John Palliser and the British North American Exploring Expedition surveyed these badlands, sandhills and grasslands. He could draw only one conclusion from the harsh sun, prickly cactus, tough grasses and sticky dark muddy clay my dad called gumbo. Too cold or hot, drought prone, it was unsuitable for farming. Palliser wrote that he was “in search of adventure and heavy game.” He probably did not see the sage grouse, lark buntings or rare Baird’s sparrows, their exquisite tinkling birdsong drowned out by the blast of a Sharps Big 50 buffalo gun which fired half pound slugs at the last of the grizzlies, elk and bison.

Traditional masculine understanding, shoot it, dig it, drill it, mine it, ranch it, dominated western thought. “Virgin land falls to masculine desires,” I read somewhere, probably in a mining manual on potash, oil and uranium. One hundred sixty years later, Sharon walked the same land making notes and journal entries. She frequently recounts sadness in the land itself. Animal spirits remain, those millions of massacred bison.

Yet in this open place of concealment, much remains to be discovered. “Scotty” the Tyrannosaurus rex is the largest and most complete skeleton ever found. He was discovered in 1991 in fossil beds around the small town of Eastend, population half a thousand, give or take. It’s the nearest town northeast of Old Man On His Back, the traditional Cree name for the Butala property. The “middle of nowhere,” the town’s web motto, continues to surprise; a new species of dinosaur was named within the past year. The Royal Saskatchewan Museum, with its small crew of two paleontologists and volunteers, established a fossil research station in Eastend, while the town operates an exhibition space in the T. Rex Discovery Centre.

But realism also includes dreams and myths. Since it’s hard to chop a fossilized dream out of limestone, not everything can be verified. In places of concealment, the real path is off the trail. More than once Sharon writes of her mystification over finding stones and bones, birds and small animals, and a mysterious stony field (what the Chinese might call one of Earth’s acupuncture points). Nourished by imagery, the idea of Artemis, goddess of wild nature, rules the sanctuary of these grasslands with life and death not in opposition but continuity. Unlike hard facts and solid science, a dream of a white coyote or soaring eagle suggests concealed knowledge. A traditional dream dictionary claims grass means interconnections, healing, community. The heart (its chakra a familiar green centre) returns to its soul centre; grass roots are in fact clustered. That suggests many issues, often troubling.

How troubling? The brighter the light, the darker the shadow. That’s why Sharon writes Fiction, three collections of stories, six novels. Any discussion of Sharon must emphasize the absolute importance of Story. How do we tell our Story? What to put in, leave out, what will the neighbours say? Here’s Queen of the Headaches, and another, Fever. She does not flinch from the sorrow of the world, or sickness, the sad or angry or malignant stories of people. There’s death and redemption, deep suffering, sadness, cruelty. In Luna, The Gates of the Sun, Upstream, we find neglect, shame, loneliness—and even the apocalyptic end of time, in The Fourth Archangel. Her novels often have a melancholy undertone and a critique of community. Her spiritual maturity is the ability to deal with anxiety, ambiguity and conflict.

Somehow the prairies evoke a Lost Eden (one novel is entitled The Garden of Eden), be it the utopian American Little House on the Prairie, the Canadian Little Mosque on the Prairie, or the perfect weather of the comedy Corner Gas. However, the oldest church in nearby Maple Creek dates only from 1909. Instead of enclosed spaces, these patriarchal ideas, Sharon’s concept of Nature demands a larger landscape with uncarved boulders and windswept coulees.

Hers is a new kind of Canadian writing. Jungian psychologist James Hillman writes in Re-Visioning Psychology, “spirit rises, but soul sinks.” Soul is imagination, and the nature of soul is observation, sometimes using dreams or visions to see through to significant meaning. Sharon’s world view does not rise up to “see the wind,” but grows down until she absorbs those grassy contours, the life, vitality. Like a shaman of anti­quity, she lies down amidst the circles of stones and waits for the visions. . . .

In this special issue of Prairie Fire, Sharon’s friends and fellow writers consider possible approaches to her sixteen books of fiction and creative non-fiction. Phyllis Bruce describes collaboration and creative process. Pam Chamberlain studies the implication of animals in The Perfection of the Morning. Kerry Clare engages with the debate on fiction versus facts in memory. Monty Reid suggests Sharon’s art is one of “remembrance,” while Verna Reid considers “construction of the self” in Sharon’s mature investigative journalism. Ted Dyck’s zany essay opens her work to postmodern humour. Lee Gowan fondly recalls her mentorship. Megan Riley McGilchrist examines Sharon’s unique perspectives on the natural environment. Aubrey Streit Krug explores how women carry history and knowledge, while Fran Kaye looks at the deeper implications of land knowledge. . . .


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