Thursday 13 September 2012

A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape

“As people who were fed by the land, did they sense the vitality of the wild earth pulsing through their veins? Did they know, beyond any need for conscious knowing, that they were another name for the grass and the wind and the snow?” 

Candace Savage and her husband, Keith Bell, were on a busman’s holiday when they first visited Eastend in southwest Saskatchewan, in 2000. Candace was researching a book, and they had sightseeing plans. But their van kept breaking down, forcing them to stay in one place, and the land around Eastend drew them in, urging Candace to explore its secrets.

Candace and Keith returned the following year and purchased a house in Eastend. Candace would spend the next 11 years thinking and writing a book about her experiences. A Geography of Blood is now in print and is an intimate exploration of the interrelationship between humans and nature.

Selective memories
Candace’s exploration of the Cypress Hills starts with its geography. The Frenchman Valley, where dinosaurs used to roam, contains an ‘unconformity.’ “It is a place where sediments representing hundreds or thousands of years have been swept away by erosion, so that ancient deposits are overlain by much more recent ones. To an unschooled eye, the deposits appear to tell a continuous story, but experts can tell that there is an invisible gap – long periods of time that have been forgotten,” Candace explains. “As I was gazing at the steep, eroded hillsides along the Ravenscrag Road, it occurred to me that there are similar unconformities in the way we choose to remember – and selectively choose to forget – more recent, human events.”

As Candace dug deeper into the history of this area, she came to realize that the pioneer stories that we’d studied at school masked a deeper story. “As a kid growing up on the prairies in the 1950s and 1960s, I was raised on stories of the ‘pioneers,’ a human flood that included several generations of my own ancestors. Oxen, covered wagons, poke bonnets. The march of progress,” Candace says. “There was scarcely a word about the natural productivity of the buffalo prairie – an entire ecosystem reduced to ruins – or about the civilizations that had flourished here for thousands of years before the settlement era, which were sidelined and displaced. The hills forced me to accept that these losses were part and parcel of the settlement story, part of my heritage as a prairie person.”

In A Geography of Blood, Candace points out that an older generation of historians “insisted on an emphatic division between the old West and the New, between the crude brutality of the frontier and the perceived civility of the modern world.” Unfortunately, the division isn’t so clear cut. When questioned about this statement in her book, Candace said, “I often think that, in many important ways, we are still living in the nineteenth century. Our economy is based on the same aggressive, short-term attitudes that justified the slaughter of the bison and the plough-down of the western plains. As evidence, just consider the cascading loss of species around the world and the ever worsening plight of the prairie's own indigenous birds.”

Human animals
A Geography of Blood explores at length the efforts of traditional people to live in harmony with the land. Candace describes one archaeological site that had been inhabited for almost 9,000 years. “Each generation followed in the footsteps of those who had gone before. In fact, new arrivals sometimes situated their camps on the very same spot their ancestors had used in the past, whether ten or a hundred or five hundred years before them. The Stampede Site has recorded this act of remembrance as a sequence of subtle basins, or hearths, filled with charcoal and bone, each one stacked directly on top of the one below. It appears that the buffalo people had a relationship with this place that they maintained by visiting it, almost as if it were a person.”

Most of us today have lost this deep, intimate connection with nature. “I'd say that even the word ‘nature’ is a sign of that disconnection,” Candace says. “As if there were such a thing as ‘nature’ or the ‘environment’ as something separate from us. As if we didn't drink from the river or breathe air or rely on the land for food. As if, even with all our snazzy iThings, we weren't still animals.” Candace doesn’t believe that urban life is responsible for this lack of connection. “One might expect city dwellers to be more cut off from those realities than their country cousins,” Candace says. “Funny thing is, though, that cities all over the world are coming back to life. We're used to thinking that nature begins where the sidewalk ends. The fact is that rural areas are now highly industrialized and cities are – or can be – exceptionally rich and diverse life zones. There's a lot going on across Canada and elsewhere, from green roofs, to natural drainage via swales, to urban-biodiversity policies, to backyard restorations and naturalized parks.”

Our responsibility
A Geography of Blood is the first book that Candace has written in the first person. “I decided on a first-person narrator because the story I wanted to tell is uncomfortable,” Candace says. “As a society, we've put a lot of effort into not knowing it. I thought the reader might like some company as he or she re-encounters these events. Besides, this is a story about what historian Jim Miller calls ‘Native-newcomer relations’ and I couldn't pretend to occupy any viewpoint but my own. I had to own my biases, opinions and limitations.”

A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape should be required reading for Western Canadians. We need to understand our past in order to ensure a future that is in harmony with all the creatures who share this prairie home.

Candace will be reading from A Geography of Blood at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Thursday, September 20 at 7 pm.

For more information 
Candace Savage’s website
Candace Savage: The living community of the earth