A case of Labatt Blue beer discarded into the ditch of a rural range road in Alberta seems contrapuntal to the pastorale created by this snow-filled field and the frosty lines of barbed wire containing it, but perhaps their themes are more entwined than one initially perceives.
Five red grain sheds on a cold, white, wintry day in southwestern Alberta. The low perspective inspired the title: a reference to an old (and somewhat narrow-minded) joke about Canadian literature. It wasn’t until I experienced prairie winters myself (from a semi-safe distance at said prairie’s edge, nestled along the relative temperance of the Rocky Mountains) that I began to really understand why they haunted the works of our early creative voices.
Night-driving, summertime, late ’70s, alone in the Buick LeSabre with my father. Rural two-lane blacktop and a broken yellow line stretching into the darkness ahead, consumed by the headlong momentum of the gargantuan car. Circle of light in front of us expanding and contracting in response to the click of the dimmer switch beneath my father’s shoe whenever an opposing glow appears upon the horizon. I can see the stars steady above us and the forest rushing by, coniferous peaks silhouetted jaggedly against the infinite dark. On the radio, which he has allowed me to tune to a rock station, there’s something playing that eludes the edges of my memory now (but that I still feel confident is Sniff n’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat” — except it’s probably not. The era is correct, but it feels too perfect, too neat). Whatever it is, it compliments the mood that floods my young mind with a sudden torrent of raw emotion that surges, breaks, and disperses into reverie. I’m floating in the passenger seat somewhere between coherence and dream, the moment extending like the highway, ahead and beyond the circle of light into time and space and the dark unknown. I don’t want the car to stop. I don’t want the journey to end. I want him to be there forever, power and strength through his hands guiding us forward together, but I know it’s just a moment, an intersection between childhood and adulthood, between reality and memory, between the living and the dead. And moments like this pass with cruel expedition — a flash of combined light, two speeding cars passing in the warm summer night, the road in their wake fading again into silence and darkness, awaiting its next traveler.
Wind, rain. Lying there in his bed, Fred can hear the latter beating against his roof and the former rattling the glass in the windows of his upstairs flat. His first thoughts of the day are tainted by a weary dread. Every year it’s like this. Why did they have to sign the WWI Armistice in November? Why couldn’t history pretend it happened earlier in the year, during Spring or Summer?
Fred sits up slowly, giving his old tendons and string-bean muscles a chance to awaken from their atrophied sleep, and begins his morning ritual: coughs, hacks — deep, resounding expectorations from the depths of his body, his thin frame wracked by each rattling explosion. It passes, it always passes after a time, and Fred grabs the pack of du Mauriers off the night table, pulls out a butt, rips off the filter and lights the cigarette with his Bic. He sits there, propped crookedly on the edge of his bed, hair tousled and still startlingly black despite his seventy-five years, smoking, listening to the wind eddying beneath the eaves, the rain beating a xylophonic tune across the window. Beyond and from the harbour, the dull and measured drone of a foghorn. Inside, the mechanical snick-snack of tiny gears turning within the cheap, wind-up alarm clock on the folding TV-table beside his bed; the groaning of old pipes as freshly heated water begins its climb from the boiler in the cellar to the cast-iron radiator in the corner of his bedroom.
Unmoving on the edge of the bed, eyes open, pale blue irises ringed with the yellow of ripening cataracts, the brows above them knit through with hairs gone coarse and unruly, he stares, hand poised beside his deeply-lined face, untouched du Maurier emitting a twist of blue smoke from its position between his fingers. The ash at the tip of his cigarette lengthens, tilts precariously.
Those boys, those men, all of those regimented bodies and the disorderly souls that inhabited them. Some were younger than him, some older. They filed through the camp where he was stationed as cook during World War II and he fed them all. He fed them so well, he suspects the brass saw to it that he stayed there in the camp in Nova Scotia for the duration of the war, despite his protests, his eagerness to go and fight in Europe. He’d been livid, then, being forced to stay behind. Now he wonders what would have become of him had he gone. He has come to accept in the long years since that in its own small way his contribution was made, but it still bothers him. Those fresh young faces are dim and distant now, as thin and spectral as the tendrils of smoke dissipating into the air around his head.
The wind drives more rain against the window, startles Fred from the drift of his mind. The ash dislodges from the tip of his cigarette and misses his pyjama pants by mere inches during its descent to the hardwood floor where it will add to a scatter-shot pattern of tiny burn marks. Then, with the same careful purpose that he now approaches all aspects of daily life, Fred rises, dresses in his uniform –laid out and pressed last night– applies the plastic poppy to his cap and prepares to go out into the storm for the march to the Cenotaph.
In the kitchen, he turns on the little transistor radio and the newsman says it is three degrees, which Fred automatically translates into Fahrenheit for himself: thirty-seven. Chilly weather, November weather, but with the wind and rain it will feel colder — bitter and bone-deep. He’ll be lucky not to catch his death. Or perhaps, he thinks, it’s more fitting to say that he’ll be lucky if Death doesn’t catch him.
But he’s used to this, he tells himself. He’s been through it before and he will go through it again. The dead demand it and the living deserve it. Grey, mournful November with its bare trees and overcast skies. Sleet-slicked pavement and chilled souls in black gathered silently around a stone memorial. As grim as the milieu will be, he cannot help but feel it is still appropriate, especially for remembering the undoing of so much of the human fabric. Grey and cold are probably what death’s fingers feel like when they finally tag you, and he finds that notion strangely comforting. If true, at least it will be familiar.
He checks his umbrella for wear, pulls on his galoshes and heads out into it.
Iron gates and archway of the cemetery for the abandoned hamlet of Retlaw in southwestern Alberta. Fans of The Smiths will recognize the lyric I cribbed for the title. For the curious: “Retlaw” is “Walter” spelled backwards [source: Wikipedia].
This photograph was featured in the “Eye on Alberta” section of the November 2013 issue of Alberta Views magazine.
I photographed the Holy Ghost Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the village of Whitkow, Saskatchewan, on April 25, 2009. Almost to the day four years later, it suffered a sad fate dictated by church policy: since it could not be repaired or moved due to its state of disrepair, it was burned to the ground.
You can read about why and how this controlled burn proceeded in the following article by Jayne Foster that was published in North Battleford’s News-Optimist.
Of the many unique geographical and ecological features of the area in and around Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, one of the most dramatic is the abrupt convergence of prairie and mountain range. Illustrative of the kind of view that delights visitors to the park, this photograph was taken near Twin Butte in the Autumn of 2012.