Springtime (?) on the Prairies

“April is the cruelest month.” So begins T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. He might as well have been writing about April on the prairies.

Come April, Old Man Winter is not about to give up his dominance. Never mind that he’s been haranguing us with cold and snow and ice and blizzards since November, mid-October if he was feeling particularly malicious. Benevolence is not part of Winter’s character.

He teases us with a few days of blue skies, sun and temperatures above freezing, even at night. Then Wham! A dump of snow. A howling wind. Day time temperatures well below freezing, never mind the night time temperatures.

We shake our hands at the sky. We scream, “It’s been five months already. Go Away!” Then we get out the snow shovel and start clearing the walk. Again. For the fourth time.

We live for that day when the trees are suddenly surrounded by an aura of green haze that, the next day, turns into full-fledged summer green. When the much hated dandelions poke their green leaves above ground. When cheeky gophers (a.k.a. Richardson’s Ground Squirrels) hop, skip and jump across the highway, daring us to run them down. When the hills of unbroken prairie grass are covered with the purple haze of prairie crocuses.

We breathe a sigh of relief. Spring, brief as it is, is here. Daffodils. Tulips. Robins. Calves. Lambs.

Then, one morning, we wake up to snow. Again. In the middle of May.

On the other hand . . .

We are not living in a tar paper shack. Or a log house. With only a cook stove to keep us warm, if we sit right beside it. With the wind knifing in through every crack and crevice. With the snow creeping in under the door and around the windows. With bedclothes freezing to the wall. With ice inches thick on the windows. Like my grandparents, Abe and Addie Hanna, endured for 17 years before they built a “proper” house.

Nor are we living in the midst of bombed-out buildings with death and destruction raining down all around us. Fearing the sound of bombs and missiles and explosions that rock the earth. Wondering if we’ll live through the night. Or the day. Wondering if our loved ones are still alive. Wondering if we’ll find safety as refugees living amongst strangers.

Compared to what millions of people elsewhere are enduring, snow in the middle of April is nothing. And, to quote prairie farmers, “We need the moisture.”

Every snowbank has a silver lining.

#PrairieSpring #SnowInApril #Gratitude #WorldProblems #WeAreFortunate #CountingBlessings #NonFiction #Contemplation #MargaretGHanna

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Boreal Forest

I’m a prairie girl, born and bred. Where the horizon is down around my knees, maybe even my ankles. Where there’s nothing between me and that horizon. Where I can see yesterday leaving and tomorrow coming. Where the only trees are those planted around farmsteads.

So why was I sitting on a dock in northern Manitoba, surrounded by nothing but trees and water, watching the Twin Otter that had deposited me and my crew slowly disappear into nothingness?

The answer: I’d been hired to lead one of the crews conducting archaeological excavations as part of Manitoba Hydro’s Churchill River diversion project of the early 1970s. I had no experience with boreal forest archaeology. I had no experience leading a crew. I didn’t know how to operate an outboard motor. I didn’t know how to read a topographic map. I didn’t know how to use a transit to survey excavation grids.

Boy, was I qualified!

My only previous encounter with the boreal forest had been in 1969 when I was an assistant at a camp just south of Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. I hated it, the boreal forest, that is. I couldn’t see anywhere. I couldn’t see the weather coming. Driving down the highway felt like driving down a tunnel. I didn’t feel claustrophobic but I certainly felt boxed in.

Yet, here I was, in 1973, at Lake Opachuanau on the Churchill River, fly-in only, for two whole months. Egads! How would I survive?

By the end of the first week, I had learned how to operate an outboard motor, although I had yet to finesse docking it. I had learned how to read topographic maps which is why I now hate highway maps – they don’t have enough detail. I had even learned the rudiments of using a transit and stadia rod. And I was getting intrigued by the archaeology, the geology and the natural history of the boreal forest.

But most importantly, I was falling in love with the boreal forest. Driving a boat down the river or across the lake was completely different from driving down a highway cut through “The Bush.” Those mornings when the wind was perfectly calm and the lake was perfectly still, the boat seemed to be floating in space between the forest and its perfect reflection. I could see the forest in all its complexity – alders and birch and poplars and quaking aspen lining the shore, White Spruce and Black Spruce behind. The shoreline varied from sand to mud to low rocky outcrops to rock cliffs. Inland, the ground was soft and spongy, covered with bunchberry and raspberries and strawberries and Labrador Tea and Sphagnum moss in which you could sink up to your knees.

Since then, I’ve spent a fair number of summers working in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan. A summer just didn’t feel complete if I wasn’t cruising down a river or lake in a boat, slogging through The Bush, digging test pits or excavating sites.

It isn’t just the forest itself I’ve come to love. It’s also the people who live there. Especially the people who live there. Interested and interesting, genuinely concerned about their history and its preservation, willing to share their knowledge and their stories, and more than willing to work with us (and I wouldn’t have it any other way). They have enriched my life and my work in ways that cannot be measured.

But, aren’t there black flies there, you ask? How can you love working in a place lousy with black flies?

Oh, them. Well, that’s another story.

#BorealForest #RetiredArchaeologist #ArchaeologicalMemories #ChurchillRiver #NorthernManitoba #NorthernSaskatchewan #MargaretGHanna #NonFiction

A Bridge in Time

The video clip appeared frequently on TV last month. In the background, a destroyed bridge, the roadway dangling. In the foreground, two soldiers helping a frail elderly woman across three wet, slick planks mere inches above the icy cold river raging below. Behind them, a crowd of anxious desperate people, waiting their turn to cross those same slick planks.

The elderly woman shuffles forward, slow step by slow step. She hears the river rushing below her. She sees light reflecting off the wet boards. But most importantly, she feels the strength of the two soldiers supporting her. She knows she is not alone. With their help, she knows she can make it.

I suspect they are talking her across as much as physically helping her. “That’s it. We’re almost there. Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Just a little farther. You’re doing fine. Look straight ahead at the other bank. Just a few more steps. Don’t worry about your family, we’ll go back and help them across, too. You’re doing fine.”

The video clip ends before she reaches the other shore. We can only assume she made it across safely. We can only assume all those anxious waiting people made it across safely, too.

Which was the bridge? Those planks? Or the two soldiers?

Times of trouble can leave us desperate, disillusioned and demoralized. Perhaps we’ve lost a job. A beloved family member has passed away. A long relationship has ended. A spiral into addiction. We feel trapped, helpless, hopeless, doomed. All we can see is that icy cold water raging below us, those slick wet planks before us.

We need a bridge to help us through and out of those times. That bridge is always a person. Someone who holds out his/her hand and says, “I’m here. I’ve got you. I’m with you.”

Knowing we are not alone in our time of trouble is our greatest source of strength and courage. Knowing that someone is walking beside us, helping us through the difficult times, helping us focus on the other shore, telling us, “You can do this, we’ll get there together.”

Sometimes we need a bridge. Sometimes we are the bridge.

#Bridges #WeAreNotAlone #DesperateTimes #HelpingHand #Courage #Strength #MargaretGHanna