This spring I walked across the bottom field of my farm, crunching my way through the tall canary grass that had formed grey-green mats over the field, and reaching for the light, baby fir trees, barely sprung from the wet ground. Land everywhere records its history and then buries it. Buildings buckle and fall down; pavement cracks with fungi, and then grass and tall strong plants like thistles and burdocks appear, precursors to the forest that will one day grow there if the land is left alone.
I am watching the farm transform. Every day, I walk among ghosts: dead orchards, dead house, parts of machines. Old paths. Old ways. The old names we made as children. I will take them with me into the house of the dead.
I thread my way through towers of bright timothy, tansy, burdocks. The grass is high except for the places where the geese and the elk have eaten their fill. But no one eats the tall grey grass going to seed. It should have been cut for hay. The cows should have eaten the pasture down to its roots. There should be hay piled in the shed. There should be a bright rainbow of chickens happily chasing grasshoppers.
But the tall grass has its own presence.
I don’t know how to feel about this.
Once the farm was all urgency and hurry; farm jobs don’t wait. This sense of hurry hurry has stayed with me all my life, through everything I’ve done, , but now I don’t hurry because I can’t. So I watch and wait.
On the farm, we hurried to harvest it all when it was time: myriad fruits and vegetables, towers of food brought in and left to my hurrying mother to transform into food for winter.
The hay was cut according to the sun and the CBC weather reports; the sun had to stay for at least a week or longer so the hay would dry properly. Rain was sometimes a disaster, sometimes a salvation. Rain split and rotted the cherries, ruined hay, and took all the food value out of it. But rain was necessary for spring, for new grass, for the garden, for everything else. If rain didn’t come, there was an elaborate system of sprinklers all over that ensured the farm’s continuity as a green oasis The sprinklers had to be moved every day, usually by me.
I don’t know how to feel about this. I love farming. I loved the days when the farm bustled with activity.The back door of the house slammed many times a day with people going in and out, working, eating, talking and talking, and the radio was always on. I loved being part of it, being strong, never tired.
There are two houses here now. Often, on my last walk at night, I pass the other house, which is now empty, and will soon have no one left who believed in its life, except for me. There is no life there now in the shadowed hallway, the exploded windows. The many people once crowded in there are far away or gone altogether.
So many things did live there once. The house had so much energy, shone with noise and colour, : the parents, the children, the bigger family of cats and kittens, of dogs, bats, and mice. The farm was like a model of all the people going in and out the door, serious about working, and the man’s voice at evening, the woman’s voice calling, the scents of roast beef and stewed chicken; and at nightm children’s hearts beat content under the covers, the cold outside caught and held by thin board walls.
And there were places all around the house with names and stories, so the house had a map of its own. For the children, every place on the farm was marked by secret names, made and known only by us. n.
The farm is only a momentary clearcut in the long vision of time. It carries the footprints of the present and the past; it holds the names of my father, and his father before him, who sweated and killed things to make their place here. Once the majestic sternwheelers rolled along the lakeshore, then a railroad crawled hammer chink by hammer chink along the lake. Eventually, the mule track beside the became a highway.
But this land also ate my father up, called him to work and work, stooped his shoulders and filled him with rage. This land would neither help him nor let him go. He lived in the new house, which he had hewn himself from rock and logs, until one day my mother’s white face collapsed in sorrow.
Every day now I walk between the house he built and the water, and see clouds spilling over the cold blue of the Selkirks, streaming and spitting snow. Kootenay Lake steams and huffs into the wind, and I turn my face to whatever dream the mountains might give me. The windows of the house my father built are haloed against the dark, light rushing out.
How do I feel about this?
I grew up feral. That is where is my affinities still lie: for the bear beyond the yardlight, the deer stepping lightly, ears fanned and wide, for the coyote out in the field, teaching her pups to hunt mice, for the cougar on the hill, who watches me.
I am a farmer who can’t farm anymore; this summer, the farm crouched beaten under the noise of “industrialized recreation.” All around me, “retired” people weed-whack, chain saw, mow and Round-up their small yards into subservience, not realizing that if they relax for one moment it will all spring back again. What are they achieving, these strange people, in making everything around them into a lawn that no one walks on, no one eats from,where trees can only be so tall, and must be whacked into size? I cheer for every small twig shooting up from a crack in the rocks to defy them.
What do they see now in the wild fields of what was once a farm, sprung now to wild grass and the wave of new pines, slowly making a forest? Do they see me as a crazy person wandering these lost fields, through the dead orchard, past the broken house, into my own house, untended, and which stays together untended only because it cares for me. Outside, the one fir seedling that sprouted among the rocks in the summer of my father’s dying, fourteen years ago, is now over twenty feet tall. I water it, I talk to it, I wish it well. I won’t be able to stay here to watch it grow. How do I feel about this?
My children think I am preoccupied by death. Instead, I am preoccupied by the multiple complexities of aging, a fascinating new territory that I won’t be able to find my way out of. I have been so many people, worn so many labels, and now this one, full of small shocks, some more bewildering than others. Every day I ask, how do I feel about this? How can I feel about this? More and more I relax into my own re-wilding—not as an old woman, but as a woman with a new odd freedom. Not much is expected of me; my children want me to be safe, and I want only the opposite: to go wild again, to be left alone.
People use many voices with those they perceive as old: concerned, fake concerned, nurse voices, reasonable, lecturing, with a hint of razor blade and punishment just past the lecture. Are you depressed? Are you taking your pills properly? Are you resting enough? Why can’t you just take it easy? Just relax, why don’t you. All this has been said to me by both by doctors and by my children
Stay safe. Be careful. Take it easy. Don’t slip. Drive carefully. All said to me by faraway children.
None of these things have anything to do with me, with the person I am, the person I was, the wild girl, the old woman, one and same. I am now rewilding amid the fallen-over, bent, stalked golden grass. I am the woman at the lakeshore in the evening, waiting for the shadows to slide over the blue Selkirks.
I walk by the falling grapes, the flashing gold pears, the bear-wounded apple trees, unable to harvest them, process them, lay them all away for winter, for the long nights and the painful mornings. How do I feel about this? How will I know until I can look back? How can I look back when there is nowhere else to go? How should I feel about this? How can I feel about this?
This is the hardest thing, to walk past the plum tree, shivering with red-gold fruit. Once when I was very young, I sat under a plum tree and ate/drank so many plums there was simply no room left in my belly for one more. As time went on, I would even dress up for this, wear a purple t-shirt, make a ritual of it, or I would walk to the peach tree when the first peach dropped, a sign the peaches were ready to pick, and pick the first, ripest, softest peach, and savour it. I would celebrate my relationship with this tree that I had planted, then pruned, watered, and picked, every year, that first peach a sacrament. It was deeply erotic in the best way. So much of my life has been built around the sacrament of growing food, picking it, sharing it with people, all kinds of people. Perhaps it’s better now that the bears, the deer, the ravens, the raccoons, the birds, have access to it all. They are welcome.
Perhaps it’s better now to walk by with the black dog, the white cat, on our way to see what there is to see. I walk, I watch, I wait.
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( Ktunaxa ?amak’is – “The People’s Land”) Luanne Armstrong holds a Ph.D in Education and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She has written twenty- three books, and has co-written or edited many other books through to publication. She has published several novels, children’s books, memoir and books of essays, as well as poetry.
She mentors emerging writers both online and in person. She presently mentors two writing groups in Creston BC. Most recently, she had edited through to publication a book by Ellen Burt, of Nelson BC. Previous to that, she has helped many many authors to either self-publish or find a publisher. One of her most notable editing projects was The Yaqan Nukiy, with Chief (Nasookin) Chris Luke, Senior, of the Yaqan Nukiy Lower Kootenay Band of the Ktunaxa Nation.
Her newest project is a poetry and photography book and multi-media presentations, titled, When We Are Broken: The Lake Elegy, from Maa Press. Her most recent novel is A Bright and Steady Flame, from Caitlin Press, 2018. Her new book of essays is Going to Ground: Being in Place. A new YA book is also in process.