We’ve all heard the phrase, “something worth doing is never easy.” Similarly, many also know that some of the best experiences or even scenic views a person can have come about after some amount of work. It takes a bit of effort to get off the well-worn path, to go beyond the normal and to enter the realm of the new and uncommon. I have experienced the results of these adages many times, usually in the process of canoeing or visiting national parks during the course of my work. Something similar happened this week when I finished reading Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood.
A Geography of Blood is a memoir, a cultural and natural history of the Cypress Hills, and a story about Savage’s relationship to her prairie home in Eastend, Saskatchewan. The book came to me as a candidate for the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. As a member of the award selection committee, I receive dozens of current-year publications, beginning in the fall, about various aspects of the natural world. There were 55 submissions this year. As you might imagine, I do not actually read them all. Many are rejected right out of the box because they don’t fit the criteria (publishers seem to take a shotgun approach in submitting entries; if a book has the slightest relationship to the outdoors, they send it). Some I consider to be “maybes” after a chapter or two, and they are relegated to a pile while I spend time reading more completely those that are closer to being “yes” votes. This was not a good year for submissions. I have no “yes” votes, and A Geography of Blood was a “maybe/yes” for the longest time. But I couldn’t put the book away. Something about it wouldn’t let me cast it aside, and it sat out in plain view for months. So I inched my way through it, and then the last two chapters revealed the reason why I couldn’t put it away.
I will say that it can be a slow-moving book. While Savage’s writing style is engaging when she’s in the groove, it can sometimes be a challenge to keep going. She begins by talking about the author Wallace Stegner. In writing a book about the natural history of the prairie, she has an opportunity to stay in his family home in the town of Eastend, Saskatchewan, while she continues her research and writing. Stegner is Eastend’s most famous export, and she first looks at the town through his eyes as he described it in his book Wolf Willow. Coming from Montana, she found the landscape similar to what she knew, but she feels something more. She senses a greater purpose, a larger story that is calling for her attention. “Stop, a quiet voice kept saying. Stay put. Pay attention to where you are,” she writes. So she and her partner, Keith, buy a house down the street from the Stegner place and move in. Thus begins her story.
In learning about her new home, she explores and investigates stone circles in a field, remnants of teepees used by the Plains Indians. She explores the prehistoric, visiting the T. Rex Discovery Centre and Scotty, Canada’s most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that was unearthed there. She visits Fort Walsh, a national historic site that holds the dubious honor of having played a role in the destruction of some of the province’s Plains Indians and their culture in the region. Throughout all of this, she is haunted by a recurring dream she has had since childhood of her grandmother and a native woman facing each other from opposite sides of a field, not speaking. The dream is heavy with regret, but she doesn’t know why.
As she learns more about Eastend’s history, she discovers a personal connection to the dispossession of native people in the region. This is the source of her dream, an unconscious connection to the past that has brought her to this place and led her down this path of discovery. In the last two chapters, she befriends some Cree people and begins to see through their eyes the history she has been learning. It is then that her dream changes and the women come together. A centuries old rift has been mended.
I read the last two chapters in one sitting because its connection to me began to come clear. That connection is personal in the sense that I realized this book I thought was a “maybe” in meeting the criteria of the nature writing award is in fact what Alison Hawthorne Deming has called the “third wave of the environmental essay.” It is a melding of nature and culture, a breaking down of the barrier between people and their environment. She shows, perhaps without intending to, that people and nature are one. This is a topic I have been struggling with for a few years, and one that has come to light again in my professional life in recent weeks. Yet my response to the new discussion has been scattered. My words feel old and stale and somehow unworthy. Yet in Savage’s book I found affirmation of what I have been saying. This is why I couldn’t put the book away. Like the unknown force that was pulling Savage into the story of Eastend and the Cypress Hills, her story was somehow pulling me towards greater clarity in the things I have been thinking and writing about. It renewed my enthusiasm and it gave me a new perspective from which to work.
Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and to achieve your goals, you must give something of yourself to show your commitment. It has to be something of value equal to that which you hope to gain, even though you often do not know what it is you are hoping to gain. Candace Savage learned that what she had to give was her attention and her time. She had to listen, and to keep returning to places and learning their stories until the importance they held for her was revealed. There is more to tell, and so she brings the book to a close by saying, “this is a story that has to be marked: To Be Continued.” For me and this book, it was time that had to be given as well. I had to put in the time reading the book through to its conclusion before I would see the importance it held for me personally. So in the end, even when the story was moving slowly, it was time well spent.
To learn more about Candace Savage and her work, visit her website: www.candacesavage.ca/home.html