80 pages 7 x 7 soft cover

Essay/prose poem by Lori Bamber.

A collection of photography/mixed media images documenting landscape and architecture of the Canadian prairies.

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Flatlands | Essay

“My daddy's land sits over to the west

I don't live there now but I never left…”

- Shirley Wiebe
, Some Drive Right Through © 2015

I grew up in that house with the old car in the backyard.

In the city, it’s a badge of shame, the sign of someone down on their luck or insufficiently house proud. But on the farm, it was just the way it was – there was usually a couple of old tractors, too, in varying stages of running order. You never know when you’ll need those parts.

I remember the day they hauled the car in. One of my uncles needed a place to store it until he could fix it up – I think that was the story. We felt fortunate to have a broken-down Ford in our yard, really. It had a roof and windows, and the doors locked from the inside. With a family of seven in a 700-square-foot house six miles from the nearest town, those locks felt like the nearest I’d ever come to privacy. I smoked there, and learned to play Four Strong Winds on my recorder. I read many books in sun so hot that sweat ran into my eyes to blind me until I lifted my shirt to wipe it away, trying to get in a few more pages before the oven-like temperature drove me out.

It was where I sat when my dad told me he loved me for the first time, after catching me smoking, the condensed clouds of smoke giving me away. He knocked on the window, and waiting until I rolled it down: “Put that out. I love you too goddamn much to let you kill yourself.” That's when I tried to quit smoking for the first time. It was hard. I was eleven, but I was already hooked. I felt it connected me to the rest of the world – to other people who wanted out, away, as badly as I did.

In earlier, more innocent times, the car was the scene of our thunderstorm welcome dance, a mash-up of King of the Castle and a Supremes performance. With its tires flat but still intact, we felt we were safe from the lightning we could see heading our way ... one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand ... Safe enough.

No one grows up in rural Canada without developing a sense of place, a sense of being a flesh outcrop on a vast rock thinly matted with soil and trees, hurtling through space. On the Canadian prairies, almost anywhere between the Bow Valley and Winnipeg, that awareness is an acute appreciation for the subtle. Only the sky is big, and it is huge and ever changing. The idea that people can have an influence on the world seems absurd when you watch storms roll in from the horizon at four o'clock on summer afternoons so hot even the mosquitos rest.

It’s impossible to describe the smell of a prairie thunderstorm coming in – the way the scent of dust backs off just a bit and a cool whiff of freshness, something green, sweetens the air. There’s a sharpness, a hint of metal. Then the wind picks up and you feel your heartbeat lift with it. You’re hot and sticky and bored, and it is going to pour. You might get hit by lightning. Maybe twice – they say it happens.

“I’m the king of the castle,” one of us would shriek, getting a head start to the car, hitting the bumper hard enough to bounce up onto the hood and then the roof before someone else could. Then the inevitable pushing, shoving and falling, perhaps a few small injuries. “You're the dirty rascal!”

On the best days, I was miraculously alone and could sit quietly, watching the ominous stirring of the clouds. The car roof was only five feet or so off the ground, but that’s the way of the prairies – a few feet are all you need to feel on top of the world.

There were all kinds of rain during those storms, of course. Sometimes even hail. But on my favourite days, the first drops felt cup-sized and I was drenched to the skin before my mother could open the door and yell: “What are you doing out there? You’ll get hit by lightning! Get in here!” Soaking wet, I felt I’d been claimed by the sky.

My husband was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, on the edge of a suburb. As a bee biologist, he has studied the natural world throughout North and South America. On our first date/not-a-date, the ants rose around us in their annual mating dance, and he explained that these mysterious winged creatures were the common earth-bound insects I watched move hills of sand as a child. I was mesmerized, and it may have been at that moment I began to fall in love. He had shifted my vision of the world, and ahead of us I saw layers and layers of deeper seeing, deeper understanding.

Then and now, our favourite activity is simply walking, almost always hand in hand, almost always in conversation. From the beginning, we’d stop often to marvel at the light coming through the leaves of a tree or the pattern of moss on a rock; a scattering of diamond-like frost in a back alley on a crisp winter day. We call them “Shirley moments” – a particular alignment of beauty, light or texture that frames a view into a world that didn’t exist in the same form a minute before.

Shirley’s art does that. Rooted in a keen sensitivity to the ordinary moments – the miraculous play of the sunlight as it moves across the spinning world – her installations, drawings and music shift our perspective just slightly to transport us into a timelessness where now is all, but now is ripe with the past and the future, too.

Early in my friendship with Shirley, we came out of the forest of Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver onto an unexpected street, the pavement incongruous after our visual feast of river water and trees that reach the sky. “This feels like being a teenager again,” I said, laughing, as we walked together in the quiet afternoon.

“All we need is cigarettes,” Shirley replied. She was right. On that road, with trees on either side of us and no sign of a car or another human being, we were not in British Columbia at all, but in some magic space in the prairies where young girls will always walk on hot summer days with cigarettes, weighted down with boredom and possibility, desperate for their real lives to begin.

A decade or so later, as I sat in Shirley’s studio for the East Van Culture Crawl, I watched the many prairie-grown Vancouverites experience a similar transformation as they connected with her Flatlands work. They’d lean in, become still, as something that looked like a cross between a smile and heartache settled into their eyes and lifted the corners of their mouths. I know that feeling so well – it is a sweet ache, a longing for the boundless quiet of the place we grew up.

It is a remembrance of the night sky, where the stars of the Milky Way burn in cold, thick blanket layers a million or so stars deep.

It is the remembrance of our innocent dreams of away – and the growing awareness we made it, but we’ll never make it back. Because when we drive back there, to the prairies, we find we’re searching for a place in a time now past. The Flatlands of our childhoods exist within us more than they’re found on the land.

No car can take us there. Only art.

“My daddy's land sits over to the west
I don't live there now but I never left…”

Lori Bamber