Swallowed by Fog

We’ve been enjoying milder weather this past week, which has given us heavy fogs at night. We woke up this morning to a thick fog whiting out everything outside our yard. I thought I heard a train pass in the night, which gave me this verse — I believe this is called a tanka:

oh fog, how could you
swallow a whole freight train
in your opacity?
only the whistle escapes
to squeal on you

Winter Has Its Blessings

Another “character-building” winter day is dawning here in Saskatchewan. Thermometers in the city of Saskatoon are showing -29C / -20F at 7 am with a bracing wind chill equal to -37 C/ -34 F. (Actually the wind is only 8 kms per hour, but at this temp it doesn’t take much wind to give you an invigorating bite if you think of standing around outdoors.) Forecast high today is -21C / -6.

My heart goes out in sympathy to folks who normally live on the street and I’m so thankful there are organizations like the Salvation Army and various street missions that open their doors to the homeless and give them a warm meal. And I’m thankful for my own warm home. It’s a great day to build something at my sewing machine.

During the past few weeks I’ve been going through some scribblings, keying poems and what-not into my computer so I can toss out some of my space-absorbing paper collection. Here’s one silly poem I’ve saved for an especially chilly winter day.

Yes, there are some advantages to a deep freeze.

Ode to a Prairie Pest

What can the use of a grasshopper be?
Not even one purpose occurs to me!
Do you think that God in his great wise ways
has a reason for you on hot summer days?

Or are you guys here to help us know
the blessings of the soft fluffy snow
and cold that freezes those little chins
to keep you from eating the grain in our bins?

So I’ll give thanks for snow a-crunching
that deadens the sound of insects munching.
And now that I think it’s grasshopper free,
how very beautiful heaven must be!

Climate 1935-Style

Now that we’ve reached the end of January and are looking forward to warmer days ahead,  I thought this might be a great time to pause and look back at some of the weather our grandparents endured. This account reblogged from August 2012:

Worst of the Worst, Weather-Wise

Never before had western Canadians seen a year like 1935.  The first week in January temperatures fell to between -35̊ and -40̊ F (-37.5 to -40̊ C) all across the prairies and for two months winter held the prairie provinces in a frozen vice, lightened only by the occasional blizzard –some lasting for days– that would bring temperatures up a few degrees.

For the first two weeks in February temps rarely went above -30̊, a lot of days saw -40̊ or colder.  Winnipeg residents saw the line in their home thermometers sitting at -52̊ (-47̊ C) on the morning of Feb 6th.  Alas, the official Winnipeg thermometer had malfunctioned overnight, so the record was never officially recorded.

On February 16th saw -36̊ in Calgary, -51̊ in Edmonton, -43̊ at Saskatoon, -54̊ at Regina; other spots recorded -40̊.  City schools continued to open their doors, but streets were pretty much deserted; rural schools were closed and folks who didn’t have to leave home stayed put.  A lot of families huddled near the heater or wood stove, wrapped in all their blankets and tried to stay upbeat.  Spring was bound to come sooner or later.

Farmers put off going for fuel as long as they could.  They needed a team of horses and the air tires of a “Bennet buggy” to get anywhere, since blizzards had filled the roads with snowdrifts.  Otherwise it was impossible to go anywhere, even if a fellow could start his frozen engine.  (This was back in the days when vehicles had cranks as starters and all-season motor oil was unheard of.)  Every side road between Winnipeg and Calgary was blocked.

A thaw at the end of February brought an end to the severe cold; in April spring finally arrived.  Some folks who were hoping for some respite from the drought that had wiped out most of the 1934 crop saw a bit of light at the end of the tunnel: outside the Palliser Triangle* spring rains watered the parched earth.  Inside the Palliser Triangle: nada.

Hopes were soon dashed, though, as a giant heat wave built up on the US plains and sent high temps and dust-bearing winds rolling over the prairies.  The dry heat sucked up what soil moisture there was; crops turned pale, then brown.  By July 1st 90̊ and over temps were the rule, continuing across southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta for the next six weeks straight.

Streams and rivers ran dry; wildlife disappeared.  Heat-weary city folks tried to sleep in parks or on balconies to find some night time relief but had to contend with hoppers and crickets – and in places where there actually were bodies of water, mosquitoes.  Farmers often had to haul water many miles for their families and what livestock they had left.

During this time Ontario was hit by a ten-day heat wave as well and residents there began to appreciate what the West was going through.  For one solid week in July, from Windsor to Belleville, the thermometer registered 100̊ F or over every day.  Toronto recorded 105̊ on three successive days.  Surrounded by the Great Lakes as they are, the humidity would have been unbearable; 5000 succumbed to heat prostration during those ten days.

From Calgary to Winnipeg nothing grew but dust clouds and grasshoppers.  The blowing hot air was stifling, the grit inescapable.  One southern town saw temperatures fall below 90̊ on only three days during those six weeks!  Willow Creek, in SW Sask, recorded temperatures above 100̊ on thirteen July days.  People died every day.  In the West no one bothered to compile statistics; folks were in survival mode only.

In Manitoba the heat wave peaked on July 11th with temps of 108̊ in Winnipeg, 110̊ in Brandon & Morden, then hung at over 100̊ all through the third week of July.  A dozen people died daily, plus many of their pets.  Finally the heat spell ended in a destructive electrical storm that stretched from Winnipeg through the eastern part of the province.  But Sask and southern Alberta was shown no mercy from the blast furnace until the latter part of August.

Winter came early with brief but chilly waves throughout the fall.  In October the temperature dropped to -8̊F (just under 22̊ C) at times, to -20̊ in November and -40̊ in December.

During those years folks survived on hope.  If they’d been informed at Christmas of the upcoming winter being another severe one, or that the drought would last another two years, how many of them would have simply given up the ghost?

——————————————————————————————————————————
*Palliser Triangle: In 1857 the British government sent an expedition led by Captain John Palliser to assess the agricultural potential of the Northwest Territories .  When he was gave his report to his superiors, he drew a triangle on his map and said the land inside this triangle was unsuitable for farming. Severe winters, undependable rainfall, large tracts of sand that would blow or clay that would bake hard by early summer.  They’d had a hard enough time to cross it, never mind trying to farm it.  This triangle covered a lot of southern Alberta, all of southern Sask, and southwestern Manitoba, The base ran along the US border and the point was near Saskatoon.

Nonsense, the government replied, and sold it for farmland.  They put out promotional material awash with illustrations of lush wheat fields, information carefully vetted of any hints about severe cold or drought.  To make matters worse, government agricultural dept advised the inexperienced homesteaders to plow deep in the fall — a practice that brought on the disastrous “Dirty Thirties”.

My sources of information:
Winnipeg writer James H. Gray lived through the years of the Great Depression.  In his book, The Winter Years, he shares his own personal experience of being “on Relief” in Winnipeg as well as giving a political and economic overview of the era.
© 1966 by James H. Gray  Published by The Macmillan Company of Canada

Pierre Berton’s book, The GREAT DEPRESSION, 1929-1939
© 1990 by Pierre Berton Enterprises Ltd.  Published by Anchor Canada

Canada Becomes Our Home (2)

Once upon a time in Gallowayshire, Scotland, a man named David Vance took a wife named Agnes Jones. The two of them had a number of sons. Sad to say, David was killed in a lightning storm at age thirty-four. After this David’s sons yielded to the lure of the New world, with its offer of farm land for all. Ontario, Canada was being opened up for farming and it sounded good to them.

One of his sons, Joseph, was now a widower with a young son. Together with three of his brothers and their families, he and son John boarded a ship that took them to New York. While in New York he met Sarah, the daughter of Samuel Allen, and she consented to be his wife and go with him to Ontario.Canada flag

They landed in Oxford County about 1835, took up a homestead, and settled down to raise a family right near his brothers. Sarah and Joseph had six sons and one daughter, Sarah Jane.

One of their youngest sons, Samuel, married a Miss Mary Smith, daughter of John Smith and Ruth (Dobson). Mary had had a mishap when she was a young girl: she’d fallen from the roof of a shed or granary and broken her ankles. According to family tradition, the bones didn’t heal right and she was crippled from then on, walking with two canes in her adult years.

Sam and Mary farmed near Listowel, Ontario and had two sons, Allen and William. In the 1890s Sam and Allen felt the call to “Go west”; in the fall of 1899 they boarded the train for Saskatchewan to claim some of the almost-free farm land. Sam’s second son, William, was only 16— too young to file on a homestead — so he stayed in Ontario with his mother.

That fall Sam and Allen each filed on a homestead near Spy Hill, SK. But then they went hunting and Sam was killed when his gun backfired. In the spring Allen went back to Ontario; this was when Mary learned that Sam was dead.

SK flag

Saskatchewan provincial flag

Allen had his work cut out for him when the Vance family arrived in Spy Hill. He had to fulfill the obligations of his own homestead agreement — which involved breaking so many acres and building a home — plus those of his father so that his mother could get her land title. A few years later Allen married a schoolteacher, Miss Emily Turner, born in Grey County, Ontario.

While the Vances were looking toward Saskatchewan and the almost-free 160 acres of farmland, so were certain American farmers. Farmland was filling up fast in the US Midwest, so fathers with a number of sons were thinking they needed more cheap land.

James Henry Harmon was born in Maine and later homesteaded in Iowa, then moved to  Elk River, Minnesota, where my great-grandfather James Welcome Harmon was born.  James II married Mary Wilson and farmed in southern MN until the farmland was all taken up there. James had nine children already and, thinking of opportunity for his sons, he decided to claim one of the cheap homesteads being offered in western Canada. Just before the start of WWI James brought his family to the rich farmland southwest of the town of Melfort.

Leath Falconer and his wife were both born in Scotland, but they decided to find the end of the rainbow near Melfort, SK, together with their two daughters, Thelma & Rebecca. In time Thelma Falconer met up with Floyd Harmon and there was a wedding.

Their daughter Louise married Allen Vance, a younger son of Allen Vance and Emily Turner. and thus I came into the world 11 months after my brother Jim, followed by four siblings. Born here in Sask; grew up on the Canadian prairie. Love this land!

Canada Day wreath

Clearing the Land

My Uncle Fred (Dad F) sold his farm back about 1958. This was the original home place, the farm he’d inherited from his father, Thomas Forsyth. He did, however, retain one quarter section —160 acres — a couple of miles south of the farm; this was rented to neighbours as pasture.

After Bob and I were married, I longed to make a “sentimental journey” back to Pathlow, where I spent the first four years of my life and visited many times after. Dad mentioned this land he still owned so we made a stop there to have a look around.

We parked our car by the side of the road, got out and looked around. Tall grass grew in a small area — this would be where the renter pastured his cattle — but most of the quarter was covered with native poplar bush. A spindly tree every meter.

We’d driven up on gravel roads, past miles of fertile fields, but my mind went back to the original settlers, who’d maybe got off the train at Melfort, seventeen miles NE, to outfit themselves and begin the search for their land claim. For those who came later a road of sorts had been made through the bush, but the first homesteaders would have wandered in the woods or followed creek banks until they came to the part that matched the land description in their hands.

And there they stood. Maybe with a backpack containing some food and another sack holding their tiny tent and a blanket. Likely they’d bought an axe, hanging from their belt. Now go for it. Start chopping, clear this land, build a farm.

Back around 1908 Thomas Forsyth, born in Glasgow, Scotland and a coal miner heretofore, carved his farm out of bush just like this. He called it Hillside Farm because the house and buildings were built on a rolling upward slope. My great-grand and grandfather Vance would have faced a similar situation when they arrived at Spy Hill, SK. A few farms had been wrested from the bush, but most of the land was forest, except where creeks meandered through it.

Thankfully clearing the land wasn’t the daunting prospect our forefathers faced when they landed in Oxford County. Our grandfather Allen didn’t face chopping down maple trees a meter thick such as great-grandfather Sam felled when he moved up to the Listowell area. Old timers in Ontario talked of a time when you could travel the trail from Kitchener to Sarnia without ever seeing the sun because there was such a dense canopy of spreading maple branches overhead. Can you imagine launching into those woods with an axe?

Today we see fields of waving grain all over Saskatchewan — because those who came first were willing to start swinging that axe.

Originally posted on the Vance-Turner Connect blog – March 2014

My Little World

Well, I made a very quick trip through the Cancer Clinic yesterday, getting there about 10:20 and leaving at 10:40am. I’ve never had an appointment go that fast before; I was barely into the building before I was called into the examining room and the doctor was in a few moments later.

My oncologist had great news for me: my blood cell counts are all normal. Now I can get on with life again for the next six months. 🙂

The more difficult diagnosis: she doesn’t think bouncing ideas around in my brain and running my fingers across a keyboard is adequate exercise for someone my age. If I want to build up my energy, she says, I really need to be more active. So I’ve resolved to get out and walk more. And this is the season to start.

We live in a mobile home on what was once part of a pasture. The farmer’s son fenced off these few acres from the main pasture when he got engaged and wanted a place to set up his trailer. He later moved away and we bought the place ten years ago. So on our west and north side there was a narrow strip of pasture; it has since been converted into a grain field in which the farmer has been growing canola these past few years.

On the other side of the pasture there’s a train track, so we sometimes watch and count the cars as they rattle past on their way to country grain terminals and oil fields. Some are potash cars.

To the east of us there’s a narrow strip of mostly poplar and willow woods between us and the farmer’s yard. To the south is a gravel road with minimum traffic; south of that is a strip of cultivated land, a hedge row of chokecherries, then more pasture. We often hear from this hedgerow and the pasture beyond, the conversations of coyotes in the twilight.

We are avid bird watchers; we delight in this little woods that abounds with a number of local bird species for most of the year and various migrating birds during spring & fall. We are right on the flight lane of the sandhill cranes; spring and fall they stop over for several weeks at a slough just north of us, or in the pasture across the road to the south. Many fall evenings are filled with their funny “throbbing” or hoarse honking as they settle in for the night. And what a racket if the coyotes pester them!

We’re also on the flyway of the snow geese: at times flocks of a thousand or more passed over our heads. Coming home yesterday we saw a flock of easily a thousand birds milling around and settling in a field right beside the highway. At times we’ve seen 10-20 acres white with “snow” in the early mornings.

We see killdeer, meadow larks, the odd nighthawk, tree swallows, a dozen different native sparrows, robins, brown thrashers, catbirds, wrens, warblers, orioles, hummingbirds — even golden and bald eagles, and the Grand Duke (great-horned owl) who lives in the woods beside us. Great place to live!

To the west of us, across the train tracks, there are large sloughs north and south of the highway, with their waters lapping away at both road edges. To the east of us, past the farmyard, there are a couple of other smaller sloughs. Ducks and Canada geese paddle around these bodies of water until they dry up in summer, if they do. We often see a snipe on a fence post beside the road and redwing blackbirds clinging to the bull rushes. One day several ducks came waddling down our driveway as if on inspection, checking up on what the tenants are doing.

I should mention the muskrat homes dotting the sloughs. Sometimes I surprise one paddling in the water or sitting on the bank as I approach. Sometimes all I see is a ripple of water if the animal spots me first. And there are a zillion frogs that fill our evenings with their songs. These are the “wetlands” our Canadian prairies are noted for, sloughs of all sizes teeming with wildlife.

Yes, it’s a great place to get out for a walk. And my oncologist says none of us — even she in her busy practice — has a just excuse not to get enough exercise. So I’d best follow doctor’s orders. It’s a great time of year to be alive. 🙂