My plan had been to spend the past week and a half reading Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, a 500-page account of walking around London, roughly following the route of the M25 expressway. That plan didn’t take into account the vicious chest cold I developed the day after I wrote my Cree examination. It was impossible to concentrate on Sinclair’s ornate prose for the better part of a week. Meanwhile, I saw a reference to Saskatchewan writer and rancher Thelma Poirier on my friend Matthew Anderson’s Facebook page. How had I never heard of her work? Luckily, Spafford Books had a copy of Poirier’s Rock Creek in stock, and Leah was willing to deliver it to the house, as I was too ill to go to the store (and I don’t want to pass this cold along to my friends: let it die with me!). I’ll try to find time to read London Orbital, but I’m happy that I discovered Poirier’s work, even if I had to get sick in order to do so.
Rock Creek is primarily an account of a walk along Rock Creek, which runs through the ranch Poirier works with her husband near Fir Mountain, Saskatchewan. (That’s close to Wood Mountain, the destination of my pilgrimage of last summer.) Rock Creek, or Morgan Creek as it apparently is known on official maps (39), begins in the hills near Wood Mountain, and it empties into the Milk River across the border in Montana. Not only does Poirier live on Rock Creek, but her father homesteaded there, and it’s where she grew up. Nevertheless, Poirier doesn’t feel that she knows the creek very well:
I have seen two oceans, but I have not seen all of the creek in my own backyard. It is as though I have been wearing blinders, only removing them at certain places, long enough for glimpses of the creek, the edges of the water.
The heron knows Rock Creek better than I do. (5)
The heron Poirier mentions is a great blue heron she has seen fishing in the creek; from the direction of its flight, it seems to roost in a heronry at the creek’s headwaters. “If I follow the heron,” Poirier writes, “I too will experience every bend of the creek, every shift of the landscape. If I walk up Rock Creek, will see what the heron sees” (5-6).
So that’s what Poirier does: she walks along the creek, beginning in her yard, looking for or waiting for the heron. She makes an overnight journey along the creek to an abandoned homestead, accompanied part of the way by a coyote that is curious about her. And as she walks, she develops another plan: a walk from the point where the creek crosses the Canada-U.S. border to the headwaters. “I plan the walk in my mind, plan how I will borrow three or four days from the ranch after the cattle are moved to summer pastures, after the crop is seeded, before branding, before haying,” she writes (8). She approaches landowners and leaseholders—including Grasslands National Park, since part of the creek runs through it—for permission to walk on their property. She knows she has a limited window to make this walk, because she has a terrible allergy to wolf willow, and she will need to complete the walk before it comes into bloom. She plans to stay overnight at places that were part of her father’s ranch: at the old line camp, which was named because of its proximity to the international border, and at the home place, the homestead where she was born. Not surprisingly, these places, as well as the creek and the valley it flows through, evoke memories for Poirier. What is surprising, though, is her insistence that this knowledge is insufficient:
I have been told that living here, living in this same place nearly all my life, I am like a minnow. I take this place for granted, the way the minnow takes water for granted. Because I live here, because I presumably have not looked at this place through the other end of the binoculars, because I have not sat on a beach in Spain or walked along the Great Wall in China, there are things about this place I will never know. There are things I can not see because I see them every day, and I cannot name them. That may be so, but there may be other things I know because I have lived here. I know the minnows in Rock Creek have been privileged. Water has a way of magnifying the buffalo beans on the creek bank. (25)
One of the things Poirier knows is the sights and sounds and smells of this place. On a drive to the home place, to see whether she could stay overnight in the old farmhouse, she notices “the smell of the creek: the aroma of old clay, old willow bark mixed with new willow leaf, arrowhead, and tender rushes” (14). During a similar trip to the line camp, she writes, “I rest my arm on the open window and breath in the many scents of spring, buffalo bean and psorallea, silver sage” (28). Clearly Poirier knows the names of the plants and animals and birds as well. One of the pleasures of this book is her evocation of those creatures through their names. Another is the intimacy with which she reports what she sees and hears and smells.
The middle section of the book, “Upstream,” recounts Poirier’s walk. Everywhere she goes on this walk has a name or function or something that indicates that it is a place, as opposed to undifferentiated space (to return to Yi-Fu Tuan’s distinction yet again). For instance, on the drive south to the border, where she will begin walking, Poirier catalogues the places she and her husband pass:
We follow a winding trail through grazing leases, through park land, sometimes over the Trader’s Trail used more than a hundred years ago by Metis buffalo hunters, pass the site where Ed McPherson’s cow camp once stood, the camp that probably marked the east end of the Turkey Track range, drive past a single coyote, past the lakes until we reach the boundary, turn east and pass boundary markers, until we are opposite Bowerys’ or Davenports’ place. The names changed with the residents. They are left over from adult conversations heard at the dinner table during my childhood. (44)
Despite Poirier’s suggestion that she doesn’t know the land well enough, it’s clear (to me, anyway) that she has an intimate knowledge of these places. All of those places, or the names or stories Poirier knows them by, are echoes of a long-lost past. Nearly all of the homesteads or ranches she sees or walks past have been abandoned, evidence of the way rural Saskatchewan has been emptied of people, of settlers, since the drought of the 1930s. The names linger, but the evidence of human habitation is fragmentary now: cellars, steel objects slowly turning to rust, occasionally a building that has not yet collapsed. This is one of the reasons Grasslands National Park has been able to expand: as they retire, ranchers often sell their land to the park. Poirier is ambivalent about the park, partly because she’s not sure grazing will be allowed there, and without grazing, the prairie grasses will not thrive (47). That’s not surprising; she reports that ranchers tend to be opposed to the park because of their deeply rooted desire for privacy (46).
Poirier is not unaware that others called this valley home before settlers arrived. For twenty years, she notes, she has travelled with her friend Wasu Mato (William Lethbridge), a Lakota man who has shown her places where his ancestors camped while Sitting Bull was seeking refuge from the U.S. cavalry north of the border (26). She reports that Rock Creek was once known as Medicine Lodge Creek, because the Lakota held a sun dance there in 1879 (54-55). On the second day of the walk, she discovers quartzite artifacts—not arrowheads or scrapers, but something else, something knapped by human hands—as well as a “chert point . . . wedged into the clay bank of the creek,” evidence of “a stonesmith camped along Rock Creek,” who “squatted among the pygmy cacti, the stunted grasses and the sedges, and fashioned this simple point form a chunk of chert” (107). Poirier imagines that the stonesmith might have been a woman (107).
One of the pleasures of this book, as I’ve said, is the catalogue Poirier creates from the creatures she encounters on her walk: ferruginous hawks, ticks, and Canada geese (57-59); mule deer—a herd of 37 at one point (91)—and antelope, including a doe who walks alongside of her (94); a short-eared owl (66); sage grouse (69); rose, buffaloberry, and silverberry (70); ducks, a pair of western kingbirds, cushion vetch or pussy toes, buffalo beans and June grass (87); northern wheatgrass, little bluestem, blue grama, rough fescue, spear grass (93); big bluestem and green needle grass (104-05); a barn owl (98); pelicans (100); long-billed curlews (106); a golden eagle and killdeer and sharptailed grouse (113); nighthawks. Often naming the things she sees evokes a memory: seeing buffaloberries growing along the creek brings to mind childhood experiences of making jelly from their soapy fruit with her mother (71-72). The hill with the Dominion Land Survey marker on the top reminds her of her annual flower count there (120). She remembers the ritual of repairing fences (107), stories about branding cattle (115-16), about the small coal mine that settlers dug near a spring (116-17). Poirier moves back and forth, from memory to the present and back again—this is, not surprisingly, the primary narrative mode of her account, this shifting from present into memories of the past. Other times she tells stories about the creature she encounters, as with the antelope doe that walks beside her for a while, or the barn owl that surprises her at an old farmhouse. Walking, as Poirier has discovered, generates narrative—perhaps because of its rhythms, perhaps because of its slowness. “I am walking with memory,” she writes (128).
Another pleasure of this book is Poirier’s evocation of the things she sees, hears, and smells. She writes of the colours of a cutbank: “Today the cutbanks are not yellow, but mauve and rose and turquoise, colors trembling beneath the thunderclouds” (73). She finds a speckled blue egg in the ruts of the trail (75). The sunrise on her second morning begins with everything being “a mute brown,” but “then a silvery light wavers on the tips of the buffalo berry and the sage. It slips between the silhouettes of the dobies. The brown bottle turns blue. A wash of yellow light. Indigo. Chartreuse. Magenta” (81). “How easily colour comes to the canyon, to the line camp,” she reflects (81). At the end of the second day, she looks back at where she has walked: the horizon is “a blur of mauve and purple shadow,” the creek “an intermittent blue thread” (102). “The day was linked by special moments: quiet mule deer, one blue heron, a solitary antelope, rock wrens, an owl, pelicans, and shooting stars. And best of all was the overwhelming sense of timelessness. How old am I?” (102).
Poirier’s feet blister on the first day of her walk, and she is so exhausted that she falls asleep before sunset. On the second day, when she reaches her own yard, she stops for four days to enable her blisters to heal. That morning, as the sun rises, she turns to survey the land:
A pale light brushes the western horizon, the western slope is brown. I drop into the valley, into the land of shadow along Rock Creek, measure the morning by the first rays of the sun, a strange sensation of light creeping down the western slopes toward me. The sky is smoky rose, the horizon obscure. Then a sudden wash of light spreads across the valley and the only shadow is my own, stretching off to one side as I move northward up the creek in the south pasture. (103)
This close to home, Poirier knows the land intimately. “Where I walk today the landscape is the one that I know best,” she writes. “Over the years I have come to know these hills, the contours as well as my own body” (107). There is a level of intimacy in those sentences that contradict Poirier’s earlier hesitation regarding her knowledge of the land through which she is walking.
At one point, Poirier experiences what can only be described as an ecstasy of belonging, an epiphany of being part of the land through which she is walking:
I pause on the road and know that as surely as the earth draws me, as surely as I can feel the weight of my hands increasing as I walk, pulling me down, I can also feel the earth surging upward inside of me. I can taste the scent of leaf mold and sweetgrass and a multiple of water weeds. Maybe it is true that our sense of smell is co-dependent on the sensitivity of our taste buds.
Best of all I feel buoyant, almost like the deer in mid-air. It seems I walk on the tips of the grass, float over flowers. Perhaps I do not have to look through the other end of the binoculars after all. I just have to be here. (121-22)
The merging of senses here (smell and taste), and the simultaneous senses of being pulled down by the earth and floating above it, both suggest the power of this moment. And yet this experience is juxtaposed against the mundane: a stop to eat a granola bar and check her legs for ticks. Even the ordinariness of that moment is special, though. “Beside me is a beaver dam, a very small dam, the first of many between this point and the headwaters, each dam larger than the previous one,” she writes. “A red-tailed hawk nests in a hawthorn beside the beaver dam, is nervous because I am there. She lifts her wings, shifts her feet and meets my gaze. Her mate soars and dives. It is time for me to leave” (122).
As she walks past her childhood home, her memories become even more powerful. She remembers riding with her sister, Marjorie; the land is shadowed by her memories of those rides. She sees the grave of her infant sister, Florence May, who was born 18 years before her: “As I walk I carry her in my arms, bundled against me. And in the house I think my mother still sits at the window, grieving for a daughter that did not live” (130). The corrals her father built and the pasture where her father kept the rams evoke memories: “That was nearly fifty years ago; time keeps getting in the way” (131). Although Poirier could walk up to the house, she decides not to: “I focus on the creek and the headwaters, on finishing this walk” (131). And shortly afterwards, she arrives there and drinks from the spring that feeds Rock Creek: “This water, too, is cold and sweet. Here, I can say with solemnity, Rock Creek begins here. I can sip from the beginning and know something of beginnings at the end of my journey” (135). She climbs a nearby hill and writes in her notebook, “reluctant to leave, reluctant to end this journey” (136). It’s a feeling many distance walkers will experience, although Poirier’s reluctance might be more powerful because of the intimacy with which she knows the land and the memories it contains for her.
The last section of the book recalls a road trip to the confluence of Rock Creek and the Milk River in Montana five years later. It took that long to find time when she and her sister Marjorie could make the drive. She wanted to walk again, but the only time Marjorie can travel with her is in October, a bad time for walking. It is less than a day’s drive to the confluence, which reminds Poirier of the creek’s source, despite the differences between the two places:
Deer paths cross the clearing, wind through a tangle of ash and silver willow, meadow grass and dogwood, all beneath a grove of cottonwood at the confluence. On one side of a “V” is Rock Creek, on the other side, the Milk River. Waters of the larger river drift into the creek, swirl and carry the creek away, a convoluted progression. Morning light shatters on the surface of the water and it seems pieces of mica reflect the sun. . . . And then it comes to me, how this confluence is like the headwaters of Rock Creek. It is the tangle of underbrush, the silver willows, the tall trees overhead and the aroma of mint and moss. It is the blend of light and shadow. I am compelled to look to the tops of the trees, look for a heronry. There is not a single nest or a heron in the sky. (141-42).
The confluence also reminds her that the Milk River flows into the Missouri, and then the Mississippi: “Last winter I visited New Orleans, and sat on the quay and watched the roiling water of the Mississippi, knowing some small portion of it came from Rock Creek, flowed past this confluence I had not yet seen” (142). Poirier and her sister drive through the canyon the creek has formed, and Poirier is overwhelmed by the differences between that canyon and the valley she knows so well: “It is unlike any part of Rock Creek I have ever seen” (143). The sisters meet an old woman at a farm who tells them that the farm was once a town (144-47). She is auctioning off her brother’s farm three days later, and Poirier and her husband and a neighbour come back. They visit the neighbour’s sister’s farm and Poirier goes for a walk near an abandoned ranch. She wades into Rock Creek and finds that the water is tepid despite the late season: “Rock Creek, I think, dear Rock Creek” (155).
Poirier meets several women at the auction, and at the end of the book she wonders about them, about their relationship with the land and with each other:
They shared their memories, their present realities with me. If they were poets, what poems would they write? Rock Creek bonds us to each other and to other women who live along its banks and tributaries. No boundary can separate us.
By nightfall most of the Montana women return to their homes in Hinsdale, Opheim or Glasgow. Only a few of them remain on the creek, listen to the night wind yipping like a bunch of Canadian coyotes. Likewise I return to my Canadian home on a branch of Rock Creek. (158)
Why, I wonder, are the coyotes Canadian? What is Poirier suggesting with that adjective? She is thinking about the similarities between women on both sides of the international border, but I wonder why the coyotes are identified as Canadian. In any case, crossing the border on the return home gives the book a circularity. “The journey ends where it began, at the crossing,” Poirier writes. “The water gurgles through the rushes. An elongated cloud stretches across the horizon, blue as a heron’s wing” (158)—like the heron Poirier followed in the first section of the book, the heron whose flight towards the creek’s headwaters gave her the idea for the walk.
Rock Creek reinforces the idea that writing about place—or experiences of place—require a deep level of intimacy. After all, Poirier is writing about the place where she was born and raised, the place she has spent her adult life, and she still wonders if she knows it well enough. I felt the same way when I walked in the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario three years ago, although that’s where I grew up. And yet I know that not every book about place comes from that kind of intimacy. That’s the reason I wanted to read Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: yes, he knows part of that journey intimately, since it begins in the London neighbourhood where he has lived for 30 or 40 years, but surely the rest of his walk takes place in territory with which he is unfamiliar. Perhaps I will find time to read London Orbital sooner rather than later. And perhaps, at some point in this project, I’ll be able to repeat Poirier’s walk. My experience would be completely different from hers, of course, but I wonder what someone who isn’t intimately familiar with the land might take from the experience. The trick, of course, would be getting permissions from landowners, but my friend Hugh does that before the walks he organizes, and so it’s clearly not impossible. It’s something to think about, anyway, as I consider what book to read next.
Poirier, Thelma. Rock Creek. Coteau, 1998.
Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25. Penguin, 2003.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.