Friday, March 24, 2006

Monday, January 31, 2005

Earth to Earth

In the hospital where my mother in law nursed in the fifties the gardener would request of the staff that they save the placentas from the births; he wanted to dig them into his garden.

Placentas. In the earth.

The thought leaves me a bit squeamish. On a purely practical level, however, I could see what the gardener was up to: a placenta would give life to his roses as it once did to a fetus. I would have been content with this explanation until I came upon another story of placentas returned to the earth.

There is a practice in the highlands of Peru in which parents return the placenta of their newborn to the earth, to mother earth, Pachamama, in order that the child may live.

Pachamama signifies one of the primary deities worshipped by the early Incas. Even to this day Pachamama remains identified by some Peruvian Christians with the Virgin Mary. Earth as mama. Mother earth.

Pachamama bore us and her arms await our return. It is to Pachamama that the Peruvians make their offering of the placenta, the same mother earth to whom the gardener returned placentas to insure that his flowers grew.

Quaint little stories. Folklore. Pagan belief to some. Yes. But why am I attracted? Why this stirring within, like a homesickness for that which has been lost.Why do I keep returning to such stories as if there is something there I need to hear. Take the story of corn dollies.

A number of years back Norma, my wife, learned the art of straw weaving. In the process she came upon the history of "corn", a term that includes maize and all kinds of grain. The story stretches back thousands of years. For the early Egyptians corn was of such vital significance that it became part of religious practice.

Similar mythology can be found in many parts of the world.

In later centuries in England harvesters believed the corn spirit hid in the grain. Because she was very shy care had to be taken lest she flee the field taking the fertility of the fields with her. To guard against her flight the harvesters left the last row of corn standing. An old and respected worker would fashion a "dolly" from the remaining stalks, capturing the spirit and ensuring her presence for another year. The dolly could take many forms, depending on the tradition. Some could be an actual doll figure. Others were simply a coil of braided stalks with heads of grain extending from one end. The ones Norma makes remind me of an infant wrapped in its blanket.

Whatever the shape, the dolly was given to the farmer’s wife for safe keeping. In the spring it was broken up and planted with the seed. In some instances, folklore and fertilizer joined forces: the dolly was fed to the horses that were used to plow the field.

Corn dollies. Placentas for a garden. Flesh returned to mother earth, to Pachamama. You can explain it all. Even try to stamp it out.
And yet... .

When you have been washed too clean, your language bleached too white, when you have allowed for everyone’s opinion and apologized for all your sins, when every mystery has been explained, when even death itself has been reduced to nothing more than a celebration of life, you get too longing for a story with a little earth. Something grounded. A place for the body to rest and the spirit to hang out.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Coming Home: Saskatchewan Remembered
Book review by Kurt Leavins

Coming Home: Saskatchewan Remembered is the first published effort by Ron Evans (BA'58), a retired United Church minister and former director of Pastoral Services at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. The book is a collection of short stories that draws from the broad scope of the author's 66 years of experience. His rural settings and rustic characters will sound familiar to you. The first entry, "At My Father's Table" could be set around the kitchen table of your own family. It is reflections of places we all grew up, with people we all knew.

In "The Night God Played at Danceland" and "They Come in Threes", the author invites the reader into his own past with stories that seem familiar. They could be mistaken for your own history. In fact, you'll likely see a bit of yourself in almost every page. "It's history rewritten, history created," says Evans. While very familiar, it's not predictable at all. The transition from story to story will catch you by surprise. One page may cause strong feelings to flood back with another causing you to retrieve things you would have preferred to remain buried somewhere out of sight. Evans leads his readers through his own hardships and vulnerabilities.

Brutally honest works like "Every so often I Need Reminding" and "A Kind of Hope", tell stories of Saskatchewan rarely spoken in public. There are stories of death, of drink, of desperation. There are stories gritty in their realism and naked in their honesty. "What I would like to be able to do," says Evans, "is say something that somebody else would like to say, but hasn't said."
While much of the book is influenced by Evans' life on the prairie, the author does not limit himself. He takes the reader on a virtual trip around the world to Berkeley, California, a little town in Minnesota and to Turkey for a bowl of Mutton soup. But there is a common thread that runs through his travels - Saskatchewan. Evans will make you laugh. He takes subjects that once made us blush with guilt or laugh nervously, and makes them approachable and acceptable by using his humor to gently sand away the rough edges. "I have a belief that if you pursue something to it's darkest," quips Evans, "There will be something bearable about it."

By the time you reach the back cover you will have read a book that was entertaining, substantial, and familiar...all in one package. Just like the people he writes about. "I have a story to tell you as well, and I can tell it", says Evans, thoughtfully. "I've got creation right here in my hands. That's what I'm called to do."

Coming Home; Saskatchewan Remembered, by Ron Evans, is published by Dundurn Press, Toronto.

Coming Home: Saskatchewan Remembered
Publisher Comments: The stories in Coming Home are as surprising as the landscape of Saskatchewan itself and as varied as its weather. Through the author's reminiscences, we experience prairie life as it was more than sixty years ago, and as it is today. A rich cast of characters appears - neighbours, drunks, misfits - all with a place in the story. These are the tales of a father who lived hard, failed often, and was loved much, of a mother who was an artist at heart but became a teacher and farmer's wife through circumstance. We visit a prairie dance hall with a floor that rests on horsehair, encounter death, baptize a child, participate in a nude massage. We view sex from a farm boy's perspective, learn of home brew and cabbage rolls, eat breakfast with friends, and meet the author's favourite waitress. A sense of awe and wonder emerges through encounters with the land and the unfolding of the changing seasons.

Ron Evans was born in Saskatchewan in 1936. With the exception of four years in a parish, his working life was spent as a chaplain and teacher in psychiatric and general hospitals in Houston, California, and Saskatchewan. In another life, he would ask to have the courage to be an actor or join the circus; as it was he got only as far as the church. He and his wife Norma live at Shields, a village south of Saskatoon on the edge of Blackstrap Lake in Saskatchewan.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Thursday, April 15, 2004

by Ron Evans
The boulder lay in some bush by the side of the trail. Bluish gray with a flat place to sit on and a back to lean against. I could see it as plain as the day my cousin and I discovered it on our way from school. We argued over who should have ownership until my sister intervened with a reasonable,even if uninteresting solution; take turns. It became our stopping place on hot afternoons, the half way point on the long walk home. Fifty odd years later I realize it is one of those childhood events that probably occurred no more than two or three times before the novelty wore off.

But for some reason I remembered that stone and wanted it for my back yard. Enlisting Norma in the project I drove out to the old farm and tracked down the owner. “Take as many as you like”, he commented, amused that anyone should want a rock. Encouraged with his blessing we set out across the field convinced, at least I was, that we would find the stone just as it had been left years before.

Of course, the search proved futile. The fence line was in a different place. Fifty years of bush and grass had obliterated the trail. The fields all looked different.

About to abandon the project, we came upon another stone, not blue but black and gray with a fuzz of moss growing on one side. It had a flat place to sit and a jagged chunk at the back that one could, with a bit of effort, imagine to be the back of a chair. But at over 300 pounds we couldn’t lift it. Not to be denied we rolled it up a slight rise through dense grass to the edge of a field. Here we looped a rope around it, hooked it to the back of the truck, and dragged it for almost half a mile until we came upon the owner with his tractor and front end loader.

By the unwritten code of the land I knew I must offer to pay him. In fact I wanted to pay him, would have paid twice what he asked. There was a sadness to the man, a look as beaten as his worn boots and jeans.For an instant I was with my father in the same field in the heat and dust,picking stones and cursing them. A job with no beginning and no end.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

“Nah, that’s all right””, he replied, a slight smile crossing his face. It was as if he was pleased that he and his tractor had been of service. And that one of his rocks had been chosen. That’s the way it is with farmers, unloved one moment, admired the next. For that matter, with stones too.

One particular afternoon of rock picking I remember bending over to grab a reddish chunk of granite about twice the size of my fist. Suddenly, as if by some special effects, it was transformed before my eyes into an oval stone, larger at one end than the other, both ends worn smooth and white, a perfect groove worn around its middle. I had found the head of a stone hammer lost ages before by an Indian traveler. For the rest of the day every stone looked different. But again a stone can be like that; sometimes you even forget it’s stone.

Like gazing at Michelangelo’s Pieta. Or the Vimy memorial in France, sculpted from white marble into which are carved the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers missing in action, that is, men blown to pieces or buried and never found. It’s a troubling sight, yet one of the most quiet, serene places I know of. I have heard that the Vietnam wall in Washington can have a similar effect. Or take the “wailing wall” in Jerusalem.

By comparison to other stone structures in the world “the wailing wall” really isn’t all that remarkable; a few hundred feet or so of stone blocks rising forty feet in the air, all that remains of the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Extending twenty feet below ground lies more wall, some of the structure dating back three thousand years to Solomon’s temple. Here, from as early as the eighth century A.D. Jews have come to touch base with tradition and remember their sufferings.

I remember seeing “the wailing wall” for the first time. It was early morning, the beige rock seemed almost soft in the morning sun. Bearded figures had gathered near the base, some with prayer books open, their bodies swaying back and forth, in the peculiar movement known as “shuckling”. I learned later that shuckle in low German means “to rock”. In Yiddish it has come to describe a manner of praying. A soldier, automatic rifle slung on his back, leaned forward, forehead and upraised hands pressed against the stone. Several men joined hands and danced, twisting and turning, chanting some haunting melody. Off to one side there was a wedding in progress. Further on a bar mitzvah. Army recruits after their hundred mile march will end the ordeal here with a celebration .

All gather at “the wailing wall”, rock named for good reason.

Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt fifteen, or is it eighteen times. Another one or two hardly seems to matter. Eighteen massacres, eighteen burnings, eighteen rebuildings. What does destruction mean? A man on the radio yesterday said that he had once thought of finding a Christian, a Moslem and a Jewish fanatic, getting them together and having them blow up all the holy sites in Jerusalem and so putting an end to the struggle for possession of the city. But then, he said, the struggle would go on as to who owned the craters and which rocks were the holiest.

But of all the things that impressed me about the wailing wall one piece of trivia stands out: the cracks.At first glance it would seem the wall is one solid surface. But up close you can see minute spaces between the rocks where bits of foliage cling to life. And in the cracks beside the green rest scraps of paper. After a time you discover the source. Jews and tourists alike pause, rummage for a pen and note pad. They write,fold the paper, then stuff it in crack.In Italy there would be vendors selling pens and paper,even prayers already written.

I don’t remember what I wrote. It wasn’t a complaint at life’s injustice or a plea for my enemies' destruction. Nor the lingering thought that all is straw. The stones of the wailing wall change everything.

Our stone arrived at its new home safely.To unload it we tied it to the poplar in the back yard and drove away. The stone landed with a thump, settling into the dirt as if, after a few million years, this was always its intended destination. Norma will plant ground cover around it. It will be a cool place to go in an afternoon. A place to rest and watch the lake. Take turns perhaps.

Of course,it won’t happen.Once a year at most.Too hard and too uncomfortable. Just as it was fifty years ago. And yet... .

Here at the lake you realize that time seems to be the great monster. What do you do with it? How do you feed it? Houses are bought and sold in the space of a year. People move away. Nothing to do. Too far from town. Summer comes; the toys accumulate and the activities become more anxious. I built two pergolas and a brick walk.

It’s as if one can escape time in the shelter of “things”. Not that there’s anything wrong with pergolas. Or even the neighbors seado and snowmobile, although that’s a bit hard to admit. It’s just that you can expect too much of them.

Somehow a stone is different. Not any stone.One you can hold in your hand and hear voices. Or one you can sit on. With cracks and spaces. Run your fingers over it and remember all that’s written there. A place that measures time and lends significance: a parent’s face, the heat of a day, a childhood argument. A sense of absence, something lost.
E-mail responses to Ron Evans and/or CPSP Pastoral Report Editor

Ron Evans is a writer. He is a CPSP Diplomate in the Chapel Hill Chapter.Landscaping is a re-print from the newsletter he edits and publishes, the Sourdough Bagle. He writes the following about himself: "After twenty plus years as a CPE supervisor I quit work to learn how to write; I'm still at it. Home is in Saskatchewan which is just north of Montana. I had given up on CPE and was wishing certain people who had taken over the Canadian organization an early and painful death when I stumbled onto Raymond Lawrence(a friend from years earlier in training) and CPSP. To my delight I found the spirit of CPE still alive and well and have benefited greatly as a result. There's a life here for which I am grateful and want to contribute."