Around the age of 40, Sharon Butala made a big life change, from being an upwardly mobile hard-striving urban academic in Saskatoon to rural life in southwestern Saskatchewan with her new husband, a lifelong rancher. The culture shock, isolation and the difficulty of finding common ground with the local women drove her to much contemplation. She began to spend hours every day outside, in the fields and hills surrounding their ranch near Eastend, SK in the Cypress Hills, and eventually she did a lot of reading about people and their relationship to the natural world.
This book is subtitled "An Apprenticeship in Nature." Butala gradually discovered the validity of nature as a part of her life. She writes strongly about the potential for being one with all that surrounds us, and about the possibility for taking seriously the signs that nature gives us. When I first read this book years ago, I thought she was kind of flaky. Now I don't. While driving to Northern Ontario years ago, we had some amazing encounters with wildlife, especially a fox who looked at us long and hard. When we told about this at an Ojibway council meeting, one councillor said simply, "he was showing himself to you." Butala believes in this kind of event as well. It has nothing to do with anthropomorphizing animals or animating flora or any other part of nature. Rather, she shows that this kind of awareness comes out of a vast humility and understanding of our place in nature.
This isn't an easy read. It's organized roughly in a thematic way - e.g. First Nations, animals, community - and how all these things fit together isn't clear throughout, but comes together at the end. She's a brave woman, sharing her initial arrogance, self-centredness, confusions and joys. Her depiction of her husband and his family is fascinating in its carefulness and spareness. I found myself re-reading all the parts about him, trying to glean clues about their relationship, but in this she mostly draws a respectful line.
Thanks to my cousin Joyce for recommending that I re-read this book. I had planned to stop at the Cypress Hills on my way to Manitoba, but I flew instead, so it is a trip for another time.