4. – 694.) River in a Dry Land by Trevor Herriot – A lyric, poetic journey, of the present and long into the past, along the Qu’Appelle River in southern Saskatchewan by a naturalist who loves the land and the river. Herriot’s origins are in the eastern end of the river in the rambling family home at Tantallon they called the Mansion. It is a beautifully written book filled with vivid imagery. Readers will appreciate the valley through the book even if they never travel to Saskatchewan. It will long stay with me. Still I do have issues with the book and will discuss them in my next post.
It is a river 250 km away from me that I have crossed on every trip I have made for 60 years to southern Saskatchewan but only on reading the book did I realize how little I knew of this river and its people.
Herriot delves deeply into the experiences of the people and the geography of the river and its tributaries.
An example of the depths of his exploration is the name of the river. He begins with the Pauline Johnson poem based on a story she heard from a French priest, Father Hugonard, who lived in the Qu’Appelle Valley. It is a romantic tragedy of an “Indian maid” calling out at death to her lover paddling down the valley:
“Who calls?” I answered , no reply and long
I stilled my paddle blade and listened……
I listened and listend – yes, she spoke my name,
And then I answered in the quaint French tongue,
“Qu’Appelle? Qu’Appelle?” No answer, ….
An Indian account has two groups coming from the north and south meeting at the river. Unable to cross they called out to each other shouting news back and forth across the water.
Earlier yet in the middle of the 19th Century he recounts a surveyor being told a lone Indian came down the river and heard “a loud voice calling to him” but received no reply when he called back and he was unable to find tracks of the caller. It became the “Who Calls River”.
Going back further to 1804 the earliest white traveler recorded:
…. the River that Calls, so named by the Natives, who imagine a Spirit is constantly going up and down the River, and its voice they say they often hear, but it resembles the cry of a human being.
Thus the naming story of the river has a complex mix of myth and fact going back over two centuries. For Herriot it is the Calling River.
Upon buying a small parcel of land in the valley Herriot finds his family following a tradition extending back to the beginning of time of naming the features of their territory – Balsam Coulee and Mole Meadow.
He explores the story of a great buffalo rock at the headwaters of the Qu’Appelle River where the geography produced a river that could flow east or west depending on the conditions of the year. A giant rock, deposited by ancient glaciers, it was a prominent spiritual gathering place for the Cree Indians of the plains. Only in a land of great plains would a solitary rock assume such importance.
When a dam was planned for the area in the early 1960’s the rock was to be covered by the flood waters. Herriot examines the fate of the rock. It is a discouraging story.
It was a time that gave little consideration to Indian traditions and a unique feature of our country. Ultimately the rock was destroyed in a misguided attempt to save and reconstruct part of the rock.
The book is at its best describing the land and birds and animals of the Valley and its tributaries. Southern Saskatchewan is often thought of in Canada as a boring landscape as it lacks mountains, forests and ocean. Herriot shows the beauty and majesty of our province.
Still it is unique in Saskatchewan as our only major river valley in southern Saskatchewan. It is a dramatic slash across the plains.
Herriot is a man who happily describes sitting on a small patch of land on the edge of the valley with ants crawling around him and listening to songbirds while observing a red tailed hawk on the wing riding the wind. The book is an antidote for our rushing world of heads bent texting but rarely seeing the sky.
In the best part of the book Herriott goes back to Tantallon to the farm his grandfather homesteaded. He goes to the places in the valley of his family including a visit with his mother to the abandoned yardsite on which she grew up. He describes the swift rise and fall of Tantallon including the story of a utopian commune, Hamona. It is a story I understood well. The history of Tantallon is the same story of growth and decline of my hometown of Meskanaw.
I acknowledge I know less of the valley than I should as a life time resident of Saskatchewan. I can appreciate Herriot’s descriptions as they remind me of how much there was to see and appreciate on the farm on which I grew up. My connection to the land has weakened with living in Melfort but I am glad I had the chance to grow up on a farm. I regret that many urban residents of Saskatchewan have never had the chance to come to know an area of land and its wildlife with the intimacy that comes from living in the country rather than just having holidays away from the city. Herriott has reminded me that this spring when the snow has left the land it is time I took a walk again over the fields of my youth. (Jan. 12/13)