Pam Chamberlain’s introduction to Country Roads
I grew up in the rolling hills of the North Saskatchewan River Valley, on the northern edge of the aspen parkland. My parents ran a mixed farm, growing wheat, oats, and barley. Over the years, they raised cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, cats, and dogs. Our farm was much like the farms of our neighbours, and my brother, my sister, and I were typical farm kids.
I rode my first horse when I was two. Paddy was a bay gelding that had been my father’s horse since Dad was eleven years old. When I turned eleven, Grandma gave me a palomino mare named Brena, and I rode her bareback to help Dad move cows or to visit friends on neighbouring farms.
At an auction at the stockyards, I bought a flock of three Suffolk-cross ewes—Julia, Lucy, and Pepper—that I faithfully tended during lambing season. As a member of the Tulliby Lake 4-H Club, I raised Charolais-Hereford calves named after characters in my favourite novels and cried my eyes out each spring when I sold them for slaughter, even when I was seventeen years old and, I was told, too old to be crying over an animal. I grudgingly helped my mother weed our large vegetable garden, pick saskatoons and chokecherries, and make jams and preserves. I painted fences, picked roots, and mowed the lawn. I shouldn’t pretend it was all work and no play, though. We found plenty of time to ride our bikes, make expeditions into the bush, and build rafts and forts. And, as my parents will surely recall, we spent many afternoons lazily flopped on the floor of the living room watching re-runs of The Flintstones or Happy Days on CBC or CTV, the only TV channels our antennae picked up.
When I was an adolescent, we often visited my city cousins, and I remember recognizing early on that there was a broad gulf between them and us. It wasn’t only that we hadn’t seen the latest shows on cable TV, that we didn’t know how to hang out at a shopping mall, or that we rarely went to a movie theatre. While I did have some interests in common with my cousins, of course, such as my burgeoning interests in fashion and pop music, many of my passions were foreign to them. I spent my spare time training my 4-H steer and grooming my horse. I worried about the plague of tent caterpillars munching their way through the poplar stands on our hill, and about drought, hailstorms, and early frosts. My concerns were no greater than those of my urban cousins, but they certainly weren’t the same. I knew I was different.
As I moved away to larger and larger cities for university and work, I found myself—with my rural background—a minority in academic, work, and social settings. What a delight it was, in those environments, to occasionally meet a fellow farm kid with whom I could exchange stories of country schools, long bus rides, and beloved horses. I realized I was likely to have more in common with someone raised on a potato farm in far-off Prince Edward Island than with someone who grew up in the Mill Woods suburb of nearby Edmonton. As years passed, I became more certain that my rural upbringing had significantly moulded me, perhaps more than anything else had.
That belief drove me to compile this anthology. What a delight it was to read submissions from across the country and discover I was right: I have much in common with country kids from across Canada, whether they grew up in Nova Scotia or British Columbia, whether in the 1930s or the 1990s. I wasn’t the only one who built forts with straw bales or spent summer days weeding a shelter belt. I wasn’t the only one who, in the absence of plentiful human companions, found a best friend in a dog or a horse. I wasn’t the only one whose rural background profoundly shaped who I am today.
I don’t suggest, though, that all rural people or experiences are the same. The writers in this anthology remind us that there is no one rural experience. After all, rural people, places, and communities vary greatly in a country as geographically vast and culturally diverse as Canada. For some, the country was a place of happiness and belonging; for others, it was a source of hardship and sorrow. For many, it was both. Some contributors loved their homes and never wanted to leave; others couldn’t wait to escape to the city. Despite these differences, common themes emerged in the narratives.
I was struck by how powerful the sense of home is for those who grew up in rural settings, and how closely that sense of home is tied to the land. In his memoir, Lake of the Prairies, Warren Cariou has written of his home in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, “I suspect that most people have a Meadow Lake of their own, a place they can’t let go of. … It has taken hold of them and shaped them so irrevocably that they can’t imagine who they would be without it.” This is clearly the case for many writers who contributed to this anthology. Their senses of self, their views of the world, and perhaps even their creative energies are inextricably linked with their home places.
Although I left when I was seventeen and have been away for over twenty years, Tulliby Lake, Alberta, is the only place I have ever called “home” and perhaps the only place I ever will. In Inside Memory, novelist Timothy Findley wrote about his home in Ontario: “This is what I have that feeds me—both as a person and as a writer: the curve of these hills, the lines of these horizons, the shapes and smells of these trees, the harshness of these stones, the ghosts within these walls, the harshness of this climate—and all its weathers—and the sounds which fill my ears.” Home, for a person raised in the country, is only partly related to a house and the people who live in it. What makes a place home is that particular shape of the horizon, that particular smell of the soil on a rainy spring morning, that particular chorus of birdsong at dawn.
The landscape of my family’s farm defined not only home but also beauty for me. The enormous evergreens and cedars of British Columbia are lovely and enchanting, but I could never feel at home among them. For me, only spindly aspens, saskatoons, and chokecherry bushes will do. The Rocky Mountains and Atlantic Ocean awe me, but they could never be home. For me, home means open rolling hills covered in prairie wool and wildflowers. The sky that says home to me is big and blue—even on the coldest winter day.
Of course, each of the writers in the collection has his or her particular vision of home. For Keith Collier, who grew up in the tiny outport of St. Joseph’s Cove on the south coast of Newfoundland, home isn’t home without the ice-cold waves of the Atlantic Ocean. For Luanne Armstrong, home is the towering mountains, dark forests, and glacial lakes of British Columbia’s Kootenay region.
It is striking that of the thirty-four writers in this anthology, only three live on the land on which they grew up, and two of those three returned only after a long absence. Many rural families simply found it too difficult to make a living off the land, as Janice Acton, Habeeb Salloum, and Rudy Wiebe reveal. Inexperience, harsh climates, economic challenges, and many other factors contributed to failures that sent families fleeing to cities in search of better lives. In many other cases, rural teenagers chose to leave their homes and families behind—also, they thought, in search of better lives.
A mood of loss and longing threads through many of the narratives. As Marianne Ackerman demonstrates in “Departure and the Eternal Return,” no matter how far we move from our rural homes, those places continue to pull us back, and we continue to yearn for them. When I packed my suitcases and headed off to university at seventeen (and, of course, most farm kids must move hundreds of kilometres to go to college), it never occurred to me that I was making a one-way trip. Perhaps it wouldn’t have bothered me, back then, even if I had understood, for I was eager to see and learn new things in bigger and better places. I couldn’t have imagined that two decades later I would carry in my heart a homesick ache that strengthens rather than weakens with the passing years. I couldn’t have foreseen that the fantasy of going home would become the most desirable and unattainable of my dreams. For complex reasons that are difficult to understand or articulate, it seems heartbreakingly impossible to return to that place. Wes Jackson, an advocate of sustainable agriculture, has written that in North American universities “there is no such thing as a ‘homecoming’ major.” Most of us who trotted off to university in search of greener pastures realized that truth too late. Many of us discovered, as Harvey Walker laments in “Harvest Moon,” we never can go home again. For even if we do travel back to visit those places, we often find them changed—the landscape altered, the people gone, the way of life vanished. Eventually, as Jill Sexsmith suggests in “A Country Song Played Backward,” country roads can take us home only in our memories.
Many of us who grew up in the country feel urgency in telling our stories. After all, our stories are becoming increasingly extraordinary ones, for there are fewer and fewer people living in those places. In 1910, 60% of Canadians lived in rural communities. This number dropped to 40% in 1950 and to 25% in 1975. Today, only 20% of Canadians live in rural areas and only 2% live on farms. Add to these startling figures the fact that the average age of rural residents is quickly rising, and it is clear there will be fewer and fewer Canadian children who grow up in the country. Many of us who were fortunate enough to do so know our rural upbringings profoundly shaped our sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it.
These memoirs are like the blocks of a patchwork quilt. Each is distinct, yet together they create a composite image of rural life. Although no individual can hope to tell “the” rural story—for rural people and their experiences vary as much as urban ones do—each of us can tell his or her own story. As Shelley Leedahl insists in “Road Trip,” each of us can say, with authority: For me, in this place, at that time, it was like this.