Saskatchewan author Sharon Butala takes readers along with her on the journey to find a new place to live.
After 31 years of toiling to make the rolling hills, pastured prairie and natural landscape of southwestern Saskatchewan home, Butala is forced to yank her life out at its rural root and head back to the city as a widow.
In her newly released memoir, Where I Live Now, we revisit Butala’s two most transformative love affairs, the one with her now de-ceased husband, Peter, and the other with Peter’s beloved prairie near Eastend, Sask.
When she first meets her husband and moves to his isolated ranch, she endures killing winters, baking summers and constant winds on the 13,000 acres of Butala land.
We watch her grow to love this desolate part of the world and all the things she will eventually know, including the call of a coyote, the shapes of the dark night’s constellations and the ebbs and flows of the running waters of the coulees.
We witness her learn to ride a horse, drive a farm truck through gumbo and try to fit in with the women of her small community.
Through it all, she develops a reverence for rural life bordering on religious, in which Peter is her saviour and the surrounding land forms part of her backbone.
“…I would lift my eyes and gaze out across the acres of grass empty of people and buildings all the way to the distant horizon, feeling the wind playing around me, it rarely stopping unless at sunset or at sunrise, when the world seemed to be catching its breath to pause in wonder, as I was, gazing at the luminescence of land and sky.
“Living in the bosom of nature all their lives, I thought, how could rural people not be fully aware, even in their blood and bones, of the mystery of human existence?”
For all the hard-fought connections that Butala develops with her surroundings and the people in it, she is forced to leave when Peter passes.
In both her former life as a rancher’s wife and her new one as an urban widow, we see Butala struggle with the age-old narrative of isolation. The difference is, as a 36-year-old new wife, she was able to adapt to her surroundings, but in this demoralizing stage of widowhood, she labours.
Rural retirees will relate to Butala’s honest words, whole-hearted confessions and genuine distress at having to pull up stakes at age 68 and conform to a new shape to fit into Calgary’s urban setting.
“I had lost the courage for life I had developed in the country. For a city newcomer like me, neither young nor daring, every day is made of difficulties, buying your breakfast cereal or a new pair of shoes, getting your glasses fixed or going to a friend’s house to visit.”
We get the sense that what Butala is really looking for is a way to replace the loss of her husband, the fading of her youth and the nature-infused life in rural Saskatchewan she grew to love so passionately.
“Though the mouse-free place in which I now live turned out not to be paradise, I have my past to bolster me, those long years on the prairie with Peter that I cannot ever abandon.”
Butala, in her powerful descriptions of the world around her, eventually brings Calgary to life in her own way, assuring the reader that reclamation of her fiery and adaptive true nature will always be available to her.
“I believe that once you find yourself—your real self—still there inside that old-woman exterior, and you begin to see yourself as alive and, indeed as worthy of a life, a real life (instead of living in a steady state only as a person nearing death), that drabness will slowly disappear as the spirit flares up again.”
You’ll want to read Where I Live Now whether to witness the extra-ordinarily peaceful and natural rural life Butala once lived, or to discover how she finds the strength to carry on in her new urban one.