I got an email from Steve who asked me if if I had registered Sea of Flowers as a domain name. That wasn’t a bad idea, and I registered sea-of-flowers.ca. I haven’t set up the web page redirector yet.
In looking at some old email in an archive folder, I recollected that I used to sign my email with quotations. For several months or years in the mid 90’s, I used a quote from The Dispossessed, (Harper & Row, 1974) by Ursula K. LeGuin:
It is the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.
When I checked Randy’s blog, his entry for April 5/04 mentioned his sf fanzine, Winding Numbers. I wrote several articles for Winding Numbers, including a sercon (that was fannish talk for serious and constructive) or critical, literary review of The Dispossessed. LeGuin has remained one of my favourite writers, for her honesty and intellectualism. I also agree with some of Thomas M. Disch’s comments about LeGuin in his book The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of. Disch considers that LeGuin has been made into a feminist icon by literary critics, and that some of her ideas and themes have been appropriated and misrepresented by critics and imitators. Disch is not particularly enchanted with feminism and magical realism in fiction. His critique becomes sour around these matters of taste, and I part company with him while agreeing that LeGuin has become associated with superstitious lyricism.
After supper, Mike, Steve and I took a bike ride of about 26 kilometers through Assiniboine Park, over the bridge on Moray, through Woodhaven, to Grant’s Mill in front of the Grace Hospital. The Assiniboine River and the creeks flowing into it are high with spring run-off. Mike took pictures. Steve has reactivated the Bike with Mike site, and he is trying to get Mike to take it over. The pictures are there. Go to the 2004 log, and click on April 6 in the date column. I have a beard and I’m wearing a a red helmet and blue fleece in these pics. In other pictures this spring I may be seen in a brown camoflage pattern fleece or an orange windbreaker. Steve tends to wear a yellow shell on colder days.
With the change to daylight savings time last weekend we can ride for more than 2 hours after dinner which gives us time for riding and some rest and photography stops.
A little over two years ago, in the early months of 2002, I started a court proceeding for a woman who ran a drop-in center at Higgins and Main, in the very deepest, poorest, most alcohol and drug addled part of Winnipeg’s inner City core. (I am, by the way, a lawyer by day). Sister Jane was, at that time, 50 and had been a Catholic nun since she 20. She was living alone, without the support of her religious congregation, and she had terminal cancer.
She had been raised in New Hampshire and joined her congregation as a young woman just at the time that memberships in the Catholic Religious Orders was plummeting. Soon after she joined her Order, she accepted an invitation from a Canadian nun, a self-styled visionary reformer, to move to Edmonton and then to Winnipeg to be part of an innovative spiritual commune.
It didn’t work for Sister Jane. The project tried to fuse transformational psychology with Catholic spirituality. It became the leader’s personal project, and became whatever the leader wanted it to be. Jane found that her leader was controlling and grandiose. Jane swore in Affidavits that the leader introduced a purported therapy in which she initiated naked hugs which progressed to other sexual acts. Jane submitted sometimes but started to resist and react, which angered her leader, who disciplined her within the close confines of their communal life, and expelled her from the commune. She was then marginalized in her own Order because of her alienation from the leader and the rest of her Sisters who were connected to commune and the project.
Sister Jane had remained a member of her Order, but had started to live on her own. She received a little support to find a building and start a drop-in place but she had to recruit a board and to find funds for operating expenses and her own needs from a very early stage. She made friends, and her friends supported her and her ministry.
When she found that she had cancer, she sought some support from her superiors in the Order. In that process she described her personal experiences in the new movement, and she found that she was getting very little support. The Archbishop of Winnipeg listened to her and helped her personally with some other needs, but he did not intervene in the affairs of Jane’s autonomous Religious Order.
When I met Jane, her cancer was in remission and she was trying to understand if she could continue in that Religious Order, or if she had to leave. We started Court proceedings to recover compensation for the harm caused by illegal acts, her cancer came back in the winter of 2002-2003 and she died last summer. Her ministry was curtailed by her illness, and it closed for a while after she died. Her friends have been trying to revive it.
I visited her last spring, before her last hospitalization. Her ministry was based in an old three story bank building. The drop in was on the main floor and she lived in a suite on the upper floors. It was a small apartment, with a little chapel or prayer room. It was small oasis for her in a tough area of town and Jane lived with anxiety and fear.
When I had been discussing her evidence with her, I had tried to understand what she did at a drop-in. Did she provide a social service? Counselling? Teaching? Referrals to other agencies? Some kind of therapy? She explained it as living out the Church’s preferential option for the poor. I recognized that as an articulation of liberation theology, but I don’t think I started to understand it until later. What she did was to be present for people and to listen to them, providing them with a safety and respect. The theologian Rowan Williams, in his book Christ on Trial, How the Gospel Unsettled our Judgment
God’s transcendence is in some sense present in and with those who do not have a voice, in and with those without power to affect their world, in and with those believed to have lost any right they might have had in the world. God is not with them because they are naturally virtuous, or because they are martyrs; he is simply there in the fact that they are ‘left over’ when the social and moral score is added up by the managers of social and moral behaviour.
What strikes me about Sister Jane’s work is that she was able to carry on while she herself was deeply wounded. I think I have only been able understand the value of her ministry as I have begun to experience my own pain and powerlessness over the events and the people in my life, and when I have needed to have people listen to me.
Last week a common friend of Jane’s and mine told me that Sister Jane had seen that I was going through some changes – as I certainly have been. I was simply moved to tears that she had the compassion to see me clearly while I thought I was helping her.
Last year my friends Mike and Steve started to ask me to ride with them. We started to ride, almost every Sunday and one or two evenings a week through the spring, summer and fall. Steve began to log and journal his trips, alone and with Mike, Robbie and me on a web page called Bike with Mike. Steve’s log says that I rode with him on April 20 last year. I don’t clearly remember that trip. I remember joining them for evening rides in early May and then for Sunday rides.
Canadian Folk musicians spend a lot of time driving long distances between the communities where they perform. In the late 1970’s Stan Rogers and his band (his brother Garnet Rogers and a small series of other performers) did their time on the road.
On reaching the prairies, Stan Rogers visualized himself as the “tardiest explorer” in the tradition of Franklin, Mackenzie and David Thompson. In his song Northwest Passage, he describes his own journey across the prairie:
“Three centuries thereafter, I take passage overland,
In the footsteps of brave Kelso, where his sea of flowers began”
While the narrative is anchored in the inner vision of the singer dreaming while he drives, the vision itself is heroic, claiming the vision of the first European explorers of the prairies, plains, rivers and mountains of the Canadian Northwest:
“Ah for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage,
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea,
Tracing one warm line in a land so wide and savage,
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea”
Most of the names in the song are familiar to Canadians, or easy to identify. Mackenzie is Alexander Mackenzie, a fur trader and explorer who navigated the river that bears his name to the Arctic Ocean in 1789 and then, in 1793 crossed the Rockies and descended to the Pacific – the first European Canadian to reach the Pacific overland, a full decade before Lewis and Clark. David Thompson was a great explorer and cartographer. Franklin is Sir John Franklin, the British naval officer who was lost in the Arctic in the 1840’s.
Kelso was Henry Kelsey who joined the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company at age 17 in 1688 and rose to become a governor of the Company. At the time, and for centuries, the Company set itself up in forts on Hudson’s Bay and let the Canadian First Nations bring the furs down to the Bay for trade. Very occasionally, a Bay man would explore inland. In 1690 young Henry Kelsey joined a group of First Nations travelling into what must have been the Canadian heart of darkness. His journals were preserved in the Company archives and rediscovered in the 20th century. He is believed to have travelled southwest from the Bay to the Grand Rapids of the Saskatchewan River, near the modern town of The Pas, and then west and south onto the prairie. He is believed to have been the first European Canadian to reach the prairie from the Bay.
Stan Rogers discussed the process of writing Northwest Passage in a radio interview in 1982 and admitted that he had been unsure of Kelsey’s name and had guessed Kelso while recording the song. He never said if he believed that Kelsey himself had described the prairie as a “sea of flowers” or what brought that image to his mind – since he would himself have only seen the farmlands that the prairies have become.
Kelsey kept a journal, and his only descriptive references to the prairie are as a bleak heath of short round grasses. This indicates that he saw the short sere grasses of the high plains, rather than the tall grass prairies of more fertile regions. It is also not untypical of 17th century aesthetic sensibilities toward nature. It was only in the late 18th and the 19th centuries, through the Romantic movement, that Europeans and European Americans began to see nature as beautiful in itself.
The image of the prairie as a sea or ocean of grass and flowers was employed by the American poet William Cullen Bryant to describe the edge of the plains in southwest Illinois in the early 19th century, and adopted by many later poets and writers, including the 19th century Canadian poet and essayist Charles Mair. The engineer and inventor Sanford Fleming described the prairies that way on arriving at the edge of Red River Valley near the modern town of Ste. Anne, along the Dawson Road from Lake of the Woods in 1870. Fleming and Mair were in the last generation to see the prairies that way, before the slaughter of the last great herds of bison and the breaking of the prairie to agriculture.
In reaching for the beautiful and true meaning of exploration, Rogers transcended geographical and historical accuracy to take us off the asphalt road and into the sea of flowers.
I first heard the simile of the prairie as a sea of flowers used by Stan Rogers, the great Canadian singer and songwriter in his song, “Northwest Passage”. A few years ago, when I was involved in an Internet mailing list devoted to Canadian folk music, I tried to find out when it entered our literature. It seems to have been in the early 19th century when American settlers started to push west onto the plains of western Illinois. Like Stan Rogers, we need to reach into our imagination to see that scene today.
The tall grass prairie used to cover parts of the eastern Great Plains, including the fertile valley of the Red River as it runs into Lake Winnipeg. For centuries before the settlement of the prairies for agriculture, travellers arriving through the forests of the Canadian Shield and the sandy eskers at the edge of the Shield would have had a vista of miles of tall flowers and flowering grasses rippling in the wind like waves on the sea.
The prairie in its natural state was intimidating. The tall grasses could rise over a person’s head, and the grasses were hardy, coarse, prickly, cutting, stinging and infested with biting insects. The prairies might be swept, on a given day, by wind, rain, fire or snow, or flooded, or baked in the glare of the sun in a cloudless sky.
That’s where I live, and where I have lived for nearly 50 years. I live in Winnipeg, a large small city in the Red River Valley in Manitoba. My parents left Holland and crossed the ocean and half a continent to try to raise a family in this windy city built along three rivers, in a landscape that was once a sea of flowers. When I was a child, our family home was at the edge of a blue-collar area near the airport, which occupies the Northwest corner of the City. There were patches of prairie a short distance north of our house, and there were vacant lots full of grass and brush tall enough to make hiding places and imaginary battlefields.
The sea of flowers has long since been plowed over but it survives in small patches and in the imagination. That’s my home and my starting place for this blog.