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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lessons in Living

Wachiya. Greetings. Lately I have been trying to learn some key phrases in the language of the Cree, because I am dealing with them daily on a documentary film project. I communicate with translators, administrators, entertainers and officials, and even the occasional Chief. I have been to James Bay twice already, and more trips are planned for the future. I hope to spend some of the long winter months learning Cree. I have visions of impressing my new colleagues with my casual banter come the spring.
Of course, if my limited command of Mandarin (after taking lessons in Taiwan for three years) is any indication, I will have to use a lot of hand gestures and body language to get my point across.
It is fascinating that each region of Cree territory has its own dialect. As the largest native band in Canada, the Cree occupy regions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec – but their largest population is located around the coastal regions of James Bay.
Here, my Grade 12 Canadian History teacher Mr. Bowlby taught me, is where the first trading post of the Hudson Bay Company was established, where the natives traded furs with the Europeans. I have stood on that spot. It’s a spiritual place. It’s where our country began. Arguably the best country in the world in which to live.
The James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec are traditionally hunter-gatherers. They are bush people. They have a summer camp and a winter camp, and many of them were born on the traplines in the tamarack bush rather than in the community.
The man does not go off alone on a hunt. He brings his family. Everyone has a role to play, from small child to grandparent. The game is plucked and skinned, divided and shared out to extended family members and friends in the community. This is the traditional way. But it is disappearing fast.
In the early 1970s, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa announced his project of the century. He planned to dam eleven of the rivers of James Bay to produce hydroelectric power. The Cree learned of the project. They began to understand that it would be big. But they had no idea how it would impact their way of life.
6,000 Crees could not fight the government of Quebec, which was backed by the government of Canada. They knew they would lose the fight for their land and resources, so they fought to get something substantial in return.
The James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement placed the Cree among the most wealthy aboriginal groups in the world.
Two years ago, hi-speed Internet services arrived in James Bay. With it came cellphones, Blackberrys, and other devices. The Crees have access to university educations, vocational training, housing, vehicles, designer clothing and technology. But what have they lost?
When their school closes for a 2-week goose break in the spring, how many Cree families still head out to the bush camp together to carry on the traditional way of life? Some do. But many have lost their culture. And do they even know why this has happened to them as a people? The only history that the Cree have is what they can find in the media. This is not how the elders want Cree youth to learn.
The Grand Council of the Crees has commissioned a documentary film series to educate the Cree youth of today on their own history. The story will be told in the words of their own elders, government negotiators, lawyers and historians. This will not be a piece of journalism. The story will tell itself and the audience will form their own opinions.
Throughout our travels to James Bay to capture some 50 interviews on film in 8 different communities, we have found ourselves falling into the Cree way of life. Daily activities are dependent on the weather, the hunting season and the family, rather than a calendar of appointments and events. On more than one occasion we had an interview subject cancel our filming because he was on the bay hunting geese or in the bush dragging out a moose. It’s all about priorities.
As a result of the rivers being dammed, much of the wildlife has changed its habitat and patterns. The fish in northern Chisasibi do not spawn in the river anymore. Many of the Cree find that their hunting grounds are so difficult to access, they might as well drive the 12 hours to Eastern Ontario to hunt. And so they are.
Next month my husband’s hunting party will host a Cree contingent. They will hunt geese on the St. Lawrence River and stay at the McIntosh Inn in Morrisburg. All 15 of them. Only about 7 of them are hunters: the rest are wives, children and grandparents. The women and girls will pluck the geese and pack them for travel. The young boys will watch and learn, and some will try to get their first goose. When they do, a feast will be held in celebration.
The Farmer will cook a shore lunch as he always does when he hunts the St. Lawrence. The Cree will learn our ways, and we will learn theirs. It will be a lesson in living. I’m really looking forward to it.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rambo and Rambi in Waiting

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, we are in a sort of holding pattern. The feed on the pasture has turned brown for the most part, and in the morning it is covered in frost. The ewes stand at the fence, yelling at the farmhouse as if to say, “time to put out the hay!” But we aren’t willing to do that yet. We have to make our bales last through the winter, which might be cold and dry or mild and wet, but no doubt long.
I tell the sheep to go and find something else to do until noon, when the sun will have melted the frost to expose the remaining green shoots.
Rambo and Rambi have been in a pen since August, awaiting their turn in the spotlight. We got smart and locked them up early this year, knowing that our cool summer would send the ewes into season early enough to bring winter lambs. I hate winter lambing. Last year our lambs were born from New Year’s Day through to April 26. The staggered births left us staggering through the longest lambing season ever. But the bulk of them were born in January and February, during the deep freeze. At least half a dozen of the newborn lambsicles had to be bundled up in my coat and brought into the house to thaw out. I had lambs in the warmth of the guest bathroom for a week until the Farmer built me a lamb-pen infirmary under a heat lamp in the basement. Only half of those patients survived. It was heartbreaking.
This year we will set the rams loose at Christmas. 148 days later, around the long weekend in May, our lambs will be born. It will be warm enough to allow the lambs to wander in and out of the barn to the outside pen. Instead of trying to warm up the lambing room with blankets tucked around doors and windows and heat lamps in every corner, we will be letting the lambs spring around in the fresh air.
With fresh green grass to eat, the ewes’ milk will be better quality and the lambs will thrive on it. The live birth rate will be up and the fatality rate will be down. I will be a happy Farmwife.
As I am commuting to work in Ottawa fulltime now, I don’t have the opportunity to run home at lunchtime and bottle-feed lambs. I will have to get my newborns feeding themselves if their mothers are not able. That is the plan. Last year I had two very smart lambs self-feeding with a calf bottle that had been strapped to the side of their pen. They could just nibble on it whenever they felt a hunger pang, and I only had to refill the bottle every 12 hours. Hopefully this year’s lambs will be just as intelligent and resourceful.
I was also given a covered plastic bucket equipped with tubing and ringed with rubber nipples. This plastic ewe should keep a pen of newborns happy – but they have to be smart enough to crawl under the gate to the creep area where their mothers cannot access their food. Then they have to have the intuition to follow their nose, sniff out the source of the milk and figure out how to suck it through the rubber nipple. It might take some training. I imagine I will be spending a few hours sitting in amongst the lambs, holding their little mouths on the plastic feeders until they make the connection. But it will be worth the effort.
So come December, Rambo and Rambi will be set loose to run amok with the ewes. On Christmas morning, they will each get a box of crayon to strap to their chests. Rambo might wear green, while Rambi sports a seasonal red shade. The crayons will leave telltale marks on the rumps of the ewes that are mated. Hopefully we will see more red marks this year: Rambi was in training last year but if he doesn’t start pulling his weight soon he might get ousted. Rambo cannot mate all 45 ewes by himself. Well, he probably can, but shouldn’t have to. We don’t want to wear him out.
Until December, I will continue to trek out to the barn each morning before dawn, where the rams are happily ensconced in their boys-only hotel. They don’t “baa” at me when I climb in over the gate to feed them. They just stand up, shoulder to shoulder at the feeder, and grunt. I fill up their hay and water, top up their minerals and give them each a scratch behind the ears. Rambi tries to line me up for a head butting with his curly horns so I quickly shift out of his line of fire.
These two alpha males used to take each other on in a skull-bashing duel every once in a while, until one day the Farmer locked them in a small pen together. There wasn’t sufficient room in there to line each other up for a hit, so they learned to get along.
Now they seem to be quite content with no one but each other and the occasional visiting squirrel, raccoon or skunk for company.
I tell them to be patient, for soon they will be back out in the pasture, getting swarmed by the ladies. They should enjoy their quiet time in the man-cave while it lasts.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Culture Comes in All Forms

When I was offered tickets to the season opener of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, I wasn’t convinced the Farmer would agree to be my date for the evening. But, as usual, he was willing to try something new. When I was freelancing for the newspaper, the poor guy found himself accompanying me to more than one event that he would never have considered attending on his own. I have dragged him to art vernissage, book launches, musical theatre and grand openings. He has made the most of every opportunity, sometimes suffering in silence, but often finding the experience surprisingly enjoyable.
I asked him to put on a suit. (That probably wasn’t absolutely necessary, but I don’t get to see him in one very often so it sure was a nice treat.) We ate a quick dinner, hopped in the car and made it into the city and down Elgin to the National Arts Centre by 7:40.
We held our collective breath as the top of the F150 scraped its way into the parking garage.
Once inside, I noticed that the audience members still milling about the lobby were predominantly elderly and female. I bought the Farmer a beer and wished I had ordered one myself when I saw how small my wineglass was. That was a quick fifteen dollars spent.
About five minutes before we were called to our seats, I decided to find the ladies room. I was washing my hands when I noticed a woman in the mirror glancing at the back of me with a strange look on her face. It wasn’t until I turned to go that my reflection caught my eye. My skirt was tucked up into my underwear. That woman was going to let me go back out there exposed! What was her excuse? Why didn’t she tell me? Did she not speak English?? I’m pretty sure she could have given me that particular message without words.
Once we found our seats, I crammed my long-legged Farmer into a seat in the centre of the mezzanine. The musicians quickly took their seats. The master violinist hit the stage, and everyone suddenly jumped to their feet to clap.
“Who’s that?” the Farmer asked.
“I think he helps everyone to tune up.”
Just then the conductor stepped onto the stage. The clapping amplified.
“Hmmm,” the Farmer commented.
As the music began and swelled into Lohengrin, I stole the occasional sideways glance at my date. He seemed to be very focused on the stage.
At Intermission, we got up to stretch our legs.
“You seemed to enjoy that,” I remarked. He responded that the blonde girl in the front of the violin section was “absolutely stunning”. She wasn’t that great. Her nose was completely out of proportion with the rest of her face.
I found the second portion of the performance a bit harder to endure, and although I found the music very enjoyable and the performers extremely talented, my mind began to drift. I think the Farmer was getting restless too, because his leg started to jiggle.
The music changed as the violinists plucked at their strings. The Farmer looked at me and smirked.
“Do you know this piece?” I queried.
“Sure. It’s Bugs Bunny tiptoeing down the stairs,” he grinned. Well yes, it was.
The next day, it was the Farmer’s turn to choose our cultural outing. He took me to the farm auction at Tackaberry’s on Highway 43. Of course.
A line of pickup trucks a mile long stretched down the highway outside the entrance. A police car blocked the gate. We parked, slipped on our rubber boots and climbed the fence to the muddy field.
Wow. Hundreds of farmers from all over Eastern Ontario and Quebec had converged on the site to bid themselves a deal. The field was lined with everything from rusty antique farm implements to shiny new combines. Trucks, trailers, church pews and a camper shaped like a shoe lined the back fence. As I scanned the crowd gathering around the auctioneer’s truck, I suddenly caught the eye of someone I knew. I raised my hand to wave, just as the auctioneer spotted me. “18,000!” He called. The Farmer whipped around and looked down at me. “Did you just buy a truck?!” He asked. The bidding continued. I was out of the deal. I jammed my hands in my pockets. My nose began to itch but I dared not scratch it.
I decided that watching the crowd was more interesting than watching the auction. But as I made eye contact with one farmer after another, I realized that some of these men might be shopping for more than just a tractor. Was a farm auction a good place to find a farm wife? Perhaps. I took a step closer to the Farmer, and he put his arm around me protectively. Or to discourage me from bidding.
The symphony and the farm show in one week. How will we top that?


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cigar work.

In praise of manly men

The alarm went off at 4am. The Farmer sprung out of bed and dressed in the dark, trying not to wake me. The first member of his party had already arrived, tripping the sensor light outside. Within minutes I could smell coffee, and hear the quiet murmurings of the hunters in my kitchen.
It was the opening day of the season. But it really started at the Fisher Farm a week ago. The Farmer’s hunting party, a white-collar bunch comprising a retired scientist, a veterinarian, a fighter pilot, a metallurgist and a public servant, had already gathered a week prior to set up blinds, repair decoys and shoot skeet. And feast. They always feast on the previous season’s freezer holdings to make room for the new bounty. And occasionally they smoke cigars.
The hunters in our circle of friends follow the rules, which were designed to balance the natural order of things. They don’t bait, or ambush or chase their prey in a pickup truck. That is not hunting. And people who “hunt” that way are not manly men.
I am accustomed to being surrounded by women. I have no brothers; I grew up with a sister. I raised three daughters. I am not accustomed to an overwhelming amount of testosterone. But I am quickly getting used to it.
The Farmer gets very excited about hunting season. Hunting was part of his upbringing – his 83 year old father still hunts with him. They go without sleep, sit in the rain waiting for hours for the flock, and come home happy even if they didn’t shoot anything.
The Farmer has perfected his recipe for goose bourguignon, goose goulash, and duck a l’orange. We eat what he shoots. Our freezer is full of the meat we have raised and the meat he has hunted. I am proud.
When I was growing up, a gathering of manly men consisted of a bunch of teachers on a Friday night, beers in their hands and cigarettes in their mouths. They inside-joked and spoke their mysterious language and I loved them. My father was their leader, with his crisp dress pants and hearty laugh.
As a young mum, the definition of a manly man was someone who would take the baby from my exhausted arms, feed her, change her, put her to bed and then clean the kitchen for me.
One of the things that made me fall for my husband, way back on our first date, was the way that he went on and on about his children. He still gets misty when telling a story about something they did when they were his little golden-haired angels. That endearing quality, along with his hunky good looks and solid gold character, sealed the deal.
My manly man loves to cook. As a result, I rarely gain access to the kitchen at the Fisher Farm. During the week we are all rushed, so we nibble on leftovers and freezer food and anything we can get onto our plates in a hurry. On the weekend, the Farmer reigns supreme over the cuisine as he creates demi-glaces, roasted vegetable melees and grilled meats. But this week, he had to leave on a business trip. So I was handed the apron and the spatula.
I cooked one meat lover’s lasagne with regular pasta and one health-conscious, vegetarian lasagne with multi-grain pasta. My sister brought her chicken pasta casserole, which she found on the Pioneer Woman website. Mom brought a Caesar salad and two loaves of garlic bread. And we ate. Well. Don’t tell the Farmer. I don’t want him to stop cooking for me.
My manly man doesn’t spend hours in the gym, building a suit of armour from muscle.
His muscles were built from hard, honest work. And his character is solid gold. The Farmer does what he loves, and doesn’t make apologies for his somewhat old-fashioned way of looking at life. He cares if his family is hungry, or tired, or cold, and he does his best to make us comfortable. He tries to do the right thing every day and, in his own words, he sleeps well at night.
Here’s to manly men. Cheers!

The perils of skunks and round hairbrushes.

We have an intruder. One that strikes fear into the heart at first glance and sends adrenalin coursing through the veins. I first caught sight of this infiltrator when I stopped to feed the cats on the way to the barn. Among the puddle of grey, white and tabby kittens gathered around the feeding dish, a distinctive black-and-white one caught my eye.
Now, you may have heard of the fight-or-flight reflex. Apparently I don’t have it. When I’m scared, I freeze. So when that little baby skunk noticed me noticing him, he just turned and calmly padded back under the work bench. And then I exhaled.
In a previous life, I had a paper route early early in the morning. Occasionally, on garbage day, I would see baby skunks rooting around in the rubbish. At one point I mentioned this to my sister (the wildlife resources expert in the family), and she said that the baby skunks don’t spray. So the next day when I did my pre-dawn paper route and saw a skunkling with its head stuck in a yogurt cup, I dared to grab the container and pop it off his head. Nothing happened. The creature shot me a grateful look, gave his head a shake, and waddled away. Slowly. Without spraying.
I haven’t googled baby skunks to see if they spray or not. Perhaps I should. Because the one in my horse stable is probably still there.
We have had skunks before. Big ones. We see (smell) them every spring and fall. Last year a mama skunk raised her family under the girls’ playhouse. The Farmer got his cage traps out and baited them with smelly fish heads. (We don’t normally have a stock of smelly fish heads at the ready; he just happened to have been out fishing that day). The next morning, there was a barn cat in each trap. Every night he baited the traps, and every morning another cat was in them.
Perhaps when I am googling the stinking capabilities of baby skunks I should also research ways to repel them.
I left the Farmer and our children to their own devices early last week, while I travelled to Montreal on a business trip. I enjoy Montreal, with its cultural diversity and fantastic restaurants. It was a working trip, however, so I fell into bed every night absolutely exhausted. The three days went by in a blur, but they were not without their memorable yet surreal moments.
At one point on the second day, as I was piloting our rental SUV through construction on Rue Sherbrooke, I made the comment to those in my midst: “I cannot believe I am driving through downtown Montreal with a retired Indian Chief, a documentary film director and a historian as my passengers. This is not a situation that I find myself in every day.”
The Indian Chief proved to be a worse passenger than my own teenagers, waving at people on street corners and asking them if they knew who he was. He was an extremely jovial character, despite the fact that he had recently broken his back and we had to take many bumpy detours to get him to the train station through all the roadwork. I didn’t hear one complaint about my driving however, even when I turned right on a red light. He just made a strange moaning sound.
On the second night of our mini film tour, I realized that I had not packed a hairbrush. (Don’t ask me why I hadn’t noticed before; I am an extremely low-maintenance chick). I ran down to the hotel gift shop and purchased the only hairbrush they had in stock (I kid you not): a round brush with a plastic handle shaped like the body of a naked woman. The clerk asked me “is this the one you want?” I just looked at him. “Yes. I want the blue one.”
“Okay it will make beautiful hairstyle,” he promised, rather ominously.
The next morning, I took a quick glance in the mirror and decided I only needed to shower and do a quick wet-and-blow-dry of the front of my hair. Having seen Shannon Tweed on the TV show Family Jewels using a round brush to smooth her hair, I thought I would attempt her technique. I immediately got the hairbrush firmly STUCK in the front of my hair, right above my forehead, and it was wound tightly to the root. There was no way to easily extract the instrument of torture. Shannon Tweed I am not.
Just then, there was a knock on my door. I peeked through the peephole and there was my boss, in town for business, fully dressed in a suit and tie.
“Hey Di. Can we go for coffee and review this proposal before my breakfast meeting?” He asked, oblivious to my plight.
I answered that I would need a few minutes. For the next 20, I yanked, twisted, tugged, laughed and cried. The hairbrush would not come loose. I debated calling the director’s room to see if she had a pair of scissors or a strange German remedy to unstick hairbrushes. Eventually I just pulled the hairs off the brush or out of my scalp, a few at a time. I plopped a ball cap on my head, grabbed my notebook and headed off to Starbucks with the boss.
I now have a distinctly thin and quite tender spot above my forehead. My hairstylist is going to love this one. I will save the risque hairbrush to show him.
When I returned to the farm after my trip, the distinct smell of skunk hung in the air. Obviously someone had discovered the creature in the stable. I had a nice welcome home however; the Farmer and one of the offspring had cleaned the entire house. And no one said anything about my bald spot.