Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Sometimes a little too much happens to be comfortably gathered up into a blog. This is one of those times. I had hoped to compensate for my incoherence by quoting a long passage from Sharon Butala’s best-selling book, “The Perfection of the Morning,” but my copy has gone astray -- probably into the hands of some borrower who can’t bear to part with it. The book is an account of Sharon’s hard-won effort to be a ranch wife after a career in Saskatoon as a teacher and feminist. One of the key scenes is her walking across the native grasslands, never-plowed, as she tried to know them, understand them, and ultimately love them. Peter, her husband, had left on horseback earlier in the day to do unknown things.

Sharon came to the top of a bluff, looked down over it, and there was Peter, luxuriously napping in the tall grass while his horse grazed nearby. His ease, his fittingness, his perfect confidence in the safety of making the land his bed, his freedom and privacy broke through Sharon’s nervousness. At last she saw what it was about and backed carefully away to leave him there. Now Peter has died and the land cradles him forever.

BUTALA - Peter Noble Butala aged 72 years of the Divide-Eastend, Saskatchewan, area died a mere two months after being diagnosed with esophageal and stomach cancer, on Thursday, August 9, 2007 at the Shaunavon Hospital and Care Centre at Shaunavon, Saskatchewan. Peter was born at Frontier, Saskatchewan on November 23, 1934. He received his education at Bonita School at Divide where he rode horse the five miles to school. One of Peter's fondest memories was of chasing wild horses and of herding cattle with his father. In the late 1950's he was involved in herding 500 horses from the family ranch at Divide to Swift Current. Peter and Sharon Butala were married in Saskatoon on May 21, 1976 and Sharon came to live on the Butala ranch west of Claydon , Saskatchewan, where Peter had spent his life. In 1996, as he approached retirement, they made arrangements with the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the provincial government to establish the Old Man On His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area. For this initiative he and his wife received a number of conservation awards, both federal and provincial. Peter has been a rancher all his life and at various times has been president of the Claydon Grazing Co-operative, the Southwest Forage Association and the White Mud Feeders Association and is a founding member of the Claydon Lions Club. In January, 2005, he was honoured with a lifetime membership in the Saskatchewan Agricultural Graduates Association, having graduated from the School of Agriculture in 1953. He is currently a member of the regional board of the Nature Conservancy of Canada. In July, 2004, Time Magazine Canada named him a Canadian Hero. Peter was a man of great vision and had openness to the world. In his retirement he loved to travel including trips to Mexico, the British Isles, the South Pacific and to the Slovak Republic to search out his father's old village. In his later years he enjoyed meeting and visiting with some of the country's most distinguished people. Peter often said he felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to live the wonderful life of a rancher. He was predeceased by his father George on February 4, 1977 and his mother Alice on July 28, 1984. He is survived by his wife Sharon, his step-son Sean Hoy (Carol) of Saskatoon and step-grandchildren Declan and Maeve, his sister Nancy Bascom (Marvin) of Eastend and their family and his sister Mary Jane Butala of Calgary. Funeral Services will be held from Eastend Memorial Hall in Eastend on Monday, August 13, 2007 at 2:00 p.m. with Reverend Ken Schrag officiating. Tributes by his great niece Kelly Bascom and Lorne Scott, President of the Board of Directors of Nature Conservancy of Canada will be given.

I can’t figure out how to get his photo to print, but you can see it at http://www.legacy.com/Can/Obituaries.asp?Page=LifeStory&PersonID=92465915 Picture the later Tommy Lee Jones with a neat little gray ponytail. He was his own version of the gentle giant, carefully watching over the barn cats and nursing sick kittens.

Peter was Sharon’s cousin. When she was struggling along as a single parent with a teenaged son, Peter asked them to come help him move cows. Plainly he had something more in mind. The son was put on horseback and Sharon was expected to drive the big haytruck cross-country so the cows could be fed overnight. A tiny woman, Sharon could barely see where she was going, much less understand the gears of the truck, but Peter insisted and somehow she managed. Having thus initiated them, Peter proposed and they accepted. He put his big protective arm over them and Sharon determined to write books to “save the ranch.” A lot of ranches out this way have been saved by small determined women. But in the end she couldn’t save Peter from cancer, so he has “ridden on ahead to God’s country.”

When Sharon was a panelist at the “Montana Festival of the Book” a couple of years ago, I had the great pleasure of tending Peter while she was up front.

I guess I already blogged about Paul Dyck, who was just as remarkable in quite a different way. I talked to his son, John, who recommended a book about how to manage artists’ estates: the book is largely interviews with survivors. The Butala estate was sorted and settled long before Peter’s diagnosis, partly with the help of Nature Conservancy which preserved those grasslands he loved in their original state. I immediately got the book and am reading it. Rather parallel, Bob Scriver’s niece recently sent me a DVD made in 1995 of him talking about his life and the Indian series of bronzes. It’s a half-hour long and very well done. I’ve watched it several times now. ($10 from the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls.)

All this has me thinking about pair-bond relationships and how intense they can be, how many obligations and privileges arise from them, how problematic it is to figure out what to do after the physical presence of one is gone. (Paul Dyck lost Star years before his own death.) This is especially true when one or both partners are artists, writers, creators of a sort. The person’s life -- even the “non-creating” one -- becomes intense, unconventional, incandescently meaningful. Impossible to catch them in a memorial unless perhaps that memorial is land, as Peter’s is and always will be.

Bless Peter Noble Butala and his devoted wife, Sharon.

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