Sharon Butala’s new book, “Where I Live Now: A Journey Through Love and Loss to Healing and Hope”, can be seen as a continuation of her two-nation best seller, “The Perfection of the Morning.” When she married her distant cousin, Peter Butala, both of them mid-life, and moved to a place remote even for Saskatchewan, she knew it would be a challenge. At that point she was an urban academic, a feminist, living in Saskatoon, but under that was her early life in the far north, pioneering in a log cabin with sisters and parents, enjoying freedom without knowing it could be lost, even as they gradually moved from one settlement to the next, always south towards Saskatoon.
Peter, on his side, had realized early that men who married young would be pressed hard by the costs of raising children, and never really accumulate the wherewithal (both land and capital, which are nearly interchangeable) to be self-sufficient on the prairie. But now he was well-situated and would like to share. Big, steady, stoic Slovak that he was — a type that does well in his situation — he turned to his more Irish relative — tiny, self-protective, accomplished Sharon. At first she was his sidekick. Then because of being with Peter she began to write.
Ranchers love to explain and teach by example, enjoying the persuasion of getting people to do things their way. Under Peter’s protection, Sharon blossomed and slowly let down her guard to the land and animals around her. She had thought she would paint, but found that the place was as moving and evanescent as aurora borealis, something to enter as a poetic mysticism which Peter could do without words.
The writing grew and gradually took over her life, though family and the neighbors were skeptical. In this book Sharon doesn’t mention Wallace Stegner, who grew up in the nearest town, Eastend, and whose boyhood home she and Peter saved so it could become a writers’ retreat. But this new book is a explanation of a remark Stegner made: “Out here you don’t have to get down on your knees to pray, because you are already humble enough standing up.” (Not his exact words.)
In the jargon of our times, Sharon’s book is about being “woke” on the prairie, “schooled” in its lessons, the main one being that nothing is permanent, but paradoxically nothing is ever really gone either. The ranch was on land spared by the great scraping glaciers that ground down that land, then melted back, leaving “The Old Man on his Back” plateau with its original vegetation. Casual tourists rarely reach this level of understanding, content to leave the middle of the continent as blank “fly-over” country, never speculating about who would live there or why.
Peter felt but accepted what amounted to a gradual semi-separation of work that did not end their more than thirty years of marriage. It brought them to unanimity about the Butala ranch so that it could become a reserve of virgin grass to support native bison with the help of Nature Conservancy Canada. Always protective of everything from a hurt kitten to miles of land with herds of Herefords, Peter was very much fulfilled by this preservation.
Towards the end of life Peter and Sharon went to his father’s village, Kosice, Slovakia, and she saw how deeply that ancient anchor of place was still embedded in her New World husband. The crux of this book is that after thirty-one years of marriage, it was Peter who proved to be the vulnerable one and Sharon who had to summon up the strength for helping him die, always wondering whether she were doing enough, doing the right thing, while he changed before her eyes. The dark side of the enormous distances of the prairie is that medical help is never nearby.
Peter’s ranch and hay farm was acquired by Nature Conservancy of Canada who stocked it with bison descended directly from the original giant herds that grazed the native grasses. To find it online, look for Old Man on his Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area, though locally that gets shortened to OMB or “the Butala Ranch.” If this impulse to save and restore the land is not quenched by greed, it will be seen in the future as a major cultural gift to human life.
That’s all very grand and idealistic, but what about one small, mostly Irish woman who writes books and has moved to Calgary, that nearly archetypal city on the Alberta prairie? They say one should be careful what one wishes for because it might actually happen. All the longing for access to theatre and fine institutions, the on-going bustle of where things happen, can be overwhelming.
Maybe the next book will show us the steps as life goes on.