Remarking on the forgetfulness of traumatized patients in An Autobiographical Study (1925), Sigmund Freud wrote, “Everything that had been forgotten had in some way or other been distressing; it had been either alarming or painful or shameful by the standards of the subject’s personality.” A patient’s cure, accordingly, required conscious retrieval of that buried event.
While prairie historian Candace Savage makes no reference to Freud in A Geography of Blood, an engrossing and unexpectedly page-turning account of day trips in (and research about) sparsely populated southwestern Saskatchewan, motifs of trauma, repression or recollection appear on practically every page. Savage’s desire to publicly disinter “lost” scenes from Canada’s early days also serves an environmental and social good for our collective consciousness.
Across 11 succinct chapters, Savage artfully blends an assortment of genres: travelogue, memoir, detective story, philosophy and history. To her credit, she transforms a “nothing little ramble to nowheresville” into a subtle and mournful (but humour-flecked) meditation on the relationship between present, future and past. And, as with exceptional tour guides, her unabashed enthusiasm for the material becomes wholly infectious.
After a spontaneous road trip in 2000, the Saskatoon-based Savage and her partner bought a house (built in the 1970s and exuding a “shabby, retro charm”) in Eastend, Sask. (pop. 600), home of the T.rex Discovery Centre and a short drive from Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. In this “speck in the Big Empty of the North American outback,” the pair expected comfort, an idyllic retreat in what Savage calls a “set of the movie version” of her childhood in Grande Prairie, Alta. Their rural paradise featured thorns, as well.
Experiencing Eastend’s immensely quiet and dark nights, Savage fancies she hears voices that whisper, “Stay put. Pay attention.” As she reads and responds to one-time Eastend resident Wallace Stegner’s famous 1962 memoir of the last plains frontier, Wolf Willow, and embarks on brief trips to Ravenscrag, Fort Walsh, Cypress Lake and Piapot Creek, she ponders the “epic saga of Western settlement” and discovers just how illusory it is. Emerging as “the intended beneficiary … of an ecological and humanitarian atrocity,” and highly conscious of “everything that has been lost and everything we are now losing,” Savage conjures from an “empty” landscape a deeper, earthier past land; and as a whimsical investigation turns into “full-on obsession,” she unveils a place filled with secrets and ghosts.
Walking though eroded, windswept hills and plains, Savage is by turns filled with wonderment and fury. Imagining the lives of European settlers as (in her mother’s phrase) “hell on earth,” she also contemplates the “disappearance” of the buffalo ecosystem (the “foundation of agricultural settlement laid in wholesale carnage,” in which 99.993 per cent of buffalo were “slaughtered in the name of profit and progress,” a “butchery of unparalleled rapacity and rage”), and the long history of conflicts between settlers, government and aboriginal nations on both sides of the border.
On another walk, she encounters teepee rings (the oldest of which are roughly contemporary with pyramids of Egypt) and imagines 10,000 years of “hunting and gathering, of births and deaths, of hard work and repose,” and retells the story of Cypress Hill Massacre (without making reference to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy, strangely), aboriginal “hunger camps” and bureaucratic double-dealing. Savage incorporates pointed (if imaginary) interviews with Stegner and Chief Nekaneet, criticizes the federal government’s “lofty virtues of order and governance” circa 1880 and, after meeting an aboriginal elder named Jean Francis Oake, visits a minimum-security healing lodge for federally sentenced aboriginal people, where she speaks with women born into a “shattered world.”
Understanding the limits to her “capacity for shame and sadness,” Savage does not seek out every sign of devastation and genocide. In the end, she turns to speculation: “What if, beyond our need for one another, we humans also have an urgent, inarticulate need for the more-than-human world?” And what of the “everyday mysteries of wind and rain, fish and fowl, winter-spring-summer-and-fall, all things wild and wonderful”? The book closes with thoughts of a “new version of the ‘pioneer’ story” and three hopeful words: “To Be Continued.”
Savage finds lasting inspiration in environmentalist Narcisse Blood, whose words to her at Stampede Site – “It’s not too late for things to start again” – point to a happier and wiser future community.
Brett Josef Grubisic’s paternal great-grandparents were Croatian immigrants defeated by farming conditions in Missouri and southeastern Alberta. He teaches at the University of British Columbia.