The signs of spring in northern Alberta happen slowly, then all at once: the wild crocuses silently arriving when the ground is still half-frozen, the geese honking, loudly announcing their return from the south, and finally, the aspen opening their tender green buds, flooding the brown valley with the softest shade of green you’ve ever laid eyes on.
Yesterday afternoon, the May sun poured into my trailer, warming my rectangular home with such intensity that I finally turned off my fussy diesel furnace and I didn’t bother lighting a fire in the wood stove. It felt somewhat ceremonious turning off the furnace: a little flicker of pride stirred in my chest. Winter was over. I had survived my first winter alone on the land in northern Alberta. I had managed to hang onto even just a shred of sanity despite a series of unfortunate events: frozen pipes, busted furnaces, the very un-romantic task of splitting wood, everyday, and contending with faulty water pumps by hand scooping water from my cistern. What a season.
I didn’t expect to make a home in this tiny northern town over the winter. I never anticipated staying. Last year, I came home with only one thing on my mind: writing and re-writing my book. I lived in my parents’ basement for four months and breathed all things Women Who Dig. That was it. That was my sole purpose. Then the fire tower called. Then I learned that the book would actually become a published book. Then the most important relationship in my life unraveled and all the plans that went along with that were no longer. Then everything changed and I didn’t know where else to go.
I stayed north. Even the idea of driving five hours to the south, to the city, seemed exhausting. After so many years of living abroad and traveling — often with the goal to learn from rural communities in the Global South, and collect stories from female farmers for Women Who Dig — I was physically, intellectually, emotionally, and creatively spent. I didn’t want anything to do with travel.
And, truth be told, I didn’t want anything to do with my book. Whenever I opened the manuscript, I cringed. Simply re-reading excerpts of the book, traveling back to those rice paddies in India, or sweet potato fields in Uganda, was an exercise in exhaustion. I distanced myself from the text. I mourned the book, and in a sense, the part of me that was no longer in motion. When I read the protagonist’s journey, I could barely remember who that person was, or who she was when she wrote it. I couldn’t recognize myself in the story — a very awkward, jarring kind of feeling — given that the book had become so much of my identity, past and present, and come the future, I’d have to share the story with so many people, to re-live the experience, to defend the ideas I wrote so passionately about. Thinking about my book practically made me sick with anxiety. So I put it down.
New daily #rituals. I bought my first axe last month in town. "Boy's axe" reads the label, much to my amusement. As the temperature drops, I'm feeding the coals in the woodstove every few hours. It's a full time job! Good thing I'm a writer! #girlswhochop #stressrelief #splittingwood #homesteading #north #borealforest #peacecountry
And I picked up an axe. I split wood all winter. I worried myself less with writing and more with simply keeping my trailer adequately warm (which it never quite was), keeping food in the fridge, and surviving. I barely wrote a thing for eight months, save for little Instagram poetics, a half-baked essay that captured the uncertainty I felt, and postcards sent to friends in distant places.
The most writerly cliche thing I did all winter, in fact, was find a part-time job at Java Domain, an artisan coffee shop in town. Every writer needs a part-time job at a cafe, I told myself, while wiping down tables and fixing sandwiches and, ironically, not writing. But perhaps it was the best decision I could’ve made. Back in the north, I needed a community — and I found it amongst my barista colleagues, a ragtag crew of different professionals: electronic engineers, yoga instructors, aviation mechanics, and community organizers. I also found it in many of the regulars, some local, but most of them from other places and provinces who’d also found themselves living in the north and seeking community. Cultivating new friendships became key to my survival over the winter. Emotionally, of course, but also in terms of people power. Perhaps the most important thing I learned all winter was to ask for help when you need it: as it turns out, 12 people can split a whole lot more wood, and a heck of a lot faster than one gal alone. My new and old friends helped me get through a hard season.
Slowly, as I’ve sunk roots into the north, I’ve begun to write again.
In mid-March, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table of Mary Lundgard, an organic farmer from Nature’s Way Farm, just outside of Grimshaw, Alberta. I interviewed Mary and her daughter, Lisa, 28 years old, about their experiences as women on the land in the Peace Country. It was the first time I’d ever interviewed a mother and daughter together: it was really a sweet moment that reminded me of what I absolutely cherish about being a writer, how I’m privileged to peek into people’s lives and listen/witness what matters most to people, especially when I’ve asked the right questions. The story also included the voice of a third female farmer, Lilli Klamke, 27 years old, who joined the farm in 2014. Lilli grew up and studied agriculture in Germany, but moved to the Peace Country to do an internship at Nature’s Way. She fell in love with the Lundgard’s farming philosophy and never left. Today she helps to oversee the farm operations, working with the cows, pigs, and sheep, driving tractor and machinery, and managing a large vegetable garden.
The story of women at Nature’s Way Farm, only a stone’s throw away from my own home, reinvigorated the passion I feel for Women Who Dig. I was thrilled to find a home for the piece in a locally grown media initiative, Move Up Magazine, a publication with a huge presence in the Peace Country. It was a pleasure to write for the publishers, Tormaigh and Jenelle Van Slyke, two movers and shakers who are working so hard to create and distribute local media in the Peace Country.
In May/June, Women Who Dig is moving into production at the University of Regina Press. The enthusiasm from my publisher, Bruce Walsh, is infectious. I’m starting to feel reconnected to the process — the very, very long and drawn out process — of book publishing. Some surprises: the publishers want to include photographs, portraits of the women whom I interviewed in different countries, along with the beautiful images by my soul sister and colleague, KJ Dakin. KJ traveled with me to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the Sonoma vineyards of California, U.S. It’s yet another privilege to be able to publish my words alongside KJ’s moving images of the women and places we traveled, and I know the U of R Press will do both art forms justice in publication.
If all goes to plan this summer/fall, Women Who Dig will be released in March of 2018.
The thought of cradling an actual copy of the book in my arms makes my heart want to burst open and shower glittery confetti everywhere! But once it’s published, I also know there will be so much more process to move through. When it’s finally “out there”, I’ll have to learn how to talk about it publicly, defend it, speak to it, and learn from other’s criticism of it. (So much process!)
Overall, re-growing roots in a rural, northern community has been a healing process for me. It’s forced me to ruminate on myself and my identity as a writer. It’s asked me to look inwards and outwards: asking what stories need to be told in northern Alberta? And how can I tell them?
I look forward to contemplating the answers to these questions; and to deepening my craft as a storyteller in a northern community that I once again call home.
As always, thanks for listening.