Interviews with author(s) of “A Geography of Blood”
A Conversation with Candace Savage, author of A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape
You have written many bestselling natural history books but few are as personal or as political as A Geography of Blood. What compelled you to tell this particular story?
The “geography” in question is the Cypress Hills, a broken rise of land that straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, just north of Havre, Montana. The country is a complete knockout for anyone who enjoys the romance of the Earth’s history or who is susceptible to the wild, windblown beauty of natural prairie. I was head over heels in an instant and knew I’d have a story to tell.
So that explains why this book is more intimate than in your earlier work?
Right. I like to think that my other books are personal or political in their own way. But this is the first time I’ve written myself into the story as a character and a first-person presence. I really enjoyed it.
Your exploration centered on a little town called Eastend, right? I like the way you described it –“a speck in the Big Empty of the North American outback.”
Yes, Eastend, Saskatchewan, is nestled in a beautiful valley at the southeastern tip of the Cypress Hills. Speck though it is – population 600 and slowly declining – it has earned a place on the cultural map of North America as the boyhood home of the late, great American writer Wallace Stegner. The Stegners left town in the early 1920s, but their home is still there, managed by the local Arts Council as an artists’ residence. That’s what brought us to town in the first place, me and my partner, Keith. At the time, I certainly didn’t anticipate that Wallace Stegner would be a companion through the early stages of my explorations or that I would end up daring to spar with him.
So that’s what brought you to Eastend in the first place—the Stegner House?
It all began as a kind of busman’s holiday. We dropped into the Stegner House on a reconnaissance trip for a book I was working on at the time, Prairie: a Natural History. That was back in 2000. We were just hanging out – sightseeing -- taking in the mysterious, sculpted landforms of the Frenchman Valley and getting caught in eddies of silence and nostalgia. We didn’t realize at the time that the place had hooked us, though we did know that something odd was going on. From the beginning, we had a weird sense that we were there for a reason, though what reason could there be? We ended up coming back the following year, by accident it seemed, noticing a For Sale sign and buying a house. And so it all began.
You said that you ended up sparring with Wallace Stegner.
Well, I have to admit that it was a rather one-sided conversation, since Mr. Stegner has been dead now for more than twenty years! What I found in his writings was a classic--you could even say canonical--account of western settlement. Nobody from Stegner’s generation recounted that history with more passion or grace than he did in Wolf Willow, his reflection on his own Eastend years. I’m the descendant of generations of prairie “pioneers” myself, so I have a very personal stake in that history. In the end, the standard framing of the settlement story, as presented by Stegner and others, left me feeling troubled. Actually, make that mad.
So A Geography of Blood is an answer to Stegner’s Wolf Willow?
No, I wouldn’t say that. When Stegner returned to Eastend, or Whitemud as he called it, to reflect on his own youth, he ended up reconsidering the entire process of western settlement. To my surprise, that is also what I found myself required to do. But the impetus didn’t come from Stegner. As much as anything, it seemed to come from the land. It was as if the land itself was my teacher.
I know that probably sounds hokey, but that’s how it felt. The geologists tell us that the Cypress Hills are an “erosional remnant” of a landscape that once covered the entire plains. That landscape is gone from the rest of the country, eroded away. This means that the Cypress Hills are a repository of memory. Both literally and figuratively, they remember ancient life forms and long-buried events that have been forgotten everywhere else. The land has a lot to teach us if we listen to it.
I noticed that the landscape reveals some secrets to you through several profound experiences. How did these experiences affect you and your search for more answers?
When people ask me about this book, I often say that it’s about what I was required to learn by going back to the Cypress Hills over and over again. Although I spent a lot of time in the library and pouring over old documents, that research merely served to fill in the gaps. I tried to tell the story as I had learned it, rooted in the land, with every chapter situated very clearly in a precise location.
In the Frenchman Valley, you discover a physical unconformity between the centuries-old layers of sediment. How is this symbolic of our historical understanding?
An “unconformity” is a disjunction in the geological record. It is a place where sediments representing hundreds or thousands of years have been swept away by erosion, so that ancient deposits are overlain by much more recent ones. To an unschooled eye, the deposits appear to tell a continuous story, but experts can tell that there is an invisible gap—long periods of time that have been forgotten. As I was gazing at the steep, eroded hillsides along the Ravenscrag Road, it occurred to me that there are similar unconformities in the way we choose to remember – and selectively choose to forget -- more recent, human events.
Most Canadian history textbooks gloss over the plains history you’ve uncovered. Why is this? And in your opinion, should Canadian teachers convey these tough histories to their students?
As a kid growing up on the prairies in the 1950s and 1960s, I was raised on stories of the “pioneers,” a human flood that included several generations of my own ancestors. Oxen, covered wagons, poke bonnets. The march of progress.
There was scarcely a word about the natural productivity of the buffalo prairie –an entire ecosystem reduced to ruins -- or about the civilizations that had flourished here for thousands of years before the settlement era, which were sidelined and displaced. The hills forced me to accept that these losses were part and parcel of the settlement story, part of my heritage as a prairie person.
What are we to think of Canadian authorities who, in the 1880s, deliberately withheld food from starving people in order to force them across the border (in the case of the Sitting Bull refugees) or onto reserves (as happened to signatories of Treaties)? What are we to think of ourselves if we refuse to own and honour the painful aspects of our own collective experience?
Were you emotionally affected by the historical quagmire you uncovered?
First, I need to say that I am not the first person to tell this story. First Nations and Métis people have always known and remembered what happened, and scholars have been studying and documenting these events since the 1970s. Still, the nastier bits of settlement history haven’t exactly become household knowledge! These memories make us ashamed, angry, bewildered, regretful, curious, eager to understand. I know I felt all those things.
In the end, even though you delve into some dark territory, this isn’t a depressing book. In fact, in a curious way, it’s surprisingly heartening.
I’m very happy to hear you say that! Obviously, the story doesn’t end in the nineteenth century. Even though many things were broken in the still-quite-recent past—even though we continue to lose species and to suffer the effects of social trauma – the grasslands still inspire us with their beauty and the First Nations people to whom I turned for help were deeply connected with their ancestors and generous to a newcomer in their midst. As I say in the book, this is a story that has to be marked To Be Continued.
How many years did you spend researching and writing this book?
I’m almost embarrassed to tell you. It’s been on my mind since that first visit to Eastend – that’s eleven or twelve years ago. Since 2006, I’ve worked on it pretty much full time. It’s not a long or complex book but it took a lot of time and effort to get the facts straight and to figure out what I needed to say. I’ve loved every minute of it – it’s been immensely rewarding.
D&M Marketing, Sep 10, 2012Read more >>
Want to learn more about the humble bumblebee? So did we. So we got the buzz from Bees author Candace Savage, who let us in on a few secrets. Read on.
What’s the most fascinating thing you learned about bees while researching this book?
I hardly know where to begin, there were so many surprises. Who would have guessed, for example, that there are thousands and thousands of kinds of bees in the world? They’re all out there—tiny and iridescent, fuzzy and fat, elegant and sleek—just waiting for us to pay attention.
The second thing that impressed me, apart from their diversity, was their sophistication. Although we think of bees as mere insects, some species can measure distances, map directions, and perform and decode abstract “dances”. If that isn’t enough, bees are also stunningly important.
How did you become interested in bees?
It began way back when I was a tiny girl, only two or three years old. I remember a bright, sunny day and looking down to see a bejeweled yellow-and-black insect walking across my skin. A second later, it stung me and that moment—beauty, pain and all—was burned into my memory forever. Everybody said I had been stung by a bee (though it was more likely a wasp), and I have had a special regard for bees ever since.
Many years later, I took a distant interest in the controversy about honeybee language. Did they, or did they not, communicate by performing and interpreting symbolic dances? It hardly seemed possible, but who knew? I decided to find out, and this little book is the result.
Honeybee language, and symbolic dances? Are you kidding me?
As incredible as it seems, honeybees really do have a capacity for abstract communication. For one thing, they inform one another about the location of rich beds of flowers by performing dances that show precisely the direction and distance of the bonanza. For another, they use this same “language” to indicate the location of potential nests, which the colony needs to establish a new home. And that’s only the beginning of their abilities—there’s so much more.
How can we know that bees communicate with one another?
It’s such a great story. The honeybees’ dance “language” was documented by a biologist named Karl von Frisch and his student, Martin Lindauer, during the dying days of the Third Reich. There they were, stuck in Munich during the Allied bombardment, amid all the chaos and hatred and destruction, taking a stand for humanity and truth by studying honeybee behaviour!
They were both brilliant and diligent researchers, and together they made life more beautiful by revealing one of nature’s hidden wonders. I was thrilled to uncover their story and am happy to be able to tell it in this book.
Earlier, you said that bees are “stunningly important.” What did you mean by that?
Because bees are fixated on flowers, they are the most important pollinating force on Earth. They act as sexual go-betweens, transferring male pollen to female ovules, so that flowering plants can bear fruit and set seeds. If it weren’t for bees, this planet would be a very hungry place, for all of Earth’s creatures including human beings. We’ve all heard about widespread die-offs of honeybees in the U. S. and elsewhere. The news is truly very worrying.
What is happening to the bees?
Some scientists believe that the die-off of honeybees in the U. S. was caused by a viral disease. But other experts believe that the virus merely delivered the final blow in a long-term assault on the insects’ health. Domesticated honeybees are afflicted by an ever-increasing burden of parasites and by the drugs that are used to combat them. At the same time, they are weakened by pesticides in the environment and by poor nutrition. The more of the Earth that we devote to monocultures, the more impoverished the bees become. Honeybees and wild bees are both feeling the crunch.
What can we do to help?
Fortunately, there are many ways to give bees a boost:
Where can I learn more?
First, of course, I recommend that you read my new book, Bees: Nature’s Little Wonders. Beyond that, here are a few websites you should check out:
Pollination Canada Observer’s Kit
Urban Bee Gardens: A Practical Guide to Introducing the World’s Most Prolific Pollinators Into Your Garden.
D&M Marketing, Aug 19, 2008Read more >>