An author evokes her pilgrimage on a patch of land
When Sharon Butala sat down to write her newest book, she was deeply worried about its reception. Butala, 59, is one of the most celebrated writers in Canada, a Governor General’s Award nominee and winner of the prestigious Marian Engel Award. For 24 years, she has lived on a remote Saskatchewan ranch near the Montana border, and when she wrote about it in The Perfection of the Morning (1994), she stayed on best-seller lists for more than a year. But when Butala started work on Wild Stone Heart (HarperFlamingoCanada, 206 pages, $28), the story of one particular field on the ranch, the writer says she “debated and debated and debated” whether she had the courage to go ahead. For what Butala claims she saw on the patch of land, including native spirits, most people would dismiss as delusions. “I knew people would accept what I had to say if I said it was metaphor, or even if I left it vague,” she told Maclean's. “But I decided that no way was I going to go through what I did to wimp out in the end: this is what really happened to me.” What happened to Butala was that
an almost untouched 100-acre section of her husband Peter’s land had drawn her with its austere beauty soon after their marriage in 1976. Over the years, Butala writes, she visited the field, thought about it and, eventually, began to see it. Or, more precisely, what was in it, things that no one else had seen or could see, things that came and went. Stone circles to start with—the rings of rocks, found all over unplowed prairie, that once held down native teepees— then artifacts, like a baffling white quartz sphere that wasn’t there when she returned the next day. Then a single native burial site and, finally, burial cairns in great numbers.
And all the while this was taking place, Butala was experiencing spectacular visions—she vividly describes how an antelope bounding across a road became a dazzling unicorn—and hearing voices in her head. She writes that her house was haunted, and she was weighed down by an inexplicable physical weariness, particularly when she set out for the field. For Butala, always as much a spiritual writer as a naturalist, it would have been simple—and satisfactory
for her legion of fans—to have wrapped these experiences into a neat bundle, a parable about modern alienation from nature and its healing power. But Butala is adamant that it was all real— the visions of native women in the field, the creatures of legend. “My eyes had opened,” she writes of the unicorn sighting, “to see I what is always there.”
I Someone from the spirit I world was trying to talk to her, ! she writes, presumably because * she was there, in the field. So she I persevered with visits to the site and with wide reading in Plains Indian culture, and the plants and animals of the prairie. She began to realize, in her heart as much as in her mind, “what we had done when we setders had claimed this land for our own.” Not only had Europeans shattered the lives, cultures and very souls of Plains Indians by displacing them from their land, but the settlers didn’t even properly value what they had taken. They used the rocks of burial cairns and stone circles to build house foundations, or simply threw them aside so they could plow. In the most sorrowfully lyrical sentence of an elegiac book, Butala writes: “Every stone freighted with tears, with the weight of grief, they should have been too heavy to lift.”
Once the writer began to see things from a native perspective—“as far as I am able to, I always stress that,” Butala says—matters moved rapidly. The burial cairns that now became visible to her convinced her that a great dying had occurred in the field, and that the unquiet spirits of the dead haunted field and house both. And Butala finally knew what they wanted. Writing Wild Stone Heart, Butala saw her tiredness erased. The haunting in her house stopped, and her obsession with the field eased. “I knew when my job was done,” she says. “I had told the story as well, as truthfully and as compellingly as I could.”
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