The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Language of Geography

by Tricia Dower

My ‘point of origin’ (as my husband likes to say) was Rahway, New Jersey, twenty miles outside of New York City. It’s the congested, industrial part of the state. Travelers pass through it as quickly as possible while holding their noses. I don’t recall ever boasting about the scenery.

Our home was three houses in from Route 1: 2,300 miles of road stretching from Maine to Florida. I fell asleep to the steady hum of cars and trucks. Traffic was one of the words I grew up with, along with highway, parkway, turnpike, hot rod, brownstone, apartment, tenement, slum, hood, gang. New Jersey has the highest population density of all of the states. Now there’s something to brag about.

I was heavily into crosswords by about age twelve and learned to spell scads of words I hadn’t experienced (emu, poi, tapir). At some point, I must’ve had to come up with “butte” for “an isolated, steep-sided hill,” but I wouldn’t have known how to pronounce it. “Beaut” was one of my Jersey City born and bred father’s words, as in, “That car is a real beaut!” I might also have filled in “coulee” for the clue: “a deep ravine,” although I knew only of cheap coolie hats you bought in the five and dime if you wanted to be Chinese on Hallowe’en.

Colin was born in rural Alberta – about as different from New Jersey as I can imagine. Parts of Alberta remind me of my mother’s Kansas and make me feel sad for her. She was a farm girl who never quite took to the east. Nobody there spoke her language.

The last week in July we drove to coulee-rich Lethbridge to bury Colin’s mother who had died a few days before, only a week after breaking her hip. On the way back to Victoria we took a detour to visit Colin’s first home — farmland between the village of Woolford (on an official list of Alberta ghost towns) and the still living Cardston. We didn’t stop in at his family’s farm. It’s owned now by someone else. We turned onto a different gravel road to visit neighbour Delynn Bingham. He’d shown up at the funeral but there wasn’t enough time to catch up on all the years since he and Colin had seen each other.

Older than Colin, he was a mentor of sorts, sharing tips on branding calves and shooting gophers. Delynn used to ride the rodeo (known as “The Bing”) but, these days, he leaves that to his son Tom who’s had success in Saddle Bronc events. Delynn farms the land his parents once did. He grows grain and cattle, has a horse or two. Except for some feral cats, he lives by himself in a trailer on the property. Nothing fancy. He drives a pick-up with a windshield pitted with cracks, the bigger ones taped up. Has a bunch of guns he uses to shoot coyotes (pronounced with only two syllables, the second one “oats”). Keeps a clipping of a story that columnist Christie Blatchford did about him a few years ago when she came out in search of regional colour. He had border collies then, he told us, and she was a good sport about them jumping on her.

Delynn’s place sits near the foot of Lumpy Butte. Say that without laughing if you’re from New Jersey. It’s covered with scrub grass and wild flowers. Cattle graze on it from time to time. When it snowed, Colin used to ski down its slopes or take the snowmobile up there. The three of us sat in the front seat of Delynn’s truck and headed towards the butte. Colin hopped out to open the gate. “He’s still got his farm boy manners,” Delynn said, “remembers it’s the passenger who does that.” He put the truck into four-wheel drive and drove straight up. It felt like the slow, steep climb of a roller coaster. Felt like the truck could rear up on its hind legs at any moment and dump us out. I closed my eyes.

Delynn parked at the very top and produced two pairs of binoculars. If it had been clearer we could have seen all the way to Whiskey Gap, he said. Another ghost town. It was incredibly windy up there. I had to brush my hair from my face to peer through the binoculars. I spotted the tall trees bordering Colin’s old place. Imagined what it must have been like to have all that land as a playground. There was only a small field near my house where violets and blackberries grew wild; a mere fraction of what he had.

Up there I could see the language of crops, coulees, foothills, streams, livestock and grain elevators my husband grew up speaking. Could feel how it gave him a different sense of the world than my language gave me. He prefers a small, snug house to return to each day after exploring whatever the outdoors has to offer. The outer world of my youth was crowded and threatening. I like my big, open spaces to be inside. That’s just one of the differences that may be rooted in our separate points of origin. What I’m saying might be nothing more profound than ‘he’s a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock and roll,’ but up there on Lumpy Butte I felt I was onto something bigger.

Photo: On top of Lumpy Butte with The Bing.


Blogger tamara said...

Tricia, this is great. (And I had no idea you are a Jersey Girl.) I've never been to Alberta, but now feel as if I have. Great story, and a lovely post.

Tue Sep 12, 01:12:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

I feel this same way when I leave my hometown, Calgary and head out to the acreages and farmland in Southern Alberta. I'm often a bit envious of those raising families in beautiful wide spaces. Wow, Tricia you've some along way from NJ!

Tue Sep 12, 09:50:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Tamara and Anna: Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, Toto, we're not in New Jersey anymore.

Tue Sep 12, 11:41:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gorgeous bit of writing - the city and the country life - I now feel I know both of you better. Diane

Wed Sep 13, 09:26:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

What a wonderful post, Tricia, so descriptive, so dreamy, a perfect mixture of country and rock n' roll. And again, you've chosen a great photo to accompany your post.

Wed Sep 13, 09:26:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I knew this post would pull an anonymous!

Wed Sep 13, 10:47:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

This is so beautiful Tricia, a Jersey Girl, I love it, happy to have you here in Canada, wonderful writing Tricia..xoxo

Wed Sep 13, 01:01:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks Diane, Anne, Tony, Patricia. I'm happy to be here, learning a new language.

Wed Sep 13, 01:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Brings back memories of my youth in Saskatchewan. And trust me, as far as poi goes you're not missing anything.

Wed Sep 13, 11:41:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Steve. Poi. Some sort of paste, right? I went to a luau once but didn't have the courage to try it.

Fri Sep 15, 05:58:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My name is Drew Allred and I'd love to contact Colin Dower and high school friend of mine.

Sun Aug 17, 12:04:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My name is Drew Allred and I'd love to contact Colin Dower and high school friend of mine.

Sun Aug 17, 12:05:00 am GMT-4  

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