There are only a few places in the world that pull at the strings of my heart. As unlikely as it is, the Swan River Valley of Manitoba is one of these places.The northern-most agricultural settlement in Manitoba, it is on the southern edge of the boreal forest, with a parkland landscape of beautiful fields of canola, wheat, and flax (less today) interspersed with ash and pine forest. Unlike the United States Great Plains, the ethnic diversity includes Russian and Ukrainian settlements.
The town of Swan River itself has around 4000 people with an additional 2000 scattered through the adjacent rural areas. Locals often have multiple sources of income to survive. A plumber might also be a long-haul truck driver and may also need you to be home to do a plumbing job. The person hiring the work is needed as the second employee. And, of course, every such encounter is also a social encounter.
I've always been intrigued with places that are on the edge of settlement, such as Swan, but other elements add to my attachment.
I would have never even heard of Swan River, nor visited not once, but three times, if it hadn't been for a college friend to went there to serve a church and ended up marrying a farmer as well. That was more than two decades ago. I recently visited her as part of aiding in an assessment of a rural-based clinical pastoral education (CPE) course she had developed and taught. Several stories and statistics from that visit illustrate the culture of this place: The Swan River area has some of the highest percentage of elderly in the province, greatest diversity (native peoples, metis, etc.), lowest incomes, but greatest satisfaction with life.
What creates a place that has such great challenges, but also high levels of social capacity, and social capital to meet those challenges? This is one of the things that intrigues me. Another way to describe this would be to say that Swan River has a strong internal locus of control. The community does not exhibit fatalism, but rather is pro-active in shaping its community life. The fact that the community embraced the CPE students is an example. Another community might have been suspicious of outsiders. Swan River residents are not.
This strong sense of self was also reflected in another story I heard. Some local churches close during July. A particular pastor was not comfortable with this and wanted to continue to have services. His board kindly told him that they would close. Why? The locals understand that in small communities the work load for running institutions falls on few people. Everyone needs time off. And in addition, it is actually easier to visit other churches when yours is closed--no rumors are then spread about your possible dissatisfaction with your home church.
It is this strong sense of self that is intriguing. But also the landscape is mesmerizing. The Swan River Valley is actually the remnant of an arm of a glacial lake, leaving behind rich soils. You drive into the valley from drier and higher land into a green, broad valley. The sky expands as you come onto the flat plain. The changes colors of the sky and the landscape of parkland and
cropland leave me spellbound.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
My father died on May 16th. My memory, and our process of celebrating his life, cannot be separated from landscapes and places. We had a service in Grand Rapids where he lived his last five years. Here we were joined primarily by church members, others from my parents' retirement complex and many of my friends and colleagues.
Several weeks later we drove to Canton where the last church he pastored had a reception. As we left the woods and dunes of Michigan, it was appropriate to move into the space of the open prairies and Midwestern farms in whose small towns he had spent the majority of his life. We spent time in Canton where he lived for 41 years and had been an active member of the community, visiting with long time friends, but also going to Joe's for supper with some friends, playing Rook with other friends, and looking over the state of the town and the people in whom he had invested so much of his life. Walking through this space was important because we are not placeless people. We build lives in real places with real people in real physical settings.
While we were in Canton I reflected on how the town of your origins shapes you. I lived there for a mere 8 years, but because it was the years I grew to adulthood, it leaves an indelible mark on you. Is it because these people and places knew you when you were young? Or is it that they also knew my parents even after I left?
I drove up a rural hill with Gene Taylor one day on a trip to Peoria. Gene has very deep roots in the community that go back many generations, so different than my family's roots that began with my parents coming and ended with their leaving. As we drove up the hill Gene commented on how this hill was called the Chipperfield hill because Congressman Chipperfield had lived at the top and had a horse farm there. This congressman is long gone, gone before even my time in Canton. But I knew where his widow had lived--in the house with the big pillars between my house and the church that I regularly walked past. Someone once told me that this was where the widow of Congressman Chipperfield lived and it remained a mysterious but important fact to me. And it made me stop and think. My roots don't go back very far in Canton, but it is the landscape that holds my deepest memories. I knew where Widow Chipperfield lived. I knew which was the Solecki house and where Mr. Ingersol, who paid for my college education, had lived though I never met him. I remembered the square before the fire and after. And I could tell that the trees were finally growing tall again after being devastated by the tornado of 1975.
And what happens when this older generation is gone? Is it important that someone remembers that this rural hill was the Chipperfield hill? Does the hill need us to remember all those that belonged there at one time or another?
Now we are contemplating the final pilgrimage to Windom, Minnesota in the beautiful open prairies of southwestern Minnesota. While Canton is the place that I grew up, Windom is where my parents grew up. This is the place where my family's roots are deep--back several generations on one side. My grandparents, uncle, aunt, great-grandparents, and at least one great, great grandparent are buried in the area, and now my father. The minister that will be at the burial is from the church that he grew up in, and was ordained in, and who buried my grand-mother. We will be surrounded by our extended family on this leg of the trip. My father's knowledge of this landscape was deep--from Norwegian Hill, the house that Beaufort had his funeral home in, and the homes of various small town characters.
Keith Basso, in his book Wisdom Sits in Places, talks about how place names and landscapes are used for teaching and cultivating wisdom amongst the Western Apache. It is appropriate that this be a summer of walking through landscapes.
Wisdom is developed in places.