Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Beautiful BC is burning -- again

Our intention was to return from a family wedding in Quesnel via Highway 1, then turn off at Hat Creek Ranch to go down through Lillooet and return by way of Whistler. Instead, we had to divert south of 100 Mile House because of road closures due to mudslides from Clinton south to Cache Creek. Passing through Kamloops, we saw the sun as a faded orb through a shroud of forest fire smoke. Below, beyond ghostly islands, the far shore of Lac La Hache is completely obscured by smoke, and a heavy haze hangs over the Coquihalla Highway. Eeerily similar to last year.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Communist's Daughter by Dennis Bock

Image from Audible

Road trips require stories. This absorbing tale about Norman Bethune by Dennis Bock kept me occupied from Edmonton to Kamloops.

As his imagined Bethune writes to a daughter he's never met, Bock convincingly portrays the conflicting emotions of guilt and pride, sadness and joy, self-sacrifice and self-justification. As the doctor reflects on the people in his life, he acknowledges, "I cut my teeth on their sores, injuries, illness, and deaths," confiding that, "This life you hold before you is built upon the broken lives of thousands...in dark moments I see no more than an assemblage of their parts."

For this, he does not condemn himself, although "there is a sadness there. Any truthful man of medicine or science will tell you the same...how indebted we are to misfortune, upheaval and disaster...in the pursuit of science." It is "through tragedy and misfortune" that scientific facts are revealed to us. "Mastery and manipulation" are the goals of the scientist, and human suffering is "but carrion for the vultures of progress such as myself."

In real life, Bethune was well-traveled. He lectured internationally, lived in several countries, and spent his early married life running a medical practice for the rich in Detroit. In America, the narrator comments, "you can never rest, never appreciate, only aspire. It's like a war." Initially determined to become rich himself, he is instead drawn to "the underclass who have come for the American dream but will never have it." He soon finds himself treating the poor, whose only means of survival is "luck, guile, theft, or a combination of the three." The real Bethune visited the Soviet Union, and inspired by the idea of medicine practiced not for profit, became an early proponent of socialized medicine in Canada.

The conditions during the Spanish Civil War are brought vividly alive through telling details. On arriving in Madrid, Bethune soon concludes that to avoid suspicion and unpleasant encounters, he must shave his moustache and exchange his good quality clothing for the partisan's more humble garb. In the street, he observes a statue of Alfonso "in his suit of sandbags," and in a bar, he notices a republican who "smoked Ideales, the labourers' brand." Revealing a certain cynicism that lies behind his humanitarian drive, Bethune imagines the questioner of a suspected spy as he "waits with his hand on his gun for the preferred response."

Bethune is much more than a doctor. An amateur artist, he paints a portrait of a young girl to pass the time on the long ocean crossing from Vancouver to Hong Kong. He invents medical devices and systems, and writes a stream of articles for international newspapers and medical journals. He also produces a documentary film and tours widely to raise money for his medical cause. A man with poetic side, he describes the total darkness of northern China after the Japanese fighter planes have passed over: "the night in her mercy erases all traces of man."

In my years as an ESL instructor, I was told repeatedly by Chinese students how Bethune is revered in China, where he devoted his medical inventiveness and expertise to saving the lives of wounded soldiers during the Japanese occupation early in WWII. He met Mao Tse Tung in person, and they conversed about their Internationalist and Communist ideals through a long night.

What drew me to the title was a recent reminder of Bock's protagonist. A musical tour of China with fellow choristers in the spring took us through Shijiazhuang, where Norman Bethune is buried in the Martyrs' Memorial park. After the doctor's premature death from an infected cut on his finger, Mao wrote an essay in memory of Bethune. This was widely read in Chinese schools, and is still well-known.

Other memorials to Bethune are located in his birthplace of Gravenhurst, Ontario, and in Montreal, where he worked as a researcher at the Royal Victoria Hospital and is remembered at the McCord Museum. This year MDCM Candidate Christian Dabrowski presented a thesis on Bethune at McGill University. During his lifetime, Bethune's open communism was disapproved and his achievements downplayed in his homeland. In 2014, his alma mater celebrated his achievements and unveiled a statue in his honour.

Bethune has been a figure of admiration and controversy, widely discussed and written about. Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson gives an interview about him, and Donald Sutherland portrayed him in one of the many films make about this fascinating man.

Dennis Bock's work, well researched and faithful to real history, takes us back to a time long gone, channeling a voice that is completely believable as that of the real Norman Bethune. It is a tragic voice, one that looks back over a lonely life with the courageous wish to face flaws and failures. This only makes the narrator more compelling. A sample can be read here.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Moose Jaw, city of contrasts

Mac the moose greets those arriving in this lively prairie city. The plane in the background was once used by the stunt-flying RCAF Moose Jaw Snowbirds, smaller than Mac. Downtown is full of antique buildings and murals, and offers amazing Tunnel Tours. Temple Gardens Hotel and Spa has the lovely Crescent Park across the road. The river valley offers lovely views and trails. It also has an oil refinery.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Sage Hill Writing named for a cold war radar station

Photo from C and E museum

During the Cold War era, Canada and the US established the DEW (distant early warning) Line. This row of radar station resembled a bead necklace strung across the throat of the Far North. It was backed up by two further lines, the Mid-Canada and the Pinetree Line. The idea was to have advance warning if the Soviets fired missiles at North American cities.

Part of the Pinetree Line, Canadian Forces Station Dana was also known as Sage Hill. Established by NORAD in 1962, it was decommissioned in the mid eighties. It stood idle until being turned to service as a conference centre that hosted earlier incarnations of the Sage Hill writing experience. One veteran of that conference remembers the bat guano in the abandoned tower.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Varied Saskatoon beers have wonderful names

At a Sage Hill reading, Caitilinn Terfloth offers nervous readers Saskatoon-made craft beers with names like Czech Mate, Melon Head, Bete Noire, Black Friars and Robin of the Wood.

Prairie wine is made with choke cherries and saskatoons, fresh picked and seen below.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Treaty 6 territory and a Benedictine Abbey

Here at Sage Hill, meetings open with the acknowledgement that we stand on Treaty Six territory, that of the Metis Nation. At the same time, we acknowledge that the place hosting our retreat is the home of the Benedictine monks of St Peter's Abbey. Thoughts about the rich earth of Saskatchewan and its occupants recall to mind Saskatchewan songster Connie Kaldor's song "Maria's Place," about Batoche, a historic battle site. A bell of significance the Metis people was repatriated in 2013.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Healthy state of the arts in Saskatchewan

The Saskatchewan Arts Board is a model for others to emulate. Knowing the arts feed the soul of the community, it nourishes artists. For 29 years, Sage Hill Writing has used the Board's support well. Along with many young writers, 1000 adult alumnae have published over 650 books. Many return to Sage Hill as instructors.

A recent innovation is the Micro-Grant. Each month, practitioners in under-served areas can apply for a thousand dollars to support a very specific work or practice of art. Saskatchewan is a province with many small towns, and these grants support a variety of artists, especially those outside the cities. One recent young recipient was the North Battleford musician Cole Knutson.

The rurally raised novelist and poet Robert Kroetsch, who both benefited from and supported the Arts Board, spent many sessions at Sage Hill. In this year's Kroetsch Keynote, CanLit specialist and woman of letters Tanis MacDonald spoke of how daunting it can be for artists from small places to value and develop their own work.

The CCF government led by Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewan's legendary premier, supported the arts and led the way where other provinces would follow. Founded in 1948, the Saskatchewan Arts Board is the second oldest Arts Council in the world. The Arts Council of England was created two years earlier, in 1946.