I was travelling in the country south of Calgary to meet with a friend. He was visiting the small town where he lived as a kid and had invited me to tag along. I get few opportunities to ‘look inside’ rural communities these days. Those who were either family or acquaintances and at one time lived in remote small towns on the prairies, are no longer alive.
I say “opportunities” because there is something within me that relates to that life. I don’t know where it comes from, because my parents always lived in the city, either Regina or Calgary. However, my mother’s sister and her family lived on a farm and I stayed with them one summer in the 1950’s when we were moving from Regina to Calgary. The other connection was at our cottage at Lake Katepwa in Saskatchewan where two of our neighbours were farmers. Maybe that’s when I learned what it takes to make a living from a farm. Regardless of why or where, whenever I’m out and about on the prairie landscape, I feel good—emotionally connected with what I see. I often leave the main highways and travel the nondescript gravel roads that spread like a mesh over the prairies so I can feed that feeling.
I was on one of those roads when I encountered a house, once a home, that I want to tell you about.
When I drove past I noticed no fences nor posted ‘No Trespassing’ signs. I stopped, turned around, and drove onto the original road to the house, now just showing a hint of ruts made either by a car or wagon. I left the car by the property line and walked toward the house.
I’ve seen many houses like this on the prairies. This one must have been significant and attractive in its day, but now it was weathered and partially collapsed. I could tell that the west prairie winds and harsh winters would soon make this once proud structure a flattened pile of weathered lumber. I tend to anthropomorphise old buildings on the prairies. Nobody lived in the house any longer, so to me it looked lonely on the vast prairie landscape. I might be thinking of a connection to the time when the house was a home, when there was life here. The family would have made a living from their hard work, children were raised, and the community supported each other the best they could, knowing if they didn’t the community and nearby town would disappear.
When out on the prairies, I often think about the difference between that life and the life of today’s city dwellers, of which I am one.
I know that at one time there was a lot of activity in that home and when I arrived somebody would have walked out to greet me. The connectivity between the neighbouring farm families would have been strong. Most in such communities had an interest in the success of their neighbours. Success meant the community, including the nearby town, would be sustained. These days the affluence that many have often allows them to live more isolated lives with no need to depend on neighbours.
Looking inside, through a glassless window, I felt like I was spying on the family who used to live there. In the living room the wall plaster had fallen off the walls, broken, and spread over the floor. I could see through a doorway where other parts of the house leaned significantly, pending its final collapse.
The father and mother of that family would have been instrumental in building the house. They would have had help from their neighbours and, in turn, they would have been at the neighbours’ side when needed. Bonding between neighbouring families, often unspoken yet acknowledged, would have happened as they worked together, one with a hammer in hand, the other with a saw. They would have come together to celebrate successes and support each other in difficult times. They knew that any threat to one family’s success was a threat to the sustainability of their town—their community.
I’ve always thought that we all have a need for a shared home, a place of safety where our claim to occupancy is undisputed and where we can call on others to assist us in times of strife. We need peace with our neighbours, not just next door, but also those in our wider community. And we need the love and protection afforded by family life.
When the family from this farm home went on a shopping trip, the travel in to town would be filled with anticipation—nobody would be dawdling. After the day of shopping and socialising, all would be chattering about what they did and who they met and talked with. Home was not just their house, but the community of families, friends, storekeepers, school teachers, doctors, and dentists. Those people contributed to their feeling about the place they lived—a feeling of belonging.
Could this all be just a sentimental lie? I choose to think not, at least not for many who lived in that bygone time—that erstwhile culture that supported life on the prairies. I don’t know what it is like on the prairies these days, with huge farms often worked by the family or families of the community, but not necessarily owned by them. I do know that it is different in the big city. Walking down a crowded city street, I hardly ever see a person I know with whom I can take time to catch up and feel like I belong. Desensitised from the people around me, I normally walk briskly, head down, eyes never meeting, my thoughts elsewhere. A very different culture from that experienced by the farm family of this house when they went to their nearby town.
I’m not saying that one can’t have friends and community in a city today, but often those who we choose to spend time with are not our neighbours, but some individual or family that lives far enough away that we need to get in our car and drive for a visit. Often our neighbours, the people next door and down the street, are strangers. What can bring us together are our children—you know, those in our lives who start out nonjudgemental, full of energy and have time to spend with neighbours.
Do I yen to go back to those times in the past? In terms of the community they had, yes, but I would not be keen on giving up the lifestyle that my education and career have given me. Having moved from the big city to a smaller town a decade ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience small town living and closer ties with my community than I ever did in the big city. Yet I see change coming in our town. I sense that I’ve been living here on the cusp of change and the now rapid growth of our town. I think the outcome of this growth will ultimately result in the townspeople returning to the habits of big city dwellers.
As I turned away from that broken down house on the prairie and walked back to my car, I sensed the spirits of the place could still warm my heart. Maybe I should make an effort to connect with more of my neighbours. I also think we must focus on what we have in common and not allow our differences to keep us apart. To belong, I think, puts all of us in a better state of mind.