Spirit and Land
- Sharon Butala (Author)
Wild Stone Heart: An Apprentice in the Fields. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cheryl LousleyIn Wild Stone Heart, Sharon Butala continues the spiritual quest she described in her 1994 bestseller, Perfection of the Morning. Like Perfection, Wild Stone Heart is a rambling personal narrative which intersperses dreams and anecdotes, walks and visions, local history and Jungian psychology, written in a simple, honest voice. Butala presents herself as "an apprentice" (the subtitle to both texts) and the book is ordered around her learning process.
In this book, she narrows her focus from the ranch she and her husband Peter run in southern Saskatchewan to one 100-acre field. "The field" has never been ploughed and was only rarely grazed and thus represents an edenic landscape for Butala: "the air was fresher and cleaner there and had a tang in it missing from the sweet-smelling cultivated hay fields, the cropland, or the seeded, mown, and watered grass of the front lawns and parks with which I was so familiar." She imagines the field is an example of the pre-settler prairie landscape, albeit, she notes in parentheses, without the large carnivores like prairie wolves exterminated through European settlement. Now permanently free from grazing cattle, the field becomes an ecological and spiritual experiment: what will happen once the land and the soul are opened up to natural processes? The land, predictably, regenerates and fills with the sounds and tracks of birds, insects and wildlife by the close of the book. Butala, similarly, awakens to greater spiritual awareness.
Wild Stone Heart turns out to be more about the apprentice than the fields and the story lies in the process of experiential learning Butala adopts: "I would not dig into the ground as an archeologist does; I would not even talk to an archeologist for clues. ... I would just walk and think and study what was there, and in time the meaningful pattern I felt sure was there would become evident to me." Through such walking, Butala encounters mystical shamans, unicorns, vanishing artefacts, and sun- and solstice-oriented rock formations. All have spiritual significance for Butala and she claims the visions and artefacts tie her more closely to the field and to "Amerindian beliefs." She refuses to consult with any experts on these topics, although seemingly more out of stubbornness and shyness than an ethic of non-intervention as she regularly collects artefacts until discovering the practice is illegal. Her rambling speculations, however, grow tedious, particularly in light of her conclusion when she invites an archeologist, an elder, and an aboriginal historian to the field: they quickly show that many of her speculations were misguided and inaccurate.
Butala concludes on a note of confession. She realizes she had been so pleased with her discoveries that she failed to see how the burial cairns in the field contained the bones of "once living and walking and breathing human beings." She was so caught up in the romantic and mystical possibilities of her connection to "ancient peoples"—thinking that she was "special" and not "just another one of those people fascinated by Indian people and their beliefs"—that she forgot "that they were people" (emphasis in original). The "stone in her heart" turns out to be not just the spirit within the stones of the field but also the racism she learned as a child.
But for all Butala’s honesty in sharing this realization, the confession comes too late, in the epilogue, and does not seem to shape how she recounts events. Butala seems determined to fill her "spiritual emptiness" with the apparent wholeness of others, turning first to rural people in Perfection of the Morning, and now to Amerindian cultures in Wild Stone Heart. This shift is explained in Wild Stone Heart. Butala is surprised, then disillusioned by the resistance her rural neighbours express when the Butalas donate their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to establish the Old Man On His Back Prairie and Heritage Preserve. Whereas Butala once wrote that "the most basic ingredient of all in rural life [is] that it took place in the midst of Nature," she now recognizes that it is "land ownership" which defines rural life. The "true rural men" she admired are now the environmental enemy. One can only wonder when the Amerindian people she now reveres will similarly disappoint her once she begins to talk to them in the flesh.
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MLA: Lousley, Cheryl. Spirit and Land. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 152 - 153)
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