Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning

It's kind of a long title, this one - The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature - and in the end I don't know how well it reflects my experience of the book. It's a book worth reading, but the not-quite nature of its title's fit is a sign for how well it suits me. (Book review number two I'm catching up on, for those keeping track at home.)

In brief, Butala in 1973 was a divorced single mother and university instructor living in Regina. She subsequently fell in love with and married bachelor farmer Peter Butala, who had himself lived his whole live in that part of southwestern Saskatchewan falling inside the boundaries of Palliser's Triangle - not far from Eastend, SK, where Wallace Stegner briefly lived as a young lad. Over the years she has come to an increasingly deep connection with this place, a place of which she had no knowledge whatsoever when she moved there, and this book follows the growth and deepening of that connection. Some links to Thoreau's experience outside Concord, Mass., in other words, as well as to the post-1970s tradition of women's life-writing.

She does a marvelous job of discussing the 80s-90s boom/bust that had such a disastrous effect on Prairie farmers, but I was hooked early by her confessions about gradually remembering sensations from her rural childhood, after suppressing them in pursuit of urban success, once she begins to spend time on the Butala ranch. Here's the book's key passage:
If we abandon farms and farmers as we have known them for the last ten thousand years, we abandon our best hope for redefining ourselves as children of Nature and for reclaiming our lost souls, for what other sizable body of people exists in North America with their knowledge? There are only Native people left, who have been speaking to deaf ears since their conquest from five hundred to a hundred years ago. We may at last be ready to listen to them, but the cultural differences - in particular, religion - make it difficult for many non-Natives to hear what it is that Natives are saying. Increasingly we know in our hearts they are right, have been right all along, but we can't find a way of implementing their knowledge, of blending it with our own beliefs into a workable salvation both for the land and for all of us as a species. (p.179)
If you're wondering, yeah, I do find those lines problematic, in a number of ways. I'm uncomfortable with spirituality, and with the breadth of generalization she's prone to, and with any non-ironic use of phrases like "children of Nature." Plus Butala's casual use of "our" stands out for me, because with it she excludes First Nations individuals from her audience - perhaps unintentionally, but perhaps on purpose if she's writing to a specific audience.

And I do think she's writing to a specific audience. As good an example of nature writing as this book is, The Perfection of the Morning probably works for the same readers who enjoyed Diane Schoemperlen's Our Lady of the Lost and Found (reviewed here in June 2007), and for the same reasons that mean neither one feels like home for me. It's a worthwhile read, especially for women of a certain age and persons of a certain persuasion - plus her prose is really quite lovely - but it's not a book I identify with.

The Butala ranch, incidentally, is now the Old Man On His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area. It's an important surviving patch of semi-arid mixed-grass prairie: buffalo country, in other words, and the Butalas are greatly to be commended for selling their 13,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy.


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