old friend new ideas

While walking down the aisles of the South Hill Mall Safeway in Prince Albert last week, I looked at folk to see if I recognized faces from the time when I lived in this Saskatchewan community more than 20 years ago.

While walking down the aisles of the South Hill Mall Safeway in Prince Albert last week, I looked at folk to see if I recognized faces from the time when I lived in this Saskatchewan community more than 20 years ago.

It took me awhile to realize I was looking at dark-haired folk in their 30s and 40s rather than the now 50 and 60 year olds who would have been my peers back then. My images of them, and obviously of myself, would be readjusted over the next few days after seeing many of them at the 40th wedding celebrations that brought me back to the Prairies.

Gray hair definitely predominated among the celebrants at the MacDonald-Shatilla 40th in Spruce Home and the Anderson’s gathering in Melfort a day apart last weekend. Many tales could and would be told of lives well lived since I last walked among them.

The conversations, though, did not fixate on the past. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Aging doesn’t automatically imply wisdom or for that matter someone clinging nostalgically to the past. However, from my limited sample I can infer that adding decades hopefully can signal continuing growth tempered now by experience.

Rene Blom, my host for the stay and friend of nearly four decades, walked me through his garden on a slope below his three bedroom straw bale house. Every step seemed to reveal a new variety of plant being checked out or a graft that he hoped would improve on a tried and true prairie apple, plum or cherry. But his gardening passion has led him most recently to experiment with biochar.

Biochar, another name for charcoal used as a soil additive, offers several benefits, I was told. By converting bio-wastes from organic matter like sugarcane waste or forest slash via high temperatures in a low-oxygen environment to biochar, proponents say it increases soil fertility, reduces soil acidity, slows the leaching of existing soil nutrients and improves water quality.

Rene had fashioned a low-tech kiln out of recycled materials to make his biochar. It provides a way to put carbon back into the ground, rather than having it released into the atmosphere and aggravating our already perilous plunge into the climate change spiral.

Another longtime friend, Gailmarie Anderson of Melfort, one of the weekend celebrants, had taken on a new role since I last saw her. In her capacity as the curator of the Melfort and District Museum she introduced me to Dr. Alfred Schmitz Shadd.

Gailmarie help me realize the importance of the role “Saskatchewan’s great pioneer black doctor” played in the development of her region. We can all recognize how easily minority narratives become submerged in the dominant cultural history. I had once lived in Melfort and never recalled hearing of Dr. Shadd.

Alfred Shadd, a native of Chatham, Ontario, which was once a terminus of the Underground Railway, came west as a teacher when this region was still a district of the North-West Territories. At that time he saw the critical importance of health care to the area’s successful settlement. He managed to complete his medical studies and continued to serve the communities he had chosen to spend his life in, but not only as a medical doctor. Dr. Shadd’s entrepreneurial skills blossomed in a pharmacy, newspaper, cattle farm and a host of civic tasks.

Surprisingly his memory, which Gailmarie and her museum help to foster, is now much more important. Their efforts help us recuperate a truer memory of our multi-ethnic Canada, which we need to move us all forward or as Saskatchewan’s motto emphasizes, “Multis e Gentibus Vires,” or “From many peoples strength.”

A host of other plans and perspectives offered by the senior set last weekend reinforced the notion for me that vitality and creativity can remain strong no matter how much our joints complain or vision dims. Old friends shared new ideas, dreams and above all hope.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

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