A one track road twists through the poplar bush off a gravel grid road about 40 kilometres north and then west of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The road forces you to slow down as it works its way around a long slough. On the top of a rise of land in the rolling parkland, a transition zone between prairie and boreal forest, a white-stuccoed, blue-metal-roofed house soon becomes visible through the trees.
Birds were already beginning to flock for their fall migration when I made it out to Bernie and Rene’s home at the end of August, on my way back to the Yukon from my summer’s travels. It had been years since I wandered up their way, and though I had heard about their straw bale house, I had never visited it before.
I dramatically announced my long overdue visit with a awkward flourish of my black hockey bag which launched a vase off an entryway stand into oblivion. My friends quickly calmed me and brought me to their table. With a deeply engrained sense of hospitality, they offer me as with any guest to their home, food. Much of the bounty of their table had been drawn from their land: milk and cheese from their cow, honey from their hives, bread from their grain, berries, fruit and vegetables from their garden.
Later they showed me their home which they had designed and built. Each room provided outside light from at least two angles to illuminate them. Composting toilets turned waste to fertilizer. A large, floor to ceiling, Hungarian-style cylindrical wood-fired heater warmed their kitchen and dining area as well as providing an oven for bread baking. Bernie, a fibre artist, had her work studio while Rene had hectares of land on which to explore his interests in animal husbandry, apiculture, farming and gardening.
Rene drives a school bus to supplement his pension. Bernie gives art classes in town. Together they found the resources they needed along with their sweat equity to build a life together that walks more gently on the land while offering them enormous opportunities for personal growth and satisfaction.
“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” This quote is attributed to John Lubbock, a late 19th and early 20th century biologist, archeologist and politician. For trivia buffs he is said to have coined the terms paleolithic and neolithic to describe old and new stone ages repectively. It is not hard to riff off of Lubbock’s quote. Where we are bound for depends mainly on the way we go. What we aspire towards depends mainly on how we live.
Maybe our family grace over this year’s Thanksgiving meal could reflect on the the world that we want for ourselves and our children, as well as on the bounty we will share. Poverty and Homelessness Action Week will challenge us, as well, to imagine a Yukon without poverty. Seeing these visions of a better tomorrow through to reality depends on how active we are in looking for the ways to concretely live and build them here and now.
When I left Bernie and Rene’s homestead I had two kilos of their fine, white prairie honey in my bag.
Michael Shapcott, the director of Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at Toronto’s Wellesley Institute, will give the Poverty and Homelessness Action Week keynote address on Thursday, October 14 at the Old Fire Hall at 7 p.m. on ideas about what we can do here in the Yukon to alleviate our housing crisis. All are welcome.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact email@example.com.