Poet and essayist Tim Lilburn recalls his grandfather, a sodbuster who landed near Wolseley, Sask. in 1902. He built a life in the wheat boom, lost everything in the dustbowl, and ended his days in a Regina rooming house with a bed and a chair. “Everything I write, I sense, is about this life or is somehow founded by this life.”
The epilogue does not diminish the triumph, writes Lilburn. Immigrants fled “Europe’s two most intractable social ills: landlessness and classism. Many experienced the homestead years as euphoric as a result”.
“It must have been dizzying,” writes Lilburn. “Of course there was an incredible amount of work to be done, but this was set against all night dances in people’s houses, local families providing the music, furniture piled in the yard; beef rings; the excitement of threshing crews coming for the rich crops; Christmas concerts at the school; horse-drawn cutters with heated stones set on the floor for warmth – autonomy and a bracing freedom flourished; a local culture was made up as people went along. I’ve heard tale after shimmering tale.”
The Larger Conversation asks what it means when Canadians sing of our home and native land. “We are floating in the places where we live, as we work the thin living that comes with squatter rights on the crust of global commercial culture,” he writes.
The author takes readers on a far-flung journey through the beautiful brain of Tim Lilburn, from Socrates to the hutongs of Old Beijing, and returns again and again to the land of First Nations and sodbusters. On leaving Saskatchewan for Victoria he actually became physically sick, writes Lilburn: “I missed the prairies I knew”; “My story is perhaps a trivial example, but it says in miniature what land loss does.”
To read Lilburn is to recall Benjamin Franklin’s words, that there is nothing more pitiable than an illiterate man on a rainy day. This is reading for the joy of it. You are sorry for anyone who could not join in.
It takes a poet to see the extraordinary in the mundane. Lilburn recounts as a troubled youth he hitchhiked to a Catholic Abbey at St. Norbert, Man. on a summer night. “I slept in a local park in the sand box, which held some heat from the day, taking in the Perseids meteor shower, convinced it was some sort of sign.”
Later Lilburn writes of a journey through the Crownest Pass: “The radiator shop in Bellevue, Alberta. The brown rising river, the Crowsnest, at the moment it turns east. The semen smell of cottonwood poplar buds. The lip red, scared flowers of cottonwoods. Dippers burrowing under water. Harlequin ducks in pairs, casually riding the hillocks of the fast water. The blond ponytail of the cop talking to the middle-aged, male speeder hauling a boat through the 60 kph zone at Frank. The biker run rad shop in the Pass. Old paint in opened tins, white, with dust mixed in, dust borne as seeds, behind the abandoned house. Tubers or iris bulbs of what looks like faces in-skinned on this and that. The moose-browsed low willow, this piece of limestone that dribbled and cartwheeled a hundred years ago from that mountain onto a coal town, killing seventy people.”
Lilburn for his 60th birthday planned a journey, not to China or the haunts of Greek philosophers, but back to Saskatchewan, and a sodbusters’ cemetery where his grandfather is spending eternity. “I stared at the stone, which surely no one has visited in decades, for some time,” he says.
By Holly Doan
The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, by Tim Lilburn; University of Alberta Press; 296 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-2992; $34.95