When Robert Kroetsch died in 2011, I wrote a eulogy of sorts here, offering my condolences to Kroetsch's family, to his many friends and colleagues, his many ex-wives and ex-girlfriends and ex-lovers, but, mostly, to his readers.
But I’ve been thinking of him again. I miss him.
And I need to evict the image of a broken old man dying by the side of the road, so I’ve decided to approach him via his writing, via the books that were most important to me as a young writer…
This is the second of these pieces. The first touched on The Studhorse Man (1970).
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I unearthed my copy of Robert Kroetsch’s Badlands (1975), a yellowing second-hand paperback, just before I visited Dinosaur Provincial Park in 2007.
We’d come from a pig roast at a family reunion in Brooks, Alberta, in heat that kept us all flushed.
My daughter A. was fourteen months old, clumsily chasing the dog and cat around the property, her full cheeks wobbling. But this camping trip wasn’t only about making sure the girl knew her extended family, it was about my partner M. and I, about doing things we found meaningful, before and after baby.
Which is to say that I read Badlands in snatches, in the car or just before bed, that I read it quickly and nostalgically.
It was forty degrees Celsius when we drove up to the campsite, which was dominated by a massive tree and bounded to one side by a stream.
We unpacked the car quickly, having confined the girl to her traveling playpen. She yelled at us as we struggled to set up the tent under the tree, her and him and me red in the face and crabby.
We fell asleep as the sky went purple and indigo, sprawled on top of our sleeping bags, and when the storm broke, we were grateful for the masses of cool air that the storm pushed around, in and out of the tent.
But in the morning, there was an enormous branch on the ground next to the tent and it was already twenty-nine degrees. We poured the fair-skinned girl into her backpack carryall and went for a walk under the trees, on the only trail that wasn’t rock and hoodoos.
The bugs were terrible and it was already hot at 8:30 am but we walked the loop, we pointed at things, we chattered and sang. Next, we went to the campground’s playground, where the play structure was rated for 5-12 year olds. Which is to say that the girl played on it, but we had to be right by her side so she didn’t fall from its various heights. Then we went to the air-conditioned canteen and waited in line for popsicles, which we gratefully and greedily consumed.
A whole day’s worth of activity and it was only 10:30 am. And hot.
We got back to our campsite and there was a crowd of people clustered around our tree, peering at an injured/irritable rattlesnake that was coiled in its lower branches.
We looked at each other, at the angle of the sun and the bare dry ground and got into the car.
On the way to Drumheller, we decided to go to the Royal Turrell Museum. It would be cool in there, the girl would be able to run around, and we might actually find it interesting too.
Everyone else in the region had the same idea. The Royal Turrell was full of people, constricting our daughter’s movements to a few steps at a time, and she was way too young to care about the bony array of dinosaurs and all the labour of getting them out of the earth and into the museum.
We did the most cursory of tours then went to the museum cafeteria. I wanted a salad or some fruit but all they had was burgers and fries and one small table in the throng. I got chocolate milk – something vaguely healthy, I thought desperately – which the girl promptly spilled all over our table. I burst into tears.
When we got back to the car and all that bright flat light, I refused to go back to Dinosaur Provincial Park. We drove around until we found a hotel with an empty room, and I sent M back over the bad roads to the campsite, where he’d have to pack up by himself and drive back.
We spent more than an hour in the hotel’s dimly lit basement pool, bobbing solemnly in the cool water. Acclimatizing.
Later, another storm descended and I held the girl at the window in our room, willing M. safely over the highway’s broken asphalt curves.
I couldn’t re-read Badlands for a few years after that. I was disappointed that I hadn’t managed to ramble around, looking at things with my daughter. That instead of being a proto-Dawe, coming out of the badlands with poems instead of fossils, I was Dawe’s wife, at home with their daughter, sulking.
But once I’d swallowed my disappointment, once I’d made by way back to the book, Kroetsch’s landscape and his movement through it was oddly familiar. But it wasn’t the landscape of Dinosaur Provincial Park that it was evoking for me, but the blasted-from-the-bedrock highway to and from Minaki, Ontario where we had our family cabin when I was a child.
Collecting buckets of crayfish from the shallows and handfuls of white exoskeletons from the waterline; garter snakes oily knots in my hands; popsicles and comic books in town, two weeks into our stay at the cabin, when we’d run out of groceries. My uncle telling us about the mercury in the water and, so, also, in the fish. How we ate small amounts, pretending that the fish, the lake, was pristine.
But imagine if you lived on the land on Wabaseemong Independent Nations or Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) and all those trees, all that rock and water was poisoned. I can’t. Can you? (I’m not sure Kroetsch could have either…)
But ever since, those years and that book, I’ve been drawn to ever-so-slightly-despairing nature writing. (Is there any other kind, these days?)
I’ve also still invested in the idea that you can make an ill-advised adventure out of your life…and out of your writing.