This is Our Home: The Floods of the Prairies
“Did you girls have a milkman?” I asked my friends. Reminiscing about our youth last night, for three prairie girls, meant discussing the best way to pull wood ticks from their hideaways under the waistband of your pants, or that we were able to sit on a patio at 11 on a Sunday night without: a) freezing or b) looking suspicious to the local authorities. We’d all had the experience of being the tallest thing in a field during a thunderstorm, a near impossibility in Toronto.
They didn’t believe I had a milkman, ascribing my memory to temporary insanity instead of our age difference of a couple years or the fact that they got their milk directly from their cows.
Home to us is a place where parties consisted of gathering around the back of a pickup or the trunk of a car to drink, knowing someone would eventually get the guns out and start shooting. It’s easy to long for that now, as my friend said, when city people bustle angrily around you, despite the fact that we contradictorily yearned for a more exciting life during the time we spent staring hopelessly at the empty fields around us in our youth.
For me, and for many on the Canadian prairies and in country music, it’s been a week of loss. Most of my own loss is deeply personal and not appropriate material for a blog, but its impact has coloured my response to the floods in Western Canada and the death of country music journalist Chet Flippo.
I’m not normally inclined to jump on the let’s-write-about-the-latest-tragedy bandwagon, but last night I got home and saw this in my updates:
Here’s a guy who has put his life on the line to create a club that at times singlehandedly sustains the roots music scene in Calgary. Pat MacIntyre, alternately described to me during interviews as “the best boss one could ask for”, “overly generous to musicians”, “completely dedicated to the Calgary roots community”, and someone who “never leaves the bar until all the work is done”, owns the Ironwood Stage and Grill, Calgary’s preeminent roots music venue. MacIntyre gave up his bartending post at King Henry’s and rescued the Ironwood as it was about to shut down in the early 2000s, transforming it into a club that is now an essential part (if not the pinnacle) of any Western Canadian tour circuit. He brilliantly balances popular national and international acts against local artists and long-running series that feature emerging Calgarian singers. Known for treating his acts fairly and for creating a welcoming, homey atmosphere in the club, MacIntyre is one of the few who reside at the centre of, and is committed to, the city’s roots scene.
So, the rivers of Calgary and other prairie centres overflow their banks in an unprecedented manner last week, and being at the centre of the city, across from the Bow River, of course the poor Ironwood is a victim. MacIntyre, in my opinion, has faced enough struggles; could he not be spared this time around? Apparently not. And his response, as well as those of other Calgary citizens, reminds me of why I love my hometown and its people. Not a people prone to sitting down and giving up, Calgarians united to house evacuated homeowners, rescue pets, save lives, and get right back to the work of drying out and rebuilding. The city’s central attraction, the Stampede, starts in ten days, and Calgarians claim it will go ahead “Come hell or high water” (ha ha) (I think hell is water for most of us dry climate types) despite the fact that most of the Stampede grounds are still drowning.
Recognizing that this is a highly unfair characterization of my adopted hometown, I kinda doubt Torontonians would react the way Calgarians have. We might be more likely to sit down and wait for a bit, to see how our (rather useless) municipal government came to our aid. Not that we wouldn’t help others in need, but we probably wouldn’t head downtown to help people start scooping water from the basement of their restaurants. So I’m secretly bursting with hometown pride, watching the goings-on from afar, knowing that this can-do, get back at’er spirit is not only what characterizes Calgary as a whole, but also those who keep making great music in the city.
(This is the essential thesis of my book on the city’s roots scene, by the way, so if you want to save yourself $20 and not buy it when it comes out, that’s cool. I understand.)
To Chet. In an article in the Austin Post over the weekend, he was characterized as a man who loved country music and made it accessible to a bigger listening audience via his coverage of the genre in Rolling Stone, but was also known for his dedication to the Austin music scene at a time when it didn’t have the status of being the home of SXSW; he and wife Martha Hume “imbuing Austin with a sense of cachet among the big city cognoscente, all by writing about it with intelligence, respect, honesty and soul.”
Home is rapidly disappearing, or at least taking a new shape, in the face of the homogenization of experience enabled by the sharing culture and supposed equality of the internet. And it’s not until you’re sitting with your prairie friends on a downtown Toronto patio or reading about how one man supported a city’s music scene for years that you remember that home is still something that needs to be accessed, that anchors both our individual and collective selves. We cannot erase home. Acts of god, giant corporations, moving far away, virtually accessing others’ homes, may chip away at it, but home will never vanish, at least in our minds.
So I’ll send this song out to my prairie friends and family, those still at home, those displaced and re-placed. Let me send it out to my little brother too, who is answering the pleas of this song by cleaning up Alberta’s oil spills and building water treatment centres across the province.* May we be inspired by him, the Calgarians hard at work this week, by Chet, and all do our little part to save home.
*Note: I also found out last night that my other little brother is behind a big effort through his work to pump the water out of people’s homes…what a pair they are. 🙂