Given that the one absolute certainty about life is that it will end, it would make sense for adults to come to psychological terms with the fact of their own deaths and consider the effect of the potential death of a partner. But it’s also not so surprising they often don’t – or can’t – bring themselves to do this. Coming to grips with mortality is a challenge, and in the case of the death of a partner, the one left behind is forced to negotiate a path of grief that can be overwhelming. In her latest memoir, Sharon Butala describes the enormous changes in her life that resulted from the death of her husband, Peter, a man to whom she had been married for 31 years and for whom she gave up city life in favour of a remote ranch in southwest Saskatchewan.
Butala’s first work of non-fiction, the 1994 bestseller The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature, lays the foundation for Where I Live Now. Both books extol the benefits of nature, in particular that of the Great Plains landscape on which the Butala ranch (which she sold after her husband’s death) was situated. Readers of the earlier book may have an easier time with the new one, which features a somewhat disjointed structure that ranges backward and forward across time.
In the first chapter, Butala describes making a trek from her new home in Calgary to Peter’s grave. She mentions Joan Didion’s grief memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, calling the author “famously cryptic, famously silent.” Butala’s own writing contains some elements of Didion, and the effect is to create the appearance of intimacy while actually keeping the reader at a distance. It’s an odd pose to take, and one that I don’t quite understand.
In the second chapter, which flashes back to Peter’s illness and death, Butala mentions that she always thought she’d predecease her husband even though she was six years younger. They had already retired and signed over much of their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada as a means of preserving the grasslands. Butala knew that she could not stay on the ranch once Peter died: it was too remote and took too much work. In the event, Peter’s death came with a double loss, of husband and home. This would be a devastating blow for anyone, but for a couple who had spent so many years living in partial isolation with only each other for company, the change was catastrophic.
Life on the ranch resulted in Butala becoming a writer, in part out of the necessity to devote herself to something other than the chores of a ranch wife. As a child, she had considered becoming a writer, but wound up pursuing an academic career instead. It was her marriage and its attendant living situation that allowed her to return to her original aspiration; her subject was the landscape she inhabited.
The spirit of place is profound for Butala, and her observations about landscape tend to the romantic. At one point, she relates a story (one she says she never told her husband) about seeing a powerful red light on their land: “I didn’t tell him what I’d seen; he didn’t know that I was in awe, my awe tempered by fear and a powerful sense that I – we – lived in the heart of mystery, surrounded by the past of people we did not know, but who seemed to know us.” These are of course the Indigenous people who originally lived on the land; the spiritual connection that Butala perceives is a familiar trope. The author references the abysmal treatment of the Prairies’ Indigenous people, but these details are never reconciled with her own background as a descendent of the colonial settlers. She’s critical of historical atrocities that she herself has benefited from. It is difficult to figure out how this situation can possibly be rectified, but Butala’s knowledge of, and respect for, the land is helpful.
How, in the end, does Butala deal with her grief? It takes time, and the sense of loss never vanishes completely. She imagines being with Peter in the next life, although she admits it likely won’t be the same. In the meantime, she discovers that she must fashion a new life for herself – one that continues to include writing and a sustained focus on nature. Even in the urban environment of Calgary, nature for Butala represents “consolation, solace, friend, spiritual guide, and teacher.” Once again, it appears, she has found her home.