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Wild Stone Heart: An Apprentice in the Fields

by Sharon Butala

In her 1994 book The Perfection of the Morning, Sharon Butala extended her reputation as a gifted writer of fiction with a remarkable non-fiction account of her intense, evolving relationship with the natural world. In 1976, 36 years old and thoroughly urbanized, she married a rancher from a rugged, remote corner of southwest Saskatchewan. That book described a virtual remaking of her life through daily contact with natural and agricultural landscape.

Six years on, Butala has taken another run at the same territory, with tighter focus. This time nature becomes a way into deep history, and Wild Stone Heart is a detective story of sorts. The land owned by Butala’s husband’s family since the early 1900s was for millennia inhabited by native peoples (Butala uses the terms Amerindians). Their well-being was linked to a wild abundance – of buffalo, for example – which Europeans eradicated with astonishing speed, clearing the way for cattle ranching. Those few Amerindians to survive were pushed to the margins of society.

For Butala, one particular stony field becomes the lens through which this hidden past comes to light. Over several decades, her early perceptions and preconceptions peel away, revealing obscured tracks on the land: stone circles, artifacts, an energy of restless souls. Her techniques of discovery are catholic – faithful attendance and watchfulness, book research, writing, consultations of “passing experts,” dreams, visions, hauntings, and even a near-death experience. She discounts no sign or revelation (though one might wish she had held back on that glimpse of a unicorn).

Powerfully and honestly, Butala recounts a complex process of learning to see. Meanwhile, her book underlines the gulf still dividing native and non-native peoples. Her tendency to portray Amerindians as more spiritually attuned than whites may seem as much a racial stereotype as any other, but it’s surely a more benign one than those used to rationalize a people’s obliteration.