“Gully” is a word we have little use for nowadays; “ravine” is the fashionable term. But out West, “gully” is a common word, as is “coulee”, and “bluff” – not the bluff in Scarborough Bluffs or in Council Bluff, Iowa, or Coogan’s Bluff, New York City. Bluff is a name for a copse (Okay, sorry, that’s a British term), a grove, an isolated stand of trees on the prairie.
In 1950 I attended North Gully School; sister Grace started school that year, in Grade 1. The other week, when Uncle Roy took us to the site, we didn’t expect to see much, and we didn’t. We found a single stone that might’ve been part of the cellar wall of the one-room school, and we found a shallow pit and several concrete fragments where the teacherage sat. (Teacherage: now that’s a Canadianism for you.)
We found no evidence of the well with the rats in it, no holes for the boys’ and girls’ privies, no manure – not even a wisp of hay – where the barn was. The one-acre lot was still surrounded by the belt of Manitoba maples, mature trees, but surely second or third generation.
Someone had bulldozed a rectangular patch of ground and planted pickets at the corners. Someone was laying out the foundation for a new building.
Grace wanted her picture taken on the grid road that ran straight north, the path we took to school. That road used to skirt a slough. Now the road bisects the slough on a causeway. “Slough”: that’s another Western word, meaning a shallow lake that’s a catch-basin for rainfall and runoff, its main source of water.
The four of us – brother John included – visited the old farm, where our Dad had met our Mom. Dad came West during the Depression, riding the rails. There was always seasonal work during harvest time, but Dad stayed on. He homesteaded just north of the farm, a wooded quarter-section. Built himself a log shack. Cut the timber and sold it for firewood. Hired himself out to local farmers. Never planted a seed (in an agrarian sense) – he wasn’t a farmer, though his brother was, back in Quebec.
We drove by Dad’s old homestead. We didn’t stop at Skunk Hollow. Last year when I had visited the old farm, a neighbour remembered where Dad had homesteaded. “Skunk Hollow,” he said. I thought he was kidding. But Uncle Roy confirmed it. Our Dad homesteaded in Skunk Hollow.
“Hollow” is one of those words you associate with the Butcher’s Hollow in West Virginia or the Sleepy Hollow in that story by American writer Washington Irving, places frequented by Loretta Lynn and coal miners and headless horsemen. But, it is a legitimate Canadian word. I’ve come across it before.
We didn’t stop at Skunk Hollow and search for the rotting foundations of Dad’s cabin because the bush there is as thick as the quills on a porcupine’s back. The neighbour said he’d seen the base logs years ago. You’d never guess that someone had cleared that land seventy-five years ago.
When Mom and Dad married, in 1939, and I came along, where did we live? That became a burning question for me. I asked their contemporaries, Uncle Roy and Aunt Gwen and Aunt Winona, but no one could remember, exactly.
I had a fierce desire to have lived in a log cabin in Skunk Hollow.
Gradually a consensus developed. It turns out that we lived on a nearby farm where Dad and Mom were the hired help. When I was a year old, we all emigrated to Quebec at, I believe, my insistence.
But that’s another story.
This I can say, though: Our dad homesteaded in Skunk Hollow in Northern Saskatchewan. How many people can say that?
By God, I’m proud of that.