Friday, June 29, 2012

Growing up on the Manitoba Prairies

Manitoba vista

It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I grew up on the fertile prairies of Manitoba. My family home was in Winnipeg; it was a 2-story white and yellow wood-framed house on a middle-class Fort Rouge street teeming with children. Life was spent playing outside, helping with the garden, going to visit the relatives on the family farm or spending quality time with my grandparents.

Our Heese family farm was just outside a small town named Gretna, Manitoba. It was in a huge agricultural belt, and was one of the largest dairy farms in the area. My great-uncle and  my uncle ran the farm, with houses just across the path from each other. Uncle Micha and Tanta Agatha, Uncle Willy and Tanta Mary, were true farm stock. I loved to visit them, riding the horse, chasing the kittens, antagonizing the bull, driving the tractor, "helping" milk the cows and picking fruit in their orchard. It was a little piece of heaven for me, but in retrospect, a lot of work for them!

Manitoba Hay Bales
My cousins, Lisbeth (Liz) and Peter and I had so much fun exploring and playing together. But the highlight of each visit was when my grandpa and mom took me to the old farmstead just across the stream (about a half hour walk). That's where my grandpa (and grandma) settled when he moved to Canada from Africa to Russia, joining his brother on their great journey in the '20s. That's also where my mom grew up.

The old red barn
It's said that heritage is what you make of it, but it's also true that you are a product of your heritage. My love of the land, nature and writing comes from my family; so did my  love of cooking, baking and crafting, as learned from my mother.  While growing up, we ate tomatoes off the vine and rhubarb from our mother's gardens. We took fallen apples and crabs from  neighbors yards, and ate them until we had a bellyache. We learned what grows where, and why. Even on the tiniest plots, we could enjoy Mother Earth's bounty. We listened to stories of the days of pioneers, living on the land and being one with the land. Of "Santa" visiting farms by horse-drawn sledge in my mother's day, and sat on Santa's knee at the Eaton's Store in Winnipeg during Christmastime. My German/Mennonite heritage gave me a special love of Christmas and celebrations. My Ukrainian midwife grandmother gave me a love for homeopathic medicine and natural herbal remedies. 

Growing up in Manitoba, farm communities are a way of life; you pass homesteads around every turn, some modern, some sadly decayed, whenever you take a drive out of town. To some the endless procession of flat fields broken only by small stands of trees seems bleak and foreboding. I thrived on that sight. The colors: golden wheat, blue fields of clover, the green of canola fields, the dry stalks of corn on their bending stalks, is a comfort.
Fields of crops

What good comes from the Prairies, some ask? Nowadays, there are less cattle or wheat fields because of the amount of sheer effort and cost. There are more wind farms, with their slowly turning 'propellers'; there are an abundance of honey, canola, maple syrup, chicken and hog farms. Farmers also raise alpaca and bison, tomatoes, potatoes and Christmas trees. You can find sod farms, too. Many farm families diversity; the Hutterite farmers are examples of some of the most creative and prosperous land owners in Manitoba. Some land owners in Northern Manitoba have even turned to operating fish farms!

Farm town names roll off the tongue and advertise the heritage associated with residents: Rosenfeld, Rosenort, Grunthal, Gretna, Winkler, Steinbach, Morris, Vita, Erickson, Gimli. Altona, Sanford, Stonewall. My relatives were Mennonite, so those names of German or Russian origin are as familiar to me as the Cree name of my home town, Winnipeg, which means "muddy waters."

When you come from the prairies, you are anything but oblivious of the seasons. Spring brings the promise of new life, but it also brings flooding to many farms in the province. The flat lands allow a person to see the formation and movement of clouds, approaching storms, amazing sunrises and sunsets; it lets you be one with the land. That's something I have missed since moving to Las Vegas. 

I miss the horizon! Summer in Manitoba means heat, humidity, green green grass and trees and an abundance of our "provincial bird," the mosquito. I don't miss those critters! Fall means the vibrant colors: orange and yellow from birch trees, brown oak leaves, red maple leaves and sumac and the stately elms overhanging our urban streets, shedding their yellow leaves all over lawns. At least here in Henderson, we still have some sense of greenery, shrubs and flowers. Winter in Winnipeg brings snow by the foot: storms howling outside, white snow falling from heavily laden clouds, snow crunching beneath your feet and sparkling like diamonds as you shuffle across your sidewalk or lawn. And then come Spring once again, with its booming thunderstorms and flashing lightning. It's cyclical and it all makes sense, somehow.

I also miss the lakes, streams, creeks and especially my rivers: the Red and the Assiniboine. I miss Grand Beach and Victoria Beach with their endless cresting wavelets and water everywhere, When I see them at a distance, or even more so when I am almost close enough to touch them, I still wonder at the black and beige shale mountains surrounding Las Vegas - my dirt mountains as opposed to green hills, Occasionally, I find myself wishing that I could see the horizon again, or that I could walk the forests and green spaces of my home. But this vista has its own beauty. The desert is more stark, but amazingly alive. Small creatures stir as the heat of the day passes: rabbits, tiny lizards, the occasional snake. We have different birds, but we still see the robin and sparrow, thrill to the call of the Canada Goose as it passes overhead, smile at hummingbirds flitting by our feeders. The trees are so different: desert pines, Arroyo willow, Joshua tree, mesquite, Desert Oak, the Utah juniper, the Desert Hackberry. Catclaw Acacia and Arizona Ash give a unique beauty to the Mojave desert. And the smell of the desert air, the lightness and sage, is delicious.

We also have our ducks and swans, quails, eagles and falcons, pigeons and doves, cuckoos and roadrunners, owls and kingfishers, woodpeckers. larks, mockingbirds and swallows.  Our chipmunks and ground squirrels may be smaller in size, and camouflaged by being lighter in color than their tree-dwelling Manitoba residents, but they are still here! 

Our evenings are much shorter than those of my youth, but this is balanced by the more temperate climate of winter and fall. The winter desert winds are harsh and surprisingly chill, but snow is a very rare event (once in the 6 1/2 years I have lived here). Sunrises and sunsets are occasionally brilliant, if cloud formations allow, and life in the bowl means days on end of heat and very dry conditions. But when the rain hits, our monsoon can give us days of relief and thunderbusters of our very own.

So the humid days of my youth have given over to the dry days of middle age. The lessons learned in younger days continue to influence me and have made me who I am today. And this, my friends, is why I write as I do, share recipes with you as I can, and enjoy the exploration of my surroundings and the creation of new dishes, old favorites and now, handcrafted items to post on this blog.

With this 100th publication, this is only the beginning....

1 comment:

  1. Sharon
    Thank you so much for taking me on a lovely walk down memory lane. I grew up in Saskatchewan and lived in Winnipeg for many years. Alot of my friends were from the Mennonite persuasion and I still drool over some of the recipes they fed us. One I have never been able to duplicate is the red cabbage and I think, apple.
    Wonderful pictures as well.