Wild Stone Heart: An Apprentice in the Fields

by Sharon Butala

Published by Harper Flamingo Canada

240 pages, 2000

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Coming Home through an Oracular Field

Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman 


By now, Saskatchewan writer Sharon Butala has fenced her territory in the North American literary landscape. Readers await her regular dispatches, fiction and non-fiction, with great anticipation. Like letters from home, from a talented and sensitive relative, they fill us in on the latest news -- who got married, who's pregnant, who has cancer, who died. They riff on how she feels about it all, her hesitations, her insecurities, what she has learned. The intimacy hooks into our longing to know one familiar landscape, with a rock of a partner/husband, to belong to a close family, to be part of a community, to live a good long life and to pass content, understanding our place in the universe. Wild Stone Heart: An Apprentice in the Fields more than meets expectations. Where its companion volume, 1994's The Perfection of the Morning, explores past and present, Wild Stone Heart twists together once, now and future. The writer tends her fences in preparation for dismantling them altogether, for letting corralled souls out and other pilgrim readers in, bringing us home from summer range to winter ground.

Wild Stone Heart: An Apprentice in the Fields is a spiritual toolbox that documents the writer's 20-year relationship with a rocky field on the family ranch. Like the best of nature writers Butala crimps the private and personal with the natural world to which she retreats. Telling of her years between bride and crone, the personal story documents the acquisition of wisdom. The nature story, her observations and acquired knowledge about the field, documents the geological, botanical, zoological and human history of a small patch of undisturbed prairie. Linking place and time, ground and numen, land (physical) and spirit, Butala crafts a kit for those who don't buy the prepackaged offerings of imported designs sold at local churches. A starter kit perhaps, but still a kit filled with tools to help us see and open the gates between this life and other realms, to explain those inexplicable occurrences which refuse to fit neatly into our proscribed image of reality.

The field is in essence a gateway, a bridge, a place of crossing, for a woman on a mid-life pilgrimage. Butala begins from a not uncommon position of "culture failure," of "huge spiritual emptiness." Before she finds her field, she has shed her cultural/spiritual past, her first husband, her academic aspirations, her career in education and has set out upon a new unmapped path. The tools she carries with her are books, a willingness to seek advice from others and open eyes, ears and heart. She learns to master new skills such as physical patterning (attempting to "walk in the moccasins" of others), paying attention to her dreams, not fearing the unexplained, accepting visions with a chuckle and practicing repeated close observation. When she decides at last to map the field by walking it in a grid, she completes the labyrinth found at the end of every pilgrimage. Bridging the gap between conscious and unconscious, she has used her spiritual tools and skills to achieve the final integration of self and soul.

There are two tangential themes attached to the personal and natural story lines -- the unfortunate conflict between environmentalists and working people, and guilt about dismissive attitudes towards displaced First Nations. However, the message from the field is about neither race relations nor ecology. As with all pilgrimages, this one is not about "the other." It is, as always, about the "quester." What Butala discovers in the field, the mystery that unfolds itself to her, is as simple and as profound as the revelations in the Garden of Eden. This quester walks back in time and divines the ways people used to access the sacred -- through our own senses, firmly grounded in the landscape which births and bears us.

This book describes the second coming-of-age. If our first coming-of-age is the initiation into adult sexuality, the second coming-of-age, when death begins to stalk our circle and, try as we might, we cannot avoid the realization that our time too will come, we learn to accept the reality of death. Butala tells us how she placed crocuses from her field on the altar at her mother's funeral and how the unicorn vision arrived during a respite in caring for her dying sister. She does not say how much all her other busy-ness is a distraction. Even a near-death experience of moonlight madness seems not to get her attention. Her obsession with researching the field's story deflects or obscures her ability to hear and see its ultimate truth, until she is ready to see. Butala's Field of Life and Death speaks of our tendency to avoid and deny the reality of our being here on Earth. It teaches the pilgrim, ultimately, to grieve and let go. The dinosaurs and the buffalo and prairie grizzly and vanished grasses and unknown First Nations are all signs that such a field is the destination of all life. That extinction is also a personal experience. That death is not necessarily the end. That other realities do exist even when we are not aware of them.

This story will interest anyone who is not self-anesthetizing, is old enough to have experienced loss, to have noticed inexplicable occurrences that their current world view cannot explain. This is a book about ways of knowing, ways of approaching the sacred, through nature, this one oracular field. More about "how to think" than about "what to think," Butala shares what she learns, and how she learned it. "To understand the profound meaning of land -- to walk on it with the respect, born of real understanding, of the traditional Amerindian, to see it as sacred -- is to be terrified, shattered, humbled, and in the end, joyous. It is to come home at last." Sharon Butala walks us to her field, hands us tools, and then she lets us think we have made the discoveries ourselves. | February 2001


J. M. Bridgeman is a contributing editor at Suite 101 as well as January Magazine.