Vivian and I have been going out to our little patch of wilderness everyday for a while now. “Wilderness” makes it sound more exotic than it is–it’s just a plot of land at the edge of the city with a gravel walking path and loads of spindly poplars, but it’s got personality. (Kind of like a shy person at a party who you learn to appreciate only after spending more time together.) Some people call it the flats; we call it the Prairie of Prax in a nod to one of my favourite Seuss stories. I love it for many reasons: the cemetery on the hill buttressing its northeast corner, the still-standing fort Susanna and Belén made years ago, the wild saskatoons, the way the sky opens up so I can watch weather roll in from the west or birds flying south, the sound the wind makes through the grass, and its curving trails.
Today Vivi and I suit up to make our daily pilgrimage in the rain and just-above-freezing wind. Once we pass the manicured lawns and reach the trail flanked by tall grass, cattails, and hardy scrub, I’m happy to be out. We round a corner skirting a thousand papery wind chimes, otherwise known as trembling aspen, and I look for the nest I spotted yesterday. I’d wanted to take it home for Vivi’s nursery but then decided to leave it alone. Today I’m glad I did; it’s nice to have one more familiar landmark in our journey. It feels vaguely obsessive compulsive to walk the same direction, anticipate the same curves, and look for the same markers each day, but that is what ritual is all about I suppose. Even following my stroller tracks from the day before makes the whole trip feel more comfy and reassuring. Like home.
When I see a figure up ahead I’m not entirely surprised but still interested. (I often have the two miles to myself–another reason it feels like home.) It appears to be woman with a pail swinging in her hand. Could she be gathering something? I thought I was the only one who did that here. Now she leaves the trail and steps high through grass brushing against her thighs. I push my stroller just a little faster so I can reach her before she disappears into the trees.
“Hello!” I call out, even though she’s not looking my direction. She seems awfully determined and I wonder if she’s feeling territorial about her booty.
“Hi there,” I say again with a smile. This time I’m so close it will be plain rude if she doesn’t return my greeting.
“No espeak inglesh,” she says turning to face me. She looks about sixtyish and is wearing bright red lipstick to match her dyed hair.
I try to look friendly and edge in closer to get a look at what’s in her bucket.
“What are you picking?” I ask her in my most non-threatening tone.
From the trees beyond I hear a crashing noise and see the flash of another forager among the wrist-thick poplars. A younger voice shouts, “She no espeak inglesh!”
By this time Vivian is starting to wake up but I’m not ready to move on. I’ve caught a glimpse of what’s inside her pail and want to learn more.
“Mushrooms! What kind are they?” I don’t know much about edible mushrooms but they look different than anything I’d pick.
“I Ukrainia,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. She tilts her pail toward me and rolls the fungi back and forth, caressing them with her hand. And then, from within the crackling, snapping brush comes another emphatic “No espeak inglesh!” from her partner. I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a kindly explanation or more of a warning, like, don’t even think of stealing our spot. If Vivi weren’t whimpering, or if I could speak Ukrainian, I might try to get more out of her, but we’ve clearly come to the end of our socially awkward situation. I lean into the wind, and start pushing the stroller while the woman waves, points at us, and gestures like she’s rocking a baby. I can’t tell if she’s amused, confused or just wants to get rid of me. Either way, I continue on.
The rain has stopped and I’m getting warmer now. The poplars, with their turning leaves, are like slices of ripe mango laid on a plate of bright blue sky. Nearing a pond I see a flock of Canada Geese winging a graceful descent to the water. Further along the way ruby-red rosehips decorate bushes at the edge of the path. They’re plump and impossible to resist so I give the stroller a shove to keep Vivi moving forward while I quickly pocket a few. I’ll make tea from them later. I may not have dibs on mushroom hunting grounds, or even know how to harvest them, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve got ingredients for prairie chai and some stroller tracks to lead me home.