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one man's dirt is another man's soil. or, the prairies aren't a barren wasteland.

Carrie Karsgaard

It's not dirt; it's soil. If I'd had a Gobstopper (Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstopper)  for every time I heard Grandpa - and, additionally, my mom (his daughter) - say this, I could have kept the tongues of every child in my elementary school blissfully occupied throughout every USSR (Uninterrupted, Sustained, Silent Reading) period for a week. 

Dirt on my knees. Caked on my gum boots. Swept into corners of the deck. Dug up among peonies. Soaked and shaped into mud pies. Hardened into a path through the southern Alberta prairies. Didn't matter. It was all soil.  

To be fair, Grandpa was an agronomist, and dirt - pardon me, soil - was his business. When I google him today, I can find the full text - PDF scan of the original typewritten version - of his 1958 dissertation on The Effect of Soil Moisture and Fertilizers on Seed Germination.

With his head in the soil rather than in books or clouds, he sought to plant in my sister and me an appreciation for all things soily. He'd walk us around Lethbridge's Henderson Lake or out in the coulees, pointing out the wild grasses and blooming wild roses, teaching us bits and pieces of how his work made sense of the world - monocots and dicots, root systems and wind pollination, biomes and habitats and prairie adaptations. We were at the mercy of his pop-quizzes on collective nouns for land-bound animals: bands of coyotes, warrens of rabbits, herds of bison and packs of wolves (did I get them right?). Even in the wind blown, dusty soils of southern Alberta were processes of life that Grandpa unfurled and handed to my sister and I like early season wild crocuses. 

In combination with his stubbornly reiterated lesson - soil, not dirt - these walks prevented the degradation of soil in my young mind to that which was unclean or immoral, tarnishing or slanderous. Instead, soil became a thing of life, the mulch that germinated not only the wild stuff of the coulees, but also the canning corn, field beans and sugar beets that Grandpa studied.  With enough reminders of the soiliness of dirt, I began to see through Grandpa's eyes, respecting the grits and grains I'd wash between the layers of lettuce. 

But what of the dirt of life? You know what I'm talking about. What of those times I feel shoved in the dirt, hands caked in the stuff from a hard fall, so they can't wipe my face and eyes clean? Or trapped in the crossfire of a nasty mudslinging? Or blown - sandblasted, maybe - by dirt on strong winds, with nothing but my own small hands to shade my eyes? Could all these dirts be soil? When I feel caked and crusted, with an unanswered clean me scratched on the surface of my skin with my own fingers?

Thinking back to Grandpa, maybe the impetus for an efficient, high-powered, touchless car wash isn't what I need. Perhaps it's not about becoming clean but beginning to see how the dirt is not, in fact, dirt - but soil. How if, over time - hopefully not too much time, but a reasonable life cycle, perhaps - the dirt (sorry, soil ) on and around me could begin to collect. Some by happenstance, and some by my own hands or the hands of my friends, it could collect into little piles. These piles could gather and grow, soil shaken from my clothes and body, kicked from under my feet, until they begin to look like something. Useful? Manageable? There? 

I imagine Grandpa might gather these piles and spread them into a garden or a beet field, adding the appropriate moisture and fertilizer for growth. Me? I might push them forward and shape them into a tree-lined trail. 

"beauty by mistake." or, a camera phone is a serious pair of rose-coloured glasses.

Carrie Karsgaard

Near the end of my trip to Montreal a couple of weeks ago, I discovered my purse was stolen.

It was most likely slipped from the back of my chair at a crowded bar, while I gesticulated enthusiastically about some segment of my life or other that my husband had not experienced (not having known me then) and now needed to hear about in animated detail (fueled, of course, by my desire for him to know me better and not, of course, by my second house Manhattan - renamed "Old Montreal" and garnished with a dash of maple bitters). 

Upon realizing the disappearance and wrapping up the customary crying and cursing, Nathan and I launched into hours of panicky, necessary and banal phone calls - adjusting airline reservations, instigating passport shipments, and managing Montreal city searches - interspersed with (what we weren't sure yet but hoped would be) our last hours in Montreal. Complementing the pressures of the missing purse (zut, alors!) were the -39 degree temps (with windchill), which had been cramping our style for the duration of our trip. 

What were we to do? 

Armed with a PDF map, we headed into Montreal's Underground City with a mere couple of hours (could they be our last?) to explore this corner of Canada that was unfamiliar to us - and under sunnier circumstances certainly would have remained so. 

For the first time on our little holiday, I kept my phone in hand for better or for worse (would our contacts locate my purse? could we extend our reservation? did Melanie, my concierge-slash-mom, have anything new to share?). Manically clicking every connective platform throughout the afternoon, I was privy to every Valentine's Day Instagram update of heart-shaped pancakes, ski dates and home-cooked champagne dinners - all of which stood in sharp contrast to my own day in the underground, making my own Valentine's look like the stuff of TV pop psychology shows (Interviewer: Carrie, how does it make you feel when, on this day of romance, your husband walks you through a musty, fluorescent-lit underground passageway beneath a frozen city towards what can only be a mall, a bank or Tim Horton's? ).

At the same time, having my phone - and therefore my camera - on hand, reminded me to take note of the quirky, memorable and surprisingly beautiful moments along our underground journey. I knew, after all, that for years afterwards, Nathan and I would sit over more Manhattan's and reminisce about That Weekend in Montreal, laughing about how we flew across our wide country to see little more than tunnels and Tim's. So, using my camera phone, we began to make the memories we knew this trip would become.

Holding the rose-coloured glasses of my camera phone, I started to see funny little vignettes along the underground (Nathan buying Mike & Ike's from a 25-cent dispenser, groups of cheerleaders in overdone eyeliner queuing up for Double-Doubles), seeing beauty in the shapes and colours along the airless hallways, and acknowledging that in experiencing the Underground City, we were participating in part of Montreal's life we would have otherwise skipped. I found myself snapping away, enjoying my anonymous day without a Visa or identity card, finding beauty in the banality of the underground.

Kundera calls such stuff beauty by mistake, where forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with sudden wondrous poetry. Certainly, the ugly sparkles in fortuitous moments and spaces (25-cent Mike & Ike dispensers in a brick tube glisten with promise like a rainbow) - but I'd add that it may be our eyes that make it so. Our knowledge that one day, our frustrating trip would become a story, a shared memory, dignified it in the moment - the future shining light back into the now. The beauty may be less by mistake and more through the eyes we use to see - whether our own, or the rose-coloured lenses of our camera phone's editing platform.

Mike & Ike! 

Mike & Ike! 

Trees in the underground.  

Trees in the underground.  

what to do with bad news?

Carrie Karsgaard

I started to write one of my usual posts - you know, those fun-and-flighty usual posts about feeling free in the big, wide outside - when I got one of those texts - you know, those texts that come in a raw instant, stealing your mind from your work, your heart from the moment with some kind of (not good) news.  

It's not like not good news is anything new - in fact, it's part of the soil of life, whether we like it or not. And the trouble with such news is that it's not like The News - sensationalized, flash-in-the-pan business that is replaced quicker than I can like it or share it on social media. No, the kinds of news we get in those texts are of the kind that keep circling, the regular and familiar and not-new notifications popping up on phones - call me? Meet for coffee? Can we talk? 

So when I sit and stare at my phone, type and retype responses to this text, trying to find the words that will make this particular news flash and be gone, I know that no words in this moment will solve, heal or dispel. I am working, after all, with a mere text - a text in response, after all, to life itself.  


What, then? 

A couple of weeks ago, four of us snowshoed. We loaded our packs - real backpacks, not our usual running slimmies - with extra layers, granola bars, water, and peanut butter sandwiches. Whining a bit - remember, we are light and lazy runners - we headed out on the trail feeling heavy from the packs, from a morning skate-ski slog in deep snow, from each carrying our own weighty news and one another's. 

Starting our shoe, we chatted (as you do) not about the weight but about weekend plans and what's new on Netflix - in that liminal space between the real world and the snowy one - until we settled into our rhythm. At the back of the line, I had to imagine the conversation of my friends, whose words were subsumed in the repetitive crunch and shower of the snow, leaving me lost in thought and no-thought as I walked. 

Moving up the line, my friends' intermittent words became more audible: I feel so small, the world so wide. Look: the icicles, the powder, the broad white sky with a hue of blue, the snow ghosts, the frost - oh, the world! 

Then silence and more walking, thinking and no thinking - crunch and shower of crust and powder, of granola bars and water.  

The snow deepens, so we whoop and play, snowshoe-skiing down steep, deep embankments, taking photos in tree wells (safe ones, of course, tested and approved), tracking moose and tiny-footed rabbits and imagined (I hope!) cougars, snow angel-ing, and slingshot-ing snow off branches.

Then, sweaty and snow-soaked and starving, we layer up and clean up our sandwiches - and begin our hike back to the car with our loads not disappeared but lighter for now. Quiet again, and tired together. 

Is this what [we] were born for

- to look, to listen, to lose [ourselves] 

inside this soft world

 to instruct [ourselves] over and over 

in joy, and acclimation.

Mary Oliver, "Mindful"