Saturday, August 9, 2008
A NURSERY RHYME IN HIGH COUNTRY
When I lived in the Alberta foothills, for a short while I had a tipi. I bought the canvas cover from a tipi maker, and found another fellow who had the poles and the long rope. It took a while to find the right place for it. Even though I had ten and a half acres, most of it was mixed poplar and spruce. There were a few open pastures, but they were up on exposed hills and too windy. I finally decided on a spot that was not too open, with a stand of younger poplars to shelter it. I cleared the brush and mowed it down nicely (the biggest challenge was working out the amount of circular space needed (I bid mental adieu to most of my high school math a long time ago). Finally the day came to raise it for the first time. For help with that I had some friends come over who are from the Kawacatoose (Plains Cree) First Nation. We put the tipi up in the traditional Cree way, starting with three poles tied together at the top and then spread like a tripod, with the rest of that long rope hanging down where it could be anchored in the ground. Once the initial poles were ready, the remaining poles were laid in place, with the canvas hoisted on the last one. Once the cover had been tugged all around, the smoke flap was adjusted and everything was properly pegged. When it was all finished, my friends drummed and sang for the occasion. It was wonderful moment, hearing their voices and the drum outside on the land. I wondered when the last time might have been that the land had heard a song like that. Then we all went back to the house for a big brunch.
A tipi is such a beautiful structure. I loved seeing mine there through the trees when I was out walking. Some neighbors gave me a long piece of carpet they’d saved from their renos, to put down over the ground for more comfortable seating. It wasn’t down for very long before big rainstorm blew up, and because the ground had a little slope to it, the carpet got soaked. Now, what to do with a strip of wet carpet about four feet wide and 10 feet long? Hanging it over the nearby barbed-wire fence didn’t seem like a good idea, or easy. Then I remembered that long rope in the tipi center. I rigged the rope cross-wise between the poles like a clothesline, looped the carpet over it loosely, several times, and left the whole thing to dry. When I came back to check on it in a few days, it was completely dry and ready to go back on the ground. As I started to unloop it, I thought I saw something in the corner of my eye. I looked, but there was nothing there. I ducked under the rope and started unlooping from the other side. Fleeting movement again. Was there actually something there, or just my imagination? Maybe a mouse? I decided to find out, so I started unlooping faster, ducking, going around and around, always the movement stayed just out of sight. Finally I was down to the last loop, and as I gingerly parted the final fold, there they were, two lanky summer-brown weasels glaring up at me! I thought seeing me they would race off, but they stood their ground. They were not going to abandon their comfy newly acquired carpet home! So I stepped back and gave the carpet a gentle shake and used a couple of those seldom heard “discouraging” words*. That did it, and the weasels popped up over the rope and slide under the bottom of the tipi and back into the woods.
Afterwards, I had a good laugh envisioning what I must have looked like, circling around the hanging carpet, and then the weasels jumping out, just like in the children’s rhyme, “All around the cobbler’s bench the monkey chased the weasel” (that would be me…the monkey) and finally “pop” went the weasels! I looked up the rhyme, and found out it has several interpretations, going back to both 17th Century London, and also colonial America. The whole fascinating story is here at Wikipedia. But I like my High Country version better.
One final word about weasels. They are a particular favorite of mine, and so I have made it a point to stop using them when I’m being critical of someone (usually a politician). Weasels are elegant agile animals, and they can’t help it if we’ve taken their bodily dexterity and used it for our own pejorative purposes. In fact, I try to do the same for every critter whose name we use to disparage certain people (sloth, rat, pig, etc).
* from the old western song, Home On The Range – “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word.” If memory serves, the words I used were, “Sorry, but you can’t live in here…so git!”
Thanks to Ross Chegwin, of Turner Valley, Alberta, for the summer weasel popping up from his truck tire.
Photo of winter weasel and tipi from Shutterstock.
My tipi was very similar to this, only without the border design along the bottom. The trees turned out not to be enough shelter against one especially fierce Chinook wind the following year, and the whole thing blew over and ripped in a few places. Unfortunately, I never got any photos of it before it blew down. There’s a happy ending, though. It was salvaged, repaired, and went on to a Sundance in Saskatchewan, and now it’s covering a sweatlodge.