Old Roads: Alberta Homestead

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I spent two weeks in July with my family up at my in-laws’ ranch up in the Peace River country of Alberta, about an hour from Dawson Creek, BC. My father-in-law came up to the Peace River and homesteaded with his dad at the the ripe age of seven years, back in 1929, to settle on this very spot. He speaks casually of trappers, of delivering mail by snowshoe, wild people, horse thieves, stolen cows, and hunting and tracking moose through hip-deep snow. At 85 he still cuts his own wood with a power saw, an expert log splitter.

barnMy mother-in-law grew up a few miles away, and along with endless chores she works every day on her childhood homestead running the post office. They’re a hardy pair.

I’d only been there in December’s subzero temperatures for about ten years.

Minus 40 isn’t pleasant. I remove my glove to take these kinds of pictures, and my fingers begin to go numb in less than a minute.

But this was summer at 75 degrees. I saw things I hadn’t seen in ten years – a stern bald eagle standing at its nest, watching us, in a tall dead tree on the edge of the flat field above the river. My boy wanted to build a raft, so I gathered and sawed logs while he built a wickiup and my daughter sank her feet into the deep and squishy Peace River mud.

The lake up on the next level was serene with floating deadwood and a beaver dam. The old log cabin, dating probably from the 1930s or 1940s, was overgrown and fallen in much more than I remembered. My son and I built a lean-to out of big poplar branches, spruce boughs, and twine.

Tracks were all over the ranch – bear, moose, and beaver tracks at the river, wolf tracks out on Moonlight Canyon, and deer tracks everywhere.

It is so still and serene there. God’s creation is; it’s just simply being itself. There is an immutable silence in nature that mere noise and activity can’t eradicate; the silence is always there under the noise, patiently waiting.

On the ranch there is no noise. Out on Moonlight Canyon, or by the lake, or out on the big flat, the silence is tangible. It pours in your ears and digs deep into your soul, bringing forth things long forgotten.

There is something I recovered there this summer, a boy I used to be, barefoot, fishing, swimming, or digging clay out of the hillside to make model dinosaurs. I lived a Huck Finn existence that was mostly lost when I turned thirteen and moved to middle class suburbia; playing music and escaping into books took Huck’s place, and life was never the same.

Plenty of good things happened in my teens, of course; waterskiing trips, playing banjo and guitar, working at my Dad’s music store, and eventually bluegrass festivals, bands, and more. Without these things my life’s track would have been radically different.

But Huck Finn, that kid who lived every day by dirt and creek and frog and catfish, he had to shut his eyes and sleep for the eighties and nineties and beyond.

Something in us gets cooked by microwaves, drowned by iPods, blinded by laptops, a thing recovered outdoors in the cool morning air, in the heat of a sun that makes us feel so small but so alive.At the edge of a cliff, looking over an ancient river rolling for centuries to the sea, a truth in us wakes up. This inner truth is fed and watered by nature, by fresh air, by silence; technology and hustle-and-bustle and malls and traffic seem to starve it.

There is an aspect of self-importance and self-absorption in modern life that is wonderfully crushed by nature. Hills and rivers and trees and grass make me feel so humbled and awed and yet significant; they’re immense and soulful, and artistic, God’s gift to man as a sign of His love.

Something came alive in me during those two weeks that isn’t going away.

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he’s not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin’ on audiences around the world, he’s taking care of his donkey named “Trash” and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


33 Comments

  1. Evan Godbold

    “There is an aspect of self-importance and self-absorption in modern life that is wonderfully crushed by nature. Hills and rivers and trees and grass make me feel so humbled and awed and yet significant; they’re immense and soulful, and artistic, God’s gift to man as a sign of His love.”

    Wonderful words. So true.

  2. Jonathan Rogers

    Ron, your beautiful post made me think of something John Piper said:

    “Do people go to the Grand Canyon to increase their self-esteem? Probably not. This is, at least, a hint that the deepest joys in life come not from savouring the self, but from seeing splendour.”

    I’m picturing a Rabbit Room retreat on the banks of the Peace River. Do you think your in-laws would mind?

  3. E

    Reminds me of the Oklahoma sky when I was a boy during harvest time. 20 miles away from any natural light… and the stars so bright and so close you can reach up and dip your hands into them.

    We really do forget those things too easily.

    Thanks Ron, lovely post.

  4. Travis Prinzi

    @travis

    Fantastic, Ron. Great evocation of time and place.

    I need to go find some peaceful creation untouched by busy life. It’s been far too hectic lately.

  5. Stacy Grubb

    Ron,

    This is excellent. The commentary is enough to not even need the pictures, so they are a wonderful added bonus. I have a soft spot for old barns, so that one is my favorite by default, though that winter landscape is breathtaking. I’m glad there are folks in this world willing to not only go out into that, but will even remove a glove to share it with the rest of the world. Much like a certain percentage of wildlife, I go into hibernation when the leaves start to fall. That’s why I’m enjoying a Quarter Pounder lunch right now in preparation.

    When I think of my childhood, I mostly remember how I spent my days in the holler where I grew up. My neighbors consisted mostly of family members and during the summer, I was outside with the holler, creek, and mountains as my playground basically from about 6 in the morning to well after dark. We had a willow tree in our front yard so grand that the branches seemed to scrape the sky and cascade all the way down to my toes. My sister and cousin were only a month apart and older than me, so they tormented me relentlessly. I’d hide from them among those branches for hours on end playing with my Barbies and baby dolls, all the while hearing them looking for me and plotting what they’d do when they found me. I never knew at that time what it would mean to me as an adult to look back on that life God gave me up in a holler in WV. A couple decades later and I’m still taken by the beauty of it on a regular basis.

    Dad and I have a date to get on his Polaris Ranger and go riding in one of the mountains around his house and take a stab at writing a tune and seeing what God’s creation will inspire in us – snacks, guitars, a notebook and pens, and a couple cameras in tow. There’s absolutely nothing else that will lure you into those parts, but Ron, I think you’d love some of the spots he and my mom have found while exploring the mountains. A lot of folks come to my home and can’t believe how rural it is. I say, “You ain’t seen nothin’, yet.”

    Stacy

  6. Steve

    Ron,

    Being immersed in a very suburban lifestyle has me longing for the type of experience you describe. It seems an almost necessary pathway to becoming human. With no real opportunity available to immerse myself in nature I am all the more thankful for what you have shared.

    Oh, and I’m glad you didn’t leave all the technology behind, the pictures are beautiful.

  7. JennyD

    Isn’t it ironic how we all get SO caught up and busy in this world that we can’t slow down enough to really experience and appreciate what you’ve hit on in this post?
    We are in a race…a self created one..each day to accomplish X, Y and Z..and IF we don’t accomplish these things…then or tomorrows are even more busy and consumed.
    We are driven by our own motives……and once we realize that WE really cannot accomplish much on our own ….we begin to see how HIS motives and agendas are more important than anything we ever thought was a priority.
    I have prayed SO many times for an answer to a certain prayer..to only realize that MY agendas, and MY impatience was what was standing in the way of hearing HIS answer.
    If we take time to experience this silence and peacefulness…we can hear what HE has to say, no interruptions, no excuses……..
    Thanks for the reminder! I’m glad that you’ve reagained that lost portion of your youth….and got to experience it w/your son. What a blessing that is! Something that you will always remember!

  8. amy

    thank you for sharing! so true…your finishing sentiments! i loved reading about the rugid beauty of that part this continent. thanks for sharing the pictures, too!

  9. C.L. Dyck

    Yes.

    Six miles from the middle of nowhere, in Manitoba. A sandy track up a ravine hillside under poplars and oak. And the wild things watching from the quiet places.

    I hear you.

    Your minus 40 panorama is tiny on this old screen, but still sent a shiver down my spine. I’ve been across Canada twice, but never made it up there. I think I should.

  10. Joe Thayer

    A wonderful post. Thank you Ron. I love the line “the silence is always there under the noise, patiently waiting”. I long for that quiet. Some of my favorite times with the Lord were absent any conversation. He sure does Love us.

    By the way, what are “wild people”?

  11. kevin

    Good one, Ron.

    I think there is a collective remembrance of Eden, if I can say that without being called a weirdo. We may not be aware of it, but it’s there, telling us that things are not as they should be, something has been altered, kinda like that cat thing in the Matrix. We feel it in the city because more of nature has been shifted. Asphalt, concrete, plastic, etc. has it’s own wonder, but it’s just not the same.

    And when we find places like where you summered, there is a soul-soothing power in the untouched creation, kind of a “Yes, this is what should be” feeling. The world un-manned has a different beauty because it’s first art, truly original, truly creative. Someone with infinite power and infinite creativity thought this up and painted it. (And dare I say infinite sense of humor? ie: Possums, moose, platypus, lemurs…)

    Quiet, rest, a pace-slowing are all draws to the Wild for us, but I think the chewy center of this hard candy is that we are forced, knowingly or not, to see God’s beauty, and that’s a void that wants a fillin’ in everyone’s life.

    PS- what kind of critter was in that first picture?

  12. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Kevin,

    It’s a wolf hide.

    I think it is also the is-ness of the creation. Something immutable, going on and on whether or not we perceive it, always there, century in, century out. First art, yes. When I look out over Moonlight Canyon I think, “There’s no way this happened by chance; no way do I just happen to be a collection of proteins with a brain that is moved and inspired by a chance, meaningless arrangement of rocks, dirt, and trees in a universe devoid of meaning.” I don’t actually think that, but that’s the feeling I get. “God is real.”

    The quiet is more than pace-slowing. It is recovery. We recover our real selves in places like that. All the frenetic windings of a great ball of string, winding round and round in our modern world, are unwound; we get back to the center. And for a believer, that center is Christ in me. By seeing the transcendent God through His art, we see the God who loves us, and who has chosen to be immanent, God with us – in us, in Christ.

    And the best thing is, sitting there on the edge of Moonlight Canyon with my daughter, I don’t have to try to figure it all out. That feeling of peace, of real spiritual quiet, that feeling of awe is enough to bring me back to what is important. One real “wow!” is worth a thousand explanations.

  13. kevin

    Yessirree, Ron, I entirely agree with you. You writer types express yourselves so well. I was TRYING to say that the most basic way that we should think about it is the “isness”, the awe and the recovery is not from the creation itself. I think it’s innate, hardwired, whether a follower of Christ or not, whether we bend the knee or not, whether we know it or not, and that creation spackles a hole left by the fall, however temporary the fix might be.

    There’s a spiritual aspect to it, methinks, and we certainly don’t have to figure it out, we can just enjoy it. I hope I didn’t muddy the waters any, it was a beautiful post, lovely pictures and well written. It just got me thinkin, that’s all.

    PS- Here in New England we only have one kind of wolf (the two-legged ones), and they don’t let us shoot ’em, if you know what I mean. That’s some beautiful fur right there.

  14. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Kevin,

    Definitely – at the back of creation is Creator. God loves symbols, and I think of creation as a symbol or picture of various aspects of who God is. The workings of a beehive show God’s energy; a seed shows life coming out of breaking and death. The big view and the quiet and solitude of the ranch show God’s calm and peace within His activity, His be-ing and resting while doing.

    Creation, of course, is amazing in and of itself, and people are fed on it without knowing God at all. But they’re also fed by eating an apple, even if they don’t know God. God made something that works on principles regardless if anyone knows how it is working (and none of us really do, I suppose, as much as I like to try to explain things…).

  15. Sarah

    What a stirring post.

    It was good to taste that bit of nature even through your description. I spent several of my most formative years on my grandmother’s ranch in TX (heat and bugs are not my favorite part of creation, but hey, at least I got to be outside all the time!) and I think the chance to roam wild all day, catch bugs and butterflies, watch storms, shaped an immense part of my soul. It’s far too easy, living more of a city life now, to forget the awe that came to me so often in those outdoor days. Thanks for inspiring it all again.

  16. Becky

    Kevin, I really like this idea of a “collective remembrance of Eden”. That we all have a subconcious longing for the intimacy with God that was lost at the fall. And that the peculiar spiritual quiet, and deep emotions that we experience in nature, are a little taste of what was, and what will one day be again.

    My favorite quote about this is from Madeleine L’Engle:
    “When I look at the galaxies on a clear night–when I look at the incredible brilliance of creation, and think that this is what God is like, then instead of feeling intimidated and diminished by it, I am enlarged–I rejoice that I am part of it.”

  17. Toni Whitney

    Wonderful, wonderful, Ron. Your written picture brings to mind one of the many observations written by one of my favorite writers, W. Phillip Keller about beloved creation: “The great cycle of the seasons goes on year upon year, enacted against the giant backdrop of the sky edge. We watch in humble awe and spellbound wonder as moon after moon the pagentry of the planet is played out upon the earth. The sublimely orchestrated script of the
    Divine Director is acted out in incredible detail by ten thousand participants. Each is directed by His will, guided by His genesis, moved by His inspiration.”
    from : Skye Edge

  18. Mike

    I met a man on the Chattooga River in Ga who told me the River was his church. I balked but wondered why it could be so. Where else would God be but in His Creation? This is beautiful Ron.

  19. gina opelt

    that sounds like a beautiful place to see.reminds me when i was in the mountains in west virginia when we were visiting.it was so beautiful when the sun was setting.a beautiful sunset.and so peacefull.that was a nice story thanks for sharing it with all of us.god bless you and your family.

  20. Bruce Harbert

    Ron,
    What is so wonderful about what you wrote is that it speaks to anyone and everyone regardless of what label they might have. Real truth is universal in scope, and that is why nature is such a good tool to use in relating spiritual truths. The same goes with the “ISNESS” of God. It is there within us and without us at all times regardless of whether we are aware of it or not. This post is a beautiful example of Eden. Adam walked with God in the cool(spirit) of the day before he fell asleep. It never does say that God awakened him. Could this be because we all “awaken” individually in our own order and time? Metaphorically interpreted we can relate the garden story to what happens to each and every one of us. The spirit part of us “dies” in a sense the longer we are here in this world…and it takes the Spirit of God brooding over us to bring us back to that place of stillness and ISness where we once again…walk in the garden with God. Remember the song…I come to the garden alone…while the dew is still on the roses, etc. And He walks with me and He talks with me. Your post is a beautiful example of death, burial, and resurrection.

  21. Robert Treskillard

    Thanks, Ron.

    Though my family and I don’t live *that* far out, we’ve recovered a small bit of that unwound-edness out in the country and away from the suburbs.

    Development will catch up with us eventually, but for now the peace, the quiet does restore something to the soul that is hard to explain.

  22. Tony Heringer

    “On the ranch there is no noise.” Love that line. I had the same experience in East Texas standing on my grandparents land when we went out to their homestead after my grandmother’s funeral. It was a “sound” and experience I’ll never forget. That place was my “Huck Finn” territory as a young lad.

    Thanks for sharing and giving me pause to remember.

  23. Jim Lenn

    Thanks Ron,, what a great piece of writing. Really makes you stop and think. Reminds me of the summers I spent on my grandparents farm in Dyer Tn..

  24. Jennifer

    What a beautiful thing to see and read on this Lord’s day. Thank you so much for blessing me with the gifts of your words and pictures.

  25. Amy

    This is like putting on a pair of old slippers. I, too, grew up free as the prairie wind and, as I matured, had to adjust to the shackles of the worldly bunch.

    Now I am wise enough to know who has the shackles.

    I have some prairie stories too.

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