You Can Go Home Again

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PHOTOS: PAUL BAILEY
Beside the Ningunsaw river.

When Deanna Kawatski first wrote us in 1991 of her
family’s homesteading adventure in the Ningunsaw Valley of
Northern British Columbia, the power and beauty of her
narrative was apparent not only to us, but happily to the
thousands of readers who asked for more and who made her
MOTHER’S most popular contributor in years. At once naive and
world-weary, Deanna’s story was filled with simple
strengths. Paradise found was a hand-hewn log home built
overlooking the Ningunsaw River and days filled with the
endless chores of growing food, cutting fuel, raising two
children on $2,000 a year…and reveling in a life of utter
independence. But as it turned out, the adventure was just
beginning. Her home was lost two years ago in the wake of her
husband’s departure, and in a moment her family was forced to
move back to the civilization it had struggled for so long to
be free of. Deanna’s stories continued from her new suburban
home, but the note of sadness and loss in them was
unmistakable. With this, the concluding chapter of her most
recent journey, Deanna finally returns to the home she left
long ago, and begins the struggle to build again.

For nearly three years I was unable to return.
Circumstances, cost, distance, and a deep sense of loss all
conspired to keep me from visiting my old home in the
Ningunsaw Valley. And I was scared. What would I have to
face by going back there?
Fresh back from a library reading tour in the Kootenays, I
was jolted by the phone call. The new owners revealed they
were “out of here.” Their offer was to sell the homestead
back to me. I said, “I’m sure you must recognize how
bizarre it is to be asked to buy my own place.” “Yes,
unfortunately there’s a price tag attached to everything
these days,” came the terse reply. When Jay and 1 had been
together, money never was the focus of our efforts and we
lived on next to nothing. What an irony that now it should
all boil down to dollars.

Scheduled to give workshops at a Young Author’s Conference
in 13 days, the trip north was nothing less than squeezed.
The four of us, including Natalia, Ben, and my new partner,
Eric, along with Charlie, the elegant sheltie, all crammed
into our Toyota Tercel. As soon as we swung north of
Kamloops, we seemed to immediately leave warm weather
behind and enter the territory where seasonal awakenings
come more slowly. We cut across country from Little Fort to
100 Mile House and encountered snowflakes flinging
themselves against the windshield. The thought of my tulips
at our new home lingered in my mind, transplanted from the
Ningunsaw– bright flames that might well flare and
fade before I got back. And Natalia had blessed me with yet
another high school-hatched virus. We both had raw throats
and swollen glands. Ben, in permanent jester hat, sat
patiently counting his Pogs with as much relish as any king
in his counting house. Nat, with her nose ring, made a
habit of stealing Ben’s bubble gum and bossing him
incessantly.

A Huge Task Ahead

Throughout the trip, I was well aware that I had a huge
task ahead. It involved sorting through our old life, and
making the major decision whether to take control of our
old valley home again or to simply let it go. To say yes,
without hesitation, would be ignoring the facts. That was
then and this is now. What we had will never be re-created
in quite the same way. But then again, the valley might
speak to me as it did those many years ago when Jay and I
first fell in love with the territory. No matter what the
outcome, our home still did, in essence, own us and it was
up to us to abide by her wishes.

I caught the enchantment on Nat’s face the moment the
magnificent mountains surrounding Smithers came into view.
That afternoon, before swinging north at Kitwanga, we
pulled in for gas, and who should veer in but the new owner
on his way to the homestead to move his belongings out. He
warned of the nasty bear he had encountered between the two
hills on the valley descent. The bruin had actually swiped
at his leg.

North of Meziadin Junction, the land was still lidded with
a stubborn cap of snow. As we vibrated our way through a
maze of clearcuts, I was tempted to apologize to Eric for
the ugliness, to say “I knew it when,” but what was the
point? This was part of the Cassiar Forest District, which
occupies one-sixth of the land mass of British Columbia. A
mere 3,000 people reside in the entire region. It has
become world famous for its wildlife populations of
caribou, mountain goats, Dall’s sheep, Stone sheep,
grizzly, black bear, wolverine, and myriad other animals
and plants. The forestry’s present plan to increase the
annual allowable cut by 6 to 10 times is both criminal and
appalling. Where should I begin to apologize?

After the children and I moved, my husband Jay had stayed
on for two years, then turned it over to the new family.
They were on their way out after only eight months. What
could force them out so soon?

At last I watched the lofty ridge of South Mountain come
into view. We parked, loaded up our packs, and feeling weak
from what I had decided was strep throat, I let the others
rush ahead. It was nearly nine o’clock in the evening by
the time I had toiled down the steep trail and stepped
through the back door. As I stood on the floor that I had
walked across thousands of times, I could not recognize my
home. The house was as dim as a cave. No longer did it
glisten with love and echo with children’s voices. As
though to make a mockery of our return, a tizzy of miserly
Christmas tree lights was strung across a dusty ceiling
beam. Below, piled dead center in the room, was a large
mound of taped and labeled boxes. Great garlands of dust
were draped from beam to beam and the house smelled dead
and abandoned. Without lifeblood, it was a shell.

On the front porch, the plywood benches, painted a mud
color since I left, sat empty. So often I had rested there
in the evening and let the ivory-crowned mountain valley
cradle me for a spell. To my left, a dead Christmas tree
leaned in a white margarine bucket.

Nothing Stays the Same

Outside the barn, I noticed with a pang that my oval flower
bed was gone. Also gone was the graceful clutch of birch
trees that had marked the point of land above the pond. I
had leaned against their tattered bark often and once
caught the sight of a great horned owl staring from one of
the top branches. He observed me for over an hour. Later,
on a walk out to the Ningunsaw River, we had been startled
to find him lying dead on the trail. Jay had stuffed him
and he had surveyed our main room ever since.

I walked back and perched on the back porch, where I
noticed the little red wheelbarrow that Natalia’s father
had made her when she was two years old tipped over beside
me. The bright red paint was nearly worn away and a
substantial crack ran the length of it. The kick-sled on
which we had glided down the sparkling river sat marooned
on the grass close by. Descending a quick 40-foot decline,
I caught my breath when I saw the pond. Three stout stumps
poked above the once-deep water, in the stifling embrace of
several feet of silt. Along the center ran a stranded
stretch of grass-crazed land. Beyond was the frowzy brush
island which was once the only protrusion. Behind me in a
damp log building, the water wheel whirled on in ranting
rhythm.

I rushed along toward the spillway where I saw Natalia
running my way, sobbing her heart out “It looks so
horrible!” she wailed. And so small. She had remembered it
as a much larger place. Together we pushed on to the
garden. Bands of tulips speared the soil here and there
amongst the matted spread of grass, but the expanse on
which we had once grown most of our food had gone
untilled…for years it seemed. Ben burst through the
fringe of alder and joined Natalia and me. As I embraced
him his chest heaved with sobbing. Although what he wailed
was, “My Archie comics are all gone!” I think what was
hitting him full force for the first time was the loss of
this life. I suspect that when we left, a light went out.

When I climbed the hill and reluctantly went back inside, I
was amazed to find so much of myself strewn about the
shambles of what had once been a warm and vibrant home. In
the entryway, the herbs that I had dried still sat in
gallon jars, opaque with time and neglect–dried
parsley, oregano, zucchini, mint, sage, rose hips, and
more. My fancy Findlay oval wood cookstove, in which I had
baked scores of pies, cakes, batches of bread, muffins, and
other delectables, was overgrown with a thick coat of dust
and grime.

In the next room Ben recognized his solar-powered
helicopter high on a shelf, while on the windowsill, a
dusty wooden dancing man in red shirt and blue pants leaned
a sharp left. His right leg was missing from the knee down.
Buckets and boxes were stacked everywhere. Over the scene
still stared the great horned owl, his expression holding
no patience for the antics of human beings.

Upstairs I got my worst blow of all. What had once been my
sanctuary was now unrecognizable. Cupboard doors were swung
open and spewing mounds of clothing. It was impossible to
cross the room without wading through them. Beneath a thick
gray rind of dust, my books still lined the shelves. I had
carted many of these volumes halfway around the world and
back and they had become as firmly planted in the Ningunsaw
Valley as I myself had been. Even now after nearly three
years, the act of taking my personal belongings seemed
somehow a sacrilege. I had poured so many years into this
home that the retrieving of any item felt like the
desecration of a monument. Yet there was a substantial leak
in this ship, and I had better start plucking what I wanted
from the water.

So Little Time

The next morning I awoke to the sound of a red-breasted
sapsucker drumming on the house while the plaintive
two-note piping of a varied thrush gently woke the woods to
another day. And we had so little time. A mere five days
was not long enough to restore order to our old home.
However, some things I couldn’t stand for more than a day.
My kitchen window, which I used to define as framed with
sunshine because of its coat of yellow paint, looked sadly
myopic with its plug of spattered plastic. All of it,
including sill and wing windows, was filthy. Once Eric had
maneuvered the plastic frame out of its hold and I had
mixed up water and vinegar, I began, just as in the past,
to wash the window, sensing at my shoulder the arrival of a
red rufous, hovering like a beggar beside the feeder.

Upstairs, Natalia and Ben dove into action, rummaging
through the ruins of their former life looking for
treasures. Nat had remembered vividly some of the clothing
I had left behind, including a tiger-striped skirt and wide
cape purchased in Edinburgh. With delight she discovered a
beige shawl I had crocheted in Paris and the antique eyelet
lace blouse I had bought there. She waltzed down the stairs
wearing the hooded monk dress I had bought and worn in
Israel. Natalia and Ben both poked their heads out of the
tiny attic window and waved hello to Eric and me, standing
far below beside the woodshed. Ben sported a paisley shirt
and vest that had once belonged to his dad. He said all he
needed now was a tie and decent suit jacket and his outfit
would be complete.

Despite the dismay over the state of our old home, many
small surprises shone forth from the rubble. I found a few
surviving pansies in the garden. Natalia lit on a folder of
drawings I had saved from her earliest years. And for two
consecutive nights we stepped out into the yard and saw the
pulsing of northern lights. It was more like a prelude than
a full dancing display, but it helped me recall some of the
magic of this valley.

On the back shelf I found a final jar of “Fritz’s leg” that
I had canned, from the gift of a hind quarter of moose meat
given to us by a friend of the same name. I scrounged
enough garlic dregs from a shriveled tangle to accompany
it. As the four of us sat around the scruffier pine table
with a candle glowing in the middle, eating plump plates of
potatoes, carrots, and moose, it all seemed like a dream.

The surprises continued that night when Natalia and I were
standing on the front porch. It must have been at least
eleven because darkness didn’t descend until after ten.
Waving the flashlight in an arc across the clearing, Nat
said, “Let’s see if we can find any eyes.” At first it
revealed only darkened garden meadow. Then eerily, in the
far west corner, past the untended rows of strawberries,
the light ignited two fluorescent globes. “Maybe it’s
Pippin,” Nat breathed. She had missed her pet, and a photo
of the feral cat had been tacked on our wall at Shuswap
Lake ever since we moved there in 1992. In unison we began
to call her. The glowing eyes traveled closer, hesitated,
then continued towards us. We still couldn’t make out a
body, but the eyes coursed up the hill through the old barn
site, past our outhouse, and up the ramp. Natalia held her
breath as at last we caught sight of Pippin’s fuzzy form.
After almost three years it was like an apparition to see
Nat’s pet dance toward us. As she advanced to the top of
the ramp the light caught the essence of bush cat, and in
the eyes, the touch of wildness which had sustained her.
Just when Nat bent down to pet her, Pippin turned and
dashed down the hillside. “Cats don’t remember people
anyway,” she moaned.

A New Beginning

Happily, the next morning Natalia discovered that sitting
still and letting Pippin make the advances was the best
strategy. At last she gratefully scooped her up and hugged
her. Apart from the white bib, Pippin had the eyes and
coloring of an owl. A robust bush cat, she was also as soft
as a lynx. Random squirrel tails on the path and the
screams of an unfortunate red-breasted sapsucker attested
to the fact that she could look after herself. Without a
doubt, she would travel south to Shuswap with us.

What a treat it was to be, once again, far away from
traffic and telephones. As I rested on the front porch, a
robin chirped persistently from the alder thicket bordering
Natty Creek while a winter wren delivered an elaborate
solo. This was the fourteenth spring I had welcomed to the
Ningunsaw. And what did the valley have to say to me? At
first, nothing. Then the slow glowing awareness that I was
ready to reclaim what I had never truly given away. It
would mean much negotiation. We would need to find renters,
but we also needed to be able to return.

On our final pack-laden ascent up the brutal hill, I spied
the early arrival of the Calypso bulbosa. It had been an
annual ritual for us to greet the delicate purple, yellow,
and white lady’s slippers. As always, I knelt and inhaled
the rich fragrance. Puffing, Nat packed a bulging bag of
clothing plus Pippin in a wooden cage. Ben lugged a giant
bag full of his freshly found Archies . Our
burdens were lightened by the understanding that if justice
was to play any kind of prominent role, then the homestead
would be returned to us. It would be a long road.