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The Crow Who Tampered with Time

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The Crow Who Tampered With Time blossoms with essays that find radiance and coherence in a world which formal religious dogma has forgotten. A visionary humility and an original, engaging voice make these essays and recollections both accessible and wonder-filled. It begins with Vernon Leo Kuhn "who lived in this world for six months in 1902 and 1903." On his grave grows a chokecherry bush and the cherries hang from it in clusters. "I pondered the untidy leave I had taken of my family's Christian fundamentalism — affirming the leave-taking, but regretting the pain — and I hoped for a sacramental wine to come of my day's endeavour." In "How Not To Scare a Gopher" Ratzlaff talks about the difficulty of stopping to meditate.

This is a book of exquisite imagery, humorous observation, breathtaking honesty and profound insight. The essays pulse with emotional poignancy and the eternal subjects of peace, religion, place, or time are respectfully broached with an intensive humility. This small book carries within its pages the expansiveness of the prairie sky — it changes and deepens at each look and introduces a remarkable new talent in the burgeoning field of literary non-fiction. Ratzlaff effortlessly connects with the challenges posed by scepticism and belief, countering both the cynicism and doctrinairism of contemporary life with a renewed praise of the profound depths of the spirit and the natural world.

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Prologue: Being Here

ePub

PROLOGUE

BEING HERE

Oscar Wilde once said that if faced with a choice between going to heaven or going to a lecture about heaven, most people would go to the lecture. We seem to be suspicious of a paradise in a far-off time and never-never land — some professing to believe it, some wishing to believe it, others believing it’s unbelievable. How different all this is from Thomas Traherne’s experience: “Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in God’s palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys; having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels.”

Love and work: these were Freud’s criteria of a successful life, the reasons for staying on this planet at all. Yet both can be degraded from opportunity to opportunism, and both can come to feel like joyless obligations. Are compassion and creativity better terms? Are we here to experience common passion, and to make something of the experience? It’s one way of phrasing the spiritual quest.

 

The Bush on the Grave

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THE BUSH ON THE GRAVE

In the pioneer cemetery beside Diefenbaker Park near my home in Saskatoon, there is a grave on which a chokecherry bush is growing, hanging heavily some autumns with ripe black fruit. Vandals often desecrate other graves in that place, but as far as I know, they’ve never damaged this one. Beside the South Saskatchewan River, in the middle of a patch of prairie, in the centre of a grave, the bush stands over the remains of a little boy named Vernon Leo Kuhn, who lived in this world for six months in 1902 and 1903. It’s the only bush of its kind in the cemetery. I have often thought that, if it were done respectfully, those dangling clusters of cherries could be made into a unique wine. But no one ever seems to pick them; perhaps people are too superstitious to do it, or perhaps some fluke of nature allows them to ripen there until a person such as I comes along, ripe himself for the kind of experience which befell me there one afternoon of the first of September.

I don’t say I would have felt free to pick those chokecherries if I had intended simply to make a drinking wine. For wine and its related spirits have sometimes caused me more trouble than they were worth; but when I set out for the cemetery with a plastic pail in the late afternoon sun, I pondered the untidy leave I had taken of my family’s Christian fundamentalism — affirming the leave-taking, but regretting the pain — and hoped for a sacramental wine to come of my day’s endeavour.

 

Vixats

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VIXATS

Joe and I were picking hazelnuts one afternoon in southern Manitoba twenty-five years ago, when a little animal startled us as it scurried off through the bush. We had startled it, I suppose, and Joe chuckled in Low German at “that little Vixat” as it left us for parts unknown.

“What’s a Vixat?” I asked.

Joe thought awhile and said, “It’s something that appears suddenly.”

But he seemed hesitant, so I probed. It didn’t mean this or that animal, he said after another pause, or necessarily an animal at all. If an unexpected thing pops up, it’s a Vixat. The popping-upness is what makes it one.

Joe and I were born Mennonites, but where Low German was his mother tongue, mine was a corrupt High German spoken in deference to my Lutheran grandfather who had converted after falling in love with the daughter of a South Dakota Mennonite minister. Grandpa never spoke more than a dozen words of English or Plautdietsch, and Vixats were not among the phenomena we recognized. I’m sorry that my tradition sacrificed the vivid diction of Low German to the rantings of frontier revivalism. We became so preoccupied with going to heaven that we never noticed, for instance, that a vacuum cleaner is really a Juehlbassem — a howling broom — or that a locomotive is an Iesehinxt — an iron stallion. Joe taught me these things long after I left home.

 

An Unexpected Fox

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AN UNEXPECTED FOX

I am not the first man to have lost his way only to find, if not a gate, a mysterious hole in a hedge that a child would know at once led to some other dimension at the world’s end. Such passageways exist, or man would not be here. Not for nothing did Santayana once contend that life is a movement from the forgotten into the unexpected. — Loren Eiseley

In his essay collection The Star Thrower, Loren Eiseley told of an encounter with a fox pup one morning beside an abandoned boat on a beach, just as the sun was coming up. He had sat all night under the open sky, dozing and dreaming and thinking about his departed father. He didn’t know that the decaying hulk of the boat against which he was leaning was a fox den. But at sunrise a little creature crawled out and showed him a miracle, he said, which cured him of the common sickness of gazing with upright human arrogance on the things of this world.

The pup inspected him carefully, then offered him a chicken bone between its teeth. On a childlike impulse, Eiseley — esteemed scholar that he was — went down on all fours and picked up another bone in his teeth, and shook his head vigorously in reply. With that the two creatures tumbled to the ground and played, and there Eiseley had his miracle. It was very small, he said, as is the way of great things; but, he concluded pensively, “there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.”

 

How Not to Scare a Gopher

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HOW NOT TO SCARE A GOPHER

Gay Balfour in Cortez, Colorado was hard up. He worked at a marina but was looking for ways to raise extra cash, when one night he had a dream. A huge yellow truck fitted with green hoses drove through a cornfield at five-hundred miles per hour, vacuuming prairie dogs from their holes. And when he woke up, he resolved to build such a machine. He went shopping for a street sweeper, modified its workings, and looked further for suitable hoses to attach. In a certain industrial supply shop a clerk pointed at some bright green flexible tubing, and a chill went through Gay Balfour: he had seen hoses just like that in the dream.

He dubbed his machine the “DogGone”, claiming it could vacuum twenty acres, or eight-hundred holes, on a good day. It sucked gophers from the ground and deposited them, alive but somewhat bewildered, in the back of the truck to be “relocated” — heavy artillery in farmers’ war against gophers, which promised to eliminate the need for the poisons that had been used to date. But how many of the confused animals had been relocated anywhere but to heaven, he didn’t say.

 

The Crow Who Tampered with Time

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THE CROW WHO TAMPERED WITH TIME

Thank God it’s Friday, we said, and after work headed, as Long John Baldry sang on the stereo, “straightway for the bar.” There we disposed of our usual agenda: reviewed the institutional lunacies-of-the-week and illustrated them liberally with anecdotes; fantasized our forthcoming vacations; damned the political process; lamented the nation’s — and our own — economic ills while laying out good money for another pitcher of draft; exchanged the jokes which human rights litigation had rendered too hazardous to tell on the job. And eventually we made our ways home to our assorted amusements. An archetypal Friday, it was.

The evening passed with simple diversions, my mind clutching at the weekend’s tentative freedom while staving off thoughts of the bygone week or the approaching Monday. Dinner, movies, popcorn, that sort of thing — and eventually it was bedtime.

Count it among life’s little treasures: regardless of when you go to bed on Friday night, it doesn’t matter. Glance at the clock if you like — it only enhances the smugness with which you retire, promises to let you wake up as and when you will, defers to another clock embedded somewhere among the biology you put to rest. Ah, the weekend has begun.

 

The Sound of One Cow Grazing

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THE SOUND OF ONE COW GRAZING

I know a good place. By day I tramp around its trails and through its bushes, stoop like one of Gideon’s failed soldiers to drink water at its creek, gaze at things that flap and fly there, and listen to others that chirp or shriek or thump. Sometimes I talk to these creatures as if we were all children, and sometimes they reply.

But when the sun sinks below the hills across the river, stillness pervades and the dark closes in, lively critters withdraw to their thickets and nests and holes, and I am alone. There are no conveniences and no diversions — no television, no music, no toilet but an outhouse huddled in a distant black clump of trees: and if I don’t take a bottle of brandy with me, no insulation of any kind against the vastness and silence.

Here I become a boy again. In daylight, adventures beckon: spreading trees are familiar spirits, no creature fails to announce the world’s wonders. But when the place goes dark, the spooks driven off by city lights congregate, and if I’m alone I hear them, too.

 

Humdinger

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HUMDINGER

Humdinger: A striking or extraordinary person or thing.

In the Green Forest and the dear Old Briar patch, near the Laughing Brook and the Smiling Pool, lived the wonderful bunch of characters of Thornton W. Burgess’s books, which our teacher began reading to us in the first grade. Sammy Jay, Unc’ Billy Possum, Shadow the Weasel, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Prickly Porky and the rest contended with each other’s nasty ways, getting into remarkably human scrapes and adventures while steering clear of Farmer Brown’s boy and his dog, Bowser the Hound. When my daughter and her children gave me The Adventures of Jimmy Skunk for my birthday one year, the whole cast came popping up from the pages and from a long-overlooked corner of my mind.

One late fall day in Diefenbaker Park, I was startled by a little critter as it emerged from a gopher hole — ears round like Mickey Mouse’s, face like a tiny lion’s peering from above a curiously long neck. It took off for another hole, stood for an instant, snaked in and out of the earth, ran again with bulbous black-tipped tail flying behind, vanished into the next hole, and appeared again from the ground.

 

The Holy Crow

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THE HOLY CROW

A murder of crows is occupying the bush across the street. At the moment, three of them are perched on a power standard looking through crows’ eyes simultaneously up and down the South Saskatchewan River, while the rest squall harshly from the bush. What malign intent they have I can’t say, but my neighbour, Mr. Black, counted twenty-two of them; so it’s not a bunch of crows, or a flock or multitude of crows, but a murder.

One of their ancestors killed me over there in the pioneer cemetery a few years ago. I was walking one evening full of lethal thoughts toward somebody in Ontario whom I had never met, who had done something with someone that I didn’t want him to have done. A few minutes earlier I had been sitting in a grove of trees in Diefenbaker Park, communing with an edenic world — steel blue glint of sunlight on the wings of a magpie, patient bumbling of bees from flower to flower, the rumble of the train on the trestle filling the dome of the world — when all at once I was in a ferocious fight with an imaginary enemy. And I fought harder as I began realizing that something in me was wrecking the communion. I strode through the cemetery, a jealous buffoon with enough sense to know I was doing wrong but not enough to stop doing it. Meanwhile, the world had not gone anywhere; it waited, as always, to be inhabited with presence.

 

The Why and the Wherefore

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THE WHY AND THE WHEREFORE

Eeyore stood by himself in a thistly corner of the forest . . . and thought about things.Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” — and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about. — A. A. Milne

Cindy is an eighteen-year-old student of Larraine’s who is inclined to deal with everything in her world by one comprehensive explanation: “That’s why because.” Some people call her mentally disadvantaged. Larraine co-ordinates her educational program, and living with Larraine entitles me to a debriefing at the end of every working day where she needs to tell, and I need to hear, stories about annoyingly innocent people.

“I’m going home on the bus today, that’s why because,” Cindy says.

“I got new shoes yesterday, that’s why because.”

Things are as they are, because they are.

She is closer to the truth, probably, than we are. For explanation lies on us like a disease in which we forfeit our sense of wonder — the curiosity that drives the best kinds of science, and the humility which is close kin to worship. “How marvellous this is!” said an old Zen saint; “I chop wood, I draw water.” One day when my daughter Sheri was five, colouring a picture, she said, “No wonder you like green!” “Why is that?” I asked, and she said, “Because it has such a nice colour.”

 

Of Bulls and Baptisms

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OF BULLS AND BAPTISMS

I lock the Sunbird with a click of the key, check to see that I’ve parked far enough off the road, and turn toward the fence. Armed with a water bottle and a can of mosquito spray in a yellow plastic shopping bag, I part the barbed wire strands like this — there, I made it without ripping the back of my shirt or skewering my crotch — and walk into the heat along a scraggy downhill path in search of the old baptismal site, with swarms of mosquitoes coming toward me and as many grasshoppers jumping out of the way.

The remains of an old log barn sag there off to the right, walls slumped and half overgrown, roof long decomposed. I don’t remember it there forty years ago, when I was fourteen at the time of my washing; but I recall people driving down in their cars, the community coming to see the latest batch of teenagers doused in the river. Once before I was baptized I was here with my cousin to go fishing. We made our way gingerly around a herd of cows overseen by a malevolent old bull, but we didn’t catch any fish, and had to sneak back up again, cripes I hope there’s no bull here now. I look around and estimate my chances, now at mid-life, of outrunning a bull and climbing a tree in front of a pair of tapered horns.

 

Archangels and Jingle Bells

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ARCHANGELS AND JINGLE BELLS

I Question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro’ it & not with it. — William Blake

Perceptions are acts of creation. They can bring a dead world to life. They can replace the objective idols of our culture, and its disdain for our subjectivity, with images that point back at us when we see them. Lively images.

He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk
Descending from the bus,
He looked again, and found it was
A hippopotamus.

For more than a decade I worked as a therapist for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Sometimes we got into philosophical discussions which would go something like this.

“Is there such a thing as a real Santa Claus?” I’d ask.

“No there isn’t,” the sophisticated ones said, and went on to explain what really happens on Christmas Eve: “Your mom or dad just puts the presents under the tree after you go to sleep.”

For others, skepticism had begun to intrude: “Some people say there is no Santa, but I think there is. But I don’t know how he flies to all the houses in the world in one night, unless it’s on a laser beam or something. Or maybe he brings the presents early and your parents hide them till Christmas.”

 

No Biscuit Blues

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NO BISCUIT BLUES

One Sunday afternoon when I was ten or twelve years old, in an upstairs bedroom of my uncle’s farmhouse I found a blood-red booklet titled The Lake of Fire, which nearly impaired forever my capacity to trust. The cover showed contorted bodies leaping and falling back into a lake of molten sulphurous bubbles, and a man at the head of a long line flailing at hell’s brink with eyes bulging and fists grabbing the air. The text told how the doomed would try to escape, how they would be driven down nevertheless by the order of the Judge: “Away!” I tried to fathom this Jekyll-and-Hyde Christ, who was said to be compassionate and forgiving though we have sinned against Him, yet who would come with a sword in His mouth to smite the nations and tread the winepress of the fierce wrath of Almighty God.

About that time I also received a monthly magazine from a well-known evangelical organization. One especially vivid issue showed a great stone pyramid with a legion of steps mounting to a platform at its top, where Jesus or God sat on a resplendent and awful throne. On judgment day, the writer said, I would be summoned from an ocean of people to mount those steps, to hear my life reviewed in the presence of celestial, terrestrial, and infernal powers — and what chance would I have there, shrivelled up before Omnipotence unleashed? Like the Rev. Sprague in Tom Sawyer, my tradition “dealt in limitless fire and brimstone and thinned the predestined elect down to a company so small as to be hardly worth the saving.”

 

Sweat

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SWEAT

The first time I invoked the Grandfathers was the day my first grandson was born. The message came from Winnipeg just before I left for a bush a few hours north of Saskatoon, where an initiate of the Bear clan had offered to help me through my first ceremonial sweat in his lodge. Ramsy said Tommy was fine, my daughter Shannon was fine; it was a bright and melodious spring day, and it seemed to me everybody should have such a drive to the bush as I had.

Others had been invited, but when the time came, only the Bear and I were on hand. He invited me to join in the preparations, and explained the clan’s traditional ways as we went. Together we built the fire, together we transported stones, in concert we circled the lodge — he outside, I from the inside — to seal it against the light. I fretted at my clumsiness, but this was of no concern to the Bear. Nor did it matter that I had no aboriginal blood in me, or that he was the director of an institute where I worked, and so, in the strict sense, was my chief. He cared only that we sweat together in the old way, take an aboriginal remedy for the ancient ill: You shall give birth to your children in pain; with sweat on your brow shall you eat bread till you return to the soil — the joy of Tommy’s life, and ours, attended by the pain.

 

The Barrier of the Patriarchs

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THE BARRIER OF THE PATRIARCHS

A friend drove into the country one day to inspect a test plot for the Canada Research Council. On many previous trips he had passed a turkey farm, and for once his curiosity got the better of him. Hundreds of cages stood there, each containing a bird; but one door hung from a broken hinge, and a turkey stood on the threshold, diminutive head peering into the world, body bulking safe in the cage till Thanksgiving. Darryl called it a Far Side cartoon.

The Zen master Mumon once gave the following talk to his students. You must pass through the barrier of the patriarchs, he said. To do this, you will have to work through every bone in your body and every pore in your skin. It will feel as if you have a hot iron ball stuck in your throat — you can’t swallow it and you can’t spit it out. Then your previous ideas will disappear; your subjectivity and your objectivity will become one. You will be crushed to death, but you will shake the heaven and move the earth. You will become like a great warrior with a sharp sword: if a Buddha stands in your way, you cut him down, if a patriarch blocks you, you kill him. Then any world you enter, you enter as if it were your playground.

 

O Wheel

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O WHEEL

The mayor of Dachau takes for granted we are not here to see the town. “Dear Guests,” the brochure begins, “You have come to Dachau to visit the memorial site in the former Concentration Camp. Innumerable crimes were committed. Like you, the citizens of Dachau bow their heads before the victims of this camp. After your visit, you will be horror-stricken. But we sincerely hope you will not transfer your indignation to the ancient 1200-year-old Bavarian town of Dachau, which was not consulted when the concentration camp was built and whose citizens voted quite decisively against the rise of National Socialism . . . ”

There are photos, then, of footpaths beside the Muehlbach River, and distant Alps as seen from the Dachau Palace. There are paintings of old mills and taverns and smithies, and of harvests and peat bogs, of the place as it was before the years of infamy.

“I extend a cordial invitation to you to visit the old town of Dachau,” the mayor says. “We would be pleased to greet you within our walls and to welcome you as friends.”

 

Willy Becker and the South Church

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WILLY BECKER AND THE SOUTH CHURCH

The name of Little Willy Becker’s village, Adair, Saskatchewan, may seem kind of funny at first when you think how many Mennonites live here. You would have expected, maybe, something like Blumenheim or Schnetjedarp. But those villages are all quite far away, twenty or thirty miles, places Willy has only heard about here in Adair where he lives.

You are probably wondering why is the village called Adair, and not one of those other names that, as I say, maybe you expected? Well, Pete Hamm he explained it to me once, the Pete Hamm that works in the Village Office and goes to the North Church. He said Adair was the back name of a certain politician who was quite famous at one time when this part of the country was still the Northwest Territories. Pete couldn’t remember the front name, but this Mr. Adair had done some quite important things. It’s just escaped me now what they were, or maybe Pete never got around to telling me, but as I say, they were such important things that Adair got a village named after him, and this is that village, with more than three hundred people, where Willy Becker has lived all his eleven years.

 

A Medicine Story

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A MEDICINE STORY

Near the end of the second grade, I got into my first fight on the school playground with a younger but bigger and heavier kid nicknamed Big Ears. We had shoved at each other awhile when he stuck out his foot and tripped me, and I went for a hard tumble. I tried to break the fall, and did — but also broke the bones of my right arm about six inches above the wrist.

It was 1954. Before the days of medicare nobody in our world was in a hurry to see a doctor, and it was a long time before anyone knew those bones were broken. Our remedies began close to home. Across the back alley lived an old woman who had a reputation as a “bone-setter”. These were homegrown practitioners who applied coarse remedies to assorted ailments, including broken bones. My people preferred consulting them over doctors because their fees were negotiable, ranging from a heartfelt Dankeschoen to maybe a bag of potatoes from the garden, or even an occasional cash payment of a dollar or two. In the Low German dialect, they were known as Traijtmoakasch — right-makers. My paternal grandfather was a well-known right-maker in the district, operating a clinic from a little yellow shed in his backyard under a sign that read “Dew Drop Inn”. He had strong liniments there, and many sizes of wooden crutches on which we cousins hobbled around his yard when we went for family gatherings. But the clinic was eight miles away in the next village, while old Mrs. Sawatzky lived next door.

 

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