This proverb was first recorded by John Heywood in his 1596 collection of proverbs in the English language. Its meaning, as I see it, provides a particularly good metaphor for the winds that ranged back and forth over our prairie farms, and still do - for better or for worse. Weather was and still is a favorite topic for discussion among Saskatchewan farmers and with good reason. Weather and the winds that come with it can still make or break you.
All five of us – two parents, three children - are standing close to each other in a kitchen – silent and staring in fearful awe through the kitchen window. In just a few minutes crops and gardens will have been flattened and some outbuildings damaged. We have seen it coming – gale force winds propelling roiling mountains of angry, dark clouds heading straight toward us. Rain crashes down and soon the staccato of hailstones comes with it – stones large enough to dent, shatter, and destroy. We have no crop insurance.
The winds of winter can be no less cruel. Fickle weather has no insurance contract with farmers and their related community economies. Winter winds can quickly whip up an impressive storm that can bring whiteouts and tragedy. At one time farmers would tie one end of a rope to the barn and the other to the house. In a whiteout a person could become confused and freeze to death in their own yard. Roads were frequently blocked by heavy drifting, making travel almost impossible unless you still retained real horse power. Winter windstorms that carve out vast white plains of rippling dunes can be both beautiful and deceptively dangerous.
In earlier times on these same plains, people believed or perhaps partly believed in an evil spirit called Windigo, an invisible being that was often blamed, for lack of a better explanation, for devastation of many kinds – fire, plague, drought, untimely frosts, late springs. Was it Windigo at work when the Spanish flu took thousands of lives in 1918 and 1919, destroying entire families and even whole communities? Was Windigo busy again during the 1930’s when top soil on many parts of the prairies was blown away leaving farmers and their communities destitute and left with land that would not recover for many years if at all. Today we rely on the science of weather forecasting to do its best to keep us informed, protected, prepared and alert.
I’ve been out of school for two weeks because of a school yard injury. Home remedies haven’t worked and now there is a dark swelling on my leg. I can’t walk without great pain. My parents discuss taking me to the village hospital but decide to delay for a few more days until it is absolutely certain that I need professional help. We do have a car but during the delay the weather has changed and drifting snow has made roads impassible. However Dad still had horses. To get to the Spalding Hospital Dad had to drive over frozen fields and wind hardened snow drifts that were still growing in size. I remained in hospital for six weeks and was out of school for three more at home. Although we were only 6 miles (9.7km) away from Spalding the snowing and blowing that winter continued to make roads impassible. There were few visits during my time there.
Wind has a dual personality. There are many instances when it reveals a benevolent presence – drying newly mown hay so that it can be stored without spoilage, drying clothes on outdoor lines, drying fields that have received too much rain, letting homemade kites soar aloft, cooling us during hot summers, providing power via wind turbines, and keeping our flags at “attention”. It can even be playful – ripping off our caps as we ride our bikes. Winds have a language of their own - sighs, howls, whistles, whispers, moans, hums, screams and roars. They are flexible and able to change speed, force and direction almost instantly - from light breeze or complete stillness to something monstrous like a tornado or a cyclone.
Just as quickly winds can wax poetic presenting themselves as gentle zephyrs - cooling us when we are working on a hot summer day, accompanying us on a mystical stroll through a grove of trembling aspens, teasing leaves into chattering tree language on a starry prairie night. The zephyrs waft over and ruffle fields of grain and vast grassy plains. What are they saying?
Prairie dwellers learn to understand and decipher wind and its many moods, always knowing that these conditions are not under human control. It’s best to enjoy wind’s benevolence as much as possible and to be prepared when it becomes unsettled or even angry. It’s also wise to accomplish as much as possible in the good times. Carp Deum!
Caboose –– small cabin on top of a sled – usually equipped with a small stove, a front window and a back door window. Ours held a family of five quite easily. There were benches on both sides. Usually home built. Two horses required. Window not on the side in case of tip overs. An escape hatch was important – especially if the caboose had a stove lit. That would be the back door.