We arrived in Alberta mid-August 1999 in a convoy of anticipation, uncertainty, brokenness, and hope. Unlike most places we previously lived, this new place contained no extended family, no memories connected to family or personal history… no roots.
The newness was both a welcome novelty and an isolating reality.
2019 marks our 20th anniversary of living here, and I’ve thought much about what it takes to know a place, put down roots and feel at home. In some ways I still feel like a newcomer; in other ways I feel rooted more deeply here than anywhere else.
Settling in initially required time and energy, so we had little of either left over to explore the physical landscape. Over time, traversing the tidy grid of range and township roads, wide swaths of primary and secondary highways, and a meandering assortment of forest service roads and trails has enabled us to gain at least a cursory knowledge of the region. “Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea…” Substitute ‘wild rivers’ for ‘flashing sea’ and Henry Van Dyke’s lyrics for the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 capture the essence of this land. Always enhanced by the expansive and expressive sky above, continual shifts in colour, texture, and tone animate the land and propel it through the seasons.
The land is vast, but it is not empty. Even in a narrow radius from our house, creatures abound: waterfowl, frogs, songbirds, owls and hawks, muskrat, beaver, rabbits, squirrels, weasels, foxes, coyotes, moose, elk, and deer…just this morning a stately buck was cavorting with a young doe outside my bedroom window. I have tried to be an observant student of this place, anticipating the first frog song in spring, discovering (accidentally) that grouse roost under the snow, watching the marsh wren stuff sticks in all the birdhouses, wondering about a goose laying eggs in an eagle’s nest – the more I see and learn, the more I appreciate the rhythms of life here and the deeper my roots burrow into my backyard, the marsh, the fields, the mountains. Like poet Wendell Berry, I have stepped “into the peace of the wild things.”
When I first started commuting 45 km to teach school in another community, my route took me past numerous farms owned by Nameless Farmers. Like a settler arriving in a new land, I tried to establish a sense of place and belonging by naming landmarks along the way: three large grain silos became the Three Musketeers (until several more bins were added and the name no longer fit); a tidy row of eight grain bins parallel to the road are still the Butler Family; an old homesteader’s cabin half-buried in carragana became…well, Carragana House.
Fifteen years later, I still drive past those landmarks, but I rarely think of the names I gave them. Instead, the names that now orient me to the land are those of many of the farmers – families of students who have sat in my classroom – names rooted deeply in the soil of the land they farm. This is another way of knowing a place: by a long habitation, a steady working and stewarding the land, a passing of knowledge and skill to younger generations who willingly carry forward a passion for place – not to exploit it, but to utilize its riches to sustain life and families and legacies. Perhaps this is one reason I still feel like a newcomer; twenty years even on a large town lot in Wembley seems like mere pittance in a land patchworked together by generational family farms.
Beyond a growing knowledge of the land, I have slowly developed connections and belonging among the people here. It is rare that a trip to town doesn’t include bumping into a student, former student, colleague, friend, or even a stranger who somehow becomes a temporary friend in a checkout line. “My people” will never be a large and expansive group, but I am grateful for the depth of relationship and friendship that has found me here.
I came somewhat worn around the edges, heart still raw from previous disappointment and hurt. I wish I could say that being here has meant nothing but restoration and healing, but it has actually included unfathomable pain, new disappointments and hurts that threatened to unravel worn edges completely. In 1999, I never envisioned that part of belonging to this place would include a grave in the local cemetery, that burrowing roots would literally mean burying a son in the ground. I never envisioned that life would sometimes feel like an unbroken chain of Hard Things.
So it seems incongruent to say that I feel more deeply at home here than any other place I have lived. But I think it is precisely these Hard Things that have helped deepen my appreciation for the small things, the ordinary routines, the diverse people that are part of this place. Hard Things have a way of forcing us to plow deep, find sure foundations and strong roots to keep us from toppling over in defeat. I understand in more profound ways what it means to live in community with all of its potential for messiness, to journey with others from a place of pain and heartache, to live love and live loved.
At the center of my reflections on my years of coming to know this place, this place that we came to more out of necessity than choice, is a profound realization stemming from the name Immanuel that was bestowed on Jesus to declare the purpose and significance of his birth.
Immanuel means God With Us.
In this name, the Eternal God, Creator and Sustainer of a vast universe, declares His place of choice – with us.
I have found a home in this place of glorious sunrises and brutal windstorms, of baby birds and buried sons, of deep community and strained relationships, of opportunity and disappointment, of field and forest, of joy and sorrow because He is with us. With me.
Grace upon grace upon grace.