But when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.
- Marcel Proust, Swann's Way
It is the history of a small town called Eastend (renamed Whitemud in the narrative), where Wallace Stegner spent the most formative years of his childhood. And it is also, by synecdoche, the chronicle of a process of white settlement on the northern plains, a process that reaches its climax and end in this particular short-grass subdivision of southwestern Canada.
But Wolf Willow is utterly atypical of conventional history. What we have here is history filtered through the evocative and judgmental mind (and memory) of the region’s most illustrative native son; Stegner’s response to his subject is a kind of stratified formation of anthropology, sociology, geography, geology, and ecology applied to a literal place—and to literal place as a state of mind.
An ordinary road map of the United States, one that for courtesy’s sake includes the first hundred miles on the Canadian side of the Line, will show two roads, graded but not paved, reaching up into western Saskatchewan to link U.S. 2 with Canadian 1, the Trans-Canada Highway.
I stand [on the bridge] above the water and sniff. On the other side I strip leaves of wild rose and dogwood. Nothing doing. And yet all around me is that odor that I have not smelled since I was eleven, but have never forgotten—have dreamed, more than once. Then I pull myself up the bank by a gray-leaved bush, and I have it. The tantalizing and ambiguous and wholly native smell is no more than the shrub we called wolf willow, now blooming with small yellow flowers.
For the moment, reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied. The sensuous little savage that I once was is still intact inside me.
|Old apples along farm lane|