Land Stories

This is a heart project of mine.

I have experienced and witnessed how peoples’ connection to land, to a landscape, a place, and its ecology has incredible power in our lives.

I want to begin to ‘catch’ these stories. I’m not sure what this looks like, but there are pieces that I have been trying for a very long time to integrate: of the driving, at times almost painful need I have to be on land, to see a horizon not obscured by structures; of the angst and grief of witnessing climate change on a daily basis, wreaking changes slow and fast around the globe; and of traumas, big and small, that I have felt assuaged consistently in many ways, also big and small, by connection to land, hard work, and livestock.

About me: I am a 38-year-old cis white woman with a graduate degree and relative degree of social and economic security and plenty of privilege, in a straight, atheist, 1-child family living in a multi-generational household with my husband, our 1-year-old, 92-year-old mother-in-law, 2 twenty-something tenants, their dog, and several fish; and an ever-changing population of chickens, pigeons, ducks, and rabbits, occasionally turkeys, and whatever wildlife happens to wander through. We live on a suburban lot in southern California, because that’s where my mother-in-law’s house is and this is where she wants to stay until she dies. Fair enough. It’s not where we want to be, but it’s where we are, and my husband Laine has done a rather epic job of turning it into a food forest and example of what suburban living *could* look like if we were all catching rainwater and raising livestock and doing what we should, as humans, be doing.

Until I had a major birth-related pelvic injury in late 2018, I had all kinds of ambitious plans to leap back out into a productive field season in my PhD in agroecology after our daughter arrived. Today, a year later, I am still struggling with chronic pain and limited mobility, and am understanding more and more what it means to have lofty dreams that remain just this far out of reach, even if only for now.

But this idea of catching my own and others’ “land stories” came to me as one small way that I might begin to rejoin the threads of the broken tapestry that is our agriculture, our livelihoods, our connections to food, soil, the climate, and other living beings.

So, I’ll start.

I was raised in the central interior of British Columbia, in a narrow wedge of a valley between the Rocky and Cariboo Mountains. The Robson Valley, part of the Rocky Mountain Trench, is breathtakingly beautiful. The Fraser River is a wide, flat, sand-brown ribbon that wends its way through my farming community hometown of Dunster (population ranging around 300 for as long as I can remember), crossing under a one-lane bridge that only recently transitioned from its heavy wooden boards that would clank and knock under the wheels of your passing vehicle. On an early morning, the sun brushes craggy peaks and smooth coniferous slopes that are snow-capped nearly year-round. The sunsets are spectacular; and a full moon on a chilly winter’s night creates the most magical wonderland of sparkling darkness you’ve ever witnessed. It’s close to world hotspot of outdoor sports, Jasper, Alberta (and a few more hours, to Banff); for me growing up, Jasper was where we’d go for pizza and a movie, highschool sports tournaments, or the public pool. It’s a few hours from Chilcotin country, of big ranches and long, hard cold winters; Breaking Smith’s Quarterhorse, tough Hereford cattle and cowhorse and sagebrush country. It’s a long drive from the sunny Okanagan and vineyards and orchards, paddleboarding and wine tours, and feels like it: we’re mountain country, where big dollies and fat rainbow trout hide in the dark pockets of cold streams, and moose wade leisurely knee-deep through still, quiet swamps. I grew up with the slaps of beavers’ tails, robins and chickadees heralding spring, the quiet shush of wading through snow up and down a quarter-mile driveway to catch the schoolbus, often in the dark or near-dark and for a few weeks, dark at both ends of the day. When I close my eyes I can feel what the grass in the pastures felt like, where I dropped (and lost forever) my first little jackknife; what it feels like to step on rusted barbed wire and hunch through between the strands; to whistle to a horse and wait a moment before you hear the hoofbeats coming at a dead run; step into ankle-deep mud obscured by moss and a thick shelf of mint, and to step into the dark damp quiet of spruce and hemlock forest that’s been there for a long, long time. Under my fingertips I can feel cottonwood bark and pine sap, pineapple weed, and the scorched timbers of the logs that built our very old barn; smell the dust and cobwebs in the saddle room, the square bales of hay that we built forts out of, and the feel of the well-worn wooden rungs of the ladder going up into the hayloft. The smells of warm cows and the feel of their strong, sleek whorls of hair under my hand, the resistant white curls on their foreheads and faces of the Herefords and the speckled sleek summer hides of the shorthorns; the strong, insistent sucking of a calf on my fingers, and the wriggling of lambs’ tails as they slurp on rubber-nippled brown beer bottles, or their mothers’ teats. I know what ice under thawed muck and frozen mud feel like (they’re different), the dry dust of the manure pile, and the smell of pigweed.

Hay fields looking southwest towards the Cariboos (2010). At the family farm in Dunster, BC.
With Stormy, my first Suffolk Dorset X 4H ewe lamb, in 1992. She lived to 17 years old, had 2 big twins her first year and triplets every year until we stopped breeding around 2000.
Ozalenka Valley hiking trip 2010. Near McBride, BC where I went to highschool

To me these are things that are indelibly caught in my web of remembrance, and very likely forever lost, to a farm that will very likely never become a real working farm again in the sense of fields and fences, livestock, a farmhouse, a farmdog and barncats, chickens, and all that. At least not to my family. I dreamed of coming back for a very long time but having no idea (at the time) what I needed to do to make that happen and finding no direction, wandered off the trail until it really did seem to all of us I had no interest in coming back, even as or perhaps because all along I simply assumed I would, and that I could, and now. Well, I don’t want to say I can’t, but it seems that way. It would take a lot more money than I’ve ever seen to buy it back, and that’s a very good thing for landowners that have worked very hard for a very long time and have very much earned a well-deserved, comfortable retirement; and a very sad and hard and real thing for their kids.

So instead, while and so long as I am here in southern California, where I struggle to connect to landscape, and have no innate feel for the dust, the smells, the wind and heat; so long as I am here I think that I would like to start collecting stories. I don’t know yet what kinds of stories these will be: but I imagine they will be strung across the tapestry of all we are – of colonialism and historical loss, of family and recovery and unexpected lucky gains; they shall be ecological stories, of grief and hope and hard work, despairing sometimes, challenged often, and the effervescent, deeply-seated joy that comes with raising livestock, children, plants and other living things cheek-by-jowls with each other. Of climate change, and social change, and of just the plain old quotidian change of one year to the next.

If you feel like you have a story that you’d like to share, please email me at susan[dot]cousineau[at]gmail.com, send some pictures if you have them, and I’ll share them here. I’ll post with full credit for both your writing and your images and a link to any site or social media associated with the work you’re doing or the place you’re speaking to.