Old Lives

In the Chilcotin Backcountry

John Schreiber

Set in the wild country north of Lillooet and west of the great Fraser River, Old Lives: In the Chilcotin Backcountry paints the rugged landscape and equally rugged lives of the Chilcotin’s enigmatic old-timers: aboriginal and settler, male and female, deceased and alive. It takes vigilance, persistence, courage and humour to live where survival requires a deep knowledge and trust of the land, where prosperity is synonymous with self-sufficiency and where thriving is dependent upon a community of neighbours and friends who can be counted on in the direst of times.

In his second collection of Chilcotin stories, John Schreiber unveils an urban life that continues to encroach upon the BC Interior, and as it does, the old ways disappear; traditional knowledge and skills are forgotten, and the legends fade into myth. Old Lives is a book that acknowledges and honours the region’s backcountry elders, their way of life and the wild liveliness of the great Chilcotin land where they have existed for centuries.

Where We Come From

 

It all boils down to who dropped you, and where.

—Andy Russell

There are quiet, little places around this province where lives go on, on their own, sometimes in old-time ways. Nobody much knows about these locations, except for the people who live there, or relatives and friends, maybe, from more urban settings or other rural parts. There are small pockets of people scattered here and there, at the ends of roads or on alternate routes, often gravelled, that are less travelled by far than the fast throughways with the loud transport trucks heading east, the vans and SUVs with their automatic transmissions, air conditioning and hunched, white-knuckled drivers, eyes intent on the yellow line.

It was on a side road in such a place on a sunny spring morning, some years back, that my partner, Marne, took some photographs of three First Nations men on horses; one of a small, but carefully built, old dormered house, burnt nearly black by the sun, and sporting doors and window frames painted turquoise; and another of a low church close by, even smaller and darker than the house. Marne, in her usual charming way, promised the main horseman, a big, quietly authoritative, seemingly ageless man, that she would get the developed photos back to them. The other two riders, both young lean men, watched, listening, the one straight-faced in ball hat, reflector glasses and wide moustache; the other just there.

The next year I returned, without Marne this time, but with five clear colour prints, four by sixes, to find those men and give the pictures to them. After a long, slow, sunny drive, spotting birds, places, signs of old lives and indicators of spring, I found the small remembered gathering of old houses, barns and fences on a sloping sidehill. There was the tiny church—derelict, I think—with that burnt-brown, antiquated look, sinking down into itself, farther up the hill behind. I looked for a particular house where, on that earlier trip, heavy metal rock music had reverberated and a young man had stood on the front porch yelling down to us and to the world at large across the cool sunlit hillside, announcing his own angry, diminished presence, I suppose. I walked up to the gate, lifted the chain off the horseshoe nail on the post and approached the house.

A small, grey-haired woman came out to meet me. She asked, a bit suspiciously, “Are you lost?”

I said I wasn’t but that my wife, Marne, had taken pictures of three guys on horses near here and had promised to send copies to them. Now I needed help identifying them.

“Come in,” she said.

John Schreiber is a natural poet of the landscape west of the Rockies. Like his counterpart Gary Snyder in California’s Sierra Nevada, he explores the country, on foot or in the Pathfinder, taking the nearly-forgotten roads and trails. Not much misses his eye and ear — tracks of grizzlies, remote graveyards, an unexpected gathering of kikuli pits, pygmy owls and coyotes in the darkness, even a hermit thrush singing near a campsite.

Read this book for its fine prose, its celebration of what’s been lost or might still exist on remote ranches in the Chilcotin country where a pot of coffee goes around and someone begins to tell a story of the old days. Individually these pieces recount trips to Tatla Lake or the Potato Mountains; collectively the result is a vast but specific cartography, a mythography that we are richer for encountering.

— Theresa Kishkan

You meet an array of historic figures in the ten essays that make up Old Lives, including the infamous Theodor “BS” Valleau, Eagle Lake Henry, Trapper Annie Nicholson, Bern Mullins, Donald Ekks, Emily Lulua, Pete McCormick, and the notorious Donald McLean among others.

Perhaps my favourite chapter is Larry Emile’s Drum, where you get a strong sense of how John moves through the countryside and sees the world. His close-up encounters with the people he bumps into peel back the layers of the superficial.

Schreiber describes the Chilcotin through mythological eyes. He says the old stories have an element of “myth time” that make them profound. His walks and experiences touch on that too. Sadly, he says, western society has turned the word “myth” into meaning a lie.

“There is power in myth. It’s more than just telling a story.”

He quotes Joseph Campbell: “Myth opens the world to the dimension of mystery, to the realization of mystery that underlies all forms.”

Schreiber concludes that mystery, like mythology, can only ever be wild.

Prince George Free Press

Shortlisted for the 2011 Victoria Book Prize