A few months ago, at my favorite read‘n feed, I bought Rita Moir’s Buffalo Jump: A Woman’s Travels, for my spousal equivalent Vivien. Viv is a traveler and knows Rita personally through the Federation of BC Writers. It was an impulse buy and a mistake, I realized, as I sat eating my vegetarian bagel and reading. I should’ve opted for a bouquet of roses, always a winner.
First, Viv’s into "hard" travel, where you cut a deal with Uiger truckers on the outskirts of Kashgar to hide you in the cargo and get you through the Chinese Army checkpoints onto the Chang Tang Plateau, so you can have a look at the backside of K2, do a kora around Lake Manasarovar and finally arrive at Lhasa with your hair falling out and your sinuses bleeding.
Rita, on the other hand, is into "soft" travel, where you drive your car across Canada eating and drinking Tim Horton’s take-outs, visiting relatives and friends and listening to your mother tell family stories, eventually arriving back home burned out and glad to stare at the kitchen wall.
Second, and far worse because it’s a matter of politics and not mere taste, Rita’s subtitle is not, as I originally assumed, a knee-jerk marketing ploy foisted on her by a publisher with an eye for the main chance. Rita means it. She wants to redefine "wanderer" in a way that would be more pertinent to women:
I read diaries of those with a lust for wandering. I wonder who fits this definition, if it can only be men in the cold with teams of dogs, or if I can redefine it to include the women I know who prefer the back roads and finding their own homes.
Not necessary, Viv would say—as she did said at the Banff Mountain Book Festival a couple of years ago, in a seminar entitled "Where are the Women?" Women are out there mushing, just as they’re out driving the back roads looking for homes. They are also hacking their way through jungles and climbing mountains. Viv herself is ready, any day, to pit her wanderings against those of any man – like, for example, Wade Davis. Observe my exploits, ye macho, and despair. She even feels that her Mighty Mouse figure, on the inside back flap of a book, would be as appealing to readers as Wade’s shirtless torso.
Viv would also say, as she did at Banff, that redefinitions like Rita’s can only encourage testosterone-blinded guys (like, for example, Tom Cahill at Outdoor magazine) to continue publishing go-nowhere-pussy articles about camp cooking and mountain fashion. Of course the pussy can also, if it wants, while the boys do the serious stuff, come up with magazines like She Travels (now defunct) and publish articles on cycling to Dawson City to learn how those bastards Jack London and Robert Service subverted the real history of women in the Klondike.
Banff and its aftermath are still vivid memories for me, and Viv is still remembered at Banff—not fondly in some circles—for "go-nowhere pussy." Also, though Cahill apologized for saying the women just weren’t "out there," Viv wasn’t sure the apology was genuine since he didn’t offer to publish any of her stuff even though she took him up on his invitation to submit. She fumed for months.
So, having decided that Rita’s book could lead to domestic unrest, I finished my bagel, stashed the book in the bottom of my briefcase under some student papers, and lit out for the flower shop.
Unfortunately, a couple of weeks later, Rita turned up in town for a meeting of the Feds. At the same time, Buffalo Jump was up for a BC Book Prize. I knew Viv would buy her buddy’s book and get it signed, so I handed it over.
When Rita signed it she wrote, "To Vivien, Fellow Traveller, All the best."
Wasn’t that sweet?" said Viv.
"Have you looked at it yet?"
"I’m reading Boukreev’s version of the Everest disaster."
"Good, good. And don’t forget Kabloona; it’s still gathering dust on the coffee table."
In fact, Viv didn’t read Rita’s book until some time after it took the Creative Non-Fiction prize and Rita’s acceptance speech appeared in BC Bookworld. Viv clipped the speech for me:
I wish to thank my mother. I get so damned sick of women being put down and dismissed, especially older women…. And I want to thank my dog Connor. Without him, I could never have traveled the thousands and thousands of miles of this country. My old dog Connor stayed with me longer than any man, and was certainly more faithful…. In this book I have found my voice not on the coattails of a man—not through a man’s political campaign, not through a job, nor through love—and I have found other women’s voices too.
When I put the clipping down, Viv asked, "What do you think that’s all about?"
"How should I know?"
"I guess I’d better read the book."
Not long after, I heard fists pounding the sofa.
I wanted to intervene, to point out that Rita, while her sexual politics might be silly, is nevertheless working fertile ground. A lot of writers have gone "on the road" and found enlightenment. Furthermore, I wanted to say that Rita is at least trying to convey her motives for travelling, something Viv never thinks to do. Viv assumes that readers will be interested if only the challenge is big (read stupid) enough and the story well told. I try to tell her that readers would be even more interested, her writing even more valuable, if she explored her suicidal urges while describing them.
But I knew I couldn’t use Buffalo Jump to make these important points. Rita discovers little on her travels. Her root problem is her politics; she’s a separatist, wanting a homeland for the Amazons. In this book, these politics take the form of an insistence that there are female stories separate from male stories. The book’s thematic cue, "Mother is the narrative link" is also the moral of the story. Mother alone will connect Rita to her past, and thus illuminate the present and future.
But in any mother-daughter story there has to be a man, even if he is only in the woodpile. Can the story be complete without his side of it? Without him being discussed, even?
For example, in one of the stories, told by Rita and not her mother, the mother leaves the family for a year. Rita was 17 at the time. She ironed clothes, made cookies for her brothers, sister and father and "kept hoping Mom would find what she needed and come home to us. And she did."
Rita later learns from her mother that a grandmother and great-grandmother also had to leave, and so did one of Rita’s great aunts. These three women are on the mother’s side of the family. Her father tells her that his grandmother had to leave too. Rita concludes, "I am looking at my full hand, a full count of five women, two great grandmothers, one grandmother, one great aunt, my mother."
But few details are given as to why each of these women had to leave. A husband’s alcoholism was a factor in two cases. Fair enough. The grandmother didn’t like living in the bush while her husband did. She took the kids back to town and the husband followed. Fair enough again, but it seems like the husband acted honorably, and Rita herself likes to live in the bush so maybe she gets this tendency from her grandfather, heaven forbid.
Rita’s mother says nothing whatever about her own leaving, though there’s ample opportunity as she and Rita drive across thousands of miles of Canada. This leaves the reader furtively counting a full hand of men who could also be important to Rita’s understanding of her family stories. One is a father who stuck with his family when mom took off. Also, we learn, he conveyed his biologist’s knowledge of plants and his love of the prairies to his daughter, and once he rushed home from an arctic expedition when a lapse in communication made him fear that something had gone wrong in the delivery of Rita’s sister. Two is a Maritime fisherman boyfriend who taught Rita about the ocean and gave her the scallops she carries with her. Three and four are her loving brothers, one of whom made the styrofoam cooler that holds the scallops. And fifth, of course, is Connor, a shining example, as Rita says in her speech, of masculinity, absolutely loyal and still scouting the neighborhood for babes even though he can barely walk and regularly gets torn apart by the competition.
The gaps in the story are, however, minor compared to the cracks in the symbolism. Rita, like Melville, is a great finder of symbols (though she ignores those intriguing scallops). But Melville’s symbols connect in terms of his story, while Rita’s, since there is no coherent story, are connected by sheer force of creative writing.
The buffalo jump, for example, is described as Rita’s opening to the prairies. The mountains crowd her; on the prairies she can go outside of herself, breathe, "hear my own prairie stories, the voice of my own women." She continues:
I know the buffalo jump was a place of huge pain, of herds going over, of death and bloodshed. But in the quiet there, I also know the buffalo jump is a place of stories, of imagination, where a leap is a transition. The buffalo jump gave me enough distance, back to the mountains, out to the prairies, to take a longer view, to make my own transitions, to listen to what isn’t being said. Prairie stories sometimes told with silences. The buffalo jump, the silence and the distance there, helped me to understand that I can have my own places, my own stories, my own songs to the prairie . . . . These are my stories, our stories. They will become the bones to hold me, the wind to lift me, my leap of faith.
Prose poetry? Or a transparent (and somewhat breathless) attempt to make a panicky run over a cliff and quick conversion to hamburger into a "leap of faith?"
But there’s more. Some of these buffalo could have been adult males. Rita can’t have that:
I always thought buffalo were male. . . . Bears were male. . . . When I started reading about buffalo, and dreaming them, they started to become female. I read in a book that it was the female buffalo that led the herds. And then I saw the same information again at the interpretive centre in Alberta, and even heard an old woman near me read it out loud to her husband, loud enough so he could not miss it. And then I read in a book that smart old native women were considered to have buffalo wisdom. And that mostly the male buffalo lived alone. Somehow I always thought that the males protected the herd, turning their powerful shoulders to the threat. But I was wrong.
It’s true that Melville settles the issue of the ferocity of the sperm whale (over that of any other whale) with an even more casual nod than that given by Rita to the facts of natural history. But the scientific facts really don’t matter to Melville, and he presents them humorously. Everyone knows that anthropomorphic debates – like those of E.T. Seton and Teddy Roosevelt about whether it’s the male or female panther that purchases education insurance for the cubs – go nowhere. The bottom line in Moby Dick is the story. In the context of a bunch of whalers who have to go out in small boats and poke the brutes, sperm whales are ferocious, and in the context of Ahab’s crew, who are about to poke the biggest, meanest, most diabolical sperm whale of them all – well, natural history be damned. Sperm whales are killers and that’s all there is to it.
And of course, as the story turns out, Ahab is crazy and Moby Dick is after all just a big, dumb animal who’s been poked a few times too often.
In Buffalo Jump, however, it does matter that male buffalo are irresponsible loners, and females the leaders and protectors of the herd. Rita doesn’t find it particularly funny that she was so hideously mistaken in her high opinion of the personalities of male buffalo. The reader, like the henpecked old man at the interpretive center, gets the message, loud and clear, that real buffalo, like real humans, are female.
Having settled the issue of the sexuality of buffalo, Rita goes on to attach the buffalo to the stories. In dreams and visions, the buffalo protect her and lead and even carry her to the stories:
As I go to sleep, I understand that I am following the buffalo again. I find them standing by the stories waiting for me.
In fact, as the book draws to a close, the buffalo are joined in this by other animals: elk, deer, coyotes etc. Rita says,
In my dreams for years now the animals have kept coming . . . trying to tell me something . . . . It’s trite, perhaps, or presumptuous, to think there’s something out there helping me. But I don’t have God or Mary or Jesus . . . . I guess I had to conjure something to help me though the hard times. At least she has her faith, I’ve heard it said of people who pulled through, overcame.
Dangerous thinking. It’s best not to get into the habit of attributing human intent to objects and animals, best not to turn your personal symbolism into a faith. That’s what crazy Ahab did.
A woman’s travels. If you need to satisfy a thoughtless curiosity or an addiction to your own adrenaline, and if you don’t mind mixing with any males who can keep up, you can travel with Viv. Your main objective will be clear: to make it through alive. Viv will look after you as long as you show pluck, but she tends to be harder on women than men in this way. Any "go-nowhere pussy" will quickly be cut loose.
Or, if you want to find Amazonia, you can go with Rita. You’re making a leap of faith, but you’ll be running with a herd of protective, supportive women. But don’t lose faith. You really need to believe, as you head for the jump, that the girls up front are rational, not panicked. And, as you sail over the edge, you’d better be sure that Amazonia means heaven, not hamburger.
2646 w. February 12, 2001
Rita Moir’s Buffalo Jump: A Woman’s Travels was published in 1999 by Coteau Books. It won the BC Book Award for creative non-fiction, and the VanCity Award for best book on women’s issues.