“Fences. What do I have to say about fences?”, Catherine sings as she sits on a hillside, gently clicking what remains of a deer’s hind legs in a rhythmic pattern. “There’s not many in the north,” she continues, “perhaps around some small gardens more concerned with surviving a frost than their lack of liberty…” Just as the clickity clack of the bones begins to lull me, she realizes that she’s forgotten the next stanza.
This was my introduction to Catherine Thompson, a musician and performance artist who spends almost half of each year at Trails End Guest Ranch in the prairie land of south-central Saskatchewan, Canada. At the ranch, her duties involve natural horsemanship, cattle acclimation and hoof trimming.
The most striking thing about Catherine is how many of her daily activities are connected, and how so few people — at least in the modern civilizations that I’m familiar with — are living life so interconnectedly. The landscape informs the lifestyle she lives, the lifestyle informs the instruments she makes, the instruments inform the music she plays, and the music she plays tells the story of all these things together in harmony.
As a musician, Catherine recalls that she began studying guitar in her early teens, and later Gaelic flute. She attempted building her first violin at age 17. While she never completed that particular piece, she has been making instruments ever since. Over the last seven years she’s focused her instrument making on natural materials and primitive instrument design. In addition to making instruments, Catherine writes and performs her music with dance and theater in Toronto and at the Banff Centre, where she usually spends her off-season winter months.
In the video, Catherine plays three instruments of her own making: her flutes, an igli — a two-string bowed instrument — and a cora. The cora is a traditional African instrument with a body made of a hide-covered gourd, a neck made of wood, and tuning wraps made from leather. She has made several, two of which are available in her shop. The string is made from fishing line, which Catherine earnestly jokes is “the thread connecting it to modern civilization.”
Catherine staking a hide in the prairie via her blog
With a serene sensibility that is much like holism, Catherine can often be found smoking deer or buffalo hide near the tent that she sleeps in during the summer months. She utilizes every bone and sinew of the animals she encounters and does so with the utmost respect.
Smoking a hide over a smoldering coffee can fire
Fascinated with cultures of oral tradition, storytelling, and myth-making, Catherine’s beliefs inform every aspect of her being. She parallels the narrative arc of her life with that of a character she calls Skuld, who represents a model of mankind predating civilization. The concept behind Skuld is:
“To search for a deep and sure connection with the natural world through the motivations and perceptions of the mythical character/being Skuld; of mythic imagining and re-vision-ing. Skuld and her kind have been amongst us humans for all remembered time. In the earliest days when all spoke as one — the animals the humans the trees the earth — their presence was known. As time wove on and the humans decided that they were different and of primary importance, that all the Earth was made for them, when they forgot the language of all, Skuld and her sisters found themselves forgotten and yet still pulled along with the myths of the people to their great distress. The Skuld Project is about the search and struggle to find the state where all spoke as one, when all were as one. To resist the destruction of the wild.”
Via Catherine’s website
From what I can gather, her long term goal is to walk away from modern civilization with her horse Dakoa and attempt to survive in the dominion of the wild. Not forever, but for a time. To do this, she is learning to hunt and trap animals for food and to skin and use their hides for making leather the way people of our ancestry did. Although Catherine lives very clearly in the moment, she is always preparing for what she affectionately calls her “trip.” Such a journey takes considerable preparation and dedication to survive. As a traveler, Catherine has a long road ahead.
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