Oh, witch’s brooms make great fire starter, says Marie, holding up a big ball of craggy branches, all twisted together like a squirrel nest. She hucks it onto the massive bonfire we’ve started, where we’re slowly turning a bit of forest into a horse paddock.
What’s a witch’s broom? I ask. The flames are twice as tall as me, dancing their way towards the azure sky.
Those, she says, pointing at another, lodged in a spruce tree. Don’t you say that in English? I said I didn’t think so, grabbing some more brush to launch onto the fire.
Not long before I moved here, a friend lent me the book “Outlawed” by Anna North. It’s a feminist western in which barren women, who were believed to be witches at the time, formed a gang out in the dessert, dressed as men, and became bandits (with vague allusion to Billy the Kid… in a sense implying that the notorious Irish-American outlaw could have in fact been a woman). The badass women in the story rode around robbing banks and stealing horses, in order to survive in their hidden camp. Sometimes when I’m out riding on long country roads with Marie, or stealthily bushwhacking on horseback through the grumpy neighbour’s land to get to the best river spots, I imagine us to be feminist outlaws. The fantasy always makes me grin and sit taller in the saddle.
Being here has been the medicine I needed. Not only did I get to meet some strong and capable women, but I realized that I’m one too. In the absence of scrutiny, I was able to split wood to keep myself warm at night (without someone mansplaining axe handling to me, or taking it out of my hand), haul all my drinking and wash water by hand from a spring in the woods, cook on an open fire, and rock climb my way along the river bank to see what was behind each bend, just for the joy of it. I fell off a horse at a gallop, dusted myself off and got back on.
One evening, just as it was getting dark, I was inspired to re-hang my shower stall from some better trees, in a more private spot. As I was balancing on a log, rope held between my teeth, I heard allo? and spotted Marie coming down the lane, beer in hand. I’m back here! I called, as she followed my voice. What are you doing? she asked. I explained to her, showing her how the solar shower works. I am always so happy when people like you come to the land, she said. I always learn so much. My heart swelled with pride, to know that I’m someone who others believe they can learn from. After all, I’ve learned so much from her. Like how to gather my reins quickly when a horse takes off. Or set a mouse trap (sorry mouse), or build a gate out of cedar logs. After a cycle of feeling small, trying and failing to fit myself into a box, I finally had the space to find a different box, or maybe just to torch the box altogether.
Burning our way through this horse paddock, I no longer hesitate, branch in hand, to ask, is this too big? I simply launch it on with an oouf, and watch the sparks disappear into the night sky, a smile playing at my mouth in the dark.