A few months ago, on one of my little adventures in the bush, I had an experience that I just can’t forget. I had decided to go for a walk to explore the bush along the edge of a clearing. The clearing was roughly square-shaped, and I walked along one full edge, intent on checking out the corner, which had some vague interest for me. As I walked, I was pleased to find an abundance of wild strawberries growing in the clearing! I stopped to pick a few, savouring their intense flavour. Along the way, I came across a little pile of cut firewood; someone was obviously going to come back for that some day. The bush was pretty thick, but to be honest, I wasn’t looking into it much. I was distracted by the strawberries.
As I got close to the corner, I could see that there was a little opening in the trees where a couple of them that had fallen down in a wind. With one more step, a flurry of activity erupted from the bush. Grouse — local people call them “chickens” — flew every which way, as though with that one step into the bush I had tripped an invisible laser-alarm, and they could not sit still. I hadn’t seen any of them until they all moved — their camouflage is excellent — and after they flew away only one remained.
This one, lone bird did the strangest thing, this thing that I cannot shake the memory of. It was crouched on the ground, among the fallen leaves, again invisible against the background. It shuffled forward and I could see it again, and it made the strangest sound — exactly like a puppy whimpering. It did it again, a little shuffle and a distinctive whimper. I couldn’t believe how much it sounded like a puppy. It did it a third time, which allowed me to reassure myself that’s exactly what I was hearing.
How strange, I thought, and then realized that there must be a nest of young ones nearby, not yet able to fly away to safety. I was pretty sure I knew where it was — to my left, behind a log and near the point I had seen all the adults fly away from. I was very tempted to walk over and take a look, but the pitiful display of this lone grouse made me hesitate and ultimately change my mind. It had intentionally stayed behind when the others flew away to sacrifice itself to this strange, upright predator. It drew attention to itself with its cries and movement, making sure I could both see and hear it, the pathetic whimper as if to say “eat me, I’m weak and defenseless — an easy meal.” I just couldn’t satisfy my curiosity — to find the nest and see the little ones — after what this adult bird had done for its young.
But not just for its young; for all the young that were in nests nearby. I knew from the number of adults that there must be at least three nests, and this one stayed behind to save the young of them all. You know, all around the world we see incredible acts of sacrifice by people for their children, but not as often for others’ children. I, for one, had never seen such a display first hand, of an animal so willing to die that it would call out to the predator to ensure its strategy of misdirection and ultimately, its sacrifice, would be successful.
There is not much I can say. It was humbling. That grouse showed intelligence, compassion and courage. And it’s just a bird, with a brain no larger than half a walnut. I guess courage, compassion and intelligence don’t have anything to do with brain size, but it does make me wonder if I have been letting myself off easy, not demanding much of myself lately. My idea of an act of courage these days is to go into a crowded room where I don’t know anyone. Compassion consists of smiling respectfully at strangers, whatever state they are in (i.e. sober or not, poor or not), and my intelligence has been primarily engaged in knitting and dreaming up floor plans for tiny houses. I think it might be time for another challenge. I think it might be time for an extreme compassion adventure! It might even be time for a sacrifice, and damn it, I had better not complain, because I’m pretty sure I won’t be whimpering on the ground, hoping the predator will eat me instead of the children nearby. Wow.
In this part of Alberta, there are 3 main cultural groups, roughly in thirds: First Nations, Mennonite, and everyone else. I have several friends who are Native or Mennonite, but that doesn’t mean I know very much about their culture. I know a little, sure, but haven’t actually experienced or partaken in many cultural activities (that’s something I need to change). When my friend’s dad passed away a little while ago, I wanted to support her, so I got the opportunity to go to a Mennonite funeral. I thought I’d share a little here, as most of you won’t ever get to do this.
Another friend of mine had the presence of mind to warn us about a few things, which was good! I had forgotten that in the old colony Mennonite churches, women and men don’t sit together. In fact, the women have a separate entrance. We used the men’s entrance, but we clearly were not Mennonite (I was wearing PANTS!), so we knew we could get away with it, without offending anyone or ruffling too many feathers. Although they have very strict traditions, they don’t seem too offended if non-Mennonites don’t follow them. If you’re Mennonite, though, look out! Bending the rules is a no-no and will start a pretty feisty rumour mill, from what I hear. Some women wear long skirts all the time (yes, even in the middle of winter, or while doing farm chores…), small kerchiefs on their heads, and at a funeral as we were, black from head to toe. That is out of respect, and it makes sense. You wouldn’t go to a funeral wearing flowery/showy clothes or sequins! Their regular dresses are interesting — quite colourful and homemade, sometimes in, um, rather interesting (ugly) patterns. My friend told me that at home, many women do wear pants and “normal” clothes. The men, on the other hand, dress completely modern, carry cell phones, and you cannot tell by looking that they are Mennonite. Some women have cell phones too, and I guess overall there are many anachronisms — contrasts between the traditional and modern.
The church itself is spartan, to say the least. I heard that their belief in humility is what influences their design. Mennonite churches are plain buildings — Sommerfelder churches are white and old colony are blue — with wooden siding. Churches in most denominations have at least a simple sign to say what church it is; not so with Mennonite churches — no signs at all. There is no power, so the funeral was performed simply by sunlight coming in the plain windows. There were hooks in the ceiling for lanterns. There is no heat, but there was a small stove on the men’s side. The walls are plain white, no signs or artwork anywhere. The floor is plain plywood. Most of the seating is benches; they aren’t pews — there is no back on them. They truly are plain wooden benches, painted white, placed quite close together, and you have to rely on your back muscles to keep you upright! A little uncomfortable to say the least! There were a few chairs with a little padding and backs, and these were used by the elderly. Other smart people got there early and sat at the back, so they could lean against the back wall. We were early, but not smart enough to get a wall-spot!
Speaking of getting there early… we were about 30 minutes early when we walked into the completely silent church, already about one-fifth full. We sat. We whispered a little, but mainly just sat. The family walked in just before the start time, all together, and sat near the front. There were benches and a row of chairs facing inward, at right angles to the rest of us; those were for family. The plain wooden casket was placed in the center. This time it was a closed casket, but they are sometimes open — it’s the family’s choice. A procession of about seven men walked in and sat at the front; my friend told me they were the song leaders. Another procession came in, about 12 men, who were the pastors. The song leaders announced the song number, and there was much rustling to get song books people had brought. Oh, have I mentioned yet that the entire service was in German? The official parts were a mix of High and Low German (it’s the pastor’s choice what language to use, or to mix them together), and a tiny section at the end that discussed going to the cemetery was in Low German, what everyday Mennonites speak. So I understood nothing. Not a word. The song leaders started the singing, which was unlike any other church music I’d ever heard. There were no instruments to accompany this very sad-sounding singing (probably in a minor key), with minimal annunciation; it sounded quite similar to middle-eastern music, except with no instruments. At times, everyone’s voices were so strong, it was hauntingly beautiful… singing in perfect unison to a rhythm and melody that I couldn’t even get a slippery grip on.
The preaching began, and I had no idea what to expect. Despite having no expectations, I still didn’t think the pastor would talk that long. One of the 12 pastors did all the speaking, every phrase in a liturgical lilt, somewhat similar to Catholic ceremonies — evidence of Mennonites’ origins. He talked and talked. Of what, I don’t know. I think at one point near the end I heard names, so he was probably listing surviving family members. I wish I knew what he had talked about… if I did, this blog post would be even longer! My friend said that to sum it u, his sermon title would be “clean up your house,” your body being your house (God’s house). He said to clean up your spiritual house because life here on earth is short, and he encouraged everybody to be ready in case God calls you home suddenly… and to mind your own house and not somebody else’s.
At the end, the pall-bearers carried the coffin into a vestibule in the men’s entrance. Then, an usher told what rows to start and we all filed out the men’s entrance, past the coffin, leaving the family behind. They had a short time of special comforting from the ministers, and then came outside. The coffin was loaded into a pick-up truck (with a truck topper on it) and started toward the cemetery. An usher again, seemed to indicate that certain people needed to wait and others go first, although we could not determine the logic. Our friend, who we car-pooled with to the cemetery, knew the people in basically every vehicle and was baffled as to why certain people needed to go first — a tradition that we were unaware of, perhaps. At the cemetery, the deceased man’s brother spoke for awhile, in Low German, telling stories about him and sharing how much his brother had meant to him. While I didn’t really understand what he was saying — a few words here and there, and the few English words mixed in — I understood very clearly the emotion in his words, and could empathically hear his message. After that, there was a prayer by a pastor and the pall bearers moved the casket to the hole in the ground. They put straps under it, and manually lowered it down (which makes sense; if they don’t have powered conveniences, why would they have an electric motor to lower the box?). Then, any men who had attended the funeral grabbed shovels and started moving dirt from the pile to fill the hole. I liked that — simple, and genuine. A job that needed to be done, and the community pitching in to make it happen. My friend and her family cried a little; so did I. But somehow we felt surrounded by people who cared, who were there in a time of need.
We drove back to the church property, where we went into the hall beside the church. Did I mention that there were no washrooms? Four of the cleanest outhouses you’ve ever seen did the trick (that must be cold in winter)! The hall was very similar to the church, except they had propane lanterns installed in the ceiling, which led me to think that they aren’t necessarily against innovation, just technology. They want to be “off the grid” and independent, and live very humble lives. We had buns, butter, coffee and sugar cubes, the traditional funeral lunch. Some people cut the bun open, butter it, and smoosh a coffee-dunked sugar cube inside. I skipped the sugar cube part, but I think sometime I’ll try it.
The people we interacted with were very nice to us. At the ceremony, the few people my friends whisper-chatted to were exactly as I would expect someone to be — respectful, and quiet, but not overly morbid. At the lunch, the same — friendly, pleasant, humble. The woman beside me had a job outside the home, so she was not as traditional as others. She had 5 kids, which seems pretty common. We talked about laundry, work, farm stuff (I grew up on one, so I could talk about that!) and pets.
So, that is a small glimpse into the Mennonite culture. It’s always difficult and risky to make assumptions or observations as an outsider, but I just had to share with you. While their stance against technology is quite contrary to most of Canada, they are resourceful and some of the hardest working people out there. Although they have strict rules for behaviour, I think some people like that and are happy living in that way. They have very well-defined roles, which is confining but also comforting in a way. Women are not valued as much as men, yet I don’t think they are mistreated, as a rule. I wonder why this inequality remains… I have heard of the judgment that people who don’t conform or measure up are subjected to, and it only seems to be directed within; outsiders are not as harshly judged, as far as I can tell. I wish I understood more; maybe this will open up a dialog with some of my Mennonite friends (yes, many of them have computers, especially my generation and younger)!