Chalk and Cheese by dee Hobsbawn-Smith

This op-ed will be followed by a response written by Dave Margoshes.

My husband Dave Margoshes and I are among the six million Canadians – seventeen percent of the population – who live rurally. Our home is a quirky old farmhouse on the 80-acre remnant of my family’s farm, snugged in the aspen parklands in the RM of Corman Park, northwest of Saskatoon in Treaty Six Territory. Soon after our arrival in 2010, Dave named our place Dogpatch in ironic tribute to my family’s frugal but messy ethos of “keep everything, it might be useful.”

I love where we live. After a peripatetic life, Dogpatch feels like my soul’s true home. But it’s complicated, coloured by my experiences of this place over the course of my life.

When I was a child, my entire family came to the farm for summer holidays with my maternal grandparents, a day’s drive from Cold Lake Air Force base in northern Alberta. It was a trip into another era. The house was too small to accommodate a troop of kids, so we camped. There was no running water: we helped Gram haul buckets of water from the pumphouse; washed our hands at the enamel sink in the mudroom, then carried the water in the slop bucket to the garden and tossed it onto the vegetables; used the outhouse without complaints; had outdoor sun showers as part of the adventure. Mostly we ran wild in the fields and pastures, avoiding the bull and the cranky milk cow who kicked, chasing the farm dogs, scrambling through barbed wire fences and caragana hedges, picking peas and strawberries in the huge garden, playing hide and seek in the dusty barn that smelled of warm animals and alfalfa, eating hot dogs and marshmallows cooked over a campfire in the south pasture while dragonflies patrolled above our heads. It was a wild, magical, semi-feral existence, and I never wanted to leave when the time came to climb into the car and re-enter our structured airbase lives.

I was fifteen when my parents took over the farm and relocated us from BC. The magic disappeared in the face of hard reality: there was still no running water, and the house was still too small; I was always cold; during the first year, using an outhouse and hauling hard water that gave me a bellyache seemed unforgivable hardships. I hated everything – except for my horse – and left as soon as I finished high school. But I returned when I was fifty-two, the year my parents wanted to retire and move to town. I didn’t come to farm, but to write fulltime. Dave left Regina, and I left Calgary, where I’d raised my two sons, and we set up house together.

We have endured grassfires and floods, and although at times I’ve had to run a mental pro/con checklist to remember why we live here, the peace and beauty of our home is a solace and inspiration. For the first seven years, following a monumental flood, we lived beside a “lake,” complete with waterfowl and shore birds. Since returning to dryland status, we see and hear coyotes daily. Hawks, porcupines, white-tailed deer, dozens of bird species, and other denizens of the wild (ticks all spring and summer!) live at our doorstep. The natural world feels bigger, closer, and more intimately important here than it did in Calgary. As a runner and walker whose foot travel is closely connected to my writing life, I feel blessed to simply step outside my door and go as far as suits me. Rural life is challenging and physical, and it takes time and effort; I sometimes say that I run and lift weights so I can split firewood for the kitchen stove, wrestle with the snow blower, whack weeds, trim hedges, mow the yard and walking path, haul rainwater for the trees and garden, chip away ice and check the septic tank in midwinter.

Everything costs more, from domestic service calls to what we spend on fuel each year to get to and from the small city where we socialize and buy groceries. The grid of sand and gravel roads we travel all look the same, and are invariably muddy, dusty, icy, or snowy, as is our half-kilometer driveway. Road signs are regular but hard to de-cipher if you don’t think in “range and township.” So visitors are rare, which is ideal for writers, except on the days when isolation weighs me down with a heavy blanket. On those days, I retreat to my kitchen and cook, or go upstairs and sew, both hands-focussed doingness that allows my well to refill. But most of the time, I do not feel isolated.

The south wall of my second-storey studio is nearly all glass. The prairie blows through that glass without effort, right into my poetry, essays, and fiction. Dave’s studio on the main floor is also our dining room, but during office hours, I try to keep out. That room has floor-to-ceiling windows on three walls, its view better than from the prow of a ship sailing into the wind. That distance between our workrooms is another blessing, giving us space and privacy: I write in silence, and Dave listens to jazz.

We work hard to respect each other’s workspace and time, ask before entering, ask before sharing work or seeking feedback. Early in our relationship, while I was still a very thin-skinned beginning writer, I asked Dave to set aside sarcasm as a communication tool, which he did without regret. In return, I have grown up as a writer, and developed a permeable but thick hide (I’m thinking rhinoceros here!) that lets in helpful feedback while protecting me from those dratted rejection emails. We practice kindness in our truth-telling about each other’s writing, and I no longer feel personally attacked when in reality Dave is simply commenting on my writing.

Living with a writer who is also a gifted editor and my trusted first reader shortens my revision process. As writers, we are chalk and cheese, but we have learned each other’s styles and writing tics, a definite benefit in edits and revisions. And… after years of discussing a possible literary collaboration, we are now in the thick of a jointly-composed poetry manuscript that travels through the ether from Dave’s main floor studio to my upper-level loft as we trade lines and metaphors inspired by our lives on the prairie. As my Momsy would say, it doesn’t get much better than that.

dee Hobsbawn-Smith is a poet, essayist, fictionist, journalist and food writer. Her award-winning work has appeared in books, newspapers, magazines, anthologies, chapbooks and literary journals in Canada, the USA and elsewhere.

Rural Artists Working Group (RAWG) – The Saskatchewan Arts Alliance, along with rural artists, are working on the creation of a Rural Artists Working Group (RAWG). This group will tackle issues around isolation, professional development, and connecting provincial artists and arts communities of all disciplines. If you are interested in participating, please contact