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Thursday February 16, 2012

Cowboy poet conjured the landscape with his verse

Special to The Globe and Mail

By his own account, Harvey Mawson's poems and stories "served to carve a notch in time," memorializing the history, values, and lifestyles of the working West, and particularly of the patch of Saskatchewan that he had known since childhood. Mawson died on Jan. 20, at the age of 81.

Cowboy poetry was born on the trail in the 1880s, when wranglers would entertain each other around the campfire with songs, poems, and tall tales - some of them learned by rote, some composed during the long hours of riding. The use of rhyme and meter made the poems easier to remember; their focus on the concrete details of life on the range ensured they spoke to the heart.

Modern cowboy poetry took root in 1985, when a group of folklorists and poets founded the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. Cowboy culture has since swept the Western U.S. and Canada, and there are now hundreds of gatherings where, at open mics or invitation-only stages, performers ranging in age from 6 to 94 regale audiences with storytelling and reflection.

Harvey Mawson was born into the cowboy world on June 13, 1930, in the small town of Dundurn, Sask., south of Saskatoon. He spent his earliest years on the ranch his great-grandfather had pioneered in 1886. Mawson's backyard was mile upon mile of open prairie - the Brightwater Marsh with its rich bird and plant life, the exquisite sand hills, and the Round Prairie, where a group of Métis had settled in the 1850s.

Young Mawson's greatest pleasure - besides listening to his great-grandfather's stories of those early days, and reading - was to explore this land on horseback, learning its secrets. He did so even after his family moved to town in 1936, forced off the land by drought and illness. His uncles continued to ranch, and as a teenager Mawson worked for them, developing his wrangler skills.

He left school for full-time work in 1946, partway through Grade 10, and in 1950 married Kitty MacIver. For 34 years he worked on the nearby military base as a firefighter, while continuing to break and train horses and participate in roundups and trail rides. He also read voraciously, and wrote. He had a few poems published in the Canadian Cowboy's Rodeo News, and began to think about putting together a book.

In April of 1987, while he was taking in the Trappings of the West annual gear show in Flagstaff, Ariz., a friend introduced him to folklorist Cyd McMullen of Elko. She suggested that Mawson submit a taped sample of his work to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering for consideration. He did, and was featured at the 1988 gathering, the sole representative of Canada.

A highlight of that event for him was sharing a session with Baxter Black, a retired veterinarian who was and is one of the biggest stars of the cowboy poetry scene.

That year, Mawson was also invited to the inaugural Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Pincher Creek, Alta., so he took his tent and bedroll and delighted the crowds there. For the first eight years of that gathering, Mawson was always on the program. He also recited his work many times at Saskatchewan's big cowboy poetry gathering at Maple Creek, as well as smaller ones like Wood River.

As the 1990s wore on, however, failing health pulled him out of the spotlight. By then he had begun publishing. Brimstone and Bobwire came out in 1989, and was soon followed by two other books of poetry and a couple of books of short stories; and his work was chosen for several anthologies. He also wrote some history books for the local museum.

"He knew the history of the land here more than anyone else," recalled his daughter, Joan Falk. "There were people from the Dakota Sioux that were working in the university, and contacted Dad." His deep roots and voracious reading had made him a library of local history and ecology.

Mawson's wife, Kitty, died in July, 2010, shortly before their 60th anniversary. In anticipation of this, he had written a poem for his five children and their families. Using the imagery of the life and the land he had always loved, he left a message of reassurance:

One last trail left to ride ...

I ride the wind and stir the grass,

go laughing up the sunlit pass.

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