RIMBEY — Impressing young urbanites with the impending loss of their natural environment is a task that seems almost too tall, says a Rimbey author whose work is focused on the natural world.
“I don’t know any way to get through to people that we’re losing our natural environment,” says Fred Schutz, 92, as he turns the pages of one of the many photo albums that surround the chair beside his front window.
The number of people populating the planet has grown too large and those people have become too exploitative for the planet to sustain, says Schutz, who has watched the local population shift 180 degrees from the days when most Albertans lived in the country.
Author of roughly 3,000 nature and history columns published in the Rimbey Record weekly newspaper and its successor, the Rimbey Review, Schutz says he has loved the natural world for as long as he can remember.
It was a love steeped in family tradition, nurtured by Sunday afternoon walks on the family’s Bluffton-area homestead with his parents, his brother and his sister.
When his younger brother went to war, Schutz was asked to stay home and work the farm.
He wrote down his observations and he captured images on film, starting with a little Kodak Brownie that used 12-exposure rolls of black and white film and progressing in 1952 to his first 35mm camera.
A couple of years after that, Schutz decided to approach the Rimbey Record about having his work published.
He armed himself with five or six columns and walked to the news desk, manned that day by assistant editor Jack Parry.
“I was ready to bolt for the door. I wasn’t at ease at all,” says Schutz.
Parry skimmed through the pages presented to him and told Schutz he’d be happy to publish the stories.
Over the next 45 years, Schutz’s West of the Blindman columns became a regular feature in the local paper, sharing his stories about things other people were passing by.
The Record eventually started paying for the columns, at $10 each.
Schutz chose to keep it simple and straight forward, describing the daily lives of beavers and forests, grizzly bears and chickadees.
He wrote about the people and the places around him and even included a couple of stories about a household necessity most would rather leave alone.
In homes that had no plumbing, liquid waste was dumped into a wooden bucket or a metal pail.
Sometimes, there were two: One for liquids that could be fed to the hogs and the other for those that could not.
“The slop pail was certainly one of the least attractive aspects of country living in the days before plumbing, yet it endured in many homes through most of the twentieth century,” says his first treatise on the lowliest of kitchen receptacles.
The second story describes his loss of appetite upon seeing a woman hang a dishcloth on the edge of her slop pail.
People used a lot less water when it had to be carried in from the pump and then carried back out and dumped, said Schutz.
Throughout his life, Schutz has encouraged people to make themselves aware of the natural world around them, to wonder at its beauty and to enjoy its moments of humour, such as the antics of bumblebees that became “pickled” after sipping fermented thistle nectar or a chickadee that was in similar straits after taking is meal from the well a sapsucker had drilled in a tree.
“Most of his flying was upside down, and when he said ‘chicka-dee-dee-dee’ it came out as ‘shicka-ree-ree-ree.’”
Schutz has mentored others, including Sylvan Lake naturalist, writer and photographer Myrna Pearman, manager of the Ellis Bird Farm at Prentiss and a fellow winner of the Owl Award, presented annually by the Red Deer River Naturalists to recognize members for their achievements.
Pearman acknowledges Schutz’s encouragement as a prime factor in her choice to pursue her interest in wildlife as a scientist as well as a writer and photographer.
She helped compile a small collection of his work into a book, West of the Blindman, jointly published in 2003 by the Central Alberta Historical Society and the Central Alberta Regional Museums Network.
Pearman is now organizing more of Schutz’s material to create a second book.