In my mind, the North and love are intimately entwined. The North of Saskatchewan is my home, a land of skinny boreal trees growing out of sandy soil, soft muskeg sinking beneath your feet, and sweet berries in hidden fields, waiting to be picked by hand, one by one. The North is a small town across the river, where I first fell in love walking old dusty roads, listening to MBC on the radio. The North is an even smaller reserve, where the smell of snowmobiles and laughter ringing across frozen trails forever means flirting and adventure. With the sounds of Cree and Dene in the air, I fell in love in the North and I fell in love with the North.
I used to trip on my own tongue and hide beneath blushing cheeks whenever discussions of sex, sleeping around and sensuality came about. This was not a conversation my friends and I talked about much beyond “did you do it yet?” I remember when I first announced that I had sex – my girlfriends and I were in gym class, whispering, laughing, and I was happy. The sex itself was a good experience; it was consensual, it was something I wanted. I was lucky, I know that now. But one of my best friends gave me a frown, pulling back and rolling her eyes. “Why do you need to talk about it? That’s not something we need to talk about here.”
I felt like I had been hit. A lot of negative thoughts about myself rolled through my head – why was I even bringing it up? Sex was private. I shouldn’t be talking about this in school. I shouldn’t be telling anyone. Girls don’t tell. But mama didn’t raise no wallflower, and I smirked, rolling my own eyes. “Don’t listen then.” And I continued on, sharing my story with friends who had their own awkward questions and insights, and we laughed together. I remember describing how he smelled like skidoos and night air, but my legs wouldn’t stop shaking under the table.
As much as had I pushed back in the moment, the emotional remembrance of how one of my own would react so harshly kept me aware. It kept my tongue silent for far too long. Loving my growing awareness of sexuality was not a topic I could discuss, as it was grounded in patriarchal views regarding how many men and how far did you go shame. I remember a handful of stories that I would share that were somewhat taboo but said with tongue-in-cheek humour, self-deprecating, making it acceptable. About the guy who bit my cheek instead of kissing me on my 16th birthday, then told me “he knew I liked it.” I kinda did. About the time I made out with two of my brother’s best friends and got hickies from them (they didn’t know about each other) because my brother had dated one of my friends. About the time I dated a guy at Summer Games, but then broke up with him to date his cousin. Oh, the drama of teenagers.
But in all the stories I could tell, laughing at myself and my own antics, there are hundreds that are unspoken. Intimate. Held close. Treasured.
Stories where my partners taught me things about my body I never knew or encouraged me to explore with them in new way, never shaming me for my joy in the bedroom. But still, stories I was encouraged not to tell via shame, subtle social cues and the fear of being branded a slut. It took me a long time to realize that sex was for everyone else’s pleasure but our own.
I remember one night vividly; it was late September. The nights were already getting cooler, but me and my boyfriend at the time were walking along those same old dusty roads. He would eventually be the third guy I would sleep with, and I was madly in love, yet again. He had a car, but we had been drinking, so he was walking me back to the reserve, which was four kilometres away. It was not the first time we had walked that road, nor would it be the last. We cut through the forest on an older trail, him holding my hand as I lead the way, the underbrush sweeping across our jeans. I felt him tug on my hand, and he pulled me to him, and I screamed and laughed as he pulled us to the ground, his body breaking my fall. He kissed me, smiling, one hand on my cheek, and I smiled. I remember rolling onto my back, him nestled between my thighs, the pine needles slowly digging up through my black bunnyhug. I remember looking up at him, smiling, the moon shining so bright that the blackness of the forest turned a deep midnight blue. I kissed him again and looked up the stars above him. I could see the leaves from the poplars blowing in the night wind, and I paused.
Good Girls don’t fuck in the bush.
It was such a vulgar thought; treason to what he and I had. This internal shame of body, of showing affection through acts of desire, and physical intimacy – all so subtly and explicitly ingrained in me to the point that kissing my boyfriend was now considered “too much.” I pushed him away, I remember, and walked on, refusing to play like that again.
It was a relief when I started dating my (now ex) long-term partner, one I expected to be with forever-and-ever. I could focus on him and our relationship, our growing sexuality and expression of such together, and that was that. My love story with him is embodied in the North – watching the poplar leaves blow in the wind as he gutted fish with my dad, listening to him speak Dene with his family as we sat in the trees at the beach with the sand shifting through my toes. There are places, decades later, that I walk by and smile, remembering those moments interrupted between us, our intimacies still lingering across the North.
Not all love stories last forever. He and I went our separate ways. Now, I was presented with dating in my thirties, and what a hilarious disaster that has been. Dating for the first time in my life means that I am now learning how I connect land knowledge with flirtation, how I love a homemade gift of affection as opposed to a rose bought from a store, how I judge a date on their ability to survive in the North. Can you hunt? Can you trap? Do you fish? Can you chop wood? Do you have plant knowledge? Impossible standards for so many of us. But never mind that I am still learning these skills, because my intention remains.
One day I will know how to take down a moose, how to lovingly work the flesh so it doesn’t tear, and he should be able to, as well.
In between debating true love on how their ability to kill a bear, I also had to reconsider my own idea of what sexuality is. For the longest time, this quest was a pushback against what I had been taught. A one-night stand does not make you a slut. Not knowing his entire family does not make you a slut. Sleeping with more than one person does not make you a slut. This is the work, ya’ll. It is intense and unending work. But how the world opened up, then, reflecting what my mind and heart had once again opened to receive. I am thankful for the discussions that would then take place between friends new and old, friends willing to share their knowledge with me, as I asked simple questions with answers that were not so simple at all. Becoming part of a safer space built up into a whole community surrounding me who want to have these discussions – who seek the hard (lolz) answers. The articles and accounts to follow being sent in my DMs, the suggested reading lists, the movies to watch – this was all the best medicine I could ask for, as I do the vulnerable work of picking apart my own structures of belief regarding women, power and sexuality.
I flirt with musicians and authors, men who know how to weave love with their words. I flirt with academics and artists, people who will look critically at the situations around them and make me think, reflect, grow. But I still fall in love with men whose accents are thick with the sounds of home, men who smell like campfires and deep midnight blue forest nights, men who tell me the stories of growing up picking berries, helping Grandma at home, of brothers and sisters tumbling over one another in a house too small. Like the freckles scattered across my body, the way that wild blueberries taste their sweetest when picked by hand, a man who reminds me of home will always have that piece of my heart. My mind will take me on new adventures through big city sex shops, into secret underground clubs, delving into the pages of new readings that will make me blush, but my body will always want to return from where it first came, understanding that a love born of the north is a story you never forget.
– tenille campbell