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This article is taken from PN Review 246, Volume 45 Number 4, March - April 2019.

Dollhouse on Fire Sheri Benning
AT THE JUNCTION, turn south on Highway 15. Before you reach the former town site of Amazon, turn east down any grid road. Continue until you can see Last Mountain Lake spark on the horizon. Lined with caragana trees planted in the 1930s to anchor the dirt, the fields left in stubble are deer-hide blonde; sky, arterial blue. Keep an eye out for whitetail, maybe moose. Don’t be surprised – a sharp-tail grouse might burst out nowhere, a flurry of dun feathers.

Dolls house

No one lives here anymore. This sour land, alkaline, should never have been pressed into cultivation. There’s an abandoned yard-site every section or so. Always in the back forty acres, an old barn leans into the pelt of thistle, spear grass, crested wheat, brome. In such a barn I was once badly startled when something coarse brushed my face – the frayed end of a rope tied to a corroded metal hook and pulley, likely where the farmer hung his animals to bleed out before butchering. If you decide to have a look in the house, its windowpanes long shot out, step lightly. Make sure the rotting floor beams can support your weight. You don’t want to fall into a dank basement cistern. You’ll notice that people leave behind the plainest things. A pocked iron kettle with a regally curved spout; a rain-bloated issue of The Ladies Home Journal; a pair of calfskin leather baby shoes, laces tied. I leave these objects untouched. But it’s up to you. If you get lost on your way back to the city, look west until you spot the Viterra Grain terminal. You can’t miss it. Its immensity is evidence that somebody is still making money out here. In any case, drive towards the terminal. Eventually you’ll hit highway.

Rural Saskatchewan is currently undergoing a crisis of place: small-scale, diversified farming has overwhelmingly given way to agribusiness and as the average farm size increases, Saskatchewan’s rural communities and natural landscapes suffer. Indeed, a drive beyond the confines of Saskatchewan’s cities will take you past abandoned farmyards and villages even as the most unsuitable prairie terrain is put into production.

My preoccupation with the state of agriculture in Saskatchewan stems from my family’s experience of maintaining a small mixed farm. In 1998 we were forced to make a choice that was no choice at all. To weather sinking commodity prices and rising input costs, we either had to sell or drastically increase the size of our operation, thereby risking massive debt. Go big or get out. We were not alone in facing such bleak options. According to The Farm Crisis and Corporate Profits, a report by Canada’s National Farmers Union (2005), in the late 1990s, average net farm incomes dipped below those endured throughout the Great Depression.

Dolls house on fire

Canadian political economists Roger Epp argues that if there is to be a genuine alternative to corporate agriculture, it will emerge from a regained sense of locality, a striving to ‘inhabit a particular place in a serious way’ (Epp 318). According to Epp, a deeply felt lived experience of rural places generates a keener understanding of the socio-ecological consequences of economic globalisation on farming. Such an understanding would invariably contradict the propaganda of agribusiness initiatives.

Thus, if the notion that our connection to earth should be dictated by economics, our definition of land value limited to its monetary worth causes harm, amending the damaging effects wrought by agribusiness requires no less than a re-conception of how we relate to place.


Contemporary philosopher Edward Casey writes that ‘to be at all – to exist in any way – is to be somewhere, and to be somewhere is to be in some kind of place’ (Fate of Place xi). Place, he adds, is as requisite to being as ‘the air we breathe, the ground on which we stand, the bodies we have’ (xi). Indeed, for Aristotle, place is prior to all things: ‘Everything is somewhere and in place.’

The shunning of place as a crucial concept is manifested in the incessant motion of postmodern life in late-capitalist societies. Too easily discounted is how place exerts its influence on us. Composed of day-in, day-out, fleeting and un-dramatic experiences, cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan writes that ‘the feel’ of place, its singular blend of sights sounds and smells is registered in our muscles and bones (Tuan 184). For Casey, the conjoining of our bodies with environments ‘generates the interspace in which we become oriented’ (28). Marked and measured by our actions, perceived and remembered, what begins as undifferentiated space transforms into place. Or, as Tuan puts it, when space feels familiar to us it becomes places.

Achieved via daily engagement, our times are against this full-bodied sensing of place.

To reassert place’s primacy, Casey suggests we don’t need to look further than our everyday exchanges. ‘Where are you from?’ is often the first question we ask upon meeting. Our answers identify us: Saskatchewan, the Rural Municipality of Wolverine Creek, NW 18 36 22 W2nd. Our lives enveloped in the names.

After we sold our farm, NW 18 36 22 W2nd became a symbol for my family that marked distance. In the years that followed, we were constantly on the move – between regions, cities, jobs, houses. We felt like we had ‘no place to go’, never lingering anywhere long enough to render a place meaningful. The Greek word for strange, atopos, literally means ‘no place’. During this time, my parents mostly lived in Saskatoon yet the city remained devoid of significance for them. Alien in their new environment and estranged from the only home they’d ever known, in the evenings my parents aimlessly drove the rural roads surrounding Saskatoon. After driving for a while they’d pull over to walk in some farmer’s pasture. Just for the smell of dirt and sage, the sound of spring run-off in the ditches.

Dolls house on fire

Prior to selling the farm, every day before breakfast and then again in the late afternoon, they did chores – fed and watered the animals, gathered the eggs, the milk – the feel of dusk air, the smell of cut clover – a memory formed in the day-to-day, without thought. Casey writes that in residing in a particular place our bodies from ‘habit memories,’ memories formed by slow sedimentation and realised by the re-enactment of our bodily motions. I think of my parents in Saskatoon, atopos, placeless, intuitively following their bodies’ drift beyond the city’s limits to where they could rest in the familiar: fallow fields, evening light in spear grass.

Feeling like we have ‘no place to go’ is a desperate circumstance. This is, in part, because we identify ourselves by and with our places. When we lose them, our very selfhood is at stake. A typical response when we experience persistent change is to long for an idealised, unchanging past. As Svetlana Boym writes in The Future of Nostalgia, one way we cope with homesickness is to try and restore the original home: this is a nostalgia which yields to nostos, the desire for prelapsarian unity, a return to home (49). Elsewhere Boym writes that, ‘[t]o feel at home is to know that things are in their places and so are you… the object of longing, then, is not really a place called home, but rather this sense of intimacy with the world’ (251).

In 2008, tired of feeling they belonged nowhere, my parents quit their jobs and bought several quarters of land. Thirty years after they started farming for the first time, they started again.

In 2007, my sister, visual artist Heather Benning, restored the interior of an abandoned farmhouse to the date of its abandonment in the mid-1960s. She re-shingled, re-plastered and painted, refurbished the original flooring, and staged the house with vintage furniture and knickknacks: a water glass with bright orange flowers left on a kitchen table; a copy of The Western Producer, folded open to the grain markets slumped beneath a lamp; crocheted doilies on the chesterfield’s armrests; a flannel shirt hanging from a bedroom door. Heather removed the house’s north wall and replaced it with plexiglass so viewers could look into the house the way they would a child’s dollhouse. She locked the house to discourage entry.

Dolls house on fire

Typically, homey contentment is not the object of our reflection. Rather, we know our households primarily through use; things are handled, smelled and touched, but are too close to us to be seen clearly or discretely – think of how we shade our eyes in moments of embrace (Tuan 144–146). Looking creates distance. By locking the house and keeping the audience at a remove, Heather forced viewers to take note of the domestic bricolage that composes a sense of home, the humble furnishings and their implied web of communal activities.

The affective power of The Dollhouse existed in how it spoke to our nostalgia for connectivity. Boym suggests that our culture suffers from acute nostalgia, a ‘global epidemic’, resultant from the accelerated rhythms of modern life. ‘Progress,’ she writes, ‘didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it.’ Similarly, globalisation has inspired longing for stronger local attachments. Counterpoint to our fascination with ‘cyberspace and the virtual global village, we yearn for community with a collective memory…’ (xiv). The Dollhouse appealed to our desire for ‘continuity in a fragmented world’, imparting in viewers the sensation of intimate dwelling even as the possibility of doing so was sealed off from them.

But what does dwelling entail? Consider the words two apparently antithetical roots: Old Norse, dvelja – to linger, delay, tarry; and Old English dwalde, to go astray, wander. Dwelling-as-residing and dwelling-as-wandering: every hearth made warmer by departure, by the journey abroad, by the wildness beyond the confines of our built places. Similarly, Casey suggests that built places, if they are to qualify as human dwellings, must satisfy two conditions: they must allow for repeated return and they must possess a felt familiarity, which, in part, arises from reoccupation itself (116).

The dual nature of both dwelling and dwelling places accounts for why it is so devastating when Heather burns down The Dollhouse. If The Dollhouse suggested nostos, the promise of home, appealing to our fantasy for return, then the act of burning it down forces us to linger in algia, the pain of longing itself. Reoccupation is made impossible; our homecoming forever delayed.

Dolls house on fire

In the winter of 2014, Heather and filmmaker Chad Galloway documented the burning of The Dollhouse.2 This controlled burn was part of the plan for the project from the beginning. Pragmatically, Heather knew that eventually the house would be broken into; because she could not guarantee the building’s safety, she decided that once it was tampered with she would destroy it. But more importantly, with The Dollhouse Heather wasn’t interested in constructing a mausoleum, a reactive emblem of a past time.

This impulse to rebuild the lost home is characteristic of restorative nostalgia, one of the two kinds of nostalgic tendencies that Boym identifies in our attempts to make sense of our relationships to the past, to our lost homes, to our apparently inexpressible homesickness (41). Boym writes that ‘[r]estoration (from re-staure – re-establishment) signifies a return to the original stasis, to the prelapsarian moment’ (49). The past for the restorative nostalgic is not ‘duration but perfect snapshot’ (49). At worst, restorative nostalgia is behind resurgent nationalist movements which elide the complexities of historical time by ‘engaging anti-modern myth-making and nationalist symbols’ (42). In its less extreme forms, restorative nostalgia still has no use for the complications of history – ‘the ruins, the cracks, the imperfections’ (45). It is manifested in total reconstructions of monuments of the past. Signs of decay are ‘freshly painted’ in the attempt to achieve the ‘original image’, to remain ‘eternally young’ (49).

Fragments overlap in the short film Heather and Chad made about burning The Dollhouse; they tug at the viewer’s vision. A winter field: power poles, snow and sky. A scrub of poplars. The house, its rotting shingles. Lace curtains, a vase in a window, a plastic rose. Flames. Skates in the back entrance. A child’s laugh up the stairwell. A low drone. Cracks in the plaster. Ash on the bed. Flames climb the wall. Lace curtains, The Western Producer, a child’s book, a woman’s portrait – curl with flames. The rose twists, melts. The drone builds.

Reflective nostalgia, the other kind of nostalgia distinguished by Boym, does not focus on recovery, but rather ‘meditates on the passage of time’. As she points out, the word re-flection suggests ‘new flexibility, not the reestablishment of stasis’ (49). Instead of seeking edenic unity then, reflective nostalgia lingers on the fragments of memory (49). For Susan Stewart, this sort of nostalgic narrative remains inconclusive; it is ‘enamored of distance, not of the referent itself’ (145).

Dolls house

In the film, as the flames take over, fragments turning to ash, the low drone in the background, which at first recalls a dirge, crescendos into the clash of disaggregated sounds. Performed by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a Montreal post-rock group, the anarchic soundscape is the sonic equivalence of this place’s undoing, its violent dismantling. If previously The Dollhouse’s un-restored exterior, the rotten shingles, the weathered siding, suggested to viewers passing time, that the mythical place called home cannot be returned to, the fire makes this distance irrevocable. The home is in ruins. And then, the home no longer exists. According to Boym, this sense of distance, compels the reflective nostalgic to tell her story – to try and make sense of the relationship between past, present and future (51).

The first thing we noticed when we moved to our new farm was how dark it is at night. That fall, while staying with my parents, I got lost driving home after an evening in the city. Did I miss the turn-off for the grid that goes past our farm? Had I gone too far? Not far enough? Panicking, I turned onto a back road, conjuring landmarks to verify my wrong hunch. The road devolved into a dirt path. I’ll turn around after the low spot, I thought, but the low spot was filled with water. When Dad found me, I was too embarrassed to try and explain. He was kind. ‘The countryside is really dark nowadays,’ he said, pulling my car out of the slough with his diesel truck. ‘Easy to get lost. No one lives out here anymore.’

It is not too much to say that a seismic demographic shift had occurred in this historic grain-growing region of Western Canada. Indeed, it emptied of people: a drop of 20,000 in a 2008 Statistics Canada labour-force report (Epp, We Are All Treaty People 144). Change in government attitudes towards agriculture – manifested by slashed subsidy programs, trade liberalisation, and the surrender of agricultural research to the private sector – effectively made people obsolete from the land. Rapid advance in agricultural technology further hastened this shift. How else to pay for that eighty-foot air seeder but to increase one’s land base? As Wendell Berry observes, ‘bigger machines required more land and more land required yet bigger machines which required yet more land and so on’ (63). Farmers who survived this period of exodus did so by way of ever-larger machinery and debt-load, not to mention the ruin of their neighbours. The farm had become a factory, wholly adopting the standards of industry to measure performance: speed, efficiency, profitability (63).

So why return? Why participate in this highly exploitive form of farming that is more akin to mining? Why become a low margin contract worker – beholden to seed and chemical conglomerates – in a place that is devolving into a resource plantation (Epp, We Are All Treaty People, 161)?

We returned because we remember what it is to love a piece of land – its contours and relief – as more than a place of resource extraction. We remember a kind of labour that joins our bodies to the earth, and the earth sustained us.

We stay because we remember what it is to be part of a community of deeply felt, complex bonds. Because living according to the exigencies of the natural world can breed empathy, unmatched neighborliness. A few years ago, my mom was unwell. When Dad came home to the farm after weeks at her hospital bedside, he discovered that our neighbours had arranged to help harvest our crops. They understood that regardless of anything, the combining had to be done before snow fell.

We returned because between managing inputs and monitoring futures markets, there are fleeting moments of kinship. Several springs ago my dad found a starving kit of foxes in the poplars that surround our farm. Every morning, in the grey light before dawn, he brought them scraps of food. By the end of summer the boldest fox would trot up to Dad and eat from his hand. The foxes still live in our poplars. They keep our yard free of pests. In the evenings we can hear them, shrieking like playing children.

And so we stay, homesick for where we are, making do by dwelling in the fragments, the uncanny doubles of a past time, the ghosts of who we were in a place that no longer exists.

In Empire Wilderness, geopolitical travel writer Robert Kaplan foresees the future landscapes of western North America as consisting of ‘suburban blotches separated by empty space’ (28). This vision aligns with our contemporary assumptions of what constitutes progress: the rural destined for erasure as surely as the future elides the past, economic life, organised along industrial lines, continually concentrated in the hands of the corporate few (Epp, We Are All Treaty People, 6).

Almost always, criticism of the direction of mainstream agriculture is pejoratively dismissed as ‘nostalgic’, the word invoked to signify regression, a too-easy sentimentality for bygone days. Perhaps resistance to corporatised agriculture is born of nostalgia, but only if we consider the fuller possibilities of the term. Boym suggests that ‘nostalgia is not only about the past; it can be retrospective but also prospective’ (xiv). She arrives at this understanding by way of Henri Bergson who does not view time as simple succession. Deleuze, in his study of Bergson, writes, ‘of the present, we must say at every instant that it ‘was’, and of the past that it ‘is’, that it is eternally for all time’ (Bergsonism 55). Rather than conceiving of the past as formerly present moments, Bergson argues that the present and the past are contemporaneous: the past serves as the coexistent condition of the present. As Faulkner puts it, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’.

Regarding our current cultural clime Tim Lilburn notes that, ‘Everything drifts towards money’s telos of placelessness… so how can we be where we are?’ (177). Perhaps the affective power of The Dollhouse also exists in its capacity to answer Lilburn’s question. By laying bare the quiet intimacies and slower rhythms of a past home, The Dollhouse suggests to us alternative ways of being in the world. As Boym argues, ‘Fantasies of the past determined by the needs of the present have a direct impact on the realities of the future’ (xiv). The past can act in the present, open up multitudes of virtual potentialities, non­teleological possibilities for the future. The Dollhouse then, more than a reactive monument to the mythical lost home, an irretrievable past, issues its viewers a radical challenge. By its uncanny rendering of intimate dwelling, it asks us to renew our bonds with our environments for the sake of a possible future – nature and culture rejoined in a relationship of harmony.

That nature and culture are not antipodal terms, but rather mutually enlivening is located in the etymology of the word agriculture: ager, Latin for field; and cultura, cultivation, which, by Late Middle English, provides a root for culture when cultivation of soil becomes metaphor for cultivation of mind. However, within today’s mode of agriculture neither term thrives. Land health is exhausted and rural populations are in decline. Wendell Berry argues that this is because our current methods of farming adhere to a far too simple measure, the imperative to produce (5). We have wholly bought into agribusiness standards of bottom line economics, and as a result the field is solely a place for capital gain, an arena for short-term profit (5).

Berry proposes atonement between ourselves and our world, between economy and ecology, by calling for a kind of farming that might acknowledge our interdependence with place. In Berry’s alternative vision, farmers would have the means to participate in a kind of agriculture that ‘consults the genius of place’. This sort of farming would restore place as foundational; farmers would ‘ask what nature would permit them to do… with the least harm to the place and to their natural and human neighbours’ (8). Berry adds that the use of the place would invariably change according to nature’s response even as the response of the place would change the user. Thus the farmer and his/her land would engage in a relationship of mutual fecundity, a ‘conversation’ that would bind place and its inhabitants together (8).

Perhaps this promise of reciprocity is another reason why it is devastating to watch The Dollhouse burn. In the film, as the house succumbs to flames, an oil well in a neighbouring field comes into view. While the house burns and the oil dirk whines and bobs, we mourn not merely the unrealised dreams of the past, the impossibility of return, but also the visions of possible futures that have become obsolete.

  1. From The Dollhouse by Heather Benning:

  2. AWARDS: Festival Cinemística – Granada, Spain (Winner: Distinción Roja); La Guarimba- Amantea, Italy (Winner: Best Sound Design, Best Music). OFFICIAL SCREENINGS: Vancouver International Film Festival – Vancouver, Canada; Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente de Mar del Plata – Buenos Aires, Argentina; National Screen Institute Short Film Festival – Winnipeg, Canada; Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente – Buenos Aires, Argentina; 13th International Festival Signes de Nuit – Paris, France; Yorkton Film Festival – Yorkton, Canada; Glasgow Short Film Festival – Glasgow, Scotland; Oak Cliff Independant Film Festival – Dallas, USA; DocuTIFF – Tirana, Albania; Festival Parachute Light Zero Act II – Paris, France; Dawson City International Short Film Festival – Dawson City, Canada; Kraljevski Film Festival – Kraljevski, Serbia; Boise Film Festival – Boise, USA;nWiz-Art International Short Film Festival, Lviv, Ukraine; Merveilleux Film Festival, Paris, France; Purgatory Film Exhibition – Detroit, USA; Short Waves Festival – Poznań, Poland; Quarantine Film Festival – Varna, Bulgaria; Antimatter Media & Art Festival – Victoria, Canada; Dawson City International Short Film Festival – Dawson City, Canada.

This article is taken from PN Review 246, Volume 45 Number 4, March - April 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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