The poet T.S. Eliot said the purpose of exploring is to arrive where one started and know the place for the first time.
Sarah Ens is similarly driven to understand the places she has called home, including the role her Mennonite ancestors played in transforming the prairie landscape.
Her interests in family history and lost landscapes dovetail in her new book, Flyway (Turnstone Press), a longform poem that arrives two years after her debut poetry collection, The World is Mostly Sky, but was written around the same time.
Ens, who grew up in Landmark and resides in Winnipeg, balances a burgeoning literary career with a day job at the University of Manitoba Press.
She opens Flyway by recounting an impactful visit to the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve near Vita.
"I’d never thought much about grass until I came to this place," she writes in the book’s prelude.
As a child, Ens had no idea the preserve existed, let alone that it represents less than one percent of the tall grass prairie that once was.
"It wasn’t until I started to think about what this place looked like before settlers got here…that I started to visit the preserve," Ens said in an interview.
An avid birder, she recalled feeling "this really crushing anxiety about the loss of grassland birds."
The book’s title has a double meaning: a flight path used by migratory birds, and the forced displacement her paternal grandmother, Anni Ens, experienced during the Second World War. Ens found herself thinking of her grandmother as she walked the preserve.
"There’s a generosity of being in wild, natural spaces that allows for this contemplation, I think, and allows for attention and allows you to maybe dwell in voices that aren’t your own, or experiences that aren’t your own," she said.
Growing up, the story of her grandmother’s exodus from Ukraine was talked about reverentially.
"I was always aware that my Oma had a fascinating backstory, but the details of it weren’t talked about, the traumas certainly weren’t talking about, it was more this triumphant story of her strength and resilience," Ens explained.
Letters translated and compiled by her uncle, Gerhard Ens, shed more light on her grandmother’s experiences. The letters were written by Anni’s brother, Hans Niebuhr, who was conscripted into the German army and later sent to Siberia, staying in Ukraine when he was released from the camps.
"Because I had all these translated letters, that also allowed me to get into this voice and get into this story," Ens said.
Loss punctuates the story of the tall grass prairie and her grandmother’s immigration narrative. It’s a feeling Ens experienced when she visited the preserve.
"You could just feel that there’s something really at risk, really at stake, and that it’s time for me to pay attention and think through those things," Ens said.
Flyway was composed during her master’s studies at the University of Saskatchewan, which she completed in late 2020. She worked with an editor to adapt it into a book for a general audience.
Ens said she was influenced by eco-poetry, longform poems, and works by contemporary Mennonite authors who grapple with questions of identity and power.
"A lot of that work is thinking a bit more critically about how Mennonites understand themselves as a people, as settlers, and investigating some of the myths that have dominated our conversations for a long time, haven taken harder looks at what have we been silent about," Ens said.
She hopes the book kindles a greater interest in the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve.
In telling a story that begins in Ukraine, the book takes on an added resonance in light of the ongoing war there.
Ens said it has been "surreal" and "heartbreaking" to see Ukraine plunged into conflict. She noted forced migrations are happening in other parts of the world too.
"I was writing my Oma’s story with the awareness that this wasn’t just something that happened during the Second World War. This is an ongoing crisis," she said.
The pandemic denied Ens an in-person book launch two years ago, making her all the more grateful for the crowd that assembled at McNally Robinson Booksellers on May 5 to hear her read excerpts from Flyway.
"The work itself is just you and your computer or your pencil, and so getting to share in person felt really great," she said.
The book quickly climbed to the top spot in the fiction category on the Winnipeg bestsellers list.
With the book now out in the world, Ens said she is considering writing a book of essays or pursuing further academic study. For now, she is enjoying the freedom that follows the completion of a major project.
"I wrote a new poem the other day and I was like, oh yeah, I can just do that, it doesn’t all have to be part of this huge project."