By Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter The StarPhoenix

When Miriam Körner was a young woman, she left her home in Germany to travel the world.

But when she came to Saskatchewan two decades ago, she knew she was here to stay.

“I had ended up on the west coast of Canada,” recalled Körner. “Then winter came, and I was looking for a place to stay, and I wanted to learn about dog sledding, so I contacted several people to ask if I could be a handler for them. I wanted to go to Alaska or Yukon, but somebody forwarded that email to a musher in Saskatchewan, and they needed somebody.

“So I said, ‘okay, why not? I’ll just go there. And then I fell in love with the dogs, and this land here, and later on my husband.”

Today, Körner lives near the town of La Ronge with her husband and ten sled dogs. Together, the family — humans and canines both — often travel throughout northern Saskatchewan and into the territories.

“We’ve done some pretty big trips, and I get to see places that I never would get to see otherwise,” she said. “And who doesn’t love dogs?”

And when she’s at home, Körner turns her love for dogs, forests and the north into stories and art.

“I always wanted to be a writer or an illustrator,” said Körner. “I remember, in kindergarten, I was already copying books — I had no idea what the words meant, but I was copying all the illustrations, and bringing these little books home. But the adults in my life, they kept saying, ‘you have to do something reasonable.’ So I tried — for almost 40 years — to be somebody else.

“But in the end, whenever I went back to McNally Robinson, I always ended up in the children’s book section.”

In recent years, Körner has won the Saskatchewan Book Award, the Snow Willow Award, and the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award.

Her latest book, ‘Fox and Bear,’ tells a story about environmental destruction and the dangers of losing connection to the land, and how we have the power to change these relationships going forward.

“In the book, Fox sets off the agricultural revolution, and eventually the industrial revolution,” she said. “It gets to that point in history where we have moved away from nature, but in the end of the book, it gets back on Fox and Bear and destroys the habitat they live in. So they come to question if it was the right choice.”

She was inspired to start writing the story as clear cutting operations in the northern forests came closer to her home.

“I just saw more and more forest disappear,” she said. “And I started to ask myself, why do we need to take all these trees? Is there a way of doing this that is a bit more respectful to the land? When was our relationship with the land different than what we have today? And when did it change? And when did we change? And why did we change?”

Körner is deeply involved in environmental activism. She co-founded the grassroots organization ‘For Peat’s Sake: Protecting Saskatchewan muskegs,’ and uses that platform to educate people about northern ecosystems.

And often — as with ‘Fox and Bear’ — she brings her advocacy back into her writing.

“It’s almost like I needed to write it for myself, to come to terms with the grief that I have for seeing people not respecting the land, and the sadness that I feel for the people that don’t see the value in the forest as the forest,” she said. “They just see the forest as a resource to be extracted.

“So telling that story helped me feel like I’m doing something, even though I couldn’t literally stand in the forest and stop the machinery from advancing.”

To tell this modern environmental fable, Körner also took her creative process one step further. Though she usually illustrates in watercolours or soft pastels, this time, she didn’t want to use any new paper that had come from the forests she was trying to protect.

So instead, she used intricate dioramas made entirely out of recycled materials.

To get started, she raided the local recycling centre, digging through bins to look for different colours of paper. Then, she asked her friends and family to start saving cardboard for her, too.

“When somebody gave me a gift, I wasn’t excited about what they gave me — I was more excited about the cardboard it came in, that I could use,” she said.

Making the dioramas was a labour-intensive two-year process — Körner had to build complicated machines like cranes and diggers out of cardboard, and cut out every single leaf for each tree by hand. Her cardboard inventions covered almost every surface in the house.

“Sometimes I question my own sanity in all this, too,” she said. “I could have probably built a cabin in the time I built Fox and Bear.”

But the more dioramas she built, the more Körner felt free to experiment and try new techniques.

“I wasn’t wasting anything,” she said. “If something didn’t work out, I could just throw it in the recycling pile where it came from.”

For Red Deer Press children’s editor Bev Brenna, working with Körner on Fox and Bear was inspiring — a celebration of what Saskatchewan has to offer to the Canadian literary scene.

“I love working with people who are the best in their field, and Miriam certainly is,” said Brenna. “She is dedicated, and a really true artist who works to the best of her ability to achieve her goals.

“She’s a good listener, and a good observer of the world around her — and I think that’s one of the things that makes her the very best kind of writer. She’s somebody that really cares enough to take the time to look and listen.”

And Körner isn’t just writing books for children, either — she is also inspiring the next generation of artists and diorama-makers.

When she talks about her work at local schools, she says the students are often amazed by the things she has made out of cardboard, and have “a million questions” about how to do it themselves.

“I’ve gotten pictures back from children that have actually built dioramas after my presentation,” she said. “And that part is really exciting because, in the end, it’s about making do with what we have and not always wanting more. So these kids aren’t wanting fancy markers, but using what they have at home already to make art. That’s awesome.”

To make some of the tiniest contraptions featured in Fox and Bear, Körner also collaborated with local 12-year-old miniature maker Casey Bernardin.

For Bernardin, seeing her work in print was an exciting experience.

“It was very amazing and surprising,” she said.

Now, the young maker says she is even more inspired to work on her own miniatures.

And Körner hopes all children who interact with her work will feel empowered to speak up and have their voices heard.

“We shouldn’t disregard kids,” Körner said. “I think they should be taking part in decisions, because the decisions that are being made today are affecting their lives tomorrow.

“And I love that kids have such a wonder about the world. I love thinking about how kids think, and seeing through kids’ eyes. And they’re also such great teachers, because they haven’t yet learned what constraints there are in the world. They think everything is possible.”

(Top Photo: Miriam Körner sits at her kitchen table at her home near La Ronge, Sask. Megan Heyhurst photography.)