Friday, November 30, 2012

Time and the Land

I had one of my first Saskatchewan existential and historical  shocks galloping on a horse above Echo Lake on high grass prairie, the smell of sage stirred up by the horses all around me.  I had spent the afternoon riding through some of the most beautiful landscape I knew in the Qu'Appelle Valley, which I'd really only seen by car.  On a horse, you wind along the coulees filled with golden birch, you are part of the mysterious folding and winding of the land.

I was with my colleagues in the English Department on a Sunday horseback riding afternoon organized by Jeanne Shami at Clayton Cyr's ranch on reserve land.  As I looked at the landscape and at my colleagues--Jeanne Shami, Ken Mitchell, Barb Powell and her husband Dave, Nick Ruddick and his wife Britt Holmstrom, as well as our children, I tried to understand what complex threads had taken me from richly treed Ann Arbor Michigan to the Qu'Appelle valley.  The thread was obviously my education, which was why I tied one end of it to Ann Arbor and the other to the colleagues around me.  It was one of those moments when beauty shocks you into being profoundly where you are; at the same time the moment's intensity poses questions.  Why are you here, listening to the wind off the prairie and the breathing of horses, the flickering of birch leaves in your ears, the smell of sage in your nose, your eyes drinking a landscape whose beauty and mystery you could never have imagined?  Why are you here at all?  What mysteries of physics and biology have led to the creation of this world and your improbable existence in it?

I had a quieter echo of that shock last Friday when I found myself in room full of ranchers and farmers, environmentalists and poets and artists, civil servants and psychology professors, considering what it means for the province to sell off the fragile pastures that have been protected since the 1930s when farming practices that didn't take the quality of the soil or the possibility of drought into account led to huge clouds of prairie top soil falling into the Atlantic Ocean.

The night before, we had heard Candace Savage's description of this landscape's beauty and vulnerability.  Bad public policy decisions that led to breaking the soil in the Palliser Triangle, an area of mixed grassland in the arid southern portion of the province that some believe to be an extension of U.S. deserts, had led to extreme erosion and loss of native species of plants and animals. One of her many slides included a photograph from Canada's Atlantic coast of an immense black cloud over the ocean:  prairie topsoil.  Candace whimsically and incisively tied her talk both to her ancestors and to her descendants as a way of reminding us that we are but temporary stewards of this land and that we should seek to preserve it, not only for our grandchildren, but for the generations of native plant and animal species that come after us.

She also talked of how the PFRA land management was returning this land to its original austere beauty.  The Prairie Farm Reclamation Administration paid to put stewards on the land, pasture managers who, over the last seventy years have observed and questioned, developing the lore and the practices that allow this land to thrive.  Land that was originally grazed by buffalo still needs to be grazed--but not over-grazed.  Hence one of the jobs of the pasture managers is to organize cattle grazing.  Pasture patrons pay for the management of their herds, paying a large part of the costs for the management of the land; that land in turn supports the overall Saskatchewan rural economy. Pasture managers live in rural communities and their presence there is one of the things that keeps these communities alive.

The federal government no longer wants to manage these lands, so they have devolved to the province.  In turn, the province wants to privatize this rich and fragile ecosystem as quickly as possible, proving once again that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  (Thank you, Oscar Wilde.)  So spearheaded by naturalist Trevor Herriot, Katherine Arbuthnott, (a U of R psychologist who's passionate about the environment and is continually exploring how knowledge of psychology can help us see what nature contributes to our daily lives and how we can convince people to take better care of it), Emily Eaton (from the U of R geography department), and Naomi Beingessner (from RPIRG), a "Pastures Forum" was organized that included farmers, ranchers, the aboriginal community, the union representative of the pasture managers, and anyone else who cared.   So here was my second existential and historical shock:  what was I doing sitting behind a very tall man in a large black cowboy hat with a notebook tucked into the back of his jeans listening to the history of the PFRA?

We began the day with Doug Faller, the policy manager of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, quoting philosopher George Santayana:  "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  Initially, the Palliser Triangle was seen as too arid to farm, but when botanist George Macoun visited the area in the 1870s, there had been an unusual amount of rain, leading him to observe that it would be fine for agriculture.  There followed three dry periods during which farming and grazing on that land collapsed:  1906-7, 1918-20, and the dirty thirties.  May of 1934 saw the largest ecological disaster in the history of Canada, when dust clouds traveled all the way to the Atlantic.  From the size of the clouds, they calculated that the sky contained 300,000,000 acres before they gave up calculating. 

What began in the 1870s with a bad public policy decision was brought to an end in 1935 when the PFRA was created "to manage a productive, biodiverse rangeland and to promote environmentally responsible land use and practices."  Their first objective was to preserve environmentally sensitive land, though they soon recognized that cattle grazing played an important role in creating a healthy ecosystem. In the 77 years since its creation, pasture managers have observed and experimented with the land under their protection, evolving some of the best techniques for the management of the environment.  In turn, their work helped sustain mixed farms and the rural communities that support them.  According to Faller, the PFRA folks have a business plan:  the cost of managing the land is a mere 25% of the benefits to farmers, ranchers, and the Saskatchewan economy.  He pointed out that this was a remarkably good investment.

Not surprisingly, Trevor Herriot spoke of the 31 species at risk that live protected on the community pastures.  His list makes a kind of poem, so I'll simply paste it in.  There are three mammals in trouble, the swift fox, the black-footed ferret, and the black tailed prairie dog.  There are six plants at risk: smooth goosefoot,  western spiderwort, hairy prairie clover, buffalo grass, slender mouse-ear cress, and western spiderwort.  There are three reptiles: northern leopard frog, great paint frog, and the eastern yellow-bellied racer.  There are three lepidoptera:  the monarch dusky dune moth, the gold-edged gem moth, and the mormon metalmark butterfly.  Then there are the birds, which are closest, I think, to Trevor's heart:  the piping plover,the common nighthhawk, the long-billed curlew, the mountain plover, sprague's pippet, the  bobolink, the barn swallow, the chestnut-collared long spur, the barred sparrow, the loggerhead shrike, the peregrin falcon, the ferrugenous hawk, the sage grouse, (in real trouble), the short-eared owl, and the burrowing owl.  He described this land, with its rich and fragile ecosystem, as "our old growth forest.  They are a lily pad in a sea of disturbance," he told us.  The PFRA pasture managers have led the way in species at risk care in North America.  They've developed a model that other agencies have adopted.  It was developed in the field, with the pasture managers.  Cowboys and environmentalists.  But the Species at Risk Act is is a federal law and can only be applied to federally-owned land.  Once the land is sold, it ceases.

The provincial government has told managers and patrons that it has 5.7 million dollars to help them.  Help them do what?  As Chief Roland Crowe tactfully put it, the provincial government has been rather vague about what managers and patrons might do with these funds.  He was only the last in a long line of voices who begged the provincial government to slow down on this decision and consider all the sides.  Katherine Arbuthnott pointed out to me this morning that even businesses are incorporating a "devil's advocate" into their decision-making process when there isn't someone to play this role because they've learned that when you have a number of like-minded people, a homogeneous group, making decisions, you leap to conclusions and miss nuances.  

Voices.  Wise, complementary, nuanced voices.  That was really what the poet in me was at the Pastures Forum to hear.  You'll quit reading if I go on summarizing the things everyone said, but I need to tell you about the voices.  Chief Roland Crowe's velvety, patient voice, respecting the nature of time.  Joanne Brochu's matter-of-fact, well-informed voice.  Brent Cramer in his black cowboy hat and slow drawl observing that he didn't think "the university can tell me how to take care of my grass;  we've done it for three generations and I hope my kids will do it after I'm dead.”  Yes, he used the word dead.  No euphemisms here.  "A cattleman is one of the best managers.  He's got to be.  Ranchers are not in it for the money."  Inter-generational passing of the land is their raison d'etre, along with a good healthy life style and an ability to pay the bills.

Time was on everyone's mind.  The long time that the earth was here before we were, creating a rich ecosystem just for the hell of it, for the beauty of it.  The time it takes to wrap your head and your soul around the enormity of a prairie landscape.  The number of times--three, now--that prairie people have suffered because we've been bad stewards.  The provincial government's hurry, which can only be motivated by the desire to get this over and done with before people realize how stupid it is.  And the time until the next drought.  Because it isn't "if" there's a drought.  It's "when."


  1. Lovely, Kathleen. I laughed because my memory of riding horseback with Jean S. on those hills brought back moments of sheer terror when my horse took off in full gallop down hill! But that set of hills and draws is special on its own. Loved what you said at the end about time--that captures so nicely the tension we all feel over the possibilities. Grateful to have someone with your gentle insight paying attention to the prairie.

  2. I stopped riding the second time I fell off a horse. The first time, Chuck was in full gallop and then stopped suddenly. I did a 360 right over his head, tucked my head, and came down on my shoulders. The second time, a horse's cinch broke. I'm getting too old for this, I thought. But the terror--as well as the sheer joy of riding those hills will always remains with me.

    I'm from Michigan, lived in Winnipeg for 17 years without falling in love with the prairie. But Saskatchewan has somehow grabbed my heart. In my next novel, set in Regina, I have a young Ph.D. student who is working on animal languages, and after I finished the post I realized that he would have undoubtedly have gone to that remarkable meeting. I was so glad to be there.

  3. Thanks so much for this report, Kathleen! I've heard from others, as well, that it was an excellent meeting.

    Off to share with my networks...

  4. Hi Kathleen, and thanks for this. The threads have taken me away from the prairie and into the London inner city, so it is a delight and a privilege to read the description of riding on the land (occasionally over here someone asks me if I ride. I tell them about Clayton catching horses for us and they blanch. It is hilarious), as well as the description of the patient, grounded voices I heard growing up. One of the things that is unique about living in Saskatchewan is that you feel like you are only borrowing the land and the landscape. There is too much sky and too much time and not enough people. I earnestly hope that your organizing can prevent the hubris that comes from not acknowledging our responsibility as stewards of the land. Thinking of you from across the water - Alison.

  5. Lovely to hear from you, Alison. Were you along on that first ride I took? Your dad tells me you are teaching and have a relatively new baby; I hope all is well.

    I also hope that we're going to slow things down and convince the provincial government that stewardship is part of their responsibility. "Growing the economy," unfortunately, has become the excuse for doing nothing about very important issues.

    Keep well.