Monday, July 25, 2011

At Batoche.

Saskatchewan #6

I wrote this piece as an accompaniment for the photos, to illustrate how in this kind of photography it is not the spectacular image that is important so much as the one that gets closest to a truth; about a people, a place, a history, and the present day reality that has grown out of that past.

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind.

Why should we be concerned about the proportion of our European or Indian blood? Since we have some of each, gratitude and filial love command us to say: “We are Metis!” Louis Riel

Driving north of Saskatoon to a point on the prairie overlooking the South Saskatchewan River we came to the National Historic site of Batoche, the site of the final battle that broke the North-West Rebellion. A new interpretive center with the first of a series of dioramas, the old original church and residence that were built just a year before the defeat of the Metis in 1885 ( still showing the holes of musket balls), who were lead by Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel. A graveyard full of historic family names and the mass grave of those Metis killed in the four day battle. A separate graveyard for the British soldiers. Depending on your viewpoint, a rebellion or a resistance. How to photograph this? How to understand it?

My daughter held up a card, “ There is a photographic contest, Dad, for several historic sites in Saskatchewan. Do you want to have a go?” We proceed in loose order across the field, toward the church, cameras at the ready, looking intently for the best targets. I crouch behind a wooden wheel and shoot from between the spokes. Closer in, I angle a shot up the spire and then fire from behind a tree (several shots just to be sure). I then edge my way along the picket fence to the church door. And in the entrance I pause for what I will realize later is the most important shot of the day.

Above the door is a painted circle, the only sign, apart from the dioramas back at the interpretive center and a Louis Riel quote on a notice board, of the native Indian half of the Metis` heritage. This round ‘tipi door’, painted on this white frame structure, gives me a sudden insight into the unique reality of the lives of these people of the Prairie from not so long ago, who refused to be put down by the Canadian Government without a struggle. Who so valued their way of life that they would resist a government that the peoples of the Saskatchewan knew had been imposed upon them and was irresponsible in its care of them. They fought well here at Batoche for four days and were finally beaten by a trained army. The reverberations of their resistance are still blowing through the separate graveyards on the prairie wind.

Note. Riel was captured at Batoche, sickened by the killing, and at the end of his trial, before the verdict, before they hanged him as traitor, he asked to make a statement. It was a rambling affair spoken in English. His legal defense had done their best to save him through a plea of insanity and that would not have been difficult to do, but Riel refused that because then all that the ‘half breeds’, as he referred to his people, all that his life and their lives represented and had been given for, would be dismissed as crazy and pointless.

Not an official Canadian hero, then, or for many years thereafter, but a great man of the people nevertheless.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prairie Town

Saskatchewan # 5

I have read before we came to visit on the Prairies, of the decline of the small towns as farming changed from family toward mega-farms, transportation routes improved for road vehicles and declined for trains and the traditional grain elevators became redundant. In the little town of Dundurn, Saskatchewan we were to see the effects in action and to glimpse the complexity that lay behind the reports.

Certainly the main-street business buildings had seen better days; cracked sidewalks, peeling paint, closed storefronts. Just down the street though, there was a splendid white church and beyond it an elementary school. Streets of occupied houses, hardly anything for sale. Droves of people turning out for a children`s soccer training session. If we walked around the edges of town, by the railway tracks we could find some rough patches but so we could in any Canadian small town where people worked in trucking and agricultural businesses and gentrification had not waved its magic wand.

The railway tracks looked used even though the nearby highway carried a steady traffic of transport trucks.

That highway was the key to Dundurn`s state of health. Just forty minutes from the city of Saskatoon, it meant that grocery, hardware and the like could not compete with the big box stores not so very distant in highway miles, but it also made this a bedroom community for those interested in cheaper housing at the expense of longer commutes. The nearby military base provided more residents and no doubt there were some retired farmers who had sold out to those neighbours following the trend toward bigger farms. As for that, it is possible now to live a neighbourly life in a small town and drive out to work one`s farm during the growing season.

That disappearing rural life on the prairies we read about ( and in the rest of Canada as well), is not so clear-cut on the ground. People adapt and adjust as do their towns and reports of their demise is premature.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Church at Stony Creek.

Saskatchewan # 4

 Someone called Halvar Anderson lies here beside his neighbours beneath the prairie soil in this churchyard. These were the first settlers of this area near the South Saskatchewan River. The church itself lies deserted beside its gravel road in the evening light.

Who were these people? We can know in general terms how they ended up here, where they came from and that they happened to die near here and were of this particular Christian denomination but the reality of their individual lives is hidden. All we have are names and dates, but together they form a sample of the great wave of settlement of little more than one hundred years ago that claimed land on the bald prairie.

It was a land rush and a great experiment: - turning the sod of a vast grassland, planting annual crops, frame houses, fenced fields, permanent settlements- on an ecosystem that is grassy because of variable and unpredictable rainfall. Traditionally, all around the world this Steppe landscape has supported small nomadic populations and a lifestyle that followed the seasons and the new grasses and hunted the animals that grazed upon it, or the herded domesticated cattle, sheep and goats. A little agriculture perhaps in sheltered valleys and the harvesting of wild grains. Think of the Steppes of Eurasia, where we Europeans developed our cultural preferences for grains and dairy products and our tendency wherever we go in the world to make fields out of natural woodland, raise cattle, grow grain. Here the experiment was to go the next step and create permanent settlement on a landscape designed by nature for impermanence. To put the whole prairie under cultivation and leave the valleys more or less alone was a major reversal and extreme experiment that would seem to have worked. Here are roads, railway lines, farms and communities. Here is a churchyard with its history carved in stone.

But then, this church is abandoned. Is this a precautionary note? Can we really declare victory just yet or is our confidence based on a couple of lifetimes of experience only and not on the earth`s timetable which stretches over much longer spans of time and climatic changes. How about this dramatic grassland climate that provides too much rain and then not enough, blistering heat, early and late frosts? To make a successful crop can be a struggle now. How about a hundred years of variation, of little or no summer rain? The original grasslands had that experience built into their communities of plants and animals. How well would the present man-made system cope with this guaranteed eventuality?

To imagine this seems ridiculous, everything is so solid, so worked over, we cannot imagine the large balloon after it has popped from one small pinprick. Remember those images from the dirty thirties in the last century: dust storms, abandoned, drifted in farm buildings. Just a few years combining dryer conditions, uncertain rains and a financial system that would not continue to support people on the land. A little bump in the weather and economics being the pinprick for many, setting them moving on like the wind that was blowing their fields away. Imagine the mega-farms we know today, the banks and investors watching the bottom line, pulling the plug on agriculture that could not pay after only a few years into a longer, dryer spell or even more dramatic shifts from year to year as are associated with global warming.. Complexity in our modern world is more vulnerable than those nomadic flexible lifestyles of the past.

We have an example of poor agricultural practice from ancient history. The lands around the Mediterranean were once rich productive lands. The islands of Ancient Greece covered in trees, the desert lands along the north coast of Africa once the breadbasket of Rome. Now the seaport of Troy at the Dardanelles is ten miles inland, its harbour filled up with soil from the grainfields and once wooded hillsides that washed away.

Imagine the grasslands of North America, stripped as they are of their natural blanket of adaptive vegetation becoming dryer, abandoned farms and towns, the soil beginning to blow, forming dunes. The desert climate creeping northward. The tipping point, the permanent conversion of grasslands into desert just as has happened in the past in other places.


Those settlers in the churchyard, they had no concept of this, they cannot be blamed if they were swept up in a great social experiment that nature must surely, and perhaps sooner than we think with global warming, put an end to, but we can think ahead, imagine what we can do to limit the damage, how we can reseed those open soils with natural grassland before it is too late.

Note. While many have tried to recreate a native prairie grassland, the mixed results have shown just how difficult this is. Easy to plow under, but very challenging to re-establish. The deeper into the project, the more complexity, the more variables. The struggle to do this, however, teaches us a lot about the interconnectedness of all things and the shallowness of human understanding. This is a life-form we are attempting to recreate from bits and pieces.

We are aware that when human cultures are rudely interrupted by disease or conquest, as happened to the native people of this same prairie, something is lost and the people who carry the remains of this destroyed culture remain lost in some ways. One does n`t just drop one and pick-up another. This grassland ecosystem, of which that human culture was an adapted part , is vastly more crippled if the major proportion is done away with.
However, just as it is very important that battered cultures rediscover their roots and begin to live again, even in a modified form, so it is important that the Prairie grasslands be helped to recover. If only out of self interest, to prevent a new Sahara which will eat us all up.

The sea breeze at Indian Point.

Not since early Spring have I walked down the rocky trail to Indian Point. From muddy trails, tiny leaves on many twigs and pendant maple blossoms to a now matured world where the trees and bushes have taken larger form within their leafy clothes and are swaying and chanting in the wind. At my feet the grasses on the rocky slopes have changed from trim green to a soft carpet of waving furry stalks gone to seed.

The sea breeze urges sparkling waves to the shore in an ever repeating pattern of ripples, flows invisibly across the beach and then takes form again in agitated leaves and sighing, bending grasses. The morning light too skims and flashes across the waves, steadies on the rocky beach and then dances and blinks as it presses deeper into the shadows above the shoreline.

This hypnotic steady swish of waves and higher pitched murmur of the wind in leaves and grasses joins the full orchestra of visual instruments. I hear, I feel, I see, I am immersed in this moment. I am aware of being alive, part of this place and time. Part also of the fragrant gusts of sea breeze that breath all to life as they sweep through us here at Indian Point.