Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Food, Crude, Horsepower, and “Men of the Land”

For my birthday we took a hike in Riding Mountain up to Grey Owl’s cabin. For anyone who is not familiar with him, Grey Owl was a man who took on an Ojibwe lifestyle and became a conservationist focusing on reintroducing beaver and educating people to appreciate the value of nature. It was my birthday and it was a true gift to literally walk in the path of this fascinating man. Grey Owl of course turned out to be an Englishman who took on a first nations persona because it was the best way he could see of becoming close with the land. It just didn’t seem possible as an Englishman.

"Remember you belong to nature,
not it to you." - Grey Owl

The interesting thing that I have discovered in Southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, is that most prairie people consider themselves to be people “of the land.” The farmers, the ranchers and cowboys, and even the truckers and oil cowboys think of themselves this way. Maybe it’s just having all this sky around them and not many people. This is an irony to me considering we daily pass farm fields that have signs advertising: “Inputs proudly provided by X” (Inputs meaning chemical pesticides and fertilizers). Beef cattle get their own hormone “inputs” in their ears, urea growth enhancers in their stomachs, while creating loads of greenhouse gases. And then there is Jack and Lori off in their big vehicle spewing almost 2 tonnes (to date) of CO2, and looking at the bigger rigs and shaking their heads.

The Hard Way:

We spent the weekend at the Austin (Manitoba) Thresherman’s Reunion and Stampede. This is an event where everyone brings out their horses, steam and old gas tractors and give us all a blast from the past of how things were done “in the olden days.” I learned about mowing, stooking (setting up sheaves to dry), horsepowered (literally) plowing, bailing, threshing etc. The first thing you notice about the old-fashioned way of doing things is how many people it takes. You cannot be a loner and succeed as an old-time farmer. A threshing crew requires many steps and even more bodies.

The next immediate thing you notice is what a dusty, hot, dirty job the whole business is. When the wind blows at all, the straw, which is well chopped up into sharp little slivers by the thresher, will blow into your eyes, up your nose, down your shirt collar and somehow under your bra to make you an itching watering mess in less than 20 minutes. Not to mention the dust. Good thing the days are long and there’s only 12 more hours to go.

Jack recalled his mum talking about having to feed these crews as they came through to do the threshing on the farm, and her most disgusting job: washing all the men’s dirty handkerchiefs. Ewww. One of the old-timers here did point out that when the threshing needed to be done, everyone would get together to get the job done. People worked together, and they played together too. People knew their neighbours well and relied on each other whether they needed help or could give it. Now he says, nobody knows their neighbours. Interesting that this is happening out here on the farm and not just the cities.

Try to make a $10 T-shirt this way:

It was telling how, as the hour changed and the farmers started winding down their machinery, that it was obviously getting time for the rodeo to begin. It was like the changing of the guard, all the farmer hats & overalls left and the Stetsons and the Wranglers moved in. The rodeo guys are a different breed. They do work independently and it seems to attract a different style of person. For these people, “nature” is defined as a wily horse or a runaway calf.


I don't have any earthshaking conclusions from all this. Maybe I've just found that for all of us who claim to have a connection with "The Land" it's important to stand back and ask how close that tie really is.

Observations from the Threshermans Reunion:
  • Even though there are no safety guards on the equipment, the people here all seemed to have most of their appendages.
  • Horses blow up more often than steam boilers. We saw at least two runaways, and these were mostly sedate draft horses.
  • Not that much time has passed since these “rudimentary” machines were in regular use. 70-80 years?
  • The carbon emissions from the boilers and engines must have been astronomical.
  • Everyone here is white.
  • The bigger the truck, the fatter the man.
Smoke + Fog = Smog:

"Whoa Dammit!"

Ironies for a “history based” event:
  • The entire area was sprayed for mosquitoes twice prior to this event.
  • The winter wheat fields used for mowing, sheaving, stooking and threshing demos were “dessicated” or “artificially ripened” with RoundUp prior to the event to ensure that the grain was ripe and the stalks brittle enough to do the jobs properly.
  • Nothing sold in the concessions was made with whole wheat flour. None of the serving implements were on reusable plates or cutlery.
  • Again, no Canadian beer to be found on the site.
Too cheap to buy more rodeo tix

Thursday, July 23, 2009

PS: Where we've been so far...

Yes - I know this is a clumsy low-tech approach to mapping, but here it is. Where we've been. With a Rand McNally road atlas and a yellow highlighter pen. Click on the photo and you can follow our less than straight route.

Saskatchewan Culture Shock

Saskatchewan is a quirky little place. We're only here one more day, but we've discovered a shift in our views is necessary to appreciate what goes on here.

There is a pastoral quality to the beauty that we've found throughout the south of this province. Farms and old barns and homesteads. Lakes and more lakes and some lakes that actually turned out be huge fields of blooming blue flax flowers.
Huge horses and Rube Goldburg style farm machinery.
A lake:
...not a lake:

But when we went to the provincial parks we expected, well parks like the National Parks. That is, a place that let's it's natural beauty just be.

Grasslands National Park
However, when you live in a province that is a pastoral setting, I guess getting away from it all means going to Central Park New York. So in Saskatchewan, a Provincial Park is a place where they find a body of water, pave a road to it (so that the speed boats and jetskis can access it) chop down the natural vegetation, lay down sod and mow it. It also must be lighted like a maximum security prison. For miles around there will be only darkness but the provincial park will have high mast-head cobrahead streetlights and washrooms where you could perform dental surgery. (If you visit the washrooms at night, your eyes are so snowblind that then you do need the streetlights to get back to your camp.)
It's 2:00AM, do you know
what your Westfalia is up to?

not an abstract or a satellite view,
but a paint spill in a provincial park lake

The Friggin' Gophers
As kids we had gerbils, so I tend to be kindly towards cute little rodents (Okay except for the rats in my house, but that's another story and they weren't cute). However, the gophers here are unbelievable. They dig under, around and up through anything. They undercut everything from gravestones to buildings. And it's really hard to concentrate on your standing bow-pulling pose when one tries to climb your leg. So here's one for the locals. I'm developing a definite attitude of gopher-overload.
Straight up through the asphalt

Weird Names
I've discovered the fun game of finding weird prairie names on the map. It started with the list of entries for the rodeo. "Did the announcer really say that guy was from 'peepot Saskatchewan?'"

So here goes... from the sublime to the ridiculous

The pious:
Sceptre, Bounty, Salvador, Unity, Sanctuary etc, etc. (many in this category)

The unlikely:
Marriot, Cadillac, Plato, Marquis

The somewhat braggartly:
Biggar, Major, Superb, Success, Renoun, Conquest,

Those of somewhat lower self-esteem:
Canuck, Tiny, Tadmore, Findlater

The almost offensive:
Foam lake, Piapot (just sounds like 'peepot'), Old Wives, and Big Beaver

The weird:
Hudson Bay (were they lost?), East End (located in the West of the Province), West End (located in the East of the Province and also located next to Round Lake which is not round but is long and winding), Amazon and Kandahar.

Oh, and I almost forgot, but who could forget, "Forget, Saskatchewan"

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Saskatchewan - Hard to Spell - Easy to Draw"

I wish I had thought of that saying, but as soon as you've been here you get it. I was hoping to be less wordy, but I'll try to include a few images with my wordiness this time. (Just a few, since the term "highspeed" internet, seems to have a different meaning in the prairies.)

Saskatchewan Traffic Jam:

We spent 3 days living on the rodeo grounds at Shaunavon, SK during their "Boomtown Days." We were without running water, but were with wild horses, cowboys, dust, trailers, bulls and more dust. The water gave me a bellyache, but at least during the rodeo itself, they had both kinds of beer: Bud and Bud Light. Each day without a shower, my skin and hair would be covered by another layer of find amber dust, to which I'd add another layer of sunscreen.
The people have been welcoming everywhere. Even the cowboys in their shy way. They have no trouble walking up to a bull and pushing it around, but they needed company and a beer (at 9:00 am "to wash down the coffee") to get the nerve to come up to us and politely ask us to move to a more appropriate location on the rodeo grounds. [Read: you're in the way.]
We went to a pancake breakfast and I'm looking forward to sending a postcard to one of my alternative healthcare providers that I'm living on white flour, refined sugar and meat. (It's hard to be vegetarian when you're living on the rodeo grounds.)

We visited Old Man on His Back, the Nature Conservancy short grass prairie preserve set up by Sharon and Peter Butala. The caretaker at the visitors centre was practically part of the Butala family and has an adjacent farm that is currently growing organic feed grain. Her husband custom farmed the Butala property for 25 years before the Nature Conservancy purchased it, and for several years after as well as they discovered how to replant the indigenous grasses.

Dark Green Ocean ("Oatsean"?):
We and woke up this morning in Grasslands National Park. The wind has been wonderfully incessant. The oat fields really do look like dark green oceans.

(please excuse the poor video quality from my pocket camera, and the poor videography from being battered by the wind)

Saskatchewan Butterfly Collection:

And I must add, yesterday we went through a small community called "Climax". As you enter the town there is a sign saying, "Welcome to Climax" and as you leave (I'm not making this up) it says, "Please come again."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Drumheller – Please Don’t Feed the Dinosaurs

I didn’t expect to have such an emotional experience in a place like Drumheller. We spent the day at the Royal Tyrell Museum, which houses one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs. I found myself inspired by the minds that were able to piece together their discoveries. These paleontologists are able to define the history of life on earth mostly by squatting on their haunches, ripping their jeans, being bitten by no-see-ums, while digging holes in large rocks using a toothbrush. The museum itself inspires their visitors to think. Parents teach their kids, the kids teach their parents. Everyone is thinking and asking questions: How did this dinosaur eat? Why were their front arms so small? Do you think it ate meat? How did they make this model? Is this really bone or is it petrified? Do you think it’s a baby or just a small dinosaur? How long is a million years?

The Tyrell museum gives us the opportunity to see all this magic in the miracle of life forming before us. Seeing this, as well as our ability as humans to fathom millions of years of history, I couldn’t help but be horrified at our current blatant disregard of life on earth. Even in the museum itself the amount of waste created by the visitors is a bit depressing. It’s our one and only planet. The Tyrell covers the time since life took hold on this planet and that’s over 500 million years ago. According to Google, the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and the sun will turn into a pumpkin (red giant -whatever) when it’s about 5 billion years old. In other words, we don’t get do-overs. It’s particularly puzzling when you see one of the exhibits is sponsored by Esso, as climate change looms as one of the most threatening challenges to all species on our little blue sphere. (Although seeing them associated with dinosaurs has some relevance.)

The staff and messaging in the Tyrell kept emphasizing the importance of science, and how everything in the museum was science based. I thought it was a bit unnecessary and obvious until I realize the context of the location in Alberta. Rural communities hold close to their religious ties, and this seems to be true in Canada as well as the States.

Travelling thru Alberta during the greenest time of year, however, is a wonderful experience of birth and new life. The crops are going crazy. The calves are running around while they can before sedate steerdom sets in. If you can forget than most of that canola is Monsanto’s ‘Round-Up Ready’ seed, the yellow in the canola fields is dazzling. So my thoughts keep going from polar opposites that won’t come together any more than two magnets with the same charge. Now I know how there can be something called "bipolar" disorder.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Lightning & Cherries

It's fruit season - and now I have a bellyache. I'm not sure if it's the 10 lbs. of blueberries from the Fraser Valley, the 3 lbs. of cherries from the Okanagan, or just way too much coffee.

But we are already feeling very much on Vacation...well, other than being at an internet cafe so that Jack can "finish up some things". We're in Grand Forks at the moment having just finished "the worlds best borscht."
Thank you all for the treats you have given us for this trip - music, snacks, strawberry jam! We are going to have to ration them out carefully so they will last.

It got quite dark driving out from Manning Park this morning, but the rain did not keep the sprinklers from spouting away in most of the hay fields.

The rain actually got to the point where the windshield wipers could not keep up. This was lucky timing for the hitchhiker we picked up just before the hail began.... and then a serious lightning storm. I'd promised not to turn on the car heater before Newfoundland, but that lasted to this - day 2 of the trip.

We visited the Nk'mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos to see the rammed earth construction. Unfortunately the people at the Tourist Info Centre had never heard of "ram dirt?" - but we found it anyway. It was a beautiful respite from the rain and wind and you could hug the wall outside and feel the heat coming off it. The desert is quite something during the rain.

Fortunately the Westfalia is waterproof so the weather is no big deal. I did some yoga this morning with raindrops falling into my eyes during "triangle pose", but the insects were the real challenge: two mosquitoes on my arm at the same time during "standing bow" and a spider was spinning a web from my fingertips during "half moon."

Enough for now.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

T Minus 18 hours?

Still in Victoria. We are now in the last thros of filling what we have left of the time and the space in our bags.

The polka dots on Rosalita will have to wait. I had purchased a bunch of sheet magnets that were to create our polka dots, but they fell off too easily - so now we're just a burgundy van.

The ipod's loaded (thank you especially to Steve for helping us fill it!) the computers are backed up, the shower is clean, Jack is mowing the lawn, can't decide whether or not to throw the flamenco shoes in the bag...
...doh! don't forget to buy cat food!

must go - my next update will be on the trail somewhere.