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

1 comment:

  1. A beautifully written and illustrated blog, Lori.

    My grandfather shared an office with Grey Owl for the short while he was at RMNP before relocating to Prince Albert NP. Grandpa and Grandma had many stories to tell about Grey Owl. Some not endearing or complimentary. Oh well, I've been known to do some crazy things while under the influence of too much alcohol as well. Of course, those days are behind me now! ;)

    Good chatting with you earlier today.