Season of the Badlands

by Nic Olson

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The following was originally published with photos in Of Land & Living Skies: A Community Journal on Place, Land, and Learning. For more interesting content and events, consider becoming a Sask Outdoors member at SaskOutdoors.orgDigital magazine available here.

Just west of the yard in a field of summer fallow is a rock. Its existence alone isn’t remarkable; there are a multitude of rocks in the dirt around Horse Creek. All over the prairies there are rock piles, decades or centuries of rounded stones the size of softballs or buffalo skulls or lawnmowers, stacked as monuments to the neighbouring broken earth. But the rock west of the yard, picked out of the ground to clear the way for tilling, ended up being the size of a small car. Forty paces from the road it looks substantial but unremarkable; flat and several feet high, grey brown, leaning back with a salute to the sky, the remaining clover hissing at its base. But the illusion disappears when it is approached. It juts out significantly, looking like the missing nose of the Sphinx. A nearly immovable object, even with all the trucks and tractors around, because of its size and the damage it would do to the road and the ditch. It would look good in the garden but the force needed to move it is a force we do not have. So there it sits.

My grandma was born in Horse Creek. I never knew this until a week before I headed there myself. Horse Creek is located on Treaty 4 Territory, seventeen miles south of McCord, 110 miles southwest of Swift Current and just sixteen miles as the crow flies from the American border. If you look for it on a map or even the internet, you may not find it. In a time of unions and co-operatives, grandma’s father was a carpenter in Horse Creek for her first year of life. Last November, I was in Horse Creek holding tape measures and nailing boards and starting my own imaginary union to provoke my anti-union, farming friends.

Much of that summer was spent exploring the badlands of southern Saskatchewan. The first weekend of spring meant camping with three friends at Grasslands National Park, which shares the same hill ranges as Horse Creek. In 4x4s we were guided through pastures and down ravines to Storey Lowell’s, the local folklore touting it as an early hideout for horse rustlers, when it is more modestly two adobe shacks that made the home of an old homesteader. Later we hiked in at McGowan’s Visitor Centre and camped in a coulee just steps from the moon-like landscape of dirt and cliff. Before darkness settled we walked to the highest point in sight, overlooking the crumbling badlands, with heavy clouds and bursting light advancing from the south sky. Walking back in the heavy showers we purposefully searched out the storied quicksand piles by tossing rocks on odd looking pieces of dirt, then toeing them, then stepping on them, then stomping on them, tempting our fate for a movie-like reaction from the earth. We never found any quicksand.

Later in summer we visited Castle Butte, a massive ice-age-created structure of sandstone and clay reaching to the sky of the Big Muddy. A few miles from there we navigated to Buffalo Effigy, the flat outline of rocks which shape a buffalo on the highest hill around——a sacred site now part of a pasture, luckily fenced off and somewhat preserved. A few weeks later we camped at St. Victor Petroglyph Park, timeworn carvings on horizontal rock on the top of another highest hill in the area. These three sites of identity and significance to the First Peoples, all purposefully placed on top of the highest of hills, existed long before my maternal grandparents settled in the area——around Harptree, Brooking, Radville——and began creating their own monuments in picked rock piles and homesteads.

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In the snow-covered shortgrass prairie of Horse Creek, I attempted to experience the ranching and farming life in which my family was once rooted. I picked bales and fixed fence and tried to be useful. When on break, to bolster my writing craft, I urinated poems into the snow in cursive.

When heading south to move lumber or check on cows it looked as though the clouds that rested on the hills that enclose the badlands were the end of the world, which in my own way, is the truth. The badlands are dead land and past them is a barbed wire pasture fence that is patrolled with drones and satellites of the American border guard. Other border-adjacent land is sold off to multinational companies scavenging for oil whose only identity in the land they own is corporate identity. The end of the world and the end of identity exists in deserts and robots and contracts.

I have a vested interest in preserving this land from such ominous ends because I feel connected to it in some vague, flaky kind of way. My friend who has lived here his whole life and whose family has farmed it for a century offers the same. Giving up his land would be the last thing he would do, and because of his connection to the land he acknowledges that he knows to some extent what it might have felt like when the settlers came. I identify with the land that sits atop the badlands because of personal history, but this land does not identify with me any more than it identifies with the farmers or ranchers or indigenous peoples or the Queen who leases it out or that rock west of the yard.

The connection felt from being on the land, from spending time caring for it and working it, is universal and real. I am not entitled to this land, nor is any one person or group of people. Instead the land has an entitlement to be inhabited by people who identify with it, because those who identify with the land are more apt to treat it as it ought to be treated.

To be an asset to the land, to be the type of person that the land is entitled to, I learn as much as I can about how it works and how to live well on it. About all its intricacies of connectedness, which offer lessons of how to exist and how to relate. Like the rock west of the yard, I am not out of place standing alone on the prairie, I only look that way when I am dug up from the city and thrown naked in a field. Like the rock, my ancestral composition lies in the soil, just as everyone else.

Each time I visit the badlands and hills adjacent I seek out the highest geographical point possible——to feel the wind’s unmitigated power or to fully realize the thunderstorm that approaches. Monuments that mark time, the carvings and effigies and buttes of the area, are locations of height for a reason. They are standing points that we revisit to watch the thunderstorm of the future steadily move in. The easiest place to keep your feet grounded for change and resistance is in community and identity. Strengthening our connection with these highest places is the only way to ensure the thunderstorm doesn’t come in and drown us all out and to ensure that when we are walking home, we see the pits of quicksand that would otherwise swallow us up.

I drove out of the yard and left the farm behind with a year of vagrancy and foreign experiences on the horizon. The rock west of the yard sat silent with the ice fog painted low in the background. The rock will quite likely be there when I get back.

To look just on the surface, and think that what you see from horizon to horizon is all that is needed to survive, is to misunderstand your place on the ground which you stand. To scale its heights-to learn its lessons—one must be alive to the underlying structures that support the visible and not-so-visible world around you.

-John Borrows (Kegedonce), Drawing Out Law: A Spirit’s Guide (University of Toronto Press, 2010, p72)

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