Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sand Hills.

Saskatchewan #3

The rolling humps I am walking over are sand hills, and once, during glacial times, they were roving dunes, built and pushed along by powerful winds rushing down off the continental ice sheet. Now they are tamed and held down by a mat of prairie plants, here a remnant of a grassland ecosystem that stretched up the center of North America. Even as I wander with my camera I can see holes where the carpet of plants has been disturbed and the sand released to blow restlessly on the wind once more.

In other places with sand hill landforms the natural grasslands have been plowed up and annual grain crops have taken their place. Planted to follow the contours, with the stubble left after the harvest to hold the fragile sandy soil in place throughout the winter months, now in early Spring we see enormous tractor and discing outfits lightly tilling the stubble under and preparing the ground for another crop. Farther down the road, big sprayers are moving over the enormous fields to kill emergent weeds that will permit a new cash crop without the need for more cultivation. Everything orchestrated to keep that soil where it is and save time and money at the same time A perfect combination!

Here in this unplowed military range area there is no need to ‘make `er pay’. The plant communities in all their complexity have no economic advantage that is easy to see. No grain to feed the world`s hungry, no rows of wonder-bread on the supermarket shelves. No tilling, no sprays, no GM grains either. Just the sound of wind in grasses, the flutter of new poplar leaves and the scream of a hawk. This must have a value beyond the immediately economic. It speaks to us who stand in its midst, of our relationship, to our sense of community with what lives and what strains to move beneath our feet once more. This is our skin, our desires, ourselves, that rolls around me.


Friday, June 17, 2011


Saskatchewan #2

A modern building echoing the tipi form, a fold in the bald prairie with a stream winding through poplars. We have arrived at a Native Heritage Center just north of Saskatoon and will spend some time walking the trails and have a picnic lunch. The clear blue sky, the sun`s noontime glare and the blustery cool wind tells me that photography might be a little sketchy today. We choose a simple walk on an archeological trail, suitable for the grandchildren, which details the long history of use by native peoples, - a winter shelter down among the poplars out of that cold winter wind. As soon as we too walk downslope we can feel the shelter and begin to take a more detailed interest. Some tipis nestle among the trees beside the stream and I step inside one to find a different light, filtered by the white canvas. A great place to photograph the family! I catch Sarah standing at the entrance in a pool of light.

Those tipis, if I find the right angle and avoid anything in the background that speaks of the present era, have the potential to be ‘historic photos’ with a sepia or B&W version. Fortunately my camera will do this for me right away and this guides me to take several more. I have Curtis`s images from 150 years ago as a creative guide.

We discover some wild flowers on the slopes and I smile to see my photographer daughter following her Dad`s example by placing her camera down on the ground and shooting these prairie flowers up against the blue sky. The results are so effective! I am shooting images today that catch the subtle textures and forms of this early Spring day, so much are still sticks and buds or dry plants from the last summer season. How much more powerful this transition would have felt for those peoples who overwintered here.

The question I am holding in my mind as we walk and take photos is whether my regular habit of careful observation as I take photos is what is making this little fold in the prairie so vivid for me on this day or if there is something about this place, used for thousands of years by First Nations peoples, that is influencing what I see and how I photograph it. I have studied the history and cultures of the plains peoples sometime in the past and that is a real help in understanding the significance of this place. Whatever the mix, this brilliant noon light is working just fine for me today.

Friday, June 3, 2011

At Beaver Creek

Saskatchewan #1

There`s no way to hold back the future,
but we can shape the course of events by
engaging - fully, deeply, and passionately -
with the present... This approach is
sometimes referred to as a strategy of “No Regrets”,
because the work is worth doing now,
no matter what happens next.
‘Prairie - A Natural History’. by Candace Savage

The South Saskatchewan River surges across the prairie in a broad Spring flow, scarcely contained by its banks. All across the flat lands are sheets of water slowly being drained away by a myriad of little creeks. Beaver Creek is a good example: starting in farmland, winding through the sand hills of an army range and finally cutting deeper into the valley sides of the big river itself and adding its jot to the common flow. Imagine a very large quilt, a patchwork of fields and hills, with the quilting stitches being the creeks.

A few days ago I canoed a section of the upper reaches; a strong even flow contained by built-up banks: mallards looking for nesting sites, coyotes and hawks looking for mallards, willows, tall yellowed reeds with fluffy tops waving in the wind, river bank beavers. Now I am twenty minutes drive away from there and near the place where the creek will end its course in the big river. Here the creek winds within its canyon, remnant snow drifts lie in shady spots, a mass of deciduous trees and bushes beside the creek - new buds just breaking -, and slopes of native plants reaching to the prairie above.

This place is a conservation area complete with an interpretive center. The land was a gift long ago of an early settler who farsightedly realized that something was being lost as he and many others plowed up the natural vegetation. It must have helped his decision that this little corner of his land was sandy and cut up into steep slopes. Whatever it took, here is preserved a little piece of a natural grassland that used to stretch for thousands of miles up the center of North America. Those plants that seem so ordinary, those grasses and scrubby trees, are an ecosystem: an assembly of plants adapted over a very long period of time to prairie conditions. Not only that, they are adjusted to this particular place and even to differences in soil, moisture and whether they lie on a north or south facing slope. This place has an individual`s face.

What I am learning today is that once one has gazed his fill on far horizons and spectacular skies it is what lies hidden at his feet that needs to become his consuming interest. It is here, down in this little valley beside Beaver Creek, that the real lessons begin if we are to begin to understand the land and our place within it.