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.

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