My Alberta Prairie

It’s mid-morning, early June when I climb the short rise that leads from the road to the ribstones. The wind has yet to come up and the sky is cloudless. The world holds its breath. I am the only visitor but several coins sit in the “ribs” of the stones, pleas for intercession to someone or something evidently impressed by the coin of the realm. I find it curious.

I try to visit the ribstones every year and like, I imagine, millenia of aborigines before me, it has a salutary effect. For what reason, I do not know.   I was never good at dealing with anything that wasn’t literal and I thought only that the ancient stones were a genuine mystery, what with the panoramic 360 degree view, the odd location for such large stones, and the curious ribs. For me, the mystery deepens with the opaque history that preceded the arrival of the white man. So much gets mashed in the attempt to peer into the past, the geology and anthropology and zoology and the conventional wisdom that says things were this way when you suspect they likely weren’t. The visit puts me in touch with the prairie I love and forces me to think about the land in ways those who preceded me might have.

It wasn’t always so. I grew up in eastern Alberta and couldn’t wait to escape. I left my small town 15 minutes after finishing my last senior exam. To anyone who would listen I’d say something like “I’ll never have to hear another Ernest Tubb or Kitty Wells song in my life.”

The origins of that antipathy to rural Alberta are both deep-seated and shallow. The “shallow” comes thanks largely to American movies and magazines and the paucity and bias of history as taught in Alberta in the fifties. Like many Western Canadian youths, I defaulted to the movie myths of America, an America that was presented to us as shiny clean towns and a stalwart truth-loving people. Hollywood at its propaganda best. We were fed a steady dose of American exceptionalism and my love for my own country became an alter ego to that myth – we’re different but really the same. Any warmth for our British heritage never had a chance, something our parents would not have understood . My choice of the US as a place to identify with had a few silly manifestations. While I would always sing ‘O Canada’ lustily, I would not stand for ‘God Save the Queen’ and six years before Canada adopted its own flag, I would not willingly salute the red ensign. The US was OUR influence, our history shared, not Great Britain and Europe. Maybe the reverse was true for people east of the Manitoba border but not on the prairies.   The British patria folks overlooked one very important fact. We in the West really had NO history to draw upon, even though it was obviously there. Sadly, however, it went either unrecorded or deliberately erased (A common fate for all American Aboriginal cultures). The Prairies had a rich past with the plains Indians, the French fur traders, the Hudson Bay and Northwest trading companies, the Metis, the whisky traders, the surveyors, and the settlers.   But so little of it was preserved, physically or literarily, and what there was had an ethnocentric bias so dramatic as to render the non-white population as mere temporary obstacles to a new nation. The sun may “never have set” on the British Empire but neither did it ever rise to any understanding of the wonder and value of different cultures.

To gain any sense our past, we either absorbed the mythological west that Hollywood was peddling or listened to history sermons on CBC radio. It was no contest.

The deep-seated antipathy was harder to articulate. Some of it came from the wilful ignorance encountered in small towns.   The yokel population was always part of your life, whether you wanted it or not, and in spite of the presence in every town of truly interesting and accomplished people whose wisdom was generally available for the asking. But for teenagers, contacts were more likely to be snickering, snuffling, snorting yahoos driving vehicles with gaudily-decorated interiors and drinking rye whisky. Then there was the dirt and mud. Everywhere and inescapable.   Any white picket fence would be grey and brown in two weeks. As well, there were the Christian fundamentalists who came in many denominations and sects, each claiming a pipeline to heaven, and each spreading a cloud of censure and gloom to non-believers (There were so many of these fringe groups that a separate history ought to be written some day to examine why so many struck out for the prairies to find a home for their home-brewed version of Christianity. It does say something about the freedom that existed at the time).   Their demeanor about town was stern and judgmental and they eschewed any part of the social fabric – no sports, dances, rallies, or parades. They boycotted businesses with whom they disagreed and if they attended a town meeting it was to draw attention to someone’s moral lassitude. At times, the combined affect of the three – fundamentalists, mud, and yahoos – could be claustrophobic.

And so I left Canada in September of 1959, headed for Spokane Washington and the chance to fulfill the American dream. I loved Canada but it could wait. Goodbye boring prairie and hello mountains and clear blue lakes, and pine trees and white picket fences.   Spokane was beautiful although if you bothered to travel west 30 miles, the prairie came back even balder than central Alberta. But the C&W music was suitably subdued and the mountain lakes were spectacular.

I came home to Edmonton at Christmas but winter being what it was, I recall little of it other than realizing we were lucky to make it home, what with a beer diet and 700 miles of icy roads. The luck of the stupid.

But a funny thing happened when I came home in late May with three fellow students. We’d driven all night and came out of the Crow’s Nest Pass around 5 in the morning. I was driving and, all of a sudden, it was as if someone had slapped me into another level of consciousness. Coming out of the foothills at an excessive speed (You’re driving downhill and the ever-ferocious winds of the pass are at your back) I’m struck by the thought I’d just been tossed into an ocean. I could see forever. The vast emptiness of the prairie spread out before me, canopied by the biggest sky this small planet could muster.

So what was a prairie boy – born and raised – doing acting as if he’d never seen grass before? I have no explanation other than I came to my senses in the fullest sense of the phrase. In Charles Portis’ wonderful term, maybe I lacked the “Escape Velocity”, the energy needed to leave one’s rural roots permanently. How many young women or men fled small towns only to return for reasons they couldn’t fathom? It was home. I came back to my province, not the town, so I suppose the difference is only a matter of degree.

Soon I was doing everything I could to recapture the sights and sounds and smells of my youth in Eastern Alberta. I even learned to sing a Hank Snow song. This wasn’t a youthful nostalgia. No, the antipathy memories were too fresh. This was a discovery. Maybe it’s something everyone feels for their homeland. I mean, realistically, my prairie doesn’t compare with many beauty spots in the world – the Pacific Coast in Oregon and California, the islands of the Pacific, and the rugged fiords of Norway. But something resonated.   And I wanted to know more.

Spring on the prairies brings the meadowlark, the crow and the robin, the raucous call of the red-wing blackbird, and the puzzling honking of geese, as they unpack from their long trip home and begin their nests, reluctant to take two steps without first telling their neighbor what they were up to. All manner of ducks and teals and shorebirds suddenly appear in the snow-melt swollen sloughs. Underfoot, the crocus blooms briefly, and overhead, the trees begin to bud.   The grass on the railway right-of-way, singed to prevent wild fires, turns green weeks ahead of anywhere else and provides a welcoming home for crocuses.

Four-footed wildlife was scant in eastern Alberta in the 1950’s. Hunters and poisons had pretty much eliminated any bison, deer, elk, moose, bear, or wolf. Coyotes were struggling to maintain their habitat and numbers. Porcupines, skunks, raccoons, weasels, and badgers remained in very small numbers. Only the lowly gopher seemed to thrive and that was largely due to DDT eliminating its main predator, the raptor.   Still, as kids, we couldn’t believe the wildlife weren’t hidden in the next poplar grove and, if we were quiet and alert, would show themselves. It all seems like yesterday.

Now I sit, in my advancing years, contemplating these strange boulders high on a hill in eastern Alberta. What significance did they have for the plains Cree?   A place to watch for migrating buffalo herds?   Who carved those ribs – and how – and when? Were they an aboriginal chapel of sorts? Were they an emblem of the mystery of life when something like ribbed boulders rested in a part of the world where such things ought not to be?   Aboriginals tend to use the word ‘sacred’ in ways I can’t often follow and it is applied to these ribstones.   I suspect it has more to do with having some culturual significance rather than being sacred as we understand it. But then, “as we understand it” is too often just a polite phrase for “you really don’t get it”. And, so I wonder.

And, after all these years have passed and my homes in other parts of the world fade into memory, I live once again on the prairie.   My heart swells when I see it in full bloom in June and I never tire of its bird calls and brisk winds and racing white clouds. Health permitting, I will set out yet again next to visit the ribstones and wonder.

Robert Alan Davidson

(February. 2016)

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