Quiet Earth, Big Sky


I am often tempted to believe that I grew up on a gun-toting frontier. This temptation I trace to a stagecoach ride in the spring of 1914, and a cowpuncher named Buck Murphy.

The stagecoach ran from Gull Lake, Saskatchewan, on the main line of the Canadian Pacific, to Eastend, sixty miles southwest in the valley of the Frenchman. Steel from Swift Current already reached to Eastend, but trains were not yet running when the stage brought in my mother, my brother, and myself, plus a red-faced cowpuncher with a painful deference to ladies and a great affection for little children. I rode the sixty miles on Buck Murphy’s lap, half anaesthetized by his whiskey breath, and during the ride I confounded both my mother and Murphy by fishing from under his coat a six-shooter half as big as I was.

A little later Murphy was shot and killed by a Mountie in the streets of Shaunavon, up the line. We had no streets in Eastend—our own house was then a derailed dining car—but I could imagine every detail of that shooting. It has given me a comfortable sense of status ever since to recall that I was a friend of bad-men and an eyewitness to gunfights before saloons.

Actually Murphy was an amiable, drunken, sentimental, perhaps dishonest Montana cowboy like dozens of others. He wore his six-shooter inside his coat because Canadian law forbade the carrying of arms. When Montana cattle outfits worked across the line they learned to leave their guns in their bedrolls. In the American West men came before law, but in Saskatchewan law was there before settlers, before even cattlemen, and not merely law but law enforcement. It was not characteristic that Buck Murphy should die in a gunfight, but if he had to die by violence it was entirely characteristic that he should be shot by a policeman.

The first settlement in the Cypress Hills country was a métis village, the second the Mountie headquarters at Fort Walsh, the third a Mountie outpost sent eastward to keep an eye on the métis. The outpost camp on Chimney Coulee, four miles north of the village I grew up in, was the original town of Eastend. Its crumbling chimneys and the outlines of its vanished cabins remind a visitor why there were no Boot Hills along the Frenchman.

So it is not the glamour of a romantic past that brings me back to the village I last saw in 1919. Neither is it, quite, an expectation of returning to wonderland. By most estimates, Saskatchewan is a pretty depressing country.

The Frenchman, a river more American than Canadian since it flows into the Milk and thence into the Missouri, has even changed its name to conform with American maps. We always called it the Whitemud, from the pure white kaolin exposed along its valley. Whitemud or Frenchman, the river is at least as important as the town in my memory, for it conditioned and contained the town. But memory, though vivid, is imprecise, without sure dimensions. What I remember is low bars, cutbank bends, secret paths through willows, fords across the shallows, swallows in the clay banks, days of indolence and adventure where space was as flexible as the mind’s cunning and time did not exist. And around the sunken sanctuary of the river valley, stretching out in all directions from the benches to become coextensive with the disc of the world, went the uninterrupted prairie.

The geologist who surveyed southwestern Saskatchewan in the 1870’s called it one of the most desolate and forbidding regions on earth. Yet as I drive eastward into it from Medicine Hat, returning to my childhood through a green June, I look for desolation and can find none.

The plain spreads southward below the Trans-Canada Highway, an ocean of wind-troubled grass and grain. It has its characteristic textures: winter wheat, heavily headed, scoured and shadowed as if schools of fish move in it; spring wheat, its two-inch seed rows precise as combings in a boy’s wet hair; gray-brown summer fallow with the weeds disced under, and grass, the marvelous curly prairie wool tight to the earth’s skin, straining the wind in its own way, secretly.

Prairie wool blue-green, spring wheat bright as new lawn, winter wheat gray-green at rest and slaty when the wind flaws it, roadside primroses as shy as prairie flowers are supposed to be, and as gentle to the eye as when in my boyhood we used to call them wild tulips; by their flowering they mark the beginning of summer.

On that monotonous surface with its occasional shiplike farm, its atolls of shelter-belt trees, its level ring of horizon, there is little to interrupt the eye. Roads run straight between parallel lines of fence until they intersect the horizon circumference. It is a landscape of circles, radii, perspective exercises—a country of geometry.

Across its empty miles pours the pushing and shouldering wind, a thing you tighten into as a trout holds himself in fast water. It is a grassy, clean, exciting wind, with the smell of distance in it, and in its search for whatever it is looking for it turns over every wheat blade and head, every pale primrose, even the ground-hugging grass. It blows yellow-headed blackbirds and hawks and prairie sparrows around the air and ruffles the short tails of meadow larks on fence posts. In collaboration with the light it makes lovely and changeful what might otherwise be characterless.