Quiet Earth, Big Sky
How the Saskatchewan-Montana prairie country looked a generation ago, and what it meant to a youngster who lived there
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
For over the segmented circle of earth is domed the biggest sky anywhere, which on days like this sheds down on range and wheat and summer fallow a light to set a painter wild, a light pure, glareless, and transparent. The horizon a dozen miles away is as clear a line as the nearest fence. There is no haze, either the woolly gray of humid countries or the blue atmosphere of the mountain West. Across the immense sky move navies of strato-cumuli, their bottoms as even as if they had scraped themselves flat against the earth.
The drama of this landscape is in the sky, pouring with light and always moving. The earth is passive. And yet the beauty I am struck by, both as memory and as present fact, is a fusion: this sky would not be so spectacular without this earth to change and glow and darken under it. And whatever the sky may do, however the earth is shaken or darkened, the Euclidean perfection abides. The very scale, the hugeness of simple space and simple forms, emphasizes this sub-perception of stability.
In spring there is almost as much sky on the ground as in the air. The country is dotted with sloughs, every depression is full of water, the roadside ditches are canals. Grass and wheat grow to the water’s edge and under it; they seem to grow right under the edges of the sky. In deep sloughs tules have rooted, and every pond is dignified with mating mallards and the dark little automata that glide along after them as if on strings.
The nesting mallards move in my memory like a sleeper stirring. The image of a drake standing on his head with his curly tail feathers sticking up from a sheet of wind-flawed slough is tangled in my remembering senses with the feel of the grassy edge under my bare feet, the smell of mud, the push of the traveler wind, the weight of the sun, the look of the sky with its level-floored clouds made for the penetration of miraculous Beanstalks.
Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful. Even in drouth or blizzard or dust storm it is the reverse of monotonous. You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean against it. You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small; but also the world is very flat and empty, and you are a challenging verticality, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark, in its flatness.
It is a country to breed religious or poetic people, but not humble ones. At noon the sun comes on your head like a waterfall; at sunset or sunrise you throw a shadow a hundred yards long. It was not prairie dwellers who invented the indifferent universe or impotent man. Puny you may feel there, but not unnoticed . This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.
Our homestead, just southward from here around the roll of the earth, had only a wagon-track connection with the world. When we built the required shack on our half section in 1915 no roads led in; we came fifty miles across unplowed grass and burnouts by lumber wagon. Each year the day-long ride from town, starting at two or three in the reddening morning, led us from the valley up onto the south bench and the great plain reaching southward. We crossed a wave of low hills, the southwest end of the Cypress Hills uplift, and rocked and jarred for a couple of hours through an enormous horse pasture on leased crown land. An irrigation ditch led water around the contour of one of the hills, and we lunched by it. As we ate, range horses with the wind in their manes thundered like poetry over the hills to stare at us, and like poetry thundered away.
Then a farm with a stone barn and a flock of shy French kids. Further into the long afternoon, another farm where we stopped to rest and talk. After that, the road forked and dwindled, became finally our own grass-grown track. The land flattened to a billiard-table flatness, grew stonier, more sparsely grassed, more patched with cactus clumps. At last the twin tar-papered shacks we called Pete and Emil, unlived in but doubtless fulfilling the letter of the homestead bond. Now we chirked up: we were nearly at our own place. When we arrived at our gate and saw the round-roofed shack, the chicken house, the dugout reservoir full to the brim, we jumped off the wagon and ran the last hundred yards.
Sometimes we had picked things up along the trail, once two coyotes that my father shot from the wagon, another time five baby mallards we had captured in a slough. All that summer they owned our dugout and stood on their heads in the weedy water with their tails aimed at the great sky. That fall they went back to town with us, but we forgot to keep their wings clipped, and one morning, like every other wild thing we ever held prisoner, they took advantage of a big wind and were gone with all the other autumnal excitement streaming south.
We always had a menagerie. I had a black-footed ferret, weasels, burrowing owls, a magpie that could talk, or so I thought. All of them got away. It seemed impossible to maintain a jail at the center of all that emptiness and freedom.