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
Hence the look of extensive cultivation and at the same time the emptiness. We see few horses, few cattle. Saskatchewan farmers, who could go a long way to supplying the world’s bread, are less subsistence farmers than we were in 1915. They live in towns like medieval towns, tight clusters surrounded by cultivated fields; but here the fields are immense and the distances enormous.
So it is still quiet earth, big sky. Human intrusions still seem as abrupt as the elevators that leap out of the plain to announce every little hamlet and keep it memorable for a few miles. The country and the smaller villages empty slowly into the larger centers; the small towns get smaller, the large ones slowly larger. Eastend, based strategically on the river, is one of the lucky ones that will last.
In the fall it was always a wonderful excitement, after an interminable day on the sun-struck wagon, to come to the rim of the south bench. The horses would be plodding with their noses almost to their knees, the colt dropping tiredly behind. Everything would be flat, hot, dusty. And then suddenly the ground fell away, and there below, looped in the green belt of the river, lay town, so snug in its valley that I always fell into it as one falls into bed, at home and protected and safe.
Now there is the same sudden revelation of sanctuary, but with a new perception. I had always thought of the river as running all its course in a sunken valley; now I see that the valley is dug only where the river has cut across the uplift of the hills. Elsewhere it crawls disconsolately, flat on the prairie’s face. A child’s sight is so peculiarly limited: he can see only what he can see. Only later does he learn to link what he sees with what he imagines and hears and reads, and so come to make perception serve inference. During my childhood I kept hearing about the Cypress Hills and wishing that I could go there; now I see that I grew up in the very middle of them.
More has changed here than on the prairie. My town, for one thing, was as bare as a picked hone, without a tree in it larger than a six-foot willow. Now it is a grove. We drive through it, trying to restore old familiarities among the novelty of fifty-foot cottonwoods, lilac and honeysuckle hedges, flower gardens. And the familiarities are there: the Pastime Theater, unchanged; the lumberyard where we got advertising caps; two of the three hardware stores (a prairie wheat town specializes in hardware stores); the hotel, just as it was; the bank building, now the post office; the churches and the Masonic lodge and the square brick prison of the schoolhouse, though with some smaller prisons added. The Eastend Enterprise sits just where it has sat since it was founded in 1914.
But all tree-shaded. In the old days we tried to grow trees, transplanting them from the hills or getting them free with two-dollar purchases at the hardware, but they always dried up and died. Now every lot in town gets all the water it needs for a dollar a year from the government dam upriver, and forty years have brought new trees and shrubs, especially the drouth-resistant caragana. Because I came expecting a dusty hamlet, the reality is charming, but memory has been fixed by time, and this reality is dreamlike. I cannot find any part of myself in it.
The river is disappointing, a quiet creek twenty yards wide, the color of strong tea, its banks a tangle of willow and wild rose. How could adventure ever have inhabited those willows, or wonder, or fear, or the other remembered emotions? Was it here I shot at the lynx with my brother’s .25-.20? And out of what log (there is no possibility of a log in these brakes, but I distinctly remember a log) did my bullet knock chips just under the lynx’s bobtail?
Who in town remembers in the same way I do a day when he drove up before Leaf’s store with two dead Dogs and the lynx who had killed them when they caught him unwarily out on the flats? Who remembers that angry and disgusted scene as I do, as a parable of adventure and danger, a lesson for the pursuer to respect the pursued?
Because it is not shared, the memory seems fictitious, as do the other memories: the blizzard of 1916 that marooned us in the schoolhouse, the spring flood when the ice brought the railroad bridge in kindling to our doors, the games of fox and geese in the snow of a field that is now a grove, the nights of skating with a great fire leaping on the river ice and reddening the snowy cutbanks. I have used these memories for years as if they really happened, have made stories and novels of them. Now they seem uncorroborated.
To see a couple of boys on the prowl with air guns in the willow brush somewhat reassures me, and forces me to readjust my disappointed estimate of the scrub growth. In my time we would have been carrying a .22 or a shotgun, but we would have been of the same tribe. And when one is four feet high, six-foot willows are sufficient cover, and ten acres are a wilderness.
Later, looking from the bench hills across my town, I can see where the river shallows and crawls southeastward across the prairie toward the Milk, the Missouri, the Gulf, and I toy with the notion that a man is like water or clouds, that he can be constantly moving and yet steadily renewed. The sensuous little savage, at any rate, has not been rubbed away; he is as solid a part of me as my skeleton.