- Historic Sites
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
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.
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.
Living out the months of our required residence and waiting for the long growing days to make us a crop, we saw few people. Occasionally a Swede or Norwegian batch stopped by. Once in a while we drove over to see a neighbor. Once or twice a summer we went to town for supplies. A visit or a visitor was excitement, a trip to town delirium, but excitement was rare and delirium rarer. The rest of the time we communed with gophers, weasels, badgers, with sparrows and meadow larks and robins and hawks, and sometimes with the shrikes who practiced their butcher’s trade on our barbed wire.
In 1915, the plowed land was an occasional patch or stripe on the prairie’s face. If our horses broke out they could wander for miles without hitting a fence. By day, Pete and Emil and another empty shack, plus two inhabited farms, rode at anchor within the circle of our vision. At night the darkness came down tight all around, and the two little lights far out on the plain were more lonely even than the wind that mourned and hunted through the grass, or the owls that flew on utterly soundless wings and sent their short, barking cry across the coulee. On clear mornings the tips of Bear Paw Mountain, far down in Montana, were a mirage reflected up from another world.
Practically, there was little distinction between Saskatchewan and Montana. The southern boundary of our homestead was the international line, no more important than other survey lines except that the iron posts stood every mile along it. The nearest customhouse was clear over in Alberta, and all the time we spent on the farm we never saw an officer, American or Canadian. We bought supplies in Harlem or Chinook and got our mail at Hydro, all in Montana. In the fall we hauled our wheat, if we had made any, freely across to the Milk River towns and sold it where the price was higher.
We made a pretense of subsistence, with a cow, chickens, horses, a vegetable garden, but we weren’t really farmers. We were bonanza farmers, mining virgin land. Three hundred acres in Marquis wheat, if you got such a crop as that in 1915 when many fields ran more than fifty bushels to the acre and practically none ran under forty, might give you 15,000 bushels of No. 1 Northern—and during those war years the price of wheat went up and up until by 1918 it was crowding three dollars a bushel.
But 1915 was the last good year for a decade. When we gave up after four successive crop failures, more than the commuters’ shacks stood vacant on the weed-grown, whirlwind-haunted prairie. By the mid-Twenties, when the rains came again, only a few stickers were left to profit from them. The crop of 1927 was the biggest on record. It revived the boom. Then more dry cycle, until by the Thirties the whole southwest part of the province was a dust bowl, all but depopulated.
The judgment of the earliest surveyor seemed justified. It was indeed one of the most desolate and forbidding regions in the world, and infinitely more desolate for man’s passing. The prairie sod was replaced by Russian thistle and other weeds, the summer fallow was blown away, the topsoil was vanishing as dust. Tar paper flapped forlornly on abandoned shacks. Gophers and field mice multiplied by millions, as they always do in drouth years, and took over the burrowed earth. The feudal hawks continued to hold the sky.
But we return at the crest of a wet cycle. These years, when anything over about ten bushels to the acre will show a farmer a profit, most fields have hit twenty-five. The 1951 crop was the largest in history, the 1952 crop topped it. Given rain, Saskatchewan can grow more wheat than a discreet economy will permit it to sell: the elevators and storehouses of the province bulge with the bounty of the fat years.
It is a prosperous country now. Its farms that used to jut bleakly from the plain are bedded in cottonwoods and yellow-flowering caragana. And the ring of horizon is broken by a new verticality more portentous than windmills or fence posts or even elevators —the derricks of oil rigs. Farther north, in the Beaverlodge country, Saskatchewan prosperity rides the uranium boom. Here it rides on wheat and oil. But though the country is no longer wild, it is probably less populous than in our time. Oil crews create no new towns and do not enlarge old ones more than temporarily. Even if they hit oil, they cap the well and go on. As for wheat, fewer and fewer farmers produce more and more of it.
To us, a half section was a farm. With modern machinery, a man by himself can plow, seed, and harvest a thousand or twelve hundred acres. The average farm now is at least a section; two sections or even more are not uncommon. And even such a farm is only a part-time job. A man can seed a hundred acres a day. Once the crop is in there is little to do until harvest. Then a week or two on the combine, a week or two hauling, a week or two working the summer fallow and planting winter wheat, and he is done until spring.
This is a strange sort of farming, with its dangers of soil exhaustion, wind erosion, and drouth, and with its highly special conditions. Only about half of even the pretentious farmhouses on the prairie are lived in, and some of those are lived in only part time, by farmers who spend all but the crop season in town. Sometimes a farmer has no farmhouse at all, but commutes to work in a pickup. There is a growing class of trailer-farmers, migrants, many of them from the United States.
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.
And he has a fixed and suitably arrogant relationship to his universe, a relationship geometrical and symbolic. From his center of sensation and challenge and question, the circle of the world is measured, and in that respect the years I have loaded upon my savage have not changed him. Lying on the hillside where once I watched the town’s cattle herd or snared April’s gophers, I feel how the world first reduces me to a point and then measures itself from me. Perhaps the meadow lark singing from a fence post—a meadow lark whose dialect I recognize—feels the same way. All points on the circumference are equidistant from him; in him all radii begin; all diameters run through him; if he moves, a new geometry creates itself around him.
No wonder he sings. It is a good country that can make anyone feel so.