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Grasslands National Park of Canada

The Great Lone Land

Many people find the prairies a difficult landscape to appreciate. Don't be discouraged if you are among them. There are many who find it a challenge to see the beauty in what is apparent emptiness. How often have you heard, "The prairies?!, why go there?, it's just grass!" To appreciate the prairies demands patience, a different eye to the world, an open heart and a keen sense of space.

Other environments seem easier to appreciate. The overwhelming drama of Rocky Mountain vistas, the size and epic grandeur rivets you to your seat; it grabs you and says 'pay attention!' - who would disagree with a mountain? The seashore mesmerizes with rhythm of surf and wind; it induces a nature trance. The northern forests present mystery. The silence, the warmth of darkness and the subdued green invites you, it draws you like a fly drawn to a pitcher plant. The prairies present a challenge. A challenge to the eye, to the imagination and to the soul.

Space, the final frontier... certainly there are two major themes underlying the prairie landscape: subtlety and space. The space is overwhelming; huge!

A coulee jammed with stunted poplar trees and the edges of the rolling hills tucked behind.
A coulee jammed with stunted poplar trees and the edges of the rolling hills tucked behind.
© Parks Canada

Wallace Stegner, when writing of the landscape, said here was: "a distance without limits, a horizon that did not bound the world but only suggested endless space beyond."

To the explorers who came, the land offered nothing beyond furs. It was a physical and an aesthetic desert. Its landscape was overwhelming in its emptiness, "... its awesome, inhuman scale" said Ronald Rees, and it was lonely. The land and sky offered nothing to comfort the traveller, especially the European, so accustomed to streams, trees, forests and hills. The prairie was, to William Butler, "The Great Lone Land". Alexander Sutherland, speaking of the prairie isolation wrote "...as we go floating by, we are completely isolated as if we were out on the sea."

In recent years, we have come to approach the prairies not as pioneers, industrialists, settlers, trappers, explorers or Europeans but solely as people; prairie people. We have come to see the land, not in terms of its immediate use, but for what it is, "the least common denominators of nature, the skeleton requirements simply, of land and sky - Saskatchewan prairie", wrote W.O. Mitchell. This bare bones approach to the land was extended to the individual and his or her unique connection to the land - it shaped identity. In the broad circle of prairie sky the individual was, "the question mark in the circle" to Wallace Stegner.

"A distance without limits, a horizon that did not bound the world but only suggested endless space beyond." Wallace Stegner

One man, Captain Butler, was able to view the new land for what it was: something clean, crisp, new and immense, "a view so vast that endless space seems for once to find embodiment, and at a single glance the eye is satiated with immensity... [the land is] reduced to its own nakedness, space stands forth with almost terrible grandeur". A land such as this must instill certain traits and feelings within prairie people and visitors. Wallace Stegner was well aware of this: "It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people, but not humble ones. At noon, the total sun pours on your single head; at sunrise or sunset, 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, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed".

Subtlety is the element of the prairies that makes the greatest demands on one's patience; but patience is a key to unlocking some of the most glorious secrets of the prairie. Settlers, travellers and explorers, when first confronted with the prairie, felt as though they were standing on the shore of the ocean. From their feet to the horizon stretched an endless sweep of grass that shifted and danced like waves in the wind. Here is subtlety. The wind paints a canvas of changing colours, not mountainous black and white contrasts of glacier and peak, but infinite shades of green, brown, and blue that dance against a backdrop of a sky alive with colour. "A land of wide open spaces, of suave flowing lines, of harmonies of colour," noted C.W. Jeffries. Hidden in the grasses, a gift to the patient and curious, are multitudes of flowers, delicate and shy. Here also is the sound of birds, infinite and invisible; making the world increasingly abstract and infinitely beautiful.

"Desolate? Forbidding? There never was a country that in its good moments was more beautiful ... You don't get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint 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..." wrote Wallace Stegner.

To appreciate the prairies you must get out of your car, for a vehicle is a confinement of space and a barrier to sound. Let your heart be your guide.

The sharp 45 degree angle of a butte frames the Frenchman River Valley expanding in the distance.
The sharp 45 degree angle of a butte frames the Frenchman River Valley expanding in the distance.
© Environment Canada / Troy I. Wellicome /2001

Take the time to explore; the wind and sky will ensure that no one place is ever the same, the birds will be your company, the wail of the coyote will be your mystery, the stars will be your guardian and the space will be your freedom.

"It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people, but not humble ones." Wallace Stegner