There is tremendous beauty in the prairies, but like many newcomers I had to learn to see most of it. My first impression of the landscape in Manitoba was of unrelenting flatness. Exploring the province through the full cycle of seasons, however, has opened my eyes to its palette of colours and textures and the dramatic seasonal transformation of both.
Winnipeg is my third city, after Ottawa and Halifax. Ontario and Nova Scotia share similar terrain: both are rolling, rocky, varied, and largely covered with mixed forest. This sort of topography extends only a short 50 kilometres or so into Manitoba before it gives way to prairie, where windswept grasses, aspen woodlands, and huge skies take over.
Nova Scotia’s ocean vistas are remarkably similar to the vast horizons of the great plains. Miles of water and miles of grain both dwarf the human observer with seemingly unlimited depth of perspective. They also share majestic immensity compounded by infinite minuteness; ocean waves and fields of crops both accumulate endless expanses out of tiny multitudes.
The ocean and the prairie differ, however, in their domestication. The sea remains inscrutable and inhospitable, a resource for fishing and conveyance only at the risk of uncontrollable unpredictability. Prairie farmland, on the other hand, is an industrial landscape, the product of human toil and activity. Over the past 125 years, the original grassland ecosystem has been all but completely destroyed by colonization and commercial agriculture. The few remnants of original prairie are fiercely defended in ecological preserves and replanting projects.
Coming to appreciate the agricultural shaping of the land has changed my experience of it. It makes a difference whether that field is soy or canola, and that the trees over there were planted as a windbreak. The succession of the seasons is measured in planting, growth, and harvest. Variations in crops and terrain and the presence of domestic and industrial infrastructure old and new make for endless contrasts of colour and texture that tell stories of struggle and abundance. The landscape is at the same time overwhelmingly vast and laboriously managed, and the interplay between these forces is the history of this place.That history of tilling and fencing is also a history of dispossession. Aboriginal culture, displaced and repressed here as everywhere in the New World, struggles to flourish on and off the reserves where it was initially confined. The grasslands have vanished both as ecological entities and as the freely roamed context of traditions that have suffered the ravages of enclosure and colonization. Nothing makes the Western transformation of this land clearer than the strict grid of mile roads that divides prairie openness according to the strictures of private property and the demands of transportation.
These endlessly linear arteries impose order on all this space, but at the same time make its extent all the more apparent. Nowhere else might it take an hour to finally encounter that oncoming car whose headlights have been continuously visible over dozens of kilometres of straight gravel road. Not there aren’t roads that turn and terrain that rises and falls; they are, however, the exceptions. By and large the prairie is indeed extremely vast and extremely flat. But not merely so.