“We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.” (Lawren S. Harris, 1926)
I was born exactly 144 km from Lawren Harris’ birthplace, and I understand the call of the Great White North as much as Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven did. Still, I don’t think the Great White North is the beating heart of Canada. That honor must go to its prairies. Immense, they have a deep, diverse economy: oil, natural gas, coal, beef, grain, and wind. Once you’re away from the settlements, they are a land of enormous skies and great emptiness.
There are pumping jacks everywhere in eastern Alberta, and they were, in the majority, stilled. Canadian oil is in a bust phase of its boom-bust economy. Still, I wish we would buy whatever oil we cannot produce ourselves from our democratic neighbor to the north rather than from those who wish to harm us.
We set off yesterday to see Canada’s Badlands, promised hoodoos and dinosaur bones by Alberta Provincial Parks. Canada’s badlands are, like its people: nice. They are incapable of raising a frisson of fear. Still, the Red Deer River Valley is particularly lovely, with its fringe of trees golden against the scoured ridges.
Once again, I was flummoxed by the wind. The enormous windmills were making one revolution every three seconds. Parked in the shadow of a cliff, I lashed my tripod to the SUV, and set about painting a small study of a coal seam in the rock. The easel jarred and rattled even with many rocks weighing its base. My medium cup kept flipping over, so I put a pebble in it.
I wear a ponytail so that my cap doesn’t fly off, but even with that I was wishing for a string to hold it down. An hour later, I’d made very little progress. This painting is destined to be finished in the studio.
Our detour had taken us about 70 miles west, and it was midafternoon before we set off to our second destination: the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan. Northwest of the Red Deer River, the land is a little drier and wilder. There is more pasturage and less wheat. The wind ruffles grass the color of a Belgian’s hair in a motion that looks just like whitecaps on Penobscot Bay.
The internet is a little vague about how to reach the sand hills themselves, but we had an idea of where they were located, and I’m an inveterate shunpiker. Twice we set out along range roads and tracks in the general direction; twice we were rebuffed when the roads petered out into farm tracks.
It was not a wasted trip. A coyote loped across the road in front of us. Innumerable waterfowl filled the sloughs. Hawks, magpies and crows perched on fenceposts, waggling as they adjusted their weight to the wind. Herds of prong-horn antelope, startled by our approach, raced away across the prairie.
As the sun dropped, we quit our search and headed southeast to Swift Current. The well-head lights shone like fairy lights against the deepening blue twilight.
Today we have vowed to stay closer to the Trans-Canada Highway. All that shunpiking, while beautiful, was unproductive.