North Saskatchewan River valley, near Ruddell, Saskatchewan
I received a letter the day before yesterday from a friend. He enclosed an article he wrote a couple of years ago for a Saskatchewan magazine in which he does a fine job of outlining the environmental catastrophe we have wrought upon our grasslands. A lawyer and a clear thinker, he suggests that the die was cast by the early 1900s. The Dominion Lands Acts and federal policy at the time handed over virtually the entire ecoregion to private interests, principally farmers. Why did we not hold a small percentage back, even a few hundred square miles, to be protected as natural landscape or wildlife habitat?
Things would be much better if we had, he says, and of course he is right. He recognizes that ranching has allowed some of the land to be kept under native cover, but that acreage is declining in quality where the land is managed poorly and over the long run some of it is vulnerable to cultivation, depending on the inverse pricing between grain and cattle markets. As much as 2 million acres of native prairie in Saskatchewan that no one thought would ever be ploughed was destroyed and turned into cropland between 1976 and 1981.
As I read the letter I thought about some things I had seen and heard both in Edmonton and in North Battleford in the past week. In Edmonton, where I was participating in a literary festival (the only all non-fiction festival in Canada), I got to attend the launch of a new book by my friend and mentor, Myrna Kostash. In The Frog Lake Reader, Myrna gathers together historic documents, fragments of private journals, excerpts of fiction, and first hand reports of the events around the only mass hanging on Canadian soil. In 1885, a band of young Cree warriors went to demand food from an obstinate Indian agent at Frog Lake settlement and ended up killing nine settlers. Later that year, Wandering Spirit, Big Bear’s son, Imasees, and six others were tried and hung for what has come to be known as the “Frog Lake Massacre.”
At the reading, Myrna gave a vivid account of what it was like to come upon the monument and mass grave of the hung men tucked behind some bushes on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River, near Battleford. I was heading to Battlefords myself in the next few days to participate in “Inspired by the Land,” a multi-disciplinary show being launched at the Chapel Gallery. Along with other writers, artists, and First Nations elders, I was interviewed for its centrepiece, a video production (a sample here) with a prairie soundscape created by Charlie Fox. I performed a brief reading at the reception along with Sharon Butala. We all visited and delighted in the images, voices, and sounds that curator Dean Bauche and his staff had brilliantly assembled for the show, which is going to travel to other galleries after its run at home in North Battleford. At the end of the evening, I asked Dean if he could direct me to the grave site Myrna had described.
The next morning, I got up in the dark and with Dean’s map in hand, managed to find the grave just before sunrise. Both Myrna and Dean had said to scan around for the tipi that rests over the site. In the barest glimmer of pre-dawn, I swept my binoculars over the valley and there it was, 100 yards downhill from where I stood, just downstream from historic Fort Battleford, the silhouette of the naked tipi poles poking up from the willows and poplars on a broad shelf above the river.
Walking through the bush and standing before the granite monument, I thought of that moment in our history: the bison gone for a decade, Big Bear refusing to sign Treaty 6, his people hungry and desperate, the Indian Agent refusing to give them any food, and then Wandering Spirit and the others killing the agent and settlers when showing their guns was not enough to get him to change his mind.
Food. It was about food. Next year it will be the 125th anniversary of the events at Batoche and Frog Lake, and food is still an important way for the land to speak to us, ask us questions of what we will allow, and how we will live here. Still the great teacher and mediator in our engagement with the prairie.
The show at the gallery was sponsored by the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, and they paid for the chicken wings, vegetables and dip, sausage and other appetizers that we ate at the reception. We sat at round tables, indigenous and settler people together, some distance from those days when treaties were signed as a way of “extinguishing Indian title.” Today there is a growing awareness that, like it or not, we are all treaty people (see Roger Epp's new book of essays) and our treaties are about sharing title not transferring it from the first peoples to colonizers.
Unlike the legislation that gave the prairie over to my ancestors and thousands of other farmers, however, the full promise of the treaties has not yet been fulfilled. Can we go forward and feed ourselves from the bounty of this land without destroying the birds and other creatures who had co-existed with the bison hunters for millennia , and who have been suffering ever since we took title in abrogation of the spirit of those treaties? What would it take for us to begin to live in the spirit of the treaties, with reverence and respect guiding our every relationship, nation to nation, and people to land.
Miracles? Perhaps, but nature specializes in miracles when we let it lead the way. In this part of the world, that means taking our lead from the grass that has always known how to feed the prairie and its dwellers.
From a grave site overlooking the northern plains’ greatest river, with the bones of hungry warriors at my feet, I could not help thinking, “too late, 125 years too late”. Then came the words of an epitaph on another gravestone, resting above the remains of one of the prairie’s great souls: “Courage my friends. It is never too late to make a better world.”
Right about now I'm feeling very grateful and more than a little abashed at the nominations this book is getting. A couple weeks ago it was the Writers' Trust Non-fiction Prize shortlist and just yesterday the phone rang and it was Phyllis, my editor (who is terrfic and who I am still having a hard time believing I can call "my" editor).
"Congratulations again!" she said. (I knew it was the morning of the Governor General's Award shortlisting but was trying hard to not think about it.)
"No," I said.
"Yep, we just got back from the press conference."
From time to time I run into someone who is raising and finishing cattle entirely on grass. Often they are using non-native grass, which is still far better than finishing them on grain in a feedlot--better for birds and other wildlife and better for whoever ends up eating the beef. Last week, though, I met a Saskatchewan rancher whose cattle are raised and finished entirely on native grass.
I was at a Food Secure Saskatchewan conference in Moose Jaw where I had been invited to talk about the importance of grass in transforming prairie agriculture toward a healthier engagement with the land. After one of the afternoon workshops I wandered out to look at the book table and started talking to a man who had every sign of being a cowman. (Most of the other attendees were women, and many of them worked for NGOs and government.) He said his name was Ted Perrin. His land is on the north side of the South Saskatchewan River near Beechy. I must've said something about liking the prairie in that area, because the next thing Ted said was, "We can thank the Texans for it". He smiled, wondering if I knew what he was getting at. "You mean the Matador?" I asked. The Matador Ranch, once a vast holding in that area, was owned by Texans as part of their ranching operations all over the Americas, the Matador Land and Cattle Company. The pieces of it remaining in Saskatchewan include some of the northern Great Plains best examples of well-managed rangeland.
Ted said his ranch is called Castleland, named for the locally famous Sandcastle formation.
the Sandcastle near Beechy, Saskatchewan
From the Cypress Hills to the Frenchman River and Wood Mountain to the South Saskatchewan, you will meet people like Ted Perrin who not only graze their livestock on native grass but know and care about the grass and the other creatures who depend upon it. They know the cattle will come and go, but the grass abides. And they know that if they don't have enough grass for the wildlife on their land they probably won't have enough for their cattle. For the Perrins, though, there is an additional reason to conserve the grass. They finish their cattle on native grass, which means that there has to be enough grass left when the animals are in their last few weeks and getting near to slaughter. Others might be able to graze their pastures hard all summer and count on the feedlot to do the fattening, but when you are finishing them on grass, you have to leave enough in reserve to get them to condition for slaughter.
Recently, the Perrins hooked up with a new processing facility in Tugaske, West Bridgeford Meats, which offers customers an array of meat products and the capacity to trace every product to the producer and animal of origin. West Bridgeford has several grass-finished meat producers it works with and so you can request grass-finished or beef from a specific ranch such as the Perrins.
One of the identifying characteristics of men and women who have learned how to take care of native grass is a natural humility. Ted was open and affable but almost blushed when he admitted that a couple of years ago the Society for Range Management recognized him and his wife Olive for their example and long-term committment to the ideals of good range management.
This is a big deal in the world of grassland conservation so back at home I looked it up and found this story on Jean-Claud Harel's excellent blog about Saskatchewan people, landscapes, and culture. Here is a quote from Ted shortly after receiving the citation:
“I guess the award must have come for our rotational grazing on the summer range. We make six pastures instead of two, and we rotate the cattle around the six pastures all summer long. We try to graze each of them only once. That area is allowed to grow until June. It is all native pasture, mostly cool season grasses, but with a bit of warm season grass in there as well."
The grassland needs more people like Ted and Olive Perrin. It is hard to be grateful enough for the kind of leadership and example they offer, but one way to do it is to contact them directly or West Bridgeford Meats and order some Castleland steaks, roasts, and hamburger. For availability and pricing, call Olive Perrin at 306-859-4925.
Two articles about using native grasses for biofuels came my way recently. Both are worth reading. Here is one from an online journal, "Environmental Protection," where they refer to a new study documented in BioScience. The Nature Conservancy was involved with the study, which looked at the prevailing use of corn to make biofuels and its impact on grasslands and birds. The paper mentions the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands that are being lost now as producers are urged by corn and biofuel subsidies to grow corn on land that had recently been turned back into grass. Here is a quote from David Flaspohler, a researcher at the Michigan Technological University: "We are looking at trade-offs between producing a commodity for use as bioenergy and maintaining important ecosystem services such as soil fertility, water quality, and wildlife habitat. It was by ignoring unintended consequences that we've now found ourselves highly dependent on a non-renewable fuel source (fossil fuels) that is contributing to climate change. With some foresight and with information on key trade-offs, I think we can make wiser decisions in the future."
The second article is from Scientific American's website and it looks specifically at the potential for switchgrass to be used in biofuel production. As they point out, if the grass is mowed in fall, the breeding birds (switchgrass supports 19 species of native grassland birds)will have raised their young and left.