“Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day”
-John A. Lomax
Journeying to Saskatoon, and then onward to Winnipeg for my seventh book tour, I was once again captivated by the expansiveness and immensity of the Canadian prairies. By definition, the natural prairies include the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, as they are partially covered by three primary grassland types: tall grass, mixed grass, and fescue prairie.
In 1892 when the Werner family in my trilogy arrived on the windswept Saskatchewan plains, they gazed upon the tall prairie grasses blowing in the breeze, under bright blue skies for as far as the eye could see. Today, 120 years later, were they to glance over the horizon they would see that all but a fraction of one percent of the tall grass prairie has been converted to the short stubble of cropland.
As I sped past the square miles of harvested fields, I began to notice that wherever I looked I saw remnants of our prairie farming history. All along the highway, left to languish by sagging fences, were rusty hay reapers, threshing machines, and steam-powered tractors. Much more apparent, though, were the never-ending deserted farmhouses, collapsed granaries, and barns breaking at their spines as they progress to their inevitable demise.
Each time I cross the Canadian prairie, I am sorely tempted to slow down, turn off the four-lane highway, and drive into an abandoned farmyard. So often I wonder if when I enter the vacant house, I might find all the furniture in place, the kettle boiling on the woodstove, and the table set for the family when they come in from their chores to enjoy the evening repast.
I was astonished to learn from a friend that there are now corporate farms in Saskatchewan that hold as many as 64 sections of land (which equates to over 40,000 acres). Gustav Werner, in his quest for prime farmland, would not comprehend the magnitude of such ownership; nor could he grasp that long gone were the cooperative spirits, building bees, and the community ties of his era.
I believe that the Canadian pioneers would find great irony in that there are so many homeless people eking out a miserable life in our urban centres while the self-built farmhouses of old are all becoming forsaken. Still, they would be more saddened that the limitless prairies now echo with the silence of near emptiness where only the coyote, deer, and antelope play.