Disconnect sits everywhere around here. It’s been around for awhile. Maybe it, or its potential has always been here. I’m not exactly sure how long, although, looking around the abandoned homes and yard sites, with barns slumped and front doors pushed in and ajar, I suspect the land began to empty itself out about fifty years ago. And that’s likely where it started.
The people left and the cities grew as collection points of promise for an upwardly mobile lifestyle, elevated above the dirt. And later, as the city continued to expand in breadth and sway, farmers markets began. People gather there, under white canopied tents to purchase carrots with their mother earth still grasping at their roots. They pause for a moment amidst the tomatoes and hanging braided garlic to gaze out at the horizon, to the lands that lay “out there”. These have become unfamiliar lands, land from which they can read no stories. They turn their eyes out of the city and onto the dirt once more, the unstoried landscape.
There is no ready language for them to read about leaves breaking out from winter twigs, or gathering cows for the spring muster out to pasture, a tractor broken down mid-field, or the slowing of a land settling in for winter stillness. The people would drive by these lands along yellow ribboned highways, shooting straight through, east to west, casting glances down drives and up to farmhouses, or to skim emerging wheat heads, blurred with their stereoscopic rows visible as black lines pointing out into the blue-green sea of plant biomass. All of these glances, and yet they remain oblivious to the rich stories cast here among rocks, and grass and trees and water, stretched from horizon to horizon. As they would drive, with their foot firmly affixed to the accelerator, they are wholly unable to tell which season it is or what the rural inhabitants sat at with their morning coffee, planning to fill their day, by the arrangement of machinery and animals in the yards and fields.
The people might not think about a hay wagon parked at an approach, the tractor with forks bouncing across the snowy field in the morning before the sun has come out from behind the cloak of cloud. The ground is still frozen, impervious to ruts, still steady under the grind of thick treaded tires going to row hay bales that are needed feed as spring has been slow and there are no thoughts yet of hooking up truck to trailer for that feedlot exodus to sugar rich, May grasses. They might not be thinking about weather forecasts, the upcoming -20 C, as welcome relief. The free lunch of an opportunity to move the last of these bales in the yard before the soil starts to slump under heavy wagon weights, flipping up grasses and alfalfa, exposing pale white, vital roots to be helplessly scraped dry by southern spring winds while blocky soil structure is crushed amid thousands of pounds of steel and dried, bundled grass ferrying across its surface.
And so it is, as the people begin to look out on the horizon, they notice activity there on that line but are not quite able to make out what is happening. They might be able to see something is afoot, by the dust billows behind tractors dragging seventy foot cultivators or by the infrequent person traversing hard scrabble hilltops or rich, loamy flats. But the character is lost, there is no plot to follow. The division widens. The disconnect between what is needed and what is grown and how they are each interpreted and valued becomes dishearteningly clear. The cities with their lack of horizon and stars begin to grumble about what’s being lost on the horizons. The story continues to fade.
And here, on the horizon, what is the happening? Here, in this place, these uplands are set to pour out their snow and rain as creeks charging forth for a very few, frenzied days. Soil will be stirred up, moving down the valleys to lakes and bigger rivers, taking nutrients and eons of dissolving mineral and decayed humic poplars and blue stem with them. Talk might shift for a short bit at coffee, around round tables set out in the rink, whether valley towns are set to flood out again or if the lake will turn as green as it did last year, by god, did it stink! Easy talk here in the higher reaches closer to parks, and the birthing places of these rivers that cut deep across downstream landscapes and lives.
In this place, the enthusiastic call for land continues as a few, and fewer still, brazen hands reach into the air and bid higher. The tempered bid has been lost. Nah, why cool it when you can reach over and chew your neighbour up, sit pretty on top of your hill until a bigger bull comes and pops you off your spot.
And with the scramble to scale up, sloughs and duck nests become too valuable, every acre must be scratched clean of trees, spouts etched down to the clay to let the water fall away, poplar knolls and willow bunches are knocked into angular piles. Because elevators, tractor companies, and chemical companies all come knocking for a greater share. Because no matter the price, there will be someone that will pay. Farmers who will tussle forth another dollar or another thousand dollars, who will let the itch for more land make them leverage every last quarter just to add another chunk to the dirt pile.
Land prices clamour ever upward, tightening tense bidding wars between neighbours versus neighbour versus incoming land corporations. And the resulting land, the alkali, steep, rocky whole, is pressed into producing harvests that can barely service the interest, never mind the principal. This is land that will be paid off in generations, not half lifespans of the seventies or the one-eighth lifespans of the fifties. No, instead it’s canola back to back to back to back. Perfectly redeemable crop rotations in the eyes of the coffee shop crowd is wheat, canola, wheat, canola. The long blue, sea-like June stretches of flax or clouds of buckwheat have been lost. The new story is wringing the land. Making it spit out every last dollar because every last dollar is needed. The land is made to suit the system. There is no way the system will bend now to mark the contours of the land, the sweet hollows offering respite to people and animals alike. A gentle tracing of the land, pencilling out the numbers, becomes hard lines drawn across its skin.
And then there is too the story that knows no quit. The one in the midst of all scraping. The wild stretches forth, between what was, is now and tries to see deep into what is to be. That line is strung with wildness, building upon itself, the land never quite done with itself. Geese swinging with the seasons, back and forth. Coyote, mangey or fully clothed, trotting in nonchalant pleasure across a pasture and always willing to bring more pups into the world than we can shoot out. All of them species, right down to the last tiny beetle scratching out its living in the rotten troughs of downed poplar are here, casting their fates upon the minerals and water splayed out, catching the sun and making all of it possible. No matter how we try to push her out for our own business, Mother Nature has a hand and she doesn’t always play fair. She knows what needs to be done and she will do it. Farming is not a game that can be played without her. Wild rules the game, sets the story in place and takes it on twists and turns we don’t want to lean into.
It’s been about fifteen years now since I’ve moved to this second home land. Only four hours by car from the flat, open clay where I grew up, where ditches were dug deep to compensate for the gradeless horizon. My sisters led the way up the escarpment, and the moment I turned toward here, I felt a pull as if some magnetic lodestone had settled deep in my belly to guide me up away from the flatlands. I heard myself say, home, and then didn’t have to will myself to stretch roots down.
For me, on our small piece, it’s easy to call it all a twisted mess. The stake I have in it isn’t very high when it all knocks down to dollars and cents and accumulated memories. I’ve only been here in this place for fifteen years. I’ve caught hints of the past but it’s not been my past or my families’ past. But for others here in our community, this whole new norm of business falls heavy on shoulders and consciences. Questions begin to nag; Is it worth the struggle and the stress? Does the game make sense any more when the rules seemingly become scams and bring nothing but an abiding unease that the whole community has changed. There is a sense that business is business and it’s really, honestly, nothing personal, just please, don’t get in the way of me building my bigger and better. And it’s easy to sit here, a ways back, watch what’s happening, not really understanding what’s happening and then proclaim judgements upon it all, the system and the people there working within that system. That’s an easy temptation, isn’t it?
But yet, there’s no understanding if all the hot air you put forth into this world is judgment. That’s no eye to eye, no looking beyond the broad declarations, the statistics, the damage done by systems to our very own personal being. Judgement creates the other. It hungers for the other to just be that, only that. A patsy, a shell, with no ache to be accounted for. The story doesn’t matter if there’s an other. Judgement needs no stories.
The story needs to matter. The story becomes the place and the place becomes the story. The land needs the stories and we need stories of the land. They become a language we can speak to one another, something beyond the staunch proclamation of failing on the other’s part. The spring winds lifting up the smell of mud, maple buds signalling full gallop sap runs, the brown grasses pierced by shoots of spring green. The people who tread this land. The eyes upon this land. We need that. All of it, all of this, all of us, here on the horizon and those of you looking at the horizon. It all becomes story for everyone.
These stories and the unstoried all end up here, spread out and cast about the land. We’re all tangled up. A mess of everything. The wild, the us, the them, it’s all the same story, different coloured strands that entwine themselves and tangle their ends, knots snagging on each other. Whether we like the story or not, it’s here, already laid out. Our way is your way is our way is the wild way. It becomes the same, is the same, despite how disparate the differences cast themselves as light and shadow, villian and hero. We can’t toss off the story or the people in them.
When the highway beings to sing under your tires, concrete shadows are at your back, the land stretches out before you and you have no choice but to wait until you get where you are going, look. Let something catch your eye. Let the land spill out with all of its tangled mess. You are here in the story, read it, know it, memorize it and bring it back home with you.