Man is an exclamation mark in an ocean of air. We are on the third prairie level, the shortgrass plain. To get here, you start in the black gumbo around Lake Winnipeg and the Dakotas, or in the Mississippi Valley. Next step is the Missouri breaks, a line of cliffs and badlands, through which you arrive in the breadbasket, the high grass prairie, fertile wheat and corn lands that stretch from Saskatchewan south to Nebraska. Just throw in the seeds and jump back. But the third level should never have been plowed. Low rainfall, buffalo grass (that curly grass like a bison's coat). Cattle country. Oil country. Country of cowboy boots, the ultimate deterrent to ordinary walking.
In town, the first thing you notice is the architecture. Stucco boxes. False fronts. Usefulness trumps beauty. (Exception: 90-year old clapboard houses, prefabs shipped in on the railway when lumber was cheap. Pure arts & crafts style, humble and well-proportioned, now surrounded by tall trees and gardens.) On main street: unmuffled pickup trucks, motorcycles, SUVs, ATVs, personal tractors, all the machines that you need to dominate the endless earth, the overarching sky, to protect yourself from wind and rain and cold. Wide clean avenues, parking lots the size of a quarter-section. Every place you go, you must drive. We're back in the 50s, when gas was going to last forever. It is an oilfull world, where God makes the good, wealthy. Pedestrians, natives and cyclists are immediately suspect. Treehuggers. Subversive, possibly criminal, sympathizers with that Nature which is still alien, unconquered, vaguely threatening.
Don't get me wrong, these are good people. They save for the future, say hello to strangers, care for their aged, go to church, volunteer. And how they volunteer! It's not the state, but neighbors that hold things together here. They have bake sales, fix up the parks, raise money for the hospital, send aid to the Third World. And they work hard at it. A life made up, less of belief, than of good habits.
But having to live like your parents is teenage hell. The only escape is booze at bush parties, doing wheelies in the grass or snow, drugs: cocaine, crystal meth, oxycontin, ecstasy, special K. And the oil boom pays for it all. And some die.
There are oases. Wherever water gleams, a little ecosystem. Birds, wildlife, fish, living at the mercy of the bulldozer.
There are a few who ask questions. A few who think that the invisible hand of the market is not the hand of God. Who talk to the natives. Who listen to the land. Who are thinking seven generations ahead. Who as I write this, are organizing house parties to discuss the tar sands. A few artists: Alex Janvier, with his visions of a chief's son; Joe Fafard, immortalizing cows and men in tractor caps. Poets, musicians. They are ignored until recognized somewhere else, in some big city.
Having lived on the prairies for almost 20 years, I started to write this about Alberta -- seen nostalgically and with new eyes -- of the exile returning. But aside from the land, the place (I suddenly realize) is almost any white North American suburb, writ large.