The “geography” in question is the Cypress Hills, a broken rise of land that straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan
border, just north of Havre, Montana. The country is a complete knockout for anyone who enjoys the romance of
the Earth’s history or who is susceptible to the wild, windblown beauty of natural prairie. I was head over heels in
an instant and knew I’d have a story to tell.
Right. I like to think that my other books are personal or political in their own way. But this is the first time I’ve
written myself into the story as a character and a first-person presence. I really enjoyed it.
Yes, Eastend, Saskatchewan, is nestled in a beautiful valley at the southeastern tip of the Cypress Hills. Speck
though it is – population 600 and slowly declining – it has earned a place on the cultural map of North America as
the boyhood home of the late, great American writer Wallace Stegner. The Stegners left town in the early 1920s,
but their home is still there, managed by the local Arts Council as an artists’ residence. That’s what brought us to
town in the first place, me and my partner, Keith. At the time, I certainly didn’t anticipate that Wallace Stegner
would be a companion through the early stages of my explorations or that I would end up daring to spar with him.
It all began as a kind of busman’s holiday. We dropped into the Stegner House on a reconnaissance trip for a
book I was working on at the time, Prairie: a Natural History. That was back in 2000. We were just hanging out –
sightseeing -- taking in the mysterious, sculpted landforms of the Frenchman Valley and getting caught in eddies of
silence and nostalgia. We didn’t realize at the time that the place had hooked us, though we did know that
something odd was going on. From the beginning, we had a weird sense that we were there for a reason, though
what reason could there be? We ended up coming back the following year, by accident it seemed, noticing a For
Sale sign and buying a house. And so it all began.
Well, I have to admit that it was a rather one-sided conversation, since Mr. Stegner has been dead now for more
than twenty years! What I found in his writings was a classic--you could even say canonical--account of western
settlement. Nobody from Stegner’s generation recounted that history with more passion or grace than he did in
Wolf Willow, his reflection on his own Eastend years. I’m the descendant of generations of prairie “pioneers”
myself, so I have a very personal stake in that history. In the end, the standard framing of the settlement story, as
presented by Stegner and others, left me feeling troubled. Actually, make that mad.
No, I wouldn’t say that. When Stegner returned to Eastend, or Whitemud as he called it, to reflect on his own
youth, he ended up reconsidering the entire process of western settlement. To my surprise, that is also what I
found myself required to do. But the impetus didn’t come from Stegner. As much as anything, it seemed to come
from the land. It was as if the land itself was my teacher.
I know that probably sounds hokey, but that’s how it felt. The geologists tell us that the Cypress Hills are an
“erosional remnant” of a landscape that once covered the entire plains. That landscape is gone from the rest of
the country, eroded away. This means that the Cypress Hills are a repository of memory. Both literally and
figuratively, they remember ancient life forms and long-buried events that have been forgotten everywhere else.
The land has a lot to teach us if we listen to it.
When people ask me about this book, I often say that it’s about what I was required to learn by going back to the
Cypress Hills over and over again. Although I spent a lot of time in the library and pouring over old documents, that
research merely served to fill in the gaps. I tried to tell the story as I had learned it, rooted in the land, with every
chapter situated very clearly in a precise location.
An “unconformity” is a disjunction in the geological record. It is a place where sediments representing hundreds or
thousands of years have been swept away by erosion, so that ancient deposits are overlain by much more recent
ones. To an unschooled eye, the deposits appear to tell a continuous story, but experts can tell that there is an
invisible gap—long periods of time that have been forgotten. As I was gazing at the steep, eroded hillsides along
the Ravenscrag Road, it occurred to me that there are similar unconformities in the way we choose to remember –
and selectively choose to forget -- more recent, human events.
As a kid growing up on the prairies in the 1950s and 1960s, I was raised on stories of the “pioneers,” a human
flood that included several generations of my own ancestors. Oxen, covered wagons, poke bonnets. The march of
There was scarcely a word about the natural productivity of the buffalo prairie –an entire ecosystem reduced to
ruins -- or about the civilizations that had flourished here for thousands of years before the settlement era, which
were sidelined and displaced. The hills forced me to accept that these losses were part and parcel of the
settlement story, part of my heritage as a prairie person.
What are we to think of Canadian authorities who, in the 1880s, deliberately withheld food from starving people in
order to force them across the border (in the case of the Sitting Bull refugees) or onto reserves (as happened to
signatories of Treaties)? What are we to think of ourselves if we refuse to own and honour the painful aspects of
our own collective experience?
First, I need to say that I am not the first person to tell this story. First Nations and Métis people have always
known and remembered what happened, and scholars have been studying and documenting these events since
the 1970s. Still, the nastier bits of settlement history haven’t exactly become household knowledge! These
memories make us ashamed, angry, bewildered, regretful, curious, eager to understand. I know I felt all those
I’m very happy to hear you say that! Obviously, the story doesn’t end in the nineteenth century. Even though many
things were broken in the still-quite-recent past—even though we continue to lose species and to suffer the effects
of social trauma – the grasslands still inspire us with their beauty and the First Nations people to whom I turned for
help were deeply connected with their ancestors and generous to a newcomer in their midst. As I say in the book,
this is a story that has to be marked To Be Continued.
I’m almost embarrassed to tell you. It’s been on my mind since that first visit to Eastend – that’s eleven or twelve
years ago. Since 2006, I’ve worked on it pretty much full time. It’s not a long or complex book but it took a lot of
time and effort to get the facts straight and to figure out what I needed to say. I’ve loved every minute of it – it’s
been immensely rewarding.