Seeds, Roots, and Local Knowledge on the Prairies

The prairie landscape, from the CHESS bus (photo by author)

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles on the 2018 Canadian History and Environment Summer Symposium. The symposium was held in Saskatchewan in early June and focused on the theme of “Prairie and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century.”

The theme of this year’s Canadian History and Environment Summer Symposium was “Prairie Landscapes and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century.” Our field trips and conversations definitely focused on environmental changes on the prairies, but I was particularly struck by the warm welcome our group received throughout Saskatchewan by people with deep local knowledge and a profound sense of place. Our CHESS organizers and guides invited us to discover the stories of the Prairies and the lives lived there, while also sharing unique personal insights. As researchers we are too often confined to the archives or the library and it can be easy to lose track of those who know places intimately. CHESS 2018 reinforced, for me, how deeply our learning and experiences are enriched when we connect with them.

Doukhobor Prayer Home, Blaine Lake

Even before we reached Blaine Lake and the Doukhobor Prayer Home, my experience of the prairie landscape had already been enhanced by local knowledge. As I wondered aloud about the rows of interesting trees between crops and fields, a new friend on the bus explained the importance of shelterbelts to mitigate the effects of harsh wind and snow on crops, buildings, and animals on the Prairies. He also introduced me to different tree species – ash, larch, trembling aspen – that make up different rows the shelterbelts found on the prairie parklands. For an eastern Canadian, mostly urban dweller, these thoughtfully planned elements of a landscape were ones I hadn’t considered.

On the hour-long drive between Saskatoon and Blaine Lake, we heard from local historian John Kalmakoff, as well as from Dr. Ashleigh Androsoff, who introduced us to the Riverlands Heritage Preservation Region and the histories of Doukhobor settlers there. Both shared stories of their own connections with the community before we reached the Prayer Home, where we gathered for the two keynote addresses, talks and beautiful songs from the Doukhobor choir.

Part of dessert served at the Doukhobor Prayer Home in Blaine Lake (photo by author)

As Dr. David Moon demonstrated in his keynote talk, “local” species are not always indigenous to an area, but are adapted and incorporated into a local world. Sometimes, farmers imported seeds to make the landscape feel more familiar, revealing transnational environmental links. Over lunch, we feasted on the spoils of the prairie landscape, and their starring roles in Doukhobor cuisine – especially the Saskatoon berry pirozhki and rhubarb tarts.

The Seager Wheeler Farm, Rosthern

At the Seager Wheeler Farm, Kesia Kvill introduced several of us to the curious caragana shelterbelt trees I’d spotted from the bus, familiar to those who had grown up or lived on the Prairies. As she writes in her reflection, these trees are legumes, helpful to farmers both for the protection they offer from strong prairie winds, and for their ability to fix soils with nitrogen. And those of us visiting the Prairies learned another secret of its landscape – the caragana’s edible yellow flowers taste like green peas!

Caragana flowers (photo by author)

We explored the farm with local historian Larry Epp, who also spoke about his own embeddedness in the landscape and culture. Epp began with an introduction to Seager Wheeler, the farmer who explored plant breeding and achieved great success in his selective breeding of spring wheats, particularly Marquis wheat. This history was coloured by Epp’s stories about the neighbours who wondered how Wheeler could survive the harsh winters when he spent the growing season experimenting with small plots, instead of cultivating crops for market!

The Seager Wheeler Farm (photo by author)

Gabriel’s Crossing

Later that evening, our group was welcomed at Gabriel’s Crossing, near Batoche, an historic site and vital gathering place for members of the Métis Nation. We learned from Métis elders and community members, including University of Saskatchewan History PhD candidate Cheryl Troupe, about the kinship networks and profound local knowledge systems that have enabled resistance and resilience throughout their history. From the stories told around the fire, to the fiddle music and jig steps we learned, our group was generously invited to share in the unique way of knowing the land of those whose home it has been for so long.

At Gabriel’s Crossing, on the road to the ferry landing (photo by author)

Attending and reflecting on CHESS this year taught me about ways in which imperial networks of science, technological innovations, and the often-invisible labour of women in the agricultural and domestic spheres shaped and were shaped by the prairie landscape. My experience was also enriched by the local insights and complex relationships of our guides with the places we visited. It was an important reminder that while we can certainly glean a sense of somewhere reading monographs or exploring the archives, there is no substitute for learning from the unique understanding of a place by those who live, work, and play there.

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Cristina is an Ph.D. Student in History at York University. Her research project is a public environmental history of the changing Ottawa River from 1880 on. She completed her M.A. in Public History and Digital Humanities at Carleton University in spring 2019.

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