In 1996 Saskatchewan rancher Peter Butala and his wife, best-selling author Sharon, donated their family ranch to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, establishing the core of Old Man On His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area. Sharon Butala has written before, in The Perfection of the Morning (1994) and Wild Stone Heart (2000), about OMB’s 13,000 acres of almost untouched grassland and the deep spiritual meaning it has for her. Award-winning photographer Courtney Milne is a similarly passionate advocate for wilderness preservation. Now they have joined together to
produce Old Man On His Back: Portrait of a Prairie Landscape, a tribute to a unique place preserved for all time.
For most of the year the hills are a pale gold, varying to tones of buff, cream, beige, and copper, and at sunrise and sunset, tinted shades of rose and gold, or mauve and a luminescent blue. In dull winter light they’re coated with silver, and on sunny days they gleam a polished white that, as night descends, turns to indigo and purple. In spring, those same fields and hills are the palest blues and greens, and
shimmer gently in the rising heat, the skyline a gently wavering band of blue-green light that invites the traveller to walk to it, and on into some other world of perfect peace and beauty. Such is the OMB: a place where the human soul may find both its roots and renewal.
I came into this place in 1976—I like to say that I came into the landscape to live—when I was already in my mid-30s. I came as a new bride into a world about which I knew virtually nothing, and into a landscape I had not even known existed in Saskatchewan, despite my having lived nearly all my life here. I think now, although I’d never have admitted it then, nor for years afterward, that I married this stunning landscape as much as I married Peter. To live in such beauty seemed to me nothing short of a gift from God.
I hadn’t bargained for the difficulties of an urban, single-parent academic marrying into rural agricultural life. I often felt that people were speaking another language— although they all spoke English—and for years I could not even get a grip on how to be a person, a woman, in this strange environment. I lost my footing then; I fell into confusion; as the years passed I sometimes hovered on the brink of despair. I had thought that I would live in beauty. I had not conceived of what that beauty consisted beyond endless vistas of grassy hills, a sky so vast that early setders—women— sometimes went mad and ran from it until their lungs burst and they died.
I, who couldn’t remember dreaming at all, began to have vivid, beautiful dreams. I believe that happened because every night as I went to the outdoor toilet I
walked under a sky brilliant with stars, the very history of the universe riding on my shoulders, because the presence of the moon and her monthly passage had become part of my life. The lives of birds and animals began to fit in for me with the seasons, and I began to get a sense of the way the chain of life operated. Most miraculously of all, I could understand my womanhood in the light of the rhythms of nature, as part of nature.
I began to see that behind daily or seasonal vicissitudes nature was entirely serene. I began to see it as omnipresent, as all-powerful, and we humans, with our sense of control, as puny, arrogant, and in the face of it, and despite our delusions of might, essentially helpless.
I have been taught enough to understand that there are reasons that far outweigh the
gathering of wealth that require humans to preserve in an undisturbed state places like OMB. Wilderness, it turns out, is an absolute value in itself. It is our last connection with creation and, as such, contains all possibilities for life. We human beings know in our bones and our blood that we need it, that it contributes to our happiness, to our sense of belonging on this earth. Perhaps most important of all, its existence reminds us of our spiritual nature, of what it is to be human, of where we have come from and where we are going when we die. In such a sense, land is holy; it is sacred. And it belongs to all of us. EH]
Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Copyright 2002 the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
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