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Reporter’s Notebook: The landscape makes its mark

People and culture are influenced by the environment more than we realize

There are two eyes in the head — the eye of mystery, and the eye of harsh truth — the hidden and the open — the woods eye and the prairie eye. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity, and darkness. The prairie eye looks for usefulness and plainness in art and architecture; the woods eye for the baroque and ornamental. Dark old brownstones on Summit Avenue were created by a woods eye; the square white farmhouse and red barn are prairie eye’s work. (From The Music of Failure by Bill Holm).

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Reporter. Taking notes. Media interview.

Do you see the world through a prairie eye or woods eye? They are different, but one isn’t better than the other, Holm wrote. And while we all have both, one tends to be dominant, he added.

I stumbled across this quote in October while working on a presentation for the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild. The Guild had invited me to a panel on travel writing, and a chunk of my presentation was focused on how to write about place.

I don’t think of myself as a travel writer, but I do travel sometimes to find stories. Whether it’s within the province or outside the country, the landscape often comes into those stories in some way. I also like to think about people’s relationship with the land, how it affects culture and individuals, and how we affect it, whether I’ve been to that place or not.

And although I grew up in the bush, I rely on my prairie eye more than my woods eye, I think.

Most writers pay attention to setting, but it’s especially appropriate in agriculture. It’s interesting to know that early farmers in Australia built fences and houses out of bluestone, a volcanic rock. Or that the soil around Cumberland House, in northern Saskatchewan, is “conducive to growing anything,” according to Murray Gray, a commercial greenhouse operator and community organizer I interviewed for Country Guide.

This fall, I shared a table with fellow writer Billi J. Miller at the Bonnyville Fall Fair and Farmers’ Market, where we sold our books. Billi and I had a good view of the gymkhana competition in the arena.

One of the competing teams was Evie Carter, and her appaloosa Blue Jeans. I had a leopard-spotted Appaloosa as a kid, and I still have a soft spot for these horses.

The Appaloosa breed is a good example of that interaction between environment and culture. There’s a little debate about how and when the Appaloosa’s ancestors came to North America, but most believe they were introduced by the Spanish. Once they spread to the northwest, the Nez Perce started selectively breeding them.

The horses changed their culture. They could travel to the plains to hunt bison. They moved around a lot more, giving up their houses for tipis, and packing light. Horses also enabled trade and allowed the Nez Perce to build wealth.

The landscape also made its mark on the horses, as the Nez Perce selected animals suited to the environment. They favoured horses with good feet and legs. Many of the horses had a running walk that was very comfortable for the rider and easy on the horse (this isn’t as common in today’s Appaloosa, in case you’re wondering). At one time, people called these horses a Palouse horse, named after the river that runs through Idaho. That name morphed into Appaloosa.

I’m not sure how much today’s Appaloosa resembles the original Nez Perce horses. Some of them look pretty Quarter-Horsey to me (that’s not a knock against Quarter Horses — I own a few). The Nez Perce lost most of their horses after they surrendered to the U.S. Army in Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains in the late 19th Century. But the breed does retain a few unique characteristics, including their coat colours.

If you wanted, you could go through the same kind of analysis with the Quarter Horse, developed to work cattle and sprint the rough quarter-mile tracks in the U.S. Or any number of livestock breeds, for that matter. Or architecture. Or fencing systems (I saw some very photogenic hardwood fence posts in New South Wales).

With the rapid changes in technology these days, it’s good to remember that there is a world beyond our smart phones. To look up from our screens and see what’s right in front of us.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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