Exploring Light’s Birthplace

Lorna Crozier visits Saskatchewan's big skies and boundless plains

photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

It’s a sweltering 33 degrees in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. The old glass thermometer outside the window of my mother’s house would’ve shattered.

Swift Current, the small city where I grew up, is only an hour and a half away, but there’s no one left for me to visit. My mother died eight years ago.

All the same, whenever I have a chance to return to the landscape of my birth—rolling grasslands and a low stretch of hills the clouds lean into—I jump at the chance. A traveller passing through this horizon-hinged terrain might call it empty, but it reveals its riches to anyone who looks with open eyes.

In the heat of the park, the ranger at the interpretive centre radios our guide every 20 minutes to ask if the six of us hikers, including my husband, Patrick, are okay. Hey, five of our group are prairie people (Patrick’s from B.C.); we’re tough.

Pounded by the sun, we’re hiking a three-hour loop in the park’s West Block, across the clay basin of what used to be the Bearpaw Sea.

Our destination is a hibernaculum, an eroded cliff where five snake species, including rattlers, sleep away the winter. In my pocket I’ve tucked a brochure about these slithery residents. The harmless bull snake, it says, resembles the rattler. You can tell these reptiles apart by looking closely at their eyes. The pupils of the bulls are round like a dog’s. A rattler’s are vertical like a cat’s.

Which one of us will volunteer to get close enough to note the difference? Turns out neither snake shows up—it’s August, after all, not October when they return to their dens. But this sere and beautiful park doesn’t disappoint.

 

Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan / photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan / photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

 

If you don’t see something at your feet—that is, if you’re not counting the 70 species of grass (spear, wheat, blue gramma, to name a few)—look up.

Along the coulee’s ridge a dark stream of creatures is moving fast. Not cattle, not horses, but something that thrills us to the bones—a herd of buffalo running along the horizon with the wind.

You don’t need a machine to time travel here. Where the scent of sage overpowers the smell of sweat, and wild buffalo river the grasslands—it’s 1,000 years ago. Later, on a rise, I stub my toe on a rock in one of the park’s 12,000 tipi rings.

The re-introduction of North America’s largest grazing animal is the park’s greatest success story. Eight years ago, 71 buffalo, properly called Plains Bison, were set free where they traditionally used to roam. Now, they number over 400.

Our guide, who grew up on a nearby ranch, explains how these animals enrich the ecosystem. “Its manure,” she says, “does more than fertilize.” The endangered Burrowing Owl drags a chunk of it into its hole to attract insects. An added bonus: the smell scares predators away.

I didn’t expect to see this rare and inventive owl, but the next day, it runs and then hops ahead of me on the trail to the highest butte. Small bird on a pogo-stick, it disappears before I reach the top where the sky whirls all around me.

 

Grasslands National Park / photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

Grasslands National Park / photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

 

This has to be light’s birthplace. The sky is bigger than anywhere else and more inviting. There’s nothing to compete: no tall forests to block out the sun, no mountains casting shadows.

Here, when the world began, there was room enough for light to push through the darkness and thrive.

This openness above our heads and all around us affects other aspects of the Grasslands. Is this the only national park that encourages visitors to wander off the trails? We walk where we please, including through one of the colonies of prairie dogs that exist nowhere else in Canada.

Fat-bummed gophers on steroids, they chirp to warn their kin, standing upright on burrows that rise from the flatlands like small volcanoes burping dirt. They’re curious and fearless yet they pop underground when the prodigal buffalo shoulder their way into town.

It’s a good thing the rodents vanish. One morning from our car we watch dozens of buffalo fall to their sides as if a wind knocked them flat. Rolling on top of the burrows, they sweep their huge heads like muscled mops to raise the dust.

Before and after our hikes, we take refuge in The Crossing Resort, a beautifully designed, big-windowed B&B right on the border of the park. It’s run by a retired librarian and his wife. I imagine him saying “Shhhh,” and every human noise disappears.

The park is a sanctuary of silence, one of the last on the planet. Under the wind, under our heartbeats, we hear the earth breathing.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t other sounds, it’s just that they’re not man-made. Dawn begins with meadowlarks gargling the light, then vesper sparrows, robins, pipits, red-winged blackbirds and swallows chattering as they swoop above the water-filled dugout below our deck.

The park’s also a dark-sky preserve but while we’re here, a Strong Moon, as golden-orange as a mango, hides the sharpness of the stars. We don’t complain. Seven nighthawks dip from the sky into the water for a drink.

 

Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan / Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan / Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

 

I swing between elation and sadness. As much as I love my current home in Sidney, B.C., this starkly beautiful land and sky strike every note of homesickness resonant inside me.

On what used to be my maternal grandparents’ farm, a half-hour drive from Swift Current, a granite erratic sits tall in the pasture, its edges polished by thousands of buffalo scratching their backs. My mother as a child slid down its slope every time she was sent to get the cows. When I was a kid, she’d lift me up so I could run my fingers over its glassy rim.

On our last day in the park, we stop at a huge boulder hunched in the grass. It, too, has been buffed by woolly backs for hundreds of years. Now, the new kids on the plains use it for the same reason.

I stroke strands of buffalo hair caught on the lichen and follow the fresh tracks deepening the wallow around it. If stones can feel, if they can remember, this rubbing stone must be thrilled. Finally, the ancient ones have come home.

Just outside the park’s boundary, I pick some sage leaves and stuff them in the pocket of my backpack. When I’m home on Vancouver Island and we walk along the ocean, I’ll rub them between my fingers and inhale the scent of Saskatchewan—then both places I love will be with me.

 

 

*Editor’s note: Many thanks to Lorna Crozier—author of A Poet in The Great Rainforest and Sidney, B.C. by the Salish Sea—for this story, to Tourism Saskatchewan for supporting Lorna’s visit and to photographer Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on Instagram (worth a follow if you ask us!) for her images.

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  1. Lynn Foster commented:

    The only thing better is to ride the East and West block….to see this land from the back of a horse and come upon the teepee rings and coulees and think about the people, animals and that this land has remained almost pure for a millennia is over whelming….next time try it on horseback – you can get further and the connection to the experience is way more intense….love the Grasslands.

    Reply

    • lorna crozier commented:

      Hi, Lynn. I’d love to go on horseback between the two blocks. Is there a chance to do that? Do the ranchers let you through?
      Best,
      Lorna

      Reply

  2. Colleen Brynn commented:

    Oh this is such a beautifully written piece about the prairies. I am from Manitoba, and I often encounter people who do not understand the beauty of this part of the world, and that’s a crying shame. Everyone should read your words!
    And how thrilling it must have been to see a burrowing owl!

    Reply

    • lorna crozier commented:

      Hi, Colleen. Thanks for leaving a comment.The grasslands is a great place for bird watching. I saw not only the burrowing owl, which I didn’t expect to see, but also a short-eared owl, pale as the weathered wooden fence post it sat upon. It was a thrill to see it pull the air into its wings and soar over the yellow grass. The great-horned also hangs out in the park but we missed seeing it this trip. A lot of visitors had noted seeing two adults with their chicks in a big nest near one of the trails.

      Reply

    • lorna crozier commented:

      Hi, Don. Great to hear from you. When we lose people we also lose a landscape, don’t we, so that homesickness becomes a longing not only for a physical place, its sounds, its smells, its sights, but also for the people we can’t drop in on any more.

      Reply

  3. Luba Lyons commented:

    Such magical images. A granite erratic? I must find out more about these! So lovely to think about the buffalo coming home again.

    Reply

  4. Richard Osler commented:

    To be so linked to a place. Lorna, your attachment to your Prarie geography provides such a lens for us to see that landscape as if for the first time. And to know that in this park it is not ghosts that roam and haunt these grasslands
    now but the descendants of the buffalos that ran free here more than one hundred years ago. Thank you for bringing the rich diversity of this place into such focus – smells, sights and sounds.

    Reply

  5. Rhonda G. commented:

    How easy it is to learn about a place when the educational bits are surrounded with such beautiful writing. My favourite image is of buffalo rubbing their backs on ancient boulders. The first photo has inspired me to look for more photos of the grasslands. Thank you

    Reply

  6. Jane Munro commented:

    Beautiful, Lorna! I want to go there and hike that three hour loop, see the plains bison silhouetted along a coulee ridge, smile at the prairie dogs, listen to the silence, and crane my neck back to scan the stars at night. Thank you!

    Reply

  7. Laura Apol commented:

    As a daughter of the Plains further south, I find there’s much that crosses borders of every sort in this meditation. I love that themes of birth and leaving and return are not just about the light, or the buffalo, but also about the writer herself—and that they extend to any of us who have left big skies and open places, but still carry them in our hearts. Thank you, Lorna, for taking me on this journey back home. It’s lovely–

    Reply

    • lorna crozier commented:

      Hi, Donna. The hills of the grasslands and butted against the long stretches of undulating prairie remind me of your homeland, too, the great Peace River Valley. May they both survive human interference.

      Reply

  8. Renee Woodsend commented:

    This is such a lovely piece – just as we’ve grown to expect from our wonderful poet, Lorna Crozier. The birthplace of light indeed! What a celebration of space and diversity, complexity and simplicity – with no “city” in view!

    Reply

  9. jane johnston commented:

    You are an exquisite voice of the earth Lorna. Your prairie-informed spell casting is powerful — I was conjured right into the grasslands alongside you, enchanted and blessed.

    Reply

  10. George Webber commented:

    Hey Lorna:

    I’ve spent many years photographing the Canadian prairies. They never fail to soothe and enchant me. Thank you for this wonderful piece. I was instantly transported me back to the austere, reticent beauty of the place.

    Reply

  11. Barbara Pelman commented:

    Thank you, Lorna, for such evocation of the grasslands. As a West Coaster, I have been afraid of ‘all that space’, but you have brought it to such beautiful life: meadowlarks gargling light! Yes, and the light pushing through the darkness. Love these!

    Reply

  12. wendy morton commented:

    In this lovely poem of praise to the Grasslands National Park, Lorna Crozier urges us to look up, to watch the light, the wild buffalo, the meadowlarks. This quiet place where the air smells of sage.

    Reply

  13. Carl Tracie commented:

    Reading this wonderful piece “strike(s every note of homesickness resonant inside me.” Thanks, Lorna, for your always-evocative full-colour images.

    Reply

  14. Susan Stenson commented:

    In the great tradition of wilderness writing, thanks to Lorna and to Wendy for bringing these words and this gorgeous park to my attention. I love Saskatchewan and this park is close to Eastend where I have spent many hours wandering by the edge of the creek.

    Reply

  15. Patrick Lane commented:

    Lorna says the five people on the hike are tough because they’re disorienting people, but I was there, an old BC Interior guy! I climbed to the top of the butte above the snake hibernacula. Hey, I’m tough too! Mind you, I needed help to get down.

    Reply

    • Sandra Campbell commented:

      Thanks Lorna for lifting me out of concrete and glass and taking me to the light, to the sky and to earth and all its creatures.
      I love the prairie– your words make it palpable. xx

      Reply

  16. Judy LeBlanc commented:

    Thank-you, Lorna for bringing me back to those too few magical days I once spent at Leaning Tree guest ranch near Leader, Sask. “The birthplace of light,” precisely. Though I’ll always be a west coaster, I am drawn to that light, that endless landscape — so calming. Someday I’ll make it to the Grasslands National Park, and I am happy to learn about the return of the buffalo!

    Reply

    • lorna crozier commented:

      Hi, Judy. One of the things I love is what the names of places show you about the flora and fauna.Where you and I now live on the Coast with the rainforest’s magnificent cedars and firs and spruce, it’s unlikely that a trail or a resort would be named after a single tree, like the Leaning Tree Guest Ranch where you stayed.It was probably one of the few trees in sight. In the Grasslands Park, you’ll find One Tree Trail, and sure enough, there’s one single, not very big tree that marks the start of the trail. In spite of its modest size, you can see it from miles away.

      Reply

  17. Rachel Rose commented:

    I loved this piece, Lorna. Wonderful that the buffalo have been reintroduced (“the ancient ones have come home” as you say) and that you got to see Prairie Dogs. Thank you.

    Reply

  18. Ann Graham Walker commented:

    Resonant match, Lorna, between your richly evocative words and Lori’s painterly images – those incredible grasslands and skies that look like something created by Monet. Loved this article – and knowing that the buffalo are back. Thank you for taking us there.

    Reply

  19. Tina Biello commented:

    It takes a poet’s eye to catch the beauty of such a place. ‘Syllables of seeds catch in her socks’. Thank-you Lorna, this place was recently described to me as a place to put on my bucket list. It surely is now.

    Reply

  20. Marvin Dehnke commented:

    I am from Alberta. Saskatchewan has a lot of real nice camp sites. From Meadow Lake north, it is all trees and lakes. The land is not FLAT at all.

    Reply

    • lorna crozier commented:

      Hi, Marvin. You’re right. And let’s not forget the Cypress Hills, which aren’t that far West of the Grasslands. I think the Cypress Hills are the highest point in Canada east of the Rockies. When you visit there, you can also drop into Fort Walsh, the old NWMP post and later in the day drive to the dinosaur museum in Eastend. The southern part of Saskatchewan is bountiful with historic sites and natural beauty.And it’s not crowded!

      Reply

  21. Robert Currie commented:

    Hi,Lorna,
    It’s great to know that you sometimes still get home to Saskatchewan. Those roots are deep. Thanks for writing about it so well.

    Reply

  22. Claudine Potvin commented:

    What could I add to these wonderful comments? I agree with all of them. I can only say that, being from Quebec, only your words can make me see and feel the prairie land as if I was there. It is indeed a beautiful piece and all the time I was reading, I wished I was there (above all with you, your voice, your eyes).

    Reply

  23. Joanne Flemng commented:

    Beautifully written! A prairie girl, I love the natural grasslands here. Your writing will help others appreciate this place as they smell the sage. . .

    Reply

  24. Steven Price commented:

    Wow. Beautiful. Or as you write elsewhere, “The day is small but it begins with so much/beauty, I am poured out like water.” Thanks for this, Lorna – a lovely essay to wake up to, in late October.

    Reply

  25. stephen t berg commented:

    As a boy, growing up on a farm on the Saskatchewan prairies, I would stop the Case tractor–with it’s wide span of harrows that took down those small volcanoes–wander over to the tall grass along the side of the field, lie down on my back and fall straight up into the sky. The light let me. Thank you, Lorna, for reigniting this memory.

    Reply

  26. Liz McNally commented:

    Lorna,

    As a new immigrant from Britain arriving first in Ontario, I was mesmerized by the “big sky” I found there. Roaming an aunt’s farm in Marysville was as much freedom as I had ever experienced in my young life. Dust seen miles off, down a thin ribbon of dirt road let us know the mail was soon to arrive. I had never imagined such distances existed.

    I thought it the most expansive I would ever feel; until I stood on the prairie and truly breathed for perhaps the first time in my life.

    Your article brings all of that and more back to me. It is indeed, as you say so beautifully, “light’s birthplace.”

    Thank you as always Lorna, for taking us on your journey.

    Liz McNally

    Reply

  27. Valerie Tenning commented:

    I’ve never seen the prairies but your imagery is so perfect I feel as though I’ve seen these grasslands many times before. What a most amazing place.

    Reply

  28. Sneha Madhavan-Reese commented:

    Thank you for this amazing portrait of Grasslands National Park, Lorna! Your words are so evocative. I’m adding Grasslands to my list of places to explore someday. I would love to know light’s birthplace for myself.

    Reply

  29. Lynn Eyton commented:

    Dear Lorrna – it was as if I were there with you … one can see, hear and smell all of it ! Love the way you express yourself – loving , nostalgic, realistic and with humour .. thank you for experiencing these things in your life and for having the talent to make them alive for those of us lucky enough to read them …. will pass your article on .. thanks , Lynn

    Reply

  30. Susan Alexander commented:

    Oh – marvellous!
    I am stunned by the beauty of the landscape you describe from the immensity of sky and wide open earth to the smallest details — the species of grasses, the buffalo hair, the prairie dogs. So stark and silent yet so rich.
    Lorna, your wild love shines through and draws me in.
    Thank you so much.

    Reply

  31. Lois Claxton commented:

    Lorna,
    Your lyrics and Lori’s images are exquisitely evocative. I’ve visited Grasslands once, but you make me want to return, with heightened sensibility.
    Lois Claxton

    Reply

  32. Chelsea C. commented:

    This is positively breathtaking, and takes me right back to moment I first visited the prairies. There are few things in this world more beautiful. I especially enjoyed the appearance of the burrowing owl 🙂

    Reply

  33. Hammerson Peters commented:

    “I stroke strands of buffalo hair caught on the lichen and follow the fresh tracks deepening the wallow around it. If stones can feel, if they can remember, this rubbing stone must be thrilled. Finally, the ancient ones have come home.” Sent shivers down my spine. I had no idea they’d reintroduced the Kings of the Prairie to their old domain. You’ve convinced me to get my a** out to Grasslands National Park come summertime.

    Reply

  34. Barb W commented:

    Oh my such wonderful words for a beautiful magical place. I heard an interview on the MotherCorp this morning from Toque and Canoe…my introduction to your wonderful prose. I am a fan of your poetry as spoken word on The Road Home.
    Although I love the mountains , I love the Prairie and big open sky more. I need to make a pilgrimage east in the Spring now ….I cannot wait to see it now with my own eyes.
    Thank you.

    Reply

  35. Marsha Schuld commented:

    Thank you, Lorna, for every word you have written over the years about this eternal place. It is in the heart, the breath as well as one’s eyes, ears and nose! I paint and stitch my feelings of this same place and it never fails to inspire.

    Reply

  36. LindaM commented:

    This piece of writing ensured we went back to Grasslands this summer after our first trip several years ago.

    It was surreal.

    We arrived after other campers had made their supper. The Richardson’s ground squirrels chittered and chased each other. Jackrabbits hopped impossibly on their long, gangly legs. The wind was blowing about 50 Km/hr, so we rushed to put up our low tent and get our dinner.

    By this time, the sky was a blue bowl resting on the rolling hills surrounding the campground. The sun dipped below the hills and that blue bowl turned orange. People sat in the lee of their vehicles or tents and were so quiet. Even those who came by to speak with us actually whispered.

    A pack of coyotes just over the ridge began to howl, answered by another not far away. I swear I saw all the other campers grinning. Usually, I have a camera in hand, snapping photos. This time, I just used my eyes to take it all in. I didn’t want to miss a moment.

    I’ve passed this piece on to many people. The line that got me was “we hear the earth breathing”.

    Powerful, evocative, magical. Thank you.

    Reply

  37. Jillian commented:

    What a lovely ode to the prairies! As a Manitoban, I have no shortage of prairie to explore, but this has seduced me to travel to Grasslands National Park. I’m looking forward to that surreal affect of the big skies.

    Reply

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