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Prairie memories: a Q&A with Canadian author Candace Savage

Candace Savage
candacesavage.ca
Candace Savage

We share many things with our Canadian friends. Some of the best: maple syrup, hockey, Niagara Falls, Waterton-Glacier Park, Neil Young and the great North American Prairie. Last weekend, Canadian writer Candace Savage crossed that rather arbitrary dividing line to talk about our shared prairie at the Rain Taxi Book Fair.

Savage has written more than 20 books about wildlife and wild places, including "Prairie: A Natural History," a fascinating guide to grasslands wildlife, natural history and post-settlement destruction, and her new book, "A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape," which blends memoir (both her own and that of another prairie writer, Wallace Stegner) and travelogue with an emotional examination of the natural and human history of a specific part of the Canadian prairie.

Many people see grasslands as a blank slate, a vast expanse of nothing. But Savage combines her keen naturalist’s eye with a vivid ability to imagine the prairie as a stage where great dramas played out across many eras. She’s fun to read:

I’ve been known to laugh out loud when a blotchy, whitish boulder resting in a field suddenly raises its head and fixes me with his dark eyes. That ain’t no rock, maam. That there’s an antelope. It’s enough to make you wonder what you’ve been smoking. The prairie’s hallucinatory powers seem to be the strongest when clouds settle low over the curve of the land, and the light is caught, shimmering, between earth and heaven.

And she’s fun to talk with, too.

MinnPost: Why is your book relevant for Minnesotans?

Candace Savage: "A Geography of Blood" focuses on a pinpoint location, a broken rise of land called the Cypress Hills that lies just north of the Montana border in back-of-beyond Saskatchewan. The area is special for many reasons: as a refuge for natural grassland and grassland species, as a repository of fossilized beasts, and as a deep archive of human artifacts. But what makes the hills especially relevant to Minnesotans is the story they have to tell about the westward push of settlement across North America. Because the hills were the last of the Last Best West to be settled, the history of western expansion is encapsulated into the span of a few decades and can be seen at a glance. It’s all there: the decimation of the buffalo ecosystem, the displacement of indigenous people, and the imposition of industrial agriculture. It’s a story that merits retelling and reconsidering in Minnesota or wherever we find ourselves.

At the moment, Minnesotans are reflecting on the Dakota War of 1862. "A Geography of Blood" enlarges the frame and puts those events in context. As you may know, some Dakota people, under Chief Whitecap, fled to Canada to escape that conflict and were eventually granted a reserve near Saskatoon, where I live. So that War has meaning here as well.

MP: We have a tiny bit of prairie here, but it's being converted into ethanol as fast as possible. What do you wish we would understand that would make us stop?

CS: Less than 1 percent of Minnesota’s native grassland has survived the assault of the last 100-plus years. Those fragments of prairie are rare, they’re beautiful and they’re living — the last best hope for prairie wildflowers, for wild bees and butterflies, and for the diminishing populations of grassland birds. Using arable land to produce fuel is wrong-headed, and plowing up natural prairie for that purpose ought to be a crime. In fact, I think that all of our surviving natural prairie should now be legally protected from harm.

MP: You write that the landscape is “filled with the sediment of our experiences.” What happens when we turn that landscape into corn, or oil sands?

CS: Then the land remembers us and what we’ve done to it.

In the Cypress Hills and elsewhere, millions of tipi rings and other mementos of ancient human presence have ended up in rock piles at the edges of fields.  I know that there were practical reasons for picking rocks, but I sometimes wonder if there might have been another benefit: Picking rocks erased the traces of previous residents and made it easier to maintain the myth that North America was a new world available for the taking.

MP: Is it particularly important for us to be thinking about prairies at this moment in history?

The attitudes and values that led to the slaughter of something in the order of 60,000,000 bison are still at work, all these years later.  The effects can be seen in the grim statistics about declining bird populations, particularly grassland birds. Things can change for the better, but they won’t until enough of us demand that the solutions, which are obvious — protect and restore grasslands — are implemented. NOW is always the time to be thinking about prairies and prairie conservation. 

MP: Wallace Stegner plays a surprising role in your own experiences in this book. [He lived for a time in Eastend, the town Savage lives in now, and set his book "Wolf Willow "there.] How important is Stegner to the Canadian literary imagination? Is he considered a Canadian writer there?

CS: Strangely — even though Wallace Stegner wrote with feeling about his formative years in the little town of Eastend — we haven't claimed him as Canadian. Curious, isn't it?  Despite his attachment to the Cypress Hills, he was very emphatic about his identity as an American writer and his engagement in American literature. Even though the 49th parallel crosses an unmarked landscape, separating same from same, it is nonetheless surprisingly powerful culturally. As you know, the “medicine” of the border is one of the themes of my book and you’ve seen it at work in history and politics.

MP: What books — from either side of the border — do you consider the “prairie canon”?

CS: That’s not a question I’ve thought about before.  The books that influenced, or speak to, "A Geography of Blood" include "Wolf Willow" (obviously), Sharon Butala’s "A Perfection of the Morning" (set in the same area), Guy Vanderhaeghe’s "The Englishman’s Boy" (ditto), James Miller’s "Sweet Promises: A Reader on Indian-White Relations in Canada," and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s "Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner, and Other Essays." I’m a great admirer of your own Louise Erdrich. Who else?  James Welch, William Least-Heat Moon, Richard Ford, Trevor Heriott. The list goes on!

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