Fantastic news!

My book, Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan has been nominated for a Saskatchewan Book Award!

Nominated in the Scholarly category, I’m very excited to see this alternative view of Saskatchewan history recognized for its contribution.

It’s a great honour. I look forward to the awards ceremony on April 25th in Regina.


Reviews are starting to come out, though academic channels, of my latest book, Forest Prairie Edge. But with permission, I present what is, so far, my favourite review. It came from world-renowned historian John Gillis, who sent me a private email. He said that I could share it. It reads:

I have just finished your exceptional book. It not only introduced me to a region I had known only by the lines that are drawn on maps but give me a way of seeing it in a very appealing way. Your mastery of local detail is no less impressive than your handling of environmenal concepts, particularly that of the ecotone. The span of the study is stunning, bringing in First Nations, white settlers, hunters, farmers, foresters, tourists into a coherent narrative. It makes me want to see your part of the world, for I now feel I know it reasonably well, even from a distance.

You will probably be not surprised to know that more and more people are picking up on the concept of ecotone, on and offshore. Still, when I ask audiences, even audiences of environmental historians, whether they have ever heard of the term only a minority say they have. I also take it be a bad sign that my spell checker does not reference the term. But surely that is coming.

But more and more people are playing with the concept, including landscape architects. I have just be reading proofs of a brilliant book called Walls by Thomas Oles. He asks, as you do, why we insist on drawing lines where none exist in nature. Plans are just as fictive as maps. In his hands, walls cease to be barriers and become sites of interaction, just as do the edges of your boreal forests. The world has never had as many lines, or as many walls, as it does today, and Oles asks why. What are they really doing at a symbolic as well as material level?

Richad T.T. Forman, in his book Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscape and Regions (Cambridge,1995) asks the provocative question: “What is lost when civilization converts the soft curves of nature into
hard lines of geometry.?” I know the answer when it comes to shores. Drawing hard lines there has been ecologically disastrous. Now I want to explore on a broader scale the effect lines when it comes to land –
property lines, rail lines, streets, playing fields. Such lines as so ubiquitous that we forget to question where they came from, what they serve, and whether they should exist.

We now live in a world of lines, and not just of space. We draw lines in time, dividing it into ever smaller parts, until we seem to have no time left. In the twentieth century we invented the dead line. It once meant the distance a prisoner could stray without being shot. Then it became something in the world of newspapers; now it regulates all our lives.

Time has long been a preoccupation of mine. I wrote about the clock to dominate our lives, how the weekend was born, how age relations are shaped. And now I want to look further into how this is connected with
spacial divisions.

The notion of the ecotone is so important in breaking out of rigid divisions, of finding those times and places in between where so much happens unnoticed. I found so much in your book that illuminates this. I think you would find Forman’s work reinforces your own.

In any case, pleased keep me informed about what you are doing. Keep opening up the world.

all the best John (Gillis)


A fascinating initiative, As a long-standing co-operative member, from a long line of Saskatchewan co-operative supporters, this has great potential.

Originally posted on The Co-operative Innovation Project:

In November 2013, the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan entered into a first-of-its-kind partnership with Federated Co-operatives Limited to explore co-operative development in rural and Aboriginal communities in western Canada.

Co-operatives are an important contributor to a community’s quality of life, offering opportunities for economic and community development in areas citizens feel are important, such as housing, social services, retail, energy, recreation, and the sustainable management of natural resources and traditional economies.

The goal of the CIP is to create a model of co-operative development that will work in rural and Aboriginal communities across western Canada and to select communities suitable for such development.

Our approach follows the UK-based Plunkett Foundation’s model of co-operative development, although we anticipate that the model will need to be adapted to the unique features of rural and Aboriginal communities in western Canada. A key part of the project…

View original 102 more words

Wilderness Act Forum

I’ve been asked by the digital content editor at Environmental History, Finn Arne Jorgensen, to be one of the commentators for a new online forum. I will be commenting over the next few weeks on the essays, along with several others, and encourage you to do so as well.

The forum is based on three papers by Emily Wakild, Libby Robin, and Donald Worster. Each consider the role and purpose of the Wilderness Act (which is 50 years old this year) and comment more broadly on the state of ‘wilderness’ and the act of setting aside protected spaces. Wakild’s essay focuses on Latin America, Robin on Australia, and Worster on America.

The forum can be found here. There is an introduction by Lisa Brady, and a visual essay on the signing of the Wilderness Act by Sara Dant.

I recommend that you take a few minutes to read through the three forum essays, all from noted environmental historians, and add your thoughts to the comments section.

My opening comment is as follows:

My thanks to the writers of all of these essays — there is much on which to ponder.
Let me first state my prejudices: I believe people are a part of nature, that no area on earth is without the imprint, interpretation, and use of humans, and that there is no way to establish a ‘baseline’ wilderness. I nonetheless support setting aside tracts of land.
But that leads to my problem: setting aside tracts of land for what purposes? What will we, as humans, be allowed to do there? Nothing? Something? Anything? What?
It seems to me that the debates over the Wilderness Act, within the larger context of park-making (which pulls in debates over class, ethnicity, land rights and usage) is essentially about purpose. Is the act of setting aside wilderness areas, as Donald Worster suggests, a higher altruism worthy in its own right, but something to be defined and defended through an international court? (In an earlier essay, ‘The Wilderness of History’ in Wild Earth fall 1997, Worster suggests that we should set aside wilderness land as a tithe, a certain amount of the total land holdings of a nation state, returned to nature.) Both Libby Robin and Emily Wakild see that same nation-state as the key stewards of conservation and best situated to define and manage wilderness.
Whether at the international or national level, whether you believe in wilderness for its own sake or as part of a land-management scheme, my question remains: what is wilderness for? And conversely, what activities are NOT conducive to wilderness areas? As Wakild and Robin note, this answer might very well be quite different in different countries and contexts. Can we then, following Worster, have any kind of international tribunal judging wilderness?
Drawing those lines between what is acceptable use, and what is not, is the slippery slope on which we slide and struggle. And it is where the most intense debate is found.

My job is awesome.

This weekend, I devoured (word chosen deliberately) Amy Jo Ehman’s fantastic new book, Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. Part history, part recipe book, part photographic record, Ehman does a superb job of capturing the tastes that have come to make up Saskatchewan palate and plate.

Cracking it open, I immediately loved the heavy dark yellow pages with faint blue watermarks, suggestive of the kinds of spills and drips you find in your Grandma’s favourite recipe books. Indeed, in my recipe books, it’s the pages that are thick with tomato juice and chocolate batter spills, sticking together, that let me know where the best recipes are to be found. In some ways, I wish MacIntyre Purcell Publishing could have splattered a bit more ink and debris through the pages, just to lead us to the best of the best.

Then again, deciding the best of the best is something that each household, and each cook, must find out for themselves.

Sprinkled with historic archival photographs from the provincial collective memory, the book genre-bends. Your first problem: will you shelve it with your history books, your pictorial coffee table books, or your recipe collection? Mine will go with my recipe books. I guarantee it!

Canadians are a rich mix of cultures from around the world, and my own family is no exception. I’m Norwegian, Swedish, Scotch, Irish, and Ukrainian. I’ll have my varenyky with swedish meatballs, please. Ehman’s curated collection of recipes touches on Saskatchewan kitchen offerings from bannock, staple of the fur trade and passed down through generations of First Nations and Metis people, to vinaterta, that wonderful layered cake with cardamom and prunes. (As an aside: my vinaterta comes from the Swedish/Norwegian heritage, has eight layers, and is iced on top. It’s also my Ukrainian uncle’s favourite birthday cake, and he insists on it every year.)

My favourite recipe from the book might be the Coconut Cookie, written as Kokonat kuki. Using a blend of English and Polish, Kate Turgeon (nee Kaminski) sat down to write out this recipe, copied from her neighbor, Mrs. Danchuk. Teaspoon becomes tispun, cup becomes kap, baking soda is Bekin Sodor, flour is flouwur, water is watyr. The instructions are somewhat more vague: “dot myk 7 do kuki rot do smiot doit …pres wyd do fork.” So I’d interpret that as make them into balls, then press with fork before cooking.

There are no particular cooking instructions — temperature, timing — for Mrs. Danchuck’s cookies. Ehman notes that this lack is noticeable to our modern eyes when we read old recipes. Prior to electricity, cookstoves were as varied as the makers created or could afford, and each depended on the fuel used. Different kinds of fuel burned differently, and produced higher or lower heat units. There was an assumption that cooks would know how to mix and bake.

Opening with a delightful blend of history and food, the first part of the book wafts through Saskatchewan’s past like an eye-closing, mouth-watering intake of breath. There’s a lot of ground to cover. From ‘Bear Paws and Pemmican,’ we learn about moose nose, the extensive kitchen gardens, grainfields, and milk cows at Cumberland House, and of course pemmican. (Side note: there is no recipe for pemmican in the book. I looked.) ‘Bullet Soup and Bannock’ reflects on the Metis culinary adventure, and Ehman considers the difference between perogies and varenyky, and the impact of Ukrainian cooking in general, on the Saskatchewan identity.

Other broad strokes bring forth the taste of Sweden and Norway, the UK, French and French Canadian, ranch and American influences. In ‘Chickpeas and Chop Suey’ Ehman looks at middle and eastern Asian influence, including the iconic rural Chinese restaurant. (Aside: one of the best is right here in Biggar, Saskatchewan: the Snow White, known locally as Maggie’s and renowned for its gorgeous flavours).

The bulk and heart of Ehman’s book is the recipes, from bread to pickles, stew to spudnuts, cucumber salad to porridge. I may not cook squirrels or prairie oysters, but I am willing to try lamb’s quarters, and I’ve never thought to stir-fry my overgrown radishes. The rabbit rababoo looks tasty, and I’ll have to test the butter tart recipe against my Mom’s.

If my private recipe book collection is any indication, Ehman has plenty of room for sequels. I collect old Saskatchewan cookbooks created as fundraisers, and the earliest in my collection came from my Grandmother. Produced by one of the local ladies’ groups in Paddockwood in the 1930s, my book reflects Ehman’s time before the change to electricity.

Moving forward in time, the 1950s and 1960s brought out a revolution in cooking that crossed three new divides. One, the bridge to electricity brought electric ranges (stoves), fridges, freezers, and later, microwaves to Saskatchewan kitchens. Electricity led to daring new culinary adventures, including changing how and when food could be stored and eaten, and in what forms. Penny Powers, a creation of the new SaskPower corporation, taught kitchen magicians how to switch their treasured recipes from cookstove to electric stove.

The second revolution was the women’s movement, which redrew traditional cooking genders in bold new directions. Recipe books from the 1950s and 1960s rely more heavily on casseroles and quick meals, homemade TV dinners and fresh fast takes on old favourites.

I’d love to see more work done on what I see as the third revolution, a post-war rise in consumer culture. Grocery stores brought in an ever-wider selection of canned, packaged, frozen, and ready-to-eat goods that were readily adapted into local recipe books. French-fried onions in a can, for example, became a preferred casserole topping, and most rural Saskatchewan grocery stores still carry them to cater to their senior clients. Options such as soy sauce, wonton wrappers, taco seasoning, and ghee entered the picture.

Right now, I’m off to adapt a few of these recipes to the needs of my own kitchen. With a wheat allergy in the house, I’ll try the boiled raisin cake with cinnamon glaze, but I’ll try it out with my gluten-free flour.

So… get cooking with Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. And then wait impatiently with me for the sequel.

In June 2014, I was appointed to the board of the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation.

I’ve just returned from my first board meeting, and it is a pleasure to be a part of this board. Working with groups all across the province, the foundation is committed to preserving Saskatchewan’s heritage. Some of the recent examples of heritage support from this board include revitalizing the Melfort Post Office, several projects in Maple Creek, and ongoing support for the Lyric Theatre in Swift Current.

We visited both Maple Creek and Swift Current to see some of the amazing work, and stayed for some fine country entertainment in Maple Creek at the armory, the rink, and at several venues downtown.

The board hosted a public event in Swift Current this past Saturday night. I particularly enjoyed visiting with museum board members from Kyle, Saskatchewan. With several heritage buildings, their board is looking for help. My ears perked up when they said they had the old Red Cross Outpost Hospital from Tuberose. As a student of the outpost hospital movement, I’ll be sure to stop in next time I get a chance.

Here’s to the effort and energy of so many Saskatchewan volunteers and organizations, working to preserve and uphold Saskatchewan’s heritage.

Rural Roots

Since June, I’ve been working with the Prince Albert Daily Herald crew to publish excerpts of stories from my new book, Forest Prairie Edge. These stories are printed in their free weekly publication Rural Roots which trundles out every Thursday into the mailboxes of about 27,000 subscribers.

Wow. That is a lot of people.

I know that the stories are being read. I know this because I’ve been getting phone calls, my Mom has been getting phone calls, and the newspaper is getting phone calls.

On August 9th, I visited Christopher Lake, Saskatchewan during their Western Days. An annual fair, it’s a day for both locals and summer residents at Christopher, Emma, Anglin and Waskesiu lakes in Saskatchewan to have a bit of fun.

As a guest of the Lakeland Regional Library, I was the visiting author for the day. I gave a talk and slide show from my research at the library, and I was thrilled with the response and attendance.

Nearly every single one of them said: I’m here because I’ve been reading your stuff in Rural Roots. And, one lady went on, I’m cutting all of them out and keeping them in a scrapbook. (No, I’m not related to her!)

Some may say, Merle, aren’t you cutting your own sales, here? If people are just going to read what you’re providing in their free paper, what are you going to get out of it? Will you sell any books?

That’s an argument that cuts in two ways. In a fundamental way, I agree. I don’t like providing content for free (which was our agreement) and don’t advocate that any writer should do this. All writers should be paid for their work. Always. (You’re paying for my blog by buying internet time, but you’re not paying me, so this blog is ‘free’ too). But to give my work to a newspaper, is indeed dicey.

But there is another side. Public authorship requires a certain amount of contact with the public. It can take many forms. I already blog for two websites (activehistory.ca and The Otter) which give free content. I run this blog (albeit somewhat sporadically — my apologies).

I recognize, though, that the majority of my reading public is over sixty years old, and not necessarily on the internet. The best way to reach them? Through their free local newspaper: Rural Roots.

And the strategy is working. My book continues to sell, and my name and stories are read, which generates recognition and more sales.

If you’d like to see one of my stories in Rural Roots, the latest three copies can be found online at paherald.sk.ca. Or, just go buy the book!

Rural Roots 001Rural Roots 002


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