Living on the Edge

This blog post was originally published in the Network in Canadian History of the Environment group blog, The Otter in April of 2010. Find the original here

I grew up on the edge, the fringe. That isn’t a political statement, nor does it reference a social comment – my Mom was a teacher, my Dad a farmer. It is a reference to a place: the forest fringe, the edge ecotone between the prairies and the northern provincial boreal forest, north of the city of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
It was a place where, as my Dad once said, you could make hay one day and go blueberry picking the next, clean the barn then drop the pitchfork and grab your fishing rod. “Going to the lake” was as easy as going to visit a neighbor, and happened almost as frequently. At the transition zone between farming and forest, living on the edge meant pulling aspects from both into the local economy, society, and culture.

My attachment to this edge place means that although I am Saskatchewan born, I am not from the prairies. My grandparents fled the prairie dust bowl and Depression in 1934, moving their animals, implements, and household goods from Weyburn north to the forest fringe along with an estimated 45,000 other people during what was known as The Great Trek.

They abandoned the plains wheat monoculture to embrace a mixed farming lifestyle in a place where they had hope, as well as trees, shelter, fuel, and water. I don’t mean to romanticize that move – there were plenty of hardships at the forest edge – but the rejection of the prairie shaped the identity of my family and our community. Most Canadians fail to recognize Saskatchewan as anything but flat and treeless, blue skies framing golden fields of wheat. That stereotype drives regional conceptualizations of Canada – the prairies are flat, the Maritimes are wet, the North is cold. My work, which is a place history of the north Prince Albert area, suggests that historians must critically engage with the idea of regionalism to uncover and examine underlying stereotypes or assumptions.

One casualty of the power of regional stereotypes is the concept of an ideal farm. A prairie wheat farm, specifically engaged in international market trade for profit has been presented as the apex of the farm endeavor. As a result, few historians have understood or analyzed the critical cultural and social differences between prairie wheat farms and mixed farms common to parkland/forest fringe environments. The Great Trek and similar migrations show that cereal monoculture was quickly abandoned in times of environmental or economic stress, when the edge environment of the forest fringe became a refuge.

Edge farms – with their shorter growing seasons, frost hazards, and soil conditions – grew less wheat, less successfully, less often. However other crops, such as barley, oats, and alfalfa, thrived, as did most livestock. Farmers combined mixed farming with occupational pluralism, particularly non-farm economic activity from the forest (cordwood cutting, fishing, hunting, commercial freighting) as a way of life.

Yet the wheat ideal remained, and farms that required off-farm income were classified as marginal. Recently, powerful arguments from the forest sector demand the return of marginal edge farmland to forest, citing carbon sequestration, forest regeneration, renewable energy resources and green capital. This has led to a re-evaluation of the edge, shifting the ideal away from agriculture. Local tourism promotion as the ‘Lakeland’ region further cements the cultural role of trees. But a concurrent growth in alternative bioenergy research and ethanol production has made farmland an even more critical part of our future. The debate seems to be: which do we need more? Forests, or farmland? The Great Trek migrants would say: some of both, please.

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.


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