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Place: A Methodology for Research

By Merle Massie, PhD.

Conference paper presented at World Congress in Environmental History. Guimaraes, Portugal, 2014. Edited for blog post August 2017.

In June of 2014, I was in my hometown of Paddockwood, Saskatchewan, Canada – population less than two hundred in the village, less than a thousand in the rural area. I was there to give a talk and show a slideshow of pictures from my most recent book, Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan. It’s a place history of the region, which I spent four years researching and writing. As the lights darkened, a hush fell – with obedient silence – over the crowd. Kids squirmed, adults settled in, and my Great Aunt Clara folded her arms and leaned back. She listened with one eye half-closed as I moved from picture to picture, from story to story. She likes to make sure that I tell the stories right, that what I say agrees with her memories.

Locals can be a tough audience when you write a local history, but the slideshow and stories were a big hit. Clara got a chance to add to one or two of the stories, providing a few details on the local cheese factory, but I scored a home run: I told her some stories that she’s never heard before. She was introduced in a new way, to the place that she knows best.

And there’s that word: place.

Place is ubiquitous; it is everywhere at once. From ecology to history, place is a word that is used often in the English language: someplace, no place, every place, any place. First place. Second place. Last place. Place that over here. You’re sitting in my place. Let’s go to my place for a drink.

Place is a popular focal point for study. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan eloquently said that space plus culture equals place (1977). There are reams of literature studying sense of place, place attachment, place dependence, place remaking, non place (or, the internet, which is everywhere and nowhere). The omnipresence of the word ‘place’, has led to controversy and discussion, multiple theoretical threads and calls in both directions: use it more broadly; and don’t use it at all.

I do use place. I use it to describe what it is that I do, which I call ‘place history’. This blog post, which was first presented at the World Congress in Environmental History in Portugal in 2014, is a rough attempt to explain place not as theory, but as methodology. Warning: I’m rather allergic to theory, and decided this post is no place for a literature review, or even much in the way of references. If you’re looking for them, sorry. I’m posting this presentation because of these tweets:

2017-08-29

Place based inquiry tweets

So, with apologies to Kaitlin Stack-Whitney who might be looking for a lit review or recommendations, this isn’t that. I’m going to describe what I do, when I set about to do a place-based inquiry.

I use ‘place’ as a method of organizing my research, of building a different kind of story. How many of you have read Dan Flores’ suggestion that we use a bioregion as the focal point for environmental studies? (I love that article. Go read it). My work follows on Flores’ in that I’m interested in the environment as a central defining part of place history.  This post will explain three short-ish points about how I do it, and what kinds of information place history can show. The examples are drawn from two different research projects I’ve created in the last few years (with images from the powerpoint presentation).

So: what is place history? Place history is a research strategy. It is a way of organizing and focusing your research. At its core, it studies a particular place through the lens of time. You start, like we all do, with a research question. For my hometown place history, my research question was: what has my hometown region looked like in the past, and how has it changed over time? For the second research project, the question was, how has this landscape, and its people, responded to floods? As you can see, the first question was a bit larger, while the second focused specifically on a particular kind of event (flood). Both had advantages and drawbacks.

I start a place history by first defining a soft border around a research region. Sometimes, there is a natural boundary line that I can follow, but sometimes not. My hometown story is not a bioregion, in that it doesn’t have specific biophysical markers. It sits, in fact, at the transition zone between two bioregions, and that’s part of what made it interesting for me. It sits where the North American interior plains hit the northern boreal forest in my home province of Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan in known as the ‘land of living skies’, a prairie space, flat and treeless.  I once heard my research summed up in three words: Saskatchewan has trees. I thought, good enough!

Slide9

The second study involved a massive inland delta, a water landscape covering 10,000 square kilometers – about one-tenth the size of Portugal. The Saskatchewan River Delta is a primarily Indigenous landscape of enormous importance, ecologically, economically, and socially in the interior of Canada, straddling the border between Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Most of my work focused specifically on the upper delta, centering on the community of Cumberland House and the delta that surrounds it. The biophysical marker makes the research region easier to identify, but studying water means studying all the places the water was before it gets to the delta, so again, ‘soft’ boundaries are important.

Slide10

Slide11So, the first thing that I do is define the soft borders around my research region, as a way to contain and focus my research question. What this does: it helps me focus my archival and library and oral interview work. I specifically search for books, theses, articles, and archival documents written about my research region and seek out a variety of specialists and knowledge-holders to read, study, and interview. I also visit, usually many times. The search is a large and usually an on-going process. It’s never finished; you can never find everything, see everything, know everything. A place historian must embrace a little bit of ambiguity, of vagueness at the edge of the laser focus.

TWO: the second part of my place history research methodology involves time. Place is about landscape; history is about time. As I find information about the place I am studying, I create a landscape timeline. I won’t show you one, because they tend to be messy, but do it however you want: on a whiteboard, using post-it notes on a poster board, using Excel or another program, or in a memo book. The point is to remember and celebrate that the landscape is not just the ecological backdrop for the human story. The environment is neither static nor inert. When you write a place history, you are telling the story of the land; people’s activities are a response to that land, and the land responds back. When I work on place history, the landscape becomes a key and active player in the story, an actor whose decisions have implications across the landscape and across its human inhabitants.

Let me give you an example: in the 1870s, less than 150 years ago, the Saskatchewan River – the river which creates the Saskatchewan River Delta – experienced an avulsion. An avulsion means the river jumped its track, leaping out of its riverbed to blow out a whole new river pattern, completely changing the way the delta works and how and when and where people could move through it. Steamboat traffic changed. Trapping patterns and fishing patterns changed. Silt rose, to the point where dredging was necessary to keep the boats running and people were predicting that Cumberland Lake in the centre of the delta would, in time, silt right up and become farmland. The effects of that avulsion are still working through the delta. But the avulsion had little to no imprint on the memories of the local Indigenous population, at least until scientists recovered it and started talking about it in the community. The avulsion can be traced through the historical record and scientific investigation, but little in the local memory. The avulsion’s fingerprints remain on the land, and it became my job to find out why those fingerprints were largely missing from the oral story.

Slide15

The key part of writing a place history is to remember that neither the land nor the people are static. A landscape timeline gives me recreated snapshots or descriptions of what the landscape looked like at a particular time, and how humans used the landscape, and how and when and why things changed. With a landscape timeline, I can ‘layer’ both environmental change and human change to see what affected what, and with what consequences.

In the case of the delta, I soon found that the massive changes caused by the avulsion had disappeared from the local story because they’d been superceded by even more massive change in the twentieth century, much more recent in the memories of the local population. A dam, upstream from the delta, had dammed the water to create a large lake and hydropower supply. This dam, and the way it was run, disrupted natural rhythms to such an enormous extent that the local story started to sound black and white: before the dam, after the dam. The avulsion as an integral landscape story virtually disappeared. I only learned about it because, as a place historian, I was diligently collecting information across time, building my landscape timeline.

Slide17

What I’ve discovered is that, by shifting the focus from a human-centered to a place-centered timeline, I have a clear perspective on what activities are possible, probable, or practical in a certain place in a certain time. It also helps serve as a predictor: what can make this landscape seem more desirable, or less desirable, as a place of human habitation? In the work I did on my hometown region, it became clear to me that the local landscape became desirable, and as a consequence became a major destination for climate refugees, during the global environmental and economic disaster of the 1930s. Whereas the nearby landscape, the Great Plains of North America, suffered severe ecological drought, the forest edge still had water in wells and coming down from the sky, trees for shelter and fuel and building materials, hay for starving animals chewing dust, gardens where “even the turnips were edible,” wild game and berries and fish. In short, there was a comparative natural abundance to feed animals and humans. It became desirable because it didn’t have endless black blizzards. As a result, almost 50,000 people relocated from the dust bowl to the forest fringe of my home province, a massive internal migration that changed the face of land settlement, agriculture, and population.

Slide18

Slide19So, the second step in place history: create a landscape timeline. This timeline will help you draw clear connections between the landscape and the human activities you record as significant aspects of your research question. It can also help you choose more clearly which human decisions – politics, policy, or development – you need to understand in order to engage with your landscape. The answers to that can be unexpected.

The downside is that as your landscape changes over time, and as human activity changes over time, you as the researcher will need to become a jack of all trades. You’re not just an expert in one event or one theme or one theory; you’ve got to learn something about everything. This puts you at a disadvantage when speaking with an expert dedicated to one group, one policy, one moment, but remember that your perspective is built with light from many sources. And that can, and does, bring forth fresh new perspectives.

This multiplicity brings us to the third and last point: place history methodology draws knowledge from across a range of knowledge holders and creators. This range is substantive: science, social science, humanities, Indigenous knowledge, and the natural world. Data (I’m sorry – I hate the word ‘data’ but I use it because people understand it) data from natural and social science is deliberately blended with professional history, oral and community history, literature, and art to provide a broadly-based comparative framework. This is natural and physical science plus social science and humanities.

Slide20Why does a place historian need so many sources? Because each has a significant contribution, and each has the potential to carry a part of the story independent of other knowledge-holders. The story of the avulsion is a good example: its story is carried in the historical record and in the research projects of delta scientists. Yet it was virtually eclipsed from the Indigenous local memory. You cannot rely on one source to the exclusion of others. In a place history, you’re building a landscape timeline of a place, deliberately blending multiple viewpoints and information so that nothing is in isolation. A place history can show how a local lumber industry melded with local agriculture, First Nations, and the environment, with influence and impact in many directions.

Another example. The Saskatchewan River delta is historically a flood landscape, with thousands of years of flood adaptation and flood memory. Using place history methodology, I focused on my research region and looked for information across time, regarding flood events. In 1781, a major spring flood blew out the newcomer European traders, drenching their valued goods and creating a quagmire out of their fortified trading post. The Indigenous inhabitants simply moved to drier ground. The flood was a seasonal event; perhaps higher than other years, but not enough to shift anything in the Indigenous daily life, yet making a mockery of the newcomers.

Turn the clock forward to 1962, when the EB Campbell Dam was built, upriver from the delta. Floods changed. High water events came at different seasons. Rushing water came suddenly, at different times of the day, blowing out traplines and fishing nets, stranding people or leaving them high and dry, with useless boats far from home. Unpredictable. Human-made, not natural. The water would come or not come as a result of policy decisions regarding electrical requirements for people far away, not local needs. No one knew when or how to predict the water, and old knowledge was rendered almost useless. The dam was a disruption that caused untold ecological and cultural change.

One result of the ecological disruption was that the people changed. What had once been a water-adapted culture became increasingly land-adapted, tied to vehicles and roads, dependent on infrastructure such as roads and bridges. In 2005, the Saskatchewan River upstream was in flood, and the community of Cumberland House evacuated itself primarily because its road, winding through the delta, was compromised. There was fear of being cut off, of medical emergencies and isolation. The evacuation caused tremendous backlash in the community, particularly among the elders, who felt the evacuation was needless – and so it was. While it was a high water event, the community did not flood. After 2005 there was a resurgence in oral stories, a renaissance of flood memory from elders that drew from a time before the dam, when the water flow wasn’t restricted, when floods were a natural event and nothing to fear. In 2011, in part because of the elders’ clear response and oral stories, the community, when once again faced with historic high water, did not evacuate.[i]

Slide22In 2013, when flood once again threatened, the community was forcibly evacuated by the provincial government who clearly did not understand either the depth of flood memory, the elders’ knowledge, nor community resilience. It was, as in 2005 and 2011, a needless evacuation. The community did not flood. The provincial safety manager told me later, in confidence, that they would never again evacuate Cumberland House. Flood measures and protections, when used well, would be enough. Finally, the provincial emergency management leadership learned what local Indigenous elders drawing on a deep-time knowledge of water and the delta knew: the delta absorbs and spreads the water over a massive landscape; it floods, but it does not flood.

Slide26

So to sum up, place history, as a basic methodology, does three things: one, defines a geographical soft boundary of place as a way to focus your research question; two, builds a landscape timeline that creates snapshots of that place over time; and three; draws from across a broad range of knowledge holders, from arts to science to Indigenous knowledge to the natural world.

Slide27Why is place history important? It is a methodology that allows us to ‘see’ and compare issues across time, through the eyes of a particular place. Place methodology offers a deep time perspective that transcends dramatic events to consider the broader implications of the intimate connection between humans and the environment: the delta as a water landscape, and how we’ve moved with, against, challenged and changed that; the forest edge as a rich ecotone between the prairie and the forest, and how we’ve moved that edge back and forth through axe and fire, agriculture, and tourism. What I find doing place history is often unexpected, and sometimes challenging to the status quo, because I’m starting from a different vantage point: the landscape, rather than the people.

And that’s how I can, when I’m really lucky, surprise my Great Aunt Clara, and tell her a few stories that even she didn’t know.

[i] For a deeper investigation of flood memory, the Saskatchewan River Delta, and the flood events of 2005 and 2011, see Merle Massie and M.G. Reed, Chapter 6: “Cumberland House in the Saskatchewan River Delta: flood memory and the municipal response, 2005 and 2011” in Climate Change and Flood Risk Management: Adaptation and Extreme Events at the Local Level Edited by E. Carina H. Keskitalo. https://www.elgaronline.com/view/9781781006665.xml

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Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.

But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.

(more…)

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The following was originally published (in slightly edited form) for ActiveHistory.ca 23 January 201. We’re a group of historians interested in thinking about history and its current and future applications.

So, I’m writing a book.

What follows, for your January darn-it’s-cold-and-I’m-ready-for-something-kind-of-fun reading pleasure, is a primer (briefing notes) about the book. Given the growing recognition that Mother Nature remains strong and rather angry about human-induced climate change – kudos to everyone who spent Christmas with no power – I’m writing about human migration.

Drawing lessons from families who pulled up stakes and moved during the Great Trek from one biome (prairie south) to another (boreal north) due to drastic climate and economic problems during the Great Depression and Dirty Thirties, this book is based on history but with an eye to practical suggestions for the future. Imagine me having a conversation with my Grandpa and Grandma: what should I do to be prepared? Some of the following five lessons may or may not apply to your situation. It depends if you have a horse. Lessons may be tongue-in-cheek or serious. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

The underlying premise of the book is that climate change is happening and is worsening, and that Canada (in particular, Canada’s middle north and north) has been pinpointed as a place to which climate migrants from around the world may flee.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

Lesson one:

Leave sooner rather than later. Leave at the first sign of things going drastically wrong. Use this opportunity to go directly to a place where you think you might like to be. North Bay, Ontario? The Pas, Manitoba? Prince George, BC? Excellent choices – fresh water, some farmland, some trees, but with access to hospitals and schools. Edge places, with a lot of variety. You will be much more successful if you move sooner and get established, while you still have some capital and some energy. Waiting, hanging on where you are until the last moment, will cause you trouble in the long run. Takeaway: pull out your map of Canada and pinpoint possibilities. Then do your homework.

Lesson two:

Take family with you. And friends. And choose a place where you know a few people already. This is called social capital and you will need it. If things go to ‘hell in a handbasket’, as the old saying goes, you may need to rely on each other, pool resources, work together. This is no time to stand on your own, be stand-offish or independent. Social capital can save you or pull you through when things are tough. This will also help when you get lonesome and homesick for the place that you had to leave. Having your family and friends with you, instead of leaving them behind, will take the edge off your move. Takeaway: start making a plan, involve your friends and family, and make your social capital work for you.

Lesson three:

You will probably have to take lots of small jobs that rotate seasonally rather than one job. Yes, you’re right, you will be poorer. But you shouldn’t starve. Losing the single employment that brings in cash can put you in the poorhouse faster than you can say ‘mortgage payment.’ Having lots of small jobs usually means that you have a lot of skills that are portable and have value. You will need to be flexible if you are forced to move because of climate change. You may not find a job in your area of expertise, or you may find one but it may not be full-time. As the economy shifts beneath our feet, you may need to branch out. If you’re already on this path, good for you: you’re one step ahead. Takeaway: the future economy is perilous. The one-job, one-wage norm is changing. Change first, on your own terms. Be ahead of the curve.

Lesson four:

Physical labour will probably be required. Some of it will be hard, some of it will be icky. Learn to chop wood, use a chainsaw, haul water, build a fire, cook with wood, grow a garden, pick berries, shoot a gun, catch and gut a fish, learn your plants in the real world instead of the supermarket, and in general get closer to the land. Buy workgloves and work boots and work clothes. Expect your work days to last longer than 7.5 hours. Expect to work outside in all weather, in all seasons. Can you fix things yourself? Brush up on that. If storms and floods and fires and other major catastrophes are increasing, you need to be ready. Takeaway: join Scouts, make friends with an active grandparent who cooks, sews, cans, and has a garden, volunteer at a summer camp, take classes in plumbing, electricity, carpentry, and mechanics, and get fit. Be brave.

Lesson five:

Your horse might die of swamp fever. Otherwise known as ‘migration surprise,’ there may be material things (wifi gadgets, electrical gadgets, cars) or animals in your life who will either miss the old landscape so much that they won’t work in the new one (if, by chance, you end up in an off-the-grid cabin in the woods) or they find something in the new one that may kill them. Horses, for example, seem very good at contracting infectious anemia (swamp fever). Transmitted by mosquito bite, and mosquitos are common to nice wet areas, the best line of defense is to learn to make a smudge. Build a fire, then partially smother it with wet straw. Smokes like the dickens. Mosquitos hate it. Word of warning: cars don’t like northern roads, which are notorious when they exist and worse when they don’t. Buy a truck. With a winch. If you can’t afford a truck, and only have a car and a horse, take your chances on the horse. As for your internet fix, that’s harder. See lesson one about choosing your destination. Takeaway: cars vs. horses: horse wins. Cars vs. trucks: take the truck. And address your wifi habit before you go.

Recap: move first, move with friends and family, be flexible, be prepared, and be ready for surprises.

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This article was originally written for The Otter, the blog of the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) and of which I am a member. It was posted Jan 20, 2014.

In January, I attended the annual Crop Production Show in Saskatoon. If you love climbing on tractors and combines, swathers and sprayers, and seeing the new (and increasingly large) agricultural technology, this is the event for you. The organizers also have excellent break-out sessions that cover everything from new crop ideas (camelina, anyone? Anyone? How about quinoa?) to market trends to future ag innovation.

As an active farmer in west-central Saskatchewan, #CPS14 is a must-see. But a couple of points caught my attention – and gave me that feeling of contentment, like a cat being stroked while laying in a warm patch of sun. I was content because I saw the future.

First, the backstory: in October 2013, I participated in a University of Saskatchewan Learning Communities public forum called The Future of Farming. (I wish I could post a link to the forum, which was recorded, but it’s still not on the website. I’ll keep you informed). Along with my co-presenter, Terry Tollefson from the Department of Soil Science, we had a lot of fun, casting our minds forward to consider: what will farming look like in western Canada in the future?

As a historian, trained to research and create stories built on the past, thinking about the future is a fantastic exercise. Even if you’re not inclined to science fiction, dystopic, or otherwise futuristic imaginings, I do recommend it. It’s a bit like math plotting on a graph: if this, and this, and this are the trends, where might the next point on the graph be?

I decided to focus my talk on three points. One, the future of farming is an increase in the farm-to-fork movement. That means a closer connection between consumers and producers, whether that is through farmers’ markets, on-farm visits, organics, or food baskets delivered directly to consumers. Locally-sourced and fresh are buzzwords with impact.

I have personal concerns with this movement (which I support in both principle and practise) but those can be held for another day.

The second point I made during that public forum is, our farm future of western Canada is increasingly twinned with the future of bearded, plain-clad men (and kerchief-covered, dress-wearing women) sporting rather German accents. If you don’t live in western Canada, the answer is: Hutterites. Hutterite colonies (Hutterian brethren) offer socially integrated, religious-based, well-funded and well-resourced entities that are at the forefront of farming. They have an immense manpower base – kids often leave school at 14 to enter adult, full-time productive farm life, with specific roles and training. Hutterite farms are massive mixed farms that straddle both commercial productive agriculture (from grains to pork to dairy) and subsistence-based, farm-raised produce for sale at farmers’ markets or direct to consumers. I get my chickens and eggs from one of five local Hutterite colonies near Biggar, and buy plenty of produce in the summer.

Hutterite men were everywhere at the Crop Production Show. And the agricultural retailers, wholesalers, buyers, and manufacturers gave them full attention. With their increasing land base, connections to both commercial and local-style agriculture, and solid financial backing, the Hutterite farms are major players in our agricultural future and a model and lesson in how to balance the competing demands of commercial agriculture to feed a growing world population (hear Bill Gates get excited about fertilizer and feeding the world) with the need to provide consumers with confidence in our clean, healthy food (see the A & W campaign for better beef).

Clearing the land north of Prince Albert, c. 1920s. Source: Saskatchewan Settlement Experience R-A32676

Clearing the land north of Prince Albert, c. 1920s. Source: Saskatchewan Settlement Experience R-A32676

My third point was, the future of farming has a specific direction: north. I’ve been researching the future of western Canada through the prognoses of climate scientists. Climate change predictions, in a wild case of positive spin, are pointing to Canada as a potentialsuperpower, a net winner andenvy of the world in global warming. As the Globe and Mail publishes in January 2014, the ‘magnetic’ north is Canada’s ‘last frontier’. These predictions offer a sense of historical whiplash, particularly for me. Unlocking frozen northern soil opens up a scenario of northern migration, of farmers, crops, animals, and whole societies moving north – a repeat of the Great Trek migrations I document in the last chapter of Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan (April 2014).

During extensive droughts in western Canada between 1914 and 1938, the prairies dessicated, cracked and bled people in torrents. Thousands of those migrants – an estimated 45,000 in Saskatchewan alone between 1930 and 1938 – moved north. They hacked and grubbed farms out of the bush in the Peace River country of Alberta, across the forest fringe of Saskatchewan, and in the interlake region of Manitoba as the last generation of ‘pioneers’ moving into Grey Owl’s famous ‘last frontier.’ They fled a capitalistic, wheat-mining landscape that could not grow gardens, feed for livestock, or crops. Environmental refugees, they abandoned the desert and turned to subsistence, following the north star toward green, wet, trees, fuel, berries, fish, game, hay, warmth: hope.

Back to the present. While an agricultural show is not a noted bastion for climate change advocates, I saw plenty of evidence of climate considerations, from cold-weather and wet-adapted crops to insurance changes to an increase in back-to-the-land, alternative fuel, organic and clean food, and new transportation businesses. With the real threat of wild weather and electrical mayhem upon us, as Dagomar Degroot noted, climate change is bearing down.

It was fun, as a historian and active farmer, to let my thoughts fly forward instead of backward, projecting toward the future of western Canadian agriculture. What I see is a similar whiplash, a growing movement to reconnect to landscape, rebuild the ties that bind each of us to the earth. My advice? Make those connections in a place that has the basics of life: water, trees for shelter and fuel, and earth to grow a garden. Or at least, connect to a farmer who is already making that move.

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Some 2013 activities to report:

SK Sense of Place.imagesCAFVW9ZL

1. Saskatchewan: A Sense of Place — Guest Speaker:

On February 21st, 2013, I was invited by the University of Saskatchewan Archives to be the guest speaker at their Saskatchewan: A Sense of Place exhibit. Located in the annex between the main Murray library and its north wing, the exhibit showcased Saskatchewan novelists and writers, a selection from the extensive postcard and poster collection, and a fantastic display of Saskatchewan local history books. As the guest speaker, I had my choice of topics — but for me, it was simple. My MA work, back in the distant past, studied Saskatchewan local history books and I had a ball regaling the audience with backstories of mice, murder, and mayhem (the stories that didn’t make it into the history books — and why!). It was a hugely successful event and I enjoyed the beautiful music provided by Carolyn and Sonia, to round out the afternoon.

2. Adjunct Professor, School of Environment and Sustainability:

In September 2013, I accepted an adjunct faculty position with the School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan. Think of it as an ‘association’ or perhaps an ‘affiliation’ if the term adjunct is too weird. What it means: we have a formalized relationship, where I have a home University base at the U of S, and can advise or mentor students whose projects fit well with my own research strengths.

3. The Future of Farming: Guest Speaker:

October 23, 2013 saw me troop back to the U of S campus to visit with students from the new Interdisciplinary Learning Communities group at the U of S. (Find them at http://www.usask.ca/ulc/lc/about). Along with soil scientist Terry Tollefson from the College of Agriculture, we hosted an open forum on “The Future of Farming”. The session was live-taped, and when the link becomes available, I will post it HERE. (That could take some time — bear with me!). Learning Communities coordinator Joel Fonstad said afterward, “we’ve never had so many questions!” What will the future of agriculture look like? Three thoughts from my corner were: increases and market gains in the farm to fork movement; increased growth in Hutterite colonies and perhaps a lesson there in how agriculture will look; and some thoughts on climate change and the pole-ward progression of farming. It was fun, as a historian and active farmer, to let my thoughts fly forward instead of backward, projecting toward a future that will — yes– bring change and growth and difference to western Canadian agriculture.

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The following is a blog post I wrote for ActiveHistory.ca. It was cross-posted to The Otter, a blog for NiCHE (Network in Canadian History of the Environment).  Links to those posts: http://activehistory.ca/2013/01/water-stories/ and http://niche-canada.org/node/10556.

Spring 2011 010

Water wells up and flows across the landscape of my memory as a cataclysmic force, ebbing and flowing through my earliest life story. Those encounters shift the flotsam of my perceptions as an environmental historian, shaping the way I think about water. And, these stories require sharing, as they differ radically from that of colleagues raised in urban environments where drinkable water flows under, around, into, and out of every home.

My family’s first farm house, purchased in the early 1970s, did not have a bathroom. Our toilets were the classic outhouse, and a metal five gallon pail with a toilet seat lid tucked strategically behind the furnace in the basement, next to a holder for the toilet paper. It was Dad’s job to haul the honey pail up the stairs every day and dump it in the bush. There was a base efficiency to that daily routine, though, that belies its yuckiness. Humans use bathrooms. Every day. What innovations –– in fertilizer, in composting, in sanitation –– would we create if each household was responsible for managing their own eliminations?

The bathtub was a huge galvanized steel contraption placed under the stairs in the hallway when it came time to scrub up four kids and two adults. Bucketed full of water, Dad plugged in a special water heater that looked to me like a metal foot. My job was to move this contraption every few minutes to different spots in the tub, to ensure even heating. As the youngest kid, I often had the privilege of first scrub in the warmest and cleanest water. But with all the work that went into hauling and warming the water, you can be sure that it cleaned more than one body. Efficiency, thy name is sharing.

When I was five or six, we moved in a much larger farm house, one with a bathroom. This necessitated massive renovations, including digging a cistern –– a huge holding tank for water, dug under the new verandah. While water could now gush, flush, and rush out of taps, we still had daily water concerns. Cisterns do not fill themselves. Our water came in summer from the Garden River (which conveniently flowed through our farm land), pumped by Dad via a snake of black pipe. Tadpoles and the odd frog came too, but they never survived the bleach bath: gallons of bleach poured into the water to stabilize it and kill some of the germs. In winter, water became an expensive commodity, brought to our farm and pumped into the cistern by a water hauling truck.

Living off a cistern creates an instant water shortage. Each drop translated into either time or money. Wasting water was not an option. Mom invested in a SudSaver washing machine and a laundry tub, saving wash or rinse water to use over again. We continued to share bath water –– Who’s next? Who wants my water? was the holler from the tub. And there is an old saying enshrined on the walls of many a bathroom in rural Canada: “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.’  On a farm, you knew the provenance of every drop, and you knew where it was all going. Grey and black water mixed in the sewer holding tank, which was pumped out regularly to some far corner of the yard.

Cistern water was for baths and flushes, dishes and clothes –– but not for drinking. As in our pre–bathroom days, drinking water did not come out of the tap. There was a pail of fresh soft clean drinking water, with a dipper, in the kitchen for general use: teapots and coffee pots, thirsty kids, boiling potatoes, and making juice. We hauled that water from generous neighbors lucky enough to own ‘good’ wells, or from the nearest village where water was treated.

On our current farm, the worth of water remains, and responsibility rests squarely on us. The well and its pump are monitored and maintained, the sewer lines checked, the reverse osmosis system (which purifies the well water for drinking) flushed and cleaned and kept in working order. There is always a back up of drinking water stashed away. If something goes wrong, it is our job to fix it, or find a way to live with or without it.

My water stories feed my imagination of our collective Canadian future: a cistern in every house; tap water clean enough for flushing and washing, but a separate system for drinking; innovation in black water reuse; and finally, a new universal maxim: running water, and (even more so), drinkable running water in everyone’s home is not a ‘right,’ or even a given. Access to clean water, yes. But modern city standards of drinking water flowing from every tap have skewed our perception of how water ‘should’ be delivered to all Canadians, and of what quality, no matter where they live. It is an unsustainable, and untrue, perception. If water was part of our everyday chores, responsibility, and routine (instead of an unthinking part of our day managed by someone else, delivered to our taps and whisked away when we’re done with it), water would once again be worth its weight. And its value would be true.

 

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[Note: this post is a reprint from a blog I wrote for The Otter, the blogpost for NiCHE, Network in Canadian History of the Environment. Find the original post here: http://niche-canada.org/node/10456]

I remember my first sight of the old Albert Kessel farm. Nestled on the number Four Saskatchewan highway halfway between Biggar and Rosetown, I loved it from the moment I laid eyes on it — through the window of the truck on my way for my first visit to my then-boyfriend’s parents’ farm. “Wow!” I remember saying. “Look at all those great trees!” A northern Saskatchewan bush girl, I hadn’t yet become attuned to the distinctive and iconic prairie landscape. The spruce and jackpine seemed a dollop of ‘home-as-trees’, stretching to brush the clouds of the prairie sky.

I couldn’t predict, then, that one day I would own that piece of land.

When luck looped through our world and the land came into our ownership and stewardship, I found numerous treasures embedded in the landscape. Stone fences, crumbling. An old road, now leading nowhere. An orchard, the last few hardy trees still birthing fruit. A well, which, when primed, still spills forth fresh water. Another wellhead, furtively tucked under trees and surrounded by growth, littered with empty whiskey jugs – the remains of a still? A steel-wheeled wagon, abandoned so long that its front right wheel is encased by the tree that quietly grew from sapling to spire, anchoring the wagon to the earth, ending its rolling days. A swatch of the Bear Hills, never tilled, native prairie warming the soil like a thick kokum’s quilt.

Wagon at the Kessel farm. Merle Massie collection.

One hill in particular rises to attention, flowing above the farm and the circle of pine and spruce. At its top, a cairn of stones cradles an old, rusted, flagpole.

Flagpole at the Kessel farm, 2006. Merle Massie collection.

Since our purchase, I’ve been trolling the memories of neighbors, local museums, and community history books, gleaning accounts of the farm’s original owner: Albert Kessel, a garlic-chewing, eccentric, WWI bugler, journalist, Czechoslovakian master prize-winning bachelor farmer crossed in love. Fascinating.

Albert Kessel, 1958. “Yielded 45 bushels to acre.” Hills in background. Courtesy Biggar Museum.

I wrote about Albert Kessel and my search for knowledge about him in 2008, published in the June/July issue of The Beaver, now Canada’s History Magazine. I knew that Kessel operated a demonstration farm, which was widely-known and visited every year on field day by as many as 400 researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, federal experimental farms, the Searle Grain Company, neighbors, and busloads of schoolchildren. He called it Vimy Ridge Farm.

Kessel was a bugler during WWI, shot through the thigh at Vimy Ridge. In my article for The Beaver, I wrote: did this hill remind Albert of Vimy Ridge? Is that why he called his farm Vimy Ridge Farm? Did he ever blow his bugle up here? I thought it most likely that the hill, or the series of hills, reminded Albert of his harrowing French experience. In salute, Kessel erected a flagpole and every day, he would stump up the hill and fly a British flag.

At the time, I had never visited the real Vimy Ridge. All I knew of the site was confined to history books and photographs, a landscape of the imagination but never of experience. I thought that Vimy Ridge was like Hill 70 or another strategic marker on a theatre of war where every height of land meant a mile more of sovereignty. That changed in 2009, when I visited Vimy Ridge during a conference tour of Belgium and France.

The experience was overwhelming. The imprint of war on the landscape is still tangible. I visited the tunnels, shuddered at being underground, and felt my jaw drop as my eyes skidded over the craters and hummocks that pock the grass – debris from bombs that exploded on the landscape nearly a century ago. Whether or not you believe that Canada was forged at Vimy Ridge – and I’m not a pinpointer of history – knowing that you stand on Canadian soil in the middle of France redefines your perception of what it means to be Canadian.

But it was at the monument that I had my epiphany. And I wasn’t looking at the monument when it happened. I was looking out, at a flat French landscape that was both foreign and intimately familiar. I was reminded of my own words in that article I wrote for The Beaver: To the north of the yard is a commanding hill, hosting a phenomenal panoramic view of the prairies in a fifty-mile swing from east to southwest.

France, from Vimy Ridge. Merle Massie collection.

I knew, in that instant, why Albert Kessel named our farm Vimy Ridge Farm. It wasn’t about the hill – it was the view. From both Vimy Ridge in France, and Vimy Ridge Farm in Saskatchewan, the two landscapes provide a near mirror-image of space, sky, and panoramic earth. Of course, France is covered in towns, villages, trees, and industry: the pyramids are piles of coal, and that is what both armies wanted. Saskatchewan provides a relatively empty prairie view, studded with a few isolated farmsteads and an expansive agricultural skin regularly grown and shaved by generations of farmers.

When Alan MacEachern issued his lovely summer call for photographs of historical landscapes (http://niche-canada.org/node/10423) I considered where I might go, what I would like to see. But my heart knew that I had already made this trip, even if it did not conform exactly to specs. My story draws together two landscapes separated by an ocean and half a continent, and almost a century of time. The story of Vimy Ridge, and the cascading memories of place, connected a little farm in Saskatchewan with an iconic Canadian symbol.

One day, we’ll raise the flag again. We’ll do it for tenacious Saskatchewan homesteaders; for unlucky romances; for Great War and Vimy Ridge veterans; for excellence in prairie agriculture; and, for garlic-chewing bachelor farmers.

And that’s my story.

Vimy Ridge Farm Flagpole, 2012.

 

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