The prairies seem almost like an alien landscape to me. Back at home, I’m used to forests of towering trees, rounded tree-covered hills breaking up the horizon, and, in the distance, the sight of larger jagged, snow-capped peaks rising above the hills. But on the prairies, the land stretches out flat or gently rolling in all directions. No trees other than clusters of aspens or poplars – and even these seem smaller than the ones back home – and trees planted as windbreaks around farmhouses. As we head further east, deeper in to the prairies, the mountains drop below the horizon behind us and vanish, as if they never existed. The sky above seems very large, with no trees or hills to block my view of it. Because of that, it seems brighter here, somehow. The air is more humid than I’m used to, and even the soil is different: darker, with a water table that’s closer to the surface, as though the land remembers the inland sea that once existed here.
Yet there’s another difference as well. Where I’m from, although most of the land has been influenced by humans to some extent, whether through agriculture, logging, mining, or outdoor recreation, it is still not hard to find areas that contain many of their native plants and animals. But on the prairies, most of the native grasslands – especially in the moister regions – have been converted into agricultural land for growing crops. And the species that once was a major shaping force on this landscape – the American bison, the largest land animal in North America, which controlled the composition of the native plant community through grazing – has been extirpated from most of the regions where it once lived. As I gaze across the prairies, I realize that I have no idea what this land once looked like, what grasses and other wild plants once grew here. In many areas, all I see is vast fields of commercial crops, genetically modified and controlled by pesticides and expensive farming equipment, dotted with occasional oil wells or wind turbines.
I feel more at home when we descend to one of the river valleys, and I have the impression of hills rising up around me. Where I’m from, river valleys are among the most populated parts of the province, because the rest of the land is often too mountainous or too cold for most people. On the prairies, however, because the flat land is preferred for farming, the river valleys can feel strangely deserted. The rivers cut directly through the flat prairie land, revealing layers of soil and rock that – if you how to read them – can tell you stories of the history of this land. At this time of year, the rivers wind through languidly, and it is easy to forget about the extensive flooding experienced by many prairie communities early in the summer. As we ascend out of the valley, I look back and the river has disappeared; my eyes see only the flat land on either side.
An alien landscape – but one that is part of my country, and only a few mountain ranges away. It is good to travel to a place like this, to be reminded at how different other parts of the world are. Yet it is good as well to know that my home in the forests and mountains still awaits me.