What the Bison Man Knows

Wes Olson, Grasslands National Park
Wes Olson, Grasslands National Park

(This is the first installment in my series: Things Canadians Should Care About)

Wes Olson pokes the spaces between the rocks on the grassy hillside, checking for rattlesnakes, before letting us sit down. With that potential threat out of the way, he warns us about the bison. There are a few standing a good half mile away and the massive beasts are not likely to run you down for no good reason. But Wes tells us a good rule of thumb, literally, is to hold that digit out in front of you, look at it through one eye, and if any bison parts are visible on either side of your thumb, YOU ARE TOO CLOSE! Bison are deceptively fast, and given their size, well you just don’t want to be in the way.

He looks like his name sounds. Wes Olson: tall, rugged, sun-baked and mustached. I suppose that could also describe an outlaw, but his quiet and intelligent confidence speak to a character comfortable in his own skin and his own knowledge, and mostly at home in the nature that surrounds him. He is very, very wise and speaks of the bison as an elder might, with wisdom and grace. I have a sense that if he were to get a chance to actually talk to the politicians who decided not to replace him when he retired from Grasslands National Park in 2012, he would simply shake his head in wonder at the ignorance of humankind.

Bison, Grasslands National Park
Bison, Grasslands National Park

Because Wes knows bison. After thirty years of working with these ungulates in various parks across Canada, he’s come to understand and admire the bison in a way only someone truly in tune with them can. Their mating rituals; how their habit of constantly moving while grazing maintains native prairie grasses; how a bison’s skeletal structure supports its massive head and chest while giving it lightning speed; the ways in which bison manure supports dung beetles which in turn support bird species; that bison hair is the second warmest fibre in North America and is also water repellant; how the unique olfactory masking of this hair used in bird nests enhances chick survival from predators. These are just a few of the facts he shares with our eclectic group which includes authors, ranchers, scientists, and environmentalists, all interested in preserving grasslands and the species they support both within and outside the park.

Along with other senior staff in the park, the position Wes left was not filled. He has no one to pass his wisdom to, no one to care, in a single-minded way, about the bison which were re-introduced to the park in 2006. At that point there were 71 bison. In 2013 the total numbers were at 344, according to Wes. The objective was to hit 350 and study their effect on the native grasses in the park, how their grazing habits might help sustain pristine native prairie that is vital habitat to a multitude of species-at-risk. But this year there will be few park staff to watch, to count or to care.

IMG_3435 - CopyGrasslands is a long way from anywhere. It’s one of few dark sky preserves in the world. It’s a huge expanse of hills and draws covered in grasses and shrubs and lichens and wildflowers whose numbers I can’t begin to count. There are more than 12,000 archeological sites in the area, including teepee rings, effigies and burial sites. It is wondrous place, impossible, really, to comprehend. But that’s the point. It is only when you look out over the vista and then get up close and personal with the bison through the knowledge Wes offers, that somehow you too can feel it, just a little. A sense of history that remains little marked by the present, a feeling that here we have something awesome in the truest sense of that over-used word, a national treasure.

Much as Wes Olson is. More than one of the group referred to him as such, their faces crumbling in despair at the thought his knowledge and skill will be lost. But apparently if you live in a place isolated by geography, a national treasure means little and the bison he watched over even less. It is worth the trip to the grasslands of Southwest Saskatchewan to see and judge for yourself; see the animals, listen to the birds, touch the grasses and the flowers. They will make your heart sing. And when you’re inclined to dance to the rhythm, remember to let others know and to insist an apprentice is hired for Wes to mentor, and to understand that we are all responsible for the protection of those things worthy of preservation.

Margaret Atwood and Me

Photo by Shelley Banks
Photo by Shelley Banks

Okay so that title is a shameless attempt at self-promotion. And to be honest, there were a dozen or so other people with us, including fellow writer Shelley Banks who also takes great photographs like the one here.  Still, I was so fortunate to be invited to spend two days with Atwood and her partner, fellow writer and decorated conservationist, Graeme Gibson touring Grasslands National Park and the PFRA community pastures in Southwest Saskatchewan. The pair, along with other representatives of BirdLife International were invited by the group Public Pasture-Public Interest, an affiliation of ranchers, conservationists, First Nations people, scientists and naturalists hoping to convince governments to keep the community pastures under some form of public management. They believe it’s the only way to save the ranchers who graze their cattle on them and the 32 species at risk that call them home.  The issue is a complicated one, and I won’t say too much more about it because I’m doing some magazine work regarding this aspect of the tour.

What I can say is Atwood and company came to Saskatchewan to learn. They were gracious, asked many questions, and listened with real interest to the answers. What was most gratifying to me as a writer, was watching ideas bloom in Margaret Atwood’s face, and how she shaped them into analogies that would appeal to a broader audience. For example, when the cattlemen who spoke to us explained they were expected to put together business plans with complete strangers, and to do so with incomplete information, and within only a few months, her on-the-spot response:

“Ranchers have been given a Cinderella plot: the wicked stepmother says, ‘sure you can go to the party, but first you must complete these impossible tasks in two hours’. And the only reason Cinderella is able to do that is, one, she’s got a fairy godmother and, two, she’s got a lot of friendly mice and birds to help her. (she smiles) Without human help on this, the ranchers can’t do it.”

Or, in response to fears that binders of research outlining the ecological health of the pastures will simply gather dust on a shelf somewhere,  while the professional pasture managers have been handed pink slips:

“Why are we throwing away the medical records of the land and taking away the land doctors?”

She’s very good at this.

At the Harvest Moon Café in downtown Val Marie (population 350), Atwood explained the relationship between writing and activism.

Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood, Grasslands National Park Photo: Anne Lazurko
Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood, Grasslands National Park
Photo: Anne Lazurko

“I think writers can be activists because we don’t have a job. We can’t be fired. I can be disregarded — no sorry I can’t have a meeting with you because I’m washing my hair and will be washing my hair into the foreseeable future — but they can’t send me a notice saying your employment is terminated. Others are afraid to speak out whether they work for government or somebody else whose political opinion they might run afoul of. That’s how it works and why totalitarian governments line up artists and shoot them. They would much rather discredit you than listen.”

“What they don’t understand,” she adds with a slow smile and mischief in her eyes, “is that I’m under the protection of the great pumpkin so it’s likely to backfire.”

I dare say, she’s probably right.

It was a real pleasure to meet both Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson and, at the end of it all, to have Atwood’s blessing upon my novel Dollybird  (Coteau Books, fall 2013).

“Good luck with the novel,” she said.

Doesn’t get much better than that.

Thanks to Trevor Herriot, co-chair of PPPI for the invitation. More on the interesting people of the southwest in future. Stay tuned.

A Question of Colour

Years ago I wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in a small community located in the hills and bush between Edmonton and Jasper. Readers response varied from an agreeable nod of the head to “I will never read your newspaper again.” My editor would simply shake his head and tell me to keep writing.

You might wonder what I could say to the 7000 souls of Edson Alberta to bring on their wrath. What you have to understand is this was the heart of the Yellowhead riding during the early days of the “Reform Party of Canada”, (can’t you just hear him saying it?). Preston Manning was hawking his version of the country, and MP, Joe Clark, held the foreign affairs portfolio. Oh there was a lot could be said. In that true blue place, with its true blue sentiments, I dared call Joe Clark a Red Tory.

I mean seriously, was he not at least bordering on pink? Especially when it came to foreign affairs? He was the first politician of any stripe to question Israel’s handling of the Palestinians, he led the world into Ethiopian famine relief despite its being a “marxist” state, he helped formalize sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa even as others hesitated, and he spoke out against American intervention in Central America. Hello? Red Tory or what?

It was not my intent to offend anyone by describing him thus. In fact I thought it was a bit of flattery. That some would disagree was not a surprise. What caught me off guard was the “I won’t read you anymore” reaction, the notion that our disagreement on the nature of Joe Clark’s true political colour meant we could not even have a conversation about it. I had always assumed a certain generosity of mind, a willingness to read and contemplate the opinions of others without feeling threatened by them.

It’s the beauty of written language. We can linger over it. We can question our biases in the comfort of our own mind. We can change without having to admit it to anyone but ourselves. At the tender age of idealism, it was a sad realization that many have no desire to be enlightened. They seek only confirmation of their biases, surrounding themselves with people and information of their same ilk to the almost complete exclusion of others.

It’s not a left or right phenomenon. I know people on the left who wouldn’t be caught dead with a business magazine tucked discreetly between copies of Mother Jones and the Utne Reader on the back of their toilet tank.  And too many on the right dismiss the breadth of opinion available on CBC as somehow tainted pink by its being a publicly funded entity. Both attitudes are absurd and small and prove a lack of confidence in the ability to maintain and defend a position in the presence of new or conflicting information. Too often if you push for more, ask the simple question: why? the response is a snort, a shake of the head, gestures universally interpreted as “you’re an idiot”. You don’t agree with me, ergo you must be stupid.

While it doesn’t matter so much in the case of Joe Clark and his true colours, least of all to him, it does matter in the broader political arena. If our leaders eschew any thoughtful comment outside their ideological platform as not only a nuisance, but in fact stupid, it becomes …well…it becomes at best our Canadian parliament’s present credibility problems, and at worst Donald Trump. How can anyone understand  and represent the country if they don’t understand and represent the country in its broadest sense, in all its diversity of culture and geographics AND opinion?

I ramble on, and I suppose in writing this I’m giving an opinion, even a strong one. But I would welcome a conversation about it, would in fact reconsider Joe and that question of colour, if someone presented a stimulating argument, a new insight, a reasoned comment. That would be real debate, that would be a nice change.