Thursday, June 10, 2010
The Spirit of a Place
I had looked forward to seeing the Canadian Badlands while on a family vacation, having been so taken with similar landscapes in Arizona and New Mexico. While not quite as spectacular as its wild southern counterparts, there was unmistakable subtle beauty in the wide sweeping plateaus of grassland and carved valleys and coulees, bounded with the multi-coloured and layered strata of the earth's history. It felt like I was cradled in a pocket of time. This is truly where once dinosaurs roamed...and died.
But during the five days we spent here, I began to wonder how much the history and story of a landscape can impact the spirit of a place. In this arena of subtle evolution and mass extinction, I sensed this struggle remained. Aboriginal cultures are sensitive to the voices and wisdom of the land. They say some places speak to men, others to women. Our culture pays little heed to such things, but if we listened to the wisdom - the voices of the land - what would they advise?
In the midst of the badlands is Drumheller, a small city, located in the valley of the Red Deer River and known for the rich fossil beds of prehistoric bones. Perhaps it was only the weather, or the season, but a sense of unease was almost palatable. Amongst a few new hotels, grocery stores and restaurants, a multitude of dinosaur statues in Crayola colours seemed like forced humour, at odds with the sand-coloured homes huddled side by side.
Despite the beauty of the surroundings and open friendliness of its people, I perceived few feelings of pride here; many homes looked dejected and uncared for, yards small and overgrown. There was an air of neglect...of wistfulness.
People still talk about the great flood of 2005 when the waters of the Red Deer River rose to their highest levels in 200 years. I spoke to a lady whose business had been destroyed. She tried to push the government for compensation, she told me. But no one would join their voice to hers. She fought alone for a time, then discouraged, she moved away. She's back again, now five years later - it's my home, she told me -but her eyes are sad.
This is a man's town. Coal mining first grew the town, then oil sustained it, now a penitentiary provides employment and the bone beds of ancient creatures bring fame...but not fortune.
Perhaps it is presumptuous of me, having been there such a short time, but everything about these streets seemed contrived. As if at the heart of it, this town knows it does not belong here, in this sacred cemetery - this valley of death - but it struggles onward with a human spirit unwilling to give up.
But it all made me wonder. What if some places are just not meant to be settled? What if some places are simply meant to be wild?