We were in a hurry to get out of the city and into the real prairie, where you can climb a fence post and see for about a million miles — that’s how flat the prairie is.
— Farley Mowat, Owls in the Family, 1961
On the morning of Friday, November 4, 2005, I left the city of Moose Jaw (population 35,689) and headed north. The commercial boxes along Main Street gave way to the clapboard of residential neighborhoods. On the outskirts stood Moose Jaw’s teen mecca, the Town and Country Mall; and then it was prairie. I stopped the car on the edge of a wheat-stubble field. Behind me the Moose Jaw skyline looked compressed by the weight of the steel gray Saskatchewan sky. The field spread out before me to infinity. The gusting wind was ferocious, and its intense cold cut like a knife to the bone. I made a photograph and quickly got back in the car, eventually warmed up, and continued on my way.
My destination was Saskatoon, 140 miles north along Highway 11. Neil Young played on the stereo: “They say there’s nothing out there but wheat fields anyway / Just a farmer’s wife hanging laundry in her back yard / Out on the prairie where the winds blow long and hard / Prairie wind blowing through my head….” It was not long before snow flurries were dancing in the wind; by the time I reached Saskatoon, two and a half hours later, they had intensified into a steady fall of heavy wet snow. Winter had begun and my trip was coming to an end. I had been on the road in Saskatchewan for almost two months, exploring and photographing, trying to make sense of what it means to live in the mysterious flatlands of the Canadian prairie.
Underlying Saskatchewan’s sense of place is a linear aesthetic. Straight lines dominate the landscape. The province is criss-crossed by an astonishing network of municipal roads that extend from the 49th to the 54th parallel. These gravel and dirt roads add up to 102,000 miles, and are given their own dedicated map, simply titled “Saskatchewan Grid Road Map,” priced $1.75. For the rural inhabitants these roads are usually the most direct route between communities and often provide the only access to farms. And, as I experienced, they are used by the many grain trucks that hurtle along at demonic speeds, approaching in huge clouds of dust that pelt your car with stones as they pass. Straight lines are not only on the landscape, they also protrude from it. The extreme flatness exaggerates the presence of anything vertical. Grain elevators tower up majestically, looking like cathedrals of agriculture. Even people in the landscape, or just a simple fence post, seem to take on a monumental presence as they rise up from the land.
I had arrived in Saskatchewan during its centennial. It was a celebration of the incorporation of the province and the pioneering spirit of its founders — the homesteaders who scratched a living out of a barren land, where the number of farms increased from 1,500 in 1886 to 56,000 by 1906. But the Saskatchewan I discovered told a more complex story. Although the province is still predominantly agricultural, the majority of the population now lives in cities. Throughout the landscape I saw abandoned farms in various stages of decay, their yards littered with rusting cars. The rural culture was clearly in decline. But even in the cities, the presence of the prairie is always there — the inescapable flatness, the huge enveloping sky, and the piercing wind that blows through everything in its path.