Saskatchewan's badlands: My connection to the cosmos
This article was originally published in the National Post, Tuesday, November 28, 2006. It is posted here with the permission of the National Post and the author. © National Post 2006
National Post: 'Many environmentalists ignore the long lesson of change and mental progress in the rocks. They cannot see the wood for the trees'
The great ice-age glaciers have gone from the Canadian Prairies. Their long meltwater channels remain, cutting through the fertile glacial deposits and the bedrock. They make a veinlike network on the plains, a pattern obvious only to air travellers. Banded colours show the rock layers. Some are seabed sediments, laid down 70 million years ago in the Cretaceous period when seas covered the area. Now they are high and dry, exposed to the sun and the stars. Their 10,000-year-long erosion continues. Hail, rain and snow melt-off scour them, winds blast them, frost breaks them. They are slumped and abraded by rivers. Fantastically gullied and grooved, they are too fractured for farming. These are the Canadian badlands.
As I walked among them in spring, I met a local farm family I know. I expressed surprise to see them there on foot. "Oh," said the farmer, "we come here at this time of year to touch our 'Good Luck' stone." He indicated a big rock nearby. Roughly rectangular, its corners were smoothed by the rubbings of bison, and after that, cattle. "It's something we like to do," he said, as the family patted the polished rock. "We think it gives the year a good start."
I patted the rock also, thinking of the stone statues of saints in the Old World partly worn smooth by generations of faithful hands. It was significant here that their talisman was not a sculpted marble statue, but a commonplace rock. Formed two billion years ago in the Canadian Shield, glaciers carried it south and dumped it maybe 8,000 years before the Pyramids rose by the Nile. Now here it stands -- a rock of ages.
The farm family's forebears had come from Europe only 100 years ago. They quickly adapted to the bald-headed prairie. Maybe the great-grandparents brought their kids to the badlands for picnics. Perhaps the kids, attracted by the sheen of the bison rubbings, patted the stone and made a wish. Some subsequent good luck was possibly credited to that action, and a new tradition began. Or, was it a carry-over from the old country -- some Druidic practice of communing with stones, transplanted to the New World? However it was, the family depended on the nearby land and now they saluted it with this ritual. It was an act of faith.
I like to see the old face of the Earth in the badlands. Yet she is perennially young. Flowers bloom there. The golden eagle hunts the uneven country. Deer track across the gumbo slopes. Coyotes call in the night. I could spend 40 days and nights in such a wilderness.
The pioneers called them "the badlands," supposing them useless. But to me, they have a purpose. They suggest a profound lesson, a lesson superbly shown by the Grand Canyon in Arizona -- perhaps the world's most famous badlands. The Colorado River cuts a canyon there, 1.6 kilometres deep, up to 29 kilometres wide and 443 kilometres long. Because it meanders, there are few panoramas; it is possible to come on it unaware. The story is told of a pioneer arriving abruptly at the rim. Astounded by the sudden abyss, he gasped, "Something has happened here!"
Something, indeed. This vast trench reveals almost half the history of the globe, in a single rock cut. No other place on earth gives a greater rearview span of time and life in one vista. The rocks are a record from the Permian Period 250 million years ago back to the Proterozoic, two billion years ago. As is usual in geological formations, there are some gaps, but the missing rocks occur in sequence elsewhere. We see the repeated successions of deposition, uplift and erosion. Fossils tell us this is ever hand-in-glove with the growth of life. In this great cleft, the Earth opens herself to view, exposes her past, bares her soul.
For whom is this exposure? To whom does she address herself, if not to people? What other creature could fathom it? And she addresses us to some effect -- nearly five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year to witness this display. (Here too, in places on the rim, people en masse have worn the rocks smooth with their feet.) Each visitor is curious in some degree. Impartially, the Earth exhibits the past. Ever she waits for those -- whoever they may be -- who understand her. The main lesson is not geological. The comprehending men and women are those who perceive that the history recorded there is their own history. The Grand Canyon demonstrates the continuity of life on Earth. The evidence is compelling.
In a less spectacular way, the Canadian badlands manifest the Grand Canyon perception. Landscape is more than scenery. Every landscape on Earth shows her development, some more, some less. In Saskatchewan's badlands, the earliest exposed rocks are of Cretaceous age. From those dinosaur days to the ice ages and the subsequent effects to the present, the story of the rocks and their fossils is told in major Canadian museums. As part of the Earth's saga, they also suggest her equanimity as she oversaw the demise of the dinosaurs (their time was up); welcomed the mammals with their outlandish names: brontotheres, oreodonts, entelodonts; watched the spread of the mammoths and mastodons, of the camels and horses and the rise of the giant bison and then its descendants. She saw those humpbacked cattle dominate the plains, and the arrival in the Americas of people, the bison's psychic superiors. Those spiritual hunters pursued the bison for thousands of years and thanked the Great Spirit for the lands' largesse. A second coming of spiritual pioneers arrived from around the globe. They had a new way of using the Earth's bounty.
Slowly, some people began to see the significance of the rocks. They were not just a part of the scenery; their secret was no longer hidden in plain sight. These people know their connection to the fossil record. From the earliest forms, they recognize their own development, the story of a great pregnancy. They understand that billions of years and myriad transitional forms were necessary to make a mind capable of comprehending the world. Something new had happened in this corner of the galaxy -- life was in the making. We were on our way.
With opening eyes, these people see how far we have come. They know that we are the inheritors of all the life that has preceded us, the embodiment of all the advances and retreats, the hesitancies, boldnesses and the sacrifices. They have a new sense of wonder and hope regarding themselves and other people. They realize with pride, and humility, that men and women were always and everywhere the sole purpose of the Earth. Here is the single lesson of the badlands -- the Earth is for people. This is what makes the badlands a Canadian heritage.
Today, men and women have transformed the Canadian prairies. In less than 100 years, we have made a dry, intermittent bison pasture produce food abundantly for people around the world. This is the way to use the land. Here is the true ecology of the Earth.
If I want to eat, preserve my health, communicate or participate fully in human life, I need artificial light, heat, power, transport, etc. I must use the results of human ingenuity. The history of Life is one of continuing adaptation. Now we must humanize the Earth.
Many environmentalists seem to believe that people (themselves excluded) are a near blight on the "natural" world. They should know that nothing is more natural than we are. We must conserve the world for our future use, but down with those who promote "the planet" (the so-called non-human world) in preference to people. This is nostalgia tinged with misanthropy and fear of change. These people ignore the long lesson of change and mental progress in the rocks. They cannot see the wood for the trees.
The astronauts who went to the moon looked back at Earth rising above the barren lunar horizon. Their pulses quickened, seeing it so far away. That was their home -- the "Planet of People." We need more manned space exploration to foster this unifying perspective and to absorb our ever-expanding powers. For the first time on Earth, life has raised its eyes to look at the universe. No other creature is conscious of the cosmos. No other creature ever ventured off the globe. No other creature thinks wonderingly of the stars. We alone want to know. "Man," said Sir Julian Huxley, the British zoologist, "is evolution become conscious of itself."
The universe is reckoned to be about 13.7 billion years old. The last five billion of those years saw the Earth evolving into the birthplace of man. For such a cosmical length of time, we have been kept safe from fatal harm. This suggests that the universe smiles on life -- that life is its purpose. People are new life, embryonic, still coalescing. If we were to end, that would be a universal abortion. However, with such an advent, can we not expect a future as long, a future forever? Unless the universe is absurd, people are here to stay.
I believe anyone frequenting the badlands with an enquiring mind (or anywhere
rocks are exposed), will sooner or later recognize the evidence I have used to
make this sketch. I have tried to be faithful to what I see in the rocks. Some
will consider it too imaginative for a sketch from life. Perhaps it is. But as
William Blake put it, "What is now proved was once only imagin'd." Scientists
like Albert Einstein were happy to acknowledge imagination in developing their
As I wandered away, a westbound jet trailed an evanescent line of latitude across the bright sky -- a fitting sight.
Paul Geraghty served as artist for the Royal Ontario Museum's Palaeontology Galleries, and the Earth Sciences Gallery at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. He has also done projects for the Ontario Science Centre and the Canadian Museum of Nature. He lives near the Saskatchewan badlands. © National Post 2006