Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan

Book Cover Forest Prairie Edge

In her new book, Forest Prairie Edge, Merle Massie offers readers a rethinking of Saskatchewan, a province whose "prairie" designation simplifies the reality of its geography, history and culture. She examines the space in between the boreal forests of Northern Saskatchewan and the prairies of the south in order to imagine a refreshing new perspective on the province and Canada's West. In this guest piece for 49th Shelf, she tells how her own history influenced the book she would write, and also introduces us to the word "stumpranch." 

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I grew up on a forest fringe stump ranch farm near Paddockwood, Saskatchewan, north of Prince Albert. A stump ranch or stump farm, if you’ve never heard the term, is a farm cut out of the trees: the joke is that you mostly farm stumps instead of crops or animals. Just a few miles from the Northern Provincial Forest in Saskatchewan, our weeds tended to be poplar trees, and our cows would sometimes be found grazing next to a herd of elk or the odd moose or jumper. The farm wasn’t sprawling or prosperous like those on the prairies, but it had wood for the old Valley Comfort stove in the basement, the Garden River running through it for evening canoe rides and trapping, and it nestled in the centre of the northern Lakeland cottage country. Millionaires bought lakefront property at Emma and Candle Lakes to visit a few times a year, while we had all those lakes on our doorstep every day. I pitied them, in my cast-off clothes while drinking fresh milk from Dad’s two cows and eating home-grown pork and beef and wild meat.

As I grew older, I became puzzled, then increasingly frustrated, by the "Saskatchewan" of the history books. The endless plains, wheat, and dust did not match my identity. I grew up with the wind rustling through poplars and climbed massive pine trees in my own front yard. I often got headaches on visits to the prairies. It felt like the sky was sitting on my head; I was holding up the clouds. I couldn’t wait to go back north, home to the treeline.

As I grew older, I became puzzled, then increasingly frustrated, by the "Saskatchewan" of the history books.

I wrote this book originally as my PhD thesis. At its core, it is a local history of the place where I grew up. But even that promise has its drawbacks: people at home assumed that I was writing a community history book that would trace the story of each and every family on each quarter section or reserve land. Such a project would be magnificent, but I’d never be finished and it could take over my life. These people worried that my project was too big: how could you write the history of all the little small towns, post offices, school districts, and hamlets that made up our "home" region? Impossible.

Merle Massey

I had the opposite problem with colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan. They worried, with equal concern, that my project was too small. Surely I’d have to compare the history of this place with the history of similar places across the forest fringe? Otherwise, would I have enough information to work with? Could I make big, provocative statements without having more data, more comparisons, a larger focus? My agenda was more simple: tell the story of this place, first.

In the end, the book became my history, but writ large. How did my family get here, and why did they stay? What drew them to this place? What drew others to this place, and why? Finally, what kind of landscape is it, precisely, and how can humans draw a living from it? In studying a place that straddles the two solitudes of Saskatchewan—south and north, prairie and forest, agriculture and resources—I discover my own history, and offer a new way to “see” Saskatchewan.

Merle Massie is a Saskatchewan writer, editor, and farmer who specializes in local, rural, and environmental history.

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See Also: 

Saskatchewan Writers at 49th Shelf 

Check out Saskatchewan Books on the Read Local Map

June 16, 2014
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