Perceptions Unfortunately Matter
Alicia J. M. Colson
© Copyright 2022 by Alicia J. M. Colson
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
region labelled as ‘Fly over’ is the relatively unknown
area of central North America…It’s usually not on the
proverbial ’bucket list to visit’ for those want to
‘know’ North America. It’s
something of a mirage. Everyone knows what it is, but few can
accurately locate it. In the US it’s that inconvenient lump of
land between New York and San Francisco but in Canada, it’s
that area of grassland and forest east of the Rockies which includes
the stately vast igneous Canadian Shield, Bouclier canadien in
French. This enormous bedrock stretches east and North to Labrador
and Greenland around Canada’s Arctic Coast, its southern edges
extending into northern USA to Minnesota. It has its own soul. The
Boreal Forest, another world away - physically, mentally, and
spiritually. Much has been said, even
written about the Shield, but less about the fact it’s
neighbors is ‘Fly-over’ ‘land’, - one of the
world’s breadbaskets. Pigs, wheat, and oil seed rape, that
“black gold”, grow here. The fields stretch for miles,
vast tracts, which means harvest takes days and nights after the
summer with ‘armies’ of black and grey machines,
ominous black combine harvesters crawling like bugs but in straight
lines. These machines reap, thresh, gather, and winnow, move
slowly but deliberately southwards from the north, apparently on
transparent tracks, across the landscape. This ‘train’ is
accompanied by counterpart, parallel ‘train’ of smaller
(large) trucks which ‘change’ as they with collect the
grain from the harvesters. These combines not only harvest the crop
but data about the crop. Data on the soil temperature, type, moisture
levels, land quality and quality is collected and fed via satellite
receivers on their roofs to remote
computers else. So, the ‘crop’ is data regarding growth
patterns and plants. The drivers of these vehicles progress as if
they’re in a funeral procession to the death of the crop. All
the while harvesting information of two sorts (data and the crop) in
straight lines across acres of land. The ‘drivers’ of
these desks are seated in air-conditioned cabs surrounded by big
computer screens indicating the latest in the digital data about the
crop, and the quantity of the yield in real time in air condition
cabs. A surreal mix. This breadbasket is growing plants on an
Fly-over’ erases the history of grain production of Manitoba from the 1820s. Who remembers that in the 1820s the Red River colony’s seed grain was destroyed? Who remembers that wheat seed grain was obtained from Wisconsin, on a mission carried out by men in snowshoes and brought back to the Colony by flat boats using the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, Big Stone Lake, and the Red River? (Neither roads or trains existed between these places.). From that time until the 1960s oats, barley, spring wheat and hay were the key crops in the region. A shift occurred in the 1990s where spring wheat and oats were replaced by durum wheat, ‘black gold’ and alfalfa. The landscape does follow textbook discussion – it isn’t just endless fields of golden wheat as those of us from afar are informed!
What’s unknown to the European visitor is that Manitoba houses the largest number of pigs in Canada. Who knew that hogs are the second largest source of farm cash receipts for the province? Little indication of it whilst driving in rural southern Manitoba if you’re an Outsider and dependent on your sense of smell. Pig farms aren’t on the maps! Strong wafts of manure fail to reveal the sheer size and scale of pig husbandry in the south of the province!
So, the term ‘Fly-over’ implies that it’s just one infinite field, but this is far from the truth – it’s not just fields! I felt as if everyone who used it implied that the region was “just flat and boring” and “empty” and had outright lied to me. Despite the industrial scale farming the innate beauty of this region with those enormous skies which make one feel as if they ’re going to be swallowed up there and then captures and holds one’s imagination. The sheer scale of the skies makes one feel as small, minute really, negligible, accompanied by those summer storms which are things of beauty, and power - unforgettable experiences. The place names imply things have happened, people have lived for hundreds of years, if not thousands. Things clearly happened here. Why was Winnipeg called ‘the Chicago of the North’? What about the Riel Rebellion’? What about the fact that it’s neighbour, Saskatchewan has its own geographies, and complex past and present? Why use one word as a cover all which covers up the complexity of this region’s past and present? This landscape has some tales to tell.
One summer, travelling by car, I watched a thunderstorm move across the sky East – West across the Prairies from northwestern Ontario to the foothills of the Rockies. The sky was vast. The wind was still. Time stopped except for the sky. On one side, of me, the clouds were a deep dark menacing gray on the other the skies were a deep blue all the while, big raindrops plummeted in the distance – the road’s surface looked as though it was pitted. Another time, but at night, I saw a grain elevator on my way through southern Manitoba, from Winnipeg, just before the US/Canadian border. Our destination was Fargo, North Dakota, due South. I’d just woken up from sleeping in the back seat of a car. It was lit up in tiny bright yellow lights in the pitch black. Half asleep, it seemed to leap out of nowhere, lit up hinting at a shape which resembled, in my mind’s eye the outlines of a vast cathedral from that part of my childhood spent in England where spires and towers cast long shadows. I was confused, puzzled as why such large entitles with such noble bearings existed here. My road map told me nothing existed here… nothing. The grain elevator wasn’t on the map! On several other trips in the middle of the winter the snow transformed, almost simplifying southern Manitoba’s complex biodiverse landscape, deceiving Outsiders. Winter ‘games’ cuckold outsiders, deceiving them as to its potential for causing death. Despite the serene stark beauty of the snow and cold, winter is a killer with harsh bone blade penetrating below zero temperatures.
Perception affects one’s initial judgements about a landscape. Is it foreboding, friendly or even friendless? Landscapes aren’t just physical but imbued with cultural values and judgements by those who live in them and visit them, paint them, even put them on Instagram. The idea of a landscape being pristine, and untouched is a physical impossibility but it’s a compelling perception held by many. Perception is consequently not only powerful, it bears a load of political judgement. It informs ‘experience’ and, thankfully, evades developers.