Perceptions Unfortunately Matter

Alicia J. M. Colson

© Copyright 2022 by Alicia J. M. Colson


Photo courtesy of Pexels.
Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Perception matters especially when you’re not familiar with the region that you’re visiting. Everyone reads landscapes and everyone tells stories. Such stories vary from those snapped on Instagram, on newswires, in family photos to those told hugging a cup of coffee or tea, or around campfires. Everyone is unique. Some staged, others sculpted, some just gossip and so on. There are those relatively untold. They’re associated with landscapes which are forgotten, or feared, unknown and unwanted. Hard to find but crucial to hear. The stories acknowledge other pasts. They stand out so much so, with nothing stopped...they risk being blurred something so pervasive in this era of hyper-globalization. These stories resemble a string of bright lights on a thin strand of wire which stretches from one side of the vast landmass, the country, to the other. This imaginary wire hovers over the international border. It attracts people like bees to honey. The lights, in tales such as this one, are the urban conurbations, cities, and settlements of mesmerising but superficial sameness. The inner cities increasingly ceasing to be unique eccentricities built during the colonial past as developers relentlessly morph them in a knock off pastiche of those to be found in their bigger cousins to the South. From the sky it’s evident that the rigid layout of these settlements is driven by the meanness of those developers. They erase the humanity of the landscape, the past(s)…‘little boxes’. Everything is bulldozed, delineated, decimated, and pinched into an idealised conformity determined by bank, realtor and the quest for the quick buck. In all that the millions of differences are no longer perceived as important, they are unnecessary, destined merely only for that proverbial ‘bucket-list’, the not so private collections of ‘selfies. ‘There’ is a specific place on one’s respective ‘bucket list’ for what’s called ‘an experience’. I discovered, possibly too late to the game, experiences are ‘bought’. Soulless! This obsession for an ‘experience’ causes some landscapes and their past(s), even their present(s) to be brushed aside, ignored and at risk of obscurity.

The 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 novels 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 industrial scale.

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. 

I’ve a passion to explain to explain the complexities and intricacies of the past. I’m a member of The Explorers Club Class of 2022 ( As an archaeologist and ethnohistorian working with computing scientists I have collaborated with the indigenous peoples, NGOs and governments in central Canada and worked in the UK, US, and Antigua to understand something of the clash between Outsiders and Insiders. So, the issue of perceptions of others is a constant one.  My writing can be found in Whetstone W Journal, Adventure Uncovered, and Era Magazine among others. Some published clips can be found here:

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