Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Alberta Reports - Number Two

June 26, 1998

Here I am in the Land of the Midnight Twilight. I’m so far north that at this time of year, it never gets dark at night. The sun does set, round about 10:30 or so, but it never gets completely dark – there’s always that bright, sunset glow on the horizon that swings around the northern sky during the night from the west to the east, where the sun comes up at about 4:00. This should change quickly now that Sunday, the longest night of the year, has passed and by August the stars, the Northern Lights and the Persieds meteor shower will be in full glorious bloom.

So I’ve been here over a week now and survived relatively intact so far. Paula and Bernie’s truck hasn’t, though. It lost a front wheel last Friday, and I do mean lost – the ball joint snapped and the wheel broke free. Fortunately, he and Lila were just starting up from a stop sign and only gone a couple feet when it let go. Impressive though, the only thing holding it on was the brake lines.

Monday morning, we finished baling the hay. 170 bales or there abouts. What a job. We have to go out in the field and follow behind a pick up truck and stack bales on the bed. We were out to midnight last night working at it. We can put about 40 bales on the truck, and then we drive back to the stockyard and unload. It’s hard because we’re piling four layers on the truck and pretty much after the first level, you’re throwing the bales over your head. They’re big, bulky, and not light. It doesn’t take much to get a sweat going out here, and soon rivulets are flowing down your face and stinging your eyes, hay is sticking to you everywhere and getting into everything, and the sun burns down mercilessly.
Later, we did some work in the stockyard. Bernie is trying to dig a dugout. So we hooked a shovel on the back of the tractor and dragged it through the mud, filling it with dirt, mud and rocks, and deposited this stuff on a hill composed of the remains of previous dugout building attempts. The shovel weighs a ton and is a bitch to move even when empty. Guiding it through a muddy pond is even tougher. We worked at it for a couple of hours, trading off turns between guiding the shovel and driving the tractor. It hardly looks like we made any progress.

Made friends with Arthur Curray, the goat. He is so named because he has a gimpy right rear foot, and therefore has three left feet. They only have one goat this year, and he is in danger of becoming a family member. As Bernie put it, “Two of the same kind of animal are livestock – one is a pet.” Arthur is so sweet; he comes when you call him, and when you pet him, he wags his stubby tail like a dog,. He just may end up being the family dog before long.

The farm needs rain. It has rained all around us; we’ve watched the gray curtains fall. It has not rained here.
You perspire just by stepping outside. A walk of a hundred feet knocks you out. A couple hours of work feels like it will kill you. Yesterday, I changed my mind about something and I broke into a sweat.
The heat is oppressive. The sun burns down unceasingly, unfailingly. It simply doesn’t stop. You look up at it, carefully, haltingly, like a slave looks to a master for relief from punishment. The Big Sky, at times glorious and stunning, becomes a cursed weight that bears down on you. It robs your strength, your energy, and your will.
It’s easy to see how ancient man created gods. Your life turns on whatever the sky deigns to bring down on you today. You’re constantly looking skyward to see what your fortunes will be. And as you watch the rain clouds that you desperately need split apart and pass by on either side of you, it’s easy to imagine some being in the sky doling out rain as a grandmother passes out candies to favoured children.
Albertans are more bound by their weather than they realize. Everything in their lives depends on the weather gods. The growing season is only 30 days long – if there’s not enough rain, if there’s too much, if it snows, if it’s too cold, if it’s too hot – there is no margin of error, no room for a second chance. God forbid it should hail. The summers are unbearably sizzling, and the winters are unbelievably frigid. There’s no middle ground, just the breadth of extremes and the gloomy massiveness of the sky.
First Nation peoples never lived here – they knew better.

And of course twenty minutes after I wrote the above bit Wednesday evening, the sky opened up with rain and thunder … for about five minutes. Actually, we had three rain bursts Wednesday night, and enough rain so that the ground was still wet Thursday morning. Today, Friday, the weather gods pelted us with rain, thunder and high winds. It was worse up to the northeast – we watched those nasty clouds roll on by. The whole weekend looks to be the same. At least Paula’s and Bernie’s worries about enough water for the crops have, er, evaporated.

Edmonton is a strange city. It shares some similarities with other prairie towns – the obvious one being that it is flat. Edmonton, like Calgary and Winnipeg, has expanded outwards. Coastal or mountain cities like Vancouver have expanded upwards. There are relatively few skyscrapers in Edmonton – the downtown core has few such windowed goliaths. In contrast, Vancouver, which has no more room for horizontal expansion, has erupted vertically with mammoth glass towers reaching for the sky on every corner.
What this means in Edmonton is that ground is cheap and plentiful, and building projects use up surface area in such vast areas that it would leave most Vancouver developers salivating at the revenue it would generate on the coast. The West Edmonton Mall is the ultimate example. The Hard Rock Café at WestEd covers surface area than Vancouver’s GM Place sports arena. (It’s honking big.) Bigger is better is not just a maxim out here, it’s a way of life. Most retail spaces are horizontally huge because it’s easy to be.
And this carries on into residential districts. Edmonton’s suburbs are huge, fenced-in developments surrounded by tall, imposing wooden enclosures. All that is missing are the armed guards. The only question is who’s guarding who? I sometimes felt like I was driving by Auschwitz – what’s going on in there that I’m not allowed to see? What secrets are being served? Why are you locking yourselves away from the world? Every new development is built on a huge section of prime, agricultural land, and comprises row upon row, street upon street of identical, cookie-cutter, look-a-like houses.
I tried to find a corner store for a quick snack, and I couldn’t. Edmonton has no neighborhood stores because it has no neighborhoods – only enclaves.

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