Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan is an amazing place. It is natural shortgrass prairie and home to all kinds of interesting plants and animals. Over the course of three days there in 1994, we saw badgers, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, burrowing owls, ferringous hawks, black tailed prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, and red foxes. We saw teepee rings on the top of bald buttes, unused for maybe 100 years, but each stone cast off the bottom of a skin teepee and gently placed in a ring for another time. We saw buffalo stones; huge erratic boulders rubbed smooth by centuries of buffalo who scratched themselves against the cool stone.
But initially, it wasn’t easy to see all this. Grasslands is wide open and one can travel anywhere on foot. We decided that we would visit every tree that we could see in the park (4 in all). During the first evening of looking around we saw none of the wildlife we expected. The next morning we spotted a coyote trail and decided to follow it.
Suddenly the world revealed itself to us, The trail took us past deer beds and badger dens, prairie dog colonies and owl burrows. Past a bleached skeleton of an antelope and down to the muddy Frenchman River, the northern most reach of the Mississippi River Basin.
And the trail wound on, almost aimlessly, yet connecting each of these living places like a songline. I got to wondering how long that trail had been there…200 years? 1000 years? How long had the coyotes been patrolling the valley, checking on every possible chance for a meal?
I soon became convinced that these trails had no beginning and no end. To follow them you simply hop aboard, like a depression era drifter riding freights, and see where they carry you. Other trails join, and sometimes the path splits in two. But there is no beginning and no end. In theory, the continent is laced with these paths, the original story of the land etched gingerly into the natural surface of the earth. In most places these paths have been covered over, but I am sure that the acquired energy of thousands of years of animals walking has left an imprint. If one was sensitive enough, one might even be able to feel the trail humming beneath concrete or blacktop, honouring only the topography and natural contour of the land.
We can find these stories again. We have to dig beneath the layers that have grown over the trails like grime. But the story is there. It reveals itself the same way a dirt path emerges across a grassy urban park, in complete defiance of the paved plan . There are natural ways to navigate within space. By honouring them, the real story emerges, and the living places reveal themselves to us.