Last summer I drove to The Pas, Manitoba, to visit my daughter. The long, hot drive went through Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Saskatoon, the heart of prairie Canada. In part I followed the route my great-great-uncle walked back in 1875 from what is now the Winnipeg area to the St. Paul mission in what is now Alberta.
It was the same route, but a very different prairie.
Leonard Van Tighem was a young seminarian when he crossed the Great Plains to join the Oblate missionaries in the North-West Territories of Canada. He was plagued by mosquitoes and horseflies, flushed grasshoppers and moths out of the prairie wool, heard the wolf-whistle calls of upland sandpipers and the eerie cries of curlews, and saw herds of bison and pronghorns. Overhead, hawks and cranes circled. The thin, swirling song of pipits and tumbling melody of horned larks would have drifted down from the prairie sky. Everywhere: grass, sage and wildflowers.
But he believed in the frontier enterprise of taming the wild. Although he became a staunch advocate for the Piikani and Kainai people who, after signing Treaty Seven in good faith, were repeatedly betrayed by the Ottawa government and their Indian agents, he probably saw their suffering as an unfortunate cost of the inevitable march of progress. Given that, I imagine my ancestor might have looked at the modern prairie landscape I traversed 143 years later with a certain degree of approval. Because progress had clearly happened.
Ancestors might have welcomed freedom from insects. For me it awakens a deep and hopeless fear. How can nature survive without insects? How can we?
I, on the other hand, arrived at The Pas in a state of profound depression. That journey sapped most of what remained of the determined optimism that had always kept me going during a lifetime of conservation work motivated by a deep love of the natural world. My clean windshield was the coup de grâce.
My trip across that prairie landscape was in early August, the peak of nature’s fecundity and abundance. Even two decades ago, I would have had to scrub the caked and smeared remains of thousands of insects from my windshield at every fill-up stop. But when I arrived, after 1,210 km of driving, I hadn’t cleaned my windshield once.
There were no bugs.
My great-great-uncle might have welcomed freedom from insects. But for me it awakened a deep and hopeless fear. How can nature survive without insects? How can we?
Insects pollinate wildflowers and forbs. They feed birds, shrews and bats. They recycle nutrients from animal waste, suppress weeds, keep ungulates from overgrazing, and sustain much of the biodiversity of prairie ecosystems. You can’t have nature without insects. You can’t have much of anything.
But the landscape I crossed last year was marked with signs of torture. The native prairie was mostly gone, turned upside down and plowed repeatedly until its organic carbon was exhausted and its fertility now only sustained by regular doses of chemical fertilizer. Where once more than 100 species of plants and thousands of species of insects lived in a dense, interconnected, humming web of life, now there were patchwork monocultures of barley, wheat, potatoes, corn, peas, sugar beets and canola. Many of those crops were planted with seeds coated with insect-killing poisons. Others had been genetically modified so that their very pollen is now toxic. Many of the fields were an ugly gray, killed by glyphosate, a carcinogenic plant poison sprayed on ripening crops. It speeds up harvest but contaminates our food—and environment.
The family farms that once dotted the landscape were mostly gone. Instead, I saw massive processing plants that turn potatoes into fries and chips, beets into sugar, and corn into syrup. The “culture” part of agriculture is vanishing from southern Alberta’s irrigation country. Now we talk about agro-industry, as if the prairie is meant to be little more than an open-air factory.
Many of us fight to save what remains of prairie nature from cultivation and urbanization. But if even the insects are vanishing, what’s the point?
On further thought, I don’t think my great-great-uncle actually would be happy with this sick version of progress. As a thoughtful observer, surely he would see the deadness—no pipits, curlews or upland sandpipers; no bison; no wildflowers amid prairie grasses. He would see the deadness of the abandoned farms where families once lived good lives. He would sense the spiritual deadness in fields of degraded soil farmed so desperately hard that even the fences have been removed so that crop rows can extend to the very shoulders of gravel grid roads before their yields are trucked to conveyor-belt factories.
As a man of God, he would have seen scant evidence of God’s creation, or of people who care about it. Neither did I.
Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.