It has been said that you cannot experience the Canadian Prairie and remain the same. As you travel down the plumb-line-straight highway, lying exposed, like the prairie itself, under an overarching sky, the fields on each side of you interrupted only by an occasional gravel road, you try to understand just how that could be, how this landscape could change you.
True, its beauty is not always appreciated at first view. Still, if you stay the course and journey over a grassland that often seems more like ocean than firm ground and try to understand what the prairie is saying to you with its windswept voice, if you remain for a time truly present to it, you might just obtain a glimpse of its, at times, complicated beauty.
Standing alone, watching the grass dance to the whim of the wind, a solitary, windswept, beauty emerges. And when the wind starts to blow so strongly that it encloses you within your own solitude, so that all you can hear is its howl and your own inner voice, and you know that it is only the sky that is listening to your cry, it is then, in your own heart, that you begin to see the prairie for what it is. You realize, then, that the prairie asks only that you understand your own humanity first, measured against the yardstick of its infinite nature, before it allows you to see its beauty.
The love of the prairie grassland is, as we found out the last time we visited Heidi Eijgel and David Glass at Windy Coulee, a fundamental reason for their presence there. Listening to Heidi speak about the grassland you get a sense of their relationship to the land as one of guardianship or stewardship. It is for them, in one respect, a question of looking at things from the perspective of the land itself. It is a matter of undertaking a guardianship of a grassland that will extend beyond their own presence at Windy Coulee. It is, in large part, a labour of love. Heidi reflected on what the grasslands of Windy Coulee mean to her:
It is important to me to put down roots. I love the land. When we bought this land, we were instantly connected to it. We don’t want to ruin it. We want it to be here after we are gone.
“We are in rolling landscape, a valley ... we look out over a big pasture, we look out over our own hill. It always will be the grassland [with] horses running over it. It is important to me to put down roots. I love the land. When we bought this land, we were instantly connected to it. We don’t want to ruin it. We want it to be here after we are gone. We are lucky to be near the mountains, for some great mountain rides.”
... It is very challenging trying to keep the horses healthy and happy and also keep the land healthy, so our approach was to put a conservation easement on the quarter section to protect it from any future development ...
There is here a recognition of the inherent value and beauty of the grassland itself. Heidi and David not only love the prairie grassland which they call home, but are moved by that love to take measures to try to preserve it:
“My husband and I bought a quarter section with native grassland on it, and it is our goal to protect that land as well. Sometimes horse-folk get a bad rap for land abuse, and it is very challenging trying to keep the horses healthy and happy and also keep the land healthy, so our approach was to put a conservation easement on the quarter section to protect it from any future development, a long-term plan beyond our lifespan. We hope to protect the grassland and reclaim a little bit of the cultivated land that was used for crops before we bought the place.”
This preservation of the natural state of land, as described here, is of special interest to RSE and its community. The dedication to restoring and preserving the grassland, however, takes more than words and sentiments. It takes, admittedly, as Heidi and David report, a lot of hard work, time and financial investment:
“We spent a lot of money putting the cultivated land back into native grass ... If you plant native grasses, it will eventually go back to something that is close. It’s coming. It took a long time to be established. We wanted it to be protected from cultivation. Grazing is an economic use of the native grassland that can support human use and the native ecosystem. We have also spent a large amount of time dealing with the invasive species in the riparian area of the farm.”
One interesting and innovative environmental protection concept that Heidi and David incorporated into their stewardship approach was their working with the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society (SALTS). This is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving “the open landscapes” of Alberta and to do so in part by preventing “private land of high ecological value from being fragmented and degraded.” (https://salts.land) Heidi commented on this approach to conservation:
“We worked with Southern Alberta Land Trust to put a conservation easement on the land. This basically protects it in perpetuity ... and it will protect it even from government influence. South Alberta Land Trust Society is a local grassroots organization and they hold the conservation easement which means we have the land assessed for a certain value before the easement [is placed] and then we put our own restrictions on it: so, no cultivation, no subdivisions and a few other items, and then we had the land assessed with those restrictions in place and, of course, it is a lower value. But because of the difference in value the SALTS can issue a tax receipt so that basically you can protect your land and receive a financial benefit through a conservation easement. The conversation easement ... provides a financial incentive. There are some very large ranches in Alberta that have put easements on the land and these have made significant conservation contributions to the landscape.”
Preserving the breed of Canadian horse is, as we discovered last visit, a crucial part of the reason for the presence of Heidi and David at Windy Coulee. As we’ve seen here the preservation of the grassland is another priority for them. Both of these goals are important to them. Still, what Dave and Heidi further emphasize is that the preservation of the horse is also intimately connected to the preservation of the land upon which they live. We will explore this connection between the well-being of the land and the horses that graze upon it next time we visit Heidi and Dave at Windy Coulee.