Working the Land - jwardenphotography
This article was originally published in the Summer 2009 edition of Nature Alberta Magazine.

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By John Warden

My love for chicken stew with dumplings originates way back in one of my earliest childhood memories.

It was harvest time at our family farm, nine miles east of the town of Vulcan. I was maybe four years old, so it would have been the mid nineteen-fifties. My grandmother on my mothers’ side had come out from town to the farm, to help my mom cook for the men who were helping with the harvest. My grandma had prepared chicken stew with dumplings. I remember the three of us driving the food out to the field and how the warm smell of chicken stew filled the car.

My Dad and the ‘hired men’ gathered around the combines and the trucks and we ate dinner in the field. Family story goes that I went around to each of the men, asking for a bite of their meal. While I don’t remember that actual part of the story, I’ll never forget the taste of the food – absolutely wonderful. I do have a memory of the men hunkered over eating and that the air was a golden yellow, thick with wheat dust and chaff. I remember that the land seemed to stretch out as far as I could see. Thinking of it now, I see a group of hungry men who were working the land.

The early history of Alberta is full of people who worked and cared for the land. There is a photograph of my grandfather on my Dad’s side. He’s part of a group of local Vulcan men and they are all wearing cowboy hats and long handlebar mustaches. You can tell from the photo that these are hard-working men. My grandfather died while my Dad was still a boy, so of course I never met him, but even from the photograph, you can tell he was a man who worked horses and cattle. You get a sense that he was a man who was part of the land. And my father worked and cared for the land after him.

My mom’s mother came to Alberta in April of 1913 when she was seventeen years old. I seem to remember her telling me that at first, she lived in a sod house, built into the side of a coulee and then in a converted wooden granary that had a dirt floor. She writes in her biography of chasing pronghorn antelope on foot and of hunting coyotes on horseback. She was a woman of the land who writes of falling in love with Alberta the first day she arrived as a ‘settler’ in Brooks.

As you can see, my grandparents on both side of the family had connections to the land. They had to care for and manage the land in order to survive. While most of us today no longer have the opportunity of working the land like they did, I do think that we all continue to have the responsibility of managing the land, managing our earth in order to survive.

My family and I moved away from the farm when I was five, but I came back to the family farm for the summer when I was sixteen. My uncle worked the farm at that time and he taught me to drive truck and tractor and to pull plows and harrows and seeders. In the afternoons, I would drive tractor and he would nap in the pick-up truck. Flocks of gulls would follow the tractor, their white wings and bodies contrasting against the freshly over-turned earth. Working late into the summer evenings, with fiery orange and red sunsets etched across the prairie sky, I would try to remember the colors and patterns so that I could paint them one day. I didn't know then that my paint brush would be a camera.

I certainly never worked the land like my parents and grandparents. But even the few weeks I spent learning to care for the land that one summer seems to have created a connection. A connection across generations and a connection with the land. I suspect that it is because of my parents and grandparents and their early stewardship of the land that I learned to work landscapes in my own way – for their artistry and for their beauty.

Alberta is over 660,000 square kilometers of land. It’s a big place with big skies and every kind of landscape. Whether it’s the mountains and foothills or the prairies, parkland and badlands, the natural beauty of Alberta is ‘close to home’ for all of us. The magnificent landscapes of Alberta surround us and it is important that we take the time to enjoy and appreciate them. But we also have a responsibility. We have the responsibility to care for, manage and sustain those landscapes. To be the stewards, the guardians even, so that the land survives for the generations that follow us.

One of the strengths of Nature Alberta magazine is that it allows us all the opportunity to begin to communicate. It creates a forum that allows us to share ideas and issues about how to care for our natural Alberta. Maybe sharing our ideas will lead to action – doing the things that will help to care for our land.

Perhaps a first step is to slow down. By slowing down, we can breathe out a little and take the time to have some fine chicken stew with dumplings in the middle of a farmer’s field – with our families. Maybe that is a start or a catalyst to opening ourselves up to the experience of the land around us. I think it was for me. Somehow it is through connecting with the land that we will realize the importance of saving the land, saving it from ourselves and for ourselves.

I taught myself how to make chicken stew with dumplings when I was about fifty years old and I made it for my kids. They loved it. They’re adults now, living on their own, but they still ask for it when they come home to visit. Chicken stew – maybe they’ll make it for their children, at harvest time when the light is gold and thick with the chaff of wheat and the sky still stretches out across the Alberta prairie, as far as you can see.

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