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The Empire of Hobos

Posted on June 14, 2016 by Maple Creek

The Story Pool – By Madonna Hamel

There exist a few descriptive terms for this part of the world, one of the most dramatic among them being ‘Palliser’s Triangle’. For me, the ‘triangle’ part, no doubt because it reminds me of the Bermuda Triangle, conjures up an image of a cordoned off forbidden zone, a godforsaken section of earth and sky that will break you should you try to settle it. There have been fertile and fortune-ridden triangles in the world, but Palliser’s means trouble.
Palliser himself was a kind of gentleman-explorer, a Brit with enough money to strike out across the pond for new geographical and botanical adventures. Between 1857-1860, having convinced the British government that he and his team should examine the area between Lake Superior and the Pacific Coast, Palliser compiled a hefty report detailing observations on everything from plants and animals, to the content of soils and rocks, to snowfalls, rainfalls, temperatures, and winds over the seasons  and even a comet tracked overhead.
Much of his knowledge he gained from interactions with Plains Indians, including the Blackfoot, Bloods, Piegans and Sarcee. That he could move through their territory ‘without getting into a fight was no mean achievement’, wrote the historian Irene M. Spry, in the only full-scale account of Palliser’s Expedition. He got along with them and admired their freedom and range of movement. He observed and recorded their customs and languages and amassed a modest vocabulary of four of their tribes.
When you talk to folks around here about the Palliser Expedition the common understanding of the term Palliser’s Triangle is that Palliser was some dismissive British know-it-all, once again telling people what they can or can’t do. And while it’s true he reported that ‘the southwestern part of the true prairie lands contained large areas where limited and uncertain rainfall and lack of water would make settlement difficult, if not impossible’, it’s important to know that Palliser’s expedition took place during a period of heavy drought. He had no idea what the land was capable of during a rainy decade.  What we forget is that when Palliser was telling settlers not to bother, he was not the outsider telling locals what’s best for them – as is often the case in these parts – he was one of the first white men to ever touch the territory.
But Palliser had another motive for discouraging settlement in the triangle. He didn’t think it would be good for either the whites or the Indians. He foresaw difficulties among  the ‘freely roaming Indians’ and the here-to-stay settlers. By all accounts Palliser’s approach to the problem was impartial, but emphatic: the two ways of life would clash, causing pain and heartbreak on all sides. But, as is the case today with so many government studies, Palliser’s report was left unread (until decades later); America had a civil war on its hands and the British House of Commons blanched at the mass of detailed scientific observations between the covers of the report, so they ignored his advice, only to see everything unfold as he predicted, twenty-five years later, in the North-West Rebellion.
Another lesser-known description of the territory is “Prairie Dog Empire”. Val Marie is the prairie dog capital of Canada (which has to put us in the running for prairie dog capital of the world, surely). Every summer the population of the village swells with scientists and researchers studying the cynomys ludovicianus. Among them is a team of young women scientists who come every year, and last year their leader paid me to paint prairie dog skulls on eight t-shirts. And while bison and steer skulls are readily recognizable, the tiny dog skulls remain a mystery to most folks, which makes the t-shirts a kind of elite badge for a small band of merry women.
I admire these women, out in the Grassland dog towns, measuring, weighing and notating in all kinds of weather at all hours, even risking being bitten by the little beggars, as was Evelyn, team leader from London, England. One afternoon she came into Prairie Wind & Silver Sage for a cup of tea and she showed me her bandaged finger.
“Ouch! Does it hurt?”
“Not as much as the puma…”
“The puma!?”
“…or the baboon.”
Evelyn works with threatened species all over the world, but her heart goes out to the wee prairie dogs. This is something hard to believe for the ranchers and farmers who consider them pests, digging holes to trip up cattle and cowboy alike. But the fact of the matter is, when prairie dog numbers diminish so do myriad other species. They are, as the author of Prairie Dog Empire, Paul Johnsgard describes them, “compliant hosts to many uninvited species”. Among the “freeloaders and hangers-on” are burrowing owls, swift foxes, a variety of rodent associates and foraging birds like lark buntings, larkspurs, meadowlarks and horned larks. The part they play in keeping the planet wheel spinning is as essential as a cog or bolt in a tractor wheel.
And they make the perfect hosts, like little pudgy Pickwicks, sociable and sentimental, kissing and hugging and jumping up and down with glee at the presence of a guest. I have been told the jumps are to signal all-clear, but they seem so joyous and boisterous that I assumed, when my friend Page showed me my first leaping dog and referred to the combined noise and jump behaviour as ‘jump-yip”, that he was saying “jumpy up”. I was so disappointed when I learned my mistake that I decided to continued using my term for it.
Imagine a dog town as a big as the biggest human cities, with a population of ten million, as reported by the first explorers, and one could be tempted to ask why we bother to protect them. Until we recall that our ancestors said the same thing about the bison as they sat in the comfort of their railcars, waiting for days for the herd to cross the tracks.
Although not as regal-looking as the bison, nor as mythic in its proportions and demeanour, the prairie dog has an equally predominant place in the folklore and history of both native and homesteading culture. Hauntingly humanoid in its behaviours, we find ourselves giving the critters a voice and personality the way we might have as children with our stuffies. In fact, of all the stuffed toys for sale at prairie Wind, the prairie dog sells the most. Why, just this week we sold ten. Mind you, three of them went to myself and my houseguests.
Before we knew it we were naming the stuffies and composing ballads around themes of their ‘plight’, ‘pluck’ and weary wandering. The instigator behind the anthropomorphizing behaviour was Avril, who works in the film industry in Toronto. She presents herself as a tough as nails, take no prisoners professional. And, for the most part, she fools the world. If asked post university graduation what career-path she might take I would have said: arms dealer, cattle rustler or pit bull trainer. For years I was convinced she was a spy. But put a prairie dog stuffy in her hands and she’s not going to let it out of her sight. As I write this she is sleeping on the couch clutching it with both hands. Yesterday it went on a hike in the East Block of the Grasslands with us. It sat on the dash on the drive there and back and it sits on the kitchen table during every meal. I’m quite certain I heard her kiss it goodnight
We still haven’t discerned the stuffy’s gender so she’s given in a generic name. Hobo. It’s the last day of our third amigo’s visit. Over the past week we’ve revived old jokes, filled in the gaps between visits and memories. It’s coming up to forty years since we’ve been friends. There have been misunderstandings, shifting alliances, health scares, deaths in the family and dozens of changes of jobs and residences and partners. But what has held us together most of all has been both a sense of humour and a sense of wonder. And, above all an understanding that we all depend on each other to survive and ultimately thrive.
In the creaturely world we are interdependent on one another: the birds and the bugs and the bison, the prairie dog and the burrowing owl and the swift fox. We, like the dogs, manoeuver among dangerous neighbours like the ferret, the eagle and the badger, and the friendly strangers, like the frogs who reassure us and the owls who warn us and the humans beings who touch us in the most surprising and disarming ways –  like Avril laughing her ass off at the hundredth ‘jumpy-up’, like she’s seeing it for the first time.
Driving into the airport parking lot, about to bid farewell to Michael, Hobo, via Avril, reminds us that that ‘hobo’ stands for homeward bound.
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at madonna hamel@hotmail.com

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