Writing in 1973, Andy Russell, the Lethbridge-born trapper, grizzly-bear hunter, photographer, trail guide, rancher and writer, loved the mountains of southern Alberta.
In a description of the morning sunrise at the foothills of the Rockies, he characterized the moment as “sudden-bursting life, a marriage of light and life,” and of how “the mountains light up at first sun in deep rose, swiftly changing to gold, and all shot through with deep purple’s shadow.” It was, he wrote, as if “the whole universe pauses for a long, heart-stretching moment, locked in a spell of deep wonder.”
Such awe at the natural world is at the heart of the Western experience and explains much about the West and the optimistic, open spirit that lies at its core.
That’s due in part to how nature and life can combine to produce a self-understanding—a “myth” in the best sense of that word—about a region.
The best way to understand this Western experience is to compare it with a narrative from elsewhere.
Writing in 1972, Margaret Atwood asserted that whether it was early explorers, the French vis-à-vis the English, or English Canada in the 20th century in relation to the United States, “the central symbol of Canada is undoubtedly survival.”
Atwood’s interpretation of her Canada came from the Loyalist experience of what is now southern Ontario (though Montreal and parts of Atlantic Canada can also be included). That culture was born in fear after the American Revolutionary war of 1776 that forced many Loyalists north; it was added to by the War of 1812. The result was a central Canadian narrative, one literary critic Northrop Frye labelled as the “garrison culture,” where one is constantly on the defensive and expects an attack.
The survival narrative makes sense in central Canada. It doesn’t apply in the West—not on the foothills near the Rockies or on a flat open plain in Saskatchewan or Manitoba. Instead, the West’s narrative is one of a land freely chosen by immigrants, and—pace Russell on the West’s natural wonders—an open vista. It is that of the frontier. It contrasts with the densely-packed Canadian shield where one’s revolutionary enemy (or a grizzly) is more easily hidden and thus nature’s surprises more regularly feared than celebrated.
In the West, a thousand natural wonders combined with settler experiences that, also full of struggles, are interpreted through a positive prism.
For example, reflecting on his arrival in southern Alberta in the spring of 1884, the settler John D. Higginbotham described how “the sun was shining from an unclouded sky and was brilliantly reflected from the snow-crowned peaks and sides of distant mountains; the nearer foothills and valleys were all clad in emerald, the sparkling streams – clear and cold –murmuring over their gravely beds, the birds singing on all sides, the grouse, or chicken, drumming as they flew from the pleasant pastures in which they were feeding to give us an inquisitive glance as we rolled long.”
The legendary journalist Bruce Hutchison was similarly awed by the West’s natural wonders. In 1973 he described how, in an ascent up the Canadian Rockies years earlier, sudden winds opened up a stunning panorama: “The sun bored through the concrete, the clouds were torn to fluttering rags of blue and white, the valley of gilded autumn poplar at our feet was emptied instantly of mist. Sky, earth, mountain and forest, rock and tree, were convulsed like the colours in a child’s kaleidoscope. The whole planet (how else can I say it?) turned into a whirling, bubbling molten substance as on the day of creation—a sight too dizzy for human eyes to look upon.”
Hutchison conveys the magnificent awe of one faced with nature’s full, raw power. But noticeably absent in his account, and that of the others about their experiences with the West’s natural world, is the chronic foreboding found in early descriptions of man’s encounter with nature in Loyalist Ontario.
Neither experience is superior or “good” or “bad,” but for insight into the West’s soul, drive down an isolated road or hike up a peak. Then, look at the delicate alpine flowers or the rushing rivers, the deep blue skies that stretch forever, the mountain lakes or crystal streams, the dry ranch-land or yellow canola, the mountains and foothills, or at the mountain goats, or at a sturdy elk or wandering grizzly. The Western experience starts right there.