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The Prairies: Flat and Wide

An excerpt from Midlife No. 2.

Book Cover Midlife No 2

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The roads here are gravel, set slightly above the surrounding fields, with ditches on both sides. To enter the field, there’s a let-down atop a culvert. This is all actually human made, yet it seems entirely natural that it would exist exactly like this, exactly in this place.

In 1869, the Dominion Land Survey system was proposed by John Stoughton Dennis.1 Beginning with the first meridian just west of Winnipeg, the DLS extends westward through the lands we today call Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and finally British Columbia. It is the largest survey grid ever laid down in a single integrated system. When you fly over the Prairies, the patchwork quilt you see is the DLS: squarish divisions called townships, each further divided into thirty-six roughly mile-square sections.

As the DLS sliced through the landscape in the ensuing years, it brought a gridded road system providing access to every section. The functional operation of the Canadian agricultural economy relies on these roads, and, to this day, travelling them is embedded in the daily activities and culture of rural life.

If you’ve lived in rural areas, you know what I mean. Drivers’ education at my high school covered topics specific to rural driving: on gravel roads, look out for dust trails in the distance signifying oncoming vehicles; veer slightly to the right when cresting a hill should an unseen vehicle be coming in the opposite direction; plan ahead with supplies for travel during inclement weather; if you’re going off the road, turn into the ditch rather than back toward the road, to avoid initiating a nasty rollover (our drivers’ ed instructor actually had us practise this skill); and if you’re ever so unfortunate as to hit a moose, do everything to duck down before impact or risk decapitation as your car takes the beast’s legs out from beneath it.

It’s widely held that the Prairies are boring. Relative to the other astounding landscapes across Canada, the opinion is understandable. Close to the ground, though, it’s busy: buzzing with the daily life of insects, animals, plants—the earth below shifting in slow motion over any reasonable time scale. Zooming out, the nature of the space is basic and elemental. The prairie prospect comprises a giant sky meeting the land in a (more or less) straight horizontal line, somewhere unfathomably distant from this spot, for 360 degrees.


It’s widely held that the Prairies are boring. Relative to the other astounding landscapes across Canada, the opinion is understandable. Close to the ground, though, it’s busy: buzzing with the daily life of insects, animals, plants—the earth below shifting in slow motion over any reasonable time scale.


Brown Field and Blue Sky

Dick said to take my truck on the highway now and then, to “blow the shit out of the engine.” Driving around the terminal was always slow and never got the motor going enough, he said, gunking up the inner bits. It was a burgundy Chevy with a slow accelerator that had seen better days, but it was the right thing for a summer student to putter around in. 

In the late ’90s, I worked two summers in a pipeline terminal at the north end of Lloydminster—Canada’s “border city” straddling Alberta and Saskatchewan. Among numerous odd jobs, one was watering young trees around a new butane facility, where railcars brimming with the highly flammable material were drained into two giant white storage bullets.

Prairie towns in summer are hot and dry, and Lloydminster is no exception. I carried a large water tank in the back of my truck, and, at least once a week, I’d drive to a smallish reservoir on the east side of the terminal to get water for the thirsty trees. The pump’s inlet connected to a hose in the reservoir, and I’d need to prime the pump each time before the fill-up. The small pump started like a lawnmower—with one or two good strong pulls. I was taught to hold my hand over the outlet to create some back pressure until the water began to flow, then kill the pump temporarily, connect the hose to my tank, and fill it up. 

You don’t water trees in rainy weather, so watering days were always hot. There’s not much you can do outside a pickup truck waiting for a pump to fill a tank. Sometimes there might be a few birds on the water, but most often I’d be standing around in the terminal yard’s quiet. The sky was inevitably huge on those days. I’ve always been floored by the depth of azure contrasted with white puffy cumulus clouds. Standard Prairie fare, taken for granted then, but a view I see rarely now.

On a few occasions, I ran a “hot shot” to deliver a part or some such to a remote area. These drives would take me off the main highways, down gravel roads, to some largely unknown transfer point or oil well. The roads of the DLS made the landscape commercially productive, and vehicles made traversing the landscape feasible. To move our bodies through space at such an unnatural pace dissociates time and distance, but across something as vast as Saskatchewan, it felt like you could drive in one direction for days and never reach the end.

I remember reaching the transfer point with the valve in the back of my pickup. It was too heavy for me to lift, so I lowered the tailgate and simply dumped it onto the ground. (Others would come the next day to make the necessary repair.) It hit the ground with a thud, and I surveyed the scene. I recall being almost scared by the grossly silent space, knowing it was massive and timeless, and at that moment, I was completely alone in it. Feeling unsettled, I drove out the gate, locked up, and headed back down the road.


I tried to take a picture, but it was too big. The “panorama” setting flattened the depth and didn’t do it justice. In the photo, the ridge drops away, backgrounded by layers upon layers of undulating hills for as far as you can see, capped by the perfect blue gradient and lazy clouds I instantly associate with Alberta. The hills seemed oddly alive and rowdy, but were clearly unmoving. The view is eastward so the Rockies were somewhere beyond the horizon, but I imagined Saskatchewan’s flatness was just over the last hill. 

Last summer, a work trip took me to Fraser Lake, a village two hours west of Prince George. I had some extra time and decided to visit a well-reviewed waterfall, a 60-km drive down a manicured logging road. After 4 p.m., the logging trucks stop running, so aside from one vehicle on the way there, another on the way back, and four bears spooked by a city slicker in a rented SUV, I was completely alone. 

As I crested a high curve, I glanced left and just started laughing. I pulled over, hopped out (still laughing), and looked out over a view that appeared to go on forever. It was magnificent. The sky, trees, earth, and sun all settled against one another, gyrating slowly for millions of years, and in that moment, witness to the epic grind of geological time, I was transported back to those roads a thousand kilometres away yet sharing the same sky and the same earth.

I get this timeless feeling sometimes, usually when driving, like a punch in the gut, and I forget what I’m doing. I am moving, but the view is static. The road straightens and flattens, the viewfinder of the windshield frames a symmetrical composition in one-point perspective of 50 percent earth, 50 percent sky, divided by a horizon meeting somewhere “over there.” I lean forward to see more of it, blue wrapping around, stretching in all directions. I’ve felt this on township roads, on Highway 16 so many times, or where the road flattens past Edson coming toward Edmonton. Sometimes, I get it in Delta, a pocket of flat agricultural land south of Vancouver proper. If the day is graced by a decently clear sky, I’m transported back to Alberta once more.

I get this timeless feeling sometimes, usually when driving, like a punch in the gut, and I forget what I’m doing. I am moving, but the view is static. The road straightens and flattens, the viewfinder of the windshield frames a symmetrical composition in one-point perspective of 50 percent earth, 50 percent sky, divided by a horizon meeting somewhere “over there.”


Photo of mountains viewed by car

I don’t trust the water, whether swimming pool, lake, or ocean. The Pacific’s vast blackness frightens me. Too much depth, too much unknown. In an open field, there are few secrets. A few hundred years of cultivation means, literally, there are few stones left unturned. It’s simple, sure, but it’s honest. It is what it is.

I moved to Vancouver in 2004, now here for nearly twenty years—almost half my life. I like it, but I always pause if someone asks where I’m from. For all intents and purposes, it is “home,” but sometimes I still feel like a transplant, unable to feel properly grounded. 

From our front window, the prospect is road, cars, buildings, and a never-ending stream of dogs leading dog walkers. To the north, a patch of sky pokes between two condos above the self-serve storage and fitness studio down the alley. This sliver is a reminder that the coastal landscape—relative to the Prairies—is something else entirely. Nature on overdrive: mountains and ocean screaming desperately in blue, green, brown, and grey. The aesthetic is breathtaking at first, but after some time, it’s overwhelming, like a friend with too much energy when you just want to take it easy.

In January 2022, Vancouver had the biggest dump of snow we’d ever seen in our time here. It carpeted the city, depressed temperatures for a few weeks, and caused general havoc. Other Canadians laugh at snow in Vancouver—where just a few inches will shut down roads and schools—but this time it was for real: a scene directly from Edmonton (or Saskatoon or Winnipeg) after a typical overnight dump. Select few Vancouverites actually own a shovel, and I, not being among them, shovelled our patio and walkway with a dustpan. 

Vancouver, normally the dullest grey during our rainy winter, clears up wondrously in cold weather, so I don’t mind when it’s chilly. Deep blue overhead, sliced by warm light at a low angle reminds me of the Prairie golden hour, trudging through a snowy field as the sun starts to dip toward the horizon and you’re warm enough to throw off the toque, air your sweaty mitten hands, and unzip the parka for a bit.


I believe something connects us viscerally to formative landscapes when we revisit them, physically or mentally. Within my extended family, there are a few who still farm. In generations before me, they all farmed—in Austria, Ukraine, Russia, and later in Canada. My parents, while not farmers proper, have always made their swath of land (however small) productive. The feeling is muted in me, but I can’t help myself from planting seeds in the pathetic 6' × 6' speck of dirt beside our patio that one might generously call a garden. 

Generations of compounding development of civilization and technology allow us to live life divorced from the ground, yet we often hear of our collective desire (need?) to return to nature, to feel that connection, to regain grounding. In Vancouver, it’s a religion of sorts, honoured with weekly hikes in foliage and seasonal pilgrimages to the ski hills. 

But I lack connection to this landscape. I don’t feel it in the same way I feel connected to the Prairies: stopped briefly in the middle of nowhere, the sun slowly traversing the sky the same way it has day after day after day for millions of years over churning earth, and a straight line of dry dusty road extending endlessly in two directions.

[1] The ramifications of this simple statement shouldn’t be understated. The imposition of a simple grid over territory already occupied by Indigenous peoples was a remarkable symbolic act, as much as it was a physically precise, perhaps abusive one. Colonialism was not new at this point, but across the Prairies, the survey established hard (if at first invisible) lines across the land—nearly every square inch accounted for—parcels to be bought, owned, sold, cultivated, transformed. While this is not the story I engage with here, it’s important to acknowledge the significance of the act, and the long-term privilege afforded to my relatives who farmed the land and the subsequent benefits I live with to this day.

[2] Visualize two long white horizontal steel tubes, with rounded end caps, elevated a few storeys above the ground.

Bio: David Zeibin is an architect living in Vancouver, BC, with his wife, Jhenifer, and two daughters. After early years in Winnipeg, he lived in Fort Saskatchewan, Fort St. John, Lloydminster, and Edmonton before completing the migration west to Vancouver. He spends too much time indoors.


Book Cover Midlife No 2

About Midlife No. 2:

Midlife No. 2 is the second volume of collected works from former members of the Gateway, the student newspaper at the University of Alberta. Once again, this crew of 27 writers and creators from the late 1990s/early 2000s have come together to share a thoughtful and hilarious snapshot of the many states of midlife in Canada today.

This time, you’ll find a strong focus on housing and homes, that area of life that our generation has had a hell of a time growing up with, plus wonderful new works on themes of race, identity, COVID, and many journeys in between.

Like a typical second child, this second book defied our expectations. But, as was the case with the first book, the process and the work were still a gift—for each other, and now for you.

This is the last book we’ll do for a while. But we love how this symphony of writing has emerged. We hope you do too.

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