I’ve been trying to spend time out on the landscape lately. It’s good for not only my physical health but my mental health.
Of course, as a historian as well as a nature nerd, I’m always looking at my surroundings with a historian’s eye. History isn’t just in our books and papers – it’s out there, in the world. Natural landscapes have a history too – a human history, but also a history of the animals, plants, and ecosystems that came before. Something I saw recently really threw that into relief for me.
I did a short road trip last week with a friend down to the West Block of Grasslands National Park. We were our own self-contained unit, bringing our own food, paying at the pump, staying in our individual tents, and limiting our contact with others. In one of our cupholders in my vehicle we had hand sanitizer, ready to deploy when needed. Grasslands National Park is a great place to spend time outdoors, away from people you don’t know. Even when the trail head parking lots were full, we rarely if ever saw anyone else.
My friend and I specifically chose the West Block because it’s bison territory (of course). It’s a very stark landscape but a fascinating one. One of the trails we hiked highlighted some of the hazards we should be prepared for: “exposure, wind, unstable footing and ‘feeling small’ in a big landscape”. Essentially: be prepared for existential dread. Certainly, we were very aware of ourselves moving across the landscape. It allowed for some great introspection.
We also had several up close and personal encounters with bison. There was bison sign all over the place: paths, tracks, patties, wallows, and hair. One of my favourite design elements of Grasslands National Park is that the interpretive signs are surrounded by wooden posts, because without them, bison would use the signs as scratching posts, damage them, and knock them down. You can still see signs that they’ve been using the posts to scratch anyway:
We also encountered several bison bulls wallowing in mud and using boulders as rubbing stones. These stones are called erratics – they’re stones left behind by glaciers, transported from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away during the last ice age. In a landscape with few trees, they really stick out. Here’s one that was recently vacated by a pair of bulls we startled. (Sorry!)
But by far the coolest one we found was this stone. Why? Because the corners were rubbed shiny and smooth by bison.
Now, the current herd of plains bison was reintroduced to the West Block of Grasslands National Park in 2006 from Elk Island National Park. The wear and tear on these stones is pretty advanced – this is not the result of 14 years’ worth of bison rubbing against it. This is from generations of bison scratching itches. To me, touching this smooth stone was like touching an object from a sepia-toned photograph. It was like an object from the past had been superimposed in front of me. It felt surreal.
These bison, today, after nearly 150 years of being absent from the landscape, had rediscovered a stone that their ancestors may have used, and were using it for the same purpose. And that’s wild.