Daily Archives: February 1, 2011

It’s Grasslands National Park Day on Reid’s Blog

        Looming in the distance and a landmark for millennia, 70 Mile Butte in the West Block of Grasslands National Park is home to ancient stone effigies, prairie rattlesnakes and pronghorn antelope.

          Assailed and wind-hewn, The East Block of Grasslands National Park offers a badlands experience, rugged and enchanting. Watch for quicksand.

        As I mention in the piece on Lise Perrault, buffalo once again roam the hills and vales of Grasslands National Park.

       More GNP stories: Lise Perrault and Prairie Dog Rapture

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Prairie Dog Rapture?

Reid Dickie

          It’s been floating around for years and landed a few days back in my sidebar. I mean this painting of the prairie dogs with their paws and heads raised performing en masse what appears to be a ritual. Titled where I’ve seen it as Prairie Dog Rapture, I got curious about it. Do prairie dogs do this?

            The painting is by a contemporary artist named Anthony Falbo, a multi-stylist who sometimes paints in Dali style, sometimes cubist, other times representational. His God Art site gives you the gist and gamut of his work. I learned that the artist’s actual name for the painting is Praising Prairie Dogs, giving it a slight twist, otherwise Anthony wasn’t much help.

            Since image is the language of the soul, any picture on the internet will create its own mythology, as did this one. Some people stated and many believed that every morning and every evening prairie dogs stop whatever it is they are doing and spend anywhere from 20 minutes to half an hour grouped in this pose honouring the sunrise and sunset.

            Over the decades, several of my long treks, including two this past summer, took me into southwestern Saskatchewan and Grasslands National Park. GNP has two large dog towns, which comprise the only Canadian habitat for prairie dogs, those varmints whose burrows broke the legs of horses and cattle. Easily accessible, the dog towns are part of the self-guiding driving tour the Park offers to visitors. Linda and I visited there together one year and spent hours watching the funny little critters run and play, hug and kiss each other and bark like, well, prairie dogs. I thought if anyone in the country can tell me if prairie dogs do sunrise and sunset rituals, they’d be at Grasslands. And they were.

            Pat Fargey, a species-at-risk biologist at GNP, returned my call and was curious about the picture. Without seeing it and based on my description, Pat thought the only time prairie dogs made that gesture was when they were barking which was usually  not formal as in the picture. I scoured internet images to find a prairie dog making the gesture.

            There’s the gesture – prairie dog barking! It does have an element of Hallelujah in it, to be sure and I can see how Falbo adapted the pose turning it into praise. If prairie dogs spend an hour a day gesturing like this for whatever reason, that behaviour would be a well-known part of the prairie dog description and wouldn’t need a painting on the internet to suddenly bring it to light.

            Nonetheless, the image remains evocative, even edifying. As a group, they share joy and passion, prompting me to imagine them about to sing as a choir of little prairie dog voices and wonder what hymn they picked and what it sounds like. Let’s listen…

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Lise Perrault

Reid Dickie

UPDATE: Lise Perrault passed away on March 7, 2015 at age 91. Funeral information here

On my second visit to Val Marie, SK in August 2001 I met a local woman named Lise Perrault who, among other things, ran a small museum in her home. Lise collected and proudly displayed all 24 first editions of the cowboy novels written by western writer and actor Will James who ranched in the Val Marie area. Besides the books, the museum featured other James memorabilia and pictures. Lise sometimes loaned her collection to other museums, claiming it to be the definitive Will James collection in Canada, of which I had no doubt.

               Lise in 2001 when I first met her at her Val Marie house.

Lise thought Will James and his connection to the district was never fully exploited for its tourist and educational value. “We have one of the greatest stories right here in Val Marie,” she said, “but instead of preserving his homestead and making a display of it, we’re not taking advantage of it.” Today in the self-guiding driving tour of the Frenchman Valley in the Park, one of the featured stops is what remains of the Will James ranch.

Making use of her detailed knowledge of the area’s history, geography and special places, Lise offered interesting and well off-the-beaten-path tours of the mysterious Frenchman Valley and Grasslands National Park. In addition to the stories of local ranchers, aboriginals and settlers, Lise could recount tales of bootleggers and point out relics such as the trail the North West Mounted Police used on their patrols between Wood Mountain and Cypress Hills, an ancient half-moon effigy in the dry grass and where the prairie rattlesnakes spend their winters. The day I met her, I waited at her house/museum while she escorted a vanful of tourists around the sights. Her credentials for providing tours were solid.

                     Lise Perrault painting titled Buffalo Rub Stone         

Born in the district and a third generation descendent of Max Trottier who homesteaded in the region in the 1880s, Lise claimed that her grandfather participated in the last buffalo hunt in which 482 buffalo were killed southwest of Val Marie in 1885. Lise is a big fan and promoter of another relative, now-retired hockey player Bryan Trottier who grew up in the Val Marie area and played 18 seasons in the National Hockey League for the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Ferdinand and Lise Perrault ran the Rocking 4 Ranch 24 miles east of Val Marie for 38 years where they raised nine children. In 1984, they sold their land to the Park with their ranch becoming the cornerstone of the new 900 square kilometre Grasslands National Park. A strong and vocal advocate of the Park, Lise stated, “Our hills are beautiful. There is colour in our country. It is for discerning people who have time to stop and look.”

Lise was also an accomplished painter who spent her life paying attention to the landscape and capturing its nuances in a unique folk art style. Her depictions of the prairie she saw every day and the critters who roamed it brim with simple honesty both in subject and in style. The vast dun hills rolling back and away dotted with the dark forms of buffalo and deer, the huge blue sky and the subtle connection between land and people were effortlessly captured by Lise’s brush.

Lise is now in a personal care home in Ponteix, SK, her museum closed and the fate of her paintings largely unknown. A few of her paintings are still accessible in Val Marie. The Val Marie Museum retains two of Lise Perrault’s most evocative works. Painted in 1982, one is a hilly and treed vista that may have been the lowlands of the Cypress Hills just west of here. The other, from 1998, depicts two cowboys shaking hands in the middle of the prairie. Nothing in the picture suggests the men’s motive or meaning, no points of reference. There is amicability between them but mystery as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two paintings by Lise Perrault at the Val Marie Museum. Neither are for sale.

The Val Marie Hotel features a mural by Lise depicting the broad prairie with buttes, buffalo and prairie dogs. Located in the hotel restaurant/pub, the scene covers most of a wall. The cattle brands, burnt into the wood above the mural, come from local ranches.

Lise’s prairie mural in the Val Marie Hotel with brands from local ranches along the top.

Lise’s prescient depictions of buffalo roaming the open prairie have come to life. Buffalo returned to the muscular prairie we call Grasslands National Park in December 2005 when seventy plains bison from Elk Island National Park were released into the Park’s West Block. Hoping to enhance the park’s ecological integrity by restoring grazing to the landscape, the buffalo enclosure covers approximately 181 square km and is part of the self-guiding driving tour.

I treasure the time I spent with Lise. She was welcoming and generous with her knowledge of the land and sparked my curiosity to explore and look deeper into the Frenchman Valley, Grasslands National Park and Val Marie. As well, one time she took me to Buffalo Butte Ceremonial Site via “the back way,” as she put it, when the pasture gate was locked. For all that, I am indebted to her.

Lise’s home was lined with dozens of paintings, all in her whimsical folksy style. As she spoke a bit about each picture and what it meant to her, her love of the land and all its secrets welled out of her. It made her joyful. At the time, I was highly inclined to buy one of her paintings but my finances didn’t permit it. I regret that.

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