Monday, 29 April 2013

A sweetgrass offering to the dinosaurs

A panorama of the view from where the sweetgrass braid was spotted. The image was mosaiced together from many shots with the distortions corrected, a technique commonly applied to aerial photographs in cartography

A typical formation at Dinosaur Provincial Park
Just 48 km northeast of Brooks, Alberta lies the world's richest deposits of dinosaur bones at Dinosaur Provincial Park. There, one can find more than 80 square km of strange-looking geological formations, wildlife,  and plants that most foreign visitors would not usually associate with Canada -- like the prickly pear cactus, for example. In some instances, the smell of sagebrush fills the air. Fossils are everywhere to be seen: in the rocks, in special displays, as the remains of ancient trees on the canyon floors -- even what might seem at first glance as just gravel and small stones can contain tiny pieces of fossilized dinosaur tendons, claws and teeth. The park occupies just one part of the vast Badlands of the Alberta prairies. Of course, you are not allowed to gather these fossil remains and take them home with you, and important fossil discoveries should be reported to the staff at the park. The landscape changes and new deposits are often revealed.

A cactus in flower near the sweetgrass braid
The main road into the park has various places where you park your car and take photographs of badlands that seem to stretch to the horizon -an alien landscape carved out of the flat prairies by millions of years of erosion. In one of these rest spots is the evidence of much later visitors to the area. Surrounded by a steel pipe fence just high enough to prevent car wheels from disturbing it is a tipi ring -- worn stones left by the retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age that the First Nations people gathered and used to weight down the sides of their tipis. By the geological standards of the area, these are modern. Yet these stones are partially buried in the ground at a depth that suggested to me that the tipi was here long before the white man first arrived in the area.

The sweetgrass braid in the centre of a tipi ring
In the middle of the tipi ring, I spotted something even more recent -- it was a massive braid of sweetgrass, a sacred plant to the Plains Indians, it was used in ceremonies and rites, in healings and to respect the land and all that it contained. "New Ager's" use it as well, and I often burn it at home too -- just for its pleasant aroma. You can buy small braids in shops here, for about $7.50. What I saw in plain view in that tipi ring was not a commercial braid, though. It was far too large. Such a braid would cost more than $50 in a shop, but such braids are not sold. I cannot say for sure that it had been placed there by a member of the First Nations, but it seems very likely. From its condition, it could not have been placed in that spot more than just a few months earlier. It had obviously never experienced a Canadian winter!

Even such a common plant as the thistle can
take on an alien look in such an environment
The tipi ring, itself, was in an odd location. On its own, it was positioned just a few metres from the edge of a cliff. It was certainly not part of a camp -- any sleepwalker might have come to a dramatic end within seconds of leaving that tipi! It might have been a lookout point, or perhaps it had a sacred function in the past. It certainly had one in the present as the sweetgrass braid attested.

One of the long-term
residents of the park
The fact that many visitors to that parking area must have seen it and yet no one took it, says something about our encounters with the sacred as expressions of other cultures. Canada, of course, is multicultural. We are famous for the respect we give to other cultures and people who arrive here from less tolerant places are always amazed at the friendliness of their new neighbours toward them. Of course, there can always be a few exceptions, but the overall response is overwhelmingly friendly. As a nation, we do not admire racist feelings in any form, and NATO has long used Canadian troops as peacekeepers. Canadians are known to be friendly and polite. I once heard a story about a very perceptive police detective in Los Angeles. A woman was found wandering around suffering from total amnesia. After checking missing person reports, the police were no closer to discovering her identity, when this detective noticed that she was exceptionally polite. He reasoned from this that she had to be Canadian! Shortly after contacting the RCMP in Canada she was on her way back home to her friends and relatives. I don't know if the story is true or if it is an urban myth.
An ancient cottonwood in the park

It was strange that the tipi ring was in that spot. It was also strange that there was a modern sweetgrass braid in the centre of the ring. What was not strange, however, was that no one had taken it away.


  1. That ancient cottonwood looks like a dragon with beautiful green wings from the little screen on my phone! Well done John!

  2. No wonder, Jules, it's such a magical place! (The other "dragons" are on display or still buried in the ground). One of the views shown in the film "Quest for Fire was shot close to where I took the panorama shots. Must go there again soon, No? There are Medicine Wheels not far away, too.