Claybank, Saskatchewan

Sheri Benning

[1] Just past the Qu'appelle river valley, my sister Heather turns off the highway onto a grid road and into the dark blue throb of a thunderstorm welling on the northern horizon. It's early September and we're driving back to Saskatoon from Claybank, Saskatchewan. Truck windows rolled down, I watch the glassy hover of heat in the distance, as though the Durham wheat stalks are amber sparks, their beards, flames curling the air. Some people are awed by mountains. What could bring Heather and me to our knees is the light on this stretch of grid road between Regina and Saskatoon, light vast enough to expose everything's infinite particularity—every dun-grey feather on the Swainson Hawk's wings, every pore of the weathered fencepost on which the hawk perches, the rusting barbed wire. The setting sun pulses behind the thundercloud sky. We hope it rains.

[2] Section after section after section of land is composed of ripe barley or wheat, punctuated occasionally with fields of once bright yellow canola. Now a muddy brown, ready to be harvested, the canola's pungent smell is like that of sweat from a day's labor. "Expose a child to a particular environment at [her] susceptible time," writes Wallace Stegner, "and [she] will perceive in the shapes of that environment until [she] dies" (21). When we were kids, our spring chore was to pick stones for Dad so they wouldn't damage the swather. Hours spent picking stones, and tossing them into the back of a half-ton, our labor reminiscent of Sisyphus shouldering that rock—for every stone we plucked, several sprouted in its place. After not too long, my brother Kurt, Heather and I would give up, drink our supply of sugary iced tea and lie down in the field, stubble pricking through our jeans. We thought the job was cruel punishment. But it forced us to engage intimately with the contours of a land and sky that would in turn forge the contours of our lives.

[3] Section after section after section of barley and wheatfields locked into a grid system, the legacy of early European perceptions which considered the prairies endlessly barren as Capt. W.F. Butlers sentiments reveal: "This ocean has no past—time has been nought to it; and men have come and gone, leaving behind them no track, no vestige, of their presence" (qtd. in Stegner 38). Similarly, Stegner writes that Lewis and Clark, on their May 1805 expedition to the prairies would have found "the wide disk of the Plains ... extended and extended beyond credulity, unknown to every horizon and past it (qtd. in Stegner 39). Mark Halsey suggests that the pace at which early explorers viewed the natural world helped justify its future exploitations. "Walking," Halsey adds, "helped conjure the sense that nature was illimitable, harsh, dense, resolute and as that which could resist and recover from all manner of impacts" ("Environmental Visions" 51).

[4] The notion that the prairies were boundless and unproductive, a "failed resource" as Neil Evernden writes, engendered monstrous experiments with the aim to "improve" this land. Dundurn, a place that Heather and I will pass on our drive to Saskatoon, is home to such an experiment. J.H. Morgan in his 1888 Report of the Forestry Commissioner to the Minister of the Department of the Interior, hypothesized that the rich soils of the west were treeless because the grasslands' dense growth encouraged fires. Stop the fires and the forests would return (Rowe 22). The result of Morgan's conjecture was the establishment of tree nurseries, first at Indian Head in 1901 and finally at Dundurn in 1916. Of course, this attempt at "improving" the landscape failed. Fires, drought and pillaging rabbits devastated the trees as the grasslands insisted that they were not neglected forests after all (Rowe 22). Now the land surrounding Dundurn has been appropriated for a military reserve; grasslands that were once razed for trees, are now razed by tanks and "friendly" fire (Rowe 22).

[5] A different experiment to "improve" the prairies took phenomenal hold—farming. In 1872, Saskatchewan's landscape was dramatically altered with the passing of the Dominion Lands Act. The Act imposed a standard measure for surveying the prairies—land was subdivided into one mile by one mile sections, each section divided into quarters composed of 160 acres. Ottawa laid this grid on what would become Saskatchewan heedless of the prairie's contours. Bush and grasslands, creeks and sand dunes—all reigned in by a grid system that utterly disregarded harmonizing with the landscape's natural terrain, not to mention the Métis manner of farming in narrow strips along waterways to allow for irrigation. The Métis uprising in opposition to the Act was eventually suppressed, and Métis farms were also vanquished by the grid. According to the Act, for a ten-dollar fee, homesteaders could "prove up" a quarter section of land; that is, upon cultivating ten acres, building a residence, and thus "improving" the land's value, farmers could receive title to 160 acres. By 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railway from Winnipeg to Calgary was complete, allowing for easier shipment of agricultural produce. Towns were carved out and situated at grain-shipping points, usually spaced ten to fifteen miles apart on the railway lines, a distance suited to the capabilities of horse-powered transportation (Rowe 16). Between 1896 and 1913, about a million people settled on the Canadian prairies, and Western Canada would provide the manna to fuel the expanding financial productions of Eastern Canada and the thriving Industrial Revolution in Europe.

[6] Heather and I drive on grid roads in a distant thunderstorm's blue-black light, light the color of a magpie's wings. These roads bind section after section after section of barley and wheat interrupted every now and again by a leaning, wind-gnawed barn on the back forty acres of an abandoned farmyard. When we were kids, we counted the seconds between lightening strikes and the sound of thunder. Each second, we thought, represented a mile and so we believed we could discern exactly how far away we were from the storm. Heather and I see a strand of lightening touch the horizon line. Heather momentarily holds her breath; I know she's counting. But the echo of thunder doesn't come—the storm too far away. Still no rain.

This plain affords nothing but Beast and Grass, [1]
And over it in three days time we past.

– "Henry Kelsey, one of the first European travelers on the Yellowhead Route three hundred years ago, heading westward toward the Battlefords..." (Stan Rowe 21).

[7] Don McKay, a contemporary Canadian nature poet and eco-thinker, writes that "wilderness" is not only a set of endangered spaces, but also "the capacity of all things to elude the mind's appropriations" (21). "Wilderness," according to McKay bears radical alterity, is the ultimate Other. McKay's notion of wilderness is derived from Emmanuel Levinas' thinking. He writes it is because of Levinas' thought that we are able to contemplate the Other as a fundamental category which dislodges our assumptions about the primacy of such things as sameness, subjectivity, ego, being and totality (McKay 97). McKay then extends Levinas' notion of the face, which is the purveyor of radical alterity, to that of "Wilderness." He writes,

What Levinas means by the face is, I think, the other encountered in a relationship of address and discovered to be quite untranslatable into systems of sameness and linguistic organization; it is foreign-ness that remains foreign, always exceeding our categories of knowing, always 'over and beyond form.' It seems to be a far more nuanced, philosophically literate and conceptually far-reaching version of what I've been calling wilderness..." (98).

Levinas is a profoundly humanist thinker, and thus one might balk at McKay's intent to apply Levinas's understanding of the face to stand for "wilderness." However, because of his adherence to his philosophical principle which warns against reducing alterity to simple differences, against reducing the face to a face, Levinas waivers on the question of the other-than-human (Diehm 172). As Levinas puts it in Ethics and Infinity, the best way of encountering the face or the Other is "not even to notice the colour of [her] eyes!" (86). That the face is not reducible to its qualities demonstrates that Levinas's understanding of the face is inclusive rather than exclusive and thus, as Christian Diehm submits, it is possible to posit that nonhuman "faces," even features of landscape, bear radical alterity (173).

[8] The face, according to Levinas, is beyond the simple assessments of our gaze; it is not the product of meanings given by me. Rather the face is expression, a source of meanings coming from elsewhere (Davis 46). It is "meaning all by itself," and uncontainable by one's vision, or one's search for adequation. Ted Toadvine writes that it is precisely this encounter with resistance that "undergirds the everyday notion of nature as something other than or alien to ourselves... "(333). Thus the face, "wilderness," is not an object of our perception or knowledge; instead, it is an epiphany or revelation; "wilderness" issues a call or a command. Toadvine writes that of particular interest for the analysis of nature as radical alterity is the "call" of the thing in its reciprocal dialogue with the perceiving body (333). He points out that while the object and its context are the content of perception and are thus objects of phenomenology, the call itself, which initiates the perceptual event, is not perceivable. Toadvine equates the experience of the "call" with desire, "namely the desire that opens a perceptual scene or world" (334).

[9] If "wilderness," remains imponderable, signals radical alterity, and thus refuses the demarcation of a finite answer, does the call of "wilderness" at best illicit quietism, a passive withdrawal of human contemplation? Stephen Laycock attempts to overcome this aporia, that of the ineffable other that invites articulation, by suggesting that "wilderness," is undecidable, not ineffable. In reference to animal others, Laycock writes that there is "a qualitative presence, an articulate content. But we cannot, in principle, determine whether it is given 'in' or 'through' our perception," which is to say we can never determine whether the presence of the other is a revelation or our projection—this, in fact, is what remains radically undecidable (278). But still the question remains how one might begin to answer the call, to articulate the other, "wilderness," in such a way that does not reduce it. McKay suggests that "poetic attention" constitutes an address amenable to answering the call of "wilderness." He writes,

Before, under, and through the wonderful terrible wrestling with words and music there is a state of mind which I'm calling 'poetic attention.' I'm calling it that though even as I name it I can feel the falsity...of nomination: it's a sort of readiness, a species of longing which is without the desire to possess, and it does not really wish to be talked about. To me this is a form of knowing which celebrates the wilderness of other...poetic attention is based on a recognition and a valuing of the other's wilderness; it leads to a work which is not a vestige of the other, but a translation of it (28).

"Like an athlete at her limit, language," suggests McKay, "experiences speechlessness before the other and the consequent need to stretch itself to be adequate to this form of knowing" (28). This mode of attention, in its fidelity to the other, recognizes that although it cannot be spoken, radical otherness exists. The persistence of poetic attention during the act of composition, McKay adds, is akin to the translator's attention to the original, all the while she performs upon it "a delicate and dangerous transformation" (28). Thus, as McKay writes, "Our epistemological dilemma is not resolved...but ritualized and explored" (3).

[10] Radical undecidability before "wilderness," engenders a compassion, according to both Laycock and McKay, that is distinct from the subtle violence of paternalism or human chauvinism, which are forms of violence, according to Laycock. He writes, "Busy imposing our own views, speaking for the animate Other, we are not genuinely open, receptive" (Laycock 279). McKay provides a further explication of this chauvinistic violence via his neologism "aeolian harpism." He writes,

There is, for this nature poet, at any rate, an important distinction between poetic attention and romantic inspiration. The romantic poet (or tourist, for that matter) desires to be spoken to, inspired by the other, so that perception travels into language (or slide show) without a palpable break. The paradigm for this ideal relation is the aeolian harp, which is simply the larynx of natural phenomenon ... Aeolian harpism relieves us of our loneliness as a species, reconnects us to the natural world, restores a coherent reality. It also, not incidentally, converts natural energy into imaginative power, so that romanticism, which begins in the contemplation of nature ends in the celebration of the creative imagination in and for itself(27).

Laycock writes that rather than perpetrating "aeolian harpism" or human chauvinism, recognition of the radical undecidability of the other facilitates letting the other be in its infinite difference. He writes "if silence or incomprehensibility is the expression of the animate Other, we must nonetheless attend. And we must find a voice in this silence, this silence beyond 'silence,' that is not our own." Our efforts do not result in a quietism, but in a saying and resaying as articulated by Merleau-Ponty's depiction of the philosophical project: "[H]e wrote in order to state his contact with Being; he did not state it, and could not state it, since it is silence. Then he recommences" (qtd. in Laycock 279).

[11] When our attempts to render the other, according to both McKay and Laycock, are the result of genuine submission to the Other's alterity we are awakened to "the mysteriousness of the world" (Laycock 280). McKay describes this wonder and the reaction of the writer: "Whatever her admiration for wilderness, she remains a citizen of the frontier, a creature of words who will continue to use them to point...A poem, or poem-in-waiting, contemplates what language can't do: then it does something with language—in homage, or grief, or anger, or praise" (87). According to McKay, this saying, failure to do so and subsequent re-saying is ethical insofar as it does not delimit the other. It is a kind of articulation with the grace to let-go built in.

Claybank, Saskatchewan

Claybank, Saskatchewan (Photo Credit: Heather Benning)

[12] Heather and I are returning from Claybank where Heather, a visual artist, participated in a site-specific, weekend-long art exhibition at the town's abandoned brick plant. Established in 1904, the plant was a thriving Saskatchewan-based, small industry until 1989 when the reorganization of the brick market and changes in technology forced the plant to close. Although some modernization of the plant occurred during its nearly seventy-five years of operation, most of the brick plant consists of engineering that dates back to the 19th century. Late at night, Heather and I escaped the carnival fray of artists and attendees and sat in the darkness of one of the old abandoned kilns. The kiln's cold stone floor was balm for our sunburnt bodies. The acoustics of the empty stone room (and possibly the pilsner we were drinking) inspired us to sing our favorite country songs. The kiln's proliferating echoes magnified our klutzy harmonies, and our singing crumbled into much laughter.

[13] We grew up on a small farm in central Saskatchewan. With money Dad saved while working on road crews and with the remnants of their student loans, Mom and Dad bought a section of land in 1977. I was born their first winter on the farm. On the grid, our home quarter was marked NW 18 36 22 W2nd, the Rural Municipality 304. One of our quarters of land contained an abandoned farmyard that we played in as kids. Heather spent hours in the falling down farmhouse, staging it with the sodden furniture, nick-knacks and molding books stained with barn-swallow shit that she found scattered throughout the house and yard. In what would have been the master bedroom, Heather discovered a poplin house-dress and several aprons that, heedless of their decay, she wore while she arranged and restored the weathered house.

[14] On our farm, we derived income predominately via a farrow to finish hog operation, which means we maintained a breeding herd of pigs and raised their piglets to market weight. At the time, our operation was a little better than average-sized; we marketed 2200 hogs per year. We also grew wheat and barley on our section of land and on an additional three quarters that we rented; virtually all of our grain production was used for livestock feed.

[15] Throughout my childhood I had a recurring dream. I'd get off the school bus, late spring, and find a for sale sign in our driveway. When I walked into the yard, I'd discover it was empty of usual afternoon routines—Mom wasn't in the garden; Kurt and Heather weren't out playing behind the grain bins. Our house locked and abandoned, I'd try to make a shelter—I'd need somewhere to sleep that night. I'd find a heap of weathered plywood by our lilac bushes and get to work. But my shelter would continually topple like a cardhouse. At this point, panicking, I'd call out to Dad who'd walk into the yard from the hog barn wearing his oil-stained green coveralls. He'd come over and try to help me with the shelter, but, no matter what, we simply couldn't get the thing to stand. In real time, my Dad has a rich tenor voice. I think my earliest memories are of him singing. But in the dream, he couldn't speak. I'm still disturbed by that silence.

[16] In 1998, my dream came true. Faced with perpetually tightening profit margins, my parents were met with the choice to either drastically expand our hog operation, thereby taking on phenomenal debt load, or selling out. In reality, as my parents now put it, there was no choice—participating in agribusiness, our only means to stay on our land, is not farming at all, or at least it is not the kind of farming that embodies my parents' lifelong vocation. They sold our farm to one of the two massive hog producers still profitable in Saskatchewan, Big Sky Pork Industries. Big Sky morphed our facilities into one of their many finishing barns. Each year, Big Sky markets approximately one million hogs. Undoubtedly, our farmhouse is well on its way towards abandonment itself.

[17] In Saskatchewan, diversified or mixed farming has given way to massive industrialized production on ever-larger farms. Because of the effort to enhance production in the face of narrowing profit margins, primarily due to the steady increase of input costs and pressure from the world market for cheap agricultural produce, Saskatchewan's terrain is continually "becoming more and more simplified in bigger and bigger chunks" (Rowe 18). Big Sky's reduction of our small, diversified operation into simply that of a finishing barn is but one example of this overwhelming trend. Due to the streamlining of industrial operations, Saskatchewan's approximate 70,000 farms in the late 1970s were reduced to roughly 30 000 by the late 1990s when my parents sold (Rowe 168).

[18] The ethnographer Keith Basso writes that "[w]hen places are actively sensed, the physical landscape becomes wedded to the landscape of the mind" (106). Though we've been displaced by the machine of global capital from what we will always consider "home," the prairie landscape continues to germinate Heather's and my imagination.

Claybank, Saskatchewan

Claybank, Saskatchewan (Photo Credit: Heather Benning)

[19] McKay writes that according to Levinas, ethics—which might be summarized as the calling-into-question of our freedom to reduce the other—should be 'first philosophy;' it is with an ethics founded on otherness that we should begin our attempts to understand the world (96). However can an ethics founded on otherness work in a place like Saskatchewan? The unforested part of the prairie provinces occupies only five percent of the land area in Canada, but comprises approximately three quarters of the land that is tilled every year (Rowe 19). This degree of annual cultivation is possibly higher than that of any other comparable region in the world, and it continues to expand incrementally (Rowe 20). Only land that is utterly unsuited for crops has been left in native grass. The mixed grass region where Heather and I grew up was historically part of 13 400 000 hectares of native grassland. Currently there are only 2,500,000 hectares of native grassland, constituting a decline of 81.3%. Of this remaining grassland, 0.01% is protected from further encroachment (Savage 234). If otherness, or "wilderness" is the capacity of things to evade the mind's appropriations, can there be "wilderness" in a landscape, a landscape I love, that has been almost completely paved over by human intention?

[20] Also, if the recognition of "wilderness" is supposed to engender "compassion" or ecological sensitivity in the subject, doesn't this make my family indictable of effacing "wilderness," of rendering "otherness" into the ever-expanding folds of the "same?" When I was four, my parents broke our quarter section of native grassland. First Dad drove a Caterpillar to knock down the scrub aspen and buck it into windrows—long piles of felled trees. I have vague memories of riding with Mom in our half ton at dusk, while Dad, crouching in the truck box, lit the windrows with diesel fuel and a Tigertorch. Dad then used a bush disc to cut up the sod and roots. After he finished discing, he floated the land—a process of dragging steel rails, about twenty feet long, across the field to smooth it down. Finally, Dad rented a root rake, a machine with big diamond shaped teeth, to gather the remaining debris into piles which he also burned. We could only afford to farm one section of land. Preserving this quarter of native grassland was a luxury we couldn't spare. Further betraying a seeming lack of ecological sensitivity, we used antibiotics in our livestock feed. Because trace antibiotics were found in poultry, beef and pork, the public began decrying this practice. When, during an interview with the CBC, my Dad was asked why he used antibiotics, he responded that antibiotics reduce death loss of market animals and enhance feed conversion—that is, if it takes four pounds of barley to get one pound of meat, laced with antibiotics, it takes only three pounds of barley. Due to almost nonexistent profit margins, unless the market was prepared to pay more for bacon, we had little choice but to produce pork for the lowest cost possible.

[21] Finally, according to this line of thinking, it is otherness, or "wilderness" that forges discourse, born of the subject's desire to answer its call. I remember flying into Saskatoon after years of living away. The aerial view unsettled me—nothing but the patchwork grid of fields, lined occasionally with shelter-belts of spindly poplars planted at the edge of sections to prevent the topsoil from drifting away. What could I possibly say about this place?

[22] Questions like these plagued me, and thus, if ascribing solely to an ethical schema founded upon the ontologically firm categories "subjectivity" and "otherness," I felt I had only two options, which were not really options at all—either I had to deny my experience of growing up on a small, mixed farm and cling to the infinitesimal amount of Saskatchewan's remaining native grassland, or I had to take up a full-time practice of writing obituaries.

[23] The more Heather and I traversed our home, the Saskatchewan farmscape, the more hopeless it became for me to assimilate it in phenomenological terms. I needed another critical model with which to articulate Heather's and my artistic engagement with rural Saskatchewan and our family's engagement as farmers. Artistically, eco-phenomenology's primary gesture of privileging an unknowable "otherness" that incites discourse rendered us silent insofar that it is increasingly difficult to locate any sort of tangible "otherness" in Saskatchewan's miliux. If not silent, our inevitable failure at contemplating "otherness" in Saskatchewan's terrain could only issue forth nostalgic fantasies of return to a lost, natural setting. Not only are the options of silence or constructing reactive museums/mausoleums unsatisfying, they bear no correspondence to my family's lived and daily encounter with this place. Furthermore, within an eco-phenomenological model that privileges "wilderness," agriculture is too easily charged as an exploitive practice. Decommissioning vast tracts of land from food production to allow them to return to a "natural state" is highly impractical—simply put, what would we eat? Moreover the impetus to do so betrays a facile understanding of the nature/culture divide. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if all of agriculture is cast aside as enacting a violation upon "otherness," we're rendered incapable of discerning whether or not certain kinds of farming are more ethical than others.

Claybank, Saskatchewan

Claybank, Saskatchewan (Photo Credit: Heather Benning)

[24] Backed up against this aporia, it was with palpable relief that I found environmental readings of the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. Denying appeals to transcendence, essence, or universal principles, these thinkers propose a philosophy of immanence, a mode of thinking they call "geophilosophy," whereby "thinking takes place in relation to the earth" (WP 85). Composed of an antifoundationalist conceptual matrix which repudiates the notion that the "subject (humanity)" and the "other (nature)" constitute ontologically stable and discrete categories, "geophilosophy" provides an invigorating means to think through the interaction between the human and nonhuman in terms of immanence and relationality, thus rendering hands-bound mourning for lost "natural" places invalid.

[25] Deleuze and Guattari eradicate the perdurable dichotomy between humanity and nature by "stretching out a plane of immanence that absorbs the earth (or rather, 'adsorbs' it)" (WP 88). Drawing on Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari propose a "common plane of immanence on which all bodies, all minds, and all individuals are situated" (qtd. in Hayden 117). The plane of immanence is common to all things; it is where different ways of living are simultaneously installed and constituted (117). Life is understood according to its relations of movement and rest and each body, whether human or nonhuman, by its capacity for affecting and being affected. Thus Deleuze and Guattari suggest an immanent, nondualistic continuity between human and nonhuman life whose complex interrelationships overlap with the physical, biological and chemical, and the social, ethical and political (117). To begin to understand Deleuze and Guattari's nondualistic conception of Life, it is helpful to consider what they mean by "desire." They write,

[26] Desire is everything that exists before the opposition between subject and object, before representation and production. It's everything whereby the world and affects constitute us outside of ourselves, in spite of ourselves. That's why we define it as flow [flux]. Within this context we were led to forge a new notion in order to specify in what way this kind of desire is not some sort of undifferentiated magma, and thereby dangerous, suspicious, or incestuous. So we speak of machines, of "desiring machines," in order to indicate that there is as yet no question here of "structure," that is, of any subjective position, objective redundancy, or coordinates of reference. Machines arrange and connect flows. They do not recognize distinctions between persons, organs, material flows, and semiotic flows" (qtd. in Halsey, "Modalities of Nature," 42)

[27] This passage evokes, desire, akin to the plane of immanence, or the Earth, which elsewhere they call Mechanosphere. Machines, direct flows or desire, and organize bodies on/in the Mechanosphere. By machines, Deleuze and Guattari are not speaking of a mechanical device; rather they are referring to the processes by which earth is given its discursive qualities (Halsey 40). Nature, then, is considered by Deleuze and Guattari as an immanent plane of life upon which all things "enter into both their own unique compositions and a variety of 'more or less interconnected relations' with other compositions" (Hayden 118). By no means does the plane immanence constitute a prelapsarian or transcendent version of nature. Rather, "desire is always assembled" and reassembled as particular combinations of bodies are captured from the plane of immanence. The earth, then, might be thought of as the fundamental yet never fixed plane of immanence on which the constitution of multiplicities takes place (118).

[28] NW 18 36 22 W2nd might be considered a multiplicity captured by a machinic assemblage of enunciation—Ottawa's grid system—from the plane of immanence, or mixed grassland prairie. The Ottawa-machine ascribes NW 18 36 22 W2nd particular discursive qualities—a section of farm-land, and upon our purchase of it, my family's home. However, the mixed grasslands region that was overwhelmingly striated by Ottawa's grid does not comprise a pristine lost nature for which we might nostalgically long to return. No such unmanipulated nature ever existed—prior to Ottawa's imposition of the grid, the mixed grasslands were organized into territories and engaged with by central Saskatchewan's Cree peoples. Thus the plane of immanence is neither prior, nor transcendent; rather it is confluent with emergent multiplicities.

[29] According to Deleuze and Guattari, a multiplicity has "neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature" (ATP 6). Further, they write that "[m]ultiplicities are defined by the outside: by the abstract line, the line of flight or deterritorialization according to which they change in nature and connect with other multiplicities" (8-9). As multiplicities shift and palpitate along lines of flight, they forge assemblages with other multiplicities. Deleuze and Guattari write that an assemblage is "precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections (ATP 8)." Thus, multiplicities cannot be reduced to the fixed essences. Rather they forge symbiotic alliances between diverse multiplicities. Hayden writes that "[s]ymbiosis is the cofunctioning of two or more different organisms, often in a mutually beneficial relationship of reciprocity" (Hayden 117). Thus the relationship between multiplicities is an alliance between varied terms in symbiosis (118). This, writes Hayden, suggests that "the dynamic movements of nature are always coming about within ever-changing zones of immanent interactions between diverse ecological factors" (118).

[30] My family forged an assemblage with the multiplicity, NW 18 36 22 W2nd, a thriving symbiotic relationship as exemplified by how we utilized the waste materials, namely manure, from our hog operation. With our "honey wagon," a tongue-in-cheek nickname we gave the vacuum tank which hauled liquid effluence, Dad spread the hog manure from our barns onto our land at a target rate of 1000 gallons per acre. The manure provided a cheap form of crop fertilizer and the rates at which we spread it were low enough to ensure that it would fully absorb into the soil—there was no risk of the manure leaching into and contaminating surface or subsoil water systems.

[31] What Deleuze and Guattari's thinking points to is a cosmos "traversed by flux"—the perpetual movements of the plane of immanence habitually made into bodies of one kind or another (Halsey 44). "NW 18 36 22 W2nd," "Big Sky Pork Industries," "The Breadbasket of Canada," are simply particular kinds of discursive arrangements of the otherwise unbounded flow of the plane of immanence. Bodies, and forces constructed to capture or contain a flow—i.e. "The Dominion Lands Act,"—far from being homogenous, "sutured entities," are "always already" sites of instability insofar that each body is a multiplicity (Halsey 45). Mark Halsey suggests that what is most significant about multiplicities is that they continually pervade or break through the organized spaces borne by the "despotic agency" of the "Signifier" (Halsey 45). That is, the organizing effects of the Signifier, are undermined by the ceaseless transformation of multiplicities, the redirection of flows. Thus, according to Deleuze and Guattari's thinking, it is no longer possible to postulate the existence of inviolable categories such as "Self" and "Other;" "Subject" and "Wilderness." Nature can no longer be considered a transcendent entity that occupies a realm outside "humanity;" rather it is perpetually produced through the various machines that issue forth various bodies "from one moment to the next" (Halsey 46).

[32] If every body or multiplicity constitutes a blockage on the plane of immanence, and such organized bodies are waiting to flee the categories, codes and laws that produce them, how does one go about making "a body without organs," that is how can one free a multiplicity from stratifying forces? Halsey writes that for Deleuze and Guattari, the answer is simple: Experiment. "Experiment with the Real," that is, examine how bodies are put together in order that they might be pulled apart and reassembled anew. Halsey adds that we should look for "not a pure Nature, but a new problematics of Nature (47). The task then becomes one of understanding how desire, the plane of immanence, is assembled and demarcated by machines. The organization of bodies, as Halsey writes, is not "unnatural;" in fact, it is unavoidable. However, such organization is always "contestable and negotiable" (48). Deleuze and Guattari maintain that the object is not to eliminate machines, which is an impossible task, but to "influence the nature of becomings-other capable of arising within particular contexts" (Halsey 49). The challenge issued by Deleuze and Guattari, then, is to experiment with the plane of immanence in order to "implode the (modernist) will toward the categorical" (Halsey 51).

[33] Hayden writes that experimentation is best understood not as an attitude of "anything goes," but as a willingness to create what is "most advantageous for life on earth while exercising prudence and precaution with respect to that same life" (122). Ethics then can be seen as the "critical and creative mode of developing an ethos according to which one actively works to promote the continued well-being of the various members of diverse yet interconnected multiplicities on the basis of their unique needs and capacities" (122). The primary consideration of ethics involves the practical evaluation of the social institutions through which humans intersect with each other and nonhuman nature (123).

[34] The thriving symbiotic assemblage of manure-land on my family's farm is markedly distinct from the waste management of massive hog operations such as Big Sky Pork Industries. Because of the immense amount of waste produced by such factory farms, it becomes cost prohibitive to spread the bulky effluent over as many acres of land required to ensure its safe absorption. Thus Big Sky applies manure at excessive rates—the concentration of manure they spread on land is easily ten times stronger than that of what my Dad spread. This high concentration of manure wreaks devastating effects on soil and water systems. I remember one year the fields upon which Big Sky spread pig shit didn't produce crops because the high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil caused severe chemical burn. Furthermore, such high concentrations of manure inevitably contaminate surface water. I only have to go as far as Stony Lake, three miles north of our farm, to witness the results of fertilizer contaminated run-off. Stony lake, my Dad's favorite childhood swimming hole, and a former source of drinking water for the closest town, is now the consistency of pea-soup as every July it excessively blooms with algae.

[35] Because of their concern over water pollution, my parents were instrumental in helping our RM of Wolverine block Big Sky from further expanding their hog barns. Initially when the owners of Big Sky sought to increase their operation, the other farmers in our RM initiated a petition in protest. Upon receiving the petition, Big Sky lobbied the provincial government for support. My Dad, who was an RM counselor at the time, convinced the other members of the RM to call for plebiscite which would allow the RM's ratepayers to vote on the density of livestock operations permitted in our RM. The members of our RM unanimously voted to limit the size of hog operations allowable, that is they called for a restriction on the density of animals per acre of land.

[36] Experiment. Know how machines are organized so they might be dismantled and assembled anew. My parents embarked on several other experiments in an attempt to throw a monkey-wrench into the machine of global capitalism and agribusiness, which increasingly levied pressure on diversified, family-farm operations. For example, in the mid-1980s, my parents co-found SISCO, Swine Improvement Services Cooperative, a group of small-scale hog farmers who gathered once a month to share knowledge with the intent to enhance their ability to survive in a competitive market. While on SISCO's Board of Directors, my parents sought to make arrangements with Saskatchewan's Co-op grocery chain, to facilitate selling, direct from local farmers, hanging sides of pork. My parents planned to approach small, local slaughtering plants to butcher the animals thereby dramatically reducing farmers' freight costs, not to mention the ecological damage heralded by shipping agricultural produce hundreds upon hundreds of unnecessary miles. Furthermore, such a scheme would have generated more jobs for local community members, thereby enhancing regional economics. However, in the eleventh hour, the Co-op grocery chain backed out of the nearly completed deal. When Dad pressured a regional manager for an explanation, he was told that large kill-plants such as Intercontinental Meats, Maple Meats or Burns Meats, threatened the Co-op that they would withdraw their processed cuts of meat from Co-op grocery stores if a local arrangement with SISCO was forged.

[37] Another experiment. My Dad was on the Board of Directors for the Saskatchewan Hog Market Commission, a producer directed group who handled the marketing of all hogs grown in Saskatchewan. While on the Board, this group decided to try and establish insurance so that when the market value of hogs dipped below the break-even point, the substantial investments of family-sized operations would remain protected. In opposition to the consensus of the board, the Saskatchewan Government chose to provide insurance not only for small to mid-sized hog operations, but also for Saskatchewan's burgeoning agribusiness factory-farms. When coverage was extended to these massive operations, the program could no longer sustain itself and the Saskatchewan Government cancelled it, leaving smaller producers vulnerable to the whim of market forces, more easily weathered by large-scale operations.

Claybank, Saskatchewan

Claybank, Saskatchewan (Photo Credit: Heather Benning)

[38] Thus "geophilosophy" engenders a mode of ethics that does not receive its motivation from that which transcends reality, a radical other, but instead from actual contexts within a mutable nature. This is an ethics that is on-going, open to ceaseless transformations and (re)evaluations, to keep pace with the continuous changes of all phenomena. Deleuze and Guattari's notion of "geophilosophy" is a mode of thinking in association with an affirmation of the diversity and multiplicity of the immanent "becomings" of "natural reality" (qtd. in Hayden 115). To emphasize the interaction of the human and nonhuman in terms of immanence their understanding of "milieu" plays an important role. A milieu is the site, habitat, or medium of ecological interaction and encounter; akin to their notion of multiplicity, a milieu is open to transformation on the basis of its supple boundaries and alterable relationships (Hayden 115). Milieux develop, grow and change together within continuous intersecting processes of becoming. [2] Becomings are constituted through relations of alliance that are articulated in terms of particular milieu overlapping with other milieux (117).

[39] In the midst of the "Dirty Thirties," so named because millions of tons of topsoil literally blew away, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act (PFRA) was established with the aim to rehabilitate farm land that was devastated by drought and wind erosion. Part of the PFRA's mandate was to provide farmers with free trees, usually poplars, to plant shelter-belts surrounding their quarters of land. In Saskatchewan, farmers could source the trees from the remaining nurseries earlier established at Indian Head. Trees that were once planted with the hopes of forging forests in the grasslands were now overlapping with the milieu of farms, not only mitigating soil erosion, but also providing habitat for tree-dwelling species such as squirrels and woodpeckers (Savage 239).

[40] According to Deleuze and Guattari, ethics coincides with immanent modes of existence and is impelled not by something that transcends reality, but instead from within given concrete situations within a dynamic nature. They write, "A possibility of life is evaluated through itself in the movements it lays out and intensities it creates on a plane of immanence" (qtd. in Hayden 120). Ethics which do not measure existence against fixed standards generate knowledge regarding "qualitative differences" marking the multiplicities of nature (121). Ethics, then, cultivate a "fluid understanding of the changing affects, capabilities, needs, and powers of specific human and nonhuman modes of existence" (121). Deleuze and Guattari insist that ethics are on-going; the perpetual change of phenomena necessitates that the evaluations of things change accordingly. When evaluation ceases to be creative and open to transformation, values become fixed and transcendent categories are imposed upon a seemingly inert nature.

[41] The PFRA also gave rise to a rotational cropping practice. Based on this recommended model, farmers would crop their quarters of land two years in a row, and then, on the third year, they would summer fallow—till the land to control weed growth and leave it lay fallow to build up moisture reserves for the following year. Our land had been farmed in this fashion from the 1940s until my parents' purchased it in the late 1970s. Although crop rotation was initially useful to combat the effects of drought, after thirty or forty years of periodic summer fallowing soil becomes depleted of tilth, the organic vegetation that makes soil nutrient rich. In the words of my Dad, the soil "gets hard baked and tired"—water runs off it as there is little remaining tilth to soak it up. Furthermore in summer fallowed fields there is no vegetation to hold snow. I recall the look of summer fallowed fields in the winter—black dirt, with only thin skiffs of snow dusting the frozen, tilled furrows. Because of the "tired" condition of our soil, during the first year on our farm, my parents seeded half of their land into sweet clover, which is a nitrogen fixing legume. They allowed the clover to grow to a substantial height and then they disced the land so the clover plant matter would mix into the soil. This enhanced our tilth, allowing oxygen into the dirt to assist the growth of soil microbes.

[42] Deleuze and Guattari's notion of ethics does not suggest relativism. Ethics are "relative," or related to the condition of their use, however they have criteria. The criteria for ethics according to Deleuze is "immanent, historical, and emergent rather than transcendent, essential and static" (Hayden 121). Thus Deleuze and Guattari assert that thinking belongs to the earth and is not the manifestation of a knowing subject apart from its environment. Thinking exists as the fluid effect of the interactions that take place between the force of the body and the environment in which it occurs (121). The reciprocal relationality of bodies and milieux implies that each have effects on the other. Evaluation of modes of existence, then, must proceed from the recognition of this reciprocity or symbiosis (121). Such an ethics requires careful study not only of the natural conditions of phenomena, but also of the effects of various modes of existence. Therefore, though ethics implies a continuous process within diverse milieux, this is not to say that it is impossible to distinguish particular modes of existence as more desirable than others (122). However such distinctions are always site-specific, so to speak, and cannot be measured against a transcendent standard. Patrick Hayden writes,

As Deleuze sees it, ethical experience is not the progression toward some ultimate fixed goal that abstract reason can formulate in terms of universal maxims or categorical imperatives. Instead, it is an ongoing process that moves toward new possibilities of thinking and feeling in order to cultivate the positive forces of life. In this process, ethical evaluations should be regarded as hypotheses to be verified by experience in relation to their effects upon human and nonhuman existence (122).

[43] When practicing crop rotation proved to no longer be a means of properly using moisture thereby intensifying the health of the soil, we were the first in our RM to stop summer fallowing and practice zero-tilling, a mode of seeding the land which further coaxed back our tilth. Zero-tilling causes minimum soil disturbance as seed is knived into the ground versus conventional tilling which involves cultivating or discing, a process of turning the soil over. Rather than cultivating the land, scraping and exposing the soil, zero-tilling allows the land to always be covered by a layer of vegetation. Stubble and other crop residue are left in place after harvest, bettering the soil's health. This technique also provides nesting cover for species of ground-nesting birds including meadowlarks, pheasants and grasshopper sparrows (Savage 256). Zero-tilling requires special seeding unit that places seed into ground, which my parents could not afford. Thus, instead of buying a zero-tilling unit, they replaced the shovels on our cultivator with knife openers, and our cultivator morphed from a tillage implement into a minimal soil disturbance implement.

[44] Hayden suggest that Deleuze's "geophilosophy" is a form of political philosophy articulated in ecological terms. It is through a wide variety of symbiotic assemblages that life and the becoming of nature take place. Assemblages are not exclusively human, but rather include or unite both the human and nonhuman; they are "the set of relationships which at a particular moment unites man, animal, tools and environment" and it is through the evaluation of assemblages that ethics are realized (qtd. in Hayden 123). Thus, the awareness of ecologically dangerous relationships "can be used to formulate active political interventions aimed at transforming or overcoming those relationships in order to create new values and interactions that are beneficial to the diversity of the earth" (123).

[45] The manner in which we farmed our marginal land required us to continually think in relation to the earth. The mixed farm I grew up on might then be considered an assemblage insofar that we operated it in confluence with symbiotic alliances. We consistently altered our engagement with our land based on the land's ability to thrive. Our small, mixed operation provided us livestock feed, and in turn, the livestock provided us with organic fertilizer, manure, to increase the soil nutrient content. By the time we sold our farm in 1998, our "hard baked and tired" dirt was producing crop yields which exceeded over double the yields of those we produced when we initially started farming in 1977.

[46] All of nature, according to Deleuze and Guattari, including humanity, is in constant flux; there is no essential or transcendent state to be found or addressed. Thus Deleuze and Guattari, are not proposing a theory which seeks to somehow address a "wilderness," or an "other" apart from human existence or conceptualization. Rather Deleuze and Guattari provide a critical perspective that attempts to demonstrate that humans are part of the existing natural world which does not bear transcendence, but which can be devastated by exploitive practices (Hayden 125). Human and natural history are intertwined in immanent movements of change and thus ethics cannot be born from an adherence to "reactive transcendence," but must be founded on current situations. This, according to Hayden, implies the active creation of modes of existence that exemplify beneficial relationships between human and nonhuman beings (125).

Claybank, Saskatchewan

Claybank, Saskatchewan (Photo Credit: Heather Benning)

[47] My family is still experimenting with the plane of organization, attempting to influence the becomings of Saskatchewan's overlapping milieux. Similar to my parents attempts to experiment with social machines that bind rural Saskatchewan and their aim to farm in symbiosis with prairie nature, Heather, with sculptural installations destratifies ossified thinking about rural abandonment at the hands of corporate industrial farming machines. By foregrounding rural abandonment, Heather's installations disassemble agribusiness insofar that they engender in the viewer questions regarding whether or not there isn't another mode of farming that might be more amenable to the earth and its peoples.

[48] When asked to participate in the Claybank project, Heather proposed to construct a site-specific installation in an abandoned yard-site a quarter of a mile from the brick plant. To create the installation, Heather used materials that she found scattered throughout the yard. Just beyond the house's porch, she placed a decrepit chaise lounge. When Heather originally discovered the chaise, it was only a bent frame, but in the yard's overgrown brome, speargrass and sage, Heather found the chaise's rotting plastic mesh. With piano wire, she suspended the wasted plastic between the metal frame so the plastic looks like it is hovering. In the yard Heather also found a vodka bottle, an empty pack of Black Cat cigarettes, a pair of 1960s high heel shoes, and an old tourist brochure for Victoria, British Columbia. Heather placed these items around the chaise—a mother, Heather thought, might take off her shoes, sit on this chaise, and daydream about Victoria, while smoking, quietly sipping vodka, and watching her children. The children might play on the swing-set, now rusted by the elements. Heather used piano wire to suspend one of the swings mid-air—fixing the instant a child jumps off the swing into the prairie sky. Heather also found a children's tricycle. She tipped the trike on its side, and wired a tiny motor to one of the wheels, hidden from view. The continually spinning wheel squeaks—the sound elongates the moment of a child recklessly bounding from the trike for another game. Heather also found a broken, toy baby carriage; inside of the carriage she placed wild-flowers and eye-catching pebbles, all totems a child might gather while humming made-up melodies. On the sagging clothesline, Heather hung a blue nightgown that she found in a trash heap behind the house as if to dry it in the hot prairie air.

[49] Deleuze and Guattari suggest that art creates aesthetic figures and unleashes percepts and affects which facilitate sensory becomings (Lorraine 210). Percepts are "no longer" perceptions; rather they are "independent of the state of those who experience them," and affects are not simply feelings or affections since they "go beyond the strength of those who undergo them" (WP 164). Percepts and affects are intensities on the plane of immanence; they undo the "organization" of Molar perception and Molar affections, and thus make perceptible the dynamic flow of molecular processes. Thus, artistic vision creates a plane of "composition" that destratifies conventional experience.

[50] Heather's installation is not merely a reactive representation—in composing the Claybank piece, Heather is not simply recalling, for example, her experiences in that abandoned farmyard on our quarter of land and constructing a monument infused with ressentiment. Rather as Heather moves through and engages with the site, she actively embarks on deterritorializing what might be thought about it and other abandoned yard-sites. By rendering the abandonment of rural settings manifestly visible, Heather implicitly calls for the proliferation of new becomings. She troubles the overwhelming reign of agribusiness, its attendant social and environmental costs, and recouples prairie nature with human habitation for the sake of a new and thriving earth. Tasmin Lorrain writes that percepts and affects undermine the coherence of commonsense experience; instead of using the artistic medium to imitate or represent a familiar experience, the artist, writes Deleuze and Guattari, "is a seer, a becomer" (WP 171). Heather's aesthetic figures, by releasing percepts and affects from Molar experience, from what is typically conceived of or felt about rural abandonment, introduces new possibilities in perception and conception (Lorrain 183).

[51] Deleuze and Guattari suggest an analogy between artistic monuments and the territory marked out by birdsong. A bird's territory cuts across the territories of other birds and other species. Its song, resounding beyond apparent boundaries, generates "interspecies junctions points" (185). Milieu are neither isolated nor simply annexed onto other milieu; rather the borders of seemingly discrete milieu ceaselessly palpitate. Just after the sun sets, Heather and I sit on the crumbling steps of the falling down house; we sit in the sigh of cool evening air, its undertones of juniper, sage, the trike's creaking wheel, the buzz of grasshoppers. We do not talk. Another artist at Claybank produced a sound piece of children's frenetic laughter—galloping waves of giggles and hiccoughs and scream. We quietly listen to the unpredictable joyous rhythm that overlaps Heather's installation. It shivers our skins like a much needed rain.

Claybank, Saskatchewan

Claybank, Saskatchewan (Photo Credit: Heather Benning)


[1] and black-eyed susans and tiger lilies and dandelions and goldenrod and sow-thistle and mule deer and wild parsnip and prickly pear cactus and wild mustard and sweet-clover and evening primrose and swainson's hawks and bedstraw and green ash and tiger salamanders and anemone and russian thistle and fleabane and milkweed and bison and red paintbrush and bluebells and wild flax and aster and hedge-nettle and hyssop and lady's-slippers and spur-throated grasshoppers and corydalis and bladderwort and antelope and snow geese and goldenbean and spadefoot toads and trembling aspen and licorice and deer mice and burdock and sunflower and wild lettuce and prairie dogs and death-camas and barn swallows and prairie-crocus and painted lady caterpillars and sawflies and kill-deer and marsh marigold and bunchberry and mustard and strawberries and globe-mallow and coneflower and sideoats grama and checkerspot butterlies and golden tickseed and horned-larks and marsh ragwort and yellow pond-lilies and gromwell and silverweed and turnbull's grasshoppers and cinquefoil and elms and pussytoes and swiftfox and curly dock and grebe and yellow locoweed and pennycress and beeflies and vetch and elk and clematis and ponderosa pine and prairie onions and starry false-Solomon's-seal and sweat bees and thread-leaved watercrowfoot and garter snakes and sweet-colt's foot and yarrow and white spruce and fescue and red cedar and brome and speargrass and bluets and crested wheat and bunchberry and toadflax and field bindweed and dogbane and fireweed and saline shootingstar and porcupines and chokecherries and alfalfa and butterflyweed and blue grama and needle-and-thread grass and pinchusion cactus and indian grass and buffalo grass and plains wolves and monarch butterflies and galleta and bluebonnets and pincherries and harebells and jackpine and claret cups and goldenbeans and bluebunch wheatgrass and greater sage grouse and pasture sage and bur oak and ferruginous hawks and yellow-headed blackbirds and big bluestem and little bluestem and oxeye daisy and chamomile and curly dock and beardtongue and wild mint and saskatoon berries and western meadowlarks and—

[2] According to the descriptions that Deleuze and Guattari provide in A Thousand Plateaus, we live in a world surrounded by multiple types of becomings—Molar entities continually destratifying from stable forms of organziation. Tasmin Lorraine writes that "[b]ecomings put the heterogenous elements of molecular processes into a continuum resulting in new forms of living...One thus makes the world and everybody and everything in it into a becoming; instead of excluding the world in order to maintain a determinate organization of self, one opens up the patternings of molar aggregates to the influx of molecular flow. One will inevitably transform the world as well as be transformed by the world in the process" (183-184).

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1987.

—. What is Philsophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Davis, Colin. Levinas: An Introduction. Indianna: U of Notre Dame P, 1996.

Diehm, Christian. "Natural Disasters." Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. Eds. Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine. Albany: SUNY, 2003. 171-187

Halsey, Mark. "Ecology and Machinic Thought: Nietzsche, Deleuze, Guattari." Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. 10.3 (December 2005): 33-52.

—. "Environmental Visions: Deleuze and the Modalities of Nature." Ethics and the Environment. 9.2 (Fall/Winter 2004): 33-64.

Hayden, Patrick. Multiplicity and Becoming: The Pluralist Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Laycock, Steven W. "The Animal as Animal: A Plea for Open Conceptuality." Animal Others: On Ethics, Ontology, and Animal Life. Steeves, Peter. Ed. Albany: SUNY, 1999.

Levinas Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity. Pittsburgh: Dusquesne UP, 1985.

Tasmin, Lorrain. Irigaray and Deleuze: Experiments in Visceral Philosophy. New York: Cornell P, 1999.

McKay, Don. Vis-á-Vis. Wolfville: Gaspereau P, 2001.

Rowe, Stan. Home Place. Edmonton: NeWest, 1990.

Savage, Candace. Prairie. Toronto: Greystone, 2004.

Stegner, Wallace. Wolf Willow: A History, a Story and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. Toronto: Macmillan, 1955.

Toadvine, Ted. "The Primacy of Desire and Its Ecological Consequences." Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. Eds. Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine. Albany: SUNY, 2003. 139-155.