Old Man on His Back: Portrait of a Prairie Landscape


80 pages
ISBN 0-00-200085-7
DDC 917.124'3




Photos by Courtney Milne
Reviewed by Kathy E. Zimon

Kathy E. Zimon is a fine arts librarian (emerita) at the University of
Calgary. She is the author of Alberta Society of Artists: The First 70
Years and co-editor of Art Documentation Bulletin of the Art Libraries
Society of North America.


Author Sharon Butala and photographer Courtney Milne, both award winners
in their respective disciplines, here offer a celebration of the
establishment of the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage
Conservation Area, the flagship grassland project of the Nature
Conservancy of Canada.

The OMB consists of 13,000 acres of grassland in the southwestern
corner of Saskatchewan. The project began with the donation of 1000
acres of semi-arid, mixed-grass prairie—Sharon and Peter Butala’s
family ranch—to the Nature Conservancy. The other 12,000 acres were
assembled with the co-operation of various levels of government and
other organizations, to make the OMB a nearly intact expanse of native
grassland whose care and preservation is now protected in perpetuity.

Butala writes lovingly of a prairie whose poor soil and harsh climate
defeated the hopes and dreams of early settlers and thereby helped
preserve its natural, unspoiled character for future generations. She
writes of the prairie’s history, interweaving her knowledge of its
ancient geological era, its archaeological markers, and the variety of
its flora and fauna with the story of the Native inhabitants who lived
off its meagre bounty, but, unlike the European settlers, did not covet
its ownership. Courtney Milne’s superb photographs provide the visual
counterpoint to Butala’s evocative language. Panoramic double-page
spreads of a gathering storm over golden stubble, Aboriginal stone
circles on a heavily grazed range, a gold- and sepia-hued vista of the
sagging remnants of settlement huddled on an otherwise deserted prairie,
and a close-up of a blooming scarlet mallow complement the text,
demonstrating the land’s subtle beauty, which language alone cannot
adequately convey.

The book’s design is not credited, but its understated, elegant
format is a perfect vehicle for Butala’s text and Milne’s
photography. Published with seed money from SaskPower, the proceeds from
its sale will build an endowment for the OMB. But its purchase needs no
persuasion from its worthy mission: no individual or library can go
wrong by acquiring this book for its own merit.


Butala, Sharon., “Old Man on His Back: Portrait of a Prairie Landscape,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/17533.