The land speaks…


Try squeeze & release—it’s good medicine—and it’s free.

Prescription: breathe in and tense up your shoulder muscles, and relax them as you breathe out. 

Feels good, doesn’t it?

Squeeze & Release is also a technique used by medieval cathedral builders and modern day architects (including the famous innovator, Frank Lloyd Wright). It works like this: space is first, constrained—think of a low-ceilinged, narrow and dark passage or foyer—the entrance to a mall or casino, for instance. You are ‘squeezed’ to go through a door of some sort, and boom! You walk into a wide open space—you are ‘released’—imagine looking way, way up into vertical expanses, bursting with natural light. If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting a cathedral, you’ll know how the potent induction of ‘squeeze & release’ feels.

In this summer’s pilgrimage, we drove through Alberta’s hinterland—all told, 1,920 kilometres of forestry trunk roads and paved highways, in a loop stretching from Calgary to Nordegg to Hinton to Grand Cache to Jasper to Mount Robson to Lake Louise and home. From our dusty, smoke-infused perch in the cab of a Ram pickup truck, we journeyed through a vast and profoundly moving landscape. All of our senses were turned onto the immense roar and surge and power of rushing mountain-fed streams; rivers squeezing their way through narrow, deep limestone canyons to ultimately and triumphantly release into wide river valleys.

Driving alongside these water pathways, the motion pulsated—slowly then rapidly picking up energy—you couldn’t help but hold your breath in the shadows of powerful walls of crashing, swirling water blasting through rock canyons. And you couldn’t help but sigh as this water slowed to stillness as it filled up the wide breadth of rocky riverbeds.   

It’s very much like a repetitive prayer or mantra: squeeze & release… squeeze & release…squeeze & release…

Athabasca River


In the last blog, we spoke of how the land speaks. To reiterate: 

Elder Tom Crane Bear of the Siksika (Blackfoot) First Nation has shed much light on ways of knowing land. His insights on Buffalo Mountain (aka Tunnel Mountain) in Banff, Alberta, are revelatory. 

The mountain doesn’t speak Blackfoot or English, he suggests, but it does have something to say for itself. And important stories to tell—especially now.

From a magazine article:  

“The way it speaks to you,” Crane Bear pauses once more before gesturing with his hand toward the other magnificent peaks that encircle the Banff townsite, is “by the way of the contour of the mountain. Yes—some have different ridges, valleys, peaks. So these have a meaning.” He stops again for another moment, smiles and gently [says] “It all has meaning to the person that wants to understand.”

We do want to understand what the territory has to say. And, on this recent journey through west-central Alberta, it was revelatory to listen to that unspeakably beautiful landscape. Fresh water coursing through the river beds reminded us, of course, of the bounty and wonder and gift of water in our territory (and in the midst of British Columbia’s raging forest fires, this was an especially acute awareness). As well, the natural squeeze & release rhythm of the mountain waterways became a nature-induced breathing exercise. The water flow constricted and created tension as it built up behind rocky narrows and canyons; then released once again, defusing the pent-up energy into the spillway of an expansive river valley. 

“Remember to breathe…in & out,” the landscape encouraged. In the midst of the crushing pressures brought to bear by COVID variants, extreme heat and forest fires, and geopolitical turmoil, “just remember to breathe,” it said. 


Robert Guest

Robert Guest is a well-known and celebrated artist who lived in Grand Cache; a delicate painter of this territory’s remarkable trails and pathways. Guest’s art depicts the mighty rivers and the mountainous, solitary terrain, yet he used gentle and soft brushstrokes to render these scenes. By contrast, the gouged high walls of the abandoned and  wound-down coal plants dotted along this territory tell a harsher story.  

We were surprised to learn that Grand Cache was a creation of the Government of Alberta; birthed as a town in 1966 (under the tight-fist of a Social Credit government) to allow the province to act as the guarantor of debt in case the brand-new mining adventure didn’t take root. The town itself slopes in the direction of the Willmore Wilderness area; like a theatre, all homes in the townsite enjoy an unimpeded view of the wilderness.

But the town has seen better days; the 22,000 hectare Grand Cache metallurgical coal mine was unloaded to a Chinese firm for $2 in 2014 and operations wound down a year later. Scars on the mountainside remain.

Bighorn Sheep

Except for healthy herds of Bighorn sheep grazing in the safe shadows of these towering mine sites (off limits to local hunters), and the marginally operational Milner Power Plant (fuelled by coal mine by-products and natural gas), there’s little happening on these formerly industrious mining sites.

Abandoned Coal-Mining Site

It is tempting to label abandoned coal-mining communities as sacrifice zones, in the way that Kentucky coal mines and towns hollowed out for profit are often described (journalists such as Chris Hedges comes to mind).

In the lead up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), scheduled for this fall, coal’s global staying power is being debated. And what province understands the mining sector better than Alberta? The moment you start to extract something—as every miner knows—the first shovelful is the beginning of the end. 

And yet, what does the land itself have to say? If you listen closely, you can hear the squeeze & release; the rhythm of the landscape that keeps pulsing. The roar of the water surging through the rocky gorges and the sigh of its release. Grand Cache may be an engineered community, and the mine sites too, but the Sulphur Gates, where the Smoky and Sulphur Rivers converge, is a place that defies human-made structure or design. This is a territory that yields to nobody.

The earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating into discrete regions of art… One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brainwaves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason.”

Robert Smithson, Sedimentary Thinking

Sulphur Gates, Grand Cache

For more off-the-beaten path travels in Alberta, please consider: South-Eastern Alberta: 2017; South-Western Alberta: 2018; East-Central Alberta: 2019; West-Central Alberta: 2020.

5 thoughts on “The land speaks…

  1. Thank you Donna, Always look forward to your insights, thoughts…The Land Speaks is one of your posts that speaks to everyone. Everyone must try Squeeze and Release techniques and let them become part of one’s daily routine. Thank you.

  2. and the shaman voice of Donna is clear. and the indigenous wisdom is embraced.
    and I am grateful, Donna, for your leadership.
    and we take care of the earth, our communities and our new economy.

  3. This is lovely! We did virtually the same trek this summer. My dad worked for a short contract in Grande Cache as CNR was building the rail line in the area in the sixties.

  4. Hello Donna — we just returned from Grande Cache…the journey there and back while rushed did still have the impact of reminding us how beautiful and blessed our province is. Thank you for your observations.

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