Urban gain, rural drain.
These are words that have become a common saying in communities across the Canadian prairies, Kyler Zeleny said. The writer and photographer who recently released his newest book, Crown Ditch and the Prairie Castle, has always been a proponent of the rural lifestyle. His new book aims to document people in the prairies and present the area as an understudied region that still faces a great deal of struggle.
Zeleny's affinity for the prairies comes from growing up on a farm outside of Mundare before moving to Edmonton when he was 18. He's long been writing about the prairie lifestyle, with his newest book being the latest chapter of this work.
"There was always a bit of a calling to come back to the farm, to rural living, to some of the things he thought were magical about being that kind of space on the prairies," said Zeleny who was interviewed on CBC Radio Active this week.
Crown Ditch and the Prairie Castle is a photo book with 60 images placed in a specific order to create a narrative and a view of the way he sees the Canadian prairies. The book includes essays written by Zeleny and fellow Alberta author Aritha Van Herk.
The book started with a question about who the prairie dweller of today is, and what their needs are. He started this process 10 years ago and has been studying rural prairie culture ever since. At first, he researched the revitalization of small towns before switching to focus on the visual nature of the prairies.
In his work, Zeleny said he wants to look at what differentiates the prairies from other regions, who lives there, and what their landscapes and communities are like. Zeleny added that there's a clearer idea of what the American midwest is than the ideas of the Canadian west.
But Zeleny characterizes the prairies as being beautiful in its simplicity, in its topography, its beautiful horizon and blue sky, and its people.
"If you're from the prairies, it's inherent in you to understand what's beautiful about the prairies," Zeleny said.
"We're nothing fancy. We're just simple, kind folks."
His book includes environmental portraiture as well as a focus on the people of the prairies. The population of these rural communities has changed a lot over time, Zeleny said, highlighting how these communities are youth deserts, where young people leave to find work or a better way of life in larger cities.
With that has come a loss of community and vibrancy, Zeleny said. His book hopes to capture the changing landscape of these towns.
"It's important to create snapshots of this change," Zeleny said. "Because it's not a drastic change, this is a very slow process. And I think that's also why there's not a lot of concern about it."
Part of this change comes from aging communities, and from fewer job opportunities with the modernization of farming where work that once required 20 people can now be completed by only a handful of workers, or from industries leaving town.
To try and help these communities, Zeleny said he'd like to see more government assistance like subsidies for small towns to attract more people. He'd also like to see a larger ideological shift that embraces small-town living.
But for rural towns far from urban centres with shrinking opportunities for work, Zeleny said it's hard to see what can be done to revitalize many of these communities.
"We're looking at a process that is rather inevitable. That we're going to see the shrinking of small towns," Zeleny said.
"That's really tough for a lot of people to hear, especially people who are community-driven and who want to see their community thrive. But a lot of communities will continue to disappear."