By Theresa Wells

It is hard to believe another school year has ended, and that summer has begun. Friday saw the annual exodus of vehicles headed down Highway 63, off on summer vacations as the last school bell rang and the kids were out for the year. Report cards were read, and suitcases were packed, and the long hazy days of summer began. And me? I sat back and thought about what an amazing place this is in the summer.

Let’s be very frank. Our winters are harsh affairs, long and cold and dark. Last winter if I had seen any more snow I may have lost my mind, and I was running out of places to pile it. I had avalanche prone snow banks going at the sides of my driveway. I was getting desperate. Then the weather began to warm, and as it always does, the snow began to melt. With the melting snow went my memories of it, and I instead began to dream of long summer days – and now they are here.

This is perhaps one of the most beautiful places in the summer. The sun rises early and stays up late, and our hours of true darkness are few. The northern lights dance above during those scant dark hours, providing a show of wonder and natural beauty.  The boreal forest turns lush and green, and flowers, from those we have planted to those that appear naturally, begin to appear. It is the most incredibly lovely place, which is why I am always bemused when new visitors comment on how pretty it is, and our natural wonders. It seems they think we are, instead, Mordor.

Yes, some years ago I heard us referred to as “Mordor”, the dark and scary land from Lord of the Rings. It is not exactly a flattering description, and it has troubled me ever since because it is so ridiculously far off the mark. Even our industrial sites, while not pretty, are hardly worthy of such a dramatic description. And our community, and the forest that surrounds it? Well, to sling around the phrase Mordor is a pretty huge insult, and shows a complete lack of understanding of reality.

Even in those dark winter months this is clearly not Mordor. Even in winter, when the sun glints off the sparkling snow, and the sunshine reflects off ice particles in the air, this is a beautiful place. This is, in fact, a stunning place of natural beauty, with sharp delineations of the seasons, and a place where you can watch summer turn to fall, fall turn to winter, winter turn to spring, and spring turn to summer. Every year is a parade of the seasons, of watching the migrating birds come and go, the leaves bud in bright green and then fade to yellow, the first snowflakes fall. Every year we see our community – our “Mordor” – go through the phases of nature. Every year we see the natural wonder played out before our eyes.

I often wonder about those who level terms such as Mordor at us. I realize it is an attempt to dramatize us, to polarize opinion about us, but are those who use these words and games truly so blind? Are they truly so ignorant of this part of the world as to think their descriptions are accurate? Do they paint the world with such a broad brush and think it makes sense, think it is logical? Do they not see that this place is more than an industry? That it is a community, a natural wonder, a part of the boreal forest, a gem in this world? Or perhaps they cannot see what they choose to not see, and they see only dark, and scary, and grim. They see Mordor where we see wonder.

What is the best cure for this? I think it is having people visit us. When people arrive and drive into downtown Fort McMurray I think they are often stunned by that little valley that greets them, the expanse of the boreal forest across the river. I think the sheer amount of green shocks them. I think they see the deer and the fox and the bear and the birds and they slowly begin to realize that this place is not what they thought it was. This place is not Mordor. This place is actually northern Alberta, with long summer days and equally long winter nights. This place is a place of northern lights and boreal forest and sparkling rivers, and, in winter, deep snowbanks. But for now those snowbanks are forgotten and this is a place of bright summer sunshine and vibrant green trees.

I don’t think, somehow, that this place is what Tolkien had in mind when he wrote about Mordor. I think, in fact, it seems a lot more like another place he wrote about – a place he called The Shire. And it could not be more different from Mordor.

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