Writing for Our Time: Grass, Sky, Song

downloadI have read Trevor Herriot’s two previous books, River in a Dry Land and Jacob’s Wound, and really enjoyed both of them. So I had high expectations for his latest release Grass, Sky, Song. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. In this book, somewhat of a departure from the previous two, Herriot takes a much more political stance in his critique of agribusiness, consumer practices, and political policy, all of which are causing a massive decline in grassland birds on the prairies. Grass, Sky, Song is also a more slim volume than his previous two, making it a shorter read. It seems like he had an editor or reader who helped him to pare down his writing. Where in Jacob’s Wound, Herriot takes his time exploring ideas, Grass, Sky, Song is much more concise. That’s not to say that this book is less readable.

One of the strengths of this book is that it uses a personal narrative – Herriot’s purchase with friends of a property on Cherry Lake – to anchor his exploration of why grassland birds have been declining in the last 40 years. In the process of explaining his plans for the property, he also discusses his relationships with various Saskatchewan naturalists and the development of his wife`s breast cancer. Herriot is a very personal writer, seemingly giving readers full access to his life and thoughts. It is one of the things that I like most about him because it turns what could dry scientific data into more meaningful anecdotes, stories, and images. I should also admit that I am anticipating a move to Saskatchewan next summer, so Herriots material was, perhaps, more compelling for me.

I also think that another strength of Grass,Sky, Song is that Herriot refuses to take a one-sided or simplistic view of the problems causing the decline of grassland birds. He points out that science struggles to provide answers when problems are complex, yet he also refuses to believe that no one is to blame. He goes further and suggests that all of us are to blame, in part because we as consumers demand cheap food and are too lazy to change our consumption habits to encourage more sustainable and environmentally friendly modes of agriculture. He does not free farmers or the government from blame either, but he is careful and measured in his suggestions for how we can change current systems.

Even though he seems justified in becoming pessimistic, Herriot refuses this position. Instead, he draws on the optimism of a mentor of his, Stuart Houston, to remain hopeful of a better future for the Prairies. And this might be the most valuable part of his book. It is too easy to become depressed, apathetic, or burned out by the litany of environmental damage currently happening. We need to remain hopeful or environmental damage will continue unabated until we find ourselves in a position similar to the inhabitants of Easter Island. Although theories vary on their demise, it seems likely that their desire to cut down trees led them to clear cut the entire island, permanently changing the ecosystem and leaving the islanders with no way off the island or any way to survive. We need to do everything we can to avoid finding ourselves in this position.

I highly recommend Grass, Sky, Song for anyone interested in the Prairies and anyone looking for one of Canada’s most engaging and readable naturalists.

Herriot, Trevor. Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.

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