Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Fading of Prairie Birdsong – a book review

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

ISBN 978-1-55468-038-2

259 pages

A few years ago, I noted the relative scarcity of bees in our garden and in researching possible causes for this, came to realize that there was something afflicting bees generally. It was worrisome. Bees and wasps are instrumental in facilitating fertilization of blossoms and we had cherry shrubs and trees, tomato plants and peas, all in need of a medium for the distribution of pollen if we were to have fruit in the fall.

We are too gradually coming to the realization that much can be learned through the observation of the “little things” in our environment that we normally take for granted, that seem somewhat insignificant in daily commerce. Take grassland birds: the western meadowlark, the piping plover, the burrowing owl, Swainson’s hawk, Sprague’s pipit. These and others were birds whose nesting habitat was and is the native grasslands of the north central US and the Canadian prairie. These and others are in severe decline, some facing extinction.

Many readers will recognize the name of the author of Grass, Sky, Song—Trevor Herriot—from the CBC program, Birdline, where he is the resident bird expert. Herriot has a cabin near Indian Head, his base for pursuing an enthusiasm for prairie-dwelling flora and fauna, more particularly, the birds whose presence there predates settlement, predates by thousands of years even the coming of aboriginals across the Bering Bridge from Asia. In his book, Herriot takes us back to a time before the plow and forward to a prairie that could be if and when we agree that earth-care is in the interest of both bird welfare and people welfare. For Herriot, the signposts telling us where we’ve been, where we are and where we could be—as prairie people—either have birds perched upon them, or else they’re conspicuous by their absence.

Farmers may find Herriot’s views unsettling. He points to evidence that the very chemicals that make it possible to combat grasshoppers, flea beetles, weeds, etc. are accumulating poisons that harm all life; the telling evidence implicit in the decline of the bird population, even where their grassland habitats are being preserved. Like the watcher of the canary in the mine, we are cautioned to take note of the horned lark on the prairie; this bird’s demise is a warning to us.

There are plenty of people still taking the stance that the changes heralded by extinctions, for instance, are “so what?” non-issues. We’ve just passed the Copenhagen conference on climate change, an event that underlined the fact that the developed world tends to recognize hazards only if they are measurable with an economic yardstick. So what if the ice cap melts? What a boon that will be to shipping. So what if McCown’s longspur’s song is never heard again? What (economic) good can this prairie bird do anyone anyway? Herriot’s frustration with the denial mentality peeks out through what is generally an optimistic outlook. There are signs that more and more people are beginning to realize that conservation is not only important, it’s vital to our long-term survival.

Trevor Herriot is a skilled and sensitive writer. He is also a very sensitive man, an aspect that shines through when he writes about walks across the prairie with his daughter Maia and his wife’s struggles to overcome the breast cancer demon. In its totality, Grass, Sky, Song turns out to be much more than a “bird book;” it’s an appeal to all of us to walk more sensitively, more knowledgeably across the land that sustains us.

Grass, Sky, Song was nominated for the Governor General’s award for non-fiction and won the Saskatchewan Book Awards citations for Best Regina Book for 2009 as well as the Best Non-fiction Book for Saskatchewan in 2009.

copyright 2009 - Geo. Epp

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Christ in our Christmas

Merry Christmas, friends, and I mean it. Celebrate! Be merry!

Why? Because we’ve passed the winter solstice successfully and the sun is coming back home—as it were—to the Northern Hemisphere, and that’s a pretty good indication that we may experience another spring soon!

The air is, of course, full of the admonitions to “keep Christ in Christmas,” or “put Christ back into Christmas,” and so on, but as loudly as anyone can shout that from the rooftops, our cultural world will continue to celebrate “Christmas” as a family holiday, a feasting time, a time for gift-giving, readings from Isaiah and Luke and the playing of “Christmas” CDs and old movie classics like Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” Plus—of course—the ubiquitous trees with lights, the wreaths and the mad, stress-driven last minute shopping.

Adding to all this a sideways nod to the babe in the manger may well be a case of too little, too late, too guilt-driven—like phoning grandma on December 26th and wishing her a happy Christmas there in the nursing home in Timbuktu.

Here’s a thought. The Christmas holiday is a cultural habit. It’s a much-needed celebration in the midst of the coldest, bleakest phase of the earth’s cycles, when we fragile humans have to put out our best just to survive and can barely remember green grass and flowers. Let it be a celebration of the fact that the days are lengthening now and hope is abroad again.

I don’t quite get the “Put Christ back into Christmas” admonition, as if it were possible to take him out, put him in, or control his whereabouts in any way whatsoever. Far better to “put him” where he’d rather be: a wise and guiding partner in the way we live our lives every day of the year. Were that to be our stance, Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving, as well as every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, would have Christ and his gospel implicit at its core, minus the phoney and futile admonitions to (at least) feel guilty if we celebrate in any way excepting on our knees.

So enjoy your families, relish the anticipation of gifts unopened under the tree, give thanks to your creator for the good things (turkey and sage dressing, for instance) that his earth has provided for you, do something to make the turn of the season a hopeful moment for someone else.

Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

And when you read, “Put Christ back into Christmas,” think, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me.” It’s impossible to take Christ out of any part of a life lived by this tenet.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Advent Sunday morning with hate mail

Click on the image to enlarge

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation column runs in the local paper unless there is ample material from local sources to crowd it off the editorial page. If you don’t know, the CTF is a think-tank-cum-lobby group whose focus is taxes we have to pay to keep this country running. More specifically, their goal appears to be a country where individuals are not required to contribute to the general welfare of the country, or at least as little as that individual can get away with.

A few weeks ago, their columnist made the argument that climate change was a hoax being perpetrated on the public, and that no one would be able to get elected if they espoused policies recommended by the prognosticators of climate disaster looming just over the horizon.

I couldn’t leave this unchallenged, and wrote a letter to the editor—a mild missive—in which I suggested that for Harper (and by implication, other Alberta politicians) this might be the literal case but that overall, Canadians are beginning to get the argument that we will either have to begin making changes now, or be forced to make them soon. It might, in fact, be difficult to get elected unless politicians show us a grasp of this problem and are in favour of taking our collective heads out of the sand.

The paper included my address, for some reason, and I got a hand printed, anonymous letter in the mail a few days later. According to its author, I am an idiot espousing a socialist viewpoint and since socialism and communism are the same thing, I am now a communist, as is every NDP politician in this country. He calls me “Comrad (sic) Epp” throughout.

I would challenge him to a debate on the issue of climate change, but I don’t know who he is, and anyway, he would likely dismiss me because “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” and “it’s a sad day when the editor of the paper would print such garbage.”

Well he may be right when he says I don’t know what I’m talking about re: climate change. Everything about climate change is best-guess stuff, but what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from people who can spell “comrade.” It’s unnerving to think that people like my anonymous stone-thrower might be able to get together and elect a government.

Apparently, we've still got work to do.