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

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