Fields beyond our comprehension: Trevor Herriot

 Trevor Herriot is a naturalist, an active member in the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. His most recent book, Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, was just published in paperback. The Walrus describes it as “a moving testimony to a landscape in flux, and also a profound meditation on ‘wildness,’ by the pre-eminent prairie naturalist of his generation,” and the Montreal Gazette says his “prose resembles poetry, with not a word out of place.”

Grass, Sky, Song is an attempt to reveal “all that is good and holy in [grassland birds],” whose populations are declining “faster than any others on the continent.” Herriot admits that if ten or fifteen species of grassland birds went extinct tomorrow “we would have trouble detecting any significant ecological or economic consequences.” Nevertheless, his book absolutely compels one to examine one’s own role in “the original violence done to the plains,” as well as to pay more attention to the ecologically and economically insignificant witnesses to the world that precariously make their homes in one’s own environment.

In Grass, Sky, Song, you cast yourself as a naturalist and as a latecomer to “the glory of grassland and the music of its birds.” In other words, you didn’t always see this stuff, and you make that clear to your reader.  Why did choose to foreground your previous ignorance, to cast yourself as someone still learning, rather than to emphasize your knowledge and authority?

Part of the reason I refer to myself as a naturalist is to make it clear that I am an amateur and not a scientist of any kind. Any “authority” I might claim comes merely from personal experience in nature. A naturalist follows his heart and curiosity, looking for first-hand knowledge, but also hunting for experience beyond knowing. The older I get, the more I find myself looking to birds and wild places for more elusive things like solace, reconciliation, inspiration, hope. Even as an amateur, though, it is easy to take on a tone of the expert whose knowledge is itself a stumbling block or barrier between the reader and the subject at hand. I try to be careful to leave space for the reader’s own inquiry and desire to experience some of the same things, to follow his or her own curiosity in the real world.

You also consistently cast yourself as complicit in the problems you describe.  Was this a move you had to remind yourself to make, or was it more reflexive?

I think the reflexive position for most of us is to point a finger elsewhere – it is for me anyway. It’s only by bringing awareness to that impulse that I remember my own role in the processes that are destroying wildness.

As mentioned, you portray yourself as a student – of birds and their faithfulness and fidelity as well as of people like Stuart Houston and Heidi Scott, and your final, hopeful chapter mentions a “prairie awareness camp” run by Nakota elders for urban teens.  Can you imagine a curriculum that might awaken young people to “all that is good and holy” in nature?  Does the education your daughter, Maia, receives in school ever overlap with or speak to the education she gets when she walks through grassland with you?

We home-schooled our first three children for several years before they went into the system. Our fourth, Maia, saw her siblings all in school and did not like the idea of staying home. Even so, much of what she has learned in her eleven years has come from reading on her own or from experiences with her family. I’m afraid I take a pretty dim view of the education system, though I respect and admire many of the teachers who do their best to make it work. Children, as writers like Richard Louvins, David Abrams and Bill Plotkin have argued, are creatures whose minds flourish and grow when their bodies are in frequent and direct contact with grass, trees, creeks, rocks, and the other beings whose lives depend on wildness. The outdoor education programs I see are a valiant effort to at least offer some kind of experience for kids whose lives are indoors and mediated by what they experience on computer and TV screens. We are kidding ourselves and cheating our children if we only give them two or three days of outdoor ed in their curriculum. Traditional cultures have a lot to teach us about rearing and educating the young, following their natural curiosity and fostering their bodies, minds, and souls in a matrix of gifts offered by the land. Will education help us turn things around? Yes, but not if we are waiting for our schools and universities to do the work. The only education that will make a difference begins in direct contact with the real world of leaf and soil and water and flesh. It goes outward from there into our families and communities, transforming culture in ways that may eventually be adopted by the larger systems that manage learning, industry, and economy.

When did you know that you wanted your wife’s encounter with breast cancer to be a part of your book? To what extent did you and Karen collaborate on telling this story?

I agonized over the question of whether to use Karen’s story or not, afraid that it might seem that I was exploiting her experience to make certain points in my overall argument. My editors at HarperCollins were very helpful in guiding me through the writing and revision of this section of the book, and though Karen read drafts she left the decisions up to me for the most part. In the end, I think we were able to find a line through the story and a voicing that kept it from reaching too much for effect.

When did it occur to you to put short profiles of grassland bird species in between your chapters? What effect did you hope these profiles would have?

I decided to include the profiles because I found that the main chapters were so much about the people involved in the story of our declining grassland and birds, as well as the larger social and historical forces at play, that readers might be left wanting to know more about the birds themselves, their natural history, habits and habitats. As well, I like old natural history books, with their accounts of early naturalists and the early records of birds, and so writing these profiles allowed me to borrow details and excerpts from some of these.

The epigraph to your preface – Blake’s “How do you know but that ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way / Is an immense world of delight closed by your senses five” – and your account of euthanizing a bird that had flown into a window of your house, for example, emphasize the individuality of, well, ev’ry bird. But the profiles that come between your chapters are, again, species profiles, and elsewhere you seem most worried by the decline of species, rather than the deaths of individuals.  In J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the title character describes this latter perspective as “Platonic”: “Our eye is on the creature itself, but our mind is on the system of interactions of which it is the earthly, material embodiment”; every organism has a role, and “it is these multiple roles, rather than the particular beings who play them, that participate” in a kind of ecological dance.  Generally speaking, are you more interested in or aware of individuals or roles? Or is the question faulty (in addition to being hopelessly wordy)?

I like this question because it points to a give and take between the general and the particular that deserves more of our attention. Am I more interested in species or individuals? As you imply, that may be a false dichotomy calling more for “both/and” rather than “either/or”, but overemphasis on the species side of things hasn’t served us all that well lately. You can get more general than species and speak of concern for ecosystems, but then things become even more abstract. We reserve our fiercest love for the individual because we can only know the other deeply when we allow that other to advance forward out of generality into personality. The closer we look at any creature, the more personality it seems to disclose. And yet, we know that the taxonomic notion of the species and the human-construct we call “self” are both convenient illusions. All life is unified in fields beyond our comprehension, and the ecology we study makes some necessary impositions to allow us to grope for understanding.

It sounds like the unity you’re talking about here is something different from the facts that our cells are mostly filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists etc. and that we share DNA with other species…

Science has brought us new awareness of physical forces and interchanges that prove how all created things share in a common heritage and a unity of matter. But science is reductionist by nature and can only go so far in its descriptions of what we comprehend as life. What are the words that point toward other, unknown, perhaps unknowable forces and fields–spiritual or material–that bind us together? Alternative medicine, mysticism, the yogic concept of chakras, animal intuition, faith healing, psychic experience, hive communication–all suggest that there is more at play in our bodies and universe than can be explained by neuroscience and physics. I believe, but cannot prove, that we are more connected to one another than our science will ever be able to show.

Did you know how Grass, Sky, Song would end when you began it, or did you discover the end – in which you offer a few ways forward, and hang on to hope – while writing it?

I knew only that I needed a way to bring a wider, hopeful vision to embrace the questions that I had unpacked for the reader. The vehicle for presenting that vision came in part from that last walk on the pasture, which happened at about this time of year, when the first songbirds arrive.

You “agonized” over beginning a blog and finally did so largely because your publisher wanted you to have a “web presence.” Now it seems like you were born blogging!  Are you surprised by what Grass Notes has turned into?

The blog has been easier than I thought and has put me in touch with people who think about grassland. I think it has helped get the word out about the book and its concerns. Not entirely sure if it is the web presence, but I can say this: I began the blog a year ago, just as the book was released, and in that time I have received a great many more invitations to speak all over Canada – more in fact than I had with my first two books combined.

In your preface you describe the hunting trips you went on as an adolescent with your father, and you devote the final paragraph of your acknowledgments to him.  What does he think of your books?

I would not be a naturalist if my father had not made the effort to get his children out to the country, if he had not taken me fishing and hunting; if he had not taught me how to make a whistle from a piece of willow, how to make chewing gum from a nugget of spruce sap; if he had not built a canoe in our garage and taken us on a maiden voyage down the Saskatchewan river one June day. He is a reader, and though our politics often diverge, he enjoys my books and the attention they receive.


Both bird images, and the landscape, from Trevor’s blog.

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