Endangered Places

  • Trevor Herriot and Branimir Gjetvaj (Photographer)
    Islands of Grass. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Theresa Kishkan
    Euclid's Orchard & Other Essays. Mother Tongue (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • David Pitt-Brooke
    Crossing Home Ground: A Grassland Odyssey through Southern Interior British Columbia. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)

A passion for western Canada unites these books; two focus on grasslands, and the third recounts family stories tied to place. David Pitt-Brooke’s Crossing Home Ground, a follow-up to his well-received Chasing Clayoquot, portrays his peregrinations on foot across a thousand kilometres of grasslands in British Columbia’s southern Interior. In Islands of Grass, Trevor Herriot’s text is accompanied by Branimir Gjetvaj’s stunning photographs of the Great Plains grasslands to “bear witness to the beauty of this all-but-forgotten archipelago of endangered ecology at the heart of the continent.” Theresa Kishkan’s lyrical and cerebral Euclid’s Geometry & Other Essays, in turn, pays close attention to the author’s parents and ancestors in their unique contexts, illuminating individual lives through social history and archival research.

The similarities of Pitt-Brooke’s and Herriot’s approaches include their consideration of how colonial and Indigenous peoples have interacted with the grasslands. Pitt-Brooke describes the Interior Salish nations as societies where “[o]rder was mostly maintained by force of tradition, honour, various forms of informal persuasion,” rather than through strict hierarchies. He adds, “Everywhere those people went, on land at least, and everything they did, for thousands upon thousands of years . . . was all done on foot.” His own quasi-pilgrimage is a tribute to these Indigenous nations’ long-standing history as “a very low-impact culture of pedestrian hunters and gatherers.”

Pitt-Brooke risks overgeneralization in his approach to complex political and legal orders. But there is a stubborn dignity in the way the author eschews other forms of travel throughout this effort to experience the grasslands over a period of seventy-five days, a set of trips that extended across more than a year. His journey is not easy, physically or emotionally. The degradation he witnesses, particularly in areas where bunchgrass has been destroyed, drives him to moments of despair. He occasionally wonders if there is merit in his approach to witnessing and describing this landscape. Confronted with campgrounds that cater more readily to fancy RVs than to backpackers, or with ostensibly protected areas that are rapidly degrading due to grazing or ATV incursions, Pitt-Brooke is a forceful advocate for enhanced protection of the grassland regions, if sometimes a rather tetchy critic. His observations, while always interesting, are not always closely connected to a strong narrative thread: his diary entries can seem both disconnected and somewhat repetitive. But he approaches the region with knowledge and passion.

Trevor Herriot’s Towards a Prairie Atonement was an outstanding effort to understand the responsibilities inherited by the descendants of settlers. A similar spirit of self-conscious reconciliation infuses this new project by the Saskatchewan naturalist, Islands of Grass. Unlike Pitt-Brooke’s book, which conveys the grassland ecosystem entirely in words, Herriot’s text benefits from his collaboration with photographer Branimir Gjetvaj, illustrating with heartbreaking clarity the threatened grasslands that, on the Canadian side of the border, stretch across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Herriot incorporates conversations with environmentalists and ranchers, among other stakeholders, into his narrative. Like Pitt-Brooke, who expresses indebtedness to John Muir, Herriot pays tribute to Wallace Stegner: these are works with a distinct and self-reflexive relationship to the genre of Western eco-literature.

Herriot’s attention to the interrelationships between birds and herds, his insistence on a respectful approach to the multi-generational ranching families’ grassland practices, offers more nuance than Pitt-Brooke’s disapproval of the past several decades of land use and inadequate protection. Where Pitt-Brooke is nostalgic for the Okanagan of his childhood, Herriot is optimistic that the prairie grasslands can be renewed, that tussles over environmental regulation and species reintroduction can be resolved. And while Herriot writes about contemporary Indigenous involvement in prairie protection, Pitt-Brooke tends to prefer a vision of historic idyllic non-interference with the land, even critiquing recent archeological evidence suggesting that bulbs were cultivated, not merely harvested: “To me the genius of the thing was that, apart from a little incidental tillage, these people were not modifying the natural indigenous ecosystems to any great extent,” but rather collecting “a harvestable excess.” This is a problematic assertion, particularly in light of the strenuous efforts of Indigenous nations to document the continuity of their agricultural practices.

Kishkan, too, reflects on settler-Indigenous relationships, as well as relationships to the land, when she contemplates the unhappy fate of her European ancestors who aspired to homesteading, and ended up as squatters living in hunger and misery. These essays range in tone and content. The title essay, which appears last, is the most cerebral, describing the author’s attempt to connect with her son’s math aptitude through her quilt design. Other pieces also combine serious reflection and autobiography but feel more intimate, as in her moving account of her mother’s life as a Halifax foster child. Kishkan’s visits to the London Foundling Hospital reveal the poignant detail that when children were left, a small item was provided: not as a keepsake, but so that the parent and child’s relationship could be verified, if a future reunification of the family was possible. Kishkan meditates on objects associated with her mother’s life, including a tweed coat, a bottle of perfume, a compilation of recipes, and a set of photographs. Similarly, in her reflection on her difficult relationship with her father, physical objects as well as memories illuminate the past. Recalling an old neighbourhood and her mother’s stories, Kishkan reflects, “I wish I’d paid more attention.” I’m reminded of Del Jordan, greedy in later life for all of the details of life in Jubilee, musing that “no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing.” A similar avidity—to gather up and understand details—infuses all three of these books.

This review “Endangered Places” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 155-157.

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