The Goose Review - Islands of Grass

Reviewed by: gillian harding-russell

The Myth of the Plough: Reclaiming the Earth and its Creatures

Islands of Grass by TREVOR HERRIOT Coteau, 2017 $39.95

The Long Walk by JAN ZWICKY University of Regina Press, 2017 $19.95

Reviewed by gillian harding-russell

Trevor Herriot's collection of essays, Islands of Grass, with photographs by Branimir Gjetvau [stet], and Jan Zwicky's The Long Walk share a love of nature and concern for the environment though their genres differ. Whereas Zwicky writes poems that are, by the nature of the genre, oblique and approach the subject sideways, ‘moving through' as it were, Herriot, in writing prose, comes to the subject with a more hands-on and practical approach, though his writing, too, breaks into moments of lyricism. Moreover, both poet and prose writer look at the effects of colonisation on the land, the depletion of the environment and extirpation of species, and both works may be seen as paeans to nature and what remains of the prairie.

Interestingly, the epigraph for Herriot's Islands of Grass is drawn from Zwicky's poem "Desire." In this poignant poem, desire is seen as the driving inspiration in human endeavour that "lift[s] us each day" (1) and "drag[s] us half senseless / through the gift of our pain" (3- 4). But mistakes have been made — historic and otherwise — by those "who are ashes and sleeping now / under the lake" (10-11). The speaker laments "the droughts and the floods, the poisoned and vanished" that "pile up and stagger against the horizon" (25-26) [...] In this poem, with its glorious colours and natural imagery, a love for the grasslands is heartfelt and reminds us that, removed from our environment, we risk becoming something less. Without the land as an extension of our psyche, where might we draw our metaphors for understanding? Without a repertoire of nature to fall back on, the speaker vows, "I will lie down, then, in the wreckage of meaning," "the dust of you filling my mouth" (37, 40).

Herriot's purpose in writing Islands of Grass is stated in the first essay, "Prairie Eye," in which he writes, "the images and essays in this book are an invitation" (25). They are intended to entice the reader to "take a second look at the native grassland," those last large "islands of grass surrounded by a sea of cultivation that continues to lap at their edges" (25). Accordingly, Herriot's alluring title metaphor of "islands of grass" appears unobtrusively in this introductory essay in which he, with a certain whimsicality and humour, calls on the reader, after exercising his or her eye reading and looking at photographs, to go out physically into the land itself where "the plants and creatures take the lead" (25).

In the second essay, "Gifts of the Prairie," Herriot describes the grasslands in the "Rocky Mountain rain shadow" as "an ecological membrane that governs what is happening in the soil and water on the surface" (27): Depending on the timing and degree of grazing and fire, the nature of the soil and climate, grass organizes a diversity of ecotypes that shift over time and from place to place, providing organisms in the soil, on the land and in wetlands with particular niches that come and go on spontaneous schedules: several hundred species of grasses and flowering plants and an astonishing array of animal life. (27) Unfortunately, Europeans, with their myth of ploughing the land to make it more fertile, have played their part in destroying fragile grassland habitat that should never have been cultivated.

In fact, Herriot recounts the experience of his own grandfather, who homesteaded on the edge of the Great Sandhills, "smiling ear-to-ear" in a photo of himself holding "one of the gifts" from the prairies "in his arms" after having reaped a bumper crop. The successful crop yield, however, died out after a couple of years as his grandfather learned the cost of ploughing "light soils in a dry land" (32).

This is an excerpt of a book review that originally appeared in Volume 16, Issue 2 of The Goose. To read the full review, click here

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