Islands of Grass

2 February 2018

Islands of Grass
Text by Trevor Herriot, Photos by Branimir Gjetvaj
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$39.95 ISBN 9-781550-509311

Saskatchewan naturalist, activist, and Governor-General’s Award-nominee Trevor Herriot has penned another title that should be on every bookshelf, and particularly on the shelves of those who love our precarious prairie grasslands and the threatened creatures who inhabit them. In Islands of Grass, Herriot has teamed with environmental photographer Branimir Gjetvaj to create a coffee table-esque hardcover that’s part call to action, part celebration, and part Ecology 101. The pair’s mutual passion for our disappearing grasslands – the term “islands” deftly illustrates their fate – is evident on every page of this important and beautiful must-read.

Herriot’s erudite essays are personal, political, and urgent. Filled with first-person anecdotes (ie: his father’s memories of dust storms), plus stories from ranchers, ecologists, and agency professionals, they also explain the history of grass and reveal how pioneers were encouraged to plow in order to prosper. There’s much plant, bird, and animal information, including statistical numbers re: their endangerment and recovery.

The book’s five chapters are written in the engaging conversational/informational style Herriot’s faithful readers have come to expect, ie: the opening line: “It was along the northern edge of Old Wives Lake—a vast inland sea that year—where I am pretty sure I had the briefest glimpse of a swift fox.” Lines later he explains that these once seriously endangered “cat-sized canines” are now “the most successful recovery story on the northern Great Plains,” a fact backed-up by promising numbers from a 2005-2006 census. (Those unfamiliar with the Regina author’s writing may recognize his distinct “voice” from his regular contributions to CBC Radio’s “Blue Sky” program.)

Gjetvaj’s photographs present a dramatic gallery of landscapes that underscore the cinema of Saskatchewan’s skies and how cultivation (evident in patchwork crops) has dominated the prairies. Images of lush grass, buffalo bean and moss phlox, wetlands, valleys, rolling hills, livestock, insects, feathered wonders, hard-working folks, and that inimitable prairie sunlight illustrate how each are part and parcel of this unique – and rancher vs. conservationist-conflicted – region, where Herriot measures the weight of a bobolink at “about a $1.25 in quarters”.

I learned that there are 10,000 grass-types, and they act as a kind of ecological gate-keeper. I learned how the government’s 2012 cutting of the PFRA community pastures program has put grasslands (and their ecologies) at much greater risk, and native grasses are “increasingly susceptible to the dollars and dreams of people who want to build a McMansion with twenty acres out back where they keep a horse no one rides”. I was reminded about heroes like Peter and Sharon Butala, who donated their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada; and Wallace Stegner, whose 1960 letter to the Outdoor Recreation Review Commission formed the basis of the The Wilderness Act in the U.S. – public land legislation Herriot envies.

“All of life is grass,” he writes, and while “Saskatchewan is among the worst on the planet for grassland protection,” Herriot asserts that “nature specializes in miracles,” and we all share in the responsibility of maintaining our critical grasslands.


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