A Natural History
By Candace Savage
309 pages, $60
Wherever there are nature lovers in Canada, there is a good chance of finding a book by Candace Savage on the coffee table. She also writes about pioneering women, food and nutrition, cowgirls, magic and wizardry, but she speaks with greatest authority on the natural world, peregrine falcons, for example, or the aurora borealis. The shortest of these books tend to leave me wanting more, as they are long on visuals and short on text. But with Prairie, Savage has really hit her stride. I don't mean to imply that she has finally hit her stride, because in her longer studies ( The Wonder of Canadian Birds, for example), she has already found her way into some pretty rich territory.
When I try to put a person to the voice in this latest book, I imagine an enthusiastic young professor of natural sciences (all of them) who has a limited tolerance for exclusive scientific jargon. She cuts through the slough of up-to-date scientific data to give us a fervid account of the biology of the prairie. Contemporary science is her tool for the discovery of the miraculous and awe-inspiring in nature. Something as prosaic as oil or grama grass, in Savage's hands, becomes part of the "tumultuous interaction between organisms" that life is all about.
Water, for example, is amazing when we consider where it's been. The rain that drops on our heads may have been around since the "earliest beginnings of the universe. Originally derived from the cloud of roiling, boiling gases that gave rise to the sun and stars, water is a fusion of hydrogen and oxygen . . . that still participates in the restless energy of creation. It is constantly in a process of transformation. That raindrop on your nose was, until recently, a cloud. And before that, those same molecules of water may have gone through countless passages from snowfall to spring runoff, groundwater to marsh, marsh to river, river to ocean, ocean to wind, wind to cloud, in an endless cyclic journey through the physical world."
So far, nothing new, I suppose, but note how she orchestrates these facts. Water, she continues, is not only capable of shifting from solid to liquid to gas, "making it the only substance to exist in all three states under normal conditions on Earth -- it also routinely makes the unfathomable leap from non-living to living. The miracle of life derives from a thin, protoplasmic soup that . . . consists of between 50 and 90 per cent water. . . . That same raindrop, which by now is dribbling off your chin, has likely also made a journey through the living world. From rain to soil, root to leaf, leaf to goose, goose droppings to soil, soil back to air, it has flowed through the food web, moving freely from organism to organism. Has it experienced life as an amoeba? An earthworm? A brontosaurus in a swamp? In the shape-shifting world of water, stranger things have happened."
It must be quite a challenge to find anything miraculous or hopeful on the prairie, by which I mean the Great Plains grasslands of North America, because most of it is gone. Most of what we called prairie is crop land and grazing land on what has been called the planet's most altered ecosystem. Little wonder there is so much interest on both sides of the border in preserving what is left of the prairie. But the altered prairie, the one with all the wheat and all those unsellable cattle, this, too, is an ecosystem with an impressive array of wildlife, and even in our own time, Savage sees some signs of hope.
Consider the lowly grasshopper. The tilling of the wild grasslands to plant wheat and other crops produced ideal conditions for grasshoppers to flourish like a biblical plague. When farmers sprayed their crops to destroy these insects, they frequently destroyed the birds that ate the grasshoppers. In one summer, a single pair of songbirds and their nestlings can consume as many as 149,000 grasshoppers. But many farmers are switching to organic farming, and not only are these modern producers contending with grasshoppers, they are starting to make some money. Starting to make some money. Sounds like a pretty modest claim, doesn't it? But in Saskatchewan these days, this phrase is scarcely uttered on coffee row at the co-op.
More and more, however, farmers and ranchers are finding ways these days to preserve wilderness areas on their land, or widen their uncultivated margins in order to preserve natural flora and fauna. And this approach to farming and conservation seems to be paying off in more ways than one.
A book that recounts the natural history of the prairie needs to be big and rangy, and this one certainly is that. The colour photographs and drawings by James R. Page and Joan A. Williams, respectively, are certainly very striking, even if they tend to glorify what is left of the wild prairie rather than reflect the more subdued landscape of today's farmland. But in this book, unlike most coffee-table fare, Savage's verbal account, laden with its wealth of current scientific discovery and impelled with its sense of the miraculous in nature, eclipses the beauty of its own visuals. This book is for readers.
David Carpenter is a Saskatoon writer whose latest book is The Ketzer, a novella about deer hunting on the prairies.
Readers can find the first chapter
of Prairie today on our website, http://www.theglobeandmail.com