The Great Plains region, which stretches from Mexico to the boreal forests of Northern Canada and from the edge of the eastern forests to the Rocky Mountains, is a harsh land, prone to Old Testament-style visitations of drought, violent thunderstorms, hail and long, bitterly cold winters.
The prairie (as we call it in Canada) is too arid to grow much in the way of forest. But before agriculture arrived, it did support thousands of species of grasses, plants and animals.
For millennia, in fact, the Great Plains were North America's own Serengeti, with oceans of tall-grass species (some of which grew higher than a man on horseback) and hundreds of miles of short-grass prairie - all of it teeming with millions of bison, plains grizzlies, buffalo wolves, swift foxes, ferrets, prairie dogs and other doomed species.
A little more than a century ago, farmers arrived and got busy breaking the ancient sod and replacing its perennial grasses with annual cereal crops.
Now, from top to bottom, the region is carpeted with lab-engineered grains such as canola and wheat. In obscure corners, tiny patches of native prairie hold out. On these scraps, a handful of wild bird species are making their last stand, and these delicate little creatures are the heroes of Trevor Herriot's new book, Grass, Sky, Song.
Herriot's first book, River in a Dry Land, won a raft of awards and immediately established him as one of Canada's premier nature writers. He lives in Regina, where he regularly hosts a local CBC radio show, during which he chats with listeners calling in to report their latest experience with birds and wildlife.
In Grass, Sky, Song he weaves personal experience, natural history and bird lore into a sort of book-length prayer for the preservation of the last native grasslands and the birds that call them home. The book is illustrated with his graceful sketches and interspersed with short anecdotes about the story's main characters.
With Herriot as our guide, we go out on the land and meet birds such as the Sprague's pipit, which nests in a dome of grass and indulges in aerial singing displays that might last three hours. He tells us that in 1873, American ornithologist Elliott Coues first witnessed the operatic flight of the Sprague's pipit and reported, "There is something not of the earth in its melody. … The notes are simply indescribable, but once heard they can never be forgotten."
We also meet the sage grouse, which stages secret dance competitions far from prying eyes; the lark bunting, which sings in "a bizarre choral arrangement of low whistles, toots, and percussive trills and buzzes"; and the upland sandpiper, which has long, thin legs and an eye that reminds Herriot of the "shiny button on a child's toy."
He tells us that these birds are capable of heroic feats of survival. The upland sandpiper, for example, normally finishes its parental duties in late July, departs from the grasslands of the prairies and flies over mountains and deserts all the way to southern Argentina, where it joins the bobolink, the Swainson's hawk and other birds it lives alongside in Saskatchewan.
Still, no bird can overcome the loss of its habitat, and less than 1 per cent of North America's native prairie still exists. What remains is fragmented, and this poses its own problems. Agricultural pesticides in the food web, dramatic increases in such human-allied predators as raccoons, crows and house cats, and collisions with man-made structures all add up to what Herriot calls "death by a thousand cuts."
North America's grassland birds are in steep decline. Herriot documents the deterioration of bird populations he has seen in his own lifetime, and he dreads the day when he will rise at dawn and head out to his favourite pastures, where he will walk and listen, walk and listen, and hear nothing.
This is depressing stuff, and Herriot piles it on by showing how the industrialization of the prairies has diminished human life as well. His wife is diagnosed with cancer in the middle of the book, and he presents evidence that breast cancer rates among farm women are nine times the national average. Mercifully, he concludes on a positive note, with suggestions of what we can all do to help preserve the last remnants of native grasslands and the birds that live there. Ranching tends to be easier on the landscape than farming, and he points out that people can add value to Western grasslands by restricting their meat intake to grass-fed beef or, better yet, bison.
Citizens need educating on these issues, and the book could have benefited from more. Herriot devotes considerable energy to lobbying for a sort of moral transformation in our relationship to nature (followed, one assumes, by world peace). But he would do better to offer suggestions for nuts-and-bolt tactics by which everyday people could fight the good fight. He doesn't, for example, mention the importance of donating a few dollars to conservation agencies such as Ducks Unlimited (which has preserved vast swaths of native prairie across the West, including the sweeping and wondrous Missouri Coteau), and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which has used public donations to protect 25,000 acres of wild grasslands.
Conservationist groups, ranchers, farmers, birders, waterfowl hunters and others are noted for squabbling. A writer of Herriot's stature is presumably above all this, but the book's conclusion might have been stronger if he had examined the problem of intramural bickering and discussed strategies for working together.
But this is no more than a minor quibble with a book that is as beautifully rendered as the land it celebrates. The writing, the illustrations and the design all rise to the level of art. And with the warm days of spring just up the gravel road, Grass, Sky, Song is a mandatory buy for anyone who cares about birds and wild places.
Jake MacDonald's new book, Grizzlyville; Adventures in Bear Country, will be published in April.