Saturday, May 24, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Trevor Herriot

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
By Ariel Gordon

Regina writer and naturalist Trevor Herriot has twice had books nominated for the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction. He's written radio documentaries for CBC's Ideas and is an in-demand public speaker on conservation issues.

But after a battle to keep pigeons and their associated mites from infesting his house that wound up with Herriot taking a serious fall from a ladder, he felt irritable and disengaged from both the natural world and his work.

So he did a three-day fast on a hill. And then a 64-kilometre walk on the prairie, all by himself.
The result of this journey is The Road is How, which launched this week. He recently talked with Winnipeg writer Ariel Gordon.

AG: What do you want people to know about The Road Is How?

TH: This book draws outside the lines of traditional nature writing and takes a few risks. Rather than stick with the lyrical lament for lost ecologies or searching at the social and economic level for the causes of environmental degradation, in The Road is How I try to deepen the narrative inquiry a bit. Using experiences and stories from life, I ask some questions about the forces in the individual human heart that determine how we relate to one another and to the land.

We can try to argue for the protection of a river, a forest or a piece of prairie by measuring its long-term ecological and economic benefits, but these are almost always outweighed by immediate benefits that go directly to human beings. Behind that small-minded pragmatism there is a madness driving us farther away from the wisdom and love that would help us make better choices for our community and nature. What is the nature of that madness, and how do we begin to wake up from its spell? Science and reason are essential for helping us argue and present the data, but to go deeper and inquire into the forces at play in the human heart is to enter the murkier terrain of the imagination, eros, narrative, and psyche. To get there, I borrow two traditional practices that plains people still use now and then: a long sit on a hilltop and a long walk on a road.

AG: You've done a lot of work around the federal government's decommissioning of the PFRA, the protected pasture/grasslands that spread from Alberta to Manitoba. What would you most like to see happen with that land? (And is it the subject of your next book?)

TH: We would like to see the land retained as Crown land and then managed as it was under the PFRA, for a sustainable balance of conservation and grazing. There are many ways we could do that and do it well, in ways that would serve the farmers and ranchers who depend on these lands for grazing, while at the same time protecting and managing the habitat for 30 species at risk.

AG: When/how does a nature writer become a naturalist? Was it as hard to claim that title as it was 'writer'? And how does a naturalist differ from a biologist or a forester?

TH: I would say it works the other way around: Not all nature writers are skilled naturalists, but naturalists sometimes become writers. A naturalist is someone who pursues the art and tradition of natural history by spending time in nature, observing, making notes and sometimes participating in activities that contribute to our understanding of nature, the behaviour, population and distribution of wild plants and animals.

AG: Tell me about your favourite place to go walking.

TH: I like to walk the hills and coulees of the Qu'Appelle River watershed, which is my home landscape sprawling across a good stretch of Treaty 4 territory. The natural history and human history of this corner of the northern Great Plains is still there, to be encountered along the meandering creeks and uplands that drain into the valley.

AG: Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?

TH: Of course—I love to come to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and so much of our history and ecology is shared and convergent with life as it has emerged at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

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