Spiritual Rambling

A trek in Saskatchewan sparks lively, enjoyable disagreement

There is no more exciting companion for a walk across the prairies than Trevor Herriot. I have only been out with him once, several years ago, but the experience was unforgettable. It was a big, blue, shining day, and a troupe of us were scrambling across a high, shining expanse of natural grassland in southwestern Saskatchewan. And there he was, attuned to everything that moved and many things that did not: a tinkle of bird song, a blur of wings, a blade of bent grass. Did you hear the pipit? Possibly. Did you see the McCown’s longspur there and the Vesper Sparrow over here? Maybe, I am not sure. Look: at your feet, an exquisite basket tucked deep into the grass, holding four smooth, speckled eggs. The prairie Herriot showed me that day was hidden and perfect.

Although I will address him formally here, Trevor Herriot and I are actually on friendly, first-name terms. That is not surprising, since we are both non-fiction writers from Saskatchewan, both entranced by the imperilled beauty of the Great Plains grasslands. Yet as much as I like and respect him, I would not call us close: we are colleagues rather than confidants. It is as a reader that my connection with him has been most intimate, and our meeting of minds via the page is not always a love fest. Although he does not know it, since our dust-ups happen only in my head, he and I have had some very heated disagreements. In particular, a quarrel I picked with his justly celebrated début book, River in a Dry Land, eventually impelled me to write A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape. Those birdsongs we heard out on the prairie were calls in search of a response, and every book provides an opening for back talk.

In The Road Is How: A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire and Soul, Trevor Herriot invites us to accompany him on a three-day walking meditation, from his home in Regina to his home-away-from-home in the Qu’Appelle Valley. There is nothing shining about the landscape of litter-strewn roadsides and industrial-scale fields that he plans to traverse, and there is certainly nothing luminous about his mood as he prepares to set out. He is a man laid low, both figuratively and in fact. Weeks earlier, he had climbed onto the roof of his house (ironically, to combat pigeons that were infesting the place with mites), missed the top step of the ladder and found himself falling through space.

Confined in “convalescent purgatory,” he descended into a funk. For a start, he was ticked off that, good family man that he is (cf. pigeon combat, above), he was stuck in the steady but uninspiring job that supports his household. Then, as always, he was stricken by the long, painful decline of grassland ecosystems, especially his beloved birds. “If you have spent any time defending wild places and animals,” he writes, “you may know what I mean. Helpless to stop it, you watch a favourite stretch of valley vivisectioned by ranchette development, or a wood once filled with warblers and thrushes knocked down to grow soybeans.” Increasingly, the creatures that had once brought him child-like joy were being tainted with shame and despair, and with a bleak sense that, as a member of the dominant and dominating culture, he was as much to blame for their plight as anybody.

Worse yet, he had gone spiritually numb. A four-day wilderness fast that he undertook in preparation for his hike led him to the mournful conclusion that “any spiritual faculties I had once possessed seemed to be dormant, as though the ear of the heart that develops so naturally in childhood had gone deaf, perhaps because I never made use of it to reach adulthood.”

By this point, we are well into the introductory chapter, and I am still happily along for the ride. But I have to admit that my mind is starting to prickle with question marks. Spiritual faculties? The ear of the heart? Is “spirit” the same thing as consciousness? Is the “ear of the heart” some kind of extra-sensory perception, a species of intuition, perhaps? Turns out that Herriot has similar uncertainties, which he puts to his wife and live-in spiritual advisor, Karen. In response, she reads him a passage from what he describes as “a favourite book.”

It’s a definition of “soul,” as the fire that animates everything, the organizing principle that holds a living body together, and that humans experience as longing, whether it is desire, nostalgia, lust or hope. All connecting bonds in nature … from the molecular level to the ties in human relationships, reflect this fire or eros in a certain polarity, an intersection of anima and animus, yin and yang.

Whoa, could you run that past me again? Are you saying that the weak nuclear force is the same as my nostalgic attachment to my childhood home is the same as the pleasure of watching half-naked boys leaping off the diving board at the public pool is the same as my deep, cellular commitment to my partner of 22 years? We are calling all that soul?

As for anima and animus, yin and yang, yes, they are lovely ideas—attractive, ancient, symmetrical, beguiling in so many ways—but they are just that: ideas. They are not actual forces at work in the universe, and they certainly do not align neatly with human gender, as The Road Is How goes on to assume and, at times, proclaim. Although Herriot occasionally pauses to blur his binary oppositions, the tidy polarities and totalizing impulses almost immediately clamp back into place.

Well, I Am Woman: hear me object. Yes, we live in a patriarchy, but men do not have “all the yang,” as this book has it. Males are not all prone to “unchaste indulgence of desire”; not marred by a “congenital flaw”; not entirely, or even mostly, to blame for the “pick your own apocalypse” mess we are in. And, please, do not assume that females all “magnify the Lord” in pregnancy or have a universal inclination “to foster a stable centre for child-rearing” or that women’s “sexual giving and receptivity” make us akin to the Earth. Do not say, even half jokingly, even with a quotation from Stephen Hawking as back-up, that women “are a complete mystery” to mere males.

In a different but related context, Herriot admits that his “high-falutin thinking has led me to some conclusions that will sound quaintly old-fashioned, even retrograde to some ears.” Yup.

When I picked up this book, I expected to be its ideal reader. I knew I would empathize with the weary traveller who sets out on this “prairie pilgrimage,” and I was right about that. I was prepared to admire Herriot’s lyrical talents: the tender descriptions of wind trilling across water, bumblebees nuzzling in lilies and humans giving themselves to love. I was not surprised that, despite my misgivings, I accepted the call to gratitude that lies at the heart of the book or that I admired the profound sincerity of the writer. If I ended up wanting more precision and clarity than this text has to offer—more yang for my buck—I still enjoyed the call to respond. Even among birds of a feather, there is going to be the occasional squawk.