Western meadowlark photo appears with the generous permission of David Cree
In chapter three of the book I use a story about the western meadowlark collected by an American Nineteenth century ethnologist named Melvin Gilmore. I found it in his book Prairie Smoke, which recounts his travels among the Dakota people of the northern plains. Gilmore was respectful of the lifeways of the people he studied and admired them for their intimacy with wild things and detailed knowledge of plants and animals. Here is the cover of my copy of Prairie Smoke, which I found in a used bookshop many years ago.
This is Freedom to Read week (Feb. 22-28). I've been preparing for a panel discussion on freedom of expression and the environment organized by PEN Canada, HarperCollins and the Toronto Public Library this Friday, Feb. 27. The other panelists are Sarah Harmer, Ken McGoogan and Taras Grescoe. It'll be hosted by the CBC's Matt Galloway and held at Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge St., Toronto, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, click here.
The Globe & Mail invited me to write a short piece on this subject for their online Books section. From time to time I hear about environmentalist writers in other countries being silenced, but I didn't feel qualified to comment on their stories. At the same time, writers are not really being silenced here in Canada so I wasn't sure how to approach the topic without sounding like I was stretching to make a point. Attending a talk by writer and anti-nuclear activist Jim Harding (Canada's Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System) a couple of Monday's back, however, I got an idea. I decided I would try to write about the subtle ways that dissent is shut out of the public forum in Canada. Anyway, you can see for yourself. Here is a link to the article, which the editors titled "Read no evil".
[Photo with the kind permission of Bluestem Studios]
For this week's installment of GSS Illustrated, I chose to lead with an image of the grass that represents tallgrass prairie, the rarest of the prairie eco-types. Big bluestem is among the tallest of grasses on the Great Plains and remnants of it survive in south-eastern Saskatchewan. I've found several stretches of it in the area where I watch birds.
"Prairie Dance" is a chapter about the dynamic of prairie as a kind of dance choreographed by fire, climate, grazing, and soil. Local habitat in grassland shifts depending on grazing, fire, and climate in paricular. Birds have always responded to that dance and, now that the roaming herds of wild bison are consigned to preserves and ranches, they are one of the last elements of plains ecology that attempts to remain faithful to that dance.
Toward the end of the chapter I refer to American writer, Aldo Leopold and his love of the upland sandpiper, a bird I see every summer in the pastures I visit south of our place. Here is a image of Leopold in front of his cabin in Wisconsin followed by a picture of an upland sandpiper.
This wood thrush is not a grassland bird, but I have found them in the woods that border a lake north of our place in the country. The wood thrush is an eastern forest songbird that Canada's Bridget Stutchbury has been studying. Stutchbury has made some important discoveries in her forest songbird research site in north-western Pennsylvania, but none perhaps as exciting as the most recent one, published in February 13th's edition of Science. (You can listen to Bridget on today's Quirks & Quarks here or read this piece on the National Geographic news site.)
By putting tiny "geolocators" on the backs of wood thrushes and purple martins, Stutchbury and her team have found a way to track small birds to their wintering grounds and learn their individual migration routes. Here is what they look like. These devices do not use the customary satellite telemetry, but instead detect and record sunrise and sunset times with a degree of accuracy that allows the researchers to match the times to the location where each bird must have been on that day. Stutchbury, who is the Canada Research Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology at York University, participated in a teleconference arranged by the National Geographic Society. She said that one of the big surprises was just how fast the birds flew north in spring. The best research up till now has estimated speeds of 150 to 250 kms per day, but the birds carrying the geolocators were averaging 500 kms per day. One purple martin made it back from Brazil in 13 days.
This new way of tracking songbirds should help researchers locate the wintering sites and migration routes of declining species to look for causes away from breeding areas. Grassland bird researchers could use them as well.
This is the third installment in GSS Illustrated, showing photos that relate to passages in the new book. I used this first photo because the chapter discusses prairie as a movement out of the trees, away from wooded landscapes where we tend to build settlements and cities. These are Aspen Poplar trees growing on the edge of a pasture where I often look for grassland birds.
The Mountain Bluebird (thanks to Don Delaney for the image) is a species that symbolizes the encroachment of trees out onto the plains since settlement and the suppression of prairie fire. In this first chapter I mention that, while we think of bluebirds as a "prairie birds" these days, they would have been rare or altogether absent on the original treeless plains.
Much of the first half of the book recounts experiences with grassland birds at or near our place out of town in a remote prairie valley. We own the land together with two families we are close to. I mention that we had a lot of help from them the weekend we framed our little cabin.
This last photo shows a camping spot I mention at the end of the chapter.
It's Charles Darwin's 200th birthday today. An email from my friend Rob reminded me and brought me a link to a website made by a mutual friend, Dan Johnson, to celebrate the occasion. Dan sits in the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Grassland Ecosystems at the University of Lethbridge. He is the grasshopper biologist I write about in a chapter of Grass, Sky, Song. Check out his site and learn a little about Charles. Amazing to consider he was only 22 when he made that trip in the Beagle. Meanwhile, Darwin's Galapagos Islands are in trouble. Here is an article on the Galapagos 200 years after Darwin, from today's CBCnews.ca website.
(This image of a Sprague's Pipit comes courtesy of Alberta photographer Allan MacKeigan (check out his website).
Last night I went to the University of Regina to hear Jim Harding give his talk revealing the dirty secrets of the Canadian nuclear and uranium industries. Most of the secrets are kept best here in Saskatchewan where we have been digging uranium for a few decades now in our north, all the while pretending we don't know that it is harming watersheds and causing cancer both as waste and as depleted uranium used in weaponry.
Here is an open letter Jim wrote to Albertans, who like Saskatchewan people, are being told that nuclear power generation is the clean way ahead in a future overshadowed by climage change and peak oil.
A new grass roots coaliton called Clean Green Regina is just getting started (no web site but contact by email: email@example.com)and they were giving out a handy pamphlet that helps dispel the myths about uranium and nuclear energy that keep appearing in mainstream news.
No doubt about it--we need to tell prairie people what is happening with the uranium that comes from our north. Once people know the disease and ecological damage that goes along with uranium mining, processing, weapon-armour, and waste storage, Alberta and Saskatchewan will do the right thing. Meanwhile we need to work toward legislation against nuclear waste storage and a moratorium on uranium mining.
Here is a second instalment in a series that shows images that relate to passages in Grass, Sky, Song. This first photo, which I am posting with the kind permission of Alberta photographer Allan MacKeigan (check out his website), shows one of the grassland birds that gets a lot of attention in the book. It is a male Chestnut-collared longspur showing off its tail.
In the preface to GSS, “A Way Home,” I write about how I became interested in grassland and its birds. It started with hunting waterfowl and grouse as a boy. This is a photo of me age 12 or 13, just back from a duck hunt. Apparently, dad thought the ducks were more important than the top of my head.
Both my grandfathers hunted to feed their families—antelope, deer, moose, bear, rabbits, grouse and waterfowl. My father’s father homesteaded on the open plains near the Great Sand Hills and then during the hardest stretch of drought in the 1930s moved his family north to the forest just below the southern boundary of Prince Albert National Park. One of his rifles was a Boer war .303 bolt action, which I have inherited. In the preface I talk about the rifle and the notches on its butt, which you can see in this photo. Strangely enough, I somehow miscounted (or misremembered) the notches because in the book I say there were only four but when I got my daughter, Sage, to take this photo last night there were seven!
Later in the preface, still trying to explain how I came by my interest in prairie birds, I tell the story of a kayaking trip on the West Coast and an encounter with Orcas. The photo below shows my wife, Karen, and I and an Orca bull known as “Top Notch.”
Should anyone be surprised that grassland birds and other prairie creatures are in trouble when human enterprise has removed somewhere between 70 and 75% of the grass they depend upon?
Any hope of helping grasslands ecology recover some of its former glory will require large scale restoration of prairie ecotypes in a patchy diversity. No one has the science to restore grassland to the fully functioning regime that greeted settlers when they first put it to the plow, but the more researchers and parks managers try to restore native grassland the more they learn about how to create a facsimile of the original.
When I was last at Grasslands National Park I saw a machine with a rotating drum on the back bristling with thousands of speargrass seeds. They use it to collect native grass seed for restoration projects on parks land that had been cultivated. In the last decade Parks Canada and its corps of local volunteers have seeded 630 acres back to native grass. This Parks Canada web page on the project doesn't mention anything about the struggle to keep weeds and invasive species out of the seeded land; nor is there any mention of research to see whether grassland insects, birds, and other animals are able to use the restored prairie for foraging and nesting habitat.
If grassland restoration is to work and have a net benefit for the species that need it most, biologists will have to do the monitoring to ensure that restored grasslands are not creating what they call "ecological traps," i.e. land that attracts nesting birds, for example, but produces very few young that reach maturity. Sink habitats can be a net loss for species already in decline.
"The Conservancy’s goal in these grasslands is to restore and protect functioning tallgrass prairies and provide critical habitat for grassland species. Working closely with private landowners and partners, like MDC, the Conservancy is using a myriad of management techniques, including prescribed fire, conservation grazing, tree removal and invasive species control to mimic the land’s natural cycles and bring back the original habitat for the benefit of prairie chickens and the other grassland species. Today, less than one percent remains of the original tallgrass prairie that once covered a third of Missouri."