Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song illustrated

Once a week I am going to try to post an image that relates to the new book, Grass, Sky, Song, making my way from front to back, and explaining each image with a brief story.

The meadowlark shown here appears on the cover of the book. It is from an oil painting by the late Fred Lahrman, perhaps Saskatchewan's finest artist-naturalist. Fred grew up on the plains near Mortlach, Saskatchewan, and taught himself how to draw and paint. By the time he was four or five years old, he was drawing birds on the porch walls. (To learn more about Fred, read this tribute written for the Globe and Mail on his passing in 2003.)

As a young man Lahrman joined Fred Bard at what was then called the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History. The two Freds travelled to the wilds of Saskatchewan north to south, collecting birds and other animals to be displayed in the museum. Fred Lahrman took it all in and, returning to Regina, began to paint the backgrounds behind the dioramas that made the little museum one of the best natural history displays on the Great Plains.

At the same time, Fred was working with Bard on two causes that have become legends of success in North American conservation. By the early 1940s, Canada Geese had become alarmingly scarce on the prairie, so Lahrman and Bard brought a pair of geese, Queenie and Hiawatha, to Regina and soon established a flock at Wascana Marsh in Regina that today is a symbol for the city.

At the same time, Lahrman and Bard began a campaign to try to save the remaining whooping cranes which were down to a low of 21 birds as of 1941. They eventually got the attention of government wildlife agencies and for the next three decades, Lahrman was involved in the recovery effort that saved the species from extinction.

Fred retired from the museum in the 1980s but when a fire destroyed the gallery he came out of retirement and helped to create even more stunning dioramas illustrating the wildlife of the province. Those of us who knew Fred remember him as the gentle spirit still presiding over the Wascana geese in his final years. Many times I saw him standing at the edge of the marsh quietly watching the wild geese thronging in their thousands, the arctic sub-species mingling with the resident flock in fall.

When it came time to create a cover for the book I thought of Fred right away. A good friend, Lorne Scott had been very close to Fred and had a collection of his paintings. When I called Lorne at his farm two miles from our place in the country, he said that his aunt Mavis was a collector and had a painting of a meadowlark that might do nicely on the cover.

A week later I was ringing Mavis's doorbell. She showed us her walls covered with the work of well-known prairie artists and allowed my daughter, Sage, to take a photograph of the meadowlark. The painting has a sombre tone as the bird sits in atypical repose facing the dying rays of twilight with the last snow drifts of winter melting away in April. Fred knew the mood of such a moment and how to make it live in paint. I like to think he would be happy to see it now enlivening the cover of a book.

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