Good writing, like good art, is moral without being moralising, expresses deep sentiment without being sentimental, challenges without inducing false guilt, and is mature without being cynical. No easy formula.
With this in mind, I would like to highlight a new book by Canadian writer Trevor Herriot, Grass, Sky, Song, Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds. It walks that fine line: powerfully moral without a trace of bad moralising, mature without a hint of cynicism; it is a book about death that leaves its reader with hope.
On the surface it is a book about grassland birds declining and disappearing in the Canadian and American prairies, but it is about more than birds – much more. It’s about our relationship to the earth, all of us, whether we live in the country or in the city, and how unconsciously, no matter how innocent our intentions might be, our grip on nature is slowly tightening so as to threaten to suffocate the very life forces that support us.
But it might be a bit ahead of its time. Its narrative is a little like Nietzsche’s madman a hundred years ago. He smashes a lantern in the market square to get peoples’ attention, but then announ-ces that he probably has proclaimed an urgent message too early. The evidence needed to convince people will only come later, when they begin to feel the consequences of what they are enacting.
What’s Herriot’s message? He’s a trained naturalist, a natural theologian, a seminarian of nature. The essential message of his book might be summarised in a single metaphor he gives as he tries to sort through our ecological woes: “Denying, excusing, looking elsewhere, is easy enough until you hold one of the victims in your hand. Once Stephen Davies finished banding the pipit [a grassland bird] that morning at the Last Mountain Lake bird sanctuary, he asked if Don or I would like to release it. Receiving the bird in both hands, Don looked at it briefly then extended his arms at eye level and opened his fingers. The pipit stayed crouched, as though hands were still holding it in place. It swayed a little, showing no interest in flying. We watched in silence and dread, wondering if it was hurt. Stephen touched it with an index finger – ‘C’mon. It’s okay’ – and the pipit took flight, fluttering off weakly a short distance and then diving into the familiar refuge of the grass.
“Later, Don talked about a sense of transgression he felt at that moment, as though we were being clumsy and graceless with a mystery. He spoke of a kind of attention, different from scientific attention, a leaning toward the other without wanting to possess it or turn it into forms of knowledge, a way of listening that might over time deepen our sense of what it means to be in a place.
“I have no good reason to believe that great numbers of us will soon be listening to the land, opening our grip and releasing all that we have been holding onto, but there is much in our political and philosophical talk to indicate that we are discovering just how clumsy we have been. At the very least we are beginning to see what suffering we have brought to the prairie by forcing alien and extractive lifeways on its people, places, and wild creatures.” In a similar series of essays a few years ago called Small Wonders Barbara Kingsolver tried to point our eyes towards some small things we should be noticing, but, to our own peril, are not. For Trevor Herriot, one of these small wonders is the sparrow, a bird which Jesus himself assures us never falls from the sky without God noticing.
Here are Herriot’s words: “True grassland birds – species that cannot tolerate trees or cropland – bear witness to the world in their own particular way. It is a testimony as worthy of our best efforts to listen, dream, and imagine as any other in Creation; not loud enough to attract busloads of tourists, perhaps, but all the more rewarding for the attention it cultivates in any who try. These small creatures make their stand in the face of great powers transforming their prairie world, living out a yearly drama, a freedom and fidelity to the wind that may escape our awareness even as they sing out to any soul within earshot. The influence of beings as unprepossessing and elusive as grassland birds is something like gravity, a weak though persistent mystery that holds us in place. The heart recognises such a gentle force, knows that in simply becoming aware of its pull we take a small step towards belonging here ourselves.” This is moral theology.