The award-winning author of River in a Dry Land explores the Nature that we – and our religions – sprang from
The Genesis story of Jacob, the patriarch of the Judeo-Christian tradition, wrestling with a spirit has been interpreted in a multitude of ways, but never more persuasively than by Trevor Herriot in Jacob’s Wound. He sees it as a struggle between Jacob and his wilder twin brother, Esau, whose birthright Jacob has swindled. The central idea of Herriot’s brilliantly written, observant, and groundbreaking book is the wound that Jacob, the farmer, the civilized man, suffered in vanquishing Esau, the hunter, the primitive man. And the central question posed is whether we, as Jacob did with Esau, can eventually reconcile with the wildness we conquered and have been estranged from for so long.
As if ambling through the author’s beloved Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan, Jacob’s Wound takes readers on an untrodden path through history, memoir, science, and theology. Along the way, Herriot tells us stories of the past and present that illuminate what we once were and what we have become. It’s a measured journey motivated by curiosity rather than by destination, and at every turn there is insight and beautiful writing.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
Along the pebbled margins of certain prairie lakes a small plover the colour of sand makes its living. It struts and whirrs where waves have been, stopping momentarily to pick at the bits of life that inhabit a shoreline. If you walk too close, it will, like most shorebirds, run away. If you persist, it will fly up, offering a single clear note as complaint before it circles back behind you or heads farther down the shore. For this soft and plaintive cry we call it the piping plover. It is a sound that belongs to the beach or to the wind that moves above its stones. Shorebirds, in voice and manner, are birds of the moving air. Wind birds, Peter Matthiessen named them – spirits of the long migration that ride on swept-back wings and bear in their breasts the utterance of wildness. To listen to a piping plover is to hear the wind eddying through a small body, resonating in an intricate tube in its throat, and returning again as a lyric that fits within larger harmonies.
The notes of the piping plover, like other phrases within the Holocene music of this continent, are heard less frequently now than they were even twenty years ago. Officials have noticed the change and are concerned. Worry of this kind generally leads to counting and so these days we census piping plovers and much else that is running away from us. We gather numbers because in legislatures, boardrooms, and courts a story does not cut any ice. Until the results are in, everything else is merely anecdotal.
It was Pentecost Sunday when I left home to help count piping plovers at Lake Diefenbaker. Weeks later, our records were added to totals for the lake, the province, the nation, and the continent, contributing to figures that biologists and wildlife officials will use to estimate populations and revise recovery plans for the species. It was the anecdotal evidence, though, that remained with me long after the count: some memories, a couple of sketches made on the beach, and a few pages of notes scribbled down when the day was over. None of it will save plovers or their habitat. The drawings I pinned above my desk. The notes and memories took over the book I thought I was writing, replacing it with an interlude of narrative and argument pondered between two separate encounters with a wild bird on the morning after Pentecost.
A week of weeks after Easter, Pentecost carries its own load of narrative. It marks a time when a people divided were brought together in wind and fire by their share in a larger story. We, and here I mean people of Christian ancestry, are the offspring of that story, and regardless of what we may think of it now, we bear in our flesh its familiar trajectory from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. For my part, though, I keep on the lookout for even the smallest signs of Pentecost, a convergence of the irreconcilable, translated one to the other, tongued with fire by the bewildering winds of heaven.
We began the plover survey, the four of us, walking into a hard gale out of the east along the expanse of sand that shows up here and there on the shores of Lake Diefenbaker whenever the water is low. This manmade lake, a section of the South Saskatchewan River dammed for hydro-electric power generation, has become the world’s most important body of water for nesting piping plovers. They come in the hundreds here in years when the water is low and the beaches wide. Hundreds, too, have had their nests washed away in June when the Rocky Mountain meltwater arrives and the dam gates, closed to maximize power generation, raise the water level several feet virtually overnight.
As every year passes, the reservoir waters eat away at more of the alluvium that once underlay the grassy hilltops of the old river valley, creating these vast sand and gravel flats. For much of the morning we were walking through acres of what used to be shoreline vegetation, mostly mare’s tail, now caked in sand and some distance from the water’s edge. Heading into the wind, our line of four watchers abreast covered 250-yard swaths of habitat as we passed along the beach, the wind swirling the sand around our ankles in strange, mesmerizing strands like snow drifting over a highway. I covered the zone nearest the inlet of a small creek where marbled godwits, sanderlings, semipalmated sandpipers, and willets were foraging. A raven stooped over the carcass of a large pike on the shore.
We walked only sixty or seventy yards apart, but the sound of wind and blowing sand made it impossible to hear so we resorted to hand signals. Now and then I’d see the others stop, wave one another over and kneel beneath the wind to look ahead at something, make some notes, and amble on again like pilgrims on a prayer walk. Paul – our leader and the one with the radio, the Global Positioning System gear, and spotting scope – had to record the exact location of each new nest we found. Everyone else seemed to be finding nests. It was not until later in the morning, when we’d turned our backs to the wind and were headed west on a sweep nearer the reservoir, that I found my first one, a female a few paces ahead of me squatting on the sand.
I discovered her in a pause between gusts when the airborne grit settled long enough for me to see. The haze dropped like a veil and there she was: the orange on her bill, a couple dabs of darker brown against the white and bleached-sand tones of her face and back. She seemed barely perturbed by the sandstorm, an image of faith amidst inexorable forces. Then the wind rose again and all I could see was a beige band of air streaming away from me beneath the sky’s distant blue. A pile of sand gathered against my legs and lower back as I crouched, staring into the brown wall hiding the plover.
From the Hardcover edition.
Trevor Herriot is the author of the mulitple-award-winning River in a Dry Land. Herriot has lived most of his life in Saskatchewan.close this panel
“The prose of Jacob’s Wound is smooth and burnished, with many poetic touches and images of startling clarity.” — Globe and Mail
“Jacob's Wound is beautifully written, with expert knowledge: read it and beware! You may be persuaded to start thinking differently.”