I come from a landscape best known for open spaces and wide skies. While I love that about the prairies, when I go out walking I’m just as likely to be attracted by small things: wildflowers, most often, but also birds, butterflies, and interesting twigs.
Likewise, when I write a poem, the starting point is inevitably something small and specific.
All these books share the quality of paying close attention to the small and particular, whether that’s a plot of land with all its seasonal changes or the distinction between one kind of wood-warbler and another.
Manitoba Butterflies, by Simone Hébert Allard
This beautiful field guide contains life-sized photos of every butterfly found in Manitoba, arranged in order from largest (Monarch) to smallest (Least Skipper), along with enlarged photos of their eggs, larvae, and pupae. The book begins with a few chapters of general information, which I confess I have never read. I go straight to the descriptions and photos to pore over the fine detail of wing markings, in the pleasantly futile quest to determine which of the dozen or so species of fritillary was the one I just saw.
Saskatchewan Birds, by Alan Smith
In May 2008, I attended a writing retreat in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley. My days quickly took on a rhythm of writing and walking, and I consulted this book every time I came in from outdoors. I had never before seen so many species of bird in one place—had never paid so much attention to them—and I had no idea there were so many kinds of sparrows.
Wildflowers Across the Prairies, by F.R. Vance, J.R. Jowsey, J.S. McLean
This is the first field guide I ever owned. Along with Saskatchewan Birds, it’s been a frequent travel companion, and my copy is full of annotations of when and where I first identified particular flowers. The entries are grouped by plant families, which is helpful in its own way, but I have made more use of the colour index at the back, when I found an unfamiliar flower and knew almost nothing about except for the hue of its petals.
A Profession of Hope, by Jenna Butler
In 2006, Jenna and her husband bought a quarter section of land in northern Alberta, where they slowly built a small organic farm, an experience filled with learning, hard work, setbacks, and deep satisfaction. These essays—about gardening and beekeeping, mosquitoes and cougars—record the many ways they have grown to love, know and care for that land, and reflect on what it means to belong to a particular landscape.
Comma, by Jennifer Still
In this poetry collection, Jennifer Still takes a tactile approach to words, employing collage and erasure to compose quiet, often sparse poems. We feel her keen attentiveness to tiny things—grass seeds, the hairs on the surface of a leaf, a hummingbird’s “pencil eraser heart”—and to the breaths and silences surrounding fragments of language.
TreeTalk, by Ariel Gordon
Ariel Gordon’s previous book, Treed, is an essay collection about urban forests. TreeTalk, her most recent poetry book, zooms in from forests to one particular tree. She spent a summer weekend sitting under an elm tree on Sherbrook Street in Winnipeg, inviting passersby to join her in writing snippets of poetry to hang on the tree. The result is a collection of observations, meditations, confessions, and secrets, centred on that one tree but connected to the world around it by a multitude of threads.
the breath you take from the lord, by Patrick Friesen
The “clearing poems,” which comprise a large portion of this book, are meditations arising from a long connection with a spot on a southern Manitoba farm. Grounded in plant and animal life, in weather and changing light, they are deep reflections on the places, the people, and the grappling with faith that shape the speaker’s life.
The River, by Helen Humphreys
This book documents Humphreys’ attempt to know the stretch of Depot Creek in eastern Ontario that she had closely observed over the course of a decade. As she writes in the introduction, it came out of “a desire to know something...on its own terms.” The result is both compact and rich, a mix of natural history, observation, historical facts, lists, and beautiful illustrations.
In her second poetry collection, Joanne Epp ventures from open prairie roads into little creek beds, down onto the warm earth of strawberry patches and far afield to the busy markets of Cambodia to examine the intimate ways we come to know and experience place. With vivid detail and a sense of quiet reverence, Cattail Skyline captures a myriad of landscapes where every change of season and slant of light reveals something previously unnoticed, and where even the most well- trodden paths hold the potential for new discovery.
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