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River in a Dry Land: A Prairie Passage

by Trevor Herriot

I have never been to Saskatchewan. But anyone who spent a good chunk of childhood outside of a city – be it home, cottage, or grandparents’ farm – will instantly recognize the insistent, unmistakable pull of the land felt by Trevor Herriot, author of River in a Dry Land. Herriot is a naturalist and writer whose family roots go deep into the fertile and increasingly not-so-fertile ground of Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley. He shows a deep love and respect for the land that he sees as increasingly under attack – from engineers, bureaucrats, and agribusiness – and an abiding anger at human arrogance.

You can almost hear the reverence attached to those frequent two words, “the land.” But the tone is hardly mushy or vague. Herriot writes vividly and pithily of the history, species, and native and white inhabitants of his valley, whether it’s the “hen-shit tea” served by a farmer’s wife, the peculiarities of cowbirds, or the CDs that decorate the traditional costume of a native teenager at a pow-wow. He excavates fascinating shards of Saskatchewan history, like a short-lived late-19th-century utopian commune that laid the groundwork for socialized medicine and co-ops, or the fight to save a massive rock important to Cree cultural life.

Occasionally, Herriot veers a little too close to a certain dreamy nostalgia for the good ol’ days. There is a whiff of wistful regret, for instance, that women no longer spend laundry day scrubbing clothes at the side of the river, when really the crux of the matter is that we pay no attention to where our water comes from or goes to. And the small semi-transient prairie settlements that Herriot imagines just ain’t gonna happen, History Television’s Pioneer Quest notwithstanding. No matter – River in a Dry Land is a dense, complex, passionate account of a valley and those who have left their mark, lightly or deeply, upon it. And in the end, as Herriot writes, responsibility for those marks seems to lie with no one and everyone.