In my first post on River in a Dry Land by Trevor Herriot I discussed the observations, historic information and analysis of the naturalist author, Trevor Herriot. In this post I set out my reservations about the observations of the author in a book I greatly enjoyed.
While appreciating his love of the undeveloped land and the nomadic indigenous peoples who left little imprint on the country I found Herriot had contradictory thoughts on the development of the valley.
He provides moving stories of the generations of his grandfather and mother who settled the valley. He appreciated their efforts to adapt to a harsh climate and establish farms. He has respect for the Scots from which he is descended and the Finns of New Finland across the valley. At the same time he has little regard for the current farmers of the the Qu’Appelle. It is hard to understand the high regard for the the original settlers who were the people to change the land and modern farmers who also change the land.
When people settle in an area the land will be changed. Whether by farm or industry it will be altered. For those who have made their life along the river for the past 150 years their balance with nature is flawed but deserving of value.
Without the changes made by settlers like my grandparents and his grandparents neither I nor Herriot would be in Saskatchewan. If the land had stayed grazing country inhabited by free range buffalo there would be but some thousands rather than hundreds of thousands of people.
Herriot raises legitimate questions about the effects of growing crops in a land with limited rainfall. He considers the problems of organic farming, not just conventional farming, with regard to soil structure, especially nitrogen.
Farming practices have evolved significantly even in my lifetime. For Herriot I cannot see any crop growing system as acceptable.
Livestock, hog and chicken operations have been concentrated in my lifetime. There is less pressure on the pastures of Saskatchewan than when I grew up.
I wonder if he would feel differently if he had actually farmed. By growing up on the farm I helped raise crops. There is a unique feel and pride to participating in the process of seeding through harvest. There is an appreciation for the land by farmers that I did not see in the book.
Herriot speaks positively of the spiritual practices of the Cree before the Europeans came and the harsh policies forbidding traditional practices for over 50 years. Yet there is no discussion of the decisions made by indigenous people to be and stay Christians.
I question his unquestioned admiration of Indian lifestyles. The Indian peoples of Saskatchewan, especially on the prairies, had a diet, before white settlement, that was heavily focused on meat. They had traditional medicines but lacked a health care system. Had the prairies remained grazing lands while health care improved the population of roaming Indian bands would have increased so that they could not have been sustained by the traditional hunting and gathering culture. Either they would have had to use the land in different ways or left this land and added to the people trying to live on other land. It is what has happened to the bands of northern Saskatchewan.
His exploration of the dismal consequences of white treatment of Indian peoples is generally accurate but from my work on Indian Land Claims I do not accept that when the Indian peoples of our province signed their treaties from 1874 to 1876 they expected to be hunters and gatherers for all time. They negotiated the right to continue to hunt and gather on unoccupied Crown land. They knew there was going to be a major adjustment from their traditional lifestyles to a farm based economy. What no one anticipated was that the settlement of Western Canada would take a mere 25 years. The adjustment period was far more compressed than expected.
It is sad to read how the settlement of Saskatchewan did not continue with thriving small towns. In less than 100 years towns appeared, grew and shriveled. I wish they could have stayed. I agree with Herriott that it was a good life. Herriot laments the loss of a simple life on the farm. More could have stayed on the land had they been content to live without power, sewer and water systems, appliances and other modern conveniences. A modern lifestyle costs more than can be provided on the income available from the small farms of my youth. The older lifestyle is the life of many rural Indian families. Yet there is a major human cost when there is little employment in and around the reserves.
There has been a rural depopulation in Saskatchewan. There are far fewer people outside the cities of Saskatchewan. In the area of the farm where I lived there are 3 families where once there were 8 families. It is the story of my life that a vibrant “corner” of families has faded away.
Herriot has a disdain for our present lifestyles. He would have no change in the land but that brought about by natural evolution. We do not live in a world that is static. Change is constant. At its essence people disturb the land. Cities create new environments. I accept the changes since settlement have not always been done well. I do not accept all have been done badly.