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Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


A pilgrim journey in a Saskatchewan landscape


Gerald SchmitzThe Road is How:
A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire, and Soul by Trevor Herriot
(Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014)

. . . it all started with our feet following ever more complex pathways across the surface of the earth.
To remember our wayfaring origins is to wield a metaphysics of hope against the dogma that we are aimless wanderers in a world whose chaotic surface is the sum total of reality.

— The Road is How, p.2.

A few summers ago Regina author Trevor Herriot had a serious fall at home which shook him up beyond a few broken bones. Feeling in need of spiritual as well as physical convalescence he was impelled toward a walk in nature. An Aboriginal elder, Daniel, and his brother suggested that, akin to a vision quest, he first spend time fasting on a hill. What resulted was a decision to plot a September walking course of 40 miles in the surrounding plains through the Qu’Appelle Valley.

With Kierkegaard’s insight that the “road is how it is walked,” Herriot sets out into a landscape so transformed since agricultural settlement (only about one per cent of the natural cover of these plains remains) that it fundamentally challenges our relationship with nature. Tommy Douglas may be a prairie icon and “greatest Canadian” but as Herriot pointedly observes: “Today, the remnant population living in rural areas routinely elects politicians who promise more wealth, lower taxes, and the freedom to sell their produce wherever and however they like.”

Is a counter-perspective possible centred on a grounded ecology of mother earth? Herriot recalls lively discussions with his wife Karen, a breast cancer survivor, about the “divine energies of creation” and the role of maternal incarnation in contrast to male rituals. He reflects too on a childhood Catholicism that was careless about nature and negative about sex. Of a church too concerned with institutional power, he writes rather harshly: “Instead of following Jesus’s example and looking for healing and spirit in field, hilltop, and seaside, the faithful took the narrative indoors, built grand idols of brick and stone inside of which the approved rites and liturgies could be conducted by an elite of male priests while everyone looked on from the pews.”

How to liberate the spirit from these confinements? As he walks Herriot ponders our current condition in 23 short chapters brimming with wit, candour and keen observation, each prefaced by meditations on “road conditions.” This is a journey that doesn’t seek a particular destination but a state of mindful attention that is a “kind of prayer.”

Contradictions come into focus. What is happening to prairie people’s bond with Our Lady of the Prairies? Near a Marian shrine is a proposed potash mega-development by Brazilian mining giant Vale “infamous for its contempt for unions and human rights and its destruction of rainforest and rivers.” Overall along the way there are “almost no monuments to human spiritual longing: no standing stones, totem poles, medicine wheels, or anything else tilting toward the holy.”

Passing the Cowessess First Nation Herriot ruminates on the many ills afflicting Aboriginal communities. He thinks back on frank conversations with his friend Daniel who has little time for those who play the “pity, blame game,” contending that “the only sovereign Indians are the ones who are not on the take, people who aren’t involved in the politics and band councils.” Respect for treaty lands, cultural and spiritual recovery isn’t going to come from operating casinos.

The act of walking is a stimulus to a rich array of musings on our modern condition from sex abuse scandals and media obsessions to the sins of industrial capitalism, agribusiness and food systems. As Herriot writes: “By hooking up the corporate profit imperative to the human capacity for addiction and cupidity, the industrial economy has found ten thousand ways to prostitute the collective eros at the very core of community.”

How do we restore healthy relationships with soil, body and soul? Herriot writes movingly of his correspondence and encounters with Benedictine monk and hermit Rev. James Gray (a former editor of this journal), whom he saw on Good Friday 2009 just days before he died. James was never timid in his embrace of the sacred and the physical world. As Herriot puts it, he “was strong, with a healthy, fully incarnated eros he received directly from the aspen woods and the surrounding prairie, informed by Scripture and reflected in the sacraments of his faith, but also by his delight of great literature and Eastern mysticism.”

Probing gender roles, the ying and yang of the masculine and the feminine, and his own marital experience, lead Herriot to diverse explorations of the intersection of the divine and the incarnational — reconnecting in positive ways with the erotic generative energy suffusing God’s creation.

There is a great deal more than I can indicate in this review. The rewards of reading about Herriot’s pilgrim’s progress come from the author’s invitation to “walk the talk” with him by sharing his deepest personal thoughts and intimate conversations about matters that should concern us all.

Although how the road is walked is as or more important than where it goes, I would have liked to have seen included in the book a map of the 40-mile Qu’Appelle route and significant signposts. Beyond Herriot’s singular initiative, perhaps it’s time to consider the possibilities for similar prairie pilgrimage paths. Because the journey must continue.

Schmitz walked the Way of St. James in 2013. He is currently recovering from broken bones as a result of a ski accident on March 6. He also hopes to do a Saskatchewan pilgrimage some day.