The Cariboo Chilcotin grasslands are one of the ecological wonders of the world and British Columbia’s most endangered ecosystem. It covers less than 1% of the province yet supports over 30% of its threatened or endangered plant and animal species.
The goal of this book is to increase awareness of the grasslands’ incredible beauty and ecological richness. The book is visually driven yet content rich. It contains informative natural history text written by leading ecologists Ordell Steen and Kristi Iverson, cultural history and poetry contributions written by award-winning BC writer and poet Harold Rhenisch, and a visual arts perspective written by distinguished Canadian photographer and publisher Chris Harris. The imagery is the work of Chris Harris. This book will undoubtedly become one of the most important British Columbia conservation books published to date.
Review by Don Gayton
The Cariboo-Chilcotin grasslands exist in splendid isolation, seen by most of us once or twice in a lifetime, or perhaps not at all. Now the accomplished photographer Chris Harris has brought the austere elegance of the grasslands to the masses in his book Spirit in the Grass: The Cariboo Chilcotin’s Forgotten Landscape. Harris has done all the legwork for us: he has visited the grasslands numerous times, in different years, different seasons, different times of day, in search of resonant images. Beyond simply facilitating armchair travel, the book’s compelling photographs will hopefully draw more people into honouring these and our other native grasslands in the province.
For a photographer, grasslands must be the ultimate challenge. Seen from a distance, they are almost featureless, a horizontal, double-stitched seam between earth and sky. Moving up close is equally challenging. By the time the infinitely narrow, windblown stems and leaves come into focus, all larger perspective is lost. The bunchgrasses, which form the beating heart of our grasslands, are virtually impossible to photograph. So Harris wisely chose to focus on the broader landscapes.
One image I found particularly arresting (page 66). It looks down on the tawny, contoured grassland expanse of Churn Flats. Off in one corner are two tiny figures, hikers on the landscape. They are like two insignificant ticks on the broad, muscular back of some huge animal at rest. I assumed the shot was taken from a helicopter, since it looks virtually straight down, but Chris assured me it was not. Such is the folded and dramatic terrain of the Cariboo- Chilcotin. The carved hoodoos and tortured silt cliffs also captured Harris’ photographic eye, and he feasts on the contrasts of the velvet-textured grasslands as they press against the jagged bareness of the cliffs. There is no doubt that the Chilcotin grasslands are a place of power, no matter which cultural lens they are seen through. The Junction (of the Chilcotin and Fraser Rivers) is a particular locus of spiritual power, and Harris includes a striking image of it on p. 126. When I stand on the rangelands above that junction, looking down on those two mighty rivers, the scalloped landscape, the open grasslands and the long gunsight of the Fraser Canyon, I feel as if I could fly.
One of the striking aspects of the grasslands is the multiplicity of emotions and sensations they can trigger. At times they feel timeless and enduring, other times fragile and evanescent. There are days they can make us feel right at home, other times when they present as a hostile, alien landscape. Harris wonders at how ancient life is on the grasslands, yet sometimes I feel like the grasslands are absolutely brand new, as if the glaciers departed only a few weeks ago.
The book also contains shots of bighorn sheep, butterflies, birds and other denizens of the Cariboo-Chilcotin grasslands. It is obvious that Chris Harris threw his heart and soul into this book. In addition to Harris’ brief commentaries, the book also contains short contributions from grassland ecologists Kristi Iverson, Michael Pitt and Ordell Steen, all three of whom are intimately familiar with the Chilcotin grasslands. Writer Harold Rhenisch also contributed a couple of poems. When I read a classic Rhenisch line, describing the colour of the Chilcotin River “as green as a leaf strung with aphids and rain”, I am reminded of the importance of the lyrical attachment to grasslands. Nature does need story.
The Harris book was also co-sponsored by the British Columbia Grasslands Conservation Council, a hardworking non-profit dedicated to preserving, protecting and promoting British Columbia’s native grasslands. A portion of the proceeds from the book help support the work of the Council. A worthy book, and a worthy cause.