“But our resistance, our unflagging confidence in rationality, keeps us impermeable, closed, and dubious. The language of nature may remain untranslatable, but walking or sitting alone in wildness at least places you within earshot.”
There are times in all our lives when we feel a need to grow and change direction. Sensing this need within himself, Trevor Herriot chose to walk from his home in Regina to his family’s rural property near Cherry Lake. As he walks, he meditates on human nature and our relationships with each other and with the earth. The Road Is How, published by HarperCollins Canada, is a summation of his thoughts and emotions.
I found the first half of the book heavy-going. As a woman with a very practical streak, I had little understanding for Herriot’s talk about male bonding, sexual desire, and religion. But gradually, as the book progresses, I began to see the connections and to appreciate his openness in speaking so honestly about profoundly personal topics.
“In a world bathed in industrial and impersonal sex, where real connection and tenderness are rare, will we sense also that something in us and in the earth is being harmed from the same absence of intimacy, care, and respect?”
Herriot says that women are a mystery to him. He finds it much easier to bond with his male friends as they drink beer around a campfire in the woods. He freely admits his own male weaknesses, his desire for his wife to spend more time catering to him rather than following her own interests. And yet he also acknowledges that his wife is at the heart of their family:
“here I am at the age of fifty-two reluctantly admitting that the best thing I can do to mature, the best thing I can do for my family, is to be man enough to be there, to respect the circle my wife has made, and to either help or get out of the way when she is doing the work of expanding and nurturing it.”
He turns to images of yin and yang, where opposites complement rather than divide, as a metaphor for fruitful male-female relationships and develops this concept further in talking about our relationship with the natural world.
“When you live in a world of deal-making and commerce, everything sounds like a sales pitch. But the dream wasn’t a proposition; it was an invitation to nurture and join the deeper, wider reciprocity that fills the earth with life. The wild paradox of pasture land is that to remain healthy over the long run, it must give part of itself away to be eaten or burned.”
When everything, including sex is for sale, it is difficult to imagine a more open-ended reciprocity between all living creatures. Herriot turns to nature for examples of a different kind of give and take. He refers to colonies of aspen trees where each tree appears to be separate and independent but is in fact a part of a single massive organism. He discusses the role played by the coyote in the aspen parkland prairie and the intersecting roles and pathways of grasses and trees, rodents and predators, soil and air.
What would happen, Herriot wonders, if people recognized that they were not just like the soil but actually were the soil:
“What would it be like to live in full awareness of that communion? Would the false binaries of commerce that divide body from soul, sacred from profane, religion from nature, and economy from ecology all give way to a wider reciprocity?”
“What exercise could we undertake to become over time exquisitely attuned to signals in our bodies, in others, and in the whole matrix of life around us, developing the ear, eye, and touch that might let us perceive what our children and spouses need from us; to awaken resources in ourselves and in others to help a neighbourhood struggling with housing problems and poverty, or restore a creek suffering from upstream agricultural residues and urban sewage?”
“The taste of a green thing still tender from its sunward leap is as good as dipping your cup in a mountain stream. A draft of courage from wild asparagus lets us know that health and wildness still flow together beneath this belaboured land.”
There is something highly ironic about the fact that Herriot’s meditative pilgrimage doesn’t take place in an isolated wilderness region but rather the Regina Plains where less than 1% of native cover remains. As he walks past commuter traffic, feeder farms, and oil wells, he asks himself whether there is “anything left to love in a land we have handed over to herbicide-resistant crops.”
And yet, The Road Is How ends on a cautiously optimistic note. As just one example, Herriot points to sandhill cranes who have been living on this land for two and a half million years and whose numbers are increasing. The cranes can live for 25 or more years and they remain faithful to their partner throughout, renewing their commitment by dancing together at sunrise.
Mindfulness & Spirituality
As he discusses the problems facing our society, Herriot notes the role that Christianity has played in separating people from nature:
“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 else looked on from the pews. Is there a better way to seed the world with people who don’t know what their soul is for or how to open it up to the holiness all around them?”
In The Road Is How, Trevor Herriot emphasizes the importance of spirituality in our lives. He reminds us that we have a choice, that through being mindful and paying attention to our actions, we can decouple ourselves from blind, genetic programming.
“If I sit on a hill or walk a road hoping to foster some sensitivity and cross into a life where I am attentive to subtler energies, it is not to sort out the spirit in things from the matter. I want to be able to feel their confluence, the messy incarnation of the divine in the flesh of everything from soil fungi to the grain being harvested in these fields, to the enzymes and proteins that allow my body to transform bread from that grain into the muscle, bone, and sinew that moves me down this road.”