Candace Savage is the author of more than two dozen books, including Strangers in the House, Hello, Crow!, and A Geography of Blood, which won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. She divides her time between homes in Eastend and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Prairie originally came out in 2004. What’s been updated and added in this new, revised edition?
The grasslands of the Great Plains of North America have been blowing in the wind for more than ten thousand years, and the fundamentals of grassland ecology have not changed significantly over the ages. So it makes sense that the fundamental content and structure of this book have withstood the challenges of the past sixteen years. That said, there were many facts and figures that did need to be refreshed: numbers of endangered species, area of surviving natural grasslands, changes in policy and practice that affect the health of prairie ecosystems, and so on. The new edition brings the reader up to date on all these issues and concerns. Beyond that, the book also responds to our ever-more-urgent understanding of the role natural grasslands can play in mitigating both the climate emergency and the global biodiversity crisis. Grasslands are amazingly resilient, and that resilience is a source of hope.
Some people regard the prairies as boring or lifeless—but, as you say, nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead, how are they a place of wonder and mystery?
Anyone can appreciate the grandeur of a mountain or a forest, but it takes a special kind of patience and attention to truly experience a grassland.
I think the problem is partly one of scale. On the one hand, the North American grasslands are so vast that they can be hard to wrap your head around. At over a million square miles (almost 3 million square kilometers), they are one of the largest ecosystems anywhere on the planet. On the other hand, this is a world that needs to be appreciated in miniature, ideally on hands and knees with your nose in the grass. Sometimes even with this close focus, you can’t see what’s right in front of your eyes because you don’t know that it is there. I think that’s where this book comes in. It gives you the information and insights you need to go exploring.
In the book, you discuss how the prairies are an extraordinary, complex ecosystem, vital to the planet’s survival. Can you tell us a bit about why they are so important?
Obviously, grasslands are home to thousands of species, many of which cannot survive anywhere else in the world. Fewer acres of natural prairie means fewer western meadowlarks, fewer pasque flowers (prairie crocuses), fewer black-tailed prairie dogs, even fewer ducks. Did you know that grassland birds are declining in population more rapidly than any other habitat group on the continent? That’s horrifying, and the losses have to stop. Conserving and restoring grasslands is a meaningful way of conserving and restoring the beauty and diversity of life. At the same time, since deep-rooted prairie plants are highly effective at sequestering carbon, grassland conservation is also a powerful tool in mitigating climate change. What’s not to like?
Today, the prairies rank as one of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth, with significant ecological decline caused by human intervention. Yet, there have also been a number of initiatives in recent years to change this degradation. What are some of these movements to increase biodiversity and renew grasslands?
I wish I could say that trends of the last two hundred years have been reversed and that everyone has suddenly grasped the importance of conserving and restoring the grasslands of the Great Plains. Sadly, inexplicably, that hasn’t happened--yet. But when that change does come it will be thanks to the growing number of individuals and organizations, already tens of thousands strong, who are sharing their love for prairie and taking action. From campaigns to protect surviving natural grasslands, to the return of buffalo to tribal lands, to the expanding practice of regenerative agriculture, to a growing enthusiasm among urbanites for native-plant gardens, we are finding creative new ways to nurture the prairie’s special beauty.
The prairies are a theme in a number of your books. What inspires you to keep writing about them?
It really all started with my Mom, who grew up on a farm in southern Alberta and who was always happiest with the warm scent of sage in the air. I have a hunch that she caught the prairie bug from her mother, who grew up on the grasslands of Missouri. I am prairie person and this where I have made my home. The prairie is in my bones.