The Mills of Eden Grind Fine

I have attended the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, just outside Guelph, on several occasions, but always as a supportive publisher, cheering on an author or two. This year, in my new role of Author, I got to attend the Saturday evening dinner held in the fine garden of a festival supporter.

As always, the literary festival magic took over, as I and other friends from the author circuit greeted each other with glad cries (“Hello, Angie!” “Don, I’ve got some great birding stories from the Prairies for you.” “Alistair, how are you?”) and enjoyed an outdoor meal warmed by heaters as night fell around us.

The next day, after parking my car with the help of solemn air cadets, I wandered around in the sunshine dropping in on various readings in the various sites around the little village. In the authors’ “Green Room” (actually in a blue house) I mingled with the likes of George Elliott Clarke and Donna Morrissey, although Richard Gwyn and Linden McIntyre tried to exclude me, on the grounds that I was really a publisher. I can reveal the exciting secret that the Green Room supplies authors with snacks (celery! carrots!) and soft drinks and wine. There is even a special washroom!

Alistair MacLeod and I walked to our show, which was in the little church nearby. The “little” proved to be a problem. We learned afterwards that disappointed fans of Alistair were to be seen pressing against the outside of the windows in the hope of hearing his reading, but the church proved to be soundproof. My own role, in what I described as “a Punch and Judy show” was to talk about my role in extracting No Great Mischief from him, and to set the urban legend straight I read the relevant passage from my book about the famous “home invasion.”

Alistair then read the tragic scene of the deaths on the spring ice from No Great Mischief, and the third part of our show consisted of me being mischievous, prodding the chuckling Alistair to tell stories like the famous midnight ride from Calgary to Banff that he took with W.O. Mitchell and a nervous cab driver not familiar with blizzards. The Question and Answer session went well, and on leaving I was pleased to meet the church’s minister who that day had preached from a text taken from my pal Trevor Herriot’s River in a Dry Land.

In the autographing session that followed I disobeyed my own rule for authors that you should never engage in a joint session with a famous and popular author. So I sat there beside Alistair while 50 eager fans lined up in front of him, and the kind people from the Book Shelf in Guelph engaged me in distracting conversation. I did, in fact, sign a few copies, but it was a tiny portion of Alistair’s, and the area in front of me was a still centre compared with the eager dozens lined up before him.

As he signed copy after copy I leaned over to whisper that he should sign the words, “Please buy my friend Doug Gibson’s book,” but I think he failed to do so.

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Saskatchewan Birding with Trevor Herriot

I once was given a private tour behind the scenes in Parliament by Erik Spicer, the Parliamentary Librarian. On another occasion James Houston took me and some others through a special exhibition of Inuit art, recalling when he watched this piece being sculpted, and what his sculptor friend was chatting about as he worked on that other piece over there.

You have the same “behind the scenes” feeling when you set out with Trevor Herriot to look at birds in Saskatchewan. Trevor is not only a wonderful writer about nature, as well as many other things, as readers of his books know well. He is also an expert bird-watcher, so good that he has run a Regina radio show that helps callers to identify birds that they have stumbled across “with a yellow neck at the back.”

His own keen ears can identify different types of sparrow calls at a hundred paces, and his long-range camera skills are remarkable. I knew this because a couple of years ago he took me out from Regina to do some birding near Last Mountain Lake, and it was a very memorable morning.

So when Trevor suggested that Jane and I (who were staying in Regina with him and Karen and the family) head south with him and his birding friend Bob Luterbach to see what we could find en route to Weyburn, we were delighted.

It is as if the word spreads through the bird community that “Hey, Trevor Herriot’s here!” and they flock (so to speak) to see and be seen by this great celebrity birdwatcher. If you think that’s unlikely, look at the list birds we saw that morning, aided by the fact that a lush Prairie summer has lured uncommon visitors north from the parched American Plains states.

We saw White-faced Ibis (as in Egyptian pyramid art), Burrowing Owls (now endangered), Black Terns at the sloughs (and one angry Forster’s Tern), Baird’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Bobolink (with a yellow neck at the back), Chestnut-collared Longspur, and an amazing range of exhibitionist Bitterns, normally heard but never seen. All of these were first-time sightings for me and Jane.

Of course we also enjoyed watching Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks, not to mention the usual Mallards and Eared Grebes on the sloughs, the usual gangs of Redwinged Blackbirds and Cedar Waxwings, and a lone Upland Sandpiper. Wonderful!