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Review

Spirit in the Grass: The Cariboo Chilcotin’s Forgotten Landscape

By Chris Harris

November 4, 2013

Review By Marie Elliott

It is said that, in the old days, you could hear the commotion at Becher’s place as soon as your horse crested the rim of the Prairie. The old stopping house and saloon are gone now, but on the western slope a few of its patrons lie buried in the white picketed cemetery, surrounded by bunchgrass and pine trees. Bunchgrass bluebunch wheatgrass, short-awned porcupine grass, and spreading needlegrass brought cattle and cowboys to Becher’s Prairie in the first place. A few miles south, on the Fraser River benches, Jerome and Thaddeus Harper took up thirty thousand acres of it and ran 2,200 cattle in the late 1800s. 

Among the fourteen biogeoclimatic, or ecological, zones in British Columbia, the Bunchgrass zone is one of the smallest, covering less than one percent of the province. Also known as the Inter-Mountain Grassland Ecosystem, it flows southward from Becher’s Prairie through the Chilcotin, Fraser, and Thompson river valleys into the Okanagan, eastern Washington, Oregon, and western Idaho. For thousands of years First Nations peoples hunted, fished, and gathered plants for food and medicinal purposes in this region. They utilized willow and hemp to make baskets and fishing nets, and created semi-permanent pit dwellings in the friable soil along the riverbanks. The Hudson’s Bay Company relied on bunchgrass to support fur brigades of two hundred horses or more travelling from Fort Alexandria to the Columbia River and back. In the 1860s, the grasslands were still thriving when drovers brought in herds of beef cattle from Oregon and Washington Territory to feed thousands of miners during the Cariboo gold rush. 

Urban development, agriculture, large orchards, and vineyards have claimed most of the Thompson and Okanagan grasslands over the last one hundred years, but 95 percent of the lesser known Cariboo-Chilcotin grasslands remains intact. Recent literature on the natural history of the province provides some information. Biologist Richard Cannings and zoologist Sydney Cannings co-authored the award-winning British Columbia: A Natural History, 2nd ed. (2004) and The BC Roadside Naturalist (2002). But a regional perspective was needed, and the Grasslands Conservation Council of British Columbia, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving, protecting, and promoting the grasslands of British Columbia, encouraged Chris Harris to publish Spirit in the Grass: The Cariboo Chilcotin’s Forgotten Landscape. Other Cariboo residents who contributed include research ecologist Ordell Steen and plant ecologist Kristi Iverson, who provide an excellent overview of present and endangered species. Harold Rhenisch examines the cultural history in prose and poetry. It is fitting that Spirit in the Grass is dedicated to Anna Roberts of Williams Lake, who has given so much of her time and knowledge to the preservation of the Cariboo-Chilcotin’s natural history. 

We learn that there are three zones in the grasslands, depending on altitude: lower, middle, and upper, each with its own special flora and fauna. Summer temperatures in the Lower Zone are hot enough to raise cantaloupe and watermelons outdoors, and, in the dry areas, prickly cactus abound. Bunchgrass proliferates in the Middle Zone, but in the Upper Zone pine and fir trees, no longer kept in check by frequent fires, encroach upon the open spaces. While bunchgrass may be tough plants, the silt and loam soil they prefer is constantly eroding into the creeks and rivers. All-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, and mountain bikes can easily cause further desecration.

No one interprets the Cariboo- Chilcotin landscape like Chris Harris. He knows every mountain and valley, from the Bowron Lakes to Bella Coola. A professional photographer, he patiently works with prevailing light and shadows to capture nature in its finest moments. In this book, he has more than achieved his goal, which is “to make images of the rolling hills and subtle pastel colours that would be impossible to forget” (39). His lush panoramas, spreading across two pages, invite you to peer down into the turquoise oxbows of the Chilcotin River, follow a deer trail on the beige-coloured bunchgrass hills, or venture into a golden aspen grove in late September. The spare but elegant photographs of short-lived spring flowers (balsamroot, saskatoon, sagebrush buttercup) and the birds of the grasslands (the endangered avocet and Lewis’s woodpecker, sharp-tailed grouse, lazuli bunting, and sandhill crane) balance the magnificent landscapes. 

Although one percent of British Columbia does not sound impressive, the Bunchgrass zone protects one-third of the province’s “known threatened and vulnerable plant and animal species” (12). Because of its isolated location and large ranch holdings, the Cariboo-Chilcotin grasslands have avoided intense development, but to date only two areas have been publicly designated. The Junction Sheep Range Provincial Park provides winter forage for California bighorn sheep, and the Churn Creek Protected Area encompasses the historic Empire
Valley Ranch.

This book is convincing proof that we cannot afford to lose any more of our precious Cariboo-Chilcotin grasslands.