Monday, May 31, 2021

Three Reviews: Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide, by Trevor Herriot and Myrna Pearman; The Way of the Gardener: Lost in the Weeds along the Camino de Santiago, by Lyndon Penner; The Power of a Paintbrush: The Story of an Escape from the Prison Camp Stalag XXA after World War II” By Chantal Stehwien and Barbara Stehwien

“Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide: A Complete Guide to Year-round Bird Feeding in Saskatchewan”

Written by Trevor Herriot and Myrna Pearman

Published by Nature Saskatchewan

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95  ISBN 9-780921-104353


It’s apropos that a Blue Jay graces the cover of Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide: A Complete Guide to Year-round Bird Feeding in Saskatchewan. The Blue Jay is my home province’s provincial bird, and Blue Jay is also the name of Nature Saskatchewan’s quarterly publication. And did you know that these handsome birds also have such incredible memories, they hide seeds and nuts in trees or in the ground and return later to enjoy them? I can’t even remember where I left my glasses a minute ago.

The seven chapters in this photograph-full softcover provide a compendium of information for those who, like bird-experts Trevor Herriot and Myrna Pearman, admire—and are inspired by—“the remarkable lives of wild birds,” and understand how it’s beneficial to birds and humans when we study, support and discuss them. “To feed birds in a mid-continental temperate place like Saskatchewan is to reach out a hand toward the untamed dramas outside our windows,” the co-authors write.

This easy-to-read, school notebook-sized guide begins with a history of bird feeding, and asserts that while it’s an age-old activity, its popularity rocketed with the development of conservation groups, and Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 field guide secured wide interest in our “wild-winged neighbours”. In post-WWII suburbia, both gardening and bird feeding greatly increased and nature centres sprung up. Bird feeding was forever changed in the 60s with the importation of nyger seed, and scientific research, the bird-feeding benefits of black oil seeds, and the use of seed feeders fed the passion for bird feeding in the 70s. Today, “8.4 million Canadian households (61.5 percent) buy wild bird feed”. And why not? Aside from being fun, educational, and aiding science (ie: bird counts), evidence indicates that watching birds at feeders even lowers blood pressure.    

While bird-feeding naysayers point to dependency, disease spreading, cat and predatory bird attacks, window strikes, and potential migration delays—among other issues—the writers assert that bird-feeding benefits highly outweigh potential harms, and healthy birds will always also find their own natural food sources.

This info-packed guidebook teaches the diverse variety of what (seeds, fruit, corn, pet food, vermicelli … and expect recipes for suet!), how (see the many feeder designs), and where to feed and water our feathered friends. I learned so much, ie: “photoperiodism” means hours of daylight, birds have a third eyelid called a “nictitating membrane,” and it’s a myth that if you touch a baby bird its parents will abandon it. Did you know Eurasian Collared-Doves are in North America thanks to a mid-1970s pet shop burglary in the Bahamas? That birds have dialects? What a “keystone” species is, and that sapsuckers are among them?

Birds have learned to live through Saskatchewan’s harsh winters via “a variety of physical, physiological, and behavioural strategies,” including shivering, going into “nightly hypothermia by dropping their body temperature,” and huddling.

Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide is a brilliant resource for beginner and veteran bird-feeding aficionados. As such, it should fly off the shelves.



“The Way of the Gardener: Lost in the Weeds along the Camino de Santiago”

By Lyndon Penner

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$25.95  ISBN 9-780889-778061


I’ve long wanted to experience “The Camino”. The Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) is a weeks-long, thousand-year-old, on-foot pilgrimage that often begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, crosses the Pyrenees, and continues across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where the disciple St. James’ remains are entombed in the cathedral named for him. Many people undertake the arduous expedition for religious reasons, while others wish to physically challenge themselves, enjoy the Basque-country landscape, or learn more about themselves and humanity.

Camino Francés, described above, is the 800-kilometre route writer and environmentalist Lyndon Penner undertook. In his wonderfully entertaining The Way of the Gardener: Lost in the Weeds along the Camino de Santiago, the Saskatoon-based author hadn’t even heard of the trek before he’d agreed to embark on it, and the gardener/plant tour guide walked up to three hours a day with “a heavy backpack” to train.

There’s much literature about the Camino, and it’s been the setting for movies (ie: “The Way”), but Penner’s memoir examines it via a unique lens. “I happen to see the world through plants and trees and flowers,” he writes, and his book is indeed an engaging commentary on the flora and fauna experienced on his six-week journey, but it’s also punctuated with delightful anecdotes about albergues (hostels) and fellow pilgrims, meal commentary, and legends, plus spiritual and philosophical introspection. It’s often hilarious. I brought this book along on a kayak-camping weekend and read it aloud with friends: hysterical laughter ensued.

Penner’s an introvert, and the Camino swarms with people. Raised “in a very Christian household,” he no longer identifies as “religious,” and says that on the Camino he experienced “ancient forests of oak and chestnut that were more beautiful than any of the cathedrals meant to house the presence of God.” Unlike other peregrinos, he wasn’t moved by the “Cruz de Fierro” (“the iron cross”), and found the “gold-drenched cathedral at Burgos” frightening, but he adored and writes both eloquently and conversationally about Spain’s diverse trees, omnipresent flowers (“I couldn’t live in a world without lilacs”), vegetables (“Pumpkins in particular incite in me a kind of rapturous, profound joy that I cannot explain”), vines, moss, birds (“What a terrible world it would be without them”), and stone bridges. One can almost smell the flowers, hear the “gentle ringing” of cowbells, and taste the figs and almonds as he eats and describes them. When he stops to consume grapes that had fallen onto a dusty road, I also sampled the “grape-flavoured dirt”.

There’s much poetry: “In the azure sky above us, great dark birds swirled and circled like immense black snowflakes,” he writes. There’s comedy galore. Imagine trying to sleep in an albergue where a clutch of French women were “moving in and out like apparitions,” and an Australian pastor “sat up in bed, reached into what was evidently the loudest and crinkliest plastic bag ever made, and began eating peanuts”. Dang.

This book’s a gem, every step of the way. Please read it.



“The Power of a Paintbrush: The Story of an Escape from the Prison Camp Stalag XXA after World War II”

By Chantal Stehwien and Barbara Stehwien

Published by Landscape Art Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$29.95 ISBN 9-780991-964963


I was familiar with the moving story of German-born artist, pacifist, and prisoner-of-war survivor Fritz Stehwien via the book Fritz Stehwien: A Retrospective. That earlier, softcover title included black and white and colour images of the prolific artist’s work, including landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes. Now Stehwien’s family has collaborated again to release a hardcover that celebrates the man (1914-2008), his art, and his story.

The Power of a Paintbrush: The Story of an Escape from the Prison Camp Stalag XXA after World War II, revisits how Stehwien “relied on his artistry to survive [a] devastating time of war,” and the 30-page book includes a generous selection of high-resolution images of his original art, including oils, watercolours, and both pencil and charcoal sketches.  

“Fritz was always an artist,” and when the Second World War began, he was an art student at the Hamburg Art Academy. “He was drafted and forced to serve in the German army,” his family writes, first in France, then he was sent to the Russian front. Fortunately, his artistic talent was recognized by superiors and he was commissioned “to illustrate news reports to be distributed for propagandist purposes.” His unit leader, General Theodor Scherer, not only kept the gifted soldier off the battlefront, Scherer also oversaw the publication of a book of Stehwien’s documentary drawings, and the artist was moved to Warsaw, “where the Panzerkompanie printing press was located during German occupation”.

Scherer’s respect for Stehwien’s work and the older man’s kindness was the beginning of what would become a fortunate theme: supposed enemies showing compassion during wartime. While in Poland, Stehwien met another stranger—the “dark-haired and very beautiful *Zofia [not her real name],”—who’s a subject of one of his images in this book, and who risked her own safety to help him escape a POW camp.

Stehwien wasn’t the only POW artist at the camp: another young soldier, Wolfgang Niesner, was also there, and the two became lifelong friends. There’s a sketched portrait of Niesner in the book, and, likewise, one of Niesner’s portraits of “Comrade Stehwien,” both dated 1945.

Stehwien was transferred to a “specialist” camp at Ilawa, “where Soviet forces gathered those prisoners who had special skills, ranging from radio technicians to doctors, and indeed, artists”. Stehwien’s artistic prowess and “experience in church and mural painting” soon saw him commissioned to work on “a large-scale public propaganda mural … painted on bedsheets due to the scarcity of conventional materials”. He also created portraits of several prison officials, and this “endeared him to his captors”. When Stehwien became ill, he helped a camp-connected Russian doctor with medical drawings, and in return was given “better food portions”. The artist also put his talent to use by creating portraits of Russian officers.

Do read the book to learn how Stehwien’s art eventually led to his escape from the Stalag and his safe return to Miltern, Germany. His art saved him and he eventually emigrated to Canada, but “the horrors of war-battle” were always with him.