Cedar Bowers' debut novel explores the question of whether we can ever really know others—or ourselves.
WHAT ARE THE STARS TO US? Objects of study to some, objects of admiration to others. For people everywhere they are a place to project our own visions, whether it’s queens from Greek mythology, items like the Big Dipper, or animals like Ochek the fisher, tasked, according to Cree tradition, with bringing summer back to the northern hemisphere. Of course, the stars are also just themselves, separate, mysterious, not wholly knowable to those who look from the outside.
So it is with the title character of Cedar Bowers’ debut novel Astra (McLelland & Stewart).
Writer Cedar Bowers
Astra follows one woman’s life from the time she’s conceived and born on a fictional BC commune to when she meets her own grandchild for the first time, but each chapter presents the point of view of a different person in her life. It is a novel told at once in a line and in loops. Several chapters offer the perspectives of people who have been part of Astra’s story from beginning to end—like her father and one of the women from the commune who cares for her almost like the mother Astra never knew. Others are tangential: a child living in a house across the field, who Astra secretly climbs through the window to play with; a young man who hires her at a Calgary mall; a man she is married to for a time.
With these shifting voices, each chapter is and isn’t about Astra, and so the story we form of her is fractured and filtered. Imagine the jagged and jumbled story that would be assembled by a random collection of people who knew you, some for a long time, some only briefly. Bowers reinforces this idea through Astra’s face, scarred from an incident on the commune when she was a child. A lawyer who hires Astra to help with her son notes: “The line splits her face asymmetrically, like in a Picasso, making it hard to get a complete picture of who she is.”
Part of what makes the book so compelling is the puzzle of trying to come to a sense of her and realizing that imperfect and incomplete knowledge is the best we get of all the characters in this book—and, ultimately, of even the people in our own lives. As one character observes while trying to understand the impact of Astra’s unconventional past: “We only have part of the story.” That’s all any of us ever have.
And so we bring in our own judgment. Is Raymond’s statement “I’m not capable of being anyone’s father” honesty or avoidance? Is his detached parenting of Astra a respectful way to confer freedom? Or is it a lack of responsibility? When adult Astra starts seeing a therapist and stops talking as much to her husband, is that setting boundaries? Or withdrawing? When Astra’s son becomes a father himself and brings his baby to meet Astra for the first time, he thinks “She wasn’t being herself, and he couldn’t make sense of it.” Or perhaps she was just not being the self he thinks he knows and so expects.
In almost every chapter, people change as circumstances change, sometimes by design, sometimes in reactive response to chance events. Bowers offers no sense of judgment, and readers must decide for themselves: does this mean they are strong or weak? Are they being authentic or trying on a kind of pretence? There’s no one way to feel or respond, and the reader becomes implicated as we start to project our own sense of what characters “should” think or do or be. But as the book’s structure constantly underlines, how do we truly know anyone?
Bowers’ past may have informed her interest in playing with what people think they know about one another. Married to novelist Michael Christie and mother to kids aged 12 and 8, Bowers was born and raised in the small community of Galiano Island, which she left at 17. Like Astra, she moved to Calgary to work at a mall. “I wanted something else,” she tells me. “I wanted to be able to become something different. There are themes in Astra similar to this. Who people thought I was wasn’t necessarily who I wanted to be. I didn’t know who I wanted to be, that’s for sure. One thing I worked very hard on as I went along was to make sure that every single person was both very right and very wrong about Astra.”
Meeting Bowers was itself a lesson in recognizing and ditching one’s projections. Her author photos are unsmiling, and on the ferry to our meeting, I worried about whether she’d be as closed as I thought she appeared and if I’d get her to open up. Instead, she bounded out of her car with a wide grin and a ready laugh, and our easy chat over coffee and croissants again made me realize what a reflex it is to make up stories about people based on the littlest bits of information.
Bowers’ book also invites us to wonder, after we’ve turned the last page, about how we present to others. I found myself reflecting on whether, like many of her characters, I adjust my façades or honesty for this person versus that other person. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps it is a form of self-exploration and discovery. One might start to feel like there is, regretfully, never any truly honest intimacy between people. Or, as has been famously said, maybe we are simply large and contain multitudes. Many times during our talk, about many subjects, Bowers was prone to say: “Both are true.”
The idea of relationships marked by change, chance, and distance can seem alienating. For example, when the father of Astra’s child meets his teenage son for the first time, he wonders: “How do you get to know someone you should already know better than anyone in the world?” But it can also be oddly comforting, as it strips off the expectations. In the epilogue—finally told in Astra’s own voice—a reluctant Astra takes responsibility for her aging and cognitively impaired father. When he doesn’t recognize her, she says, “Don’t worry….You’re a stranger to me too.”
Letting go of the need for certainty—“Does anyone get it right?”—also opens the door to having beginnings in the middle or even at the end of one’s story. Some of the book’s most resonant moments are small seeds of growth planted in unassuming lines like “Come on, Dad. Let’s keep going” and “Let’s start again….”
A belief in becoming and starting anew is, in fact, part of how this book came to be at all. Bowers and her husband moved back to Galiano when she was 32, when their life was crazy with jobs and kids and building a cabin on her parents’ property (Bowers and her family now divide their time between Galiano and Victoria). As she tells it, “I thought: ‘maybe what I need to do is try to write’.” She had long wanted to do storytelling of some kind but was hesitant and somewhat insecure, as she hadn’t studied for it or gone to university. “I had no reason to believe I could do it,” she says, “but I realized that I would like to try.”
In her youth, Bowers had a difficult relationship with education, and she had projected a certain story onto herself that for a long time kept her from trying. “I had held myself back,” she explains. “Nobody had ever said ‘You should never write a book.’ I had been taking all these little pieces of information all through my life, and I had decided that was the case for me. I had to decide that wasn’t true anymore. That was a wonderful thing. So I hope there’s no authentic self,” she laughs. “One of the small ways I’m like Astra is she keeps reinventing herself: ‘That didn’t work. What can I try next?’ I did that all my life until I tried this thing. I think it fits a bit better.” While it took nine years from her starting the book to having it published, writing certainly does seem to fit Bowers well, with Astra longlisted for the 2021 Giller Prize.
As we circle Astra through the eyes and stories of ten people in their varying orbits of her, Bowers explores how here on the human plane, the projections we overlay on one another are complicated by factors like honesty and deceit, self-knowledge and self-deception, fear and desire. Whatever any of those really mean at any given time. For what Astra the character and Astra the book both show us is that what we think we know about others or even ourselves is in constant flux as we spin through the space—filled with wonder and junk—of our often ordinary but radiant lives.
You can read Cedar Bowers’ short fiction in Joyland (https://joylandmagazine.com/fiction/getting-out/), Taddle Creek (https://www.taddlecreekmag.com/the-same-cabin) and in the summer 2021 issue of The Malahat Review.
Having quit her job as an editor at the Legislative Assembly, writer Amy Reiswig is enjoying productive self-reinvention finally living full-time on Mayne Island.
Grant Buday’s vivid imagination breathes life into three fascinating historical characters during the early days of colonial BC.
WET FALL DAYS on Mayne Island are a reminder that nature remains ready to reclaim what we’ve built. Fenceposts rot, driveways erode, and awnings threaten to take flight in the wind. With indoor seating lost to COVID, author Grant Buday and I sit under one such sail-prone awning at Mayne’s Farm Gate Store, hands warmed on coffee cups, bodies dry(ish) in our raingear as we attempt a conversation about his novel Orphans of Empire (Touchwood Editions) over the sound of lunch-time pickups pulling out on wet gravel.
The book takes us back to the second half of the 19th-century, when the colony of British Columbia was still being developed, and individuals as well as imperial interests struggled to assert and establish themselves in what to them was a new world of possibility. In the push against limits, whether personal or political, we see that “success” is a matter of perspective—and in the margins hums the philosophical question of whether our human cleverness, enterprising ingenuity, and passion can ever truly protect us against the turn of fortune’s wheel and the larger cycles of time.
History is a record full of holes. Events and players might be recorded—from particular viewpoints with particular agendas—but so much is unknown. That makes it a rich field of play for the imagination of writers fascinated by the human stories buried within the larger narratives, the lives behind the names. For Buday, the names were Colonel Richard Clement Moody, Frisadie, and Henry Fannin—characters he met some six or seven years ago combing through archives while researching the history of New Brighton on the shores of the Burrard Inlet (for what was supposed to be a non-fiction book in New Star’s Transmontanus series). While Buday grew up in in East Burnaby and Coquitlam, he knew the area well—had spent time swimming in the New Brighton pool or walking along the waterfront—and wanted to tell the story of its founding. But he just couldn’t find enough to write a whole book. He also just couldn’t let it go.
Grant Buday, courtesy Touchwood Editions
Moody, Frisadie, and Fannin weren’t at New Brighton in the same years, and so Buday tells their stories in alternating chapters that allow us to see the settlement’s development through different eyes at different times—1858-61, 1865-67, and 1881-86.
By choosing to flesh out the characters’ individual relationships to the site, Buday also widens our vision of what settlement is and means—to a military engineer on orders from Governor Douglas to establish a capital city, to an 18-year-old Hawaiian woman trying to surmount racist stereotypes to carve out a business opportunity as a hotelier, and to a young man entranced with the Laird of New Brighton’s daughter and with the links between life and death in magnetism, taxidermy, and the art of embalming.
Of course, at the edge of their experience is that of the Indigenous people, who, in a telling narrative decision, remain marginalized as the story of development crashes through their land. As Moody and his son sail past a longhouse, watched with curiosity from shore, Moody observes “the grey-black fumes from the ship’s stack roll down-wind as though an infernal factory spewing lost souls.”
“The question is: what do you really want?” Buday explains about what imagination can give us that historical fact can’t. “To me it’s something a bit more wide-ranging. I guess it’s voice.” The book is rich in sensory detail and reconstruction of place, from people with missing eyebrows and grey teeth to dogs panting and chickens blinking underneath the houses to the hardwood of a train’s seat-facing “whose crimson grain suggested the ripples on a pool of stirred blood.”
Above all, though, Buday is a master of getting into the mind and voice of his subjects. “It’s one of the most exciting things I know to do. You start on a given morning and you don't know where you're going to end up an hour later. You try to embody them, to just start going and see where your hand takes you. Little doors and windows open en route. That process of exploration and discovery is the real fun of it all, the excitement. If it doesn’t have that, then it looks to me like you’re just stacking bricks.”
Buday therefore leads us into his main characters’ unique, if imagined, personal depths. “The tips are all there,” Buday tells me, “but everything underneath is an invention.” In that sense, Buday is himself a kind of explorer here, pushing through the edges of the historical record into unknown territory. It’s a role in which he excels. Orphans of Empire was a finalist for both the 2021 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. And among his 12 books are several others inspired by history, including a reimagining of the last ten days of the Trojan War.
With their very different backgrounds and goals, Buday’s three principals in Orphans of Empire are also explorers of a sort. They all must explore their own powers of mind to grapple with the limits imposed upon them by rank, racism, or societal expectation, and they subsequently must push into different kinds of new territory within and without. For instance, after sleeping with her business partner Maxie Michaud, Frisadie feels “as though she’d finally left one Frisadie behind and moved on to inhabit another larger and more significant Frisadie.”
The late 1800s in the colony of British Columbia was a time of expansion, and the characters’ lives play out against a backdrop of empire-building pervaded by a sense of progress. But despite the times being full of movement and propulsion—the locomotive pushing limits across the land and the balloon lifting people upward—each of the main characters is in some way looking backwards. Moody continues to write letters to his dead father. Frisadie brings with her everywhere a carved pineapple that helps her think of home. Fannin puts lodestones in his taxidermy to try and draw the spirits of the dead back to their bodies.
In the end, we see the forward-looking founding of New Brighton rooted in Moody’s backward glance of nostalgic childhood memory. “None were orphans as far as I knew,” Buday tells me, regarding the title’s emphasis. “I just liked the notion that these three disparate individuals were all connected via the British Empire and were all, in their way, lost.”
Implicit in Buday’s use of multiple perspectives is a lesson about how we, as readers, must resist the limits of any narrow, single-focused interpretation of history. For example, on his interest in embalming and taxidermy, Fannin has a disagreement with his lover. “Corpses,” she says, derisively. He counters: “Life.” On a grander scale, Moody looks at the settlement site “with its congealing mud, heaps of brush, and smoking fires” and knew that “what he saw could as easily be called a grim desolation as a glorious beginning.”
In that same moment of reflection, Moody recalls stories about the ghosts of Roman legions tramping through houses in England, going “from nowhere to nowhere,” and the book therefore critiques colonialism here in BC and also offers a larger comment on the folly of human endeavour generally. In a conversation between Moody and Governor James Douglas, Buday touches on the destructive power of the progress of time itself: “’But peoples rise and fall and are lost to time and dust,’ added Douglas. ‘Another terrible truth, but a truth nonetheless.’ Moody observed a suitable sobriety and parsed the statement: people plus time equals dust.”
For all our human drive to self-determination, there is the constraint of circumstance and the constant turn of fortune’s wheel that now lifts up, now brings down. New Brighton itself starts to be overtaken in importance by nearby Granville, and though the resilient Frisadie whispers the mantra of “One, two, three, you are free; four, five, six, beware of tricks; seven, eight, nine, this life is mine,” it both is and isn’t true. “Change,” Maxie would later tell her: “It is the way of the world.”
If change is the way of the world, so is connection, as these characters’ lives intersect and weave together over the course of the book. With its luxurious descriptions, incisive and sensitive character creation, and plain ol’ delightful play with and in language, Orphans of Empire will transport you out of whatever wet and windy day you might be having. But it also, and importantly, enlarges history by turning a lens on the diverse individuals who lived and were lost inside the ‘bigger’ stories. It feels like a bit of a jailbreak, as he busts Moody, Frisadie, Fannin and others—like James and Amelia Douglas, Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, and American agent provocateur Ned McGowan—out of the archival confines and into our living rooms, bedrooms, cafes, and libraries for a time. In so doing, Buday’s book reminds us that as the cycle rolls on around us, we’re each playing our part in history right now and are all part of each other’s stories.
Buday’s other novels include White Lung (1999, Finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Prize), A Sack of Teeth (2002), Rootbound (2006), Dragonflies (2008) The Delusionist (2014, finalist for the City of Victoria Book Prize and Kobzar Literary Award), and Atomic Road (2018). He has also published the travel memoir Golden Goa as well as a short, sharp chronicle of his move to and impressions of Mayne Island called Stranger on a Strange Island.
Amy Reiswig is a writer and editor living on that same small, strange island.
The wisdom of Xenaksiala elder, residential school survivor, and Kitlope activist Wa’xaid provides a valuable, timely example of the magic that can happen when we all pull together.
THIS IS A SUMMER with some things to celebrate and much to mourn. As COVID restrictions ease, people are giving their first hugs in over a year, coming back into relationship with those who matter and who’ve been missed. But there is no ease for the heartache of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation finding 215 children buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, then Cowessess First Nation identifying 751 unmarked graves near Saskatchewan’s Marieval Indian Residential School, now the community of ʔaq'am, part of the Ktunaxa Nation, identifying 182 shallow, unmarked graves near the former St Eugene’s Mission School. And we know there are many more discoveries to come. It’s a somber time.
Part of honouring those lost lives—and the survivors and subsequent generations who are suffering still—is that we each do our part to do better. That includes listening and learning. In Following the Good River: The Life and Times of Wa’xaid (Rocky Mountain Books, 2020), Salt Spring Island author and educator Briony Penn brings us into relation with Wa’xaid, Cecil Paul, a Xenaksiala elder, residential school survivor, activist and leader.
Cecil Paul/Wa’xaid (photo by Callum Gunn)
Perhaps best known for his successful fight to save the Kitlope (earning the title “hero of the planet”), Penn shows that Wa’xaid’s impact goes much deeper, reaches farther than big media stories. This collaborative project of sharing his life, his teachings, and his heart provides a valuable and timely example of how people from all backgrounds are able to pull together against even the strongest currents—and what magic can happen when we do.
ON THE CENTRAL COAST OF BC, tucked within a network of fjords, channels and inlets, is a river that brings you to lake of blue, milky, glacial water surrounded by steep mountains. It is watched over by T’ismista, the Man Who Turned to Stone, now silently exemplifying the importance of listening to your elders. Through one lens, Kitlope Lake is Ka’ous, a Xenaksiala word translated loosely as “cathedral,” a spiritual place. Through another, it is part of a 322,020-hectare conservancy, the largest unlogged temperate rainforest in the world protected for future generations. Through yet another, it is central to the story of a successful stand against industry—which had its own extractive lens on the Kitlope—that brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples from around the world. Scientists, environmentalists, philanthropists, celebrities, media, even industry big-wigs eventually got into what Paul called the Magic Canoe and worked for protection of the land and water, so transformative was the Kitlope on its visitors.
The Kitlope (photo by Alex Harris)
But as we see through Wa’xaid’s eyes, this place is also home: a site of family memories, cultural wisdom, and personal healing. It is along the river that he was hidden by his grandparents before being taken away to the Alberni residential school at age 10½, and the Kitlope is where he returned after decades in the grip of alcohol and was able to reconnect to his people’s knowledge, to the voice of his granny, to new peace and, eventually, a new purpose.
“When we get to the Kitlope,” he would tell folks he brought up the river, “I'm going to ask you to wash your eyes. Our story says that though you may have 20/20 vision or glasses that improve your vision, we are still blind to lots of things. We are blind to Mother Earth. When you bathe your eyes in the artery of Mother Earth that is so pure, it will improve your vision to see things. I will also ask you to wash your ears so you could hear what goes on around you.”
Many of us will never visit those waters, but thanks to the friendship that made this book possible—a friendship nurtured by the Kitlope—we have the opportunity to wash our eyes and ears in the words of Wa’xaid, the man whose name means “Good River.”
This is not a typical biography that takes you through someone’s life from the outside in a linear journey. Rather, through her recording and transcription of Wa’xaid’s stories in his own words, detailed historical research, intimate interviews and even entries from her own diary spanning their 25-year friendship, Penn creates a book in partnership with Paul that is multi-directional, following the stories as they flow into and out of one another. It means parking your preconceptions and your expectations as you, too, get into the Magic Canoe. No matter how much you might want to know what happens at a particular spot, the playful recurring refrain is: “That story comes a little later.”
“We talked about it all the time, what this book was going to be,” Penn explains as we chat Gulf Island to Gulf Island via the magic of Zoom. “This is an Elder-led book. His story always leads.” And then she goes from there, paddling up winding tributaries into pool after pool of historical, personal, scientific, and legislative information so that we get a larger picture of the whole landscape. You can’t tell the story of a river without understanding what feeds into it, what swirls within and becomes part of it.
Penn is no stranger to the intricate demands of biography. Her 2015 book The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the inaugural Mack Laing Literary Prize. Of her painstaking efforts in this new endeavour, Penn says, “I wanted to convey the process of doing the research, wanted people to understand that in every one of these archives and in every one of these trips, there was this context that adds to your understanding.” And it was also part of how Paul wanted the book to unfurl. “It reflects his belief that for readers who come from a written tradition, it’s an added security and comfort to them to have the explanation and the context and the written historical references to back up what these stories are meaning—whatever it takes to get people to understand.”
And there is much to understand in a life that reaches as far back into history, through a culture whose stories touch the period of glaciation, and as far forward into our shared future and hope of survival as Cecil Paul’s. The book therefore takes us through the complexities of lineage, language, and territories, and also of wounds, wonders, obstacles and surprising alliances. To grasp his teaching, we need to look at both the chaos of cultural and personal destruction and the almost impossible, beautiful synchronicities that happen along the way.
Sometimes the flow can get a bit bogged down in the side eddy of a particular detail, but the book’s non-linear structure forces you to ask yourself: how much are you willing to be a passenger in the canoe wherever it needs to go? As you read, your continually washed eyes and ears come to notice how her style itself conveys part of Paul’s core message—about collaboration, the importance of patience and a relational versus transactional approach to the world. Penn tells me about how the twin processes of travelling with Paul and delving into records informed her experience of “becoming better educated about our colonial role, your role as a settler ally—but more as a friend. What does friendship actually mean? When you have a transactional relationship with everything, to suddenly be in a relational culture…. That was huge for me.”
One of the gentle undercurrents in the book is, therefore, the story of their friendship, rooted in their shared love for and activism to protect the natural world. Residential school did not teach Wa’xaid to read or write, so Penn had to sometimes act as his guide when reviewing things like historical census papers. She writes: “I read out the document to Cecil as he lies in his bed. When I read, he always closes his eyes and listens: ‘Nos’ta’ (I am listening).” Before his death in December 2020, Paul and his younger sister Louisa were two of the last four fluent speakers of Xenaksiala, and Louisa provided the phonetics and written forms for the book. In a diary entry from 2017, Penn details the scene: “I sit by the kitchen table listening to the two of them speak together. It is like hearing the river moving gently over the stones.” As important as the big events and activism are to Cecil Paul’s life and legacy, these moments of intimacy also shine as examples of the true exchange that becomes possible when people listen closely and openly to one another.
“The beauty of it for me was that the very first words out of his mouth were always welcoming—and watching the power of that to open up people’s hearts and be receptive to what he was about to say,” Penn explains. “I had not fundamentally understood that idea until I watched it, and I could feel it in myself.” Like the Kitlope itself, Wa’xaid had a transformative effect on those who had the privilege to know him.
Sometimes, as we fight what feels like the same battles over and over—another war in the woods over old-growth at Fairy Creek bringing echoes of the fight for the Walbran and the Kitlope—it seems like nothing gets accomplished despite the struggle. But this book shows that sometimes the pressure and passion works. The key, in Wa’xaid’s view and life, is the welcoming and the listening. We see it in the story of saving the Kitlope, as well as in the inspiring story of Cecil’s fight for the return from Sweden of the G’psgolox pole, the first totem pole voluntarily repatriated by a foreign museum to a First Nations community—though the fight for it took 15 years.
Wa’xaid with G’psgolox pole (photo by Kevin Smith)
And we see many other doors that were opened. Some are big doors, like the court settlement with Eurocan involving $30 million to clean up their contamination of the Kitimat River, the ban on trophy hunting in the Kitlope, and Alcan’s building of a breakwater that helped save the burial ground at Kemano from being washed away by industrial impacts. Others are more personal, like Wa’xaid finding his daughter who had been adopted out or the moment he overcame the hatred planted in him at residential school. As he describes it: “One day I’m working—I’m sober maybe eight years—and a guy came up to me. He said, ‘How you stop drinkin, Indian?’ I said, ‘If you wanna stop, I’ll take you to a place that helps us.’ He says, ‘I wanna try.’ ‘Okay. I’ll pick you up tomorrow.’ As Virgil walked away, every bit of my life was Virgil. He was shakin’ this way, snot almost down to his knees, staggering. Walked away, and in my mouth, he says, ‘Brother, I love you. You walk in my moccasins. I love you, my brother.’ Virgil was a white man, and he come and ask an Indian ‘How’d ya stop?’ Virgil broke my hatred of the white man. I don’t hate. It was the system, not the people. That’s what I needed to learn, how to forgive the white man. To trust how to come back.”
“That was always Cecil’s message,” Penn tells me. “That we have so much that we actually can reach back and find that we have in common. We just have to look in the right places.” Wa’xaid lost so much in his life. His father and grandfather were gone when he got out of residential school at 14. He lost connection to the teachings of his Elders and his sobriety for 30 years. He lost several of his own children. And he watched the riches of his land, like the oolican runs, disappear. But as he reconnected to his culture, regained his sobriety, even reuniting with the daughter that had been taken by the ministry, he found and built strength—for himself and others—through a relational worldview and an understanding of how much our collective survival, down to the toadlets he called “brother,” depends on it.
“Cecil was capable of going up to a level 30,000 feet flying above the Earth and understanding cycles, ecological cycles, cultural cycles, human cycles of behaviour,” Penn says, with great admiration and affection. “His desire to have the book written was he knew that humanity was going to be facing extraordinary problems. Reaching back in his culture, there’s the long view there. We don’t really have that long-term view. If you don’t understand the relational nature of humans, not only to each other but to the ecosystem, we’re just not going to get it. And the teaching from his culture is everyone’s got to get in the canoe and cooperate.” That is a message so desperately needed whether for working to protect the environment or for developing our relationships, as settlers are everyday brought into closer relation with the pain of Indigenous communities. We are the ones who need to make the effort to get into the canoe and pull hard towards understanding, humility, empathy, and reconciliation.
Briony Penn and Wa’xaid (photo by Callum Gunn)
As I write on July 1, 2021, it is not a day for noisy celebration but for quiet reflection, with eyes and ears washed in the words of the Good River. “We are so busy, we don’t have the time for all these beautiful things,” Wa’xaid explains to those willing to come along with him. “If you have the willingness and courage to do that, you will see little things that you have never seen before. You will take a better look at your children, your grandchildren, your best friend. You will say, ‘Oh, I never saw that before.’ To get that vision back—and when you get that back—you will be more kind to whoever comes in your path on this journey.”
Besides the book Following the Good River, you can read more of Cecil Paul’s stories and reflections in his own words, as told to Penn and others, in Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa’xaid (RMB, 2019)
Amy Reiswig is a Mayne Island-based writer.
The forest scientist takes us deep into the forest to learn its many startling and wise lessons.
IF YOU COULD HOP IN A TIME MACHINE and find yourself in the orchard with Sir Isaac Newton, watching that apple drop, would you go? Billionaires can dream, but the beauty of books is that we can share the journey of scientists making great discoveries while they happen.
Forest scientist Dr Suzanne Simard (photograph by Brendan Ko)
Suzanne Simard’s Finding The Mother Tree tells the story of her discovery of how trees talk to each other.
Trees also communicate with other species, in chat rooms connected by another biological kingdom—fungi. And trees don’t just talk, they share resources. When young trees are having a rough time getting started in life, their parent trees send them a little carbon to help out.
Anyone with a child in university knows about this.
It gets even wilder. Simard found that trees thought to compete with each other, actually cooperate, sharing water during summer droughts. All of this is contrary to the forestry textbooks she was given.
How did she make this breakthrough?
Simard invites us to share her journey with a storytelling approach, letting us inside her life from her country childhood in a family of hand loggers in the Monashee Mountains of BC, through her school and career in forestry science, raising her own family, her battle with breast cancer helped by paclitaxel (first discovered in Yew trees), to her decision to create The Mother Tree Project.
I call her approach the “Pollination Model” of science writing. Simard’s book is a flower, and we pick up her ideas and knowledge like pollen on our “bee legs,” as we walk through, sipping narrative nectar. (Hollywood’s Amy Adams likes the book too—she plans to turn it into a feature film.)
It makes for great reading, but the stories help the ideas stick better. Once you have become attached to “Suzie” as a rambunctious young outdoor dreamer, you can’t help but smile as she comes out with lines like: “I picked paper birch as my test species, because I knew from childhood that it made rich humus, that should be as helpful to conifers, as it had been delicious in my dirt-eating days.”
Young ecology students will come out of the book knowing the difference between arbuscular and ecto mycorrhiza. The rest of us will have proof of what writers from Tolkien to Mary Oliver have been telling us all along.
That trees are our family.
Reading Dr Simard’s book is like perching on the shoulder of Sherlock Holmes while he unravels a case. You can see the scientific mind at work. By page 20 I felt like I’d signed up as a cabin boy on the HMS Beagle, off to the Galapagos in 1831, and lucked out by getting Charles Darwin as a roommate.
Suzanne Simard and Charles Darwin have a lot in common. They are pure scientists. They get inside their subject. They open themselves to nature, and then think about it. As Darwin observed how the finches evolved on their separate islands, Simard observed how Douglas fir and birch trees grew stronger by sharing information and carbon resources.
Both saw far beyond the limited world view of their day. Both are paradigm shifters.
Darwin was told that evolution couldn’t be possible, because it threatened the Church, who had locked themselves into a dogma of “creation” happening only 4,000 years before. Simard’s discoveries have threatened our State, who have locked themselves into a dogma that the only way to get jobs out of a forest is to clearcut them.
Belief that forests are just resources to be exploited is the primitive, dangerous dogma of our day.
Anticipating the coming storm, Darwin hesitated to publish. Not realizing that trees sending each other biochemical texts about insects would cause a fuss, Simard published. Both were attacked by traditionalist academics and policy makers.
Ironically, Simard’s ideas got dragged into a debate between two factions of today’s evolutionary scientists, the “competitionists” and “cooperationists,” who are bitterly divided over which is the dominant survival strategy. Does everything need a dominant factor? Like the split between Republicans and Democrats, this either/or, Us and Them, winner-take-all argument itself is now threatening our survival.
Simard’s findings build a compelling case that cooperation and competition are complementary evolutionary strategies, woven into a resilient tapestry of life. Ecosystems are full of complex, “give and take” relationships.
Scientists call these “reciprocal relationships.” (Remember that phrase. It’s on the test).
Simard’s cancer doctor told her as a survival tip: “We are defined by our relationships.” For humans to survive, we need to learn to maintain reciprocal relationships. The best way to visualize this is to start treating our planet as family.
When Darwin’s scientific discovery raised the implication that all life was extended family, the public freaked out, saying “We’re not monkeys.” One hundred years later, Jane Goodall proved that chimpanzees made tools, have personalities, and loved their children. Her PhD advisors insisted she refer to “David Greybeard” by a number. She refused, and brought chimps into our hearts, helping us connect with the animal kingdom.
By helping us connect with mycelia and trees, Simard has taken us a step further, bringing two more entire biological kingdoms, of plants and fungi, into the house. Now we have the whole picture. Forests are not just stands of unsliced 2x4s with bark on them, they are an infinite universe of plants, fungi and animals.
They have a right to life. And liberty. And the pursuit of happiness.
Consider the forests of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin. Since 1890, they have supported their community by harvesting and selling billions of board feet of lumber. They only cut the extra wood that grows annually. They “live off the interest.” They don’t sell raw logs, they own the mills, they have safe, secure jobs. They just declared their river to be a person. Although they have always thought of it as having inherent value and rights, the threat posed by a nearby mine opening prompted the tribal legislature to adopt the resolution.
Simard’s Mother Tree Project, which draws from traditional Indigenous forest science, is developing a blueprint, in nine watersheds across BC, for reciprocal relationships between forests and humans. Her harvesting plan provides more and safer jobs than clearcutting, and does not reduce annual carbon and biomass.
The BC government should have started this research 100 years ago, when Simard’s grandfathers were plucking single trees out of the forest and rafting them down the river for collection.
Instead, they throttled up industrial clearcutting.
By the time Simard had grown up and got her first forestry job with a logging company, the industry was so locked into practices based on the competition model, such as intensive brush clearing, that she could see her questions about cooperation being key to survival had no future.
“If I discovered more evidence, pushed in this direction, I’d have to convince the company to change everything. That didn’t seem likely, given that I couldn’t even persuade my boss to plant a mix of species in the new clear-cuts at Boulder Creek,” she writes.
Even after she became faculty at UBC, the BC Forest Service made her prove that their faulty brush clearing policies were wrong, instead of having her design them properly before they started. Today, John Horgan’s government is still ignoring her work, giving the last one percent of old growth away to corporations for peanuts, and throwing citizens who beg to differ in jail down at Fairy Creek.
Fairy Creek valley, with clear cuts surrounding it
Undeterred, the Mother Tree Project is quietly putting the solution on a plate for us.
As long as we ask with respect, and don’t take more than the forest offers, our generous forest family will give us all the wood and jobs we need. It will give us cures for cancer, oxygen to breathe, carbon sequestration, and solace from our busy urban lives.
Most of all, if we learn to treat the elders of our family with respect (and trees, moss and fungi are very much our evolutionary elders) we can find a sense of belonging.
By making peace with forests, we can heal our souls. As Simard says: “This is not a book about how we can save the trees. This is a book about how the trees might save us.”
The 2019 UN Report on Biodiversity reports that humans are causing the extinction of 10,000 species a year, and states that in the next 100 years “organized human existence will become untenable.” I guess that is how international diplomats say “Zombie Apocalypse.”
Simard is offering us a way out of that scenario. I think her book could be particularly valuable to university and college students. My daughter texted me last year from her oceanography class, and said: “Dad, 40 percent of the students in class today are crying, because we can’t handle the information we are being given about the destruction of our oceans.”
As a Father Tree, what nutrients can I send her? How does she manage to keep moving forward?
Simard hopes that reading about her successful struggles through government and academic inertia will help give students and other marginalized populations such as Indigenous youth, “permission to hold on to their innate understanding,” and to get out in nature and find their own path.
Like Ms Frizzle of Magic Schoolbus fame used to say: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”
Simard deliberately included the messy bits of her journey in her book, because she believes that science should be just like art, music, love or any human act.
While much of the science in Simard’s book is about how trees connect with each other, the book itself is an invitation for the reader to go out and find the nearest mother tree and say hello.
“Hi mom. Um, sorry I haven’t called enough.” That’s ok. She loves us anyways. God knows why. But mothers are like that.
A grove with mother tree at Wildwood EcoForestry Institute near Ladysmith (photograph by Ben Barclay)
For readers on Vancouver Island, you can find such a mother tree in a grove at Wildwood EcoForestry Institute, near Ladysmith. When Merv Wilkinson cut the small tree at right (in the photo above), the bigger grandmother tree beside it sent nutrients out to place a woody cap on the stump, to protect the family from invasive insects. When you place your hand on that cap, chills will go up your spine. You can hear the trees talking. You can look around at a forest that freely gave a million board feet of lumber in Merv’s lifetime, and still has groves of 500-year-old Douglas fir linked by their ectomycorrhiza, and Cedar linked by their arbuscular mycorrhiza.
Fairy Creek area mother tree (photograph by TJ Watt)
You can also go visit a mother tree in the Fairy Creek valley, one of the last intact old growth watersheds in BC, only a few hours out of Victoria.
But you’d better hurry, because it will be cut down and chucked onto the back of a logging truck in the next few weeks, once the protesters are cleared from protecting it. If the RCMP try and stop you, at least now you have the science on your side to say: “I’m visiting family, officer. My mother is dying, and I want to say goodbye before she’s gone.”
Ben Barclay has run social enterprises and guided non-profits promoting sustainable forestry for 40 years.
Scientist and activist Lynne Quarmby’s new book takes us on a voyage of discovery, with lessons from microbes along with deep reflection on science, art, the power of stories, and grief.
SINCE THE BEGINNING OF NOVEMBER, Watermelon Snow: Science, Art, and a Lone Polar Bear, written by scientist, educator, and environmental activist Lynne Quarmby, has migrated from its launch on Gabriola Island to the New Yorker’s Climate Crisis Newsletter moderated by world-renowned climate activist Bill McKibben. It’s no surprise that Quarmby’s paean to the high Arctic and its breath-taking beauty and heartbreaking climate-induced losses has caught the attention of global leaders in climate action. The book takes its readers on a compelling journey.
Scientist and author Lynne Quarmby
The author’s quest begins in June 2017, an ideal time to spend 15 days in the high Arctic, on the tall ship Antigua with 28 artists, one other scientist, 12 crew members, and one dog. Quarmby will be looking for watermelon snow, or more specifically the microscopic red algae that turn snowfields pinky-red, increases the rate of snow-melt, and may amplify global warming. All of the participants are interested in global and current issues, but no one is as impassioned as Quarmby on the topic of climate change.
Watermelon Snow takes us from Quarmby’s home in the Salish Sea to her laboratory at Simon Fraser University where she is a professor of molecular biology, to the Svalbard archipelago, where scientific research is done in attempts to understand the ecology of the Arctic before it is forever altered. It is here that the Global Seed Vault exists, in Longyearbyen, the Earth’s northernmost settlement, and here that this priceless resource was flooded due to melting permafrost in 2017.
Quarmby moves effortlessly between evocative descriptions of her sojourn in the Svalbard archipelago, her microbiology lab at SFU, her political engagement, and the existential anxiety about environmental crises that numbs most of us into states of inaction. Chapters in the book alternate between the Arctic Expedition and what I think of as “life back in the temperate zone,” where science is in the lab and politics are on the front line.
Watermelon Snow gives its readers a greater understanding not just about the science and politics of global warming, but also of someone who has spent most of her adult life exhausting all efforts in attempts to lessen the human impact on climate change. But the cost of this work is a reminder that even while watching enormous ice shelves thunder into the sea, and a starving polar bear search for food, desperation will not accomplish the most important task we have right now on planet Earth.
In her recent interview with Bill McKibben, Quarmby describes her grief about global warming, and learning how to extricate herself from its effects: “I have direct experience with unproductive despair. After several years of climate activism driven by fear, panic, and anger—two arrests for protesting, being sued [for $5.6 million] by a pipeline giant [Kinder Morgan], and a run for a seat in Parliament...I was suffering from a failure to grieve—a failure to acknowledge that, for many things I love, it is too late. By slowly opening myself to grief, I began to find some peace. The question became: how to live in the world with this knowledge? For me, it means engaging with others on issues that matter. I work on letting go of the old life—a fossil fuel-driven world—and embracing a vision of a better future. I sit with the grief, vigorously defend the truth, and engage in politics.”
These commitments are my idea of a wise leader, never mind a compelling author, and I have wondered whether Quarmby’s passion and unwavering moral stance could have improved the tenor and direction of Parliament had she won in 2015 as a Green Party candidate for the federal riding of Burnaby North-Seymour. But many of her political efforts were sabotaged by people outside the Party who were not willing to share leadership, and more particularly unwilling to deconstruct concentrations of wealth and power that are beholden to fossil-fuel industries.
The scientific parts of Watermelon Snow are completely accessible for readers with non-scientific backgrounds, because Quarmby makes them so, and because they are essential to the other main theme of the book, which is stories: how we make and use them, and why we need them, now more than ever.
Quarmby is a well-respected scientist and yet she knows that the stories we live by determine our actions more than the scientific knowledge by which we come to understand the bits and pieces of life. She reveres and quotes master storyteller Thomas King, who asks, “Did we just start out with the wrong story?”
Maybe we did, when the scientific examination and parsing of living things into measurable quantities left too many “what ifs” in the dust. No one would understand this better than a molecular biologist like Quarmby, who understands perfectly the intricate relationships between cellular beings and activities, yet knows deep within her soul that applied science has taken us to a level of planetary destruction many of us are afraid to contemplate, straight into the Anthropocene, in fact.
In the chapter “On Why Stories Matter,” Quarmby explains how we can get on the wrong track with stories that define our existence and place in the world. She observes that “Even as natural selection and evolution slowly assumed cultural sway (in most of the world), bolstered by countless scientific studies, refinements, and fresh examples, Darwin’s ideas were twisted by some into a defense of power and dominance that preserved the hierarchical worldview of Genesis. But natural selection and evolution are not in any way linked to that particular origin myth. ‘Survival of the fittest’ provides only a narrow view of our origins. Life is not a zero-sum game. Mutualisms emerge and life expands into previously unavailable niches. The natural world is replete with cooperation and sometimes harmony.”
In his inspiring book The Power of Stories, Horst Kornberger (another master storyteller) writes, “We are made miserable by tales that condemn us to be cogs in a universal machine and pained by a world driven by the competition of everyone against everyone else.” Which begs my own question of whether we too often condemn ourselves to the rigid, limited solutions of technology that preclude or obviate longer and more expansive stories of how we are connected to the living world.
As a microbiologist Quarmby reminds us in wondrous ways that we really are all connected to different life forms, from bacteria to complex organisms, and that pure science asks many questions of us, but also has marvelous answers, if only we take the time and curiosity to ponder these connections. For example, human vision and olfaction use modified versions of the molecular components that the bacterium E. coli uses to sense food and toxins in its environment. But research funding in universities is not without biases and strings—more money goes to faculties that are linked to global corporations than to schools of inquiry connected to the wonders of natural science and its creative possibilities.
Quarmby’s shipmates on the Antigua are mostly artists, and their presence provides interesting company, ideas, and sometimes tension in Watermelon Snow. The effects of climate change are never far from any of the participants’ minds, and their projects and discussions range from bizarre geo-engineering ideas to political solutions that require radical changes in life style and deep soul-searching for Quarmby and some of her fellow voyagers.
The disastrous results of human hubris (have we all forgotten the lessons in those Greek myths?) are brought to light; so are the hard questions that ask why we refuse to change political course even when faced with deadly climate events.
The artists onboard the Antigua inspire curiosity and contemplation of what it means to be an artist; also for Quarmby an understanding of how artists and scientists are alike: “It occurs to me that the risks involved in experimenting with unusual and provocative shifts are akin to the risks at the leading edges of science. Recalling the intuition I developed as a cell biologist, I appreciate the years of study that underlie the artists’ sense of which risks might be worth taking. Something else that art and science have in common: not everything we do succeeds.”
And then, a kind of epiphany at the wonder and beauty of her fellow travellers in their Arctic realm: “Under the bluest sky imaginable, the water is sparkling to out-sparkle any water anywhere [and] our strange gang of humble gods is each, in their way, seeking meaning. I am awash with that most esteemed religious experience, love.”
When it’s Quarmby’s turn to make a presentation of her work to the Antigua’s crew and passengers, she asks herself, “What does a gang of strange gods need to know about global warming and climate change?” She pares it down to the most essential data, explaining the greenhouse effect, the Keeling curve, and the reverberative, exponential aspects of global warming. And then, “The room is quiet. I see tears in the eyes of an artist near the front and wonder whether I should stop here.”
But she continues, and ends with these thoughts: “In my heart, I know I’ve missed something important. I think of my own burnout and depression, and I realize, in failing to address the emotional impacts of the science, I have failed in the deepest way.”
Quarmby does not fail in this way with Watermelon Snow; at the inaugural book launch on Gabriola Island, fellow scientist and climate activist Steven Earle commented, “Lynne has hit the nail on the head with this book, because while climate change is full of cold hard science, some of it a real struggle to get your head around, in writing about it one must appeal to the hearts as well as the minds of the readers.”
Journalist Melissa Gismondi describes in a November 2020 Walrus magazine article how climate grief for some people begets a “homesickness” called solastalgia. She writes, “Solastalgia is about grief and mourning and sadness and anguish, but if people are grieving it’s coming from a place of love, and that’s coming from a commitment to the natural world and the environment around us.”
Watermelon Snow is that kind of commitment; it is also a literary and scientific tour de force, right from the incantatory opening poem by Mary Oliver (The Uses of Sorrow) to the final words, “I keep on, embracing the responsibility of being human at this singular moment in the history of the Earth.”
Susan Yates has been working on environmental and social issues for four decades, inspired by her community and writers like Lynne Quarmby.
The essays in this book from the Royal BC Museum recall the history of human-orca relations and lay the groundwork for what that relationship could look like in the future.
AS THE COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift in BC, people are starting to emerge from their homes with gratitude—and some new awareness. Many of us have discovered how painful forced isolation can be, realizing the importance of communication and something as simple and precious as touch. We are social beings, and this heightened awareness of how essential connectivity is to well-being provides an opportunity to consider how we view and respond to that same need in the other social beings with whom we share the planet.
The Royal BC Museum’s new book Spirits of the Coast: Orcas in Science, Art and History (May 2020) brings us into intimate relationship with Orcinus orca—the species more commonly called killer whale. The book’s variety of perspectives all teach us not only about this iconic, beautiful, threatened animal but about ourselves. In that sense, the book takes a deep dive into two worlds and points to the many ways they are intertwined. Reading through the collection, which includes Indigenous oral histories, academic essays, cultural analysis, scientific data, personal anecdote, poems, paintings, and much more, we see that the kind of connectivity that comes through learning and expanded understanding, a broadened mind and opened heart, is essential for the orcas’ survival, and possibly ours.
Conceived as the companion to the museum’s COVID-interrupted 2020 feature exhibit Orcas: Our Shared Future, the book benefits from the editorial oversight—and insight—of former RBCM curator of Indigenous collections Martha Black, curator of history Lorne Hammond, curator of vertebrate zoology Gavin Hanke, and academic/Indigenous media-maker and decolonial curriculum advisor Nikki Sanchez. They are a powerful team, bringing their own unique backgrounds and approaches, and together compiling a multitude of passionate voices and artistic visions united around a love of orcas.
In fact, in her introduction, that’s how Sanchez describes the goal of this project: “an invitation to fall in love, in awe, with these incredible marine mammals, so that we can come together to protect them.”
But it’s difficult to truly fall in love from a distance. So how can we come into connection? In his chapter, former marine mammal trainer-turned-activist Steve Huxter speaks, I’m sure, for many when he writes: “I was ambivalent about marine mammals. I knew they were out there, but the chances of encountering one were low, so I wasn’t curious and didn’t much care as long as they didn’t try to eat me.” Until he met them.
Thankfully, since Canada passed its anti-whale-captivity legislation last year, in June 2019, our chances to meet orcas that up-close are gone. Whales are no longer brought to us to gawk at or study in tanks. And so we must make the effort to meet them another way. We must actively seek, listen, learn. Often, as this book shows so clearly, we must unlearn.
Wrapped in the gorgeous cover art of Andy Everson and inside jacket art of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Spirits of the Coast explores the shades and contrasts of the ways we have so far come to know orcas. Divided into three sections—Connection, Captivity, Consciousness—we see how these intelligent animals have been honoured, celebrated, and considered as kin, protectors, and teachers by Indigenous cultures. We are reminded of the way orcas have been feared, hated, and even hunted as pests and competition for resources in the settler worldview—until it was discovered they could be commercialized in shows, on record albums, and in film. (Fun fact: Bo Derek got her 1977 film debut having her leg bitten off by a vengeful orca.) And we are invited into the scientific world and how these animals have been studied through captive programs, non-invasive field studies, skeleton reconstruction, and molecular genetics. Thankfully, practices have evolved as awareness evolved.
That’s one of the hopeful themes running through the various sections and often even the individual pieces of the book: how connection can lead to, and has led to, real change in our perspectives and actions.
At the time of the book’s writing, the Southern Resident population is down to an unhopeful 73. We need to remain alert and alive to the threats to the orcas’ well-being, such as underwater noise, marine traffic, pollution, climate change, declining food stocks, all of which result in sick and malnourished whales, deaths, and declining birth rates. But a book like this takes those often-quoted statistics and gives us closer contact with what they mean to the orcas. For instance, we learn not just that underwater noise has increased by three decibels every 10 years since the 1950s, but exactly how that noise disrupts an orca’s ability to use echolocation to bounce sound off something as specific as a chinook’s swim bladder.
We can only overcome what Ken Balcomb calls “our inability to self-regulate” if we truly understand the consequences of what we are doing not to some vaguely conceived of creature “out there,” but to other beings who also learn and grieve and love—like Moby Doll, Luna, Granny, and Talequah. Talequah in 2018 carried her dead calf for 17 days in a display of heartbreaking sadness and, one might say, accusation.
Really, this book is not just recalling the history of relationship between humans and orcas but is laying the groundwork for deciding, each of us, what that relationship could look like in the future. At a time of discussion around how we make and can unmake our social structures and attitudes, the invitation to fall in love comes with a point as sharp as any harpoon of the past: “Ensuring the survival of these whales in the Salish Sea isn’t about managing the ocean, it’s about managing humans.”
June is Orca Action Month, and one action you can take is to turn toward a new connectivity by turning the pages of this beautiful book. Through it you can visit the underwater world of the maxinuxw and hear from Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cook, k’alapa, about how the orcas taught humans about unity and governance. Go tankside in the 1960s and watch captives Skana and Hyak teach neuroscientist Paul Spong about orca resistance and a love of music. Attend to the dead body of Rhapsody (J32), and her unborn fetus with Gavin Hanke, and lament with him that her muscles and internal organs had to be disposed of as toxic waste. With quiet awe, ride in a fog-shrouded skiff with ‘Cúagilákv Jess Housty of the Haíɫzaqv Nation while a pod of curious orcas surrounds the boat, breaching “with the elegance of a salmon and the enormous power of rolling thunder” while their vocal communication vibrates up into your bones.
Despite dangers and dire warnings, the inspiration this collection passed to me can be summed up in Housty’s reflection on her own orca learnings, through direct encounters and ancestral teachings: “what resonates in my body, like whale song rising up through the hull of my father’s skiff, is the belief that community building is the most important work before us.” And that must go beyond our shore’s edge. “The planet needs us to be connected. The ocean needs us to be connected. The orcas need us to be connected. And through that sense of deep connection, we can build the trust that will help us bring the fullest of our capacity, creativity and compassion to addressing the complex and systemic challenges our world faces today.”
Writer and musician Amy Reiswig works by day (and sometimes into the night) as an editor for the provincial government. Besides her Focus column, her writing has appeared in Quill & Quire, The Malahat Review and The Walrus.
June 17, 2020
Forty-five years ago, Barrie Gilbert had a part of his face ripped off by a female Grizzly bear. Yet he has spent his life devoted to undoing the demonizing of this complex, highly intelligent creature. Warning: graphic, bone-crunching description ahead.
Female grizzly feeding cubs at Glendale Cove on the B.C. mainland about 35 kilometres north of Sayward where there have recently been numerous grizzly sightings. Photo by Shea Wyatt, courtesy Barrie Gilbert.
ALMOST 45 YEARS AGO, not long after sunrise dappled the remote ridge they were climbing in Montana’s Rocky Mountains near the borders of Idaho and Wyoming, a Canadian wildlife biologist and his graduate student emerged from the stunted tree line on a cold, windswept height three kilometres above sea level.
This was Bighorn Pass. For sake of comparison, that’s almost twice the altitude of Mount Arrowsmith, the craggy, snow-clad peak that so dramatically dominates the skyline above the pass separating Nanaimo from Port Alberni.
The two men were there to observe and study how grizzly bears responded to back country hikers and mounted outfitters with pack trains. It was part of an ambitious research project at Utah State University, where Barrie Gilbert had landed a faculty position after graduating from Queens University, taking a doctorate at Duke and then doing field research in Alberta.
To get there, they’d spent a week humping their 20-kilogram packs through the foothills, fording rushing creeks and paddling 30 kilometres across deep, icy Yellowstone Lake, itself almost 2.5 kilometres in elevation.
It hadn’t been an easy passage. They’d endured a series of marching cold fronts which spawned thunderstorms, hail, drenching rain and lashing squalls that repeatedly forced them ashore when the short, steep waves threatened to swamp their aluminum canoe.
The canoe itself was cause for concern. There was frequent lightning. The prospect of getting fried by a strike on the lake or while huddling under the up-turned hull to shelter from pelting rain loomed large in his imagination.
So did grizzlies. At night, they’d camped well off the trail and they’d dragged in snags and branches from deadfalls to create crude barriers around their tent that, if they gave no real protection, at least offered an early warning should a bear approach.
Eventually they reached their destination and, to their excitement and delight, soon encountered what they’d come to observe—a grizzly bear in pristine habitat. It was a female with three cubs digging roots in an alpine meadow.
They watched enthralled as she stood down a male that approached, a mortal threat to her cubs. Male grizzlies, like lions, will kill the offspring of competitors. Later the bear family ambled down the meadow they shared with a small herd of grazing elk.
The next morning, Gilbert decided they should circle behind and climb the back side of the adjacent Crowfoot Ridge so they could observe the bears more closely from above.
Just as they left the scrubby trees at the top, Gilbert felt a call of nature and moved ahead of his partner to find a spot. He hunched over, keeping himself low to avoid spooking the elk with his silhouette against the skyline.
That was when he met the bear. It had unexpectedly come up the other side of the ridge.
Gilbert realized later that the unfortunate encounter—for him at any rate—was shaped by two things. First, because of the menace of the big male to her cubs, the female grizzly was already on hair-trigger alert. Second, approaching in a hunched-over stance, the biologist must have resembled a stalking predator.
There was one explosive “woof,” a blur of brown hurtling out of the scrub and in seconds he was on the ground.
“Her teeth felt like a row of pick-axes scraping across my head as she tore my scalp off,” he recalled later, although strangely, he says, he felt no pain in the moment.
“Her second bite came down on my face, a big canine tooth punching into my eye-socket. ‘This is how you die,’ I thought as I felt bones crunch. One bite removed my cheekbone and sinus, exposing brain membrane.
“As my life drained onto the ground”—it was later determined that he was hemorrhaging almost half of his blood supply—“I went limp and the biting stopped.”
The grad student, Bruce Hastings, courageously yelled and the grizzly retreated.
The bear, Gilbert later realized, was simply being a bear—reacting to his presence as a threat to her cubs. She wasn’t interested in killing him for the malicious reasons humans attribute in their deep trait of anthropomorphizing other animals. She simply wanted to neutralize an unknown and unidentified threat and once it was no longer a threat, she left.
A less resilient person might have surrendered to the terrible wounds and died on the mountain. But Gilbert was tough. He was also very lucky.
A team of highly trained medical technicians attached to a smoke-jumping crew had just deployed from a nearby fire base. And the helicopter pilot who picked him up had just done two combat tours in Vietnam war, landing under the most difficult conditions. Finally, a team of military surgeons experienced with battlefield trauma had just been assigned to the nearest medical facility.
Gilbert’s first surgery, the one that would save his life following a bear mauling in the remote Rockies, took 11 hours and exhausted the hospital’s suture supply.
The lead surgeon, Earl Browne, who has since died, later showed Gilbert photographs from before they began reconstructing what remained of his face.
“All my facial skin and scalp was pinned out like a rat dissection in Biology 101,” he writes in the preamble to his astonishing memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears.
Scientific curiosity and a fascination with methodology trumped squeamishness.
“I wasn’t repelled,” he writes. “I asked Dr. Browne if he had seen this kind of damage before.
“‘Well, yes,’’’ the surgeon replied. “‘But not all on the same guy.’”
So, through a combination of luck and fortitude, Gilbert survived the extraction and a round of intensive surgeries. His maimed face was rebuilt—although the massive injuries left him blind in one eye and his face permanently disfigured.
Barry Gilbert closely observing a young grizzly bear on a river at Geographic Harbour, Katmai National Park, Alaska. Photo courtesy Barrie Gilbert.
IF THIS STORY SOUNDS LIKE THE MAKING OF A BOOK, IT WAS. But not the book you might expect. This gripping story—a journalist like me might have made a whole book out of it alone—occupies a mere 15 pages at the beginning of Gilbert’s recently published memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears.
Gilbert went home to convalesce, to endure his 15-minutes of fame as the media descended to pester him for lurid details—mostly, he concluded, to advance a stereotype of grizzlies as “rogue killers in the woods eager to eat your children”—and to grapple with the post traumatic stress disorder that came with the cold reality of people staring at his facial disfigurement.
Some might have withdrawn. “I chose to see the staring responses of others as their problem,” Gilbert writes. “I was a handsome guy and still am (inside).”
Instead, he rejoiced that his hands still worked. And his scientist’s analytical brain. It reminded him of something equally important—point of view.
Which is why the following summer found him sitting beside half a tonne of black bear just stirring from anaesthesia after being darted in his new research project. With only the slightest misgivings, Gilbert stayed with the bear while it recovered consciousness—staying with bears in such a state is essential, he notes, because a handicapped one invites opportunistic attacks from other bears, another trait they share with humans.
“Fear of that bear was not an issue for me, but I could only guess why,” he writes. “Maybe long experience with animals and my short dose of terror carried the day.”
We should all be grateful that Gilbert didn’t succumb to the kind of risk-averse apprehension regarding bears that might have gripped the rest of us, because he went on to almost half a century in the field, exhaustively studying bears in their habitat and in the most intimate proximity, at that. He sat with them, walked with them, observed them more closely than the benighted rest of us might get in a zoo with cages.
His field work took him from the American Rockies to the Alaska wilderness and deep into Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.
One of Us charts that remarkable journey, not just through the bush in search of the great predators, but also through the devil’s club thickets of contradictory political policy; the technical disagreements spawned by what he calls “conservation contrarianism” and “science friction”; and the baser economic conflicts between the imperatives of ecological integrity for a threatened species and the special interests of industry, from tourism to timber harvesting to the powerful big game hunting lobby.
There’s far more than the science of observation and dry statistical analysis here. Gilbert’s memoir takes us on an extraordinary excursion through the history—and pre-history—of relations between bears and humans.
First, it explores the thousands of years of bears’ coexistence with indigenous peoples, an entanglement of mutual tolerance that populates the innermost of First Nations’ sacred spaces and endures into the present.
Second, it examines the fatal contact between bears and a settler culture which demonized the animals as a precursor—and rationalization—for their systematic extirpation from vast areas of their range, particularly in the United States.
Explorers, fur traders, cattle ranchers and sheepherders shot them, trapped them and poisoned them in great numbers. Trophy hunters preyed on the remnants. Then loggers, farmers and urban developers set about destroying their habitats. Once abundant in California, for example, the last grizzly bear was shot there in 1922 and the species survives only on the state flag, a reminder of our propensity to make icons of what we destroy.
Grizzly populations dwindled to about 1,500 in the lower 48. There are 600 in Wyoming, 800 in Montana, 400 in Alberta, maybe 70 in Idaho and 20 in Washington.
In Canada, there are about 25,000 bears, of which about 15,000 are in BC. When Europeans arrived by land it was estimated there were 25,000 in BC alone.
One of Us takes us back to 1805 and the first scientific expedition of discovery by land across what’s now the western United States by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. The party shot and killed 51 grizzly bears and wounded another 18, probably mortally. From then on it just got worse for the bears.
And yet humans and bears can safely coexist, Gilbert argues, and provides the evidence from deep personal experience. He disrobes the enduring myth of the demon bear and reveals a complex, highly intelligent creature with a fascinating social system and crucial roles in the natural ecosystem.
As I was reading One of Us, I thought about an incident that happened more than 20 years ago, when I was still young and agile enough to do some serious bushwhacking. I was deep in the arid rain shadow somewhere between Yalakom Mountain and Lillooet.
The environmentalist I was with, my guide on a tour of another of British Columbia’s old-growth forests doomed to yet another chainsaw massacre with the blessing of politicians who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, led me on a side trek. He wanted to show me something special.
In the forest floor, carved into a steep slope way out back of the outback, was a stairway. The steps were constructed from beaten earth and they had obviously been there for a long, long time.
At the top of this staircase, in a fern-ringed hollow in the earth where a spring bubbled from the fractured rock of the mountain, was a natural basin filled with cool, clear water. My guide had come across it by accident.
There had been a commune in the Yalakom Valley back in the 1970s, founded by a Simon Fraser University professor at the height of the back-to-the-land movement, but most of its adherents had dispersed again by the mid-1980s. Was this an artifact from a lost utopian dream?
What my guide told me was astonishing. It belonged to the bears. Black bears would climb the mysterious steps, soak in the cool bathtub, then descend the steps again and vanish into the trees. Clearly, he said, the bears had worn the staircase into the hillside, probably over centuries of use, and they were still using it after who knew how many generations.
“In many ways,” Gilbert writes, “grizzly bears cluster with wolves, dolphins, apes, and elephants as cultures, highly social civilizations that we barely understand.”
What does he mean when he ascribes civilization to bears? He turns to American naturalist Henry Beston, who noted in 1928 an inherent hubris in human notions of superiority over other creatures, the assumption of a hierarchy with us at the summit and lesser beings beneath.
Beston, who had volunteered with the French army in 1915 and had his faith in humanity upended by the indifferent carnage he witnessed, argues that in world older than ours—for modern humans have been around for only a paragraph compared to the long history of bears—many animals are more completely integrated with and attuned than we perceive ourselves to be.
These animals are, Beston writes, “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.
“They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time…”
Gilbert points to the amazing richness of what he concludes is a bear culture—the ability to communicate, cooperate, retain and transmit knowledge over time, to express empathy and even altruistic behaviour.
Black bears, for example, have extraordinarily large brains in comparison to their body size and some wildlife scientists think their intelligence is comparable to that of the great apes—chimpanzees and gorillas.
They’re now thought to be able conceptualize at a basic level and mother bears will spend up to three years educating their cubs on how and where to obtain food while the cubs themselves demonstrate a powerful ability to form mental maps of their terrain, the territories of other bears and the location of food sources, and the timing of the availability of food. So, like humans, bears in the wild develop a seasonal round.
They have a small vocal vocabulary of sounds but Gilbert’s observations also indicate a non-vocal communication system based on gestures and body language.
For example, he writes, while in an Alaska salmon river’s estuary to observe bears closely in 1999, he watched a sub-adult bear move down the river bank foraging for spawned-out salmon. It strayed inadvertently into the fishing station of an immense male, hidden by the tall grass on the opposite bank.
The bigger bear suddenly popped his massive head out of the grass. The small bear froze, realizing he was in a danger zone, intruding on someone else’s real estate.
The big bear slowly shook his head. The small bear remained still. The bigger male slowly shook his head again. The young bear abruptly skedaddled.
“I’m cutting you some slack here, so clear out,” was the message, Gilbert writes. “The entire routine looked rehearsed but it was probably some kind of communication ritual, not unlike our [human] face-saving tricks.”
Bears, he writes, are smart enough to self-medicate—Gilbert recounts watching a bear eat a particular kind of mineralized mud repeatedly and after analyzing its content concluded that it was treating itself for tapeworms.
And bears are smart enough to sneakily exploit humans to achieve what the bears want.
In one case, he writes, a female in a protected bear-watching area would bring her small cubs to a floating observation bridge, leave them and go to feed on salmon.
As excited bear-watchers crowded forward a park ranger would quickly intervene to keep the visitors back from the cubs.
Usually, he points out, bears with cubs so small—scarcely the size of large house cats—are intensely protective, keeping them within a very short distance.
“The biggest threat to a female with new cubs are large adult males, who sometimes kill cubs. However, on salmon streams with anglers and photographers, the adult males usually stay away…This avoidance of people by males appears to be understood by females. In effect, people present a shield for bears with cubs, somewhat like a tree for the cubs to climb, permitting mom to go off to fish, knowing her cubs are safe.”
So, while some thought the bear a “bad” mom, leaving her cubs at risk. Gilbert concluded the opposite—he discerned “a brilliant plan for child care.”
“The mental gymnastics for a bear to make all the connections in this picture looks Einsteinian, because mother bear had linked three insights: the threat of predatory male bears, an awareness of male bears’ avoidance of humans, and predictable benign humans. She recognized an opportunity to place her cubs in a secure location.”
One of Us is full of similarly exhilarating anecdotes. And yet, if Gilbert’s book is filled with hope that the nation of humans will learn to coexist with the nation of bears, the reality seems to be that we’re still mostly driven by our misunderstandings and fears.
Instead of learning to live with this marvel of evolution, we prefer to destroy it. In 20 years of wildlife “management,” British Columbians have slaughtered more than 85,000 black and grizzly bears.
Think of this in another context. World War 2 killed about 45,000 Canadians. Canadians have killed more than twice as many bears.
We hunt them with jetboats, with all terrain vehicles, with trucks. Mostly we kill them for fun or for our convenience. We shoot them on logging roads, at garbage dumps, in apple orchards, in suburban back yards where ill-informed and inconsiderate landowners don’t manage their garbage—we put out attractants and then punish the bears for responding to our lazy stupidity.
We kill them with high-powered rifles, with shotguns, with cross bows and longbows, with traps, with cars and with trains.
Gilbert remains an optimist. The abysmal trophy hunt for grizzly bears has finally ended in BC. Perhaps enlightenment will eventually come to the black bear slaughter, too.
“When this uniquely sentient creature is perceived as responding to us according to how we treat him, a path to survival opens up,” he writes.
“We are at the end of a long period of attempted dominion over this apex predator and my hope is that we can rise to the challenge of restraint and tolerance required of us.”
As Vancouver Islanders get used to the idea that they might soon be sharing the outback with grizzlies, particularly along salmon rivers north of Campbell River, One of Us would be a good resource to put on the bookshelf. It’s $21 in paperback.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
A History of Canada in Ten Maps – Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land. By Adam Shoalts (hardcover, 2017; softcover, 2018)
I BOUGHT THIS BOOK AS A GIFT for someone who prefers non-fiction over fiction. The title was uninspiring (to me) but the trusted booksellers at Munro’s Books assured me that the book was a winner. They were not wrong.
Each of the book’s 10 chapters tells the story behind one of the 10 maps that are included in the book, beginning with the Skalholt Map made in 1590 by an Icelandic scholar, and ending with John Franklin’s 1828 map of the Arctic wilderness. Shoalts links the maps and stories together, showing their importance to establishing the borders of the country we know as Canada today. Readers will be familiar with some of the explorer/mapmakers, such as Samuel de Champlain, but perhaps less so with others, such as Peter Pond.
Like all great non-fiction writers, Adam Shoalts is a superb storyteller. For example, he starts one chapter with 12-year old Pierre-Esprit Radisson out duck hunting in 1652 with two friends. An Iroquois raiding party stalks them and kills the two friends, but decides to take Radisson as a captive. Another chapter begins, “Inside the palisade walls of the little wilderness fortress, a severed head impaled on a pike stood as a grim warning.” As a reader, I am hooked, and I don’t have to be told that it was a harsh and dangerous existence in the 1600s in the country that would become Canada.
Shoalts’ credibility for his topic is unquestionable. He is an explorer himself. In fact, he completed a 4000-kilometre solo journey across Canada’s arctic, which you can read about in his book, Alone Against the North. His doctoral research examines the influence indigenous oral traditions had on European explorers in Canada’s subarctic and West Coast, knowledge which informs his writing throughout. It was interesting to learn that French explorers acknowledged the expertise of the local First Nations, who often kept the explorers from starving to death, whereas the British were more inclined to go to war with and exterminate the Indian Nations. This book is meticulously researched with pages of notes at the end.
I was astounded at the bravery, as well as the foolhardiness, of these early explorers, and I learned a great deal about Canada’s history. Armchair explorers will be engaged and can enjoy the adventures vicariously. Those adventuresome readers will relate to the challenges of surviving in a wilderness. I plan to read Shoalts’ book, Alone Against the North, very soon.
I asked four friends who had also read and loved the book for some comments. Once they got their protests out (“Shit, Mar—I never even did book reports in school except from reading inside the cover!), I received some brilliant and humorous insights from them:
“When you read the stories and look at the maps you think ‘how could they keep track of it all?’ I would be lost and eaten by a bear.”
“I learned more about early Canadian history by reading this book than I did through all my years in school.”
“It is obvious now, but I had never thought of the opening up of Canada being due to guys who didn’t just want to see what was over the next hill, but they wanted to make a map so they and others could go back.”
“I did have some familiarity with separate events in the book, picked up from history classes in school and through other books I’ve read over the years. The idea of tying these events together chronologically referencing the most recent maps “of the time” was a brilliant idea, in my opinion. It put a lot in perspective for me. I can well imagine someone looking at those “incomplete” maps and wondering what must lay beyond what was then known. It makes total sense that people would continue to forge ahead to want to fill in the blanks. This will be one of the very few books I will read again someday.”
Marilyn McCrimmon is a native Victorian and freelance writer. She has written for Focus since its inception in 1988.
Women Talking (Vintage Canada, 2019) is a mesmerizing, fast-moving, powerful little book. Yet it’s almost entirely based on conversation—eight women talking—in a barn’s hayloft, over the course of two clandestine meetings. Like many women’s conversations, this one meanders, often going off on tangents, but it all helps them understand their dilemma and what to do about it.
That dilemma is whether to stay in or leave the small, ultra-conservative Mennonite settlement in Bolivia that they’ve lived in all their lives. Will they acquiesce in their complete domination by men who have failed to protect them and who want them to forgive eight men who have been arrested for raping many women in the colony?
This aspect of the story is based on real events that occurred in the remote “Manitoba/Molotschna” colony in Bolivia from 2005 to 2009: eight men were arrested after over 100 women and their daughters (ages ranged from 3 to 65) were raped in a drug-induced sleep. Though the drug wiped out most of their memories of the events, the women knew something had happened. Some thought it was demons. Some were too afraid or ashamed to talk about it; those who did were initially dismissed as imagining things.
Women Talking is an act of wild female imagination—the very thing the real women who complained of the rapes were initially accused of.
For the women to leave Molotschna would be a truly revolutionary and courageous act. They would have to do it almost immediately, while most of the colony’s men are in the city trying to arrange bail for the arrestees. They would have to take their children, animals, wagons (no cars or electricity in Molotschna) and supplies. They have no map and cannot read; they cannot speak Spanish (or English). Yet a decision must be made. They talk through the realities of their position, each woman contributing her insights, logic, anger, and love for each other and their children.
At first, I wondered if I’d be able to keep the eight women straight. But soon each came to life as individuals. Ona, the free spirit carrying the child of her rapist; Agata, her mom, who suffers from edema and impatiently reigns in tangential discussions; righteous Salome who chafes at authority at the best of times and whose anger is “Vesuvius” because her three-year-old daughter has been raped; chain-smoking, clear-thinking Mejal; Mariche whose husband beats her yet is still very wary of leaving; her mom Greta who is determined to take her two beloved old mares Cheryl and Ruth on the journey; and two teenage girls, who are excited by the chance of an adventure, resourceful, risk-taking, and inspired, for the most part, by their older sisters (though they can’t help rolling their eyes—or giggling—at certain points in the meetings).
The women’s conversation is narrated by school teacher August Epp, the one man they trust right now. Epp left the colony at age 12 (his parents were banned) and returned as an adult trying to make sense of himself. The women have asked him to record their conversation, but not to interfere or interrupt. He is mostly able to do so, though adds helpful observations and background in his “minutes”—and commits his own acts of revolution by assisting them in more concrete ways over the two days of decision-making (for instance, he steals the colony’s safe to help them finance their sojourn).
Despite the violence and betrayal the women have experienced, and the rage, fear and grief they feel, the story bursts with tenderness and humour—indeed sometimes gales of laughter at absurdities in their lives.
Canadian author Miriam Toews is a master story-teller. I’ve read most of her other books and look forward to more. She is particularly adept at capturing women’s complicated lives and their journeys to liberation. Women Talking was a Governor General Award finalist.
Resistance Women (2019, William Morrow) by Jennifer Chiaverini is set in Germany between 1929 and 1946. The three main characters, all friends, are women who work in various ways to thwart the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s horrific policies. One (non-fictional) character, Mildred Harnack, is an American professor, married to a German who works in the government’s economic ministry; together they try to get information out through the American embassy, and later other means. A German woman, again non-fictional, Greta Kuckhoff, works for a time translating Mein Kampf into English, convinced the unabridged edition will open the eyes of the British and others. (The Nazis realize its publication would be explosive and round up all copies and notes, though one is smuggled out.) A third character, a young Jewish doctoral student goes from being a star student, through expulsion to ghettoization and narrow escape for the crime of being Jewish.
I have learned a lot of history reading this book, and some of its warning bells ring loudly when I hear how certain leaders like Trump in the US and Duterte in the Philippines have become popular and are allowed, one step at a time, to pervert justice so thoroughly it seems breathtaking in retrospect. In the earlier 1930s, the resistance women kept thinking “it can’t get much worse”—but it always did, especially for the Jews. Eventually they realized that Hitler and his cronies will stop at nothing and can never be trusted or believed. The women took great risks to let the rest of the world (which for a long time seems to be idly standing by, ignoring reality) know what was going on and to help Jews escape the genocide. Along the way, we watch these brave women cope not just with fascism, but fall in love, attend university, dream of careers, have babies and work as teachers, writers, editors, and translators. All against an ominous backdrop and facing personal hardships and growing fears for themselves and their loved ones.
The fact that the characters are based in reality makes it that much more fascinating. An afterword by Chiaverini fills us in on what happened to Kuckhoff who survived, along with some of the other less central characters.
I love historical fiction and this one has introduced me to a writer who has no less than a dozen such books to her credit. I’d love to hear from others who’ve read this book and what they thought about it.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus.
In its exploration of death and mortality—and by extension life—John Gould's new book serves up 56 very short, fascinating and timely stories.
I COULDN’T WATCH OR READ ANY MORE NEWS. The world had passed the million-case mark in the COVID-19 pandemic, and what, I asked myself, was there for me to do? What I always do: Take a book and go outside. Sitting on a round paving stone below the front steps of my home—now my self-isolation chamber—on Mayne Island, like my garden plants I turned my face to the sun. A fat bee fumbled its way across a floppy crocus, and the eagles nesting down the road sent down a shower of staccato chatter.
Feeling small and absorbed in the life going about its business around me was the perfect time for also turning to John Gould’s new book The End of Me (Freehand Books, May 2020), as it explores not just death and mortality but by extension life, the edges of our connection and that invisible force suffusing everything—mystery.
In this collection of 56 very short stories, Gould returns to the genre of flash (or sometimes called sudden) fiction, for which he was a Giller Prize finalist with Kilter: 55 Fictions. He describes the form as a hybrid of short story and haiku.
It is also a blend of trampoline, time machine, x-ray, astral projection and lover’s whisper, as the shifting perspectives, penetrating vision and imaginative agility allow the author to take you anywhere, inside and out, in endlessly unexpected directions.
Gould takes us back in time to a young man dating one of Lot’s daughters in the city of Sodom; up into a spaceship’s decaying orbit; and into the early 1900’s lab of a scientist trying to weigh and discover the exit point of the human soul. We read a dating profile, a performance art grant proposal, customer’s book review, and obit for a professional obit writer. We’re led into the beautiful but sombre intimacy of dreaming extinct species, and the terrible intimacy of suicide. All with control, play, tenderness, curiosity and a willingness to end in question.
Death is a tricky subject. One of the most covered themes in literature, it’s still something of a Gorgon most avoid looking directly into. While it’s a universal—100 percent of us will go through it—Gould reminds us that it’s also illimitably individual in terms of how we experience it, where we encounter it, how we see it and how it makes us see ourselves.
“That multiplicity of perspectives suits my temperament,” Gould tells me by phone, as we each do as we’re told and stay home for safety’s sake. He says he inherited his mathematician father’s love of precision and concision and his journalist mother’s love of story, so “The form feels natural for me.”
After stretching out inside a novel (Seven Good Reasons not to be Good—see the Focus review here), Gould was missing the short form, not only because it feels natural but because the ability to inhabit so many kinds of people across time and place, to put on the lens of wildly divergent predicaments, “gives me access to so many different ways of thinking.” It was, he says, “persistently exciting to write.”
In this time of uncertainty around a global health crisis, Gould’s book—with serendipitous timing—invites us to remember that uncertainty is often the unnoticed norm. Several of the stories end outright on a question, and we’re shown that no matter how smart or prepared or rational we think we are, the unexpected can cut us off mid-stream, mid-steam and, in the case of one story, mid-sentence.
But uncertainty is not all bad. While it can be unsettling, that space of not knowing allows us to confront the limits of our understanding, the edge of what we think we know.
Gould does this partly as a philosopher, delighting in paradox. For instance, at a funeral home, two sisters experience the classic presence of absence—“two true things that couldn’t both be”—of a deceased sibling; and a dead woman trapped in an “exhausting afterlife” reflects on regrets but realizes you can’t distinguish between the things you did and the things you didn’t do. “Saying yes was saying no, and vice versa. Yes and no were indistinguishable, because you were always saying both.”
These stories play with the edges of the metaphysical and the physical, and even mundane practical problems become more than they seem. Consider the poor guy on a first date trying to decide whether (and how) to mercifully kill an injured raccoon: “There was no way to be certain he’d be doing the creature a favour…What if the Babylonians were right, or maybe it was the Mesopotamians, what if we’re all going to spend the rest of forever in the dark eating dust?”
And before arriving at the funeral home, those two sisters had gone shopping for an urn for their brother’s cremains, “lugging with them a bag of orzo to stand in…Research had helped them estimate him at twelve cups.” As the artist’s deadly grant proposal more explicitly yet cryptically reminds us: “your body isn’t what you think it is.”
Then who and what are we? Where exactly is the end—or the beginning—of me? What do we coalesce out of and what do we dissolve into? When I watched my mother die of pneumonia last February, I kept thinking that simple and forever unanswerable question: “Where did she go?” How could a single exhalation be the difference between my mother and mother’s body? What was she now? What was I now?
The connections we have with others can be powerful—enough to bend the boundaries of our selves.
In several stories, Gould more tangentially shows us that the same power lies in our relationship with the world around us. Before COVID, we were already living in a time of global threat, that of ecocide, and Gould touches on that loss as well and the delicate edge of where we begin and end as creatures of nature.
“Nature was my first real sanctuary,” Gould says, “but that sanctuary is such a loaded experience now. Now the tranquility brings the heartbreak with it. We’re having to acknowledge our role in the loss and contemplate the future of the living planet.”
As I sit in my sunny outdoor refuge from pandemic news, almost on my mother’s birthday, I deeply feel the truth that one of Gould’s characters explains so simply: “There’s a great deal for which to brace oneself.” But The End of Me, in its collection of controlled surprises, delivers the equally important message that even when life is uncertain, “things can still be beautiful.”
In these isolated times, The End of Me can be ordered directly from Freehand, and many local independent booksellers are either shipping for a flat fee, allowing customers to order and pick up at the door or arrange for delivery.
Writer and musician Amy Reiswig works by day (and sometimes into the night—and now remotely) as an editor for the provincial government. Besides Focus, her writing has appeared in Quill & Quire, This Magazine, The Malahat Review and The Walrus.
If writers write with empathy and authenticity, it allows them and their readers to cross all sorts of barriers.
IF THERE’S ANOTHER ACCOLADE Esi Edugyan deserves, it’s the one for Writer Most Untouched by Success. What a delight, then, to be able to spend time in conversation with her on the pleasures and the pitfalls of writing fiction today.
Esi has said (in a 2018 interview for Kirkus) that in the early reception of Washington Black she had sensed the unspoken question, “Why are you writing this, where are we in this?” I ask if she is irked by the constant craving we have to see ourselves reflected in a work of fiction, to see fiction as a mirror, in other words.
Edugyan is thoughtful, her voice considerate and soft, but she’s not hesitant. When she pauses during our conversation, it’s only to find the precise words to frame her position most accurately. No, she says. She understands that craving totally. Readers want to engage with the character, to identify with them, and that’s easiest to do when the experiences they’re reading about most closely reflect their own.
Why, then, is she attracted to historical fiction? What are the special benefits that historical material brings to her as creator?
It’s the attraction of the unknown story, Edugyan says, the story arising from that unexpected, really compelling nugget you come across by chance, and that you might be able work with. I can hear a trace of the excitement she feels—and that I can relate to—as she describes the moment of discovery, the writer’s realization that a whole story is present there in that detail, waiting to be unfolded, and brought into being. She adds, more practically, that working from hindsight simply feels easier and she hints at the difficulties of writing in the present, in these times where we live in such uncertainty.
She believes, though, that historical fiction can be an effective way to raise present-day issues, a vehicle to illuminate the roots of certain aspects of our own culture. There is plenty of opportunity in the course of Washington’s travels, for instance, to shine a light on continuing racism in Canadian society today.
It’s no accident that each of Edugyan’s three novels is historical, though her first, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, set in 1968, almost makes it into her own era. We talk for a while about the attraction of historical fiction for writers less inclined to make creative hay with their own lives, Edugyan suggesting its usefulness is to provide filters or layers, a kind of privacy screen, between the writer’s work and the writer’s self.
So to write from the point of view of a male protagonist might be, for a woman writer, just such a protective screen? (Edugyan’s three novels all involve a male protagonist.) We consider briefly the question of whether a writer need, or should, be confined to writing their own gender—and it’s quickly dismissed.
Wash, though male, is the character Edugyan attests to feeling most in tune with in all of her work. She’s keenly aware that many women are looking exclusively for women’s stories to the extent that they feel short-changed when confronted with a male protagonist. But to be so constrained to a single point of view, she argues, is to take a strangely binary approach to literature, which after all should be reaching for the universal.
So, on the fraught question of identity and authenticity, the growing insistence on it, and current interpretation of it (you can only write, say, about the plight of an addict if you’ve experienced addiction), I have to ask: does such a stance serve to protect the truth, or does it imperil our attempts to break down barriers? Are we constrained to write only from the position of the group we identify with?
Edugyan, knowing where this line of thought is taking us, considers her reply and phrases it with care, acknowledging the trauma of colonization and its legacy of continuing pain, and showing enormous respect for the reality of that lived pain. And yet, she says after a thoughtful pause, if it’s done well, that is, with understanding and empathy and authenticity, then it can allow us to cross barriers. And if it’s done with the right motives? I suggest. But Edugyan doesn’t commit. She says she has seen both bad and good on both sides of the issue: writers from outside the group telling its story badly, and writers from within telling it well—and also, most importantly, vice-versa.
It seems like a good moment to haul out the American philosopher Richard Rorty and a quote I keep close to my own writing desk. In Rorty’s ideal universe, solidarity with others would be achieved “not by inquiry but by imagination.” He says we reach solidarity by “coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’” and we can foster that ability through detailed description and rediscription. And that is exactly what the novel, as a form, can do so well.
Edugyan agrees with Rorty’s characterization—and goes further. She emphasizes the importance of not simply describing but examining interior lives in minute, granular detail, exposing the deep psychology of your characters. Even the act of writing about someone who is not you is itself an act of solidarity, she says. And further still, it is an act of solidarity for the reader who is led to feel for the character, to feel bad for them, to feel close to them. And those emotions conjured by the work can represent the beginning of empathy, the beginning of coming to see “them” as “us.”
All of which seems to answer my next questions in advance. Can we justify this continuing need to make up stories—to invent fiction and to read it—when so many compelling, stirring, shocking or inspiring stories from life are available to us, just a click away? Or, as Peter Whittaker, writing in the New Internationalist, once asked, “Is fiction a luxury when there are so many more pressing and urgent needs?” What can it possibly contribute?
Edugyan returns to the ability of fiction to engender empathy—something the world could certainly use more of. In our runaway lives, she says, it can make us stop for a moment to think of others. She likens its effect to being suddenly taken out of ourselves, shaken from all our daily preoccupations and limited concerns, by the sight of someone in desperate need on a busy downtown street.
That fiction and non-fiction share many common elements, Edugyan readily acknowledges, but she sees the ability to enter another consciousness, another experience of the world, the ability to see that you are not so very different from that “other,” as the special, the particular work of fiction. “Going deeply into another’s psychological landscape, into their thought processes—at a very granular level…that’s the work of fiction,” she says decisively.
We return to craft and process and discuss ways of tackling historical fiction in general and, in particular, her approach in Washington Black—one I think of as the flight-of-fancy approach. Edugyan stresses that everything in the novel could have taken place. There is, she says, (with the exception of one minor shift of date for convenience) nothing anachronistic, nothing people in the 1830s might not have thought or said or done, given the contemporary knowledge base, the current social landscape and political climate. Having a single character experience so many of the wonders of his new world—the flying boat, the rescue at sea, the sea voyage, icebergs (!), Arctic travel, the natural sciences, marine biology, graphic art—and express them to us in his own voice, is to give the reader a chance to experience his sense of wonder. Conversely—and in a way that makes me think of the visual artist’s use of negative space—it also leaves behind the haunting impression of all that he has endured, and escaped.
I find it particularly interesting that Edugyan, evidently such a thorough and meticulous researcher, chooses to work largely with characters of her own invention (something else I can relate to) even though it’s clear there’s a huge appetite for tales of actual historical figures—think Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell), or Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean (Aristotle).
Obligations accompany the choice of a real-life subject. Edugyan privileges the creative freedom an invented character bestows. To use a character from life within a fiction would, in her view, incur too much responsibility. For instance, it would feel unethical, she says, to put words in the mouth of a historical figure. I can’t agree more, and can only wish it felt that way for some biographers who take liberties with their subjects.
To some readers who simply can’t get enough of the inventive gifts of an author like Esi Edugyan, her reservations might seem like needless inhibition, but her sense of obligation to history is entirely justifiable when you consider how our views of a historical figure can be so quickly and dramatically altered—for good or ill—by representation in a novel.
In any event, I’m glad she chose her trademark mix of fiction and history to allow us this wild ride through a world that really did exist in all its fascinating and astonishing detail.
When I ask Esi the question that is to end our conversation I receive an answer entirely in keeping with her thoughtfulness and generosity. What keeps you going, I ask, in this insanely Herculean task of creating a whole factual world for your fiction and then carrying it about with you for five, six—how many?—years, while at the same time making dental appointments and cooking dinner?! (Edugyan has young children.)
“I started with a footnote,” she says. “That’s what made it possible. If I had tried working with the whole concept, it would have been too heavy, too big. Just too daunting.” And then she reiterates, “Yes. You start with the details, the footnotes, and that makes it all possible.” She makes it sound so easy.
Pauline Holdstock is an internationally published award-winning novelist. Her most recent novel, The Hunter and the Wild Girl, set in the Languedoc region of France, won the 2016 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. Her new novel will be released in the fall.
As this historian shows, the Royal BC Museum has proved a resilient, adaptive and unusually far-sighted institution.
MORE THAN 60 YEARS AGO, while my mother shopped, I’d laze away unsupervised summer afternoons in the public galleries of the ornate east wing of British Columbia’s iconic legislature buildings.
It was another world from our present provincial museum’s post-modernist structure, purpose-built in 1968 for dramatic dioramas, dynamic displays and public engagement—even now being modernized for the next 50 years of our digitally-enhanced century.
The building was ornately decorated, but crowded with specimens of the province’s fauna (Image A-0308524 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives).
The old museum remembered from childhood flaunted all the imposing trappings that romanticized colonial hubris—Romanesque arches, Greek columns, pilasters, cornices and tiled mosaics, all the sympathetic magic of imperialism, symbols of past glory invoked to inflate one’s own.
Whatever its future might be, as Patricia Roy’s meticulous new history of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives, The Collectors, reminded me with vivid intensity, our provincial museum indisputably began as Victorian trophy case.
Where current visitors may stroll through a rather-more sedate version of Old Victoria, examine a full-sized mammoth in its Ice Age habitat, visit Captain George Vancouver’s spartan cabin or sit in a long house as Vancouver did with the whaling Chief Maquinna, I recall glass cabinets stuffed with skewered butterflies. Unusual marine specimens floated in jars of formaldehyde or were mounted like fishing trophies. Predators snarled amid big game shot by adventurers for whom specimen-gathering seemed an excuse for hunting expeditions. And there was a hypnotically-rich collection of First Nations ceremonial regalia, totems, tools, weapons and art, the display untroubled by cultural, social or historic context.
When, as a child, I descended the time-worn stairs to the ethnographic gallery and its stunning Newcombe Collection, it was like stepping into some cool, stone-clad other-world suffused with the supernatural.
Today, the museum cornerstones Victoria’s identity, commercial as well as cultural. Since 2008 it has attracted almost 6.5 million visitors. By way of comparison, that’s about two million more than attended BC Lions football games. It’s about 5.2 million more than visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in a market of more than a million. More locally, it’s nearly 4.8 million more than paid attendance at the Royal and McPherson theatres combined. The RBCM’s modest target for 2019 is to attract 12 visitors for every citizen in the City of Victoria.
Our museum has generated almost a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue since 2008. Spending by the museum and its visitors contribute about $26 million a year to south Vancouver Island’s gross domestic product.
More importantly, it’s changed from colonial trophy case to leading advocate for First Nations’ place in the fabric of a 21st-century British Columbia that emerges from the post-colonial braiding of many cultural traditions.
And yet the museum did begin in unapologetic colonial eccentricity. Certainly that’s what is suggested by an 1889 report in the British Colonist. On Victoria Day that year, the museum threw open its collections and the public rushed to view “the many valuable natural curiosities, the treasures of mineralogy and the collections of well-mounted specimens of the wild animals and birds of the province,” reported the newspaper.
Exhibits were heavy on the latter. Roy notes that the new head of the museum, John Fannin, was a skilled taxidermist. He had donated 12 cases of his own specimens. Visitors goggled at a “monster grizzly bear” rendered so realistic that “timid ladies trembled,” a mammoth bone, a brick from the Great Wall of China, and an ancient Spanish cannon found near Port Alberni. Fannin’s successor in 1904, Francis Kermode, was also a taxidermist, though he is now famous for bestowing his name on the white “Spirit Bear” with which the Great Bear Rainforest is associated.
Yet, if the museum began as a curiosity cabinet during the rush for “primitive” spoils that characterized late Victorian colonialism, Roy, professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria, tells us that it quickly evolved a deep and abiding relationship with First Nations.
Concern for such a relationship was, in fact, evident in the impetus for the museum’s establishment in 1886—a petition signed by 30 prominent citizens worried about the pillaging of First Nations art and artifacts just as the federal government banned the potlatch. Among those citizens were two defenders of Indigenous rights and culture, Dr Israel Wood Powell and Chief Justice Matthew Bailie Begbie. Begbie, a defender of aboriginal rights and a founder of what would become one of an otherwise benighted province’s most important advocates of cross-cultural understanding, is now, ironically, a thoroughly-battered target of historical revisionism, ostensibly for purposes of reconciliation.
These are difficult days for museums everywhere as they navigate post-colonial deconstruction and changing public sentiment. Political agendas of groups once ignored sometimes fuse with well-intended political correctness based in passionate ignorance of the wrongs it seeks to right.
Roy’s account doesn’t flinch from just demands for the repatriation of artifacts and specimens obtained under dubious circumstance. Acquisitions involved everything from duplicity to bald-faced appropriation. Museums must now re-evaluate the assumptions behind what and how they arrange, order and prioritize their displays.
But, so what? Museums and their missions have never been static. They’ve progressed from the curiosity cabinets of 18th-century antiquarians, to the trophy cases of colonial empires, to self-affirming displays of the dominant culture’s assumptions regarding science and social stratification, to protectors of cultural heritage threatened by greed, politics and propaganda.
The Royal BC Museum’s collections include the commissioned work of Mungo Martin, whose genius triggered a coast-wide resurgence of Indigenous art. Martin—born Naka’pankam (Potlatch Chief Ten Times Over) at Tsaxis on the north end of Vancouver Island—was 10 on that luminous night in 1889 when the museum threw open its doors.
Taught by his stepfather Charlie James, Martin carved his first commissioned pole while the potlatch was still outlawed. (It was illegal for 66 years.) He made it for a client in Alert Bay where the RCMP would arrest and jail 45 people for the crime of being themselves with an ancient ceremony.
Yet in 1950, one year before the potlatch ban ended, Martin was hired as resident carver at the BC Museum. He collected 400 songs and oral histories. He trained the famous Indigenous artists Henry Hunt, Tony Hunt, Bill Reid and Doug Cranmer. In 1953, he gave the first legal potlatch since 1884—at the museum where he had built his Big House.
Martin died in Victoria on August 16, 1962, having presided over the resurrection of an artistic tradition his government had tried to murder and which had subsequently been pronounced dead, even by famous anthropologist Marius Barbeau. He lay in state in a carved yellow cedar coffin in his own Big House at Thunderbird Park, part of the museum precinct. Hundreds filed past in a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw ceremony. His pallbearers included cabinet ministers. His body was carried home in honour by the Canadian warship HMCS Ottawa.
As Roy’s thoughtful narrative points out, the Royal BC Museum deserves much credit for projecting work like Martin’s onto the world screen. From its early collection of argillite carvings by Skidegate chief Charles Edenshaw, to outreach programs for schools based on Son of Raven, Son of Deer by the Tseshaht artist George Clutesi (to whom Emily Carr left her paintbrushes), the museum’s profound efforts spanned a First Nations era from earliest contact to the Space Age. It even holds masks donated in gratitude by Kitty White, a woman from northern Vancouver Island who was “stolen” by people near Port Renfrew. The masks—for her and her children—were carved by her brother to mark his joy at eventually finding her.
The Legacy, a 1975 exhibition, was the first of a series of remarkable exhibitions that toured in Canada and Europe. Roy quotes Neil Sterritt, the honoured Gitxsan historian, as saying it was “probably the finest display of contemporary Indian art assembled in North America.”
If the democratization of knowledge, the flattening of social class into a more inclusive and pluralistic society, and the broadening distribution of education mean challenges to conventional thought, as Roy’s new history shows, the museum has proved a resilient, adaptive and unusually far-sighted institution.
Faced with challenging ethical questions of cultural appropriation, the museum pioneered repatriation policies for artifacts. In 2016, for example, it returned 17 items to the Huu-ay-aht for permanent display in the First Nation’s government office at Pachena Bay. The museum negotiates custodial arrangements to preserve and protect other items held by the museum or repatriated from other museums until such time as they might be returned.
IN ALL, THE MUSEUM HAS SEVEN MILLION ITEMS in its collections—including fascinating examples and insights into the flora and fauna, the natural and social histories of the province. As well, as Roy wryly reports, the museum’s own staff comprised some exotic specimens, too.
E.M. Anderson was a talented museum collector. In 1908 he applied for paid leave as his wife’s serious illness required him to take her to Calgary. While on leave, however, Anderson was discovered touring the United States as drummer with a theatrical troupe.
Then there was the chap hired to fill gaps in Indigenous inventory from BC’s Interior. His task was to find and buy rare art and artifacts for the museum’s “Indian collection.” Two museum officials happened to be visiting Vancouver Art Gallery when a call came. It was Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. Could anyone there authenticate a rare copper mask being offered for sale? The Glenbow provided a photograph. The BC museum’s experts could indeed verify. The mask, alas, was from their own collection, on loan from Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral. It was being offered for sale in Calgary by the museum’s own collector.
Violet Redfern was on the payroll as a 1920s stenographer but she actually worked as the museum’s botanist, collecting specimens and devising imaginative displays. Finally, after ten years of asking for a pay raise that reflected her work, the Province coughed up 7.5 cents an hour. She married the museum’s entomologist. They quit and went to homestead in Alberta.
And there was the directive from “Glad Hand Dick,” early 20th-century Premier Richard McBride, that the museum’s skilled taxidermists obtain a grizzly bear rug for the Emperor of Japan. The museum complied. Maybe that’s why, at the outbreak of World War One, when powerful German cruisers menaced the South Coast, the Japanese sent even bigger battleships to defend the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Japanese sailors on shore leave were among the museum’s intrepid visitors.
Among the eccentricities, of course, were giants of BC heritage and history. Roy cites Ian McTaggart Cowan, often called the father of Canadian ecology, who laid foundations in the 1930s for the museum’s transition to a genuine scientific institution. Clifford Carl, who completed the process in the 1940s, hired Wilson Duff, the anthropologist who shaped the museum into an astonishing First Nations treasure house. Duff was matched in vision by Willard Ireland, a brilliant young provincial archivist and librarian who succeeded William Kaye Lamb who left BC to become first the Dominion Archivist and then the first National Librarian of Canada.
Reflecting the province itself—BC is the most biologically, topologically and geologically diverse region in Canada—the museum addresses natural history, our diverse zoological heritage, anthropology and ethnology, palaeontology, archaeology and modern history, entomology and ichthyology, botany and herpetology.
If it opens doorways into BC’s past and future, the museum also opens windows on the cultural heritage of our wider world—this spring it celebrates UNESCO’s Year of Indigenous Languages with Maya: The Great Jaguar Rises, an exhibition raised from the immense civilizations that dominated Central America before Europeans found their way to the New World. Some of the items on display will be seen outside their country for the first time.
Roy’s history meets all the benchmarks of scholarly work. It’s meticulously detailed, exhaustively attributed and extensively annotated. More important, it brings a sense of humour and a lively appreciation of Victoria’s historic museum—not as a collection cabinet for desiccated specimens of the past but as a throbbing, dishevelled, entirely human enterprise replete with surprises and astonishments.
Patricia Roy will be the guest speaker at the Victoria Historical Society meeting on January 24 at James Bay New Horizons, 234 Menzies Street. Her focus will be “Flora, Fauna, and Fannin: The Early Days of the Provincial Museum.” Doors open at 7:15 pm. Admission is free for members, $5 for guests. www.victoriahistoricalsociety.bc.ca.
Stephen Hume has lived in many parts of BC since 1948. He spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers; he’s written nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays.
Recently nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, Darrel McLeod’s memoir will break hearts in the best possible way.
“MAMASKATCH! WE’RE FREE!” “Tapwe! Mamaskatch. MAMASKATCH!” The triumphant call and response is from a group of Cree girls who just ambushed two nuns at residential school and escaped into the woods, heading for home. Years later, in an altogether different kind of homecoming, Darrel McLeod would drive the casket bearing his mother, one of the daring escapees, to the small town of Smith, Alberta, near the Athabasca River, recalling lost hope for a happier return he’d imagined: “Mother showing me off and bragging: This is my son—he went to university; he’s a teacher now, mamaskatch.”
McLeod’s new memoir takes its title from the word his mother would use when something amazing happened and she wanted to share the moment. And it is, indeed, something amazing. Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (Douglas & McIntyre) generously and bravely invites us into intimate stories of McLeod’s family, their experiences with trauma, racism, violence, sexual abuse, addiction and, through it all, a deep and complicated love.
Darrel J. McLeod
Written in his retirement, McLeod takes us back to his tumultuous childhood in Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta, through his searching young adulthood and up to the early days of his career and his mother’s passing, the latter in some ways key to the book’s beginnings.
“When Mom died, I felt lost,” McLeod tells me, his usual cheerfulness muted. He had been teaching French immersion in Vancouver at that time, and was separated from her geographically and socially. “I felt I’d lost my connection to my culture with her passing, so I looked for ways of getting it back.” After applying to jobs on reserves all over the country, McLeod landed the principalship of a school north of Prince George, in a community of about 200. It was there that Catherine Bird, one of the Elders, planted an important seed. “We used to exchange stories sitting around visiting in the evenings or around the campfire on the weekend,” he recalls fondly. “She said: ‘You have to write those stories down. They’ll help somebody some day.’ So I had that in the back of my mind, but I never had time!”
Absorbed in a whirlwind career of curriculum and program development, federal treaty negotiation and so much more that took him from Victoria to Ottawa, Mexico and the UN (a career so full of its own stories that it’s the subject of his next book), McLeod waited to write, which brought its own blessings. “If you start at the age I started,” he laughs, “you have time to process things, put it all in perspective.” He says he also needed time to find a confident voice, not surprising given that he had become protective and secretive for much of his life.
Not a linear memoir, the 17 chapters unfold more like short stories, focusing on certain moments, sliding tangentially over others, and lingering over resonant details. For instance, huddled around a radio hooked up to a car battery listening to the news: “I have a dream… I heard.” And the first chapter hints at McLeod’s lifelong love of and escape into music, as his 13-year-old self is called downstairs at one in the morning. to listen to his mother’s troubling stories as record after record plays, from Elvis’ “There Goes My Everything” to Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
It’s not my place to try and tell or even summarize McLeod’s stories—a life he’s waited long and worked so hard to finally tell. But what I found so remarkable about the book is its fearless intimacy. It allows us to come indoors, sit at kitchen tables and at the edge of nighttime beds, peek around the corners of glass-strewn hallways, sit at schoolroom desks or along for lonesome bus rides and listen to conversations, whether in English or with snippets of untranslated Cree, and to a child’s painful and self-discovering questions. It allows us to also meet the man that child became: thoughtful, funny, strong, proud, resilient, creative and still questioning. And it allows anyone who has experienced violence—or, like McLeod, witnessed violence both by and against people he loves—to know that they are not alone.
“You know, Catherine Bird said I should write these stories down because they would help someone someday,” he says again, passionately, acknowledging some of the risks he took. “And I realized I had to bare it all. I had to show people—particularly youth, but it could be anybody my age or even older—who are carrying around a big load of shame and guilt and self-condemnation that they can get their stories out, they can deal with their issues. They don’t need to carry around that guilt and that fear: fear that people will find out, fear about if people find out your deep, dark secret, will they still love you or like you? In the feedback I’ve been getting, everyone has been so loving.”
Recently nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, Mamaskatch will break hearts in the best possible way. Years ago, my friend Richard Van Camp gave me a copy of his collection Angel Wing Splash Pattern with the inscription: “I hope these stories break your heart with beauty.” At first I wondered why a friend would wish me heartbreak, and I puzzled over the relationship to beauty. But I came to see that the beauty of art and honesty and bravely inviting others in and sharing truth is how you crack the shell of another’s heart, break it open to its glowing hidden place where it is molten, malleable, ready to be receptive, changed.
This is my last column for Focus magazine, and I leave it, after nine years, incredibly changed by all the conversations, in person and in pages. I am honoured to have shared time with so many wonderful writers and to have tried, in turn, to share that with you. Darrel McLeod sends me off with a softer heart and a big smile, as the last two words of his book, Ekosi etikwe, mean “See you later” or “It’s done” or “that’s it—for now.” It’s a beautiful ending because the story, McLeod reminds us all, is never over.
Amy Reiswig humbly thanks all of you for reading over these past nine years. May our stories cross again.
Authors Elizabeth Woodworth and Dr Peter Carter see climate change in terms of a planetary emergency needing global mobilization.
WHILE MANY OF US were cooling our feet at the beach this summer, much of the world was burning. Sometimes literally. Heat records were broken around the world, wildfires grew so big they created their own weather systems, and drought areas were visible from space.
So how far would you go to protect your child’s or grandchild’s life and future? How far should we all go to protect the lives of children we’ve never met or who won’t be born for generations, who share not our blood but our right to life on a healthy planet?
For world-renowned climate scientist and activist Dr James E. Hansen, it’s all the way to federal court. Hansen has been warning the world about climate change since the 1980s and is now one of the co-plaintiffs in the landmark Juliana v. United States lawsuit, alongside his granddaughter and 20 other young people. They’re suing the US government for knowingly promoting a climate- and future-damaging fossil fuel industry, thereby violating constitutional and public trust rights.
Hansen has also thrown his support behind a new book by two local researchers inspired in part by the groundbreaking legal case.
In Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival (Clarity Press), in which Hansen writes the foreword, Victoria-based writer Elizabeth Woodworth and Pender Island’s Dr Peter Carter refocus the way we look at climate change. As concerned citizens, we might follow news of international conferences producing mostly unimplemented promises, and we might even take our own eager steps in response to calls for individual action and technical innovation. But for these two longtime climate activists, the alarm still needs to sound louder, wider.
Seeing climate change in terms of a planetary emergency needing global mobilization, they also look at the various kinds of government and industry action and inaction in terms of prosecutable crime: state-corporate crime, bank crime, even crimes against humanity. “Climate change,” they write, “is a crisis of systems—ecosystems and social systems.”
Woodworth and Carter have each been working to raise awareness about climate change danger for years. A writer, researcher and former BC Ministry of Health librarian, Woodworth co-authored Unprecedented Climate Mobilization: A Handbook for Citizens and their Governments and was one of the producers of the Paris COP21 video A Climate Revolution for All. Carter, a retired medical doctor, has been following the NASA and NOAA climate stats for decades, which he publishes on the website stateofourclimate.com. Founder of the Climate Emergency Institute, he served as an expert reviewer for the IPCC’s 2014 climate assessment, and he has presented nationally and internationally on topics including environmental health policy, air pollution, sustainable development, and food security. He’s also one of the founders of CAPE (Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment) and, back in the days of the nuclear scare, was part of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility. Yet he wants to do more.
On a sunny day at Clover Point, Woodworth tells me about finally meeting and starting to work with Carter, whose work she has long admired. “At one point I said to him: ‘Peter, when you stopped being a medical doctor, it’s almost as if you expanded your doctoring to include the world.’ He said that was about right. He sees the whole world as a kind of patient that needs solutions.”
It turns out Woodworth also worked in the anti-nuke arena, writing the book What Can I Do? Citizen Strategies for Nuclear Disarmament in the late 1980s. That shared background speaks to what’s at the heart of this new collaborative volume: their mutual deep concern for the health of humanity and our planet and a belief that it’s still possible to make the changes we need to protect the future for those too young (or not yet alive) to take a stand for themselves.
What these two also share, and another part of what drives the book, is a certain amount of anger. “I would never have imagined, in my wildest nightmares, that we wouldn’t have solved this many, many years ago,” Carter tells me by phone. Because we’ve known. Governments have seen the science, as signatories to the IPCC’s summary reports, since 1990, and yet they “allow the global climate catastrophe to unfold…But worst of all they have failed to protect their citizens—now and for future generations. This,” they write, “is the crime of all time.”
The book’s first half, “Crimes Against Life and Humanity,” details just some of last year’s extreme weather—a catalogue of floods, fires, hurricanes, heatwaves, and the lives displaced or lost. “The images of what climate change looks like no longer belong to the future.”
They then look back to the beginnings of global climate warnings, including the way those warnings have been ignored or manipulated. Most eye-opening, though, is their analysis of the various international regulations and legal mechanisms under which GHGs should be controlled and polluters punished. Chapters on corporate media and the role of independent sources, the history and importance of the public trust doctrine, and patterns of information denial, suppression and deliberate misinformation mirror what the world went through in the fight against deep-pocketed Big Tobacco.
If Woodworth and Carter share anger, they also share hope. “It’s exciting, actually,” Carter explains. “People say it’s negative and depressing, but the work is the most positive work” for it allows him to focus on ways to spur the kinds of big cultural shifts that are painstaking but possible.
So while the book’s first half is a chronicle of dangers and criminality, the second half is solution-oriented, running the gamut from energy subsidies and tax reform to environmental law and current court challenges, civil disobedience, the power of investors, and some of the technical innovations already underway. We’re pointed to companies and organizations around the world—in Ireland, Morocco, Spain, Australia, Germany, Italy, India, Uruguay, Iceland and more—and I spent many subsequent hours exploring online, discovering surprising initiatives, whether it’s options for renewable energy powerful enough to meet the needs of heavy industry (a big missing piece right now), single companies turning waste methane into bioplastic, NASA’s development of electrical propulsion for aircraft, or larger social plans like the Solutions Project, proposing how we can transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.
It’s easy to be cynical about government commitment to addressing climate change when they invest billions of taxpayer dollars in a new pipeline without consultation or, down south, put a climate change denier in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. But in Unprecedented Crime, Woodworth and Carter remind us that action is happening and that new avenues of legal pressure can be pursued—another arena that’s heating up for the better. Indeed, after months of failed government attempts to delay and dismiss, Juliana v. United States has finally been rescheduled for trial on October 29. It’s being billed as the “trial of the century,” and I know I’ll be watching.
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig continues to ride her bike and her clunky 10-year-old electric scooter but knows it’s not enough.
Writer Eve Joseph stretches herself and her readers’ imagination and intellect in her new prose poetry book Quarrels.
MOST OF US MOVE through our day-to-day lives with a strong sense of what we call reality. It’s a little like staying on the sidewalk: straight, flat, solid. But one might also call it un-nuanced, inflexible, and keeping us at the edge of things. Reality, if we look a little sideways, is much less structured, more surprising, and can lead us into the deepest mysteries.
In her new book Quarrels (Anvil Press), Victoria writer Eve Joseph presents us with a series of short prose poems like windows into the weird and wonderful that is all around us but which we often don’t turn our heads to see. She invites us to bravely enter into our own little quarrels—the back and forths of “it’s this; it’s not”—with the perception of literal truth. For instance, in her work, equally mystifying is a man clapping his hands and filling the yard with owls, and a mother simply answering the phone and turning a house into a room of grief. We encounter a poet’s jar of commas, “like the sheared ears of voles...soft as apricots,” and elsewhere, at a party, enjoy the loving discovery of someone who is “a new music.” Which, really, is the more marvellous?
In these half-page verbal sculptures, Joseph reveals the arbitrariness of our common evaluations of things—of what’s normal or possible, of what or who fits where, and why. “I love where the real can take you,” she tells me, with the smile of someone sharing a secret.
Joseph has previously published two books of poetry and the award-winning memoir In the Slender Margin. These prose poems are something quite different. While they may be somewhat more surreal, they aren’t about escaping reality; rather, following it wherever it might lead. Take the capon that exploded out of a pressure cooker and became stuck on the ceiling. “That’s absolutely true!” she says, laughing. She was 9 years old, and her mother, who ran a salon business from their home, had left it unattended. “You think about that,” she says, “and it just becomes a black chandelier.”
And why not? Things can be what we see them to be. In that, we have some choice. For instance, Joseph’s mother told a questioning client that the barking noise, really from their wringer-washer, was a seal in the basement. And for months, the client brought a dead fish wrapped in newspaper every second Saturday, until she was finally told the seal had been given to the aquarium.
“I never knew what was truth and what was fiction,” Joseph explains, laughing. “And in the end, it didn’t matter. What I understood was that literal truth was far less important than metaphoric truth and the stories we tell ourselves.” So when she found the prose poem genre, it felt familiar. “The prose poets I’m drawn to have a surreal take. That was a form that came out of my life. I like that everything gets invited in, but only the strangest things stay.”
This slim, 85-page volume is divided into three sections. In the first, Joseph highlights the surreality of the everyday through unexpected juxtapositions, slidings, allusions. Non-narrative, these prose poems rely on image, rhythm, tension, relationship, allowing her to follow the real into the shadows, up to the door of Prometheus’ sulphurous bedroom, onto the back of a marvellous fish, or, with her grandfather lying still under the bedspread, “coming and going through the open window, a little further each time.” Playful and heart-wrenching, arresting and disorienting, each page, to me, is the verbal equivalent of stepping into a Joseph Cornell assemblage, where the beautiful, discrete pieces combine into a mysterious harmony where you want to linger because you sense you have something to learn.
The book’s second section is a series of responses to the photographs of Diane Arbus, someone who equally sights directly into the shadows and frames the surreal within the real. Arbus’ lens finds what we walk past every day, and Joseph felt every image was like a prose poem. “This world disappears and you see that.” These are the only works in the book with titles—the titles of Arbus’ photos so that readers can look up Joseph’s inspirations. Seeing them together is another form of juxtaposition, another shift of the gaze that helps us enter Joseph’s experience.
The last and incredibly poignant section centres on the ten days Joseph spent in California when her father called all his children to him as he neared death and then passed away. While death is a reality Joseph is intimately familiar with, having worked in hospice for 21 years, she admits that it’s still new, visceral. “It sounds like a cliché,” she says, “but you are literally at the heart of the human story. There’s no time for niceties, no time for the social ways we enter things. You’re simply there.” But being there means being face to face, as always, with paradox, with things side by side that can’t really be reconciled or explained. As I deal with the aging of my own father, now in his 80s, this section made me consider the many different ways to see someone you love, and yet the impossibility of ever completely doing so. “The line that came to me,” she says sombrely, “is: ‘why hadn’t we met before?’”
The prose poem form may feel familiar to her, but it was also a struggle. “I had a stroke in 2013,” Joseph tells me, “and I didn’t know if I could write again. Throughout the writing of this book, it felt many times like I would strike that flint and no sparks would catch.” A number of writers have used the concept of collision to describe prose poetry as a genre, an idea with which Joseph agrees. “For me it wasn’t a gentle melding of prose and poetry. There was nothing gentle about it. It was a collision. I wrestled with these guys. It is the hardest form I ever worked in.”
After meeting her, I think that not only her tough, determined character but her project here can be described in her line: “Because they said it couldn’t be done, I did it. Everyone agreed it was impossible. It wasn’t hard. The trick was not to think.”
I don’t at all mean these aren’t thinking poems, but they are so strong and limber that they deke around conventional thought, hop the fence, and are exploring up a tree before you can even get across the front yard. Many of us have forgotten how to leap like this. Part of what Quarrels does is show us the valuable skill of being able to enter a mystery not knowing where you’re going to end up.
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig recently moved to Mayne Island in order to lift her head away from the sidewalk a little more often.
Mythic dam battle at Site C is a showdown between “progress” and those who would preserve the valley.
FOUR-YEAR-OLD CALEB helped pull late September corn stalks at Ken and Arlene Boon’s farm, uncovering the pumpkins he’d eventually choose among for Halloween. There on a bank of the Peace River, this boy with blue glasses and dirty hands is the fifth generation to harvest in this garden, likely unaware that he may be the last, as the new highway for Site C will run through this part of his grandparents’ expropriated land. Nearby at Tluuge sus (Bear Flat), First Nations families have gathered for thousands of years—long before the Boons arrived. Cultural camps allow the sharing of ancestral knowledge and help maintain a spiritual connection to the land…for now. Site C construction will claim it, too. Farther out, downstream in the river itself, is what locals call Eagle Island. Named for its nests, every tree there has already been cut down.
These aren’t scenes you’ll find in government reports, industry-commissioned studies, or mainstream media accounts about the now-greenlit hydro megaproject taking shape in northeastern BC. Rather, they are some of the intimate stories told in award-winning journalist Sarah Cox’s new book Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro (UBC Press, May 2018). Through in-person visits, detailed interviews, and dogged research, Cox takes us to meet the place, its people, and its rare and little-studied ecosystems—all in peril. She reminds us that for local First Nations, farmers, and hundreds of species, the Peace River Valley is not a hydro opportunity; it’s home.
Billed as climate-friendly clean energy to meet future demand, the Site C dam was first proposed in the 1950s and has been a topic of hot debate, and resistance, for decades. Designed to produce 1100 megawatts on some of the province’s best agricultural land, Site C would affect 34 farms, the traditional territories of the Treaty 8 First Nations, 450 known archaeological sites, 900 areas of “paleontological sensitivity,” and more than 100 species at risk by flooding 128 kilometres of the Peace River Valley and its tributary valleys. As Cox encourages us to imagine, that’s the area between Victoria and Nanaimo under up to 15 storeys of water. The zone widens when you include the stability impact line and the wave impact line (where reservoir waves caused by landslides would reach). Oh, and there’s the new highway. It’s all going to cost us $10.7 billion, as of the January 2018 estimate.
That’s a lot of numbers, and I often lament that “number” contains the word “numb.” While Cox, with a saint’s patience, sifts through the tens of thousands of pages of environmental impact assessments to tell us, for instance, that “fourteen at-risk butterfly species will also be impacted by the project, including the Old World swallowtail and Aphrodite fritillary,” she clearly knows from her own experience that it takes more than data to help people understand what’s at stake and what’s been happening in the now bittersweetly named Peace.
Like most British Columbians, Cox had never been to the Peace region. That changed in 2013 while working for Sierra Club BC. Being there, her expectations of “just another pretty BC valley” were blown open, and she describes what she instead encountered: “something of a biological curiosity…a northern Garden of Eden.” After that personal contact, her ideas about conservation shifted, looking at nature to include “the preservation of other values as well: traditional way of life, human history, the smaller green spaces that connect protected areas for wildlife, how everything fits together.” From that, the spark was lit. “I remember the end of a conversation with a friend from the Peace,” she tells me, tucked into a quiet upstairs nook at Nourish Cafe. “I said, ‘I wish there was something else I could do.’ I literally woke up the next morning with the idea for the book.”
Personal contact is truly at the heart of Breaching the Peace. We hear the voices of expropriated landowners, of First Nations Chiefs and activists, even of birds like the endangered yellow rail, or the slow drip from the delicate geology of tufa seeps. Cox’s hands-on approach produces an ever-surprising series of “who knew?” moments: in the Peace you can grow everything from artichokes to watermelon; you can find 11,000-year-old taiga vole bones on the same land as prickly pear cactus growing farther north than Moscow; BC doesn’t have stand-alone legislation to protect endangered species; and methylmercury from flooded forest and agricultural land means Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations must already lament, “Nowadays what I get to do is to teach my son how to throw contaminated fish back into the river.”
“I was surprised all the way along,” Cox tells me, “by the extent of the damage—the damage to First Nations communities and rights and title, the damage to the environment, the damage to farmland.” And she’s not easy to shock. With an MA in political science, a freelance journalism career (earning a Vancouver Press Club Award, a BC Journalism Award, and two Western Magazine Awards), and a background with science-based conservation organizations, Cox has more recently been the legislative reporter for DeSmog Canada, focusing on energy and environmental issues. Site C wraps all of Cox’s interests into one big, unruly ball which she deftly untangles.
But Cox doesn’t just gather and chronicle information. The beauty of her book is that it allows us to stand in closer, deeper relation to this threatened place and its determined people. And we should. Its loss is rationalized as being for our collective gain, so there’s a responsibility to know what is being sacrificed for our supposed good. You can’t fight for—or mourn—what you didn’t even know existed.
The public also can’t stand up against an invisible process; that’s the other side of her story. Cox wanted people to see exactly what expropriation in BC looks like, and how BC Hydro quietly bought up land in the Peace, spending millions, all through the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s until the BC Liberals made good on their intention to push Site C past the point of no return, despite previous rejections. She wants people to see the tactics employed—not by a foreign-owned corporation, but by their own Crown corporation —in an intimidating BC Hydro civil suit against First Nations protesters in order to discourage potential future involvement (a suit, Cox notes, that’s still open). Quite simply, she says: “The story of what’s going on up there needs to get out.”
So while BC Hydro and the Canadian Hydropower Association wouldn’t speak to her, she ducked underneath and behind official lines to gather evidence through one-on-one talks, digging through stashes of letters and clippings, conferring with scientists, making FOI requests, excavating unsorted museum archives, hiking out on the land, visiting an international hydro conference, and meeting with alternative energy producers.
She also considers the global context of hydro megaprojects dating back to the 1920s and through to cautionary contemporary examples of Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland, and the Keeyask Dam in Manitoba. Big dams once stood as symbols of progress, independence, and ingenuity, but later represented corruption and arrogance, as environmental and human costs became too great to defend… until now. She writes: “One project that was dusted off and polished with a climate-friendly cloth was Site C. It joined big hydro dams around the world…as a phoenix rising from the ashes.” The climate has changed indeed.
While Cox’s prose is controlled, deliberate, shot through with wonder, deep respect, and empathy, she injects a sense of the mythic, conveying the enormity of the larger principles at play—and also at risk. Despite NDP Premier John Horgan’s giving the go-ahead in December, Cox doesn’t believe the fight is quite over. With two First Nations court cases and major geotechnical issues (she says they still haven’t found bedrock), she believes Site C’s fire may still go out. “The public turning against the project could also stop it,” she says. “I think most people still don’t know.” With Breaching the Peace, we’ll all know a lot more.
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig continues to believe that our greatest natural resource is one another—to listen, ask questions, find solutions, and stand in support.
Claire Sicherman delves into the silent stories of her family’s traumatic past.
AN ARRAY OF OLD PHOTOGRAPHS stands on a wooden table: grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunt and -uncle, even a great-great-grandmother against a backdrop of fruit trees. It’s Yom HaShoah, and writer Claire Sicherman, her husband, and their young son stand together, honouring their many relatives murdered in the Holocaust, as well as those who survived—the ones who made this family’s life possible. For each cherished name, they float a red anemone blossom in a bowl of water, saying: “We love you and we will always remember you.”
Sicherman tells the story of this personal ritual in her new book Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation (Caitlin Press, December 2017). It’s a perfect illustration of her writing project as a whole. Her book, like her creative ceremony, is about learning how to keep memory alive; how to grieve, not just alone, but together; how to heal; and, ultimately, how to make meaning from that which makes no sense.
Sicherman’s maternal grandparents, her babi and deda, were each the only members of their extended family to survive the Holocaust, and it was something they didn’t discuss. Though she’d occasionally see her grandmother’s Auschwitz tattoo peeking out from her sleeve, Sicherman writes: “We were all too scared to ask, to enter their trauma, to hurt them, to break them open.” And so when her grandfather committed suicide when she was just 4 years old and, much more recently, when her grandmother died at age 102, many stories went with them to the grave. “For me,” she explains over tea, “it was a twofold grief: my grandmother’s death, and then the stories that were going to be buried with her—the ones I knew and the ones I would never know.”
Being third generation, several removes from the events, Sicherman has photos and facts—and even her name, Claire, which connects her to her great-grandmother Klára. But who were these people whose lives filtered down to hers, shaping her? The third generation is a tricky place: distant enough to be able to tell stories others couldn’t (or wouldn’t), but also bearing the scars without the wounds—or living with different kinds of wounds. How do you heal from those? How do you own stories full of holes, questions, absence, silence?
Like that moment in her grandparents’ life, about which she can only write: “I don’t know how they are taken.” Or when she imagines what the Nazi gas van drivers did and felt while their human cargo, including her Klára, died in the back. “Would the driver casually light a cigarette?…Would he roll down the window and yell at his buddy, something funny, a joke maybe, and they’d both laugh?” And then what do you do with everything that can’t be written on the backs of photographs, or on paper at all, but is instead carried, in fragments, in the body through inherited intergenerational trauma, a genetic imprint? How do you talk about it all with the next generation to make sure we never repeat, never forget? This book offers Sicherman’s tender exploration and determined excavation toward answers.
Sitting in the colourful Rock Salt Café on Salt Spring Island—where Sicherman, her husband and son recently moved (from Vancouver) in order to live more slowly and closer to nature—her warmth and generosity convey resilience and wisdom, specifically the wisdom to be curious rather than stay stuck in grief. But Sicherman doesn’t see herself as courageous; rather, she says she was compelled to enter the dark places to connect to the stories, to the people, and, in many ways, to herself. “I felt something simmering beneath my skin,” she tells me. “And as I began to write, I felt it was my ancestors voicing and encouraging me to tell their stories. I didn’t have a choice. I felt like either I would write and it would kill me, or I wouldn’t write and it would kill me. In the end, I think I chose the healthier path for myself,” she smiles, “because it didn’t kill me.”
She also lets the book shine with the light of her life—her 11-year-old son, Ben—although we learn that he came into this world wrapped in a trauma of his own, asphyxiated by his umbilical cord and painstakingly revived. He was named after his father’s favourite uncle, a Holocaust survivor, and Sicherman notes that some scholars have interpreted “Benjamin” to mean “build” or “rebuild.” She writes directly to him in the book: “Ben, you are the son of our family…We are slowly gathering the pieces and building a life, creating a narrative. Your story is one of rebirth.” It turns out hers is, too.
Told in four sections—roughly: the Holocaust and extended family; Ben; her relationship to herself; her journey into healing—each is a mix of memoir, journal entries, letters, and lists. With that fragmented structure, Imprintreflects Sicherman’s inner experience, the movement of her mind as she makes discoveries and finds threads. And it shows her need to touch in and out, to protect herself as she (re)connects her ancestral past, her daily present, and her family’s future.
At the end of their Yom HaShoah ritual, after the list of names has been read, there are so many flowers floating that they can’t see the water. They carry the bowl out into the afternoon and together place the red anemones around the base of a blossoming cherry tree. Ben, now the fourth generation, pours out the water onto its roots. Like Sicherman’s book, it’s a gesture of transformation. For just as beautifully, she has poured out her tears and memories and love onto the page, and with an open heart has done her part to nurture strength, growth, and life.
“I don’t feel brave,” she tells me quietly but sternly. “But I do feel a bravery that’s connected to being vulnerable. We see vulnerability as a weakness in our society. I’ve felt that myself: ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be this strong person?’ We wear masks in the outside world, and those masks are what keep us from connecting. I think those masks are a weakness. For me, healing is a process that’s going to take my whole life. It’s just something that I do, day to day.”
Through her writing, she graciously lets us into her process—and encourages us to undertake a form of it ourselves, in relation to whatever family circumstances and unexplored family stories we, too, may have. Her hope is that we can all find a way in.
In her research and editing work at McGill’s Holocaust oral testimony archive, Amy Reiswig was daily humbled and inspired by the power to be vulnerable and break the silence.
Author Pauline Le Bel’s personal journey of losses, learning, and hope for Howe Sound.
OUTSIDE PAULINE LE BEL’S FRONT WINDOW on Kwilákm/Bowen Island, the Coast Mountains become something new. In what maps call Mount Strachan, Le Bel sees the head of a Sleeping Woman whose pregnant belly carries much more than the mundane name of Saint Mark’s Peak. Sometimes blanketed in snow, sometimes clothed in cloud, the reclined giant faces the sky and silently tells a new story—one about seeing differently, seeing what could be, seeing with love.
Written under that view, Le Bel’s new book, Whale in the Door: A Community Unites to Protect BC’s Howe Sound (Caitlin Press), is all about making space for a new story to shape the way we see and approach the land.
A spectacular fjord reaching inward from the Strait of Georgia, with Gibsons on one side and West Van on the other, Atl’kitsem/Howe Sound stretches 42 kilometres up to Squamish. Historically home to the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw/Squamish Nation, Captain Vancouver named this area after Admiral Earl Howe, someone who Le Bel notes never laid foot or eye on its beauty. From mountains she calls “custodians” of the forests, to the deep regions of the ancient glass sponge reefs, Howe Sound is and has been many things to many people, and Le Bel chronicles ways in which use of the Sound has divided people. More importantly, she has now begun to unite those who dare to see it differently—to see, as Le Bel writes, with “eyes that have learned to see source, and not just resource.”
Pauline Le Bel (Photo by Virginia Penny)
Whale in the Door is partly a chronicle of Le Bel’s own learning. From First Nations history to modern industrial despoilment to current ecological and cultural renewal, Le Bel digs into what has shaped this sharp stretch of land and water. Though full of information even locals will likely not know, it’s not at all academic. While her previous book, Becoming Initimate with the Earth, took its energy from sadness and loss, this one, she tells me, is born out of gratitude and love.
As in any love story, it’s all about relationship. Le Bel came to the area 19 years ago, at first falling for the green winters of Vancouver during an eye-opening work trip from Edmonton, and eventually settling on Bowen. A professional artist who’s made a living in theatre, music and writing—and won an Emmy nomination for her feature-length drama The Song Spinner (also an award-winning novel)—she says the Muses descended upon her with extra force the week after she arrived on Bowen. She was inspired, breathed into. For a curious, bold, and energetic doer like Le Bel, that also meant learning and being changed.
One of her core beliefs, she tells me by phone, is that we are born not just into a place, but into the stories of that place. Which means when we move or exchange places, we can therefore seek out and meet the stories of a new place. That is precisely what Le Bel has poured herself into, and what she shares here.
As a result, Whale in the Door is more personal than history or journalism. With her, the reader learns things they’d never know unless, like Le Bel, they went salmon counting or looking for forage fish embryos on the beach with a marine biologist or interviewed industry executives or humbly listened to First Nations Elders over bowls of soup.
Yes, we learn shocking stories about Howe Sound becoming one of the most polluted places in North America, thanks to pulp mills, mining, chemical plants and other industrial use. But remember, this is a book about relationship. Losses and damage on the land and in the water mean great losses and damage first and foremost to the First Nations whose lives have for centuries been tied to that land and water.
Le Bel’s care, not just as a writer but as a person, is what leads us into the book’s heart, and hers. Her desire to connect means we get introduced to individuals living the story of Howe Sound, like Randall Lewis, environmental advisor for the Squamish Nation and president of the Squamish River Watershed Society. He remembers football practice in 1973 when a chemical plant explosion sent up orange-green clouds, and Elders warned not to eat the berries and plants. He recalls how a 2005 CN derailment sent fish jumping out of the Cheakamus River to escape the burning caustic soda. And when in the late ’80s DFO shut down the crab and shrimp fishing in Howe Sound because of dioxin and furan levels, Elders continued eating the seafood because, as Lewis explained, “there was no other choice and that’s all they knew.”
But the Howe Sound story is also one of activism and hope, for we see many sectors of the community pulling together to create a new narrative, one of environmental and cultural renewal. Whether it’s large-scale industry change, elementary school Squamish language classes, or eelgrass, estuary, and food restoration projects, we see the growing commitment among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to work together to change the story—a story where people and place are inseparable. We become more aware of the need to recognize relationship. As Randall Lewis told Le Bel: “If you want to fix things, fix the land. We need to make the spirit of the land strong again. If the land is strong, it will make our spirit strong. And future generations will receive the blessings of the land.” That goes for all of us here.
With a foreword by federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May, the book celebrates successes, but begs for caution with regard to future plans. The resilient but still recovering area faces pipelines, a gravel mine, resorts, commercial and residential developments, an estuary-impacting connector road and, looming largest, the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant which is again dividing communities. “Of course we need industry,” Le Bel tells me. “It’s how we do it.” And how we do it depends on the story underneath it. What we need to ask, she says, is: “What story will help us live well?”
Le Bel sees the artist’s role as “reclaim, reframe and rename—without shame.” She hopes the book will inspire people in other communities to realize that the kind of renewal going on in Howe Sound is achievable elsewhere. “It’s a good book for any community wanting to take charge and get that connection,” she says. “It’s possible.”
It’s possible to look differently at what’s outside your window. Most people look at the mountains we call the Lions, but don’t know the story of Chíchiyuy, the Twins or the Sisters, and their example of how conflict can be resolved with dignity, respect, and peace. People climb what they call the Chief but don’t know the story of Siyam Smanit. We can learn. We should learn. Imaginatively giving the area itself a say by writing in the voice of Howe Sound, a voice inspired by her Sleeping Woman, Le Bel says: “In this place, you may come to understand the meaning of your own life.” Heading into a new year is the perfect time to ask: What role can I play?
Part of Whale in the Door’s proceeds will be donated to Squamish Nation youth programs.
Having grown up with a glass sponge expert father, writer and editor Amy Reiswig always gets excited when someone else, like Le Bel, knows what they are!
In his new book, award-winning writer Tim Lilburn begins the process of “personal decolonization.”
HOW WOULD YOU ANSWER THE SEEMINGLY SIMPLE QUESTION: Where are you? Not the political construct of municipal boundaries or overlaid names from colonial mapmakers, but the land under your feet—where are you? How do you meet it, belong to it, and why does that matter?
Tim Lilburn has been wrestling with such questions in his writing, his classrooms, and his heart for decades. In his new book of essays, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place (University of Alberta Press, October 2017), he continues his search by zoning in on the issue as it particularly confronts descendants of European settlers: How to be here and, as he writes, “What does justice ask of us?”
An award-winning poet, philosopher, creative writing teacher, editor, and former Jesuit and CUSO worker, Lilburn is an existential and intellectual explorer who keeps coming back to ideas of home. Born in Regina and attached to the landscapes of Saskatchewan—evident in poetry collections like Moosewood Sandhills and To the River—his transplantation to Victoria was difficult. He felt like he was bouncing off of things in unfamiliar territory. But no matter where he’s been in his life, his sense of being “unmoored” has rooted his research and thought as he walks the long interior path of trying to understand, and seeking nourishment to appease, a deep hunger and sense of loneliness for place.
The Larger Conversation picks up threads from his two previous books of essays—Going Home (2008) and Living in the World as if It Were Home (1999). But this new volume adds Lilburn’s relatively recent insight into how his malaise, his feeling unsure of how to be at home where he is, is related to colonialism and the worldview that drives it. Therefore, as he writes in the introduction, “This book represents a ragged beginning at a personal attempt at decolonization” which aims to dig underneath the foundations of imperialist thinking. It’s a process he calls “psychic archaeology.” This personal renovation, he says, is necessary work.
In a series of essays, lectures, confessions, and interviews, all based on years of reading and research, Lilburn shares not new but old, reclaimed ways of thinking—long-ignored riches from the Christian, Judaic and Islamic contemplative wisdom traditions in thinkers like Plato, Ibn ’Arabi, Julian of Norwich, Marguerite Porete, Suhrawardi, 14th-century Flemish mystic John Ruusbroec, and more. Their phenomenologies are based on the kind of interior practice that results in what Lilburn calls “a feasting attention.” Values of courtesy, humility, and permeability can help him, and us, lay groundwork for a meaningful relationship to place that is the wellspring of ethics—ethics reaching beyond the individual self.
It is fitting that on October 10, Lilburn was awarded The European Medal of Poetry and Art, also known as the Homer Medal, whose jury considers artists whose works offer “a universal message to the world, close to the ancient patterns.”
Over coffee on a sunny Friday afternoon, Lilburn soft-spokenly yet passionately explains that for him, philosophy, which grounds politics, is interior practice. “I have a deep personal—as opposed to professional—interest in this. I feel that these folks can help me. It’s not like a hobby. It’s a fighting for air, fighting for intellectual and interior air.”
As a result, this book is more personal than his previous essay collections, and he opens up about his own difficulties and despairs, as well as transformative non-rational experiences of beauty that cast doubt on an ultimately deficient Cartesian system which he calls “the starvation rations of a brutally literal single-ply empiricism.”
He’s seen that other people are desperate, too, and has recognized a similar hunger in seekers also “floating above land,” as he says, in late-capitalist modernity. “I’ve been long convinced that there is not enough in the culture, as it’s narrowly and usually construed today, to support a deep interior life,” he tells me. “There’s no grounding in wisdom that our culture provides. We live in the midst of this lack. It’s become normalized for us. We tolerate it to the point that we forget that it actually exists.”
The book is one not just of renovation but retrieval. In order to undo the Western extractive, colonial approach to land—one that uses, warehouses, and dominates—we have to return to our former strengths, what Lilburn calls “cognitive rebar.” “Primarily,” he says, “what we lost was a valuing of, and our capacity to practice within, a contemplative discipline. It’s as simple as that, really. There are stories, belief systems and spiritual exercises all around it, but that’s the core. It doesn’t matter what your background is.”
I’m not going to lie: Lilburn’s book is a hard read. Sometimes I felt lost. Often I felt dumb when hitting phrases like “tesseraic understanding,” “sacerdotal ascesis,” or flipping to the glossary or reaching for my dictionary for terms like apokatastasis, haecceity, phronesis, anachoresis. “But then,” Lilburn laughs with delight, “you realize a word isn’t even in the dictionary!”
Lilburn has a quiet but impish sense of humour, and he’s keenly aware that some readers will see the book as too scholarly or too dense, despite his protestation “I’m not a scholar. I’m just a panic-stricken individual who has a library card.” My own master’s thesis focused on poetry in the eremitic tradition, meaning I could hear the faint ring of a few bells as I went. Yet, I confess I almost gave up several times. But I’m glad I didn’t. Abrasive as the process could be, it peels you. And this is precisely what’s needed. The more I persevered, the more I realized how little I’d critically examined my own inherited Eurocentric culture. I can tell many of the myths surrounding our names for planets and constellations, but how many native species can I identify in my Fairfield backyard? Where exactly am I?
“This kind of disorientation that you experienced is not wasted time,” Lilburn affirms after my confessions of difficulty. “This is an important contemplative moment, this kind of rearranging of the intellectual molecules.” I’m glad I ultimately gave up only on the dictionary, and started trusting the text to give me what I needed, trusting myself to rise up to meet it. I became attentive, humble, permeable. And it became a conversation.
The book brings a sense of urgency, set against the backdrop of climate change and of this past strangely-twinned “Year of Reconciliation” and “Canada 150” celebrations. What Lilburn shows us is that the settler side has a long way to go to get its philosophical (interior practice) house in order if we want to come to the table meaningfully in terms of the land and those we share it with.
“This retrieval will be helpful,” he says. “It will give us a set of interior skills, capacities. This book is interested in the possibility of a new start, a new epistemological start for Europeans here that includes the possibility of spiritually deep conversations with First Nations.” What justice asks of us is that we do the work to prepare for conversation.
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig is grateful for every moment of being able to call this place home and will approach it and its people with deeper attention and listening every day.
Victoria poet laureate Yvonne Blomer combines literary forces to appreciate and protect our large salty neighbour.
HERE ON THE WEST COAST, we’re on the edge of something big. Quite literally, I mean the ocean, but also more. For now is a time of urgent concern and, hopefully, a shift toward responsive action to help save our big blue neighbour.
Those twin engines of fear and hope have propelled Yvonne Blomer, Victoria’s poet laureate, into curating a new anthology, Refugium: Poems for the Pacific (Caitlin Press). These works invite us into greater conversation with ourselves and others as we contemplate just how we face the sea—with everything that means—here on our shared fragile edge.
Refugium collects the voices of over 80 poets and takes its title from the biological term meaning a place where something can survive a period of unfavourable conditions. While the Pacific is huge and daunting in its power, it is in peril. Rising water temperatures, increasing acidification, accumulation of plastics, over-fishing, increased shipping noise and tanker traffic, toxic residential and industrial waste (everything that runs off or out of the greedy core of a commerce-driven civilization)—all threaten various ocean creatures and ecosystems. But the overarching unfavourable conditions producing those threats are less tangible: our attitudes. Can the ocean survive us?
Blomer, who also recently published Sugar Ride: Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lampur (Palimpsest Press, May 2017), a memoir of her travels—as a longtime diabetic—by bike through Southeast Asia, is an idealist at heart. She intends Refugium itself to be a kind of refugium for the Pacific. Which is why, in a nuanced word choice, these are not poems about or to the ocean, but for it. “I hope the book isn’t the only place that the Pacific Ocean thrives in 20, 40 or 100 years from now,” she tells me. “But in creating a book that is for the Pacific, a refugium for it, I hope we’ll inspire creation of real-world or outside-the-book refugia.”
The project was first conceived in 2014, when Blomer was applying for the City of Victoria’s poet laureateship, and initially focused on local poets. Eventually, Blomer decided the theme warranted a broader call-out. For one thing, she explains, “issues like Kinder Morgan are known across North America.” But also, she finds that many poets express a more personal link to the Pacific. “We have a connection to this large salty body. Fewer of the submissions were about creatures than our social or individual connection to the ocean. ‘I go to the ocean to grieve.’ Or ‘I enter the ocean to feel whole again.’ Even if you’ve only done it once, you’ll remember it.”
And so the anthology brings together coastal locals (like Jordan Abel, John Barton, Brian Brett, Lorna Crozier, Gary Geddes, Anita Lahey, Isa Milman, Arleen Paré, Patricia and Terence Young, Jan Zwicky) and farther-flung voices from across North America and as far away as Hawaii, New Zealand, and even 19th-century Japan, in a modern translation of a poem entitled “The Memorial Service for Whales.”
While some of Refugium’s poems have been previously published, many were written specifically for this book, as fresh expressions and explorations covering a range of emotions big enough to suit the subject.
We share in specific, place-based remembrances, observances, and stories—praise for the beauty of a particular beach or cove; how a daughter holds her aging mother’s hand as they walk into the ocean, feeling powerful. We are brought to focus on individual ocean inhabitants going about their business, like urchins, sea turtles, orcas, and tideline birds picking through the plastic-choked seaweed. We can delight in wordplay, like Nancy Pagh’s “Moon Jelly” evoking “a name to spread on evening toast/ and eat/ bite by tiny bite” or Tim Bowling’s collection of Shakespearean-sounding ocean insults: “Yeah, you heard me, you Suborbicular kellyclam Twelve-tentacled parasitic anemone.… You’re nothing but a Flap-tip piddock with an Aggregated nipple sponge.”
And, of course, we can mourn with those who chronicle losses and issue warnings. For example, Fiona Tinwei Lam questions what will be left, grieving for “That beauty/ we remember, but/ cannot resuscitate.” And in the timely-titled “Northern Gateway,” Lorna Crozier imagines “every spirit the salmon feeds,/ every man inside a bear, inside a whale,/ inside the throat of frog and eagle,/ every woman whose chopped hair/ tossed into the sea, grew into eel grass” all singing “a lamentation that will not cease./ You don’t want to hear that song.”
Like the ocean, Refugium pushes and pulls us, comforts and terrifies us, in poems that are playful, grief-stricken, awe-struck, hopeful, condemnatory, speculative, historical, personal. But the undercurrent is all of love. For as newly elected Green Party MLA Adam Olsen writes in his introduction, “No matter how long you have been here, one month, one year or a thousand, the Pacific is part of the family.”
That sense of relationship deepens through contact with so many individual perspectives in this book. For instance, relatively recent Victoria transplant Anita Lahey tells me that the call for Pacific poems gave her the nudge she needed “to try to get a sense of my relationship with this ocean and even perhaps to help build one.” And native West Coaster Barbara Pelman explains: “I can’t imagine living so far from the sea that I’d lose the rhythm of water as part of my cells. There is nothing quite so soothing as the tide coming in, and the rituals around its waters: throwing stones, skipping stones, walking on sand, collecting shiny things. A book that would both celebrate the ocean we live beside, and warn of its degradation, is a book we all need.”
But with relationship, as we all know, comes challenge. How do we engage, and how deep do we go?
Often, what we see looking out from our edge is just surface—the ocean’s impassive enormity. And enormity can create a false sense of security. We’ve said “too big to fail” before. Refugium takes a stand against seeing shallowly, and reorients our perspective—not just about the Pacific, but about our ability to act. As Heidi Greco’s simple poem “Edgy” asserts, “Here at the shoreline, a world/ begins:/ waves lapping,…granting a second/ chance.” And in “Three Peninsulas” Sijo Smith reminds us of our collective power: “I alone am a drop,/ but we are an ocean.”
Refugium will launch, with an accompanying exhibition of artworks inspired by the poems, on October 5 at The Maritime Museum, 634 Humboldt Street. Doors at 6:30; reading at 7:30. Early bird tickets $15 (available through the Maritime Museum), $20 regular. Ticket sale profits will go toward supporting eco-education at the Maritime Museum.
Daughter of a world-renowned glass sponge biologist, some of writer and editor Amy Reiswig’s most cherished childhood memories involve Pacific tidepooling with her dad. So much love starts in the sea.
An out-of-the-box thinker, writer, editor and translator believes in daring to be different for the social good.
PAULO DA COSTA’S new book, The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories, is with Guernica Editions, an Ontario publisher specializing in world literature. Their motto, “No Borders No Limits,” is an apt summation of da costa’s work. He brings an international, multicultural background and vision to a genre that pushes readers into strange and sometimes uncomfortable territory. Through his lens, we can expand our ideas about ourselves and our place in the larger, magical connectivity of the world.
Even the way he lowercases his name is meant to expand our thinking. He is, he explains, disrupting “naming patterns” which reflect human self-importance in an effort to promote the equality of creation.
da costa comes from a culture of storytelling. Born in Angola, he spent the first five years of his life in a country that, at the time, didn’t have television. Those early years focused on play—either with others or within his imagination—meant he became, at a young age, accustomed to creating his own universe.
paulo da costa (Photograph by Tony Bounsall)
After his family moved back to Portugal, he grew up in Vale de Cambra, a small village where the family home went back several centuries, and everyone knew them. While valuing tradition and the role of strong roots, da costa also quickly learned the limitations of understanding the world from a single perspective. “Reading became my raft,” he tells me, sitting in the sun among the fruit trees of his Fernwood garden—his home the brightly-coloured anomaly in a row of neutrals. As a child, he says, his world was opened up by books like Marco Polo, and “I realized my tiny village was a mote in the universe, and that the possibilities of being were so much vaster.”
Those myriad “possibilities of being” are precisely what The Midwife of Torment is all about. In a series of 60 very short stories—most under 1000 words, one as short as a two-line sentence—da costa offers a literary potluck of flavours and styles: from the whimsical to the tragic; the contemporary and domestic to the speculative and tech-oriented. Some are beautiful, simple stories that pull us out of our own busy time into small villages. Others invite us into the voice and consciousness of other creatures: cougars, fish—even trees.
While the tone and style shifts, sometimes jarringly, from story to story, it’s not inconsistency or lack of coherence. Rather, that diversity is the point and strength of the book, and of da costa’s worldview. “My approach requires a certain courage from readers,” he says.
Often, the stories contain a surprise: What we initially think is happening isn’t so at all, and the plot takes sudden left turns. For instance, a seeming stalker turns out to have quite unexpected intentions; characters in a painting decide they no longer want to please the viewer; and a tree tells us, “As I sat idle, the entire Forest arrived.”
In this book of brief, imaginative leaps—which da costa describes as a combination of “zen simplicity and rich dessert”—relationships between people, other creatures, and events stand out in ways we have not seen before.
To da costa, reading is very like travelling, and you won’t grow if you simply see your own universe repeated. To expand our experience, one of da costa’s goals is to make us think philosophically. “My stories are often questions,” he says, recalling that the most important people in his life were the ones who opened the window of “what if?”
As a parent of young children (aged two and five) and as a writer, da costa hopes to do the same. Every story is a quick push of the reset button of what we know. He makes us aware of the invisible forces and webs that shape us, within and without, with stories as potent as a lightning strike or as gentle as the silvery shake of olive leaves.
Written over approximately 20 years, this series of short pieces is also a way of capturing da costa’s prolific creativity, which he sees as both an extension of who he is in the world, and a challenge to all of us. “I don’t separate creativity, in a professional aspect, from living,” he says. “Every moment I live and breathe, I’m making connections.” Ultimately, he sees that sense of connectivity as integral to how we take care of each other and the land. “When you’re not connected,” he notes passionately, “your caretaking is not the same.”
In that sense, the book has not just a philosophical but a political aspect, as it proposes other ways of seeing, being, and organizing. Energetic and optimistic, he says: “We have to have dialogue and friction in order to keep things moving,” whether in literature or in politics. “We can overcome with our imagination, with stories.”
da costa’s work is therefore very much connected to hope, although in this book he stretches himself into some darker corners than his previous collections. These include The Scent of a Lie, which won the 2003 Commonwealth First Book Prize for the Canada-Caribbean Region and the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize; and The Green and Purple Skin of the World. In The Midwife of Torment he consciously wanted to feel the minds of people in different kinds of pain as a means of gaining entry into greater empathy—another kind of connectivity he hopes to promote.
da costa’s shifts and twists don’t feel gimmicky. Rather, he disrupts and forces you to confront the expectations and assumptions you’ve silently generated as you went along. They put me in mind of the by turns meditative and turn-you-upside-down short works of Kafka, Victoria’s own John Gould, and Yasunari Kawabata (collected in the perfectly-titled Palm-of-the-Hand Stories).
The narrator in his story “The God of Shadows” says, “What you feel as you read my words will say everything about what you did not know about yourself.” That is the starting point for opening up to seeing and understanding that which is beyond borders, daring to live creatively and connected in a way that is perhaps beyond conventional limits. And so da costa’s story sends the reader off with good advice: “So long, and be brave.”
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig felt instantly connected to the book’s message, as its epigraph—“Those who don't believe in magic will never find it”—was read at her vaudevillian wedding last year.
A coming-of-age story invites us to step out of the comfortable.
ON THE OPENING PAGE of Eden Robinson’s new novel Son of a Trickster (Knopf, February 2017), we learn that Jared is different. As a small child, his maternal grandmother called him Wee’git—“Trickster”—and told him: “You still smell like lightning.” While she’d treat his cousins to fudge and caramel apples, for his birthday she gave Jared a jar of blood and animals’ teeth.
Like the reader, Jared has a lot of learning to do. For in this book, the seemingly normal and the magical inhabit the same space. Telling them apart can be, well, tricky. But that seems to be part of Robinson’s point, as she explores simultaneity and the opportunities that come when you have to face it.
The story takes place in Kitimat, 10 kilometres north of Kitimaat Village, where Robinson spent her own youth. It follows Jared, a 16-year-old living in his mother’s basement, who has to navigate shifting mysteries within and without as the world he thought he knew turns into something he doesn’t know at all.
Dealing with more than just the typical teenage escapades with booze, drugs, sex, and fickle social circles, Jared’s world of domestic dysfunction teeters between extremes of tenderness and violence. This young man, who says things like “good gravy” and cries over his dying dog, has to define himself. He must choose how to be in the face of his addicted and gun-toting mother’s mantra, which is part warning and part command: “The world is hard. You have to be harder.”
But how can you know how to be when you aren’t sure who you are? How do you untangle all of what makes you who you are in the first place? How do you determine what is real and what isn’t? Not small questions for someone who had been hoping he could finish grade ten “before all this shit blew up.” Yet the coming apart is where Robinson shows us Jared’s learning happens, and she seems to take delight in blowing up the limitations of his knowledge and perspective. In a description of magic early in the novel, she reminds us that “our reality is shaped by our limitations.”
“When I left Kitimaat,” she tells me by phone, “I assumed everyone knew who the Haisla were, that we make the best [oolichan] grease. I assumed everyone knew what grease was! Across North America, we all have the same blind spots. We assume our reality is the only reality. But there’s more than one reality.”
A member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, Robinson once again makes her home in Kitamaat Village, population 700, on BC’s central coast. Growing up in a community rooted in oral tradition meant everyone told stories, and many of the stories Robinson heard around the family table were about the transforming trickster Wee’git.
Oral storytelling wasn’t her forte, though. “I wasn’t very good at it,” she laughs. “I tend to wander.” Instead, in grade 11 Robinson started writing, a medium that could encompass her containment-resistant thinking. “Originally, I wanted to be an astronaut,” she says, “but then I found out NASA had a height requirement.” So, science geek that she was, she started writing short science fiction and, from there, branched out to the dark stories of Traplines (winner of the UK’s Winifred Holtby prize); the downtown Vancouver Eastside-based Blood Sports; and her critically-acclaimed novel Monkey Beach (shortlisted for the Giller prize and a Governor General’s Literary Award, and winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize). In 2016 she was awarded the Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award, honouring a mid-career body of work making a significant contribution to Canadian literature.
It’s not surprising that Robinson began exploring her talent as a teen. In both Monkey Beach and Son of a Trickster, young adulthood is a particularly powerful time, where that universally awkward experience of self-discovery includes awakening to, and shaking hands with, unusual gifts. While most teens won’t discover that their parent is a supernatural being or start seeing the dead, Jared’s story of painfully growing into the truth is important for young people. And its lesson of listening to and learning to accept what sets you apart is good for all of us.
Robinson is also interested in exploring what makes us similar. In a series of interstitial moments stepping out of the ground-level, expletive-laden action, a narrative voice—perhaps the aeons-old Wee’git—shares more meditative thoughts about the Earth’s past and present history.
“Every living creature, every drop of water and every somber mountain is the by-blow of some bloated, dying star.” We’re told that the difference between one human and another “is probably one DNA base pair in every thousand” and that we are “transitory vessels built from recycled carbon like every other living thing on this planet. Bits and parts of you have probably been a cricket or a dinosaur or a single blade of grass on the prairies.” In these moments, Robinson’s love of science peeks through and shows us a way of seeing another kind of magic, in our world and in ourselves.
One of the strengths of this kind of magic realism is that it forces us to look with new eyes at the so-called “real world” we already inhabit. For instance, when Jared sees a monster underneath an old woman’s skin, it doesn’t really match the submerged monstrousness of his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who took perverse pleasure in a scene of torture I won’t describe here. Robinson shows us that the seemingly “normal” can be just as bizarre—in both beautiful and horrific ways—as anything the supernatural world can offer.
“The Earth has had so many purges,” Robinson says. “If we get purged, it won’t be a big deal—well, to the Earth, I mean,” she notes, laughing. But she’s not laughing when she adds: “Now we’re doing it to ourselves.” Living so close to Kitimat, the threat of the Northern Gateway pipeline provided what she calls “a non-stop drumbeat of activism” that slowed down her writing of this story, which began in 2008 and is the first book of a trilogy.
Not surprisingly, political and environmental themes lurk on the edges of Jared’s teenage maelstrom. “When I was young,” she explains, “there was always a moral we had to pull away from the books we read. I tend to go in the opposite direction. The goal is not to tell you what to think. I just introduce the characters, and let people come to their own conclusions.”
Despite having created characters that literally and figuratively push the limits of humanity, Robinson, hilarious and ultimately undampened by cynicism, also reveals the unexpected beauty of different kinds of relationships, and of expanded vision. Hers is an invitation to step out of the comfortable and throw off the limitations that shape a restricted reality. In that sense, Son of a Trickster is a little like a run through a dense forest. You’ll be scratched up, a little bruised, maybe scared—but you’ll also be exhilarated and newly attuned to what’s different around and within you, things you otherwise might have never seen, never understood, and never valued.
Writer/editor Amy Reiswig believes that indeed there are more things in heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
On YouTube, Miriam Toews interviews Eden Robinson:
Andrew Struthers takes readers on a long, strange—and fun—trip through marijuana and human culture.
MANY WRITERS AGREE that stories are found in the strangest places. Like experiencing cosmological visions while bobbing at the bottom of a Tofino hot tub, stoned to the gills on cannabis-infused chocolate cake—although, sans actual gills, breathing through a length of rubber hose that once connected a heater to a propane tank. It’s from here that writer and filmmaker Andrew Struthers tells much of his tale in his new two-sided non-fiction book The Sacred Herb/The Devil’s Weed (New Star Books, launching in April).
The subject is timely. In downtown Victoria, you can barely walk a block without passing a pot shop. Since the federal government declared its intent to legalize marijuana, cannabis dispensaries have sprouted like, well, weeds. Even though many aim to serve customers for medical reasons, dispensaries currently occupy a legal grey area, and different municipalities take different approaches. Esquimalt won’t license dispensaries, and one that tried to open in Langford was shut down after just a day. Clearly, the cannabis controversy persists, and Struthers—the author of three previous books and contributor to publications including The Tyee and Monday Magazine—saw an opportunity to break into the conversation.
But the book isn’t what you might expect. This is no stoner puff piece or simplistic “marijuana good/marijuana bad” debate. In fact, the book’s flip-side structure highlights the incomplete understanding that comes from such cut-and-dried dualistic thinking.
Instead, Struthers represents two ways of accessing the story of pot—or, really, any story you might engage with. For Struthers is less interested in what there is to know than he is in how we know it. Take his tale from the tub. He writes that he “embarked upon that inward voyage Joseph Campbell would call the hero’s journey, although I ate the cake by accident, so to be honest this trip is what my friend Olaf would call a total fuck-up.” It’s all about how you interpret the experience, how meaning is made in the mind.
Anyone who’s read Struthers’ 2014 Victorian travelogue-style Around the World on Minimum Wage will know he’s no stranger to bizarre circumstances. Now living in Victoria, he was born in Scotland but moved to Holland when he was three; to Uganda (under Obote and his right-hand-man Idi Amin) until he was seven; then back to his Scottish homeland as a refugee (where Struthers was beaten up for having an English accent); and finally to Prince George when he was 13. Before he’d ever smoked pot on his last day of high school in 1978, Struthers had already been on a long, strange trip through human culture.
At his Chinatown studio—a dreamworld of film props he’s collected and created, like his mind turned inside out onto the shelves—Struthers recalls events like seeing a man getting stoned (not the smoking kind) for shoplifting in Uganda. Part of his early formative questioning therefore was: How do you make sense of the world when you grow up in a sea of contradictions? He also describes discovering in Uganda the disconnect between what you hear on the news and what you know from family experience—the idea that there are very different sets of stories.
The book’s format reflects that fascination with different modes of knowing. The Sacred Herb side, structured as a series of questions and answers, represents the perspective of the rational, with data from scientific studies, archaeological finds, and neuroscience alongside paeans to teenage camaraderie, the highs of toker friendship, and creative living. But to make the point that this is just one, incomplete way of approaching the world, Struthers uses deliberately selective studies, seemingly contradictory data, and the dryness of terminology that turns most of us right off. Like when he discusses how “the neurotransmitter Anandamide…is perfectly shaped to fit into a neuroreceptor slot called CB1. Together, Anandamide and CB1 form the so-called endocanabinoid system.” But he stops himself, adding: “The problem with all of this is that when you saw the word ‘neurotransmitter’ your eyes glazed over. I felt it happen.” Trying to reach people with clumsy science jargon, he laments, “is like wearing clogs to a discotheque.” As he puts it to me: “You can understand that way, but you can’t be that way.”
The Devil’s Weed side, structured around the seasons, is a weave of human stories, tales of personal experience that lead, sometimes improbably and sometimes naturally, one into the other—anecdotes of misadventure that express misgivings and dangers, not a-la “reefer madness” hysteria but in terms of real consequences for real people’s lives.
Implicit is the fact that being only this way (in a world of prohibition, particularly) might well get you killed. Like the guy who “finds a bag of bud under his couch with yellow spores on the leaves like tiny buttercups,” and with optimism of the will but neglect of the intellect bakes it into muffins, eats them and “recoils like a rattlesnake bit him. His throat swells bullfrog-style and he spends the next hour dry-heaving into a Coke can wondering if this is how Rasputin felt when he was poisoned.”
The two sides offer a kind of balance. Struthers, who studied astrophysics at UVic, says: “I see the world through connections,” noting that he had to go deep to find what unites us after the fractured experiences of his youth. Connectivity is one of the book’s prevalent themes, and he sees out-of-the-box, divergent and lateralized thinking as some of pot’s greatest gifts, hammering hierarchies into networks and dissolving dualities, even in the seeming isolation at the bottom of the hot tub: “down here in the roaring dark everything is connected to everything else in an endless ouroborean ring.”
But part of his point is that you don’t really need pot to get there. Pot can grease the wheels, but the real vehicle is your own mind. As a single dad to a daughter, often having to be both mom and dad, he feels like he got to travel between worlds, and he believes the biggest block people face to growth, openness and change is their own thinking. “People mistake the story of their lives for reality,” he tells me. “People cling to their rules of traffic as if they’re the laws of physics.”
That’s partly why he uses humour, because when you laugh, you lose what he calls “headlock,” and so he delights in disrupting expectations. Like in his well-known Spiders on Drugs video—currently with over 41 million YouTube views—which plays on the old Hinterland Who’s Who series, or in his illustrated account of Clayoquot protests, The Green Shadow (originally serialized in the Georgia Straight), which won a National Magazine Award for Humour in 1995. In this book, he again sneaks the serious in on you. For example, in answer to the Sacred Herbside question, “Will doobies derail my perfect life plan?” Struthers answers: “Hopefully.”
With his analytical apparatus constantly dialled up to 11, Struthers builds the book with cerebral playfulness. His microlevel referencing and riffing on books, movies or lines from songs and poetry is a reflection of what the book is doing as a whole—flipping suppositions, inverting expectations, giving your skull a little shake so that things come a little unstuck and can settle back in a slightly new way, as in the Sartre-ian inversion “Help is other people” or his twist on Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stranger.”
While the topic here is marijuana—both revered as sacrament and reviled as scourge—the real story is about how we construct and receive stories themselves. From this, we can extrapolate out to how every academic report, scientific study, news article, presidential order or personal anecdote is an opportunity to expand our thinking a little bit sideways. Is there a difference between what you’ll read about pot and what you’ll learn? Hopefully.
Writer, editor and musician Amy Reiswig has smoked marijuana a grand total of five times in her life since moving to BC but has worked at expanding her thinking a lot more often.
What do you really need on the long walk besides a humble, open mind and the courage to see?
THE WINTER’S PEACE, stillness and slowly returning longer light make it the perfect time for the self-questioning poetry of Jan Zwicky’s newest collection The Long Walk (University of Regina Press). In it, she invites readers into that quietness of mind where we can—and must—look with love, humility and painful honesty at the dark we find both around and within us.
It’s fitting that the opening poem is called “Courage,” for like a stark winter landscape, Zwicky’s book is of harsh beauty, bringing challenge rather than comfort. Equally a paean to and elegy for a threatened planet, The Long Walk begins with a sense of loss and of feeling lost:
And now you know that it won’t turn out as it should,
that what you did was not enough,
that ignorance, old evil, is enforced
and willed, and loved…
what will you do,
now that you sense the path unraveling
She answers with the call to “step closer to the edge, then./ You must look, heart. You must look.”
While Zwicky tells me the “you” is an address to herself—examining her own choices, actions, failures—the reader cannot help feel pulled along in that question to that same edge. We are, individually, like her, an “ordinary heart” with some important work to do.
What is it exactly that Zwicky is asking us to see? The devastated environment, yes—the impacts of “the charred sunlight we’ve bled/to feed our addictions, the seabed/we’ve guttered.” But also the culture and values that have allowed it to happen, that allow it to keep happening until, as she writes in the poem “Consummatum Est,” “It is finished.”
A philosopher and accomplished violinist as well as an essayist and poet, Zwicky has published over a dozen books—winning a Governor General’s Literary Award with Songs for Relinquishing the Earth and the Dorothy Livesay Prize for Robinson’s Crossing—often tackling environmental, political and existential issues. Here she is also wrestling, she tells me, with her own feelings of implication, of responsibility. “I think that where there is immense political damage,” she explains, “the first step is to understand what one’s part has been. ‘This happened. I did this. I was a part of this.’”
While Zwicky looks to the future end that may come for threatened species and the environment generally, her interest in self-examination and self-knowledge means there is also a lot of looking back, often to the Alberta farm of her childhood, where the roots of her love of the land—and thus her experience of the somewhat unsayable meaning inherent in connection with nature—first took hold.
While Zwicky went to school in Edmonton as a girl, she spent summers and weekends on the family farm. “That was where life happened,” she says. “I was a shy kid and sought solitude. I would disappear down to the river and feel at home. I felt loved by the land and of course loved it in return.”
After having lived and taught in Victoria, Zwicky now lives on Quadra Island where her property backs onto 140 acres of Crown land. “I feel there, too, tremendous generosity on the part of the land. It has walked forward to meet me, has extended its hand, its graciousness, all that it has to offer. But I notice that when I go back to the kind of land that I grew up on in Alberta, I feel addressed at a cellular level—smells, sounds, the quality of the light. I don’t think. It doesn’t come in words. I just know. It’s like a first tongue. Every year, I become more fluent in the tongue of the land where I now live, but I still have to think sometimes.”
This lifelong connection to the natural world means she experiences and shares a very personal grief at the ecological destruction she sees happening around the world. She writes: “Where will my soul go/…when the earth I have loved turns its back/and closes its eyes.”
The book is not all darkness and dust. Fully embracing the label of a political poet, Zwicky claims the book’s core is the environmental section (section 2 of 4), but a number of subsequent poems describe experiences of hidden or unexpected beauty:
It’s love, in the end, that we learn, learning also
it isn’t ours. Inexplicably, unsummoned,
the world rises to fill its own emptiness. We feel it
reaching through us—a voice, a hand,
a greenness not our own—
and are buoyed up momentarily, amazed,
before we find our feet again,
Even if just momentarily, are we ever similarly buoyed, amazed? In our busy, noisy lives enmeshed in the pressures of social, economic and political systems, do we take the time to look and listen deeply, to make ourselves still enough for that kind of connection with meaning, with wonder?
The implicit challenge is to not just make time but shift our attitudes and beliefs about how we imagine the good life. What do you really need on the long walk? Not the TV or the furniture, but the kind of mind that is humble and open, that notices…
the shape of space that sings, the throat-strung vault
above the mountains, depth
and depthless, the starlit air above the stony bridge,
Its resonant blue. Here
language ceases. We glimpse, obliquely,
radiance: a kind of deathlessness
or death, whole and unbroken.
Indeed the book’s final poem describes a winter’s walk where your only burden is “what you carry underneath your coat,/and what you have folded in your arms,/what is cradled on your heart.”
And so we return to Zwicky’s initial question of “what will you do?” By the book’s end, we have looked, we have seen—or begun to. To what end? What is the purpose of this long walk?
“I think it’s time for us to get our souls in order,” Zwicky tells me, matter-of-factly. “I can’t imagine trying to die with any degree of dignity without acknowledging what I’ve done. It’s truth and reconciliation of the self with the planet.”
“We need to mourn,” she says. “We need to grieve. We also need to hope that our neighbours and our friends will assist us in honest recognition of where we are, our responsibility—that we may, as a community, be able to look one another in the eye and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry for what we’ve done’ and have the person you’re looking at say: ‘Yes, and I am sorry.’ Part of hope is that our confession to one another will be met with compassion, with understanding rather than condemnation. By this I don’t mean people should say: ‘That’s okay.’ Of course it’s not. But: ‘I understand because I did the same thing. I was blind in the same ways. I caved at the same points. I really get how it happened to you, and I grieve with you.’”
The long walk is therefore not about arrival. Rather, every moment is a kind of setting out, a new beginning. “And there’s hope as well,” Zwicky insists. “The kind of hope that I’m interested in is a part of humility. It’s a part of saying ‘I do not know. I start this day with respect and acknowledgment of the past and look for a way forward.”
Full of grief and love, The Long Walk pushes us to have that courage to look at what’s painful to see, to find stillness in movement, movement in stillness. If you need a motto for the new year, solvitur ambulando—it is solved by walking.
Somewhat missing the East’s hushed snowy winterscapes, writer, editor and former Montrealer Amy Reiswig now finds similar peace walking along the grey sea- and sky-scapes of a foggy beach.
Jennifer Manuel explores the complexity of belonging through the reflections of a nurse in a First Nations community.
A SENSE OF BELONGING is critical to our quality of life, but what exactly does it mean? While our connection to neighbours, friends, family and other local networks is obviously part of it, as soon as I shift my view to a wider perspective of, in my case, being a settler on unceded territory in BC, the notion of belonging becomes much more complicated.
In her new, debut novel, Duncan resident, writer and educator Jennifer Manuel looks head-on at the complexity of belonging in such a situation. The Heaviness of Things that Float (Douglas & McIntyre) centres around the dying days of nurse Bernadette Perkals’ 40 years of service in the fictional northern Vancouver Island reserve community of Tawakin. Her story draws on Manuel’s own experience of living and working in isolated aboriginal communities, and her realization that no matter how far she went from home or how close she became with those around her, she could not escape her difference and her privilege.
That struggle is part of the conversation that Manuel felt needed to be included in our literature at a time when all of us sharing this land must work towards long-overdue reconciliation—another word not so easy to define.
Manuel is a 40-something non-aboriginal transplant to coastal BC. Born in Toronto, she grew up in White Rock and now lives with her husband in Duncan. Over her years here, Manuel has worked for the Ktunaxa Treaty Council; chaired a national committee on aboriginal archives; worked alongside aboriginal non-profits to deliver education to vulnerable adults in Vancouver; and taught for several years on the lands of the Tahltan and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, first in Dease Lake and later on the exposed northern edge of the Island at Kyuquot, where she was eventually adopted by elder Kelly John and given the name aa ap wa iick—Always Speaks Wisely.
Manuel has continued to advocate for First Nations education issues generally, and now in this book she gives non-First Nations readers some valuable lessons: about self-awareness, self-questioning, and the need to work at understanding others without ever assuming you completely can.
Though the novel begins with Bernadette’s imminent departure, it’s also about arrival and what we each bring with us in that moment of meeting. Bernadette was in her 20s when she came to the nurse’s outpost, situated across a cove from the 100-person reserve. A week later, a local man asked her “Do you know about Raven?” and she answered: “Tapping at my chamber door.” She didn’t know then how revealing it was to complete Poe’s line: “Only this and nothing more.”
Gradually, Bernadette becomes open to the stories she is told to listen for—that she’s told grow in the eelgrass, fly on the crows’ wings, unfurl in the ferns, or turn with the tide among the kelp. The new ways of hearing, seeing and being she learns in Tawakin shift her understanding, and over time, Bernadette becomes more aware of—and in tension with—her privilege living among people she has come to deeply love.
The novel’s plot driver is the disappearance of Chase Charlie, a 33-year-old man who Bernadette had delivered, known all his life, and cared about as if he was her own son. That love breaks her heart open to the fact that she feels the people of Tawakin are her family, the outpost the only home she’s known as an adult. But she’s also torn by having to break away and return to south Island city life “made to fit people like me.” In doing so, she must confront her assumptions about the nature of her belonging, uncomfortably asking herself: “Exactly who was I to the people of Tawakin?”
Being the nurse, the “secretary of secrets,” means Bernadette shares people’s intimate and often hidden histories. But as a mamulthni, a white person, she painfully discovers that she’s kept out of the loop of people’s lives. Despite her intentions and her commitment, there are things the local people feel she just wouldn’t understand. “My heart,” Bernadette says, feeling that pain of divide, “filled with sand, with stones.”
As the title suggests, the book deals with concepts of weight, displacement, and the thin line between floating and sinking. And the physical landscape, described with sensuous detail, teaches that where some might see ambiguity or uncertainty, there is possibility. “Like how the gathering of black clouds might bring rain, or maybe hail, or maybe no precipitation at all…Neither the sea nor the sky nor the stories can ever be controlled.” Indeed, in navigating the land and the people of Tawakin, it is important to learn that “Things in the world were not all they appeared to be.”
“It took being in a couple of faraway places to change perspective,” Manuel tells me of her own experience. Working as the treaty archivist in Cranbrook changed her life, she says, referring to a moment when she realized some elders were laughing at her in their own language—that uncomfortable position on the other side of the fence gave her a completely different view. Of her then-20s self Manuel now laughs: “You think you know so much.”
She was also changed by the women who ran the treaty council and the nation, women she worked with, like Sophie Pierre. “Savvy and powerful, driven with vision,” Manuel says. “I wanted to be them.” Then, when she lived in Kyuquot, she watched her young daughters flourish, excited by new ways of living and learning.
Like Manuel, Bernadette eventually sees the presumptuousness, the unconscious bias inherent in the concept of measuring aboriginal communities in relation to urban centres, of thinking of them as being “far away from everything.” One person’s middle of nowhere is somebody else’s rich and beautiful centre of the world.
Structurally, the story unrolls like an incoming tide. The narrative pushes forward incrementally, pulls back over the polished stones of Bernadette’s reflections, then, collecting power, surges ahead a little more. In this way, knowledge and insight are uncovered slowly, rhythmically, over the pulses of her life story and the story of her relationships with Tawakin’s people. And as with a rising tide, you find yourself surprised by how far and how gently things have moved to close the space between you.
Ultimately, that’s what we can all do: try and close the space between ourselves and others. One of the lessons to be learned from Bernadette’s sadder moments of connection in Tawakin, both as a nurse and a human being, is that even when you haven’t managed to understand someone the way you’d hoped, you still help each other out of a sense of empathy and human respect that transcends difference.
“People who come up to me at readings are so passionate,” says Manuel, fresh from several appearances at the Victoria Festival of Authors. “People want to make things right.” To the obvious question of “how?” she admits: “I don’t have an answer. People will flounder and might feel hopeless. Maybe that’s okay—as long as hopelessness is not the end. But it can be the start.”
The award-winning Manuel, who has previously published short fiction, also started the online TRC Reading Challenge, where people sign up and commit to reading the Truth and Reconciliation report. So far, about 3,500 people have taken the pledge. “People know it’s not enough, but it’s a way to publicly say ‘I’m listening.’” Manuel believes an important step in confronting colonial privilege is to “listen deeply when you have the chance, including with the TRC, and that means having an openness to be changed by what you hear.”
Perhaps the foundation of belonging is built on that kind of curious and humble self-opening—an exchange where we both reach out and take in, creating, as Manuel writes, “the invitation to believe something new.”
Writer, editor, and musician Amy Reiswig is going to give herself the winter/holiday gift of taking on the TRC Reading Challenge and doing some serious listening.
Kathy Page’s new collection of short stories explores the transformative power of one-to-one encounters.
IN THE GLOBAL VILLAGE, our world has grown so big. Our care and concern is called on by people from around the planet, and we are mentally and emotionally stretched in endless different directions. Locally, too, as Focus showcases, there’s no shortage of capital “B” Big issues to be aware of and involved in. Being engaged is one of the great parts of living in a vibrant community like Victoria, but it’s sometimes easy to lose one’s boundaries and bearings amid the tide of so much outward pull.
So I found it incredibly refreshing, especially as I was planning my wedding, to take time to breathe deeply within the covers of Kathy Page’s new book The Two of Us (Biblioasis, September 2016). In this collection of short stories, Page invites us to settle into a series of closer relationships, more homey twosomes, and to expand our awareness inside that smaller and deceptively simple dynamic by questioning who we see, who we are and what we might become.
Tucked away on a winding Salt Spring Island road, Page’s peaceful home is the perfect spot to talk about (and experience) the power of the one-to-one. Attention focuses, stories unfold, and the pattern of listening and responding teaches you something about the other and yourself. That transformative kind of intimate interaction is at the heart of Page’s stories in this 200-page collection, each of which relates to what she calls “the most fundamental thing”: the relationship between the self and another.
Whether it’s a father and daughter exploring a cave, a visiting professor negotiating culture and communication with her contact in a foreign country, a hairdresser and client who is facing cancer, a young girl and a dog “big as a wish,” spouses, squatters, strangers, Page’s characters find themselves in pairs—some momentary and some lifelong—in which there is an opportunity to change one another and be changed.
“How relationships work fascinates me,” Page tells me: “How a relationship is structured and built, and what that does to you.” Originally from Bromley, England, Page has published seven novels, including a Governor General’s Award finalist and nominee for the Orange Prize, as well as the short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere, nominated for the 2014 Giller Prize.
But she has also, she says with a smile, had to improvise her day job and is trained as a carpenter and joiner as well as a counsellor and psychotherapist—drawing on an interest to know how she came to be who she was. She has worked in settings that vary from Vancouver Island University to Estonia, a men’s prison and a therapeutic community for drug users. What she has developed is a sharp-eyed and open-hearted curiosity about self and others.
“I’m interested in difficult characters, in when I run up against a difficult person. I find it surprising,” she explains with a lock of her intense but serene sky-blue eyes. “I’m interested to explore them without judgment.” That non-judgmental curiosity not only saved her from resentment when partnered with a somewhat stony carpentry mentor back in England but has made her a writer that pairs probing insight with gentle but direct handling.
For instance, she tunes into the kind of prickly honesty of thoughts and feelings many of us would feel guilty admitting and would never have the guts to say out loud. She presents an older woman who both loves and is bored—even appalled—by her husband and his now slowness in just putting on his shoes. And a husband, awaiting his wife’s genetic testing results, asks himself: “What if there is bad news? How will I be for her? What will I do, what will I say to her as she turns to me?” He wonders if he will change himself into what is needed or just run.
Page reminds us of the simple but important truth that we are mystery. We are always more than one thing at a time, and who we are and how we get there isn’t visible at the surface. “From the outside, no one would guess any of this, not in a thousand years,” one young man thinks while reflecting on his various abilities. In another story, a nervous, tongue-tied man turns out to be a surprising lover—“in the flesh, so articulate.” In a short two-pager, a child considers dragonfly nymphs, how “inside, they produced glittering wings, lungs, and enormous eyes” before splitting their skin and emerging new. She wonders: “Suppose we were just the beginning of something else?”
Skills, sorrows, incredible transformations—Page reveals the hidden and encourages us to look for it, to look differently at the people in front of us or beside us in our own lives, to understand, to forgive, and to wonder about our own new beginnings. A trip into her world is, as one of her characters says, “a day for seeing things.”
Sometimes, Page explains, she begins with just a person or a predicament, other times with something as simple as a staircase. “With short fiction you can improvise,” she says. “It’s freeing. Novels sweep you up in momentum. Short fiction is more like a plunge into the lake” where, Page hopes, you come up and out with a bit of a shock. “You can then sit back and keep the whole thing in your mind.”
Her swimming image recalls a description of free diving in the book’s final story, centred on a swim coach and his prized protégé—a description that applies perfectly to Page’s own writing: “Depth is about the water pushing in on you and separating you from the familiar.” Page’s skill lies in separating us from the familiar by taking us deep into the everyday, making the seemingly typical or unremarkable newly remarkable, from the clink of milk bottles against a step to the slightly moldy smell of damp summer towels and the lake’s response to its swimmers: “The thick green water breaking into golden streaks and swirls with each dive, then resealing itself, perfect each time.”
“All those things suggest human life,” Page says passionately, “and every human life is full of stories. Everywhere you look or listen, there’s a whole rich story.”
A plunge into the intimacy of The Two of Us, Page hopes, helps readers to feel they’re in a different place in the end, even if it’s just a change in what we’re able to notice as we come back up for air ready again for the wider world—“more alive,” she says, “and aware.”
Newly married writer, editor and musician Amy Reiswig is extra appreciative of having a new perspective on the power of pairs.