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  • Summer reading picks

    Amy Reiswig

    Wild Fierce Life: Dangerous Moments on the Outer Coast; Listening to the Bees; Anna, Like Thunder


    THE COASTAL EDGE IS ALWAYS A ZONE OF TUMULT, what Tofino writer Joanna Streetly calls “a land of endless motion.” It’s the perfect place to repeatedly find yourself a hair’s breadth away from death and to literally ride the waves of self-revelation. In the 15 essays of her new book Wild Fierce Life: Dangerous Moments on the Outer Coast (Caitlin Press), Streetly takes us with her in her storm-tossed sea kayak, on trails lit only by lightning, and into the turbulence of her heart’s loneliness and love as she reflects on the perils and unexpected gifts of living in close rhythm with the wild coast.

    Streetly grew up in Trinidad as the youngest of five siblings in a family of risk-taking adventurers. At 19, she embarked on her own adventure by moving to Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s rough outer edge. Living and working remotely in all kinds of situations, back in the days before the cellphone connectivity revolution, Streetly writes about grappling not only with beasts, boats, weather, and waves but often with isolation and crashing breakers of fear and self-doubt. She writes: “I shook out my wings and wondered if they would lift me.”


    In theme books such as this, there lurks the danger of repetitive reflections and lessons learned. Streetly avoids this trap by combining beautiful close-up observational nature writing, well-paced downright good yarns, and her intimate sense of where and how we fit into the bigger landscape. She’s as honest about her fear at being pulled out to sea swimming (with only the direction of kelp streaming in the current as a directional clue) as she is with becoming a new mother and raising her daughter on a sometimes precarious floathome in an unpredictable environment. And she shares the unlooked-for treasures that rise up in hairy situations—humility, learning, a sense of our own fragility, and a recognition of how illiterate most of us are when it comes to listening to how the planet tells us what we need to do to survive.

    Ultimately, the land of endless motion is not just out there on the coastal edge, but inside as well. Streetly explores the wild and fierce world within that gets exposed in moments of crisis and survival: the beauty of both storm and calm, the balance of complexity and simplicity, and the importance of examining our connection with the wild, fierce world we’re all inseparably part of.


    WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT SCIENCE? That could well have been an alternate title to Listening to the Bees (Nightwood Editions), and the answer would most likely not be: poetry. But in this collaboration between the world-renowned SFU-based bee scientist Mark L. Winston and award-winning Surrey poet laureate Renée Sarojini Saklikar, we’re steered away from any narrow preconception of science as sterile, jargon-based, and impersonal, and encouraged to listen to its cultural, social, philosophical, and even spiritual insights. Together, Winston and Saklikar help us see—and hear—that both disciplines rely on curiosity, questioning, perception, resonance, and always, as Saklikar says, “the dance most of all.”

    Winston’s essays about his career and the lessons he’s gleaned from the bees are interspersed with Saklikar’s poems in a kind of call and response—a dance. They represent different kinds of listening and learning, all derived from the humble bee. For centuries, the hive has been a symbol of industrious collaboration, but as a scientist and a human being, Winston’s interest is in dialogue. Like different bees with their waggle dance, there is variety with how we share information—and there must be contact.


    Also like the bees, we will flourish only through diversity. So whether it’s reflecting on the meaning of home, seeing colleagues willing to be proven wrong, or spending time on the Downtown Eastside with Hives for Humanity, Winston shares his gratitude to the bees for teaching him, among other things, the role of selflessness in creating prosperity and the role of storytelling in science. The laboratory, he says, “was a hearing aid, amplifying the subtle messages to be learned when we listen, truly listen, to the bees.”

    Of course, colony collapse due to pesticides, mites, habitat loss, and industrial agriculture practices out of step with pollinator needs must also be heard if we’re to truly listen to the bees. Like Saklikar in her formally innovative poems that slip in and out of languages and spread wing-like across pages, we need to be specific in our practice, take care in our response. As in scientific dialogue, so in poetry and environmental stewardship: structure and meaning must work together, collaborate.

    In this collaboration, Winston and Saklikar demonstrate that like bees building a comb and filling it with the sweetness of survival, science and poetry and all successful attempts to reach one another are about process, possibility, taking things forward. But first, you have to listen closely.


    IN THE COLD, COASTAL WET NOVEMBER OF 1808, Anna Petrovna Bulygina was just 18 years old, yet already married to a navigator for the Russian-America Company and sailing aboard the Russian ship Saint Nikolai when it ran aground off the Olympic Peninsula of what is today Washington State. She and the other survivors were captured by, and traded among, coastal First Nations.

    From the historical record we know that when rescuers came for her, Anna refused to go, instead advising the Russians to surrender. In the novel Anna, Like Thunder (Brindle & Glass/TouchWood Editions), Victoria writer Peggy Herring combines written and oral history, Russian legends, years of research, and a brilliant, heartful imagination to tell Anna’s story.


    In the novel’s preface, Herring explains that the two written records of the shipwreck—one from a Russian survivor and one based on Quileute oral tradition—share remarkable consistency. In both, Anna is a minor character, but her decision was pivotal. Here is another woman whose actions shaped the historical record, but who has been largely written out of it.

    While its impulse came from history, this is a work of fiction. Told in the first person, we are plunged into the unforgiving sea and unknown forests with Anna as she flees the broken ship with the crew. We enter the confusion and longing for connection as she slowly begins to communicate with the First Nations who house, feed, and clothe her. And as she starts to work gathering wood, harvesting and cooking mussels, or cutting and drying salmon, she not only learns to enter the rhythm of a new culture, but questions and unlearns much of her inherited cultural values and assumptions.

    Having consulted the Makah, Quileute and Hoh extensively on language, culture and history for this project, Herring is able to bring readers into an incredibly detailed world. And by weaving in recalled stories of Russian folklore from Anna’s mother, as well as Enlightenment science from her father, Herring makes it clear that issues of what we know, how we know it, and what our minds can be open to, are all key, not just to this story and the era of contact, but of ongoing relationship-building between peoples.

    Amy Reiswig wishes Focus readers a summer full of place-based explorations by foot, bike and book.

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