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Amy Reiswig

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  1. The Quadra Island-based poet Robert Bringhurst has been described by Margaret Atwood as “heroic” and by Noah Richler as “one of the country’s literary treasures.” A BOOK CAN BE MANY THINGS. The match that lights a fire. A stone thrown into a still pond. A supportive set of hands. For inanimate objects, books can hold and initiate a lot of action, and sometimes I’m surprised to not find mine vibrating, shaking, or dancing on the shelves. Some books, more than anything, are doorways, portals and pathways leading out of offices and living rooms, inviting us to step our minds inside not to pursue a linear destination but, specifically, to follow the loops and surprises of what presents. To have a wander. Such is the case of Robert Bringhurst’s new book of poems, The Ridge (Harbour Publishing). It leads into deep, green places near his home on Quadra Island but also takes us up into the cold space and hot stars beyond our Earth, down past rivers and roots into the flowing bedrock below, and into the dance of the smallest particles of which everything is made. It’s a vital reminder of how profound discoveries can come not from searching but from sensing, listening, and from a willingness to be awed by what you find—and what finds you—when you go quiet. At turns loving, elegiac, playful, angry, and humble, The Ridge also leads readers through time, back to the beginnings of our collective home, forward to the future of inescapable planetary destruction, and deep within our own quite momentary existence to the heart of the ways we choose to be human. All rooted in the rich teachings about language, being, and meaning offered by what’s standing, walking, singing, flying, flowing, growing, or speaking silence in the forest. As he writes, “Everywhere you turn/ is everything there is”. BRINGHURST has been reflecting on these ideas for many years and says that even so, he still has much to learn. His first collection of poems appeared in 1972, and since then he’s published over 20 books of poetry and an equal number of prose works, including translations and collaborations. An Officer of the Order of Canada and former Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, he’s received a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence and two honorary doctorates among other awards over an influential 50-year body of work. I would have said “career,” but it’s a word Bringhurst doesn’t quite relate to. “A long career! That must be true,” he says during our inter-island correspondence, “but it’s actually never occurred to me.” What does occur to him consistently is how astonishing the world is. “Being, meaning, and language, on the other hand, are things I’ve been thinking about and exploring all my life: three inexhaustible subjects, unimaginably ancient, huge, and brand new every day. So they always have something to teach me.” Robert Bringhurst (photo by Kay Amert) In his younger years, Bringhurst notes, some of his greatest education was outside. He grew up the child of parents on the move, between Utah, Montana, Wyoming, southwestern Alberta. Those early landscapes of mountains and rivers, he says, were where he began to develop a sense of the land not just as a refuge but, more actively, a kind of tutor or grandparent. And he began to also notice the contrast between the deep knowledge/ belonging offered by the land and the confusingly unkind behaviours of human civilization and education systems. (As a child who had already learned to write and read—in that order, he emphasizes—when he started school, some of his teachers and fellow students were less than tolerant of his quiet disinterest.) While he studied in the sciences at MIT, Bringhurst made a shift to the humanities, receiving an MFA in creative writing from UBC. That might seem like a big change, but Bringhurst is, among other things, a perpetually curious path-follower. “All the great connections in my life have happened by accident,” he explains when I ask how he came to writing poetry. “Or at least they’ve started by accident. When I started to do what I called ‘writing poetry,’ I had no idea what poetry was. So I probably wasn’t writing poetry after all, but I kept trying. And I read a lot of poetry, trying to find out what kinds of it there were. It’s never stopped. I’m still trying and still learning.” IT’S NOT SURPRISING, then, that poetry itself is one of The Ridge’s recurring subjects. “A poem is a well,” he writes, but even in the hands of a skilled artist like Bringhurst, it can’t fully catch the fluidity and depth of things. “Truth comes down in a torrent/ and up in a bucket/ that leaks like a sieve.” For Bringhurst, meanings and the truth of “what-is” are stubbornly and beautifully outside language—“like sunlight and grass”. But the main things humans have to work with to communicate are words. “So together with meaning there has to be/pointing at meaning.” That’s part of what poetry does—points and gestures and tries to answer the need to connect—as he puts it, “this craving to say/ hello to what is: to howl, hoot, and holler,/ and dance in response.” The inadequacy of words to describe reality can be, Bringhurst acknowledges to me, a source of frustration but also an opportunity for creative play. How can you possibly describe the meaning of a waterfall? Or of the flow of life itself? You can’t. But he (and we) can listen to “the unending sentence/of uncradled water,” can delight in the words that take shape: The scroll unrolling without end, the sound of everything unfolding, uncomposing and unspelling, disassembling, surrendering its knowing to unknowing, and floundering and learning how to swim again and going on its way. “That’s why we keep on talking, I suppose,” he tells me, “but it’s also why, if we stop talking for a while, we sometimes get a sense of how much more there is to hear, how much more than we can say.” IN AN EARLIER BOOK, Learning to Die (written with his wife, the poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky), Bringhurst asserts that books belong to places. If that’s the case, then The Ridge firmly belongs to Quadra Island, where Bringhurst has lived for about 25 years. After Bowen Island and then Vancouver, he became, he says, “desperate to move.” He started exploring the coast for a suitable spot to root that met his slightly contradictory needs for quiet country that wouldn’t attract development but also had access to a post office, grocery store, and an airport. “Maybe I even needed a telephone,” he muses, “though I hoped never to use it.” Reading his message from my converted garden shed on an acre of mostly uncontrolled greenery on Mayne Island, I understand what he means. His was a process, he explains, not of house hunting, “just place hunting.” Eventually, while snooping around Quadra, he found it: five acres and a small unfinished house with pink paint and pink carpet nestled up to the side of Heriot Ridge. While he thought about it, he discovered, uphill from the house, a series of trails. He had a wander. “I met deer and ravens and pileated woodpeckers,” he recalls, “flickers and wrens, and a nesting pair of nighthawks. I met old, fire­-scarred trees, and big, healthy, younger trees, and a lot of ferns and mosses and lichens. I met outcrops of bedrock—nearly all of it pillow basalt. So the place was a submarine volcanic formation, lifted up into the air. I got rained on, then dried by the sun. By the time I got back to the road, I had fallen in love with the Ridge and would have bought just about anything that allowed me to live on its flank. The pink carpet was no less distasteful, but it had become a trivial obstacle. I’ve been here ever since.” THAT PLACE and those kinds of meetings play a central role in this collection. In the poem “Stopping By,” we see Bringhurst concerned with belonging rather than possession or control as he riffs on Frost’s classic and reorients our vision: “Whose woods these are I do not know. I bought them from a man who said he owned them, but I only have to be here long enough to take a breath and then it’s clear he did not own them, nor do I.” Bringhurst believes we should do more than just stop by the world around us, and in walking through this book readers not only wander with Bringhurst into groves whose spires rival those of Nôtre Dame, but we witness the way he approaches the natural world with attention and reverence, like a student meeting with an esteemed teacher. And though he may go by himself, he knows he’s not the first, for “as long as it has been here, humans/ have come up here to submerge themselves/ in what the forest knows.” Part of what the forest knows, and what it seems we have yet to fully grasp, is how destructive fire-fuelled humans can be. While the outward signs of our changing climate capture media attention—like the literal fires burning from Maui to Northwest Territories and across B.C.—we need to look inward to where it starts, and this book is a good guide. “Something else that is the case: one species—/ the one that uses fire—is remarkably/ like fire: insatiable, thus dangerous/ to everything and lethal to itself.” And pointing to our sometimes brutally destructive industries and tendencies, Bringhurst raises issues of whether we are insatiable by nature or culture or individual choice, implicating the reader directly: you and I are you and I, but also we are fire: tiny embers on our own, and yet, with others of our kind, sometimes a major conflagration. Continually, though, the poems extend trails into the opportunity—and the responsibility—to (re)connect with what-is, to encounter knowledge and beauty and be changed: “you can cradle them/ like water in your body and your mind/ and let them hold you also, in the palm/ of all your senses”. The Ridge’s images of the liquid, flowing nature of life and being counter the burn of jagged disconnection, stoked by “money hunger, power hunger,/ righteousness, self-righteousness,/ delusions of eternal growth…. You/ know the list./ You know the endless/lies we like to tell about not dying.” His words are timely refreshment for the mind, and what he writes about the enormity of reality equally reflects the experience of reading these poems: Have to laugh and weep and smile, and let it stop you in your tracks and keep on walking, let it take your breath away and keep on breathing, let it stun you into silence and keep speaking…. BRINGHURST INVITES US into a world where the deep mystery of what-is means multiple things are true at once. It’s not just books that can be many things. His is a perspective that expands our ideas about language, place, meaning, living, and dying, and The Ridge presents us with a thoughtful, gracious example of one way we can choose to be human: And for a while there, I gave the trail everything I had—my eyes and ears and legs— and it gave me what it had: Ever-changing and continuing direction, decided or suggested by the rocks, the creeks, the trees. I also went beyond the trail, because beyond the trail is where the trail took me. It’s a thing that trails do. As much as he can, Bringhurst leads us in a similar fashion, with exploring words that point and gesture and send us off into the unexpected. But whether it’s the initial spinning of the Earth’s fragile green blanket (“which is so thin and getting/ thinner now”) or forest roots “fused,/ like the knitted fingers of sleeping lovers” or the building blocks of life “Dancing knee to knee/ and toe to toe” to become shapes and stories, Bringhurst crosses often unimaginable time and space with a simplicity and tenderness that still wraps us in. Though we might have a surprising wander with him, we are never lost. In October, Bringhurst will be reading from The Ridge as part of the Victoria Festival of Authors outdoor Poet/Tree walk event. If you can’t make it to walk with him there, go along in these pages. Take the book outside. Read it aloud as an offering and then look up and listen to what the land and its life has to say to you in return. Or, if you can’t easily get outside, get comfortable where you are, open the door and travel down the paths of Bringhurst’s poems onto the land he loves, the planet we all need to love more. For as he writes, “in/ the aftermath of love, we start to learn.” Amy Reiswig is a writer and editor living on SḴŦAḴ/ Mayne Island. Find her many other author interviews by searching her name on this site. For information on the Victoria Festival of Authors, visit their website here.
  2. The author’s research shows that an increasing number of people are losing their rights, their voices, their trust, and sometimes their lives through involuntary psychiatric treatment. FOR SOCIETY TO OPERATE, we need trust. Whether it’s in traffic, banking, relationships, health care, or countless other areas of life, mutual understanding allows individuals and systems to intersect (relatively) smoothly and safely. That includes communication, as language is based on a shared agreement of what words mean. But what happens when people’s experiences or behaviours provoke differing interpretations? What happens when we lose consensus around life-directing terms like “appropriate,” “dangerous,” “effective,” or “normal”? In his new book Your Consent is Not Required: The Rise in Psychiatric Detentions, Forced Treatment, and Abusive Guardianships (BenBella Books), investigative journalist Rob Wipond looks at how an increasing number of people from all walks of life are losing their rights, their voices, their trust, and sometimes their lives through contact with an area of the mental health system that’s grounded in slippery terminology and often hidden from public view. He examines the current practice of civil commitment across North America, the varying standards of institutional care, multiple modes of medical and emotional coercion, inconsistent—sometimes non-existent—data, inconclusive evidence of positive outcomes, outright fraud, and the importance of grassroots advocacy. In this thorough look at an underreported and understudied topic, he also invites dialogue around issues of power and prejudice in forced psychiatric treatment; the laws and economic levers that allow it; the lived experience of people who go through it; and the possibility—and importance—of alternative approaches. WIPOND’S NAME will likely be familiar to many local readers. With a decade of writing for Focus, he began his award-winning journalism career at Monday Magazine in the late ‘90s. Inspired, he tells me, by the work of writers like James MacKinnon and Sid Tafler, Wipond—who until then had been working in theatre performance—realized he wanted to try it for himself. Rob Wipond (photo by Karen Wipond) He’d also long been interested in the inner world, reading works like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which gave him a sense of how important it was to explore oneself, as well as indicating that there were larger systems around mental health that maybe needed critique. Also shaping his investigative direction was, as Wipond recounts in the book’s introduction, what he saw happen to his own father. It’s a surreal story that knocks at the heart, telling of post-cancer transition, anxiety around aging and its attendant issues, emotional upset, concerned family, and surprisingly quick commitment under mental health law. Then comes the ever-changing psychiatrists prescribing ever-changing medications, the unwanted electroshock treatment, release, return, handcuffs and police, more ECT, and a man reduced to missing memory and speaking in slurs, who became lost between four and five when asked to count to ten. The family helplessness simmers quietly as Wipond writes: “‘Your father is doing much better,’ a psychiatrist said. This man had never seen my father in anything close to a normal state—portaging a canoe over his head with sleeping bags and gear packed into both ends, training computer programmers for the country’s biggest companies, or shouting passionately about smaller government and individual freedoms.” By the end, Wipond’s father was a mess, as was the family’s faith in mental healthcare. Eventually, his father recovered most of his memories and himself, except around the ECT. What he does have from that period is anger at what was done to him without his consent. “I think probably the third article I wrote for Monday was on people’s experience of forced treatment,” Wipond recalls via video chat. And despite how painful it was to cover, it’s a topic that he ultimately couldn’t stay away from. “To be honest, I quit it for a while,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it. Then it just kept appearing everywhere. No matter what article I did in Victoria—I’d do something on policing, I’d do something on poverty—there's this issue again: people being forcibly treated in some way. And it was, ‘Okay, how many people is this happening to?’ You’d talk to people at the shelter, you’d talk to the police, you’d talk to any of them and they knew it was a big issue. Yet it wasn't really hitting the mainstream media in any way. That’s when I really became interested. Here’s a voiceless group of people, and I want to lift up their voices. They deserve to have a voice in this public dialogue.” Underneath it all is the issue of understanding. For the emotional scars Wipond and his family were left with are rooted in questions that speak to wider societal consent around what we’re okay with happening within this system. “Was this normal?” he writes. “Were law-abiding, intelligent people normally getting incarcerated are treated against their will by mental health practitioners? Was modern involuntary psychiatric treatment frequently so aggressive, invasive, ineffective, and harmful?” During the book’s almost 300 pages, readers delve into those questions with Wipond as he diligently uncovers that, quite shockingly, the answer is often yes. WHILE MOST OF US like to think that forced psychiatric interventions are only applied in the rarest, most extreme cases, Wipond’s research reveals that it’s happening more often to more kinds of people and in more settings across both Canada and the United States than we may realize. From children to the elderly and everyone in between, Wipond expands our view of who is being forcibly treated, where and how and, perhaps most elusively, why. The book’s 28 chapters are grouped in five thematic sections: the expansive reach of psychiatric power; core drivers of civil commitment; mass funnels into psychiatric incarceration; institutional management, profiteering, and political oppression; and science, lies, and other possibilities. Throughout, Wipond digs up hard data and goes deep with research, consulting court records, patient medical records (voluntarily provided), news reports, oversight organization reports, freedom of information request results. He talks to psychiatric survivors and their families, social workers, nurses, hospital administrators, lawyers, rights organizations, crisis line operators, fellow journalists and researchers, professors, psychiatrists, representatives at organizations like the Department of Justice, the FDA, the Office of Inspector General, and many, many more. It’s an incredible amount of hard-won information that is then synthesized, analyzed, questioned, and pieced together to help us, the public, see the larger picture. “What I said to the publisher,” Wipond tells me, “is I’m trying to show people how it all fits into a very powerful narrative about the expansion of forced treatment in our society and the harm that it’s doing to so many.” Perhaps most importantly, alongside the often alarming facts and figures are detailed personal stories. Ultimately, we can’t have informed dialogue on the topic or give our own societal consent to what’s happening in the name of the greater good—though Wipond shows there’s scant data on the effectiveness of these extreme treatments—if we don’t see what it actually looks like and what it does to and means for real people. “Collectively,” Wipond writes, “we’ll only be able to work together toward truly constructive change if we have, at the very least, some basic, shared understanding.” Through story after story in chapter after chapter, Wipond takes us inside the process of contact with involuntary treatment: the victims of well-intentioned wellness checks, individuals taken from their homes or work after calling supposedly confidential suicide crisis lines (which, in fact, can initiate covert call tracing and police apprehension), people sent to military or university or workplace mental health programs who risk losing their rank or their courses or their jobs if they don’t comply with treatment. A story the book also unfolds for us is how difficult shared understanding can be when psychiatrists, with an enormous power imbalance over their patients, get to choose the terms of detention and freedom. While it’s comforting to see science as objective and trustworthy, Wipond reminds us that it’s not a set of conclusions but a live process frequently shaped by cultural bias. From 19th century “illnesses” like drapetomania used to explain why Black slaves ran away from their masters, to homosexuality (dropped from the DSM in the years following the Stonewall riots), to the former USSR’s routine diagnosis of political dissenters, the labels of mental illness have long been used for social control and upholding accepted social standards. Misunderstandings, interpretations, the pathologizing of certain emotions, actions, looks, or words can leave already suffering patients exhausted and helpless—and detained and drugged. Many former patients speak of how asking questions, requesting a lawyer, expressing dislike for or, worse, actually disagreeing with or objecting to recommended treatment got them labelled as lacking insight into their condition and unable to make reasonable decisions. As one former patient recalls, “It was traumatizing trying to plead to be understood.” TO BE CLEAR, Your Consent is Not Required is an important but disturbing read. What comes through, however, is the huge amount of care that knits it together. Wipond hopes the book is an educational tool for people who know very little about this mostly invisible part of our mental healthcare system, but equally important is his hope that it helps those with lived experience of forced treatment to feel seen and heard and less alone. “What I hope the book does,” he says near the end of our talk, “is show the immense diversity of people this is happening to. They’re part of a vast spectrum right across our society, from the wealthiest to the poorest, from white to Black to Indigenous—everything. I want those people to see that. It’s something, I’m realizing, that I’m uniquely placed to provide as a journalist. They’re in hiding, a lot of these people. They’re actively running. In the last day somebody literally said, ‘You know, I’ve been in hiding from my own family for 40 years. I’m a victim of childhood abuse. I’ve been hiding because they got me involuntarily treated. I’m afraid to this day.’ I said, ‘I’ve heard your story before. You’re not the only one.’ And she said, ‘I’m literally crying right now to hear that. I thought I was alone.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not alone.’ That’s something that, to me, is enormously valuable and important that I want to bring back to those people: ‘You’re not alone.’” Wipond’s feel for human stories and his ability to make connections has earned him a wide audience. His journalism has appeared in over a hundred outlets, from the BMJ to Chatelaine to Adbusters, and he’s won multiple awards, including two Websters. His reputation as a journalist in the community is, in fact, central to how this, his first book, came about. And it brings us back to the issue of trust. “The community journalism part was absolutely crucial to this work,” Wipond says, seemingly surprised himself at how it all came together. “I just don’t think it could have been done any other way. It started where people saw my face in Focus magazine. People would recognize me on the street and go, ‘I read your article,’ and they’d start talking about it. And then often people would say, ‘You don’t know the half of it,’ and they would put me on to something new, and so this cycle got going.” The same happened, he says, around his writing for Mad in America, the US web magazine of science, psychiatry, and social justice—readers would reach out and relate their stories or answer surveys or point him to others who might be valuable resources because they knew where he was coming from and felt he could be trusted with the most painful, private experiences. “That's why I think it’s taken this long for a book of this kind to emerge,” Wipond says, with obvious gratitude to the people who shared their stories. “It really was a grassroots thing that grew and grew and grew from there.” Building that rapport and creating a safe space isn’t just about a journalist getting good information; it’s an issue of being the kind of patient, compassionate person who listens and gets it enough that someone who has been deeply hurt can say, as Wipond puts it, “Yeah, okay. Here, have a little bit of my heart and carry it forward.” Is this an emotionally tough book to read? Yes. But it is also touching in its underlying tenderness and in the tentative but tensile bridges of trust, community, and hope for change that readers see built page by page. Amy Reiswig is a writer and editor living on SḴŦAḴ/ Mayne Island. Your Consent is Not Required should be available at Munro’s and other local bookstores. Check here for more information.
  3. Pauline Holdstock’s latest novel, written in a diary format by a woman in the throes of marriage collapse and a new career, reminds us that we’re never really in control—and that some days humour is the only way to cope. I HAVE A CONFESSION to make. I write in my books. Often it’s to note emerging themes or recurring images, but in Pauline Holdstock’s new novel it was a lot of “ha,” “lol,” and in caps “YES.” Confessions with Keith (Biblioasis, September 2022) invites us into the privacy of extracts from the diary of Vita Glass as she navigates the tumult of middle age, motherhood, pet management, the facades and fictions of social life, marital mysteries, and questions about where meaning is truly to be found. The diary format means Vita writes like no one’s listening, and so it reflects the way we talk to ourselves depending on what we need. Sometimes just fragments, sometimes dense with detail, the book is playful and creative, biting and critical, insightful and loving. And funny. Because as Holdstock reminds us, so much of our experience of life is about perspective, and Vita—whose name means “life”—is highly attuned to the absurd, including of thinking we’re ever really in control. Really, some days humour is the only way to cope. Full of self-examination and self-questioning, Vita’s first-person ‘truth’ allows readers standing outside her individual maelstrom to see that what we could all use more of is self-compassion. For in addition to funny, life is also painful and beautiful and we are in it both alone and together. ORIGINALLY FROM THE UK, longtime Victoria area resident Holdstock is perhaps best known for her historical fiction, including the Giller-shortlisted Beyond Measure (which won the 2005 Ethel Wilson Award for Fiction) and The Hunter and The Wild Girl, winner of the 2016 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. But Confessions with Keith, her eleventh book, takes us to the not-so-distant familiarity of 1990s Victoria, where Mother’s Day begins with Vita pulling a Master of the Universe toy out of the shower drain. The day doesn’t really get better, unless you count having to explain “Well-hung BGM” to the child who wrapped their present in a page of personal ads. (Vita’s answer: “New kind of BMX,” noting to herself that “sometimes lying is the wisest choice.”) Pauline Holdstock Vita leads a life of quiet privilege, with a house by the water, husband, four kids, friends, a writing career, and even a regular hair stylist—Keith of the title, who oversees Bangs salon. But like any seemingly calm sea, currents can pull in all kinds of directions underneath, and what’s visible is rarely all there is to know. In entries spanning 15 months—often skipping days or a week at a time—Vita’s single, personal point of view allows Holdstock to explore the theme, found in many of her works, of the interplay between the revealed and the hidden, the seen and unseen. What does Vita choose to record? What is said versus unsaid? The diary format itself opens holes—the left out, the gaps, moments recounted versus those condensed or completely ignored. The reader therefore has work to do filling in, for we can see, hopefully, more clearly than the physically and figuratively blurry-visioned Vita. What we also see is that truth, especially in a diary, is not absolute. “We all like it when the power goes out,” Vita writes cheerfully on day 1 of an outage. But after four days, “We all hate power cuts.” On the one hand, Vita feels it’s strange that her down-to-the-marrow suffering over marital disintegration isn’t obvious to everyone: “How to meet the teacher and make peanut butter sandwiches with the self slowly coming apart, cell by bloody cell? And—here is the really spooky part—NO ONE ELSE CAN SEE IT.” But later she notes the opposite with the sense that it’s all too visible: “I cannot shake the feeling abandonment shows.” Hers are the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves on any given day, and she demonstrates how our sense of self and of life can be shaped by our perception and our retelling. As a result, the book also offers a kind of commentary about writing and the ways it both can and can’t express our experience. Holdstock has made Vita a writer, a poet who amid chaotic family upheavals begins a new career publishing food erotica. Everything in her world is shifting, including her vision of the produce aisle (though she draws the line at zucchinis). She is an observer and, in her diary, a kind of reporter, but sometimes that doesn’t do justice to the depth of a situation. After describing a quiet evening of listening to the sounds of owls, sea, and wind-blown cedars Vita writes: “Sounds like a nice night when I write it all down. It wasn’t.” In some ways, writing can flatten and strip away or cover over emotion. But Vita is not solely a reporter; she’s an explorer who finds herself fumbling and tumbling in her feelings and her words. “Spent most of the night lying awake practising what to say when I talk about it. Jack and I are through. We are through, out the other side. No longer one. No longer two. Jack is leaving me. I am left by Jack. Jack and I are splitting up. Jack has split. Up. I am splitting with Jack. We are going our separate ways. Jack and I no longer see eye to eye. Sleep face to face. Toe to toe. Oh. Oh. No.” Through Vita, Holdstock is at glorious play in and with language—all of its silliness and suggestiveness, its layers of resonance, and its ability to sometimes capture a moment perfectly in sound and connect us through recognition. “Gradually the noises of the campsite wound down in a long decrescendo from shouts and laughter in the dark to footsteps and car doors and finally to whispers and zippers.” YES. Underlying the blend of domestic comedy and near-tragedy is, therefore, a consideration of the role of art and our need for story. That’s part of where Keith comes in. Keith, Vita’s hairdresser at Bangs, is a kind of story-keeper. “It’s bliss at Keith’s. Bliss. That’s why I go. Of course.” Except…is he really that profound? Talking about a sense of woe, Vita says to Keith: “‘Everything’s a matter of outlook. What’s yours?’ Keith said, ‘What’s my what?’ I said, ‘Never mind. Just tell me more of your stories. They’re always good.’” Keith might not be the deepest thinker between these pages, but stories divert, and sometimes that is exactly what we need. In one of Holdstock’s blog posts, called “One Good Reason to Tell Tales,” she writes that “The truth is way too difficult to tackle bare handed. You can’t grasp it. It’s prickly. It burns. It bites….Wear a disguise. Pretend you are busy with something else.” Like hair. Reflecting on the women she used to see sitting under salon chrome domes, Vita thinks: “It wasn’t permanent waves they were after. It was alpha waves. They were meditating—long before it became a thing. They were having their moments of pure being, of Oneness. They were probably having glimpses of Other. Or if they weren’t, they were writing in their diaries in their heads or having a steamy time with Omar Sharif.” Ha! And YES. “VIRGINIA WOOLF said Life, if it is to be compared to anything, must be compared to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour.” Vita adds, “I think it bears a pretty good resemblance as well to being dragged through the town by a crazed steer…. Blood in your nose and grit in your hair.” But as she reports later, it can also be “Beach breakfast beach lunch beach dinner. Beach. Heaven.” Vita Glass’s very name reflects both the fragility and strength of life, noting that, like truth, it is not wholly one thing or another. It can be a source of light and of hard barriers, something that protects and something that can shatter. Confessions with Keith reminds us that life is a raw, radiant, and ridiculous story unfolding moment by moment for everyone in their separate subjectivities. It deserves laughter. It deserves tears. It is made more bearable by books like this, the literary equivalent of uncensored midnight conversation over cups of tea or glasses—plural—of wine. What Vita observes of festival street performers could well be said of reading Holdstock’s newest creation: “It was a shared experience of human life, a little bit of eternity together.” YES. 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.
  4. Connection, grief, ecology and protection of trees are explored through the words of some of Canada’s most talented poets. WHEN YOU STEP INTO A FOREST, the stillness is palpable but deceptive. Beneath the bark, below the soil, up in the crown is movement, exchange—activity visible and invisible. What seems like peace is a place of bustling connection, nurturing the host of life large and small that feeds and shelters in, on, under, and around the trees. If we are quiet and attentive, we can sense some of it with our eyes, ears, lungs. Deeper, we might feel ourselves touched in that less tangible but potent place: our hearts. In BC, the politics of the forests are never far from view. But in the new anthology Worth More Standing: Poets and Activists Pay Homage to Trees (Caitlin Press, April 2022), editor Christine Lowther invites us to instead step into relationship with trees through the words of an impressive collection of poets. Gathered from writers across North America, these works offer observations, experiences, memories, visions, imaginings, and remind us of what’s at stake in that relationship. As Kathy Page notes in her poem “We, The Trees,” “What matters is the sum of us,/ and what matters is what passes/ between the sum of us, and/ what passes between the sum of us/ and the sum of you.” FROM THE FIRST PAGE, Worth More Standing is immersive. “I sat in a willow tarp lodge/ alone in the forest./ Inhaled the sweet birth of leaves,” writes Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe in her opening poem “okimaw wahic—the Sacred Tree.” The act of breathing appears in many of these poems and in a simple and familiar way reflects the more profound intimacy of what passes between us. (Sky Dancer is the Parliamentary Poet Laureate for 2021-22) Likewise, many poems feature the immediacy of physical touch: the leaning of a hand, a cheek, a whole body against a whole body. Like a tree’s roots meeting other roots, that touch allows connection to something larger than self. In “Backyard Beauties” (an excerpt), Valerie Losell reaches toward the way trees link us to family and culture when she writes: “Press your fingers in the/ deeply crinkled ridges of the/ greyed bark growing since/ your grandma’s youth.” Avatar Grove (TJ Watt photo) In “Western Red Cedar Stories,” Catherine Owen reflects on the very personal rituals a tree has watched over: “you, topped by a rudimentary fort, attended the burial of birds, gerbils, cats, the ashes of the man I loved.” And in her piece “Roots Anchored,” Haíɫzaqv writer Sheena Robinson traces connections back into history, through the ancient time that trees keep: “The stories are still here, lying/ in layers of detritus on the forest floor,/ feeding old relatives, resisting/ decay and the weight of oppression./ My ancestors hold me up to the light,/ like nurse logs cradling new growth.” Connection is the book’s first section, the others being ecology, grief, and protection. The poems are a therefore a combination of love songs, elegies, calls to action. And while our provincial struggles over old growth practices and policies are referenced—in poems like Zoe Dickinson’s “To the Premier of British Columbia, on the enforcement of an injunction removing blockaders from logging roads on Vancouver Island, May 2021” and Weyman Chan’s “To the Old Growth Cedars of Fairy Creek”—that’s not the dominant focus. Rather, the book honours trees of all kinds—olive, linden, laurel, maple, cherry, pear, hawthorn, yew, cypress, cedar, pine, fir, hemlock, spruce, sequoia, oak, arbutus, krummholz, magnolia, chestnut, aspen, mulberry, eucalyptus, elm, beech, banyan, balsam, cottonwood, catalpa, shihuahuaco, ash, acacia, locust, tahli. And it takes us from Galiano to Galilee, California to Carmanah, Manhattan to Machu Picchu. Christine Lowther Lowther is a veteran of anti-logging protests. Her first blockade was in 1991, she was arrested in 1992, and she was part of the group that helped save Tofino’s 800-year-old Eik cedar in 2002. She is also a widely published poet and prose writer who wants everyone—“from the quiet small-town resident to urban raver to government rep”—to see, celebrate, and value trees for what they are, what they do, what they can teach us. As she tells me, with a love and reverence audible across the scratchy cell signal tenuously bridging Tofino and Mayne Island, “This book is for the trees.” Lowther has co-edited two previous anthologies—Writing the West Coast: In Love with Place (2008) and Living Artfully: Reflections from the Far West Coast (2012), both with Anita Sinner. She has published several collections of poetry, and her non-fiction book Born Out of This (2014) was shortlisted for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize. As Tofino’s poet laureate for the 2020-2022 term, Lowther’s tenure began just as COVID-19 settled in. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to hold the usual in-person events, she wanted a project to work on solo that would still connect people and poetry. And that’s exactly what this anthology does. It brings together many familiar local poets—including Arleen Paré, Patricia Young, Terrence Young, Patrick Friesen, Rhona McAdam, Eve Joseph, Kyeren Regehr, Pamela Porter, former Victoria poet laureate Yvonne Blomer, and current poet laureate John Barton—as well as writers and tree lovers from across BC, Canada, and the US. A second volume is forthcoming this fall, of youth poets, called Worth More Growing. “Anyone who knows me will say ‘Chris is a tree fan,’ and that is putting it very mildly,” she laughs, noting that she came to this admiration at a young age. “My mom was picketing developments,” she explains, “trying to save big old trees in south Vancouver when I was barely old enough to walk.” That influence endures in her own activism and writing, and in the acknowledgements Lowther thanks her late mother, Pat Lowther, “for teaching me not just to love trees but also that trees are worth more standing, leaning, twisting, bending, reaching, mothering.” We get to see some of Pat Lowther’s voice and passion through her poem “‘At the last judgement we shall all be trees’ —Margaret Atwood”: Trees are in their roots and branches, their intricacies, what we are ambassadors between the land and high air setting a breathing shape against the sky as you and I do WORTH MORE STANDING shows us that poetry, and the sense of relationship rendered by poetic vision, is, like the forest itself, transformative. Once you enter, you don’t leave unchanged. As Lauren Camp says in her poem “Forest Man,” “I lean in to hear better and the soft places/ of my heart open.” Being opened and open to being changed means, perhaps uncomfortably, coming to a renewed sense of humility, of our smallness next to some of the almost ageless and towering, to-us silent giants. For instance, while our fates are intertwined with that of trees through climate change, forestry, development, and more, there are still basic arboreal processes that we are only just beginning to understand, as UBC forest ecologist Suzanne Simard describes in her 2021 memoir Finding the Mother Tree. In her poem “Slow Love,” Joanna Streetly describes such previously undetected tree communication relative to our perceptual limitations: “murmurings/ you wish you were evolved enough/ to hear.” And in “Song of the Pando,” Lynn Pattison speaks to us as the Utah aspen grove that is actually one single, huge, ancient organism: “What can you know, standing there under my leaves/ admiring catkins, newly flowered? Thinking: grove of aspen,/ thinking: vast. No idea what a past is,/ one approaching a million years.” Hopefully, this kind of renewed perspective—of the world, of oneself—will help plant the seeds of engagement. “Poetry has more freedom, maybe, than other literary forms, so it can provide more of a place for the imagination,” Lowther suggests. “And activism is about imagining a world and actually working towards that world.” There is so much room to grow in our relationship to the world around us. This valuable book reminds us that we aren’t the be all. Let’s hope we’re not the end all. Living, as most of us do, on land that has previously been the home of trees and forests (cities being some of the country’s biggest clear cuts), we need to look outside our windows, into backyards, onto boulevards, and further beyond our urban borders to see trees as more than decorative, more than the euphemistic “fibre,” more than potential product. The poets in this collection help us re-view what was, what is, and what could be—whether good or ill—for our trees, and for us. Entering these pages is akin to what Jay Ruzesky writes about visiting the groves of Carmanah. You enter, he says, …the way any frightened animal might slip into cover. This is escape. This is a chance. This is leaving behind Facebook and news on the hour, every hour. Forget even the National Research Council official time signal and turn it off, flip the switch, what’s on the calendar for the next few days? Well, nothing. No. Not nothing. Everything. 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.
  5. This powerful memoir chronicles a lesser-known chapter of the Second World War through the story of two sisters: Sabina, author Isa Milman’s mother, who survived the war, and Basia, Sabina’s twin, who did not. IN THE SMALL VILLAGE OF POHORELOWKA in Poland—now Poliske, Ukraine—two chestnut trees stand side by side, their crowns growing together, almost as one. In front of them, tired-looking parents sit amid a cluster of five young daughters. Beneath twin trees the group is bookended by twin sisters, Sabina and Basia Kramer—one with bows holding her dark braids, the other with a shorter bob. One survived the Second World War. The other did not. It’s a single, simple family photograph from about 1927, whose prewar circumstances are a mystery and whose postwar existence is a miracle. It was discovered by chance in 2014 by writer Isa Milman while on a research trip for her new memoir Afterlight: In Search of Poetry, History, and Home (Heritage House). Sabina, the twin who survived, is Milman’s mother, and the photo was the first time Milman had seen her as a child. The small black and white rectangle—the kind so many of us take for granted stuffed in shoeboxes or falling out of faded albums—holds much more than a flat image. “It was, finally, a real past that I had gathered,” Milman writes, “the past of my family, still intact, living in a complete world, with leafy trees, wooden chairs in the grass, a rail fence, fields in the distance….” Writer Isa Milman As a poet and visual artist, Milman has been exploring issues of identity, home, and family—the love and the loss—for two decades. Born in a displaced persons camp in US-occupied Germany before her family immigrated to Boston, Milman has long struggled with a sense of rootlessness and a childhood marked by absence. “My mother hardly spoke of my birth and the first weeks of my life,” she writes in Afterlight, and the Shoah’s devastation meant Milman grew up without the experience of grandparents or extended family. Writing about one of her trips to Poland, Milman describes being “back in my child-self, reliving the time I asked my mother what was a Bobie, and watching her face collapse.” Amid that painful absence, Milman has brought forth a body of work that creates and celebrates connection. Her poetry collections Between the Doorposts (2004), Prairie Kaddish (2008), and Something Small to Carry Home (2012), each of which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry, touch on the personal and historical as well as the ability of writing to reclaim stories, memories, and lives from erasure. So when Milman’s 89-year-old mother woke up from her deathbed, surrounded by family, and began sharing a previously unknown story about her long-dead twin sister—about the teenage poet Basia’s writing plans, the family’s unusual friendship with a defrocked village priest, and his offer of mentorship—Milman scrambled to take notes. “Isa,” her mother said, “this should be your next book.” “Originally, the book was going to be about Basia,” Milman tells me over a video chat from her home in Victoria. “She was a poet, and I’m a poet. There’s such a nice connection. But I knew virtually nothing about my aunt.” What Milman did know was that there must be more to the new story and that she needed to investigate. “It wasn’t part of the usual narrative,” she explains, the excitement of discovery still palpable in her retelling. “It was a big deal. You know, ‘the Poles and Ukrainians were horrible and killers and antisemites’ and all of that. But my mother described a very lovely relationship, a friendship between them, and that was news to me. It was the first time she had ever said anything like that; she never had good things to say about Poland. That’s what really stunned me. That’s the part that got me going.” And we go with her. For while the book explores hidden stories of family history amid the backdrop of political history, a key term in Afterlight’s subtitle is “search.” This is not a linear memoir retracing lives from A to B. It is told in a deftly braided timeline that brings the reader back and forth between past and present, in which the travels and travails of her family are woven together with Milman’s own emotional and physical journeys—of commitment to and undertaking the daunting task; of uncoverings, revelations, and experiences with people and places she never expected. It's an immersive book, and central to its strength and success is Milman’s courage. “My notion of Poland was born from a deliberate burial of this place by my parents, who dug a deep hole and interred their childhoods and young lives along with it,” Milman writes. And yet, the drive to recover their stories and the memory of their family members who didn’t survive impels her to do the previously unthinkable. “Here I was in Poland,” she recounts to the reader, “my strange, frightening, almost-home. A home carpeted with the bones of my closest family and my awesome, formidable tribe.” Not only do we journey with Milman as she does the hard, courageous work of travelling to haunted ground—to search for documents, Basia’s poems, the sisters’ childhood home, the killing fields where her relatives’ remains lie unmarked, a place to mourn—but as a writer, she does the difficult heart work of travelling into her family’s daily reality in a way that brings them close, to Milman and to us. For instance, she takes us onto a crowded Warsaw tram on a day when her mother stood up to a group of men ranting about Jews and had her fingers slammed in the tram door: “I hear her yelping in pain, see her bringing her crumpled fingers to her lips, blowing on them as if she could revive them and cool them with her breath.” When her mother and father reunite after Sabina’s escape from Warsaw, Milman writes: “I can feel her mounting excitement as she drew nearer and nearer to home.” Afterlight—a 2021 National Jewish Book Award Finalist—is a work rooted in fact, but it also relies on the intimacy of imagination. “I gathered as much information as I could,” Milman tells me, but “it became a huge challenge to figure out how to write it.” Despite the wealth of notes, papers, articles, and interviews, in the mode of creative non-fiction she sometimes had to create pivotal, personal, undocumented scenes—for instance, when her parents read the posted names on the walls of a postwar Breslau café in the unlikely (but ultimately successful) hope of reuniting with Sabina’s surviving sisters. Milman learned about the method of finding lost loved ones from an academic whose work includes the topic of Jews who survived in the Soviet Union, as Milman’s parents had. With that bit of information, and after her own visit to the cafés near the historic White Stork synagogue in what is now Wrocław, Milman transports us to the moment when Sabina collapses into a chair, exhausted, while her husband, Olek, reads around the room methodically. “‘Sabina, come look,’” we hear him say. “Everything around her blurred; the walls looked like they were pulsating, but it was her heart beating too fast. She steadied herself by leaning against the table, took a deep breath, and then made her way toward my father. Putting one arm around her, he pointed to the yellow scrap of paper taped on the wall. ‘Pola, Manya, and Sonia Kramer,’ he read. ’20 Lochstrasse, apt. 44.’” “I was deeply immersed,” Milman says, with an obvious combination of amazement, love, and sadness. “I had to completely empathize and imagine myself in my mother’s place, in my parents’ places, and even in my aunt Basia’s place. That was the hardest part. But to have that task was, in a sense, very liberating. It became like a writing challenge. Not all of it was difficult.” What Milman tells me about going to Poland applies equally to the way she opens herself up, allows herself to be inhabited by her family’s experiences while writing: “confronting your fear, taking those steps to go where you’re afraid to go—what you discover there is really phenomenal.” The courage of Milman’s search meant being open in another way as well—to being changed. “One of the deepest and most profound changes that I experienced” she explains, still with an air of wonder, perhaps even a bit of disbelief, “was my relationship to Poland, to the idea of Poland, to what Poland represented, including the part of Poland that is now Ukraine and Belarus, which is where my parents were from. I had started from a place where there was no redemption to meeting people there who I deeply love and developed a strong relationship with, to this day.” Throughout Afterlight, we see a host of people helping Milman on her journey, from her husband, family, and friends in Canada to international academics, researchers, translators, charitable organizations, cultural institutions, and even the teacher and schoolchildren of Poliske. Milman’s burden was carried by so many who took up the search alongside her. The formerly impossible idea of setting foot in Poland leads to what she describes as a “living moment of tikkun, or repair.” Taking its title from a word referring to both a retrospect and the light still visible in the sky after sunset, Afterlight explores the power of memory, imagination, and words to hold hands with those across the threshold, to let them continue to be seen, felt, heard. “When you think that it was the worst—and in so many respects it was the worst that happened to Basia and to members of my family and the whole Jewish civilization of Europe—it didn’t end,” Milman tells me near the end of our talk. “There’s still light. There’s still life.” As readers, we become witnesses, not just to the family’s past but to the incredible act of courageous love and honouring that is this book. And we join the community of memory-keepers who, as a result, can say: Basia, we also will remember you. Milman’s is a book that also reminds us of the dangers of hatred and the role we all still have to play in the ongoing work of memory and repair. Many of the issues she touches on are not old, done and fixed, and her strength can inspire ours. To search. To be open even when afraid. To be transformed. For despite the absences and the cut off roots, Milman shows us what resilience and becoming can look like and what they can achieve. After a potent moment of return to the twin chestnuts of that precious family photograph, Milman raises a glass with new and unexpected friends, and going around the table, they toast: “to our families, to the kindling of new friendships, to education, to honouring our past, to freedom from persecution, to people getting to know one another and celebrating our common humanity…to the old mills and the rivers still flowing, to the people that we’d loved and lost, to the songs of the forest, to life, to life, l’Chaim….” 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. June 2020 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. Go to story
  10. June 2020 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.
  11. April 2020 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. John Gould 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.
  12. November 2018 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.
  13. September 2018 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. Elizabeth Woodworth 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.
  14. July 2018 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. Eve Joseph 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.
  15. May 2018 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. Sarah Cox 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.
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