David R. Boyd, ed., Northern Wild

David Boyd lives near here, on Saltspring Island I think, but I haven't met him. After reading the collection of essays he edited as Northern Wild: Best Contemporary Canadian Nature Writing, though, I'd kind of like to meet him, because mostly he appreciates the same kinds of things I do in Canadian writing about nature. Mind you, Robert Wiersema, whose reviews I generally trust, was quite harsh on this volume seven years ago in Quill & Quire, but I think it's because Rob expected or wanted something from the book that Boyd was just never going to give him.

In part it's a question of definition. That phrase "nature writing" is more loaded than it seems, because it carries within it the full heritage of Thoreau and hints of American Romanticism, plus Jack London and even (in Canada) Robert Service. Something that describes itself as "nature writing" should never be understood as "writing about nature." Rob comments that "the collection becomes bland, with a monotonous reverential quality," which he connects to the volume's failure to address darker elements of nature in deference to a generalized state of wonder. He's right about the consistently reverential quality, but not about its blandness or that its consistence is really monotony.

Because it's nature writing, mostly. The pieces he singles out for praise push against that phrase, rather than fitting neatly within it. Nature writing isn't my bag either, so my tastes actually run toward some of the same pieces Wiersema favoured in this review, but I also liked some of the more lyrical writing that's fairly conventional nature writing.

Highlights for me (apart from the obvious choices of Sharon Butala and Terry Glavin) were Beth Powning's "Home" and Kevin Van Tighem's "Recognition." Powning in particular is a writer I need to spend more time with; I don't know her work at all, but I'm prepared to be dazzled.


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