Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Don Gayton, Landscapes of the Interior

As I've confessed once already on this blog, I didn't get what Don Gayton was all about when I first came across his writing, in the form of The Wheatgrass Mechanism: Science and Imagination in the Western Canadian Landscape. The book wasn't helpful with what I was trying to accomplish academically at the time (a dissertation on nature in 18th-century British literature), and it didn't help me retain contact with my BC home landscapes while I lived in Edmonton, and for whatever reason, I sighed and put it aside. "Not my thing," was roughly my thinking at the time.

Of course, I regretted this greatly when I had the good fortune to read his most recent book Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden, which I enjoyed enormously. "Bugger," I thought, "gotta try Wheatgrass again."

And then this semester, Don Gayton was the Roderick Haig-Brown Writer in Residence at my university, while I'm teaching an upper-level English course in nature writing. He agreed to come speak with my class, and I prepped for the event by reading some of his work, including dipping back into Wheatgrass and (more importantly for this post) reading for the first time his Landscapes of the Interior: Re-Explorations of Nature and the Human Spirit.

This book should have been assigned reading in my nature writing course this semester, even if he hadn't come to speak with the class. Cast as a series of visits to places of remembered importance to him, Landscapes of the Interior gives its reader the best of Gayton as ecologist and Gayton as writer. He reflects persistently on the ways in which he's finding or creating meaning for himself in particular places, but he's also careful about the scientific information. On occasion, this means we get to watch an ecologist's mind get stuck on a problem, and I found that helpful in some complicated, rewarding ways.

In one passage set in a small coulee leading down to the Oldman River out of a Lethbridge suburb, for example, Gayton gets angry about a motorbike track that's torn up a small patch of topsoil that'd take a hundred years to replace. Ever the ecologist, though, he then remembers that the coulee is relatively young and hence subject to slumping and slides much more potent than the spinning wheel of a dirt-bike. (Indeed, there are fresh signs of slumping right in the same area.) Inspired by the ecosystem management conference from which he's cheerfully playing hooky, he can't help asking further questions beyond his ability to answer at this point:
Could ecosystem management define a sustainable level of soil disturbance, and a ratio between natural and anthropogenic disturbance?
What about the invading grasses that clog the hillsides around me? How could I put them into an ecosystem management framework? Could I somehow determine a natural, pre-European contact rate of new species invasion, and then make sure that the arrival of these alien bromes and fescues and agropyrons does not exceed that rate?
In other words, it's not just that I'm congenitally slow to figure out the best way to do things. Sometimes it's just hard to figure things out. I know this, and yet it's nice to see the same predicament afflicting someone with the relevant skills and knowledge I wish I had.

As I dug back through this book for details to talk about here, I realized just how fully I've occupied Gayton's book these last days, as I slowly worked through it while fulfilling all those other tasks and obligations that fill my time. And I couldn't find a single key detail, since I appreciated the book so very much, so rather than a pivotal moment, here's something simply to chew on, instead:
In our society, there is an almost automatic reference to aboriginal or Far Eastern cultures whenever nature or land-based mysticism is considered. There is no question that that these cultures are far ahead of ours when it comes to spiritual connections to the landscape, but for us to concentrate so exclusively on foreign approaches amounts to an elaborate cop-out. By borrowing other peoples' rituals and approaches, which have little or no chance of serious, mainstream adoption, we neatly avoid the central question of building a spiritual connection to the land into our own culture. This is cultural appropriation of the worst kind. (p.120)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Patrick Lane, Red Dog, Red Dog

Biased? Moi?

It's not that colleague, friend, and book club compadre David Leach was ripped off in the recent Victoria Book Prize bikini competition ("aagh! my eyes, my eyes!"), because when the formerly punky and puckish young poet Patrick Lane, now a septuagenarian fully five years past qualifying for benefits from the Canada Pension Plan, got around to publishing his first novel, you knew he'd do something special with it, and he certainly has.

But Leach's book Fatal Tide is also pretty special, though, as the good people at the Banff Mountain Book Festival saw fit to notice this year by giving it a Special Jury Prize (even if they decided to give the Oscar itself to Sid Marty's fascinating but flawed Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek).

But the Victoria Book Prize is an odd beast, lumping together five books written by people currently living in Victoria and aimed at adults (loosely defined as anyone not targetted by children's books, for whom there's a separate award). So you get three fiction books, a collection of poetry by the lovely and talented Patricia Young, plus some nonfiction thing about a guy dying in an extreme sports event.

(Mind you, I may need to read Dede Crane's nominated short story collection The Cult of Quick Repair, or her earlier novel Sympathy. Here's what she says on the Coteau Books site about finding her voice as a writer: "Moving to Vancouver Island was the final other catalyst. There was something about the power of the land here, in particular the trees, that urged voice. I know this may sound strange but unlike the east coast where the forest isn't wild anymore, the trees here still have stories to tell. And they want them told." Where does one start with a comment like that?)

It doesn't sound like I'm deferring judgment on Lane's novel, does it? Oh, it does? Right then.

I should have learned by now, but the stupid blurb made me resist this book fiercely:
A richly textured portrait of a time and a place [Vernon BC, 1958], filled with moments of harrowing violence and breathtaking descriptions of the natural world, Red Dog, Red Dog is a deeply moving novel about the legacies of the past and the possibilities of salvation that is marked by stunning writing and an utterly compelling and original story.
Now, if I want more cheese than could possibly be good for you, I go to Pagliacci's for a Hemingway Short Story and the chocolate cheesecake. A blurb like this, not so much what I go for.

Because of this blurb, I kept comparing it to other novels as I read, and it was distracting. Really I was thinking of those that reveal violence as a kind of family inheritance; that portray marginal agrarian communities; that include parents whose breakdowns are slow enough to span an adolescent's move into adulthood. The list wasn't a short one, even if Lane was doing a good job with the task. And there's not much sense that things happen in a "natural world," in most of the definitions of the term that make sense. And those gratuitous adverbs "richly," "deeply," and "utterly" really are, well, gratuitous.

Lane's a fine writer, and there's some wonderful prose in this book. His characters are complex and memorable (if at times either almost entirely inscrutable or seemingly automatic in their responses to stimuli), the violence is just as harrowing as promised by the blurb, and there's a note of authenticity to the portrayed existence that makes this a pretty special book.

But that blurb kept nagging at me. If it's not Patrick Lane (or "Pat Lane," as one hears his friends call him at readings and such like), with the machinery behind him to generate a bulletproof blurb like this from McClelland & Stewart -- I don't know that this book makes the award circuit. Good stuff, sure, but there's plenty of good stuff out there.

And since I'm being unfair already, here's a snippy editorial note to end on: On page 126, when Lane's talking about Western movies, he mentions John Wayne as a key image, plus "Henry Ford somewhere out there waiting." I'm assuming he meant John Ford, but maybe there's a rightness to mentioning Henry here that I missed....

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oct. 22 - UVic Bookstore

One of these books I needed (the expensive one), but the Hurt Penguins sale was on....
  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism ($26)
  • William Least Heat-Moon, River-Horse: Across America by Boat ($3.99, mostly following Lewis & Clark or Henry Hudson, from New York Harbor to Astoria, Oregon)
  • Stephen J. Pyne, Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910 ($2.99 -- forest fire history)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Oct. 20 - Fort Street Cafe

I went to a wonderful reading event last night, featuring Vanessa Winn (The Chief Factor's Daughter), Des Kennedy (Patrick's Mountain), Theresa Kishkan (The Age of Waterlilies) and Anik See (Postcard & Other Stories). There were 35 or so people there, and I really enjoyed myself -- great to meet Anik and Theresa (here and here), whose work I've so appreciated, and who were just lovely to talk to.

Theresa's daughter seemed nice, but she was awfully embarrassed by Theresa's decision to read the naughty bits out of the novel....

Since I already owned The Age of Waterlilies, and the other two didn't appeal to me as much, I picked up only Anik See's Postcard & Other Stories, from Freehand Books and sold to me by the attending bookseller Cadboro Bay Books. Looking forward to digging in!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Oct 16 - subTEXT

A few things as I wandered by in a daze today, clutching a square of marshmallow, peanut butter, and corn flakes:
  • Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston ($11 -- a classic, of its kind obviously...)
  • Brian Fawcett, The Secret Journal of Alexander Mackenzie ($3 -- a collection of typically oddball Fawcett short stories)
  • Sonnet L'Abbe, Killarnoe ($9 -- a wonderful poet)
  • Charles G.D. Roberts, The Heart of the Ancient Wood ($6 -- a repeat buy, to my horror)
  • Paul St. Pierre, Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse ($2 -- there's not enough Chilcotin literature on anyone's shelf)

Friday, October 09, 2009

Oct 9 - United Way

Stupid United Way booksale. A simple "Last day - by donation!" sign shouldn't have such power:
  • Doug Cuthand, Tapwe: Selected Columns of Doug Cuthand (the thoughtful and provocative Cree journalist from Saskatchewan, whose colums I so often appreciate on the rare times I see them in the Times-Colonist)
  • Ivan Doig, Dancing at the Rascal Fair
  • Brian Fawcett, Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Cafe and Other Non-Globalized Places, People, and Ideas (sample line: "Siding with environmentalists doesn't fool me into trusting them, or, for that matter, liking them" [92])
  • The Best of Granta Travel (1991)
  • Vid Ingelevics, Hunter : Gatherer (exhibition gallery from the Southern Alberta Art Gallery & the Tom Thomson Art Gallery -- mostly photos of woodpiles!)
  • Hugh MacLennan (text), The Colours of Canada (another entry in my growing pile of 60s/70s coffee-table books about Canadian nature, to set against my similarly growing pile of Sierra Club photo-books)
  • ed. Wells, Velie, & Walker, Appleseeds and Beercans: Man and Nature in Literature (a 1974 anthology)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Oct 7 - United Way

Stupid charity booksales. I mean, they drag down the profit margin of second-hand bookstores, unless the booksellers show up to clean the place out themselves and so take the profit for themselves; they hit at purveyors of new books as well; and there's no cut heading the direction of the authors from them, either.

I've tried to swear off them before, but ... stupid booksales. This week, the United Way has taken over part of UVic's McPherson Library, and in consequence I've lightened their load by 23 books at a toonie apiece:
  • Luanne Armstrong, The Bone House (an environmental justice / global warming novel set in BC)
  • Philippe Bourseiller, 365 Ways to Save the Earth (a stunningly photographed and appallingly self-congratulatory chunk of decadence appropriate to the last days of Rome)
  • Ivan Doig, The Whistling Season (a Montana novel, 1909)
  • J. Claude Evans, With Respect for Nature: Living as Part of the Natural World (existentialism meets environmental ethics -- I think)
  • Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
  • Kitty Fitzgerald, Pigtopia (the novel of a man who's been born with a disfigurement and spends his time with pigs -- "a species-bridging combination of animal intuition and human wisdom," says Salon)
  • The Fraser River (a 1979 "special publication of Beautiful British Columbia magazine")
  • ed. Dennis Gruending, The Middle of Nowhere: Rediscovering Saskatchewan
  • ed. Daniel Halpern, On Nature: Nature, Landscape, and Natural History (a classic 1987 anthology)
  • Roy Kiyooka, Pacific Rim Letters (ed. Smaro Kamboureli)
  • Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, The Lovely and the Wild (a mostly self-taught naturalist's life in Ontario's Pimisi Bay)
  • Adam Lewis, Sockeye: The Adams River Run
  • ed. Emilio F. Moran & Elinor Ostrom, Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Human-Environment Interactions in Forest Ecosystems (a little light reading from MIT Press)
  • Farley Mowat, A Whale for the Killing
  • Henry Petroski, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (yeah, I don't know why either)
  • Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings
  • Helene M.E. Schalkwijk-Barendsen, Mushrooms of Western Canada
  • Sierra Club Books, Galapagos: The Flow of Wildness (both volumes, naturally. Sigh)
  • Joan Skogan, Voyages at Sea with Strangers (memoir of a fisheries observer on non-Canadian boats off the West Coast)
  • Craig B. Stanford, Chimpanzee and Red Colobus: The Ecology of Predator and Prey
  • Aaron Sussman & Ruth Goode, The Magic of Walking (front cover: "The most complete guide ever published to the joys of walking--for pleasure, for health, for serenity--in city, in country, in America and abroad. Plus a glorious ramble through the literature of walking")
Did I already say, stupid charity booksales?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Laurie Ricou, Salal

Even though there's no way I could possibly have imagined that this book wasn't targetted specifically at me, I delayed picking up Laurie Ricou's thoughtful volume Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory. If I'm being petty, I don't see why it's as pricy at is; $34.95 for a trade paperback from NeWest Press is a little high.

Of course it's worth every penny, I can say without doubt now I've read it, but I imagine I'll still waffle at a bookstore in front of the next $30-plus book I next covet. An embarrassment, is what I am.

Salal, as Ricou explains fairly early on, reproduces in two ways. First, its tasty furred blue-black berries contain innumerable small seeds inside sticky seedpods; to collect one gram of seeds, you'd need 7687 of them (p.49). Second, and more interestingly, it spreads through rhizomes, which are like underground salal branches just aching to pop back through the surface and start sprouting leaves. The rhizomes spread clones of the original shrub, obviously, so some salal patches, genetically speaking, are actually very large individual shrubs. Both these reproductive techniques are part of this book's structure. There are 26 chapters, averaging fewer than 10 pages in length, thus hearkening to the size and number of salal's seeds, but the titles of 25 of them are verbs in the "-ing" form -- Depending, Arranging, Inhabiting, and so on -- thus reaching back to the progressive, expansive mode of the rhizome.

This book works hard to mimic elements of salal, Ricou at times making quiet fun even of his self-consciousness about this approach. The book is itself a saunter, as Thoreau used the term in his classic essay "Walking." Ricou documents his ongoing research, his conversations with those more knowledgeable than he is (which turns out to be almost everyone he meets), his stray encounters with either just the word or the plant itself. His inclusion of his research assistants as characters in the book is a useful exemplum of this method, now that I think of it; there's a serious attempt at equality in Salal that reminds me of environmental justice's emphasis on community.

But so that I don't go on all morning about this book, I'm stopping now. Great fun, well worth the money, and it fully repays any amount of time you shower on it.

Madeleine L'Engle, Many Waters

Though I do have a strong recollection of reading her Wrinkle in Time , I just don't recall reading Madeleine L'Engle's Many Waters. Maybe I didn't finish the series, but that's not like me. Instead, I think it got suppressed in the great Nietzschean anti-Christian period of my late teens -- it hasn't prevented the occasional hymn from bubbling up from my time in a nominally Anglican boarding school, but who knows?

Fascinating book, though. L'Engle sends the two Murry twins, Dennys and Sandy, across space/time to what appears to be immediately before the Flood. They do their best not to be killed, and not to interfere too much in what's going on, but times are odd. People are tiny but ancient; mythical animals aren't mythical; and our boys spend a fair bit of time worrying about terrorists. The book is from 1986, so it makes sense that it's terrorism primarily rather than environmental degradation, though eco-terror's part of their worries as well.

All of L'Engle's books tie up awfully neatly at the end, and that's a little unsatisfying for most people older than about 11, but still. A fast read that uses an intriguing approach to hit some relevant topics.

Oct 3 - Bolen's

For the Honours seminar, Madeleine L'Engle's Many Waters ($8.95). For my own interest, after a brief email exchange some months ago with Ken Belford about the PR for this book, Sharon Kirsch's What Species of Creature: Animal Relations from the New World (on sale for some reason, which almost never happens at Bolen's, for $9.98).

The emailed press release for Kirsch's book explains that the book "probes our seemingly insatiable appetite to trap, catch, skin, domesticate, eat, eradicate or otherwise bend to our use the animals in our midst." Someone on the ALECC listserv immediately asked whether it mentioned predators, without opening the attachment, the fourth word of which was "bears" and which included mention of Jesuits seeking to tame bears through tooth removal, claw removal, and corporal punishment. Horrifying stuff, certainly, and Ken's query to me was (approximately) why on earth New Star Books would want to repeat tales of animal abuse. I haven't started the book yet, but I see that the title to the book provides a clue. It's drawn, Kirsch tells us, from the words of a Huron named Adario to the mellifluously named Louis-Armand De Lom D'Arce de Lahontan. Adario is expostulating about whether the Europeans deserve to be called humans: "Europeans, who must be forc'd to do Good, and have no other Prompter for the avoiding of Evil than the fear of Punishment.... I call that Creature a Man, that hath a natural inclination to do Good, and never entertains the thoughts of doing Evil."

In other words, Kirsch tells stories of animal abuse to clarify the history of European behaviour on this continent. I think. I did mention I haven't read it yet, right?