David Pitt-Brooke, Chasing Clayoquot

Does anyone else get a little reluctant to read books that clearly have you as their target market? Lordy, I hope I'm not the only one who takes too long to get to the very books most likely to deepen my sense for what I go to books for in the first place.

In other words, why on earth did it take me so damned long to read David Pitt-Brooke's beautiful 2004 book Chasing Clayoquot: A Wilderness Almanac?

Such a thoughtful book, and so careful about the details of natural history, human history (settler and First Nations), ecology and meteorology and biology, and such a conversational prose style touched with aphorisms: this is a classic (classical?) work of natural history, an exemplary environmental almanac, so much so that I almost didn't hate the Globe and Mail reviewer who referred to Pitt-Brooke as "a Thoreau for Clayoquot."


If you know someone who'd be likely to appreciate a book about the wild West Coast of Vancouver Island, who might be keen on nerding out briefly with the minutiae of water habitats in gravel beneath rivers (the "hyporheos"), or the flight paths of western sandpipers, or the spawning techniques of herring, then there is simply no other book worth considering.

Garth Lenz for the WWF, via Ocean Village Resort
Okay, no, actually there are several other good books, because this kind of thing has long been (inaccurately) considered a moderately safe bet for British Columbia publishing circles, but my point is that Chasing Clayoquot does its job extremely well. But also somehow, somehow, I'm just not able to end this review here, with the only the compliments rhymed off, and I'm unwilling as well to slide in the subtle knives from some more timely reviewers. This book deserves better than that.

The thing is, I could cheerfully go a dozen years without seeing yet another reference to a forest as a cathedral, and I've been worried about environmentalism's focus on wilderness for a very long time (even before reading William Cronon's utterly essential essay "The Trouble with Wilderness," which expressed the right ideas so clearly, helpfully, provocatively). Like I wrote here recently when talking about Yosemite, wild places are better off without us; environmentalists, like industrialists, should maybe stop going there themselves, and find some way to celebrate and rewild the worlds in which they actually live.

Pitt-Brooke's almanac is precisely and declaratively a defence of wilderness, both in its material form and as an idea, and I respect his efforts. But I quibble, here at Book Addiction HQ; that's what I do. If you've been to this site before, you know this already: I can get cranky.

At the end of a very entertaining passage on his own appreciation for machines and technology, in the context of driving to see some wilderness, Pitt-Brooke comments that really, machines can take you only so far on Vancouver Island. Even the most rugged four-wheel-drive needs a comparatively clear road if it's going to keep moving, and that's a problem: "anything at the end of a clear road is not worth seeing" (p40). Dude, no no no! There's always something worth seeing at the end of a clear road -- there's even something worth seeing in the ditches or centre median of any highway.

In part he's poking fun at himself self-deprecatingly, I get that. And I'm not a humourless reader, but if environmentalists aren't just going to be talking to themselves, we've got to stop falling for this kind of rhetoric: we've got to stop using it, even if we're trying to celebrate wilderness. Especially if we're trying to celebrate wilderness, actually, because that's when we're most likely to turn stereotype and chase away potential allies without knowing we're doing it. It's not good enough for Pitt-Brooke to "reserve [his] real enthusiasm for wilderness" (p255), as he demonstrates the book that he knows, in spite of lines and hints like these.

Regardless of how congenitally cranky I seem to have become, Chasing Clayoquot was a joy to read. Pitt-Brooke touches on valuable ground indeed in his meditation on death and the improbability of life ("The wonder is not that we die, but that we live at all"), for example, and his anger at industrial resource extraction is nicely calibrated.  The perspective that he brings to this reflection on Clayoquot Sound, and on wilderness generally, should not be missed by any reader with an interest in either of these subjects.

Mind you, I may be the very last BC environmentalist to have read this book, so it may not have much of a market left....


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