Luanne Armstrong, The Light through the Trees

Nature writing is an embarrassingly full genre, with far more good books than any of us will ever have time to read in each of its manifold varieties. Not everyone reads it, of course, and some people hate it, some people even hate nature itself, but for those of us who persist, we're constantly failing to read just the right book.

Most of you should, therefore, read Luanne Armstrong's The Light Through the Trees: maybe read it in the summer, because much of it's about summer, but I do love a winter book that reminds me summer's on its way. And for most confirmed readers of nature writing, this will be the right book for you, one day, even if it's not today. Get a copy, hold onto it, and wait for the time.

Briefly: Armstrong is a farmer and writer who lives now, in her 60s, on the British Columbia property where she was born. This book blends, provokingly, thoughts on writing and the writing life, on farming and food security, on colonialism and nostalgia, on real estate and the imaginary. The singular thread linking these topics is the intellectual fierceness of Armstrong herself, and she's a narrator and companion I really enjoyed (even if I'm not sure her neighbours would like some of the characterizations applied to them!).

Her key insight is, both simply and profoundly, that writers have always thought and written about matters related to what she at Armstrong at one point refers to as "human/non-human interaction," there being no way to cleanly describe the interface, relationship, obligations, etc. that exist (or ought to exist) between humans and nature, the environment, local ecosystems, the watershed…. Anyway, writers have always spent a great deal of time thinking about this interaction, and they need to keep doing this. Indeed, readers need to keep upholding their side of this bargain:
"… it is a necessary and crucial task to revisit this area of thought and ask ourselves what is worth keeping, and what needs to be re-thought, and what needs to be written." (p.168)
The immediate context is simply that we're governed by ethical systems whose bases were developed a very long time ago; we're living in a different world now, where humans have had an immense and unpredicted impact, and all our systems need re-thinking. Armstrong wants to start with writing and with farming, and after reading this book, I'm even more inclined to agree with her than I was before.

Wonderful book, highly recommended!

And that's the end of the review, but I can't help closing with a digression that's not entirely irrelevant.

At one point in the book, Armstrong writes of having attended, "feeling skeptical, … a university conference on literature and the environment" (p.122). She writes very effectively of her irritation at one of the panels, an irritation I've felt many times myself at such conference, and then moves on to other things. The thing is, I was the on-site host for that conference, which was a curse and a joy, as was the job of ASLE's organization host, and one of my favourite small memories is about Luanne Armstrong.

You see, one of our evening lectures featured Klah-hisht-ke-is (a.k.a. Chief Simon Lucas) and Jeannette Armstrong, and it was amazing. (You can watch their lectures online here.) I mean, it was just fantastic, transformative, mind-opening, all the rest of it: not all the American academics seemed ready for it, so maybe there's something special about the Canadian version of blending literature and environment, but plenty of attendees were clearly entranced.

And one of those was Luanne.

She approached Jeannette Armstrong after the lecture had ended, after a group of well-wishers had departed, so overcome with emotion she could barely speak. They spoke for a time together, not about overly consequential matters, but such things as the accident of sharing a last name while from different cultures, but genuinely and warmly, as writers and thinkers and humans in British Columbia. This one moment, I knew right then, encapsulated everything I'd wanted to achieve with this conference. I hadn't achieved it, indeed I'm sure that I've never quite understood what on earth I was trying to achieve, really, but still. This little interaction, I carry around still as kind of a defining memento for my career. I've never told that story before. But ever since, I've smiled every time I've seen Luanne Armstrong's name on something!


theresa said…
Wonderful post. Wish I'd been there...
richard said…
Yes: great moment at a terrific academic conference! As Luanne says obliquely in her book, it was at times a very academic conference, more than one might expect for a group that's so interested in environmental matters, but the work has to get done.

Thanks for the kind words, Theresa.

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