Saturday, March 22, 2014

Roberts, Heart of the Ancient Wood

They don't write them like this anymore. Or maybe they do, but they don't publish them.

HPC project
Probably for the best, that, but it's so wildly through the looking glass to read early 20th-century novels that I'm persistently tempted to teach them anyway. Latest candidate: Charles G.D. Roberts' The Heart of the Ancient Wood, which might count as early fantasy masquerading as non-credible realist fiction. (Ebook available at archive.org.)

Now, Roberts was a pretty terrific poet, but he's name-checked more often than read, and his fiction doesn't get talked about very much even by the critics going to the trouble of name-checking his poetry. Sure, he wrote a vast number of books, so many that they can't possibly all be worth reading, and some of them are almost unrecoverably dated, but the 1900 Heart of the Ancient Wood is just bizarre enough that it shouldn't be overlooked. I mean, a colonialist frontier novel about the intersection between proto-feminism and vegetarianism that draws on Shakespeare's The Tempest and Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter? Such stuff as dreams are made on, amirite?

(And before you ask -- yes, indeed I do realize that for most people, this would count as six distinct reasons NOT to read the book. I'm guessing that those people won't find themselves on this blog very often anyway.)

If you happen to pick up the New Canadian Library edition, though, let me just say that you should under no circumstances read the introduction before reading the novel. Even the very first paragraph gives away crucial plot points, and by its end, the introduction -- by the henceforth accursed Joseph Gold -- reveals every single narrative twist. These are hanging offences, in my book library, more so because this book is so weird that if you let Joseph Gold control your reading experience, you're not going to recognize the scope of the weirdness.

So … is this all a build-up for a book review that tells you nothing whatever about the book being reviewed?

Yes.

The novel's spark is a mother's decision to abandon a frontier settlement and raise her daughter entirely alone, far from civilization but intimate with the wild. The novel itself is about the growth of a young girl into feral animality as well as womanhood, and about the Schrodingerian resolution of competing possibilities. Essentialism plus colonialism plus posthumanism, Romantic nature-loving plus anti-hunting diatribes plus Alone in the Wilderness: I refuse to give any more away than that.

Should I teach it in September, I wonder?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Robert Bringhurst, Wild Language

Bless the good folks at Vancouver Island University, for still fulfilling the assorted and diverse mandates both for the Institute for Coastal Research and its somewhat related Gustafson Poetry Series. All by itself, the Gustafson series (with its Gaspereau-issued keepsake talismans) is almost enough all on its own to make me want to live in Nanaimo.

Now, I don't get everything that poets say about their work, or about others' work, or I would've been able to finish the lovely wee Gaspereau-issued Gustafson chapbook by Daphne Marlatt.

But as weak as my mind is, I'm comfortable with how greatly I admired Robert Bringhurst's Wild Language:
It appears to me that what wild actually means is the opposite of undisciplined and crude. It means extremely sophisticated. It means capable of living under the most demanding conditions, with minimal tools and housing and clothing. It means self-sufficient in a high degree, and yet part of the fabric, a full working member of the ecology. Could language live up to that standard? (p.17)
In Wild Language, Bringhurst moves from speculations about the relative wildness of the place where his home is located on Cortez Cortes Quadra Island, through speculations about mapping and fences as objects and as technologies, into some remarks on the potential for wildness in language. He persistently succeeds in having it both ways in this short text, using "wild" and the notion of wildness literally as well as metaphorically. It's a fine and sparkling essay, Wild Language, arguing that in the end it all comes down to the function of language, especially the job of "understanding":
Understanding is something humans do for fun, the same way ravens do aerial somersaults and rolls, and squirrels play chase, and otters and penguins go tobogganing. But the time comes, as any raven can tell you, when you have to straighten up and fly right to avoid crashing. (p.30)
Bringhurst recognizes, of course, that what he's calling "understanding" isn't quite what the scientifically minded would call "understanding," and that we humans are nonetheless able to achieve quite a lot with language (that our frail and limited grasp is relatively potent, though still frail and limited). It's just that he can't leave well enough alone, and that he doesn't want us merely to leave things be, either. The ecological crises are a social crisis, in Bringhurst's twinned senses of ecology and of society, so he wants us to take language (to be taken by language) somewhere new, and his code word for this is "wild."

I remain firmly on the side of William Cronon on the troubles inherent in the notion of wilderness, and I think I read in Bringhurst's wildness an overlap with Cronon's use of the same term. But I distrust both writers' utopic uses of the term, indeed in any sense that salvation can come from words (or indeed, perhaps especially, from The Word). Materiality. Teaching at the intersection of literature and environment used to feel rewarding, but I'm so aware these days of my distance from the barricades, and in some ways this distance is best understood as the spaces jammed inside that confining, cute word "wild."

And yet I loved reading Wild Language. So there.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

John McPhee, Assembling California

Madness, seriously: it wasn't until the late 1960s that our understanding of geology came to include plate tectonics. Maybe ring that up next time someone slags flat-earthers. Until 1968, pretty much every geologist on the entire planet had a fundamentally incorrect understanding of large-scale geological processes. (We should all know this, I think, even if I'm not sure quite what it should mean.)

More specifically, according to John McPhee, nobody could explain the feral complexity of California's topography and geology until plate tectonics entered broad currency, and even more specifically until the occasion of a 1969 conference, attended by many of the world's structural geologists. As one Eldridge Moores sat there listening to another geology professor, all the pieces of theory came together. Suddenly, to Moore if not to anyone else yet, everything about California's geology became clear.

Moores was struck, in that conference room, by the realization that California isn't really part of North America at all. At bottom, California's geology is instead the still-ongoing, echoing residue of multiple and successive super-massive collisions, as arcs of islands shaped like the Philippines or Japan smashed into and rode up onto the continent's western edge (pp.107-108).

From the Sierra Nevada Alliance: support them!
Huge events like these take time, of course, but they're huge. The largest earthquakes within the San Andreas fault system might take down whole cities, but comparatively, they're puny. Twenty feet of seismic shift, busting up freeways and taking down skyscrapers? Pfft. Weak sauce. Talk to me when you grasp that the mountaintops of the Sierra Nevada were formed at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

In explaining this concept McPhee uses almost exactly the same line he did in Basin and Range, but it's so good enough that it'd almost be a shame not to do the reprise: "If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is still the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone" (p.183 in Basin, p.214 in Assembling).

Assembling California follows on McPhee's earlier book Basin and Range, the two of which were five of the shorter books swallowed up, tectonic-like, by his leviathan Annals of the Former World (which I kick myself for still not having read. This summer, by God, this summer). There's never any explaining why a writer develops an expertise in a particular area, these things almost always growing by their own laws, but we're all better off because of McPhee's growth into a pseudo-geologist. I could go on, but either you'll buy into one or more of these books just on the strength of my enthusiasm and these few hints, or the book's already dead to you. If you're tempted at all, pick up a copy, and I swear that you'll turn halfway geological yourself.

And as a bonus, a way nerdy geology video for you, featuring one of the world's great beards (on the suspiciously cherubic face of McPhee's friend, source and hero, Eldridge Moores). You're welcome.