Roderick Haig-Brown, Measure of the Year

If ever a year needed its measure to be taken, it just might be 2017.

Last night before bed, when I took the dog out one last time, I stood and admired the stars with a new appreciation. We've had a terrible wildfire season here in British Columbia, and though here on the coast we're a few hundred kilometres from actual flames, we've been breathing the smoke for a few weeks. Normally I can see Sidney Spit and James Island from my home, but lately the smoke has meant I haven't been able to see just those five kilometres. We've just come through a 54-day rainless period here (which followed closely from a May featuring rain on 29 days out of 31), and so while I grudgingly accept Blair King's view that climate change may not be directly responsible for these fires, I worry that the climate and weather are becoming unrecognizable.

And so to the relief I found in the stars last night, which after all the smoke were as welcome to me as they were a surprise to Los Angeles in 1994, when the Milky Way was suddenly and alarmingly visible during the power outage following the Northridge earthquake. (It's often said that people called 911 about the weird glowing cloud in the night sky, but that's probably fake news: it seems they called the Griffith Observatory instead.) I wandered about the backyard for ten minutes or so, quietly pleased that the dog wasn't taking her urination mission seriously, as I marshalled the stars through the tree canopy to get better views of them.

Throughout which gormless inactivity I kept thinking of Roderick Haig-Brown's calm and calming almanac Measure of the Year: Reflections on Home, Family, and a Live Fully Lived, newly available in a TouchWood classics version, which I've just finished re-reading. Written in the 1950s, Measure of the Year offers both a detailed and a summative perspective on life in a coastal BC small town at that time (Campbell River on Vancouver Island, though he calls it Elkhorn), with Haig-Brown describing specific moments as well as both the changes he had seen over time and the patterns he says he flatters himself that he has seen.

The moments are quiet, but as we've seen with the success of something like Lars Mytting's manual/paean Norwegian Wood, there's a hungry readership for those, and here's Haig-Brown presaging Mytting:
I often wonder what kind of mind it is that enjoys splitting wood. I can do it happily for hours, given a splitting block of the right height and my own short-handled four-pound splitting axe. I think busily of many things and often of the wood itself. Every block has character. (p.164)
Paying attention to the regular arrival of migratory birds, the emergence of insects, the behaviour of spawning salmon in the river behind the family home, the misbehaviour of children: in Measure of the Year, Haig-Brown models the examined life in a peculiarly 1950s frame of mind. That's not to say that his politics can't be admired, simply that his battles were not ours. His thoughts on conservation, for example, ring true for me today still:
I have been, all my life, what is known as a conservationist. I am not at all sure that that this has done myself or anyone else any good, but I am quite sure that no intelligent man, least of all a countryman, has any alternative.... It is in the history of civilizations that conservationists are always defeated, boomers always win, and civilizations always die.... A civilization built on foul air and polluted water, on destroyed timber lands, overgrazed ranges, exhausted farm lands, on water sucked from one river system to make cheap electricity on another, is too costly and too insecurely based to last. (p.189, p.194)
To be clear, Haig-Brown kept glancing at white privilege and Indigenous lives in his time, and then determinedly refusing to look fixedly at the issue. His glances in that direction are valuable, and memorable as well, but there's no point pretending that his politics on that front were much different from the norm. This book is built on white settler privilege on Vancouver Island, as surely as Haig-Brown House stood then and stands now on Wei Wai Kum traditional lands, and of course I recognize my own privilege in looking quietly at the stars with my pure-bred Bernese Mountain Dog and her health insurance. In common parlance, I'm privileged as fuck. I'm implicated and benefitting, and my emotional upset goes zero distance toward putting out the dumpster fire we're all living in.

But sometimes, especially this year, I'm finding I have to take calmness where I can find it, and lately, that's been in the newly visible bestarred sky and in Roderick Haig-Brown's Measure of the Year. I bet you'd be able to find the same there, if you went looking for it, but try to remember that it's not to be trusted.


theresa said…
This is a beautiful post, Richard. I love the Haig-Brown. (A good companion book is Stephen Hume's A Walk with the Starry Sisters.) There's so much we can't do, though we have to keep trying, but we can pay attention. And the stars, well, they provide a strange and lovely perspective. As dogs do.
theresa said…
Ooops, I meant A Walk with the Rainy Sisters...
richard said…
I really enjoy this form, to be honest: Des Kennedy's Ecology of Enchantment, for example! Something about the circularity, the repetition, the perspective.

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