Being a copy editor for a community newspaper has led me to the jaundiced conclusion that one of the greatest dangers facing the natural world are those who write angry letters and columns defending it. So much of their writing becomes preaching to the converted, and when some unemployed mine laborer or logger actually reads those pages, all they see, again and again and again, are buzzwords like "sustainable", "diversity" and "ecosystem" and a bio note that usually lets us know the writer works at a desk. Boredom and resentment turn to opposition. That's a serious problem in places like the Yukon where the resource industry is bottoming out and bureaucracy is booming.
If the natural world is such a collection of miracles, why do so many of its defenders live in a constant state of preachy bitterness? Why don't they ever get out and smell the remaining roses? For that matter, why do roses smell? If writing about the threatened planet is to have any effect, if it is to serve as more than a mating cry for greenies, then it must address more than the obvious; it must, like any type of writing, inform and delight, perhaps lead to laughter or tears. It must intrigue or permit catharsis. Just because the cause is worthy, doesn't mean the sentences that serve it can be slack.
Fortunately, brilliant, insightful writers do manage to rise above the captious drone, above what the late author and environmentalist Edward Abbey once dismissed as something along the line of "the doctrinaire buzzsaws of chickenshit liberalism." Three recent books give reasons to believe compassionate writers are still of more worth to the planet than monkey wrenchers.
Editor Sean Virgo is a generous man, as The Eye of the Thicket proves. Just about anything one could wish of a book is available in this anthology's 15 essays. Throughout the collection, non-fiction proves itself capable of handling the demands of the poet, novelist, journalist and scientist. Metaphor, music, character and plot are all masterfully wielded.
Among the most outstanding of the pieces is Susan Musgrave's "How Do We Know Beauty When We See it: Twenty Meditations on Stones." Poets and stones: there's a danger here. Since Paul Celan and Eugene Guillivec and other European modernists introduced us to stones, they've proliferated in English language poetry to the point that stone has joined "heart" and "soul" and "beauty", as a word likely to backfire, to subside into clichT.
But by the time Musgrave has led us through such prose poems as Touchstones, House of Stone, Sacred Stones and Profane, Rebel Stones and Ritual Stones, the conclusion of Heart of Stone has become not only acceptable but necessary: "I wish to be buried one day, with this stone in my hand. I hold it in my palm and I imagine my flesh spirited away, my finger bones curling around the stone, and the warmth it will bring me, pulled from the stars."
Prudence Grieve is the pseudonym of someone who writes fiction under another name. Why she chose this coy disguise is beyond me. Certainly her essay "Cocks" cannot detract from her opus. This tale of love and death on the farm meets the most strict demands of a short story. Animals and humans evolve into personalities. There is an arresting momentum that serves as plot. The tears we share with the author at the end arrive organically; they are not manipulated out of us. The account of moments of compassion possible between creatures and even species is guaranteed to preoccupy the reader long after the story is completed.
The primary duty of a work of creative non-fiction is to inform us while moving us. Something beyond the facts and figures must engage. Our dedication to the information must not be assumed, as it so often is in academic writing. Timothy Ferris, Oliver Sacks, John McPhee, Barry Lopez come readily to mind as authors who meet the challenge, who meld so-called "hard science" with art. This collection includes several writers who are worthy of being mentioned in such ranks.
Brian Brett is a farmer, and that means his life depends on knowing much about the sciences: biology, of course, meteorology, geology, and chemistry among others. Brett is also, first and foremost, a poet. How that sensitivity survives the daily life and death dramas of the farm is something of a miracle. Obviously, to function, to succeed among the chaotic lushness of a Gulf Island farm, with its predators, prey, it's necessary losses, would require a hardness of heart or a profound understanding of natural necessity. Brett, of course, displays the latter.
"Anyone who raises bees, I very quickly learned, begins to speak a new language. Some of us begin to learn what language means," he writes in "Honey Song" and this brings me back to the paragraph with which I launched into this review. Honey bees are threatened, by varrora mites, by toxins, by vanishing ecosystems, by all manner of unnatural imbalances. A lesser writer would rant, would pummel us with the obvious. Brett has learned that other language, one spoken by the bees, the one we drown out with our own self-satisfied buzzing. Bees make the best case for themselves. Brett serves as a skilled translator. His ear is flawless.
One of the functions of an anthology is to introduce us to writers whose work we will want to pursue further. Lloyd Ratzlaff's "The Bush on The Grave" appears both in The Eye of the Thicket and in his new collection of essays The Crow Who Tampered With Time. Ratzlaff is another writer who evokes the spiritual growth in the natural world, without succumbing to the trendy, the trite and the obvious reflections that the phrase "spiritual growth" could threaten.
If Ratzlaff didn't tell us, we might yet guess that he was once a fundamentalist preacher. He eventually passed "through the barrier of patriarchs," to a place where listening was more important than propounding, where doors are opened rather than shut. In the process he lost his wife and some of the respect of the prairie community he grew up in. That he survived his brutal purgatory of loneliness and loss is due, in part, to the fact that he pursued enlightenment along the paths in Saskatoon's Diefenbaker Park. God spoke to him through a cool, green bush.
Ratzlaff's essays do range beyond those trails, however. For instance, in "The Champion", he writes about his efforts as a school councillor to help a disturbed six-year-old up and over the barrier of a rampaging, self-destructive ego. "And he often had birthdays. If I pointed out that he'd just had one recently, he maintained he was having another one. ŠI turned seven yesterday; now I am old enough to punch my sister in the mouth.'" I suspect that child's healing actually began with Ratzlaff's walks in Diefenbaker Park.
William Fiennes, author of The Snow Geese, returned to health with the aid of a bird. At 25, the British graduate student fell ill and endured a series of failed operations. His academic career slammed to a halt. His social life ended. He wound up trapped in his parents' house, which came to be "more a prison than a sanctuary." Then, he came across a copy of Paul Gallico's romantic tale of World War Two, The Snow Goose. The goose grabbed Fiennes' fancy and soon he found himself wandering "round the garden, equipped with my father's Zeiss pocket binoculars and a simple beginner's field guide, looking for birds, trying to learn their names."
The snow goose led Fiennes to Texas and from there gradually north along the flyway and into the Canadian High Arctic. The most important four words in this book are its subtitle: "A story of home." To miss them, is to miss the point. For instance, visiting in Texas he describes a kitchen: "She didn't have a kettle. She had two cast-iron skillets, one six inches across and one nine and a half inches across, and used these to boil water for tea, the smaller skillet holding just enough waterÓ." That's not an auspicious beginning. Such mundaneness demands a lot of trust for an unknown, for a first-time author and slows the narrative momentum.
There is, however, a method to this madness of exhaustive domestic detail. By his ruthless illness Fiennes has been forced into exile¨from his studies, his family, his country and his former sense of himself. Bit by bit, homely detail by homely detail, he manages to recreate a life, a sense of connectedness. By the time he reaches Foxe Peninsula on Baffin Island he learns to cope with hugeness, with the big picture, with the planet: "There were hills and swales in all direction, drawing away on the curve of the sphere, and clouds massing in the south, above the sea. Wind blew into my ear as if into a shell, making a sea sound."
This is an informative tale, touched by magic, a necessary component of all convincing communication and art. ˛
Erling Friis-Baastad's collection of poems The Exile House was published in Ireland last year. He is an editor with the Yukon News in Whitehorse.