this is not a review: ‘savage fields’, by dennis lee


I’ve been doing some bookshelf cleaning — clearing out the excess to make room for new stuff. Only so much room and I really hate it when I can’t see what I have. Am donating or giving the prunings to various places and friends but before some of them go they will spend time in a new stack called “Stuff to Read Before It’s Definitely Given Away”.

Most recently plucked from the STRBIDGA pile was Dennis Lee’s Savage Fields, published in 1977 by Anansi. Its subtitle: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology  did NOT help it win my attention over the years and more than once I thought to just ‘donate’… but something made me keep it and I’m so glad I did.

Less essay than discussion of Lee’s theory that everything is either of (or about) the earth or the world,  including stories. (Earth being anything natural… World being anything man made.) The savage fields of the title refers to the friction caused when earth and world collide, which of course they constantly do.

His interest is in how that happens in literature, and so he dissects two books as examples:

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje (a combination of prose and poetry in which Lee theorizes that Billy is trying, constantly, to kill the earth and so is, in fact, killing himself)


Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen (one of two novels by Cohen, which Lee suggests is about freeing a repressed Canadian history through liberation of thought)

I will forgive that both books are by men. Dennis Lee is himself a man. This is often how things go. I will forgive it also because Savage Fields is a fascinating piece of work nonetheless.

I’ll admit that I’ve read neither Beautiful Losers nor Billy the Kid.  The former strikes me as incomprehensible and the latter not up my street but, oddly, I really liked reading about them through Lee’s lens. I enjoyed his analysis and the way he takes the story of each book apart, illustrating his theory of how we continue to screw up the earth because, essentially, we can’t accept beauty when it comes our way, that we have this need to alter it, put our own stamp on it and make it ‘better’. (Better than what? It was trundling along just fine until we got involved.) Lee says that we turn earth to world because we can’t help it and even while knowing on some deep level that we are screwing ourselves.

We’ve been more or less doing this by various means since we invented agriculture, which is when we stopped living in harmony with ‘earth’.

Another of Lee’s theories is what he calls the Isis Continuum, which, essentially, is happiness (Isis being a goddess of Egyptian mythology, wise and unconditionally loving). Again, we, for some reason, often refuse the simplicity of happiness, creating chaos instead as if not believing happiness is truly possible.

Lee posits his way through both books, offering excerpts and outlines of the stories, analyzing characters and actions.

Savage Fields isn’t a difficult read, but it’s an unusual one. One that takes a pot of tea and a Sunday morning to find your rhythm with (best read whole or in two parts, but definitely not fragments). It’s the kind of book you want someone else to read so you can talk about it with them and apply Lee’s theories, to find the savage fields in literature or at least to keep the notion of it in mind.

“World and earth are shown as being at war, yet they keep turning out to be the same thing. How can we resolve the contradiction?… To conceptualize this unusual state of affairs takes a certain amount of effort — indeed, a willingness to bend one’s mind in unaccustomed directions.”

“I started this book in 1972. I knew the title before I knew what the title meant. There are months of drafts between the sentences. The voice kept sounding fals, excluding too much of who I was. Now I look at it, and find I have scarcely made a beginning.”

“Clear thought is an achievement of difficult beauty.”

The kind of book where most excerpts are pointless out of context. The kind of book that isn’t easy to quote from and details are soon forgotten, yet you feel inexplicably changed for the better for having spent time with it because suddenly ‘something’ feels clearer. Surely one of the best reasons for reading.

Dennis Lee was a founder of House of Anansi, which prided itself in the late 60’s and 70’s on its difference, its experimental style, and its interest in the Canadian story.




#todaysthought (and a book)


There are brownies in my fridge. The chewy chocolate kind made with shredded *zucchini instead of eggs and milk, and having one with peppermint tea is kind of blissful. Add rain washing everything, turning it this impossible spring green, and new things everywhere budding and opening and blooming and the way cats are able to so totally relax and it gets me thinking about the difference between what we need and what we want. It makes me think that if we’re lucky enough to be breathing, to have the luxury of walking and seeing and hearing, if we have good friends, a smattering of family, an animal or two in our life, a splash of joy occasionally, work we find meaningful, a decent conversation now and then, a place to live, a comfortable chair, a change of scenery once in a while, peace, and the luxury of ordering pizza when the mood strikes… then surely we have everything we need. Anything else is a want.

And yet so often we focus on the ‘want’.

We give it our energy and time, all of which takes away from enjoying what we already have, or from doing something worthwhile, from making one tiny slice of the world a better place, rattling a cage or two, writing a letter, asking questions, demanding answers. All of which brings even more contentment.

If we have what we need, we have the power we need to be worthwhile, the ingredients for contentment, and so can turn our backs on the noise telling us to constantly want more, to be this or do that, what to buy, what to believe.

But I digress. This is really about the pleasure of brownies.

And simplicity.

Which always leads me to thinking about one of my favourite books, Alix Kates Shulman’s Drinking the Rain, in which she asks the best question:

how little do I need in order to have everything?


If you’re missing brownies in the everything, here’s a portal to bliss.

(Just add tea.)

*zucchini used in my version was locally grown last summer and frozen all winter and it worked better than fine


jane’s walk — ajax, ontario — best parts


This year my Jane’s Walk was through a slice of Ajax , which wasn’t even established as a town until 1941, and then only by accident when a company set up shop in what was a field to make bombs for WWII. They made millions apparently… (40 million). And it was women from across Canada who made them. They arrived on trains from the west and the east and lived in dormitories built expressly for them (surrounded by 8′ walls and barbed wire).

Before that, Ajax was an unnamed area of fields, a scattering of farms, part of Pickering Township, east of Pickering Village, and west of the Town of Whitby. Then suddenly there are 9,000 people employed by Defence Industries Limited, all of them making bombs, and a wee town emerged.

After the war, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation built homes for returning soldiers. Our Jane’s Walk guide said they were meant to be torn down at one point but the residents put up such a fuss they were allowed to stay and are still the backbone of Ajax, lining the streets surrounding Harwood Avenue. (A few people on the tour grew up in, or knew people who still live in, those CMHC houses, and shared memories including how there weren’t a lot of cars initially and so the A&P would allow you to drop off a list of what you needed and they’d deliver.)

The best part is that in the centre of this beloved neighbourhood, where people still refer to houses by who lived in them decades ago, and in the very space where the women’s dormitories used to be, is now a park and community garden. Beans and tomatoes instead of bombs.


And a short walk away, the civic centre (Pat Bayly Square) features a memorial to the significant contribution by women to the war efforts of WWII.

The other best part is simply discovering a new neighbourhood in a town I very often drive past, assuming it can be summed up by a quick glance… because nowhere can be summed up that way. Everywhere has its stories, its nooks and crannies and spaces only the locals know about.

Importance of community is the best part of Jane Jacob’s philosophy, and the sense of connection to a place you thought you knew or a brand new place is the best part of any Jane’s Walk program. Keeping that in mind makes it possible to make all kinds of discoveries on your own anytime, anywhere.

Just throw a dart on a map and take a walk, reminding yourself that community takes many forms and is born in strange and wonderful ways.










wordless wednesday with words


I give up trying to be consistently wordless.

Also I’ve fallen behind on my posts, so there are many, many words queued up and ready to spread out on these pages.

For now a wee blather on today’s pic, which comes to you via my recent efforts at spring cleaning and tidying and organizing drawers, an activity I kind of love. Not in the Marie Kondo way of obsession and full-time occupation, but merely enough to know where that small green widget is when you need it. Also, it should be said that Kondo has some good ideas (though book culling is not one of them) (folding jeans and tee-shirts, on the other hand, is a yes).

As for my national currency, I store it in the way of my people, specifically my dad, i.e. bunched and held together in a kind of show-offy way with a giant metal clip. He hung his on a nail in the workshop. Mine lives in the requisite junk drawer (because no matter how much one organizes one needs a place for things that have no place).

I think they use a points card now but I’m old school and will hang on to the paper dough as long as it keeps circulating.

Happy Wednesday.

Use your words!

Other (not always) wordless friends:

Cheryl Andrews
Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Allyson Latta
Elizabeth Yeoman

wordless wednesday

This picture comes with a story about a kid ten thousand years ago who lived in a house with a pear tree. The tree lived outside. But potato salad lived inside and it was potato salad the girl put into a bucket she tied to that tree then climbed its trunk to the sitting branch ‘alcove’ made by a Y in the branches into which her nine year old sitting mechanism fit perfectly and where she would haul up that bucket of salad and eat her lunch while alternately reading Nancy Drew and surveying her neighbours. But as it’s Wordless Wednesday I’ll save this story for another time.


Other (not always) wordless friends:

Cheryl Andrews
Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Allyson Latta
Elizabeth Yeoman