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)

and

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 false, 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.

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘what milly did’, by elise moser

 
Milly Zantow falls into the category of People You’ve Never Heard of Who Have Changed the World. In this case, the world of recycling. Because Milly Zantow is the person who created a tiny thing called the global recycling standard for plastic,  more commonly known as the-numbers-inside-those-little-triangles-on-your-water-bottles-and-stuff.

It’s what made plastic recycling possible.

But it’s the HOW this all came about that’s jaw dropping. What Milly Did  (a childrens’ book for all ages, including adults in my opinion) by Elise Moser, is an extraordinary story about a woman who, at age sixty or so, decides to do something about the growing problem of plastic in landfills.

9781554988938_1024x1024Turns out that plastic wasn’t recycled because no one thought it could be done.

Enter Milly, an ordinary woman, raised on a farm, who has no experience in anything even remotely related to anything to do with recycling but who just really believes that something can be done.

So she says pfffft  to the naysayers and starts reading about plastic; she studies it, takes courses, learns everything she can then cashes in her life insurance policy, buys a gigantic grinding machine and opens a company called E-Z Recycling where she and a few others do much of the grunt work by hand, seven days a week.

“She called the Borden Dairy Company in Milwaukee and asked them how they manufactured their plastic milk jugs. What did they do when they made a mistake? she asked. They told her they just melted the deformed jug down and reblew it. That was an ‘Aha!’ moment for Milly.”

Moser captures Milly’s spirit as a woman who is in no way ego driven. Nor is becoming rich her motivation; she simply wants to make sense of trash and to that end she does whatever she can to help people recycle, including establishing programs in nearby towns.

Eventually her vision catches on. Various community groups form, tipping fees for landfill sites are established and in 1988 her system for grading plastic is adopted by the Society of Plastics Industry, which means a standardized recycling practice across North America.

The story, of course, isn’t quite that simple. There are many hurdles along the way, people who laugh, who say that what she’s proposing is impossible, and then there are the times themselves, the 1970’s and early 80’s, which aren’t overly receptive, or even friendly, to the idea of recycling. Moser has done an excellent job of telling Milly’s story against this back drop of time and place.

A clever addition to the story are sidebars throughout the book, telling about bridges and boats made of plastic bottles, stats on current plastic usage and where it all goes, yo-yo trivia!, the ABCs of modern recycling, innovations in biodegradable plastic… all bite-sized, very readable for any age, and all to the accompaniment of sweet b&w illustrations by Scott Ritchie.

That this is such an unknown story is mind-boggling. I’m grateful to Elise Moser for telling it. It needs to be shared. I hope the book will find its ways to schools and to homes, not only as an eye-opener to an important piece of history, but to open at least two kinds of conversation… One,  about the problem of a planet full of garbage and, two, the power we have as individuals  to make the world better.

Finally, what maybe I love most about this story is what Milly didn’t  do… she didn’t complain, blame, whinge or whine or suggest that this problem to solve was someone else’s job… 

Or that the difficulties she faced were someone else’s fault.

She just got on with it.

The world could use more Milly.

fave pictures taken this weekend, with not a care in the world (nor a chip in my camera)

 
Me on George the tawny horse with a butterscotch mane at the trail ride stables.  I say to the trail guide, “Take one of just me and George… I want to put it in my office to look at every day.” George is magnificent and uninspired to moving too quickly. His whole raison d’etre being to follow the lead horse at a reasonable pace and sneak the occasional bit of greenery, which is often as I have no ability to use the reins and George knows this. We are happy together.

Kayla the trail  guide.  All blonde hair and freckles, a country lass unaware of her sweetness and the charm of her stories about being home-schooled and how she lives for horses, has five part-time jobs to keep one horse and how a horse will tell you what’s wrong with you, emotionally or physically, because if you spend enough time with it the horse takes on your problems and you can see yourself in them like a mirror.

Children in my house eating watermelon and jumping on a mini trampoline. Occasionally at the same time. To which I say: “No choking please…  because
I am not in the mood today for children choking in my house.”

Tiny hands shoveling spoonfuls of peaches and ice cream.

Tiny hands picking fat blackberries. Also argument over how there isn’t an equal number of ripe ones for all three sets of hands.

Three orders of poutine at the beach. Most of which is eaten. None of which is mine. Mine is an order of fries.

Seagulls awaiting poutine.

Flip-flops flopping in the water.  Until they’re nearly stolen by the lake and the better idea by the wearer of the flip-flops is that I carry them.

Skinny legged beach cartwheels.  Dozens it seems, one sweeter than the next. Not mine, by the way. I have neither skinny legs nor ever been able to master the sweet cartwheel… only the kind that goes by a different description. After that, some other gymnastic moves that need only ribbons to make them an Olympic event. (Now there we have something I’m good at: ribbon dancing.)

Lad skipping stones. Correction. Lad trying  to skip stones. Lads, I discover, aren’t especially amused when aunties come along and say Want me to show you how it’s done?   And then do.

And other stones. Especially those as described in the wonderful Pinny in Summer, which is read aloud to the soundtrack of Lake Ontario waves. (Smiles all around when we find JUST THE PERFECT ONE.)

Cloud shaped like the skeleton of a rabbit.  Sad but true.

A radiant palm holding five colours of beach glass:  white, green, dark blue, brown and possibly yellow, or just pale pale brown. Either way, ridiculously exciting haul.

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the (anti) shopping list

 

Here is my not-quite-but-almost annual list for them wot don’t especially like ‘stuff’… Also, coincidentally, it’s a list of my favourite things to both give and receive… (note for those intent on giving:  the asterisked books? got ’em.
But I’m wide open for all the food items… leave baskets on the porch).

1.   Food. Any form. You can’t go wrong with cheese. If you live in the vicinity of Country Cheese… fill my stocking with the goat brie (coated in ash). It’s absolutely heaven sent, this stuff. Appropriate for the time of year, no?

2.   A book about  food. I’m mad for anything Laurie Colwin, also *The CanLit Foodbook  and most recently, *a Taste of Haida Gwaii,  by Susan Musgrave. And… Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus.  I can’t believe I don’t own this.

3.   Music by Laura Smith.

4.   Gift certificate to a garden centre. My choice would be Richter’s Herbs for the following reasons: the staff know things and are pleasant (this is no longer the case at all garden centres). The selection is amazing and mostly edible. They play classical music to the seedlings. (Also, and not insignificant, the route home goes right by my favourite place for pizza.)

5.   Gift certificate to my favourite place for pizza. (This is an excellent gift and comes with a good chance of being invited to share a slice.)

6.   If you have made anything pickled, I would welcome a jar. (FYI, I’m not much for jam.)

7.  Honey. Unpasteurized of course. Local please. Or a kombucha mother. And who would say no to a bag of Atlantic dulse???

8.  And because we can’t ever have enough… books, books and more books from across this literary land. One from each province/territory — mostly published this year:

YUKON — Ivan Coyote’s *Gender Failure (Arsenal Pulp Press) actually came out in 2014. So sue me.

NWT — Ramshackle: a Yellowknife Story,  by Alison McCreesh (Conundrum Press)  (this review by John Mutford sold me)

NUNAVUT — Made in Nunavut,  by Jack Hicks and Graham White (UBCPress) Because we could stand to know more about this part of the country.

BC — Please don’t think Amber Dawn’s *Where the Words End and My Body Begins  (Arsenal Pulp Press) is only for those in love with poetry. It’s for anyone who loves words. Trust me.

ALBERTA — Rumi and the Red Handbag  (Palimset Press), by Shawna Lemay.

SASKATCHEWAN — *The Education of Augie Merasty  (University of Regina Press), by Augie Merasty and David Carpenter.

MANITOBA — A writer new to me, Katherena Vermette. I want very much to read her North End Love SongsAlso the more recent The Seven Teachings  (Portage & Main Press, 2014/15).

ONTARIO — A Rewording Life,  a fabulous project by Sheryl Gordon to raise funds for the Alzheimers Society of Canada. 1,000 writers from across the country were each given a ‘word’, which they then returned in a sentence. Essentially, it’s an anthology of a thousand sentences. I’m proud to have been invited to join the fun. My word was ‘nettles’.

QUEBEC — Okay. This came out in 2013, not 2105, but I haven’t read it and have always meant to and now it’s long listed for Canada Reads. So it’s time. Bread and Bone  (House of Anansi), by Saleema Nawaz.

NEW BRUNSWICK — *Beatitudes  (Goose Lane Editions),  by Hermenegilde Chiasson. This was published years ago (2007) but I include it because it’s truly one of my favourite books ever and I don’t get to talk about it enough.

NOVA SCOTIA — *These Good Hands  (Cormorant), by Carol Bruneau.

PEI — *Our Lady of Steerage  (Nimbus Publishing), by Steven Mayoff.

NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — Ditto the Canada Reads argument for Michael Crummey’s 2014 *Sweetland   from Doubleday.

9.  Donations to any number of good causes. And a few more ideas (some repetition, but also not). And this, recently discovered: The Native Women’s Association of Canada.

10.  The gift of art.

11.  The gift of lunch, or a walk, a phone call, an hour to really listen to someone who needs to be heard. A visit to a nursing home. A poem tucked into a card. An invitation, a freshly baked pie for the neighbour who could do with some cheering. The gift of letting someone give to us too. Margaret Visser wrote a wonderful book on that… The Gift of Thanks.

12. The gift of a promise kept.

13.  And never to be overlooked or forgotten: the gift of massage.

You’re welcome.

And thank you.

this is not a review — ‘boundless’, by kathleen winter

 

I have a thing for North. I suppose this is very Canadian. Or maybe it’s just me and Glenn Gould. We who have this tendency of leaning northward are secret admirers of storms and falling temperatures; we wear a certain pride in the misery of it all and envy provinces whose kitchens smell of snow cakes on days when they’re unable to open their back doors. Mine is not a land of nail-biting where cold weather is concerned, but rather, the idea of North beckons with a kind of curious wonder at just how Canadian are we… How much North have we seen? How much can we take?

And so it was with great anticipation that I opened Boundless, Kathleen 9781770893993_1024x1024Winter’s account of finding herself in the North. (Double entendre intended.) Not only does she find herself there when, on something close to a whim, she accepts an invitation to participate in a voyage through the Northwest Passage but, in the course of things, she finds bits of herself in the landscape of icebergs and tundra as well as in memories of an English childhood, travels through Europe, arrival in Canada via Newfoundland where she lived for many years, and then to Montreal, the city she now calls home.

While home feels like something of a theme, Winter confides that a sense of belonging to this place or that, has always eluded her. Maybe this is why she’s so good at noticing the details that make a life.

Part of the book’s magic is how she weaves recollections of fresh English cream with food banks and cockroach ‘vendettas’, third floor flats and hundred year old lilacs grazing windows; with British rain vs Newfoundland rain, Vita Sackville West’s white garden, Mexican itinerants and whistling boys in Corner Brook; with ‘marmalados’ and fig trees in Montreal, fish markets in Greenland, junk food and wild food in Pond Inlet; with the purchase of a handmade doll… and the sight of a polar bear that changes everything.

Among the passengers on this voyage is Nathan Rogers, son of Stan Rogers. His father’s song, and the phrase, ‘tracing one warm line’, is a powerful soundtrack that fades in and out of the reading. In fact, sound may be another theme. The absence of it as Winter explores the land—“I’d been given the key to enter, to lie down and listen, to breathe its exhalations and hear it speak…” —and then the shock of its re-appearance when the PA system announces a tour to see a rock formation or go in search of whales or birds. Winter ignores each call, prefers to let the land show her what’s hers to see. “… if a narwhal or other astonishing creature wanted to reveal something to me, it would do so when we were both ready.”

It occurs to her there is a need to “understand…mind and body in a new way.” And how to receive, to become more tree-like.

“Somehow everything I’d learned about life pointed to an idea that to receive something you had to earn it. I’d never thought of myself as a tree, a graceful being visited by songbird, starlight, and rain, and which people love for itself, not for what it does or how smart it is, or how indispensable. I was used to making myself indispensable in one arena or another…”

The narrative moves forward, backward and sideways through time, like shifting ice, memory bumping up against the present and creating yet another dimension (in one instance, as the ship is forced to take an alternate route, Winter first considers Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing off in their wooden shoe, then ties this in with past explorers who “might have spied a whole gleaming mountain range that didn’t exist…”).

Some of my favourite passages reflect on the happy discovery of muskox fur caught among the vegetation, which she gathers with reverence for weaving into various projects. This parallel of wool and weaving feels like a turning point as she tells us she comes “…from a long line of sheep stealers,” and we sense her pride, this instinct she has inherited to collect, connect, create.
A sense of belonging emerges…

“I wove another muskox tuft into my work and felt excited that tomorrow, when we landed at Paisley Bay, I could search the terrain for more fragments of that one warm line.”

It’s a strangely wild yet contemplative ride she takes us on as the landscape and the people slowly work themselves into her psyche. She tells us that, initially, she couldn’t find the words to describe the experience, and that only two years later, after looking at her own sketches, was she able to begin writing the book.

“I was finding, in the North, that words are secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.”

In some ways it feels a very private account, musings and observations as if written for self, as if the author might lift her head at any moment and be surprised to see us there reading.

Ultimately though, Boundless is about discovery. Of history, land, self, of connection to others, of hearing and seeing in new ways, and of questioning what actually matters. It’s about the power and beauty of North. Not exactly a book about  the North… but more because of it.

Boundless   is available on-line at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!

 

impoverished spinsters may apply

“According to the usual pattern, she was educated at home with a series of governesses, and a weekly parade of drawing and dancing masters. Boarding schools, although increasingly popular as the century waned, were considered not quite good enough for gentry, since they were now infiltrated by rich merchants’ daughters in pursuit of the social graces of their superiors. It was much more genteel to be educated at home. The curriculum included English literature, a little geography, a very little arithmetic, and a smattering of languages, particularly French. At least half the time, however, was devoted to ‘accomplishments’, which included lessons in painting, music, embroidery and deportment. ‘Accomplishments’ were considered essential bait with which to trap a husband. Young ladies, after all, were educated for matrimony; there were no careers open to them, although it was considered respectable for gently born but impoverished spinsters to turn their hand to governessing, or to novel-writing.”

~ from The Embroidered Tent: Five Gentlewomen in Early Canada, by Marian Fowler (Anansi, 1982)

~

Am loving this book. Have read only the section on Elizabeth Simcoe so far, who I was prepared to label an entitled heiress [which of course she was] and dislike her for that reason. Turns out that despite her not so endearing trait of having zero compassion for underlings, or pretty much anyone of ‘lower class’, she was completely and utterly enchanted by the Canadian wilderness and heartbroken when her boring, whinging and militaristic husband John, decided to return to England. Her marriage was pretty loveless but for the [scads of] children [though children at that level of society were no trouble once ‘produced’ as they were farmed out to wet-nurses and nannies and had only a daily appointment with mother] and there’s a suggestion that she either had an affair, or thought about it a fair bit, with a much more upbeat and outdoorsy chap who lived on the shores of Lake Erie.

She was, it seems, a woman once the epitome of British upper class sensibility, raised to be ‘proper’, who discovered the joy of wading barefoot through a stream, who was never happier than when her husband went on extended sojourns, who learned to drive a wagon on her own over rough roads and who was only too happy to give up the daily round of social engagements and fancy dress balls she once enjoyed in order to watch eagles soar, seasons change, to paint fearlessly on the edge of Niagara Falls as her tight, precise watercolours changed to a wilder and freer style. She could have lived anywhere in Upper Canada but chose to build a home, ‘Castle Frank’, near the Don River, in a spot that, at the time, was no where near ‘civilization’. And then she obligingly gave it all up to return [at her husband’s insistence] to ‘society’ back in the U.K. where she ‘did her duty’ but apparently never completely embraced that world again…

Some of her paintings are in the British Museum, others, in the Province of Ontario Archives.
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Read this for origins on the word spinster.

savoury sentences from several sources — part 1

 

“A single moment, a day, can shift into something profound by the reading of a single perfect sentence at the perfect time.” ~ Matilda Magtree, aka me

“The boy was said to be a cousin of Kathleen Burnham and was up from New Hampshire, working at the sawmill, though he was no bigger and looked no older than an adolescent sugar maple.” ~ from Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (Random House. 2008)

“Physical pain, like a poultice, has a way of drawing out what is hidden in the heart.” ~ from the essay ‘A Container of Light’, by Lisa Martin-Demoor, TNQ, Fall 2011

“What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.” ~ from Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen (The New Press, 1995)

“She sits at the edge of the narrow cot, neatly made and covered tautly with a white embroidered blanket, the kind that, if you run your hand over it with your eyes closed, feels like a skin disease, tiny white embroidered circles that pop up like pimples.” ~ from ‘A Well-Imagined Life’, in the collection Can You Wave Bye Bye, Baby?, by Elyse Gasco (McClelland & Stewart, 2001)

“It was the kind of party where no one ate the chicken skin.” ~ from The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright (McClelland & Stewart, 2011)

“Because she is ten years old under an open blue sky, because there is not reason ever to arrive anywhere, because she has never felt exactly this way before—this loose in the world, this capable of escape.” ~ from The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder (House of Anansi, 2012)

“Jake and I grew up without a mother, which wasn’t that bad, although we ate a lot of boiled peas.” ~ from the story ‘After Summer’, by Alice Peterson (The Journey Prize Stories,  2007)

“It was no more than a peep, the sound you might make if a butterfly lands on your hand.” ~ from the story ‘A Bolt of White Cloth’, by Leon Rooke

“There’s aggression even in the way they kiss each other so flagrantly, like they’re trying to suck the other’s gums out, like an old horse chasing a lost scrap of ginger nut biscuit down the palm of your hand and up your sleeve.” ~ from Malarky, by Anakana Schofield(Biblioasis, 2012)

 

savoury sentences, part 2