Laurie Ricou’s Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory is an intriguing book. On the one hand, it is a book about a single species of plant that is common on the northwest coast of North America. On the other, it is a surprising, entangled, and lively narrative about the way in which human lives are deeply interconnected with this plant. Salal is difficult to classify because it is alternately a kind of literary criticism – analysing literary representations of salal, anthropological fieldwork – interviewing various fieldworkers whose lives are bound up with salal, philosophical musings on the human connection to plants, and a travelogue of Ricou’s attempt to think through Salal. It is a book unlike almost any other I have read. Being in the final stages of a dissertation that attempts to bridge literary criticism into the natural world, it is also a book that I can only hope to aspire to in my writing.
I was surprised that I found myself pulled into Ricou’s book, especially given that I am not the biggest fan of the ecosystem he writes about. I find British Columbia too wet, too grey, and too claustrophobic for my Prairie-bred taste for open spaces and my southern Ontario desire for a modest topography. Mountains intimidate me and the lushness of the rainforest vegetation irks me in some weird way. Either way, Salal is very well-written as Ricou pulled me into this obscure yet everyday world of salal-pickers, sellers, dreamers, and writers. In case you didn’t know, salal is a commonplace plant from the northwest coast grows low on the ground, produces edible (but not really delicious) berries, and is valued in landscaping for its hardiness and low-maintenance. I didn’t know what it was, but Ricou ably introduces it. My sense is that Ricou sets up a kind of detective narrative where by we follow him trying to come to some kind of deeper, elusive understanding of the plant over the course of the book’s pages. He does find a deeper sense of the plant’s meaning, but he also leaves plenty of mystery and open-ended thought for readers to chew on.
This book is probably not for everyone, but for me it was invigorating to read and inspiring in terms of the way it connects the arts not only to the natural world but also to the many diverse and mundane places that we live and work in. Ricou’s enthusiasm for the plant is contagious and I found myself growing remote roots into the northwest soil. When I’m next in the area, I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for salal.
I recommend this book to anyone from the Northwest area and to anyone with an interest in some of the best ecocritical writing there is.
Ricou, Laurie. Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2007. Print.