Growing an Understanding of Plants: Salal

SalalLaurie 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.



Windsor and its Waters: The River

1riverTwo years ago I started work on a chapter of my dissertation that looked at Windsor, Ontario through the eyes of its writers. I didn’t know what would happen or how attached I would become to the place even though Stephen Colbert in 2012 called it the anus of Ontario. Paul Vasey’s memoir/book of creative non-fiction The River details his own attachment to Windsor and the many characters he encountered in the city during his many years there. I met Vasey at a writer’s festival in Windsor a few years ago, and he told me then about this book. And it was with pleasure that I picked it up from my university’s library to read.

I hesitate to call The River either a memoir or a book of creative non-fiction because Vasey himself blurs the line between the two. Throughout the book, he maintains a running dialogue between two unnamed characters that questions the veracity of what has come before, particularly when the anecdote or story is far-fetched in nature. At first, I was unsure what to make of this narrative technique as I felt myself wanting a strictly mimetic, realist account of Windsor. However, as the book progressed, I was far more comfortable with the technique as it continually reminded me that the places we inhabit are not just physical things but they are also imbued with memory, affect, and imagination. What I mean to suggest, and I think Vasey would agree, is that any history is inevitably made up of story, parts of which may not strictly be accurate to an event or place. This is not to say that all history is fabrication or that there is no worth in having a reliable history, but it is to loosen up the strictures of “objective” history (objectivity may be a fiction in its own right).

Getting back to Windsor, Vasey crafts a lively and intimate place throughout The River. There is plenty of nostalgia here for the post-World War II era when everything seemed possible and Windsor’s fortune was on the rise. However, there is also some keen documenting of now-lost or forgotten places that set Windsor apart as a place. Historically speaking, the city is one of the oldest settlements in Ontario as the French had a presence in the area before 1700. It has been home to a rich diversity of people and Vasey’s book certainly makes this clear. At times, the colloquial or anecdotal nature of The River might bother some readers looking for “history,” but I felt like it gave the city a human texture that often goes missing from other works of local history.

Overall, I would recommend this book to people from or interested in Windsor.

An Ode to the Industrial City: Singing the City

0001.jp2.sI am not quite sure how I came across Laurie Graham’s Singing the City, but I am quite happy to have read it. Graham’s memoir/creative non-fiction is a both an elegy and a hymn to Pittsburgh’s fast-disappearing industrial past. Pittsburgh was once at the center of the American steel industry, so there are some close parallels between it and Hamilton, Ontario (the city I live in). However, what really made Singing the City come alive for me was Graham’s willingness to take the working class life on its own terms. At times she might run the risk of romanticizing it, but her interviews with current or former steel workers continually remind her that their steel mill careers were far from perfect. Graham’s book, then, works both as an intimate portrait of Pittsburgh, but also as an example to the many former industrial cities in North America that face the difficult transition from heavy industry towards a more diversified, white-collar economy.

Maybe part of the reason that I liked Singing the City so much is that the steel mills here in Hamilton have always been on the near horizon of my imagination. I grew up travelling past them on the way to my grandparents’ house, and they became a kind of mythical landscape. Their size and other-worldliness is truly something to behold. For someone who now works a desk job in a university, that world is nearly as far from my own day-to-day life as you can get. Yet, these places are slowly disappearing in North America as industry is outsourced in a globalized economy. Graham summarizes it best when she writes:

“The work of this place helped set the course of the nation. People have died here winning our wars, creating and building the world we know. The evidence of their existence remains, if only anonymously, in the buildings and bridges built with their steel. But the immediate evidence of their existence, the locus of their work, is gone. Looking out over an empty mill site, I can only wonder why it is that as a nation we are not more ready to recognize these places as hallowed ground.” (130-31)

The Calvinist upbringing in me resists the temptation to call factories and steel mills hallowed ground, yet I’m deeply attracted by Graham’s forthrightness. Entire lives, even generations of lives, have been lived within the shadow of steel mills. There is a wealth of stories in these places, yet these stories often go untold and unheard.Graham explains this: “The devaluation of working people is a commonplace in human history. It is also too easy, a failure of imagination maintained, I think, by a willful blindness to certain kinds of ability, a desire to discount what one cannot or does not want to do” (135). I think she hits the mark here because, if I am truly honest with myself, I would rather be at my desk reading a book or marking a paper than wearing the heavy fire-proof coveralls while handling hot metal with tongs for the rest of my life. I do take a deep pleasure in physical labour, but this is more from the lack of physical labor in my everyday life than from a deep connection to it. I worked on a potato farm throughout high school and university in the summers, and I know that these experiences easily dispel any romantic notion I have of seeing myself as a farmer.

Finally, what I think Graham’s book also offers is a model of a memoir of place. In its relatively short 166 pages, readers get a real sense of Pittsburgh as a place. It is a living place with a deep history and a textured surface that makes it unique from other industrial cities. I firmly believe that every city, town, or village is unique in its own way, and the best writing on place helps to bring this out. Near the end of her book, Graham writes: “I have come to realize that as I move through Pittsburgh, mentally and physically, I am carrying, living in, a story. The city is multilayered for me, so that in any view of the present I see adumbrations of what has gone before” (160-61).

I think this is summarizes her book in a poetic way. We as readers encounter Pittsburgh through her eyes, and we come to a budding relationship to the place even if we have never been there. Such writing can help us understand that globalization and consumer capitalism do not have the final say in turning every city into a carbon copy of every other one. Instead, we need to see the places we live as part of a much bigger story, a story that we need only hear to see that the places we live are multi-layered.

I would recommend this book for people who have lived in industrial cities and for fans of place-writing.

Graham, Laurie. Singing the City: The Bonds of Home in an Industrial Landscape. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998. Print.