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.

 

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The Book I Wish I had Read Two Years Ago: Crow Planet

downloadI think every PhD student has a secret worry that there is a book out there that makes the same argument they plan on making. Well, turns out that Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness is that book for me. I really wish that I had read this book 2 years ago as it would have saved me a fair bit of work …. There is an element of facetiousness in this of course. Haupt does not take up literature like I do and instead writes as a naturalist (which I am decidedly not). However, Crow Planet is a very well written and engaging book that makes clear how important it is for urbanites to embrace the natural world around them. In the opening chapter she writes:

I have come to believe that opening ourselves to [close and detailed] inquiry and participating daily in the process of discovery it implies is our most urgent work as humans in the new millennium. And not because engaging these questions will make us happier, or smarter, or make more of our moments feel enchanted, though it will certainly do all of these things. It is urgent because an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth – this wonderful earth that we rightly love. (12-13)

Haupt was an avid bird watcher and committed environmentalist who placed high value in wilderness experiences. However, after her editor pushed her to do a project on crows, she began to see the necessity of studying and understanding her own urban (Seattle) context. I think this is what makes Crow Planet so persuasive. Haupt is forthright about her own struggles with the compromised nature of urban nature and about the everydayness of crows in general. However, she very quickly finds wonder in this bird’s adaptability and life in the city. And in this wonder, she begins to sketch out a way to embrace and engage with urban nature. I am struck how similar our overall projects are even though our methods ended up being quite different.

This is a very good book that I highly recommend to anyone who lives in a city. This is what environmentalism should look like! Seriously. Go get this book now.

Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009. Print.