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Review

Blue Valley: An Ecological Memoir

By Luanne Armstrong

November 4, 2013

Review By Anne Edwards

Luanne Armstrong is a walker. Walking the land where her ancestors farmed and where she has lived, walking the cities where she and her children have spent time, walking by rivers and lakes and mountains and over the soil: walking has been the centre of her connection and her understanding of ecology. “Sometimes,” she remarks, “going for a walk is a very long journey.” It is this journey she records in Blue Valley. 

Born on the eastern shore of Kootenay Lake near Sirdar, Armstrong sheltered in the cocoon of her family farm. In the most elemental sense, the farm nurtured her, educated her to the world, and remained her centre over the years. In Blue Valley she traces all the phases of her growing, either on the farm or as sustained by it while she was away learning about the wider world, finding the assurance and education she needed in order to fulfill her childhood determination to become a writer. What she records is a truly rural experience – a circumstance rare today and becoming more and more rare as time passes. Her facets of light and chords of harmony demand the reader’s knowing and remembering, and thus the reader finds her/himself adding new layers of excitement to Armstrong’s elemental recognitions. Perhaps her eloquence draws more easily the descant of other rural readers, but I believe her “ecological memoir” is so basic that it echoes also in the souls of those who do not live in a rural landscape set in mountains or by water but who nonetheless appreciate the harmony of land, sea and air, flora and fauna, and vibrate to the ecological truth of her insights. 

Armstrong the narrator is a complex person who sought urban as well as rural experiences. She was a tomboy, grew into being a woman and a mother, succeeded at her studies, fled from her peers – when she recognized them – shared her home in harmony and discord, reached into the wide world, and retreated into sanctuary. The constant anchor was the land, the place that was also loved by her parents and family and friends, the farm that demanded sacrifice and endless work if they were to survive. She stresses the contradictions: the poverty and the plenty, the bonds that can so easily be chains, the singularity of her place, which she notices every time she walks, even though “it’s the same beach and the same summer repeating itself like an ancient liturgical chant.”

A few points of epiphany mark Armstrong’s progress into the wider world. She determined to be a writer when her first schoolteacher taught her to read “at six and I never went back on the idea … As far as I know, no one in our family had ever met a writer or had any idea how anyone went about being such a thing.” When her dad cursed her little brother for lagging when there was work to be done because “it was work or starve and, by God, we were going to work,” Armstrong “got it clear. It was one of those moments when life suddenly made sense. We were all in this together. We had this thing to do, called survival.” Even feminism came “like a cold clean wind blowing through my head, blowing out the humiliation and the embarrassment. For the first time I realized that what had happened to me, the abusive marriage, the children, the fear of university, hadn’t all been my fault. Perhaps … I could prevent it ever happening again.” 

Armstrong’s home retained its central importance in her life: it gave her an identity that fit. A Toronto woman looked at her worn backpack when she went to Halifax for a conference that was to lead to an international women’s peace conference in Nairobi and remarked, “Oh, going camping?” But participants cheered Armstrong for her contribution to Canada’s position statement. Most people who moved into the Kootenays in the 1970s to create a new counterculture were part of a wave of pioneers; however, as Armstrong says, “For me, the counterculture was real and deeply felt; it reflected the values by which our family had always lived: being independent, self-sufficient and living a life centred around family, community, animals, gardening and nature.” Armstrong is an evocative, companionable, insightful guide to a life well incorporated into the ecology of the Kootenays.