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Review

Measure of the Year: Reflections on Home, Family, and a Life Fully Lived

By Roderick L. Haig-Brown

November 4, 2013

Review By Des Kennedy

As part of its ‘Classics West Collection’ Touch Wood Editions has released a trade paperback edition of Measure of the Year, Roderick Haig-Brown’s celebrated collection of seasonal essays, with a foreword by poet Brian Brett. First published in 1950 (sans subtitle) as his eleventh and arguably best book, it helped consolidate Haig-Brown’s status as a top-tier Canadian author with an international readership.

Haig-Brown occupies a singular position in the history of Canadian letters. Much of his writing, most famously the Governor General’s Award winning Saltwater Summer, focuses upon angling, a subject not enthusiastically welcomed into the canon. Discussing Haig-Brown’s outsider status with the literary “establishment” in Canadian Literature in 1976, W.J. Keith wrote:

The main explanation for this neglect lies in the fact that Haig-Brown works in a slighted genre. Though he has produced a number of works of fiction aimed at both juvenile and adult readers, his most significant writing has been in discursive, non-fiction prose, and those who devote themselves to this literary genre are almost invariably the last to be recognized as writers of enduring merit . . . His favourite subject matter, wild life in general and fish in particular, places him in a special category likely to earn him the devotion of enthusiasts but the neglect of others. 

Since his death in 1976, Haig-Brown’s legacy as both writer and conservationist has been enshrined in a fashion few writers would dare dream of, with a provincial park and a splendid mountain now bearing his name, as does an Institute, a provincial literary award and an annual festival. The family homestead on the Campbell River is designated a National Historic Site and hosts an annual writer in residence program.

Although he can’t keep himself entirely away from his beloved river and tideflats in Measure (nor would one want him to after reading his brilliantly evocative descriptions of them), this book typically ranges much farther afield to encompass reflections on freedom, justice and national identity. But primarily it’s an engaging description of his family life on the homestead where he and his wife Ann spent almost their entire married life and raised their four children. The book’s first sentence states unequivocally: “. . . marriage and family are immeasurably the most important things that can happen to any man.” (5)

Describing himself (and his wife) as “a romantic with minor modern trimmings” (110), Haig-Brown is a profoundly experiential writer. In his hunting and fishing expeditions, his tasks around the homestead, or his presiding as an untrained Country Magistrate, he demonstrates acute observational skills, a prodigious talent for describing what he has seen, heard, smelt, and felt in prose of lucid simplicity, and a deceptively effortless ability to reveal the universal lurking within the particular. A humanist as much as a naturalist, he writes with genuine compassion for his fellow creatures, but without a whiff of self-congratulation or pomposity. Rather, gentle irony and charming self-deprecation slide quietly beneath much of what he describes.

In his foreword, Brian  Brett calls Measure “a classic of its time, and a book for the future.”(4) Although dated in its masculine language, the book remains startlingly contemporary. Its reflections on conservation, community, compassionate justice, and the mistreatment of Aboriginal populations are, sadly, every bit as relevant today as they were six decades ago. By John Ruskin’s measure, this is not a book of the hour but a book of all time.

Roderick Haig-Brown
Measure of the Year: Reflections on Home, Family and a Life Fully Lived
Victoria: Touchwood Editions, 2010  $19.95