Winging Home: A Palette of Birds
November 4, 2013
Review By Travis Mason
At the risk of categorizing an uncategorizable book, I feel compelled to acknowledge a trend among “nature poets” in Canada that sees many of them exploring in nonfiction prose what they typically reserve for poetry. Neither exclusively Canadian nor particularly recent, this trend – a few poets shy of a tradition – has nevertheless become increasingly conspicuous during the past decade. Given the prominence of birds in Harold Rhenisch’s Winging Home: A Palette of Birds, I can be forgiven, I hope, for thinking about Don McKay, Canada’s best-known birder-poet, who has also begun examining the natural world in non-fiction prose.
With this trend in mind, and recalling McKay’s claim in Vis-à-Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness (2001) that nature writing “should not be taken to be avoiding anthropocentrism, but to be enacting it thoughtfully” (29), I was nonetheless put off initially by Rhenisch’s unabashed anthropomorphic tendencies (which are visually echoed in Tom Grodin’s accompanying illustrations, or what he calls extrusions). Though he admits early on that careless anthropocentrism has been used to colonize continents and “can be addictive” (108), Rhenisch, an accomplished poet, novelist, essayist, and editor, has no compunction about showing off his linguistic dexterity. With a seeming overabundance of metaphors, similes, and analogies, he combines literary prose with popcultural references and reflections on his home in British Columbia’s Interior, to often humorous and occasionally poignant effect.
At approximately the midway mark, though, something struck me about the craftily systematic way Rhenisch overuses rote linguistic strategies, especially when considering the keen observations he continually makes regarding the behaviour of such birds as robins, loons, and bald eagles. In this book at least, Rhenisch’s thoughtfulness about his anthropocentrism manifests less obviously than does the anthropocentrism in recent works by McKay and Tim Lilburn, for example. Winging Home offers an extension of Rhenisch’s poetic and essayistic attempts to write the Cariboo Plateau. Like Tim Lilburn’s philosophical and poetical ruminations on Prairie landscapes and questions of belonging in Living in the World as If It Were Home (1999), but with less deference to a Western monastic tradition, Winging Home represents a continuing attempt to feel at home in relatively new surroundings.
On his website, Rhenisch shares some notes on thinking and writing from his particular historical and geographical perspective: “The Interior of British Columbia is a country with few if any historical, literary, philosophical, or aesthetic traditions, other than the stories we tell each other over coffee. To avoid repeating the colonial trap of importing the tools and metaphors of a foreign life and never moving into this corner of the earth, I have worked towards the organic development of these traditions, out of the strong oral culture which pervades this place” (haroldrhenisch. com/philosophy.html). In Winging Home, Rhenisch attends less to a human oral culture and more to the evolutionary, ecological stories cultivated by successive generations of flora and fauna.
If the style of Winging Home is at times restrained – short sentences punctuate the fleeting nature of Rhenisch’s observations (often from behind the kitchen window or while performing a necessary yet menial bit of upkeep on the property) – it is in order to highlight the often florid, luscious, and over-ripe passages elsewhere in the book. Such overabundance, coupled with Rhenisch’s rapid-fire allusions to myriad pop-cultural phenomena, makes his anthropomorphic gestures uncomfortably apparent. The result is an ironically subtle commentary on humans’ relation to the physical world. How else to explain Rhenisch’s depiction of robins as “break-dancing, bee-hopping, [and] hip-hopping in imitation of the sound of pattering rain” in an effort – proven successful on evolutionary grounds – to lure earthworms to the surface (23)? How else to explain his comparison of crows to German subalterns “milling around in the background” of military photographs, five-star restaurant maître d’s, and the Nez Percé “yelling and whooping it up” in a John Wayne movie (89) – all in the same paragraph?
When, nearly three-quarters into the book, Rhenisch makes his most overt appeal to readers’ environmental sensibilities by admitting that, because of urban development, “the Okanagan is not a haven for birds” (189), the shift in tone from hyperactive pop-cultural ramblings to humble contemplation demands attention. Similarly, once the din of allusions dissipates, one can observe with fresh perspective the potential poetry in the nonhuman world Rhenisch observes. He could easily have prevented a pileated woodpecker from destroying the wooden frames around his windows (217-24) or purple martins from perennially nesting in his attic (156- 59) by baiting them with poison and thus enacting a tradition – far too many instances beyond a trend, sadly – of human colonization of the natural world. But that would be too easy. That would merely complete the sentence anthropocentric language begins. The preposition in the book’s title, after all, allows the palette to belong both to the author and to the birds.