Writing the West Coast: In Love with Place
November 4, 2013
Review By Harold Rhenisch
In the two generations since the first postmodern attempts to create a pan-cultural literature of place on the Pacific Coast, the context of landscape writing in British Columbia has been radically transformed. The environmental movement has found a new voice as the Green Movement; Clayoquot Sound has seen an end to mass logging; two towns of the working coast, Tofino and Ucluelet, have become world surfing destinations; environmental studies programs flourish at the university level; the North Coast is now the Great Bear Rainforest; Atlantic salmon nudge at net pens in the Broughton Archipelago; the reclamation of Aboriginal cultures has proceeded apace; and thousands of new settlers have moved to the rainforest beaches. Writing the West Coast is a ceremonial gathering of voices from this age of transformation. It consists largely of meditations on self and memory, on youth and age, and on suburbanization versus wilderness, and it is punctuated by a small selection of photographs empty of people. The book is defined by the discrepancy between the non-human West Coast and the human West Coast.
Evidenced by the texts, the Coast represented here has deep roots in nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial language. Alexandra Morton, for example, describes the Broughton Archipelago as her “beloved”; Chandra Wong describes the landscape of Tofino as “myriad colours sooth[ing] the eye”; Helen Clay is “aware of the undercurrent of joy that bubbles up” within her in the rainforest; Christine Lowther writes of Meares Island as a “paradise”; Joanna Streetly sees the “sea” as a “limpid swirling”; Sherry Merk hears the “wild shores of Clayoquot Sound s[i]ng a siren song”; David Pitt-Brooke chases a “will-o’-the-wisp”; and so on. Such texts stand firmly on a foundation comprised of Christina Rossetti and John Keats. It is as if the twenty-first century began in 1871/1993 (the year of the Clayoquot protests).
These are not, of course, historical essays. They are personal ones, rising from an impulse perhaps best described by Joanna Streetly as “an indescribable language of personal connection and memory – the language of home.” Although Writing the West Coast could have benefited from a concerted attempt to actually describe that impulse, it instead presents such Darwinian conjecture as Darcy Dobell’s “Back in the deep recesses of thrush history, a few wandering individuals chanced to nest somewhere slightly outside the range of the rest of the population,” which is used in contrast to the book’s implicit narrative of respect as a metaphor in support of the Coast’s contemporary colonialization. Similarly, instead of political history, we get Eli Enns’s “Having recently gained independence from Great Britain in 1783, the United States at that time was a young industrious country whose leaders had adopted an expansionist policy” – a passage without the detail or specificity that might link that history to this specific stretch of this specific coast. Granted, such history is not the point of a community celebration, but without some extended awareness of the non-Aboriginal history that predated the book’s post-Clayoquot settlers, there is little to convince readers that the authors are speaking of a specific coast and not merely the predilections that led them to it.
Stylistically, most of these essays give rise to similar doubts. For all the sharpness of such opening sentences as, for example, Adrienne Mason’s “The single whistle of the saw-whet owl pierced through the dark, startling me just as I was drifting off,” or of Bonny Glambeck’s “You’re paddling home? You two are crazy!” physicality in these pieces is most often quickly harnessed to personal narrative. Such debate openers may be the perfect form for an age of persuasion, but they are also at odds with the book’s intent to present an alternative to the placelessness of suburbanization. This discrepancy speaks to an issue of trust: if the writers of this volume are our new explorers (and I do not doubt that they are; I accept the passion with which they witness their experience), they will fail at bequeathing us the natural world if they cannot write of it in anything other than personal or colonial or global terms. It is only readers already convinced of the primacy of individual experience who will be convinced by the testaments of this book.
Personal experience on the Coast didn’t always look like this. The Aboriginal Coast that the poet-historian Charles Lillard wrote out of from the 1960s through the 1990s, for example, was, by his definition, a continuous biome stretching from Alaska to California – a land with historically deep cultural roots and a contemporary culture that rose from Aboriginal civilizations; Russian colonialism; nineteenth-century trading, whaling, and fishing cultures; gypo logging culture; the influences of such “languages” as Wawa and “West Talk”; and the experience of people living in isolation on float camps and logging shows up and down the Coast. This Coast was steeped in history, intimately traced by a man who came to consciousness in it and only found the world through its indigenous forms. Lillard’s Coast was here before the back-to-the-land movements of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, yet he embraced these and sought to embed them in history. It didn’t work: Writing the West Coast proceeds largely as if Lillard’s Coast did not exist. Its history begins only where Lillard’s ends, after his death from cancer in 1997. It is a book about the post-Clayoquot Tofino area (with the addition of the equally “wild” Strathcona Park and the Broughton Archipelago areas). Presumably, this “wild” Coast is the physical Coast itself. It is characterized on the land side by shingle, sand, fjords, waterfalls, hot springs, cliffs, fog, rain, cedar trees, bears, salal, licorice fern, elk, and so forth, and on the ocean side by surf, orcas, storm, halibut, salmon, sea lions, tides (etc.), and all the power of water on the earth’s largest and richest ocean. Nonetheless, that Coast’s very real physical presence is overshadowed by the book’s social Coast, which arose from the act of discovering in oneself the former, finding in its physicality a sense of home, and staying and making a society around it. Writing the West Coast is a reflection of that society. It is a document of the human Coast, not in Lillard’s sense of modern and ancient indigenous cultures forming a new culture together but, rather, of global cultural settlement drawing its definitions from the sense of wilderness its citizens first encountered here, and the slow dissolution of that sense into a feeling of home.
For all of the book’s 272 packed pages, this cultural territory remains strangely undefined. It lies somewhere between the non-human but nurturing wilderness of Alexandra Morton’s “The Broughton Archipelago gripped between Knight and Kingcome Inlets,” which “was once home to perhaps 10,000 First Nation people,” and which “generously offered exactly what they needed to thrive”; her “Today, places like Broughton should be held sacred, since they provide clean air, water and food”; and the social landscape of Nadine (Kliiahtah) Crookes’s “There is no word in Nuu-chah-nulth for ‘wild’ or ‘wilderness.’ There is only ‘home.’” Ironically, these competing notions of home, culture, experience, and history mediating between the personal/impersonal natures of suburbia and “wilderness” chronicle not only the transformation of wilderness into “home” but also the more problematic transformation of home into wilderness. Somewhere within this seesaw debate lie the land and water and the people who live through them. Somewhere, there is a way of writing that brings them together. It is not, however, in words such as these by Brionny Penn: “Go to any biology department of a university and you have to look hard to find the ecology section. They are the unfunded, poor cousins stomped into oblivion by the biotech industry and the professional vandals of the corporate university.” Those are passionate words. They may (or may not) be based on a wealth of detail and research, but since they are presented only as a witness text of personal experience, within a book of witness texts of personal experiences, they ultimately fail to convince.
Writing the West Coast collects source documents of a new, energetic, and complex people with often less than a generation of history and sense of place, passionate ideologies, nineteenth-century language, cookie-cutter essay structures, a frequent inability to describe the physical space that so affects them, and a reliance on memory narratives to generate respect. At the end of this volume, I was entirely convinced of the authenticity of the experience of these writers; I was not convinced of its trustworthiness. As Brian Brett writes in the book’s opening and strongest piece, “It’s becoming more and more evident that we are all drunk on the last, unspoiled beaches of a dying planet, cheering as the fires go out.” Now that these important, ritual statements of belonging vital to any roundtable discussion have created a circle of intimacy, I hope the editors and writers will continue this discussion and clarify and complete their task by finding words for the coast itself.