Tuesday, June 19, 2007

the ghosts of geography: de Leeuw & Dragland & writing my eventual non-fictions

Since learning about my writer-in-residence position in Edmonton this fall [see my related piece in The Danforth Review], I've been thinking a lot about geography and non-fiction more specifically than I had before; it's always been in the back of my mind, wanting to eventually get a more traditional book on Glengarry County started down the road, after my book-length essay is finally finished, and perhaps my genealogy project recording all the McLennan / MacLennan lines throughout Stormont and Glengarry is finished [see my related note on such]. I've been working on that last one now for about fifteen years or so, and it's nowhere near finished, so god knows when it would come out, let alone allow me to go somewhere further with the same research; still, I know easily I'd know enough about county by then to pretty much be able to write anything. I've been thinking about that thing called literary non-fiction, a flow of literary prose that talks about every thread of what is happening from the inside to the outside in a way that brings the reader not only into that place and the mind of that place being talked about, but inside the mind of the author as well. Where do the lines exist? There is so much more I have to learn.

Still, books are made from books (as David McFadden keeps telling me), and I've been stockpiling for some time, waiting for the sparks of an accumulating idea to come to the point of being ready to begin. Lately I've been reading Sarah de Leeuw's Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2004). Written as a memoir working itself through geography, it follows the author along a path of growing up and grown in northern British Columbia and all the places that her family lived, using the thread of Highway 16 as the current that runs beneath the piece, writing from Juskatla, Queen Charlotte City, Prince Rupert, Cranberry Junction, Kitwanga, Prince George, Fraser Lake and Terrace.
Over the bridge, the waters of Kumbis Creek brown under the thickly creosoted deck. On the right hand side, a CN Rail worker from Quebec lived in a trailer court with four trailers. I knew because I babysat for his kids; someone in town heard I spoke a few words of French. On Friday nights, once a month, I put the two children of the displaced CN Rail worker to bed.

"Bon nuit," I would say. "Bon voyage."

I had forgotten how to say "sweet dreams" in French, and in the silence of a logging camp town I sent those children into the night journeying. The beginning of something, even if translated incorrectly, into a lapsed language.
As the back cover asks, "What falls in the space between the dots on a map?" This is country that exists for loggers, where so few others would ever need to go, and landscape shaped by the hand of those who work it as much as any place in the country. Somehow less a book about geography than working itself through the geography into the place where memoir sits, de Leeuw exists on that line between what kind of book she seems to be writing, where the landscape and its people are separate from her, but never apart from her own sense of self. At what point after physical escape from geography will she realize that escape is impossible, as the land and its people imprinted permanently on her body? As de Leeuw writes, "How far away is away? How far away is far? For that matter, how far is far enough?" This is a land where cultures not only clash, but they had long crashed headlong into each other, but the evidence still forefront. As she writes,
As I made my way over the suspension bridge into Gitwinksihlkw, I noticed for the first time the small white church about twenty-five metres down stream. once I had crossed the bridge, both feet now in Gitwinksihlkw and the snow-covered flatness of the lava across the river now, I picked my way along the icy path to the building. In the strange grey light that takes over the Nass Valley in the winter, the church seemed even more run down than it truly was. In fading red letters above the doorway, which was now boarded and sagging, was the emblem of the Salvation Army.

The windows of the church were smashed and gaping open, the entire structure leaning into the wind. It seemed like at any moment it would fall into the waters of the Nass River and be washed away forever. I bent down into the snow to look at the old building from the bottom. It was only from this angle I noticed the church's foundations.

At first, as breath steamed in front of my eyes, I thought I must be mistaken.

But as I bent lower, my hands freezing against the snow, eyes of bears and killer whales could still be made out. The huge logs making up the foundation were totem poles, hacked and sawed so the church could be built on top of them, slowly turning to earth in this tiny village on the edge of the lava.
When thinking of non-fiction prose and travel, when thinking of non-fiction prose and turning geography from that prose, turning the words over like soil; thinking the Alberta before me and the Glengarry that can never be completely behind. Thinking about the piece I've been working for months for a book I've been editing on Glengarry County for Chaudiere Books, out sometime next year, with pieces by Don McKay, Stephen Brockwell, Clare Latremouille, Bonnie Laing, Joan MacLeod, Patrick Leroux, Nicholas Lea and others, working that same bit of ground in their own ways. Thinking about the project turning slow in my head for my eventual west, how in so many ways I have never left home, and how to work that into prose, writing the story of my travel that ends up being, predominantly, my story of home.
It's a difficult thing to write about places you know so well they become ingrained, or so you think, but somehow everyone tries. The percentage of first novels as coming-of-age. Even through leaving, I kept ties, including Gary Geddes and Henry Beissel, poets and Concordia University creative writing professors who had made homes in the area. (Both have since retired, with Geddes on the left coast, living on Vancouver Island for the last decade, and Beissel moving in 2005 to an Ottawa suburb.) Both from places of their own to appear in mine, appearing in the 1960s. Gary from the west, the prairies of the 1940s and 50s, and Henry a young teen in Germany during the Second World War. If you can imagine, Henry Beissel from 1950s Toronto deciding to travel in a car with a friend three months from coast to coast before he took Canadian citizenship, just to understand the context of what he was entering into. Why doesn't every Canadian-born do such a thing? It should be mandatory.

When they put out (what I called) their Glengarry poetry collections, dealing with the spaces around them, Beissel’s Stones to Harvest (1993) and Geddes’ Girl by the
(1994), influenced by the green landscape, I had mixed reactions. Gary Geddes’ as a section, from a poet who could, for a while, write politics better than most (as he was one of the few poets in Canada at the time seeming to try), and Beissel, as a whole, attempting, perhaps, to situate himself; each finding their own particular place in the wood. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in admitting a certain jealousy, a feeling of lines being crossed. I liked the books when I read them, and the rush of seeing in other people’s words the things you know, but neither of them were the ways I saw them, the difference between observation and those things that are built in at birth. I saw them as markers, strengthening my resolve to build my own collection, to reacquaint and ever re-appropriate my own history from the mouths of others.
When thinking of non-fiction, thinking the succulent prose of Stan Dragland, originally from Alberta but decades in London, Ontario before retiring from teaching, and heading about as far east as he could, ending up in St. John's, Newfoundland. While thinking about all of this, I've been going through his collection Journeys Through Bookland (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984); I've been going through his Apocrypha: Further Journeys (Edmonton AB: NeWest/writer as critic: IX,2003),
The word "bridge," in the name of the Alberta city on the banks of the Belly River that was named for William Lethbridge, no longer signifies.

But there is one helluva bridge in that city. Here is a postcard of it. On the reverse, under the space for a message, is the caption: "The longest, highest railroad bridge of its kind in the world. Constructed in 1909 in Lethbridge, Alberta." I bought the postcard to take into my classes whenever I taught Thomas King's Medicine River. Harlan Bigbear tricks his brother Joe into jumping off that bridge, and young Lum is a suicide off that bridge, or one like it, in King's Truth & Bright Water. The same bridge is the key to my past, and a clue to my moving now.

My father had a small stock of family stories, like the one about my jumping into the Banff Hotsprings pool at the age of six. I had never been near a pool but swimming looked simple from the observation deck above, so I hustled into my trunks and raced from the change room to the pool and jumped in at the five-foot level. The
second time I surfaced, someone noticed and pulled me out by the hair. The punch line my father savoured was the line I met him with as he emerged poolside: Dad!—he always caught the amazement in my tone—I can't swim at all!

And my father used to tell about hopping a freight in the dirty thirties on the Lethbridge side of the world's longest and highest bridge and hanging in numb terror out over the valley until the train made the fair side and he tumbled off, never to ride the rails again. So I was conceived out west, in Alberta. I was not and never will be born in Ontario, where I lived the second half of my life to date, where my children were born. Two thousand miles away from Alberta and that bridge back in Lethbridge, an okay place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. Don’t have to; I brought Alberta with me when I moved east. And sometimes, during one of those long, lovely Ontario evenings, if I'm not careful, having had one too many Scotches, I feel Alberta begin to throb inside me and I hear some ambient western movie soundtrack stir, and start to swell and, and (wouldn’t you know it) there's my dad's beautiful tenor in unison with the Yodelling Cowboy, Wilf Carter:

In the Blue Canadian Rockies
Spring is sighing through the trees…

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