Back in my old haunts last week, in the boggy bush around Lodgepole, Alberta, I passed through a swath of recently burned timber.
In exploring natural areas, I am trying to train my eye to look down. My gaze naturally goes to the horizons, the distant vistas and the large drama of mountains, hills, and treescapes. So much of what is important in nature happens, though, at the less photogenic and easily overlooked perspective from the knees down - the small growth, the form of the ground itself - even what is under my feet and lower, the substrata.
We are conditioned to see places through the lenses of tourism, or industry, or comfort. Where are the vistas, the cozy spaces, the economic opportunity? What is worthwhile here?
Places, though, can speak in more subtle and sophisticated ways, if we are able to appreciate them. “If you don’t manage to take in the genius of the place, let it say its piece through you, the place will throw you out,” Tom Lilburn writes in Going Home.
For years I have been working on a manuscript about the boggy bush country of western Alberta. It’s a landscape that is resource rich, at least in terms of resources that were economically important in the 19th century (furs) and the past 100 years (oil). Yet is still a largely unsettled country, one that many enter with profit rather than settlement in mind.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the voices that tell the story of western Alberta are mostly male. First Nations elders, fur traders like Alexander Henry, map maker David Thompson, government clerks, oil industry historians – almost all of the speakers and writers are male. The absence of female voices is personified in the character of Charlotte Small Thompson, the Metis wife of David Thompson.
I recently had coffee with author Merna Forster, whose books 100 Canadian Heroines and 100 More Canadian Heroines have done much to popularize the stories of Canada’s women. The latter book includes a short profile of Charlotte. As Merna notes, “Charlotte’s knowledge, skills and experience living on the land helped her husband immeasurably.”
There is often great irony in a writer's desire to get away. Away, where there are fewer distractions and impositions. Writing retreats promise that, yet inevitably raise new distractions, new issues requiring the writer's attention.