Recently I have taken to much longer periods of gazing out our front windows. In the mornings at this time of year we enjoy the glinting promise of a young mountain range off to the south. On a clear day, you would swear that the white peaks are a short walk away, part of our own Vancouver Island. The illusion is aided by the lush foliage of Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park, which hides from my view 25 miles (or 40 kilometers, as we Canadians would measure it) of open sea. Somewhere out there is a watery border. So, yes, I can stand in my home and see a foreign country—the U.S.A.. Sarah Palin’s got nothing on me.
As I gaze, it’s certainly not American politics or the ubiquitous American entertainment industry or even the overpowering American economy that intrigue me. Those get more than enough attention from Canadians already.
Like most people, I love natural vistas. In this case, the Olympic Mountains in the northwest corner of Washington state. I pull out my binoculars and scan the high, deep lofts of snow, imagining the streams that must now be starting to give voice to the alpine spring. At times, I transcend the sounds of traffic on my street and dream of hiking the Hoh River Trail up through Pacific rainforest to “One Square Inch of Silence,” a silent preserve in Olympic National Park.
National borders notwithstanding, I yearn to adopt those mountains. They not only appear to be part of my local landscape, they are. We share a bioregion, the Olympic peninsula and the west coast of British Columbia. The region is increasingly referred to as Cascadia. To some people that means a vast territory, based on the Columbia River watershed, that sweeps across almost all of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia as well as parts of Montana, Idaho, Nevada, California, and even Alaska. To others, Cascadia has a smaller footprint, taking in coastal areas of northern Oregon, coastal Washington, and the southwest coastal mainland and islands of British Columbia.
In either case, those Olympic Mountains are part of my home region—an important part. By midday, most days, the Olympics are shrouded in cloud and mist. Sea and mountain and sky become one. The cloud-softened blue grey horizon is evidence of what we in the region call the Olympic rain shadow. Mount Olympia catches 122 inches of rain a year from the warm, moist air that sweeps in off the Pacific. True rainforest. Here in Victoria, northeast of Olympia, we receive only 24 inches. Our busy tourism industry should be thanking the Olympics for the fact the horse-drawn carriages and double-decker buses can ply their trade in sunshine more often than not.
More importantly to watchers of the natural world, the mountains across the water help create the conditions for our own distinct habitat featuring Garry oak woodlands—dry, rocky meadows populated by the craggy, sparse, and slow-growing Garry oak, often surrounded by patches of camas, a traditional food source for the Coast Salish people. Our world, we are frequently reminded, is a world of microclimates.
Those of us who love to write and read about place inevitably turn our attention to questions of ecology and environmental health. Borders mean nothing in the natural world. The land is always whole, even when we lose sight of that reality. It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing “our” hillsides and rivers and forests as entities belonging to “our” country, or our state or province. When we really look, though, we see how obviously the interests of an Oregon or Washington or British Columbian writer overlap. Or should.
It’s certainly easier to share our place-based interests now that we can collaborate and interact in online communities. Even so, our political and funding borders create a situation where, for the most part, American writers don’t earn status points (or real money) for cultivating a Canadian audience, and vice versa. It’s odd that so few of us Canadians have looked south for readers, given that the U.S. market is ten times as large. But again, a Canadian looking for publication south of the border brings publishing credentials that few American readers recognize and faces grant and award rules with geographic limits. The systems encourage cultural nationalism.
Like most human endeavors, the American/Canadian divisions in literary publishing have a lot to do with money. Literary publishing depends on grants from foundations and government bodies. Heaven forbid that Canadian tax dollars go to bringing an American poet in for a reading, or a U.S. arts foundation send money out of country to a Canadian writer. So readers of poetry, literary fiction, and creative nonfiction often have little acquaintance with fascinating writers just a few miles distant.
My own growing interest in gazing across the border to check out American writers on place has two sources. In 2011, I moved from central Alberta to Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, where that Olympic view greets me every morning. Secondly, my own American heritage is more evident than ever, thanks to genealogical research by my sister.
A proud third-generation Canadian, I knew that grandfather Charles Daniel had emigrated up from Washington. It seemed a sensible thing to do. My father, though, knew little about his family history and so it never occurred to me that my American roots might run deeper than my Canadian ones. It turns out that seven generations of Daniel ancestors made their way from the Carolinas through Arkansas and Illinois before arriving in the far west of the United States and, ultimately, central Alberta. Other branches of the family tree reach back to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the year 1577. So this maple leaf boy has some stars and stripes in him. I am catching up on my American bloodlines.
Given the border’s influence as a cultural disruption, good bricks and mortar regional bookstores are a fine place to start a cross-border cultural search. Fortunately, stores like Powell’s, Elliott Bay Book Company, Munro’s, Russell, and Bolen Books stock strong collections of regional fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. So it was that last year on a drive through the Olympic Peninsula down to Oregon I stopped to explore a few shelves at Powell’s and came away with an armload of books, among them a couple by poet and nonfiction writer John Daniel.
The surname likely jumped out at me from the bookshelves, but as far as I can tell we’re unrelated. John’s grandfather arrived in the U.S. from Prussia in the 1860s, while my Daniel ancestors arrived in the Carolinas from Great Britain 100 years earlier.
John Daniel’s essay collection The Far Corner: Northwestern Views on Land, Life and Literature explores topics shared by many British Columbia writers about place: rivers, coastal seas, forests, and human industry that impacts those natural treasures. The book includes a suite of essays on Oregon rivers that, like most good writing on place, is at once highly local and widely applicable. If you care about any river anywhere, you will find fascinating streams of knowledge here.
Here I have learned about sinuosity—the way rivers meander back and forth, even when conditions seem to encourage a straight path. I also better appreciate the treelike patterns of watersheds—the natural progression of small trickles into streams, the joining of streams into rivers, branching and building. We tend to “get” the wholeness of a tree, less so the wholeness of a watershed. “We need their fluent lives intermingling with our own,” Daniel says of our Western rivers.
The largest of those, the Columbia, has its headwaters in the Rocky Mountain trench in eastern British Columbia. “There was a Columbia River before there was a Cascade Range,” Daniel points out. Over centuries, its course has shifted in response to geologic change. Now, its 1,200-mile (2,000-kilometer) flow is broken by 14 hydroelectric dams on its main branch and dozens more on its tributaries. We think we are “managing” this ancient and complex river, but do we even understand it?
In 1964, Canada and the U.S. negotiated a Columbia River Treaty that was mostly about dividing up rights to power generation and flood control. In 2014, the countries must indicate whether they wish to update and extend the treaty beyond 2024. Two nations, each with its own agenda for supplying citizens and industries with water and electricity. For a broader perspective, though, we have to turn to naturalists and writers. Who is going to speak for the biological integrity of one of the largest watersheds on the continent?
For the big questions, we need to tune in to what’s real about our places, to pay attention in a way that’s deeper than boundaries. John Daniel’s sense of place is influenced by an iconic writer who did that: Wallace Stegner. American-born, Stegner grew up in southern Saskatchewan, on the edge of another bioregion that spans a border. Americans call it the Plains, Canadians call it the Prairies. Perhaps we could just call it the grasslands of western North America.
Stegner’s memoir Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier remains a seminal piece about the frontier, small town life, and a child filled with a visceral awareness of the wild. As a student of Stegner’s, a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and a resident on Stegner’s property for five years, John Daniel comes naturally to Stegner’s strong identification with place.
For Canadian writers, Stegner was a somewhat distant icon who nevertheless made much of what we do—especially in the West—possible. Wolf Willow prompted a generation of Canadian prairie writers like poet Andrew Suknaski to stay on the grasslands, and to weave their own stories of mythical and magical places and their people.
Stegner himself moved on, eventually to Stanford, and as far as I can tell didn’t do much looking back at the Canadian literary culture he had helped launch. He received an honorary degree from the University of Regina in 1973 and there are courses on Stegner at Canadian universities, but during his lifetime he didn’t seem to be a part of any active cross-border literary enterprise.
Yet, as John Daniel demonstrates in “Wallace Stegner’s Hunger for Wholeness,” for Stegner the personal story is but one small part of the much larger and ultimately more significant story of place. Wolf Willow resonates on both sides of the border. Unfortunately, the work of subsequent generations of writers of the great Western grasslands rarely flutters across the “medicine line,” as the Blackfoot people called the border.
There are some regional awakenings. Back here in Cascadia, the second Cascadia Poetry Festival was held in Seattle this spring. I would have been there, but for an injury that left me gazing longingly across the waters. Next year, the event is on “my own” island, up the road in Nanaimo. I hope many American poets of the Northwest make it across the Salish Sea for a literary exploration of our shared place.
Elsewhere, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment has for a number of years been “committed to encouraging scholarship in literature and environment internationally.” About 85 percent of its members are American but an active group of Canadian and other international writers participate regularly, and the group’s biennial conference was held in Victoria in 2009 (Terrain.org blogged about it here).
Perhaps the most challenging cross-border ecocultural situation is that of the Sonoran desert, where the dominant narrative of conflict and human migration makes discussion of the bioregion a challenge. The International Sonoran Desert Alliance nevertheless takes on the challenge. The group’s Tri-National Symposium (American, Mexican and Tohono O’odham Nation) brings people together to share ideas and information about the natural and cultural worlds of the Sonoran region.
In Cascadia, on Stegner’s western grasslands, or in the Sonoran desert, we identify with our places, weave their essence into our own. The land can teach us so much if we can step across our medicine lines.
John Daniel’s lament for the big timber forests, infused with his early experience working chokers in the forestry industry, should be read alongside Canadian Charlotte Gill’s memoir of “the tree-planting tribe,” Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe. Daniel’s Western hemlocks are my Western hemlocks. Gill’s vast, remote clearcuts are my clearcuts.
Near the end of The Far Corner, Daniel finds himself musing about the recent struggles of beavers to reclaim their natural territory, and about patriotism. “For me,” he says, patriotism “begins where I am. Love of country, if it’s to mean anything more, must first mean country, land, the physical ground and growth and weather and inhabitants—beaver as well as human—of the places we call home.”
In Canada, the beaver is an official “symbol of the sovereignty of Canada,” but I much prefer to think of the beaver as a symbol of biodiversity and the natural order. Perhaps, before we profess allegiance to a nation, we should ground ourselves by swearing allegiance to our place, our home in nature.
Header photo of Olympic Mountains beyond Victoria, British Columbia, by Karyn Stepien.