Books Column, Kingston Whig-Standard
Wednesday, August 17, 2016 3:16:57 EDT PM
By Wayne Grady
Writing about nature doesn’t come naturally. For us, as a domesticated species, being in nature isn’t a challenge, it’s a problem. A human writing about nature is like a cocker spaniel going to sleep in downtown Toronto and waking up in the middle of Algonquin Park, and having to figure out where our next bowl of Puppy Chow is coming from. We have to undo 10,000 years of evolution. Alissa York does this very well.
Alissa won the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award in 1999. The prize, given in memory of late Kingston poet and short-story writer Bronwen Wallace, is presented annually by the Writers Trust to that year’s most promising emerging writer. Since then, Alissa has written four novels, one of which, Effigy, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, proof that Alissa, now in her 40s, has fulfilled the promise she showed in her 20s.
On Sunday, she joins a group of eight other writers taking part in this year’s “Framework: Words on the Land,” a three-day immersion into nature that takes place just outside Perth. The writers have been on site at Fieldwork, the art/land/explorations project that has been running now for nine years, in which writers are given a framed space in the woods on the Fieldwork property and, over the weekend, are asked to produce a piece of original writing in response to what they see through the frame. On Sunday, the writers read what they have written to a live audience.
I have crossed paths with Alissa several times, most recently when she, Merilyn and I were part of the faculty at the Sage Hill Writing Experience, one of Canada’s most popular writing retreats, held every July in Saskatchewan’s spectacular Qu’Appelle Valley (another faculty member was Kingston writer Steve Heighton). I also attended a panel discussion in Toronto that included Alissa this June at the Writing Summit, at which she talked about the role of nature in her writing, and in our lives in general. She told us about her moral dilemma in catching a raccoon in a Have-a-Heart trap at her home in Toronto: she was fully aware that ridding the landscape of natural but inconvenient residents re-enacts the history of European settlement in North America in uncomfortable ways. Think of Thomas King’s recent book, The Inconvenient Indian.
The difficulty in coming to terms with nature has been a major theme in Alissa’s writing for some time. In her new novel, The Naturalist, she places three ill-prepared adventurists from Philadelphia on the Amazon River in 1867, and shows how their total immersion in an unfamiliar and often terrifying natural environment can either destroy them or force them to explore their own deeper natures. Fortunately, it does the latter, but of course it could have gone either way.
Her characters are not conquerors or colonists, they are observers.
“The explorer-hero’s focus lies with the flora and fauna he encounters,” Alissa recently told the Globe and Mail, “as well as with various geological and cultural phenomena, rather than with any dream of political conquest.”
Alissa’s explorer-heroes are related in one way or another to Philadelphia naturalist Walter Ash (Iris is his second wife, Paul is his son, and Rachel Weaver, their Quaker companion, is seemingly inately fascinated by reptiles and by Walter’s work as a naturalist). When Ash dies on the eve of his second trip to the Amazon, his three survivors decide to take the trip anyway. Ash is a fictionalized composite of European naturalists and explorers, including Alfred Russell Wallace and Alexander von Humboldt. He is perhaps closer to Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892), who spent 11 years in Amazonia collecting more than 8,000 specimens, most of them insects, before returning to England in 1859.
Bates travelled up the Amazon with Wallace, the naturalist who later anticipated Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, and there is much discussion of Darwin’s theory in The Naturalist: Rachel is torn between her religious beliefs and the unmistakable evidence of evolution she sees every day in Amazonia. This might sound like science writing, but it is both fiction and nature writing, which, like science, constantly alters everything we think we know.
Reviewers have praised The Naturalist, calling it “cerebral” and also citing its lush descriptions of the primeval rainforest. Alissa writes, for example, that the jungle is “like the life’s work of a mad giant, an obsessive, territorial monster armed with a ball of twine.” In Alissa’s hands, a thousand words tell us so much more than a picture.
“Walter Ash certainly does owe a debt to Henry Walter Bates,” she says, “and, to a lesser extent, to Wallace, von Humboldt and the American William H. Edwards. Without them, he never would have drawn breath. The same goes for Rachel — though in my mind she also prefigures the evolutionary leap in thinking that gave rise to Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and other devoted observers of nature.”
It is an entirely different forest that Alissa has written about during her three days at Framework, but it’s still nature. When Merilyn and I were there last year, we found ourselves in the familiar Laurentian mixed-hardwood forest we’d grown up in. My frame was not under a seringueira, or rubber tree, but hung from the lower branch of a gigantic oak. Merilyn’s was beside a small wetland, which was wild but hardly the igapo — the flooded rainforest — of the Ash’s Amazon. The only wildlife I saw were two red squirrels that chased each other incessantly through the foliage; there was a large pile of fresh bear scat on the path leading to my frame, but I saw no other sign of it, and still don’t know if I’m sorry or relieved.
The process of writing about nature is the same no matter how wild or familiar that nature is. As Iris discovers in The Naturalist, writing about nature is both simple and incredibly difficult: “You look at what’s before you, and you set down what you see.”
Or, in the case of my bear, what you don’t see.
Wayne Grady writes about nature, both human and wild, in nonfiction and fiction. He lives in Kingston.