The Naturalist, Interview, Ottawa Citizen
July 29, 2010
By Peter Robb
Alissa York takes reader on a jungle adventure in The Naturalist
There is a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones peers into the Well of Souls and sees a writhing mass on the floor below.
“Snakes,” Indy says, “why did it have to be snakes?” or something like that.
What would he think of Alissa York’s book The Naturalist, which is full of snakes like the poisonous viper the Bushmaster and the world’s largest, the secretive Anaconda?
This is not a work for a faint hearted sufferer of ophidiophobia.
The Naturalist is York’s first novel in about six years. It tells the story of a 19th-century trip into the heart of the great rainforest of Amazonia, the lungs of the earth, where death lurks in the water and on the land. And yet there, wondrous life can also be discovered. It is a captivating tale.
The voyage is a pilgrimage of sorts for the Ash family, whose patriarch, Walter, had planned an expedition into the jungle but expired before he could get going.
His son and young widow decide to complete the expedition and they bring along a quiet young Quaker woman who proves more able and adaptable than the rest to the jungle.
Bad things happen in this journey, but good things too. Suffice to say that you will remember the snake scenes.
York, who will be at the spring version of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, comes by this book naturally.
“All kids love animals but I was the kid that was always reading the encyclopedia of wildlife that we had and watching every nature show. For me, the ones set in the Amazon were the most compelling. I think I have always had that fascination.”
That lay buried deep inside her mind until she was applying for a grant that encouraged artists to take on a project intended to expand their horizons.
“For me, the answer right away was the Amazon which kind of terrified me because of the size of it.”
It is a setting for intense experience and big adventure, she says — an Eden full of snakes.
To understand the breadth of the place though, she had to dig in and study.
“It takes as long as it takes. I’m a really deep researcher. I don’t understand it when people want to write about something they don’t know and they don’t find out enough.
“I love finding it all out. Sometimes I curse it. You feel like you need to know everything. At some point you have to say you have enough.”
In this case, she says, she just started reading and soon was taking on board 19th-century accounts by naturalists, and that was when she was getting really excited. The naturalist, after all, was one of the explorer heroes of the age.
But York is a novelist and she gave the story an unusual twist. What would happen if the leader of the expedition was removed?
“What does a community look like when you remove the patriarch?”
It left room for the other characters to grow, she says. The son comes to terms with his past in Amazonia. He was adopted out of a mixed race family by his “father.” And the young Quaker woman who is a companion to the widow proves to be adaptable and a leader. The jungle is a crucible for these characters.
York has written about nature before and about people of faith before. These are important themes for her.
“They absolutely are side by side and intertwined in my understanding of life. I think the closest I get to religion is my feeling about nature.
“I live in cities, I spend most of my time in cities. In Toronto I am surrounded by and highly aware of animals, be they domestic or feral, and plants, it’s a huge part of my daily life. I came into the world that way. My childhood in northern Alberta was shaped that way.
“I have written about priests and Mormons. It’s the place in our psyches where we take our biggest questions and our deepest feelings. Intense human experience goes on in the vicinity of religion and spirituality.”
She is covering the kind of ground that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau explored, that of the place of humans in natural world.
“I do think of myself as being part of that tradition and in it I would include people like Annie Dillard. I’m not in real life. I don’t know enough to be a naturalist, but I still think of myself that way on the page.”
Is the jungle a scary place?
“I don’t have that vision of the jungle. It’s very wise to be wary of the jungle but I’m more interested in it as a life force.The life cycle is so rampant there even now. A body drops and it doesn’t stay. There is this continual resurgence of life through death.
“People have all these visions of the jungle. It’s paradise and then it’s a green hell. It’s neither of those. It is itself. It’s part of why Walter and I ended up gravitating toward reptiles. They function as a kind of memento mori.
“An anaconda isn’t a demon, although it’s hard to separate that. It is a creature, living. When we can get enough calm within our selves to really look at snakes and caimans, they are so beautiful.”
Her research did take her to the Amazon for 10 days in 2013.
“I was on a small boat with the crew and a French family. Before the trip I got a list of things to bring and one of the items was bathing suit and another was a towel.”
She wasn’t inclined to swim in the Amazon, but the French family jumped in the water whenever they got a chance.
One day, the mate on the boat asked if she knew how to swim. She answered that she did and he asked if she was afraid.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m in the Amazon and I’m not going to get into the water because I am too scared. And I’m going to regret it so I jumped in and I had a lovely swim.”
She said she realized that the people who lived there were in the river all the time.
“If I want to write about people who live here I have to give it a go.”
In the end the question remains: is she, like Indiana Jones, afraid of snakes?
“I do feel drawn toward snakes. I don’t have a problem touching snakes, but keeping them as pets doesn’t make sense to me.”
Her favourite is the aforementioned Bushmaster.
“What a great name. They get to be up to 12 feet long. I guess it has a mythical vibe to it in my imagination. They are beautiful.”