Other Beings, Other Minds

Book Cover Hour of the Crab

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Ever since I was a three-year-old in a small English town, tracing the letters on the greengrocer’s orange crates—or so my mother told me—I’ve loved words. I was brought up on British fairy tales and animal stories—Wind in the Willows, Beatrix Potter, Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book—a tamed and domesticated landscape that was nevertheless full of mystery and yearning. We moved to Canada when I was nine, pitching me into exile. As Doris Lessing says, “When you leave one country, you leave them all.”

So it’s probably not surprising that themes of home and exile imbue my stories in Hour of the Crab, along with the presence of other dimensions where trees can communicate with humans and the world is filled with mysterious presences. Such fiction, for me, is not so much magic realist as heightened realism, an acknowledgement of how little we really know and how much wiser the older beings on our planet are. I’m trying, in my latest stories, to find ways to allow those voices to enter, voices we’ve shut out in our techno-industrial world but that we are in desperate need of listening to.

 

Such fiction, for me, is not so much magic realist as heightened realism, an acknowledgement of how little we really know and how much wiser the older beings on our planet are.

Patricia Robertson

*****

Heaven-on-Dirt

 “Heaven on Dirt,”  by Doc Walker

“My fate was sealed / When great-granddad bought this field”: a settler’s paean to the land, something I hadn’t understood until I moved to Manitoba in 2015. I’ve never lived anywhere where so many people stay for generations, or move away only to return. I’ve come to realize that, at the deepest level, the pull is the land itself—the vast skies, the endless horizon, the glorious golds and reds and ochres of summer wheat and sumac and red-osier dogwood.

As a settler with shallow roots, I’ve envied these deeper ones, but I’ve also learned that home everywhere is under threat as we displace both human and animal populations through human-caused ecological collapse. We are all exiles now. As Chris Thorsteinson and Dave Wasyliw sing, “This way of life is on borrowed time.”

It’s a lament about the forces that are driving out smaller farmers and a  celebration of kinship with the land itself—a broken hallelujah, to borrow from Leonard Cohen.

*

Selected Stories, by Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant is in this list because of her mastery of the short story. She’s the Canadian writer who’s had the most influence on my own short fiction. I love her sly wit, her deep understanding of the world and its power dynamics, her fearlessness in what she portrays. She spent most of her adult life in France, and there’s a cosmopolitan, wide-angled vision at work in her stories. She saw the floods of refugees and the displaced after World War Two and wrote about exile with brilliant insight, perhaps because she was an exile herself.

Virginia Woolf said of George Eliot that she wrote “fiction for grown-ups,” which is exactly how I’d describe Gallant. She was a journalist before she published fiction, and her use of detail has a precision and economy that I love. She is utterly unsentimental and her tone is often astringent—like a dry vermouth!

*

Book Cover The Global Forest

The Global Forest: Forty Ways Trees Can Save Us , by Diana Beresford-Kroeger

The Global Forest sometimes reads as if Beresford-Kroeger were taking dictation from the trees themselves. It’s both poetic and scientific, a book filled with wonder at what we’ve discovered—or rediscovered—about trees as living, communicating beings. Beresford-Kroeger is a botanist and medical biochemist, now living in Ontario, who also draws on the Celtic wisdom of her native Ireland. In forty short, interlinked essays, she describes a forest as an organic community in which trees can give off medicinal aerosols to benefit not only their own health but that of the whole arboreal neighbourhood. Trees can also, remarkably, communicate through infrasounds, below the level of human hearing, to warn of approaching predators. The restoration of tree communities is the key to the salvation of our planet, Beresford-Kroeger tells us. This is a book to dip into and savour, one almost as invigorating as the trees themselves.

*

Small Predators, by Jennifer Ilse Black

This taut, powerful, compact novel—its author’s debut—is a forceful and sobering depiction of the world of today’s young. It’s also a propulsive read, driven by its dramatic opening, a deliberate explosion at the fictional Abbott College on the University of Manitoba’s campus. Its protagonists, a group of activists—cynical, despairing, nihilistic—try to care about school while seeing only apocalypse ahead. “No one talks about our dying world,” says Fox, the novel’s narrator. “No one talks about anything really.” Yet the novel is also, by turns, lyrical, loving, and occasionally very funny, even if the humour’s on the black side.

The book portrays our disconnection from the natural world and the damage, both mental and physical, that our separation leads to. Yet it begins and ends on the Manitoba prairie, where the sunlight and grass provide moments of consolation, as does the rare Baird’s sparrow that Mink and Lynx, to their delight, find nesting on campus. The bird functions as a metaphor for both the prairie itself and planetary species extinction. The novel’s surprisingly gentle ending, a discussion about anger, truth, and forgiveness, hints at Fox’s growing maturity.

*

The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks; Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking, by Robert Bringhurst,

Bringhurst is sui generis, a poet, linguist, translator, and independent scholar whose books range across entire cultures, myriad languages, and vast reaches of time. The Tree of Meaning is a collection of thirteen lectures, described by Bringhurst himself as having “several themes: the nature of language; the nature of meaning; the destruction of the earth as we have known it, occurring side by side with the evident persistence of poetry and meaning.” He has translated extensively from Haida oral culture, including the work of mythtellers Skaay and Ghandl, and has long argued for its inclusion in a broader definition of literature. The companion volume Everywhere Being is Dancing continues Bringhurst’s ecological awareness and aliveness to the way language grows out of the body and its relationship to the natural world. “Linguistic rhythms are rooted in physiological rhythms – in muscle, blood, and breath – which are rooted in the air and in the ground,” he tells us. “They answer to the rhythms of the world we inhabit: night and day, darkness and moonlight, summer and winter, wet season and dry.” Bringhurst keeps reminding us that we are mammals, that human culture arises from the earth. “Language is not a beast to be yoked and harnessed but an independent being whose powers may contradict or amplify one’s own.” For Bringhurst, “… everything is linked together by thinking. Yet we rarely choose to listen, so we rarely understand.”

*

Fauna, by Christiane Vadnais, translated from the French by Pablo Strauss

Plunge into this book at your peril. Vadnais’s innocuously named novel is a place where the landscape is malevolently alive, where even mud develops black tentacles and human beings are slowly being transformed into—well, fauna, including finned creatures and birds. “All the disturbances of the planet seemed to be made flesh in her” is how one character is described. We’re in the realm of fairy tale and fable, yet the succulent prose never lets us forget the sensory reality of rivers, fog, heat, endless rain. In Vadnais’s apocalyptic vision, humans don’t die out but become, in the story’s tellings, more alive by being made newly animal.

“All around her a new world unfolds, teeming with furies and violence and beauty.” These interlinked short stories with their Latinate titles—Creaturae, Devorare—are interspersed with short prose meditations: “In the night, individual dreams melt into the collective reveries of species.” This slim collection calls us into that collective reverie as a way to re-imagine what it means to be human.

*

Bite Down, Little Whisper, by Don Domanski

It’s uncanny how Domanski’s poem “Gloria Mundi” echoes Vadnais’s Fauna: “bedtime and now the animals will arrive / claws and fur and geomorphic skins / all beside you / all warming you / with their bodies of switchback flesh / and rheumy bones…” These poems are incantations, praise songs to a mysterious, spirit-filled world of antler and pine bough, hawk and crows “like prayer wheels,” a place of spacious imagination where the speaker himself is transformed: “tonight I’m a bit of pigment in a T’ang scroll / rusted blemish that bleeds through / from the future…” This is a luminous and visionary book in which the hints and murmurs of the sacred are all around us, just out of reach.

*

 

Album Cover Firecracker

“Apocalypse Lullaby,” by The Wailin’ Jennys

Despite the title, Annabelle Chvostek urges us to “follow heart, follow home” to what beckons like a lamp: “One round heart, one round home.” This beautiful image of the globe itself as a heart is offered as a steadfast light that can guide us through the hurricanes and rising oceans that the song also foresees. Home and heart are conflated here, as they should be, because where else do we find home but with what nourishes us at the deepest level?

*

I’m giving the last word to another poet: Don Coles, who won the 1993 Governor-General’s Award for English poetry for his collection Forests of the Medieval World and was one of my own mentors. In his stunning poem “Groundhog Testifies” (from Landslides, McClelland & Stewart, 1986), the speaker—a groundhog—describes the obliviousness of humans and, by implication, how lost and confused they are as they rush to and fro in their machines. The poem ends with the groundhog’s puzzled and poignant observation: “They have no idea how fragrant and far down / Home is.”

All the writers here are calling us back.

*

Learn More about Hour of the Crab:

Patricia Robertson’s new collection of short fiction, Hour of the Crab, is a work of insight and mastery, each story demonstrating an original vision, intriguing characters, and sophisticated skill.

Readers will travel with Robertson’s vivid characters, sharing their journeys, their challenges, their complicated choices. They will also discover other worlds—from an eleventh-century monastery in France to a near-future British Columbia where apocalyptic wildfires seem to be never-ending.

A young woman discovers the corpse of a Moroccan teenager washed up on the beach in southern Spain and sets out to find his family in a gesture that destabilizes her own. An international aid worker shares her house with the very real ghost of a gardener’s boy. The last speaker of a dying Norse-like language carves the words he remembers into the stones of his house.

Urgent and evocative, immersed in issues of our time, the stories of Hour of the Crab reveal Robertson’s ability to draw in her readers with the heightened realism of her imagined worlds.

 

 

April 19, 2021
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