Print Edition: July 17, 2013
“We need a new language, and art and metaphor is the form it’s going to take,” Rex Weyler, ecologist and UFV’s most recent writer-in-residence announced to a rapt audience at the Literary Café on July 8, which was part of this year’s Festival of the Arts in Harrison.
The event celebrated a new anthology of eco-lit, Cascadia: the Life and Breath of the World, co-edited by UFV professor Trevor Carolan and Frank Stewart, and published by University of Hawaii Press. Weyler, Victoria poet Eve Joseph and Tsleilwaututh storyteller Gabriel George were featured as the evening’s speakers.
The room was warmed instantly by the glow of candles at each table, and by the smooth and intriguing alternative country of Abbotsford’s Franklyn Currie. The hum of quiet conversation dimmed with the lights as UFV’s director of continuing studies, Cheryl Isaac, welcomed guests and read greetings aloud from the University of Hawaii in Manoa.
Isaac was followed by Carolan, who took the podium to speak on the ecological theme of the anthology and the motivation for its creation.
“Language and literature … bring us close to the truth of a place,” he said, and intimated that part of the intent behind the volume, which took roughly two years to assemble, was “to try and help fortify people for some of the [ecological] changes that may be ahead.”
Contributors to the book are diverse, ranging from prose writers to First Nations chiefs, from ecologists to poets. The writings of Chief Dan George, Jan Zwicky, Eden Robinson, and many others are anticipated within the pages of Cascadia.
Joseph confessed she felt compelled to look for the meaning of “Cascadia” after being asked to contribute. She said that Cascadia means “land of falling waters,” and expressed her sentiments of kinship to the landscape, likening the qualities of water to her own imagination.
Historically, Cascadia refers to the region spanning from the south of Alaska as far down as Washington, the bulk of which is currently BC. Hawaii and BC also have historical linkages; Hawaiian fur-traders called Kanakas were recruited to help portage canoes along the Fraser River, many living in Fort Langley and leaving their name like footprints on the waterscape: Kanaka Bar near Litton, Kanaka Creek in Maple Ridge.
The artwork inside the anthology includes sketches from the original journals of Emily Carr, dating back to the 1900s. Before the Literary Café, Carolan explained that the Provincial Museum and Archives had offered their permission to have the drawings reprinted. This makes the seldom-seen sketches accessible to a wider audience and showcases a famous player in BC’s cultural history.
One of the central themes that emerged at the Literary Café was honouring our historical roots and where we come from – not just place, but people. George began to speak by introducing himself by his ancestral name, and moved on to talk about his grandfather, Chief Dan George, before reading some of the poetry from the anthology.
“He was very gentle, very quiet, and he had this incredible silent way about him,” he recalled, noting he was nine when his grandfather died. George also shared the raw and emotional song he sang to his dying brother, who asked George to sing him home.
“[Tonight] is a celebration of humanity and of nature and also of the indigenous people of these lands,” he said, finishing with a song to pick up the mood again before Joseph rose to speak.
Joseph read from her collection of poetry, The Secret Signature of Things, two poems dedicated to her daughters, and one about the missing women in BC called “Tracking.” She noted the darker theme of death in both George’s and her own readings, but said, “If we want to know the stories of a place … we have to know the stories of the dead.”
The tone of the evening turned again toward the ecological when Weyler approached the podium as the last speaker. He said he finds it frightening that our culture has not learned an essential lesson on sustainability.
“To learn to live on a piece of land without destroying it,” he said adding that it is a battle that we are not winning. The key to this is thinking like an artist.
“[We need to] express ourselves in the way artists express themselves … experimenting with the randomness in the world.” Weyler reminded the audience that there are no singular things in nature – everything exists as part of a system or relationship, and the flaw in our thinking is acting as if fixing one piece will make everything better.
Weyler also recognized the darker thread to his declaration that after all the things we have collectively attempted to fix to save the environment, we are still overshooting the capacity of our habitats.
“It’s not pessimism to be realistic about the world we live in … We all want hope, and hopefulness is a very good frame of mind to carry out what will need to be done. But hope is not a strategy.”
He identified one part of our problem being consumption; our survival will depend on our consuming much less than we do. He also said that there are no solutions that are not local.
“Localisation is the opposite of globalisation, and it is the trend that’s going to save us.”
Both the publication and the Harrison Festival of the Arts itself seem to align with this idea that the local and artistic community is an essential part of an ecologically-minded and sustainable existence. Cascadia: the Life and Breath of the World promises to paint a comprehensive portrait of this region’s cultural history for readers.
The book also gives UFV several opportunities to shine; George and Currie are both former UFV students, Hugh Brody is UFV’s Canada research chair in Aboriginal studies and Robert Bringhurst received an honorary doctorate from UFV in 2006.
UFV president Mark Evered said participating in the Harrison Festival with events like the Literary Café is a great way for the university to be present in the community. The event was co-sponsored by the UFV research office and UFV continuing studies, and the eco-lit publication will be used as a textbook in some classes in the fall semester.
The Literary Café wrapped up with more music from Currie, many attendees lingering to chat with speakers before going out into the warm summer night with a renewed sense of place.