Tomorrow is Canada Day. I happen to be four provinces east of home, and, having driven through those four provinces (five; I had to cross most of BC, too) in rapid succession, have a head full of geological and climatological thoughts. Such as: this is a marvelously magnificent country. I would really like more books set in Canada which pay close attention to the natural history of the region in which they are set.
Now by that I do not mean I want more man versus nature books (man in the literal sense, and occasionally men versus nature), although those have their place. However, considering the profound albeit naturalized and therefore little noticed impact the physical facts of place have on human behaviour and perspective, it is an inexplicable oddity that geography, climate, and local flora & fauna are not more prominent in fiction.
So here’s a paean in praise of my country and in praise of books rich with lovingly detailed descriptions, in long paragraphs or mentioned in passing, of environment.
Here, for example, are a few things I noticed from the car windows – frankly cursory observations of a traveller – and a few books I was reminded of, or which contain some elements of the landscape.
Morning in BC: the coastal mountains are shadowy in the early morning, all blue and green and dark. When the sun clears the peaks, light sweeps across the air in a beam, drawing a line of light which divides the sun-lit areas from the lingering pre-dawn darkness. Concentrated into a single sharp line near the peaks, the ray which heralds day is increasingly diffuse the more westward it streaks until it becomes a broader band. Above that band the mountains climb smoke-grey; below, they lay in that same blue green darkness.
Later, beyond the coastal mountains, the Rockies stand. They are solid and seemingly immoveable, their immense presence belying the near-annual fact of rockslides and avalanches. They are snow and rock and tree: thousands of shades of green and dark grey and brown, and that single solid white which almost, at times, blends into the clouds; the snowy peaks, unlike the fast-flowing pale-grey and blue sky, do not change. As you draw nearer to the mountain each tree becomes distinguishable and distinct, green upon green upon green, conifer upon conifer. The mountains rise and hold the gaze; the mountains hold and keep the heart. Even knowing the dangers of mountain life it is tempting to stay and easy to see how families settle here, feeling after only a year or so uneasy whenever the mountains do not dominate the horizon.
Books: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor for the mountain-country feel; Jim Kjelgaard’s Big Red series for the living-in-the-bush feel. (As far as I remember these are both American and not west coast.) Uprooted by Naomi Novik for that strong sense of belonging in a particular landscape, despite the obvious danger. The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner for missing one’s home mountains.
Alberta: the hills. Hills upon low rolling hills, and the untiring variants of hill and plain. The landscape is always changing. Later in the day, look for the shifting, flowing shades of blue in the sky, like hundreds of subtle-hued silk scarves waving gently back and forth. Dear Albertans, I am sorry that I don’t remember more, but I was driving and rather focused on the road, and in dire need of caffeine.
Saskatchewan: the horizon is open in all directions. The landscape is so open that the back of your neck feels bare, you keep twisting to look behind you and marvel at seeing the land meet the sky at every cardinal point. When the day wends toward twilight, the sky to the south and east is soft purple, violet and mauve. The colours stretch all the way around to turn to flaming oranges, reds, and yellows.
Books: The Thief, for the passage in which Gen feels far too exposed in the countryside without city walls or mountains looming.
Manitoba: there was an exceedingly flat stretch in Manitoba* which brought to mind phrases like “as flat as a pancake” and all those old cliches which are sometimes – as in this instance – true and accurate. It was so flat you would be excused for imagining that some giant had long ago ironed the surface of the earth flat, as though pressing the wrinkles out of a table cloth. Further east is a greyish green line that gradually emerges as trees lined up as if in ranks: this is where prairie ends and woodland begins.
Books: Isn’t The Watcher by Margaret Buffie set in Manitoba?
Ontario: in western Ontario is a region known as Lake of the Woods. The closest major city is Winnipeg, Manitoba. Lake of the Woods is Earthsea. Truly; look up the satellite photos. The terrain is a series of lakes and rippling shorelines. Islands dot the lakes so that water seems more constant than land. Wind becomes visible on the water. The surface of the lake is glossy or choppy according to the wind direction and the shelter of an island or the free path of open water. When you stand on the shore on a gusty day you can see a cloud of ripples traverse the bay toward you, and a few seconds later feel that gust sweep across our face. When the sun comes out the air heats up so quickly that if you are outside you immediately move into shade or move indoors and turn on the air conditioning; if you are inside and sleeping you wake and kick off all the blankets.
And here comes the plea: I want more of the influence of geography and climate felt in stories. I want plans to be interrupted by summer storms, or by rain, or by heat, or by the particulars of the location. I want natural disasters to play a role, however background that might be – think of the flooding in northern BC right now, of the wildfires that devoured part of Fort McMurray and annually eat at forested areas and any small towns in their path, as in BC and Alberta. Think of the nearly annual flooding in Winnipeg, and the droughts in other provinces and in other regions of Manitoba. Think of the onslaught of tent caterpillars in Kenora, Ontario: I have seen trees with every leaf eaten away down to the stem by these nasty little beasties (remember the scene in On the banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder where the grasshoppers eat every. single.crop. and blade of grass in sight? Kinda like that. Like a miniature green apocalypse). Think of, in winter (and spring! and autumn!) blizzards and hail and ice. Compare the rainfall between cities of even an hour’s drive away in terms of quantity, and in terms of how it comes down.** Consider the difference in psychological and physical impact of living in Fort Qu’appelle instead of the surrounding prairie.
(I love my country.)
This planet we live on is extraordinary in variety. One’s specific landscape is colossal in influence on how one lives and how one thinks. I love seeing acknowledgement of this in books. Any you think do this particularly well?
*or possibly Saskatchewan; there is little to mark the boundaries between the prairie provinces unless one province has recently repaved the highway; then there is a straight line where the fresh paving ends, and rougher (older) highway begins on the exact edge of each province.
**there is a difference.
So prettily written.
Aw, thanks <3
YES! So many Canadians (myself included) are woefully unfamiliar with their own country. I myself have only visited a few parts of Alberta, Quebec and Ontario (where I was born), in addition to my home province of B.C. I know so little about my own country, and have seen so little of it! I think sometimes it’s just too easy to take our home for granted. I’m a first-generation Canadian, and my immigrant parents are so in love with their adopted country, and they have made a point of exploring it, living in different parts of it, reading about it, and really getting to know it. Growing up I always thought Canada was so boring, and dreamed of exploring exciting places far away. Sometimes we need a reminder like this to step out of our box and look at what we have from a fresh perspective. It really is a beautiful place.
I’m so with you! I’ve started writing a picture book that deals with forest fires and the setting will be BC. It is a challenge to tackle a natural disaster in a children’s story book but I do like a challenge!
Excellent! I look forward to seeing this book. Are you going to mention Dan McIvor or the Martin Mars?
Awesome idea. I absolutely need to work that into the story.