The latest from Churchmouse After Hours, in which we meet ‘Endings and Beginnings.’
(This post discusses books by Candace Savage, Dilys Leman and Fred Stenson.)
Since we moved to Toronto two and a half years ago, I’ve been drawn more and more to what we urban folk have been conditioned to call “green space”: the woods of nearby High Park, the trails along the Humber River, the parks along the lakeshore. It’s possible that growing older makes me more desperate for the nourishment of the natural world, which some research has shown actually bolsters cognition and well-being. [See this Globe and Mail article from 2012: “Why is walking in the woods so good for you?”] A lifetime in built-up environments can leave a body parched for the flash of a blood-red cardinal in thick greenery, for the optimistic calls of chickadees, for that barebones x-ray view right into the heart of the forest that winter allows. These days, I take any chance I can to venture into a lingering pocket or reminder of the wilderness that’s been tamed, used up, paved over and all-but obliterated by this smoggy, gridlocked, teeming, loveable city I call home.
A few years ago, I couldn’t tell a chickadee from a house sparrow. I had no idea that cardinals love to eat the sumac’s red fruit in winter, and that this diet is partly what gives them their intense colour—nor that the female cardinal is a dignified, muted brown, with a tuft of bright red feathers atop her head: she’s serious yet playful, mature with a whiff of youth. She reminds me of some of my best friends, women in midlife (or later) who embody a winning combination of hard-won wisdom, defiance, self-deprecation and wit. This stunning lady cardinal knows her worth, and how not to take it too seriously. I’m learning slowly and deliberately, gathering an ability to associate more directly and personally with the world—not the constructed world of humans but the world itself—a skill that, in ages past, most children learned incidentally (in many places they still do).
Basic facts, those I can retain, serve as both decoders and touchstones. Willows like water. Grey squirrels can actually be black, reddish-brown or even white; the true red squirrel is smaller, with a less bushy tail, and more rare around here. Oaks come in several varieties that can be distinguished by the shape of their leaves, the size and colour of their acorns, the texture of their bark. Starlings like to gather in crowds, in the tree tops. If you see a compact little bird skittering down a trunk, beak-first, it’s likely a nuthatch. Those slender, gawky, snow-white birds that tiptoe in the river shallows are egrets, an apt name for a bird that combines awkwardness and grace in such a beguiling way. It’s unofficially okay to harvest as much garlic mustard as you wish from Toronto’s High Park—it’s great in a soup—because this hardy plant is invasive, choking out native species such as trilliums. Teams of volunteers, called “stewards,” give over their Sunday mornings to digging up such undesirables, and seeding native plants in the loose soil left behind. (There exists among naturalists and ecologists and biologists a heated debate about this hands-on approach to native versus so-called invasive species that is too complex to get into here.)
All this forms part of a late education for me—one heavily facilitated by the not-for-profit High Park Nature Centre and its knowledgeable and enthusiastic family programs coordinator, Jon Hayes—and what sticks is random and piecemeal. I might recognize a leaf or a bird that was identified for me just yesterday; I might not. I might remember that the tall reed topped by what looks like a shortened horsetail, a pollution-tolerant invasive squeezing out the cattails of Grenadier Pond, is called phragmites (frag-my-tis), but that’s only because I’ve managed to associate it with the 1980s children’s show “Fraggle Rock,” which my younger sister loved and which starred a cast of gangly, mop-haired muppets.
In part due to the good work done by the local organization Lost Rivers Walks, I’ve also become keenly aware that any densely urban environment is home to hidden, lost or literally buried waterways. The slopes and hills of my chock-a-block neighbourhood streets represent the valleys and riverbanks that once teemed with vegetation and wildlife; the Don River in the east end of the city once meandered snakelike down the valley through which it’s now directed in a straight line through a brick and concrete-lined channel.
I’m grasping for a lost language and a nearly invisible geography, the remnants of which I wander through daily, running errands, exploring with my son, hurrying to appointments. I’m after the history tied to all these changes, which of course involves the people who thrived in that wilder landscape, before European explorers, early settlers, and all the industry and later immigrants that followed. The streets around High Park have names such as Indian Grove, Indian Road, Indian Crescent. There are tales of a lost First Nations burial ground in the park, and on the cliff above the Humber, in the neighbourhood now known as Baby Point, the Iroquoian village of Teiaiagon was home to a Seneca longhouse community during the 17th Century, thought to boast a population of 5,000. The burials of two Seneca women were uncovered here around the closing of the 20th Century, during installation of a natural gas line. The graves were dated to the 1680s, and the women were buried with combs carved from moose antlers, one of them depicting a First Nations figure clad in European-style clothes, the other a human figure, bear and rattle-snake-tailed panther, a possible representation of Mishipizheu, the water lynx. It also looks like a depiction of transformation from life to life, form to form, an appropriate symbol to take down into the grave.
It’s unclear what happened to these communities, except that around the time these women were buried, the village, which was ideally situated for control of traffic along the all-important Toronto Carrying Place (a portage route from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe) was abandoned. It’s telling, with regards to our faith in recorded history, that the graves are variously reported to have been discovered in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2007. Mohawk community member Haleigh Fox writes on FirstStoryTO, a blog dedicated to sharing the Aboriginal history of Toronto, that the locals may have moved on naturally (“Haudenosaunee villages are not meant to be permanent”) or returned to their New York homelands under duress, due to military threat from the Marquis de Denonville, Governor General of New France. Other articles I found contend Denonville actually destroyed the village. There’s also a recorded tale of a supposed three-day drunk at the village during the 1670s involving French brandy and every man, woman and child, during which two women were stabbed (the source is early Toronto historian Percy Robinson, but from my thus-far cursory studies I know little about his sources or their veracity). Prior to the Seneca, the location was inhabited by Huron-Wendat, who, Fox writes, may have “dispersed due to a combination of warfare, disease, and starvation brought on by inter-Indigenous and European conflict.” With few historical records and archeological clues to go on, Fox is pretty much covering all the bases.
In years past I would have noticed such markers and bits of history (and missing or conflicting history) in passing, without much thought. I’d have walked the steeply sloping Glenlake Road, which I descend after dropping my son at daycare, without thinking that it may once have led down to a pond teeming with cattails, ducks and fish. Now I want and need this more basic knowledge of things that precede us, or that persist despite us: I want to know what I’ve missed, what we’ve forgotten or are in danger of forgetting, the stories and memories and former ways of life connected with the spaces I inhabit.
Filling gaps, reclaiming lost or obscured history. This kind of impulse is in the air these days. To me, it feels more and more like an imperative. Or a compulsion. A necessary step in redressing the darker aspects of Canadian history, and possibly also a necessary step toward regaining respect—and with that comes a measure of awe—for the ailing world that sustains us. Three books, one nonfiction, one poetry, and one fiction, went a long way toward nudging me forward in this direction last year.
To follow the stone circles where they lead
In her heart-wrenching, myth-buster of a book, A Geography of Bood: Unearthing the Memory of a Prairie Landscape, which was published in 2012 and won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, Candace Savage collects and presents the counter-story to the “brave pioneers in the wilderness” history of Canada we’ve been fed since elementary school. There is truth in that old familiar history, sure, but there is more to it, so much more, and some of that has to do with the near-decimation of the plains buffalo—which was no mystery or act of God but a full-on, no-holds-barred, textbook unsustainable harvest—and the attendant near-decimation of various groups of plains First Nations, the latter of which involved broken treaties, massacres and intentional starving-out strategies.
Savage stumbles on such tragedies as the Hunger Camp at Cypress Lake in the early 1880s while escaping into the prairies, her childhood home, on holidays with her husband. Because she is curious about anything to which she’s drawn, she starts following her nose, looking into such phenomena as mysterious ancient tipi rings, asking questions. A Geography of Blood is born out of this appreciative looking, which first transforms into research, then into discovery (not happy discovery) over and over again. It becomes a painful exposé of a stain on Canada’s past, but it’s also a love story between a woman and the land, between human and geography, and a simple commitment to face up. “All I wanted to know,” writes Savage, “was who had made the stone circles, and yet here I am instead, surrounded by desperation and the nameless bodies of the dead. Yet if these memories are part of my inheritance as a prairie person, I am determined to accept them as my own. I will let them settle around me quietly, layer after layer, loss upon loss.”
It sounds passive, but this kind of work takes willingness, stamina and guts. What difference does it make? Who cares about this stuff, from so long ago, that’s mostly forgotten? I do! Savage calls, raising her hand. Standing to her full height, looking us straight in the eye. And maybe you should, too. Savage would have had to hold this defiant, uncomfortable posture for years, while continuing to follow her nose toward ever more unpleasant realities, before presenting us with this book and the honest, hardscrabble journey toward some semblance of truth that it relates. It takes time and determination to hunt through obscure museums and archives for unofficial but very real histories—it takes the existence of obscure museums and archives. It takes a willingness to accept implication. We are implicated by where and how we live today, how our own position in Canadian society—where we are nearly all immigrants or the progeny of immigrants—has come to pass. More to the point, we are implicated simply by being human and thereby capable, in some hidden corner of all ourselves, of committing or condoning or turning away from the very atrocities Savage doggedly, obediently unearths—surprise!—from under generations of denial and indifference and dust.
Cypress Hills Recipes
Dilys Leman’s 2014 poetry collection, The Winter Count, crosses time and space with Savage’s book: we’re on the prairies in the late 19th Century, when the buffalo (technically bison) are failing, tensions between hungry First Nations and Europeans (de facto ruled by the Hudson’s Bay Company) are high, and our nascent federal government has growing designs on the land, and the means (and will) to get what it wants. By bringing historical characters to light—by giving them voice through their own letters and through imagined inner monologues—Leman also challenges the more commonly known versions of Canadian history, which come to feel sanitized, and blindly patriotic. The impetus for her investigations was not geography but blood ties: her great-great-grandfather, Augustus Jukes, was a senior surgeon with the North-West Mounted Police assigned to the medical commission assessing the sanity of Louis Riel during his incarceration—an assessment that would determine whether Riel was put to death for treason. Dr. Jukes was also a thinker and a poet. He left letters and records that called and called to Leman, three generations on.
Researching Jukes’s papers, as well as the context and times in which he lived and worked, led Leman to a tour of horrors similar to Savage’s, and to an understanding of the role the federal government’s policies and deliberate mythmaking played in the notions that First Nations were a rising threat to nation-building—a strategy with implications and reverberations that continue to this day. Leman’s poems, like Savage’s prose, are wrenching but not wholly despairing. That’s because they’re simultaneously subversive and inventive, angry and elegant, sorrowful and sinuous, horrific and funny. By recasting actual letters and documents, by imagining the inner monologues of historical characters—with her gruesome “Cypress Hills Recipes and lines from “Big Bear’s Speech,” with her “How to Hang Eight Indians (at Once) at Battleford” and her “Notes on Band Behaviour During Rebellion,” with her “Rules for Polite Tea” and her notes on the “Lunacy Commission”—by building a rich, polyphonic chorus of testimony, Leman stages a reenactment of that lost, shameful past. In doing so she also offers us a glimpse of a way (painful but possible) through it.
So you think you know what the fur trade was all about?
Now a touch further back in time, to Fred Stenson’s 2000 novel The Trade: a gripping and often hilarious (and horrendous) wild west romp that takes us to the Bow River, Fort Edmonton, Fort Vancouver, Fort Assiniboine, Piegan Post, Fort Carlton and York Factory on Hudson Bay through the reign of the Hudson’s Bay Company during through the first half of the 1800s. Stenson isn’t out to glorify the fur traders or to sanctify the First Nations they traded with—there is, for example, no breathless homage to the coureurs de bois such as I recall from Canadian history class—but to immerse us in that hubristic economic empire of the Company, which ran like a dictatorship, and let us see and feel its fallout: the alliances and connections formed and broken (some military, some mercenary, some in the form of marriage), the missionary work facilitated (for better or worse), the damage wrought to creatures and land, the egos supported, the tensions and misunderstandings, the lure, the cost. In short, the humanity.
Stenson’s story, aside from being a great read, a colourful page-turner filled with cruelty and compassion and killer dialogue, is a reminder that history is made up of people, that the play of money and power is dangerous and far-reaching, that every event we learn about in a textbook might have happened differently, or not at all, given another mood, moment, happenstance, person in charge or kind of weather. It’s a reminder of the history beneath history, which can be partly filled in with research and facts, but must always, in some measure—because it’s driven by human beings, whose thoughts and motivations belong wholly to themselves, yet may not be wholly or even partially understood by themselves—be imagined.
What did the egret see?
There is a big picture and there are the individual lives within it. Redemption and its first cousins, awareness and understanding, can only ever move piecemeal through the scene, soul by soul, waving their little flags. Sometimes, some of us see them beckoning. Sometimes none of us do. Sometimes one of us is compelled to raise our own ragged bit of cloth against the official story, against the only version easily and widely accessible to common memory.
I don’t know where my newfound love of egrets and female cardinals will lead, nor my belated awareness of hidden waterways and ghost First Nations villages. But one thing I know. Walking through my neighbourhood, I can feel that my eyes are more open than they used to be. That is not a metaphor: they literally feel more wide open. When I see the contours of a road, I now see more than the contours of a road. I see invisible creek beds, boulders, leaning willows with beaver-gnawed trunks. When I see a tidy, compact, rock-enclosed garden on the tip of the ravine, I also see a corn field that may once have been cultivated here. I see a tangle of herbs that a woman three hundred years before my time would have assessed with a practiced eye: her living pharmacy. The child on her back ails from some mysterious illness that arrived with the newcomers. The exquisite moose antler comb is tucked into her hair, keeping the strands back from her face, as she bends to collect greens and roots that represent hope. Way down the ravine, beyond the high flat lands where the corn and squash grow in rows, down there in the river shallows, an egret (much like the one I saw yesterday) stands stock still, its thin neck curled like a rope. It has spotted a fish…
This scene, built around the barest of facts, doesn’t seem like anything concrete. But it’s made of actual stuff, some of which constitutes my own attempts to see and understand, and some of which is real: little clues; sediment, residue. Layers. Layers that have always existed, that I never used to wonder about, or bother trying to see.
One of the alchemic qualities of Savage’s book is her belief—and the extension of that belief to her reader—that history lives on in the places where it happened, in the rocks and the soil and the trees, in the very air. She tells how she came to love visiting Ravenscrag, about 14 miles west of her home-away-from-home, Eastend, Saskatchewan. In between the two was a valley she describes as a “broad-floored, walled-in trench” from where “steep, dissected cutbanks rise to clip the horizon, enclosing a river of sky.” She writes that the embankments are ever-changing, “sometimes towering and majestic, sometimes hazy and withdrawn, sometimes outlined with snow so that their bones show.” Can you feel her love of this place, the permission she allows herself to wallow in beauty even when it comes bearing shadows? Maybe especially then?
The real wonder of this place, Savage learns, is what’s missing. She finds a geological guide book to the area that describes an “unconformity” at the top of the cliffs, a missing layer of sediment that amounts to a thousand metres of soil, or “the erasure of thirty million years.” Savage looks hard through binoculars and begins to see a “coarse jumble of stones” that, in some places, is absent. In its place lies far more recent debris and silt, left by receding glaciers. “Yet to an unschooled eye, nothing looked amiss; one layer overlaid another in complete innocence. Apparently, an unconformity could exist between the present and what we knew of the past, and very few of us would ever notice it.”
Few of us would notice, but it would be there.
Cats in captivity
I did not grow up with pets, but in my early twenties adopted a kitten and fell for her hard: furry little Sabine herself, but also the wonder of living in close quarters with an animal. I loved pondering that mysterious life story carrying on parallel to mine. While I was going about my business—making dinner, trying to shake off the day’s work, returning a call to Mom—Sabine’s “business” took her purposefully from room to room in the basement apartment I shared with a friend, over and under furniture, onto the TV, up to the windowsill. She was following a daily plot, the details and meaning of which were apparent only to her. I was struck by this life that was as rich and varied and agitated as my own, yet devoid of the concerns that I sometimes felt would consume me.
Of course, Sabine didn’t exist in order that I could gain perspective, nor to curl up with me on the couch while I watched “Seinfeld.” The more I enjoyed puzzling over her nature, the more I wondered about the whole idea of pet ownership. For starters, isn’t “own” a strange term to apply to our relationship with another living creature?
When she was a few years old, Sabine went to live with my mother, and I came to acquire—there it is again, that odd vocabulary—a deaf kitten named Professor McGonnagall, who’d been rescued from an Ottawa back alley by some friends. Dr. M., as another old friend came to call her—he also once gave me a tin sign that said, in her honour, “chat lunatique”—was incurably drawn to the outdoors, but I (and my partner at the time) had been foresworn to keep her housebound: her deafness was a grave liability in the urban wild. We mostly kept the promise. Dr. M. occasionally slipped past our guard, and would invariably find herself in a tense situation with other neighbourhood cats, at times even surrounded by them, howling pitifully. Eventually, by the time she and I were living on our own, even a few moments on the back fire escape of my Montreal apartment would result in her tail puffing up like a ball of static. To approach her elicited growls and hissing. She could only be brought indoors after being coaxed into her carrier.
My former alley cat—the toughness that implies!—could no longer wander beyond her own balcony without going berserk with fear. I had kept her safe, I’d spared her the grim life of a stray, but at what cost to her nature, to her essential catness? I do know conventional wisdom says domestic felines are better off as housecats. (The American Humane Association outlines all the reasons for this here.) But I can’t get past the absurdity of keeping a sentient being between four walls for its entire life. No soil, no sky, no leaves, no breeze. Like cats, people get hit by cars, get into fights, pick up diseases on their travels. Like cats, people also cause all sorts of trouble for other fauna, as well as flora, when they sally forth. All things being equal—if there were some constant source of food at our disposal, say, and heat and clothing—would we consider keeping humans indoors because it’s safer all around?
Yeah, it’s a dumb question. Totally beyond rhetorical. Still, it follows me around.
‘What’s the matter Billy?’
I think about both Sabine and Dr. M. when I read about animals in captivity—which I have done quite a bit this winter. There were no bars or fence between myself and my cats, but like their cousins in zoos, they were “kept” and also closely watched by human eyes for their entire lives. Were they also watching us, their keepers? In the anthology Penned: Zoo Poems, edited by Stephanie Bolster, Katia Grubisic and Simon Reader (Véhicule Press, 2009) British poet Selima Hill’s poem “Parrots” raises this possibility in a wrenching scene: “One of them is looking in my eyes, // and saying, What’s the matter Billy? (meaning me). / Catch them, someone, take them back to Paradise, / they’re giving me a terrible disease.”* On the following page, our own (i.e. Canadian) Jan Conn starts out awe-struck by “The Tigers of Paramabiro”—“more radiant than Borges’ blue dream tigers”—and winds up in the cage herself: “but she has now managed / to swallow the whole antelope / and slipped between the bars, calmly / looking out at him, licking her massive / paws.”
I picked up this rich and troubling anthology again recently after reading The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, a work of nonfiction by the top-notch storyteller Diane Ackerman, about the Zabinskis, the couple who were running the Warsaw Zoo when WWII broke out. In a meticulously researched tale that has you in its hold even before the narrative embarks on the real horrors that took place, Ackerman tells us what happened to the couple, the animals that were in their care, some historical background on zoos and particular species, and all about the inner workings of the underground resistance in which the Zabinskis became central players, hiding dozens from the Nazis in their decommissioned zoo throughout the war.
Before the invasion, the zookeepers live in a villa in the zoo proper, waking each day to the sounds of the animals on the grounds. Antonina Zabinski, the “zookeeper’s wife,” is both host to VIPs and nurse to orphaned and sick animals. She tours visitors through the zoo’s “wetlands, deserts, woods, meadows and steppes”, starting with the flamingo pond at the main gate; then to the cranes and macaws, sunning cheetahs and free-range deer; before the caged lions; in view of bison and zebra in open enclosures; past tigers, hippos, monkeys, seals, giraffes and bears. She also midwifes the births of elephant calfs and cares—right in the villa—for “lion kitten, wolf cub, monkey toddler, and eagle chick…” We read about Antonina’s infant son Ryszard (Rys for short, the Polish word for lynx) joining the bevy of creatures in the villa, and of a children’s book she wrote about “three household toddlers learning to walk at the same time: son, lion and chimpanzee.” Ackerman writes that Zabinski loved to “slip out of her human skin for a while and spy on the world through each animal’s eyes, and she often wrote from that outlook…” Her husband credited her with a “nearly shamanistic empathy” with the animals: “She becomes them… She has a precise and very special gift, a way of observing and understanding animals that’s very rare, a sixth sense…”
When you read of a zookeeper such as this, and about the vibrant and undeniable relationships that emerge between Antonina and the animals in her care, it is difficult to simplify your feelings about zoos. It jars something in us to see animals in cages, in many cases continents and oceans away from their natural habitats. When my thoughts stray this way I am reminded of the protagonist in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, who argues that widespread contemporary ambivalence regarding zoos stems from an “illusion” people have about freedom. We romanticize wildlife, Pi contends, ignoring the violence and hardship of a truly wild existence: he tells us animals are, in fact, content with and even grateful for the routine and safety offered by zoo life. Martel’s hero makes a compelling case. The problem is that we don’t know he’s right—in our guts, I mean—and we can’t buy that even the keeper truly knows. We can observe the animals’ behaviour, monitor their health, and thus conjecture. But peer into an animal’s inscrutable eyes and—much as when you stare into a baby’s—you can only wonder. What is behind them? What do they see?
Many of the poems in Penned wrestle with the unease of facing the zoo animal—we, who are free to go—and imagining its restricted world. To Marianne Baruch the zoo is “the saddest of all worlds”, where hope comes in the form of lunch arriving in a bucket, carried by “some uniformed someone.” Molly Peacock hopes the mind of “The Snake,” is large enough to negate its confinement: “Her cage is her office; the zoo is her work.” To pluck another example, here’s Gavin Ewart, from “The Animals in the Adelaide Zoo”:
The animals in the Adelaide Zoo are very comfortable.
It’s a small zoo but very well organized.
The elephant stands in a small space but seems happy.
The Animals in the Adelaide Zoo are already in Heaven.
Their children are born lucky, nobody hates them.
They are surrounded by love and regular food.
Their lives are without drama, they show no fear.
The tight stanzas just barely keep a lid on the writer’s internal scream: Set them free! Indeed, so many of the poems in the collection stem from this angst it becomes frustrating. You begin to ask more of these poets who span continents and ages, to wish a larger proportion of them could—as Conn does, in entering the tiger’s cage—move past this familiar “free Willy” instinct. To, say, the darker place—or might it be lighter?—that made us lock the animals up in the first place.
For even as we project our horror of confinement onto these animals, we are drawn. Like us, they live and breathe and eat and move. We want to know them and relate to them. We find justification for zoos in the idea that they raise awareness about the natural world; that nowadays they are sometimes the last resort for endangered species. (I still don’t know what our justification is for keeping pets—though I am seeking another!) But we also know that the zoo is the only place most of us will see a tiger in our lives, likewise a polar bear, giraffe, or two-toed sloth. And we want to look. We’ll look with our mouths wide open, fingers hooked through the fence. And then we’ll blink, and look again.
‘The air is real’
In The New Quarterly’s winter 2013 issue (number 125), the poet Jeffery Donaldson has contributed a wonderful, insightful essay called “I Stand Before You: Museums, Galleries and How to Find Yourself in Them.” He is not talking about the zoo, but he is talking about looking, and he does veer into the biology department: to things preserved in bottles. Donaldson writes, “Such a frisson I feel peering into these small bottles and alembics, their quiet, tea-green oases, vessels of magnified clarity, at once both heavy and fluid.” I think of the wall of bottled eels, crustaceans and other squiggly, floating creatures at the ROM, which holds me for lengthy, wide-eyed moments during which all I can do is wonder blankly at what I’m seeing. It’s partly the way light is caught in the glass and in the jars’ buoyant contents: it’s as if the light itself has liquefied, transformed to a golden syrup. And that magical fluid has become a resting place, and all the bottled organisms are sleeping beauties plucked from the sea.
Donaldson points out that as the museum’s atmosphere is carefully controlled to preserve its paintings and fossils and fragile holdings, it, too, functions like a jar of formaldehyde: “…a material expression of some ‘kingdom come.’ Here, found specimens, still ambiguously alive and changing, are preserved in their original form. They float and abide. They stare back at you, ghostly, expressionless, but intensely realized.”
I don’t want to say that creatures in the zoo are “ambiguously alive,” but there is definitely something ambiguous about the nature of their existence that both troubles and lures us. These animals are specimens of their kind, and are—if all goes well—perpetuated and “preserved” in this place, even in the event that their wild brethren die off. But preserved to what end? Purely for our own enjoyment?
Which brings us—how could this essay not?—to Penned co-editor Stephanie Bolster’s own poems about zoos, and about what the back of her book A Page From the Wonders of Life on Earth (Brick Books, 2011) describes as “prisons of, monuments to, museums for the lost natural world.”
The problem of “looking” forms the nucleus of this collection—indeed of Bolster’s whole body of work, which began with the Governor General’s Award-winning White Stone: The Alice Poems (built on photographs of the little girl who was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland), and which has since toured us through the National Gallery of Canada and the work of Vermeer and other masters, and now through a thrumming gathering of zoos, gardens, solariums, topiaries, and iconic constructed worlds such as the Parisian arcades and London’s 19th-century Crystal Palace. One of my favourite poems in A Page From the Wonders of Life on Earth is “Comfort,” which is short enough to share in full here (and which I do with the author’s permission):
A Spanish man who rides the metro daily,
open-palmed, delivering a discourse on his poverty,
puts his face to the chimpanzee’s glass.
To be in there. Warm hay and tires, oranges,
and look how the mother presses the young one close.
If he took this city by the neck
and shook, would the strand break,
pearls roll into corners?
Underneath, the metro runs
faces he could spend an hour watching
if the earth were made of glass.
Though awfully sad, it’s not unexpected to imagine a destitute man longing for the comforts inside the cage—but Bolster renders this longing so plainly and honestly that its very inevitability gives it power. I have been seeing this fellow in my mind on and off for the past few weeks, staring in at the warm world of the chimps, the bright oranges standing out against the hay, the snuggling mother-and-baby emphasizing his own shortage of homey human contact. And then the poem turns, and turns again. First the whole city gripped by the neck like an errant cub. And then the rolling pearls become the glistening cars of the metro, a racing stream of shiny cages, offering a view that could be the man’s, if only things were different: his situation, his perspective, the make-up of the earth itself. And what would he think, peering down at his own glassed-in kind? What would he at last understand?
In “Song for the Song of the Aviary,” Bolster puts all her effort into recording the birds’ artificial environment: the echoes “as in a can”, “plastic tassels”, “mesh sky”, “fish in dishes, paste smeared in a tray”, “shallow basin, mini hills”. The question at the heart of the poem: Is this enough? “Maybe they’re happy” she writes. And: “The air is real, rainy at times/ to wash it cleanish.” I think “cleanish” calls up a feeling that lingers after a visit to the zoo, after pondering the creatures on display. Something has stuck to us that we can’t easily wash off. A mixture of lingering animal scents? A discomfort with our own unrelenting curiosity? For me, the poem’s real question is this: Is it enough to have asked “Is this enough”? I’m aware, thoughtful, concerned; I’ve made note. Have I done my duty?
Is it now OK to stare?
‘The keepers will keep on’
Certain images and situations recur in poets’ encounters with zoos. The Jardin des Plantes is visited in Penned by John Wain and Daryl Hine, and, in her own collection, by Bolster herself. Elephants are unavoidable, in winter and otherwise. Likewise tigers and gorillas, and, of course, the zoo keeper, who is watched as keenly as the animals he tends, and perhaps less apologetically. In A.F. Mortiz’s “Zoo Keeper,” we see him lugging meat and slipping “through urine and water . . . a gravy/ of various sewage”. In Linda Paston’s “The Keeper,” the bearded God in Tintoretto’s painting Creation of the Animals, his “arms bent/ like the wings of the white swan,” is wonderfully, unexpectedly transformed into the keeper at the Bronx Zoo, “who sat among the elephants/ in his gray and crumpled uniform, trumpeting/ with laughter, feeding/ them bits of his own lunch”. Bolster’s keepers, who maintain their duties “When We Stop Visiting”, who “stirred/ the tanks in Budapest/ during the siege, to stop/ the sharks from freezing”, usher us into another recurring element of zoo poetry: the zoo during wartime.
The fate of the animals in a zoo in a city under siege feels especially tragic, for they were never meant to be there: that was our own doing. Not only have we corralled them, we’ve put them in the path of an unseemly danger. Poem after poem in Penned addresses some zoo-related wartime footnote; the bear that was reportedly the last animal at the Sarajevo Zoo appears in poems by both Walter Pavich and Glyn Maxwell. Maxwell writes, “The hands of children here were wringing themselves/ hot with the plight of the animals over there”. Susan Howe writes of a visit to the zoo in Delaware Park the day Pearl Harbour was attacked, and Alison Calder writes rivetingly of an elephant in the Berlin Zoo on which a bomb dropped during WWII, “the logic of his death no stranger/ than his transplanted life beside the statues”.
It sadly almost seems a tit-for-tat. For the animals in the Warsaw Zoo, as related in The Zookeeper’s Wife, were either claimed and shipped to Berlin, or slaughtered by a group of SS officers, right on the zoo grounds, during a “private hunting party” led by a man who was actually a zoo keeper himself and a former international colleague of the Zabinskis. Ackerman writes, “Heck and a cadre of fellow hunters arrived on a sunny day, full of drink and hilarity, elated by army victories, laughing as they roamed the grounds, shooting penned and caged animals for sport.”
Antonina kept her son indoors that day, and couldn’t answer his question, “Mama, what does it mean?” She was paralyzed, according to Ackerman’s account, in part by her failure to keep the animals in her care safe—and by what that meant for her ability to protect her own son. She later wrote of the birds that might have escaped, but which were doomed by their own domesticity. “In the cold-blue evening light, sunset was playing funeral bells for our just-buried animals. We could see our two hawks and one eagle circling above the garden. When their cage was split open by bullets, they’d flown free, but they didn’t want to leave the only home they knew. Gliding down, they landed on our porch and waited for a meal of some horsemeat. Soon even they became trophies, part of the Gestapo officers’ New Year’s hunting party.”
This does not seem a pleasant place to end. But it does leave us with a fact worth pondering: we could do far worse than “keeping” animals in cages and in our homes, and unforgivably, we have. As the late Gwendolyn MacEwen wrote in her poem “Invocations,” which appears in Penned, “In this zoo there are beasts which/ like some truths, are far too true”.
*Toronto poet Paul Vermeersch wrote a great appreciation of Selima Hill’s work on his blog a few years back: “It’s time to applaud Selima Hill”
Just a little detour
In the autumn of 2005, Dad and I were driving the back road to Main-à-dieu, his Cape Breton village. Just beyond Little Lorraine, a pretty cove sprinkled with immaculate houses, he turned down a dirt road. “Just a little detour,” he said.
It was a road a city-trained eye like mine would easily have missed. Tire tracks leading into the bush. Puddle-pocked gravel. Branches scraped the sides of the jostling car. The already dim day—fog, rain, the usual—darkened.
After several long moments, the trees fell away. Dead ahead, a broad cove, butting against a large bog. A blue house sat back from the road, a white one on a rise. I glimpsed swatches of ocean through the mist. This, Dad said, was Baleine (1). Though I’d visited Main-à-dieu dozens of times, I’d never seen this nearby village of six or so houses, or even known of its existence. It was boggy and bleak and breathtaking—remarkable for being there at all.
Wandering the bog with a gash in her head
As we drove closer, I was further surprised to see a tall flagpole bearing the maple leaf. Dad stopped the car. We stepped out into the autumn rain and read a bronze plaque that told how, on September 5, 1936, the aviatrix Beryl Markham ended the first-ever solo flight by a woman (the second by anyone) from the U.K. to North America—against prevailing winds—by landing right here in this bog.
I had a sensation reminiscent of childhood: of being granted sudden, unexpected knowledge. How had this never come up before? More likely the place and its long-ago claim to fame had simply crossed his mind as we were driving by—but it was as if Dad had purposely held this (and what else?) back so he would still have the power to astonish me well into adulthood. I turned and stared into the white sky over the steely water. Imagine a woman in a plane falling out of that murk. Imagine such a thing happening decades ago, before transatlantic flight was an everyday occurrence, before 24-hour news cycles and all the rest. Would this have seemed like a dream, like some miracle or terrible omen, to the fisherman who found Markham wandering the bog with a gash in her head? Or would it have been nothing remarkable to a people accustomed to the occasional shipwreck and various other surprises washing up onshore?
Later, I read a news clipping shellacked on wood at the local museum, and learned that Markham’s engine had been choked by ice, and that she was ferried to Louisbourg, where she spent the night with a local family. What an unusual evening that must have been for all concerned. I tried to imagine it, but it did not seem real to me. Nor did Markham herself. Who dreams such a feat, and then pulls it off?
All before the cockpit enters into it
Recently, I read Markham’s 1942 memoir, West With the Night, a used copy of which I’ve owned for years and which I was compelled to finally slide off the shelf because it’s mentioned by a character in Heather Jessup’s lovely novel The Lightning Field. (Does anyone else ever feel that fictional characters are running their lives in this way?) I’ve moved that book from house to apartment to house, hesitant to delve in, wary, I think, of shattering the mysterious aura surrounding this woman. I needn’t have worried. In the memoir, we learn of Markham’s childhood days hunting with Nandi boys in Kenya; her survival of a lion attack; her success training racehorses; her early flights delivering mail and supplies through uncharted African territories; and her daring journey across the Atlantic. Review that list. Lion attacks? Childhood hunting in the African bush? A young female horse trainer in 1930s Kenya? All this, before the cockpit even enters into it.
And all of it elegantly told, and gripping. Markham describes the loneliness of flying “in unbroken darkness without even the cold companionship of a pair of ear-phones or the knowledge that somewhere ahead are lights and life and a well-marked airport.” She writes, of the plane of a missing pilot: “There she rested, frail and feminine, against the rough, grey ground, her pretty wings unmarked, her propeller rakishly tilted, her cockpit empty.” She tells of “throttling down” to follow a racing herd of impala (or wildebeest): “To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told—that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.”
The tyranny of clocks. How did that get in there? It is brilliant, the mark of a master.
She keeps us at a distance
West With the Night is unlike many of the memoirs we encounter today. It is not about overcoming some personal tragedy, and is no tell-all. You won’t learn from Markham’s memoir that her mother essentially abandoned her (leaving her with her father in Kenya) at the age of four. Nor that she worked her way through three marriages and several notorious affairs—and that she is a mother herself. Nor how she felt navigating her way through two male-dominated careers: horse trainer and pilot. She keeps us at a distance, in a way that feels more polite than we are used to, more reserved, and that leaves the contemporary reader—me, that is—bothered by (I admit sometimes unseemly) questions. Such as: could Markham possibly have spent so much time in the African bush with fellow pilot Bror Blixen—just them and the thick vegetation and the threat of becoming prey to any manner of wild beasts—without a single thing going on between them?
Answer: of course not. That Markham carried on with Blixen (husband of Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa) is well known. But you won’t learn of this in her book. You won’t even glean a hint, though “Blix” is a colourful recurring character, and she even writes of being a guest at the Blixens’ home. I found it sometimes intriguing, sometimes irritating, to know how much was going unsaid between the lines. Has my sensibility been sullied by our confessional culture? Or was Markham being coy? On the one hand, there is a dignity in how this book avoids rehashing personal traumas. Her affairs and family history are none of my business, and were extraneous to her purpose. On the other hand, I closed the book feeling that Markham was as surreal and untouchable as ever.
‘It is absurd for a man to kill an elephant‘
It wasn’t a comfortable read in other ways, too. Markham’s voice is decidedly colonial—I want to say pre-post-colonial because that seems to better convey the squirm-inducing moments sprinkled throughout. For example, she expresses shock over a childhood friend addressing her as “Memsahib,” but doesn’t question the inevitability of their respective placements in the racial hierarchy. That she is “of her time” doesn’t change how wrong this feels. Then there are the elephants. One of Markham’s gigs was to ferry big-game hunters around Kenya, locating herds from what, to my mind, was the unfair advantage of her plane’s bird’s eye view. Even so, her related observations are so well written you want to ignore the unsavoury circumstances and simply revel in the language, cadence and ideas. Such as: “It is absurd for a man to kill an elephant. It is not brutal, it is not heroic, and certainly it is not easy: it is just one of those preposterous things that men do like putting a dam across a great river…”
There are those who suspect West With the Night was actually written by Markham’s third husband. The charge seems to centre on the fact that he was a writer, while she had never shown any interest in literary pursuits (a discussion of this controversy can be found here). And perhaps, too, on the fact that the book is so well crafted. My copy, a 1983 reprint, bears a lengthy quote from Hemingway on the back, in which he confesses, “she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.”
A woman living so boldly
Annie Dillard has observed that the key question when writing memoir is what to divulge and what to omit. Many of the omitted details of Markham’s life are compelling. What insights, if mined, could they have realized? Whatever they were, Markham was not after them. She was an adventurer; her reflections centre on her daring exploits rather than on herself. West With the Night is an homage to the pursuit of a craft, the conquering of a skill. I think, predictably, of our parallel efforts to conquer the sentence, the untamed language, but has anyone yet written such a gripping memoir about that—unaided by juicy details from the writer’s personal life? (Dillard, to be fair, has come pretty close! Do you even need me to link to it? The Writing Life.) I can’t help wishing, though, that Markham had let us in just a little more, so we could glean what life was truly like for a woman living so boldly at such a time in human history. (I shall have to hunt down a copy of Mary S. Lovell’s highly praised biography of Markham, Straight on Till Morning, in the hopes that she has figured it out.)
I learned of Markham in a fog. She landed in Cape Breton in fog. Here is her own description of the fog engulfing Nairobi the morning she left Africa to embark on the journey that would lead to her flight over the Atlantic. It was not, she writes, a “pilot’s day”:
The town, the sunrise and the ship were isolated from each other by clouds that had no edges and refused to roll. They lay on the earth like sadness come to rest; they clung to people like burial clothes, white and premature. Blix found them gay.
(1) Pronounced “baw-leen” (speaking of which, Main-à-dieu is “man-ah-doo” and Louisbourg is “lewz-burg”).
Some articles on Beryl Markham worth reading:
“Against prevailing winds: the remarkable life of Beryl Markham,” Woman Pilot Magazine, April 2008
“Beryl Markham: Britain’s Amelia Earhart,” by Gavin Mortimer, The Telegraph, 27 Nov 2009