Picturing BC Landscapes
- Ian Gill (Author)
Haida Gwaii: Journeys Through the Queen Charlotte Islands. Raincoast Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Howard White (Author)
The Sunshine Coast: From Gibsons to Powell River. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Terry Glavin (Author)
This Ragged Place: Travels Across the Landscape. New Star Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Joel Martineau
Howard White has seen a half-century of local history unfold since his family moved to the Sunshine Coast to operate a gyppo logging camp, and he proudly describes the area—the east side of Georgia Straight, angling northwest for 100 miles from Howe Sound—as an "oddball sort of place." At first glimpse The Sunshine Coast seems an oddball sort of coffee-table book, with the 157 photos by several local residents threatening to overpower White’s 45 pages of text. But White has an intriguing thesis. He believes that the area has long attracted two broad types, two pioneer strains distinguishable by their reasons for being on the Sunshine Coast. There are the "loafers," who come for the love of the place and are indifferent to economic prospects,and there are the "muckers," who come for eco-nomic reasons and are indifferent to the placeness of the place. Even as the population mushrooms to 40,000 and ferryloads of muckers commute to Vancouver, the "fine art of loaferdom" thrives.
Consider, for example, Sammy Lamont and Ann Clémence. Sam grew up in a cedar shack behind Powell River and spent most of his working years salvaging escaped sawlogs. Ann is an ex-nurse trained in England. They lived in a waterfront home, with all the furniture made by Sam. They ate well from the sea and from their seaweed-rich garden. White writes, "They lived great lives and they worked hard for it, bul not in a pulp mill. To Statistics Canada they were loafers."
White’s family were muckers. He "was brought up with the impression it was really all happening someplace else," and if he had any brains he should use them to get away to one of those places at the first opportunity. In White’s view such attitudes typify those who follow jobs to the area. Muckers tend to support clearcut logging and wide-open development while showing less concern for the preservation of rural values, although he himself is "living proof that the longer one stays, the more his motives tend to get confused."
White’s ability to blend the rustic with the worldly—in one sentence he links D.H. Lawrence, Kurt Cobain, and Peter Trower—suffuses The Sunshine Coast. There is a balance in both the prose and the photos that respects the muckers while celebrating the loafers, honours the settlers while acknowledging the newcomers, and advances White’s bucolic philosophies while situating the area and its population globally.
The balance and frankness are equally evident when White turns to the area’s Aboriginal peoples: "The Coast Salish have never enjoyed the renown accorded by white Indian-fanciers to the Haida and Kwakiutl, probably because the Salish didn’t erect forests of totem poles, didn’t carve sea-going war canoes, and didn’t produce world-class art except on one notable occasion. On the other hand, they didn’t use the bodies of freshly killed slaves for boat bumpers." We read that the Salish did create a profoundly democratic social order, and that they did excel at commerce, and continue to do so.
Haida Gwaii: Journeys Through the Queen Charlotte Islandsis a troubling book. It is the second collaboration between photographer David Nunuk and writer Ian Gill—the first, Hiking on the Edge: Canada’s West Coast Trail, has sold more than 10,000 copies—and they have contracted to produce a third. Clearly they are doing some things right. In Haida Gwaii 52 lambently artistic photos combine with some 90 pages of prose to provide glimpses of Canada’s northwest archipelago. In the introduction Gill states that he and Nunuk "have drawn together words and images in the humble wish that people who are curious about Haida Gwaii will learn enough here to want to find out more on their own."
Text and photos from a number of brief visits to the islands are distilled into accounts of three journeys in order to form a narrative progression. We read first of our intrepid adventurers being put ashore on the exposed west coast of the islands in the midst of a spring snowstorm, with tent and kayaks and perhaps insufficient food to last until the storm abates and the local outfitter hopefully returns. Their second "journey" features a rented van and bed-and-breakfast. It is essentially a quest to Nai-Kun, a.k.a. Rose Spit, which they initially believe to be the site of the Haida creativity myth that inspired Bill Reid’s sculpture "The Raven and First Man." The third "journey" tells of a package tour aboard a 22-metre ketch, with three fellow ecotourists and a crew of three, to South Moresby/Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve.
Gill travels rapidly, and relies upon the mainstays of Haida Gwaii literature to lend depth to his accounts. His favourite source is Christie Harris’s Raven’s Cry, first invoked to relate that during the maritime fur trade "10,000 sea otter were killed for their pelts on Haida Gwaii alone. This profligacy was the first ’rush’ in a string of depressing resource grabs that would come to afflict all of British Columbia, revolving mostly around gold and…timber." He concludes, "So the Haida learned quickly the white man’s ugly tendencies toward rapaciousness and unsustainability." Which provokes me to ask, How benign and sustainable is ecotourism? Is Gill’s book not yet another resource grab?
Complex questions, perhaps best approached in this review by addressing the ethics and poetics of the travel writing genre: If travel writing is essentially autobiographical, and if introspection on the part of the artist is a primary requirement for aesthetically satisfying autobiography, how do Nunuk and Gill measure up? Discomforting answers are suggested by Nunuk’s photography. In my visits to Haida Gwaii I have been overwhelmed by the devastation wreaked by clearcutting (and I grew up immersed in BC logging). The scars are everywhere, geographically and spiritually. Gill, in his text, fleetingly mentions clearcutting. But none of Nunuk’s 52 photos shows a clearcut. The photos consistently project a pristine wilderness, bathed in soft light, that is but one very idealized aspect of Haida Gwaii. Similarly, there are virtually no people in the photos—in particular, few women and fewer youth. In fact, Gill and Nunuk see with imperial eyes devoid of introspection. They produce a picturesque Haida Gwaii for urban consumption. Ultimately, Nunuk’s and Gill’s construction of landscape is a 1990s visual and verbal reenactment of the European painterly tradition, fraught with the same privileges. Put another way, these textual Journeys Through the Queen Charlotte Islands feel like a special issue of National Geographic.
In This Ragged Place one small black-and-white photo introduces each of nine Terry Glavin essays. The essays first appeared as feature articles in the Vancouver entertainment weekly The Georgia Straight between 1993 and 1996. Glavin takes his title from Howard White’s stunning poem "Oolachon Grease," in which the antipathy of the Euro-American palate toward this Native staple measures
Indian is from White how far
learning is from knowing how
far we are from this ragged
place we’ve taken from them….
The relations between Native and land, between Euro-Americans and land, and between Natives and Euro-Americans are Glavin’s concerns. He examines these variously strained relations by riding the Via Rail passenger train through the Skeena valley, by telling how the residents of Finn Slough in the Fraser estuary are battling the developer who would evict them from their homes, by relating how year after year advocacy groups for the fishing monopolies orchestrate "missing salmon" scares in order to scapegoat Aboriginal fishing, by writing of the tensions between spirit dancers and subdivisions, by describing "land-claims hysteria," by reporting on Gustafsen Lake, and by recounting the importance of oolichans in Aboriginal cultures. And my personal favourite, "Last Day at Alexis Creek."
In it Glavin accompanies BC provincial court judge Cunliffe Barnett to the dusty roadside settlement of Alexis Creek in the Chilcotin Valley, west of Williams Lake. Judge Barnett is retiring at age sixty after presiding over the district for twenty-two years. His last day at Alexis Creek is unexceptional. Glavin’s account begins with Judge Barnett striding into the community hall and seating himself behind a plywood table to deal with a typical assortment of cases, involving several Natives and a few Euro-Americans charged with everyday offences, embroiled in custody battles, and so on. As we meet the defendants we find that most have appeared before Judge Barnett more than a few times throughout his tenure, and that both defendants and Judge have come to expect that they will be treated equitably by the justice system, regardless of race. Which scandalizes local conservative factions, especially the Chamber-of-Commerce types in Williams Lake, who were much more comfortable in the good-old-days, harking back to Judge Begbie, when they could assume that Natives were automatically guilty as charged. Glavin uses the Judge’s relationships with the individuals as windows into twenty-two years of legal history in the Interior of BC. Glavin’s essays tend to move toward glimmers of hope. So, Judge Barnett is able to say, late on his last day at Alexis Creek, "You know, the hostility I used to hear expressed so openly about Indians,in the Chilcotin country, I haven’t heard that in a while."
Three books, three approaches toward BC landscapes. Howard White and his many photographers show us a varied, anecdotal history of the Sunshine Coast; Ian Gill and David Nunuk portray Haida Gwaii in postcard-perfect glimpses that will indeed point us toward further investigations; Terry Glavin reads our ways of relating to the land as complex, personal narratives.
- An Impossible History by Christopher Lee
Books reviewed: Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver by Paul Yee
- Bringing APTN Into Focus by Candis Callison
Books reviewed: Indigenous Screen Cultures in Canada by Marian Bredin and Sigurjon Baldur Hafsteinsson
- Palimpsest Crossroads by Jenny Pai
Books reviewed: Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature by Wayde Compton and Kipligat's Chance by David N. Odhiambo
- From Routes to Rails by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: A Year Inland: The Journal of a Hudson's Bay Company Wanderer by Barbara Belyea, McCulloch's Wonder: The Story of the Kettle Valley Railway by Barrie Sanford, and The Wilderness Profound: Victorian Life on the Gulf of Georgia by Richard Somerset Mackie
- Writing with Pictures by Karen Mulhallen
Books reviewed: PhotoGraphic Encounters: The Edges and Edginess of Reading Prose Pictures and Visual Fictions by W. F. Garrett-Petts and Donald Lawrence
MLA: Martineau, Joel. Picturing BC Landscapes. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #160 (Spring 1999), (Sweatman, Michaels, Munro, Duncan). (pg. 179 - 181)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.