Against Disaster

  • Beth Powning
    Home: Chronicles of a North Country Life. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at
  • Maria Mutch
    Know the Night: A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours. Knopf Canada (purchase at
  • J. B. MacKinnon
    The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be. Vintage Canada (purchase at
Reviewed by McKinley Hellenes

Solitude is its own wilderness. The kind experienced by the narrator of Know The Night meditates on varietals very few experience, and even fewer spend time imagining: Arctic explorers alone beneath the indifferent Aurora. Jazz musicians caught up in a rictus of expression for which a conventional time signature will never be adequate. A mother whose child battens down the hatches of night with a litany of shrieks. “The shattered mind also tends to dwell in isolation. . . . Night is never really blank.” Whether she is waiting out the night, sleepless, taking her son to a Jazz club, or pouring over inventory lists of long-ago Arctic expeditions, Maria Mutch deftly weaves the seemingly disparate. She draws us into the dark with her. “I wonder how many of us are in this darkness—”she ponders, “And who would take the census, rapping on our shadowy doors, to count us like coins or diseases?”

Drawing on the experiences of explorer Admiral Byrd and the music of Thelonius Monk, Mutch mediates with such power on the strange task of shoring oneself up against disaster within an environment so inhospitable that survival is only ever piecemeal. Drawing parallels to her son Gabriel, a baby born with autism and Down’s syndrome, she struggles to provision him against a world not made with him in mind: “Every story told is a story to him, and if it’s told in jazz or in one if its iterations, he can find his way in. I think that is what I wish most for him, the item I would place at the top of the list of provisions. Effortlessness.”

The lateral structure of the narrative and its subtly gothic sensibility haunts the reader long after the denouement. It unsettles deeply, but there is light under the door: “Tomorrow when midnight comes again, and the night opens, there’ll be Byrd and Monk and all of the others, and silence, too. Possibly there is gratitude, also, for the small hours when we are all of us alive.” This book is beautiful and surprising. It draws the reader deep and exposes one to a vastness never suspected: that night is an Arctic tundra contained within the laugh of a child who understands Jazz better than most people do their own mothertongue.

Beth Powning’s newly renamed and reissued Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life is an entirely different sort of personal meditation. A beautifully bound and presented book of the author’s photographs and episodic, seasonal prose-narratives, it focusses on the challenging task of finding one’s place within displacement and the benevolent indifference of our chosen habitats. Through her poetic homages to country living, Powning stresses the spiritual necessity of making private covenants with our immediate environment so profound that they feel utterly symbiotic: “The heart of the wind eludes me. Yet I come close to it. It turns in my own heart, like a key.”

Spending the seasons with Powning allows us to feel that smallness within a confined world doesn’t feel limited, or claustrophobic. This book is personal but accessible, pleasant and pastoral. A comforting read, like a bedtime story for an inveterate gardener, but nothing about it is twee. It reflects a conscious effort to live out a life in one recognized landscape, a chosen haven against uncontrollable change: “Every place, it seemed, had its pocket of darkness, its kernel of terror. . . . But the oak was the one place I could trust, one place of complete safety, one place I could hide. And I sensed, at the tree’s heart, terror’s opposite, the snap of life untouched by corruption.”

The Once and Future World is a book of delicate terror, compelling beauty, and soundly comprehensive research. J. B. MacKinnon arms us with more than a compendium of eye-glazing statistics—but rather a lexicon of terms that define the very real ways in which we as individuals and as a society misremember the history of our natural inheritance: Environmental amnesia. Change Blindness. Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Transgenerational memory. These terms are just as ominous as they sound, but this book isn’t another Doom Porn diatribe, nor is it a tender/brutal elegy to the inevitability of extinction and environmental loss. Rather it presents us with a very rational explanation for our shifting disconnect from the natural world and the ways in which denial replaces historical accuracy with false memory: “Denial is the last line of defence against memory. It helps us to forget what we’d rather not remember, and then to forget that we’ve forgotten it, and then to resist the temptation to remember.”

The most compelling thing about this book isn’t the ways in which it confirms the gloomiest scientific assertions regarding human impact on the natural world since proto-humans first crawled out of the sea. It entreats us to believe that the world is still ours to envision. According to MacKinnon, we needn’t wallow forever in our worst-case scenario nightmare: “Counting up the ways we have wounded the earth quickly starts to feel like stacking skulls in a crypt, but the history of nature is not always and only a lament. It is also an invitation to envision another world.” Despite the exponential acceleration of environmental decline, MacKinnon believes that a new trajectory is still possible: “To live in a wilder world, we’ll have to find a way to weave nature into our identities, until guarding against harms to the natural world is as innate as watching out for ourselves, our families or our communities. . . . All it takes is a wilder way of being human.”

All three books address the complexity of human experience against something vaster than we are as individuals, whether it be genetic, environmental, or emotional. The ways in which they trade sympathies make for a compelling triptych, each of them reminding us of why we ask the questions about ourselves and our world that we are most afraid to know and that we can least afford to ignore. What greater provisioning against disaster need any of us?

This review “Against Disaster” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 129-31.

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