En plein air

  • Brian Bartlett
    Daystart Songflight: A Morning Journal. Pottersfield Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Hilary Clark

“Like a final punctuation mark . . . a tent caterpillar has crawled onto my sweat-jacket, then across the blank book’s page” (58). Writing done outdoors in nature, en plein air, offers surprises and annoyances—and moments of sudden insight. Written from 2018 to 2019 and set primarily in Nova Scotia, Halifax poet Brian Bartlett’s Daystart Songflight takes on the project of writing a nature journal according to two constraints. Bartlett had to rise before sunrise and go walking in a chosen location, observing the sunrise and the morning. Then, swatting at mosquitoes and finding a rock or a log to sit on, he had to write and stop before noon. The location and times of sunrise and of “writestart” are noted at the head of each entry. Within these constraints, the “neophyte of daybreak” (11) casts a light net over the multiplicity and flux of nature.


The nature journal is a literary genre, often poetic, predicated on the human enjoyment of walking in nature, just rambling and observing—perhaps the equivalent of urban flânerie. Neither activity has a goal; both are open to digression and change. An avid reader of Thoreau, Bartlett finds inspiration in Walden and the voluminous Journal that records Thoreau’s solitary observations and musings in nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson is another American precursor. Looking back to the Romantics, too, the genre of nature writing has burgeoned as environmental degradation has grown increasingly evident.


Bartlett’s Daystart Songflight is a birder’s journal. While the author observes everything—beetles, squirrels, goldenrod, maple trees, rock formations, water, and the shifting colours of sunrise—birdwatching is central to his project: seeking new birds, naming and describing those in the air and trees around him, “translating” their songs, and musing on the traumatic experience of “returned migrants” (169) that have navigated a changing climate of worsening storms: for instance, he lists “Northern Parulas, Black-and-white Warblers, a Catbird, a Winter Wren, American Redstarts and an Epidonax species of flycatcher call, sing, squeak, trill and whistle” (168). Hinting at more than they include, such lists promise an impossible “comprehensiveness” (83).


However, a nature journal is more than a collection of details and lists such as the following: “Thunk-thunk-thunk—three more fallen cones. More jay and squirrel voices. Crickets and cicadas. A distant chainsaw. One mosquito’s buzz near my ear. The rushing brook recently fed by Dorian’s rains” (221). This list is poetic, haiku-like, in its juxtaposition of unlike things connected by their buzzing-rushing sounds. However, as the reference to Hurricane Dorian shows, wider contexts and interpretations clarify and give depth to the day’s individual “finds.” Bartlett’s journal (like Thoreau’s) unfolds in a constant back-and-forth between specific detail and wider connections. For example, he brings in other authors—William Wordsworth, Charles Baudelaire, Elizabeth Bishop, Alden Nowlan, Philip Larkin, and more—for their visions, optimistic or gloomy, of morning. He thinks of his childhood and family: an account of his father’s dying is particularly moving. He asks many questions but points out that these are “not always answered” (5). As well, speculations fan out from individual sightings: for instance, he tries to imagine “all the other birds, insects, unseen fish, and human strangers of this October morning, and the total individual sum of their second-by-second experiences”—and is overwhelmed, concluding that “omniscience is not for us” (130).


Inherent in Bartlett’s project is an interplay between his “guidelines” (5) and his actual experience in its unspooling—its interruptions, digressions, failures to adhere to the rules. The rules form the basis for committing to being “a student of the morning” (257). Bartlett asserts that he has “faithfully followed one guideline to be out under the sky before sunrise” (5); nonetheless, he has a “comic self-awareness of faltering discipline,” as when nudged off course by a Tim Horton’s or a need for hot tea. Whatever his self-judgments, he has written a highly readable and often humorous plein-air journal—while conveying that every sparrow he sees, every wild rose, every caterpillar comes under the shadow of loss: the ongoing devastation of the world’s species and their environments.

This review “En plein air” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 23 Jun. 2022. Web.

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