Feeling Sorry

For whatever reason, I’ve been in a funk, a slump, all year. But in May, in the midst of a cool, damp late spring, no summer in sight, I travelled twice to sunny destinations. First I visited Kamloops and then I flew to Orange County. Two locations with comparable topographies of hills and canyons, a shared palette of tans and greens. Two places in different countries with vastly different populations. Two settings, nearly two and a half thousand kilometres apart, linked by the happenstance of travel. In the lingering era of COVID-19, any trip is unusual, for me at least, and my double excursion took on more significance than I should have allowed. It promised too much.


Kamloops is some three hundred and fifty kilometres upriver, and across the Coast and Cascade Mountains, from the coast of British Columbia. The geography could not be more unlike the sea-and-shorescapes of Victoria and Vancouver. The region is one of spectacular grasslands and high desert, sagebrush and lodgepole pine. In many traditions, wisdom may be found in deserts. Yet everywhere in the open country of the Interior is plain evidence of a lack of foresight, of the environmental impact in which we are all implicated, albeit unequally: highways, sprawling subdivisions, the apparatus of mining and logging operations. As in most of Western Canada and the American West, the scale of the manufactured landscape is not quite human but rather automotive. In recent years, this part of the world has been affected, and the countryside visibly transformed, by pine-beetle infestation and extreme wildfires—two signs of an undeniably changing climate. When she set the first pages of Hetty Dorval (1947) in Lytton—down the Thompson River from Kamloops—the novelist Ethel Wilson could scarcely have predicted that the village, despite its history of periodic fires, would be all but incinerated by the heat dome of 2021. A change of scenery should lift one’s spirits, but I found myself distressed instead.


The city of Kamloops occupies the traditional territory of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. The former Kamloops Indian Residential School sits across the river from where I sat to do some work. A few years ago I might have guessed that most Canadians, if they had heard of Kamloops at all, associated it with a minor-league hockey team. (English professors think of Wilson’s Swamp Angel [1954].) But now it has become widely known as Canada engages, however haltingly, with its past and present as a colonizing entity. Since the terrible summer of 2021, Kamloops has become synonymous with unmarked graves—their existence and the dismissal thereof—and with the atrocities of that School and the national system of which it was a part. The prime minister expressed regret for the deaths associated with the School, and for choosing to spend the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on holiday in Tofino rather than at Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. Being sorry, saying sorry: it was possible once to joke about a reflexive Canadian deference, but now public apologies have become a central part of governmental attempts to atone for injustices perpetrated by the state (and foibles committed by its representatives). Such gestures can be seen as both necessary and empty. Sorry: in everyday speech, that stereotypically Canadian word is an almost phatic term. Just something we say.


In their introduction to All the Feels: Affect and Writing in Canada (2021), Marie Carrière, Ursula Mathis-Moser, and Kit Dobson allude to a fog of bad feeling that hangs over the field of Canadian literary studies:


The turn to affect . . . is all the more crucial and productive in the context of events that, at the time of writing, have coloured the world of Canadian literature and cultural criticism . . . We would be remiss not to point out the “ugly feelings” ([Sianne] Ngai) that have saturated the discourses around these events—feelings of anger and disappointment in literary beacons, Margaret Atwood and Joseph Boyden among them, who, at one time associated with aesthetics and politics of liberation, are now seen by some to be harmfully closing ranks to protect their own. Many have expressed their “ugly feelings” towards these events by calling out the bad behaviour they see in Canadian literature. (xviii)


In her article in this issue of Canadian Literature, Julie Rak likewise notes the “anger and shock” elicited by Atwood during what has been called the “Galloway affair”; even professedly dispassionate readers may feel betrayed by the actions and statements of esteemed authors. There is, in addition, a more general disquiet in and about the field. After Kamloops (and Cowessess and ʔaq̓am), Canada is dominated by “ugly feelings.” Haunted by them—a word I use in mind of Earle Birney’s “Can. Lit.,” which, unusually for a poem, now seems utterly wrong. “[I]t’s only by our lack of ghosts / we’re haunted”: not anymore, Earle (One Muddy Hand 58). Those who study and teach Canadian literature continue to grapple with the connections of the field to the state and a nationalist project, and to investigate what shapes an “aesthetics and politics of liberation” might take. It is possible, however, that the field in its traditional form has reached a point of terminal exhaustion. If so, then its practitioners might ask what lines of inquiry stem from the ugliness of fatigue, disappointment, and sorrow—all the while considering that, as Erin Akerman shows in her study of Anna Jameson in this issue, expressions of emotional response, including sentiment and sympathy, exist in historical context and are governed by generic conventions.


Decades ago Birney wrote to his friend and fellow poet Al Purdy from Southern California. His message from Orange County in April 1968 was cheerful, although his mood was tempered by a certain geological instability:


I am on a cliffhouse on South Laguna Beach (the less fashionable one) having just watched a particularly improbable sunset over the rolling waves. Which are rolling more than merrily tonight perhaps as a result of last night’s earthquake. Which shook the house &, since we hang on a cliff, agitated Esther [Birney] but caused no damage except to human hearts. (Birney and Purdy 159)


Even a dip in the ocean reminded Birney of hidden dangers and underlying violence: “Went swimming today & came out bruised, scratched & shaken. The surf is full of loose gravel whirling like a laundromat & equally dirty-looking, though only from good clean mud of course.” He survived, the perils manageable and largely metaphorical. That spring, however, was marked by a more immediate form of violence. On June 20, two weeks after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Birney wrote to Purdy again: “I was glad to get out of the USA. The thickening atmosphere of violence, ignorance, hate, stupidity, mutual brainwashing” (166).


On my way home from California, I felt more or less the same. I had landed at John Wayne Airport a week after the shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, and it was in Irvine that I saw the stupefying news of the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The epidemic violence in the US, and its apparent permanence, make appealing the notion of a safer and more compassionate culture in Canada. Various phases of Canadian literary and cultural criticism have sought to understand and even define Canada in contrast to the US. We are not like them: the countries have always been too similar and interrelated for such a simple premise to hold, but Canada has frequently been figured as an alternative to the US, even as the countries are bound by geography, history, economics, and politics. Yet Birney knew that the gulf between Canada and its neighbour was easily exaggerated: “Well maybe it’s only a time-lag of a difference up here & Trudeau’s killer perhaps already has his gun,” he wrote to Purdy (166). Canada is still, in Marshall McLuhan’s notorious phrase, a borderline case. For the traveller, crossing the border remains an uncanny experience, even for those who enjoy the privilege of mobility. As I went indirectly from one desert landscape to another, I encountered anew the distinctions between here and there, from the quasi-arbitrary (divergent COVID-related paperwork requirements, the charade of shoe removal in the airport) to the significant, whether cultural, linguistic, or proprioceptive (an unexpected angle of light, the presence or absence of warmth in the air). One lesson of travel is that places demand attention to their specificities. Another is that feelings travel with the traveller, that malaise is as portable as carry-on luggage.


My writing and teaching take up questions of environment, of place. For the authors to whose works I return, places are significant as places, and environmental attention—looking, listening, thinking—is a defining literary impulse. Such attention often leads to surprise: writers, and in turn their readers, are made to see differently, abandoning habits of perspective, and to feel awe, delight, and sometimes bewilderment. But it is increasingly the case that environmental attention leads to sorrow, to feeling sorry. Perhaps I have been reading too extensively in the growing library of books that warn of the looming climate disaster or, to be more precise, the intensification of our present ecological crisis. Here, for instance, is a description of the cascade of effects caused by the loss of glaciation in Olympic National Park in northwestern Washington:


Water isn’t the only thing that the Hoh [River] and its tributaries receive from the Mount Olympus glaciers; they also pick up sediment, so much that when the river’s downhill gradient lessens . . . the river begins to braid. When a river carrying sediment reaches flatter terrain, the river no longer has the kinetic energy to continue transporting its larger sediments. The sediments settle out, which raises the riverbed a little. The process continues until the riverbed is as high as the surrounding land, at which point the river moves to one side or the other, whichever is lower . . . The Hoh braids more than any other river in Olympic . . . giving it a unique profile in the Olympic Mountains, one that will probably disappear when the glaciers melt out. At that point, the river will transform into the more typical, mature form that characterizes most of Olympic’s rivers, with stable banks and mature vegetation. This will result in a loss of riverine diversity, along with the loss of any aquatic insects and microflora and -fauna that prefer the open and warmer conditions found in braided streams. (Yochim 23)


For those who know such places and find meaning in them, accounts of this sort are unsettling and dispiriting. Like many residents of Victoria, I see the Olympic Mountains whenever the clouds break, and I think of them as a local range despite the international border and the body of water that divide here from there. We understand the world and our place in it not only according to scientific information and news reports, but also in terms of experience and emotion. The memorable title of a recent book of poems—Iceland Is Melting and So Are You (2021) by Talya Rubin—slides from the global to the individual, from change on a massive scale to a personal response. (The title also contains a touch of hyperbole and self-regard and therefore wry humour.) Some scientists predict that glaciers on Vancouver Island will have disappeared by the end of the century (see Clarke et al.); the information registers as disappointment, a type of low-level grief somewhere in the back of my mind.


Easing into routine after my travels, I read a wonderful new novel, Robert McGill’s A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life. (Bob is a friend, so I can’t be objective. Sorry.) Witty and disturbing, it is a speculative fiction about a world, not dissimilar to our own, besieged by plague: “People wore surgical masks everywhere. Acquaintances greeted each other without touching. You washed your hands ten times a day. There was a test for the worm, but almost no one took it, because it cost so much and there was no cure anyway, only flatpacking, and flatpacking was even more expensive than the test” (40). Flatpacking is essentially what it sounds like, a form of extreme deflation; worse than the price, “you lost your memory, stopped being you,” as one character claims (41). As I understand it, A Suitable Companion concerns the human desire to survive, to persist despite the unhappinesses and injustices, great and small, that shape lives. Regan, a troubled young athlete, is injured: “[W]ith every step her stress fracture lit a Roman candle of pain to mark the way” (36). She seeks to end her life and, as the novel concludes, she does, although not in the manner she planned. Yet her quasi-death, a kind of self-sacrifice, is followed by rebirth: “Tingle of waking. Lips on her neck, their tug and tug. The squelch of air. Life at the bellows, veins flush, elbows thickening. A pop in the ears, a shush, a buzz. Vegetal musk. The deliciousness of being filled, stretched taut, balloon bent
on bursting” (199). Despite the outlandish and comical elements of his dystopia, McGill suggests a primal, existential, perhaps even biological impulse: his characters strive to go on in the face of anguish and physical pain.


It is facile to conclude that literature offers consolation in dismal times, although to some degree that is true—and certainly the very act of “bearing witness,” as Gage Karahkwí:io Diabo writes of Beth Brant in the pages ahead, is vital. But we might need more than solace. Better to say that literature can help us to think beyond a state of crisis, or to envision alternatives to an untenable present. In the introduction to his dialogue in this issue with Smokii Sumac, Sam McKegney writes that creative works can “imagin[e] new teachings demanded by the pursuit of a more just and livable world.” From a book of natural history I learn that


Yellowstone’s amphibians display at least three ways to cope with six months of snow and cold. The Columbia spotted frog finds water that doesn’t freeze, and toads and salamanders enter underground burrows, but the chorus frog does something truly marvelous: it freezes solid, stopping its heart and all other bodily functions, in sheltered spots like the insides of fallen logs. (Yochim 147)


Marvellous indeed, and as strange as the characters in A Suitable Companion who are flatpacked and then emerge into a world full of promise: “Lolling on the cool, hard earth. One mouth, then another, blowing . . . The warm wave of Mama’s voice, Papa trilling his song. Crack of brightness. Flood of light. The world rushing to her in a blurry freshet. Mama and Papa shifting about her, dark shapes of love” (199). Life begins again. After fire, flourishing. I’ve been thinking of sage and pine, oak and chaparral, of life that thrives in desert places. We go on, and we go on feeling.


Works Cited

Birney, Earle. One Muddy Hand: Selected Poems. Edited by Sam Solecki, Harbour, 2006.

Birney, Earle, and Al Purdy. We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947-1987. Edited by Nicholas Bradley, Harbour, 2014.

Carrière, Marie, Ursula Mathis-Moser, and Kit Dobson. “Writing Affect in Canadian, Indigenous, and Québécois Literatures/Écrire l’affect dans les littératures canadiennes, autochtones et québécoises.” All the Feels: Affect and Writing in Canada/Tous les sens : affect et écriture au Canada, edited by Carrière, Mathis-Moser, and Dobson, U of Alberta P, 2021, pp. xiii-xlvi.

Clarke, Garry K. C., et al. “Projected Deglaciation of Western Canada in the Twenty-First Century.” Nature Geoscience, vol. 8, no. 5, May 2015, pp. 372-77.

McGill, Robert. A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life. Coach House, 2022.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Canada: The Borderline Case.” The Canadian Imagination: Dimensions of a Literary Culture, edited by David Staines, Harvard UP, 1977, pp. 226-48.

Rubin, Talya. Iceland Is Melting and So Are You. Book*hug, 2021.

Yochim, Michael J. Requiem for America’s Best Idea: National Parks in the Era of Climate Change. High Road, 2022.


Nicholas Bradley is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria, where he teaches courses on aspects of Canadian literature and environmental writing. He edited An Echo in the Mountains: Al Purdy after a Century (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2020) and Current, Climate: The Poetry of Rita Wong (Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2021) and is embarking on a study of watersheds and climate change in the Pacific Northwest.

This editorial originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 5-11.

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