Precarious Places

  • Catriona Sandilands (Editor)
    Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate Changing Times. Caitlin Press (purchase at
  • Therese Greenwood
    What You Take with You: Wildfire, Family and the Road Home. University of Alberta Press
  • 40 Island Writers, Gail Sjuberg and Nicola Wheston (Illustrator)
    Love of the Salish Sea Islands: New Essays, Memoirs and Poems by 40 Island Writers. Mother Tongue (purchase at

In her essay in Rising Tides, a recent collection that grew out of Catriona Sandilands’ Storying Climate Change project, Briony Penn, a noted West Coast naturalist, describes taking a group of young students on a field trip to an unexpected site: the local dump. In the “deep, dark pit of crumbling shale” they search for ammonites. These young people are attuned to threats:

They have already written a letter to the prime minister, planted trees, studied eelgrass, signed petitions against pipelines, marched to save the southern resident killer whales, gone plastic-free and present their ideas at town halls.

In Penn’s students we can imagine all of the young people, from Greta Thunberg to the Indigenous youth and their supporters, acting as land protectors. These three books make clear that we have much to mourn—but also reason to hope. The two collections and the memoir also bear witness, in different ways, to how bewilderment, anxiety, and even terror may surge forward as we lose our touchstones—the familiar, built places and natural sites that constitute home.

Greenwood had been living in Fort McMurray with her husband for four years, as transplants from Ontario who had come to love Fort McMurray’s bustling energy, its cultural diversity, and its sense of can-do enthusiasm. And then Fort McMurray experienced an unusually hot early summer. Residents were not immediately alarmed by the news that a fire had broken out on that June day, but over the course of a few hours, as evacuation orders were imposed and as the highway out of town swelled with traffic, Greenwood’s anxieties multiplied. In her rush to leave, she gathered an assortment of objects, from deeply meaningful mementoes to items that initially appeared more random—and were certainly not the supplies the couple could have used during their agonizingly slow drive to safety. Each of the objects she has retained is carefully considered and contextualized over a number of chapters that fuse past and present, family memories and local histories. For instance, she grabbed a wooden rolling pin that belonged to her late father-in-law, the distinguished broadcaster Ray Bonisteel, instead, she notes ruefully, of many more obvious mementoes of his life and career: “But the truth was, when I thought of Ray, I pictured him rolling pie dough.” Later, settled for a time with family in Ontario, the temporary guardian of an animal she calls Big Stinky Dog, Greenwood sifts through memories of her past and her family life. These are not easy reminiscences: her father’s mental illness has had a significant impact on her young life; the family has weathered significant economic hardships. Her joyful marriage, commemorated in snapshots rather than formal photographs, endures, but all of the images and most of their cherished wedding presents have been destroyed along with their home. In this surprisingly gripping and deeply moving account, Greenwood considers how we re-establish normalcy in the wake of profound loss.

While Greenwood’s work does not delve into the possible contributions of a changing climate, both of the essay collections are deeply attuned to the rapid anthropogenic transformations of beloved places, chiefly of West Coast sites. The two anthologies share a concern with place, but their purposes vary. As its title suggests, Love of the Salish Sea Islands is made up of a series of warm tributes by long-time island residents. Nearly all are veteran writers, with decades of experience on islands ranging from the well-known tourist destination of Salt Spring Island to the underserviced Savary Island. The contributors—including novelists William Deverell and Jack Hodgins, poets Mona Fertig and Arleen Paré, and creative non-fiction authors Stephen Hume and Maria Coffey (along with more than thirty of their peers)—are relatively comfortably situated in places where increasing numbers of people struggle to secure year-round housing. While this sense of comfort creates a somewhat lopsided impression of current challenges and also contributes to the work’s strong sense of nostalgia, these pieces are acutely insightful, deft, and interesting. In an outstanding contribution about her uneasy integration into Hornby Island’s cultural norms, Amanda Hale considers her lifelong mourning for her father, writing that “[i]n this house, I have come to terms with my father’s absence, and with my alienation from this extraordinary island community so full of love and light and darkness.” Many of the works take a lighter tone, and, because they are arranged in alphabetical order by authors’ names, the effect of moving from a humorous sketch to a lyrical poem or a searing personal reminiscence can sometimes be jarring. More troublingly, as contributor Chris Arnett notes, is the paucity of Indigenous authors in the collection and the absence of any authors from local First Nations.

Conversely, Rising Tides, while capacious enough to include poetry, short fiction, and lyrical personal essays, takes a more explicitly political slant and includes a range of perspectives from Indigenous writers, including Zoe Todd’s gorgeous, lyrical reflection on watching the tides. While many of the writers work within academia, their writing here is accessible, open-hearted, and personal. The book opens with a dual-voiced territorial acknowledgement that sets the tone for the searching, analytical, and deeply ethically informed work of this project. Climate change researcher Sara Barron writes about cherry trees in Vancouver, noting that the annual “spring ritual of blossom ‘snow’ in April may not be a certainty for much longer.” Ashlee Cunsolo’s piercing work considers how she goes “to the land now when I need something . . . when I am angry. Sad. Hurt[,]” but does not “ask the land what she needs” or “where it hurts” because “I cannot bear the truth.” In diverse ways, many of these contributors are probing this issue: how much hurt—how much climate change reality—are we capable of admitting into consciousness? Kyo Maclear’s “Love and Lifeboating”—an outstanding essay about dying and grief by one of Canada’s best writers—is, alone, worth the price of this collection. These are works to savour and treasure.

This review “Precarious Places” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.