Beginnings – the height of land

Don Parmeter’s aerial photograph of the Driftwood Creek headwaters.

The concept of watersheds has long fascinated me, as the many posts about Driftwood Creek illustrate. Back in 1977 when I worked for a Terrace newspaper, a regional district staffer, Doug Aberly, suggested provincial programs be managed in integrated watershed districts rather than in the piecemeal way jurisdictions were and still are divided. Long before that, Indigenous nations  divided territories along geographical lines of watersheds rather than the methods used in Canada’s Dominion Land Survey system which created townships and one-mile square sections of land, completely ignoring the natural boundaries provided by creeks, rivers, and mountains.

Years later, I opened a play, The Height of Land, with the image of a woman squatting to pee (women’s attention is more focused on the ground between our feet at these moments) and wondering which way her urine would run – if she was in just the right place (like the Columbia Icefields) could her urine eventually reach three oceans?  A shift of inches could produce an entirely different outcome – a little like that butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing.

Then I took a geography course from Rick Trowbridge at what was then Northwest Community College. He showed us a short film that began with the image of a single drop of water splatting onto the ground. Whether it was soaked up, frozen, evaporated, or ran into the nearest stream, it eventually returned to the sea via one watershed or another. While the term height of land sounds as if it should stand out – a hill or mountain – it is often the opposite.  Think the country north of Prince George along the nine-mile Giscome Portage where the watershed shifts from the Fraser to the Peace (via the Crooked and Parsnip rivers). Nothing dramatic there. And Rose Lake just west of Burns Lake, the division between the Fraser and Bulkley/Skeena river basins. Again, hardly a hill in sight.

Driftwood Creek’s beginnings are a little more dramatic where the watershed shifts from Driftwood Creek and the Bulkley to Cronin Creek and the Fulton and Babine rivers. A sensible boundary between Witsuwit’en and Nedut’en territory.

Lynn and I scrambled up above the cabins in Silverking Basin in 1977 on our first extended camping trip into the Babines. We fought the shintangle to reach the small lakes in the basin whose walls create one of the boundaries between those watersheds and also between Silverking and Grassy Mountain and the Twobridge (Reiseter) watershed.

Dan, the Rhebergen girls and Gisela Mendel.

Our eldest son, Daniel, went with me and Gisela Mendel in 1991/2 on a weekend trip into the basin. We joined Frank Rhebergen and his daughters to climb up the shintangle again into the headwaters. We made it up onto the flank of Cronin and crossed over to the Hyland Pass Trail – a route we tried to do in reverse the summer before last. We didn’t succeed, so Don Parmeter very kindly gave me the beautiful aerial photograph at the top of this post.


The kids with Silverking Basin and Harvey Mountain in the background.



Me and Dan below the glacier.


Lynn and Jim Pojar on Grassy Mountain, the Fulton side of the watershed divide.


All those watersheds draining into the Skeena Basin, into the Pacific Ocean.

And now we live right beside the same ocean. Here many creeks run straight to salt water without a river in sight. It’s a new kind of geography. For a river to get big, it needs to start far away from its final outlet. Once you think about it, it seems obvious, but coming originally from Powell River as I do, I didn’t really understand rivers. Powell River, the river that is, is one of the shortest in the world. Maybe that’s why I ended my novel, The Taste of Ashes, beside the Nautley River which drains Fraser Lake a mere 800 metres before it empties into the Nechako. Another “shortest” river. It felt something like home.


Art and Activism

I had a wonderful few days on Gabriola Island this past week as a guest of Save Our Shores Gabriola (SOS) and Gabriola Friends of the Library. Thanks very much to Kristin Miller for taking such good care of me. (Thanks also to The Writers Union of Canada for funding.)

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 Six creative souls came to the poetry workshop in the poetry yurt, run by Poetry Gabriola,  set in the trees beside The Commons

The workshop was meant to inspire people to express their anger, frustration, distress   about events taking place in the world. We explored some darker themes and then lightened things up by writing limericks – it’s hard to write a limerick without laughing. There won’t be any Nobel Prizes forthcoming (whoopee, Alice Munro) but it was fun.

 Raymond composes
Photo: Viviann Kuehl

Photo: Viviann Kuehl









I also gave a reading at the library from my novel, The Taste of Ashes, with a focus on the ways in which activism propels and informs my writing. Over time it has become clear that an interest in, concern about and a sense of wanting to bear witness to people’s courage are fundamental issues in the work I admire most. It’s little wonder that those same values and concerns for social justice show up in my writing. 

 Sheila and Kristen

And what an audience! The collective knowledge and wisdom in the room was awe-inspiring. One woman had been to Afghanistan with Global Exchange – the amazing group that facilitated my trip to Guatemala when I was researching The Taste of Ashes.

The visit ended with an SOS Gabriola dinner meeting – a group of Gabriolans committed to preventing oil pipelines and tankers in BC lands and waters. It was an honor to be a part of their month-long celebration of Art and Activism around the island. All around us hung quilts made for the Clayoquot Sound protests twenty years ago now.


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Bravo to SOS for calling it a celebration – all too often we are taught to think of this work as negative because we’re against what industry likes to call development. Exploitation is a more accurate term.

As well as sharing a delicious meal, we talked about the ways in which people respond to the dangers posed by our ever-increasing use of fossil fuels. How do we motivate people to act? How do we support and value people who don’t feel able to stand up and speak up? How do we support all the differing ways community members contribute on the ground (creating and maintaining a place like the Commons, for example) and in the oh-so-impure corridors of power (MLAs, MPs, larger environmental organizations, for example)?  As Bill McGibben writes in Oil and Honey, the story of the rise of the movement, environmental activism is long-term – it’s not something that’s going to get done, like that deer fence you need to build around your garden. Jean McLaren was one of the first Raging Grannies, was arrested at Clayoquot Sound and is still taking part in events in her eighties. She and Heidi Brown shared dinner with us last week; twenty years ago they edited the Raging Granny Songbook.
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I was happy to tell the folks from Gabriola that in the north we, too, have people with that long-term commitment. We have young people who are being mentored by those who have been doing this work for over thirty years (with many successes) and those same young people are bringing their amazing talents to the table.


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Eight community groups in eight communities across the north are working with First Nations to stop the Enbridge Gateway pipeline; others are springing up to try to unravel the “plate of spaghetti” of proposed LNG pipeline routes; all are committed to resisting the free-for-all that is both provincial and federal government policy around tar sands, fracking and coal.

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And artists – musicians, visual artists, poets, and dancers – are standing beside scientists, farmers, fisherpeople, and others who are beginning to understand the price tag attached to fossil fuels, tar sands expansion and climate change. Artists are reading scientific reports, carvers are putting up blockades, biologists are making quilts, and poets are running for city council. And fishermen like Guy Johnston will be joining thousands of people across the country on tomorrow’s National Day of Action against fossil fuels expansion. 

Find an event and get there if you can. sea lions (600x450)





The Next Big Thing

Last week writer, Daniela Eliza, tagged me to be part of the interview series, The Next Big Thing, where writers speak of their latest book, work in progress, or manuscript. You can read her entry at Here are my answers to the questions.

1. What is the working title of your next book?

Dreaming Downriver

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

My mother used to tell a story about her exciting but somewhat disreputable uncle who, at one time, was given a place to live by an elderly gentleman in exchange for recounting his dreams every morning.

3. What genre does your book fall under?


4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Like I can ever remember the names of actors! This is set in the fifties and I’m thinking of some larger than life people I knew as a child in the way that children know adults. You latch on to a few characteristics, but remain oblivious to most of what goes on in their lives. These are all people who are dead now, so I’m inventing a whole new life for them. It’s fun.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Have you ever read one of José Saramago’s sentences? The ones that are breathless with commas, and go on for pages? Just kidding. It tells the story of how a father’s river journey with his deeply-disturbed son results in the loss of that son, but links the father with people and places in ways he could never have imagined.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The book will be represented by the Mint Literary Agency.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’m not there yet – I have about thirty percent of the first draft. And it’s been a couple of years already. But I know where it’s going.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Sandra Birdsell’s novels, perhaps. There’s Mennonites and rivers flooding. Land disputes and the bizarre workings of the Indian Act. I aim for her combination of visceral language that connects her characters to their surroundings and an understanding of how the larger events of place and time have an impact upon individual lives. But it’s more West Coast than prairie. Much of the book is set in Vancouver and on a small fictional island off the coast near Cortes Island.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was very influenced by Hugh Brody’s classic, Maps and Dreams which speaks of his time with the Danezaa people in BC’s northeast and, of course, links in with the crazy dream idea that set this all in motion. Then there’s Jung. Plus  I’ve read many stories about the Parsnip and Finlay rivers before the Peace was dammed – and so I wanted to recreate this place and time as part of the novel and link it with the alternate universe known as the West Coast. The displacement of people, mostly First Nations, and the creative strategies people find to mitigate personal, cultural and environmental damage all reflect many of the events we’re facing today.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Anyone who has read my first novel, The Taste of Ashes, knows I like to build a plot that pulls my readers along. This will be similar.

Visiting Bonnie Burnard

Joining a community of writers at places like Sage Hill, Banff, or any of the diverse retreats/residencies available to us these days, is usually a treat. We can begin conversations right in the middle of things because the writing process is familiar to us all, even though how we go about the work is as varied as human nature itself. We share the knowledge of what it is to sit down day after day to start moving our fingers and somehow transform whatever it is that goes on in our heads to words on the page, whether we’re using a pencil or a keyboard. If we wander around with a glazed look and don’t say good morning, other writers know enough to leave us alone. Best of all, you don’t have to explain what it is you do or why you do it.

Of course, egos and competitiveness are present, but at the retreats that are well run, there isn’t much grandstanding and the most acclaimed writers sit down with the novices and share stories as equals. It is very affirming for those of us who sometimes feel isolated from the writing world.

When I attended the Banff Writing Studio in 2002 and was told that I’d be working with Bonnie Burnard, I was more than a little anxious. The author of award winning short story collections and the Giller Prize winning A Good House, she was a very big name in Canadian writing, up there with Alice Munro and Carol Shields. She had just flown in from Mexico City with a nascent case of pneumonia; Banff’s air was cleaner, but the altitude did her in. I had one meeting with her before she was hospitalized, but as I’ve said before, that one meeting sent me on a long journey, taking Isabel from a short story I’d called “Frost Warning” and set in Smithers to Vancouver, Guatemala and deep into the lives of her daughter, Janna, and Janna’s father, Alvaro.

So when I arrived in London (Ontario) last week, I was tempted to track her down. I wanted to thank her and give her a copy of The Taste of Ashes. I was a bit nervous – her time in Banff hadn’t been easy for her (there’s a story there, but it’s hers to tell) and I didn’t think she’d even remember me. When I found out she lived very close to where I was staying, I finally screwed up my courage and called her. She seemed surprised, but very graciously invited me over the next morning for tea.

I’ve always been nonplussed by stories of people tracking down writers – searching for Pablo Neruda at Isla Negra, or nursing endless cups of coffee at the café Simone de Beauvoir frequented – so felt a bit nervous walking up the leaf-strewn path to her door right on the edge of the University of Western Ontario campus. And there she was, smaller than I remembered, welcoming me into her home and congratulating me on the publication of the novel.

Her house is a long one with glass doors opening into a sitting room, a sun porch, a living room, each room with multiple doorways. This kind of house is a treat for a child (and Bonnie has a new grandchild living nearby as well as two others) – the many nooks and crannies can provide escape from whatever might be happening in the house, but are also connected enough so he or she doesn’t feel alone. It’s the kind of house that exemplifies the kinds of plots I love to read and write – storylines that have their own lives but link in sometimes unexpected ways.

By which I mean to say we soon got down to talking about writing, about her writing life, about Banff, about how we go about things, how writers find ways to support each other, how we go through times when we lose sight of writing itself until we miss it so much, we sit down again and begin.

It was good to see Bonnie Burnard living in a comfortable house because so few writers make a decent living from their writing. It was a pleasure to sit at her kitchen table and talk writing because that talk is not always easy to come by.

While she expressed some concern about having suggested back in Banff that I write a novel, I said it was just what I needed because as soon as she said it a whole new world opened up for the characters living inside my imagination, characters her encouragement led me to release from the strict confines of what the current literary expectations are for short stories. Discursion is not permitted. (Even within the breadth of a novel, I have difficulty reining in my characters.)

So thank you, Bonnie. As for the writing talk itself, I look forward to someday reading in print the writing stories you told me.

Love Electric

It all began with the sign down at Cow Bay in Prince Rupert. It hung on the weathered boards outside an automarine store right down there beside the docks, the name spelled out in fading black paint: Love Electric.

ImageThe building dates back to 1919 and still stands. But it no longer houses Love Electric. (I just checked to see that the company is still operating – it is. Its email address is Come Valentine’s Day, it might be fun to send them a message.)

I was sitting in a coffee shop just down the road and started scribbling. I wrote three stories about people who had unexpected sex with unlikely partners: a suicidal meter reader, a bored housewife who decides to become an electrician, and a woman working in a Saan store. Isabel. I took Isabel along with me to the Banff Writing Studio, where I worked with Bonnie Burnard (A Good House, Suddenly). She suggested I turn it into a novel. At first I quailed at the thought, but ideas just came pouring out and I was off on a journey that took me to some amazing places – both physically and emotionally: the back rooms of a Saan store, the cemetery in Guatemala, the provincial house of the Oblates, the streets of Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

I wanted to explore the life of a woman others might think of as a victim or an irresponsible parent, but who views herself as someone strong, who makes mistakes, yes, but keeps going and refuses to be judged. You could maybe call this “family practice.” While mothers mostly love their children, sometimes their children are not particularly likeable. And visa versa. Isabel and her daughter Janna need to make their own way in the world, but also reconcile. Figuring out how to make this happen was much of the fun of writing this book. And it made me realize that sometimes it is the most dysfunctional families that are best equipped to dig in during crises and really support each other.

One of the difficulties for both of them is Isabel’s refusal to tell Janna who her father is. You know how it is when you keep a secret too long? It gets harder and harder to come clean. Which brings in the issue of the Catholic church (now there’s an outfit that knows all about secrets) and the behaviour of its priests. Father Àlvaro Ruiz snuck up on me as I was writing The Taste of Ashes. I am not Catholic and am more than uncomfortable with many of the church’s teachings. But I am fascinated with the way people of amazing diversity negotiate their way through that to make themselves a place within the church. They stick out their elbows and wriggle their way in. Often their very presence makes people uncomfortable because it forces them to re-examine their own beliefs. As Àlvaro struggles with this, he finds links with his Mayan heritage and that of our own First Nations communities – links that Catholic missionaries may think they forged, but are really connections that have roots in a much older indigenous spirituality linked to the land itself.

What has been intriguing for me in this process is the way I’ve come to feel about the characters in The Taste of Ashes – not just the three main characters but some of the secondary ones as well: Margaret Coleman, Amy Myerson and Father Walter. They are like old friends now, people who have shared many experiences with me. In the novel, we’ve all come to know each other. Publication has given me a chance to introduce them to you.

Getting it out there

On the road with The Taste of Ashes, I gave readings in Campbell River and Powell  River. I always enjoy these conversations with book lovers – thanks to those who attended.

I also had an interview with Sheryl Mackay of CBC’s North by Northwest weekend arts and culture radio show – she’ll be airing the interview Saturday, Sept. 8 just after the 8:30 news.