EXPLORING ARBOREALITY

Mesquite trees kept people in the arid South West fed for thousands of years, and are widely considered to be worthy of eradication.

Metamorphosis is not a term typically associated with human animals. As dramatic as such transformations are, the idea that one of us might undergo the process of becoming, say, a tree, stretches the boundaries of the word. Our differences go beyond mere appearances and nutritional preferences, after all. This does not stop ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan from attempting such a feat, after having fallen hopelessly in love with the leguminous, desert-dwelling mesquite tree. His book, Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair, documents the journey.

Nabhan’s focus on the mesquite tree may well have been lost on me, who couldn’t spot a mesquite if I walked right into one (it lives in the desert and has pods, right?). Yet the strong undercurrent of “arboreality” got my attention. Nabhan suggests that most of us have never “fully seen, smelled, heard, tasted or been touched by a tree.” 

This idea is nearly as absurd as the human-tree metamorphosis, at least at first. What human has not climbed, sat on, sat under, and touched a tree? We all recognize our dependence on oxygen, a waste product of trees and other plants. Many of us have even come to accept that trees communicate with, even defend and support, others in their “communities.” Still, we have hardly shaken the notion of them as hard and unfeeling vehicles for carbon dioxide. They don’t move, see, smell, or hear. This will change, says Nabhan, if we dedicate ourselves to uncovering their hidden attractions. If we do the work, he says, we just might come to see that a tree is in fact “a sentient being of consummate poise, sessile grace, and impeccable instincts. It has the capacity to care for us, to love.” 

And by the way, trees are sentient. Just ask a plant neurobiologist. Nabhan gives a nod to one, Stefano Mancuso, who says that plants have senses analogous to all five of ours, plus fifteen others. Mancuso says (to Michael Pollan, in the New Yorker) that plants have millions of brains instead of just one. A plant’s brains are found in its radicles, the parts from which roots grow. Radicles can sense resources and danger; they can compel the roots to grow toward nutrients; they can encourage relationships with helpful microbes; and much more.[1] 

Now back to Nabhan’s beloved and highly intelligent mesquite. This tree, he says, is not simply coupled seamlessly with its habitat; it responds to it. The tree and its environment are in a lover’s dance, shaping one another with each step, but the mesquite is not passive; it can decide which stimuli to pay attention to and which to ignore. The mesquite can play dead, produce self-healing resins, or send the ants who feast on its leaves to attack a saw-wielding human. 

We see the impact of the mesquite’s decisions when we look underground. Mesquite roots can travel both deep (in one case, an astonishing 175 feet deep) and wide, seeking moisture wherever it might be found. These extraordinary roots attract fungi and bacteria, who tend to the soil by fixing nitrogen and in other ways. What’s more, mesquite roots hold on to moisture and assist in the building of “resource islands” in the desert. In this way, mesquites “bring forth a world.” 

This and much more about the mesquite largely escaped the European-descended settlers of the Southwest. As one “cow-girl” told Nabhan:

When I was growing up . . . they poisoned them trees. They dragged them down with chains running between two bull-dozers, driving in tandem across the range. They grubbed those suckers out of the ground until their roots was upright, danglin’ in the dry air.

Mesquite trees are thorny, and also not grass. That’s two good reasons for a rancher’s dislike of them. Unfortunately for the ranchers, the density of mesquite trees increased in tandem with the growth of the livestock industry in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. It turns out that some breeds of livestock were excellent propagators of mesquite seeds. Also, the effect of grazing was the creation of loose, arid soils inhospitable to grasses during times of drought or other environmental stress. Such disturbances created conditions that allowed mesquite to move in. 

But there’s more to this story. 

The ranchers, as Nabhan’s colleague Steve Archer explains, killed the mesquite in an effort to create the kind of grasslands they had seen in areas of high rainfall, but everything they did just seemed to help the mesquite flourish. The lack of grass caused by the grazers meant fewer hot fires, which had previously kept the mesquite in check. The more mesquite grew, the less grass could grow (grass roots are shallower and can’t compete for water). When the ranchers tried to clip the mesquite down to nothing, the trees just grew back (Archer writes that they have a virtually inexhaustible supply of meristematic tissue that will allow them to propagate from the base.) Burning the trees proved equally useless (only a reallyhot fire that burns through the root system can kill a mesquite). Eventually, ranchers turned to herbicides, which were more effective killers of mesquites—and likely, of other life as well. 

Six or so decades and billions of dollars spent on chemical weaponry has yet to eradicate the mesquite, but the trees are not what they used to be. They are, for the most part, “squat and spindly, unlike the giants of days gone by.” The Great Mesquite Forest—which once covered more than seven square miles along the Santa Cruz River and provided an “unparalleled avian habitat”—is a ghost of its former self. 

“How much we understand or misunderstand the lives of these plants matters very much, not just to the plants themselves but also to critters like us,” writes Nabhan. 

Had the ranchers saved their money and taken some time to understand mesquites, they might not have behaved so mindlessly. Mesquite, you see, was the main source of carbohydrates and proteins for indigenous people living in what we now call the desert borderlands. It also provided shelter, fuel, furniture, sealants, charcoal, medicine . . . and a rich ecosystem. 

Fortunately, as Nabhan demonstrates, perspectives on this pesky shrub are changing, and there’s something of a mesquite revival happening, even among ranchers (at least a few). That revival may well have as many benefits for the ranchers as for the mesquites—at least, it seems that way on Ivan Aguirre’s ranch. 

Ivan recalls that under his father’s management of the ranch, “there was not a single tree to block your view of the mountains,” but the land was too crippled to grow grass. Over the course of a decade, and with the guidance of ecologist and rancher Allan Savory, Ivan brought his family ranch back to a place of prosperity. Making friends of mesquite trees was a big part of that process. Under his system of ranching, Ivan says his cattle act as a tool for regenerating the land: their dung attracts microbes and insects which help with soil build-up under the mesquites. In the off season, his cow-hands harvest mesquite pods and grind them into flour, which sells at a premium, as it is known to help fight adult-onset diabetes. The return of mule deer to his land brings in revenue from game hunting. With these and other new sources of revenue aided by the presence of mesquite trees, Ivan has managed to purchase adjacent rundown properties. Clearly, there is a nice economic argument for mesquite in this story, but that’s not what it’s really about. 

“Part of our role here on this planet is to generate riqueza,” says Ivan. “How would you best say it in English? Richness? Abundance? Diversity? We are put here to observe the natural world and learn from its structure and vigor.” 

You don’t need a degree in ecology for this. Nabhan would argue that you don’t even need to finish high school. What you need is to apprentice yourself to a tree—to fall in love with it and learn to speak its language. In the process, you will notice transformation, of yourself and of the world around you. “What looks to be dead comes back to life, new inhabitants rise out of the ashes.” 

You might even find yourself sprouting a few extra limbs or start to feel brains manifesting out of your feet. This metamorphosis thing might start to seem appealing, if not plausible. 

The original version of this article appeared in Minding Nature, Vol. 12. No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2019), a publication of the Center for Humans and Nature (www.humansandnature.org).

Good work

The wood pile’s good work getting done.

I’m not for a second complaining, but the truth is, we’re facing a bit of an emergency here: the woodshed, which we re-stocked just a few months ago, is almost bare.

Sure we have space heaters and even a few baseboards but, when the thermometer dips below zero and the Arctic Outflow is pulling trees out of the ground, whistling through every door and crack in our little old cabin, it’s the fire that keeps us warm.

Being so reliant on that wood pile has changed me.

I measure winter by it, calculating, constantly, how long it is likely to last and how many cold days lie ahead.

The need to chop kindling, or to re-pile wood closer to the fire forces me outside even when I’d rather huddle under a blanket. Inevitably I come back feeling more awake, more alive, and more ready for whatever else I’ve got to do that day.

Sometimes, when I head out to chop and haul, my kids will follow me and jump into the task at hand. You’d be surprised at how helpful a three year old can actually be….

Robin Wall Kimmerer calls the woodpile the great teacher.

Her book Braiding Sweetgrass is about deepening the human relationships to all that sustains us. If the relationship is healthy, we’ll all flourish. If not, we’ll all suffer, so the deepening is important.

When we understand that wood brings us heat, we’re more likely to appreciate the tree.

“What would it be like, I wondered, to live with that heightened sensitivity to the lives given for ours? To consider the tree in the Kleenex, the algae in the toothpaste, the oaks in the floor, the grapes in the wine; to follow back the thread of life in everything and pay it respect? Once you start, it’s hard to stop, and you begin to feel yourself awash in gifts.”

Feeling awash in gifts…

If we all felt this way, moment to moment with each item we consumed, I doubt we’d be making much garbage. We might even find that we needed less to sustain us.

Now imagine if we could get our heads out of this place where we see ourselves, our species, as a sort of plague or malicious element on the earth. How might that change things?

Until I read Braiding Sweetgrass, the idea of humans as a force of destruction was like a wall in my thinking. I love the human story, and want it to continue alongside all the other beautiful life on this planet… but it seemed like too much to ask. Maybe it still is but, it helps to recognize that my perspective on humanity is worldview not truth: these ideas were built into my brain starting back in the early days of language acquisition initial encounters with solid foods.

Moving beyond our shameful self-perception as consumers, as takers, says Robin Wall-Kimmerer, starts with gratitude. We say thank you plenty to one another, but we need to learn to say it to the birds, the ponds, the water, the trees… and then we need to get our hands dirty.

In a chapter called  “A Mother’s Work,” Robin Wall-Kimmerer writes about her years-long project to “rehabilitate” a small pond to make it swimmable for her children. In the process of caring for the pond, Kimmerer becomes the reluctant executioner to countless tadpoles and plants. She questions her own narrow interests and the meaning of “good.” The work, as it turns out, is not about reaching the desired end, but about the relationship forged from the effort.

“The pond built my muscles, wove my baskets, mulched my garden, made my tea and trellised my morning glories. Our lives became entwined in ways both material and spiritual. It’s been a balanced exchange: I worked on the pond and the pond worked on me, and together, we made a good home.”

The gift was the work itself. Work, brings me back to the wood pile.

Tomorrow morning I will release myself from the warmth of my bed , slip on my snow boots and head outside. I’ll put the heavy splitting axe to work, and I will say thank you to the remaining wood. I will say thank you to the trees above me and to the winter wind.

I’ll source some more wood and use it less and less. Before long I’ll shift my thoughts to the buds on the apple trees and tiny plants poking their heads out of our kitchen garden. I’ll stick my hands in the soil in an act of pure gratitude.

What’s Important

“Henry Rackmeyer, you tell us what is important.”
“A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note of music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy,” answered Henry.
“Correct,” said Stuart.

-Stuart Little, by E.B. White

In the off chance you have not read Stuart Little recently, let me put the above excerpt in context: Stuart is a mouse, born into a human family. His family adores him as they would any new child, and though he never grows taller than 2.5 inches he is accepted and admired wherever he goes (except by the family cat). After Stuart leaves home to search of his bird-friend Margalo, he comes across a dejected looking man sitting on the curb of a sidewalk. The man tells Stuart he is a school principal, but one of his school’s teachers is sick and there is no one to replace her. Stuart, being the hero he is, steps in and saves the day.

In the classroom, Stuart asks zips through the day’s regular lessons. Spelling? Use a dictionary. Arithmetic? Who needs it. Social Studies? Never heard of it.

He does what any good teacher would do, and asks the students what they want to talk about. He nudges the conversation, of course… which leads to the question:

WHAT IS IMPORTANT?

It is an utterly beautiful bit of storytelling, and as I read it I thought how much better the world would be if every kid got Stuart Little for a teacher.

Then, last week, I participated in a workshop called The Art of Hosting. For three days, the 50 of us involved stepped forward to hold the conversations that were burning inside of us. Some of us spoke in specifics, but I tended to gravitate towards the all-encompassing conversations. The best I can do to label them is something to the effect of, “conversations about healing the world’s deepening crevasse of pain and separation so that we humans can start working together to fix this mess we’re in.”

Of course, it is very easy to get lost in a topic like this, but we learned that getting lost is actually the point. It’s in wading patiently and open-heartedly through the stories that we shift perspective, shift direction and shift the problems we are trying to “solve.” Questions are critical, answers are multiple, and outcomes are unforeseeable.

What is important?

The question just kept coming to me.

I feel like it’s pretty good question to put forward when we find ourselves stuck in a state of conflict.

I feel like it is a question that can lead us, eventually, to common ground.

We all want to have food on the table, but really… don’t we also want food that has a smell and taste to fill our hearts?

We all want a roof over our heads, but don’t we also really want a place that feels like home, that feels comfortable and maybe even inspires us just a little?

We all want to feel safe and secure, but so much more than that, right? Loved. Connected. Valued.

And really, what kind of person would not agree to the importance of the smell of a baby’s neck?

Curiosity, beauty, love… I’m sure we’ll find them if we take the time and the risk of diving into the messy stuff of life.

Maybe, like E.B. White (author of Stuart Little), we’ll even come out of it with a good story. After writing Charlotte’s Web he apparently said, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”

If we move forward with intention like that, I don’t think we can go wrong.

Doing the Floss for climate action

Waiting for the Prime Minister.

“Come on, get your rain pants on, we’re going to go see the Prime Minister!”

It was a rainy Thursday and the kids had barely had a moment to wind down after school and daycare, but  we had a ferry to catch and a protest to attend.

“I hate rain pants!” Declared my six-year old. He’s a determined warrior against weather-appropriate clothing.

“Me too!” Echoed his little sister, adding, “You’re a poopy!”

Neither particularly cared about the Prime Minister. Climate change, and the importance of stopping it didn’t peak much interest either.

I managed to get some fried egg into them, and packed a cloth grocery bag with hats, mitts and rain gear. I might have bribed the kids with another pick from their halloween loot, but I did manage to get them strapped into their car seats and and across Howe Sound.

We arrived at the entrance to Gleneagles Golf Course to find forty or so people standing silently and holding large and banners that said things like, “BC LNG is One Big Lie,”  or “Trudeau Pull Your Socks Up on Climate Change.” Police officers milled about, politely ensuring that everyone knew the rules of engagement. Part of me thought, “Hey, maybe this is what democracy looks like?” Another part of me thought the scene was so polite and demure, that it was actually a little awkward.

Then the kids settled into the scene. They started twirling their umbrellas, jousting and laughing. Someone started playing a drum. My daughter happily seized a pot and a spatula from my hand and started banging away. This was starting to feel like a proper protest.

Talk among us banner holders turned to Trudeau and his expected cavalcade of black SUVs.

Did we have an ETA for him? Would he come from the highway, or would he drive past all the coastal mansions? It was possible, someone said, that, he’d arrive through a back entrance.

Maybe, he’d want to stop and hang out, maybe even seek out a few high-fives?

He’d had a good week, after all. The roll-out of the national carbon tax might have stopped instantly the moment the governments of Saskatchewan and Ontario announced they would not play along, but Trudeau skilfully wooed the citizens of both provinces. After announcing that people in those provinces would get rebates, support for the tax climbed by eighteen points in Saskatchewan and to 54% across the country.

Personally, I will take news of a successful climate change fighting initiative when I can get one. I need this news, in an emotional sense. That said, I want to see even braver leadership and bolder initiatives. To me, the plan to spend $4.5 billion in tax dollars on a pipeline to facilitate the flow of fossil fuel is both gutting and absurd.

The world’s top scientists have told us we’re headed for catastrophic global temperature rises within twelve years, and if we are going to stop it we need to cut emissions by 50% within that time frame. Yet we’re all stuck in the hamster wheel of business as usual. It’s like being told you have a treatable but deadly form of cancer, and then being shuffled around to different appointments where the doctors offer little more than a pat on the back and gentle reassurance.

What does leadership look like in this scenario?

I see it in 15 year-old Greta Thurnberg. Instead of going to school this September she decided to  sit on the steps of the Swedish Parliament and demand climate action for three weeks. She did go back to class after that, but kept taking Fridays off to make sure the politicians didn’t forget about her. Apparently Greta’s parents were rather annoyed with her, but they have clearly followed her lead somewhat: her mother gave up her international career and stopped flying, the family bought an electric car but barely use it as they all prefer to travel by bicycle.

Recently, Thurnberg spoke to a crowd of 10,000 who had gathered in Helsinki, Finland, to demand that politicians commit to zero emissions by 2035.

“Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every day,” she told them. “There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground, so we can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to change. Everything needs to change and it has to start today.”

Now, I’m glad that Trudeau managed to swing a majority of Canadians in favour of a carbon tax, but I’m not sure the way he did it sets us up very well for making the changes we’ll need to make to stop, or even slow climate change.

So when I sat down to think about why I would bother dragging my kids out to a protest, this is what I came up with: I want our Prime Minister, and all our leaders to know that I am willing to give up my time, my comfort, and my energy to clean up the mess we’ve made. I’m also volunteering my kids to be a part of that effort. I’d like our leaders to deliver the corresponding policy changes to make effective change. The future that scientists have been talking about since before I was born (and before Justin Trudeau was born) is here. There is no time to waste. As a country, as a species, we need to quit our addiction to fossil fuels.

We never did get a glimpse of Trudeau. I’m told he arrived at the golf course at 8:50, one hour exactly after our departure. Sure, we felt a little disappointed, wet, hungry and tired, but we actually had a pretty great time. We sang, we banged on pots and flossed our hearts out.

And on the way home, I heard tiny voices chanting from the back seat:

What do we want?

Climate action!

When do we want it?

Now!

Let’s bring back Birth Days worth celebrating

Scarlet, Southern Resident Orca
The world celebrated the birth of Scarlet (J50) who is now a critically ill three year-old.
Clint Rivers, Showtime Photography and Eagle Wing Tours

If there was any excitement at the birth of a new calf to the dwindling population of Southern Resident Orcas on July 24th, it was short-lived. The baby died just half an hour after birth, and its mother, known as Tahlequah, made sure the world knew it.If somehow you missed it, Tahlequah carried that baby for 17 days.

The general consensus is that the mama whale was sending us a message and plenty of writers and researchers have made speculations about the contents of that message.

I’ve been wondering what it was that hit us so hard about Tahlequah’s “grief tour.”

Is it the fact that we cannot un-see that limp and yellowing corpse, the baby whose life we should be celebrating?

Maybe it’s not just the grief, but the injustice that gets us. Yes, babies die, but Tahlequah’s shouldn’t have and we know it. What we felt watching Tahlequah carry her child around was the same devastation we felt seeing images of a child’s body washed ashore because his parents tried to take him to a safer place. It was the same gut-sick feeling we held for the children taken from their parents by immigration officials at the US-Mexican border earlier this summer. It’s the same horror we feel when we hear about a teenager in our own city dying of “professional indifference.”

The more I learn about these whales, though, the more convinced I am that our grief is even deeper than this. We are bearing witness to the death of birth*, to extinction.

In an interview by Mark Leiren-Young in his orca-focused podcast, Skaana, researcher Ken Balcomb laid out the hard truth about this population:

There have been dead babies in the past and there will be dead babies in the future, and the problem is, there will be no successful reproduction if we don’t have a viable ecosystem for them to live in. That’s the problem.

Just look at the past few years in the life of these whales, and you’d be inclined to think Balcomb is on to something.

In 2014, an eighteen year-old named Rhapsody was found dead near Comox, an autopsy revealed she was pregnant.

In February, 2016, a whale named Nigel disappeared, researchers say his ribs were showing on the last day they saw him.

Throughout that summer, researchers followed 23 year-old named Polaris and her young son, Dipper. The pair appeared to be starving, and in October of that year, they disappeared.

Researchers announced the loss of Granny, believed by some to be more than 100 years old, shortly thereafter.

In the past month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been trying to help three year-old Scarlet, who is also starving, but these efforts have ground to a halt now that she’s in Canadian waters.

In an article about the current situation, and his struggle to get answers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Leiren-Young writes:

Today, if I thought anyone would answer me, it’d be time for hardball questions like: “If Scarlet starves to death because no one signed off on feeding her in Canada, which Canadian official or organization would be responsible?”

It’s a great question.

Governor Jay Inslee could order the breaching of the Lower Snake River dams assisting in the recovery of salmon populations and cut Washington State’s tanker traffic. Premier John Horgan could let the licenses for 20 open-net salmon farms expire, and he could encourage the federal government to cut the allowable catch for the commercial chinook fishery by more than 25%. Prime Minister Trudeau could come up with a better way to spend  $4.5 billion in taxpayer dollars than to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline (especially now that the Canadian courts have rejected the legitimacy of the project’s approval).

If these things happened and the Southern Residents made a miraculous comeback, we could celebrate these leaders as heroes.

If their action are weak and ineffective, can we hold them responsible for the subsequent deaths?

I’ve left voicemail messages urging these leaders to act, and intend to follow up in writing (I’m better in writing). Honestly, my efforts feel scant and futile. The chances are low, I figure, that our leaders will take more than half-measures. A determined policy shift aimed at protecting our Southern Resident friends and rejuvenating the ecosystem they live in would probably be pretty disruptive to the status quo, and let’s face it, the status quo is quite comfy for most of us.

If every last Southern Resident disappears into the deep abyss of the ocean, we will mourn their passing and carry heavy hearts on our sleeves, but I doubt we will change much. As J.M. Cotzee writes in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians: The jackal rips out the hare’s bowels, but the world rolls on.

I finished Cotzee’s book last week. Although it was written in 1980, I felt like it was incredibly timely. It’s about empire and oppression, but it’s also about seeing the future and making a half-baked attempt to change its course. The unnamed protagonist is an aging, lecherous man who holds (at the beginning at least) a position of relative power. The protagonist makes muffled protests against the injustice he sees around him, but ultimately, he is a party to the crimes of his empire.

The same could be said for most of us, myself included.

If our leaders take half-measures and turn our whale friends from living, breathing, sentient gems into artifacts for natural history museums, they are guilty. If the rest of us fail to speak up with the required force, we’re guilty too.

The good news is, we’re not at the end of the story yet. We still have Tahlequah and her fellow chinook-eating orca swimming the ocean. We still have the chance to listen when they send us a message. As far as I know, there’s no single solution to bringing this population back to health, but hope for these whales lies in a genuine commitment to saving them. A commitment to saving is also a commitment to saving their ecosystem and our own. If there was ever a challenge worth stepping up for, here it is.

We might not succeed, but also, we might, and when we do there will be babies to celebrate.

 

  • “The Death of Birth” is a chapter in Paul Hawken’s book, “The Ecology of Commerce,” but I think that EO Wilson is the one who coined the phrase.

Feel like making some calls or writing some letters?

Premier John Horgan:
Telephone:(250) 387-1715 (Legislature number)
Email: john.horgan.mla@leg.bc.ca

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau
Telephone: 613 992-4211
justin.trudeau@parl.gc.ca

Canadian Minister of Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard 604.775.6333
JONATHAN.WILKINSON@PARL.GC.CA
102 W 3 Street
North Vancouver, British Columbia
V7M 1E8
HILL OFFICE
613.995.1225
JONATHAN.WILKINSON@PARL.GC.CA

Governor Jay Inslee
Telephone: 360-902-4111 | Fax: 360-753-4110

Rage, vulnerability and getting to a better place

Lee Maracle writes: More art, more song, more dance will bring us to wellness. Cross cultural dance will get us to know each other.” Photo by Len Gilday

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wants Canadians to educate themselves on “residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada.” My friend Pauline Le Bel has started the Knowing Our Place Book Club to that end. She explained her choice of name to the group who met at our local library.

“As I see it,” she told us, “We’re not at the reconciliation phase yet, we’re still soaking in the truth, and also, I think it’s our job as settlers to know our place.”

Lee Maracle doesn’t much like the word “reconciliation” either, at least not the way it’s being thrown around lately. Maracle is the author of My Conversations with Canadians, the book that kicked off my participation in the Knowing Our Place Book Club. Her response to the question, What is reconciliation to you? Goes like this:

Well stop killing us, that would be a good place to begin… then maybe stop plundering our resources, end colonial domination–return our lands, and then we can have a talk about being friends.

I can imagine this woman, this voice in my head for the past 137 pages standing up on stage and taking a breath before offering up the answer. Her answer is so straightforward it is awkward-making, and there is an edge of humour in it too. Yet I can see this response being received like an exploding bomb, as an imagined attack on a well-meaning, wide-eyed innocent.

This passage mirrors the tone of Maracle’s book, and several book club members seemed put-off by it, stating their sense that she was being “divisive.”

Of course I noticed Maracle’s bite, but was too eager to keep reading to let it bother me. By the end of the book, I wanted to become friends with Maracle. I say this, though, realizing that if it ever happened she would probably mock me relentlessly, on good days. On bad days, she’d tear me into tiny shreds for my ignorance. I would like to envision myself persevering in this relationship, but truthfully I am pretty fragile. How far would I really get?

I’m not sure I would have felt this way a few years ago but I’m also not entirely sure what’s changed for me. As I contemplate this, my friend Chris Corrigan walks into the coffee shop where I sit with my computer. Chris spends his days thinking and talking about this kind of thing, so we dive into the topic.

“It’s the job of settlers to feel unsettled,” he says. “Being unsettled, if you can admit to that, it makes you vulnerable. It is through that vulnerability that you can start to build relationship with the people that you’ve unsettled.”

Chris describes Maracle’s anger as “authentic rage.” He says he’s felt the blunt force of that kind of rage more than a few times, and then brings up a moment last summer when a CBC reporter named Julie Van Dusen got hammered with it during a press conference on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The reporter asked the group of women on stage whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a better track record on Indigenous affairs than Stephen Harper. Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, from Attawapiskat First Nation, quickly informed Van Dusen that the question itself was inappropriate, and disrespectful. After several re-iterations of the question (despite pleas from the press conference hosts to “just stop”) one of Van Dusen’s male colleagues stepped in to defend her, repeating the question, escalating the conflict. Here’s how Wabano-lahtail wrapped things up:

As far as how Justin Trudeau is doing, one of the things we have to keep in mind is we’re asking the United Nations to help us … Because your Liberal party was also responsible – every party, your every government that has been in power, there’s been a war conflict… Look how many people came to bat for you, white lady. And you’re a guest here. Without us, you’d be homeless. This is over.”

Chris describes the escalation, the defence made by the male reporter, as pure patriarchy. This may be so, but my first instinct is to side with Van Dusen. It’s easy for me to see the world through her eyes. I’ve been a reporter and made plenty of mistakes that I’ve been called out on, it feels terrible. The idea of being called out so harshly, so publicly, well it’s my nightmare.

Standing at my safe distance, I toy with perspective and suddenly Wabano-Iahtail’s rage makes sense to me. The women standing up at the press conference that day were brought to the stage by a nightmare more real, and a thousand times more devastating than my own: their sisters and mothers and daughters have been going missing and turning up dead for decades. The women who organized the press conference did so because they had something to say and needed to be heard, not because they wanted to play politics. Were the reporters gathered around them that day actually listening? If they were, they were too focused on their own agenda, too entrenched in their own perspective, to consider the problematic nature of the question they insisted be answered.

I doubt Lee Maracle was surprised to hear about this conversation gone awry. Her book, after all, is an attempt to push her own conversations with Canadians forward to a place of improved understanding. She could’ve spared us her rage and allowed us a more comfortable read, but that would have denied us her truths. Her rage explained is a gift, and if that makes us uncomfortable, maybe we need to face, explore and even explain our own feelings.

Maracle’s anger and sometimes harsh retorts may leave some feeling hopeless, but I find hope in the fact that this book was written at all. While Maracle may have rejected “reconciliation” outright, she clearly has not abandoned the idea of progress, of healing and the potential for human connection. How could she? There’s too much at stake for indigenous people in this country. She sees the pathway to that strengthened humanity in art, and by delving in and sharing, we all stand to benefit – and our conversations do, too. 

Exposed but not quite naked

Listening to CBC Radio the other day, I heard this piece of advice from a writer being interviewed: the only way to move forward creatively, is to allow yourself to be judged.
Ding, ding! That statement spoke my truth and my struggle.
So, here I am writing this first blog post feeling EXPOSED, feeling VULNERABLE, feeling like instead of writing I should really put some more damned clothes on (you know, like hide the feeling with a cloak of silliness).
Journalism has served as a handy cloak for me over the years. For me, at least, it is way easier to tell someone else’s story than it is to tell my own. It’s easier for me to be the platform than the person standing on it.
As the editor of a newspaper, I owed my readers some vulnerability, a sliver of it at least. Without all the people willing to put their stories out there through me, there would’ve been no paper. Also… people willing to actually step up and write their truths in print made the paper infinitely better. I appreciated these rare occasions, in stark contrast with endless rants and raves on social media.
I spent a lot of time wondering about the difference between the two platforms: what made the newspaper seem so weighty and terrifying to people who would happily rant indiscriminately on Facebook? I decided that this particular form of terror is actually a good thing, and that I want to work with people to get through the terror so they can start to write what’s important to them, but to do so in a way that they would actually WANT to see those words published.
So, that’s where I’m headed.
And for now I’ll be here: filtered, but still exposed.