Walking Through These Trees, Knowing

We speak of losing ourselves in both books and forests, but only the latter bodes ill. We pine to escape dark thickets in phrases like “We’re not out of the woods yet.” However, this view of woodlands as sinister and impassible is lensed by colonizers—or, as we call ourselves in Canada, settlers. Fearing an expanse of trees only makes sense if you traffic in cities, industrialization, normalizing, conquering. It only makes sense if you have never been close to the earth.

I’m trying to learn unity and reverence, not fear, in a majestic old-growth forest on the Royal Roads University Campus, which rests on the Xwsepsum and Lekwungen families’ unceded lands on Vancouver Island. Moss emeralds the ground. It reflects not just light but touch; I can feel its cat-fur softness from six feet away. I’m breathing in the smells of mushrooms and pine needles, musk and lichen, and a further June rose.

Botanist and bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests, “When botanists go walking in the forests and fields looking for plants, we say we are going on a foray. When writers do the same, we should call it a metaphoray, and the land is rich in both.” Such a metaphoray requires the writer to remain alert to the terrain, and indeed, my senses quicken as I fathom this forest from the ground up. As I grow, rustling and dappled, at its feet.

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The New True North

I’ve been drawn to the Canadian North since childhood. When I was eight, I saw the movie Never Cry Wolf, based on Farley Mowat’s memoir about researching wolves and caribou decline in the Canadian Arctic. The ice, the space, the sky—I’d never imagined the world could look like a snow globe had broken out of its glass and swallowed half a hemisphere.

The term, “the Canadian North,” is disputed territory. By one definition, it’s synonymous with the triumvirate of Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, whose southern borders more or less run along the 60th parallel. This trio accounts for less than one percent of the nation’s population but two-fifths of its land area. However, Statistics Canada, a government agency, classifies not just these territories but the upper portions of most provinces as northern Canada. Their boundary skirts the Greater Toronto Area and lifts its hem just above the tip of Vancouver Island, where I live. Yet we also speak of the Far North or Canadian Arctic, whose scraps of land thrash in the crushing cold above the Arctic Circle.

In the 1960s, Canadian geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin coined the word “nordicity,” which delineated the North by latitude but also according to social and geographic determinants like summer heat, annual cold, types of ice, precipitation, population, and economic activity. Of course, global warming is putting pressure on at least the first four. In a few decades, it’s possible that even parts of the Canadian Arctic may not be northern by these criteria.

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An English Professor Gives Feedback on Sex Spam Subject Lines

 

  1. “There is no problem for me to sleep with strangers, from Abigail.”

Abigail, that’s great, but there is a problem with your “there is.” In this case, those two words are an expletive construction, meaning they don’t add value to the sentence. It’s like how “fuck” is a filler word with no real meaning (though it can be a verb too—I guess I don’t have to tell you that!) Be more concise. Why not just say “I have no problem sleeping with strangers”? Save your energy for your other endeavors.

  1. “I’m so lustful. I can’t be a modest one.”

I like the short, staccato sentences to thematize breathless concupiscence. The anaphora created by the repetition of the first-person pronoun is also nice. However, “I can’t be modest” would be a stronger statement. As written, the sudden switch from the definite “I” to the indefinite “one” is problematic. James Thurber wrote of this kind of error, “Rare examples of it still exist and are extremely valuable as antiques, although it is usually unsafe to sit or lie down on one.” Especially in your case, I’d imagine.

  1. “So just one chance for you to hook up with me.”

Be sure to proofread for dropped words. Microsoft Word won’t catch the missing verb, perhaps “remains,” in this sentence. I find it helpful to read my work out loud. Do you have a cat? Read it to him, a john, whomever!

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A Tale of Twin Queens of Hearts

I’ve been thinking about why we love the art we love. In some of my most formative encounters with creative work, like Lolita, trauma fueled the attraction; in others, such as butoh dance, I was lured by an exotic vibration that turned familiar with time. But for Twin Peaks and The Tale of Genji, two of the works that shaped and soldered me, both trauma and the tension between exotic and familiar fostered my love. And this contemporary television series/movie franchise and this 1000-year-old Japanese novel are both obsessed with doubles.

When I first read The Tale of Genji in college, a friend remarked on the theme of the double. Its protagonist, Genji, loses a forbidden love to taboo (she’s his stepmother) and religion (she takes the tonsure), so he grooms her very young niece to take her place. In the novel’s radical last third, the antihero Kaoru replaces Oigimi, a lover who dies, with her half-sister Ukifune. My friend observed, “Twin Peaks is the same story when it comes to Dale Cooper’s infatuation with Annie,” a young woman and love interest who resembles his dead beloved, Caroline.

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The Polish Resistance and Me

1.

My family once knew how to resist great evil.

Less so now. Based on the current generation, we seem unlikely candidates for such heroism. The truth is, we’re average. Some of us have done better than others by whatever metric you might judge a life—career, money, education, length and frequency of marriages, number of offspring. We’ve fallen ill mentally and physically. We’ve divorced and failed in all of the other usual ways. We bicker, ignore, criticize, lie.

But during World War II, from their base at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, a batch of my first cousins, once removed, fought the Nazi regime. They glided to legend the same way they traveled to Christmas Eve’s midnight mass when snow was piled high: on skis.

The Marusarz were poor Polish-Catholic farmers whose children had to quit school after eighth grade to help with chores. But several of them—Stanisław, Jan, and Helena—showed unusual talent as skiers and turned competitive in the 1930s, winning national titles in ski jumping and downhill. Stanisław competed in his first Olympic games in 1932 and participated in four more. For a while, my distant cousins seemed poised to transcend their limited circumstances.

Then, on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. After a brief but passionate fight, Poland was occupied by the Germans. The borders were sealed, and Zakopane, where the Marusarz family lived, was declared a closed town. The Tatra Mountains, which rose steeply from its limits and divided Poland from present-day Slovakia, were the one escape route left open. As a precaution, the Germans forced the local citizens to hand over their ski equipment on pain of death. Stanisław, Jan, and Helena chose to keep theirs and use it for good as ski couriers, transporting intelligence and refugees over the mountains and to resistance headquarters in Budapest, in the Armia Krajowa, or “Home Army.”

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Anthony Bourdain Lived and Died Around the World

Anthony Bourdain Lived and Died Around the World (revised)

*I published a version of this essay about four years ago. This is an updated version to commemorate the fourth anniversary of his death.

“There’s something very strange about you, because you look normal,
but it’s all going on inside. Yes, you have got a slight pleading look in your eyes.”
– Nigella Lawson to Anthony Bourdain, “London”

When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, a lot of people on news outlets and social media expressed astonishment that someone so successful would die by suicide. I was stunned that they were stunned. For my part, I’d long been surprised and impressed by the fact that he chose and was able to maintain, for years, a functional life after heroin and crack addiction. To me, that was the unlikelihood.

Yet on some level, I understood other people’s reactions. It wasn’t just because Bourdain had received accolades, amassed wealth, and scored what seemed to many of us the perfect job. We know enough about suicide, or should, to grasp that it is usually not a reaction to one specific event, and even objectively good circumstances may not preclude it. I think the shock was compounded by the fact that Bourdain was always chasing and articulating something so elemental to the human spirit. As a companion in the “Spain” episode of Parts Unknown puts it while they down tripe-spiked tapas: “Sun. Plaza. Guts.” If Bourdain couldn’t be happy with regular dosages of all three, then it seems like we’re all kind of fucked.

I was a fan of Bourdain’s No Reservations series years back but had never watched his more recent Parts Unknown episodes. Shortly after his suicide in 2018, I watched all 64 segments that were on Netflix at the time; this chunk represents two-thirds of the series. I viewed them to enjoy them and to mourn, and also to try to comprehend why Bourdain ended his life—which is, of course, impossible. But it is so tempting to wonder, to treat death as if it has an answer. If it has an answer, maybe there’s a solution too.

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