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Poetry Month Q&A: Elena Johnson on nature poetry, data, and writing from the alpine tundra

Elena Johnson is a Vancouver-based poet who recently launched her first book, Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra (Gaspereau Press). The collection was written and researched during a month-long stint in 2008 as writer-in-residence at a remote ecology research station in the Yukon.

It was a unique experience for Johnson, who’s worked as a field ecology researcher and park interpreter, but who currently makes her living as an editor. “I was helicoptered in with the food supplies, and I hiked out at the end of my stay,” she says.

Johnson spoke to Q&Q about the collection.

This book is set in the alpine tundra. What was it like, working so intensely with a landscape? It seems I’m almost always working intensely with a landscape. I can’t help it – it’s where my focus naturally goes, especially in longer series of poems. And wilderness expeditions are what I would ideally like to be doing all the time. So spending a few weeks solidly immersed in this remote mountain range, with a tent to sleep in, food to eat, scientists to chat with over dinner, and my days fairly free for wandering and writing, was dreamy.

I didn’t find it very different than writing about other landscapes or ecosystems, except that I had such freedom and time in the alpine tundra to focus and observe. The alpine tundra is a very unique biome: it’s above the tree line, it’s sparsely vegetated with tiny plants, and it’s interspersed with stretches of scree and patches of snow. Where I was, in the Ruby Range, if you climb up to the top of a mountain ridge, you see an endless series of mountain ridges in almost every direction.

The deep silence I experienced in that environment was something my brain had to adjust to. There’s a poem in the book called “Silent for the Dry Season” that attempts to describe this silence; it was one of the most difficult poems to try to get right.

You’ve included tables and graphs in the manuscript – can data be poetry? I love found poems, and the map, charts, and diagram included in this book seemed like beautiful poems to me when I came across them. I was lucky to find an editor who also saw their beauty, and saw them as poems. I hope other readers will see them that way. And I wonder if people reading the book will consider and interpret the data, or if they will look at these found poems as illustrations or visual art.

You were born in New Brunswick but live on the other coast now. Is New Brunswick ‘home’ in your writing or are you used to writing to all these different places? There is something about the East Coast that does feel like home to me. But I don’t think I can pin home to a certain place. I can only narrow it down in this way: there are certain forest types that overlap and stretch across much of Canada: Boreal, Acadian, Maple-Beech – these feel like home to me. In these forest regions, I know the birdsongs, and I know the trees and plants by name. I do feel sort of homesick when I think about this.

On the West Coast, I haven’t developed that sort of knowledge yet, so, even though I know a lot of wonderful people here, it still doesn’t quite feel like home. For nearly two years, I’ve been living near a wild, protected stretch of beach. I’ve been bringing my binoculars out on my walks, and keeping an eye on the shorebirds that winter here: Buffleheads, American Widgeons, and Common Goldeneye, among others. Well, maybe I am developing a relationship with this place. The recent spill of toxic bunker fuel in English Bay really broke my heart, especially when I thought about these birds.

This interview has been edited and condensed.