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Book Reviews

Buffalo Jump: A Woman’s Travels

by Rita Moir

Nuk Tessli: The Life of a Wilderness Dweller

by Chris Czajkowski

Riska, Memories of a Dayak Girlhood

by Riska Orpa Sari, Linda Spalding, ed.

May 12
Tom says the new chicks have Pasty Butt, a condition that requires cleaning. And since he squished his hand in between logs and the top of his index finger has gone black, it is my job to remove the pasty bits. We settled here for rural, remote, quiet; two acres of 100-year-old hayfield in a municipality with subdivision-tough restrictions. Downside: the whole community debates your chicken coop permit. The preschool is co-op and you have to tolerate everybody’s kids. To afford the land, we had to lure my mother from Vancouver. Today, she harvested all the rhubarb, made 23 pies. For each, she lifted the squeaky door of my massive freezer, and shouted, “More provisions for the millennium!” If your chicks succumb to Pasty Butt, the neighbours glower across the deer fence, perched high and lazy atop their lawn tractor.

May 13
Reading three books at once, all by women who push beyond safety, past gender boundaries and physical limits to live alone in versions of wilderness. They are perpetual travellers, and from B.C.’s Coast Mountains, to southern Alberta, to the rainforest of Borneo, each has the spiritual stamina necessary for gypsying. Rita Moir’s Buffalo Jump is her second book. Her writing has bloomed. Surer of sentences, of imagery, Moir seeks the glint of subtext: “I kneel on the prairie by the mother buffalo, covered in blood and wind, and wonder why I didn’t try harder to help her live. She looks like meat on a hook, like bears I have butchered…. The only connection this dream has to anything I know is the act of butchering a large animal, and to wind, piercing and keening.”

The dream image is also connected to her mother, whom Moir drives across North America to attend a family reunion. Her mother is a mysterious “narrative link,” the source of family stories that will comfort and define Moir at a difficult time. Through gathering and retelling family stories, Moir helps her mother live. Mom’s best advice: “Honey, you’re no damn good unless you’re on somebody’s shit list.” Moir calls this “unusual sustenance,” but thrives on it.

May 14
Tom’s gibbled hand means he can’t cultivate the garden. The Rotovator outweighs me, and I dreamed last night that when I finally got it started, I became one with the blade, rotating and turning the fall rye, penetrating soil and coming up and around while the big gassy machine steered me.

From Moir’s book: “How can a woman be both the adventurer and the core? The centre holding, yet also the wanderer?” She is figuring a way to be both and when the family stories are in, she solves the paradox: “I think that writing, like a woman, can’t be confined to the home, or it will consume itself. It needs space to wander, be scoured by wind, lie on its back by a river or in the stubble below a prairie sky, to fight blizzards and icy roads.”

Buffalo Jump is not one for the Book Boys in Toronto with their disdain for loggers, miners, and the alleged hick tradition of literature in Canada. There are no professional dancers or TV execs in Moir’s human lexicon; she prefers waitresses, fishermen, and kindly mechanics. These, she suggests, are Canada’s narrative links.

May 15
Our handsome neighbour has hired an arborist to figure the best way to cut down a 300-year-old Douglas fir. It leans over the house he built too close to the forest. The tallest, craggiest tree, and I’ve gone all environmental with the possibility of its fall. The neighbour on the other side has planted 13 Cupressus leylandii – means “Paul Bunyan’s weeds” – along the property line. Once friendly, the hayfield now looks chartered and mean.

Finished Nuk Tessli: The Life of a Wilderness Dweller by Chris Czajkowski (say it like the composer). She’s the one we heard on Gzowski in the 80s. She wrote letters about building a log house by herself. Now there’s another cabin – near Bella Coola, way north of Vancouver – and Nuk Tessli is about her life there. Four chapters on bears; one on squirrels that pilfered her insulation; a couple on wildflowers (she is an amateur botanist and painter); an anti-logging spout-off or two; and as in Moir’s book, plenty about dogs and their fine company.

Czajkowski runs the Nuk Tessli Alpine Experience (means “mondo hike”). The book is an infomercial for her tourist business. Say there was a contest for bad Annie Dillard parody and consider this entry: “A few whiffs of cloud hung about the peaks and behind them was a darker wall of heaving vapour from which the flying rags of cloud were spawned.” Czajkowski also descends into frequent nasty condescension – “City folk have always imagined themselves to be sophisticated and worldly, but step back and look at these artificial microcosms, and each one is revealed to be as insular and parochial as any society on earth.” In the margin I have written, “She hates me!!”

May 16
Back from a session with the marriage counsellor in Victoria and spotted Western Tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana) in the cedar by the woodshed. First time! Birds of Victoria describes their nests as “untidy.” At least one species is allowed to be.

Czajkowski’s book mimics the classic Driftwood Valley, by Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher, a woman who explored the same region but decades earlier. Driftwood Valley is a scientist’s inspirational journey into an unexplored region and its indigenous culture, into her own resourcefulness and marriage. Czajkowski is equipped – chainsaw, canoe, shotgun – but lacks Stanwell-Fletcher’s ability to make us care about her struggles and triumphs. She does not observe hard enough. Details are dull; she introduces characters but scrimps on dialogue or significant anecdote; there’s no tension even in life-and-death land. After 13 years alone in the wilderness, she takes her immense achievements for granted.

May 17
Tom’s stitches are out and the finger, apparently, will remain whole. We awoke at dawn when a DC-6 dive-bombed our field with Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria to eradicate the dreaded (by the forest industry) gypsy moth. Girls at the corner store think they know what war sounds like now.

Until she was eight, Riska lived in a remote Borneo village in semi-jungle with the Dayak tribe. Gradually, she ventured closer to “civilized” culture, to education and English, and further from an indigenous culture where headhunting and offering chicken blood to the gods are standard. Beaten by a lousy husband, victimized by male tourists, thwarted by corrupt local businessmen, she leaves her daughter behind with her parents to pursue independence in decadent Bali.

Riska: Memories of a Dayak Girlhood is the last revolution in my reading cycle. Linda Spalding met Riska in Borneo when working on that orangutan book. Riska was her guide, and they continued their friendship through correspondence. Spalding astutely recognized a one-time only story and arranged for the autobiography.

So Riska is a guide, like Czajkowski; she tells the stories and myths of her tribe “that go from mouth to mouth from one generation to another,” like Moir. All three women migrate without marriage bonds. Their roles – solitary outsiders – allow them to write. Of the three books, Riska’s story has the best material.

Moir and Czajkowski do not explain their motivations to seek wilderness and so empathy is difficult. Riska’s journey away from the rain forest sings through awkward idiom and honesty: “Two young girls were holding my wedding dress behind and I had to walk slowly as the shoes I used were with high heels. The sharp heels sometimes stuck in the clay earth so I had to be extra careful.”

The book is often more anthropology than memoir. But even Riska’s opposition to the clearcutting of her home forest – rooted in the spiritual, mythical, and magical relationships of the Dayak to trees – is more impassioned than Czajkowski’s drab rhetoric. While Moir alludes to a brokenish heart, Riska recalls the violence, betrayals, and sexual predation she endured before she could say, “I am the owner of my body.”

May 18
These books were okay, but none caused me to alter my course, to reorder my place in the wild, or even in my family. Call me provincial – parochial? – but I like the high forms of nature writing. In Thoreau’s pond, Dillard’s creek and Stanwell-Fletcher’s valley, big ideas are teased from small things. As opposed to most cultural exegesis (eg. the urban Book Boys and the CanLit canon), which is small ideas about big things.

My mother arrived after the noon news to tally the home invasions in our old Vancouver neighbourhood. “They wait in the garage,” she says, “and then steal the cars.” I told her the damned deer pruned my Canadian Explorer rose back to nothing last night, but she accused me of glibness, of poor taste. “You’re losing your urban,” she accused. My urban what?