Early in Tanis MacDonald’s new essay collection, Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female, the author asserts that stories about walking have largely been the domain of a certain kind of writer on a certain kind of journey. “There are fewer books about walking written by someone like me,” she notes. “A woman with a demanding trauma brain, more than a decade of chronic pain, an intense need for solitude and whose adventures are small.”
From here, MacDonald goes on to dismantle some of the more pervasive themes common to the adventure narrative. Bringing her keen poet’s eye to the essay form, her approach is lyrical and wide-ranging, examining the privileges and exclusions of the simple stroll, and asks us to consider who gets to navigate the world freely and who does not. The natural world and our connection to it is a primary focus, but these essays – and the poems interspersed throughout them – prove that nature writing can go well beyond the traditional: “I will add the possibility of nature writing as disability writing, as feminist worldview and as assault survivor narrative.”
Straggle certainly acknowledges walking’s myriad benefits, but what is more striking is how it details walking’s limitations – both in the fallibility of the human body and in the constraints the world imposes upon that body. As an assault survivor, MacDonald has first-hand experience with the healing power of movement, but she poignantly acknowledges the threat and very real fear public spaces can bring to people like her.
“Every walk I take is in defiance of my parents’ warning to be careful because anything could happen,” she writes.
In one particularly moving essay, “Take Daily,” MacDonald addresses how the daily walk has become a common prescription for the ills of pandemic life. The author’s own pandemic-sparked panic attacks drove her to follow the simple directive of “walk away from house for fifteen minutes. Breathe. Keep your eyes open. Walk back to house for fifteen minutes.” Anyone who has experienced anxiety, during the pandemic or otherwise, will find deep solace in this candid account of the body’s betrayal under threat, of the groping for reprieve, and of walking as a partial solution at the very least.
Finally, MacDonald shows that walking is a vital antidote to a world that demands constant, deadline-driven speed. The humble act of moving through nature forces us to pause and turn inward: “Walking reminds me that time is not something that I can manipulate by working faster, or bend by answering a ton of emails or collapse by driving.”
Above all else, the act of walking asserts that “I am a body with abilities and limitations.”
Novelist, poet, and essayist Theresa Kishkan is similarly forthcoming about her unconventional, poetic approach to the essay form, explaining in her introduction to Blue Portugal and Other Essays that she turned from poetry to nonfiction when “the lines I wrote continued past the point where a poet would consider the stanza, the lyric, complete.” The resulting collection, marked by amorphous memory and unencumbered exploration, eschews a standard structure or even the need for a cohesive argument. Instead, Blue Portugal gives us a sequence of ideas, thoughtfully rendered and gracefully linked, that repeat like music throughout the book.
Kishkan, too, traverses wide terrain; aging, history, family, and memory are all covered here, along with more visual motifs and themes, such as the author’s passion for dyeing fabric and stitching quilts. Her conjured images pair well with the looser narrative structure – a convergence of disparate parts to create a more beautiful whole.
Like MacDonald, Kishkan shares a deep investment in the natural world and its healing benefits, and in the importance of acknowledging our interconnectedness. She also spends a great deal of time meditating on the fallibility of the body, her own investigation into its unpredictability inspired by a slip and fall on a patch of black ice. The cracked tailbone was anticipated, but the threat to her vision was a more mysterious and terrifying surprise. When a damaged retina necessitates immediate treatment, it inspires the author to further ruminate on colour, darkness, and the nature of sight itself.
“I’d come through the experience with my sight intact but with scars at the backs of my eyes from the laser procedures,” she writes. “Quite often I’d lay my hands gently over my eyes and imagine a life without sight. There are worse things, I know, but I thought of everything I loved to look at – tulips, birds in flight, favourite landscapes . . .”
What is most striking about these passages is how Kishkan recalls this significant physical and emotional trauma – the very real risk of blindness – with jarring steadiness. The discussion of her threatened vision becomes even more moving given how sensory the collection is overall; named after a wine she first drank in her grandmother’s homeland, Blue Portugal is threaded with vivid colour, rich taste, and robust experience.
Straggle and Blue Portugal share an interest in nature, family, memory, and – for better or worse – the body. Whether through subject matter or an innovative poetic approach, both upend common expectations of how an essay collection can and should function. Absent is the more traditional exclusionary scaffolding, and in its place is something more valuable: a rare sense of openness, a willingness to explore via more unconventional means, and a vital acknowledgement that human experience should not be contained. Instead, it should be allowed to wander.