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The Hidden Life of Trees | Peter Wohlleben

The cover of Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees

In the woods just north of the house I grew up in lived a massive hemlock, about ten feet off the main trail. During winter the snow would pin its lower branches to the ground. If you tucked the collar of your coat up under your toque, you could sneak through the branches without getting too much snow down your back. Once inside those perimeter branches, you entered a different world. The frigid wind and cold was gone and the snow that made walking so difficult was less than an inch thick. Every time I walked that trail in the winter, I made sure to pause underneath that hemlock.

Trees have always fascinated me which is why I was quick to pick up German forester Peter Wohlleben’s book. The Hidden Life of Trees is interesting reading. Did you know that trees can feed nutrients to the stumps of their fallen comrades, keeping the stump alive for centuries? Did you know that trees communicate with each other, warning their neighbours of pests?

Wohlleben convincing demonstrates that trees are far more complex organisms than we have understood. A fully functioning forest—forests that take five centuries to develop—are perfectly balanced examples of biodiversity.

Unfortunately, Wohlleben’s fascinating information and observations about the forests are mixed with overly anthropomorphic ideas. You get the impression that Wohlleben has spent a little too much time in the woods alone! The Hidden Life of Trees walks the fine line between research and romanticisation, falling too often into the latter.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World. Translated by Jane Billinghurst. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books, 2015.

Summer North of Sixty | James Raffan

4abf0255ca0057c593267746167444341587343If you’ve ever been on a serious canoe trip, this book will resurrect memories of rapids, campfires, and friendships. If you’re more of an armchair explorer, Raffan’s prose will give you a taste of why people choose to leave civilized comforts behind and head outside.

Summer North of Sixty is Raffan’s account of a 700 kilometre canoe trip across the Arctic Circle in Northwest Territories. The sparse beauty (and occasional terror) of the land is painted in vivid detail.

One of the best surprises of this book was the personal story. Raffan’s honestly portrayed the stresses the trip created between him and his girlfriend. I’m not sure what possessed Raffan to take a new paddler on a six week canoe trip, but I suppose there’s no better way to get to know someone than under stress!

I’ve read and enjoyed Raffan’s other books—Fire in the Bones, Deep WatersBark, Skin and Cedar, as well as some of the works he’s edited. Summer North of Sixty is by far his best.

—James Raffan, Summer North of Sixty (Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 1990).

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Annie Dillard

The cover of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker CreekIn Salvation Means Creation Healed, Snyder lists the various ways in which God’s creation is misunderstood. One of those ways is the romanticization of nature. When we romanticize nature we ignore all the nasty bits—biting mosquitoes, parasites, carnivorous critters—and pretend it’s somehow pristine and pre-fallen.

Dillard makes no such mistake.

The greatest strength of Annie Dillard is her ability to describe in compelling detail the beauty and terror of the natural world in her own back yard.

In one chapter, she’s amazed at how a tree can transform “gravel and bitter salts into these soft-lipped lobes, as if I were to bite down on a granite slab and start to swell, bud, and flower” (112). A few chapter’s later she’s horrified by a nightmare occasioned by watching two huge luna moths mate—”the perfect picture of utter spirituality and utter degradation” (159).

Speaking of spirituality, Dillard’s reflections on creation are profound, ultimately drawing her into praise:

My left foot says “Glory,” and my right food says “Amen”: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise. (271)

Like poetry, Dillard’s prose has to be savored slowly. This is the sort of writing that should be read aloud—every syllable is expertly placed.

Pilgrim is a classic for good reason. Dillard has paired her keen and honest observation skills with her beautiful mastery of language.

You will read this book more than once.

—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York, NY: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974).

No Man’s River | Farley Mowat

Imagine returning from the second world war, disillusioned with your government and confused about your future. Farley Mowat chose to visit Canada’s barren lands—that area that’s north of “civilization” but south of the Arctic Ocean. This is the land of the Ihalmiut, the people of the deer, who eek out a troubled existence from the harsh wilderness.

In No Man’s River, Mowat recounts his first journey to this land. Mowat’s fame as a writer started with his description of this land and its people in People of the Deer and The Desperate People. He returns in this autobiographical book to fill in some of the blanks.

Mowat’s stubbornness and humour are in full view here. His relationship with Harper, the American scientist who hired Mowat to help him with his studies, is an unending source entertainment. One of my favourite moments is when Mowat decided to liberate some of the grain alcohol set aside to embalm animals. Well played, sir.

This memoir is not without its problems, though. The first section which describes the family history of Mowat’s Metis companion is unfocused. I read the first section not knowing that the book was essentially about Mowat’s relationship and travels his companion, Charles.

Shortcomings aside, No Man’s River is a fascinating look at what it’s like to live and travel by canoe in Canada’s Barren Lands. Canoe trippers will be salivating for their next trip as descriptions of rapids and rivers dance in their heads.

—Farley Mowat, No Man’s River (Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 2004.

Within the Stillness | Keith Olsen

The cover of Within the Stillness by Keith Olsen

A wilderness memoir from the city—what a lucky find!

I stumbled over Olsen’s self-published memoir while randomly scanning the shelves in a Burlington, Ontario Value Village—quite a distance removed from its Northern Saskatchewan setting! On the strength of the cover picture and the promise of an authentic window into winter trapline life, I paid my money and took my chances.

I made the right decision.

In Within the Stillness, Keith Olsen recounts one winter he spent as a child with his parents on a Northern Saskatchewan trapline. Olsen’s prose is simple and direct. He tells his story with vivid details and little philosophical commentary.

I enjoyed every page of this book, devouring it in half a day. If, like me, you’re a wilderness camper awaiting your next fix, Within the Stillness will whet your appetite for your next adventure.

—Keith Olsen, Within the Stillness (Regina, SK: Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing, 2011).

The Complete Up North | Doug Bennet & Tim Tiner

The Complete Up North is the ultimate book to have in your bathroom (or, if at camp, outhouse). It’s a collection of over one hundred short essays about life in Ontario’s wilderness.

The diversity of articles in this book is amazing. You learn about mammals, fish, bugs, trees, the sky and even the earth in general.

Are you curious about the variations in the loon’s call?  Have you ever wondered how far a bullfrog can jump (8-10′ on average). Have you ever considered why the Trillium is Ontario’s floral emblem? This book answers questions you never realized you had about life in Ontario.

If the essay proper isn’t enough information for you, the sidebars are full of facts and stats. As icing on the cake, each essay starts with a fine drawing of the subject.

This is the perfect gift for any armchair naturalist!

Canexus: The Canoe in Canadian Culture | James Raffan & Bert Horwood, eds.

In November of 1987, James Raffan and Bert Horwood held a conference at Queen’s University. During the conference, a number of academics from various fields who share a love for paddling presented papers which now make up this book: Canexus.

I was thrilled to discover this while looking through the shelves in Ashley’s Books in Bancroft. I had never heard of this book edited in part by James Raffan (author of many other books on canoeing and wilderness which I’ve read) and illustrated by Bill Mason!

Mason’s sketches are the perfect backdrop to any reflection of canoeing in Canadian culture. Although there are no specific locations mentioned in any of the illustrations, they elicit memories of canoe trips taken.

There are problems with this collection. Academic arrogance and pretentiousness plagued a few of the papers. In particular, William C. James’ essay on “Canoeing and Gender Roles” was painful to read. Have you ever wondered whether the canoe resembles a vagina or a phallus? Just as James.

Thankfully, the book had enough highlights to counterbalance that drivel. “Reflections of a Bannock Baker” by Bob Henderson is a concise reflection on the simplicity of canoeing and its relationship to wisdom. George J. Luste’s “Solitude and Kinship in the Canoeing Experience” is a reflection on the deeper significance of canoe trips. The highlight, by far, was Raffan’s essay, “Probing Canoe Trips for Persistent Meaning”. His harrowing story of surviving a three day storm in the barons while simultaneously reflecting on the value of this trip was simply inspiring.

Nothing symbolizes Canadian culture better than the canoe. Canexus provides fifteen ways to reflect on its significance.

Paddle to the Arctic | Don Starkell

Don Starkell is the last person I’d take on any sort of wilderness trip. He’s stubborn, driven, and near-suicidal in his quest to meet his goals. That said, his journal sure makes for interesting reading!

Paddle to the Arctic is the account of Starkell’s three separate attempts to kayak from Churchill, Manitoba to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. Each attempt is fraught with relationship breakdowns and near-death experiences. For anyone who has ever attempted a big wilderness trip, this journal will bring back a flood of memories. His occasional navigational blunders rang true with me!

One of the highlights of this book are the maps and photos. There are three healthy sections of photos to help you envision the sort of terrain Starkell and company had to deal with. There’s an excellent map at the beginning of the book, and smaller maps at the head of each chapter. This, combined with the sparse journal-style prose, places the reader right into the adventure.

This is a great volume to read during the off-season when you’re itching for that next big paddle.

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