Q&A with Ariel Gordon

September 22, 2019 | Victoria Festival of Authors | Q&A
Ariel Gordon 

With intimacy and humour award-winning poet Ariel Gordon walks us through the streets of Winnipeg and into the urban forest that is, to her, the city’s heart… Whether it is the effects of climate change on the urban forest or foraging in the city, Dutch elm disease in the trees or squirrels in the living room, Gordon delves into our relationships with the natural world with heart and style. In the end, the essays circle back to the forest, where the weather is always better and where the reader can see how to remake even the trees that are lost. Ariel Gordon’s poetic paean to the urban forest, to the wilderness that is all around us if we look, helps the reader do exactly that: to look, to discover, to praise the natural world, even among the skyscrapers and tucked beside the sidewalks and roadways. 

Ariel is interviewed by Barbara Pelman, author of 3 books of poetry, the latest: Narrow Bridge published by Ronsdale Press 2017. 

Barbara Pelman  First of all, thank you for this wonderful and informative book! I now know a lot more about urban forests than I ever did, and have a new appreciation for the parks and woods within and around our cities. 

As a ‘city slicker’, I never really considered that I too live in nature, though my Nature might be a bit more roped off and companioned with sidewalks and pathways. Your book offers a different perspective on living in the city, and living with the natural world around you—including mushrooms and squirrels and bats and raccoons (and in this part of the world, deer). I love how you offer your walking tours to others, to show them how to live in an urban forest. What advice would you give us citified people, to keep us more in tune with the natural world?

Ariel Gordon   So I was once asked what my cultural project was in front of a room of people. My only answer at the time was that I was trying to write the best poems I was capable of but now, I think my project is to help people see what’s around them. 

To put it another way, nearly a decade ago I started sharing pictures of macro mushrooms to Facebook, my friends and acquaintances from around the country started sending me terrible blurry photos of mushrooms. In the smallest of ways, I had helped them notice one element of the places they were living or the places they were visiting.

With Treed, I wanted to help people see individual trees but also to think a bit on the system level. What does it mean to live in a treed city? How does it affect us? And, more importantly, what can we do to save it, especially as climate change is pounding at the door?

BP It is always interesting to me to understand how a book comes to be; what are the choices made about structure and organization—what goes at the beginning, what comes at the end, what fits beside what. How did you decide on the structure of this book? Obviously not chronological order; what order did you choose and how did you come to your choices?

AG I started the book with an essay that explained what urban forests are. It seemed logical to follow that with another that introduced them to my beloved, Assiniboine Forest, which is a never-developed park within Winnipeg city limits. After that, I sort of followed a rough format of two at-home essays followed by an away essay. Those essays are set in interior BC during forest fire season and Alberta at the Banff Centre as well as a national park on the MB/SK border. I had wanted to compare urban forests to what we think of as ‘wilderness’ to think about how they were similar but also how they were different.

To return to your previous question, I love that the origins of the word ‘wilderness’ is comes from the Old English word ‘wildēornes’, which means “land inhabited only by wild animals.” It is literally a combination of “wild dēor” or “wild deer” plus the suffix “ness”.  

BP I love how you weave your family throughout the book, how they are constant companions to your writing and your walking journeys. What has been their response to seeing themselves in these pages?

AG My first book was a collection of pregnancy and mothering poems and I’ve made fun of my partner Mike’s snoring and his feet in poems. So they’re pretty blasé about it. 

But including them felt political this time, because so much nature writing is written by men testing themselves, risking themselves, in nature. And they always have wives back in civilization, taking care of the children, minding the house. But what if their wives had wanted to have adventures too? So, when writing about nature as a woman, especially when off on a retreat solo, I felt I had to acknowledge how much more difficult it was and how much negotiation it took. And this is with a partner who always says “You have to do it!” when I propose something expensive/foolhardy.

I was actually more worried about depicting the larger cast of characters that wanders through my book. I sent essays far and wide in the last stages of editing, making sure that the people I quoted, the people I leaned on, were okay with how I’d written them. 

Some of that urge to get-it-write anxiety is also manifested in the notes section, where I basically show my sources. That might also because my dayjob is at the University of Manitoba Press, where our monographs usually have extremely fulsome notes sections.

BP I am always intrigued by how writers move from poetry to prose, and what prompts the changes. Do you sit down intended to write poetry and end up in prose, and vice versa? What decisions do you make in terms of which you choose?

AG I have been writing poetry for more than twenty-five years. I love what it’s able to do, what it’s able to convey. I love how it uses language and the page like painters use paint and canvas. And I’d always written nature poems and even urban nature poems. But when I started writing about the urban forest, I knew non-fiction was probably a better genre, at least for me, for the work I wanted to do, i.e. combining science/nature writing with the personal essay. The writing of it felt remarkably similar to me, in that I was trying to use poetic language, to somehow fit entire worlds in what I was writing. A very real difference was that my statements about urban nature in prose were 17 or 19 pages. And they were double-spaced, which I hated. SINGLE SPACE FOREVER!

BP There’s a great line in a little-known Atwood story called “Grunnugs”: Geography is Destiny. Reading the chapter based on your experiences at Banff, I remembered that quote, as you struggle with the heaviness of mountains and missing your prairie sky. We West Coasters can’t bear to be far from the sound of the ocean. Do you agree with Atwood? Are we indelibly molded by our geographical beginnings?

AG I think every writer is molded by every experience they have, from birth onwards. 

But I do consider myself a Winnipeg writer. A settler Winnipeg writer who never lived more than a mile from the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, who has a thing for trees and mushrooms. Who mistrusts conifers and, also, mountains. 

BP Trees are now more and more in the news, as the Amazon burns and scientists warn us of the their critical importance. Your book offers us a deep love of the trees along the sidewalks and roads of the city, in the parks and gardens. I checked Victoria’s tree count (150,000) and there are fewer per person than in Winnipeg—a shocking realization. Fewer than 2 per person! Do you have some ideas about how to increase the tree count and preserve what is there already?

AG We all of us, public and private, need to plant trees. We need to plant them for environmental benefits and for health benefits. We need to hesitate every time we think that we need to cut down healthy trees so that a bigger garage can be built or a mall built. We need to water trees religiously when they are first planted so they don’t wither and die. We need to protect trees in construction zones and on boulevards.

BP I love the ending of the book, your daughter’s ‘remaking’ of the stump, a kind of unghosting. Endings are so important, and this one is a wonderful symbol for the book: though trees die, they remain our foundation, even as stumps. Congratulations! Can’t wait to see what’s coming next! In the meantime, I am going to see about replanting that pin oak in my backyard that the neighbours cut down.