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.KEEP READING
“Vivid, hilarious, enormously entertaining” was one reviewer’s response (Andreas Schroeder) to Carla Funk’sfirst, and marvelous, memoir of her Mennonite childhood in Vanderhoof BC: Every Little Scrap and Wonder. She is the author of five books of poetry, the most recent, Gloryland. She was the first Poet Laureate of the City of Victoria, has taught at the University of Victoria Faculty of Fine Arts and in her living room, and is working on her second memoir. One of the chapters in this memoir, Butchering Day, won the Constance Rooke Nonfiction Prize. She lives in Victoria BC, for which we are all grateful.
Carla is interviewd by Barbara Pelman, author of 3 books of poetry, the latest: Narrow Bridge published by Ronsdale Press 2017.
Barbara Pelman: First, I want to tell you how much I loved the book. I laughed, I underlined, I made notes, I couldn’t put it down. You made the people come alive so clearly I could have walked into that hog butchering backyard. Ok, so let’s start. While reading, I notice that you avoid any reference to dates or ages. I assume this is deliberate. What effect does it have on the memoir, to keep it timeless?
Carla Funk :Yes, I chose to leave out specific references ages, primarily as a way of replicating my own childhood experience of time, which was less tuned to dates and more rooted in the passage of seasons and potent sensory impressions. It strikes me that dates and numbers and etchings on a calendar are the way our grown-up brains are trained to chart time, but as kids, our days rise and fall with the sun and moon, are marked by stars and snow and a birch tree’s leaves going to fire.
BP: I love the metaphors you use to thread the memoir together: the patchwork quilt and fabric fragments, the seasons and how they spill into each other, the bonfire, the family members who weave in and out of the story. At what point did the metaphors come to you as a structure?
CF: I remember Jack Hodgins offering me a piece of wisdom when I asked about how to turn my poem-thinking into prose. He suggested that I find a structural metaphor, one that would allow me to see the shape of the narrative and could act as a guide in the writing process. Early on in the drafting stage, I realized that I had several images of sewing, and more than reference to home-stitched blankets and quilts. Because memory is such a patchwork of bits and pieces, it struck me that this was the truest structural metaphor I might find for this collection.
BP: Knowing you today, it’s hard, and wonderful, to see what a rapscrapper you were as a kid! I especially loved the chapter about your brother, how hard you fought, how you regret it now (well, a little). And the ways you unrepentantly disobeyed your parents: the fall from the roof, the ice cream story. I’m really looking forward to the next memoir to see how (and if) these characteristics changed!
CF: You know how folks say that sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better? Count on that for the follow-up memoir!
BP: The chapter “Rules of War” contain a great deal about the war between the sexes, and your youthful attempts to bring an end to that war. Your mother seems also to be caught up in that war, more a hostage than a full member of a regiment. How did you view your mother in her role? And the other mothers? How do you view them now? Did it seem to you that your future was headed in that direction, to the world of Barbies and not hand-made guns?
CF: As a kid, I don’t think I thought very objectively about my mother as a full human. She was “Mom,” and yes, a woman in a realm ruled by the men, but being born in that environment made it ordinary, the way things were. I knew my mother was competent, hard-working, feisty and full of pluck, but the final word rested with my father, as it did in most households in that time and town. Other mothers were sometimes stricter, sometimes softer, sometimes were fancier than mine and wore lipstick and nail polish, and sometimes they cussed and smoked like my dad’s trucker friends. Only in adolescence did I start to sense that my script had been written for me—that I might be expected to echo the domestic pattern set by my mother, and her mother before her. That pattern wasn’t one I ever wanted to repeat, until, of course, I fell in love with a young man. (See the second memoir for more dirt on that.)
BP: It’s always interesting to me how a poet turns to memoir (though of course there is lots of memoir within the poems) and what happens in that process. What did you find in writing a memoir that freed you, different from poetry? What was sacrificed in the change of genre? What did it feel like, to continue beyond the right hand margin? What insights are possible in the different genres? Can you talk a bit about this?
CF: It took quite a long while before the full width of the page felt natural to me. Not thinking about line breaks, about the same density of expression in language, about trochees and alliteration—all those poetic techniques—felt disorienting, as if I were speaking a new dialect. But what I’ve loved is the room to breathe inside the story—and to let the story breathe. I truly believe poetry has taught me all I know about building sentences. In places throughout this memoir, I found myself slipping into a steady iambic cadence, because music inside the writing is vital to me. But prose is training me in literary stamina and long-form attention, two areas in which I absolutely need growth.
BP: Similarly, it’s always such a pleasure to read a poet writing prose. How vivid the verbs, how rhythmic the phrasing. I loved ‘scooching’ and “brisked” and other happy verbs. I’m not sure what it is, but a memoir from a poet is always more alive, I think. You are in the company of “Small Beneath the Sky” and “There is a Season” and “What You Heard is True”, the way that memoir gives us new lives to try on, to see through the eyeholes. What does it feel like to have ‘bared your soul’ so deliciously? Is anyone you wrote about concerned at your characterizations?
CF: Only a few times during the actual writing of this book did I experience a brief jolt of “uh-oh”—a sort of inner questioning about whether or not it was okay for me to put in that bit about so-and-so, or share that particular detail. Writing out of my own life doesn’t feel odd, perhaps because I tend toward transparency, but I have definitely wrestled with how to make sure I don’t shame or dishonour anyone else in the telling. This is why some names and identifying details have been swapped for others. (Unfortunately for my mother, though, I couldn’t find a substitute for the name “Mom.”)
BP: We talked about your tiptoeing and then fantastically shining into memoir, with your first winning essay, Returning. Can you say more about the journey into memoir, why it seemed a necessary and inevitable step, and what is coming next? (Can’t wait!)
CF: I think many writers who begin in poetry wonder at the expansive realm of prose, partly because poems seem to find their way to such a small tribe of readers. But mostly, I had stories thrumming around inside me that didn’t seem to fit inside the tiny house of a poem. Each essay, chapter, and story I write feels like its own poem, but simply with larger square footage. Currently, I’m working on a follow-up memoir collection about coming of age as a female in a male-dominated, blue-collar world.
Thanks so much for talking with me, Carla, and happy memoiring into the second one!KEEP READING