Preface to Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear

Reading from Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear at WORD Vancouver, September 25, 2016

Preface to Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear, previously published as The Bears

At a time of great upheaval in my personal life, when the Pacific Northwest coast of British Columbia was under direct and imminent environmental threat, I decided to do something I had always wanted to do: write a book. Impatient to hold a physical book that I had written, after a cursory, impersonal editorial process, I self-published The Bears in December, 2012.

Any musician will tell you not to practice in public, and as a music teacher I might have carried this advice across artistic disciplines. In spite of rushing to publish The Bears, and doing the bare minimum of marketing with limited distribution channels, the book gathered a small but enthusiastic audience.

Other writing projects followed The Bears. I completed a young adult adventure manuscript, and another work of adult fiction. I hired a phenomenal editor who taught and is still teaching me a great deal about the craft of writing. I met other writers, attended a writer’s circle, and studied the bones of writing.

In the summer of 2016 I was invited to read from The Bears at WORD Vancouver, a festival of writing in all forms, promoting literacy and reading. I hadn’t picked up a copy of The Bears and examined it since the year it was published. When I read my own book, I recognized the story, but it was as though a stranger had written it. I revised the manuscript. The title had always been problematic – everyone thought it was a children’s book. Friend and poet Suzanne M. Steele fused some title ideas I had into Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear.

I send this story back out into the world, and hope it makes more friends.

Sunday Drive Through Love Canal

Contemplating human history is peering into a rear-view mirror. People, things and events are distorted, closer or more distant, wider or narrower than they really were. In the 1950’s and 1960’s in North America, industrial growth allowed everyone to own a refrigerator, a car, a washing machine. As these new domestic conveniences became commonplace, we had more of a rare and precious commodity – time. How delicious! The prospect of ever-increasing hours of amusement in our sparkling blue-and-green playground! What would the freshly emancipated populace do with all its free time? Picnics and camping trips, mountaineering and paddling, days by the seaside, cycling excursions, rambling walks in the woods?

My grandmother was a mother of two teenage boys in the 1950’s. She used her scads of free time to shop. By the time I was ten years old, my grandmother had officially declared her favourite form of exercise to be walking through shopping malls. She knew the length in quarter miles of every floor of every mall within a 50 mile radius of Niagara Falls, N.Y., where she and my grandfather lived. She calculated how many circuits of a given mall she should complete to benefit her health. The output of factories had given her freedom, and it was the former she valued. If something was new, manmade, and labour-saving, it was wonderful. She fell in love with the thing that gave her freedom, instead of the freedom itself.

“Look!” my grandmother crowed at lunchtime one day. “Spray cheese! I don’t even have to slice it to make your sandwiches!”

My brother and sister and I, exchanging glances of dread, watched Grandma gleefully press a white plastic pump and squirt a crazy orange-coloured mess onto limp pieces of white bread.

Going for a drive was considered an activity, and given equal or greater weight than walking in a park or playing frisbee. “What are we doing today?” we kids would ask our grandparents. “Going for a drive!” Grandpa would answer. I would get the same sinking feeling I used to get before going to church, sentenced to hours of boredom, repetition, bad smells and nausea. First Grandpa would put on his ‘driving coat’ – a special outer garment for sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle – then remove his leather gloves from said compartment and pull them on slowly, finger by finger. Finally, he would place The Hat on his thin, white hair. The Hat is rare these days, but you can still spot it. The next time someone is inexplicably driving like they’re in a funeral cortege, look for The Hat. We kids would press into the back seat, resigned, and jostling each other impatiently.

In the summer of 1978 Grandpa announced that we were going for a drive “with the windows up”. This was code for ‘the place we’ll be driving is dangerous’. Sometimes we would drive through downtown Buffalo, with its poverty and black neighbourhoods. “Roll up the windows,” Grandpa would say, “and lock the doors.”

We didn’t drive into downtown Buffalo, but through Love Canal, a community near Niagara Falls. Love Canal was – intentionally, to save money – built on 22,000 tons of toxic waste dumped by the Hooker Chemical Company. Here’s what I remember: The day was sunny and beautiful, the sky a perfect blue and every plant chlorophyll green. I was hating the fact that we were once again about to waste a glorious afternoon crammed into the back seat of a car. We didn’t dicuss the gross misnomer, but I thought about it. Love Canal, Grandpa said, was a river of poison. He should know – he worked for the Hooker Chemical Company for much of his adult life.

“Here we are,” Grandpa said. “Love Canal.” Grandma was uncharacteristically quiet.

At first it looked like any other low to middle-class neighbourhood in upstate New York, straight streets of more or less identical bungalow houses, each with its requisite tree in the front yard. On closer inspection, our noses smearing the car window glass, all the doors and windows of the houses had been boarded up. Some of this plywood was defaced with spray paint, angry words emblazoned over the polluted dreams of hundreds of families. Grandpa drove to the parking lot of the elementary school, where puddles of discoloured water were full, he said, of chemicals that could kill families slowly. Tears stood in his eyes as he told us about how the Hooker Chemical Company had sold this land to the Niagara Falls School Board for a dollar.

Because of Love Canal, and other environmental tragedies involving the Hooker Chemical Company, something major happened to my grandfather’s psychology. Just over a decade later, while planting trees, I received the only letter I ever got from Grandpa, urging me to plant some trees for him. He begged me to do everything I could to protect and nurture the environment, to help him leave a better legacy, through his offspring.

Staring at our computer screens, we press our “like” buttons for images of friends enjoying themselves in the great outdoors. Maybe we’re finally learning to love the time itself, instead of the things that buy us that time.

Well, That Escalated Quickly!

My daughters were nine and eleven when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released, and we were in the midst of the camping, ice skating, stargazing, flower arranging, leaf pressing, and pumpkin carving phase. There was no time for news about the end of the world, there was barely time to pack sandwiches and apples for lunch.

My experience of finding out about climate change followed the grieving process, more or less. First shock. What? The planet is warming up – what are the implications of that? They were catastrophic, and we were doomed. Next, I hung out for a while in disbelief, which took the form of minimizing. The science behind this whole theory might be flawed, It will pass, like the Cold War. They’ll figure out how to fix it, before it can affect me, my children, or my grandchildren.

Then anger, where I would argue many of us latter-day hippies are stuck. We could use some ecological counselling. Earth rapists! They can take their fucking profits and shove them up their collective ass.

2006 and An Inconvenient Truth was over a decade ago. Things have escalated quickly, particularly quickly if you set ten years against the history of the planet, or even the history of the modern world. At first there were jokes about how we could happily anticipate palm trees in every yard, bananas and mangoes in Canada. That was before the hurricanes, the flooding, the superstorms, the freak weather incidents.

Time to move on to bargaining, where there’s room for human ingenuity and creativity. The optimists are already at bargaining. They’re developing hybrid and electric cars, installing wind turbines, harnessing tidal power. They’re living zero-waste lifestyles, engineering public transportation, building eco-homes and Earth Ships, planting trees and starting up community gardens. The more of us stuck at bargaining, the better, because the final phase of grief is acceptance.

Early, Ingenuous Days

There was a field beside the half house in Ottawa where we lived. I was the chief engineer and reigning monarch in this field. In the summer I trampled down all its paths, thoroughfares winding from our backyard to the neighbouring yards. Intimately acquainted with the long grasses, I could recognize them by their scent alone, the tallish one that looked like wheat and smelled like cereal, the bunchy one with wide, flat, wet blades that had a swampy stink. I could map the anthills. I knew the holes where creatures might live, mice or snakes. I never saw them, but I knew they were there. Occasionally someone dropped a candy wrapper or a waxy coffee cup, usually on the East and South sides which abutted busy roads. These instances of littering offended me.

In the winter I created whole edifices of ice in the field, sanctuaries where I reclined on a three-cushioned snow couch, or checked to see if there was anything tasty in the icebox. After a fresh snowfall – in Ottawa, there was a fresh snowfall every other day – I tamped down the pathways with my plastic-bottomed boots after school, road maintenance before homework and TV.

I knew exactly how the veins splayed out on the surface of a maple leaf. I understand dandelions with botanical precision, dandelions in all their vicissitudes, from the tight little button-buds of their yet-to-be-blossoms, through the bright yellow glory of their flowering into miniature suns, staining fingers and cheeks. I knew the hollowness of their green stalks, the milky substance secreted inside those long, tender shoots. And of course I knew their eminently enjoyable reproductive technique – thousands of tiny, fluffy white parasols, freed from their moorings with a puff of breath, floating so gently on the barest of breezes, defying gravity.

I was six, seven, eight years old, and I was part of nature. The stale air and cheap furniture inside our half house was the foreign country, the strange prison to where my parents said I had to return in the evenings. Outside, my body recognized all the other carbon-based life forms as family.

Retrospective Diary of a Writer’s Environmental Angst

I have written three novels. The first of these, Resurrection Tour, is an unedited manuscript on my hard drive. There are also ten photocopied, cerlox-bound copies extant, distributed to my most literature-loving friends.

I self-published my second novel, The Bears, through Amazon’s CreateSpace platform. The Bears was inspired by a politico-ecological crisis in my backyard, and I use the term ‘backyard’ in the Canadian sense, our vast and glorious provinces encompassing broad tracts of varied wilderness. The impetus I felt to write became an imperative in the face of an environmental threat, a pipeline proposal to transfer Alberta tar sands crude bitumen through pristine, precious coastal rainforest, then on to China via a preposterously dangerous tanker route.

I wanted to slap the greedy faces of everyone responsible for hatching this colossally stupid plan. I wanted to show them exactly how their plan would impoverish us – not just our species, but every living thing on Earth. The more I thought about it, the more presumptuous it seemed for a few corporations to risk the homes of so many living things, all for filthy lucre.

I’m working on my third novel. It’s about bees, and vanishing acts.

I write about nature suffering from the meddling hands of humans.