Towards a New Cartography, Part 2: Canada is not the Land…yet

The land has stories.

To say “Hawk hunting chickadees on the edge of The Vineyard at the Rise in Vernon” is not the land’s story. That is the story of a mapped place called “Vernon”. The image below is the “build” map of Vernon. It clearly shows the nature of the place as a grid laid over something else. Call that the “land”. It’s not a part of the map and is not represented by it.

And yet, here it is.

When I was writing the book Tom Thomson’s Shack, I wrestled with the difference between these two concepts, and settled with “Earth” and “Land” as the distinctions, with “World” thrown in to represent human social space. It was an uneasy truce that, nonetheless, allowed me to centre the country of Canada outside of its major urban centre, Toronto, into the rural west, which was my goal. I was working on the principle that subordinating culture and experience to positions of power and ignorance was no model for a country, and certainly lesser than a model that found common ground and spoke from it instead.  It was, in other words, a kind of map that used literature as its form.

It got read, however, as literature, which is to say “aesthetically” and “within the larger project of containing writing within a pre-existing cultural grid” (ie map), and even as “an alternate form of memoir.” It wasn’t read as a deer trail (or the human equivalent of it.)

It wasn’t read as a beaver trail (or the human equivalent of it.)

Maybe that’s because beaver trails and deer trails are irrelevant to the city of Toronto …

… and its projection, Canada.

I think it’s fair to say that Canada’s human stories (ie stories of a development space called Canada) are of no interest if they cannot be reduced to social symbols belonging not to the “land” but to the culture of people living within the social structures of lived experience within the development project. Those experiences are very real, but they confuse the main issue: Canada is not “the land”.

Lord Aberdeen, Governor General of Canada in colonial times, bought land in the Coldstream Valley because it reminded him of northern Scotland.

The result is usually a thing called a city or a novel, and many of those are beautiful. They are also all private property, offered for sale. It is illegal for me to quote from such novels here. (I think that’s ridiculous. I can’t show you three sentences to illustrate the content of these books? No, I cannot. That’s offensive.)  It seems, though, that I can show you images. Here are some (below), up for the 2018 Giller Prize. (Note: this form of map-making is called “novel”. Note: there is no proscription against selling the image of the writer. That’s OK. I won’t give you the plot lines of these books, because the plots [or the very fine writing in the books[ is not the point. In terms of the land, these books are all interchangeable. They are snapshots within the world produced by living within the Canadian development grid, even snapshots of what the “land” and the “earth” might look like from a life within that grid. They are, however, identical in that. They are, in effect, all one book. That’s the point of Canadian culture, really. It’s in the process of building, or developing, something. Multiplicity is not the point.)

Too bad I couldn’t show you their fine writing, but that’s private. You will have to pay for access to that, I’m afraid. That’s the rule of this society. Its members must turn themselves into product: essentially, images or tattoos. (Yes, this blog is such a tattoo, sadly. But, hey, at least you’re not paying for it, eh. I’m paying a lot, actually, to present it to you, which is, in terms of Canadian culture, dumb. In fact, the Writers’ Union of Canada is likely very patient with me, as, really, it is the “union of paid writers”, really. Shh, not a word.)

Stories by non-human agents told in other means than by human agency is not the point of such novels as tattoos. None of them are, for instance, the track a pheasant (also an immigrant to this land) writes within the land.

Notice that money is not how you pay for access to this story.

Did you notice the distinction? To write within Canada or to write within the land?

Canada is a country, like the United States, in which human sovereignty is granted by a political system that accords political and social agency to people who physically stand in a place and witness it individually (as long as they are not indigenous people; those are part of the land and get treated as such in this equation.) Often, “witness” means “own.” (This story has its roots in the battle between slavery and freedom which characterizes the United States and Mexico, but that is a story for another day.) The sum total of this witness creates a field of energy, which is called the culture of the country.

Some other culture would allow trees to lie to provide habitat for creatures-not-human. Even other cultures would use fallen trees as fuel. Even others would pack the wood away any hand. In an industrial metro-state, you use big equipment, which you capitalize over time. Lots of fun.

There’s the thing I wrestled with in Tom Thomson’s Shack: it’s the culture of the country, which “owns” the land, but it is not the culture of “the land.” Nonetheless, it is that field which the novels I’ve shown you are representing. It is complex and beautiful and it’s not this:

That’s an image of an invasive weed, knapweed, in ice released as water from an excavation that destroyed an 8,000-year-old rattlesnake nest to punch a road into a real estate development. We witness it here catching some hoarfrost.

That’s an image of an old irrigation canal, an early project of Earl Gray, being reclaimed by deer and that most magnificent of native grasses, Great Basin Wild Rye, which ties this land to Northern Mexico (now North-Central California). When you walk through it, it reaches above your head and sings as you knock through it. Yes, it makes music, but not codified into this:

Glenn Gould

Both forms of music are vital and both, through their own forms of organization, approach the Earth, and according to their own social rules, speak … for her? … with her? Not clear. (We should look into this someday, I think.) There remains, however, a story here, of the land and its people (such as Giant Rye)…

Towering above the cattleman’s invasive weeds.

… or Snow Buckwheat …

Bye-bye gravel pit.

… writing their maps, in their own agency, on human social space and the land-as-property (and self-as-property) model which underlies it. Novels and poems cannot do this. Academic research papers and land-use conferences cannot do this. Truthfully, it’s just not possible within art forms shared by humans and between humans, yet before we go too far down the road, other human cultures have managed. The book below, for example, at least brings one of these cultural complexes to life within an art form (the book)


It is, of course, a book. However, despite that colonial limitation, it also does not privilege human identity over the land that speaks through it. That’s profoundly different than Canadian or American culture as a whole. It is also suggestive that we can get to a new understanding and the new power it might release. In that spirit, here is the land considering how it might eat me to get by.

It is, however, not precisely the land. It is a space that filters through a developed area. (The word for this is “wild.”) It is flush with weeds. Nonetheless, like the spirits speaking through human agency in Hamill’s book above, it exists, in its own individual non-human wholeness, within humanized space. The same cannot be said of novels in Canadian or American culture, because those speak with human voices, and rarely of poems. Still, many poets (and some novelists) are experimenting with machine voices or non-individual voices or textual voices or even other fields. What I would like to try this week (and, who knows, if it goes well, next week too) is to explore how the very real knowledge and high degree of skill and perceptivity within novels and poems can be lifted up from its aesthetic chains and applied to a kind of map-making that accords more closely to the world of spirit and prayer that Hammil describes so well.

After these introductions, we’ll start on that tomorrow. To my friends who are photographers and artists, and who know much of this already, I promise to try to integrate this knowledge as well. It’s time, as citizens of Canada, to move into the land together.




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