Humans love and even idolize nature, yet we also spend much of our time attempting to tame it, even to destroy it.
Consider John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce: A True Story Of Myth, Madness, And Greed (2005), a book that reads like a story told aloud, filled with anecdotes and digressions mixed in with a meditation on our complex relationship with the vast swaths of old growth trees of the Pacific coast, now largely reduced to stubble.
Vaillant weaves the fur trade and the first contacts of whites with the Haida of what became the province of British Columbia into a history of logging and loggers (back in the late 1800s, the rough and violent loggers returned to town after weeks away to come down with loggers’ smallpox, a reference to the scars left on their faces after bar fights wherein opponents stomped on them with calk boots), finally bringing readers into the present with the story of Grant Hedwin. He is – or was, we don’t know if he’s still alive — a white man with a religious zealot’s belief in the need for preservation, who disappeared into the west coast’s rain forests a scant few years ago. The possibly mentally ill Hedwin cut down a sacred tree, a mutant golden Sitka Spruce that had survived for hundreds of years as the K’iid K’iyaas — a sacred elder — in order to draw attention to what he sees as the evils of clear-cutting.
The Haida were not amused, and neither were the RCMP. It was perhaps not the best way for Hedwin to make his point.
Vaillant has a similar agenda, but uses the pen rather than the axe: “A single footstep [taken] in one of Oregon’s coastal forests is taken on the backs of sixteen thousand invertebrates,” he writes. Yet much of the west coast’s rain forest is now gone. And humans are still demanding more and more wood.
By comparison, Alberta author and academic Ted Bishop loves to ride through nature on blacktop. His preferred mode of travel overwhelms the tweeting birds with engine noise — a noise that, as he speeds up, he leaves behind for an eerie silence. Riding With Rilke: Reflections On Motorcycles And Books is a three-part essay that’s really a mash note to his second-hand Italian Ducati.
Bishop loves being mistaken for an outlaw biker, then shrugs off his leather jacket in exchange for days spent in a different silence, that of the academic archive.
His travelogue brings out the highlights of a two-wheeled road trip, and compares to the landscape presented by the books he reads and the letters he discovers — written by the likes of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. “Responding to handwriting, looking at the stamps on letters, feeling and sniffing the paper, hearing the crumple of a heavy parchment manuscript — you’re reading with all your senses.
“A road too is a text. In the car you read the map, but on a bike you read the road.”
Bishop works hard to bridge the gap between his personal and his professional interests. Virginia Woolf once dreamed of owning a motorcycle, dontcha know.
– Eleanor Brown, June 3, 2011