Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

Download and read insightful views

Autumnal Roar: John Ibbitson on Stephen Harper

Canada's 42nd election is heating up and the heat was definitely felt in the Centretown United Church on a surprisingly warm September evening. The house was full of attendees fanning their programs trying to catch a breath of air and eager to get a glimpse into the life of the incumbent up for re-election and the subject and title of John Ibbitson's latest book – Stephen Harper. John Ibbitson himself described the evening as ‘sultry’, which I found a marked understatement considering he had dressed for the occasion in a suit and tie and was surely melting from the inside. Before yielding the podium to Ibbitson, Andrew Cohen listed the staggeringly impressive list of achievements that John Ibbitson has accomplished – the two have a long history together, Cohen describing them as “old friends who agree on nothing.”

 

As Ibbitson stepped up to speak he explained that to rile up his old friend, he would pre-emptively ask and answer the questions he's heard most while on his media tour for this book. The first; why doesn’t the book have a subtitle? Ibbitson knew from the beginning that he didn’t want to write what he deemed a ‘colon’ book. He noted that whether you are a fan of the man or not, you cannot deny that as Canada’s sixth longest serving PM the country has been shaped and changed because of him in ways the author claims will be hard to undo. In the spirit of full non-partisanship, Ibbitson disclosed that the book lists both Harper's good and bad accomplishments, but that the focus is largely on the man himself. Ibbitson says he likes politicians for the social creatures that they are and admires the fact that most enter public life to make the country a better place, even if he may not agree with what the problems or solutions are. 

 

We learned that the first half of the book follows Steve Harper, as he was then known, and how influences by his father Joe and his growing dissatisfaction with Canada's political landscape shaped him into the man who would eventually become Prime Minister. Ibbitson sees as seminal the fact that, although as a student with perfect grades, Harper dropped out of Trinity College within the first month. This would go on to inform Harper's regionally-focused politics as he rejected entering the ranks of the ruling class of Ontario and Quebec, the Laurentian Elites, as opined by Ibbitson in a previous work. Ibbitson claims Harper can hold a grudge and has a large chip on his shoulder, which he channelled into his running as a candidate for the newly-formed Reform Party of Preston Manning. Harper soon discovered the anti-Laurentian consensus sentiment was shared by most western voters and once he realized the same could be said for many suburban ridings across the country, laid out a strategy for success in a 22 page memo to Manning, who disagreed. Harper would go on to use this strategy to win the highest office in the country years later. 

 

Through previously unattainable access to close confidants and friends, of which Harper has very few, Ibbitson shed light on a loner and introvert. A loyal son and brother. A devoted father. A loving husband and equal partner to his wife Laureen, who he met while she was campaigning against him. Ibbitson made clear that beyond family there are very few people Harper will confide in. Perhaps this is because, as Ibbitson later claims while answering a question on disgraced Senate appointments, the man is a poor judge of character. The author points to the many moments throughout Harper's life when he could not accept his place under any figures of authority, which may be why he eventually sought the only job where he wouldn't have to take orders. Jokingly, Ibbitson points out the tarnished relationships Harper has with the last two authority figures a Prime Minister must defer to; the President of the US and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. As a PM who ran a rather tight and secretive administration, this book successfully humanizes the man many have come to see as stern, cold and calculating – something voters of all opinions can benefit from. It turns out the private man and the politician are closely tied, as Ibbiston stated: “The face of Stephen Harper’s government is Stephen Harper’s face.” 

 

The book goes into details about Harper's handling of federalism, his revamping of the Conservative movement in Canadian politics, the running of campaigns during many elections, his foreign policy, and the many other fundamental changes to Canada implemented while in office. Each decision was made after long and reclusive contemplative sessions, revealing the extent of Harper's intellect. Yet none, as the author answers to an attendee's question, illustrate just how shrewd Stephen Harper is as what many will only discover years after his tenure is over: Mr. Harper re-polarized the Canadian political landscape to leave a lasting legacy of what he set out to accomplish in the first place, specifically, the most basic of conservative tenets – to make government less of a factor in people's lives. On this, Ibbitson believes he has succeeded, but far beyond the current administration. Harper expected the rise of the NDP as a counterbalance to his leaning further to the right and he won't see a swing back to the left on October 19th as much of a setback. The polarization of Canadian politics is here to stay, and empirical data the world over shows that countries with such political landscapes tend to sway right more often than left over time. This profound notion of the multi-levelled implications of the Harper Government's stratagem left me with a more nuanced understanding of the current elections, and, as I returned home through Ottawa's downtown core, I still felt the punishing heat, but now too the thick political tension in the air over who will lead this country into the future. 

 

The Republic of Imagination with Azar Nafisi

I must confess, going into this event I had not read any of Azar Nafisi's books. Somehow, despite it being on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a hundred weeks, I had completely missed the staggering success of her first memoir,  Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book is Nafisi’s recounting of her time as an English professor in her native Iran, where she hosted a secret book club for a small number of female students, teaching them Western classics such as The Great Gatsby and, as the title suggests, Lolita.

 

Despite suffering from a terrible cold, the event was hosted by Adrian Harewood, who was content to sit back and let Nafisi be the star of the evening. The audience was enraptured with the author, whose joie de vivre and passion for literature rang out from the stage clear as a bell. Nafisi likened writing a book to falling in love; there is something inarticulate about it, leading you discover something about yourself while writing it. Her love of books was instilled in her by her parents, who she describes as ‘book snobs’. Her father served as mayor of Tehran from 1961 to 1963, the youngest person to hold that post, but then spent four years in jail. Nafisi talks with pride about her father’s charge of insubordination, and with good reason. Growing up in a society that repressed and controlled, Nafisi knows as well as anyone the urge to rebel and to stand up for what you believe in. For her it was literature, and the need to share great literary works with the young minds of Tehran. It is not surprising, then, to learn that one of her favourite authors is Mark Twain – a man that challenged conformity and complacency in his work.

 

When asked if she found writing her second book,  Things I’ve Been Silent About, a memoir about her relationship with her mother, cathartic, her response was an emphatic "no!" Books shouldn’t be consoling, she exclaims, they should stir strong emotions within us – rage, fear, guilt, shame. Within books, the whole spectrum of human emotion is contained. She believes that books connect us to one another by opening up avenues of communication. The idea for her most recent book,  The Republic of Imagination, was sparked after a conversation with a fellow member of the Iranian diaspora who was waiting in line to get a book signed at an event in Seattle. The man believed that Americans had no appreciation or understanding of real literature, and so Nafisi took this as a challenge to prove that fiction can teach us many things and has every right to live in a democratic society. Nafisi believes that fiction is the ‘moral guardian of a country’ – within the pages of books can lie the shame of a nation, here she discusses the representation of slavery on classic American literature, and says that by being reminded of its guilt, a country can learn how to move forward.

 

As I listened to the engaging Nafisi talk so ardently about the books she loves and teaches, I made a mental note to add them all to my reading list – great American classics written by authors such as Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, and the controversial James Baldwin. Perhaps, by being raised in England, these authors escaped my radar. Nonetheless, in addition to Nafisi’s own books, which I now cannot wait to read, I think I’m set for reading material for the next long while.

 

If Hitchcock Wrote: Jeffery Deaver in Ottawa

His mind was whirring with plots, twists, and cunning  villains. The Post-It notes covered the corkboard with  a  Caroesque  meticulousness.  The progression to the next best-selling crime-fiction thriller appeared imminent. The North Carolina summer humidity had other plans. More than two-thirds of his plot punctuations lay prostate on the floor in a scattered heap. 

 

"You'd think I'd have numbered these notes," said Jeffery Deaver. 

 

"I do now. " 

 

Deaver, in addition to a wry, witty sense of humour, is the author of over thirty-something novels, and is perhaps best know to the general populace for having been the author of The Bone Collector, which was subsequently turned into a major motion picture starring Angelina Jolie and Denzel Washington. There is a disarming self-assurance in his manner, akin to a man practiced in his profession, yet not wearied of its rewards. 

 

The festival recently lost a true gem in its bookseller  David Dollin.  Sean Wilson in his introduction mentioned how much David loved Deaver's page-turners and would have really wanted to be there and hosted the evening. Given that this is Deaver's first trip to Ottawa, he was moved at the sense of loss palpable in the room, and of the welcome extended to him.  

 

We were introduced to the devious Antioch March, the villain of Deaver's latest  Solitude Creek  featuring one of his popular creations in the investigator Kathryn Dance. Much like Milton's Satan, Deaver takes pleasure in his antiheros, and seeks to endow them with realism and relatability. As March plants fear into families visiting an amusement park that slowly  detonates into a full-on stampede, the audience was left tantalisingly wanting more. 

 

"As the great literary theorist, Dirty Harry, once said: A man's got to know his limits," joked Deaver when asked about his career-choice. After trying his hand at poetry and literary short-fiction, coupled with a career in law, Deaver wanted to delve into writing things that he liked reading. To him, it was an honest choice. He also contrasted gore versus suspense by pointing out that there is a difference in someone watching Hitchcock, and someone watching an autopsy video. He decried what he called "torture porn" not on moral terms, but as creative failures due to sloth. It was fascinating to hear him speak of respect for his readers in how he viewed himself in a detached manner from his creations, and worked arduously to grant a definite ending where there are no grisly scenes; making him a mainstay for families and schools.  

 

He is perhaps too modest. He previously collaborated in writing a  Bond  novel and has  a radio play  on Audible.   We sensed a measure of his work ethic when he confessed that he spent the better part of his day, viz. 10 hours, writing and that at his age (he is 65), he is knackered by the effort thereby making him much more selective with his ventures. It is hard not to admire such deliberate dedication to both his craft and to the many, many readers who are held in rapt suspense by his creations.

 

Crime and Punishment: Too Close for Comfort

On the surface, the three novels featured for the Crime and Punishment session of Writers Festival seem to have little in common. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is a tale of four Nigerian youth who encounter a prophetic madman when they go to the river to fish. Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment is about a murder in the Kingston Penitentiary that undergoes two very different trials: one in the court of public opinion, the other through the institutional justice system. Finally, Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die is the story of eleven-year-old Will and his severely agoraphobic single mother, Diane. After a lifetime of delivered groceries, clothes and art supplies, Will dons a helmet and makes his first foray Outside.

 

If the novels aren’t similar, however, in some ways the authors certainly are. Following that clichéd writers’ maxim, each one writes from what they know.

 

Appearing in a short video clip made specifically in light of his inability to attend the Festival, Obioma said he wanted his book to “evoke the atmosphere of Africa,” reflecting the relationship between this world and the supernatural. Although he currently lives in Michigan, Obioma set The Fishermen in the Nigerian town where he was born.

 

MacIntyre also set his novel in a world he knows well. As a career journalist, he recounts reporting from prisons everywhere from post-genocide Rwanda to death row in Texas mere hours before an execution. He listed off the many prisons he’s visited around the world, and it was no surprise that Kingston Pen was included.

 

When Christie shared his personal connection to If I Fall, If I Die, there was a slight yet ubiquitous gasp from the audience. The story, he said, was modelled on his relationship with his own agoraphobic mother, who died in 2008. By writing the novel from both the son’s and the mother’s perspectives, he was attempting to better understand her—and her illness.

 

In further conversation with Christie and MacIntryre, this attempt to understand, explore, and even shape readers’ perceptions through literature was evident. “It’s literature that can investigate the grey area, investigate the nuance,” explained Christie. He believes that writing a criminal as a sympathetic character or showing the humanity of a person who struggles with mental illness is ultimately “a net good for society.” Still, he’s wary of writing with a “big ‘A’ agenda.”

 

MacIntyre agreed, though admitted his own work had almost allegorical origins. The spark was the war in Iraq, or, more specifically, how one terrible incident—September 11—led to the multi-year brutality. After a crime, he explained, people begin looking for answers to reassure themselves that their community will be okay; they want to be convinced that the threat came from without and not from within, and they are hungry to place blame accordingly. When the court of public opinion gets out of control, MacIntyre said, the outcome can be uglier than the original crime. Punishment is this narrative on a smaller scale. 

 

“Linden personalizes the political and individualizes institutions,” said Christie, who is a fan of the full breadth of MacIntyre’s work. “He can tell a story as wonderfully as he can tell the truth.” The admiration went both ways on the stage, albeit a bit crustier from the elder MacIntyre, who summed up his sentiments to the literary newcomer thus: “Being that age, that smart, and that great a storyteller . . . Damn you, Michael Christie!”

Brain Gain with John G. Jung

It’s a bright, sunny Tuesday in Ottawa’s Centretown.  As I enter the Christ Church Cathedral I can smell the damp, cool air and hear the light-coloured maple floorboards creak under my step.  I am ushered into a small room filled with five rows of royal blue chairs.  They face a small stage containing two directors’ chairs, and a large baby blue sign with the words “Think” written in typewriter font and an inkblot splashed over the letters i,n,k. 

 

As I settle into my seat in the centre of the room for a lunchtime discussion John G. Jung, the author and speaker, and Anil Somayaji, host and Carleton University professor, take their seats in the previously mentioned directors’ chairs.  After a brief introduction from Somayaji, Jung launches into what his book, Brain Gain, is all about; intelligent communities and how they can be created.

 

His ideas are simple, but powerful.  To create an intelligent community you need a city that is not just efficient, but also one people want to live in.   As Jung describes it  “a community with a soul.”  Building a smart city, one with technology to monitor efficiency and harvest big data, is not the answer but merely the first step.  According to Jung, creating these intelligent communities comes down to developing talent, keeping that talent in the community, and creating good governance, which will attract investors and more talent. 

 

These concepts are fascinating for their strength, but also for their wide reaching application.  Intelligent communities can be found in urban centres, like Toronto, or tiny villages, like Pirai, Brazil.  The size and location of the community doesn’t matter, it’s the innovation and creativity of the people that make these communities intelligent.

 

Jung’s passion for this concept can be easily spotted in his excited tone and endless knowledge on the topic, but also through his actions.  He is the chairman and co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, an organization that shares the success stories of intelligent communities around the world to help others adapt to, and succeed in, the “broadband economy.”

 

As Somayaji probes Jung with questions clarifying jargon, such as the difference between intelligent and smart communities, and his experiences, the brilliance of his work begins to unfold. 

 

Jung casually peppers into the conversation the cities he has travelled to recently  Taipei, Taiwan – and ones he plans to head to in the coming weeks – Queensland, Australia  –  demonstrating how far reaching these conceptions are. 

 

Jung discusses how many of these intelligent communities emerged through crisis rather than cutting-edge innovation.  For example, RIM in Waterloo and Nokia in Oulu are communities whose economic livelihood depended on companies.  From their downfall emerged innovation, not disaster, as the talent that was once consumed by these organizations was released into their communities, creating growth.

 

As sunlight pours in over the collection of potted plants that line the windowsill above Jung’s head he begins to wind down his talk.  Somayaji opens up the floor to questions and immediately the audience comes alive, eager to get Jung’s take on Ottawa’s place in this innovative concept.  From sassy inquiries about the difficulty of dealing with government bureaucracy to heartfelt questions regarding Ottawa’s future developments, it was clear Jung had us all engaged.  In fact, at one point Somayaji had to get firm with one lady, whose excitement to hear Jung’s opinion on the future construction of the Ottawa library’s central branch was threatening to capitalize all of Jung’s time for questions.

 

Upon leaving the smells and sounds of the church, I stepped into the sun soaked street with a new appreciation for how far reaching and all encompassing the technology we rely on is.  While there are some communities that are struggling under this immense pressure, it is inspiring to see there are people like John G. Jung who are helping communities adapt and thrive on a global scale.

 

Sense and Sensibility

Sunday evening's event was hosted by the CBC’s Adrian Harewood, who Festival founder Neil Wilson introduced as an integral part of the Ottawa Writers Festival family, having been hosting and curating events for the Festival for the past ten years. Harewood in turn called the Festival a vital institution for the city of Ottawa, a sentiment which I resoundingly echo.

 

Tonight three female authors read excerpts from their novels. First to the lectern was Beth Powning, an accomplished author of historical fiction and non-fiction who resides in rural New Brunswick. Beth’s new novel, A Measure of Light, is a fictionalized account of the life of Mary Dyer, a seventeenth-century Puritan who flees England for the New World and becomes one of America’s first Quakers. Beth reads a passage describing the Dyer family’s first winter in America. The imagery of the bleak and desolate landscape is at odds with the warmth of the family home and the comfort that Mary finds in her husband, William.

 

Second to read, from her debut novel The Gallery of Lost Species, is Nina Berkhout. The author of five collections of poetry, Berkhout is a Calgary-native but now resides in Ottawa and works at the National Gallery. For this novel she drew on personal experience to write the character of Edith, who also finds work at the National Gallery. This is where she befriends Theo, an elderly cryptozoologist (someone who searches for animals whose existence lacks physical evidence or who are considered extinct). The extract that Nina reads is from the opening of her novel — Edith is on a trip with her father and sister, Viv, and believes that she catches sight of a unicorn. This sighting sparks a hope and belief in Edith – that the mythical and mystical exist.

 

Last to read is Obi Simic, who admirably self-published her debut novel, Getting Over Yonder. Simic grew up in Montreal but moved to Ottawa in her teens, graduating from the University of Ottawa with a degree in Psychology with a specialization in English Literature. Her novel follows the story of Olivia, a Nigerian-Jamaican-Canadian searching for her own identity. The excerpt that Obi reads is from Olivia’s first day at school; the young girl is petrified of roll call and the teacher being unable to pronounce her name. Obi’s tone is sharp and witty; she reads the words with just the right amount of comic effect, sending chuckles through the audience.

 

Leading the discussion, Adrian Harewood asks – why did they become writers? Both Beth and Nina left one passion for another; Beth was studying theater and Nina was training as a ballet dancer, they both ultimately realized that writing was their true vocation. Compared to the other two, Obi is quite new to the writing game. She knew she was onto something after taking a creative writing course in high school and getting a standing ovation after reading one of her stories aloud.

 

The conversation turns to the presence of the autobiographical in their writing. Nina says that you need distance to have objectivity over your work – you take the seed of truth and fictionalize it. Obi, as a new writer, says that she invested a lot of herself in the main character of her novel. She felt that she had to write from the heart to give an accurate representation though, despite some similarities, she is still far from being her character, Olivia. As her novel is based on a true story, Adrian tailored the question for Beth – when writing historical fiction, how does she decide what to fictionalize? Beth states that writing historical fiction is really a case of filling in the blanks that the history books have left out. It is then up to her as to whether she makes up something new or reimagines the past. To add authenticity to her work, Beth read women's journals from the seventeenth-century and listened to the cadence and tone of their words. She is also a fan of visiting living museums as she believes they successfully capture the realism of the period.

 

Ultimately, it would appear that the three female protagonists in the novels are all searching for something; whether it be a pursuit of the unattainable, a journey to discover one’s true self, or the faith to follow one’s convictions in the face of adversity. Though time, race and culture divide them, these women are all hunting one thing— their own identity.

Community and Information Technlogy with John G. Jung

I set out to accomplish two things as I set foot in the Christ Church Cathedral on Queen Street on Tuesday afternoon: to learn as much as I could about intelligent communities and to shake my post-major project week blues. The sun came out to play, peering through the propped basement window and immediately provided a calm and informal atmosphere-despite the construction related cacophony reverberating in the small room. I then knew that this Q&A would be just the remedy I had been looking for after finishing my last semester of college this past Friday.

 

New York based global Think Tank, the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) Chairman and Co-founder John G. Jung joined us in the small basement room to discuss his book: Brain Gain . Jung is the current CEO of the Waterloo Region’s, Canada’s Technology Triangle and is a registered urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. His work follows him across the globe: Australia, India, Brazil and Taiwan are merely a few places Jung has visited in his line of work.

 

Jung made it very clear from the get go; he is not a techy. This statement caught me by surprise. After all, Jung works with communities developing their information technology infrastructures. His work, however, does not focus on the minute details of broadband technology or IT; rather,  it finds ways to utilize these tools to flourish growth and development in both urban and rural communities.

 

Jung really emphasized the versatility of the word 'community'. Communities are not necessarily bound by geographic borders, though they often are. Communities can form through media and online forums. Communities that share similar socio-economic and cultural ties can serve as important models and become catalysts for future growth and development in different urban and rural climates. Precedents set in similar locations can help urban planners and civic leaders in implementing similar design and models.

 

A community can be successful in developing growth utilizing many planning styles. A top-down approach may breed success in certain parts of the globe. A bottom-up approach can spark dialogue between citizens, planners and governments and be just as effective in others. Though economic stimulation is an important aspect of community growth, Jung stressed the importance of a multi-faceted approach. A community will not thrive if its members do not wish to stay-even with the prospect of a prominent economy and broadband expansion. Jung provided an interesting example of this effect. Chattanooga, Tennessee experienced rapid industrial growth after World War II ended and enjoyed a new level of prosperity. This rapid growth caused considerable environmental damage. Chattanooga became one of the dirtiest cities in the United States in the late 1960s. In order to mitigate this problem, municipal leaders began forming pollution control and regulation policies. This encouraged the population to stay and turned the city into a prime example of how efficient environmental regulations can be.

 

Jung shared many similar success stories; from the technological advancement in the jungles of Brazil, to the large urban centre developments in the Far East. His wealth of experience was clearly demonstrated with the list of seemingly endeless success stories. The technological advancements brought to these areas will continue to spur exponential growth all over the globe.

 

Though my major project week blues may still be looming--so it goes--I did still manage to check off the first goal on my list. Jung provided invaluable insight and instilled knowledge in me about a subject I had never even spent an iota of a minute pondering. The event proved to be a great distraction and I look forward to attending future events. With the help of critical thinkers like John C. Jung, the future of this festival keeps looking brighter.

Book Launch: Town & Train by James K. Moran

“Only a community has the ability to raise a first-time novelist,” says Ottawa author James K. Moran.

 

Moran was speaking at the Ottawa Writers Festival about his new horror novel Town & Train . During the event, hosted by Ottawa Citizen journalist Kate Heartfield, the author took the audience on the journey that culminated in his first literary work. Heartfield was a wonderful host. Watching her and Moran on stage was like witnessing a casual conversation between friends at a coffee shop.  Heartfield mentioned that she had been “enjoying the novel immensely,” before giving the stage to Moran, who read a passage from his intricately crafted work.

 

Moran's novel centres on the romantic appeal of small-town Cornwall, Ontario, depicting the life of 17- year-old John Daniel who is dealing with the hardships of the recession. The novel begins with the teenager awakening on the railroad tracks with no knowledge of how he came to be there. The reader is then transported to the summer when police officer David Forester is given his first introduction to the area and has difficulty establishing connections. “The train clattered and clicked,” Moran read, “the train came around passing buildings and stopping at him. ‘Hell this is Henry's city’ David had said.”

 

The audience applauded loudly as Moran brought his reading to a close, and the people crowding the small room were clearly excited for this new work. I was transfixed, eager to hear the motivation behind Moran’s passion to write such a book. Heartfield took charge with the first question, which surely everyone was pondering: “What is it about trains?”

 

Moran talked about growing up in the small town of Cornwall, living next to the train tracks. I understood his words as he described the beauty of hearing the train sound through the woods on a summer night. His words connected with my experience living in a small town next to the train tracks. “I just loved that sound,” explained Moran. “I started with the idea of the sound and its mystery”.

 

The 1990 summer heat wave in Cornwall marked the beginning of then 17-year-old Moran’s writing journey, when he began writing his book on a typewriter. “I would go over during the summer months and spend my time writing short stories” before he started his novel. By University, he had 53 pages, but lacked the creative juices to continue. When a dear friend passed away, however, he regained the motivation to complete the novel.

 

I was enticed by the amazing story of Moran’s journey to complete his work, writing 10 drafts until he had a final copy. The author also recounted how Town & Train has brought many wonderful events and people into his life, including his wife, Anita, who was his editor and with whom he now has a seven-year-old son.

 

 Town & Train will be the first novel horror novel to come from a Cornwall author. Heartfield likens Moran’s work to that of Ray Bradbury, and, in his acknowledgements, Moran professes his gratitude to Stephen King and Bradbury “for showing a new writer what is possible”.

 

The entire night was an inspiration— particularly hearing about Moran’s drive to complete his work, even though it took years. He admitted to re-writing his entire last version on the typewriter and the laborious hours it took to complete. Moran told the audience he would write during the day and spent his weekends working at the LCBO in Ottawa. And at that point, I realized why the author looked so familiar: I had been passing through his line at the liquor store for years, never realizing the passion and skill of this novelist ringing my order through.

 

“Would you do the whole process over again, James?” Hearfield asked.

 

James responded with a smile and a chuckle... “Would I do it, or would my wife let me?”

 

Close Encounters with the Natural World with Jennifer Kingsley and Deni Béchard

It’s six thirty on a Monday evening and I’m weary. I’ve spent the day sitting at a desk, sending emails, writing reports, and flicking through social media. My desk is in a cubicle, so I spent all day listening to other people send emails, write reports, and probably flick through social media.

 

Neil Wilson started with an introduction to Close Encounters With The Natural World by speaking about the hard work Deni Béchard and Jennifer Kingsley are doing, by taking on the frontlines of nature and reporting back to the rest of us. As someone who has never left North America and who heavily relies on a hot shower to wake up every morning, I really felt like “the rest of us” throughout the course of this event.

 

Béchard spoke about his time working in the Congo with the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. His talk mirrored the description of his book, The Last Bonobo: Journey into the CongoIt was part travelogue, part polemic, and part natural history. Béchard spoke briefly of his journey to the Congo, and he spoke in depth about the grim state of the bonobos there – how they came to be that way, what is being done, and what we can do about it.

 

He spent the most time, however, speaking on controversial subjects related to the Congo. Béchard denounced large NGOs and not-for-profits that make empty promises of conservation and spend their money instead on fundraising and administration. These organizations provide “simple” Western solutions in Africa and other countries without bothering to discover how the native way of life works first. These quick fixes often create conflict within native communities, lead to environmental breakdown, and unhappy and unhealthy residents.

 

Kingsley showed us breathtaking photos from her 1100km trip along the Back River in Nunavut, and spoke of the power nature wielded over her during the 54-day journey. Photographs of plagues of mosquitoes, rapids, and tents destroyed by windstorms painted a picture of adversity. But the same series of photos also inspired awe and wonder: endless herds of caribou that look like rocks against the tundra, water so glassy you can’t tell the sky from the river, and sunsets more vibrant than a new box of Crayolas.

 

Kingsley asked important questions of us, to think about in our own time: what is the significance of our encounters with nature? Are they based on our interpretation, or will they always be bigger than us? When are you ready for an encounter with nature? Who should be out there? Though the subject matter wasn’t so much about the scientific aspects of nature as I expected, both Béchard and Kingsley left me in self-reflection after the event.

 

Béchard talked about the importance of empathy, listening, and respecting other peoples’ ways of life. Our planet is in its current bleak state because of our refusal to change the way we relate to the natural world and each other. Béchard spoke of clear examples of how these three concepts are simple steps that will help us protect our earth. We can’t continue to harm and ignore each other when the common goal of conservation is so much bigger than us as individuals. (Deni also had me wondering how I can convince my fellow females to stop reproducing with aggressive males in order to domesticate our violent culture, but I think that was meant to be a side note from him.)


Kingsley had me thinking about the barriers in my life that are disguised as opportunities, and vice versa. She spoke about how, when she set out on her trip along the Back River, she knew there would be obstacles and challenges. But when we set out to challenge ourselves, the realm of that endeavor often takes place within a predetermined frame in our minds, and we are often wary to step outside of that conception. How often do we really challenge ourselves outside of that fixed agreement of what the challenge will be?

 

There were also lighthearted moments to the event, such as when Kingsley showed us a picture of all of her friends on the trip, naked and flexing toward the horizon, or when Béchard talked about how much bonobos liked the movie Field of Dreams Béchard and Kingsley presented two very different stories of their encounters with nature that, for me at least, were hard to imagine. I know that my 35-hour weeks in the office are not preparing me for a 54-day paddling voyage into the black hole that is the Canadian Arctic. I am also skeptical of my ability to help with viral conservation in the Congo, based on my difficulty being civil with coworkers on Monday mornings. So, I’m glad people like Béchard and Kinsgley are facing these challenges and documenting them so “the rest of us” can still be a part of it. 

 

“your heart’s tongue seized mid-syllable” – Poetry as a Practice with Don McKay

Fans (secretly or otherwise) of The Sound of Music got a kick as host David O’Meara somewhat slyly summoned Julie Andrews and said, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” The afternoon treat, featuring a high-school group joining in, was a masterclass session with celebrated Canadian poet Don McKay who has just released his 584 page tome of his collected poems, Angular Unconformity.

 

McKay confessed that his social skills were of a limited quantity—owing to his introversion—and that he had mostly used it up at a previous engagement in Montreal, and asked his audience’s forgiveness in advance. The striking thing about this confession is that it conjured up Susan Cain’s Quiet.  As he revealed his biography, he explained in his early days that he was “a bad poet, but eager.” This fault, was the twinned inexperience of age and the penchant of youth for self-expression. The cost being that there isn’t really all that much to express. He admitted to only start surmounting this limitation as he found other interests, such as bird-watching and geology, that took him outside his own self and to the wonders of the natural world.

 

While speaking in this vein, he mentioned that in the early 1960s lounging around in Montreal cafés reading Camus’ L’Étranger, he felt loneliness and instead of having Suzanne or Marianne make an appearance, he found something far more valuable – the shift to solitude. Learning about this lost art is something that is perhaps harder than it has ever been to do, with our culture affirming the cult of narcissism and where rewarded virtues are public ones, oozed by extroverts.

 

The mentors whom McKay pays homage to are readily recognizable poets of the English canon: Pound, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney. He recommends imitation as a means to become fluent with the mazes of meaning words can conjure in order to find one’s own poetic voice. He also offers an alternative to the idea, perhaps best popularized by Northrop Frye, that literature sources its font in other books. For McKay there is some truth to this, but for him, engaging with the natural world was what provided manna for his poetic longings. He expressed that “I want to be writing rather than be done,” a sentiment that most writers wish were true if it isn’t for them.

Since the left brain is wonderful at “taxonomy,” and classifying the world, what is supremely useful in reductive science is left with “an important aesthetic problem,” of trying to use words to illumine than possess. For this, McKay would elaborate, one has to allow the right part of the brain time to allow its attentiveness to mature. Being in Newfoundland has allowed McKay to appreciate the many geological problems that craggy, beautiful island has helped unravel, and rest in its rugged allure. Some of my favourite moments of the afternoon were in seeing McKay light up in describing the flight of hawks down South through a narrow point by Lake Erie, and in his description of what an “angular unconformity” means in scientific terms.

 

A quote with much abiding power is one of James Hutton, the founder of modern geology whom McKay deeply admires: “We find no vestige of a beginning, and no prospect of an end.” In opening up windows so that “infinity can pour out” through his poetry, McKay has accomplished much in his long career. It was a satisfying occasion to see the curtains pulled back on his working life for our delectation and grasp.