Permaculture on the Permafrost

"Permaculture on the Permafrost" first appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries 96. Please consider subscribing to this beautiful, smart magazine.

Permaculture on the Permafrost

Shary Boyle is tied to Christine Fellows.1 Dressed all in white, a wolf mask strapped to her head, Shary leads Christine into the KIAC ballroom while Christine, in a sailor’s uniform, strums her ukelele. The rope Shary carries is wrapped around Christine’s waist. Moving in sync, the two pause in front of a screen lit by an overhead projector.

Ooo ahh ooo,” Christine sings as she and Shary, heads bent forward, lean back in unison. Their bodies cast shadows onto the scene behind them, a snowscape dotted with sled dogs. Christine howls, and Shary points her wolf nose towards the sky.

It is Flag Day, the middle of February, and I am halfway through my three-month writing residency at the Pierre Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon. Outside the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture (KIAC) ballroom, it is dark and cloudy and cold, though not as cold as it has been. After almost three weeks of minus forty to minus fifty degree temperatures, the mercury has started to rise, tonight, to a balmy minus twenty-five. In the steamy ballroom, the fifty or more audience members have stripped down to their T-shirts and long johns; our mukluks and snowmobile boots and Sorels are piled by the door. The show we watch as we slowly thaw is a Spell to Bring Lost Creatures Home. Shary and Christine have combined music, poetry, shadow puppetry, and performance art, and the results, like a cast spell, are beautiful and bewitching.

My best friend, her name is Carmen. She likes me more than all those dirty rotten bastard kids ever did.” Christine Fellows now stands, singing, to the right of the screen as Shary Boyle performs in front of the overhead projector, manipulating and changing hand-drawn transparencies and shadow puppets to match Christine’s lyrics. “Me and Carmen, we don’t need ‘em. Together we go arm in arm wherever we go.” The song is about overcoming childhood bullying through friendship. Sweet and funny, it’s made more powerful by the addition of Shary’s images. We see the girls walking to school, holding hands, while bullies in the foreground gesture and taunt. Shary layers a new transparency over the girls and bullies, who become mice hunted by owls. “They’re mean and rude,” Christine sings, “but me and Carmen, we will show them. All night we are as free as owls.”

The point of the song, and, really, the entire performance, is that we’re stronger when we work together. While I have no doubt that a solo performance by either Christine or Shary would have been interesting and entertaining, its collaborative aspects — its mixing and combining of different but complementary artistic genres — makes Spell to Bring Lost Creatures Home, well, spellbinding.

“Collaboration keeps you rooted in the community around you,” Christine Fellows says the next day during a talk at the Yukon School of Visual Art (SOVA). “Shary feeds me stories. I write to respond to Shary’s work, to seeing Shary’s images.”

“That response,” Shary adds, “is a conversation. It takes the focus away from the self.”

Seven weeks ago, I arrived in Dawson seeking Walden-esque solitude: a cabin in the woods, an escape from my daily life, time and quiet to write and think. What I found, along with that solitude, was a welcoming, vibrant, supportive community. A new, albeit temporary, home. In the two years he spent beside Walden Pond, Thoreau enjoyed solitude as much as companionship: “I think I love society as much as most, and am ready to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit… I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

To be a writer means finding a balance between solitude and society. Whereas many arts — film, theatre, music, even visual arts — are naturally collaborative, sometimes requiring large communities to produce a final product — writing is most often done alone, in a room, away from distractions. I write about people in society, yet I do so away from people and society. But writing, eventually (hopefully), is published, and by publishing our writing, we make it public. Throughout the writing process, writers seek others — friends, partners, editors, workshops, writing circles — to get opinions on the writing, to bounce around ideas, to drink and commiserate with, to connect to, to share drafts. We then take these conversations and ideas and apply them back to the writing. So the writing process moves back and forth, is solitary and social. It is this back and forth that has had me seeking, throughout my professional writing life, both a room of my own to do my work, along with a supportive community to foster and encourage my art-making.

Dawson City offers both solitude and community. The town is rich in local and itinerant artists, has a vibrant artist-run-centre (KIAC) and art gallery (the Odd Gallery), a school of art (SOVA), as well as international short film, music (Dawson City Music Festival, or DCMF), and arts festivals (Yukon Riverside Arts Festival). It also has a famous history (the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush), and a mandate to preserve that history. But Dawson’s success isn’t based solely on this cultural community. Dawson succeeds because the latter is one facet of the town’s entire community. Dawson’s artists don’t call themselves the “creative class.” They don’t promote a “creative economy.” They don’t, in other words, have a top-down approach to creativity as something that can “save” or “revitalize” Dawson. While its artists have definitely added to and strengthened Dawson, they recognize they’re only one part of Dawson, as important as, and equal to, the gold miners, snowmobilers, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations, civil servants, off-grid West Dawsonites, politicians, tourists, squatters, and others that comprise its population. Dawson is not an arts community, but a community with a strong arts presence; Dawson’s artists are part of a greater ecosystem, one of many organisms interacting with others to create a healthy, complex, interconnected permaculture. Dawson’s ecosystem is also regenerative and resilient, encouraging new growth while attracting new (and lost) creatures. Without the artists or miners or Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Dawson would weaken and wither; would, quite possibly, cease to exist.

Though there are writers in Nova Scotia, outside Halifax, we’re rather spread out and disconnected. We may trade quips and messages on social media, but social media, as Stewart Cole points out in The Puritan, is more scene than community; it’s a form of “communal narcissism,” where “discussion is so impoverished that it no longer warrants the name, becoming mere chatter.” So, while I can find plenty of solitude in Cape Breton, where I now live, I’ve had a hard time finding a community.

Dawson and Cape Breton share a lot in common: both are geographically isolated, extreme, and beautiful, both are filled with people seeking an escape (be they locals, come-from-aways, or tourists), both are historically rich, yet marred by a legacy of resource extraction. The difference is economic. Whereas Dawson’s economy seems currently stable, Cape Breton’s is perpetually in decline. People are always leaving to find work, so communities on the island suffer. Can Cape Bretoners turn this around? Is creativity the answer? Technology? Small businesses or big? Dawson seems to have gotten something right. Can Cape Breton, and similar communities in Canada, follow Dawson’s lead?

 

Rolling On

The only sunlight in Dawson City in late December and early January is actually four hours of dim, grey twilight. Surrounded by hills, no light falls directly on Dawson until late January. For my first two weeks, I write full time. I finish the draft of a short story and start and complete an essay. I sleep until the sun rises — around 11 a.m. — then write all afternoon and into the night. I check email and social media after 2 a.m. and realize my friends back east (south-east?) are waking up to go to work.

My partner, Julien Strasfeld, has accompanied me to Dawson. A photographer and filmmaker, most days he bundles up and wanders Dawson’s streets and alleyways to shoot photos. He joins the Dawson City Arts Society and shows work at the Odd Gallery and the art-at-night festival, (s)hiver. He befriends the SOVA art students. He joins KIAC’s songwriter-in-residence Khari McClelland’s community choir. At night he sets up his camera on a tripod to shoot time-lapses of the Northern Lights through Berton House’s kitchen window. People begin to assume he’s the writer-in-residence. “No,” Julien tells them. “I’m the partner-in-residence.”

Mid-January, I emerge from Berton House like a bear waking up from hibernation, though the food I seek is culture and conversation. Khari and his choir are performing at the KIAC ballroom, whose chairs have been arranged in a circle. At least forty people fill the seats. Khari sings, not at the front of the room, on a stage, but rather in the middle of our circle, the audience and choir around him. His choir is made up of art students, a mother-daughter team, the woman who cleans Berton House, local amateur musicians, a teacher, a trucker, and a partner-in-residence.

I went down to the river and the valley below,” Khari begins, and I think of the frozen Yukon and Klondike Rivers, where Dawson sits at their confluence. “Rolllllll on,” Khari calls. His choir responds, then the audience: “Rolllll on.” Together, our voices fill the ballroom: “Rolllllll ohllll on.”

KIAC’s songwriter residency comes with the stipulation that songwriters engage with the Dawson City community. Hence Khari’s choir, which is open to any Dawsonite, permanent or transient, professional or amateur. Khari built the choir, made a large batch of moose stew, and they came: his performance and talk were the best attended of all resident talks during my time in Dawson.

 

An Apple Guild in the (Sub-) Arctic

Permaculturists suggest that an easy way to build a perennial garden is by planting an apple guild. Instead of one or two lone trees in a yard, the plants in a guild, according to Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, “bolster each other” and “support the apple tree in numerous ways.” Guilds lure beneficial insects, create habitat, and diversify food yields, resulting in a healthier and varied ecology.

In the dead of winter, Khari planted and grew a guild. Instead of a solo tree or plant — one artist, alone, on a stage — he chose to be an apple tree, which encouraged the growth of his choir (the plants in the guild), which attracted his audience (the fauna were attracted to his safe and welcoming habitat). Khari’s performance and choir repeat the patterns found in nature and Dawson, draw from the community’s energy while giving back to it.

This sharing of energy is one benefit of permaculture design, in which a variety of species, including humans, work together to create a stronger, more diverse and resilient ecosystem. Hemenway explains that permaculture is “a set of decision-making tools, based on natural systems, for arriving at regenerative solutions to design challenges of all kinds.”

Khari’s choir is an example of a successful permaculture technique in action. Dawson is full of techniques that link citizens to one another and enliven the entire community. In March, the townsfolk fill the streets to participate in such Thaw-di-Gras activities as the lip sync contest at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, the cat show at Bombay Peggy’s, and axe throw and chainsaw chuck in the lot by the Triple J Hotel. Before Thaw-di-Gras, in February, Julien and I make our way to the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race concession stand, set up in the Dawson Visitors’ Centre, to feed the onslaught of dog sledders, media, and tourists in town for the Yukon Quest dogsledding race. The concession, Chris Turner explains in an article on the Mother Nature Network, is a “miraculous” example of social capital “the likes of which I’ve seldom seen before.” Turner, a Berton House alum, observes that, “On no set schedule, with no hierarchical organization whatsoever, the people of Dawson brought their food, and in some kind of Klondike riff on loaves and fishes, the stand almost never ran out of food…”

No hierarchical structure, a variety of participants and food, excellent communication, a well-attended community event: Turner is describing the Yukon Quest concession, but he could be describing Khari’s choir and performance, or any number of Dawson City’s activities.

 

 

Green Grass, Boring Literature

 

Dawson doesn’t rely on one economic strategy, and that, arguably, is why it succeeds. Arts, history, tourism, resource extraction — Dawson supports all these industries equally, and the variety makes it resilient. Cape Breton, on the other hand, has relied, and still relies, on only one or two industries, or monocultures, and fostering monocultures, as farmers are beginning to realize, is not sustainable.

Monocultures don’t only occur in agriculture. Cape Breton’s coal mining and steelmaking industries were once the island’s biggest employers. Then, despite government bailouts (the fertilizer of dying industry) the mines and steel plant shut down, and the Cape Breton economy floundered. Since then, Cape Bretoners and other Maritimers have headed by the thousands to Alberta to mine another resource — bitumen. But, with the recent drop in oil prices, Canada is on the verge of recession and Cape Bretoners are once again facing lay offs. Putting all our eggs in one oily basket, it appears, doesn’t create a resilient economy.

The ghosts of Cape Breton’s monocultural past still haunt the island’s present-day culture. The Men of the Deeps, a choir of former coal miners, sing sold-out shows for tourists at the Miners’ Museum in Glace Bay. Each October, adherents flock to the island to hear dozens of fiddlers at the Gaelic College in St Ann’s during the Celtic Colours festival. In the summer of 2015, a brand new play was staged at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck about, you guessed it, Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell. “They’re all dead now,” begins Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees, her “Maritime Grand Guignol” novel of cardboard characters and emetic dialogue (thank you, John Metcalf) set in my hometown of New Waterford, Cape Breton. Except they — the miners, the fiddlers, the Bells — are very much undead. What of the Cape Breton artists who don’t play the fiddle, who don’t write and perform plays set in the past? What place do they have on the island?

In 2012, then-director of the Cape Breton University Art Gallery (CBUAG), Laura Schneider, curated The Glass Is..., an exhibition of emerging Cape Breton artists. In her introductory essay to the exhibition, Schneider wrote:

 

As part of an economic survival strategy for a post-industrial community, or a celebration of a particular local identity, much of the art making in Cape Breton is tied to commemoration, nostalgia and tourism. This creates a significant obstacle for artists who choose to interpret the narrative of “time worn traditions,” who purposely fragment the monocultural ideas that scaffold the tourist industry, or who challenge static and commercialized notions of place and identity on Cape Breton Island … Local artists … seeking to stay astride the tides of contemporary artistic discourse are glaringly aware of the absence of alternative physical or intellectual spaces to support their practices. And, so, very often, they leave.

 

Monocultures limit and discourage the growth of other species. Seeds in search of good soil and room to grow cannot find a home in a field of corn or on a suburban lawn. Toby Hemenway explains, “Our love of tidy but not very diverse yards is imprinted on us by our culture.” Lawns, like so much of our culture, were in fact developed and imported from Great Britain.

The Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy agrees that Nova Scotians need a cultural change in order to weather the province’s predicted “extended period of decline.” Its 2014 “Now or Never” report on the status of Nova Scotia’s economy, states: “if Nova Scotia is to find ways to meet its current challenges, there will need to be change on the cultural level as much as in economic structures and government policies and programs.” Yet the commission’s nickname, One Nova Scotia, belies its call for cultural change. The report emphasizes the need for large, corporate, resource-extractive industries and the development of new fads, like apps, while at the same time criticizing local, grassroots community economic development initiatives.

Singular, top-down approaches to economic development aren’t going to turn the province’s economy around. The proof is in our history. After decades of layoffs and threats of closure, the Sydney Steel Plant shuttered completely in 1999, leaving in its wake Canada’s (at the time) worst environmental problem: the Sydney Tar Ponds. Now, on top of the Tar Ponds sits the new Open Hearth Park, which features walking tracks, playground equipment, a dog park, and acres of grass. That’s right: all three levels of government, and the citizens they consulted, replaced one monoculture — steelmaking — with another: grass.

The Tar Ponds Agency, responsible for redeveloping the former Sydney Steel Plant site, had the opportunity, and funding, to plant a diverse, perennial food forest. It also could have encouraged the many native species already present throughout Cape Breton to grow on top of the toxic sludge (thus restoring the landscape to how it once was). These native species could have resuscitated the soil while feeding Cape Bretoners. Permaculture farmer Ben Falk writes, in The Resilient Farm and Homestead, “Most perennials offer us an edible yield of seeds, nuts, or fruits, which accumulate less toxic buildup of metals and inorganic chemicals...thus...[perennials are] able to make those nutrients available to people in the form of food.”

“The...lawn is a...status symbol and class marker,” writes urban forager and herbalist Rebecca Lerner in Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness. Paving over the once British-owned steel plant site with grass developed in Britain gives the former Tar Ponds the appearance of being cleaned up and ready for (big) business. But the pesticides and petroleum-heavy landscaping required to maintain a pristine lawn introduces new toxins to an already toxic site. Plus, it’s boring. I live twenty minutes from Open Hearth Park — why would I want to drive there to walk around in grassy circles when I could go out my front door and wander a seaside cliff, where I can forage for wild strawberries and cranberries? Where the landscape always changes?

“Some scientists wonder if intolerance toward non-native species actually reflects a kind of xenophobia,” writes Lerner, referring to our war against so-called invasive plant species. Yet non-native plants, unlike grass, actually improve the soil and attract beneficial species. The workers at Sydney’s steel plant were also non-natives—Polish, Russian Jews, and African Americans were just a tiny fraction of the immigrants who came to Cape Breton to make steel. At one time, Whitney Pier, the community beside the steel plant, was one of the most culturally diverse in Canada. The immigrants came, and their culture came with them — blues and jazz were more popular in the Pier than fiddle music (the fiddle was more often the music of farmers, who lived on the other side of the island). By planting grass over the former steel-plant site, the Tar Ponds Agency effectively erased this rich multicultural history with a British monoculture.

 

Cultivating Myths

A community’s mythology, the stories it tells about itself, are as important to its development as good soil and a diverse ecosystem. History and myths attract people — when we seek the truth about a story or place, meet others attracted to the same stories, we discover commonalities, are encouraged to put down roots and build a community. It was the myth of vast gold deposits, the dream of independence and wealth, that first drew thousands of people to Dawson in the late nineteenth century. But by the summer of 1898 almost all of Dawson’s gold had been claimed. Dawson became a boomtown despite this — people remained there, built houses, and opened businesses, not only to cash in on the actual gold, but to be a part of the story, to live with other people brave or crazy enough to carry a tonne of supplies through the Yukon wilderness to a remote swamp.

But Dawson, like Cape Breton, eventually went bust. Then Pierre Berton stepped in. Tim Falconer, another Berton House alum, writes in the Winter 2013 issue of Maisonneuve, “This is ... a city saved by myth.” Thanks to the 1957 NFB-produced, Palme d’or-winning documentary, City of Gold (narrated by Berton) along with his book, Klondike, Parks Canada began to preserve “what was left of Dawson.” Soon, tourists came to see the historic town and gamble at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s (once Canada’s only legal gambling establishment).

What Berton rekindled (based on the legends stoked by Robert Service’s poems and Jack London’s stories), the KIAC artists and Berton House writers continue to cultivate: The Myth of Dawson. Every artist and every writer who resides in Dawson writes and, more importantly, rewrites that myth, enchanting friends and strangers with tales of the north. Each artist, then, is a seed, broadcasting out from Dawson in search of the right conditions in which to propagate. These artists, in turn, attract new artists to come to Dawson. Residencies, like nature, are cyclical instead of linear.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that vigorous (arts) communities surface where myths are strongest and landscapes are stunning. The Dawson-like community of Marfa, Texas is also famous for the Marfa Lights, a supernatural floating-light phenomenon that draws thousands of sightseers to this desert town. Sackville, New Brunswick, home of the DCMF’s little sister, SappyFest, as well as the annual arts festival Ok! Quoi?, has been rumoured to attract aliens. People attribute the spookiness of the area to the Bay of Fundy’s massive tides, the gravitational pull that results from being at the geographic centre of the planet, or to the CBC overseas radio towers (now torn down). When I asked SappyFest’s co-founder, John Claytor, why Sackville attracts so many artists, he wryly mentioned the area’s conductivity. Even Buddhists know there’s something in our soil. One reason they have temples in Halifax and Cape Breton is because they believe this area — once the middle of Pangea, where vertebrates first walked and mated on land (in Joggins, Nova Scotia, across the Tantramar Marsh from Sackville) — is sacred. If you visit the region, it’s difficult to deny its intense energy. Same with Dawson. Gold is, after all, the second most conductive element on earth.

 

Yukonnaise

Berton House’s writers-in-residence are fantastically diverse. They range from award-winning, big-press novelists to respected playwrights and small-press poets, to children’s authors, journalists, biographers, short-story writers, and self-published scribes. Our backgrounds are varied as well: anglophone and francophone writers have resided in Pierre Berton’s house, along with Indigenous, African and Asian Canadians, rookies and veterans, men and, equally, women. Berton House writers not only represent a snapshot of writing in Canada, but also ensure the continued popularity and promotion of the program — each writer takes the Dawson mythology and disseminates it to his or her audience, ensuring a variety of voices tell the story, and a diverse audience hears it.

While Berton House writers are a heterogeneous lot, Berton’s own writing was, ironically, rather homogeneous. Pierre Berton wrote prolifically, extensively, and conversationally about Canadian history; when I was growing up, his books, and even the bow-tied man himself, seemed to be everywhere. Now, no one under thirty knows who Berton was. Older generations think this is a shame. Perhaps younger generations aren’t interested in more history about, or by, old, white men.

There are multiple copies of Berton’s books in the Berton House library. They sit alongside publications by past writers-in-residence. Before leaving for Dawson, I looked forward to digging into Berton’s tomes. But to read Berton’s version of Canadian history is to read of a monocultural past. The only women who appear in Berton’s Klondike are prostitutes and dancehall girls. The only chapter about a woman in Prisoners of the North — his last book, published in 2004 — concerns Lady Franklin, a woman most famous for the search for her lost husband. The women in Berton’s books, like the women in many CanLit novels, do not actively participate in or create their own histories. Most often, they are bystanders or cyphers, passive conduits for some important man’s story.

“This was my hometown,” Berton narrates in City of Gold, “and my father’s hometown before me.” And your mother’s, Pierre! Writer and schoolteacher Laura Beatrice Berton came to Dawson years before she married Berton’s father. She’s part of a long history of independent women who came, and still come, to Dawson to seek an alternative life. In 1898, when Martha Black’s first husband backed out of their trip, Martha went to the Yukon anyway, hiked pregnant up the Chilkoot Pass, settled in Dawson, and eventually became Canada’s second ever female MP. In 1913, businesswoman Émilie Tremblay opened and operated her own dry goods shop (Madame Tremblay’s) and founded The Society of the Ladies of the Golden North. But you’d never learn about these women from any of Berton’s books. For all the writing he did about the Klondike, for all the writing he did, period, he seldom, if ever, devoted any of his thousands of pages to the history of women (or immigrants, or Indigenous peoples). In fact, it wasn’t Pierre Berton who wrote in Berton House — the family moved from Dawson while he and his sister were still children. Berton’s mother, Laura, was the first Berton House writer.

 

Me and Erin

The day after Shary Boyle and Christine Fellow’s performance at the KIAC ballroom, I post this on Facebook: “I reeeeally wanna read a Canadian novel with some awesome, kick-ass female characters. Contemporary setting preferred. The fact that these novels are few and far between makes me really sad. And frustrated.”

“I saw your post on Facebook,” playwright and puppeteer Erin Fleck tells me later over poutine at the Downtown Hotel. Along with sculptor Michael Belmore, Erin is February’s KIAC artist-in-residence. “Have you read Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?

“No. But I want to!”

“I brought it with me,” Erin says. “You can borrow it.”

I’m in a writing rut. After a strong leap out of the gate in January, I was sidelined by a week-long flu. Since then, I’ve found it difficult to get that initial momentum back. I’ve switched gears and am working on what I think is the first chapter of a novel that centres on the relationship between two female friends. I’ve written over sixty pages but have hit a dead end. Whenever I get stuck, I look for books to inspire me. The thing is, I’m rarely inspired by Canadian fiction — those passive grandmothers and girls I’ve complained about previously in CNQ leave me particularly uninspired.

“One good thing about being a woman,” Heti writes, “is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how a mind should be. For men, it’s pretty clear. That’s the reason you see them trying to talk themselves up all the time.”

You know what’s great about Berton’s, and Canada’s, old-white-man history? Heti seems to be saying. About the lack of feminist writing? We’re a blank slate. We can write anything about ourselves. All we have to do is start. Susan Sontag agrees: “Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference — for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but “countermyths,” just as life offers “counterexperiences” — experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.”

How Should a Person Be? centres on the relationship between two female friends: writer Shelia Heti and visual artist Margaux Williamson — characters based on the real-life Sheila and Margaux (who both, I should point out, have done residencies in Dawson). I admit, I’m wary going in. I worry this “novel from life” is another postmodern literary gimmick with little substance. But my wariness soon turns to excitement. I have never read anything like this novel. The book is the sunshine I need in the middle of sub-Arctic February; Heti and Erin have given me a language I’ve been looking for, answers to questions I’ve been meaning to ask. “Why,” Heti asks herself, in the midst of her own writer’s block, “had I forgotten all the ways it was natural and easy for me to work?” Heti abandons her unending play, and begins a novel about her friendship with Margaux: “I felt closer to knowing something about reality, closer to some truth ... reading it over, a feeling of pride bloomed in me like spring, like something new was being born.”

At the beginning of March, as the sun bounced blindingly off the melting snow, like Heti I stopped writing my novel and returned to short stories. I realized stories come as easily to me as snow melts in spring, as naturally as buds growing big on late-winter trees.

Perhaps I would have come to this realization alone, but Erin Fleck gave me the push I needed. After all, much of her art-making is done collaboratively — her theatre company, Caterwaul, was co-founded by visual artist Sarah Fairlie. So collaboration is easy for Erin; it was her suggestion I co-host her show on Dawson’s radio station, CFYT. We chose musical collaborations as our theme.

Living on the Edge

Permaculturists, when building perennial gardens, work to create as many edges as possible. The result is what’s called an “edge effect.” Juliana Birnbaum and Louis Fox (in Sustainable [R]Evolution) explain, “The edge — where two elements meet — is key to regenerative design, because of the expanded possibility for cycling materials and information, allowing for more synergy. With synergy, mutually beneficial relationships … create a result greater than the sum of their individual effects ... increasing possibilities for creativity.” The edge of the ocean beside the shore, a bank beside a river, even the edge of two neighbours’ yards — information, energy, and materials are beneficially exchanged here, the edges becoming active and rich with life. Even two humans — or two artists — create an edge. This is one reason why cross-genre artistic collaborations have such potential: when two (or more) artists bring their years of differing art-making and experience together, creative possibilities are multiplied. Sheila and Margaux’s friendship in How Should a Person Be? also creates an edge. Sheila, on Margaux: “Life feels like it’s with Margaux — talking — which is an equally sincere attempt to get somewhere, just as sincere as writing a play.” Margaux, talking to Sheila: “...you say things that help me think better.”

There are dozens of edges in Dawson, innumerable possibilities for connections and collaborations. But perhaps its greatest edge is Dawson’s location on top of the world. 

Staring agape at a blazing, undulating Northern Lights display, watching the aurora twist and touch and leap apart, opening up to the dark space beyond, I couldn’t help but feel we were standing on the edge of the planet, gravity the only thing keeping us from floating up and into the universe. It gives one a sense of being part of something bigger, of feeling connected to everyone and everything else. After all, we too are made up of electromagnetic fields, the same energy that creates the aurora. Or, as both Carl Sagan said, “We are all made of star stuff.”

 

Finding a Niche

In seeking community, in Cape Breton and elsewhere, I often turn to visual artists, not only because of my lack of writerly peers, but because the visual artists and curators I’ve met are much more concerned with the contemporary themes and issues I explore in my writing. While Canadian publishers and prizes still prefer ye olde tales of sea, farm, and away, a contemporary Canadian curator would lose all respect if her gallery only exhibited watercolours of lighthouses. So, if I can’t find a book that speaks to or inspires me, I head to the art gallery. When I lived in Halifax and found its literary scene cliquey and unsupportive, I hung out with visual artists — I took courses at NSCAD, worked at the Dalhouise Art Gallery, and went to more art openings than book launches. If Halifax’s literary habitat was inhospitable, its visual-arts habitat had the right soil to develop my niche.

While I believe cross-genre collaborations could benefit other writers and their communities, it’s easier, especially in large cities like Toronto, or in online communities, to talk to and read writers exactly like oneself. “Perhaps the very intimacy that distinguishes the Canadian poetry scene,” poet Stewart Cole writes in The Puritan, “actually erodes our ability to imagine it as a community — that is, as rooted in the most positive sense of the Latin communis: what we share in common.” To enliven our writing, we need to understand that community isn’t exclusive, that all artists (not just similar writers), and even non-artists, may contribute to and inspire our writing — which makes living and writing outside of Canada’s big cities that much easier. “Communities,” Cole continues, “like functioning democracies, are participatory; a cultural community requires of its members the imagination to envision themselves as part of an unseen structure greater than any one of them, and the dedication to devote real time and energy to building that structure through considered public dialogue.”

An unfortunate effect of the grant and award culture that dominates Canadian art is how it privileges one artist over another, creating a hierarchy. When we writers compete against each other for awards and grants, we work against each other instead of with, build winners and, conversely, losers, stars and fans, cliques instead of communities. By emphasizing one writer over others, writers forget that we all began as readers, for “it is from reading,” Susan Sontag explains, “even before writing, that [we] become part of a community — the community of literature.”

As I’ve said, diversity, not hierarchies, is beneficial. It’s not a creative economy we need to build, curator Laura Schneider says, but a creative ecology — an ecosystem with a variety of niches is more resilient to outside threats, more welcoming to other species. And when a writer, or any artist, chooses to be a part of the whole, instead of a part unto herself, she, too, remains relevant and builds resiliency.

Like the art galleries of Halifax, the Cape Breton University Art Gallery was, when I first arrived in Cape Breton in 2012, my refuge — a supportive habitat where I could find like-minded artists and challenging, alternative discourse and artwork that, to paraphrase Sontag, paid attention to today’s world. But it’s one small organism inside a monoculture. For five years, Schnieder attempted to dig up Cape Breton’s grass and encourage a polycultural ecosystem — she curated diverse shows and even co-founded an art-at-night festival, Lumière, in downtown Sydney. But cutbacks, harassment, a demotion, and threats to close the CBUAG forced her to seek other habitats. Last January, Laura accepted a new position in British Columbia, and left Cape Breton.2

If Cape Breton’s cultural community was more diverse and thus stronger, perhaps it could have forestalled her and many others’ departures. When Cape Breton University’s president3 threatened to close the art gallery, theatre, press, and archive for being “non-research,” the CBU community rallied to protect only the theatre. And now CBU Press, after forty years of operation, has announced it will close next spring. Theatre and (Celtic) music are popular in Cape Breton — the habitat exists here for them to thrive. But they are monocultures. Inside a monoculture, or scene, one may not notice when other cultures are threatened. One may also not realize how important all cultures are in developing and maintaining a diverse community. Yet, as corporate culture increasingly supersedes all other cultures, as more and more arts cutbacks loom, we need, more than ever, a diversity of voices to protect our threatened cultures. After all: there’s strength in numbers. One could certainly live off a diet of just corn and wheat and historical novels, but in no way would it be a healthy or exciting way to live.

 

Fallow Fields

It is time, in Cape Breton and throughout Canada, to let our cultural land lie fallow while planting and encouraging the growth of regenerative and resilient communities.

This means recognizing our history while simultaneously writing a new story. “[I]t is possible,” Schneider writes, “to acknowledge the past while proposing individuated and provocative understandings of the present, [which are] beacons for a future...where contemporary art forms are embraced and supported.” In other words, now that we’ve read Pierre Berton’s version of Canada’s history, let’s put his books aside and write our own.

In her work, Cape Breton artist Sara Roth explores themes of regeneration through careful observation of the island’s history and landscape. A painter and printmaker, Roth makes hand-printed wallpaper that features imagery of Cape Breton’s past — the Sydney steel plant, say — alongside images of wild-blueberry bushes. Sara knows her Cape Breton history and simultaneously works with it while cultivating new flavours. Her work has inspired me more than any other (living) Maritime artist. Roth may not be a writer, but she’s part of my community, a community I would have never found or nurtured had I only been looking for writers.

 

Arctic Blueberries

Four days before we leave Dawson, Julien, Kyle Whitehead (who, along with Matthew Rankin, are March’s KIAC filmmakers-in-residence), and I drive up the Dempster Highway to Tombstone Territorial Park. At the northern end of Tombstone, miles past the treeline, we get out of our borrowed truck and stand on the tundra. The mountains all around us are white and black and perfectly conical, carved by ancient, receding glaciers. Even here, just a couple of hundred kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, there is life — scrub trees and blueberry bushes hug frozen streams; white ptarmigans dash across the highway; ravens swoop and quork.

Food drives culture. For thousands of years, humans were foragers: hunter-gathers who moved their cultures from place to place. Then we became farmers and everything changed. We stopped conserving and sharing. We stopped moving. We placed more value on things and consumption than people and production. To buy more things, we began to work jobs off the farm. We stopped growing food. We disconnected from nature and stopped eating meals together and got inside our cars and heated up our planet. Now, we can name more brand logos than trees. We have no idea what a potato plant looks like, let alone how to grow one without vast amounts of pesticide. Nor do we know that the dandelions we rip from our lawns can actually feed us.

“It’s a revolution,” said organic farmer Jean-Martin Fortier of the small-scale farm movement, during a workshop in Antigonish last July. “It’s like the civil rights movement. It’s a wave, and we’re at the crest.” The increase of organic foods and farms, the proliferation of farmers’ markets, the backlash against fast food and obesity: people are realizing conventional farming isn’t sustainable, or even palatable. That it’s killing the planet, and us. And if we can change our food — that fundamental culture all humans share — perhaps we can change our other cultures, too.

On the drive back from Tombstone to Dawson, as Kyle and Julien talk film shop and gear, I play Christine Fellows’ Burning Daylight. Before Fellows came to Dawson with Shary Boyle, she, too, was an artist-in-residence; Burning Daylight — her CD and accompanying book of poetry — was inspired by the stories of Jack London. Staring out the window at the Ogilvie Mountains, I listen as Fellows sings, “Down from the mountains / the little streams will tumble / the sun will flood the valley / rousing crocus, blooming willow.” Though the landscape is white and icy, it’s actually the first day of spring. The sun is warmer; birds are returning. Once the snow melts, the trees will bud and flowers will bloom. Under all that ice, at the edge of the planet, here’s a community of living things. In fact, it’s been here all along, waiting for spring.

  • 1. After this essay was published, Fellows, along with quite a few other Canadian writers, signed a letter in support of a former UBC creative writing professor who used his power and influence to abuse women. Seeing Fellows name on that list was utterly heartbreaking. Since I first saw the letter and list, Fellows has removed her name. However: shame on anyone who actively works to silence women, maintain the status quo, and protect the patriarchy, esp. women who call themselves feminists. Shame on these sycophanitc cowards who quietly removed their names from this petition without apology. Shame shame shame.
  • 2. Laura and her team at The Reach Gallery in Abbotsford, BC, then went on to win a Governor's General Award for Excellence in History Programming, an event I love comparing to the Quebec Nordiques' move to Colorado, wherein the newly named Avalanche won the Stanley Cup the year after they moved.
  • 3. CBU's president has since been fired. Good riddance, asshole!