THE INTENTION of Wayne Grady in compiling Treasures of the Place: Three Centuries of Nature Writing in Canada may have been to challenge the long-held view, inherited from the likes of Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood, that our landscape is formidable. To that end, he has successfully selected stories that depict the landscape and its inhabitants not as enemies to be feared, and thus subdued, but as entities possessing spirit and intelligence.
Samuel Hearne's account of "A journey to the Northern Ocean" (1792), for example, abounds in humour and compassion. The nimble wolverine steals the prey of other animals; the jackash readily perches on human shoulders but can emit a "quite disgusting" odour when upset; and Native people. frequent wolf dens to take out the pups and play with them. Unlike her sister, Susanna Moodie, Catherine Parr Traill delights in the splendour of butterflies and an intelligent creator in "Notes from My Old Diary" (1894). David Thompson's beautiful prose in "Swan River Country" (1813) sings accolades to the rational, community-minded beaver, an animal that Native folklore credits with being creation's first race. Thompson is not alone in seeing nature's intelligence: Don Gayton notes in "The Buffalo and the Grasses" (1990) the deliberate choice made by the buffalo, which travelled continental "highways" to obtain the two grasses their bodies require.
In pieces such as Ernest Thompson Seton's "The Springfield Fox" (1898), the emphasis is on intuition, in this case the intuitive reaction of a mother fox to her kidnapped pup. Seton's remarkable powers of observation are equalled by an unerring instinct for how to engage readers - by drawing parallels to human behaviour - and may even have you reaching for a Kleenex. Similarly, Fred Bodsworth's imaginative "The Last of the Curlews" (1954) may prompt the reader to ponder anew the private life of birds. Bodsworth takes us on the now extinct Alaska curlew's migratory flight from Patagonia to Alaska; he depicts the love and caring between the last pair of curlews tenderly without indulging in sentimentality. But on the other hand, Grey Owl, the Englishman who posed as a Native, does: in "All Things Both Great and Small" (1936), his human protagonist takes sides, and out of misguided compassion reaches for his gun to protect his little forest friends from their predators.
Human endeavour comes off as exploitive in most of these stories. But in contrast to the currently fashionable view that this behaviour is restricted to white Europeans, Barry Lopezs "Banks Island" (1986) explores how the human desire to rule the landscape is not confined to one age or culture.
Moments of fear or loathing for the landscape also crop up in this anthology. Although John James Audubon writes movingly in his "Labrador journal" (1833) about nature's life-in-death cycles and the quick response of Labrador vegetation to the sun, he admits that seldom has he "left a country with as little regret." Frederick Philip Grove's "Snow" (1922) is an account of one man's determination to overcome a Prairie snowstorm. The protagonist may battle the elements and win, but while driving his horses and cutter
through huge drifts, he feels like a drowning man in a "desperate fight with the salty waves." Overall, however, Treasures of the Place offers a more positive view of the Canadian landscape. One caveat: the reader may henceforth find it hard to view nature neutrally. Human emotions and personality also pervade Joan Skogan's Voyages: At Sea with Strangers. Her terse prose lies somewhere between fiction and documentary, depicting less about international relations or the details of her job as a foreign fisheries observer enforcing the United Nations' Law of the Sea and more about both sweet and sour human relations those she has with individual crew members of the Russian or Polish ships. Certainly the reader will gain an impression of what her job entails; this is not a story in the Aristotelian sense of beginning, middle, and end, but a collection of various shipboard experiences woven together in painterly fashion. She writes - beautifully -of what is there, but fills in any gaps with such flourishes as an imagined telephone conversation between a Polish captain and his wife back home:
She has decided to tell her husband that their son is drinking again. If necessary, she will remind the captain ... they both believe the enclosed foreign world of the ship has nothing to do with their life together or with Poland.
Skogan conveys how well controlled are her own emotions in a world dominated by men whom she must supervise, but the very style in which she does so also reveals a regret that the control is necessary. Such detachment is effective, but one senses that it is not only a function of long periods spent away from home with people whose language, culture, and suffering are alien, but also a trait of the author. Skogan is in full command of her prose, even when she slips into the occasional, and distracting, use of third-person narrative that reveals her melancholy: "I turned away, looking along the river bank for a black bear who would devour all the Poles, then return to the forest, leaving me to follow him if I wished."