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The Sacred And The Profound
by Elizabeth Anthony

Appealing illustrations and sensitive texts for the eye, the mind, and the heart ALTHOUGH HE DEFINED art as "a spilling of the oil of love;" David Milne`s paintings could never be called unctuous. His oils almost audibly resist their ground, his lines even when languid are dry. Any use of opulent paint was restricted to his early New York years, when he exhibited his well-received work in the 1913 Armory Show. But he soon began to subtract paint from his canvas, a process of "eliminating reality" in favour of enhancing the formal refinements of what he called "aesthetic emotion:" At the same time, he retreated to a cabin on Alander Mountain, subtracting himself from an arts community now quizzical about his vitally compressed, yet increasingly restrained studies of the upstate New York landscape. When he returned to his native Canada in 1920 his reception was equally spare. Much overdue, then, is David Milne (Douglas & McIntyre, 224 pages, $60 cloth), edited by Ian M. Thom, the most compre hensive study of Milnes work to date. Essays by six Milne scholars explore the phases of his art in relation to his changing residence and, more important, to his search for essential expressions of the aesthetic tensions between mass and line, statement and lacunae, paint and ground, wet and dry, white and colour, the whole and its contributing units. Ultimately, Milne would use colour to alert the viewer`s eye to particularity but only as it participates in the pulse of the whole; painting was, in his words, "drawing made more readable." A disciplined diarist, Milne offered commentary that authenticates the scholars` essays even when artist and analyst do not agree. The late watercolours represented here, in particular the series Storm over the Islands, show Milne`s eloquent resolution of the material and formal tensions that invigorated his painting: chance and skilled control combine as, at last, his colours find their water and bleed, wet on wet, into their ground. They deftly celebrate Milne`s mature, disciplined yielding, an opulent spirit joyfully communing with nature through an economy of means. Brush poised in one hand, Milne confessed he "had to have someone, mostly nature, holding the other." That we are held by nature and have abused this rare embrace is reiterated by an impressive chorus of "green" voices in Save the Earth (McClelland & Stewart, 208 pages, $29.95 cloth), a collection of essays and entrees by international contributors from the arts and sciences, and activists in both the political and spiritual realms. Jonathan Porritt, a seasoned British environmental advocate, orchestrated the project, which bears a foreword by HRH Prince Charles and is introduced by David Suzuki; proceeds from the sale of the book will support the campaigns of Friends of the Earth International. Porritt`s essays on "Awakening" and "Healing" book end four chapters, each hosted by one of the elements. "Earth` addresses the issue of our ravaged rainforests, grasslands, croplands, and mountains; `Air" decries the detrimental results of pollution and of our all too literally hell-bent momentum, fuelled by dollars, desires, and default, that could make of Earth a lethal oven; "Fire" celebrates and castigates the creative and destructive capacities of human intelligence, that stolen god-fire for which we have Prometheus to thank; and "Water" enumerates the projected and accomplished casualties of our oceans, seas, shorelines, lakes, rivers, and wetlands due to the policies and practices of irresponsible fisheries, pollution, and the general manic obsession of humans for "developing" what already unfolds within the blueprint of its own perfection. The colourful, neatly noisy mix of letters, essays, graphs, and photos conveys the sense of urgency these topics require. Many small photographs gleam like gems in the text; large ones bring us face to face with the hauntingly beautiful bio-diversity of our planet. Many contributors construe these actions as necessitating a new (or the rekindling of the ancient) spiritual connection with Earth. Suzuki, paraphrasing Paul Ehrlich, suggests that the "solution to the ecocrisis is not scientific but quasi-religious." If we cannot bequeath our children an untarnished earth, perhaps they can be heirs to our annealed spirit; so that they can say, with the Japanese Nobel scientist in Peter Ustinov`s inimitable entry, coerced by his father into endless games of golf, "I found myself less drawn to the ball ...than to the grass which surrounded it." The Saskatchewan photographer Courtney Milne is equally at home with such reversals of conventional thinking, to judge by his latest album, The Sacred Earth (Western Producer Prairie Books, 246 pages, $60 cloth). As part of the spiritual remedy for our mismanagement of the planet, its covers bind the "looking cure;" an exquisite, visual record of Milne`s quest for holy ground. The lens in his skilled hands is an appropriate amanuensis, for how does the eye receive the sacred if not through accretions of light? On his 480,000-kilometre pilgrimage, Milne`s camera absorbed the imprints of many of the world`s "burning bushes;" places that are a voice urging, "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." From the vastness of Thebes` columnar temples to the Queen Charlottes` woody totems, Milne documents sites marked by our ancestors as empowering. Also included are places of no renown that have spoken to Milne personally in his wanderings. Many of his photographs remind us that the sacred is not just a place, but a moment: how the vast ocean heaves up a delicate lace, how slanting light pulls the face of a god from a rock face. Milne will often juxtapose far views of well-known sites and close-ups of the elemental materials that give each place its intimate texture; sometimes he gives us the close-ups on their own. The photographs alone are a powerful witness to the keen sensibility of the pilgrim behind the lens. The text that accompanies each photo, however, is sometimes unwelcome. While the information given provides the reader with enriching historical fact, its chatty quality occasionally cancels the ineffable rower defining an image as sacred, reducing revelation to a postcard communication. The personal comments by Milne are uniformly even and "spell-bound; and only grudgingly open to the possibility of darkness in each sacred site. Though an ill-advised ingestion of fruit may have prompted our expulsion from Eden, Jennifer Bennett raises a bountiful crop in The Harrowsmith Book of Fruit Trees (Camden House, 160 pages, $22.95 paper). Here she offers instructions for growing less forbidden but no less seductive varieties: consider Venus, a light-fleshed, sweet black cherry, or Garnet Beauty, a plump, downy peach worthy of Rubens`s voluptuous brush. Tailored for growers in Canada and the northern United States, Bennett`s tips on producing backyard cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears, quince, and apples obviously derive from years of experience and devotion to "the stuff of paradise." Richly coloured photographs of fruits and blossoms accompany an informative text that both novices and experienced growers will enjoy. The "how-to" of setting up a home orchard, selecting varieties of trees, and landscaping is filled with literary reference, anecdote, and practical advice from fellow growers. Each chapter bears a coda of green pages called "Experts` Choice;` which contain the recommended favourites of North American growers. Greener still is Bennett`s bias toward environmentally friendly orchards. From choosing disease-resistant varieties to the use of botanical insecticides, she advocates ecologically acceptable methods of pest and disease control, urging that "the best offense is a good defense." Impulsive gardeners like me, who plant and forget, will profit from her inclusion of record-keeping forms and a source list of Canadian and U.S. nurseries. It is unusual for the cover of an urban scrapbook to be graced by the absence of architecture, and instead commanded by the presence of an august tree, but Vancouver: A City Album (Douglas & McIntyre, 216 pages, $34.95 cloth), edited by Anne Kloppenborg, Alice Niwinski, and Eve Johnson, wears just such a jacket. A great, hollow cedar in Stanley Park dwarfs a wellheeled Victorian woman who peers into its littered interior like a displaced Delphic oracle. Mr. H. Abbot, resurrected from the 1886 files of the city archives, delivers his summary judgement: You cannot imagine any place rougher and more disagreeable in appearance than Vancouver itself as it is covered with burnt logs and stumps and not a green thing to be seen. You will understand this when I tell you it was a perfect wilderness on the first of last April and the ground has been cleared since. The glorious and inglorious history of that clearing vividly accumulates through the allure of dusky duotones and authentic voices culled from city archives, newspapers, and oral histories. Following a personal reminiscence by David Brock, each chapter documents a particular period of Vancouver`s history from 1860 to the present. With the arrival of the first passenger train in 1887, Vancouver became the end of the line for adventurous easterners - and Easterners, as in the early 1900s shiploads of Chinese, Japanese, and East Indians arrived, each contributing the wealth of their cultural heritage to Vancouver`s multicultural ambience. Unfortunately, the "occasional visitations of fogs" that are the watermark of its temperate weather were paralleled in the political climate by fogs less benign: the Asiatic Exclusion League strove t`:. to keep the labour force white, just as, between wars, later groups campaigned to keep it male. The combination of anecdote and visual record potently conveys the grit and polish of the city as organism. From citizens` nervousness over the introduction of electric wire to the thesis that the Ford motor car killed the veranda - which shrank to a porch as the weekend drive stretched seductively ahead The Spirit of Haida Gwaii from The Black Canoe inventions and people interact in a bubbling crucible of change. Indeed, perhaps not the porch but the platform replaced the veranda: while Vancouver, like most cities, established itself through the exploitation of nature and labour, an encouraging theme of empowerment emerges from Vancouver`s album as, within the compression of urban life, minority groups become more unified and lobby for change with increasing effectiveness. Using no colour photographs, the editors have maintained a unified flow in the presentation of time from 1860 to 1990. The absence of colour quickly slips the present into the remove of memory, for which some verve of hue must always remain irretrievable. This is the third, updated edition of Vancouver`s album; lest Lotus Land forget, perhaps the fourth could press backwards into history to include the life, rites, and myths of the aboriginal ground Vancouver appropriated to sculpt its diverse totem. In the Haida hierarchy of being, humans are, in fact, called "surface people;" living a banal horizontal life until non-human allies propel them into the underlying (and ultimately interpenetrating) deep world of myth that trees and animals so effortlessly cohabit. This definitive horizon is more than the circle of vision; it is an omnipresent "surface of tense stillness;" signed with the eloquent imprints of totemic traffic ascending and descending the axis of the world. So writes the poet Robert Bringhurst in The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii (Douglas & McIntyre, 176 pages, $45 cloth), which uses word and image to document the creation of a sculpture commissioned for the entry court of the new Canadian chancery in Washington, D.C. Bringhurst`s probing text provides the necessary cultural background to aid us in reading this aboriginal ark. Included are a brief mytho-history of the Haida and their arts, a biography of Bill Reid, a description of the sculpture`s emergence, and ruminations on its iconography. Ulli Steltzer`s photographs are a stunning, revelatory record of process. With a protean alacrity the mercurial Raven would appreciate, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, in a five-year metamorphosis, was transformed from an idea into a metre-long clay sketch, a plaster model of the same size, a full-size, six-metre prototype in clay, a plaster mould, a plaster positive cast, a plaster and polyurethane mould, and a cast wax master, finally emerging as the cast bronze sculpture. Reid`s ark had no chaste quota of "two of each kind"; the fertile roil of its 13 passengers spawns the intermediate life of an exiled spirit world. The Raven, the Bear Family, the Eagle, the Wolf, the Frog, the Mouse Woman, the Dogfish Woman, the Beaver, and the Ancient Reluctant Conscript (Reid`s self-portrait) are presided over by Kilstlaai, the Chief, in stoic command and grasping the speaker`s staff. His cape and the wings of Eagle and Raven are carved with the more traditional language of Haida design, a shamanic X-ray of the tensile structure and slippage of "the inherent spirits of the body:" The speaker`s staff holds the centre; it is an axis of memory recalling the compressed ordering of totemic powers operant at creation. In a burst of tumult in three dimensions, the crush of archetypes vigorously rows (propelled equally by both pronunciations of the word) in search of habitable earth and water. Their surfaces sensuously gleam; the clean urgency of their lines, each actively positioned by the competing fields of force of adjacent creatures, sings their quest and cues no easy resolution. Bringhurst makes it clear that more than myth informs Reid`s sculpture. Political issues are the flood it rides. In 1987, Reid stopped work on The Spirit of Haida Gwaii in support of anti-logging protests and land claims disputes in South Haida Gwaii. Haida Gwaii is the Native name of what Europeans christened the Queen Charlotte Islands. Part of the disputed land was, indeed, preserved from logging; but retained by the federal government, it was at least nominally neutered: the Gwaii Haanas, or Islands of Awe, became South Moresby National Park Reserve. It is no wonder these gods are at sea. In Haida myth, relates Bringhurst, the world is owned by cedars, bears, ravens, and human beings. The land is believed to have an "indigenous intelligence"; therefore "...the jurisdiction of the surface people ...does not go very deep." The Spirit of Haida Gwaii is a testament to Bill Reid`s keen devotion to presenting this embassy of spirit, leaping in matter, on behalf of these endangered aspects of being. The Black Canoe, as well, is a tribute to this "ancient reluctant conscript;` an artist who, carving, becomes in Haida terminology "that which he fulfils:" Like the mythic hero Quyaagyaaghandaal of his ancestral village, Reid is "Honored, Standing, Travelling" in his commitment to "reallocating the places of the gods" by his perseverance in infusing his personal vision into the traditional visual language of his Haida ancestry. For those "surface people" whose horizontal itinerary includes a backwoods cottage, The Cottage Book: A Collection of Practical Advice (Hedgehog Productions, 224 pages, $19.95 paper) will soon be a well-thumbed addition to their bookshelf. Admittedly, there are no chapters on how to deal with Raven or the Mouse Woman should they appear - or perhaps there are. Raven is always ready to ambush the novice woods-dweller with nuisance tricks, and Mouse Woman will be pleased that her namesakes are here dealt with through compromise, not destruction. Overall, however, The Cottage Book addresses a broad range of non-mythic but pertinently mundane problems that both plague and enhance cottage life. Frank Edwards has drawn his anthology of articles from well-known sources, among them Harrowsmith and Country Life magazines. Sections on landscaping, boating, fishing, and pest control are rounded out with a selection of articles on topics such as filtration systems, painting and maintaining dwellings, leisure entertainments from horseshoes to board-games and, most appropriate for our present season, how to outwit winter freeze-up and how to determine when ice is safe for travel by skate, foot, and snowmobile. A final chapter on a cottager`s raison d`etre, the opportunity to revel in a loons laugh (which, being its tremolo distress call, is anything but funny to the loon) and to chortle serenades with mating swamp frogs, celebrates the irreplaceable richness of our participation in the natural world while also stressing the responsibilities we bear for the sad dwindling of for instance - full bullfrog chorales. Not just cottagers but all country dwellers will find merit in this book. I only found one topic noticeably absent: the cottage quest`s most urgent question. Where`s the outhouse?

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