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Disappearances

Terry Glavin, Waiting for the Macaws, and other stories from the age of extinctions (Viking Canada, 318 p., $35, 2006)

As I was re-reading the title chapter of Terry Glavin’s Waiting for the Macaws, an episode that takes place in the forests of Costa Rica, a blackbird landed in the feedbox on the balcony of my apartment and began poking around for the last crumbs of yesterday’s bread. The feedbox, an unused planter hanging from the balcony railing, is also periodically visited by neighbourhood sparrows, fat greedy pigeons, and the occasional starling or magpie. The blackbirds wake up just before dawn and carry on a chattering conversation through much of the day that sounds at least as intelligent as people talking on cellphones. They’re my favourites. The balcony, which faces onto a narrow, closed courtyard with two maples and one ash tree, is about as close as I get (or want to get) to the Great Outdoors.

Whereas my ventures into nature are decidedly timid, in Terry Glavin’s important, wonderfully intelligent, and beautifully written book of “stories from the age of extinctions,” the adventures are spectacular. The intrepid Glavin can not only be found half-snoozing in a Costa Rican wildlife refuge, awaiting the always-startling arrival of the big scarlet macaws of the book’s title. He’s also up in the almost inpenetrable Nagaland Himalayan mountains along the Indian-Burmese border, where the locals in a longhouse are shyly displaying a cache of the skulls of former enemies from the next tribe over and wondering if the sight of them will help or harm the possibilities of tourism. Or he’s aboard a Norwegian whaling boat drifting at the edge of the mythic but also real Maelstrom, the swirling ocean pool that drags sailors to the depths. And sometimes Glavin is just in an abandoned apple orchard on Mayne Island, B.C., his home base, where his kids are engaged in the honourable art of stealing apples, apples whose taste is otherwise unknown on the planet.

The commanding image of Glavin’s book is that of taking a “long walk.” The walk begins quite a ways from Glavin’s Mayne Island, but nonetheless close to “home” of another sort. It’s an actual, rather than metaphoric, walk through the local “rolling hills, bogs and woods” around his mother’s ancestral family farm in Coolreagh, Clare County, Ireland. He’d just begun working on the book we now have before us, going over some of his notes before starting out on “a long walk.”

There are two items of interest in his notebooks, he reports. One is an Old Testament passage from the prophet Hosea that the land will mourn, and everyone that dwelleth therein shall languish… yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away. The other is a recent newspaper article about the not-so-distant future in which 1100 scientists forecast the destruction of two-thirds of the natural world within decades, along with the “mass extinction of species, and the collapse of human society.”

With those bleak thoughts in mind, Glavin sets off on his walk in the countryside around Coolreagh. Immediately, he makes the first crucial move in how he’s going to position himself in fashioning this account. In Glavin’s view, the landscape is not just rolling hills, Irish bogs, woods, fields, and mountains in the near distance, it’s also a veritable storybook.

For example, Glavin finds himself “beside a field called the Castle Field, which takes its name from a craggy and vine-covered rock in the middle of it, the remnant of a stone fort built by local tribesmen loyal to Brian Boru, the great warrior-chief who defeated the Vikings at Clontarf in 1014. In the Castle Field you will notice the ground beginning to rise gently, and if you walk that way, up Blackguard’s Hill, you’ll find yourself heading through Ballyvaughan into the Slieve Bernagh mountains.”

But “if you walk in the other direction, northward, you will eventually find yourself in the townland of Fossamore, and the ground begins to rise there, too, into the Slieve Aughty mountains. It’s wilder up that way. Above Fossamore is Powlagower, the Goat’s Hole, and Tabernagat, the Well of the Cats. There is the Struthanalunacht, the Stream of New Milk, which once ran white with milk but long ago it turned to water, they say, when a woman washed her feet in it. There are people who live at Cloonusker who say that at the end of the world, the final battle of the last war will be fought up there, above Gortaderra, in a place called the Valley of the Black Pig, and on that last day of battle the Stream of New Milk will turn to blood.” And it’s not just the old people at Cloonusker who brood on that prophecy. William Butler Yeats, Glavin notes, “was haunted by these things, and just as the world was carrying the great weight of dread and foreboding in his apocalyptic poem, ‘The Valley of the Black Pig’” — with its clash of fallen horsemen and cries of unknown perishing armies — “so it was when I began writing this book.”

Along with the recognition that we, too, are living in strangely apocalyptic times, what especially interests me in the extended passage I’ve quoted above, and throughout his book, is Glavin’s strategy in approaching his subject. It’s something he’s done consistently ever since his first book, A Death Feast in Dimlahamid (1991), about aboriginal people, landscapes, and stories in northwestern British Columbia, and the perspective has been maintained in subsequent work, A Ghost in the Water (1994), about the disappearance of ancient sturgeon from our rivers, Dead Reckoning (1996), on the crisis in the Pacific fisheries, This Ragged Place (1996), and The Last Great Sea (2000). Once you get the point of his narrative “strategy,” what Glavin is broadly up to becomes quite clear.

Wherever he goes, Glavin takes in not only the mundane features of the world, but also its placenames and their histories, and the stories that people tell (“long ago it turned to water, they say, when a woman washed her feet in it”) about how the world got to be the way it is and how it might become (“there are people… who say that at the end of the world, the final battle of the last war will be fought up there… in a place called the Valley of the Black Pig”). Glavin gives a kind of equal, almost impartial, weight to all this information and telling. He doesn’t bog us down by asking, Now, was there actually a woman who washed her feet in the Stream of New Milk, and if so, when exactly, and what are the chemical transformations required to establish the fact of that story, if, indeed, it is a fact? Nor does he worry about the relation of myth to the mundane. Rather, he simply passes on the tale, requiring no more than that casual, elegant folk attribution of, they say. The effect is a kind of magical naturalism which insists that all of the material — names, etymologies, the sounds of various languages, historical events, myths, poems, stories resting on the authority of they say — must be vividly co-present if we’re to have a sense of reality sufficient to focus our attention. Otherwise, the world will be mere “scenery.” Glavin’s remarkable art as a writer is founded in that highly-charged way of seeing, to recall John Berger’s phrase, and it informs just about every passage, argument, claim, and meditative reflection in Waiting for the Macaws.

“This is a book about extinctions,” Glavin declares at the outset, pointing out that “roughly 34,000 plants, or 12.5 percent of all the plants known to science, are threatened with extinction.” Ditto for one in eight bird species (maybe including those poking around in my balcony feedbox), one in four mammals, four of every ten turtles, and half of all the surveyed fish species in the world’s waters. Facts and figures of this sort punctuate the text, even if they “constitute only the most crude sort of barometer of the great unravelling of the living world.” But equally distressing, extinction is taking place outside the categories of animals and plants. “It is happening down where the true measure of life’s diversity is found. Extinction is taking away the subspecies, the local population, the particular, the neighbourhood, the singular, and the specific. And it is not confining itself to the ‘wild’ things of the world.”

Glavin is talking not just about “nature,” and I put that word in quotes, because what is natural and cultural, what is “inside” and “outside,” is one of the things that this book puts in question. “Humanity’s diversity,” says Glavin, “is similarly withering. Though the world population has surpassed six billion, it is as though some savage ethnic cleansing is underway. The world is losing an entire language every two weeks. Fully half of the world’s 5000 languages are expected to be gone, with all their songs and sagas, by the middle of this century. We are losing religious and intellectual traditions, entire bodies of literature, taxonomies, pharmacopias, and all those ways of seeing, knowing and being that have made humanity so resilient and successful a species for so long… We are not gaining knowledge with every human generation — we are losing it.”

My first serious apprehension of that loss of memory, imagination and investigation that Glavin’s book is about was awakened some two decades ago when I read Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia: Stories for People Who Find Television Too Slow. So, Glavin’s message here is not a new one, but it is powerfully and effectively delivered. One of Glavin’s several concerns is how to express that message. And here, he makes another important move.

He says, “A dark and gathering sameness is descending upon the world, and the language of environmentalism is wholly inadequate to the task of describing the thing. It can’t even come close. It isn’t that environmentalism exaggerates the phenomenon,” an accusation frequently levelled against it, say, in the debates about global warming. Rather, it’s that environmentalist discourse “just doesn’t have the words for it.” Ever since Glavin’s journalistic days as a reporter for the Vancouver Sun, when he was reporting on and arguing with his editors about getting adequate space for stories about the political struggles of Haida native people in the Queen Charlotte Islands, he has been regarded as an environmentalist writer, so his declaration of its inadequacy as a vocabulary may be taken by some as a betrayal of commitments, though of course it’s not. He charges that the environmentalist discourse is burdened with “language that draws arbitrary distinctions between ‘wilderness’ and everything else and that places ‘nature’ outside of culture.” And that will no longer do.

The method that Glavin adopts in Waiting for the Macaws is a culturally more traditional one, but one that is also more risky than a discourse that rests on scientific authority. As he says, “To make sense of the world, people tell stories. This is a book of stories, not only because as novelist Doris Lessing says, ‘our brains are patterned for storytelling.’ It is also because at a time when the world is filled with dread and foreboding, and when the great master narratives we’ve relied on to understand things are collapsing all around us, there should be some virtue in going for a walk through the hills and coming back at the end of the day with an account — a story — of what’s out there.”

As much as “nature” in its conventional sense is imperilled, so too are our stories. “For all its splendid, flourishing, and elaborately interconnected profusions of life, the earth is also a tomb, and the dead breathe their stories out of the ground,” Glavin observes. “But those very stories, all over the world, are vanishing just as certainly as all those birds, languages, turtles, songs and apples. They are also vanishing just as quickly.” So, this is a book about the extinction of vital cultural practices as much as it is about the extinction of nature, both in and out of quote-marks.

This act of repositioning in terms of how to deliver a message may seem rather modest, but if one of the cultural practices threatened with diminishment if not extinction is narrative itself, Glavin’s commitment to story is more significant than it may appear at first. In terms of modes of language adequate to the situation being described, I’d be tempted to go even further and suggest that perhaps we need poetry to get an understanding of what needs to be understood, but I’m realist enough to recognize that poetry in our time has been relegated to very specialized laboratories of language-users. I’ll settle for good storytellers, and Glavin is definitely one of them.

Finally, in terms of the strategies, methods and repositionings of this book, one of the interesting things about Macaws is that it’s not a doom-and-gloom environmentalist jeremiad, though it provides the full complement of apocalyptic prospects without flinching. “After a fairly thorough reconnaisance of the extinctions at work in the world,” Glavin declares, “I found absolutely no evidence that any of this is what humanity really wants. That is good news. I can also confidently report that the roads and boreens that wind their way through the East Clare hills do not lead inevitably northward beyond Fossamore into the Valley of the Black Pig.”

Indeed, even the recent newspaper article about portending extinctions doesn’t “describe one inescapable fate.” The article is based on a United Nations Environment Programme report that actually outlines “four roads through the hills,” only two of which head toward the Black Pig. The “security first” and “markets first” approaches offer dire prospects in which “the powerful and wealthy end up gating themselves into enclaves leaving the masses of poor to survive as best they can in the collapsing environment outside the walls,” and the state loses its capacity to regulate human affairs and is subsumed to faith in market forces, further globalization, and greater trade liberalization. Margaret Atwood’s recent dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake (2004) imagines the more extreme outcomes likely to result from travelling such roads.

The “policy first” and “sustainability first” approaches, by contrast, “lead to a different sort of countryside altogether,” one that focuses on local and coordinated responses to environmental disruption and poverty, and in which “new institutions make room for radical changes in the way people interact with one another and with the living, breathing world.” Along these latter roads, “we all muddle through.”

Glavin concedes that the present extinctions, unlike previous ages of extinction, can all “be reliably attributed, in one way or another, to a single species: Homo sapiens.” He adds, “But it is not a simple story, with human beings as the cruel villain of the piece. In the case against humanity, this book is offered as evidence for the defence.” What Glavin relies on is a sense that “deep within the human consciousness is an ancient and abiding desire to be in the presence of flourishing, abundant, and diverse forms of life. Like the desire for narrative, enchantment with the beauty, utility and diversity of living things is an inescapable aspect of human nature.”

Glavin’s concept of “humanity” is of course to be distinguished from particular human regimes, social classes, corporate cabals, and the rest. Still, humanity presents a puzzling dynamic. Perhaps the best we can claim is that there’s “the wisdom of the people,” which really does exist, and there’s popular ignorance, even willful human stupidity. The important term in the dynamic is “and.”

Everything I’ve reprised is found in the opening chapter of Waiting for the Macaws, which provides a framework for understanding Glavin’s subsequent experiences as well as a brief demonstration of his magical naturalist method while walking in the hills of East Clare. After that, in a sense it’s all downhill, or downhill, uphill, over hill and dale, onto the ocean’s bounteous blue, and from home to the middle of nowhere and back to the apple orchards of Mayne Island.

In each of the stories to follow, which I leave to the reader — stories about tigers and the simulacra of safaris in Singapore, to cougar attacks on Vancouver Island, to the shrine of Kali in Calcutta which shimmers at story’s end — the story is sustained by Glavin’s cosmopolitan intelligence, a sense of curiosity that is at once precisely local, but that simultaneously measures the local in terms of the worldly. In Glavin’s case, his intelligence is motivated by passion (the heated charm of an Irish temperament) and unrestrained by ideological prejudice or pre-judgement. That is, he approaches experience without overdetermined preconceptions, though of course he comes to each scene, like all of us, with ideas. But the ideas do not feel imposed on the landscape. Rather, the adventure (and this is a book of adventures) is refracted through the prism of the reality Glavin encounters, and that reality is permitted to test, shape and rewrite whatever notions Glavin brings to the scene.

While Glavin’s locations seem exotic to me, given my natural habitats, what you learn from reading his stories is that the locales he arrives at are not really exotic, they’re simply other places where people have ways of living, ways of telling that are ultimately recognizable to us. My “natural habitats” tend to be classrooms, urban streets, libraries (public and personal), cafes, and the occasional balcony where blackbirds make social calls. What Waiting for the Macaws does for a reader like me is to sharpen my attention toward the disappearances, losses, and extinctions of cultural practices taking place in my own backyard: letter-writing has been replaced by qualitatively diminished electronic messages, teaching has become an almost lost art in the face of overcrowded university lecture theatres, and sometimes I wonder if conversation and books themselves are also disappearing. Glavin’s book not only awakens memory and inspires investigation, but it’s that rare thing, a narrative that stays in mind. It’s time for all of us to take “a long walk.”

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Berlin, June 4, 2006

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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