Laurie Ricou, Salal

Even though there's no way I could possibly have imagined that this book wasn't targetted specifically at me, I delayed picking up Laurie Ricou's thoughtful volume Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory. If I'm being petty, I don't see why it's as pricy at is; $34.95 for a trade paperback from NeWest Press is a little high.

Of course it's worth every penny, I can say without doubt now I've read it, but I imagine I'll still waffle at a bookstore in front of the next $30-plus book I next covet. An embarrassment, is what I am.

Salal, as Ricou explains fairly early on, reproduces in two ways. First, its tasty furred blue-black berries contain innumerable small seeds inside sticky seedpods; to collect one gram of seeds, you'd need 7687 of them (p.49). Second, and more interestingly, it spreads through rhizomes, which are like underground salal branches just aching to pop back through the surface and start sprouting leaves. The rhizomes spread clones of the original shrub, obviously, so some salal patches, genetically speaking, are actually very large individual shrubs. Both these reproductive techniques are part of this book's structure. There are 26 chapters, averaging fewer than 10 pages in length, thus hearkening to the size and number of salal's seeds, but the titles of 25 of them are verbs in the "-ing" form -- Depending, Arranging, Inhabiting, and so on -- thus reaching back to the progressive, expansive mode of the rhizome.

This book works hard to mimic elements of salal, Ricou at times making quiet fun even of his self-consciousness about this approach. The book is itself a saunter, as Thoreau used the term in his classic essay "Walking." Ricou documents his ongoing research, his conversations with those more knowledgeable than he is (which turns out to be almost everyone he meets), his stray encounters with either just the word or the plant itself. His inclusion of his research assistants as characters in the book is a useful exemplum of this method, now that I think of it; there's a serious attempt at equality in Salal that reminds me of environmental justice's emphasis on community.

But so that I don't go on all morning about this book, I'm stopping now. Great fun, well worth the money, and it fully repays any amount of time you shower on it.


Anonymous said…
An entirely original and revelatory book. (I reviewed it for B.C. Studies a year or so ago and had to try to subdue my use of superlatives...)
Theresa Kishkan
Anne said…
Yes. And if you don't know his earlier book, The Arbutus/Madrone Files, that too is well worth the money you spend on it and any amount of time you choose to spend with it.
Glen Thielmann said…
The book sounds great... I haven't read Ricou's work yet, although I took his class on PacNW Lit back in 1993 or 94. We had a chance to explore some UBC "understories" in all senses of the word and I'm so glad he has found his way into the complex embodied narratives that are suggested by the things that appear on saunters about the west coast. I am glad to have been there with him to introduce him to a few of the plants and ideas that pervade the UBC environs. It would appear that I have much more to learn from him and I should pick up a copy of Salal !!
richard said…
You know, Glen, Laurie's still dining on the experience of teaching classes like yours! In a good way, but still: he's done a number of lectures and presentations about how to teach them, in which he does basically what he would have done for the first session with your PNW class.

It's a really interesting book, Salal: I enjoyed it a lot more than The Arbutus/Madrone Files, which is more of a reference text about regional works of literature.

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