Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Derrick Stacey Denholm, Ground Truthing

The forests of BC's North Coast are ancient beings, historically unceded Storied Lands, cathedrals, mycelium, and an extreme recycling facility:
In Prince Rupert, I once found a Boletus eludis mushroom fruiting from a smashed computer monitor that had been thrown off a roadside and become hidden within mouldering leaves under a glade of cottonwoods. Here on the North Coast, covering everything, there is both the hypersense and the hyperreality of almost everything everywhere evergreen. (p.23)
Derrick Stacey Denholm, you get the impression, has seen a lot in his time as a timber cruiser and wandering poet, all of which feeds into his fascinating Ground Truthing: Reimagining the Indigenous Rainforests of BC's North Coast. I've long had a habit of reading quickly, linearly, in pursuit of The Point Of The Text, and that's just not a profitable approach with Ground Truthing. Instead, I had to keep thinking about the angles, the details, the perspectives that diverge from the straight-line approach I'd normally take. (This is also the approach recommended by Rob Budde in his characteristically thoughtful review of the book.) In managing to read this way, I found rewards here that I hadn't expected, and certainly wouldn't have found if I'd read like the cartoon academic I usually am.

For one thing, Denholm writes determinedly to a posthuman audience. Humans are the reading species, obviously, but he's at pains to insist regularly that we readers understand ourselves as part of a broader world. Take his comments on the concept of transitionality, for example, basically the idea that species success depends on an ability to transform or to imagine other ways of being in the world, such as rooting up lichen with antlers or digging a redd with a tail:
Whether you are a salmonid, an ungulate, or a hominid, success in transitionality must always start as an ordinary and everyday form of improvisation, one that usually requires a willful persistence, one that can be arduous and even debilitating, as it demands an incredible amount of patience to carry one through a series of physical failures and numerous mental dead ends.... The immediate intuition of the gut combined with the studied reason of analysis. (p.55)
Denholm's interest lies in the overlap and intersection between species and people (and peoples), which is why it makes such good sense that he'd want to talk about multiple species repeatedly in this book. Ground Truthing is organized around encounters with three non-human species, blue chanterelle mushrooms, mountain hemlock, and devil's club, in a process he describes (drawing on the work of Randall Roorda) as "the participatory-ecocritical" (p.32). As an additional complication, Denholm writes several different kinds of chapters, with separate narrative postures and claims upon their readers:
  • views (focusing on one species at a time, either the species' experiences or a human experience of the species),
  • plots (something like an eruption of memoir, stressing Denholm's own experiences), and
  • transects (discussions, crossing from one more or less ontological place ["place"] to another), plus
  • introductory and concluding chapters, labelled POC for point of commencement and POT for point of termination, terms borrowed from BC government permitting procedures for forestry roads.
The one anxiety for me, as with so many texts, is Denholm's treatment of Indigeneity (which, oddly, spellcheck keeps wanting to replace with "indignity"). He starts from W.H. New's comment that settler culture in Canada ought to be influenced by and inflected with Indigenous attitudes and practices, referring frequently to Indigenous names for places and peoples, but his approach at times feels more postcolonial than I'm comfortable with. At least, my view is that colonialism is ongoing and still virulent in Canada (for which see CBC's recent decision to halt online comments on stories about indigenous people or peoples), and so my own goal is to always be thinking about the ethics of my own settler-colonial existence. Denholm has travelled further down this road than I have, and while I'm cautiously okay with that, I am (as always!) both cautious and anxious.

But it's a treat of a book, I tell you.

Forest ecology, commercial history, political machinations, place-based poetics (especially Robert Bringhurst and Ken Belford): Ground Truthing, I submit, is almost impossible to make full sense of in your first reading, but generously rewards subsequent readings. Yet another terrific title from Caitlin Press!

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