Four winters ago, Brian Bartlett, Halifax-based poet and essayist and St. Mary’s English and Creative Writing professor, was on the Island as the UPEI short-term writer-in-residence. That winter has now entered local lore for the kinds of exuberant snowfalls, flying buttress snow drifts, and epic snowbanks that old-timers spoke of harking back to earlier eras.
Lee Ellen and I were living in Alexandra, east of Charlottetown, on a long private lane in “the bird house,” so named because its builder, Dr. Phil Cox, a UPEI philosophy prof, designed his house in the shape of an osprey. Phil’s expertise and amateur enthusiasms did not include the science of wind movement. An unfortunate lack for the positioning of an avian-shaped abode. And while he was no doubt aware of Feng Shui, he apparently did not consult a master.
During snowstorms, the prevailing winds came off a ridge, over farmers’ fields, and drove the snow into our driveway and against our main entrance and garage. When I say “drove,” I mean pile-driver winds, battering rams, Mark Messier and Sydney Crosby skating full throttle toward you. After one storm, the snowpack was eight feet high around the entrance. Our other entrance, patio doors into the front yard, was blocked with six-foot drifts. I was crawling out the kitchen window and carving a path atop our rockery garden. We called for backup – a few noble friends and our Wonder Woman daughter-in-law, Major Jen Arsenault, Signals, Canadian Forces Reserves, who possesses the (clean) energy and power of several snow blowers. She deploys in a few weeks for Africa, taking her clean energy with her. Look out.
The way was cleared for Brian Bartlett to stay with us during his residency, coming and going without the need for crampons and ice axes.
Then, on his last day here, another snowstorm struck. This one so severe that our lane was three- and four-feet deep in snow. As the saying goes, “the Island was shut down,” plows too busy with essential roads and parking lots to clear private lanes. We were blessed, therefore, with Brian as our guest for two extra days. With no workshops or manuscript consultations, we cherished hours and hours of blissful conversation about poetry and fiction, music, Maritime and Newfoundland culture… and about the natural world and ecology.
Brian Bartlett is an exceedingly devoted, knowledgeable, and perceptive field naturalist, and one of Canada’s premier nature writers, as well as one of our finest poets.
That winter, his new book was Ringing Here & There: A Nature Calendar. It consists of 366 short entries, “Longer than haiku and shorter than sonnets,” he writes, arranged by months, April through March. His other terms for these entries are “field reports, sketches, commentaries, tributes, laments, micro-narratives, quotations, & collages” – the latter two from writers such as Thoreau, Chekhov, Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Bliss Carman.
Ringing Here & There has been sitting ever since in a pile of must-read books on a shelf beside my desk, most of them by friends and acquaintances. I’m like that with books – waiting for the right time to read a specific book. Right time meaning the confluence of mood, need, hunch, and whatever is happening in the caves and aurora borealis of my mind. I had read three gripping novels in a row before I selected Ringing Here and There. This is exactly what I need, I thought, after the narrative juggernauts of suspenseful novels – to slow down, meditate, dwell on Brian’s observations, descriptions, images, assessments, and sense of wonder…to borrow a Rachel Carson book title.
Yet Brian’s “entries” were so compelling – the richness of nature he evokes with such transfixing perceptions, the compelling stories he tells about his interactions, and his wondrous language: a melding of science and metaphor – that I found myself rushing onward to the next entry and the next. Eager to know what Brian had seen, heard, smelled, touched; what he had learned; what epiphanies he had been granted by his loving and well-informed attention to nature. Fortunately, as with the best haiku, the entries are ideal for re-reading slowly, reflectively, and with the utmost pleasure.
To be continued…