Canadian flag, snowy mountains. A\J

The Myths That Make Us

Different literary takes on the western frontier reveal what binds and separates Canada and the US.

When I was asked to compare nature literature in Canada and the United States, particularly in the West, I quickly went for my bookshelves – only to discover that the lion’s share of my library was still far away, sequestered, like a lost collection of ancient Middle Eastern scrolls in a mountain cave.

When I was asked to compare nature literature in Canada and the United States, particularly in the West, I quickly went for my bookshelves – only to discover that the lion’s share of my library was still far away, sequestered, like a lost collection of ancient Middle Eastern scrolls in a mountain cave.

Like the grizzly bear and the wolf, I have been something of a wanderer, though I have spent most of my life within walking distance of some of the wildest remaining places in the Rocky Mountain West. Even now that I have settled in Missoula, Montana, I make regular migrations south into Yellowstone and north to Banff and Canmore, Alberta, which is where my books had gathered­ dust for almost two years while US Immigration processed my desire to make a home south of the Medicine Line.

With my freshly minted Green Card in hand, I jumped in the car and circumnavigated the Crown of the Continent – up the North Fork of the Flathead River, over the Continental Divide, along the mighty Bow River, and back down the southeastern slopes (what Americans call the Rocky Mountain front) – to bring my book-heavy boxes home. My anticipation was like a child’s on Christmas morning.

The Ninemile Wolves. Leaning on the Wind. Grizzly Country. The Big Sky. Fools Crow. As I unpacked these textual treasures and cracked open their covers, I realized that many of them were borne of the landscape through which I had just driven. They’re part of a larger lexicon of western nature writing that transcends the national literatures of Canada and the United States to create a bioregional literature carved from the bedrock of the Crown of the Continent. Dominated by the Rocky Mountains, this is the central vertebrae of North America’s wild backbone; while there is wilderness elsewhere, there is more accessible wild country here than in any other part of the continent, and it has spawned a body of work with a character all its own.

Literary critics and academics don’t usually get rewarded for dwelling on similarities, and much has been made of the differences between Canadian and American literature. At least, that is the case in Canada. American literary critics seem to have little to say about Canadian writing, if they think about it at all, so the task of differentiation has been left to academics and writers north of the 49th parallel.

Northrop Frye set the stage in 1965 when he wrote, “Everything that is central in Canadian writing seems to be marked by the imminence of the natural world.”

A few years later, Bruce Littlejohn and Jon Pearce stated the matter more clearly: The thing that sets “Canadian literature apart from most other national literatures … is the influence of the wild.” But what influence? And how has it been represented? Frye, one of the most influential literary critics of the 20th century, identified two distinct themes in Canadian literature: “The identity of the sinister and terrible elements in nature with the death-wish in man,” and the “fusion of human life and the life in nature,” embodying a “sense of kinship” between humans and the natural world. Margaret Atwood, perhaps Canada’s greatest living woman of letters and a student of Frye’s at the University of Toronto, riffed off his work to conclude that “survival” was a central part of the early Canadian experience and, as a result, our literature.

Her thesis isn’t as simple as it sounds. By “survival,” Atwood refers to the need to outwit a hostile and frightening wilderness in order to endure and reap the rewards of exploitation. Alluding to a more modern condition, she also points out that some writers have realized that “Man is now more destructive towards nature than nature can be towards man; and, furthermore, that the destruction of nature is equivalent to self-destruction on the part of man.” We must survive, then, not only wild nature, but our own human nature – which evolved, of course, over millennia in the wilderness, as a fundamental influence on who and what we are.

Although much of Canadian literature is rooted in wild nature, it is in the literature of the American West that wilderness reaches a feverish, wildfire pitch. Inspired by Henry David Thoreau and his influential idea that “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” American writers of the West have revered wilderness as a mythical Eden, central to the creation myth Americans have made for themselves. As Wallace Stegner, one of the most articulate and best-loved writers of the American West, proclaimed in 1960 in his now famous “Wilderness Letter,” this idea is, “something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people.” Something, he continues with concern, “will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.”

Not surprisingly, then, wilderness seems to have played a much larger role in the early literature of the American West. It is often more than just the setting in which real and fictional protagonists overcome challenges, conquer enemies (which sometimes included the wilderness itself) and build a national character. Much more so than in Canadian literature, wilderness became a central influence, revered as a purified natural stage upon which the American ideals of “independence” and “freedom” could be enacted and celebrated, a place to escape the “dis-ease” that accompanied the westward expansion of so-called “civilization.”

Given the primacy of wilderness in America’s mythical representation of itself, it is no wonder there seems to be more to read about it coming from south of the 49th parallel. Peruse the table of contents of any anthology of English-language nature writing and you will find only a few token Canadians (usually David Thompson and Farley Mowat) sandwiched between a thousand pages by Americans.

Indeed, most of the so-called “nature” writers I grew up on – Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, John McPhee, Gary Snyder – were Americans, and wilderness often inhabited their writing like oxygen in a tumbling mountain stream. Even many of the “Canadian” writers I came to know, people like Don Gayton and Ben Gadd, are Americans who had migrated north to write about the wild in Canada, but from a perspective inevitably infused with their American-ness.

As Stegner wrote in Wolf Willow – a tripartite border compilation of history, memoir and fiction that profiles his childhood home in southwest Saskatchewan at the turn of the last century – myth matters. Deep-seated cultural filters influence our perceptions and representations of nature, which might be how the same landscape became the “prairie” in Canada and the “plains” in the United States.

And yet, as I peruse my volumes of contemporary nature writing from the Canadian and American west, I can’t help but see a convergence of themes and ideas – at least in the prose that has grown over the years, like endless forests of pine, out of the soil of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem. The nostalgic pining for the frontier and the jingoism of conquest so prevalent in American literature has faded (though not disappeared), as has the predominance of fear and mistrust of the ineffable wilderness that permeated much of Canada’s literature.

Instead, what we seem to find is that contemporary nature writing from both sides of the border often represents wilderness in a more honest, respectful and scientific manner. Regret and grief for what has been lost are central, but they are tempered by love and respect for what remains, and a greater understanding – both emotional and ecological – of how interconnected we are to nature, and why wilderness and the animals that define it are so important to conserve.

And so we find Andy Russell, perhaps Alberta’s most legendary writer, filmmaker and all-around raconteur, echoing Stegner when he writes in 1971 (albeit with less nationalistic zeal) that humanity is “a child of the wilderness, but largely ignores the importance and significance of [its] source, seeking to compromise real values of life by exploiting and wasting [its] environment in the name of fast profits and what [it] likes to call ‘progress’.”

Sid Marty and Rick Bass, among others, represent the next generation of nature writers with their deep-seated respect for the wild world. Marty is a nationally acclaimed Canadian poet and prose writer (not to mention a fierce defender of wilderness), and he now inhabits the same southwestern Alberta forests in which Russell came of age as a hunting guide and outfitter. Like Russell, Marty understands the complex, often conflicted relationship we maintain with wild nature. In Leaning on the Wind, a transboundary meditation on the eastern part of the Crown that was carved into existence (at least in part) by the force of Chinook winds, Marty grieves for the wild elk he has just killed to feed his family, and then raises his “face to the sky and gives thanks to the Creator and to the spirit of the elk,” praising “its kindness to me and mine to nourish us through the winter.”

Not far away, just south of the Medicine Line, Bass writes of the return of wild wolves from Canada to northwest Montana in Ninemile Wolves: “I have come away from following the Ninemile wolves convinced that to diminish their lives would be wicked; that it would involve a diminishing of a significant force in the world, that it would slow the Earth’s potential and cripple our own species’ ability to live with force; that without the Ninemile wolves, and other wolves in the Rockies, there would be a brown-out, to extend the metaphor of electricity; that the power would dim, and the bright lights of potential – of strength in the world – would grow dimmer.”

Such notions about our relationship with the wild world were kindled by Aldo Leopold about half a century ago, and Canadian and American writers have continued to sing similar refrains ever since. Perhaps no one understands what’s taking place better than Bill Kittredge, one of western America’s most distinguished writers. He often tackles the importance of myth and narrative, and the need to reimagine a new story about the western frontier. Whether our understandings of ourselves are clouded by American myth or Canadian anti-myth, he argues, they have become outdated and in need of renewal.

In Who Owns the West, he writes, “We need to invent a new story for ourselves, in which we live in a society that understands killing the natural world as a way of killing each other. It will be a story in which we acknowledge that the institutionalization of social and economic injustices is a way of doing the same thing.”

Much of contemporary literature in the West is doing just that, but it is a slow process. Myths, like mountains, take as long to transform as they do to create. Their evolution will undoubtedly depend on the ability of writers on both sides of the border to reimagine who we are and what we can be in a landscape still largely defined by a besieged but incredibly resilient wilderness.

At the Under Western Skies 2 environmental conference in October, Gailus will also lead a panel discussion about protecting ecological integrity in Canada’s national parks, inspired by his “All Sizzle, No Stake” article from Alternatives 38:1.

Jeff Gailus is an award-winning writer and author of The Grizzly Manifesto and Little Black Lies: Corporate and Political Spin in the Global War for Oil.