A Postcard from New Zealand, The Man on the Mountain

We follow a path and steep steps going up the side of the hill. A tall, fibrous plant grows everywhere here. The educational centre at the parking lot tells us that the Maori peoples used this plant to make baskets, mats, and clothing. After passing a soccer field, we begin the climb up the side of the volcano.
My daughter and I are climbing Mangere Mountain, an extinct volcano near Auckland, New Zealand. This is one of nearly fifty extinct volcanos in and around Auckland. We climb higher along the rim, and we can see the remains of the terraces the Maori people built around the inside of the ancient crater for growing food. As we get to the highest point of the rim, we can see down one side across the city to the harbour, and on the other down into the centre of the volcano, where the lava dome is visible as a hummock of land.
As we stand, a man joins us on the rim. He walks with a staff, a twisted length of wood that he says was gifted to him by a Maori friend. He shows me the staff.
“My friend made this,” says the man, “and he just handed it to me and said it’s yours.”
The man has a long beard, with eyebrows to match. He is full of information about this place, this long-dead volcano that was sacred to the people who lived here.
He stands and explains the view, the harbour to the south and west and other volcanos in the distance. He says the lava dome at the centre of the volcano, with the two smaller craters to either side makes the inside of the crater look like a face.
“they call it the face of the god,” the man says, and he shows me the Maori symbol he wears around his neck. He tells us he is from the English midlands, and came to New Zealand eighteen years before, following is sister
We thank him and shake hands. We tell him our names, and he bids us a good journey. And as we walk away down the rim, we look back, and the man is no where to be seen. It occurs to me later, he never told us his name.

From One Island to Another

Two weeks ago, I walk out of a hotel in St. John’s, Newfoundland, to find the ground covered in wet snow. today, I’m standing on my mother’s deck on Vancouver Island in sun and twenty-seven degrees. It’s not just the difference in weather that strikes me. There’s a fundamental difference in the people and landscapes on these opposite sides of the country.
I’ve come to think of Vancouver Island as a second home. I first came here as a boy in the 70s, brought here by my parents with my brother and sister on a family holiday. My father was a steam engineer, which meant little to me as a kid. He worked hard, every week of every year, save the three-week holiday in the summer. My mother would pack enough boxed and canned food to last the trip, and off we would go, with a tent trailer in tow. We camped and drove, drove and camped, getting as far as Regina one summer and all the way to Long Beach the next.
I never thought about those trips from my dad’s perspective. He had to drive most days, fight with the trailer, listen to squabbling kids, and put up with us asking him to buy expensive junk he couldn’t afford. But he took us—and we saw the mountains, bighorn sheep perched at the edge of cliffs, ravens that were bigger and blacker than the crows back home, and finally long sandy beaches, where we explored over the rocks, discovered sand-dollars, and gathered shells that stank of the life they once housed.
Now, four decades later, I’m a regular on this island—I could become an islander, if I wanted, just by moving here, something I couldn’t do on that opposite coast. Once, in a store out here, I said I was from Alberta. Flat-lander, said the clerk. It took me a moment to decide if I was being insulted or not. I decided not—teased, maybe, but in a relaxed sort of way. These islanders are perhaps more relaxed than their east coast cousins, but they aren’t wedded to place in the same way: for one thing, most people here come from somewhere else.
I love both these coasts, but the wash of prairie that runs down from the Rocky Mountains until it spills over the Canadian Shield has always been my home, the place where I grew up and where my roots go deep into the glaciated soil. But if you ratchet back the clock far enough, the prairie, too, was once a sea—the vast inland Bearpaw Sea where lived the stuff of nightmare and textbook. You can still find them there. Just take a drive down to the royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller and you’ll get your fill of those creatures who once inhabited what we call the prairies.
I think about these places I visit and the ways in which they alter over time. People move away; people die—something of which I’m reminded every time I walk by the tiny Brethour Family cemetery that stands beside the Victoria airport. I used to walk here with my brother, Don. He would read the inscriptions on the stones, and we would talk about who these people were and what they were like. He died here last March, after a long struggle to overcome cancer. And now when I come to this island, I think of him, how he brought Christmas to this little street, with his endless strings of lights and blow-up Christmas characters. He lies out here in a quiet cemetery outside of Victoria, a lovely natural area planted with trees and wild shrubs. And when I think of my brother, I also think of my father, whose ashes we left a thousand kilometres inland, in another cemetery just outside of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, amid the flat, expanse of the prairie and far from the sound of the sea.

Visiting The Rock

Driving up from the ferry terminal, we are quickly surrounded by rocky hills, some still covered in snow. We finally feel as though we have left the land we know and have entered something foreign. Halifax and Nova Scotia felt familiar; Cape Breton was important to us because of the stories of Alistair MacLeod. But there’s something imposing about Newfoundland—maybe it’s the distances neither of us were expecting, and maybe it’s this landscape that’s like and unlike anything either of us has encountered.
It’s a two-hour drive to Corner Brook. We have a hotel, a room with two double beds squeezed into a small space. I need to smoke, so I find my way downstairs—down a spiral staircase to the lobby. The staircase is an odd feature for such a basic hotel. I stand outside and smoke, listening to the hum of neon as I text my children. This is what we do whenever we stop for the day—text those at home, keeping open a thin line of communication with those thousands of miles away.
In the morning, we pack hurriedly and check out. We want to get to our next destination. We have to make a decision at Deer Lake. It’s a Tim Horton’s where we stop. Snow is in the forecast. Before leaving Sydney, we were asked several times why we were visiting so early in the year. Now we understand. This place feels more northern than anything I’m used to. It’s the landscape, but it’s also the incessant wind that bites my face and dries my hands.
In the Tim Horton’s over coffee and breakfast sandwiches, we talk about what to do. It’s four hours up the northern peninsula to our original destination—the Viking site at L’Anse aux Meadows. If we turn east to try and outrun the snow, it’s almost seven hundred kilometres to St. John’s. Tom’s the driver; I’m the passenger. We make the decision to outrun the snow.
***
Three days of driving across Newfoundland. We are never far from the sea. We climb to the summit of Blue Hill, only to find the distances shrouded in fog. We drive through Terra Nova national park and take note of the signs to watch for moose. We spend the night in cabins facing Bonavista Bay, the sea pounding and pounding against the shore. We are off again the next morning. We drive, we talk, we stop for coffee, talk to as many people as we can.
The snow catches up to us in St. John’s. But we make it to our hotel, where we will stay for three days, exploring the city and area. We drive then walk up to the Amherst Lighthouse in a screaming wind, and we drive to Pouch Cove, where an iceberg sits in the distance. Icebergs are few this year—that’s what they tell us. The iceberg in Pouch Cove breaks up after another day.
We arrive at Cape Spear on our last full day in Newfoundland. This place has impressed itself on us. We have driven across this island, we have talked to its people, we have wandered the streets of some of its towns. But we are still foreigners here—we always have to be. We are “from away,” which sets us apart.
We climb the wooden stairs from the parking lot towards the lighthouse. There are two of them—the old lighthouse that one family for nine generations tended, and the new, automated lighthouse that stands lower down the headland. The stairs are uneven, and we climb and climb.
At the top, we come to the end of the headland that looks out over the North Atlantic. This is the most eastern point of North America. the water heaves and swells three-hundred feet below; the wind tears over the headland from the sea. We wonder at the people who first came here, four-hundred years ago—fisherman, trappers, seekers after adventure. And standing here, exposed on the headland, we can feel ourselves being altered by the wind. It strips our faces and hands, peeling away flecks of who we are to scatter behind us and down over the landscape. We are going to leave something of ourselves here on this island, flecks of DNA that will find their way into the water and soil, picked up by plants or mussels that cling to rocks or outcroppings of stone. This landscape has become part of our imaginations, but we are becoming part of it, too, even if only a little.

New Fiction this Week

This week is an unusual week for me. I’ve had two stories come out in the same week, one in the spring issue of Verdad Magazine, and the second in daCunha, an online journal out of Leeds, England.
First, thank you to the editors of Verdad Magazine for publishing “Suicide Blues,” a story I wrote several years ago. This story is about the feelings that come with the contemplation of suicide. It’s a difficult story that addresses difficult issues, and it’s one that I’ve had rejected more than a dozen times. I’m grateful Verdad was willing to accept the story and glad it’s finally found a home.
Second, I want to thank Veronica and the people of daCunha for publishing “And Tears Fell No More.” I’m excited about this one; it’s my first robot story.
A couple of years ago, I read through Isaac Asimov’s robot collection. I wanted, in a small way, to contribute to this genre—and it is a genre. My problem was trying to write a story about robots that hadn’t already been done.
Given my reliance on technology in so many aspects of my life, I thought, hey … and along came the story. It wasn’t that easy, of course; it’s never that easy.
You will need an account with daCunha Global to read “And Tears Fell No More,” but the contribution you make will be in support of the journal and its writers—plus you get access to a whole range of awesome stories. Enjoy!

Cli-Fic–Have you Heard of it?

Climate change fiction for young adults, or cli-fi, also called eco-fiction, is a genre that has been gaining ground for a few years. Cli-Fi is one of those genres that crosses boundaries into other kinds of fiction. It can be dystopian, but it doesn’t have to be. To be cli-fi, these books seem to need an environmental disaster as part of the central conflict.
According to Scientific American, cli-fic is establishing itself as a genre for adults, while it seems to have already become a thing in the world of young adult books. In a larger way, such books are part of what is also called Anthropocene fiction—the Anthropocene being a term describing the period within which humans have had the gratest impact on the planet’s ecosystems.
Weirdly enough, when I first encountered a reference to cli-fic, I was less surprised than I was baffled. How is this suddenly a genre, I wondered. I hadn’t encountered the term before, but this wasn’t exactly a new kind of book for me.
Long, long ago, when phones weren’t smart, and the Internet was just a thing for geeks, I took a badly typed and badly written manuscript to the public library, where Monica Hughes was serving as the writer in residence. I thought I could write at the time, and Monica was so kind and encouraging that I believed I still could upon leaving the library. Seldom have I encountered someone who could provide critical feedback with such grace and understanding. I like to think of her as one of my early writing mentors, even if briefly.
If you don’t know, Monica Hughes was born in Liverpool in 1925. She had a career that included dress maker and bank clerk, and she published her first novel for young adults at the age of fifty. Canada claims her as one of the country’s best science fiction writers for young adults. But she wasn’t just a Canadian; she was an Edmontonian.
Monica Hughes was writing climate change fiction in the 1980s and 90s, long before the genre had ever been thought of. Her Isis trilogy deals with the despoilment of a planet, whose sole inhabitant, Olwen Pendennis, has been surgically altered by her robot guardian so she can live safely in the harsh climate of Isis. Two other important cli-fic books are Ring-Rise, Ring-Set (1982) and The Crystal Drop (1992). Ring-Rise tells the story of the advancing glaciers in northern Canada, the Earth’s climate having been altered because of a ring of asteroidal dust encircling the equator. The Crystal Drop, on the other hand, is set in southern Alberta, where global warming has turned the prairie into a desert. After the death of her mother, Megan Dougal and her younger brother have to make a trek across the drought-stricken prairie to find a new home with their uncle in the mysterious community of Gaia.
There you have it—climate change fiction from the 80s and 90s. And it was happening in Edmonton, coming from Monica Hughes, a delightfully engaging and prolific writer, who was farther ahead of her time than I ever thought.

Dialogue in Children’s and Young Adult Books

Many readers look for dialogue in the books they read. This is no different for children. Dialogue adds tension, information, and moves a story along in helpful ways. But when is dialogue too much?
I teach J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit every year. Invariably, a student will tell me the book wasn’t for them. This is a polite way of telling me they didn’t like it. When I ask why, the student will often say, “There’s just too much description.”
On one hand, I can appreciate that someone might find Tolkien’s pacing slow. The book has long passages of description, and Bilbo’s journey takes time. On the other hand, the same student who doesn’t like The Hobbit will like Gary Paulson’s Hatchet. Hatchet is a survival story, which means Brian, the main character, is stuck on a lake in Northern Ontario for fifty-four days—by himself. As you can imagine, the book has hardly any dialogue. So what’s the difference?
In this case, I think it’s a matter of taste rather than criticism. However, when is dialogue a bad thing in a children’s book? I’m reading Brandon Mull’s Beyonders series, based on the fantasy kingdom of Lyrian. I was part way through the second book, Seeds of Rebellion, when my mind started wandering. I realized that Mull’s large cast of characters was talking too much. In the second book, many of these characters come together on a journey—then they start talking. The dialogue goes on and on. The characters are busy organizing a rebellion against Maldor, the evil emperor, but the endless talk of who’s who and how they plan to defeat the emperor gets tedious. It’s like reading a script—the dialogue provides information, but the tension evaporates. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of Brandon Mull. His Fablehaven series is excellent, and it remains my favourite.
Thinking about dialogue in kid’s books raises some important questions for me. For one, when I think about the inner life of a child, I remember a rich world of feeling that I had to work hard to articulate. I’m sure this isn’t true for many kids, but kids still have to learn how to close the gap between feeling and verbalizing. Language acquisition doesn’t happen at the same rate for every child. If an author fails to recognize that language acquisition imposes certain limitations on character, then they aren’t doing justice to a child’s experience. If the point of the dialogue is just to get across information, then you might as well skip the dialogue and—or some of it—and offer a concise explanation.
This is an exercise in balance. Return to Tolkien for a moment. Here’s a passage from The Hobbit that both uses description and dialogue to its best affect:

One morning they forded a river at a wide shallow place full of the noise of stones and foam. The far bank was steep and slippery. When they got to the top of it, leading their ponies, they saw that the great mountains had marched down very near to them. Already they seemed only a day’s easy journey from the feet of the nearest. Dark and drear it looked, though there were patches of sunlight on its brown sides, and behind its shoulders the tips of snowpeaks gleamed.
”Is that The Mountain?” asked Bilbo in a solemn voice, looking at it with round eyes. He had never seen a thing that looked so big before.
”Of course not!” said Balin. ”That is only the beginning of the Misty Mountains, and we have got to get through, or over, or under those somehow, before we can come into Wilderland beyond. And it is a deal of a way even from the other side of them to the Lonely Mountain in the East where Smaug lies on our treasure.”
”O!” said Bilbo, and just at that moment he felt more tired than he ever remembered feeling before. He was thinking once again of his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit-hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!
(J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”)

Tolkien creates a balance between the interior state of the character and dialogue. Both provide information, and the tension comes out of Bilbo’s tiredness in relation to Balin’s comment that the world is much bigger than the hobbit imagines.
An Internet search will tell you it’s important to use dialogue in kid’s books. Good advice. But dialogue is effective for any kind of writing. And most kids know when they are being condescended to. That includes the over use of dialogue. Kids can be discerning readers, just like adults, which to my mind is always the best place to begin—remembering that kids are readers, who know what they like, and who aren’t afraid to close a book once they’ve had enough.