Home Landscapes (by Dave Butler)
When I began collaborating with Pamela Beason and Greg Zeigler in Free Range Writers (FRW), they immediately set my mind to thinking about why we first connected at Left Coast Crime.
Partly, I think, it was because western landscapes are such critical parts of our writing. They’re as important to our stories as are people or plots. In the context of those landscapes, one of my favourite writers is Wallace Stegner. He wrote about the geography of the west in ways that have always stuck with me, and in ways that I believe resonate with our collective approach to our books:
“Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see all the world afterwards.”
“If we don't know where we are, we don't know who we are.”
“If there is such a thing as being conditioned by climate and geography, and I think there is, it is the West that has conditioned me. It has the forms and lights and colors that I respond to in nature and in art. If there is a western speech, I speak it; if there is a western character or personality, I am some variant of it; if there is a western culture in the small-c, anthropological sense, I have not escaped it. It has to have shaped me. I may even have contributed to it in minor ways, for culture is a pyramid to One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
Because I grew up in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, my home landscapes are the open ponderosa pine / grassland ecosystems there. Now, my home is in those same forests in BC’s East Kootenay, a few mountain ranges to the east. These are both valleys that align north-south, drainages where rivers flow south and west from the mountains toward the Pacific Ocean.
However, like many western writers, I see the US – Canada border as a human, political construct rather than as an ecological boundary. So, my home landscapes are also the same ponderosa pine forests in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. When I am in those places, I see the same trees and the same understory plant associations, the same mammals and birds, and the same fish – cutthroat trout, bull trout, and even sturgeon in the Columbia River system. I smell the pine needles. Touching the bark of the ponderosas is like running your fingertips over rough pieces of a wooden puzzle. In these places, the sights and sounds and smells are shared. They all feel like home.
Like Stegner, I do believe that these ecosystems, these landscapes, were imprinted in my brain as a young child. I hope that sense of my home landscapes comes through to readers of my Jenny Willson mysteries (Dundurn Press). And when I travel to places such as Namibia (which is where the 3rd novel in the series is set), I think about the people I meet there, and how their home landscapes differ so dramatically from mine. They are the gauze through which we all see the world afterwards.
As writers, we have an incredible opportunity to share our own home landscapes, and through that, better understand who we are. I cherish that opportunity.