Leafing through: Nature and Culture at the FEELed Library

A woman with a black toque and a red jacket digs a whole with a shovel. A woman in a plaid wool jacket stands beside her, reading from a book.
the underside of a soaring raptor against a cloudy sky

This FEELed Note is the second in a series written by Natalie Rice, the FEELed Lab Researcher in/of/on Place this year.

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How does the Earth read itself back to itself? This winter, Breath, Like Water: An Anticolonial Romance by Norah Bowman was borrowed from The FEELed Lab library and will be quietly read by the Earth over several months. In this experiment of ‘nature writing’ we must consider the ways the Earth’s poetic materiality will operate in different modes of sense making beyond the language the text is written in. There may be gaps and uncertainties. Within gaps are possibilities and interferences between what is known to be and what may be re-read and re-written anew.

Norah came to The Feeled Laband we helped the Earth ‘check out’ her book from the library to read.

Two women are facing each other, standing in the snow, at the edge of a forest. One woman leans against a large shovel.

Woodhaven is also a library. There is a large archive of lichen, a reading of pine needles in snow, a creek writing and unwriting itself. The earth reads not with a cogitative mind, but with a whole-body-mind, and as a result the earth re-reads and re-writes itself endlessly.

Bellevue creek is partially frozen, nesteled down the snowy bank which is lined with large coniferous and bare deciduous trees.

We found a place where the ground was not frozen, and Norah read the poem “Anticolonial Romance” aloud before we placed the book in a deep hole. Norah Bowman is a settler colonial writer originally from Texada Island, BC who now lives in Kelowna and is a Professor at Okanagan College. Her poetry often reflects on human and nonhuman connections including connections to place, water, plants and animals. In Breath, Like Water: An Anticolonial Romance the narrator grapples with her attachment to the Okanagan landscape and her desire to honour the Landback movement of Indigenous peoples.

“An anticolonial romance” read by poet Norah Bowman.

As a poet with a colonial settler inheritance, I am interested in how the ontological assumptions embedded within English language can be challenged through poetry. Language eludes and is fraught with limitations when talking about this specific Okanagan landscape. Poet and philosopher Jeannette Armstrong notes that the nsyilxcən language “is… language devised solely for use by the human voice and the human body” (188.) English, in contrast holds no inherent connection to the Okanagan. Despite this, perhaps poetry is one place where language can attempt to move beyond itself because it is a crafting of language that operates through the body as movement, emotional, and feelings. As poet Denise Levertov says about the practice of organic form, “imitate not the sounds of an experience…. but the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture” (Levertov.) Metaphor and metaphorical thinking can function as a re-thinking and re-shaping of how I connect with non-linguistic places.

The book Breath, Like Water sits opened next to a hole in the ground.

In poet, philosopher, and musician Jan Zwicky’s essay, “Lyric Realism: Nature Poetry, Silence and Ontology” she writes, “A nature poem, in this sense, is, then, never more than a finger pointing at the moon: its words do not “contain” reality, but merely tell us what direction to look. Moreover, that this is all the nature poem is—a kind of ontological signpost—is a fact of which the person who has written it is acutely aware” (88.) When we consider a poem as only a cultural and linguistic artifact it operates within the limits of speech, almost self-consciously. However, when a poem is nature writing itself it is always exceeding those limits in a way that we can’t quite put our finger on. It is in this way that ‘nature writing’ is not the assumption of knowing what the non-human world would want to say using human language, rather a gesturing towards what is there while understanding the limits of speech.

A book, open to one of its poems, sits in a dirt whole. A hand places a rock on top of it, to join two other rocks already resting on it.

In thinking about the FEELed Library as an interface between nature and culture, the boundaries of these inner libraries and outer libraries are beginning to blur. “Like the multiple hydrological cycles that water our planet, writing is always translation, transubstantiation—all phenomena reading and rewriting themselves in new ways,” (195) writes Astrida Neimanis in “Nature Represents Itself: Bibliophilia in a Changing Climate.” Similarly, an embodied poetics is a mode of reanimating, transforming, and translating. There are endless ways to read and be read and I wonder what can be said for textuality when something that is usually seen as a culture object, such as a book is given over to nature to be read.

Sources:

Armstrong, Jeannette C. “Land Speaking.” Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. Ed. Simon J Ortiz. Tuscon: Arizona UP, 1998. 175-94.

Neimanis, Astrida. “Nature Represents Itself: Bibliophilia in a Changing Climate.” In What if Nature Was Culture All Along? Ed. Vicki Kirby, 2017.179-198.

Zwicky, Jan. “Lyric Realism: Nature Poetry, Silence and Ontology.” In The Malahat Review: 165. Ed. John Barton, 2008. 85-91.

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