Book Review
bySylvie Shaw

Landscapes of the Heart: Narratives of Nature and Self

Michael Aleksuik & Thomas Nelson Eds., 2002, NeWest Press.

I found reference to this small and wonderful book on the web. I sourced it through the internet and when the book arrived a few weeks later I could not put it down. It is definitely recommended reading. It is a collection of stories of people’s connection to place. They are moving stories of deep insight, riveting stories of how people are changed by place alongside stories of how places are changed by people. Often these stories are accounts of blinkered government actions irrevocably affecting places and communities; at other times the stories show how people can fight back and protect their place and the surrounding environment.

In the introduction, Michael Aleksuik, the co-editor talks about the process he and Thomas Nelson went through to gather together the contributions to the book. They held lengthy discussions for almost a year, went on numerous trips into the woods and old growth forests gradually becoming part and parcel of that landscape. In parallel with developing personal connections to each other and to the land, they created a website calling for contributions for the anthology. They received over 200 articles and whittled them down to the eleven stories that appear in the book. These stories are gems.

Ecopsychologist Lisa Lynch writes of her deep connection with the North Umpqua river in Oregon. She entwines the tragic drowning of her young sister in the river with her own journey of grief and healing being connected to the river. Part of the healing process included a detailed research study of the place of the river in people’s lives and the environmental issues that concern them, from damming the river to dwindling fish stocks and clear felling along the river’s embankments. It is a compelling narrative, at once touching and thought-provoking.

All the contributions in the book travel from the personal to the ecological. They weave patterns of connection between environmental justice and social justice, between despair for lost landscapes and environmental anger and activism, between personal stories of grief and loss and the healing offered by earth and community.

Stories are beautifully written with deep emotion effervescing from the page. Through poetic descriptions and profoundly moving narratives of place and loss of place, we are carried along on a journey into the spiritual and sacred. J. Douglas Porteous, for instance, tells of how his childhood home in East Yorkshire, England was ‘slaughtered’ through thoughtless government decision making and bureaucratic bungling in the name of ‘urban renewal’. From this example of small town extermination, Porteous takes us into the world of globalization and capitalist greed through a discussion of his book about the town’s demise Planned to Death. Porteous leaves us however on an uplifted note – with his attempts to restore the land on his ‘hobby’ farm in the islands off Vancouver.

In the midst of despair and trauma for the loss they have experienced, personal losses as well as loss of place, all contributors speak of the intimate role nature plays in their lives now and the urgent role they play in protecting it. For example, Mark Shaller writes of coming to terms with the end of his marriage via a long hike in the mountains. He changed while out on the trail, transformed by the contemplation, the naturescape and the inner journeying. Robert G. Williamson writes of his experiences with the Inuit and the things he learned through his connection with the people of the land. He describes the social and environmental issues confronting their culture and way of life and sees the only hope for self and cultural renewal lies ‘through habitat-relatedness’ (p. 199).

I will end this review with a short description of an early environmental action taken from the article ‘Nature, Environment and Community’ by R. Michael M’Gonigle.
This quote reinforces in me the reason why we do what we do and why we care so much about recreating the human-nature relationship.

“And then there was the incident with the trees. The main road … was being upgraded to a four-lane highway and, in the process, the contractors had decided to take down some very old trees. They were nowhere near the right-of-way, but were close to the creek, so the alarm went out. Everyone rallied, parents and all. We went to the forest, and got right in there, surrounding the trees, stopping the chainsaws. In an act unnoticed and now all but forgotten, my whole neighbourhood engaged in one of the world’s early examples of tree hugging. To everyone’s surprise, the Highways officials agreed with us and told us not to worry, the trees could stay. So we all went home, smiling with victory. The next day, after school and after work, we came home to find that all the trees were gone, (p.210).”

Landscapes of the Heart is a testament to spirit of place and the human spirit.