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Deep into the inner and hidden life of a natural forest 

By Allen Larocque

Trees are not different from us in their essence. We are cousins, each a representation of the same genetic song winding its way through the ages. Every branch of life is a genre; every species a theme; every individual a variation.

Like us, trees have parents, children, brothers and sisters. They have neighbours, and neighbourhoods. They have friends and enemies. They eat food, and occasionally are eaten (an experience fortunately rare for humans these days). Trees breathe in, and breathe out; they thirst, and sip water; we perspire and they transpire. Like us, they are conceived, born, and die. 

There are differences, too. Our favourite modalities of communication are sight and sound. But plants have no eyes to see with, and no ears with which to hear. They are chemical creatures, their leaves attuned to the taste of signaling molecules in the air, and their root tips to the flavours of the moist soup underground. Here it is dark and quiet. Here fungal threads carry chemicals along the miniature highways of their reticulated, networked bodies. Like nerves, action potentials ripple along the outside of their chitinous sheaths, releasing messages we are just beginning to understand. These messages seep from fungi to plant roots through mycorrhiza, structures neither plant nor fungi but somehow both, the product of an intimate mutualism between fungal thread and plant cell.

Where there are messages there is response; and where there is response there is communication. These are simply causes, and effects. These effects are physically preserved in flesh and wood and the patterns of the forest, and through this emergent encoding they become memory. They connect us in the present and through time in ways that we are aware of, and in ways that are deep and dark. It is these ‘connections between’ that separates the forest from the trees. It is the difference between a bunch of individuals, and a community.

Like our communities, forests are not so much something to be understood, as something to be in relationship with. Western science has long approached forests as something out there, something primarily to be understood and managed. We know, deep down, that this is wrong: approaching our personal relationships the same way does some kind of violence to the other. It boxes these relations in, reduces them to our idea of them rather than seeing them for what they really are.

Like a loved one, we seek to understand forests, but we never quite get there. Something always escapes us; they are always just a little bigger than our conceptions of them. They are always growing and changing, and our ideas are, at best, always a few steps behind. They are deeply weird, in the terminology of ecologist Timothy Morton. In their strangeness, they are both comfortable and mysterious, both healing and frightening, simultaneously familiarly close, and incomprehensibly distant.

The longest and most stable relationships are the ones that seek to preserve this weirdness, this wonder and mystery. When the person you wake up next to every day surprises you; when the person you see in the mirror every morning is somehow different. When the tree you walk past every day catches the light in a way you’ve never seen before; in these moments we are reminded that we are not just ourselves, but all our relations, too. The connections are us, whether we want them or not.

Dr. Allen Larocque is an ecologist and forester working in British Columbia.  He is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of British Columbia, Mother Tree Network.

Photo by Chris Zielecki / Stocksy

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My Life With Joni

Linda Kidder and Jonathan Gould in I Think I’m Fallin’ – The Songs of Joni Mitchell created by Michael Shamata and Tobin Stokes / Photo by David Cooper / Cory Sincennes – Set & Costume Designer / Alan Brodie – Lighting Designer

Musical Man about town Robert Holliston on the magic of Joni Mitchell.

I REMEMBER MANY THINGS ABOUT LIFE DURING THE SUMMER OF 1979: preparing my move to Vancouver as a full-time UBC music student; working during the day at the Inter-Cultural Association (and during the evenings for what is now Pacific Opera Victoria); practicing (when time allowed) and partying (time always allowed). And most of all haunting our local record store daily, waiting for the release of Joni Mitchell’s newest album, Mingus. I remember the day it arrived: I bought the vinyl album (for home), the cassette (for work), and the new issue of Rolling Stone which had a photo of Joni on the cover and the (now-legendary) interview with Cameron Crowe inside. Went back to work, shut the door, sat at my desk, listened and read. Was baffled a bit by the melodies, lyrics, and sound – at first. But by the third listening was absorbed, impressed, entranced, astonished, still maybe a bit baffled but starting to sing along. It occurred to me then that perhaps no artist in the history of popular music had gone through so many changes, explored so many styles – and done all of it so convincingly, so beautifully, so well – in so brief a span as a mere decade.

My introduction to Joni Mitchell came about in junior high school when I got to know her third album, Ladies of the Canyon. Of course I knew a few songs from the earlier records, but only tangentially, and probably in recordings by Judy Collins (note to potential Joni fans: it’s a rite of passage to learn to prefer Joni’s recordings of her early material to anybody else’s). I loved that album and knew every song by heart, but other musical interests took over and that was that, which means that such iconic releases as Blue and Court and Spark more or less passed me by. For a while ….

The 1975 release of The Hissing of Summer Lawns established once and forever that Joni Mitchell was an artist who answered to nobody.

Full Joni fandom struck in the summer of 1978, when a friend introduced me to Miles of Aisles, Joni’s first live album. As I could afford them, I bought all the others, listened closely and really got to know her songs, lyrically and musically. And as I wanted to know about this multifariously gifted human being, I read as much as I could find about her.

The revelation of hearing, within a span of one summer, Blue, For the Roses, and Court and Spark is something I can’t adequately describe: this was songwriting, singing, and music making at the highest possible level, but as sophisticated as it was, it was also moving. I mean solar plexus, emotionally moving.

By the mid-1970s, Joni was using more sidemen in her recordings, some of them culled from a local group known as L.A. Express (her accompanying band on Miles of Aisles). Individually they enlivened and enriched the sound of the above-mentioned albums as well as Joni’s first live release, but writers and critics were confused. Was this jazz? Was it still pop? Was a former folkie becoming too “L.A.?” How are we supposed to choose a category for someone who keeps changing??

The 1975 release of The Hissing of Summer Lawns established once and forever that Joni Mitchell was an artist who answered to nobody. Lyrically, her subject matter seemed to move from personal revelation to social commentary. Musically, she continued to explore new sounds and different genres, most strikingly using a recording of the African Drummers of Burundi many years before “world music” began influencing California-based pop music. Joni’s follow-up album, Hejira, usually ranks higher in the overall popularity stakes, and it’s a magnificent achievement in an entirely different, and different sounding, way. For the first time since Clouds (1969) there were no piano songs, and the familiar players in the back-up band were now joined by the iconic bassist Jaco Pastorius, who, along with Joni’s own guitar sound, most defined this album’s unique sound-world.

And then there’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. In my opinion, you can’t be a Joni fan if you don’t love this album. (OK, you can, but I’ll never stop trying to convert you.) Among the back-up players on Don Juan we encounter for the first time in Joni’s work the name Wayne Shorter of Weather Report. Almost 40 years on, I LOVE this very daring, also very polished album. Much reviled at the time, Don Juan caught the attention of the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus.

[Long before the release of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Joni was talking about the influence of jazz musicians on her work: Miles Davis, of course, but also Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf.]

So, back to the summer of 1979. A small notice in the Victoria Daily Times that I almost missed: Joni Mitchell at the Pacific Coliseum. September 2, 1979 – a show that has now been immortalized on an album (called by Rolling Stone “one of a half dozen or so truly great live rock albums”) and a video: Shadows and Light. Opening the concert was the a cappella vocal group The Persuasions, and Joni was backed by a now-legendary band: Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Michael Brecker, Don Alias. I’ve heard Joni live twice since then but this concert was and remains one of the top five concert experiences in a lifetime of concert-going. And a great way for Joni Mitchell to cap a decade of extraordinary musical evolution.

Robert Holliston is Head of Keyboards at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and is Curator of Public Engagement at Pacific Opera Victoria. He taught The Life and Career of Joni Mitchell for the University of Victoria’s Continuing Studies.

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Why I Wrote Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

My son, Elijah Julian Moscovitch Barry, was born in June of 2015.  In September, the small body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The photograph of the drowned Syrian toddler made international headlines. Less hyped on international news outlets was the fact that Alan Kurdi’s aunt (who is Canadian) had been applying for him and his family to immigrate to Canada. But their application was stalled because of severe new immigration restrictions that were pushed through by Stephen Harper’s conservative government. To us, Alan Kurdi was a lost Canadian citizen. His death was our shame. “Shame” was the word I saw on social media the most in the days following the release of that photograph: Canadians were collectively enraged. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals took power, a couple of months later, he invited 25,000 Syrian refugees to become Canadians.

In that moment, I was standing where Chaim and Chaya had stood when they first arrived in Canada. For them, this place was their point of safety. There was a line between life and death and there, at Pier 21, was where they crossed it.

In September 2015—the same September when I’d curled up and cried over the photograph of Alan Kurdi—I went to the museum at Pier 21 in Halifax with my two-month-old son Elijah. Pier 21 is the Canadian version of Ellis Island: it was the port of entry for most immigrants and refugees who came by boat into Canada. In a small office at the front of the museum, staff helped me to locate the dates when my great-grandparents arrived in Canada. They found Chaim Moscovitch first, my great-grandfather, and then Chaya Yankovitch, my great-grandmother. They found the dates they arrived, and the names of the boats they came on.

In that moment, I was standing where Chaim and Chaya had stood when they first arrived in Canada. For them, this place was their point of safety. There was a line between life and death and there, at Pier 21, was where they crossed it. Without this place, there would have been nothing: no family and no generations to come. And I was standing there, in that place, holding my infant son in my arms.

Hannah Moscovitch, December 17, 2018

PHOTO – PIER 2 (W.R. MacAskill, Nova Scotia Archives)

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Listening to the Land

BY JAMIE-LEIGH GONZALES / PHOTO BY MEGAN POSNIKOFF

“The greatest distance a human will ever travel is the distance between their mind and their heart. When they can make that journey, they will discover what is needed to do the work needed in the world — the work of truth and justice”  

Dr. John Borrows, Anishinaabe/Ojibway and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario, Professor of Law

While the world around us may not exactly reflect the post-apocalyptic world written by Yvette Nolan in The Unplugging, it is safe to say that humanity is currently experiencing a time of collective disaster and chaos. Pandemic, climate crisis and war continue to fuel global grief. Not unlike what the characters in Nolan’s play experience, political and societal fractures across the world isolate us from each other, allowing division and even hate to flourish.  

And yet, I have hope. 

Many of us have been encouraged to live our lives separate from each other and disconnected from the natural world around us. As a single mother with a young kid, I see the urgency to close these divides in a new way. In my lifetime I have seen destruction at the hands of governments and corporations. I have seen attempted erasure of whole cultures and communities. I have seen racism and white supremacy reignite hatred in the western world.  

I have also seen people come together to take care of each other. I have seen mutual aid flourish amongst disaster and chaos. I have seen young people emboldened to reconnect to their cultures and uplift wisdom and knowledge held by elders.  

Indigenous culture does not disappear if traditional knowledge is lost. Indigenous peoples are here and they continue to resist despite the apocalypse of the Indian Act, colonization, and the attempted eradication of Indigenous peoples, culture and ways of being.  

As John Borrows expresses, the language of the land and the lessons it teaches us are also still here. If we listen, the lessons are still available to all of us whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous. These ancestral ways of being are rooted in good relations. We cannot go back and undo colonialism, or undo the destruction humanity has inflicted upon the planet. But, we can listen and we can change. The teachings from the land are here for all of us. They can be adapted to what the world needs most now. And, we all have to do the work. 

So, how do we close the distance between our heads and our hearts? And between ourselves and the land? In The Unplugging, Nolan explores this for us: an Indigenous woman and a white woman come together to care for the next generation, despite how the community has exiled them. Can we begin to forgive? Can we change our relationships with each other and to the land? Could intergenerational healing be possible?  

I believe we can. But it will take a lot of trust.  

Amongst all this chaos I have often panicked about my choice to have a kid in these times — but it is actually his enthusiasm and creativity that ignites my hope that he and his generation will find solutions or ways that we haven’t even considered yet. We will have to let go of our own expectations and allow the generation that is here now and coming next to shape culture and ways of being — but we have to give them the tools to thrive and to be able to listen to the land.  

This is where my hope is rooted. When we do come together in this new way, we can move toward a more just and sustainable future. 

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales is a Portuguese and Sḵwxwú7mesh mother living on the stolen lands of the lək̓ʷəŋən and W̱SÁNEĆ People. She is a co-founder at Grounded Futures: a media production and mentorship collaborative, and a Communications Manager at RAVEN. As an artist, she roots her work in storytelling, collaboration, and trust. She is a mentor and mentee across many disciplines, but most notably is learning from her 3-year-old on how to be a rad human. 

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Interview – Morris Panych

Photo Caption – Margaret Barton and Alan Williams in the original 1995 production of Vigil. Written and directed by Morris Panych / Photo by Bruce Stotesbury / Set & Costume Designer – Ken MacDonald / Lighting Designer – Marsha Sibthorpe / Sound Designer – Ian Rye

Interview conducted by MK Piatkowski for BC Bookworld, 2011

Morris graduated from Creative Writing at UBC in 1977 and had his first professional production in 1982 with Last Call for Tamahnous Theatre in Vancouver. Since that time, he has written over twenty plays and adapted half a dozen others. He has twice won the Governor General Literary Award for Drama, is the recipient of five of Toronto’s Dora Awards, and has won so many Jessie Awards that the Vancouver theatre community joke about changing their name to the Morrie Awards. Morris has directed close to one hundred plays, in addition to film, music video, and opera—including Pacific Opera’s Macbeth, The Barber of Seville and Flight. His acclaimed film The Overcoat won an honourable mention at the Prix Italia.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

The coolest person would be the person who loved and understood my work and wanted an audience to love and understand it in the same way.

What scares you?  What can’t you write about?

I am scared to write non-comedic material because I fear it will come across as melodramatic. But I have to try. I am scared of success and failure in equal measure, but what scares me the most is writing that’s irrelevant. 

What do you want to write about that you haven’t yet?

Sin. What it is. I don’t know, but when I figure it out, I want to write about it. And love; I would like to write a love story—it would be sad, I think, and a little bit funny…I guess Vigil is a kind of love story.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

I take both too seriously. A crazy woman came up to me at the corner of Queen and Parliament and said ‘you; you’re ugly.’ For a long time after I thought, what did she mean? Am I really ugly? Is she telling me something nobody else will? Does she have some special insight into my soul? Or is she just crazy? Criticism sticks. I’m pretty sure she was insane but there is a small part of me, still, that is carrying around this feeling that I might be just a little bit ugly.

Where do you write?  Pen or keyboard?

I hate to admit it, but I have almost no penmanship left. I lack the coordination even to write my own name. I believe that writing will move more and more to the keyboard. Committing to pen and paper is very different than committing to computer, which is not so much a commitment as a first date. I can change my writing on a computer, and nobody has to ever know just how shitty it was. I don’t have to take responsibility for what I write nearly as much as when I used to have to use whiteout. When I was first in Creative Writing at UBC, we copied our scripts on Gestetner machines, which were like a kind of printing press. There were a lot more steps, so I thought more carefully about what I was writing.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

I would like them to say, these academics, that I existed. The worst fate for an artist is to have not been heard; that’s my idea of eternal damnation.

What inspires you?

To say what inspires me, sort of implies that I’m inspired, which I’m often not. But I am often moved, particularly by acts of kindness; even somebody opening a door for me and smiling can bring me to tears, of late. I feel pretty emotional when somebody displays their humanity, even in passing. The thing that most deeply moves me is music; say, for instance, Prokofiev’s cello concerto. To think how somebody could be such a genius to construct and interweave those harmonies and to do it with such apparent ease and wit, but more than that how this man has reached out a hundred years and somehow known what was in my heart. How his music speaks to me; that is moving. For art to reverberate through space in wonderful, but through time is awe-inspiring.

MK Piatkowski was the artistic director of one big umbrella at the time of this interview. obu is now a personal and corporate transformation company, with MK using her theatre experience as a corporate trainer and life coach. She still occasionally directs, mostly working with storytellers.

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Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel”

BY DR. RACHEL CLEVES

NEW YORK IN 1905 WAS A CITY FULL OF WOMEN LIKE ESTHER, THE HEROINE OF LYNN NOTTAGE’S PLAY INTIMATE APPAREL. At the turn of the century, young single Black women, born in the U.S. South after the Civil War, pulled up stakes and travelled north by the thousands looking to escape violence, overwork, and closed horizons. Between 1890 and 1900, the city’s Black population doubled. Many of the women, like Esther, were illiterate and left behind only photographs as records of their lives, like Nottage’s own grandmother who inspired her play. It takes imagination to recapture their stories, but not as much imagination as it took for these young women to invent new lives and stories for themselves.

They arrived in New York by steamer, by train, and on foot. Some had family to stay with or had lined up domestic jobs in advance that came with room and board. Others had nowhere to stay. The unlucky were preyed upon by the hustlers who stalked the docks and train stations, looking for newcomers to recruit to the city’s sex trade. Doing battle with the procurers were do-gooders like Victoria Earle Matthews, who ran the White Rose Mission, a “Christian, nonsectarian Home for Colored Girls and Women.” Matthews and her volunteers waited at train platforms for new arrivals and invited them to stay at the Mission, where they received training as seamstresses, hatmakers, and cooks. From this safe landing place, the young women might secure lodgings in a respectable boarding house, like Esther finds in the home of Mrs. Dickinson.

Coming north might have saved migrants from the debt peonage of the Jim Crow South, but it didn’t free anyone from the burden of hard labour. Making ends meet as a single Black woman in turn of the century New York required constant toil. Most jobs were closed to Black workers. The majority of Black women worked as domestics. Even a skilled seamstress, like Esther, had to work nonstop to earn enough to pay rent. But Black women migrants refused to be limited to a life of labour. They came to New York for something more. The historian Saidiya Hartman writes that “at the turn of the twentieth century, young black women were in open rebellion.” They were chasing after love, pleasure, and excitement. “A small rented room was a laboratory for trying to live free in a world where freedom was thwarted.” Their intimate acts were acts of revolution.

Esther takes a risk on a man she doesn’t know, George, a Barbadian labourer who writes her letters from Panama, where he works on a crew digging a canal to cross the continent. Other women found lovers closer to home, not only men but other women and genderqueer folk as well. But if love was an act of resistance, it was not a panacea. Through such acts of rebellion as leaving home and taking lovers, Esther and her sisters imagined the modern world into being.

To learn more about Black women like Esther in turn-of-the-century New York, I recommend Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (Norton, 2019).


Dr. Rachel Cleves

A historian and professor at the University of Victoria, Cleves is the author of three books, Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality (2020), Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery (2009). Her research has been featured in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, salon.com and brainpickings.org. Her current project is titled “A Historian’s Guide to Food and Sex.”

She writes in a treehouse in Oak Bay, British Columbia.


COVER PHOTO COURTESY OF WWW.HISTORY101.NYC

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Playwright’s Notes – Little Red Warrior & His Lawyer

I wanted to tell a Story about Land Claims from the perspective of snk’y’ép, Coyote, our sacred profane Trickster, as told in the Nlaka’pamux Story Traditions. Not to adhere to any kind of ethnographic accuracy, but to write a play imbued with the spirit of those Coyote Stories. 

Coyote Stories are a part of our sptékwł Stories, about animal beings with human aspects who are presented in our Creation or Foundational Stories. These characters represent all of the animals within Nlaka’pamux cultural knowledge and the specific fauna found on our Lands, Coyote being the most powerful and consequential of them. Other animals like Rabbit are also Tricksters, but they have traits that differentiate them from snk’y’ép. The Coyote character in Nlaka’pamux culture is vain, selfish in the extreme, cunning, lustful, arrogant, foolish, greedy, and vengeful. He embodies the worst of human character. And that makes him funny.  But he is also a powerful transformer, a shape-shifter, a conjurer, and a lover. 

In the Coyote Stories there is Old Man Coyote, who is malevolent and often trying to sleep with the three gorgeous duck wives of his son, the younger Coyote. Old Man Coyote tricks his son into going on a trans-dimensional journey into the Sky Nation that takes eight years to return from. All so that he can sleep with his son’s wives. And through his triumphs and follies on the journey back home, Coyote transforms the world into the reality we recognize today. In other adventures, Coyote has conversations with combs and blankets, deep philosophical conversations with his own asshole, and transforms his feces into various desirable objects in order to trick a cannibal or some other unsuspecting powerful being out of their possessions. 

This play is inspired by these ancient, hilarious, absurd Stories that on closer investigation reveal a rich narrative imbued with absolutely deliberate cultural memes, reflecting the Beliefs and laws of the people. The Trickster behaves in ways counter to the Customs and Beliefs of the people, thereby provoking them not to live by his example but to enjoy and understand his faults in relation to their Values and laws. His misdeeds shape the world around us. 

I wanted to explore that kind of contrary Trickster dramaturgy in the context of a Land Claim. What would Coyote do if his Lands were being threatened? Yet no character in this play is named Coyote or snk’y’ép; rather, the Trickster is the universe of this play. Transformation is possible, nothing is certain, and everyone is suspect. In Trickster Stories, no one walks away unscathed. 

Kevin Loring