(For a bit of background, I’ve just made a research trip to visit the University of Saskatchewan Library and Archives in Saskatoon which hold the main body of material relating to the life of forester and environmentalist Richard St. Barbe Baker, the subject of my PhD)
The journey to Canada and across to Saskatchewan is the longest I’ve made for a while and there has been the pace and the time to read and think in a way that there isn’t always when one is static and confined to the routine of home. My thoughts since arriving in Canada have ranged about – dependent on incident and suggestion for their direction – but three things have been constant: a developing understanding of ecology as a philosophical outlook; the relation of my experience and to Richard St. Barbe Baker and the book that I happened to bring along, The Magus, by John Fowles.
The journey has allowed me to think a bit more deeply about the importance, to me, of literature as a way of understanding the world. If is from this perspective that I would place Barbara Kingsolver and Rachel Carson in the same bracket of extraordinary American women who opened my eyes to an understanding of ecological science, books like Q by Luther Blisset being the most visceral ways to engage with historical events like the Reformation, and would credit Ursula Le Guin and JG Ballard as being instrumental to illuminating dystopian and utopian projections of our collective future. So, the arts, especially those interwoven with ideas of ecology and in all their manifold forms, are bound up with the ideas that inform my research and it is something that I have wanted to write about for some time.
The catalyst finally came when talking to a young French man and woman in the apartment I was staying in in downtown Montreal when I arrived in Canada. We got onto the subject of my PhD and how I had come to find myself writing about a forester and environmentalist that so few people have heard of, which led me to regaling them with my ‘life story’. We talked about lots of different things, and the topics included ecology which I feel has been present in my life for years before I studied ecological design at university. It was in that moment that it became clear that what I wanted to relate was the interconnectedness of experience and understanding of human nature and ecology gained through books like The Magus, Silent Spring or the Drowned World and then contextualised in the work of the increasingly familiar man in my life, Richard St. Barbe Baker.
I was given The Magus for Christmas and it is a book that it has taken me some months to start on but it turns out that this illusory text set on a Greek island post-WW2 has had a lot to offer in terms of insight into events, presented in such a way as to allow a lived experience and empathy. The spectre of the First World War looms large over it, as does the changing society of 20th Century Britain, the powerful and ancient landscape of Greece and the nature of science and the unknown.
The Magus also speaks to me, in a way that that Fowles would never have intended, as I look to delve into the archive of St. Barbe Baker here in Saskatoon. In the manuscripts, speeches, minutes, contracts, letters, photographs and film, the changes of the 20th Century are manifest; from the dustbowl of North America, the trenches of France to the shadow of the Cold War. There’s a lot of history and a lot of human experience to understand. The novel – which is currently acting as my late-night counterpoint to all this – weaves together the horrors and atrocities of both world wars, figures from ancient Greek mythology, Shakespeare and 19th Century psychology, which create a heady mix. Beyond that, The Magus addresses ideas of truth and representation, fact and fiction – all bound up in one extraordinary novel. The diverse references and links are akin to the variety that I have found in the archive here – one example is an entrancing black and white photograph of St. Barbe Baker as a boy, standing in the ‘Tin Tabernacle’ the chapel that his father built next door to that house and which welcomed people of all faiths.
This serendipitous pairing of archival activity and recreational reading seems all the more timely as I ponder how I will represent and interpret the archive here in Saskatoon. What image do I have it in my power to create of Richard St. Barbe Baker: what truth and meaning will I find there and what responsibilities are entailed in the telling? It is the task at hand, and one that seems all the less daunting when there is such an extraordinary world of literature to weave it into.
It seems the necessity is to keep on reading, even though I have now been through daunting numbers of boxes, it will be through the interweaving of St. Barbe Baker’s story with all the other extraordinary manifestations of ecological thought that any personal insight will develop. This, aside from the academic formulation of my thesis, is part of a personal search for meaning and understanding which began a long time ago and is only going to get richer as the years progress.