It’s a long way from Calgary to Haines, Alaska: 2,700 kms of landscapes and skyscapes that are immensely varied, and just plain immense. There has not been a lot of opportunity to stop and smell the Indian Paintbrush flowers on the way (matt scarlet beauties that are starting to adorn the roadsides at the higher elevations). However, there are some details that blend the experience of a truck-and-trailer drive north with previous, more leisurely, visits to the same terrain.
Swallowtail butterflies are enjoying a gala year. They are everywhere…big gaudy yacht-sail wings and succulent, peach-fuzz bodies. Many of them are as big as finches. Pastel yellow, with mocha stripes and borders, and brilliant blue tail-gunner markings. After years of failed butterfly photo attempts I have succeeded in taking a really good picture of a Swallowtail today (coming to a flickr site near you when I have better computer access).
Unfortunately many of the Swallowtails are drawn to the roadside verges, so rich in lorry-whoosh-spread flowers. And this makes them easy prey for the voracious windshield. At each stop I have to wash and scrape to remove the broad smears of bug kill from the screen. Some of this is mundane browns and whites…but all too much of it is the egg yolk yellow of the kamikaze Swallowtails. It’s the kind of egg yolk yellow that people fondly imagine they will get when they buy wholesome looking brown eggs.
Insects proudly and recklessly wear their skeletons on the outside of their bodies, hence that queasily satisfying crunch factor. They wear their spine on their sleeve. There’s nothing but oozy goo within. And in the case of the Swallowtail that inner gunge harmonises beautifully with its predominant wing colour. I gaze at the passing mountains and forests and lakes through glistening smears the colour of the centre petals of a fat, brassy dandelion.
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Thank you to various readers who have sent in emails direct to me or commented on the blog with thoughts about getting writing published. It does seem to me that it is all about somehow getting a breakthrough, a first sympathetic reading. When you are in the throes of trying to get a book accepted by an agent or a publisher you become very sensitised to what does make it through the various systems.
The first and most nagging question is, surprise surprise, am I good enough to be published? After that comes a list of wry observations: some books that are accepted are pretty dire; once published, some authors seem to be able to experiment more creatively, whilst some seem to be able to get away with inferior stuff just because they are ‘in the system’; the current publishing trend is for books that pander to a media-driven hot issue, or books by c*l*br*t**s; most literary fiction is read by women and they mainly seem to want to read books by other women; economic recession means that there is a ‘no risk’ culture in publishing; small regional publishers hang on in various geographical areas and subject areas, but publishing as a whole has become centralised and corporate and geared to faces that fit an elite scene linked to creative writing courses in ‘approved’ institutions.
True or false?
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Compared to my journey in 2007, I haven’t yet hit on much live music. Plenty of good recorded music, but not enough of the live ‘n local stuff. I referred to the excellent Dan Bern gig in Vancouver in an earlier posting, but it’s been a dry few weeks since then.
Imagine, then, my delight to have spent an evening in a dark bar in Whitehorse enjoying a young Yukon musician called Ryan McNally. I had missed a rockabilly trio led by Ryan a week earlier, so made up for it by watching his jump blues band deliver a fine, fresh, take on great songs by BB King, T-Bone Walker, Joe Turner and others. Ryan is a talented young guitarist and singer, with a warm and easy energy. And he works with a powerhouse of a slap bass player. When I headed out for my house-sit home I noticed that the last slabby cornices of snow had avalanched off the topmost corries of the Seven Sisters peaks above Lewes Lake. I think it was the slap bass gut-thudding beat that did it.
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On the current driving marathon I have been very happily trundling through parts of Alberta, BC and Yukon that are at least somewhat familiar to me. One exception has been the road less-travelled that runs from Chetwynd up to the Alaska Highway, a short cut to avoid the industrial ugliness of Fort St. John and the functional pit-stop of Dawson Creek. This winding switchback is Highway 29, and it runs up the Peace River Valley, the site of various dinosaur footprints and bone caches.
Here the land is gently undulating, pastoral and very green. The scale is still wide and expansive, but the dominant forests are aspen and birch, with cottonwood and balsam poplar underbrush. There are some spruce and pine, but they have been affected by the climate-change loving beetle infestations. The Peace Valley is thus becoming a forerunner of what much of BC and Yukon will perhaps look like in years to come, with the broadleaf trees replacing the bug kill ‘evergreens’. The nearest to the bug magnet spruce are the graceful tamaracks, the only non-broadleaf trees to shed their needles in winter. The Peace River region makes you want to reach out and ruffle the heads of the dense waves of leafy crowns, like a warm, pale green pelt.
In the middle of the valley road is a small community called Hudson’s Hope. The cafe there does the wedgiest, tastiest cherry pie. I didn’t ask who Hudson was, or what he hoped for. It was probably gold rather than world peace, or spiritual enlightenment, or the publication of his deep and meaningful novel. Hudson should definitely hope that the proposed new, additional dam on the Peace River be defeated.
It is very apparent that, despite the vastness and the beauty, big tracts of northern BC and Yukon are under a variety of environmental threats. The biggest and ugliest blot on the west currently comes from the Alberta tar sands rape and pillage of great swathes of land just the other side of the Rockies. This is now the world’s second biggest oil source, but it comes with a heavy price in terms of ecological degradation and pipeline planning. You can see the short term economy booming and the long term despoliation spreading hand in a time-bomb symmetrical tandem.
It’s that thing about unquestioned so-called ‘growth’. We live on a finite planet, but we want infinite expansion of luxuries, never mind necessities. So in the UK we end up with industrial towers of wind turbines on our most precious uplands. Something has to give if we still want our Peace River Valleys. We’re implicated as individuals as well as a species. I offset, I re-cycle, I campaign…but my windshield still finds the Swallowtail, it’s all a matter of degree.