The Saffron Windshield

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?

*                    *                    *                    *

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.

*                    *                    *                   *

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. 

Ted xox


  1. I had Vuvuzelaitis last week and I expect to get it again soon!! E mail on the way – in the ether as I type this xxxx


  2. I hadn’t really stopped to think about the publishing world being riddled with prejudices. I thought if there are any meritocratic industries, book writing would/should be one of them. We all know you have the ability to get there, I just hope your knuckles aren’t getting sore from rapping on the door.

    With the World Cup on at the moment I’ve been imagining you romping around the forests, blasting your air-klaxon along to football chants. Actuallly, you could switch your klaxon for the Vuvuzela which is becoming infamous for droning out any other sound from the terraces at the moment.


    1. Thanks, Parp the Parp, Parp! I haven’t been knocking at the door very long yet compared to many folks who later got in. It’s just that I started late after years of working in jobs that needed a lot of creative and emotional energy…so I am probably extra impatient.
      Just heard about the vuvuzela on a radio item here. I guess it will be all over the footie scene in the UK next season. It sounds like the name of a Latin American player…”oh what a save by the cat-like Vuvuzela!!”
      Ted xx


  3. ‘most literary fiction is read by women and they mainly seem to want to read books by other women’ Do agents and publishers believe this and decline manuscripts on that basis? The very thought makes me cross.
    And another thing, these wretched wind towers are soon to be in the sea off this coastline as well.
    I’m calm again. I’m seeing graceful tamarack trees,living swallowtails and flower packed verges.
    I hope you and harmonica got to the Legion to meet Meandering Michael…great name.


    1. Hi Saddell’s Dragon,
      Basically, most agents and publishers look at what will sell, very little else, unless they are already established and powerful. That means that first time authors are seen as high risk. So they must have a series of other criteria to judge whether they will be able to market a new writer. It helps if that writer meets various other ‘market-sexy’ criteria. My advanced years don’t help! I know there are exceptions to all this stuff and I will happily fly the flag for being an exception (one day)…
      Ted x


  4. “most literary fiction is read by women and they mainly seem to want to read books by other women” I strongly disagree!Most of my favourite authors are men, but I don’t read ‘chick lit’ and perhaps that what you’re referring to. Am enjoying reading about your travels and hope you do get your ‘break’ as I most certainly agree with your comment “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, ” I am a lazy writer, hence quoting your words and commenting….your hard work deserves publication, so I’ll be reading the blogs and checking the Man Booker lists! 😉


    1. Great to get your comment, Alison, and nice to get some debate on this. I wasn’t really referring to ‘chick lit’…it’s more about the territory of the book club / book group. Most such groups and clubs have nearly all female membership, and many are exclusively female. And many concentrate only on women authors. A lot of it is men’s problem for being so uncommunicative, frightened of their emotions and conforming to stereotype. I didn’t mean it as a judgemental statement, just a description of a fact of the writing life. There are indeed some great male authors. I was struck by my very first conversation with a literary agent who represents some top authors: her first words were “Of course, you realise that you are the wrong gender for the current scene, don’t you?”
      Do you think Edwina Eames would work???
      I think you have to be true to your self and stick at it, hoping for that break…


      1. Hi Ted, I have been totally oblivious to women writers being ‘in’ and men being ‘out’…Mary Ann Evans should have no trouble getting published these days! Glad to know you are not being deterred by fashion and prejudice and no I don’t think Edwina would work as that conjurs up an image of a burly woman in a green frock and feather hat, but e.eames is an idea…it worked for e.e. cummings…I have no idea if that’s a man or a woman poet…but I bet you do! x


  5. I do so look forward to your posts. Wonderful description as ever. I like your “they wear their spine on their sleeve” and the oozy goo. Not on my bathroom wall though, where is smeared the latest spider victim (see my e-mail). Unfortunately no vibrant colour in this splat – just brown. Don’t think about it.
    Gill x


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