A Wilderness Called Home
Reviewed: January 17, 2008
By: Charles Wilkins
264 pages, $22.00
Near the end of A Wilderness Called Home, Charles Wilkins poses a philosophical question to the reader and offers his own response.
“What constitutes a life justifiably lived? For me, the answer is partly about place and attitude to place.”
Wilkins has lived in a number of places, but currently hangs his hat in Thunder Bay. As he travels and speaks to audiences about his travels, he often finds himself introduced as a person who “lives in Thunder Bay Ôby choice’”, as if that were a hardship to be overcome.
He doesn’t see it that way. In this book Thunder Bay is the anchor point from which he relates a number of travelling adventures, all of which have to do, in some respect, to the ways in which the people he has met interact with the places in which they live or work.
For this book, Wilkins travelled by land and by water, alone, as a passenger and with family. Always, he sought to understand the visceral connection between the geography through which he was travelling and the people he found there.
The narrative does jump around bit. The book begins on Lake Superior, on the freighter M.V. Paterson, and Wilkins returns to that voyage on the lakes several times during the rest of the book, In between, however, he jumps ahead to when he motored cross country to British Columbia and toured that area with his son.
Returning to home base, he spends some time with a long haul trucker, heads off into the bush for an extended solitary retreat, strikes up an acquaintance with an amateur astronomer in Toronto, returns to the extended narrative of life aboard the Paterson, gives us a short tour of Thunder Bay, and returns to the tale of the Lawson family, whom we had met during the B.C. tour.
Strangely enough, all this jumping about doesn’t make the book feel fragmented. There is a point to it. It is knitted together with tales of people who mobilized their resources to save wildlife.
In Clayoquot Sound the Wilson family participated in the drive to save the old growth forests and also the animals and whales in the region. In Comox citizens mortgaged their homes to raise the money to buy MacDonald Wood and save it from developers. The members of the all female Traditional Finnish Sauna Society invited him to witness their style of making a connection to the land.
Chapter five is his own camping story. Wilkins is no stranger to living alone in the wild or to long treks, as evidenced by his later book, Walk to New York (2004) and his earlier Paddle to the Amazon (1989), but he was surprised by his own reaction to being alone on the Canadian Shield.
“From the moment we’re conceived,” he writes in the middle of the book, “the planet enters us as fluids, sounds, tastes, distastes; as images and dreamscapes, sometimes with soothing or satisfying effects, sometimes unsettling us for life.”
And later: “From infancy on, entire landscapes, not just their fragments, impress themselves on us with lifelong effects.”
It’s more than just an individual reaction to landscape though. Wilkins’ theory is that our need to “ground” ourselves is hardwired into our cultural memes, by which, following Richard Dawkins’ theory here, I mean those aspects of our behavior which seem to be universal even though they have no genetic root that has yet been discovered.
Dawkins, an avowed atheist, would not, however, enjoy the metaphor with which Wilkins makes his point.
“The story of Western culture pretty much begins in a garden, with intermediate highs and lows, proceeding eventually through the Ôgreen pastures’ and Ôstill waters’ - and, in the end, to the imponderable Ôvalley of the shadow.’”