When I look up from my writing desk and out of my back window, I see a forest of moss-draped cedar trees, which sway and lean against one another like impossibly thin, somewhat tipsy dancers at the end of a long night. Beyond the trees, out of sight, down a twisting, nameless footpath, lies the Salish Sea. In the warmer months I tend to spend a lot of time back there, going for walks to unknot my brain, memorizing tree species, and trying to pick wild mushrooms at the peak of their brief, monstrous bloom.
This block of provincial forest on the Sechelt Peninsula of British Columbia appears briefly in my book; I recount how back when we first moved to this area my partner Remi and I once got lost back there and ended up walking in circles for hours. But that episode comprises a mere five pages. The rest of the book concerns trails elsewhere: fossil trails in Newfoundland, insect trails in Switzerland, deer trails in Alabama, elephant trails in Tanzania, Cherokee trails in North Carolina, recreational hiking trails in Maine and Morocco. In what way, then, one might rightly ask, is this book worthy of an award dedicated to Pacific Northwest literature, if so little of it concerns the Pacific Northwest?
Indeed—in this placeless age, when our towns are dominated by the identical storefronts of multinational corporations, workers telecommute across oceans, and much of our social lives are spent mingling in a floating electronic semiotic space—one might naturally wonder at the purpose of regional awards at all. What does it mean to be a Pacific Northwest writer? Is it measured in length of occupancy, or fierceness of love? Is it something one can don and shed, like a trench coat, or is it as permanent as a tattoo? And, more importantly, what bearing does land have upon art?
Wendell Berry once wrote that “every writer is a regional writer, even if he or she writes about a fashionable region such as New York City.” I’m not so sure. When we say a writer is “regional,” often what we mean is that she is a kind of benign spy, faithfully recording the local vernacular, jotting down the peculiar traditions and lore, indexing the local flora and their uses, and fixing stories to place in quasi-cartographic detail. Typically, the tone of these works is warmly intimate rather than coldly anthropological. The key to such work is time spent in a single place—often decades, or preferably, generations. For this, I have neither the patience nor the will. Growing up in Illinois, I always assumed I would move elsewhere, and elsewhere again. My god, like Bruce Chatwin’s, was the “god of walkers”: itinerant, cosmopolitan, rootless. No churches, just pilgrimages.
And yet, it is abundantly clear to me that, even if we do not write about them explicitly, places still shape our thinking, never more so than in literature. The land where a book is born seeps up into the work, feeds it, and leaves its mark indelibly upon it. (Perhaps this is the real value of regional awards: to help discern a literary goût de terroir, and to foster its growth.) I suspect that if I had lived somewhere other than coastal British Columbia while writing this book, it would not have the same cool, gray-green cast to its prose, nor the same quietly burning urgency to find a wiser way of living on this planet. In fact, without the silence and solitude the land provided, the book may not have been finished at all.
Of course, just as places shape people, so to do people shape one another. My neighbors on the dead-end dirt road where we live are an eclectic mix: a classical guitarist who spends half his year in Thailand, a pair of gay South African expats, an Ontario man and an Englishwoman who fell in love at an Indian ashram, and so on. To my knowledge, none of us was born in B.C. Sometimes on Saturday nights we will build a bonfire in the middle of the road and sit around and drink whiskey and talk and play guitar. It was against this motley audience of British-Columbians-by-choice that I tested many of my first fuzzy ideas about the deeper meaning of trails. A couple of my neighbors even appear in the book by name. I value this small, tight-knit community just as deeply as I value those woods. As Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor once noted, “People can be places, too.”
I have been away from British Columbia for the past few months, attending to some family matters in Houston. Every warm winter morning, awaking to a hell chorus of leaf blowers, I feel a sharp pang of yearning to be back in my cool little patch of forest. But separation from a place can also be generative; homesickness has birthed some of literature’s greatest works. Places write through us, even at a spooky distance. And often, what those places are really saying is: Come back to me. Come home.
Robert Moor’s PNBA Award plaque will be presented at a local bookstore, at a soon-to-be-decided date. Watch nwbooklovers.org for the details. Essays from the other winners of the 2017 PNBA Book Award will be published on Tuesdays and Fridays.