Walking is one of the most appropriate ways to appreciate one’s community, environment, and place in the world. And to walk with intention is to listen. As Rebecca Solnit writes: “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.”1 These three notes resonate in Tanis MacDonald’s Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female and Kit Dobson’s Field Notes on Listening—two expansive perspectives on the necessity of attentiveness and the complications of embodiment and place.
In Straggle, a collection of poems and short and longer essays on walking, MacDonald asks what it means “to step on this piece of ground, then this one.” (5) By zooming in on the specifics of a particular place, while simultaneously zooming out to integrate research on a wide range of subjects, MacDonald narrates the experience of stepping on contested ground, be it urban, rural or wild. Consider the essay “Seeing Through the Rain: A Ghost Walk”. In this piece, she describes a trek through Toronto’s Annex district in search of memorials to three women writers whose work she admires (Gwendolyn MacEwen, Jane Jacobs, and Jay Macpherson). These memorials prove difficult to find, having been overtaken by the city and obscured by the day’s persistent rain. Re-counting the progress of her search, MacDonald interrogates the notion of being seen, that is: “To stop and look is to be looked at while looking, in the wild or on an urban street.” (78) Indeed, throughout the book she describes the many ways in which social conventions, norms, and prejudices enact in the context of walking, and that walking with intent can be dangerous, especially for the lone walker, be she female, black, Indigenous, or in some way other. In this regard, Straggle points the reader toward an activist consideration of walking. One that opens up restorative alternatives to entrenched colonial concepts of place and belonging.
In Field Notes, Dobson credits growing concern over the world his children will inherit for inspiring his examination of the act/art/necessity of listening. He writes: “Learning to listen is a profound, political act. Listening, when done with deliberate measure, is an act of defiance. What remains unheard remains unacknowledged.” (11) Indeed, the book opens and closes with expansive lists of sounds that convey the noise, distraction, and speed (or industrial time, as Dobson calls it) of everyday life. From the Prelude, “… The sound of snowmobiles blasting across the frozen surface of Sylvan Lake, Alberta, on New Year’s Day. … The sound of drone strikes reported on the news. … The sound of Donald Trump. … The sound of coronavirus. … The sound of wine being poured. … .” (1) This barrage of sound, rapid-fire, relentless, and all too familiar, fills our psychic space and leaves us with little room for contemplation. Learning to listen through the noise – to hear others and the environment that sustains us – is the object of Dobson’s text.
Field Notes comprises a series of short pieces contained in three parts, bracketed by a Prelude and a Coda of hard and soft sounds, and concludes with an expanded Bibliography that adds context to the many works cited throughout the book. In each of the three main sections, Dobson relates aspects of his family story: their origins in Europe, their arrival in northern Alberta, the land they settled onto, and the many challenges they faced. Not all of these memories are comfortable. He writes: “It’s not an easy thing to listen to the land. We hear a world in pain, a world that is wounded.” (43) Woven into Dobson’s narrative are references to writers like Henry David Thoreau—that he continued to hear the sound of trains and other human enterprise even in the quiet of his retreat—Charlotte Gill on tree planting, Jeanette Armstrong on speaking the land, and Dylan Robinson on how settlers consume Indigenous concepts regarding land and belonging. As he learns to listen, Dobson articulates a growing reverence for his home “territory” in Alberta, its passage through contact and conquest, the history of settlement, relationships between settlers of different heritages and Indigenous communities, as well as a growing list of environmental issues that threaten its future. Although his is a personal journey, the generous, meditative quality of his writing encourages readers to consider their own relationship to place, and perhaps to braid the story of the environment they inhabit into the story of their lives.
Reading MacDonald and Dobson in dialogue has been richly rewarding. Not least because both writers affirm how connected we are to all that is material, political, and social. But also because they both engage—by walking/by listening—with the chorus of voices that shape built and wild landscapes. With this dialogue in mind, I now try to walk with greater intent, to listen to the land and all that dwell here now and ever since—to reach outside myself to better appreciate the ebb and flow of place.
Tanis MacDonald is an award-winning essayist, poet, professor, reviewer, and writer of creative non-fiction. She lives and works on traditional Haudenosaunee territory in southwestern Ontario. Recent publications include Mobile: poems (2019), and Out of Line: Daring to Be an Artist Outside the Big City (2018). She is a faculty member at Wilfrid Laurier University with specialities in Canadian literature, women’s literature, and the elegy.
Kit Dobson lives and works in Treaty 7 territory in Calgary, Alberta. Previous books include Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada (2017), and Transnational Canadas: Anglo-Canadian Literature and Globalization (2009). He is a faculty member in the Department of English at the University of Calgary.
1 Solnit, Rebecca, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 5.
Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female
by Tanis MacDonald
Wolsak & Wynn, 2022, 218 p.p., $20
Field Notes on Listening
by Kit Dobson
Wolsak & Wynn, 2022, 156 p.p., $18.00
Jody Baltessen is an award-winning poet, writer and archivist in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory and the heartland of the Red River Métis people.