Book signing on a clearcut or two

At the end of August, as Cardinal Divide was about to come out, a group of landowners on the North Mountain decided to fight the aerial spraying of some forest land. Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment had just issued a list of parcels of private land approved for spraying with a Glyphosate based herbicide. It included 250 acres owned by a corporation that had previously clearcut the forest to supply wood to the Northern Pulp mill. Now the corporation wanted to poison the hardwoods that were regrowing on the site — all the maple, birch, ash — leaving only the softwoods. That’s the function of these aerial spray programs, to stop the regrowth of the natural Acadian forest, instead creating an industrial monoculture ready for (climate change permitting) another clearcut in forty year’s time .

The government might have approved but the landowners did not. Many had lived in the area for over thirty years, tending their woodlots gently, sustainably. Several lived in houses built with timber cut from their own land. I knew two of them, Anna and Don. We had met at an ungodly hour one morning last October to car pool into Halifax. There we gathered in the cold dawn with other Extinction Rebellion activists to block the John MacDonald Bridge. Similar actions happened across Canada that day, part of a week of global rebellion. Some people hated that we disrupted traffic but it certainly got people talking and thinking about climate change.  And for Anna and Don and me, it forged a bond.

So it was natural for me to lend a hand as they planned their protest, not that they needed much help. ‘Who’s willing to camp out on that land?’ Don asked at their first organizing meeting. Six hands went up. ‘Who’s willing to get arrested?’ Six hands went up. A long white canopy left over from somebody’s kid’s wedding was painted with the words “Don’t Spray Us”. It and some tents were raised on that clearcut land on September 1st, the first day spraying could happen according to the permits. A neighbour with a drone took pictures. Media got interested. Within three days the corporation caved. Their spray application was withdrawn.

Meantime those of us living a little further down the Annapolis Valley found out there were two sites on the South Mountain scheduled for spraying. We were nervous about going up against the company that owned those lands, the biggest sawmill in Southwest Nova Scotia. Anna and Don came to our planning meeting, bringing encouragement and the Don’t Spray Us  canopy. This time we set up on two sites, one near Paradise Lake, the other Eel Weir Lake. It took four days  for the company to decide not to spray this year.

That left us just enough time to scramble a camp together for two more parcels in Hants County. They didn’t get sprayed either.

Spending time on a piece of land that is trying to recover from the assault of a clearcut, you feel the will to heal. The land is a mess. The moist mossy floor of the forest is gone.  The complex, invisible networks of fungi and roots in the soil have been disrupted. The soil, exposed now, is releasing the carbon it has been storing for decades. You know that but you see the stumps of maple and ash and oak sending up sprouts. You see birds and frogs, hear coyotes, know there’s a mama bear and two cubs in the woods nearby. And sometimes you think you hear the sound of a helicopter. You think about it, a chopper flying low over the clearcut, spraying poison on everything. How even if it’s true that Glyphosate does not cause cancer in humans, even if it doesn’t cause cancer in animals that eat the leaves and berries, even if it only does exactly what its proponents claim it does, it is going to kill all of the broad leafed plants in this clearcut. And because it has surfactants added to it to make it stick better to the leaves, it will kill any frog or salamander it comes in contact with. Why? Because the surfactants make it stick to their skin and amphibians breathe through their skin.

You sit in the clearcut and you think about these things and you feel a fierce joy that you are there, putting your body in the way. Saying no. Saying ‘Don’t Spray Us’ and meaning the true ‘us’, all of us. All living beings. You are not alone. I am not alone, out on the clearcut, saying ‘no’ for all of us.

So, in a strange way, I can’t imagine a better place to sign a copy of my book and put it in the hands of another person who has also travelled rough roads to stand with us.

All in all, this September, we occupied land in three counties in Nova Scotia. We stopped the spraying of 615 acres of the 3700 that were approved. It’s a beginning.

Cheese and Writing, a break from book signings

Making cheese is a lot like writing. It’s more fun if you don’t have to be in control. Of course, if you’re trying to turn out a predictable product for an admiring public, it may be better to stick to a formula.

But those of us who have never been in any danger of making a living from writing (or cheese-making) are free to flirt with the unexpected. Making cheese, you keep your surfaces clean but there’s no need to sterilize or pasteurise if the milk comes fresh and warm from the barn. You want the invisible partners to join the dance as the milk sets and curd separates from whey.

Some members of the microbiome prefer a moist surface or a salty one; others need crevices in the curd. Proportions matter: a flat disc attracts one kind of penicillin, another prefers a drum. Bacterium linens likes a brick. This is the microbe that creates the great, glorious, redolent cheeses from Pont L’Eveque to Limberger to Stinking Bishop. All grow a sticky, pinkish-orange coat, all smell of sweaty socks. There’s a reason for this. B. linens lives in the damper, saltier nooks of our bodies, between fingers and toes for example.

Like writing, then, it flourishes in private places.

If nothing is ever pure or preserved but always becoming, the art is in tilting that process towards deliciousness.

Raw experience, like raw curd, can be delightful in its very freshness. There are moments so glorious we’d wish an eternity – but in the thought itself is the demise of the perfect present.

Fermentation is the great tool nature proposes to transform the swift present – of fruit, of milk, of experience – into something slow and rich.

Imagination is the cave where life turns into art. Different forms invite different transformations. Myself, I like the weighty round of the novel though it takes years to ripen, but a haiku or a sonnet or a hip-hop song, each has its particular savour. Each engages with the invisible.

Cardinal Divide has officially come out…


Well, today is the publication day for my new novel, Cardinal Divide. The press — Guernica Editions — and I are doing a bunch of virtual promotions, as we must in Covid times, but I am also doing some book signings here in Nova Scotia.

  • Briar Patch Nursery, Saturday, September 5th, 11-1pm
  • LaHave River Books, Saturday, September 12th, 1-3pm
  • Tangled Garden, Grand Pre, Sunday, September 13th, 2-4pm
  • Baintons/Mad Hatters Books and Wine Bar, Annapolis Royal, Saturday, September 19th, Noon-2pm

Alexa Jaffurs and friends will play fiddle and banjo music at each event.

If you can’t make it to a signing, you can order the book from your local bookstore or directly from the publishers — free shipping in Canada September 1st-13th — Or there’s always Amazon.

If you do social media, check out and

Mid-September there will be some fun postings from the North Mountain Happening we just held to highlight the wild, queer, creative life that’s happening hereabouts. And my book will be part of Guernica’s virtual launch the first week in October.

For more about Cardinal Divide:



It gets pretty crowded in the swallows’ nest. Peering up into the shadowy peak of the barn, you notice a wing extended, or a leg, and you know that any day the young will be fluttering about. Landing with relief on the cable that holds the building together in the middle. Lined up, all six, beaks gaping as a parent swoops in through the window opening. A day later they are hurtling through the sky themselves. Landing on the washing line, still with obvious relief. Retiring to the barn at nightfall. But oh the joy it must be to gain the freedom of the air. To soar and bank and dip.

There are moments, writing, that feel like flying. Like being a swallow, in particular. Not a crow rowing alone across the sky, or geese in their galley ships, but an aerial acrobat. Diving for the fun of it. Catching your dinner on the wing.

But equally there are the spans cramped in a nest, waiting. The sense of constriction. The uncertainty. This is the thing it is hard to remember later, that you don’t know. You don’t know if anything will hatch or fledge or fly. I heard a writer on CBC radio the other day describe ‘the terrible ignorance’ of childhood. I felt it in my gut right then, the roiling confusion, trying to find sense in the discrepant realities of my family.

With each book one returns to that condition of not knowing. Though I gather there are authors who grasp the whole plot ahead of time. They have maps and flow charts and biographical notes for each character. I don’t envy them because I suspect, if I knew where it was all going, I wouldn’t bother to write it. For all its terrors, it is the unknown that draws me on.

This is an essential rhythm of life: after constriction, emergence. An ecstatic expansion of all horizons. Moments when I am not making, I am receiving. Or both: the dreamer and the dream; dreaming and being dreamed.


That’s how the story of Cardinal Divide came to me, in one of the most ecstatic moments of my life. I was living in Edmonton at the time. My wife and I had immigrated to Canada five months earlier. It wasn’t an easy move, but that’s another story.I was angry and depressed. Instead of celebrating the publication of my first novel, Where Bone’s Dance, with friends in a place I’d lived for decades, it was launched in Vancouver, a city where I knew exactly no-one. My wife and I drove across the Rockies together then she flew back to work. Driving home alone down the Coquihalla highway, a story began to unspool in my mind. I pulled into Kamloops, bought a notebook in the pharmacy and scribbled until there was nothing left.

They would live in me, these characters, for years perhaps. But one day, with luck, they would emerge, blinking and stretching and being themselves. Free of me at last.

Something happened

On the first of May we take out a window high up in the old barn. Then we wait. The day my eye catches the swoop and flick, wings like a drawn bow, body and tail the arrow, delight soars in me. Followed by the gulp of mingled grief and relief. Because I’m always afraid they might not make it back. Because barn swallows are on Canada’s Species at Risk list. Because they winter elsewhere, fly thousands of kilometres to build their nest on a collar tie in the barn everyone thought we should pull down. A friend and I spent a perilous summer jacking up a collapsing wall — and with it the roof. It’s still not a hymn to symmetry, this barn, but it shelters our sheep and is home to swallows. There are fewer and fewer such barns. There are fewer and fewer birds. Bird populations in North America have declined by three billion since 1970.

Something happened to me a couple of years ago. I was about to turn sixty. My father had died. I was watching the swallows skim the skies, my mind and heart and spirit rising with them. And then I fell back into my humanness. Into my sorrow. Into my responsibility. Suddenly I couldn’t do it any more, the two step of guilt and delight. I was tired of it and of myself. I needed to act, so that when I looked up I could say, ‘Thank you, birds. I’m doing what I can.’

A year later (and a year ago today) I woke up in a tent on a logging road, listening for the sound of heavy equipment. I lay on  lumpy ground and the dawn chorus built around me, one song then another and another. We were there on that road, the three of us, two women in their twenties and me, to block the cutting of an old forest. A forest full of nesting birds.

The birds, of course, were there for the black-flies, and the black-flies were ready for us. That first morning, we drank coffee and swatted and contemplated how better to sling our Extinction Rebellion banner across the road. I have rarely been happier.

From a letter to a friend who just joined Extinction Rebellion and is suffering full-blown climate grief.

Cup Flower or Silphium perfoliatum in my garden this morning

Yes, the grief at what is happening to the beautiful living earth is hard to bear. Actually, the only thing that has really helped me is to be able to say with all my heart to the swallows, the lichens, the sweat bees, ‘I’m doing what I can. I will do what I can.’ Not perfectly, of course, but that doesn’t matter, I think, beside an unconditional willingness. The grief becomes fuel. What I do won’t be enough but I think, together, we can. And I’m free to use all of me to do my bit — my imagination; stubbornness; intelligence; way with words; years working blue collar jobs; experience of recovery from addiction, abuse; sadness; silliness; pleasure in gaining competence. All of it. I remember 30 years ago listening to the writer Dorothy Allison speak and thinking, ‘she’s lined up with herself.’ I wasn’t, and I wanted that and now I have it. Because I’ll do what I can for what I love most deeply which is this natural world. Will I give up steak right away? Will I never get on a plane again? Will I stop driving 168 km round trip to work at Tangled Garden? No, not yet anyway, but I’ll make changes personally and, more importantly, I’ll fight for government level changes.

I think a couple of years ago I talked with you about the grief of losing the refuge of wildness, how I used to go to the big wild to relinquish the burden of my own significance. To delight in being a speck. Only then I began to realize we specks are destroying the wild. It felt hard to lose that sense of a place where my actions didn’t matter. But then one day it occurred to me that no indigenous culture ever says, our actions don’t matter. Those cultures always teach the importance of behaving properly, of respect and ceremony, of acknowledging both that we are a small part of the whole and that all our words and actions make a difference. It was a western fantasy, that untouched and untouchable, that virgin wildness. We’ve always been part of the whole. We’ve always been responsible.

That whole is complex and powerful and vulnerable and capable of healing in ways we don’t know about. Which is where the most cheering book I know about comes in, the Isabella Tree ‘Wilding’ book I told you about. I look for information about resiliency. Marine areas that have been truly protected. Women in Ghana replanting traditional tree crops. I don’t watch TV. I don’t watch horrible clips of wildlife fleeing fires. I turn my mind to what we can do here. How to take the amazing UN goals for sustainable development and biodiversity and start making them come true a little, here. Because I really do not believe that late stage extraction capitalism is anything but a cancer. I don’t believe the ‘wealth’ it creates makes people as happy as living within the ecological boundaries of the planet could. Pretty much everything will have to change for us to turn things around. But that doesn’t seem so bad. All around me in rural Nova Scotia I see people who are only one generation from subsistence farming. They have a knowledge about community and looking after each other that I lack. I, on the other hand, know about things they (mostly) don’t, like what it’s like to grow up queer, what a civil war in Africa looks like, what the anonymous author of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ had to say about imperfection.

Where am I going with that?? Possibilities of communities that combine old and new, I suppose. I’ve been talking with my local county councillor, getting his support for Annapolis County council declaring a Climate Emergency and then doing something about it. There are 6 come-from-away councillors and 5 born around here. John, my councillor, was born in Kingsport, graduated high school and worked on the railroads his whole life. He thinks the born-heres will vote with him to support the motion but was feeling only 6 or 7 of us in his district of 1800 really cared about the issue. Another XR member supplied me with some good quotes and he sent them out to constituents from 14 to 87. To his surprise he got an earful of support for doing something now.

So I do have hope. It seems arrogant not to. And sort of pointless. Not that one can control the feelings of sorrow — or should. But it feels better to act. You are not alone. We are not alone.




I finished writing two books this winter, a memoir called Undocumented: A Different Story and a novel called Nunatak. The nub of the novel came to me ten years ago. The memoir has been in the works for twelve years. So five or six years a book. This raises some questions. Lifetime earnings from writing? Don’t go there. How many more books can I hope to write, assuming I live to a ripe and alert old age? Can I write faster? Spend less time making a living?

Not so fast. Are they really finished? Already an agent who might be interested in the memoir indicated cutting would be in order. I didn’t think, ‘No, every word is necessary.’ It was more like looking down and seeing a soup stain on your shirt. The outfit looked fine in the mirror at home. Good enough, anyway. But out here, the light is different. I mean, she could be wrong. It could be perfect. But I’m remembering cutting 40,000 words from the first book I got published. It was a better book by the end.

So it’s not finished. But it needs to be. It’s about living illegally in the US for twenty-two years then deciding to move to Canada. That was in 2006. Suddenly the undocumented are a hot topic. But Trump won’t be president for ever. (Or if he is, I’ll have bigger problems to fret about.) I need to get it published. A good editor would lick it into shape. But years of reading acknowledgements pages suggests that, these days, only authors with multi-book contracts have editors to thank. There are exceptions, I know, but my own non-bestseller writing experience bears this out. No editor in sight for my second book and only the publisher’s suggestion for the first: Cut a lot. 125,000 word maximum.

I’ve been rereading George Saunder’s lovely essay in the Guardian, What writers really do when they write.

What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she has already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. He describes revision as a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference […] The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

I love this description. It is exactly what I do. But the optometrist doesn’t keep you in the chair for years. When is enough, enough? What is good enough? When I read the last page of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, I thought, there’s not a single word I would change. But what did she think when she put down her pen? (She didn’t save her file one last time. The book came out in 1980.) Perfect? Or good enough? As good as I can get it right now?

Has word processing made it too easy to keep revising? Often with painters – I’m thinking specifically of an exhibition of Berthe Morisot’s work – I love the sketches. I admire the finished painting but the sketches have a looseness and life that gets lost. In the course of revising one can sand down the grain of the writing.

Somehow you have to keep faith with the life of the story. It didn’t ask to be born to make you look good. It wants to become itself. In this version, revision is removing one’s pretensions. One’s vanities. How often I’ve thought, ‘Now that’s a nice sentence.’ I think it every time I read it until the day I see that the sentence stands out because it doesn’t belong.

Murder your darlings, Grace Paley advised. Yes, but what about wholesale slaughter? 40,000 out of 170,000? Perhaps I have to believe the book is finished. Only then, the umbilical cord severed, and after a proper interval, can I turn, look, think, ‘It’s alive. But what is all that goop? The poor thing can hardly breathe. Somebody, clean it up.’