Memoir born from nature and turbulence

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December 12, 2014

Christine Lowther is the daughter of the noted B.C. poet, Pat Lowther, and is an accomplished poet and essayist in her own right. She has co-edited two books of essays and is the author of three books of poetry. Her most recent book is a collection of her own essays, Born Out of This: A Memoir (Caitlin Press, 2014). Often referred to as a “ lifelong activist,” Lowther has been a resident of Clayoquot Sound since 1992 and this book includes many of her encounters with the natural elements of this still largely unspoiled environment. Recently, she answered Joy Fisher’s questions about her writing and her life.

The title of your book, Born Out of This, is related to a story of paddling in monstrous waves and thus suggests emergence from turbulence. In some of the essays in your book, you refer to the death of your mother at the hands of your father, which suggests that the turbulence you were born out of is not merely that of the ocean. But your final essay concludes with an examination of your obsession with immersing yourself in the ocean. You say: “The water, so cold, changes everything. Day or night, each time I emerge from the ocean, I feel reborn.” What meaning do you wish to convey to your readers by the title of your book?

We needed to come up with a title. This is often the most challenging part of writing a book. Vici Johnstone, my publisher, chose this one, very perceptively. I love the ocean and we were all born from it, and you’re right, there was turbulence. The title is perfect.

The descriptions you include about the behaviour of even the smallest creatures in your environment — for example the pipefish you once watched for a quarter of an hour — suggest an enormous capacity for patient observation. Is this the inborn patience of a poet, or have you had to learn it over time? If you did learn it, how did you train yourself?

I think my need to observe and notice wild things comes from love. Both my parents were nature freaks and when we left the city for Mayne Island I was utterly enchanted. It felt like a different planet. Nothing against the city, which I also loved in my way, especially later on during the punk scene in Vancouver. If anybody trained me, my parents did, for good and ill, and a few good teachers did too. Observation of little things like bugs and birds was also in the pages of books I read as a child. Those books are still with us, but screens are taking over with their games and movies. It feels like I’ve noticed and observed and loved all my life, but I’m honestly not sure, because I have forgotten much of my childhood. I love all the magic that is around us all of the time. In adulthood I fell in love with poetry again and I think reading a lot of it helps in the “training.”

Your essays often recount your encounters with the larger animals who share the relatively intact forest you live in in Clayoquot Sound and it is clear that daily contact with some of them is necessary to your continued sense of peace; but you are also acutely aware of the dangers inherent in sharing space with wild animals such as cougars. Can you elaborate on the tensions inherent in the danger and the balm of living with untamed beings?

My first meeting with a cougar taught me that they are around us whether we know it or not, and this can be very disconcerting. You could almost say we are never alone in the forest. I had a dazzling cougar sighting on May 6, 2014, that didn’t make it into the book. I was on my floathouse deck, depressed because of the manner in which my relationship had ended that morning. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get any sleep that night. Then I heard a large animal emerge onto the shore rocks from the bush—safely across the water from me. I assumed it was a wolf but amazingly, considering the broad daylight and my presence, it was a cougar. The animal walked along the rocks toward the creek for several moments. After it had returned to the forest, I found myself feeling suddenly light. That night I slept soundly and peacefully.

You write that you began gardening in your mid-twenties, and, now, in Clayoquot Sound, you have a floating greenhouse attached to your float home. What has gardening come to mean to you, both practically and aesthetically, over the years?

I’m obsessive about some things and gardening is one of them. I met a woman on the Walbran Valley logging blockade in ’91. She could identify wild flowers and herbs, and knew how to garden. She was a couple of years younger than me but I saw everything she did as both right and inspirational.

I write poems about gardening and about the flowers that grow around me and the bees I love so much—possibly more poems than I should write about these things, I don’t know. When I try to imagine living with no garden, I feel ill. It just feels right to eat out of the garden. It almost feels like spring wouldn’t happen without gardening. Quite possibly manic. I have learned by experience that if you don’t like gardens and gardening you might not like me much.

In Born Out of This, you write about some of the causes which have engaged your activism, from the peace movement to environmental protection. Can you talk a little about what gave rise to your passionate caring for these causes?

I have to assume my mother is at least partly responsible since she is reported to have read her poems at anti-Vietnam war rallies while I occupied her womb, plus the whole family picketed a development that threatened a pair of old trees when my sister and I were still really young. I discovered Vancouver’s peace marches by myself when I was 14, but these sorts of leanings were clearly in my cells already. I always had a strong sense of justice, as did some of my forbears. Of course, some of it might have been loneliness reaching out, searching for my tribe.

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