December 1, 2020

‘Hug a Tree’ in the Age of the Pandemic

A radio show host in Italy has just given me a new way of looking at one of my own songs.

I wrote “Hug a Tree for Me” during the couple of years I spent in the Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo, studying music. Forlorn is how I would describe the view from my living room window there. A wide expanse of bird-free lawn ending in tarmac, with a sterile block of a building on the other side. Not at all like the countless Douglas firs and Arbutus trees and robins, hummingbirds, red-crested pileated woodpeckers and other birds I had become used to seeing through my windows on Salt Spring Island.

The song felt pro-environmentalism, lamenting the fate of trees in a society losing touch with nature.

But a couple of weeks ago, as I was creating this new WordPress website, Marco Boccitto, host of L’idealista (The Idealist) on Italy’s state RAI Radio, put a pandemic spin on “Hug a Tree for Me” by including it in a half-hour music show devoted to hugging in the age of Covid.

Great idea: hug a tree instead of a potentially Covid-positive human! If that were to catch on, we might have a lot more environmentalists in the world by the time the pandemic is over. As things stand, spending time in nature has become something of a luxury in many parts of the world in 2020. I think I will start seeing “Hug a Tree” as less of a lament and more of a call to action, a call to embrace nature, one tree at a time. Positive thinking from the age of Covid. Nature will be waiting!

January 1, 2021

A Life Lesson in Mindfulness from Author Ethel Wilson

“Ten twenty fifty brown birds flew past the window and then a few stragglers, out of sight. A fringe of Mrs Vardoe’s mind flew after them (what were they? — birds returning in migration, of course) and then was drawn back …”

Those were the first words I read when I finally opened a novel that had been in my possession for two decades, written by an author whose name I had seen often yet not fully absorbed since moving to Canada’s westernmost province in 2002. I was an instant fan, and had still to learn about some of the personally synchronicitous aspects of the author’s life.

I had discovered writer Ethel Wilson and her most famous novel, Swamp Angel.

As a lover of fiction, appreciative of unique writing styles and those with stream-of-consciousness tinges, as well as strong women writers and characters, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t read her work. 

Wilson ended up living in the province I now live in, and British Columbia’s top literary fiction award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, is named after her. As a freelance book editor, I had worked on a number of books that had won or been runners-up for that very prize by the time I opened Swamp Angel. And yet I had never sought out her work or explored the details of her life.

Wilson, it turns out, was born (in 1888) in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the city I was raised in; Swamp Angel was published in the fifties in the year of my own birth; and not only did Wilson live for many years in British Columbia but a good portion of her novel is set in the intricately described beauty of the BC countryside, which is basically where I live.

Swamp Angel had been gifted to me from the personal library of an editor I worked with before leaving Toronto in 2002. I tracked my ex-colleague down, and thanked her for introducing me to Wilson’s work. The editor and I are now in more regular contact, a gift in itself. 

I have now read two of Wilson’s novels, some of her other writing and even some of her published letters. I have learned that there is more than one version of Swamp Angel. And I have discovered that these days her fiction is not widely read even among people who grew up in BC. In fact, Swamp Angel is now apparently appreciated more by academics (and I am not one) than the general reading public. 

So perhaps I am not alone in having failed to really register who Ethel Wilson was, despite the fact that one of Canada’s major literary awards is named after her. I hope more readers discover her still, and I sincerely hope that I am a lot more mindful in 2021.