John Schreiber’s latest book, The Junction, is the kind of nature writing I find especially meaningful–essays by a person exploring and discovering connections with the natural history of the world close to home. His homeland is British Columbia, Canada, as he explains: “I have been exploring backcountry places in the southern half of the British Columbia Interior by auto, on foot and occasionally by horse, nearly all my adult life. I have particularly focused on a large, wild region west of the Fraser River and east of the Coast Mountain Range called The Chilcotin.” The Junction is his third book on the area.
I enjoyed the book on several levels and John was willing to share a bit more about it in the form of a “Questions for the Author” interview.
1. The title of the book was also the title of a chapter of about a specific place in British Columbia, Canada, where two rivers come together, but I sense the phrase “the junction” has a deeper meaning for you. Why did you choose it as the title of your book?
John: “Junction” refers also to connections, ecological, cultural, and spiritual: a] between the myriad, diverse elements of nature, most of which are wild, i.e. beyond our long-range capacity to control; b] between we humans and the land and places where we live; and c] between our sub-cultures–most especially aboriginal and settler, rural and urban, and working and middle classes.
2. The book is composed of separate essays about an area of interior British Columbia. Each one has a different perspective. Is the order of the essays in the book important, or can a reader skip around?
John: Each of the ten stories in The Junction is meant to stand alone. However, I have aimed at presenting an unfolding of underlying issues and awareness beginning with references in “Two Cabin Lake” and proceeding through “Junction” to the last two pieces: “Asking Rock” and “Lone Creek,” which I consider to be quietly climactic.
3. You use the word “practice” several times in key passages in the book. What does the word “practice” mean to you?
John: Most skills we learn (for example: cooking, woodcutting, going for a long walk, being mannerly, sports) need to be done repeatedly in order to achieve and maintain a degree of proficiency. This is particularly true of the fine underlying art of paying attention, of being mindful of all that we do, as much as we are able. “Doing practice” implies that we practice paying attention to the process of awareness itself. Practice is about finding balance; finding balance is, in part, about listening to yourself, not the mental chatter so much, but your own inner knowing deep down within. Slow down and hear.
4. One of your themes is that humans are part of the ecological equation and that we can’t live without changing the natural world in some way, and often in a harmful way. You encourage an ethic of Ahimsa, or living by trying to do the least harm. What led you to adopt that position? How does that perspective influence your everyday life?
John: For the first half of my childhood, my parents were financially poor. As with most poor, we worked hard at avoiding waste, a practice requiring some ongoing attention. Particularly, we considered that throwing away usable goods–including especially hunted meat, angled fish and dug and picked shellfish–was careless and disrespectful to the living critters killed. Attempting to do “least harm” and the avoidance of waste are parallel practices in a generally wasteful and thoughtless (North American) culture. My brothers and I are informed also by the example of Patrick, our Dad, who, at a certain point in his life, said, “We make a good living now. We don’t need the (deer) meat; I’d just as soon watch them walk around.” Whereupon he hung up his hunting rifle.
5. In some chapters, you seem like a detective, imaginatively reconstructing the human lives that once interconnected with the wild places you visit. You write about the personal lives of people mostly ignored by the big political histories. Why are those people important to you?
John: I write about them because often their stories are interesting, and because most rural folks I know or have met, are relatively aware of WHERE they live. Their livelihoods are often directly connected to the facts of their local landscape. Some older, rural individuals are acutely aware, detail by detail, of where they live. When you have traveled mainly on foot, horseback, by wagon, or even by slow pickup, you learned to notice what you were passing.
6. One of the things I enjoy about your writing is your honest, humble voice. You don’t come across, as some nature writers do, as an expert whose experiences are so exotic and unique that readers can only marvel at them. Instead, you draw the reader into your explorations with warmth and personal openness. I get the thought as I read, “Hey, I can explore my world like that, too.” What advice would you give to writers who are trying to find their voice?
John: First, practice story telling and listening. I grew up in a pre-TV world of story telling. I learned what a good story sounds like, what the experience is; most of us are capable of that if we stop to listen. Take your time. There are stories going on all around us. Second, write about what you know. This may be another way of saying “Tell the truth,” your best basic truth; stick to the facts and try to include detail. It’s the details that make a story rich, but don’t get lost in them. Honest truth liberates; to respect the truth of things and events helps to give us our authority as would-be story tellers. Write about what you love. Follow your curiosity. Sleep on it; let your unconscious do its job. Every day is a different day and a different way to see. I listen hard to where I am, where I have been. Sometimes, it seems as if the story and/or the places are telling me. I find myself on the receiving end of another way of being. Stories like to be told. Myth stories are alive and well, whether or not we know they are there.
7. The Junction combines your own experiences with research and readings. Do you keep a journal of your experiences, thoughts, and dreams? Do you have a system for keeping track of all your ideas?
John: I do keep notes in a notebook, esp. when I’m traveling, or later, having walked a trail or driven a route. At home, I note key thoughts, ideas and phrases, and a very occasional dream, the ones that seem unusually strong or significant. As well, I have a large personal library, mainly non-fiction and land-based, and organized by broad topic. I have a good spatial memory (as opposed to my abstract memory) and can usually find pertinent books. I write, frequently, with a pile of relevant books beside me, so I can quickly check out facts and references.
8. In The Junction, the concept of reciprocity in life seems important to you. Could writing be a way of reciprocity?
John: Life in an ecological world is a series of give and takes, ie. balances. If we listen and pay attention, as much as we are able, at least some of the time, and if we stay open to possibilities, we may come to see that our connection with the animate and inanimate worlds around us is subtly two-way. We share a complex set of relationships, a few of which we are conscious of. And yes, our thoughts, observations and feelings come back to us via the process of writing. We develop a working relationship with them as we externalize and commit them to print. Our words, thoughts etc., not to mention all the elements of nature, are not without liveliness.