Sound Heritage: Myth and the Mountains (PDF)




Please note: This is a digital file.

“Here, all is a beginning.”

It is no new observation that the landscapes of this nation have always had a powerful influence on our literature and art forms. The writer and artist of any culture often move toward an exploration of the unknown areas of the psyche, but in Canada there remains a large physical, geographic frontier to explore as well. Even in such a cursory examination as Desmond Pacey’s Creative Writing in Canada (1952) points out: “Canadian art as a whole, and more particularly Canadian literature, has a distinctive conception of man’s lot on earth, a conception engendered by the peculiar features of the Canadian terrain… man is dwarfed by an immensely powerful physical environment which is at once forbidding and fascinating.”

My immediate association with that statement is the young mountain climber in Earle Birney’s David (the classic narrative poem of the Canadian Rockies), who fully experiences the forbidding and fascinating aspects of this particular landscape. I also think of the writer in Canada as being rather like another of Birney’s characters in his poem Bushed, who saw “a mountain / so big his mind slowed when he looked at it.” Certainly, it seems to be, the human mind is slowed by the impact of the mountain and the writer and artist serve a very great purpose in integrating the fact of its existence in human terms: through stories, histories, and through myths.

Thematically the main body of this issue of Sound Heritage relates to the mountains of British Columbia and the men who explored, travelled, and inhabited them. The theme is not strictly adhered to—there are initial excursions from the coast and a rough geographic movement in arrangement inland to the Rocky Mountain borderland.

The entire issue is illustrated with early engravings of the British Columbia wilderness. A good part of the reason for this (aside from their general excellence) is that they demonstrate how an art form “interprets” a landscape. As engravings were a public and published art form, they did a great deal to shape our young nation’s way of seeing itself. This interpretive role is still one that is very much open to the writer in Canada: as Ralph Gustafson says and demonstrates in his Rocky Mountain Poems (1960), “in Europe, you can’t move without going down into history / Here, all is a beginning.”


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