March 1, 2011
by Allan Casey
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The Writing Life: Zip Code 11937

For awhile, I am living in a rented house in eastern Long Island, not too far from New York city, in a country-chic village called East Hampton. The homes here are owned by movie stars and magnates. Informal sources suggest this is the richest zip code in America: 11937. Forbes.com has East Hampton only at #166. But collectively the towns around here all rate very high on the list, and houses selling for $20 million are fairly common.

Some of you have wondered how these domestic circumstances would befall a Canuck writer from way back in the jackpines, one who would seem to know more about paddling a canoe than about what to wear to brunch in the Hamptons in spring. Here’s how it went down.

A certain windfall of money came my way late last year. My partner Marlene and I put it into General Revenue for awhile and, predictably, it started to evaporate in a prosaic way. Since the money came ultimately from the Canadian taxpayer in support of the arts, we decided we better support some art with it. I write, Marlene paints. Perfect. We decided to fund a sabbatical, retreat, working holiday or call-it-what-you-will in some exotic locale.

We weighed our options and connections, from Costa Rica, to Morocco, to New Orleans, to Newfoundland. New York City is sort of a hobby of ours, but it was impossible to pay for the kind of space there to which we are accustomed, even with the Canada Council padding your bank roll. Then we thought to look upstate, and upon Long Island, and found a cute cottage with the stars and stripes hanging on the front, with easy connections to the big city.

But the Hamptons for god’s sake? First off, the locals rarely call it that. They use the names of the towns — South Hampton, Bridgehampton, East Hampton or Hampton Bay. Or they say “the east end” or “the south fork” of Long Island. “The Hamptons” is an outsider’s expression; or, rather, it refers only to the jet-set aspect to this place.

Except for the wealthy, absentee minority (who own the vast minority of real estate) East Hampton is just a pretty Atlantic town, the oldest in the state of New York, with a rich history. The Montaukett nation was here for 3,000 years before the Puritans “founded” the place in 1648. Following colonial expropriation, one thing led to another — farming, witch-trials, whaling, slaving, pirating, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the railroad. At some point Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner famously showed up and threw paint around and the area became an artist’s colony.

East Hampton is a print junkie’s dream. There are half a dozen weekly newspapers. Mostly broadsheets, they run lengthy, utterly parochial stories. The used book collection for sale at the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society, est. 1895, is better than most any second hand bookstore I know.The place is crawling with authors, celebrated and obscure, living and dead. The library is small work of art with red leather chairs in alcoves.

More than that, the place is dead quiet in winter, so there is time to actually read the classics you drag home. Everything closes early, and it is an event at our cottage if a car passes down the street. You just lie on the couch reading The Inferno, then go to bed early like Benjamin Franklin.

And if all the quiet gets too much, you can ride the Long Island Railway or the Hampton Jitney down to New York City and recharge your stress-battery.

February 4, 2011
by Allan Casey
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Tree-planting tips

Pam Nimegeers of Saskatoon, tree-planting in the UK a few kilometres north of Hadrian's Wall.

In the early spring of last year, I went to the UK for a long list of reasons, but mainly to do with needing some fresh air after writing a book. The plan was to hike for a week in the Scottish Highlands (where “hiking” is simply called “walking”). On the way, I was going to meet up with a Canadian tree-planting contractor I know, Mr. Hugh Gilmour of Flat Cap Forestry, do a little tree-planting mostly for fun, and see if there was a story there. I’ve written about some parts of the trip in earlier posts, but I also wrote a piece about the tree-planting sojourn for Canadian Geographic magazine. The paper version has just appeared on newsstands, and you can read the full-text by following the link at the end of this post.

The story explains who these Canadian tree planters are, and what they are doing so far from their own boreal forest. Here’s a little background on writing the piece.

Tree-planters in Canada often live in tents right on the planting block. This crew was living in a pretty country inn made of stone, with good ale served at the little bar. Hadrian’s Wall was only a few kilometres south, close enough to reach on foot. Hugh and I had a few that first night and talked about what work I would be doing the next day. I assumed I would be a humble planter, but Hugh’s management partner had thrown his back out, and so they were short one crew chief. Thus I was promoted before work even began.

In the morning, it transpired that my vast age was my only real qualification for the job. Under the terms of Hugh’s insurance, only crew age 25 and up were allowed to drive the company vehicles, and so I found myself piloting an enormous (by English standards) van down a narrow (by English standards) stone-walled road trying to keep up with Hugh in the van ahead. Still jet-lagged, it felt like a rally race to me. I found it a little unnerving to be shifting gears left-handed, going down the wrong side of the road with the lives of a half dozen sleepy planters jammed in behind depending on me. But we reached the planting blocks as Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot was playing on the radio. Not a bad start to the day.

Having had in my mind the idea that I would plant trees in England and daydream all day as I had done one pleasant summer many years before working in northern Saskatchewan, I was disappointed to be relegated to management. But by the end of the day, I was profoundly grateful that Hugh had not sent me out with a spade and bag.

Planting is bloody hard. I planted a handful of trees myself just to remember the motion, which is easy enough. Watching these young guns banging them in, I remembered how hard it had been even in my twenties, to repeat that motion 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 times a day while scrambling over the uneven ground. I recalled how knackered I had been those first few days back then. I realized that it would have been epic to plant all day — and possibly humiliating — despite my relatively high fitness level for my age bracket. Thanks for sparing me the indignity, Hugh.

As it was it was tiring enough. My job was to make sure the planters had sufficient trees to keep working. In Canada, crew bosses deliver trees along the rows by riding quads, and that is true in the UK sometimes. But this particular block had no accessible roads, and so Hugh and I had to haul in the bags by hand. The footing was incredibly difficult — over slash and deadfall, deep mud and soggy sedges, and large cones of heavy wet clay into which the trees were planted.

There was not room in the short Canadian Geographic piece I wrote to address how eerily silent and artificial these UK tree plantations are. Where once there were oak forests, these monocultures of sitka spruce and other new-world trees are propped up by herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and tilling machinery. They  are planted in rigid rows, ugly to my eye, and grow so thickly that no understory can get a toehold. As a result, virtually no wildlife comes into these ranks of evergreens. I never saw a vole or a mouse or a nything on four legs, nor even a bird.

Plantation trees do a great deal of good in modern-day England. But they are a pale substitute for the great forests that once covered the island.

Links

The full text of my Canadian Geographic piece is here.

David Brownstein of the University of British Columbia contacted me after reading the article. He studies the history of tree planting and maintain biodiversity in managed forests, among many other things. Check out his website for more.

Finally, if you are a Canadian planter who would like to try working the winter season in the UK — a good way to combine work and travel — visit Hugh Gilmour’s Flat Cap Forestry site for more information, including how to apply.

November 17, 2010
by Allan Casey
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The morning after . . .

Writing from beautiful, rainy Montreal, a city where I have always found good fortune. In the previous post, I guess I puffed up the GG nomination pretty good. I figured that was my moment in the sun, so wanted to make a little something of it. I never dreamed Lakeland would receive the actual award.

What was it like to win? I got asked that many times yesterday by ladies and gentlemen of the press. It was like this:

The laureates, as they grandly called us yesterday, had been given the good news by telephone about ten days ago — but were sworn to secrecy until the announcement. It meant that writers all over Canada had been sneaking around their friends and loved ones, telling vague, fishy stories about travel plans they were making. Sorry about that, folks.

You’d think knowing about the win in advance would have made us all calm as cucumbers. Some of us arrived that way. But the atmosphere at La Grande Bibliothèque, aka. the National Library of Canada, was electric. It was impossible not to be caught up in it.

While a few hundred rather sophisticated looking people took seats in an auditorium, we were lined up like school kids backstage at a play, instructed in French and English to wait for the applause, walk to our mark, shake hands, turn to the photographer, etc. We had been chummy over morning coffee, but once the hour approached we milled about silently, everyone re-reading their one-page speech, which had to be filed in advance.

The applause for the first laureate was shockingly loud. One by one we were sent through the curtains, and our very capable handler, Diane Miljour crossed another name off a sheet on the wall. We were being sent to the beyond….

I went out almost at the end, found my mark and grinned into the glare, clutching a little gold envelope. I have never made a speech before with a scrum of cameras flashing. I had to laugh, and did, briefly. It was a fun ride.

Immediately following the announcement, the aforementioned ladies and gentlemen of the press converged upon us. I had no idea how much media interest would come my way. Perhaps it was because of the subject of Lakeland — rather universal and accessible to a Canadian audience. I spent the next four hours doing interviews. Regina’s Dianne Warren, whose novel Cool Water won the English fiction award, was doing likewise across the room. Coteau Books also took a publisher’s award for Wendy Phillips’ book, Fishtailing, so it was a good day for the very literary province called Saskatchewan.

Well, back to earth . . .

The issues raised in Lakeland are still issues. If the GG award announcement has steered you to this page, and you’ve made it to the end of this post, I hope you will follow the trail a little further. Please take a look at newly-launched, not-for-profit website called smallredcabin.org. It is a forum to discuss our use of Canada’s wild spaces for pleasure — especially lakes. What do they give us, and what should we give back in return? Please visit, register, and contribute your views. You will not be asked for money, I promise. The site is just new, and needs only your ideas in order to grow.

October 13, 2010
by Allan Casey
6 Comments

Lakeland nominated for Governor General’s Award

It is a tremendous surprise and honour to get the news that Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada has found its way onto this year’s GG nominee list. As an author making his often uncertain way in the world of words, I am delighted to be in such capable company.

I am even more grateful that any attention this may draw to Lakeland will help to keep access to pure, beautiful lakes a vibrant part of the Canadian way of life. For those who have not read the book, Lakeland borrows its title from a small, lake-filled rural municipality in northern Saskatchewan, where my family has been lucky to own a small, lake-front cottage for 50 years. Places like it exist in every populated area of Canada. Yet many such places are being destroyed by rampant over-development and our ever-increasing standard of affluence. The ready access to natural beauty that defines Canada is fast becoming a perk affordable only to the few.

Working on Lakeland, I got to experience some of our most beautiful and accessible wilderness, from coast to coast. While too much of it has been touched by the blight of material excess — folksy cottages supplanted by mansions, canoes rocked by wakeboats, game trails bulldozed by all terrain vehicles — the nation I now call lakeland is still occupied by plenty of insightful, thoughtful people who would have things otherwise. In fact, having met so many of them in the writing of the book, I would say that the majority of those who migrate to the Canadian lakeshore in order to be recharged by nature  — would welcome a moratorium on capital in our precious near-wilderness. For if we cannot achieve simple living at the lakeshore, then where?

The reasonable majority is a voice too often unheard. Money, meanwhile, screams rather than talks, as our guitar-poet B. Dylan reminds us. And so I pray that Lakeland, the book, can do a little to open up the debate about lakeland, the country. I wrote it to get people talking about access to nature and what role it ought to play in a country whose water-rich, still-glorious lakescape is the envy of a crowded, thirsty world. Who, among the current generation of Canadian children, ought to have easy access to nature? May every daughter and son get to wander the fringe of the wild that still exists not too far from the city, though some of their parents be not wealthy enough to afford a second house.

To paraphrase my hero, Edward Abbey, you cannot really fight for nature if you do not have a personal friendship with it.

September 13, 2010
by Allan Casey
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Lakeland shortlisted for Edna Staebler Award

I am delighted to announce that Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada has been shortlisted for the 2010 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. The $10,000 award is administered by Wilfred Laurier University and recognizes Canadian writers for a first or second work of creative non-fiction that includes a Canadian locale and/or significance. Lakeland shares the short list with two very fine books by John Leigh Walters and Else Poulsen. You can read about all three nominated books on WLU’s website.

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