Conrad Grebel University College
140 Westmount Road North
Waterloo, ON, Canada, N2L 3G6
The Conrad Grebel Review 33, no. 2 (Spring 2015)
In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha sits under the Bodhi tree, waiting for enlightenment, on the forty-ninth day of his self-imposed fast and meditation. Mara, the master of demons, brings a host of his minions to unseat the Buddha, challenging his right to sit under the tree on the earth.[i]
“You are a being of spirit—earth is my realm,” Mara says.
“No, I belong here,” the Buddha insists.
“Who will vouch for you, then?” asks Mara.
Buddha, with his left hand reaching to the sky,
lowers his right hand
to the earth.
“I am his witness,” says the earth.
At this, Mara and his demons disappear.
When I heard this story recently, I thought of Rudy Wiebe, one hand raised to the Mennonite narrative within the Christian story, the other reaching to the ground, invoking our embodied existence as earthly creatures. In confirmation of this emphasis in his work, his memoir is entitled Of This Earth.[ii]
The sound of the land is everywhere in Wiebe’s writing. In his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, four “Preludes” keyed to the seasons invoke the cycles of nature in contrast to the narratives of theology on the one hand, and those of technological progress and conquest on the other.[iii]
The first prelude, “Spring,” introduces the novel with a portrait of two boys playing hooky on a fine spring day to hunt for frogs, delighting in the natural world. Thom Wiens, the protagonist, listens to the land in concert with the thoughts in his mind and the airplanes overhead. Wiebe portrays him as an earth being engaged with existential thoughts. And his ability to listen to the land opens his mind to the narratives of its other inhabitants—namely the Indian children his mentor and teacher Joseph is so intent on saving—by breaking with tradition and speaking the scripture in English rather than in the traditional Mennonite German. The discovery of a fragment of an extinct wood buffalo’s skull prompts Wiens’s epiphany—that perhaps Canada is a young country only in the eyes of some, but an ancient place in the eyes of others. Thus, attentiveness to the land opens a space of encounter—a contact zone, as Mary Louise Pratt describes it—in which characters and, by extension, readers become aware of the limits of received narratives and can begin to consider other approaches.[iv]
Wiebe’s evocation of the sounds of nature occur most vividly in his poetic descriptions of his childhood in the boreal forest, but as he describes it in his short memoir essay, “Passage by Land,” his discovery of the contrasting southern Alberta prairies in his early teens inspired him to write fiction.
[T]o break into the space of the reader’s mind with the space of this western landscape and the people in it you must build a structure of fiction like an engineer builds a bridge or a skyscraper over and into space. A poem, a lyric, will not do. You must lay great black steel lines of fiction, break up that space with huge design and, like the fiction of the Russian steppes, build a giant artifact. No song can do that; it must be giant fiction.[v]
Yet, by the author’s own admission in “The Skull in the Swamp,” many of his fictions are pastiches or elaborations of fragments.[vi] Narrative builds the architecture, but the scenes and sounds of the outdoors capture and hold the reader, evoking a dimension beyond words. Wiebe also uses the lyrical fragment—or the poetic nature passage— in other settings where Mennonites have wandered. His descriptions of the Chaco and the Lengua women of Paraguay in The Blue Mountains of China[vii] have inspired songs by Carol Ann Weaver in her song cycle Paraguay Primeval.[viii] However, the boreal forest is Wiebe’s most persistent earthly muse. Canada’s extreme north is evoked in the opening pages of A Discovery of Strangers,[ix] a text Weaver also set to music in her composition “North of Centre.”[x] Wiebe revisits the boreal forest at the beginning of his most recent novel, Sweeter than All the World, in a passage that both evokes the sensory presence of nature and foregrounds the problem of language through another of his key characters, Adam Peter Wiebe, first introduced in his short story, “Sailing to Danzig.”[xi] “Adam, Peter: ground, rock. Adam realized his names were basically the same, one merely a stubborn form of the other.”[xii] This story is revisited in the second chapter of Sweeter than All the World, but the novel opens by grounding itself in the land in the Waskahikan, the Northern Alberta location of Adam’s boyhood. Here Adam hears nature speak to him in Lowgerman (spelled as one word), the language of his mother.
In summer the poplar leaves clicked and flickered at him,
in winter the stiff spruce rustled with voices. The boy, barefoot
in the heat or trussed up like a lumpy package against the fierce
silver cold, went alone into the bush, where everything spoke
to him: warm rocks, the flit of quick, small animals, a dart of
birds, tree trunks, the great fires burning across the sky at night,
summer fallow, the creek and squeaky snow. Everything spoke
as he breathed and became aware of it, its language clear as the
water of his memory when he lay against the logs of the house
at night listening to the spring mosquitoes find him under his
blanket, though he had his eyes shut and only one ear uncovered.
Everything spoke, and it spoke in Lowgerman. Like his mother.
She would call him long into the summer evening when it
seemed the sun burned all night down into the north, call high
and falling slow as if she were already weeping: “Oo-oo-oo-oooo.
. . .”[xiii]
Note the art of sound in Wiebe’s writing: the fricatives—click, flickered, stiff, flit, quick—create a sense of darting movement, reinforced by active verbs. Note also the use of the list in the second sentence, enumerating examples of “everything” in specific detail; the use of anaphora (deliberate repetition)— everything spoke, everything spoke . . . she would call him . . . call high and falling slow—and the use of parallelism: in summer . . . in winter, barefoot in the heat . . . trussed up like a lumpy package . . . . These are just a few of the devices that draw the reader into an attentive presence in the scene, much as music does. And there is music, first the mother’s wordless tone, and the boy’s silence in response. She hugs him hard against her apron as she scolds him for not answering. Wiebe uses the art of words to evoke the wordless bond between them.
The sounds of nature blend into song through Adam’s mother’s voice as she sings hymns in “Sailing to Danzig.” First produced as a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio drama in 1986, “Sailing to Danzig” highlights the third dimension that sound plays in Wiebe’s story.[xiv] Song is a means of preserving memory that transcends narrative or historical detail: at the end of the story, the narrator remembers his parents “at our kitchen table in Alberta suspending the thin thread of their songs across the marshes and
bitter rivers of their memories.”[xv] In this metaphor, nature and music merge to describe the geography of thought. The insistence on the part of some environmentalists that nature writing be purely mimetic—serving as a transparent medium to reveal the nonhuman world—is an oversimplified understanding of language that assumes humans are detached from nature and can observe it, even as we attempt to faithfully represent its “otherness.” What descriptions—or good ones, anyway—actually reveal is consciousness, the quality of a mind playing over the world of matter, says poet Mark Doty. Description is a mode of thinking, but “[i]t’s incomplete to say that description describes consciousness; it’s more like a balance between terms, saying what you see, and saying what you see. . . . It’s as if the harder the eyes and verbal faculties work to render the look of things, the more we see that gaze itself, the more we hear that distinctive voice.”[xvi] What do we add of ourselves to our portrait of the natural world when we write it? How can we allow nature to inscribe itself in us?
This theme is addressed in one of Wiebe’s most famous short stories, “Where is the Voice Coming From?” It begins: “The problem is to make the story.”[xvii] The fact-seeking, rational narrator thus proceeds in his attempt to piece together the “truth” that a Cree man called Almighty Voice, “who allegedly killed a number of Canadian police officers, was himself killed.” The deaths are clear, although the exact nature of the killings and the location of burial sites are less so. As the narrator pursues the “evidence,” he is forced to question the nature of fact and evidence. Finally, the voice of truth he seeks appears to arise from the ground itself, as if, when narrative and facts lose their explanatory power, the earth cries out as witness. At the end of the story the narrator recognizes his status as interpreter, and the limitations of his ability to understand: “I say ‘wordless cry’ because that is the way it sounds to me. I could be more accurate if I had a reliable interpreter who would make a reliable interpretation. For I do not, of course, understand the Cree myself.”[xviii] This recognition of his partial, limited ability to interpret what he hears casts the narrator as a member of an interpretive community rather than as an authority. In fact it is only when we acknowledge the limitations of our vision that we grant subjectivity to the other, whether that other is a person or the land.
“Where is the Voice Coming From” begins with the narrator quoting Teilhard de Chardin: “We are continually inclined to isolate ourselves from the things and events which surround us . . . as though we are spectators, not elements, in what goes on”; and Arnold Toynbee: “For all that we know, Reality is the undifferentiated unity of the mystical experience.”[xix]
The narrator hastily dismisses this possibility, stating that the historical encounter he investigates belongs to the world of chronology. It is past, over, recorded, complete. But as he encounters ambiguity after ambiguity and irreconcilable contradictions in his evidence, he recognizes that this is a part of the reality he narrates. By retelling the story and recognizing the limits of his understanding the narrator recognizes, at least for a moment, what Toynbee calls “the undifferentiated unity of the mystical experience.” Teilhard de Chardin’s suggestion that we are a part of nature, not apart from it, resonates with current ecocritical debate. In his introduction to Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language, Scott Knickerbocker writes: “[B]ehind the ecocritical discomfort with language and aesthetics lies the fundamental question that drives almost every philosophical inquiry of environmentalism: Are humans (and their constructions, including language) a part of nature, or are humans and nature distinct categories?”[xx] “The answer must be both,” Knickerbocker argues, contending that “humans are distinct, yet inseparable from the rest of nature.”[xxi] According to literary critic Kenneth Burke, humans are the symbol-making animal, but rather than a sign of our superiority, this distinct capacity is part of our nature and thus part of nature as a whole. According to poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder, “Language and culture arise from our biological-social natural existence, animals that we were/are. Language is a mind-body system that co-evolved with our nerves and needs.” And, as the narrator’s continually frustrated search for the true story in “Where is the Voice Coming From” shows, “It is of a complexity that eludes our rational intellectual capacities.”[xxii]
Knickerbocker coins the term “sensuous poesis” to refer to the language usage of writers, specifically poets, whose approach to representing nature is not so much a version of realism as it is “the process of rematerializing language specifically as a response to nonhuman nature.”[xxiii] Like the poets Knickerbocker analyzes—Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, and Sylvia Plath—Rudy Wiebe “operates from the assumption that humans (and their tools, including language) are both distinct and inseparable from the rest of nature.”[xxiv]
As the poststructuralist Charles Bernstein says, “Alphabetic aurality is not cut off from the earth but is a material embodiment of it.” That is, the sounds of words arise from the sounds of the natural world. Furthermore, he notes:
Sound is language’s flesh, its opacity as meaning marks its
material embeddedness in the world of things. . . . In sounding
language we ground ourselves as sentient, material beings,
obtruding into the world with the same obdurate thingness as
rocks or soil or flesh. We sing the body of language, relishing the
vowels and consonants in every possible sequence.[xxv]
Through his attention to the sounds of words, Rudy Wiebe has given them
flesh. In “Seven Words of Silence,” an address he gave at a Mennonite/s Writing conference at Eastern Mennonite University in 2012 and later published in The Conrad Grebel Review, Wiebe notes: The first word of silence is SOUND. In the Canadian parkland where I was born, the silence of living things surrounded me.
On our pioneer farm we had no electricity or gasoline to make
motors roar; horses and cows snuffled in barns, pigs in pens,
chickens. I was the youngest child by four years and grew up
largely alone. The winter snow falling, spruce branches in wind,
mosquitoes after a rain or birds just before sunrise, coyotes
at night; on a hot summer afternoon cowbells, or thunder;
somewhere a dog barking. In autumn, if I was very attentive, a
poplar leaf falling to the ground. These were the sounds of my
growing up. These slight sounds were not dominating in any
sense; rather, they defined the earth’s fundamental silence in
the same way that lines on a page, or the road-allowance grid
of the land survey, sketch the unfathomable nature of paper or
land. These tiny, living sounds, any one of which I can recall
in an instant no matter in what cacophonous surroundings I
may find myself anywhere on earth, these indelible sounds were
and are for me the affirmation of the fundamental silence of the
universe. . . .[xxvi]
The seventh word of silence is WRITING.
The mystery of
writing is that writing is words gathered together in silence.
Writers know this perfectly well, it needs no discussion: we all
want to write so well that, when the reader sees what we have
written, our mutual silences will open into listening, and by
seeing we will begin to hear what we have never been able to
In this description of silence, Wiebe opens up a meeting space for the natural world, the writer’s mind, and the reader’s eye. In the sound of silence, the world and the text are one.
Ann Hostetler is a poet and Professor of English at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana.
[i] The story of Mara challenging Buddha is very common in Buddhist literature. I first heard it orally, in the context of a yoga workshop. The version that follows is my retelling. The story is referenced this way in The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism: “When Māra questioned the bodhisattva’s right to occupy his seat beneath the Bodhi tree, the bodhisattva declared that he had earned that right by accumulating merit over countless eons. When asked who could vouch for these deeds, the bodhisattva extended his right hand and touched the earth, thereby calling the goddess of the earth, Sthāvarā, to bear witness to his virtue; this gesture, called the bhūmisparśamudrā (“earth-touching gesture”), is one of the most common iconographic depictions of the Buddha. The goddess bore witness to the bodhisattva’s virtue by causing the earth to quake.” See The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013).
[ii] Rudy Wiebe, Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007).
[iii] Rudy Wiebe, Peace Shall Destroy Many (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1962).
[iv] Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” in Profession 1991 (New York: Modern
Language Association, 1991), 33-40.
[v] Rudy Wiebe, “Passage by Land,” in River of Stone: Fictions and Memories (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1995), 1-4.
[vi] Rudy Wiebe, “The Skull in the Swamp,” in River of Stone: Fictions and Memories, 249-73.
[vii] Rudy Wiebe, The Blue Mountains of China (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1970).
[viii] Paraguay Primeval compact disk (LORAC Productions LOR-026 ). Music by Carol Ann Weaver, texts by Rudy Wiebe (Blue Mountains of China), Dora Dueck (Under the Still Standing Sun), and writers from Schoenbrunn Chronicles, translated by Henry and Esther Regehr.
[ix] Rudy Wiebe, A Discovery of Strangers (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1994).
[x] North of Centre, a composition for reader, flute, mbira, percussion. Music by Carol Ann Weaver, text by Rudy Wiebe (from A Discovery of Strangers). This work was premiered in 1999.
[xi] Rudy Wiebe, “Sailing to Danzig,” in River of Stone: Fictions and Memories, 249-73.
[xii] Rudy Wiebe, Sweeter Than All the World (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002), 10.
[xiii] Ibid., 1.
[xiv] The first version of “Sailing to Danzig” was a half-hour radio drama, commissioned by and broadcast on the CBC Arts National program on July 20, 1986 for four voice actors, with music composed by Carol Dyck and performed by Carol Dyck and Rudy Wiebe. The short story was subsequently published in Malahat Review 76 (September 1986): 64-73.
[xv] Rudy Wiebe, “Sailing to Danzig,” in River of Stone: Fictions and Memories, 272.
[xvi] Mark Doty, The Art of Description: World into Word (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2010), 45.
[xvii] Rudy Wiebe, “Where is the Voice Coming From?” Collected Stories: 1955-2010 (Edmonton, AB: Univ. of Alberta Press, 2010), 22-31.
[xviii] Ibid, 31.
[xix] Ibid, 22.
[xx] Scott Knickerbocker, Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language (Amherst, MA: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 4.
[xxii] Ibid, 2.
[xxv] As quoted by Knickerbocker in Ecopoetics, 7.
[xxvi] Rudy Wiebe, “Seven Words of Silence.” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 148-49.
[xxvii] Ibid., 154-55.
Conrad Grebel University College
140 Westmount Road North
Waterloo, ON, Canada, N2L 3G6