Arbutus/Madrone Files

According to the Jacket Blurb . . .

The Arbutus/Madrone Files

The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest (NeWest Press, May 2002; Oregon State University Press, September 2002).

“The whole business of names was awkward.”
–Audrey Thomas, Intertidal Life

This is a book about writing and reading. About some of the writing attached to the region called the Pacific Northwest. About my own readings of that writing. I hope my title will suggest some of my aspirations for the book, and a sense of its form and limitations. The slash separating and joining arbutus and madrone figures the artificial/real border which contributes to the region’s doubleness and mystery. It allows for either/or, and for a both which is a uniquely interdependent fusion. Dividing my reading notes into files implies collecting rather than systematic linear argument: stories and words and discoveries clustered according to some shifting set of associations.

Reviews of this book:
1. Canadian Literature (Summer 2003)
2. The Seattle Times (16 March 2003)

Reviewed by Charles Dawson.

Excerpt from Canadian Literature (Summer 2003)

Ricou’s The Arbutus/Madrone Files is a loving homage to story and place that remains alive to all the possibilities and limits of such a work. I am struck by the ways bi[bli]odiversity informs and extends the reach of this single work across “different limits and shifting centers.” Its mix of confidence and respect recharged the field for me. The publishers describe the book as the first to focus on the Pacific Northwest as a literary region, specifically that area marked by the natural range of the Arbutus menziesii, spreading throughout Cascadia and across national borders. The tree name transforms at the 49th parallel; does anything else? That’s just one part of the web of inquiries in this book that will appeal to readers of Canadian and U.S. literature, those who live in or know the Northwest (or are ready to reconceptualize the place) and indeed anyone who wants to see what good ecocriticism can look like. Just as the Northwest is many places and many stories, The Arbutus /Madrone Files is many books, focused by its generosity of attention and scholarship.

Ricou claims that “Our stories told and written many times make places happen.” He honours the “delight and texture of place-writing,” noting that “any conclusion is only one further extension of the binational region this book has been imagining, a pacific Northwest whose stories incorporate the transnational and the bio-regional.” Inclusiveness, as reader and scholar, is one of Ricou’s strengths: “With the writers gathering in this book, and with the arbutus/madrone trees of varied forms, I have learned to be at home—often uneasily—in a region that crosses the pacific with the north and again with the west.” This sense of overlap and tension extends to Ricou’s shrewd analysis of cross-cultural storying and silence.

Much of Ricou’s poised scope comes from his use of “files” as a structural method. So notions of transposition (Intertidal File, Woodswords File) overlap (Rain File, Salmon File) to challenge cultural or critical complacency (and mighty seriousness). A generous series of “AfterFiles” discuss further readings and other details. In their self-contained but overlapping reference to a Canadian and a US text, each file concentrates Ricou’s assertion that “a regional literature and culture might be discovered where the boundary becomes indeterminate perhaps it must be discovered in a shared ecology far too international to claim.”

Ricou examines story and place in work by Daphne Marlatt, Ursula Le Guin, Ken Kesey, Joy Kogawa, David Wagon, Jack Hodgins, Lee Maracle, Kim Stafford and numerous others (including artists generously reproduced in the centre plates); he also looks at fundamentals like rain, salmon, and “things sasquatchian.” Files often pair older work (Martin A. Grainger’s “journey into the heart of Carr-ness,” Woodsmen of the West (1908) and Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, for instance) while tracking cultural and historical contexts. The mix is rich but not cloying. Files is an illuminating and enjoyable book. There’s plenty that will bring readers closer to their own place stories, not least Ricou’s own inclusiveness. His attention and commitment enliven and sustain the work of the critic in this time of scattered story and modified seed.


Reviewed by Nicholas O’Connell.
The Seattle Times, 16 March 2003.

We may think globally, but we live locally. Despite the ubiquity of the Internet, CNN and the World Wide Web, we inhabit a particular place. And the place shapes us. The play of light on the peeling bark of a madrone tree, the steam rising from the espresso machine at the local Starbucks, the beat of rain on the car windshield — these impressions make us who we are.That’s the central insight of Laurie Ricou’s new meditation on the geography and culture of the Pacific Northwest. A professor of English at the University of British Columbia, Ricou presents a rich, thoughtful rendering of the region on both sides of the border. He defines the Northwest according to the distribution of the madrone, known as the arbutus in Canada.

“This book is about the Arbutus/Madrone region, a region sharing a biogeoclimatic zone, and flora and fauna, and icons of place, yet bisected by an international boundary, and hence, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, by differing histories, differing needs and aspirations, and differing ‘languages.’ ”

Ricou organizes his book into 12 thematic essays or “files,” eschewing chapters as too linear and systematic for his taste. These include the Raven File, Island File, Salmon File, Sasquatch File, and of course, the Rain File. (What, no Coffee file?) The files serve as jumping-off points for ruminations, comparisons and reflections on dominant features of Northwest life. Mixing personal essays, literary criticism and historical analysis, each file makes insightful connections, compares and contrasts Canadian and American authors, and explores the intricacies of regional culture.

The book highlights the work of such writers as David Guterson, Ken Kesey, Ursula K. Le Guin and David Wagoner, whose poems qualify as “some of the most successful reimaginings of Native American story.” Canadian authors also get their due. He rates Malcolm Lowry’s “October Ferry to Gabriola” as the apotheosis of B.C. fiction. In addition, Ricou skillfully blends artists into the mix — Mark Tobey, Morris Graves (“His traceries of subdued light constantly promise emergence into a different consciousness”), Canada’s Emily Carr and even The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson — demonstrating the breadth and variety of Northwest culture.

The longer, more comprehensive files represent his best work, especially the one on Raven, the trickster figure of Native American mythology. Ricou frankly acknowledges contemporary Northwest culture’s debt to the aboriginal stories, insisting they present the strongest models for an indigenous culture. Rather than shying away from incorporating Indian legends into their work, Ricou argues that contemporary authors should follow the example of Raven, a borrower, a ventriloquist, a fascinating, sometimes irritating and confounding figure. Raven can bring all the region’s contradictions of rain forest, salmon runs and postindustrial city together into a complete, organic whole.