Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ethel Wilson: Love and Salt Water

The only reason I'm not further behind (right now only about four titles, I think) in this reading log is that I'm not finding much more time to read than I am to write. But I did find time a week or two ago to copy some passages about the arbutus tree (madrona, to my friends across the border) from Ethel Wilson's Love and Saltwater. I found a wonderfully well-preserved 1st edition hardcover in a local Used and Rare Books shop at the end of summer and pounced on it, already a big fan of Wilson's Swamp Angel, a BC, if not Canadian, classic. Saltwater was published in 1956, two years after Angel; the feminist inclinations of both are rendered more notable by the back flyleaf which gives a sense of the times in introducing Wilson as "the wife of a doctor who is a former President of the Canadian Medical Association." With no disrespect to Dr. Wilson, I have to wonder who remembers him now, when his wife's books are still regularly taught in Canadian Literature courses half a century after that blurb was written.

At any rate, if Wilson hadn't already captivated me completely with Swamp Angel, there was much to engage me in Love and Saltwater. Short on time right now, I'll concentrate on her treatment of the arbutus which I've loved since first becoming aware of its presence along our coast and on Vancouver Island. The novel also offers love, death, and some nautical derring-do along with its protagonist who so winningly struggles against her time's expectations of young women. It could have used a stronger editing hand, I'd say, with some odd jumps as well as what appear to be distortions of the narrative by some digressive bulges, too much attention to what matters too little overall. Still, listen to what she says about my favourite tree:

The arbutus tree grows, each year, a skin like bark; or, one should say more correctly, its smooth surface, of a green which ranges in a shade near chartreuse, becomes deeper in shade and hardens into a skin, a bark of glorious copper colour. When the morning sun strikes the smooth trunk of an arbutus tree the copper glows, and anyone looking up suddenly at the arbutus tree exclaims aloud; and remembers. This copper bark, as the year advances, splits, peels, curls, and floats away, revealing below it the young green again. Since the leaves of the tree become dry and fall fairly continuously for a time, the arbutus tree is not suitable for the ordinary garden unless the owner of the garden likes cleaning up after his pets every day for a season of the year that seems endless; and since the arbutus tree is difficult to transplant, one seldom sees it in the ordinary garden which is a good thing, as it there resembles the noble savage in a drawing-room. In such places as Victoria (only there are no such places) gardeners accept this pleasant toil, for the arbutus flourishes on the shores of Victoria which so often constitutes the rocky gardens of that charmer among small cities.

There is one more thing that should be said about the arbutus tree. It is, sometimes, more human than anything in the vegetable world and is certainly nobler than the mandrake. There is one arbutus tree on Aunt Maury Peake's point whose trunk is as large as a human body (the trunk is usually more slender); it divides as at a groin, a shoulder. The smooth curves, held firmly by the two hands, are like living sculpture of the human body -- copper thigh, abdomen, flank, muscle; you expect a life as of the tree's green breathing. (157-8)

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