BOS 01 20 2022 doublesize
This science memoir that I am reading has started to annoy me. The word "I" appears way too much. There was a moment when I almost closed the Kindle. An otherwise interesting chapter ended with a list of scientific discoveries the "I" had accomplished. There was an off-hand mention of the person the author had collaborated with and a concluding line that someone else had gotten the Nobel prize for work in the same field. The self praise and the note of complaint felt far from the supposed topic of the book--understanding the natural world, especially trees, from a Celtic perspective.

I know. Memoir is about a person's life. "I" will appear. But this is the fourth science memoir I've read in the last couple months. The others did not annoy me. What is the difference?

The first one, Finding the Mother Tree, tells the story of Suzanne Simard's search to understand how forests work. The first line of the introduction speaks of her family, not herself. The first chapter puts her in the social context of clear-cut logging. She puts herself in context. And throughout the book, she is not looking at herself. She is looking at the forest. The trees teach her.

The people Simard works with take on character as well. Whether they share her perspective or oppose it, we see them. With this annoying book, the colleagues are mentioned but not sketched. Even the husband feels like her sidekick, following her initiatives.

With the second, Braiding Sweetgrass, there is a constant sense of the Indigenous culture Robin Wall Kimmerer is imbedded in. She is not on her own. Sure, she uses the pronoun "I," but there is always a strong sense of the people around her. When she describes cleaning up the pond on her property, there are lots of references to herself--lots of "I" words--but we always sense her daughters' desire to swim. She includes what other people thought of her project. And we see how the pond reacted to her interventions over time.

With the third book, one I mentioned last week, Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta is always in dialogue with other people. In each chapter, he names the people he "yarns" with, Indigenous people who help him understand the topic he is working to describe. All the way through, there is one particular elder who walks with him. And the topic is all about complexity and context. Yes, he describes the object that he makes to hold the knowledge of that chapter with "I" words, but we see the object, and with it, we are learning about Australian Indigenous culture.

In the second half of the book that annoyed me, the author shifts to describing particular kinds of trees, sharing her learnings about them and Celtic and druidic wisdom. This part is beautiful. I wish the author had been able to bring more of this perspective to the memoir part.

You may be wondering why I am bothering to review the use of "I" in these memoirs.  It's a matter of perspective, and it applies to how we live as well. Are we focussed inward, on me, or are we looking at the world from the place we stand and work?

In the introduction to her book From Where I stand, Jody Wilson-Raybould uses "I" words to describe where she comes from, her family and culture, her story. There are many "we" words as well--referring mostly to specific indigenous groups but sometimes to all of Canada. She reflects on the (up to now) rare vantage point of having been an Indigenous federal minister of the crown and ponders what she learned. She writes, "I sometimes see an image of the country emerging from darkness, to half-light, to full brightness." Wilson-Raybould uses the place she is to grasp what is happening around her and to suggest ways forward.

Most of you are not going to write a memoir. But we all live our life with an understanding of our place in it. Do we live focussed on "me," on what we are doing, or do we focus on the community and the world we are living in from our particular vantage point. The perspective shift makes a big difference.

Cathy Hird lives on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation


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