28. Sarah de Leeuw, Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16
After I finished reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life—or, at least, after I finished reading the chapters I had set out to read—I decided to change things up, to give myself a break as the semester is coming to an end and my marking load is getting heavier, by reading some creative nonfiction about place. If nothing else, I ought to be able to increase my production, since works of creative nonfiction about place tend to be shorter than books of theory and philosophy. That was the logic behind this shift in focus, anyway.
In Place: An Introduction, Tim Cresswell recommends Sarah de Leeuw’s 2004 book Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 as an exemplary book on place, and so I decided to begin there. Since de Leeuw is a geographer, it might not be surprising that Cresswell likes her book so much. As her online c.v. indicates, though, de Leeuw came to geography by a circuitous route: first, she completed a BFA in creative writing at the University of Victoria; then she finished an interdisciplinary MA at the University of Northern British Columbia; and finally, she graduated from Queen’s with a PhD in cultural historical geography. Today, she teaches at UNBC, and she publishes academic articles as well as creative nonfiction and poetry (she won the 2013 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award for her book Geographies of a Lover).
I was particularly interested in Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16, because I imagined it might be a book about transforming a textbook example of space—a highway—into place. That’s not what the book does, however. It is a memoir about growing up in logging towns along that highway. That tells me something, though; perhaps it’s impossible for space to become place unless one invests time and effort and energy in coming to know that location. Also, unlike de Certeau, who makes an important distinction between stories about places and the ways that maps provide visual representations of places, de Leeuw conflates those two forms of representation—perhaps because she’s a geographer and understands the function of maps. “In my mind, story of place is inseparable from geography of place,” she writes. “The telling of stories is the creation of maps, words following a finger tracing the thin red lines of roads, the curvatures of topographic lines, the stories of landscapes passed through and passed on” (2). Like de Certeau, then, de Leeuw identifies narrative as the central process involved in turning space into place. When stories are told about a location, and when those stories display an intimate knowledge and involvement with that location, then it becomes place.
I am working through Unmarked sequentially, chapter by chapter, which is the easy way to summarize it, rather than bundling the references to its various themes together in a careful analysis, which is harder and would take more time, something I just don’t have at the moment. That’s the downside of these immanent readings. Besides, the text is presented for the most part (as far as I can tell) in chronological order, so following the chapters in sequence is a way of following the course of de Leeuw’s life. The book begins with de Leeuw’s family’s move to northern British Columbia—to the unincorporated community of Port Clements, on Haida Gwaii, to be specific, where her father was about to start a job connected to the logging industry. (What exactly his work was is not revealed.) Everything has a beginning, but she asks where her connection to Port Clements begins:
A bend in the road or a particular telephone pole? The highway kilometre sign? White letters on green, letting you know a place occurs farther down the road; this might be a beginning, a starting point. Or perhaps at the announcement of its (un)incorporation: small white sign, black letters reading “Port Clements: Unincorporated.” No date, no population number. (4)
That, she continues, is “definitely one beginning” (4), suggesting there are others: the junk-filled yard of a local eccentric named Jack, for instance. “Jack’s house is a good beginning,” de Leeuw writes. “It speaks of continual loss yet infinite hope, an absolute certainty that in nothing there exists something” (6). If we were looking for an announcement of Unmarked’s main theme, that statement might just be it.
De Leeuw was eight years old when the family moved to Port Clements, and at first that community is defined for her, and for her family, by what it lacks:
Port Clements has no place to buy school supplies, no place to register for and take swimming lessons, no galleries, no restaurants to dine in, no place to watch a movie, no police officers, no malls, no civic centre, no doctor’s office, no corner stores, no video stores or clothing stores, not a single chain-named business. (10)
The community does have two churches, a community hall, one store, a gas station, a bank that opens one afternoon each week, a machinist’s shop, a baseball field, a combination tackle shop/hunting shop/Sears order counter, and a hotel where loggers stay when they get out of camp (10-12), but the adjustment to this new kind of community was difficult: “By Grade Four I know my town by what it is not, by the vacancies and gaps it could not fill” (11). This sense of absence is another theme that is repeated throughout de Leeuw’s memoir. Nevertheless, she continues, “[m]y feet remain welded firmly to the ground of a town overlooked” (11), a statement that suggests how de Leeuw continues to be connected to that place and, perhaps by extension, the other places in northern BC where she lived as a child.
Each chapter in this memoir is focused on de Leeuw’s experiences in a specific place. The second chapter, for instance, deals with her life in a logging camp named Juskatla, where the men, almost all of whom are loggers, spend the weekends drunk, and where de Leeuw and her friend Leaha are able to steal cigarettes from Leaha’s father after he passes out (14). The chapter uses language peculiar to logging communities, terms I had to Google, like “crummy trucks” (16) and “setting chokers” (14-15). It also attempts to reproduce—in language, of course—the smells and especially the sounds of a logging camp:
Scents suggest silence, as if the camp operated in a vapour of smell isolated from any other senses. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sound erupted from between every piece of stored machinery, from beside every bunkhouse and mess hall, from the dark insides of every company-owned trailer in Juskatla. Sound is the glue of a logging camp, the thick foam insulation squeezed and expanding into every corner, filling in the cracks and back eddies, fat on bones. (16-17)
This emphasis on the sensorium is another recurring theme in Unmarked: de Leeuw wants to evoke, for people who have never been in northern BC, the sights and sounds and smells of those communities. At the same time, de Leeuw does not shy away from the violence that exists in places like Juskatla—both the personal violence directed against spouses and children, and the corporate violence of the community’s eventual eradication when the logging company decides to shut down its operations. De Leeuw recalls the “stunned look of resignation” on her friend’s father’s face, “the same look I had always imagined might flash across a faller’s face the instant he cut into a widow maker, those terrible trees who in such a long split second rip out to take a man down” (20). The use of the pronoun “who” in that sentence is fascinating, and I had to check to make sure my notes were correct: de Leeuw is attributing agency and animacy to such trees, something that might indicate an engagement of some kind with Indigenous ways of knowing (Taiaiake Alfred edited the book for Newest Press [(120)]), or it might suggest that widow makers are somehow malevolently aware of what they are doing when they kill a man. I’m not sure which way to take that pronoun, and there might be other possibilities as well.
In the following chapter, the family has moved to Tlell, where they are shot at by hunters who mistake them for bears as they walk through the forest near the dump, and where a starving bear, looking for jars of jam or salmon, is shot in the shed just off their house. In Tlell, de Leeuw and her family also begin collecting objects on the beaches, including agates and glass balls, once used as floaters on fishing nets, “one so worn from revolving in waves against invisible particulates that, by touching it, we risked shattering its thin glass sides” (29). Together, de Leeuw and her mother “walked parallel to the sea, forgetting everything but the sand and the sky and the desperately breakable moments and fragile possessions that we all find ourselves momentarily in charge of” (29). That sense of fragility, particularly of human relationships, is another theme that helps to structure Unmarked.
The next chapter focuses on the family’s time in Queen Charlotte City. Here, de Leeuw focuses not only on her experiences of that place, but also of the effect her memories of it, and the stories they lead her to tell, have on her later:
Not until many years later do I come to know that living here was living in a land so real and raw that it slipped into the impossible, a land of legends not to be believed, a place of things not real. No one believes the tales I have to tell, the tales of balancing rocks and whales spitting on highways. Or road fissures so deep that a constant stream of cement cannot fill them, tiny earthquakes always re-opening the pavement. Drink from the water near this fracture and your blood will be charged like a magnet; you will always return, a compass needle veering towards the magnetic north. Sometimes the need to return will fill you with a draw so urgent your teeth will chatter and the joints of your body will ache. (31)
Eight years later, de Leeuw does return to Queen Charlotte City. She is working for Parks Canada for the summer, living on a research boat which happens to anchor offshore so its crew can take a break, shower and launder their filthy clothes. She meets old friends and discovers one of them living in a burned-out house, another tale that is hard to believe: “I am sitting in a house that stands in spite of having been burned from the inside out. I am standing on land full with the impossible, and the water I drank years ago from the spring on the side of the road, kept parted by earthquakes, is suddenly at rest, a quieted compass needle knowing the direction of home” (40). These sentences are such lovely writing, and such a powerful evocation of place and of our relationship to the important places of our childhood. It is that kind of intimate connection to a locale that makes it become place, I think, and that realization causes me to rethink one of my hypotheses, the notion that walking through a space can be part of a process of coming to know it as place. Yes, perhaps, to an extent that is true—certainly walking makes that possible in a way that other, faster modes of transportation would not—but can walking create the same kind of intimacy with a place that living there would generate? I don’t think so.
After Queen Charlotte City, the family moved to Prince Rupert, which de Leeuw describes as “overflowing, flooded, monsters everywhere. There is no shortage of work in this town for social workers and counsellors” (46). Then de Leeuw skips Terrace, where she spent her adolescence—or rather evokes that city from the nearby mining community of Kitimat: “There. You have said it. Gotten it out. You hated it and you wanted to leave and you set upon a plan and you carried out that plan, and now you are here. Here in Kitimat and not in Terrace; not there, but away” (49). De Leeuw’s adolescence was particularly difficult—her parents split up, her brother died in a car accident (48)—and the relative calm of young adulthood in Kitimat is juxtaposed against the boredom and chaos of Terrace. Her husband is Italian, and she wishes she lived in Europe, so that the distance between Terrace and Kitimat would seem even greater: “If this were Europe, you would be in another country, you would be of a different nationality, speak a different language, use a different currency. This is how far you have come, he assures you. You are separated by great distances from the town you grew up in, the town of your family” (50). Even the mills and factories in Kitimat are a form of reassurance: she likes to drive out to the Alcan plant at night and pretend she lives on another planet, one far from Terrace (51). The Alcan plant becomes a living entity by virtue of its distance from Terrace: “It might be only one watershed away, but the distance is a lifetime, and for a moment your breath is deep and calm, listening to Alcan’s heart pulsate, pumping life through aluminum veins” (51).
Now the text jumps backwards, to Kitwanga and her parents’ separation, which is evoked in fragments associated with the task of splitting firewood. Then it begins to move forward again, with a chapter about Terrace. Again, that city is evoked through a comparison to the nearby village of Rosswood, a place that residents of Terrace consider to be “in the outback, far-away, in the middle of nowhere, at the ends of the earth, where no one would want to live anyway,” a place that allows Terrace to construct a vision of itself as a “metropolitan centre” (59-60). De Leeuw relates the stories she heard about Rosswood, and stories about how children from that village were bullied at schools in Terrace, and how they responded to that bullying with brutal violence.
Violence is also a theme in the next chapter, in which de Leeuw tells stories about working as an assistant cook in a logging camp. Those stories coalesce around Glen, the camp cook, and his pregnant (and nameless) wife. Years later, when de Leeuw returns to that community, she encounters that woman in the community’s women’s centre, bearing the marks of her husband’s violence. The chapter ends with a description of the local Salvation Army church, its windows broken and its structure sagging over the Nass River, as if any moment it might fall in, and its foundation of “totem poles, hacked and sawed so that the church could be built on top of them” (72-73). The gender-based violence de Leeuw describes is therefore related to the colonial and religious violence represented by the destruction of those totem poles.
The following chapter describes a seasonal tent city called “The Zoo,” a community of some 300 people: “travellers, tourists, campers, nomads, mushroom pickers, all balanced on the edge of nothing, balanced nowhere” (75). It’s not clear to me whether de Leeuw lived there, or whether she just visited the place, but she tells stories about residents of The Zoo, including stories about how so many of those people are broken by their experiences:
Reaching the outer edge of The Zoo is where the stories reach their limits, and for brief seconds the hurt and running that defines these people is brought to the surface, stories of deep sadness and people who drink before they eat, women who arrive with bodies torn from truck drivers who exchange sex for mileage, families with nothing who arrive here thinking they can pick money from the forest floor, thinking that mushroom picking is easy, not knowing that it breaks the bodies of those who too often have broken spirits. (80)
The Zoo is a place of cynicism and theft and despair, but also love, laughter, and kindness, and de Leeuw’s portrait of that community is careful to be open to both possibilities.
“The Scent of Pulp” is about Prince George. “What are my memories of this town, lived in so fleetingly, yet such an impact made?” de Leeuw asks (83). I think this chapter is about living in that city while she was completing her MA; she is clearly an adult when she gets there. What struck me about this chapter—not surprising, given its title—is the way it evokes the senses: not just sight but also sound and smell. Sound is suggested through onomatopoeia: pickup trucks are “bashed in,” trains “rumble,” the city’s paper mills are “gasping” (86). Smell is even more important, because according to de Leeuw, Prince George is defined by the smell of wood pulp:
The scent of pulp: I remember my parents used to speak of Prince George, of people they once knew who lived in the city, of furniture infused with Prince George smell. Wherever they moved after Prince George, the city would follow them, follow them forever and beyond. (86)
After three years, de Leeuw leaves the city. She receives a letter from a friend about her child, which is about to be born, and the baby’s heartbeat becomes a way in which Prince George becomes a place: “I want to tell you that the heartbeat makes a town become a there, not an away, not an always searching for somewhere else; heartbeats allow us to see from the ground up rather than always looking down from below” (87). Having a child in a city makes it into a place, makes into a location with meaning and significance and story.
The next chapter tells a story about a journey. At some point—perhaps leaving Prince George for Kingston?—de Leeuw is on a train that passes through Burns Lake. It stops there, at the station, and de Leeuw sees graffiti on a fence that angrily responds to the community’s refusal to provide Indigenous people with water:
Perfect then, that the stop this train did make was met with such memorable brilliance, with bright words, a flash point burned on memory in Burns Lake, separating the homes of those whose water has been turned off by the municipality and the homes of those who turned it off.
For a moment, on this train, I was balanced between the two. (92-93)
De Leeuw’s refusal or inability to take sides here is perhaps strange. Why be balanced between oppressor and victim? Why not choose solidarity? Or is de Leeuw perhaps acknowledging her own complicity as a settler? Or is this an honest account of her response, sitting there in relative comfort, looking out of the window of the train at the trace of a conflict she feels she was not part of?
The next chapter is about Fraser Lake, “the site of your second heartbreak” (96), the place where she lived with her father and stepmother after her birth mother decided to return to Oklahoma. “Fraser Lake is loneliness to you,” de Leeuw writes (98). The use of the second-person pronoun here suggests her separation from, or her desire to be separated from, that adolescent heartbreak. The following chapter, “To Preserve the Invisible: Lejac,” relates a story about a man shot dead by his neighbour. That story is juxtaposed against stories about the Lejac Indian Residential School, where boys were yoked together to pull the plow that broke the land for the school’s grain fields, and where Rose Prince, a possible saint, is buried (105-06). The chapter’s final sentences evoke a past that is both marked and unmarked:
All signs of Lejac Indian Residential School have been removed; not a single brick remains to be found in the tall grasses surrounding the cemetery containing Rose Prince. A swing set remains, abandoned, the soft hues of pink, purple, yellow, and green in contrast to boys harnessed like mules. (106-07)
The following chapter, “Unmarked: Terrace,” continues that theme. Terrace, she writes, “was preparation, preparation for how to dream of escape, dream of everywhere but here, a dream of endless motion when you are anchored in absolute immobility” (110). She remembers other northern resource communities, the places she lived when she was a toddler, when her parents moved north for the first time and lived in a motel:
Stories have become memories, truth and fiction inseparable. The stories told to me of our year in the Cedars Motel have implanted themselves so firmly in my sense of the world that it is as if they are my own, always my own, as if the details of stories are remembered details and not ones imagined. Brief flashes do exist of my own memories, memories not culled and assembled from people’s stories, but my own memories are always braided securely with details known only from other people’s stories. It is forever a question: Is this a memory or an image solidified from years of hearing a story? (111-12)
The move from Queen Charlotte City to Terrace was very difficult for the family, and they told themselves and each other stories in order to make that transition:
We told ourselves, told each other, told stories to keep alive and to propel us forward day by day. We created our fictions to survive. We envisioned red lines charting our every movement. New travels were made permanent in our heads by envisioning an etching of red across a map of Terrace. The map was carefully folded inside our minds, a map of roads and hills and lengths of times to walk home; a map of under bridges and beside the lake hoping desperately not to get pregnant. A map of how to navigate being an adolescent in a place like Terrace. A map of how to navigate it together. (114)
The word “together” refers to de Leeuw’s unnamed best friend in Terrace, someone who, like de Leeuw, managed to escape that community. “Oh how we ached to race toward there,” de Leeuw concludes, “the infinite there that was anywhere but the unmarked here” (118). The references to marking and to maps takes us back to the beginning of the memoir, and de Leeuw’s suggestion that maps and stories fulfill similar functions in our lives. The return to Terrace, and to the notion of escape, leaves the memoir’s conclusion open: perhaps, from the perspective of Kingston (where I think de Leeuw was living when she wrote this book), her life seemed to be defined by movements away from places like Terrace. After all, there’s no way she could have known that she would end up returning to Prince George to teach.
So, what do I take from this memoir? I was expecting the highway itself to become place, but that’s not what happened; as in Yi-Fu Tuan’s book on space and place, the highway remains undifferentiated space, for the most part, while the communities along that highway, placed there like beads on a string, become the places de Leeuw explores. Those explorations depend on an intimate knowledge of those communities, the kind of knowledge that can only be generated by living in them. I’m left wondering how much one needs to know about a place before one can experience it as place—a question that is no doubt difficult to answer. Every text about place will be different, and each will no doubt rely on different kinds of experiences of place. Is a general answer possible? I’m not sure. Perhaps I will discover clues, though, as I continue to read creative nonfiction about experiences of place.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. Second edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.
de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall, U of California P, 1984.
de Leeuw, Sarah. Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16. Newest, 2004.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.