The Rocky Mountains around Banff are stunning, and one of the most impressive places I’ve visited in a long time. But I’m not used to culturally decontextuliased travel, so I was left looking for information about the inhabitants, the indigenous people, the first Europeans to settle there. People travel to Banff for the mountains, and the mountains are, indeed, a huge cultural presence in the area. They have shaped exploration, resource distribution and the arts. As a visitor there for just a week, it was difficult to get much of a sense of this culture because the town of Banff is so kitsch and touristy that one doesn’t really know what image of the place to trust.
It was for these reasons, then, that I was pleased to find a book titled This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada in a local bookstore. Edited by Colleen Skidmore and published by the University of Alberta Press in 2009, the thick volume is an anthology of writing by and about women who have travelled to the Canadian Rockies. It’s multi-media as well as multi-genre, and includes photographs and illustrations as well as plays, letters, articles and extracts from memoirs and longer works. The women included–mostly white, but not exclusively–were generally active between the 1890s and 1920s, although there are some outliers. Having a book such as this to read while in the Rockies really helped me to dig a little deeper behind the pretty views, and understand the region better.
The trouble I have with anthologies of women’s writing such as this is that despite being a proud feminist and having studied women’s literature myself (albeit in the completely different cultural context of South Asia), I have trouble identifying with late-19th and early-20th century female travellers and explorers. This is not a criticism of the editor or publisher at all, or a statement against the book. There is no reason why, as a reader, you should identify with the characters in a book, fiction or non-fiction. But as a writer and a traveller myself, I’d like to see some shadow of myself in these women. They were unconventional and brave, whether they liked those labels or not. I’m not a conventional person, and balk at the idea of doing something simply ‘because that is what one does’, but neither am I wildly unconventional. This isn’t purely down to my own efforts, it’s because what is considered acceptable for women has broadened in the last century, partly due to these first-wave feminists (again, whether they like that label or not!) I’d like to be able to look back at these early exploring women and feel some kind of recognition, but their heightened religiosity puts me off. Sometimes the religiosity is over-played, in an attempt to dampen the disapproval that they undoubtedly suffered from ‘society’. But it is always there, along with a readiness to judge and label and categorise.
Neither can I hope that I may have been in their situations if I had lived a century ago. These were women of means, even if those means came from wealthy men in their lives. My ancestors, back then, were Welsh coalminers and one-of-eleven-surviving-children, that sort of thing. Not the aristocracy. Not even the gentry. So I often find it hard to identify with the spirit that such women displayed, because it’s easier to be quirky or brave or eccentric when one is privileged, isn’t it? As a writer, the tradition of travel writing has largely lain with men, and when women have made a mark, it has not always been a mark I wish to emulate.
Still, there are many enjoyable aspects of This Wild Spirit, even if I know these women would never had been my friends. A favourite is an excerpt from Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson’s 1900 travelogue, “A Woman Tenderfoot”. Her excerpts are funny, and she is preoccupied with fashion and appearance, which is great fun to read about, though I’m sure she would have been a horrible travel companion. She writes:
Theoretically, I have always agreed with the Quaker wife who reformed her husband–“Whither thou goest, I go also, Dicky dear. What thou doest, I do also, Dicky dear.” So when, the year after our marriage, Nimrod announced that the mountain madness was again working in his blood, and that he must go West and take up the trail for his holiday, I tucked my summer-watering-place-and-Europe-flying-trip mind away (not without regret, I confess) and cautiously tried to acquire a new vocabulary and some new ideas.
Of course, plenty of women have handled guns and have gone to the Rocky Mountains on hunting trips–but they were not among my friends. However, my imagination was good, and the outfit I got together for my first trip appalled that good man, my husband, while the number of things I had to learn appalled me. (pp. 117-18)
Another favourite from the collection is Julia W. Henshaw’s “The Mountain Wildflowers of Western Canada” from 1907. Some other women’s botanical illustrations are included later on, but I think the descriptive power of Henshaw’s words paint a far more impressive picture of the entire landscape. She weaves the Latin plant names seamlessly into her flowing narrative, and in so doing, seems to create a genre of her own:
The Banff Hotel stands on the cliff, high above the confluence of the Spray and the Bow rivers; steep banks broken by large rocky prominences sweep down from its wide verandas to the boiling torrents below, and here in sheltered nooks and crannies grow the curiously-branched Coral-roots (Corallorhiza innata), while the tendrils of the white and purple Vetches trail over the stones, and the Wild Clematis (Clematis Columbiana) winds its leaf-stalks around the branches of adjacent bushes. Lower down you will find huge clumps of the Service-berry (Amelanchier alnifolia), an attractive shrub bearing many clusters of snow-white blossoms amid its pale green foliage, and farther on the Fireweeds flare and flash like torches burning in the long grass. (p. 250)
This Wild Spirit is recommended travel or armchair travel reading for anyone interested in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, and their literary representation. It can be purchased from The Book Depository, which has free international shipping.
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