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The Peel put to poetry

"Nature poetry ain't big in Toronto," said Brian Brett, whose latest collection of poems was inspired by a canoe trip in the Peel watershed. The Wind River Variations is part poetry anthology, part travel journal, part photography book and part political statement.

“Nature poetry ain’t big in Toronto,” said Brian Brett, whose latest collection of poems was inspired by a canoe trip in the Peel watershed.

The Wind River Variations is part poetry anthology, part travel journal, part photography book and part political statement.

“It’s kind of a deviant act against the current poetry climate,” said Brett.

In 2003, Brett took part in an expedition led by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society that took writers, photographers, conservationists, artists and First Nation elders down the Wind River.

“I was the sort of the token poet,” said Brett.

The idea was to expose a wide variety of people to the Peel watershed and have them in turn share their experience with others through cultural production.

Initially Brett thought that his ultimate contribution might look like a series of non-fiction essays, but “poems kept busting out all over the place,” he said.

The poems in this collection paint pictures of little slices of life on the nearly month-long trip. Brett’s writing has a weathered beauty that exposes both his love for the place and an appreciation for its raw danger.

“The invitation to the voyage. / That’s what I received when some madness / slapped my butt in the first minute of my life. / I’ve been on the road ever since, dreaming, / accepting every invitation.”

* * *

“When the aging CEO shoots from the hip / and the bear runs into the willow tangle, / Jimmy Johnny will always say / in his Indian way: / You shot it, you go in there after it. / But the trophy hunters, they never go into the tangle, / they never go. / That’s the truth of it. / You gotta go into the bush chasing another man’s mistake. / That’s the truth of what they hire you for.”

While the poems do not preach, their conservationist message is also not difficult to uncover.

Brett is concerned with what he calls the “looting mentality” of the current resource extraction regime, and its potential consequence for the Peel watershed, he said.

“What usually happens with these play outfits is they get a big government grant, taxpayers pay, they go up there, they gut the place and get all the money they can out of it and go bankrupt and leave the wreckage for the future.

“That seems to be the standard tactic, the business strategy. Do Yukoners want to do this with maybe the wildest place in Canada that has such enormous potential as a wilderness place?

“And of course they have to deal with the Gwitch’in, who are not going to go easy.”

Brett does not deny the need for mineral exploration, or the potential wealth of the Peel region.

“It’s like an Arctic Utah,” he said. “It’s like Monument Valley or something. It’s so vast and beautiful - and it is mineral-rich. I mean, the stones of the river are just like a fabulous diamond collection. You get distracted paddling down the river because you’re looking at the rocks.”

But what’s the urgency? asks Brett.

“I know that we need to extract. It’s a no-brainer. But I also know that we need to show a little more caution in how we do it in order to save something for the kids.

“We’re just stealing our kids’ future. What parent would do that?”

* * *

In a prose poem, Brett tells the story of Na-cho Nyak Dun guide Jimmy Johnny calling in a caribou.

“Then he half crouched, and started stepping back and forth, sideways, putting his weight first on one foot and then the other, holding his fingers up on both sides of his cowboy hat, and wiggling them.”

It was a “slow-motion and hilarious dance,” and the caribou instantly turned to charge up the valley towards them, rearing up on two legs and snorting the air in an attempt to catch their scent. The beast came within 150 feet before realizing their game and retreating for the mountains.

“And I felt that particular warmth you only feel so often in your life - the moment when you know you are standing next to someone grounded in the world,” writes Brett.

“This is when I realized how much I was a guest in Jimmy Johnny’s home, and for him the real wilderness was ‘out there’- back in the city.”

Later, at the end of the trip and in the book’s postscript, Brett overhears a professor who was on a separate but related expedition “lecturing a young southern woman on the ‘myth’ of the local people having the ability to call in caribou.”

* * *

“This is a very oddball book,” said Brett. “I’m not interested in doing a book unless it sort of scares me.”

Not only has he written a full collection of nature poems against the current “abstract urban conceptual” trend in modern poetry, but he chose to illustrate the work with photographs.

The photos were taken by Fritz Mueller, who was on the same expedition.

The images show both vast landscape and tiny detail, adding to the book a complementary perspective on what it is like to be there on the Wind River and in the Peel watershed.

Brett hopes his book will be acceptable to both elite urban poets and Yukon bush workers, he said.

“I love the miners too, right? I have more fun with the miners. They’re a lot livelier at the bars.”

Ultimately, Brett said he hopes the government will rethink its hastily-compiled plans to open the Peel to development and bulldoze the work of the planning commission.

“This new thing is terrifying. It’s just destruction. It’s tar sands stuff.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at