A natural love story

By Amy Reiswig, February 2011

Stephen Hume’s new book offers reflections on why we love this place.

Ah, February, when the minds of marketers turn to love. Often branded “V-month,” February can suffocate with its consumer focus—on candy, cards, roses, etc. But if you’re looking for something truly from the heart to nourish the heart, Stephen Hume’s recent collection of essays, A Walk With the Rainy Sisters: In Praise of British Columbia’s Places (Harbour Publishing, September 2010), offers one man’s deep, diverse and, ultimately, infectious love: of BC’s nature and people as well as a great and simple love of life itself. 

Hume is a Victoria-grown, multiple-award-winning journalist—he’s been a columnist and senior writer for the Vancouver Sun for over 20 years—as well as the author of over half a dozen books of poetry, essays and natural history. Now living in North Saanich, he teaches writing at the University of Victoria and Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo.

In everything he does, he brings an intense curiosity—a permeable spirit—which gives him a joyful, peaceful sparkle. That sparkle, along with his short silver hair, glasses and serene yet slightly rascally smile suggests a blend of Santa Claus and the Dalai Lama. I get the impression that his joy, like theirs, comes from feeling that he hasn’t wasted a moment of his life. 

“I’m a specialist in the encounter,” Hume explains animatedly over coffee at UVic’s bookstore café. “Any interaction is in you. It’s all about how you perceive and react to things.” Case in point: “Did you know,” he asks me, “that skunk cabbage regulates its own inner temperature like a mammal?” Nope. Hume’s ability to find fascination in anything is a reminder that opportunities to make ourselves bigger through openness surround us at all times.

That genuine openness, the willingness to receive and take in from what’s around you leads to the desire to give, and that’s what Hume does in this book. In these hugely varied 35 short essays, he gives, as you might expect from a journalist, information: stats about pollution; the mathematical calculation of spring’s exact arrival; arguments about the need for political change; odd snippets of local history that make you want to run off and learn more (for example, “Saturna thrusts southeast toward the American boundary and the San Juan Islands, where a dispute over a stray Hudson’s Bay Company pig wound up costing Canada half the archipelago”). 

But more unexpectedly, Hume gives freely of his feelings. Stereotypes about emotionally-restrained men and supposedly hard-nosed journalists evaporate in the face of, for instance, his unabashed use of “I love.” “I love the subtle gradations of grey and the filtered light and the ever-changing sky,” he writes. “I love a shower’s dimpling hiss across the still, glassy surface of a woodland bog.” While some readers cringe at anything bordering on the sentimental, I found myself surprised and disarmed at Hume’s effusions, and it reminded me that for a journalist, or a learner of any kind in life, a soft heart is more useful than a hard one.

“When teaching creative non-fiction, I tell students: don’t mess with the facts,” he says. “But journalism is about human experiences. If you only write about facts, you won’t reach your readers. If you can touch their spirits, you can better transfer the information.” And that is, ultimately, the purpose of Hume’s writing, here or in his Vancouver Sun newspaper columns: to transfer information and effect change. 

For when dealing with love, one is almost always dogged by the threat of loss. Hume addresses loss of wildlife, of wildlife habitat, of people due to shipwreck or fires, of care and respect for our world and for one another. Thus, in addition to delight and awe, he also writes with anger, worry and fear. “This insanity—shoot the last elephant, harpoon the last whale, cut the last big tree—that permeates our heedless, wastrel culture has got to stop,” he writes, lamenting that “our irreplaceable heritage [is] being vandalized in the name of the almighty dollar with…government’s bland and blind approval.” As a result, meditation on a single pond can become a call for caution, a warning against complacency: “this secret little pond dreams on through languid summer days while dragonflies dance across its surface like brilliant splinters of nature’s prism, messengers from the distant past sent to remind us of everything that is ours to lose.” Loving deeply comes with a price. 

Despite outbursts of anger, Hume is a man and writer of incredibly positive outlook. People can be destroyers and causes for sorrow, but Hume introduces us to individuals making a difference: one man who clears neglected sections of historic trail, another who hand-rescues stranded fish fry in the changing Cowichan River, a lighthouse-keeping couple who has saved more mariners than any other keepers on BC’s Pacific shore. What, the implicit question asks, is each of us willing to do?

“I’m an optimist,” Hume tells me. “I have great hope for the future. Here at the university I’ve seen extraordinary shifts in attitude in students. One reason I keep coming back to teach here is because I learn more from these young people than they do from me.” If you take the long view, he notes, “we’re not sure what’s going to happen. Looking back at history, we’re not even really sure what happened, and we’re not really sure of what’s happening now. Things are advancing all the time, but it’s slow. I have a great deal of faith in the collective wisdom of people.” 

Hume is a man of generous heart whose ideas, commitment and ability to articulate his appreciation of both the small and the cosmic-scale beauty of life make you want to be more generous as well. This February, reclaim V-month from the storefronts and take a walk with Stephen Hume through our province in celebration of a different kind of love.

Victoria writer and editor Amy Reiswig has nothing against romance, but thinks that the free beauty of nature makes the best gift for sharing with a beloved at any time of the year.