New Star Books, 2000. ISBN 0-921586-75-2 6 x 9, 264 pages. $19
Nominated for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize and the Roderick Haig Brown Regional Prize.
A Cross-Country Checkup Book of the Year.
Portraits of people and landscapes in the Interior of British Columbia and Toronto, which together form a portrait of the country of Canada — one that, impossible as it sounds, unites us rather than divides us. Buddhist monks discover the centre of the universe in B.C.’s Bonaparte Plateau. Buddhist beekeepers, farmers, bankers, fly fishermen, native story-tellers, cowboys, ranchers, all tell their story.
City and country are reconciled in this series of short prose pieces encompassing Toronto’s vast urban sprawl and British Columbia’s Interior. On a visit to Canada’s largest metropolis, the author is drawn north to Kleinburg, site of Group of Seven artist Tom Thomson’s studio. There he finds himself immersed in the crucible of “Canada,” the cultural construct he recognizes from elemenary-school textbooks. And suddenly it all falls into place: rural, suburban, and urban coalesce in Rhenisch’s spare, acutely perceptive words.
Rhenisch brillliantly distills the uneasy but indelible connection between the eletronic grid that is Toronto and the valley south of his Cariboo home that is — according to Buddhist monks — the Centre of the Universe. Encounters with beekeepers, backwods ranchers, university students, book publishers, home-brewers, cowboys, horse logger poets, fly fishermen flora, fauna, and the land itself drive this thought-provoking deconstruction of the urban-rural divide.
Long respected by academics and fellow poets, Rhenisch has gained a reputation as a writer’s writer, a proud regionalist who produces deep, high-quality work while staying well out of the limelight. But his under-the-radar status is about to change. Tom Thomson’s Shack confirms Rhenisch as one of the most perceptive and distinctive essayists currently writing in Canada. John Moore. The Vancouver Sun
Wayne was responsible for the earth I brought to Toronto. When I met him, he had just returned to Canada after a decade travelling in India, Nepal, Japan, Australia, Bali, and Taiwan. His hair was long. He wore a loose shirt of Indonesian cotton that fell almost to his knees, and heavy wool pants from Peru. A long, heavy belt cord hung down from his side. He wore heavy leather boots, scuffed at the toes: GWG Kodiaks. The steel safety shell glinted through the leather. His cabin had a screen door, a giant stag-horn sumac bush, and two rooms.
“I built this last winter,” he said behind me as I stepped in. The cabin consisted of a bunk and a combined kitchen and dining room. Through the open door behind me, the robins were calling for rain. The living room was outside: a bench under the sumac, facing south to Chopaka, the blue mountain at the foot of the valley, over the US border at Nighthawk — traditionally a woman, her back swirling in the green eddies of the lower river, an erect nipple standing out against a blue sky, her eyes closed, tenderly.
“I couldn’t travel my whole life,” Wayne said, after he’d made licorice tea and we sat at the oilcloth-draped table. “I wasn’t going back to Toronto, and I wasn’t going back to the Prairies, so I came here. The farms are small.” A grey-pink stream of incense curled up beside his head. The incense stick was jammed in sand in a cracked coffee cup. The thick smoke curled up and swam and sang along the ceiling. A few stray wisps swirled lower, around our faces.
“I grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan. Life was very strict. My father was a Calvinist. Everything had to be in its place. I was not in my place. I was whipped. When I was eighteen, I ran away to Toronto. It was too big a shock. I discovered that there was a world. That was when I decided to go travelling. I spent six months doing nothing but sitting in an apartment, watching TV. I tried marriage, too. Everything was a prison. I had to get away. In Buddhism we don’t believe in the reality of this world. On the farm in Saskatchewan, I drove the tractor every day. The skies went on forever. That was farming. Our house was sheltered in a yard of thorn trees, to keep out the cold winds. I went back there. The farm had been sold. It’s part of a larger farm now. The house had been abandoned. The newspapers that we insulated it with were still on the walls. My father’s belt that he whipped us with was still hanging on the back of the door. It was depressing. But it was home. The land that raises you stays a part of your karma. It’s woven through you. It’s one of the places you centre yourself in.”