“A Savage Beauty” an Ekphrastic Poem by Bev Gorbet

Path to bridge over Otonabee River on a foggy morning, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The strange merry-go- round will turn and turn;
Season to season in sacred passage,
Time’s gentle silences softly unwinding…

Marcescent Beech trees in a Kawartha forest during fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Days of a savage beauty:
The world’s innate beauty, 
The world’s inevitable pain…

Snowmelt along country road in Kawarthas on a foggy morning, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

We, both predator and prey:
Wild song, wild nature’s order…
Moments of perplexity and loss,
The many daunting questions: 
Unanswerable visions beyond the abyss.

Mallards feeding in Thompson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Too often the inaction, 
The inscrutable silences
In a time of fear…

Tree reflected in Thompson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The cruel histories: these misbegotten tales?
Where has love gone this solemn time?
Sacred memory and hope?

The Otonabee River during a snowstorm, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Generations have trod on unending journey
Neither question nor answer to guide
The lost ever lost, the perplexed ever perplexed…
Love is all, time’s vast unwinding.

Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Bev Gorbet is a Toronto poet. She has published several poems with the Retired Teachers Organization and most recently in “Literary Connection IV: Then and Now” (In Our Words Inc., 2019), edited by Cheryl Antao Xavier. 

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Gift of Purring Cat Meditation

Willow, goddess of Purring Cat Meditation (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Her name is Willow, and she helps me centre my being…

Willow is a diminutive 18-year old Russian blue cat, who I looked after for some friends in Mississauga. When I first met Willow, she responded with reticence–like all smart discerning cats. She appeared so delicate, I was scared to pick her up. I soon realized that this was a fallacy. That not only could I pick her up but that she loved to be held. I just needed to learn how.

As soon as I did, we became best friends. And it all came together with the Purring Cat Meditation.

“Time to feed me, Nina!” says Willow (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It starts out with her finding me “doing nothing terribly important” like typing on the computer, or something. A soft but decisive tap of the paw on my leg and I have to smile at her intense look up at me with those guileless emerald eyes. I abandon my work–how can I ignore such a plea?– and pick her up. After all, I know what she wants…And so starts our journey toward “nirvana”… the meditative state that will centre our beings and ultimately save the world.

I wander the house with her. We check out each room and make our silent observations. We end up in the bedroom upstairs, where she normally sleeps (except when she’s decided to join me on my bed to sit on me and purr in my face in the middle of the night).

Willow playfully teasing (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In her sanctuary, we drift to the window that faces the back yard, now cloaked in the fresh drifts of winter snow. The window is slightly open and a crisp breeze braces us with the deep scent of winter. I breathe in the fragrance of fallen leaves, mist and bark…

Willow settles into a feather-light pose in the crook of my arms and I hardly feel her. More like she and I have joined to become one. We are both purring …

We remain in Cat-Purr-Meditation for …

I have no idea. It feels like moments. Infinity. It encompasses and defines an entire world. We’ve just created something. Just by being.

“Time to pick me up, Nina!” says Willow (photo by Nina Munteanu

Cats–well, most animal companions–are incredibly centring and can teach us a lot about the art of simply being.

And meditating…

Whenever I run across a bout of writer’s block or need to stoke my muse, instead of trying harder, I stop and reach out for my cat-friend.

And practice Purring-Cat Meditation…

First snow on the Otonabee River, Peterborough, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Writing a Cat Christmas…

First snow in Kawarthas, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I move around a lot these days. It helps me to appreciate some of the most simple things in life and reminds me of what I love most about Christmas: how it focuses my heart and reconnects me. I don’t mean just with relatives and friends either, although the season certainly does that. I’m talking about my soul and the universe itself. Before I became an itinerant, Christmas bustled with my responsibilities as primary caregiver, social coordinator and hostess of major parties.

After I’d said goodbye to our visiting friends and done the dishes and tidied the house; after my husband and son had gone to bed, I sat in the dark living room lit only with the Christmas Tree lights and the flickering candle on my writing desk, and listened to soft Christmas music, primed to write…

My cat Sammy watching the world (photo by Nina Munteanu)

My male cat, smelling fresh from outside, found his rightful place on my lap and settled there, pinning me down with love. And there, as I breathed in the scent of wax and fir and cat I found myself again.

Christmas is, more than anything, a time of embracing paradox. It is an opportunity to still oneself amid the bustle; to find joy in duty; to give of one’s precious time when others have none, to embrace selflessness when surrounded by promoted selfishness, and to be genuine in a commercial and dishonest world. If one were to look beyond the rhetoric and imposed tradition, the Christmas season represents a time of focus, a time to reflect on one’s genuine nature and altruistic destiny. A time to reconnect with the harmony and balance in our lives.

First snow on path into the forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A time to sit with our cat, pinned with love, and write our next novel.

Merry Christmas!

Heavy snow day in Scots Pine forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nature’s Archetypes in Story: Part 1, The Herald

Pine-cedar forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The early fall breeze stirs with the pungent vanilla scent of pine as I walk the damp forest.

Giant white pines rise high above me like columns of a sacred cathedral. Their deep green canopies sway and creak in the breeze as they strain toward the heavens. Below, at my feet, a profusion of ferns and forest plants lie in the dappled light of the understory. My boots crunch and squelch on the spongy ground.

A sound stops me. I halt to listen.

It’s the song of a bird. The ethereal trill of a hermit thrush offers its tender ode to the forest. A pure song that opens from a singular note into successive waves of pure light.
The light of heaven.

Hermit thrush

The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) is a reclusive indistinct brown bird that lurks in the understories of northern forests; yet its echoing flute-trill celebrates the forest like no other sound. It is a prayer to beauty, stirring one’s heart into celebration. This aptly named bird is not often seen, though its flute-like song carries far into the forest. It is the unseen messenger. Some call her haunting song melancholy; others think it heavenly.

The song of the thrush fulfills the herald archetype of catalyst. They enhance whatever stirs you at the moment. If you are sad, they might stir you to tears. If you are feeling joy, they will stir you into ecstasy. If you are neutral—of little mind and emotion—their song will stir you to feel deeply alive.

When I was growing up as a child, I remember every spring looking forward to the sweet fluting song of the robin–another thrush. The robin was my herald of spring. It still is. I adore this bird for all it evokes of my glorious childhood, filled with the wonders of thrilling adventure.

Robin’s egg, left by mother far from the nest to deter predators, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Just fledged robin resting on a patio chair, Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Nature’s Archetypes

Psychology mavens suggest that the existence of archetypes can only be deduced indirectly through story, art, myths, or dreams. This is because an archetype is linked to a universal (subconscious) understanding that is often best expressed through metaphor, icon and symbol. Carl Jung understood archetypes as patterns and images that originate from and are shared within the collective unconscious (e.g., mother archetype or mentor archetype). Archetypes are the psychic counterpart of instinct

Old growth eastern hemlock, Catchacoma Forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Instinctive behaviour (behaviour in the absence of learning) expresses an innate inclination toward a complex behaviour or pattern. Newly hatched sea turtles automatically move on the beach toward the ocean; honeybees communicate by dancing in the direction of a food source without prior instruction; a marsupial, once born, climbs into its mother’s pouch. Imprinting is another instinctive behaviour. Shaking water off fur is an instinctive action. Other examples of instinct include animal fighting, animal courtship behaviour, internal escape functions, and building nests.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments cause either forgiveness or revenge to prevail. McCollough relates his theory to game theory. In a tit-for-tat strategy, cooperation and retaliation are comparable to forgiveness and revenge. The choice between the two can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on what the game partner (or organism) chooses. The brain’s limbic system processes external stimuli related to emotions, social activity, and motivation; these then propagate an instinctual behavioural response. Examples include maternal care, aggression, defense, and social hierarchy; these behaviours are influenced by sensory input, such as sight, sound, touch, and smell.2

Old growth eastern hemlock forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The world of fairy tales and myth (which most stories use in some form) is peopled with recurring character types and relationships. Heroes on a quest, heralds and wise old men or women who provide them with “gifts”, shady fellow-travelers—threshold guardians—who may “block” the path, tricksters who confuse and complicate things and evil villains who simply want to destroy our hero. Jung adopted the term archetypes, which means ancient patterns of personality shared by humanity, to describe these as a collective unconscious. This is what makes these archetypes, or symbols, so important to the storyteller. Assigning an archetype to a character allows the writer to clarify that character’s role in the story as well as to determine the overall theme of the story itself. Archetypes are therefore an important tool in the universal language of storytelling, just as myth serves the overall purpose of supplying “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” (Joseph Campbell).1

Given their relationship to the “story” of a whole system, Nature’s ecosystem components may correspond loosely to archetype in story. We already use some of these in classic stereotyping, based on habits and general qualities we’ve (often erroneously and ignorantly) assigned to representative species. For instance, pigs are associated with slovenly behaviour, sharks with sociopathic predation, horses with unquestioning service, foxes with clever and crafty manipulation, and sheep with gullibility. George Orwell used animal stereotypes to create archetypal characters in his allegorical satire, Animal Farm.2 

Scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell drew on Jung’s archetypes to provide seven main archetypes in the mythic hero’s journey. These include: hero, herald, threshold guardian, mentor, shape-shifter, trickster, and shadow. The journey acknowledges archetypes in story and embedded within each archetype is a role in moving the story toward its inevitable conclusion. In this way we see how important world and place are. They too can serve as archetypes in story, particularly if personified.2 The most powerful of these are always drawn from Nature.

Nature’s archetypes in story express metaphorically and literally through functions and niches. An example is the strong solitary oak versus a young social stand of beech. The oak honestly comes by its iconic symbol of solitary strength, resistance, and knowledge.

Oak wood is very dense (about 0.75 g/cm3), providing great strength and hardness. Its wood resists insect and fungal attack because of its high tannin content. Its bark is strong and coarse, easily withstanding outer wounds, such as lightning strikes. “Whereas beeches last barely more than two hundred years outside the cozy atmosphere of their native forests, oaks growing near old farmyards or out in pastures easily live for more than five hundred,” writes forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. “Even severely damaged [oak] trees with major branches broken off can grow replacement crowns and live for a few hundred years longer … a storm-battered beech is able to hang on for no more than a couple of decades.” 

Alan Bates plays stalwart Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”

Metaphoric “roles” may provide an allegorical association with a major character in something as simple as a name: the solitary strong-minded shepherd Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Gabriel Oak not only embodies the metaphoric characteristics of an oak; he is also, like the oak, strongly connected to the land. The metaphor may carry through into a character’s very nature and journey: in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Dellarobia Turnbow reflects the title on several layers, from her own “flight” to her discovery and connection with the flight of the monarch related to climate change.2 

Monarch butterfly (photo by Merridy Cox)

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense … The mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave. Like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again … Trees turned to fire … The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in shows of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds … It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone … She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees. Fascination curled itself around her fright. This was no forest fire. She was pressed by the quiet elation of escape and knowing better and seeing straight through to the back of herself, in solitude. She couldn’t remember when she’d had such room for being … Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became brightness rising.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Eastern hemlock forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Herald as Catalyst

The herald brings in a new force, usually in Act One of the story. This force is usually a challenge for change. Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not (and usually s/he doesn’t).

In Act One, we usually find the hero struggling, getting by in her Ordinary World; yearning, like Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, for “more”. Often not even realizing it. The herald is a new energy, a catalyst that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. The herald tips the scales, so to speak. This could be in the form of a person, an event, a condition or just information that shifts the hero’s balance and changes her world, as a result. It is a turning point, obvious or subtle. Nothing will ever be the same. The herald delivers the call to adventure. In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi, who also serves as Luke Skywalker’s mentor, issues the call when he invites Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan. The herald also provides the hero with motivation. In Romancing the Stone, the herald for Joan Wilder comes in the form of a treasure map in the mail, and a distressed phone call from her sister.1

Nature’s heralds can be as subtle or as wild and brash as Nature herself; this will depend on the plot and theme of the story. How the writer weaves in the natural elements in storytelling depends on the type of story and the role Nature plays. Nature’s heralds may brood and simmer in dramatic irony like Egdon Heath and its microclimates in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native or the giant Douglas firs in Richard Power’s The Overstory. Or they may descend in a bluster of violence as in Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood or in startling beauty like the sea of monarch butterflies in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

The opening of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins combines subtle to obvious images of an ‘unwelcoming’ wilderness—as dark behemoth—to foreshadow (herald) the forest’s eventual destruction by settlers intent on conquering Nature. The forest is a potent character.

Within the first ten pages we gain a rich and potent collage of first impressions by the settlers of “the moody darkness” of the New France forest, previously only seen by the “sauvages.” The barkskins “tramped up the muddy path toward a line of black mist … In a few hours the sodden leaf mold gave way to pine duff. Fallen needles muted their passage, the interlaced branches absorbed their panting breaths … evergreens larger than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage …They walked on through the dim woods, climbing over mossy humps, passing under branches drooping like funeral swags,” hearing pines hissing in the wind,” and crossing “snarling water,” and “swarms of mosquitoes in such millions that their shrill keening was the sound of the woods.” These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.”2  

Rachel Carson and her iconic book Silent Spring

In Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, a herald for main character Ye Wenji was not so much Nature as a book on Nature: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Ye Wenjie is already cynical about human behaviour from the violence and destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, it is a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and its revelations that set in motion the pivotal shift in her life trajectory: 

More than four decades later, in her last moments, Ye Wenjie would recall the influence Silent Spring had on her life. The book dealt only with a limited subject: the negative environmental effects of excessive pesticide use. But the perspective taken by the author shook Ye to the core. The use of pesticides had seemed to Ye just a normal, proper—or, at least, neutral—act, but Carson’s book allowed Ye to see that, from Nature’s perspective, their use was indistinguishable from the Cultural Revolution, and equally destructive to our world. If this was so, then how many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil? 

As she continued to mull over these thoughts, a deduction made her shudder: Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean … It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. 

This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Apex Issue #128 and 2021 anthology

A profoundly terrifying herald from nature in my short story Robin’s Last Song occurred when the birds suddenly began falling from the sky.

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology:

May, 2071

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

Robin’s Last Song by Nina Munteanu

Resources:

  1. Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 266pp.
  2. Munteanu, Nina. 2019. The Ecology of Story: World as Character Pixl Press, Vancouver, B.C. 200pp.

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Integrate Place in Fiction To Deepen Meaning

This past August, I participated in the When Words Collide Online 2022 Writing Festival.  one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

My presentation on the role of place in story kicked off the festival.

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’d observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme.

The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

Nina Munteanu

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and was also featured in the WWC recorded panel called “What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?” The presentation overviewed topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the white pine forests and the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both are exploited by the white settlers, with intentions to subdue and controll:

The Gatineau forest was noisy, echoing with ax blows and the rushing crackle of falling timber, with shouted warnings and orders. The axmen cut the great pines, but only a few in each plot were suitable for squaring. The rest were left to rot on the ground … unwanted trees lay prostrate, severed branches everywhere, heaps of bark and mountains of chips … There were so many trees, what did it matter? Maine men were used to waste—it was usual—but this was beyond anything even they had seen. 

In the Penobscot settlement, the trees fell, tracks inched through the forests, only one or two then seven, then webs of trails that over the decades widened into roads. The roads were muddy, sometimes like batter, sometimes thick and clutching until late summer; when they metamorphosed into choking dust so fine it hung in the air long after a horse and carriage passed, settling on the grass as the English people settled on the land … Fields of wheat and hay took the land, these fields enclosed by linked stumps, the root wads of the forest that had once stood there turned on their edges to bar the white man’s cows and sheep. 

I concluded the presentation with a writing exercise asking participants to write about the psychology of a place and how they related to it.

Writers attending the presentation / workshop eagerly participated and produced some evocative narrative that contained good metaphor and sensual writing. Here are a few:

Freyja on their high school gym: “I remember rallies and lectures and sweating, running in circles for an hour and a half. The gym stayed the same but the population of people got smaller and smaller over the years. One year a kid hit his head on the wall and went into a coma. Longest seven seconds in my life.”

Roma: “As soon as I get a whiff of old pages in a book, I am reminded of Uncle Leo. The coffee coloured leather jacket he always wore had seen better days and like him, still retained most of its luster. He was the youngest of my dad’s nine siblings, born during a storm and considered a tempestuous child. Our family just didn’t understand his passion.”

Angela: “I stood on the bridge in Moscow. My mother was talking with a friend. She couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be posted here. I looked down at the river. And at the bridge. It would be so easy to just jump over the fence and land in the water. It was a sunny day. The heat was oppressive. I wanted to do it. But I stood still.”

Kylie: “The stuffy air was full of the smell of bodies and heat. The din of laughing and talking, and yelling surrounded me.”

To find out more on how place can add depth and meaning to your writing, see my third writing guide, The Ecology of Story: Place as Character.

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts: Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor; Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several exercises and detailed case studies.

Boat dock at sunset, Ladner Slough of Fraser River, BC (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Verge–When the Water Sprites Dance…

Jackson Creek just before sunset, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)



It was early evening in late summer, when the sunlight was gentle and rich with the promise of golden light. I was walking in one of my favourite forests—the pine-cedar woodland that smelled of needles, bark and loam. This was Jackson Creek forest. Where some time ago I’d glimpsed a blue forest sprite

The water in the creek was low, in places exposing its bones—boulders and cobbles that emerged out of the stream into the dry light. I walked along the creek bank, beside tranquil glades and chortling riffles. The creek trickled with the most delicious sounds, like chatty water sprites having tea, watercress sandwiches and fresh scones with jam …

Sunlit water cascades over rocks of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I set up my camera on the rocks to capture the silky green and gold reflections of the overhanging trees in the water. Oak, beech, and ironwood along with shrubs and grasses crowded the banks of the creek in a parade of leaves and flowers. Long arms of the cedar tree bent low over the creek as if reaching out to touch water’s skin.

Cedar tree overhangs Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In the gladed pools, the water swirled as if in slow motion in a fluid mosaic that mirrored the riparian forest. Each tree gave the water its unique shade in a diurnal dance that heralded the coming dusk and nightfall.

I walked the ythlaf, that remnant stretch of half-dried river bed, revealed by ebbing water. A place in-between land and water. I teetered on rocks and cobbles covered in dried periphyton, and angled the camera for long exposures up to f32. I crouched, squatted, crawled and kneeled on the cobbles, boulders and snags to position the camera just right. At times I danced to keep from falling in knee-deep water and laughed with thoughts of how the sprites were watching from below and taking bets on my possible spill into the water. I imagined their chortling giggles of anticipation.  

Water cascading over rocks in Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Then, with the patience of a heron, I captured the various faces of the creek during its golden hours. The water’s silken threads sparkled in the raking sunlight and hugged the rocks in swirling clouds.

Water swirls around rocks of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We were nearing that in-between time, when all nature hushes for a life-breath as time descends for the briefest moment into a deep stillness. We lurked like thieves in that intermediate place of becoming, a diurnal ecotone poised on the threshold between night and day. The gloaming verge of a forest where dark and light danced with uncertain intent.

Glade of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Immersed in the cheerful melody of the creek, I imagined the water sprites again, playing in the watercress forest, among the spinners, caddises and stonefly nymphs. I imagined them, plump gilled water-babies or slender creatures with winking faces, diaphanous wings sparkling in the slanting sunlight as they stirred up algae and organic detritus.

Were they dancing?

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Paper Hound Bookstore—A Peculiar Stop in a Peculiar Journey

Rod and Kim, owners of The Paper Hound Bookshop, Vancouver

It was a warmish sunny Friday in the deep of summer and I was in Vancouver for the first time in three years since COVID-19 stopped me from travelling.

I found myself wandering Gastown, retracing the steps of the indomitable character in my upcoming thriller Thalweg.

My wanderings took me along Water Street, past the Steam Clock, south on Cambie, then east on Blood Alley where my character has a sketchy scene with two enforcers involving Gaoler’s Mews, a solid red brick wall, a scurrying rat, and a 9 mm Glock…

Gastown steam clock about to steam out 6 pm, Vancouver, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

But I was in the general area for another reason: to meet my son and his lady for a wonderful meal in the exquisite Italian restaurant Autostrada Osteria; a Christmas present he’d owed me since COVID hit. Located on the corner of Homer and Pender streets, Autostrada Osteria nestles comfortably in an eclectic mix of old and slightly dilapidated next to trendy and posh chic. Something Vancouver seems to do well.

The Paper Hound Bookshop on Pender Street, Vancouver

I was a little early for our reservation at 7:15 pm, so I wandered down the street. Immediately east of the restaurant was a character bookstore selling new and used books, The Paper Hound Bookshop. It’s located in the Victoria Block, a 1908 addition to the old boutique Victorian Hotel.

Always curious about books and wishing to kill some time, I wandered in, blissfully unaware that I was entering another dimension…

I nodded to the young woman at the front desk who exuded friendly intelligence through kind but impish eyes. I ventured deeper, perusing the shelves, high and low. I noted that the books were arranged with lots of front covers on display in tiny category-labeled alcoves that literally covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Several sliding ladders were judiciously placed to provide reach. The categories were odd, bizarre, somewhat arcane, and peculiarly amusing. There was one that proclaimed “Rodent as Hero.” Another read “Indomitable Orphans,” (populated with several Harry Potter books, of course, as well as other lesser known orphans).

Whoever had created these categories—was it the woman at the front?—was either strange or had purposefully flouted the norm to draw attention to a more whimsical, curious way of seeing the world and the books that described it. No mundane alphabetizing within broad normative categories for these people!

Inside the Paper Hound Bookshop, Vancouver (image by On the Grid)

As I wandered the labyrinthine rows of books, the place felt like a roadmap to another world. The narratives from the categories alone were worth studying from “Hot Adventure”, “Cold Adventure,” and “Wet Adventure” to “Books with Bears,” “Detection / Deduction,” and “Wanderlust.” Each category was a ‘book’ and each book ‘a chapter’ of a larger funky narrative that depicted one person’s intriguing interpretation of the world.

Keagan Perlette of Sad Mag describes the store this way: “The Paper Hound stocks both used and new books and features an impressive collection of poetry and philosophy. Space is limited, so there is an evident focus on literature, but there are surprises hidden in the shelves: an excellent selection of beautiful children’s books, art books, drawers full of zines and chapbooks, and even a section for unique vintage cookbooks. The store is full of little wonders.”

There is even a funky machine that dispenses poetry like cigarettes for two quarters at the front of the store. Even on its surface books were stacked. The owners had stacked books literally everywhere. On chairs, on tables, on each other. Little books on larger books, balanced wonderfully in a kind of fanciful ordered chaos.

Poetry dispenser at The Paper Hound (image by Keagan Perlette)

The Paper Hound website accurately describes the bookstore as “a new, used and rare book store” that doesn’t specialize “in one particular kind of book, but we favour the classic, curious, odd, beautiful, visually arresting, scholarly, bizarre, and whimsical.” In addition to their collection of used books, the Paper Hound carries titles from local small publishers Anvil Press, Arsenal Pulp Press, Talon Books and New Star Books.

Owners Kim Koch and Rod Clarke are veterans of the bookstore world in Vancouver, having worked at several before opening Paper Hound. They set up The Paper Hound in the old boutique hotel in 2013 on what my book collector friend calls ‘book row.’ Located on Pender Street, between Richards and Hamilton, ‘book row’ is apparently expanding according to On the Grid.  According to the Vancouver Sun: “in this digital age many people think bookstores are on the verge of extinction. People are buying fewer paper books, and websites like Amazon offer almost anything ever printed, often for cheap.” While the Internet and digital devices appear to be ravaging large chain bookstores (some like Borders closed and others like Indigo have added household goods to bring people into the store), small niche independent bookstores are flourishing.

“Setting up a bookstore in the post-online and big book retailer age is sort of liberating,” says Kim. “We know we can’t carry everything or nearly as many titles as they do, so that liberates us to instead focus on creating the experience we want the customer to have.” Kim describes the perfect bookstore as: “a place that offers people a space where they can explore, get guidance from the proprietors and, when they want to, be left alone amongst the shelves to daydream.”

That’s exactly what I did.

When I left the store at shortly after 7pm, Kim pulled in the book trolley from outside in preparation to close and I apologized if I’d held her up a few minutes. She then informed me that they usually close at six but she had kept the store open for goodness knows why. I smiled and said rather cheekily with sudden inspiration, “I know; because I needed to experience it.” She laughed and those impish eyes twinkled.

And before you ask, yes, I did walk away with something: “Water Babies” by Charles Kingsley, a moral fable that explores the closed-minded approaches of many scientists of the day in their response to Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution.

1935 edition of Ward, Lock & Co. publication of “Water Babies” by Charles Kingsley (originally published in 1863 by London Macmillan and Company) with illustrations by Harry G. Theaker

After he is chased from the home of an upper-class young girl, chimney-sweep Tom falls asleep and tumbles into a river. There he is transformed into a ‘water-baby’ and his adventures truly begin. Beneath the surface, he enters a magical world full of strange and wonderful creatures, where he must prove his moral worth in order to earn what he truly desires.

Macmillan describes The Water Babies this way:

“One of the most unusual children’s books ever written, The Water-Babies, subtitled ‘A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby’, was originally intended as a satire in support of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and explores the issues at the forefront of biologists’ minds at the time. First published as a complete novel in 1863 [originally illustrated by Linley Sambourne], Charles Kingsley’s classic tale also explores ideas about religion, the Victorian education system and the working conditions of children and the poor.”

The vintage version I picked up at The Paper Hound was illustrated by Harry G. Theaker and published in 1935 by Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd. with 24 colour plates.

For a great taste of Kim and Rod’s unique vision of the world of literature and their pithy humour and wit, go to their blog The Paper Hound. Here’s a taste:

Vancouver street lined with plane trees (photo by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu’s “Water Is…” Discussed in Book Club

This month of September (September 8 and 22 at 2 pm) the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough Non-Fiction Book Club will discuss my book “Water Is…”

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

‘The Moment’ by Margaret Atwood

Great blue heron in Thompson Creek outlet marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Old cedars and roots by Jackson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.