Darlene Quaife

Wildnis

 

Wildnis

WILDNIS: A Novel

 

 

Description

 

Imagine travelling from Europe to the Canadian wilderness in 1926 to marry a man you've never met. Imagine carving out a life beyond civilization in the northern forest and lake country of British Columbia. Imagine the privation  that can drive you away or drive you mad. Imagine loving the adventure in this young, wild land, only to be told after twenty years that you're going to be flooded out by your government.

 

 

Isa Luise Essler is a German writer and intellectual. She immigrated to Canada to marry the trapper and prospector, Wil See. It is now 1946, the Second World War is over and "progress" is king. Because of this post-war mindset Isa Luise and Wil are fighting the fight of their lives. While trying to keep the Nechako Dam Project from flooding their valley, Isa Luise is also corresponding with the incarcerated American poet, Ezra Pound.

 

WILDNIS is about strength, survival and civil disobedience: the strength of character to abandon all you know for the unknown; the ability to survive isolation and hardship; and the vision to fight for your rights.

 

This novel was inspired by the life of Else Lücke-Seel (1894-1973).

 

 

Protagonist

There must have been a shiver of anticipation at the birth of Elsie Ida Minna Isa Luise Felda Essler. Her six given names anticipated her six lives: fatherless child, breadwinner, German writer and intellectual, wilderness wife and mother, pen pal to Ezra Pound, and widowed  author. What could a German immigrant living in the wilds of British Columbia possibly have to say to the American poet Ezra Pound, convicted of treason and locked-up in St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane?

 

Isa Luise Essler-See has chosen a life that fascinates and repels Ezra Loomis Pound. He can’t get enough of her letters. He considers her contribution to the institutionalized Ezra Pound or as he meaningfully jokes the institution of Ezra Pound as penurious. The woman must be crazy not to take full advantage of his mentorship. The Pound prodigies pace out the boundaries of contemporary modern literature. He finds it remarkable that he does not upbraid her the way he does his numerous other correspondents. But then he knows she would cut him dead – proud, independent, intelligent – she will not be led. And he stands to lose one of his best guides to German culture.


At home, outside of the town of Satoo Lake, B.C., Isa Luise Essler-See is just plain Lu to family and friends. At age 28 she had answered an ad in a Berlin newspaper placed by one Wilfred See, a Canadian trapper and prospector originally from Austria. After a brief correspondence, Fräulein Essler sailed for Canada, took a train across this vast country, met Wilfred See in Vancouver, had dinner, got married, and trekked to northern B.C. with her fine linen and china. At the Satoo Lake homestead, Wilfred See carried her over the threshold of a one-room log cabin, said auf Wiedersehen the next week and went out on his trapline for three months. That fall of 1926 she reread Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, learned to light a fire, haul water, make bread and fall in love with the wilderness.

Isolation and hardship taught her to see the world. And she wrote. Her stories, poetry and articles were widely read in Germany. She kept a journal. And, of course, she penned letters.


The novel, WILDNIS, explores an exceptional mind in isolation. A mind that is outside of society writing into a culture, a world that its owner considers tainted by two world wars.

 

 

WILDNIS: Excerpt

 

Words and Soil
(Blut und Scholle)

  May 18, 1946, Satoo Lake, B.C.

Hot, unseasonably hot, I have changed from Wil’s castoff trousers and shirt to a cotton housedress that flaps above my work boots. I am in the garden: freshly plowed, layers of squawfish worked into the soil, reeking like the fish markets of old Viborg where I once lived. A thousand summers ago when my Danish poet was wild for me.


The hoe opens a space for seeds. Each time the blade slices into the silvered soil, it is as if I have just gutted a fish – the squawfish no one eats because of its thousand tiny barb-like bones. The squawfish is a fish-eater, a hunter of fish, yet it is called, ‘squaw.’ That offensive name for ‘wife.’ To be inedible is to offend. Sometimes I cannot forgive language for its ability to conspire.


And what of the conspiracies of the men of government? This dam business never leaves my thoughts. I imagine what it all might mean. I see the earth beneath my feet washed away. The squawfish that I netted from the creek as they swam upstream to spawn, the squawfish that I then buried in soil, in graves so foreign that surely their ghosts will rise with the flood waters and mock me.


I throw down the hoe, walk away to the creek at the edge of our homestead clearing. I bend over the clear cold water on its way to the lake and splash handful after handful onto my burning face, drawing my icy wet hands down over my neck, inside my dress to my breasts. Kicking off my boots, I wade in up to my knees, off balance on the slimy rocks. I remain in the water until my feet are numb, the colour of dead fish. The flesh on my bare arms and legs rises in Gänsehaut.


I leap onto a large boulder that raises its head above the flow. The sun has dried a round spot on this dome like Thor’s pate inflamed by the forge. Standing, eyes closed, I am once again in the thunder god’s domain - smelling the sulphur as it rises off the Gimle hot pool; listening to my poet tell a tale of how the brimstone imbued waters of his native land rise to our pool from the mighty Thor’s river, where he tempers the tools of his thunderous trade. When I accuse him of exercising poetic licence with the Norse god, my Danish lover reminds me that sulphur is the smell that predicts an imminent lightning strike. And why wouldn’t it.


Leaping again to the grassy bank, I gather up my boots. The native grass is soft under my feet; I resist returning them to the servitude of leather. I hold the boots, mired in mud, and suddenly know I toil for nothing.


I shiver as I tie the laces together tight, resolving to write the government. I must do something. What else do I have but words? Even those with words and influence can be brought low by conspiracy.


I sit on the creek bank hugging my knees as if for warms, despite the scorch of sun on my head and arms. I stare into the rushing water: the sound that normally soothes is a babble of voices in a courtroom. Ezra Loomis Pound on trial for treason. They say he conspired with the enemy by living on enemy soil, by speaking over enemy airwaves. He tells them their war was not his war. The voices demand to know if he is an American. He holds up his birth certificate, reminds them they have confiscated his passport. He tells the judge, “Every man has the right to have his ideas examined one at a time.” A lone voice in the wilderness.


I go back to the garden, my stinking Garden of Eden. Barefoot in the dark silvery soil, I work the drills. Each stroke of the hoe a word, each row I complete is the straight line of a sentence:


Dear Minister of Dams. We are here. This is not uninhabited wilderness. You must come here, see us, talk to us. We have made homes, have lives, our children born in this valley, our dead buried in the soil. There should be no more destroying of homes. Enough is enough. Half a century . . . peace now . . . some things are sacred . . . people’s homes . . . lives . . .


The hoe blade comes down hard one, two, three: Very respectfully yours; one, two, three: Very truly yours; one, two: Sincerely yours. I am none of these. I am one, two: Truly terrified; one, two: Sincerely angry; one . . .


I am still for a moment, trying to fathom what I have done. I stare with fascination at the blood running down my leg and into the soil. Blood, pain . . . I lean into the hoe to keep myself upright. Then I retch into the last furrow meant for seed.


Using the hoe for stability, I make my way to the creek. The frigid water stings the slice in my shin as I struggle to maintain my balance. This new pain alerts me to the stain spreading downstream.


Eventually the cold stops the bleeding and dulls the pain. I think about the dirt on the blade of the hoe, shining black with rot. Despite the chills racking my body, I stay in the creek to cleanse the wound.


Numbed, barely able to walk I make it back to the house before my circulation revives and the cut begins to bleed in earnest. From the tin box under the kitchen counter I take Watkins ointment and a long strip of cotton bandage. Suave clotting the ragged edges of opened flesh, I bind the wound tightly to stem the bleeding. I think, perhaps, I should have probed to see how deep it went, but I don’t have the stomach for it.


I fall into the rocker beside a cold stove. Pulling a shawl from the back of the chair, I wrap it around my shoulders and arms. I was happy to see Lottie go off this morning to Hazelton. Pleased to have a few days to myself. Now I feel entirely too alone. My shin throbs. I must lie down and raise the leg to curb the bleeding.

 

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