Step by step
MacDonald’s mindful musings mull precarious, precious nature of walking
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This small volume of poetry and prose by Winnipeg-raised, Waterloo-based writer/professor Tanis MacDonald bursts with ideas about moving through space on one’s own terms.
In 33 short pieces, 10 re-published here and originally appearing elsewhere, MacDonald wanders through wilderness (parks and managed forests, she confesses), cityscapes and time. She ponders the risks and dangers from nature and humankind, the pain and physical limitations that challenge her body, and the trauma she experiences as an assault survivor, soothed by walking. Alongside the discomfort, the collection offers beauty, awe, defiance and even humour.
But MacDonald’s central observation, what unites many of these compositions, is that for women, people of colour, disabled people, First Nations peoples and wildlife (what she terms our “non-human neighbours”), movement through space is precarious. There are stares, catcalls and stalking. She reminds us there can be worse, as for members of the Muslim Pakistani-Canadian Afzaal family, mowed down by a racist driver while on a stroll last June in London, Ont.
The similarity of the title’s “straggle” to “struggle” is likely no coincidence.
The word, as an idea, appears just once in the text as “straggler,” juxtaposed against the “speed-obsessed 21st century.” Implying more than just tardiness, it speaks of separation from the group. MacDonald’s experiences in these pieces are largely from the perspective of solitude and anonymity. While they are personal, they are frequently supported by references from a broad range of insightful, contemporary writers and artists, many from Canada. This is a feminist account. And a humane one.
It is also elegant. MacDonald tells us that prose and poetry are cousins, and that one informs the other. This refers to craft, but it is also delightful when her ideas are expressed in parallel through these related forms.
In the essay We, Megafauna, MacDonald notes that deer learn to manipulate a vanishing point when encountering humans in the woods. “[D]eer would coalesce to solidity from a mix of branches and leaves and a patch of sunlight, and then just as quickly melt out of view as though their molecules had seeped into the undergrowth,” she writes. This creaturely skill is evident in the short lyrical item The Deer in the Painting (in reference to a canvas by Winnipeg artist Clarence Tillenius), where a doe “slips like smoke between the trees, an appearing act… slight of hoof, sleight of hand.”
Similarly, MacDonald articulates the pain of sciatica in two essays and a poem: “the lit match of sciatica flaring down my thigh” (We, Megafauna); “the bark of my sciatica” (Ricochet: An Arcade); and “…The glass in/my right hip is sciatica/shattered like Attica” (This Limp Goes to Eleven). She muses, “…I know Long John Silver takes/no wasted steps.”
Winnipeggers will respond to local references. Who cannot smile at the vision of Jubilee Ave., “where the Bridge Drive-Inn still stands” or of a white snowy owl above Corydon and Waverley, “an optical illusion emerging from the light snow being driven by the wind across the wide street”?
Not all scenes are positive. There is a “serial masturbator” in the Assiniboine Forest. In the same woods, a woman successfully fights back and foils a male attacker. Readers may recall these incidents (still, the forest remains a joy). As another somber observation, MacDonald notes that the Assiniboine Park Zoo’s bison enclosure displays “animals who would be numerous on the very land that the zoo occupies if colonialism hadn’t destroyed most of the animals and the environment.”
MacDonald is mindful of being from a settler background and the effects of colonialism on First Nations peoples. She lives near Ose’kowáhne, “a grateful guest on traditional Haudenosaunee territory.” She says in her introduction, “Wherever I walk, I know it’s my responsibility to consider the history of colonization and not just be blinded by the beauty of the land.” Colonization arises in several of the pieces, where MacDonald considers blood and theft and alternative, more respectful, ways of negotiating the world.
This contemplative rendition on walking stands apart from what has come before it — books on fitness, pilgrimage, adventure. It is about walking the best one can in the circumstances. It is relatable and triumphant.
Gail Perry is a long-distance walker who strives to be present.