View From Above: Book review of
Bush Flying: The Romance of the North
Travelling brings out the best in writers and photographers and Robert S.
Grant is no exception. In his book, Bush Flying:
The Romance of the North we
find the clarity and vision of a seasoned traveller. New experiences
sharpen our senses, and increase our awareness of how other people
Whenever I travel, for instance, I
attempt to document scenes that give viewers a feel for the
"spirit" of the country and its people: old ladies gossiping in
the markets, children swimming on a hot summer day, or farmers plowing their
fields. After being a pilot for over 20 years, however, I can never really
feel I know a country or its people until I can get up into the skies in a
small aircraft and witness the "lay of the land." In his book
Grant does just that, documenting the connections between man and the land
he occupies, and does it well.
Seen from the air, the lay of the
land can mean more than the make-up of geographical features. It can also
mean the mystic feelings evoked by seeing the familiar (trees, houses,
rivers, fields) turned into abstract patterns of colour and form. Simple
patterns, like serpentine coral reefs winding throughout endless blue
waters, circular paradise islands haloed by soft white sand, undulations of
moraine deposits along the lip of a mountain glacier, or waves of wild
flowers following waves of wind blown sand on the edge of a desert after the
A continuation of that
exploration is the attempt to discover the connections and interactions
between geography and man. When we observe the abstract colors and forms
more carefully, they begin to clarify into recognizable scenes: a native
Inuit settlement nestled alongside a sheltered arctic ocean bay, an Indian
trapper's log cabin stacked up in the midst of a spruce forest, or a
towering mine shaft jutting out from the bleak moonscape called the
Precambrian shield. From above, we see that man does not often dominate the
land, but rather adapts his environment to fit the terrain. Only in manmade
cities does it appear that man dominates. But, even here the bridges cross
the rivers, the freeways follow the easy low-lying passages, and the
majestic domineering mansions are built on hilltops over-looking the
sprawling urban dwellers below.
In other words, man molds his
environment to fit the geography. Moreover, I believe, the geography of
place shapes the spirit and character of the people who live there. In
Canada as second nation people we have always built our living sanctuaries
as fortresses in the wilds. Other than the explorers who came seeking
something greater and acted as mere observers in a strange land, the
settlers of the west often started their new life from within the walls of
the protective forts. After exploration came forts: Fort William, Fort
Frances, Fort Rouge, Fort Prince of Wales, Fort Qu Appelle, Fort
Saskatchewan, Fort McMurray, Fort Simpson, Fort Norman, Fort Good Hope. As
protection against the dangerous and untamable wilderness, we built our
forts. Unlike the Americans, however, we had no frontiers and no boundaries
between laws and lawless. We had outlaws, but they could never escape
outside the law. The Mounties always got their man.
The walls then, did not define
the limit of man's laws, but rather represented the boundary between the
known and the unknowable, the workable soil and the untouched mythical and
wild forest. The lakes, the rivers, the granite shield, the grand forests,
collectively know in Canada as the "bush," these were the areas
beyond the reach of Canadian civility. The bush instead was the area of our
collective mythology and imagination. The land of the wolf, of the bear, and
of the hairy wild man. The mythology we, as the cultural mosaic of the
world, brought with us from where we originated.
Ignorant of the myths of the
first nations, we set these myths upon the new land and struck out from the
shelter of our forts; the forts being the comfort of this common myth.
Common because, despite our cultural differences, English or French, Polish
or Ukrainian, we all shared the common mythology of the dangerous, wild, and
life threatening wilderness.
That myth is embodied in the bush
pilot. The bush pilot is the rugged individual, who strikes out each day
from the protection of civilization to face the wilderness alone. He is the
epitome of man in harmony with the machine battling the elements; man
In the first excerpt out of
Robert Grant's book that I have titled The First
Flight, we feel the terrible isolation of a new pilot trying to
break into the cult of the "bush pilot's" world. The world of one
man, one machine, against all nature. The world where the pilot is alone and
left to his own resources. Only begrudgingly and with a snicker do the
seasoned veterans offer the slightest semblance of help.
The bush pilot philosophy is
simply that if the newcomer cannot make it on his own, he will not make it
at all. It is only through sheer determination, skill, and a lot of luck,
that the new pilot will survive in the bleak and hostile northern landscape
that spreads out below his aircraft. With survival, however, comes freedom.
Out of the forts and into the skies, the bush pilot was the first to
experience the joy and freedom of being able to pass the world over as an
unfettered and omnipresent observer of the landscape and the world below.
and Review by John S Goulet
In the second
story, which I titled Many Died in the North,
Robert Grant again faces the prospects of pitting man and machine against
the unforgiving landscape. As he attempts to fulfill his contract to service
geologists camped on the isolated Ellsemere Island, the bush pilot struggles
alone against the unrelenting weather and geography of place. The place
being, of course, the high arctic: an odyssey of mountains, sea, and ice.
But, even here the brute force of the landscape shows its gentler side if
only for a few moments, and the writer finds beauty and tranquillity within
the dangerous elements of the Arctic's nature.
At one point, after a treacherous
take-off and "safely in the air," Grant spots a large dark
musk-ox. The animal paws the ground in a threatening gesture, but the writer
in Grant feels empathy with the loner. "Probably ostracized from his
kind I felt sorry for him." After reading his thoughtful and soul
rendering book, we cannot help feeling the same sorrow for Grant as he
traces his search for meaning and fulfillment through his life as a bush
pilot. Breaking away from the myth of the rugged individual, Grant reveals
himself to be the imperfect individualist, and consequently a more humane
and sympathetic character.
We can be thankful, however, that
as a writer, Grant shares the philosophy of fellow arctic traveller, Barry
Lopez who said in his book, Arctic Dreams:
"I thought about the great desire among friends and colleagues and
travellers who meet on the road, to share what they know, what they have
seen and imagined. Not to have a shared understanding, but to share what one
has come to understand."
In this regard, Virtual Horizons
hopes to share with you what our friends and fellow travellers have
discovered in their struggle to understand the landscapes of the
imagination. As landscape signifies a unit of human occupation, it also
signifies a unit of human memory. Flying low over the desolate and seemingly
uninhabitable landscape, Grant spots "an ancient Eskimo tent
ring." He lands to find "a pile of yellowish ivory shavings"
and a "bone-arrow shaft" left behind by an Eskimo hunter. In this
nowhere, Grant has found somewhere. From past to present, whether of glory
or terror, the landscape becomes the telling. Here, in Virtual
Horizons, the landscape of the bush pilot tells the story.
Review by John S Goulet
Begin your Robert S. Grant journey with this timeless story of bush flying:
The First Bush Flight
The second feature story taken directly out of Robert's book
is titled here:
Many Died in the North
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Last modified on April
© Virtual Horizons, 1996.