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 live. 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 rain.
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
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 against nature.
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.
What drives people to test themselves? For more on "chosen isolation" read:
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.
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
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.
Romance of the North Today!
Begin your Robert S. Grant journey with this story brought to you by Virtual Horizons:
The First Bush Flight
The second feature story taken directly out of Robert's hot selling book is titled
Many Died in the North
"Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape"
by Barry Lopez.
The virtual horizon will take you back to Feature Stories.
Top of this page.
John S Goulet Editor
Please feel free to e-mail
with your comments.
Last modified on July 03rd, 1999.
© Virtual Horizons, 1996.