By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
Some books have a narrow focus and this would be one. Its appeal is largely to people who presently live in, or have at least experienced, the magical landscape of the West Kootenays in the southeast corner of British Columbia.
Pearkes’s descriptions of the pre-European landscape are vivid, often poetic. She paints a picture of unspoiled forests, before mine sites had been established, and of untamed waters, yet to succumb to the constrictive work of dams. With equal vividness, and much love, she tells the tales of the people who first lived here, the Sinixt or Lakes people, focusing particularly on the lives of aboriginal women. She describes their way of life, their deep dependence on the land, and insists throughout the book how all of us, even 21st century white people, are inextricably tied to the landscape we live in.
Especially poignant to me are her recollections of walking over exposed river beds along the Arrow Lakes where the Sinixt had once flourished, and learning how, buried beneath the dark silt, arrowheads can still be found, but also to be reminded that this landscape can be walked upon only for a short time each year, bowing finally to the demands of dowstream dams. Or another time, her imagining the Pacific Salmon—the very lifeblood of the Sinixt people for centuries—jumping over the turbulent waters at Kettle Falls, on their way to their prehistoric spawning beds, except that now they no longer can. In place of the Falls there is now a mighty dam. And how the memory of catching leaping salmon has become no more than a fleeting memory for many of the Sinixt.
Pearkes does us a great service by “recovering” the stories of a people almost forgotten. After reading “The Geography of Memory,” it is as if the valleys I have walked in and mountains I have peered up at, for decades, have taken on an added dimension. Now I can “see” the people who lived here, who trod lightly, but significantly. Both they and I have scrambled across scree to look at the shaggy mountain goat, both collected the same huckleberries (‘sweet’ berries), have dived into the same water on a summer’s day thinking, ‘my God, that’s cold!’ each of us shaped, to different degrees, by the magical landscape surrounding us.
Pearkes’s book has helped connect me to a landscape and past I knew but dimly, and that is a great gift. Such a feat lifts the work beyond the narrow into something quite big.