The Tree of Meaning

Looking Anew at the History of Language and Literature in Canada

The Tree of Meaning by Robert Bringhurst

the Polyhistorical Mind


Human beings have been migrating widely over North America at least since the last ice age. Some of these movements – like the migration of the Navajo and Apache south from teh Yukon to New Mexico and Arizona – can be dated fairly closely; others are harder to fix. But it is not hard to distinguish between these earlier Native American migrations and the colonization of North America by Europeans. The difference is cultural, not racial. It is the difference between, on the one hand, families of hunters learning their way through the landscape step by step, and on the other hand boatload after boatload of refugees uprooted from a sedentary life in one land, crossing the great ocean to another they know nothing whatever about.

The first kind of movement encourages learning, alertness, adaptation, and it generally allows the kind of time this adaptation requires. The second kind of movement is abrupt. It involves the imposition of remembered patterns, or idealize versions of remembered patterns, even where they will not fit. Often it involves the building of large-scale artificial realties. In one of Ghandl’s narrative poems, a man marries a goose. She is unhappy living with him on the earth, and he is unhappy with her in the sky, but neither tries to rearrange the other world. Europeans arriving in North America routinely attempted instead to remake the place in the altered image of home. The maps are still replete with names like Nouvelle France, New England, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, New York. That habitual refusal to accept the actual world continues to this day. It is responsible for Disneyworld, the West Edmonton Mall, and for the bridge that will soon reduce Prince Edward Island to one more faceless piece of the mainland.

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