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Teaching Places

Interview with Audrey Whitson

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Why did you write this book, Teaching Places?

The journey came first: in dreams of nature, then the body following the feet, then the writing. I camped out in nature. I was at a crisis point in my life. I had just moved back to Edmonton after a long circle of work and study away from home. I was still grieving the loss of my father. Especially I was grieving my loss of relationship with the church, questioning my faith.

I start out in this book in silence, without voice, my story in some places fragmented, elusive. I come to voice, but it is only after struggle and confrontation, search and journey. It is only after stumbling that I re-discover my voice. Stuttering, halting, the story in fragments, elliptical and round about ways - the prose had to reflect that. That is the process of finding voice. It is often twisting, turning, out of the way. Levels don’t connect - breath, the spirit that holds voice together, is short, lacking.

What are the “Teaching Places?”

I journalled at every site I visited. About the third site into my pilgrimage, I knew that this wasn’t just my own journey, but something to share with others, something to pass on. But the idea for a book didn’t really take shape until after the second year of pilgrimage.

The “teaching places” are ecological reserves and natural areas in Alberta. In some cases, they are places still sacred to Aboriginal people of the area. Others represent threatened/quickly disappearing habitats or pristine wilderness areas.

At one point in the book I want to say to a geologist I am visiting, the rocks talk to you, if you listen. They do! At some level, all of creation has something to say to us. These places teach me about my need for silence and letting go in the midst of loss, in the midst of a busy life. What is their teaching? Pay attention. Listen. Sing. Lean into your fears. Most of all that we share voice with all creatures.

Why did you put prose, photos and poems together in one story?

Sometimes words fail. I wanted as much as possible to convey the experience of place. I needed to embody it. To do that I had to appeal to more than one sense and more than one medium. The story of the earth itself is multi-dimensional: it is rock, it is animal, it is human, it is heavenly. Each of these disciplines has a slice of the reality. Taken together, a picture forms, I understand how it works. There’s the physical reality of the earth. There’s also a spiritual reality. Nothing is inanimate in this cosmology. Nothing natural is without voice, without spirit. I think of the book as a song, a chant, a rhythm of call and response. The photographs at the beginning of each chapter are the call, the chapters of prose and the poetry, the response. Looking back, looking forward, the two foreshadow and mirror the journey.

This book is spiritual but it’s not religious in the traditional sense. What’s behind that?

I do think of myself as Catholic but catholic in the most universal and basic sense. That is the tradition that has formed me: its mysticism, its ritual. This formal tradition has become part of who I am today. But there’s also another strand of Catholicism, not often written about. It’s the pilgrimage tradition, the spirituality found at holy wells and ancient shrines. It’s what is often dismissively called “popular religiosity,” the popular tradition. It is a spirituality of place. It’s an informal tradition but one that the majority of women and men have observed and kept for centuries, even before Christianity. This book comes out of that tradition. So I am catholic in the universal and most basic sense of what Catholic has always been - a melding of the Pagan and the Christian, only in a conscious way. Most of all, I am a pilgrim. My first affiliation is to place, to the spirit in nature.

Who is your story for?

I think it’s relevant for anyone who has come to a point in their life where they question what they’ve set out to do to that point. I think it is relevant for anyone whose life hasn’t followed the norm and who wonders why. They might find a companion in this book. For those who question the faith journey they are on, who feel on the edge of traditional religion, who are still finding their way spiritually, this book might suggest some directions. It might impart courage to explore options but does not purport to have the answers, only a way to come to your own insights, your own journey. There is a world beyond what we know right now, another way of perceiving spiritual reality beyond membership in a church. For those lamenting the loss of pristine wilderness areas, this story laments too. We need a way of understanding the human place in all this. I found hope too and this story offers it back.