Nonfiction Review by Donna Kane

Brian Bartlett, Branches Over Ripples: A Waterside Journal (Kentville: Gaspereau, 2017). Paperbound, 272 pp., $29.95.

Branches Over Ripples: A Waterside JournalWhat do you do when your physiotherapist tells you to give your bum knee a rest? You sit (more or less). And where is the most interesting place to sit? For Brian Bartlett, it’s beside water. The title of Brian Bartlett’s Branches Over Ripples: A Waterside Journal is not, however, a reference to bankside trees. Rather, it is a metaphor (“branches” refers to “branching thoughts, sensations, feelings, information and memories”).  Planted “like an invisible seedling over the experiment,” this surprising turn in perspective does indeed kindle our interest, enlivening the reader’s senses and thoughts as they enter Bartlett’s plein-air experiment of waterside journalling. Noting the location, date, and time of each journal entry, Bartlett’s recommendation to pause “a moment over the given time, to absorb some sense of the words’ relationships to sunrise, noon-hour and nightfall,” truly works to engage the reader’s own memories and experiences. In each entry, Bartlett records everything he senses, thinks, and remembers. By the end of the collection, Bartlett says he wishes he’d started his “roofless” writing years earlier, and by their rich results, it’s easy to see why. Each entry, a process of “multi-paragraphed layering, variety, parenthetical digressiveness, and rambling” becomes a gestalt giving rise to insights into the natural world, human and non-human intelligence, inter-species relationships, and anthropomorphism.

Bartlett pays acute attention to language, whether it is the language of humans, birds, or the collaborative sound made by water and rock. Often, the focus is on how words fail the things they name—Water striders don’t “stride”; Deep Woods insect repellent doesn’t smell like deep woods; is “plagued” really the right word to describe the experience of hearing the repeating voice of a Red-eyed Vireo? Bartlett’s observations also give rise to rewarding realizations, such as, “No two [birch] have exactly the same bark-patterns…. No two bend and flutter identically,” and, "Until the past hour, I’d never seen a Spotted Sandpiper wade so far through water rather than flying.”

When weather prevents “roofless” writing, there is still water, be it writing in a bathtub (Second-Floor Bathroom, June 26th, 2:30 pm) or in a car with the rain “rushing down the windshield.” The spontaneous, ever-probing and playful immediacy of Bartlett’s writing, together with the unexpected segues they give rise to, keeps eighteen months of journal entries comprising nearly 260 pages, textured, lively, and always faithful to the process of his experiment.

Bartlett’s wry humor is an asset, as with his musings on two Water striders mating, “Surely those who stand on water without sinking deserve to multiply.” At times, his humour veers into the curmudgeonly, exposing mild irritation toward water skiers, graffiti artists, or the woman who pulls out her cell phone to show him photos when Wards Fall is right behind them and waiting to be examined.

While the book reveals many things that Bartlett knows, it also acknowledges how much humans don’t, or can’t, know. Throughout the book, he makes notes of things he needs to research. “Tides: I definitely need to learn more about tides.” When he encounters prayer flags at Governor Lake (June 21, 2:50 pm), he doesn’t admonish himself for not having known what they were—“everyone’s scope of knowledge has limits.” His assumptions of non-human life are also continuously questioned—“Do songbirds utter their sounds for its own sake….“ “[I]s a Ladybug calmer [than a swallow] about its straying into unfamiliar regions?” “[I]s there any living creature larger than the microscopic or bacterial that never sleeps?” In his boundless curiosity (rarely does a page escape the interrogative), Bartlett uses the fallibilities of thought and sense as opportunities for insight and growth.

The author’s affection for all living things is evident throughout. When he discovers the Primrose moths on a flower he nudges, thereby seeing the moths move, he is tempted to do it again, but then says, “Good fortune had given me the chance to see that kind of moth for the first time, so knocking the flower again might’ve been rude and intrusive.” When an ant bites him, he responds by saying, “I blundered into their territory, their home, so I’d be a fool for cursing them and their needle-sharp nips.”
Bartlett’s entries are filled with attention, discipline, and an unerring fidelity to his goal. The same, I think, is required of the reader. To fully appreciate this remarkable book, the reader will need to take off their ear buds, put away their cell phone and pay attention. When they do, they are sure to be rewarded not only by the workings of Bartlett’s mind, but by their own perceptions as well. The book reminds us of the value and, indeed, the growing necessity of staying curious and alive to the natural world while at the same time never ceasing to second-guess our assumptions of that world.  


—Donna Kane

As in The Malahat Review, 203, Summer 2018