‘What is credible hope, in this place?’

by Rebecca Campbell

Hamilton: Stelliform Press, 2022
$19.00 / 9781777682323

Reviewed by Dana McFarland


“Look! Look! At the luminous roots reaching out into space. He’d seen the possibility thirty years before, when he sat on a bench some arborist had grown into the hillside above Cowichan Bay… looking through an old book from their library, its back cover gone, but its pages full of collaborations between tree and human…” —from Arboreality

Reading Arboreality is a serious undertaking, illuminated by its beautifully designed presentation in a slim, soft cover volume. The novella is in the form of related stories that diverge and interleave, reaching forward from the aftermath of a near future catastrophe. 

This slim narrative of disaster and resilience begins at the University of Victoria where, in a local manifestation of cascading global failures, what remains of the library’s collections is being salvaged. The opening recalls the closing scenes of Fahrenheit 451, with community members curating artifacts of knowledge when institutions fail; an expedient reproach to authority that has forsaken its usefulness. In the absence of formal decision-makers, who extracted what they found valuable and evacuated it to centres of power and safety, Rebecca Campbell’s volunteer curators work to save what they can for an unfathomable future, while themselves immersed in climate grief and consequences such as many potential readers now are beginning to perceive. 

As the novella progresses toward a more distant future, however, the mood alters from amplifying contemporary solastalgia. The characters are surviving the collapse of a globalized society and are materially concerned—where they are and with what they have—about how to do that. 

As conditions begin to stabilize, the salvaged knowledge and artifacts of the past are put first to serve subsistence, and then gradually to nascent collaboration with the land. As new ways of being take shape, and old ways fade from living memory, musings about the past take on a curious or elegiac character. The tone becomes strangely, provisionally, hopeful, alongside a sort of vigilant irony regarding the extractive, colonial past that sends forth runners to erupt here and there, threatening the emergent, fragile, place-based sustainability.

Author Rebecca Campbell (photo: Heike Delmore)

By the end, the reader knows that the book spans the extraordinarily long life of one character. In this I wonder if there may be an homage to magic realism, a genre that includes noteworthy works by other Vancouver Island authors–although I wouldn’t consider Arboreality a work of magic realism apart from this detail.

Speculative fiction is more the “clonal colony” of literature from which Arboreality arises, and to which it contributes. The glimpses of social disintegration here may remind readers of classic science fiction (like J.G. Ballard The Drowned World and John Wyndham The Chrysalids) or of recent speculative works, such as David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Relatedly, in the project of rebuilding—finding how to live in humility and create a sustainable relationship with place—becomes profoundly significant to Campbell’s characters. Here, readers may find resonance of theme and setting with recent and regional novels, some speculative and some not, that include Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall’s Tauhou, Premee Mohamed’s Annual Migration of Clouds, Paulette Jiles’ Lighthouse Island, Matthew Hooton’s Deloume Road, and Richard Powers’ The Overstory. More particularly, Arboreality is an excellent addition to the solar punk and hopepunk subgenera of speculative fiction, posing possible responses to questions, such as—

• What does it look like to live with critical hope, credible hope, informed hope?
• Where is hope situated?

Hope, over the arc of the novella, is explored through intertwining narratives, one a story of generative creativity in collaboration with nature, another a secret and culminating work of artistry founded on a fateful act of resource extraction. For a BC readership this latter tale yields layers of resonance, recalling successive “wars in the woods” and the 1997 felling of Kiidk’yaas, the famed conifer of Haida Gwaii, an incident thoroughly examined by John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce. Campbell presents these respective narratives without partiality, offering insight into complex motivations of characters living in extreme circumstances.

Events in Arboreality also indicate the frailty of hope and expectation placed in systems; early on it is clear that institutions have failed in fiduciary roles, and seemingly vanished. Where hope might be “placed” is further explored as characters grapple with effects of flight and diaspora, with renewed contact from former centres of influence and the recolonial aspirations of those, as compared to hope and trust built incrementally in communities, working in relationship with and learning about place.

Hope placed elsewhere frequently features in dystopic novels: people from Sealand or Iceland come to the rescue in The Chrysalids or The Bone Clocks; comforting broadcasts emanate from Big Radio or Wellington in Lighthouse Island or The Chrysalids. It is interesting that Vancouver Island-raised Rebecca Campbell challenges the reader to consider instead: what is credible hope, in this place?

The place-based hope that Campbell’s story represents is not romanticized; the hardships of rebuilding in isolation from former sources of supply and support are believable; grief and disbelief consequent to depopulation and loss of connection are the backdrop against which she has this part of the world recreating in less extractive, more collaborative ways. 

Among the author’s acknowledgments, she offers thanks to Snuneymuxw Knowledge Keeper, David Bodaly. Arboreality foresees that the Indigenous peoples and the diverse plurality of settler people, in the actual places where the story unfolds, will emerge from disaster into life-affirming relationships with each other and with the resilient land. This foreseen outcome brings to mind the hope inherent in the concept of “survivance” (articulated by Gerald Vizenor and others), the continued, active, dynamic presence of Indigenous people, counter to narratives perpetuated by a dominant society. 

One of Campbell’s characters, a critical figure in recreating community infrastructure, observes:

But we’re always a collaboration… there’s nothing we don’t touch, nothing that isn’t touched by our feet on the soil and our hands reaching into the new soft needles of Douglas fir in springtime. We have a heavy step… The best we can do is hope that our footprints don’t break anyone’s heart.

As readers we may feel implicated in systems that precipitate climate catastrophe, and that fail to mitigate its effects; we may feel at a loss to detect or resist the fateful gravitational pull of these systems. 

Arboreality offers to a present readership a humane vision from an imagined future, of the potential that arises from valuing connection and collaboration in and with place. I highly recommend reading it, and considering what might be different if we were to let this story change us now.


Dana McFarland

Dana McFarland is a librarian at Vancouver Island University Library. She also works with the Community Scholars Program based at SFU, which connects eligible unaffiliated scholars in BC with academic library resources and services. She has worked with Royal Roads University, UBC, the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, and other library collaborative organizations. She lives in stz’uminus territory and keeps bees, when they agree to stay. [Editor’s note: Dana McFarland previously reviewed Susan Juby in BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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