Ground-Truthing the storied land: Derrick Stacey Denholm on the north coast

Derrick Stacey Denholm’s recent publication Ground-Truthing: Reimagining the Indigenous Rainforests of BC’s North Coast is a unique and tricky combination of philosophy, literary non-fiction and cultural studies. Like he did while he was surveying, planting and cruising northern BC for the past 25 years, the Prince George resident walks a variety of paths in this book. He engages the language of scientific botany, First Nations’ traditional knowledge, personal accounts of his time in the region and critical anti-colonial philosophy. In the tradition of Hugh Brody and Barry Lopez, he incorporates a whole range of perspectives to triangulate a creative and compelling argument for a transformation in human behaviour in this region we call home.

There are so many ideas in this book it is hard to know what to focus on. My sense is that the most groundbreaking element is the way Denholm acknowledges First Nations’ territory and respectfully relates with the dynamic ancient knowledge of this region. His approach is rooted in an extensive familiarity with the history, diversity and fundamental principles of First Nations’ traditional knowledge and wisdom. Fittingly, he begins the text with a quote from Walter Blackwater, mentor to poet Ken Belford (in turn, one of Denholm’s mentors): “To speak thoroughly and accurately about this countryside is impossible in English.” These indigenous ideas, apparently and tragically invisible to the visitor or colonizer, are the foundations of his worldview. And this is from a “typical Canadian of European origin,” but one who inhabits a healthy sense of what being an ally means in cultural politics.

Denholm’s writing is also rooted in a parallel, allied sense of the wisdom of plants and animals. I adore that he concentrates on lesser-known creatures, those that are not sexy enough to land on ad-campaign posters. Mountain hemlock, devil’s club and blue chanterelles are distinctive but relatively ignored species and Denholm relates to them in a thoughtful and loving way. This contact with what Denholm terms “the Wild” is the main intertext to what he is writing; he listens to the forest and learns from that system of thought through writing. That the land and the larger-than-human have things to teach us human creatures is an idea that has arrived full force in philosophical discussions in many different ways. While emphasizing the “local, wild, and Indigenous,” Denholm’s work is planetary in its scope—a book that will be read and studied widely.

Underlying all of this is Denholm’s primary methodology: “ground-truthing.” He defines this as a largely scientific method that “uncovers the biological facts that hide within the profuse material confusion of any given situation.” This is not a unique method, but the way he applies it to social, philosophical and literary material is what makes Denholm’s book truly remarkable.

The tangled roots of thought Denholm grows are a lot to take in. Is northern BC ready to step into the woods with him?