Landscape and Solitude

In 1938, when Anik See’s maternal grandparents wanted to get married, they had to satisfy the authorities in their German homeland that neither side had any Jewish blood for at least three generations back.

Her grandmother undertook to compile the necessary documentation.

“She hated the reason for having to do it, but she did what she had to do to get the marriage license and then just kept going,” says See, who will be reading at the Whitehorse Public Library on September 25.

Three years of digging into records yielded “a massive family tree that goes back to the 12th century on her side and the mid-17th century on my grandfather’s side, with very few gaps,” the Montreal-born writer explains.

That genealogical record became a family legend, with each of the couple’s four daughters receiving a copy — complete with supporting documents — as a 40th birthday present.

With the destruction of birth and baptismal records during the widespread bombings of World War II, such historical research might not even be possible today.

“Because of this crazy governmental requirement, a lot of Germans have a family tree that they wouldn’t necessarily have right now, or they wouldn’t necessarily have the resources to back it up that they did before the war.”

See now lives in Amsterdam with her artist husband, Walter van Broekhuizen, and their 7-year-old son, Laszlo.

A prolific magazine writer and author of three books, she is also an award-winning documentary producer for CBC Radio and Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

After graduating from Ryerson University’s television and radio arts program, See worked as a researcher and recipe developer for the late James Barber’s wildly popular television cooking show, The Urban Peasant.

“We would shoot 65 shows in three months, which was kind of crazy, but it was a lot of fun to work on, and James was kind of a mentor to me” she says.

“Then we’d have three months off, and that was a perfect amount of time to kind of go out and do a longer trip in another part of the world. It gave time to discover a place, as opposed to just going for two weeks, or choosing to live somewhere and then having to find a job there.”

One result of that experience was her first book, A Fork in the Road, about her journeys by bicycle, experiencing the landscapes and cuisine of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, as well as Canada.

In a sense, those journeys brought her closer to her late grandmother, who had also travelled by bicycle to chase down family records.

When she accepted a writer’s residency at the Berton House in Dawson City, See’s initial plan was to use the three-month stint to explore her grandmother’s story further.

“I’ve been looking at the idea of the family tree, and how we as family members remember and forget family history, and our individual versions of the story, and things like that.”

Once she got to Dawson, however, things took a slight turn.

“What happened is that I’ve been writing a couple of other essays at the same time, kind of parallel to this, which I hadn’t expected to do,” she says.

One of those essays is on the theme of landscape and possibility, the subject of her 2009 book, Saudade.

The book’s Portuguese title, she explains, has no direct English equivalent, but means a kind of nostalgia for something that can’t be retrieved.

“It relates to a lot of things in that book. One of them is landscape, one of them is the sense of things that you have when you’re younger, especially when you’re a child,” she explains.

“And I was interested in what we are doing with landscape, now that everyone is moving to cities; what we’re doing with those abandoned places, but also what those places gave us in terms of knowledge, whether it’s how to live off the land, or the local stories in the area.”

See believes people in the North enjoy a kind of spatial equilibrium with their surroundings, unlike some places where there is a “disconnect” between people and the landscape.

“The European understanding of landscape, the modern understanding of landscape, is ‘I need to conquer it.’ Certainly in Holland, because if they didn’t, there would be no country. It would be under water.”

As someone who admits being comfortable with solitude, See appreciates the physical setting of the Berton House, close enough to the heart of things, yet sufficiently removed from noise and distraction.

“So that has really got me thinking about how we’re not only losing our relationship with landscape, we’re losing our relationship with solitude.”

As well, she notes, unlike big-city life with its many distractions, in Dawson you seldom see people walking down the street staring at a screen or talking on a cell phone.

“I quite enjoy that, because people are engaged with you right way. You don’t have to distract them from their distractions in order to have a conversation,” she says.

Before flying home to Amsterdam, See will give a free public reading at the Whitehorse Public Library at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 25.

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