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In Search of Tawny Grammar Poetics, Landscape and Embodied Ways of Knowing

Rishma Dunlop

(A version of this article is available in the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education)

“In telling our stories, we must push at the existing order of things. In the geologies and anthropologies and genealogies of our landscapes, in these histories and memories of place, we find our human stories. By sharing stories, journals, poems, narratives of lived experiences, we expose ourselves to many kinds of dread and many kinds of desire. We expose our open hearts, engage in open-hearted scholarship, in a curriculum that encompasses the emotional. And at the fundamental root of scholarship is eros, a passionate desire to connect with others and with the natural world, a desire to deepen our understandings of ourselves and others, the passion to transform or preserve the world as we understand it deeply.”

— Rishma Dunlop

“Tawny grammar” is a translation of Henry David Thoreau’s concept of gramática parda from a lecture first delivered in 1851: “The Spaniards have a good term to express this wild and dusky knowledge, Gramática parda, tawny grammar, a kind of motherwit derived from that same leopard to which I have referred” (“Walking”).

Dunlop sees this tawny grammar as a way through which she aims to reach “new places of understanding and knowing the world, of interpreting experiences, of new ontologies, new epistemologies”. She recounts her experiences as a researcher, university professor, poet, writer, and storyteller, detailing how these new epistemologies and ontologies could potentially “effect change in the academy” through the “creation of an empathic human geography”. Dunlop draws from the works of Terry Tempest Williams and Rachel Carson to develop her notion of empathic human geography.

Dunlop’s novel Boundary Bay—after the landscape of Boundary Bay, situated on the Pacific coast of North America on the Canada-U.S. border between the Canadian province of British Columbia and the state of Washington—was the first novel to be accepted as a doctoral dissertation in a Faculty of Education in Canada, and in her own words, the novel deals with “primal ways of knowing, […] inspired by readings of Rachel Carson’s (1968) The Sea Around Us, by the narratives of painters: Helen Frankenthaler’s huge abstract landscapes, Mark Rothko’s vibrant color fields, Richard Diebenkorn’s landscapes that reminded me of farm fields in Ladner”. In its introduction, Dunlop details how the tawny grammar intersperses her writing:

We intertwine our fictions through an assemblage of facts, tangled through the language of bones. The writer wants to write of men and women, real or invented, offering them open destinies. She wants her voice to be like a modern painting, voice and story like the colors of a Mark Rothko canvas. This is how she wants the story to be, written in the alphabet of bones and blood, trembling with light and vibrant hues, spiraling with winds, rooted in the earth, breathing with tides.

Through excerpts of her novel and her poems, Dunlop evokes the ways through which this tawny grammar runs through her writing. She sheds light on her connections with the natural world and its species, particularly the coyote and its cultural significance in western North America. Human emotion “finds its metaphors in nature,” whether through climate, environment, or other species. Her fiction becomes “Geografictione,” a neologism by Aritha Van Herk, a way of “resignifying language” through “place, person, memory, fiction”. The main character in her novel holds the landscape of Boundary Bay

…in her arms, the contours of the mind like nature—thoughts flowing like water—knowledge, memory inextricably bound with the earth—the mind with its own ecology, inseparable from the body—remembrance of things past—not just the taste of things but the turning of the body in the bed—language inseparable from experience, from her skin.

Dunlop also refers to the neurological condition of synaesthesia as a template for the tawny grammar, where the senses mesh into each other in writing. She tells her students to “write with the impulse of synesthaesia, every sense colliding . . . there are other ways to hear, to see”. This is her way of rebelling against “former professors who criticized “mixed” metaphors, who told me in Honours English that if one was to write literary criticism as a scholar, one could not be a creative writer, one would have to choose”. She “refused to choose” and instead challenges her students and colleagues not to accept these limitations: “I sense things in synesthaesic ways, colours and images have a scent, a taste. I know the scents and tastes and feel of oil paints . . . alizarin crimson, sap green . . . I know the scent of the ocean, the taste of it, even if I am thousands of miles away”.

Even as her life moved away from Boundary Bay, Dunlop retained “the ocean [as] part of my tawny grammar, ingrained in memories that are always a coming home”. She kept writing new stories, new poems, new books, and in doing so she continues to push back against traditional ways of knowing.  Beyond a tawny grammar, Dunlop intervenes with an “erotics of place,” which encourages scholars and thinkers to know the world “in sensual, primal ways” rather than to live in “fear of the open heart” that pervades academic institutions and their discourses.

Works by Rishma Dunlop

Dunlop is the author of Reading Like a Girl, White Album, Metropolis, The Body of My Garden, among other titles. She has also contributed to publications such as Red Silk: An Anthology of Canadian South Asian Women Poets, The Exile Book of Translations: 20 Canadian Poets Take on the World, and White Ink.