‘Sea Level’ rises as finalist

For most urbanites, it takes something noisy or obnoxious – like the presence of a crow on a backyard fence – to awaken the senses and lead us to the natural world. That, or the extreme temperatures that up until recently, affected southwestern Ontario.

Just ask Faculty of Education professor Cornelia Hoogland.



An author and poet, Hoogland’s short story Sea Level was recently chosen from more than 2,000 submissions as one of five finalists for CBC’s Canada Writes Creative Non-fiction Prize.

The Grand Prize winner, as selected by the CBC Creative Non-fiction jury, will be announced on Monday, July 23. You can read Sea Level here.

Carefully detailing a failed search for wolves in British Columbia’s Bella Bella, a First Nations reserve, the story emerged from a research trip Hoogland took in 2008 with her son and an Aboriginal guide in preparation for her sixth book of poetry, Woods Wolf Girl.

“While I was there (at Bella Bella), I got this story. I had hoped to see and hear wolves and I didn’t see or hear them. It’s about how do we, as urban people, approach the natural world. We’re told we’re destroying it, that we have to love it, but how do you do that if you don’t have familiarity with it?” Hoogland explained.

“We think the human world is exciting – and it is – but there’s lots going on in the natural world. It’s hard to pay attention when it acts as a backdrop but it is an exciting world and difficult to figure out and it’s what I’m trying to convey.”

In Sea Level, Hoogland navigates the landscape, artfully sampling each of the senses while voices she calls a “fictional, Greek chorus,” comment on the action of the natural world.

And while it’s obvious Hoogland has made the natural world the dominant voice and character, slivers of modern human experience are embedded in the text, setting up a contrast and reminding the reader of what’s been exchanged.

Consider, for instance, the following passage.

The sun goes behind a cloud and — like a function in Photoshop — the band of trees at sea level grows intensely green. The scrim of trees diffracts the light; the water darkens. We’re looking for wolves but we end up seeing colour.

One of the group members hoped for better cell reception on this promontory, away from the trees, but our personal devices are pretty dead out here. Out here? We look around. Channel of water, an island, and on the other side, Bella Bella at the centre of four directions, and home of the Heiltsuk Nation. Trees, ocean, sky—extend as far as the eye. The only motors here are fitted to boats. Somebody notes how foreign this is. He tries to explain the almost human feelings that he has for construction-site trucks and cranes at rest.

When not teaching, Hoogland lives on Hornby Island, B.C., where she is learning to live with crows and slugs that swim in the ocean.

In London, Hoogland founded Poetry London, an organization that unites local and nationally acclaimed poets.

She has published six books of poetry, two chapbooks, fiction, nonfiction, scholarly articles and plays. She was previously shortlisted once for a personal essay and three times for her poetry.