Once Upon a Cave: An Interview With Ted Chamberlin

Dr. Edward J. Chamberlin (79), or Ted, paints a picture of how early humans gathered around fires in caves to tell stories above any other reason, like shelter, warmth, or security from beasts. He says, “Caves were for stories, that’s why we see the first paintings there.” Ted and I meet up not in a cave, but rather in a comfortable country-style cafe in Wilson Creek, to chat about his new book, Storylines: How Words Shape Our World.

He says that before we even had words, we had our art to tell our stories. Sadly, there are few places left to see cave paintings in Canada; however, I visited Writing-On-Stone/Áísínai’pi  Provincial Park, in Milk River, AB several times in my youth. Writing-On-Stone has the most petroglyphs in North America. (https://www.bradshawfoundation.com/canada/writing_on_stone_provincial_park/index.php).

These fascinating pictographs carved into the red stone at this UNESCO World Heritage Site are on stone walls not in caves, but perhaps at one time they were created within the protection of caves and the elements wore away the enclosures over time. It’s a place where the landscape blossoms with Hoodoos—rock worn into eerie beaded columns by relentless wind. I’m not a geologist just an author who wants to believe that tribes of ancient people lived in vaulted connected caves, where they exchanged ceremonies and stories—the most sacred of which they made permanent into the rock.

Theresa Kishkan, also a Sunshine Coast author, writes about visiting pictographs at Sakinaw Lake on the Coast by canoe in her blog (https://theresakishkan.com/tag/pictographs/). There are only two pictographs remaining on a cliff face that are accessible only by water, which explains why they are in good condition and haven’t been defaced by vandals.

Sakinaw Lake pictographs. Photo Credit: Theresa Kishkan

The inspiration for Storylines, which took Chamberlin several years to write, was drawn from his forty years of teaching at the University of Toronto where he taught in the Department of English, Comparative Literature. He particularly found his muse in a seminar at the University of Victoria on how stories work. He enjoyed the storytelling evenings with his classes that he called, “Bedtime stories for adults.”

This member of the Order of Canada for his work in English and Indigenous literature was lured away from his studies in mathematics by attending an English tutorial at Oxford.

Stories moved me to leave math.

Ted Chamberlin

Ted explains how from cave paintings, we mastered language and progressed to oral storytelling, then the written word followed. He has worked extensively with Indigenous stories and storytellers and is frustrated by how difficult it is to get the court system to listen to stories of Indigenous people.

People don’t know how to listen. Oral history is created by Elders who have proper rituals, and are scrupulous about the ceremonies that accompany the stories. There’s a disconnect between the oral versus written story.

Ted Chamberlin

We take Canadian Literature for granted now, but Chamberlin remembers a time when there was only the late Earle Birney (13 May 1904 – 3 September 1995), Governor-General award-winning poet and novelist and poet Don Mckay, also a Governor-General award winner, who is eighty-one at present, on an otherwise barren CanLit scene. Although, Susanna Moodie beat everyone to the press by a century with Roughing it in the Bush in 1852.

I saw Birney at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the 80s. He was frail, thin, and trembled, likely from Parkinsons, but I felt lucky to hear the voice of the poet who wrote David, as most school children had from my era (https://wcln.ca/_LOR/course_files/en09/unit1/david.pdf). That was to be Birney’s last tour on the west coast as he went into a nursing home after that.

Can Lit didn’t really come out of its primordial cavern until Margaret Atwood and her compatriots shone a headlamp from the depths of Can Lit dens into the world in the 1960s. At UBC during my latter undergrad years in my early 20s, that I first heard her read her poetry pre-Handmaid’s Tale.

She was ultra serious, hypnotic and genuinely scary dressed all in black on stage. I much prefer the mature Atwood’s humour, sparkle and wit, even though when I saw her in 2019 at the Chan Centre at UBC, despite the fact that it was right after the death of her partner, Graeme Gibsons’s passing. I’m so pleased she appears on a stamp, since she’s won all the literary prizes you’ve ever heard of and some you haven’t

Margaret Atwood stamp. Image credit: Canada Post. “A word after a word after a word is power”, is from her poem “Spelling”.

But let us not forget that even though western authors garner little recognition, W. O. Mitchell’s (March 13, 1914 – February 25, 1998) book about prairie life, Who Has Seen the Wind (1947), sold nearly one million copies in North America. I attended one of his readings at the University of Lethbridge, one of my home towns, circa 1982, when I was still a teen. Like Chamberlin, Mitchell was an Officer of the Order of Canada and he appeared on a stamp in 2000.

W.O. Mitchell – The Prairie Son Stamp

Chamberlin looks wistful when he confesses that he misses having horses on the Coast. Horses, hay and oats have to be ferried in and land to keep them on is scarce in our wooded terrain. For an author who wrote a book on the history of the horse, it must be a great sacrifice for him.

I had unpleasant experiences with the horses we owned on the prairies but whenever someone mentions horses, or I see them as I drive by fields, even I miss them. I miss their scent, the sounds they make, their slick fur, brushing their manes, their velvet muzzles, their goofy tricks, and the few moment they tolerated me before they flung me off their backs and over their heads to the ground.

I ask Chamberlin what he’s working on currently. He says, “I don’t talk about books except within an inner circle. I only give my early work to people who will be tough.”

Ted says he finds his Coastal home, “So important. I live on the water of the Salish sea where we’re not in charge.” He canoes out into the Salish sea early each morning. “I love the feeling on the water. It’s so quiet. I go to see the seal pups. There can be two-hundred seals on the the rocks. The world is full of awesome. I want people to be open to wonder and wondering,” says Ted. Our coffee gone cold, we wrap it up and Ted has somewhere else to be, or has grown weary of me and my questions and is too polite to say—an interviewer never knows.

J. Edward Chamberlin is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and was senior research associate with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. He has worked on sovereignty and land claims throughout Canada and around the world, and has spoken widely on literary, historical and cultural issues. He is the author of several acclaimed titles, including Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations (2006), which was a national bestseller, and If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground (2003), both published by Knopf Canada. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, and now lives in Halfmoon Bay, BC.