The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

“Bushed” is a free-verse poem in lines of irregular length that convey the experience of a man who succumbs to nature’s intimidating force. The title’s denotations and connotations are all pertinent to the poem’s meaning. In the first place, the title indicates location: the “bush,” which in Canada refers to those vast areas of wilderness remote from human settlement. Second, to be “bushed” is to be exhausted, to be bereft of strength and therefore incapable of countering force with force or even cunning. In this case, it means also in effect to be swallowed up by the “bush,” by the wilderness that, in the man’s mind, seems to lie in wait for its prey and at the moment of greatest vulnerability makes its ambush without mercy. The poem is written from the point of view of an observer who tells the story with both emotional intensity and philosophical detachment.

“Bushed” begins with an observation that foreshadows disaster. “He,” or humankind, “invented a rainbow” and saw in it divine assurance that nature would not ultimately destroy human life. Then nature’s power, through lightning, turned that dream into cold comfort by smashing the rainbow into a mountain lake. At the edge of that lake, far from civilization, a solitary trapper builds himself a shack. He has “learned to roast porcupine belly” and wears the “quills on his hatband.” Soon, however, he senses that he has invaded enemy territory whose inhabitants he cannot slay with impunity. That feeling grows in him and gradually unhinges him; he now perceives nature all around him transmogrifying itself into an enemy force. Whether the day dawns in sunshine or fog, the mountain is alive with messages to remind him that he is a puny, unwelcome intruder in the midst of nature. Instead of conqueror, he is its prisoner.

Mountain goats and ospreys guard him in the daytime; in the evening, the night smoke rises “from the boil of the sunset.” At night the moon, the owls, and the cedars threaten and mock him with mysterious totems and incantations. The terrible realization penetrates him: While the mountain is asleep, the winds are forging its peak into an arrowhead that will be poised, with him as its single target. Defeated and resigned, the trapper bars himself inside the cabin, his stronghold of civilization, which he now knows is a delusion. All he can do is wait “for the great flint to come singing into his heart.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643

Earle Birney spent his youth in the Banff area, and thus he became intimately familiar with the awesome presence of the Rockies. Much of his poetry reflects a careful observation of the natural world. That observation is often far from dispassionate. As Northrop Frye observed (in “Canada and Its Poetry,” Canadian Forum 23, 1943,), Birney achieves an “evocation of stark terror” when all the intelligence and cunning of solitary man is pitted against “nature’s apparently meaningless power to waste and destroy on a superhuman scale.” “Bushed” is such a poem.

Terror is evoked primarily through the imagery. Much of the imagery Birney selects is used in Psalm 104 in praise of a beneficent God who is “clothed with splendor and majesty,” who “makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants,” whose “high mountains belong to the goats,” who “touches the mountains and they smoke,” who plants “the cedars of Lebanon,” who “brings darkness, and all the beasts of the forest prowl.” In “Bushed,” however, from the first line to the last, it is not the glory and goodness of God’s nature but its hostile power that impresses the trapper and inexorably reduces him to a cowed victim.

First, there is the imagery of the heavens. According to the biblical story, God vowed after the flood that floods would never again destroy so much life, and then He chose the rainbow as the eternal reminder and warrant of that promise. Hence the rainbow came to symbolize divine reassurance of human safety and security. Here the fierce lightning of a mountain storm shatters the rainbow and serves notice to the trapper that he has ventured beyond the pale of human and divine protection. Later, the “boil of the sunset” suggests not beauty and peace but a seething cauldron of witches’ brew that foreshadows evil to come. In addition, the moon is linked to the sinister work of carving totems, intensifying the trapper’s terror. Even when “the mountain slept” at last, the winds of the heavens gathered for the final fatal attack, shaping the mountain’s peak to “an arrowhead poised” to attack the victim’s heart.

The land imagery is also central. The immensity of the mountain that towers above the man increasingly assumes the personality of an implacable foe with absolute control. It is “so big his mind slowed when he looked at it.” Its lap constitutes a lake that swallows the light and the promise of the rainbow. Its messages sweep down “every hot morning,” and its proclamations boom out every noon. All nature does its bidding, and the trapper is convinced that all its bidding conspires against him.

Third, there is the imagery of the animal world. The trapper has slain the porcupine and decorated himself with its quills, but not with impunity. A “white guard of goat” now protects the mountain’s domain, and the ospreys “fall like valkyries,” an ominous allusion to Odin, the all-seeing god of war and magic whose battle maidens (valkyries) chose the heroes to be slain. Here they choose as their victim “the cut-throat,” a large trout that, significantly, resembles the rainbow trout. Twice now the rainbow has fallen victim. Besides, the meaning of “cut-throat” as a murderer obviously points to the trapper as the chosen target of the mountain-god’s warriors.

Finally, there is the imagery of the spirit world. The moon uses its magical powers to carve “unknown totems out of the lakeshore.” These powerful emblems of another, mysterious world terrify the trapper. When, as the element of animism becomes more pervasive, the owl, traditionally linked to the spirit world, derides him, and cedars shape themselves into moose, circle “his swamps,” and toss “their antlers up to the stars,” the trapper knows he is trapped: The poised “arrowhead” of the mountain-god will be the final mockery of the porcupine “quills on his hatband.”

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