Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Literature and the environment

I've given myself permission to start this sabbatical differently from every other, and differently from the ways I usually start my summers.  I'm simply reading for the first two months.  I have much to learn about some of the issues and motifs my next novel,  Soul Weather, is going to explore, so I'm reading biographies of Simone Weil as well as her work, reading about climate change, learning how animals communicate.  But that's in the off hours, so to speak.  I have two scholarly tasks for the next two months.  One is to finish reading Woolf's essays (I'm about half way through volume 5--one more to go).  The other is to read ecocriticism so that Katherine Arbuthnott and I can more effectively apply for a SSHRCC grant to do research on the qualities or kinds of texts that might convince people to change behaviours that have a negative impact on our environment.  While  I'm reading ecocriticism, I'm also thinking about a class I'd like to teach when I return from sabbatical.  This is crazy:  I'm not even technically on sabbatical yet.  Yet ironically, just reading has made the first month very productive.  My ideas are free of the censorship that comes of trying to pack them tightly and too soon into well-shaped and well-argued paragraphs, and I feel my thinking has been liberated by this freedom.

A couple of things I've learned so far from the ecocritics seem to be resonating with the fiction I'm reading.  First, nature isn't an objective thing that's just "out there" somehow; rather, we project an idea, even a philosophy onto it.  I realized this when I began to think about whether I'd just do ecocriticism and Canadian Literature or ecocriticism and American, Canadian, and British literature.  How differently the Americans, particularly during the settlement of "the west" looked at nature:  it was something to be tamed, exploited--some of the language used by nineteenth-century settlers even evokes images of rape.  During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nature in Canada was something to be survived; we experience an element of awe that's not prominent in American readings of the natural world.  British and other European countries see the sublime in nature;  it continues to evoke something beyond their comprehension.  Might Kant explain why the Germans are so far ahead of us in developing and harnessing alternate energy sources?

Ecocriticism has its political wing, of course, that argues about the most politically correct way to depict the natural world in a literary text.  I'm not very interested in that particular argument; rather I'd say that ecocriticism, like most theory, has two primary uses.  First, it foregrounds or emphasizes things we might normally not notice.  Second, it reminds us that many of our preconceptions are...preconceptions--not necessarily a disinterested reflection of the way things are.

For example, I'm re-reading Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault, a book I both admired and thought ineffectively constructed the first time I read it.  (The jury is still out on that one; I`ll keep you posted.)  In my earlier reading, I could certainly see a kind of uneasy triangulation taking place between the flooding of the Nile (which, my internet research told me then was an ecological disaster); Avery`s uneasiness about moving the ancient temple, Abu Simbel; and Jean`s loss of her baby.  This time, ecocriticism has made me much more aware of Jean`s relationship with plants.  She and Avery, husband and wife for most of the novel, met when he was  working on the engineering for the flooding of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  He saw her in the distance stooping, standing up right, and putting something into a canvas bag on her back, only to repeat the bending, straightening, and stowing away.  Touched by her gestures, he catches up to her to ask what she`s doing.  She`s "keeping a record" she tells him, of the plants alive on the shoreline.  She'll plant them elsewhere, though of course they'll never grow and reproduce the way they would have undisturbed.  Changing the landscape, no matter what our motives, is never a neutral act.  While perhaps something positive is built--like the St. Lawrence Seaway--it is dishonest not to admit that an act of destruction preceded it.

Eventually these plants make their way to the home of Avery's mother, Marina, an avid gardener and illustrator who is particularly alive to the significance of the natural world.  She tells Jean about the way the Nazis tried to ensure the ethic purity of gardens with "strict landscape rules enforced in all the occupied territories, especially in Poland" which necessitated a "botanical purge" against a tiny forest flower, impatiens parviflora (93).  Hence, Marina puts a small blossom in everything she paints.  Even well after the war, there is talk in Germany, Marina tells Jean, of ripping out rhododendrons and forsythia because they're not native German plants. If nature isn't an idea, if it isn't part of our cultural identity, why would authorities even consider such time-consuming and futile gestures?

As readers, we don't miss the large issues.  One representative old Ontario woman is allowed to give voice to the sense of loss of place when her home--and with it her husband's grave--is flooded.  You can't simply move a house, however carefully it's done, (one woman puts a tea cup on the edge of the table to see if her house is moved as carefully as they promise--and it is) and still feel at home in a familiar landscape.  The light hits corners of the room and the reading chair differently; the shadows of an elm tree don't fall quite the way they used to on the floor of your bedroom at dawn; the skyline is different.  We have roots in place that you can't simply pull up.  Similarly, we're aware from Avery's growing uneasiness about moving Abu Simbel that something false is being done here.  The better he does his job--the more the reconstructed version looks like the original--the more dishonest he feels.  When the temple was built, there was a sense that a certain place or landscape was significant or even sacred.  Now all that matters is Abdul Nassar's egotistical desire to effect some monumental change to the landscape--a change that not only necessitates the heart-wrenching wholesale moving of villages, the cutting of family ties to a landscape and its history, but that immerses and erases thousands of years of the Nile's history and agricultural riches.

But once ecocriticism has articulated the way a particular time and culture can assign meaning to the natural world, we can see the disturbing connection between the flooding of the St. Lawrence Seaway, of the Nile, of the moving of Ontario and Nubian villages and households and the Nazis absurd purge of a small wild flower in the name of cultural purity. When we transform the landscape, we aren't simply building a new, more modern history; rather the old connections to the past and to place are being destroyed.  If nature has cultural significance, what's being changed isn't merely physical.  It's historical and sentimental.   

Timothy Clark, in The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment points out the small-l liberalism has been associated with numerous rights movements, with civil rights for African-Americans, with women's rights.  At the same time, though, liberalism seems to be failing the ecology movement precisely because of its emphasis on individual rights.  It would seem that, in North American at least, we have an inalienable right to do things that are destructive, like keep our SUV idling while we wait in the block-long line-up for drive-in coffee at Tim Hortons rather than getting out of our car--which would certainly be quicker.  Those of us who are worried about the planet and about the well-being of people whose homes and lives have been destroyed by an extreme tornado season in the States, or whose livelihoods and homes are threatened by various levels of flooding across the prairies, in Quebec, and on the Mississippi Delta, realize that we're going to have to give up our individual rights to protect the natural world.

Giving up our individual rights takes its most controversial and fraught manifestation in the issue of population control.  By definition, efforts to think about population control conflate the public and the private in a way most people find disturbing.  While some of us might, theoretically, approve China's "one child" policy, the more imaginative among us would realize the way in which this policy infiltrates a couple's most intimate moments.  In Franzen's Freedom, Walter Berglund argues that to protect the planet we're going to have to think in terms of population control.  If you've got twenty minutes, listen to David Attenborough's compelling message about this contentious issue.  You'll find it at

This afternoon, the wind rocked my car as I waited at the intersection of Albert and College.  Yet minutes later, when I took these photographs, the ornamental fruit trees still clung to their fragile petals.  What force of nature allows them to do that?

When Katherine and I have our grant application revised, we're going to start collecting stories about people's lives being changed by something they read.  So in the next couple of months, cast about in your memory for that moment when reading a novel or an essay or a poem profoundly changed the way you view the world and your place in it.


  1. Another great post! I love the focus of your proposed research project. I must check out The Cambridge Introduction to Literature. I just ordered Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, the latest by David Abram. I have The Spell of the Sensuous, his last book, and fell under its spell at least twice, maybe three times.

  2. Thanks!

    Tell me about David Abram--it's not a name I know.

    Today I bought Bill McKibben's Eaarth and Tim Flannery's Here on Earth. Fortunately there's an intersection between the research I'm doing with Katherine Arbuthnott and some of the strands of Soul Weather. It's always nice to be efficient and make reading count twice, so to speak.

  3. Hello! (I love reading your blog)
    On your recommendation I watched the very interesting presentation of Sir David Attenborough. As he indicates, population change is certainly a problem that has a great impact on the environment; however, I wonder about the actual rate of world population growth. He states that to curtail the population the options are either contraception or death. The world population will continue to grow but the rate of growth has been steadily slowing over the past fifty years, especially in 'developed' countries such as Canada, Japan, and most of Western Europe. Even in China, they are considering removing the one child limit because of population decline. (This would also be a victory for womens' rights and prevent many abortions on the basis of gender.) While it is certainly not good that the U.N. predicts that the population will reach 9.2 billion by 2050, they also predict that at this point global population growth will hit 0% per year. This isn't because of widespread death, famine, or catastrophe but only a naturally slowing global population growth. I think we must strive towards the social conditions of developed countries to hasten the slowing of population growth, yet we must realize that population growth in modern society is not strictly exponential.

  4. Dear anonymous--Thanks for you comments on the blog.

    I recently read a review in the Literary Review of Canada which said we're not actually very good at predictions. Look at the very phrase "global warming." I don't know whether you live in Regina, but four of the last five springs have been quite cool. Last year my roses got so little sunshine they bloomed only once.

    So I'm not sure we can predict population growth, except if it were to continue to grow at the same rate--which it apparently isn't. But you've raised an important issue, which Attenborough also acknowledged: the women. I too will be glad when women won't be--encouraged? forced? to abort female fetuses. If this keeps up, it's going to be a very different kind of population problem.

    But perhaps the most significant thing we can do to improve both the quality of life and the population surge is to do what we can, even if it's only to make a donation, to improve the lives of women in the developing world. Where they get an education, where they can vote, the population growth rate drops and doubtless their lives are better.

  5. Hi Kathleen. You are embarking on a wonderful year of reading and writing and thinking. After I read The Winter Vault, I took the time to transcribe into a notebook the entire passage where the Ontario woman gives voice to her feelings about all that she's about to lose. That passage is the most moving evocation of loss I've read, both specific and large at the same time. Thanks for reminding me of it. -- Leona T.

  6. David Abram is an ecologist/philosopher whose work has influenced the thinking and writing of a number of writers I follow, including Trevor Herriot, who quotes Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World in both Jacob's Wound and Grass, Sky, Song.

  7. Dear Leona,
    Here's the passage from The Winter Vault that I copied in the commonplace book where I'm slowly constructing my next novel, Soul Weather--which is at least in part about being at home on the planet, in our skin, in our futures: "I do not believe home is where we're born, or the place we grew up, not a birthright or an inheritance, not a name or blood or country. It is not even the soft part that hurts when touched, that defines our loneliness the way a bowl defines water. It will not be located in a smell or a taste or a talisman or a word...
    Home is our first real mistake. It is the one error that changes everything, the one lesson you could let destroy you. It is from this moment that we begin to build our home in the world. In this place that we furnish with a smell, taste, a talisman, a name."

    Thanks so much for responding to my blog.