In the Physical World
- Valerie Haig-Brown (Author)
Deep Currents: Roderick and Ann Haig-Brown. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Cheryl Glotfelty (Editor) and Harold Fromm (Editor)
The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. University of Georgia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Susie O'Brien
Giving voice to what is probably a widely shared frustration with the aportas of contemporary theory, Lawrence Buell has asked the question: "must literature always lead us away from the physical world, never back to it?" The spirit ofthat question inspires the growing field of ecocriticism, which is exemplified in the essays collected in The Ecocriticism Reader. Expressing what the editors suggest is a growing sense of discomfort with an academic climate that often seems to be hermetically sealed against the natural world, the collection seeks specifically to address the failure of literary criticism to respond "in any significant way," as Glen Love puts it, "to ... our place within the natural world and our need to live needfully within it, at peril of our very survival."
In its attempt to engage with these issues—to get back to the physical world— ecocriticism is not inspired by a rejection of the insights of literary theory: on the contrary, most of the essays in this collection are informed by the recognition that, as human culture is born out of nature, nature is inescapably a product of human culture. The struggle to make sense of the implications of that recognition—for nature and for culture—is an underlying theme of the collection, reflected in its section titles: "Ecotheory: Reflections on Nature and Culture"; "Ecological Considerations of Fiction and Drama"; and "Critical Studies of Environmental Literature." Within these sections (followed by a list of recommended texts, periodicals and profcssional organizations) is .1 bunul selection of ecocritical essays dating from the early seventies, long before the term "ecocriticism" was invented, to the mid-nineties. The collection includes such influential works as Lynn White Jr.’s 1967 essay "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologie Crisis" and a selection from Joseph Meeker’s, The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1972)— perhaps the first major study of connections between literature and the environment— along with the writing of new scholars such as Michael Branch and Scott Slovic, whose work in ASLE (the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) has helped to cultivate what was until recently, in Glotfelty’s words, a collection of "single voice[s] howling in the wilderness" into an increasingly recognized field.
One of the strengths of the field, and of the collection, lies in its eclecticism, reflected in the interdisciplinarity of its contributors, who include scholars of literature, environmental studies, American studies, and history, as well as creative writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Leslie Marmon Silko. For a field that is founded on a particular vision of diversity, however, ecocriticism— at least as it is represented here—remains curiously monocultural. While the rugged wilderness preserve of the solitary male adventurer has been disturbed in interesting and productive ways by ecofeminists and Native writers such as Annette Kolodny and Paula Gunn Allen (both included in the collection), other racial and cultural minorities, working-class writers, gays and lesbians, have yet to find places in the territory of ecocriticism. While the introduction makes passing acknowledgment of these absences, the essays on the whole ignore the political boundaries by which the categories of "nature" and "environment" are not just defined, but also divided.
Perhaps the most obvious boundary describing the The Ecocriticism Reader is the United States border. The American location from and about which most of the essays are written is elided on occasion through an apparently seamless translation from local to global constructions of environment. Read with an awareness of these national(ist) limitations, The Ecocriticism Reader offers a useful introduction for scholars who seek to explore the relationship between nature (s) and culture (s) on either side of the 49th parallel.
Nature and culture—this time with a Canadian inflection—are inextricably tangled in Deep Currents, and in the lives of its subjects, Roderick and Ann Haig-Brown. Like a stone cast into a river, Roderick Haig-Brown’s life radiated outward in a series of circles, from Campbell River, where he lived with his family and served as magistrate from 1942 to 1975, to the forests and streams of British Columbia whose protection he tirelessly advocated, to the many readers throughout North America and Europe who enjoyed his books on salmon and fishing, natural and Canadian political history. Though less well-known, Ann Haig-Brown’s accomplishments as an educator and activist are equally reflective of a life inspired by a productive mix of duty and passion.
Composed largely of diaries and of family letters, Deep Currents offers a glimpse into the private side of this couple’s very public lives. That it does not offer much more than a glimpse—a source of occasional frustration, as the reader ploughs through lists of speaking engagements, and correspondence with publishers—is perhaps symptomatic less of the author’s failure to penetrate the surface of her parents’ lives to their private depths as to her faithfulness to the sense in which, for both of them, private and public commitments were very much interconnected. Roddy’s determination to serve in the Second World War, in spite of his evident distress at leaving his young family, as well as his later acceptance of the ever-growing burden of public responsibilities which effectively curtailed his writing careers suggests that those commitments could not be balanced without some conflict.
That conflict is touched on only briefly, however, in a text whose tone is consistently—occasionally annoyingly—upbeat. The prevalence of such statements as "the hunting was a great success as always" is perhaps inevitable, given Deep Currents’ reliance on letters to family—documents which cannot bear the burden of truthfulness that Haig-Brown places on them by interlacing them with her biographical account. That account is also clearly biased; however, unlike many recent biographies by children of famous parents, Deep Currents is not a thinly veiled psychopathology of the author with her parents cast in supporting (or unsupporting) roles: on the contrary, Valerie Haig-Brown subordinates the daughterly impulse to "write back" to one’s parents to the archivist’s commitment to preserve the past. In this way Deep Currents embodies, as it pays tribute to, the ecological value of a selfless love for the physical world.
- Ways of Going North by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure by James West Davidson and John Rugge and Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris's Work and Life--An Interpretation by Peter Larisey
- Languaged Memory by Rosmarin Heidenreich
Books reviewed: The Red Shoes: Marget Atwood Starting Out by Rosemary Sullivan and Writing A Politics of Reception: Memory, Holography and Women Writers in Canada by Dawn Thompson
- Life-writing Practices by Joy Henley
Books reviewed: Beyond the Home Front: Women's Autobiographical Writing of the Two World Wars by Yvonne M. Klein, Great Dames by Elspeth Cameron and Janice Dickin, and Thirty-Two Short Views of Mazo de la Roche : A Biographical Essay by Daniel L. Bratton
- Regards sur la nation by Kenneth W. Meadwell
Books reviewed: François-Xavier Garneau: Une figure nationale by Giles Gallichan, Kenneth Landry, and Denis Saint-Jacques and La Nation dans tous ses états: Le Québec en comparaison by Gérard Bouchard and Yvan Lamonde
- Remembering Fathers by Peggy Martin
Books reviewed: Son's Eye: A Memoir by Charles E. Israel and Slipstream: A Daughter Remembers by Rachel Manley
MLA: O'Brien, Susie. In the Physical World. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 154 - 156)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.