Made from Stardust
- Don Kerr (Editor) and Stan Rowe (Author)
Earth Alive: Essays on Ecology. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Anne Milne
Earth Alive is a posthumous collection of selected essays by Stan Rowe who died in 2004. Rowe was a lifelong pacifist, jailed as a conscientious objector in 1941 and assigned to ‘alternative service’ teaching math and science in a Japanese internment camp in New Denver, B.C. Rowe fell in love with New Denver and eventually returned there to live and write following his retirement from the University of Saskatchewan where he was a professor of Plant Ecology. An earlier collection, Home Place: Essays in Ecology, was published in 1990, also by Newest Press. Rowe is also the author of several books on forestry.
Rowe has much to teach us about the relationship between humans and the natural world, and his impulse is to create a cognitive dissonance in readers to awaken reflection, engagement and, hopefully, change. In his engaging, accessible, sometimes folksy prose, Rowe challenges readers to reassess their fundamental orientation towards nature. Eschewing the term ‘environment’ as a “weak word” and the phrase ‘homo sapiens’ as “ignorant,” Rowe urges the reader to understand “the artfulness of metaphor-making and the definition of ‘definition’” as a means of confronting how language creates and entrenches ecological degradation. Rowe suggests that humans can use language more thoughtfully and come into new ways of accurately describing and thus experiencing our humanity-in-nature as mammals, as ‘homo ecologicus.’ Rowe asserts that we fail if we continue to view nature as merely external, as ‘environment,’ and he urges readers to actively embrace their identity as “Earthlings, made from stardust, humans from humus.”
Rowe’s heartfelt descriptive passages in chapters such as “The Eagle’s Eye View” display his love and lament for the lands he perceives as threatened fundamentally by reductionist thinking. In one of the strongest essays placed at the centre of the book, “What on Earth is Life?,” Rowe argues that the privileged view that ‘life’ equals ‘organism’ is deeply flawed. He compels the reader to practise a kind of small-scale holistic thinking which mirrors his own thinking later on in the book when he discusses how humans can and will face the challenges of living in a severely damaged ecosystem. Indeed, Rowe argues continually that traditional Western scientific ideologies and practices stand in the way of holistic vision and stifle new ways of engaging in ecologically respectful behaviours that can work to integrate humans into the natural world. While he suggests that the social sciences and humanities must be treated as equal partners with the sciences in redefining the human within nature and making “meaning without measurement,” he is also highly critical of the ways that entrenched liberal cultural traditions of individualism, progress and modernism have contributed to the denigration of what he calls the five marvels: air, water, land, sunlight and organisms. Always optimistic, though, Rowe believes that change is possible. He exhorts and teaches the reader to “think like an Ecosystem”—to bring connectedness, internal balance, rough, fluctuating equality and steadiness to our eco-interactions.
It is possible to nitpick and say that some of Rowe’s assertions are arguable; for example, the equation of gender and brain hemisphere dominance which has not been borne out by my experience as a teacher. Neither do I agree with his view that contemporary artists uniformly perpetuate an ideology of individualism, for there is much thoughtful, challenging ecological work being done by artists who have taken up exactly the kind of activism for which Rowe advocates; however, truly, this is nitpicking. For what Rowe engagingly offers to readers is genuine food for thought. This inspiring, readable, intelligent collection is a gem. Well-edited and contextualized by Don Kerr, the book includes as its epilogue, “A Manifesto for Earth” by Rowe and Ted Mosquin, an afterword by Mosquin and a bibliographic essay by Rowe’s daughter, Andrea Rowe. A fitting tribute to Rowe himself and an important gathering place for much current theory and thinking on environmental issues, Earth Alive is highly recommended.
- Canadian Forests by David Brownstein
Books reviewed: Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada by Stephen J. Pyne and The Eternal Forest by George Stanley Godwin and Robert S. Thomson
- In and Out of the Wild by Tim Bowling
Books reviewed: The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture by Tim Bowling and A Passion for this Earth: Writers, Scientists & Activists Explore Our Relationship with Nature & the Environment by Michelle Benjamin
- Di Brandt's World by Barbara Pell
Books reviewed: So This Is the World & Here I Am in It by Di Brandt
- Women Write Nature by Andrea Lebowitz
Books reviewed: Here in Hope: A Natural History by J.M. Bridgeman and In Nature's Name: An Anthology of Women's Writing and Illustration, 1780-1930 by Barbara T. Gates
- Rock, Paper, Histories by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: Deactivated West 100 by Don McKay, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination by Lawrence Buell, and History of the Book in Canada, Volume One: Beginnings to 1840 by Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Gilles Gallichan, and Yvan Lamonde
MLA: Milne, Anne. Made from Stardust. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 172 - 173)
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