When You See the Land...
- Rebecca Raglon (Editor), Melody Hessing (Editor), and Catriona Sandilands (Editor)
This Elusive Land: Women and the Canadian Environment. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lisa Sara Szabo
Ecofeminism originates in grass roots ecological women’s movements that seek to recognize and amend gendered social and environmental injustices. Social and environmental injustices, though inextricably interconnected, are loose terms that, like ecofeminists’ diverse theoretical approaches, encompass issues as varied as agricultural practices, conservation models, health issues, economic and political policies, toxic contamination, gendered and racist literary and historical representations, and the tensions between domestic and wilderness spaces. Addressing issues about women, wilderness, nature, and environment, This Elusive Land: Women and the Canadian Environment traces the shaping of Canadian environmental concerns through narratives and matters that have been historically situated as marginal accounts, especially in such areas as literary, scientific and historical contributions, political and environmental grass roots efforts, health, and work. The de-emphasis is appropriately implied by the parenthetical enclosure of the anthology’s epigraph “(precede me into this elusive country) / always this place, this latitude escapes me.” Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “The Caravan” fittingly encapsulates and reminds us of women’s under-representation, and “this elusive country” within the same parenthesis particularly emphasizes under-acknowledgement of women in relation to the land. The epigraph reminds us of the necessity to reorient traditionally male stories (historic, literary, economic and political) that have gendered perceptions of Canada’s environment and of women’s experience and place within this land in order to create a sustainable, healthy, and just change within Canada.
This Elusive Land is an important text as an introduction to both ecofeminist theory and women’s representation (or under-representation) in environmental and social politics in Canada. The contributors’ backgrounds are diverse: anthropology, environmental studies, literature, history, geography, community and regional planning, sociology, women’s studies, conservation and landscape architecture, and environmental policy and management. Multidisciplinarity coupled with varied ecofeminist positions are what make This Elusive Land a particularly strong collection. The authors challenge gendered assumptions and illustrate the ongoing obstacles in overcoming historically engrained male-biased narratives and policy-making. Though one may be tempted to dip into this collection and select particular articles, I recommend reading This Elusive Land in its entirety from beginning to end. Divided into four parts—“Explorers and Settlers,” “Making a Living: Making a Life,” “Environmental Politics: Issues at Home and Away,” and “Rethinking the Environment”—the anthology engenders a sense of a continuous, unfolding narrative. The introduction effectively demonstrates that the treatment of women and of the environment cannot be examined separately, and the essays together demonstrate contributor Heather Eaton’s observation that “there is an indelible connection between the suffering of women and the wreckage of the earth,” a connection that permeates and affects every aspect of women’s lives.
Too many essays stand out in this collection to cover them all in sufficient detail. Rebecca Raglon reassesses the ecocritical and literary value of Catharine Parr Traill’s natural history writings, providing a reading that successfully challenges “a contemporary bias that deems writing about nature to be less interesting than work that deals with the human comedy.” Catriona Sandilands’ “Where the Mountain Men Meet the Lesbian Ranger: Gender, Nation, and Nature in Rocky Mountain National Parks” explores gendered tensions between wilderness and domesticity as nation-building models, and the subsequent erasure of First Nations culture and de-emphasis of women in non-domestic roles in the historical and enduring representation of Canada’s Rocky Mountain national parks as empty, “wild and masculine spaces.” Correspondingly, Randall Roorda maintains that the “wilderness wife” genre demonstrates how labour division is influenced by “a domestic economy . . . based on mutual reliance.” Daniel O’Leary provides a perceptive analysis of Agnes Deans Cameron’s androgynous narrative voice, and her contributions to conservation. Melody Hessing’s “The Fall of the Wild? Feminist Perspectives of Canadian Wilderness Protection” arguably functions as the umbrella chapter of the anthology. Though Hessing’s essay provides a comprehensive analysis of gendered conservation methods in Canada, she provides a theoretical discussion about wilderness and domesticity that complements many of the specialized case studies of the collection.
The collection includes fascinating regional case studies, which illustrate that as both income earners and domestic caretakers women suffer the greatest losses. The chapters focusing on regional resource-based industries and towns could be about women anywhere in Canada: the subsequent economic, familial, and mental and physical health struggles that befall women are glaring indictments of government policies and gendered public opinion which continue to classify women as lower in priority than men. Other significant essays are Maureen G. Reed’s analysis of the economic and gendered injustices prevalent in British Columbia’s forestry industry, Sherilyn MacGregor’s research of the struggles and the limitations Ontario women encounter in “Quality-of-Life” activism, Jo-Anne Fiske’s “And the Young Man Did Go North (Unfortunately): Reflections on Issues in Gender and the Academy,” and Barbara Neis and Brenda Grzetic’s chapter about Newfoundland’s women fish-processing workers. Offsetting these case studies are inspiring stories of women’s local efforts to create meaningful and sustainable communities, such Katherine Dunster’s guide to community (re)mapping as political protest.
One of the aims of the anthology is to “fill a gap in our knowledge of women and the environment of Canada,” an ambitious objective, since what this collection highlights is the breadth of this gap; however, it remains a goal that would encourage a continued (and welcome) series. This Elusive Land signals the growing population of women and men devoted to initiating change as a community effort and shows that local movements are effective strategies for countering global problems. Yet, the anthology also fosters a cross-border community, for as the transcultural comparison in “Desperately Seeking Sisterhood and Sustainability” and Kathryn Harrison’s investigation of dioxin contamination demonstrate, many of the problems addressed in this collection are endemic worldwide. The last section features Marian Scholtmeijer’s, Heather Eaton’s, Anne L. Kaufman’s and Melody Hessing’s alternative frameworks that embrace feminine eroticism, spirituality, “gendered remediation,” and First Nations women writers’ conveyance of language’s power to affect human relationships with and the well-being of a listening natural world. This Elusive Land will remain a valuable text as one of the first in Canada to bring together a variety of voices and methods on issues pertaining to women, ecology and the Canadian environment.
- Haunted Histories, Storied Selves by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: Girl Unwrapped by Gabriella Goliger and The Obituary by Gail Scott
- The Production of Space by David Nally
Books reviewed: Textures of Place: Exploring Humanist Geographies by Paul C. Adams, Steven Hoelscher, and Karen Till and Maps and the Writing of Space in Early Modern England and Ireland by Bernhard Klein
- Alternative Routes by Christl Verduyn
Books reviewed: Paths of Desire: Images of Exploration and Mapping in Canadian Women's Writing by Marlene Goldman
- Before We Forgot by Michael Wells
Books reviewed: The Professionalism of Women Writers in Eighteenth-Century Britain by Betty A. Schellenberg
- In the Physical World by Susie O'Brien
Books reviewed: The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology by Harold Fromm and Cheryl Glotfelty and Deep Currents: Roderick and Ann Haig-Brown by Valerie Haig-Brown
MLA: Szabo, Lisa Sara. When You See the Land.... canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #191 (Winter 2006). (pg. 185 - 187)
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