A Green Turn: Western Canadian Writers and Ecofiction

  • Ann Eriksson (Author)
    Falling from Grace. Brindle & Glass
  • Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas (Author)
    Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment. Douglas & McIntyre
  • Jamie Bastedo (Author)
    Sila's Revenge. Red Deer Press
  • Stephen Legault (Author)
    The Darkening Archipelago: A Cole Blackwater Mystery. NeWest Press
Reviewed by Rebecca Raglon

Culture, compared to nature, at first glance appears oddly malleable. Culture after all is often described as being socially constructed. Thomas King once famously and happily suggested if you don’t like a particular social ill—change the story. The discovery of the power of stories, the malleability of cultural forms, the social construction of everyday life, also invigorated green thinking: here was another avenue by which people could be persuaded to change their attitudes toward the environment, and with changing attitudes, would come changing behavior. Furthermore, this could be a particularly effective way to teach people about environmental ills. Bitter ecological lessons could be coated with the honey of language, the charm of a children’s story, or the accessibility of a romance novel. Eventually, culture would be transformed as the green message got out in multiple forms including poetry, popular novels, music, movies, and television shows. Such a premise is partially what lies behind the books under consideration here; books delivered to my mailbox and clustered under the label Eco B.C.

Of course this kind of optimism comes with certain caveats; US poet Gary Snyder pointed out that cultural change in fact occurs about as quickly as the movement of glaciers (he was writing before the true nature of global warming had revealed itself in rapidly disappearing glaciers around the world). But perhaps the metaphor is still useful. Cultural attitudes do appear to be strangely stubborn things and often resistant to change until disaster strikes. The issues facing humans, from climate change to massive species extinction, are daunting indeed. Will green books help chip away at the stubborn self-absorption of humans and the centuries of self-referential literature and philosophy that have nourished these attitudes?

The second caveat regarding the turn towards green cultural production has to do with how such literature is to be read. On the one hand we have the desire to change our story from the domination of nature to one more in line with ecological realities. Yet decades into this project, there is still a need to distinguish between the crudeness of propagandistic utterance and truly new expressions signaling change. This perhaps is the measure by which to judge any new green book. Of course it seems a measure of progress to have any attention at all drawn to the grave problems facing us. But perhaps we are past the initial naïve stage where such attention in and of itself suggests that we are now well on our way to developing a new story. The word is out and yet the crisis continues. How effective have we been in creating genuinely new stories?

Stephen Legault’s novel The Darkening Archipelago is a good mystery (the second one featuring the hard drinking and fighting Cole Blackwater). Occasionally, however, the eco aspects seem grafted on. Archie Ravenwing has his skull pierced with a gaff hook in the first chapter, but not before he has time to ruminate on grizzly bears, dead fish, and the BC ecosystem. Archie sipped his coffee, thinking about this cycle of existence. The mystery is a fine, cracking one, but Archie’s moment of reflection seems awkward. Often information of this type is put into a character’s thoughts or dialogue—a way, perhaps, to get information about ecology to the reader. (Similar informative moments are found in Sila’s Revenge—a lecturer’s entire talk at the United Nations is reproduced for readers—and in Falling From GraceOrangutan means person of the forest, Paul earnestly tells Faye, who is a sophisticated scientist.)

These quibbles aside, the plot of The Darkening Archipelago brings together concerns about sea lice, survival, and economic progress skillfully, the mystery highlighting the constant tension between economic and ecological interests. The detective genre is a good one to use for green themes; the fact that evildoers are found out in itself suggests a certain hope that environmental catastrophe, too, maybe be averted if certain people simply care enough to uncover the truth. In fact this is a theme running through all four of these books.

Jamies Bastedo’s canvas is larger as befitting an adventure novel that ranges from the Arctic, to New York and Australia. Sila’s Revenge is a sequal to Thin Ice, and in this novel for young adults Bastedo lives up to his aim of taking science and culture to the streets. Perhaps there is no better way to deal with some of the complexities of global warming then through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old from Canada’s Arctic. Turning climate change into something that must be faced and that nevertheless has an affirmative ending perhaps makes the idea of an overwhelming calamity easier to approach.

Falling from Grace by Anne Eriksson takes a literally small protagonist and pits her against larger ecological problems. The book is an engaging one, where a prickly Faye is caught up in the messy lives of protesters who arrive at her work site to save some old growth trees. Life doesn’t stop just because you are busy saving the world.

Finally, Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas’ lovely Flight of the Hummingbird is a parable for the environment—a traditional story, with a preface by two respected elders of the environmental movement, the late Wangari Maathai and the Dalai Lama.

The range of eco books here is remarkable. None of the authors slip into despair, which is also remarkable, given the state of the environment. All of these are good signs indeed if we hope to one day truly change our story.

This review “A Green Turn: Western Canadian Writers and Ecofiction” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 132-134.

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