As we write in Vancouver in the summer of 2017, British Columbia remains in a state of emergency as hundreds of forest fires continue to burn across the province. Wild fires in BC burnt an estimated 1,170,000 hectares of land between April 1 and August 23. In early July at the height of the fires, 45,000 people were evacuated from their homes at one time. After one of the wettest winters on record in Vancouver with 240.2mm of rainfall in November 2016, we’ve seen one of the driest summers, with only 1.8mm of rain in July 2017 (“Total Precipitation” n. pag.)—making this the province’s “worst wildfire season on record” as of August 17 (Ghoussoub n. pag.). As Aritha van Herk explained of the fires that raged in Fort McMurray in 2016, the boreal forest that surrounded the city was “a tinderbox: the aspen, spruce, and pine trees bone-dry fuel when the conditions—drought, early heat and gusting winds—combine to make the perfect storm of a wildfire” (n. pag.). The same “perfect” conditions have held in much of BC this year. Autumn will, inevitably, bring rain and the threat of fire will subside, until next year. Meanwhile, however, precariously dry conditions persist across our home province and new fires begin every day.
Of course, wildfires play a significant role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. They naturally lead to the regeneration of forests and their surrounding environments as fires burn through undergrowth, accelerate the decomposition of organic material, clear forest floors, and open seeds and pine cones. Wildfires allow advanced ecological restoration as densely burnt areas become ideal new habitats. When considered in these terms, fires are a necessary part of a cycle that leads to regeneration, revitalization, restoration, and increased biodiversity. And yet, even though some wildfires are sparked naturally by lightening, some are caused by humans, and they rarely limit themselves to forests. Fires are unpredictable. When the wind shifts directions, when more lightning strikes, when they jump barriers and bodies of water, and when they travel along root systems underground, fires are hugely dangerous to humans and the environment alike. Evidence of destruction has been clear in BC this year.
With both the destructive reality and the regenerative potential of wildfires in mind, this editorial was conceived early in the summer as we considered the implications of drawing an analogy between the recent “firestorms” of CanLit (as amorphously defined as that field has become in public discourse) and the wildfires. After a year in which the asymmetries of power and privilege operating within and upon the field have been newly illuminated by a number of high-profile flare-ups, we have seen many people drawing on fire metaphorically on social media, often with images of dumpster fires accompanied by #CanLit. Statements like David Gaertner’s succinct tweet in response to the distressing re-emergence of the Appropriation of Voice debates abounded: “If this is #CanLit, let it burn” (n. pag). It’s a provocative metaphor to think with, given the state of both our home province and our critical fields this summer, for its power to acknowledge the damage wrought within a combustible climate but also to spark ways of looking forward and affirming new futures. What does CanLit need to regenerate after critical destruction? What conversations might grow after the critical fuels have burned away the old and sometimes even decaying ideas? What might thrive in a newly cleared out ecosystem that promotes diversity and enhanced habitability for a range of critics, writers, and publishers? What kind of impact could shifting winds have on public discourse? What is the critical, literary equivalent of fireweed? Given the pervasively tinder-dry conditions in Canadian literary culture these days, what might catch fire next?
History reminds us, however, that “regeneration” is a slippery concept with which to speculate. Sometimes it means the emergence of something new, while other times it materializes as the re-emergence, renewal, and restoration of the same (even under the guise of a new ecology). The hegemony of the “old growth” is resilient because it re-seeds itself even while it is being put to flame. Hence, we witness dialectical cycles of burning, growing, burning, growing, but perhaps less systemic or structural transformation as might be anticipated because of the power of power to replicate itself. Further, fires are always burning, in both sustaining and destructive ways. This year was a flashpoint—conditions were particularly combustible, and the fires hit close to home(s) for many different stakeholders. But the cycles of burning and regeneration have been happening in all corners of the province, and the cultural field, for years, whether they get media attention or not. For many Canadians and Canadianists, fighting fires, experiencing loss, and doing the labour of rebuilding have long been perennial realities rather than ruptures that intrude upon an otherwise peaceful status quo. What seems important about this historical perspective is that it cautions against the types of complacency that will inevitably arise once this most recent CanLit “firestorm” dwindles down, because the questions it has ignited are not entirely new, and they clearly haven’t been solved.
If playing with fire is dangerous, then, so too is the metaphoricity of critique. And as the BC wildfires intensified and progressed this summer, the limitations of such an analogy for both the survivors of the fires and for CanLit have become evident. We might talk about how wildfires are natural and regenerative but that would provide little comfort to someone standing, staring at the remains of their burnt home and community. They would likely be uninterested in having their losses read metaphorically, let alone optimistically. Metaphors are helpful and necessary to think through, but they are not neutral and they shift in meaning and application along with the tenor of the real world; like fire, they are sometimes generative, sometimes damaging, and always doing different work at different times for different people.
The impact on writers, critics, publishers, and readers of CanLit this annus horribilis goes far beyond clearing debris if we think about the damages experienced within the literary community during the firestorm. Meanwhile, others have said “Enough!” and have set fire to exclusionary orthodoxies. One reason the wildfire-regeneration metaphor is imperfect for thinking about CanLit is that, while there is likely consensus that the destruction in BC this summer has been heart-breaking, for many, the idea of CanLit burning isn’t all that tragic. Indeed, it might be the goal. This is the conditional logic of tweets like Gaertner’s: “if” the inflammatory events of this past year are in fact what CanLit represents, “then” by all means burn it down. The question of whether the “if” is true is debatable, but it needs to be asked. The point is that many work hard to spark and stoke flames of change and find those fires consistently fought, dampened, or extinguished by an establishment heavily insured against damage to academic capital, power, and privilege.
The question is now, if we don’t want this heated moment to pass without altering the conditions re-cycled in literary history, what needs to be done in order to rebuild differently? It isn’t enough to sit back after the firestorm and let things grow as they may because things have a tendency to regenerate in ways that look remarkably similar to what existed previously. Doing so may also cop to the logic of the market and the sustenance of the status quo. So, it is not enough to ask “what might thrive” and “what might grow” in an ecosystem disrupted by fire. It is more about what type of ecosystem we want to actively cultivate, what types of new relationships we want to enter into with the land and each other, what seeds we want to plant and protect, which species hog the light and should be pruned or weeded out, where we might renegotiate critical claims to territory, and who constitutes the “we” that collectively takes these actions.
Meanwhile, as some of CanLit simmers, or not, the articles in this issue engage complex notions of home—as a space of failed futurity, as a space of refuge, as a volatile space, as a space to run to, and as a space of witnessing.
Two sections and nine poems in Emily Nilsen’s collection Otolith, reviewed by Nicholas Bradley in this issue, contain the word “Meanwhile” in their titles. In the collection Nilsen details fog, intertidal life, and coastal ecologies. “Meanwhile” signals poems about daily acts, family, and evolving versions of home (“Meanwhile, I Take a Glass of Scotch to Bed,” for instance, or “My Lip Sits in a Petri Dish, Meanwhile”). Nilsen’s repetition of the titular “Meanwhile” is mesmerizing. Repetition pushes it beyond a temporal pause or a statement of simultaneity, as dictionary definitions might have it. It moves past meaning “nevertheless” or still. “Meanwhile” also signifies “so long as a period of intervening time lasts; for the interim” (OED). Thinking about CanLit as a kind of home for criticism, meanwhile, we ask what futures will emerge from the embers of the intervening present and the interim.
We are in the meanwhile, it seems, in CanLit criticism, where conditions remain tinder dry.
- Gaertner, Dave (davegaertner). “If this is #CanLit, let it burn.” 10 May 2017, 9:53 AM. Tweet.
- Ghoussoub, Michelle. “B.C. surpasses worst wildfire season on record.” CBC News. 16 Aug. 2017. Web. 28 Aug. 2017.
- “Total Precipitation – Monthly Data for Vancouver.” Vancouver Weather Stats. 29 Aug. 2017. Web. 30 Aug. 2017.
- Nilsen, Emily. Otolith. Fredericton: icehouse. 2017. Print.
- van Herk, Aritha. “There’s more to Fort McMurray than oil sands—it’s a real community.” The Guardian. 6 May 2016. Web. 28 Aug. 2017.
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