the proceeds of the sale of said lands shall be applied
feet of frontage
the slash burned as a precautionary measure, under control
at all times
spark from the old sound embers
at the shoreline of resuscitation. breath on tinder
—Cecily Nicholson, From the Poplars
In early June of this year, less than a week after the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at York University, I stepped out of my apartment building in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood and smelled smoke. Soon after, a particular genre of photo began to circulate on social media as a cascading series of cities—Ottawa, New York, Washington, DC—saw the sky turn hazy orange in the smoke plumes from the wildfires in northern Ontario and Quebec. Over the first two weeks of June, these same cities would alternate claims to the worst air quality in the world. In the broader Canadian context, the early June wildfires of northern Ontario and Quebec came immediately on the heels of record-setting wildfires in Nova Scotia, including the Barrington Lake and Tantallon wildfires (Chisholm; Cooke). Weeks earlier, on 6 May 2023, fires had pushed the province of Alberta to declare a state of emergency (Meilleur). In British Columbia, the Donnie Creek wildfire has been identified as the largest in provincial records (Kulkarni) while the McDougall Creek Wildfire forced evacuations in West Kelowna (“BC”). In mid-August, a full evacuation order was given for Yellowknife residents ahead of approaching fires (Minogue). On 19 August 2023, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) listed 220 active, out-of-control fires, primarily in BC and the Yukon. In their year-to-date numbers on the same day, the CIFFC counted more than 5,800 fires and more than 139,000 square kilometres burned. This latter number, in particular, exceeds last year’s total by a factor of more than twelve (“National”).
Across Turtle Island, this summer has felt like something different and unusual—or, perhaps, something intensified. After the smoke of early June, the first week of July was named the world’s hottest on record (“Uncharted”); in late July, ocean surface temperatures off the coast of Newfoundland approached ten degrees centigrade above normal (Meko and Stillman); and still, out on the land, the fires continue and the smoke plumes grow. This issue of Canadian Literature, with its special section that extends the work and discussion begun in issue 251, the first special issue on Poetics and Extraction, has taken shape in the context of this summer’s fire season. From threats to life, livelihood, and community to the protracted fallout of smoke pollution, the wildfires crystallize the ways that risk is unevenly distributed in environmental crisis. In what follows, I work through a pair of related questions: How does an attention to the pyro– inflect our thinking about extraction? And, from within the strangled air of what Paiute scholar Kristen Simmons names “settler atmospherics,” how can those most at risk begin to breathe freely?
While fires have long been a planetary reality and a crucial ecosystem process, the research is clear on the relationship between anthropogenic climate change and wildfire intensification.1 Additionally, histories of forest and land management, including strategies of fire suppression, have altered ecosystems, paradoxically creating regions of increased fuel density that deepen the risk of more extreme fire events. Indeed, this is part of Stephen J. Pyne’s argument in his articulation of the Pyrocene, a “fire-centric” reappraisal and alternate narration of the Anthropocene that argues: “The sum of humanity’s fire practices [have] overwhelmed the existing arrangement of ecological baffles and barriers” (3, 5). In Pyne’s analysis, the Pyrocene arrives from within the simultaneous escalation of fossil fuel extraction, production, and consumption—what he terms the burning of “lithic landscapes” (82)—and the concerted extinguishing of “good fires” (2). Significantly, these include as well the “fire practices” that had been cultivated for millennia by Indigenous science; of the American West and Australia, Pyne notes, “The suppression of fire practices was part of colonizing the land” (135-36).
Pyne’s gesture to the ways settler colonialism has contributed to contemporary catastrophes of fire and smoke allows us to rescale the potentially totalizing effects of a term like the Pyrocene, and to clarify, instead, how particular communities are differentially impacted by crisis. This is to think with Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s notion of an “ecology of the particular,” a “methodological principle” that reminds us of the uneven distribution of harm within global or wide-ranging phenomena that might otherwise be understood to “homogenize, and as such departicularize, experience” (20). Put differently, for Tremblay, in the context of crises of breathing, changes in the air are “registered with particular acuity by marginalized individuals” (21). To particularize the 2023 wildfire season in so-called Canada, it is necessary to register the disproportionate impacts of wildfires on Indigenous communities. In mid-July, an Associated Press article citing Indigenous Services Canada claimed that “23,000 people from 75 Indigenous settlements have had to evacuate this year” (Webber and Berger). The same article cites Amy Cardinal Christianson, a Métis fire specialist with Parks Canada, whose co-analysis of the Canadian Wildland Fire Evacuation Database found that fourteen of the sixteen communities evacuated five or more times between 1980 and 2021 were First Nations reserves.
Christianson’s broader discussion of the state of fire preparedness suggests that colonial fire management strategies, as well as a lack of community and fire suppression resources, have contributed to the intensification of wildfire seasons over the last half-century. Additionally, however, the analysis of the Canadian Wildland Fire Evacuation Database shows how, for many Indigenous communities, the risks and disruptions of wildfire seasons exceed the moment of burning, rising instead to the level of chronic and debilitating. In other words, for those communities that remain on the front lines, there is an additional, enervating quality to the preparation and anxiety, the everyday threat. Simmons identifies the “foundational violences” of “militarism, industrialism, and capitalism” as “the surrounds of settler atmospherics.” From our vantage point, the uneven distribution of risk and chronic disease in the wake of the wildfires’ fallout might be understood as yet another articulation of the “normative and necessary violences found in settlement—accruing, adapting, and constricting indigenous and black life in the US [and Canadian] settler state[s]” (Simmons).
Developing her concept of settler atmospherics, Simmons traces the use of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), a mechanism that allows US states to share emergency personnel in response to acute crises. Outside of environmental catastrophes, including wildfires, Simmons notes, EMAC has been invoked only twice: to push back water defenders at Standing Rock and to quell Black Lives Matter protests. These linked experiences of carceral state violence lead her to consider Christina Sharpe’s theory of “the weather,” which Sharpe defines as “the totality of the environments in which we struggle; the machines in which we live” (111). Building with Simmons and Sharpe, we might understand settler atmospherics, then, as enfolding the sum of settler-colonial and racist practices and apparatuses that contrive an environment hostile to BIPOC life and flourishing in the contemporary moment. If, in Simmons’ settler atmospherics, crises of breathing are related to militarized police tactics, from the tear gas and pepper spray used at Standing Rock and Baltimore to the malodorous “skunk” deployed by the Israeli Defence Forces, in the Pyrocene we might also include the fallout from the fires. To position wildfire smoke in the context of settler atmospherics implicates intensified fires in historical and ongoing land dispossession via extractive projects, as well as in centuries of “colonial governmentality [that] necessarily strangulates” Indigenous epistemologies and “other forms of relationality and coalition building” (Simmons).
Could a conspiratorial collective breathing, or shared breath, open something akin to an air pocket, disturbing the smooth flow and function of the racist settler state? Sharpe thinks through aspiration as a word for “imagining and for keeping and putting breath back in the Black body in hostile weather” (113; see 108-13). Simmons, drawing from Timothy Choy, plays with conspire as, at once, breathing together and mobilizing conspiracy: “We need to conspire to strategize logics of agitation, which displace and unsettle.” Rereading Simmons this summer, in the context of the wildfires, I’m reminded of Cecily Nicholson’s contribution to the forum for issue 251 of Canadian Literature, which invited poets to reflect on how extraction figures in their poetics. Underlining the imbrication of community and literary work in her writing, Nicholson advocates for “community-based practices of mutual aid, education, and sharing material in modes that are lateral, reparatory, conciliatory, and humble” (156). This is a model for the coalition-building named above, a practice attuned at once to the differential impacts of various kinds of extraction—of so-called resources, methods, theories, experiences—and to an otherwise that aspires to something like good relation.
To shift from extraction to poetics, we can track this expansive, coalitional practice in Nicholson’s 2014 collection From the Poplars. In the terms laid out in this editorial, we might understand From the Poplars to model Tremblay’s “ecology of the particular,” attending to the entanglements of a specific place or piece of land, and spanning temporal, material, and discursive scales. The collection examines the history of Poplar Island, a presently uninhabited island in the north arm of British Columbia’s Fraser River that is the traditional territory of the Qayqayt, through an investigation of archives relating to the various colonial and industrial projects that have marked the island since the invasion of settlers. From the Poplars implicates, at different moments and in varying degrees, the island’s history of colonization; the settler-colonial imposition of the European system of private property; resource extraction, from lumber to coal and oil; and the military-industrial complex. All of this and more, in a mix of poetic registers and forms that unfolds new resonances on each reading.
Critical response to From the Poplars has already discussed the collection as a literary articulation of coalition-building that calls up the shared but differential experiences of struggle within settler atmospherics. Evangeline Holtz-Schramek, in issue 247 of Canadian Literature, keys in on the text’s references to “Strange Fruit” to read Poplar Island as symbolic of “the shared grief of Black and Indigenous peoples” over the historical and ongoing violence of the “white supremacist Canadian state” (61). Stephen Collis similarly identifies “a generosity—a wide-armed poetic solidarity—in Nicholson’s method” (157). In Collis’ analysis, the text becomes “a gathering of wounds, tangled histories, mismatches and obliterations . . . It is also a poetic politics that is firmly located in place—on the land and what the land has suffered” (157). Following Collis, the island itself might be understood as capable of a kind of utterance that circulates alongside or in opposition to the colonial archive, the undocumented conversations that Nicholson acknowledges at the collection’s conclusion, and the dense and layered intertextual references—like “Strange Fruit”—everywhere entangled with the poetry.
The opening pages of From the Poplars inaugurate a sense of the land as a lively presence, something exceeding the modes and mechanisms of containment embodied by the archival documents the collection investigates. Nicholson’s poetic line is varied, but a common tactic is a short line that resists grammatical coherence and that has the effect of posing two words alongside, with, or against one another. Almost immediately on entering the text, the reader is met with the self-contained phrase “stratifying dialects,” two words that enfold language, history, and the land (2). In the same way that “the maps are not the territory” (9), the histories of this place exceed the text of colonial archives. Instead, and throughout From the Poplars, a form of land-speaking emerges through sustained attention. For example, we read about “cottonwood trees” and how their “growing tips ‘see’ light / causing seedlings to bend toward the source” (3). The subtle movement of plants towards light returns later in the collection as something like a material mode of agency made legible through reference to Anishinaabe writer, and member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Gerald Vizenor’s landmark concept: “given to tropistic / survivance // toward light” (79). This recurring image might be understood as the island or the “resource” under erasure articulating a presence in and through the text. The image resonates also in the context of the collection’s relation to archival work, the movement “toward [the] light” or exposure of historical violences, obfuscated histories, and Indigenous ways of being and knowing.
Foregrounding an attention to the island’s material agencies and a critical interrogation of the language of European property systems, From the Poplars tracks the reduction of land to property through the colonial mindset that approaches land as “infinite and tractable” (9). Put differently, the land is imagined as endless in supply and open for settler inscription; tractable fuses the sense of manageable with the potential to transform living presence into title and deed. As suggested in the first lines of the opening epigraph, this is to understand the island in all its variability and dense histories through the schematic of “feet of frontage” (91). Here, on the penultimate page of poetry in the collection, the island moves quickly from the sales process—“the purchaser shall be / entitled”—to the industrial clear-cutting and harvesting of lumber (91). The “slash,” logging debris that Pyne calls “as volatile a fuel as any on the planet” (138), is “burned as a precautionary measure”; again, “control” is the operative term through which settler industry engages tractable land (91). But in my reading, something shifts in the page’s final couplet: “spark from the old sound embers / at the shoreline of resuscitation. breath on tinder” (91). The “old sound”—either the land itself, in the sense of sound as a geographical term, or the “sound” of the land—issues a “spark.” “At the shoreline of resuscitation,” someone breathes on “tinder,” calls into presence a flame yet dormant. Tinder echoes the embers above it, the words a sequence of near- or half-rhymes (tin-/em-, –der/-bers). At the end of the island’s colonial narrative movement through its parcelling out and desiccation, something familiar emerges; breathes again.
Back at Congress, before the smoke in Toronto, the topic of poetry’s efficacy sprang up in questions after an ecopoetics panel in which I was involved. In my experience of literary critical discussions, this concern about what poetry can do is a common anxiety, perhaps impossible to beat back. But thinking again of the forum in issue 251 of Canadian Literature, with its contributions by activist poets like Cecily Nicholson, Rita Wong, and Jennifer Wickham (Witsuwit’en), I am moved and inspired by the ways contemporary poets, writers, and thinkers remind us that literature can be one part of a practice that includes action away from the page. Similarly, I have been moved and inspired by the very process of editing the special issue and follow-up special section on Poetics and Extraction, by the work of scholars engaging questions of climate and extractivism across methodologies and positions. I am grateful for the pleasure of reading, thinking with, editing, and, now across both issues, seeing some of these pieces through publication.
The articles included here form a special cluster, one that extends the critical conversations of the first special issue on Poetics and Extraction. Each of these articles was initially read by me and Melanie Dennis Unrau, the guest co-editor of that special issue, and each was edited in relation to the critical work that our call invited scholars, artists, and activists to consider. In testimony to the increasingly interdisciplinary character of ecocriticism, the articles included here draw connections across disciplines and fields, working alongside, among others, Indigenous studies, history, cultural studies, political science, and archival studies. The contributors dwell in the discomfort of inhabiting complex positionalities and compromised positions, thinking reflexively about how to do literary criticism in the contemporary moment, how and when to speak from within settler atmospherics. I am very glad to be able to share this second set of critical engagements on the theme of Poetics and Extraction.
Emily McGiffin’s “Transatlantic Extractivism in Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return,” the first article in this cluster, calls back to the first special issue in its return to the work of Brand, as well as in its intensive critical engagement with a range of theorists—including Kathryn Yusoff, Imre Szeman, and Jennifer Wenzel—that grounds that issue’s theoretical framing of extractivism. McGiffin identifies a critical absence in Canadian ecocriticism, arguing that critics working at the intersections of environment and empire have insufficiently engaged with Black Canadian literature and scholarship. Drawing on Tiffany Lethabo King, she parses the ways dominant ecocritical traditions in Canada have reduced the settler/Native/slave triad to a dyadic schema that absents Blackness, in turn profoundly shaping how the field theorizes questions of land, place, property, and extraction. Shifting across theory, literary criticism, and a personal narrative of her and her family’s recent movement between Canada, the United Kingdom, and West Africa, she turns to Brand’s memoir as a text that articulates the Canadian nation-state’s historical and ongoing embeddedness in an imperial cartography predicated on colonization, Indigenous genocide, and chattel slavery.
Sasha Fury’s “Migratorial Embodiments, Paradox, and Entangled Gifts: Decentring Colonialist Seeing in Tungijuq (What We Eat)” focuses on the 2009 collaborative short film by Inuk throat singer, avant-garde composer, and author Tanya Tagaq, Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, and Canadian filmmakers Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël. Fury reads Tungijuq alongside other media and performance art by Tagaq, including an X (formerly Twitter) post during the 2014 #sealfie movement and the repurposing, in her Nanook performances, of settler filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 silent film Nanook of the North. Fury foregrounds her positionality as a settler engaging these Inuit texts; central to her analysis is an attention to the ways Inuit art represents an impasse for modes of settler perception. Thinking with xwélmexw (Stó:lō/Skwah) scholar Dylan Robinson’s theorization of colonialist “hungry listening,” Fury attends to Tungijuq’s rebukes to colonialist seeing and the extractive logics that underwrite both land acquisition and the government’s attempts to disappear Inuit lifeways. Self-reflexive and thinking with care, the article models a kind of non-extractive settler scholarship—one that may resonate for a range of readers thinking through Indigenous literary and artistic practices.
Andrew Law’s “‘Excavated from His Own Memories’: Excavation, Erasure, and Extraction as Generative Refusal in Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps” intervenes in existing scholarship that focuses on the ways Abel (Nisga’a) deploys appropriative poetics and erasure in his 2013 collection. Law reads The Place of Scraps through Abel’s more recent experimental memoir NISHGA (2021), which emphasizes the poet’s critical engagement with Canada’s genocidal residential school program. Thinking alongside NISHGA and Indigenous theoretical articulations of the generative capacities of refusal, Law approaches The Place of Scraps as a text that at once performs a retrospective critique of the salvage ethnographer Marius Barbeau’s Totem Poles (1950) and transforms that same text into a “doorway” onto the articulation of Nisga’a identity in the present and future. Drawing on Abel’s self-reflexive accounts of the poetry collection’s production, Law foregrounds the range and multiplicity of literary forms that Abel deploys, over and above the conceptual writing techniques of appropriation that have already received attention in critical responses to The Place of Scraps.
The final two articles in the special section shift their analysis from literary or cultural texts to public and government policy and political science. Adam Carlson’s “‘Such Are the Advantages of Autochthony’: Extracting Indigeneity through CanLit and Settler-Colonial Historiography” turns a literary-critical eye to the work of Barry Cooper and Tom Flanagan, two figures affiliated with the infamously climate-denialist Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the so-called Calgary School, a cohort of political science ideologues that has shaped and directed conservative policy in Canada. While other essays included in this issue aim to model a non-extractivist mode of literary-critical close-reading, Carlson attends precisely to the ways Cooper and Flanagan deploy reading and writing strategies associated with literary studies to manufacture the myth of settler normativity on Indigenous land. Both writers, Carlson argues, engage in an extractivist settler-colonial historiography that draws on structuralist narratives perpetuated by Canadian literary-critical scholarship. In this way, Carlson underscores the complicities of CanLit scholarship with the mythmaking strategies of contemporary right-wing policy writing, emphasizing especially how Cooper and Flanagan are invested in eliminating Indigenous priority and collapsing the distinction between First Peoples and settlers to prop up visions of regional and national identity grounded in white supremacy.
In “The Settler-Colonial Jouissance of Western Alienation: Mapping the Ideological Terrain of Canadian Pipeline Politics,” Isaac Thornley examines public discourse and governmental rhetoric that promotes the expansion of Canada’s pipeline infrastructure. In particular, Thornley focuses his analysis on the 2020 Buffalo Declaration, a thirteen-page document penned by four Conservative MPs from Alberta, as well as the public statements of Canadian politicians, such as former premier of Alberta Jason Kenney and the prime minister of Canada Justin Trudeau. Deploying a psychoanalytic framework that draws on Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, Thornley shows how proponents of fossil fuel development harness the concept of jouissance—“the (painful) pleasure taken in repeating failure” (121)—in the construction of an imagined subject of Western alienation with which the public, and particularly people in Western Canada, are invited to identify. Thornley demonstrates the applicability of psychoanalytic concepts to environmental politics, showing how pro-pipeline discourse at once constructs a desire for extractivist expansion and positions the subject of Western alienation as thwarted by outside forces or actors.
As before, I am grateful for the opportunity to work with the editorial and support staff at Canadian Literature, in particular Christine Kim, amanda wan, and Sharon Engbrecht. Throughout my writing of this editorial, I have conceived of it as building with the broader theoretical framework that Melanie Dennis Unrau and I articulated in issue 251 of Canadian Literature. My thinking here has been shaped by Melanie’s critical care, attention, and thought; I’m thankful for the collaboration in putting this work out into the world.
1. The US Global Change Research Program’s Climate Science Special Report collates recent research on wildfires in the United States. Among its findings: increases in temperature have led to a concomitant increase in the “aridity of forest fuels during the fire season,” and “increased fuel flammability driven by warmer, drier conditions and increased fuel availability driven by antecedent moisture” have impacted fire frequency and intensity (243).
“BC Restricts Travel in Southern Interior as Wildfires Force 30,000 Out of Homes.” CBC, 19 Aug. 2023, cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-wildfires-evacuations-latest-aug-19-1.6941544.
Chisholm, Cassidy. “Historic Wildfire in Shelburne County Remains Out of Control, Says Premier.” CBC, 3 June 2023, cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/crews-attack-shelburne-wildfire-rain-1.6864785.
Collis, Stephen. Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten. Talonbooks, 2018.
Cooke, Alex. “‘Many, Many Destroyed Homes’: The Devastation Left by the Wildfire Near Halifax.” Global News, 6 June 2023, globalnews.ca/news/9748845/halifax-wildfire-tantallon-homes-destroyed-photos-tour-homes.
Holtz-Schramek, Evangeline. “‘Strange Fruit Hangin’ from the Poplar Trees’: Cecily Nicholson’s From the Poplars.” Canadian Literature, no. 247, 2022, pp. 58-81.
Kulkarni, Akshay. “Donnie Creek Wildfire in Northeast BC Now the Largest Recorded in Province’s History.” CBC, 18 June 2023, cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/donnie-creek-bc-wildfire-jun-18-1.6880715.
Meilleur, Destiny. “Alberta Declares State of Emergency as Wildfires Rage.” Global News, 6 May 2023, globalnews.ca/news/9679627/alberta-premier-adresses-wildfire-state-of-emergency.
Meko, Tim, and Dan Stillman. “Ocean Temperatures Are off the Charts. Here’s Where They’re Highest.” Washington Post, 28 July 2023, washingtonpost.com/weather/2023/07/28/ocean-temperature-maps-heat-records.
Minogue, Sara. “Yellowknife Begins Evacuation as Wildfires Approach.” CBC, 16 Aug. 2023, cbc.ca/news/canada/north/nwt-wildfire-emergency-update-august-16-1.6938756.
“National Fire Situation Report.” Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, ciffc.net/situation. Accessed 16 Aug. 2023.
Nicholson, Cecily. From the Poplars. Talonbooks, 2014.
—. “Through Extraction.” Poetics and Extraction, special issue of Canadian Literature, no. 251, 2022, pp. 154-57.
Pyne, Stephen J. The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next. U of California P, 2021.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.
Simmons, Kristen. “Settler Atmospherics.” Society for Cultural Anthropology, 20 Nov. 2017, culanth.org/fieldsights/settler-atmospherics.
Tremblay, Jean-Thomas. Breathing Aesthetics. Duke UP, 2022.
“‘Uncharted Territory’: UN Declares First Week of July World’s Hottest Ever Recorded.” Guardian, 11 July 2023, theguardian.com/environment/2023/jul/11/uncharted-territory-un-declares-first-week-of-july-worlds-hottest-ever-recorded.
US Global Change Research Program. Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment. Edited by D. J. Wuebbles et al., vol. 1, US Global Change Research Program, 2017, DOI: 10.7930/J0J964J6.
Webber, Tammy, and Noah Berger. “Canadian Wildfires Hit Indigenous Communities Hard, Threatening Land and Culture.” Global News, 19 July 2023, globalnews.ca/news/9842936/wildfire-indigenous-impact-alberta-east-prairie-metis-settlement.
Max Karpinski is a settler scholar and SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Humanities at York University. His recent critical writing has appeared or is forthcoming in venues such as Canada and Beyond, Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies, and ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.
Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.