Unanswered Questions

Reviewed by Graham Huggan

Greening the Maple is a long overdue anthology of Canadian ecocriticism, both a welcome and necessary addition to a rapidly expanding and intellectually exciting research field. The anthology aims, in its editors’ words, to “trace a genealogy of ecocritical approaches to Canadian literature,” with “genealogy” being a well chosen term for a compilation that is more likely to challenge the developmental orthodoxies of literary history than to confirm them, and in which attempts to find a consolidated national tradition—a distinctly Canadian ecocriticism—are as likely to be frustrated as fulfilled. That said, several contributors to the volume seem worried that it’s easier said than done to discover what is different about Canadian ecocriticism, with the editors claiming rather unconvincingly that “environmental approaches to Canadian literature represent not merely a branch of the American or British tree, but instead, to shift metaphors, a different but related species.” Related how? Different how? These are set up as some of the volume’s central questions, but—and this is as much a strength as a weakness—these questions remain largely unanswered, with several contributors freely admitting that Canadian ecocriticism, like environmental criticism more generally, often tends to operate locally and regionally rather than nationally, and that it has become increasingly global in scope.

Other big questions go similarly unanswered in the volume, not least those relating to ecocriticism itself. What is ecocriticism? Clearly, early text-based definitions, which stress the two-way relationship between literature and environment, have been placed under increasing pressure as the field has gravitated towards more cross-disciplinary, theoretically complex understandings of the transverse connections between human and non-human worlds. These understandings are “ecological” up to a point, but which point? And what do ecocritics understand anyway by “ecology”? The editors are no more certain about this than the contributors, so—as is often the case in the volume—the questions begin to multiply: “Is the ecology of ecocriticism a metaphor? A biological concept? A statement of political orientation?” (To which perhaps the best—and the most suitably cryptic—response would be either none of these or all of them; either something else entirely or all of the above.) Ecocriticism, in short, is a highly self-reflexive field which is given increasingly to question its own conceptual vocabulary and investigative methods; and as one might expect from such a field, it is as much a platform for theory as a mode of textual analysis, though as the best material in this anthology demonstrates—exhilaratingly in some cases—it usually contains elements of both.

It is interesting to see in the pages of the anthology how this conceptual vocabulary changes: from gendered cultural-nationalist attempts to link environmentally oriented writing to “a Canadian sensibility” and “myths of national development,” to putatively “ecological” modes of criticism which paradoxically see the natural world as a testing ground for human moral integrity, to the more theoretically and politically dispersed work of the present day, which imaginatively explores a variety of cross-cultural and cross-species perspectives, which frequently combines social activism and environmental advocacy, and which draws on densely cross-hatched scientific and philosophical approaches—such as biosemiotics, new materialism, phenomenology—that either see human beings as indistinguishable from nature or, in their more radical inflections, as inhabiting to what to all intents and purposes is a “post-natural” world.

It is also illuminating to see how critical confidence builds, with some of the better essays setting aside old-chestnut anxieties about national identity to address such disparate issues as Canadian/US bioregionalism, the ecological fallout of global- capitalist development, or the botanical characteristics of some of Canada’s national parks. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, then, is that the anthology ends with a coda on the environmental online newsletter The Goose that reasserts its Canadian credentials. If it’s true, as this coda playfully suggests, that Canadian ecocriticism has taken flight, maybe it has done so in ways other than—at least by implication—the anthology intends. This sympathetic British reader is left wondering, for example, whether the increasingly scattered community of Canadian ecocritics still has to be based in Canada, whether Canadian nationality is a prerequisite (there is not a single non-Canadian contributor here), and whether the anthology’s laudable ambitions to celebrate nationally inflected forms of heterogeneity and pluralism as the basis for global environmental awareness have really been served.

These too are unanswered questions, but to its credit Greening the Maple is well aware of its own absences and insufficiencies, and the anthology stakes no more claim to being representative than it does to speak on behalf of those—Aboriginal Canadians most obviously—who are unavailable to represent themselves. For the uninitiated reader, the anthology might present unfamiliar material in familiar ways, and certainly there is a tired ring to some of the earlier work, which tends to fall back on dated assertions of Canadian “irony” and “ambivalence;” but at its best this is a stirring introduction to a field that, despite the bargain-basement moralism to which it sometimes remains prone, is far more sophisticated than it is given credit for—and that represents one version among others of the future of humanities scholarship, both in Canada and elsewhere.

This review “Unanswered Questions” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 189-91.

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