In recent years, my thinking about energy poetics has become deeply influenced by my art practice as a photographer, in which I utilize bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands to make photographs. In this work that I call petrography, I use the same material that oil companies process into gasoline and other petrochemicals, but I divert it into a different path, enabling it to become a medium of representation. Part of the petrography method involves gathering bitumen in its naturally occurring sites along the Athabasca River and then working with it in an intimate way—getting it on my hands, smelling its pungent aroma, experiencing headaches and delirium if I inhale it for too long. Working in such close proximity to the bitumen, and collaborating with it to create images, has given me a different sense of my relationship to petroleum more generally. I think of my hand-gathered bitumen as a source of creative potential and even beauty, but at the same time I can never forget that it is dangerous, that it needs to be treated with great respect if I am to avoid serious damage. Experiencing this duality of bitumen in my photographic work has influenced my poetry and critical writings as well.
In my scholarly and community-based work, I have studied Indigenous philosophies and land-based practices of energy, focusing on what I call Indigenous energy intimacy—a form of relationship in which Indigenous people gather energy from the land through intimate knowledge of the environment and through an ethic of kinship and exchange that understands energy sources as gifts to be reciprocated, rather than resources to be extracted. The Indigenous teachings, stories, writings, and artworks I’ve learned from have taught me to think of energy as a mode of relationship to the land, one that is governed by the laws and ethical imperatives that apply to all forms of kinship, human and non-human. These ideas have resonated for me in my ongoing relationship with the bitumen I utilize in my petrography. If I consider this bitumen as a gift from the land itself, how do I reciprocate that gift? What are the ethics of engaging with a form of energy that comes from a living world that I am in a kin relation with? Should I consider the bitumen itself as a relative?
These questions came into sharp focus for me when I first read Métis scholar Zoe Todd’s article “Fish, Kin and Hope: Tending to Water Violations in amiskwaciwâskahikan and Treaty Six Territory,” where she describes fossil fuel as “a paradoxical kind of kin” which has become “weaponise[d]” through decades of misuse and abuse within colonial corporate modernity (104). Todd asks how we can begin to repair that relationship with our fossil kin, and she spells out the critical necessity of doing so in our contemporary moment. She also points towards art and dreaming as the most promising means of accomplishing this goal, asking, “[w]hat other worlds can we dream for the remnants of the long-gone dinosaurs, of the flora and fauna that existed millions of years ago?” (107). One way we can explore these other worlds and other futures, I believe, is by re-opening ourselves to the possibility of intimate relationships with the material sources of our energy—and this is where the world-making potential of poesis comes into its own. Poetry lends itself well to the work of intimate sensory connection as well as to the conceptual dynamism of dreaming, and it also enables an elasticity of thinking that can elude the delimiting and atomizing structures of colonial modernity. In the poems “Tar Benediction” and “Tar Curse,” below, I reflect on the gifts that bitumen has given me, and also the damage that the commercial use of this material has inflicted upon the environment. For me these poems are a beginning point in my attempts to think through—and to dream—the ethical and spiritual dimensions of my intimate relationship to petroleum.
Praise fossils, may they rest in place forever.
Praise lavender and its kin the bees.
Praise the tar, it clings with love to my hands.
Praise water protectors.
Praise the living drum inside our chests.
Praise medicine gatherers.
Praise the Athabasca, may it flow as long as grass grows.
Praise the seeps where the tar offers itself.
Praise the poor.
Praise the outliers, the off-grid, the eccentrics.
Praise the sweetgrass that grows above pipelines.
Praise the polluted, the tainted, the mutated.
Praise the stones who mimic us.
Praise bodies on the line.
Praise the elders, kinanâskomitinâwâw.
Praise each breath.
Praise always to the sun.
Praise the fireflies, the mayflies, the stoneflies.
Praise the young.
Praise the lens and the river of light.
Praise our tongues.
Praise the thin slip of air we indwell.
Praise those who listen to rocks.
Praise all my relations.
Praise the extinct.
Praise the worriers, the carers, the fighters.
Praise all we endanger.
lost ceremonies trapline barricades endocrine futurity jet stream wandering carcinoma bloom mercury muskrats acid rain bile duct anomaly empty money spongy pickerel words gone missing fire weather untouchable blueberries over/burden full-bellied hunger cellular legacies entangled mallards
empty bloom full-bellied mercury entangled futurity trapline carcinoma wandering legacies word barricades endocrine burden lost mallards cellular ceremonies acid blueberries jet stream hunger pickerel anomaly fire money spongy bile duct over/weather untouchable rain muskrats gone missing
entangled words cellular fire carcinoma ceremonies acid bloom untouchable money muskrat hunger lost futurity trapline burden full-bellied anomaly pickerel gone missing barricade weather spongy blueberries over/legacies bile duct jet stream mercury wandering empty mallards endocrine rain
Todd, Zoe. “Fish, Kin and Hope: Tending to Water Violations in amiskwaciwâskahikan and Treaty Six Territory.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, vol. 43, no. 1, spring 2017, pp. 102-07. U of Chicago P Journals, doi.org/10.1086/692559.
Warren Cariou is a writer, photographer, and professor based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His work focuses on the environmental philosophies and oral traditions of Indigenous peoples in Western Canada, especially in connection to his Métis heritage. He has published works of memoir, fiction, poetry, and film, and his bitumen photographs have been exhibited and published nationally. He has also edited numerous books of Indigenous literature and storytelling. He teaches in the Department of English, Theatre, Film, and Media at the University of Manitoba.
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