Contemporary Canadian Poetry from the Edge: An Exploration of Literary Eco-criticism

by Gabriele Helms

To indicate our awareness of environmental issues today, it would be easy to compile a list of the organizations devoted to environmental education and activism or to draw attention to the words in our everyday vocabulary that used to be part of ecological jargon.  But it is our lack of interest in or awareness of environmental advocacy that I am concerned with here.  Why, for example, have critics of Canadian literature and poetry in particular shown so little interest in eco-criticism?  How can we explain this when we hear, read, and think daily about humanity's future in the light of accelerating industrialization, widespread malnutrition, rapid population growth, depletion of nonrenewable resources and the ozone layer?  It is not difficult to find environmentally conscious poetry in Canada today, but critics of Canadian literature seem to lag behind in its analysis (Ricou 1991, 3).  It seems as if critics still have difficulty in letting go of those thematically oriented analyses that regard nature and landscape as adversaries.  In much recent Canadian poetry, nature is no longer seen merely as what Northrop Frye once called "a kind of existence which is cruel and meaningless . . . the source of the cruelty and subconscious stampedings within the human mind" (141-42).  Many writers are attempting to redefine their relationship with the environment by using a holistic approach that recognizes both human and nonhuman life forms as equal and interdependent.


Ecologically informed poetry develops in a space where writers and their environments meet.1   In ecological terminology, such boundary or transition areas between two or more diverse communities are called ecotones (Odum 157), the ecotone or edge between these communities being perceived as a zone or band of varying width rather than a sharp line (Ashworth 116).2  Within this space, the ecotonal community commonly contains organisms of each community and other organisms called edge species that are characteristic of and often restricted to the ecotone (Odum 157-58).3  Using this ecological concept analogically, I suggest that poetry from the ecotone or edge is ecologically informed poetry that is the result and expression of a mutual relationship between writer and his/her environment.4  Thus, metaphorically speaking, environmentally sound poems constitute an edge species that is the product of the meeting and reciprocal influence of writers and nature in the ecotone.  Poetry of this sort is the place where "new combinations of the mind's life and the world's emerge, where a new language of balance and discovery finds itself" (Elder 193).5  Eco-criticism can help to analyze the idiosyncracies of these poems by drawing attention to the understanding of ecological relationships on which they are based.  In this paper I will outline a framework for literary eco-criticism and discuss a few selected poems, focusing on Anne Campbell and Fred Wah as two complex examples of environmental visions in contemporary Canadian poetry.

     Literary eco-criticism is a critical perspective informed by and focusing on environmental concerns, at the centre of which reside the relationships between wo/man and nature, both in the poetry and in the context out of which the poetry emerges.  Moreover, in searching for, in D. M. R. Bentley's words, "manifestations . . . of the feelings of responsibility, respect, duty, and interdependence" in particular poems, literary criticism can "participate in undoing the erosion of people's sense of their integrity and interconnectedness with nature" (1990).  But the need and desire to redefine the terms of human-nature interaction and to develop another mode of human behaviour does not have to result in ecological readings that insist primarily "on the mimetic and affective qualities of poetry" (Bentley 1990).  To insist on mimetic readings will make it difficult to avoid essentialist notions of such ordering categories as gender.  From a constructivist point of view, I do not deny the existence of an ontological, non-textual reality; what I deny is the possibility of making a statement about its "real" nature.  We cannot perceive anything that lies outside our own subjective experience; insofar as we know reality, it is a model that we have constructed.  If "the reality" and "the value" are not accessible to us, we have even more responsibility to develop and realize consensual truths and human values.  A constructivist approach allows me to avoid what Patrick Murphy has called the "critical maladies of enervated humanism, solipsistic skepticism, and paralytic undecidability" and to strive for an affirmative praxis (1991, 39).  It enables me to combine the call for ecological commitment and responsibility with a belief in the constructed nature of our subjective reality and the crucial role that language plays in these constructions.

     Literary eco-criticism is, of course, in no way restricted to contemporary writing.  Indeed, attempts to conceptualize ecological relations differently, for example more holistically, can be identified in poetry from various historical contexts.6   To facilitate my own theorizing of eco-criticism, I have focused on contemporary writers who have explicitly written against prescriptive and limiting notions of human-nature interactions.  Thus, my use of the prefix "eco" in eco-criticism foregrounds a sense of environmental advocacy — in the poetry and the critical approach — that is the result of today's increased understanding of the problems involved in dealing with nature and the environment, and of their broader social and cultural context.  An ecologically informed critical approach will help to place contemporary poetry in relation to traditions of nature and topographical writing, exploring where and how these traditions are challenged, expanded, or deliberately subverted.  Eco-criticism thus draws attention to the ideological implications of nature descriptions and the relationships that people understand themselves to have with nature.

     Eco-feminism is a particularly important movement because it draws attention to the connections between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature.  Neither feminism nor eco-feminism is monolithic, however, though most varieties of eco-feminism do call for a radical reshaping of the basic socio-economic relations and the underlying values of our society.   As Karren J. Warren points out: "Ecofeminism, therefore, encourages us to think our selves out of 'patriarchal conceptual traps,' by reconceptualizing ourselves and our relation to the nonhuman world in nonpatriarchal ways" (7).7  Eco-feminist approaches and their critiques can be immediately relevant to literary studies.  Murphy has explored how eco-feminism can turn the dialogic methods of discourse and critique into "a livable critical theory, rather than a merely usable one" (1991, 40), and how in turn dialogics can provide eco-feminism with a method that allows it to remain "an active, developing critique guiding praxis" (44).  Moreover, eco-feminist concepts can inspire and support studies that challenge the marginalization and patriarchal definition of nature writing or that focus on writers who are (re-)gendering landscapes and nature.  The "feminine" stereotyping of our planet in terms of Gaia imagery ('Mother Earth'), for instance, or the continuous reliance on metaphors that associate women with nonhuman nature, ultimately reinforce the oppressive hierarchical and homogenizing patterns of patriarchal gender stereotypes they oppose.8

     An eco-critical approach to a poem will explore the specific methods a writer employs to express her/his environmental vision.  The concept of "ecolect" as a language "variation peculiar to a particular household, or kin group" has been introduced to literary studies by Hugh Sykes Davies in Wordsworth and the Worth of Words (274, 319 n8) and has been slightly revised and expanded by James McKusick who, in a more global sense, considers the whole earth as the household or home (243).  In McKusick's expansion of the term, ecolect functions as a form of language that creates a linguistic analogue to the natural world and, in doing so, conveys a sense of locality and describes the interaction of writer and nature.  The ecolect can thus capture a distinctive form of expression related to the conceptual paradigm of ecology.  Detailed analyses of poems will be necessary to explore the specifics of a writer's/poem's ecolect, since ecolect not only implies subject-matter but also particular uses of language.  Such studies may include the analysis of explicit statements that establish an ecological subject-matter; they may focus on the implicit subversion of language habits that have been recognized as reinforcing a fragmentary and hierarchical view of the environment; or they may analyze the use of rhetorical devices, blurring of semantic fields, regendering of the landscape, and use of typography, to name only a few.


The kinds of environmental psychologies that poems from the edge convey depend on how their authors conceptualize their interactions with nature.  Alden Nowlan's "St. John River" is a poem that explicitly states its environmental subject matter — the water pollution of the St. John River (43).  The poem is less concerned with the reciprocal interaction between speaker and environment but focuses instead on showing the result of one-sided, destructive action.  The speaker who describes the river's pollution can only be inferred indirectly.  No pronouns reveal his/her existence; it is only from comparisons, similes, and an evaluative statement — "what most astonishes" — that a perceiver can be presumed.  Nowlan's ecolect employs both explicit and implicit strategies to convey his awareness of environmental destruction and human compliance in it.  Together with the use of contrasts and his own undermining strategies, they create what Fred Cogswell calls "the wonderfully bitter-sweet texture" of Nowlan's work (206).

     "St. John River" draws the reader's attention to the human horror of destruction.  With the exception of a reference to "some thirty towns," however, Nowlan's description of the water pollution avoids the assignment of agents.  This non-confrontational stance is achieved partly through the use of past participles such as "strewn," "torn loose," and "driven south," which reinforce the focus on the fact and effects of pollution.  Only indirectly does the poem introduce agency when the river's colour is compared in the first line to that of a bayonet.  Since the bayonet is a man-made weapon, this comparison not only introduces the colour "blue" but also the concept of human destruction.  If one recognizes the equal value of the natural environment and our dependence on it, killing others with bayonets is in the end no different from killing the river through water pollution.  By repeating the comparison as blue as steel" at the end of the poem, Nowlan emphasizes that it is crucial to recognize the destruction of nature, thus immediately undermining the preceding affirmative statement "that the real river is beautiful."

     Nowlan makes an astute point when he suggests that the remarkable human ability to hide what is unpleasant is at its most convincing in tourist brochures where the river "glitters blue and solid on the page."  But in "St. John River" the "river bottom" where the pollution is claiming its victims is also hidden or framed by the poem's positive and affirmative statements about the river's beauty.  What "the real river" at the end of the poem is, remains unclear.  It it the river's deceptive surface or wishful thinking on the part of the speaker?  While Nowlan is less concerned with taking action or directly assigning blame for the pollution, he shows that mere visual perception implies the danger of distancing us from the environment.  The poem plays with the notion of false objectivity, indicating the superficial and often dangerously delusive nature of our perceptions.

     One of the most striking differences between Pat Lowther 's "Coast Range" and Nowlan's "St. John River" is Lowther's attempt to expand our senses of perception (35-37), most notably in the semantic field of verbs indicating speech and sound.  As Douglas J. Porteous has pointed out, "[h]earing greatly enhances our perception of environment because it is a multidimensional sense, sounds being evaluated on magnitude, clarity, aesthetic, relaxation, familiarity, and mood dimensions" (6).  Unlike the visual observer, the speaker in the poem does not even have to be close to the object of her/his perception, because sound is omnipresent and fills all space.  Thus, the sphere described in "Coast Range" seems to be one without fixed boundaries; it can be "heard" from any direction or distance.  Moreover, the personifications of the mountains assigning them speech abilities indicate more than mere human projections; they blur the distinction between humans and nonhumans in the environment, thus avoiding the concept of hierarchical relation ships in the environment on which humans for so long have based their "right" to dominate nature.9

     In "Coast Range" it is wo/man's impact on the environment that is seen as destructive and hostile not nature's effect on humankind.10   The speaker's reverence for nature, the duty s/he feels to show respect for the mountains' humility, dignity, and rights finds expression in an ecolect that is dominated by personifications of nature and a view of the landscape as self-sufficient, peaceful, and interactive as long as it is not disturbed by human forces.  Lowther's attempt to give voice to nature by emphasizing the auditory senses is a call for feelings of responsibility and respect towards nature, but her final lines render this viewpoint rather problematic.  If it is good enough that "the shapes they've made in the sky," the shapes of the mountains that is, cannot be destroyed, if it is good enough that they will remain to exist as ideas in human minds, then there would be no reason to stop environmental destruction — a turn in the argument that seems hardly compatible with the display of respect and admiration in the rest of the poem.


An analysis of the ecolects employed by Anne Campbell and Fred Wah shows these poets to be more interested in capturing the reciprocal relationship between writer and nature; their poems are also more complex than Nowlan's and Lowther 's because they are self-reflexive of their own status as poetry.  Campbell's and Wah's poems indicate through their poetic forms and language use that they are the result of the tensions that characterize the edge in which they have been created.  To refer to these poems as ecologically informed poems indicates that they not only not deal with nature in an objectifying manner but that they have grown out of and reflect a more holistic concept of ecological life.  Campbell's "Echo Lake, Saskatchewan" (from her collection No Memory of a Move) takes the characterization of Echo Lake itself as the starting-point for further contemplations of the landscape by the speaker (91):

Glacier made
inland lake
far way from sea    with
no where to go
( how fitting for me
         to notice )

The first few lines of the poem define Echo Lake as an "inland lake" made by a glacier, thus locating it both spatially in the interior of the country, "far way from sea," and temporally as something created a long time ago by the slowly moving masses of ice.  The following rather discouraged statement "with / no where to go" can also be read in a matrix of both place and time: the lake is an expanse of water that is surrounded by land and thus unable to move like a stream.  Although the lake's creation has a long history, in its stillness it can not anticipate any more future changes.  The first person pronoun then introduces a parenthetical statement of the speaking persona about her/himself: "(how fitting for me / to notice)."  Since the use of the parentheses indicates a confidential aside, the ironical tone indicates the speaker's critical view of her/himself.  The self irony suggests that the lake's lack of perspective may coincide with the speaker's feeling about her/his own situation.

     The second stanza introduces the idea of writing: "I plan to write / a memory of hot / Qu'Appelle Valley."  The desire to write and the poem itself are generated by a memory of the lake, rather than by the immediate experience of overlooking the lake from an elevated viewpoint.  The poem does not present a survey of the landscape of the sort that we find in such topographical poems as John Denham's "Cooper's Hill" or John Mackay's Quebec Hill (Glickman 507), but a selective memory of a previous encounter with the land scape.  The speaker's reason for writing is the wish "to give expression to grace" that s/he perceives in the existence of Qu'Appelle Valley, the sun, the time of evening, and the stillness of the water.  However, the deep respect for the beauty and elegance of the land scape cannot be expressed and the desire to write is frustrated.  The contrastive conjunction "but," placed on its own in the middle of a line, breaks the poem into halves.  It is one of many examples that indicate the crucial role typography plays in Campbell's ecolect, for it creates a visual correlation to the shift in the poem's mood and argument and consciously works with the materiality of the page.  After the break, the speaker recognizes that s/he is not "working out that way," a failure owing partly to feelings of entrapment and suffocation as well as restriction: "evening is too tight and / this lake is crowded with / no where to go."  The repetition of the earlier phrase "no where to go" is particlularly effective in reinforcing the distressing feeling of stasis.

     The outlook of the speaker changes, however, when s/he is able to remind her/himself of something s/he already knows but may have forgotten, namely that "[t]his lake is a metaphor." After all, the lake does not denote the speaker her/himself, but only implies a resemblance.  The poem may not give expression to grace, it may not be the memory the speaker had intended to write, but instead it opens up something new.  It leads to a different conceptualization of her/his own identity and her/his relationship to the environment:

       I am earth
lake is river
     breaking through me      is resolution
       at hand.

As the speaker recognizes her/himself to be earth, as s/he blurs the boundaries in the edge, s/he also comes to understand that the lake is not confined or static, that it is a river as much as it is a lake.  The interconnectedness of all the environment, of the human and the nonhuman world, its interdependence and mutual implication, make it possible for the speaker to come to an answer to her/his own impatience and frustration: "breaking through me is resolution / at hand."  In his recent study of prairie landscapes, Don Gayton comes to the conclusion that "[niew bonds with the earth can now only be forged by personal explorations that go far beyond simple analysis and concern, into realms of imagination and myth" (146).  For Campbell's persona, the poem is a personal exploration that redefines her/his relationship with the landscape.  The plan to write a memory of the valley would have implied the objectification of the land; instead, its failure leads to a new sense of participation in and identification with the natural world.

Campbell's "Land Song" from the same collection explicitly describes and expands this changed understanding of the self in relation to the environment (95):

No longer
                   an observer
part of the land
        I belong
   my difference unique
the grass and me

The position of the viewer who stands aloof is given up in order to participate in nature.  To be "part of the land" means to belong to nature.  Not only is the line "I belong" crucial because it includes the only verb in the poem and describes the main experience of the speaker, but the phrase is also placed both in the middle of the poem and is centred within the line, which typographically rein forces the notion of balance and centredness especially in contrast to the first two lines.  While the sense of belonging and inclusion is similar to the feeling Campbell expresses at the end of "Echo Lake," the speaker in "Land Song" also recognizes the difference between her/himself and the surroundings.  To be part of nature does not imply being the same as nature; rather, diversity characterizes the environment.  And this multiplicity is not based on hierarchies but on equality.  Hierarchy is revealed to be an illusion, a concept that can only exist in connection with a privileged observer.  With the elimination of the observer's superior position in the landscape, hierarchy can dissolve.  When hierarchical relationships in the environment are eliminated, they can be replaced by heterarchical ones that accept "subset plurality within a system without dominant / subordinate ranking" (Murphy 1988, 165), a possibility that finds expression in Campbell's ecolect.  The concept of heterarchical rela tions is further supported by Campbell's avoidance of sex-typing of the earth and nature.11  She uses imagery in a way that refrains from inscribing a dualistic conception of humanity and earth which would inadvertently evoke hierarchical gender stereotypes.

     In her work on Isabella Valancy Crawford, Diana Relke has suggested that such an ecological model of the relationship between humankind and nature

transcends conventional Romantic conceptions of man's reconciliation with nature and the dualism which reconciliation implies; instead, it critiques hierarchical and dualistic ways of perceiving reality and suggests an alternative epistemology of knowledge based on equality and multiplicity (52)

Reconciliation is not the goal of Campbell's poem; rather, she explores the interdependence of all parts of the environment.  The abandonment of the position as observer is the speaker's initial step towards a sense of belonging that renounces domination and homogenization of and within nature and humanity.  The stasis / motion and space / time conflation and its implication of an eternal, dynamic present are part of Campbell's attempt to re-define relationships with the environment.  This attempt informs her use of language and her notation, as she seeks an ecolect that can convey her understanding of the diverse ecosystems and their meeting in the edge.  Writing, the poem itself, becomes the space in which writer and nature meet but also the product of that meeting and mutual influence.

     Like Campbell's collection No Memory of a Move, Fred Wah's So Far contains many poems to which an eco-critical approach seems appropriate.  These include for example "What Prevails," "Spring Geography," "Anthropomorphia," "White Lake" and "How to Get Across a River / Any River," which is the poem I want to focus on in this discussion (1991, 62).  Ed Dyck has said of Fred Wah that he "is one of the most de-constructive poets writing in Canada today" (197), and it is on his unconventional use of language and notation that most of the critical studies on his work have focused.  But surely, Pamela Banting overrates this aspect of Wah's work when she says that "while the content of his work is intriguing and its 'themes' heartfelt and important, it is his notation that not only makes his work new and exciting but in some respects precedes the development of the content" (100).  In my own reading of Wah's poetry, to insist on precedence relationships would be a self-defeating project.  Wah's commitment to the local and his poetics of place are of central importance and are inseparable from his style of writing.

     The structure of "How to Get Across a River/ Any River" is similar to Wah's "How-to" poems in his earlier collection Owners Manual:

Drive northeast to a point on the old road
where you join a cortex of scars left by loggers.

After the container stop and look north
below the ridge the mouths of two small caves.

The veins are filled with words, stories really,
and the further away they extend, the more striated.

The first two couplets consist of straightforward instructions that tell an unspecified "you" how to get to a certain place.  The landscape evoked in this poem is one that is embedded with previous information (Derksen 163): as the directions to "drive northeast" indicate, the territory has been mapped before.  That the landscape is filled with history is further indicated by the reference to "the old road" along which the drive will take the persona to a place where s/he is going to "join" a well-known place, an area of land showing "a cortex of scars left by loggers."  Thus, by moving to a specific place in the landscape just "after the container" and locating her/ himself spatially, the persona is also located temporally in the flow of history when/where logging has already occurred.  Here, as in Campbell's poem, a matrix of both place and time is established right from the beginning of the poem.  From the first few lines explicit statements about the state of the environment characterize this poem's ecolect.  What the persona is going to see at the designated place are the openings of two caves described as "mouths."  But the underground watercourses, "the veins," will not be filled with water as may be expected but with "words, stories."  Two semantic fields are blurred in these first three couplets of the poem: one refers to sites of the landscape (ridge, caves, road, striae) and one describes humanity, the human body and its language capacity (scars, veins, mouths, words, stories).

     The poem shifts from the instructive and then descriptive mode to a more contemplative one that addresses the situation of the speaker.  The coincidence of couplet and sentence closure that organized the first six lines of the poem is abandoned:

Just our luck to live here on this side of the valley
on a hill with a perfect view

and a garden.  Has the gutter on this
page, this old paper bridge, washed out


The move from the impersonal instruction to the personal statement coincides with a less restrictive formal structure, while it (paradoxically) moves from an open, although not uncharted, landscape to a more controllable "perfect view" and "garden."  It creates a (false?) dualism between "here on this side" where the speaker is located and somewhere else on the other side.

     The content of the final question — "Has the gutter on this / page, this old paper bridge, washed out / yet?" — moves the personal location from the outside landscape to the page itself and to the materiality of the poem.  The multiple semantic implications of "gutter" open up a number of different readings of the question, indeed of the whole poem.  If "gutter" is read as referring to a chan nel for rainwater, it reinforces the geological meaning of washout — that is, the erosion of earth by running water.  While this reading seems coherent with the depiction of landscape in the poem, it does not sit easy with the reference to the page.  However, the previous blending of semantic fields has prepared the reader for this shift: mouths, words, and stories now connect with page, paper, and gut ter because in the context of printing gutter can indicate the white space between facing pages of an open book.   The apposition that modifies the phrase "this page" further attributes the page the function of a bridge.  Thus, the connection is established to the title of the poem, "How to Get Across a River / Any River."  If, literally speaking, the bridge is a means to cross a river in the landscape, then what kind of metaphorical river or gutter can occur on the page that needs to be bridged?

     The poem suggests that in the landscape space and time are inseparable.  The flow of history, the positioning not only in space but also in time, the connection between past and present, may be experienced by the speaker as a river or divide that needs to be bridged.  And the writing on the same page, language itself, may be able to provide that connection.  The perfect tense of the verb reinforces the connection between past and present.   The sense of indefiniteness is carried beyond the last line because the final question leaves the poem open-ended, waiting for answers.  Moreover, the last word of the question, "yet," intensifies the sense of duration and openness.  The question calls for a moment of assessment, a temporary stop in the continuous flow of experience and language.  As Dyck has noted, the mind in process indicates a process that, pradoxically, is full of stops and unstable moments of stasis (200).   Consequently, this final "yet" cannot really be final; rather, it already looks ahead to the next move.  The word "yet" in the poem reiterates the temporal aspect of the book's title So Far and is an excellent example of Wah's interest in the matrix of experiencing time, space, and language as interrelated.

     Critics have repeatedly pointed out that geographical places are often used by Wah to generate his poems (Bowering 19-21; Dyck 200; Ricou 1987, 370).  The ultimate place, however, towards which his poems tend to move seems to be language itself.  Experience for Wah is only possible "through language, with no separation of language from experience" (Derksen 161).  Wah's experience of his environment and his attempt to create poetry that reflects his own interrelation with lived geographies is informed by the Olsonian concept of proprioception.  He does not describe nature, as George Bowering has rightfully pointed out, because that would render nature passive (12); rather, his experience of the land is a dynamic, holistic experience that finds expression in a holistic concept of language that resists our unconscious habit of fragmenting the natural world of which we are a part (Chawla 254).  For Wah, the interaction and oscillation between writer and environment, the experience in the edge, or what he has called "[plulse and flow, from inside to outside to inside" (1986, 118), the within and the without of a chiasm, two moments of one process or unity (Jung and Jung 78), can find expression in poetry itself.

     Both Campbell's and Wah's poems reflect on their own status as writing.  They are the results of the interaction between Campbell/ Wah and nature in the edge, but they also contemplate the role writing can play as a mediator in that interactive and exploratory process.  In "Echo Lake, Saskatchewan" Campbell develops a new relationship with the environment, a relationship in which hierarchical binaries disappear with the elimination of the privileged outside observer.  She expresses an identification with and inclusion in the landscape that makes her poetry especially interesting in the context of eco-feminism, which emphasizes the concepts of diversity, interrelationship, and heterarchy.  Because for Wah the experience of nature and language are inseparable, his poem "How to Get Across the River / Any River" finally equates the two, the implication being that if places and landscapes are perceived holistically, then the underlying concept of the language through which this happens may be holistic as well.  As Andrew McLaughlin has explained, "the images we have of nature are not reflections of the reality of nature" but represent fundamental choices of how we choose to look at it (318).  Wah points to the further implications of this realization: the way we will perceive and talk about nature will determine the way we treat it.

*          *           *

The readings that I have presented could be expanded into discussions of many other Canadian poets including — to name but a few — Lorna Crozier, Roo Borson, Dale Zieroth, Paulette Jiles, Don McKay, and Michael Turner.  The theoretical framework of literary eco-criticism could prove an appropriate means to explore the environmentally relevant relationships and issues that these poets address.  Certainly, the study of ecolects has provided a focal point in my own readings of contemporary Canadian poetry and has revealed a general move away from the sense of locality found in much earlier Canadian poetry to a new understanding of place.  Place is no longer only surveyed from an outside point of view, but it has become an opportunity, a means for redefining one's own relationship with the ecosystems of the environment.  Since literary studies have only recently begun to be concerned with ecological criticism, further explorations are needed.  It seems crucial not to insist on containing this exploratory discussion but instead to provide a space where we can encourage the voicing of another kind of human-nature interaction and learn the means to generate a form of literary criticism that can listen to such voicing.12  If a change in the approach to nature is to come about in our society, it will have to be at the level of perception (Chawla 262), and at the linguistic level such a perception can be reflected in the language of poetry (and its criticism).  To view ecologically aware poetry as created in an edge under the influence of both writers and their environments opens a way for writers and readers to advance the shift from an intellectual anorexia and complacency that prevents holistic views to an increasing awareness of the importance of our environment.13


A shorter version of this paper was presented at the biennial meeting of the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States in New Orleans in November 1993.

  1. It is important to emphasize that my general understanding of literary eco-criticism is not exclusive to poetry.  It could actually prove immensely valuable in a study of Canadian fiction or drama.  My focus on Canadian poetry results from my particular fascination with how preoccupied many Canadian writers are with nature and how their critics' analyses have been almost dogmatic in reinforcing the idea of nature as adversary. [back]

  2. I would like to thank Kerry A. Dawson for sharing her knowledge of ecology and her environmental awareness with me. [back]

  3. The effect exerted by adjoining communities on the organism structure of the ectone, i.e. the tendency for increased variety and density is known as the edge effect and the ecotone itself is therefore often referred to as an edge (Odum 157).  See also Lincoln (76-77) and "Ecotone" (359). [back]

  4. My approach here follows D.M.R. Bentley who has pointed out that an "ecological perspective that insists on the interdependence of all things and their environments or contexts" includes "not merely plants and animals . . . but also human creatures and their cultural artefacts," "imaginative constructs — the stories, the myths, the poems-whereby men and women make themselves at home in their surroundings" (1992, 2). [back]

  5. Elder also uses the ecological concept of edge, but he considers poetry itself as the edge and refers to poetry's landscape as an ecotone (210). [back]

  6. Actually, most of the studies in the Canadian context that use eco-criticism as their theoretical framework have not focused on contemporary texts; see for in stance Bentley and Relke.  See also Cook on the writing of environmental history.  The situation is notably different in the American context where eco-critical studies of Gary Snyder and Robinson Jeffers, for example, are numerous. [back]

  7. For other useful introductions to eco-feminism see King, Monk, Cheney, Zim merman, Plant, Diamond and Orenstein, and Merchant.  See also Biehl for a negative critique of eco-feminism. [back]

  8. For an excellent discussion of Gaia imagery and the need for altemate image systems see Murphy (1988). [back]

  9. A more detailed analysis of "Coast Range" may have to grapple with the issue of anthropomorphism, placing it in a broader context of Lowther's work.  Could Lowther's attempt to render landscape in human terms be said to reinforce the separation between wo/man and the land as other, what Murphy has described as "humanity's false egotism fed by anthropocentrism" (1988.  162)?[back]

  10. Compare Cook's comment on the writing of environmental history: "More recent environmental historians have a different focus.  They are no longer much concemed with explaining the impact of the environment on man [sic]; it is the impact of man on nature that is at the centre of their work" (7). [back]

  11. Campbell assigns gender only to one natural phenomenon in "Echo Lake." Syntactically, the referent of the present participle phrase "pulling evening around himself" is "sun" in the preceding line, but it could also be "lake."  In my initial reading, I referred "himself" to "lake," which coincides with the gender assignments in German, which is my first language ("die Sonne" [sun] is feminine but "der See" [lake] is masculine).  Native speakers of English seem to be more likely to choose "sun" as the referent. [back]

  12. Here I echo the words of Murphy (1994, 78). [back]

  13. I would like to thank Janice Fiamengo and especially Laurie Ricou for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this paper. [back]

Works Cited

Ashworth, William. The Encyclopedia of Environmental Studies. New York: Facts
     on File, 1991.

Banting, Pamela. "Fred Wah's Syntax: A Genealogy, A Translation." Sagetrieb 7.1
     (1988): 99-113.

Bentley, D.M.R. " 'Along the Line of Smoky Hills': further Steps towards an Ecological
     Poetics." Canadian Poetry 26 (1990): v-xix.

The Gay ]Grey Moose: Essays on Ecologies and Mythologies of Canadian Poetry,
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