Nature’s Nation, National Natures? Reading Ecocriticism in a Canadian Context

by Susie O’Brien


According to the contemporary code in humanities publishing that measures the viability of a new critical area by the production of a reader, 1996 marked the coming-of-age of the field of ecocriticism, with the publication of a collection of essays edited by Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, entitled, simply, The Ecocriticism Reader. Like its predecessors in such areas as cultural studies and postcolonialism, The Ecocriticism Reader offers a representative survey of the field’s achievement to date, attempting to provide an answer to the question "what is ecocriticism?" by defining its "history and scope," introducing its "leading scholars," and presenting "seminal and representative essays"—the essays "with which anyone wishing to undertake ecocritical scholarship ought to be familiar" (Glotfelty xxvi). Reading through the collection, the aspiring ecocritical scholar could quickly form a number of general conclusions about the field of ecocriticism: it has a long history; it is eclectic in subject matter; its practitioners come from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines. And it is primarily American. This last conclusion may be drawn from the observation that, with one (Canadian) exception, all of the essays come from the United States, whether explicitly, in terms of subject matter, or implicitly, in terms of the affiliation of the writer. This limited geopolitical focus might not strike the reader as remarkable were it not for the editors’ claim that ecocriticism is a way of making literary criticism more responsive to "the global environmental crisis" (Glotfelty xv). The inconsistency is neither explained nor justified by Glotfelty’s acknowledgment of the collection’s limited geographical range, and her confident prediction that the next one will be more international in scope (xxv).

The present essay, it must be acknowledged at the outset, is grounded in a similar inconsistency. My first reaction to the American focus of The Ecocriticism Reader was a twinge of patriotic crankiness, which was not mollified by Glotfelty’s reassuring conviction that in the future the ecocritical field would become more international—nor, it must be acknowledged, by my inability to think of more than a handful of Canadian essays in ecocriticism which might contribute to such an endeavour.1 It is one thing to suffer the indignity of being overlooked, and quite another to be forced to admit that you might actually be invisible. The question, then, is why this should be so: is it the case that American critics are not aware of relevant Canadian ecocritical texts, or do those texts simply not exist? And if they do not exist, why do they not exist? Is it that the Americans are at the cutting edge of literary criticism and we just have not arrived there yet? Or is there a substantial body of what might be called "Canadian ecocriticism" lurking under names other than "Canadian" or "ecocritical"? Or might there be something peculiarly American about ecocriticism, something that, for all its globalist connotations, cannot survive north of the 49th parallel?

While this issue of Canadian Poetry should provide the answers to some of those questions, by demonstrating that there is indeed a healthy ecocritical tradition thriving in this country, I want to pose one more: why should it matter? Since questions of ecology transcend traditional geopolitical borders, what is the difference whether ecocritical writing comes from Canada, or the U.S., or any other nation? This essay is an attempt to offer some suggestions of what that "difference" might constitute, in the limited comparative context of Canada and the United States. Without seeking to refute the argument convincingly mounted by critics such as Tom Kuehls, that the principles of ecology and national sovereignty are, or should be, mutually exclusive, this essay takes a different tack, working from the premise that the everyday practices of ecocriticism and nationalism are radically conjoined, and often difficult to separate. By exploring this conjuction in a comparative framework it is possible to consider not just why some nationalist mythologies nurture ecocritical thinking more effectively than others, but also how the principles of ecocritism might be adapted to reflect the importance of cultural context.


Defined in the Introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader as "the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment" (Glotfelty xvii), ecocriticism is a hybrid form, combining the theories and methodologies of ecology and literary criticism. To make sense of it, then, it is necessary to approach it from two sides, to trace the intellectual and institutional lineages of its ecological, as well as its literary-critical, forebears. Ecology today tends to carry the sense, if not the precise theoretical origins, of the popular label drawn from the title of Paul Shepard’s 1969 book, The Subversive Science. That is, it has come to be seen less as a descriptive study of relations between organisms and their environments than as a prescriptive doctrine about the importance of conserving a balance of those relations in specific environments or bio-regions. The scope of this doctrine is theoretically global; that its practical application is frequently inflected by national concerns is evident from looking at contemporary environmental issues and politics. One recent Canaidan example of the entanglement of national and environmental issues is the controversy over logging of old-growth forests in British Columbia, a controversy which, in the summer of 1997, swerved away from ecological, and towards economic concerns. Notwithstanding the multinational credentials of many of the logging companies involved, the issue came to be represented by their PR departments, as by most mainstream media, as a contest between the interests of Canadian forestry workers and those of environmentalists from the "Amsterdam-based" group, Greenpeace (Matas A3).2 Obviously calculated to evoke public outrage, this representation could arguably be seen to play on sentiments stirred up by the more spectacular collision of nationalist and environmentalist interests that occurred several years previously, when Robert Kennedy Jr. waded into the debate about the expansion of the Great Whale hydro-electric project in James Bay.

With Kennedy’s arrival, the site of Great Whale—a site already overwritten with the mythological lines dividing nature and technology, Native and white, Québec and English Canada, and even, in the context of sovereignty debates, nature and culture—became a symbol of Canada’s fundamental separateness from its more powerful southern neighbour. The significance of Kennedy’s nationality was arguably heightened, rather than diminished, by his claim, in defense of his involvement in Canadian domestic politics, that "ecological threats such as acid rain, toxic waste and a depleting ozone layer, don’t respect borders" (qtd. in McNish A6). This statement, which implies, by way of natural corollary, that ecologists should not respect borders either, is on the one hand a truism of environmentalist politics.3 Though Kennedy technically had no jurisdiction over the disputed territory, he mobilized a rhetoric of justice—a kind of super-natural law—in the face of whose authority mere questions of jurisdiction would appear to fade away. On the other hand, Kennedy’s credibility as a spokesperson for natural justice derives at least in part from his affiliation with a particular national jurisdiction—the U.S.A. The strength of that affiliation is confirmed by the authority, both symbolic ad material, vested not so much in Kennedy as an individual, as in the whole Kennedy family,4 and in that family’s emblematic association with the United States and the values for which that nation stands. Kennedy claims to have inherited his concern for the natural world from his father, who "had a very, very strong interest in protecting the environment….He saw it as a vital part of the American identity…and a place also of spiritual renewal and challenge" (qtd. in McNish A6). Robert Kennedy Jr’s contemporary activism is thus legitimated by its roots in both conceptions of environment—as part of an American identity, and as a place of spiritual renewal, conceptions which have frequently merged into one another in accordance with the mythology of America as "Nature’s Nation."5

From a contemporary Canadian perspective, it is easy to translate that mythology into a history of American self-aggrandizement. Accordingly, for many critics, Kennedy’s arrival on the scene of the Great Whale debate could be read as part of a continuing story of Canada’s victimization at the hands of a nation whose attitude has been by turns bullying and blandly indifferent. Reed Scowen, Quebec’s delegate-general in New York, dismissed Kennedy as belonging to "‘an elite in the U.S. Northeast that has always seen Quebec as a nice playground’" (qtd. in McNish A6). While Kennedy denied this charge, he did little to refute it in his criticism of "‘U.S. consumer practices [which] are driving environmental destruction’" in a country which he describes as "‘one of the prettiest and wildest on Earth’" (qtd. in McNish A6). The construction of a depopulated Canada as a natural resource, outside (but available to) the practices of American consumers works as a variation on a familiar imperialist trope—one that has a well-established place in the history of Canadian-American relations.6 This trope supports a reading of Kennedy’s forays into Canadian environmental politics as merely the latest outrage in a long relationship that has frequently—and justifiably—been described as colonial.

But the situation is complicated and the strength of the metaphor diminished by the position of the one group of human players who have been, it might be argued, affected most substantially by colonialism—the Natives. While white environmentalists frequently argue for the preservation of Natives’ traditional relationships with the land—relationships they cite as a model for their own practice— the working relationship between Natives and environmentalists is often rocky. Just as Kennedy’s representation of Canada as "one of the prettiest and wildest [places] on earth" fails to take into account the places where most Canadians live, urban environmentalists can be accused of constructing an idealistic view of native existence which ignores Natives’ necessary implication in the dominant economy. In the context of these conflicted relationships it is somewhat surprising, perhaps, that when, in 1993, Kennedy waded into an acrimonious debate between Natives and environmentalists in Clayoquot Sound, he quickly won the support of the Natives.7 The symbolic alliance was to be cemented in a trip planned for the following summer, in which Kennedy and a group of Natives would travel down the coast from Clayoquot Sound to Los Angeles in a 52-foot dugout canoe called The Spirit of Unity—a pointed reminder, presumably, that, where ecology is concerned, national borders are quite simply irrelevant.

The conflicts just described indicate otherwise, however, suggesting that while the laws of ecology may transcend borders, the territories they define are circumscribed—practically and discursively—by the political bodies that claim sovereignty over them. That the politics of ecology should be both shaped and constrained by practical issues of sovereignty is not surprising; less obvious but equally important to acknowledge is the extent to which ecology as a science has, since its inception, been framed by these issues.


To understand the national significance of ecology in Canadian and U.S. American contexts, it is necessary briefly to review the institutional roots of science—and in particular, of natural history, ecology’s most direct forerunner—in the two countries. For pragmatic, as well as more complex cultural reasons, interest in natural history, which peaked in England around the middle of the nineteenth century, spread quickly to the New World. On the level of practical utility, the study of their natural environment was of paramount importance for settlers in largely uncharted territory. Natural history promoted the gathering of vital information about the kind of plant life sustained in different climatic regions, the location of ore bodies, and the prevalence of crop-destroying insects, at the same time as it facilitated the dissemination of that information aboard, thus advertising the wealth of new world resources on an international scale. In this last regard especially, science aided not only in the economic, but also in the imaginative transformation of colony into nation. In British North America, as Suzanne Zeller has convincingly demonstrated, "inventory science," or the mapping and cataloguing of natural phenomena, yielded fuel for a vision of territorial integrity and diversity that informed the development of Canada as a transcontinental nation. The marvellous revelations of natural history would, it was believed, inspire collective enthusiasm for a national project that transcended the limited interests of culture or class. As a review in the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist (1858) put it:

physically considered, British America is a noble territory, grand in its natural features, rich in its varied resources. Politically, it is a loosely united aggregate of petty states, separated by barriers of race, creed, local interest, distance, and insufficient means of communication. As naturalists, we hold its natural features as fixing its future destiny, and indicating its present interests, and regard its local subdivisions as arbitrary and artificial. (392-393).8

Unconsciously, or perhaps strategically, the reviewer does not acknowledge the extent to which "local subdivisions" and other "artificial" political factors were already defining the growth of natural history in British America.

Prominent among these factors was the clash of English and French-Canadian attitudes towards scientific research. Though expressed most overtly in the conflict between Anglo-Protestantism —which tended to support the study of natural history as an extension of natural theology—and French ultramontanism— which viewed the study of nature as a dangerous diversion from the proper subject of worship (that is, God)—this clash had political, as well as cultural dimensions. While English-Canadian support for such government-funded ventures as Sir William Logan’s Geological Survey of Canada grew steadily throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, French-Canadians tended to view such projects with wariness, directed not so much at the advancement of science, as at the involvement of government. To radical Patriotes, the whole English-Canadian notion of progress was suspect, its aggressively capitalist thrust an undisguised threat to the dominance of agriculture in Lower Canada (Zeller 34). It is perhaps not surprising, then, that French Canadian involvement in scientific institutions such as the Royal Society was disproportionately low.9 One prominent exception was the renowned naturalist l’Abbé Léon Provancher, who called for greater participation of French Canadians in science, proficiency in which he took as "the measure of the state of civilization of a people" (Berger 21). A similar view was adopted by William Dawson, the nation’s pre-eminent natural historian, who refused a position at Princeton in 1878 on the grounds that his help was urgently required in Québec to fight against the onslaught of ultramontanism, which threatened to overwhelm "the cause of liberal education and science as well as religion…and with it all reasonable chance of the permanent success of our Canadian Dominion" (qtd. in Berger 64). Thus an explicit connection was drawn by Dawson, and reinforced by the Marquis of Lorne, the Governor General who founded Canada’s Royal Society, between the development of science and the growth of the nation. The persistence of French-English conflict, however, made it difficult to concur with the above-cited Canadian Naturalist and Geologist review in its determined separation of "natural" history from "artificial" politics.

Canadian arguments about the relationship between scientific and national development in many ways echoed those advanced earlier—and, arguably, with greater success—by American naturalists such as William Bartram and John James Audubon. As Michael Branch has shown, the classification of native flora and fauna was seen to constitute an indexing of American potential—"a contribution not only to science, but to the cultural identity of the nation" (290-291). This process of national consolidation was contingent upon the capacity of the nation not only to generate knowledge, but also to house that knowledge within national institutions. To this end, as Branch has noted, from the early nineteenth century onwards, a concerted effort was made in the United States to nationalize research funding, to publish research findings in American journals and to create permanent museum collections to prevent specimens from being sent outside the country (285). Victorian Canada did not possess this level of autonomous infrastructure. As might be expected, early Canadian natural historians deferred to imperial authority, shipping their data off to British experts for classification. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, this professional attachment had switched from Britain to the United States. Not only did Canadians look to the more numerous and prestigious American journals for publication, but many conducted field work at the behest of American researchers, sending specimens back to the United States for classification and display. With respect to the extensive involvement of the Smithsonian Institution in Canadian research, Berger muses: "one must wonder what the members of the Natural History Society of Montreal felt when they learned that the best specimens collected in the northwest were retained in Washington and that unwanted duplicates were sent on to them" (23-24). If natural history could be seen to work in the United States as, in Branch’s words, "a kind of artistic and scientific correlative to the idea of manifest destiny" (285), it functioned in Canada to highlight the legacies of colonialism, both internally, in the conflict between French and English Canadians, and externally, in the nation’s deference to the imperial authority, first of England, then of the United States.

Though practically constrained by Canada’s colonial status, the study of natural history was, in a formal sense, peculiarly congenial to it. From both its early scientific foundations in Linnaean classification and its more popular grounding in William Paley’s natural theology, natural history supported an essentially conservative world view, defined by an emphasis on stability and harmony, and framed in hierarchial terms: for Linnaeus, nature was an "empire," composed of kingdoms and regiments of plant and animal life. For writers such as Paley, and Gilbert White, whose Natural History of Selborne offered a practical demonstration of natural theology, nature was the manifestation of God’s divine order, with each new species identified offering further evidence of the subtlety and complexity of his plan. Natural historians took special delight in noting how each species was ideally adapted to its surroundings, where it coexisted in harmony with other species: everything had its place in a universal unchanging order. For settlers in a territory which seemed in other ways so remote from familiar structures of signification, this doctrine was a source of comfort. Natural history might serve, moreover, to compensate for a perceived lack of cultural history in the new land: by Catharine Parr Traill’s familiar reckoning, "if its volume of history is yet a blank, that of Nature is open, and eloquently marked by the finger of God; and from its pages I can extract a thousand sources of amusement and interest whenever I take my walks in the forest or by the borders of the lakes" (65). Traill’s choice of metaphor here is instructive: by framing nature, along with history, within the pages of a book, she emphasizes not only its significatory function as a cipher for an unseen order, but also its location within a closed structure: the story of nature is already written, and not subject to change.

The theory of evolution, brought to public attention with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, signalled the end of natural history as it had been understood by writers such as Traill, while it paved the way for the new understanding of nature represented by ecology. While the response of the Canadian scientific community to Darwin’s conclusions was on the whole fairly subdued, the disproportionate authority wielded by conservative scientists such as Dawson, and the influence of the church over scientific academic appointments, arguably stifled the debate that might otherwise have taken place—and which did take place elsewhere.10 While Darwinism met with more vociferous opposition in the United States, by 1875 most American scientists had accepted the principal tenets of evolutionism.11 While some critics have emphasized the amenability of the idea of competition—particularly its extension into social theory—to a culture enamoured of capitalism, this argument overlooks the countervailing focus in Darwin on interdependency: the idea that the life of the individual organism is defined by its place in a complex biotic community. This idea had repercussions far beyond the realm of science, as it came to shape such literary and philosophical movements as naturalism and pragmatism.12 As a scientific theory, it was vital to the development of ecology.

Though the word ecology (or oekologie) was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel as a description of the science of relations between organisms and their environments, the label did not so much mark the birth of a movement as offer a loose container for a number of different scientific approaches, which had in common a rejection of traditional mechanistic views of science in favour of an emphasis on organicism. While it had a clear scientific basis, this emphasis was informed, sometimes explicitly, by the echoes of a Romanticist critique of the excessive rationalism of the enlightenment. Thus ecology from its beginnings was an anti-scientific science, defined, in the words of Barrington Moore, the first editor of the journal Ecology, not so much by a specific methodology or field of inquiry as by a special "point of view" (qtd. in Worster 203). The philosophical underpinnings of ecology made it—like natural history before it— accessible to amateurs; it was, as William Howarth put it, "a vernacular and democratic science" (73).13 This anti-academic emphasis, combined with its focus on field rather than laboratory work, enhanced the perception of ecology as a subversive pursuit whose practitioners were rugged individualists and iconoclasts.14 This perception persisted in spite of the increasing professionalization of the field of ecology during the early twentieth century, as evidenced by the funding of research and the appointment of academic chairs.

It may be argued that it was because of, rather than in spite of, its apparently contradictory emphases—on professionalism and democratic appeal, interdependence and individualism—that ecology proved particularly congenial to American society. On the most obvious level, some of the very aspects of evolutionism which had most offended colonial sensibilities in Canada—its emphasis on radical change, its destabilization of hierarchy—had lent weight, at least metaphorically, to the revolutionist ideology of America. More specifically, the Darwinist premise of a human character inspired by the same genetically programmed instincts that motivates animals—a premise that offended conservative political beliefs in the importance of culture and tradition for the preservation and transmission of human values—could be taken to support a republican argument not for the rejection of culture, but for the generation of a new culture, based on nature. Thus Darwinism, and later, and to an even greater extent, ecology, offered scientistic credibility to the much older idea of the United States as "nature’s nation," a country whose rapid economic growth bore witness not so much to its adoption of a particular ethic of development, as to its obedience to natural law.

For writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, the connection between the economy of the nation and the biology of its individual citizens was not merely a rhetorical figure, but an expression of the Transcendentalist principle of correspondence, whereby every living thing expressed the spirit of the whole. This expression, Emerson believed, would be most clearly realized in the American republic, a place where "a nation of men [would] for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men (115). While the science of ecology could not countenance the concept of the Divine Soul, the Transcendentalist doctrine of holistic correspondence found a credible echo in the famous dictum advanced by Ernst Haeckel, that phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny (326)—that the development of the individual reiterates all the stages in the evolution of the species. This principle could provide a scientific correlative to the concept of e pluribus unum, according to which the American people are joined, by natural law and voluntary agreement, into a single body. While this analogical appropriation of ecological principles might seem suspect from a purely scientific perspective, it is sanctioned from a discursive perspective by the form of ecology itself. For if the language of traditonal biology is characterized by linear precision, ecology introduces the more wayward—more literary—significations of metaphor and homology. This figural shift may be read, Howarth has suggested, within the context of the larger grammatical shift that occurred when the noun-based Linnaean system of classification was replaced by the Darwinian concept of evolution, whose emphasis on change and variation demanded the dynamic force of the verb (72). This shift in grammatical focus, combined with its appropriation of the literary figures of metaphor and analogy, goes some way towards explaining the force of ecology as narrative.15

What the grammar of ecology does not explain is why or how that narrative could be appropriated to nationalist ends; after all, one of the politically subversive implications of ecology is its implicit rejection of mere political boundaries in favour of the bio-regions that sustain all life, human and otherwise. If, in ecology, "there is to be no interposing mechanism between man and man, man and thing and man and nature," Anna Bramwell reasons, "neither must there be any wasteful, artificial state mechanisms, no bureaucracy, no unproductive ‘Thing" in [William] Cobbett’s words" (17). Paradoxically, it is in its very hostility towards artificial political mechanisms that ecology—the anti-scientific science—resonates so strongly with the cultural mythology of the anti-state state of America. This affinity is not, clearly, based on logically congruent visions of "nature;" neither, however, can it be put down to ideological coincidence. I would suggest, rather, that the compatibility of the discourse of ecology with that of an American national mythology is tied to the question of representation. This question leads into the realm of language and literature, without departing from the realm of politics. The connection between those realms is particularly evident in the context of postcolonial cultures such as Canada and the United States, where defining a sense of relationship to place is explicitly predicated on the negotiation of questions of symbolic and political representation.16 That is to say, "representation" mediates the individual’s relationship to place both in the sense of the linguistic structure through which s/he symbolically knows it, and in the sense of the political structure through which s/he materially possesses it. In both senses, representation has carried a different meaning in Canada than it has in the United States.

Since John Cotton reminded the Puritan emigrants from England of God’s convenant with his chosen people—"I will plant them, and what follows from thence? They shall dwell in their own place" (13)—Americans’ mythological relationship to the land has been structured around the idea of promise: the continent of North America will be the site of the fulfillment of God’s word. Inherent in the meaning of the promise is not only a guarantee of some form of material reward, but also the assurance that language will deliver, that words will issue in meaning, or truth. These ideas come together in the mythology of America as the apocalyptic culmination of Old World history. The land, in this mythology, is not merely the site on which the Christian promise of revelation and the political promise of emancipation are played out, but is, rather, the literal embodiment of divine and, by extension, natural law. Myra Jehlen suggests that this concept of "American incarnation," elaborated in her book of that title, is predicated on the myth of discovery, according to which the contingencies of history are resolved in the solidity of geography—Old World quest narratives realized as empirical fact. As Jehlen puts it, "when the liberal ideal fused with the material landscape, it produced an ‘America’ that was not an allegory, for its meaning was not detachable, but symbol, its meaning inherent in its matter" (9). The "promise" of America was thus in one sense the promise of an unmediated possession of place—a possession confirmed with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which fulfilled in symbolic and material terms the guarantee of direct representation.17 American history, then, in Jehlen’s terms, was "from the start an inspirational story whose fairytale beginning, once upon a time, promised a transcendent resolution" (6).18

The rhetoric of ecology can be enlisted in the construction of an equally inspirational story. As Bramwell has noted, ecology as a normative doctrine is predicted on the possibility, and the desirability, of dismantling the unproductive "Thing" that separates humanity from the natural world; the consequence will be the revelation of truth and the attainment of sustainable harmony. In that sense, it is potentially, if not inherently, an apocalyptic doctrine, explaining the paradox observed by Bramwell, that ecologists are "optimistic, in the sense that there is no original sin and nature is harmonious," and also "pessimistic, fearing waste, irreversible decline and the ruin of the environment" (17). This paradox, which is evident in such ecological classics as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, also informs a long tradition of American apocalyptic writing.19

That English Canada does not have a strong tradition of apocalyptic writing is partly attributable to a history of settlement which was not informed by the powerful impetus of the promise. While early Canadian settlers, like their American counterparts, emigrated in hopes of improving their circumstances, most sought to enhance, not to transcend, their position within a pre-existing cultural structure. Their more conservative dreams were supported by social realities in British North America, where, by the time most settlers arrived, the illusion of a "virgin" land had long ago been compromised by the presence of European economic and political infrastructure. Thus, where, in the United States, the westward movement of settlement could be read as an expansion consistent with the progressive revelation of national identity, most Canadian settlers’ relationship to place was mediated by an already-existing structure of British law. Where the American settler could legitimate his position as being "at home," in the sense of claiming a prelapsarian connection to his environment, sanctified by natural law, the Canadian was always already subject to another body, of local, and by extension, of imperial government. With the arrival of Loyalists following the American Revolution, that fact of subjection was turned, for reasons that were only partly strategic, into a virtue to be defended.

According to its very definition as a British colony, then, Canada was governed by an extrinsic law—a law whose non-organic relationship to its subjects was highlighted by its conveyance through a language that was manifestly not grounded in Canadian experience. This condition of linguistic alienation was compounded, in the wake of American independence, by proximity to a nation in which the English language had become to a large extent (and in more than one sense) naturalized. Dennis Lee describes the Canadian discursive situation metaphorically, in terms of the silence, or otherness, that always inhabits speech or writing in English in Canada. E.D. Blodgett extends this argument, enlisting the somewhat unlikely aid of Schiller to suggest that the difference between American and Canadian literary attitudes is analogous to the difference between naive and sentimental poetry. "The poet," Schiller asserts, "either is nature or he will seek it. The former constitutes the naive, the second the sentimental poet" (Schiller 38). While the naive (or classical) poet enjoys the position of a direct and unmediated relationship with his subject, the overwhelming experience for the sentimental poet is one of loss and disjunction: the sentimental poet writes from the awareness of a split between reality and his own awareness: "the naive is perceived in unity, a lack of differentiation, a possession of ‘the pure unity of origin.’ The sentimental is perceived in conflict, infinite elaboration, a sense of alienation, and an impulsion, if I might be forgiven the apparent anachronism, to unhide the hidden [cf. Kroetsch]" (Blodgett 147). Blodgett extends his clearly telegraphed conclusion, that we might associate the naive with an American foundationalism, the sentimental, with a Canadian anti-foundationalism, one step further (for some perhaps one step too far) with his observation that "naive" is derived from the Latin Nativus, "what is Native or inborn and cognate with nation" (147). The American, by implication, is characterized by an unmediated relationship—or at least the belief in the possibility of an unmediated relationship—not just with nature, but also with nation, and with nature through nation. The Canadian, by contrast, is plagued by an awareness of mediation, of the presence of language as language, a structure through which nature—and nation—can never be directly experienced but must always be translated.20 This has not stopped English Canadians from writing about nature. It does, however, mitigate against imagining a relationship with nature that is coextensive with the political bonds of national citizenship.21 To suggest that nature, in Canadian nature writing, is incommensurate with nation is not to suggest that all, or even most, American nature writers are explicitly nationalist. It is a peculiarity of the official narrative of America, however, that it is those writers who endorse civil disobedience—Thoreau and, latterly, Edward Abbey—who, in one sense, appear most thoroughly American. And it is those writers whose works have helped to inspire the development of ecocriticism in the United States.


This brings us, finally, to the principal question that this paper seeks to address: why has ecocriticism burgeoned in the American literary academy, but not in the Canadian? This question is partly answered by the foregoing discussion about the history of ecology in Canada and the United States; a more complete picture can be gained by considering ecocriticism in the context of literary criticism. In arguing for a significant relationship between ecocriticism and American literary criticism, I do not mean to suggest that it has radically shaped critical practice in the U.S., that ecocritics have successfully stormed the barricades of the MLA and forced the environment onto curricula across the country. At the present time, there is a handful of professors of literature and the environment teaching in the United States, and "nature writing" is still fairly marginal, remaining, as one critic puts it, "more of an enclave than, for example, the canons of American ethnic literatures" (Buell 8). For all its marginality, however, and even specifically in its marginality, ecocriticism in the United States reflects the broader critical tradition in ways that few of its practitioners have acknowledged.

Some of the reasons for this relative inattention to critical environment are grounded in the logical (or ideological) premises of a criticism that explicitly focuses its attention on the natural environment. The focus extends to the rhetoric of ecocriticism, which tends to have an organicist focus: thus the "field" of environmental literary studies was "planted" in the mid-’eighties, and in the early ’nineties it "grew" (Glotfelty xvii). Later in the Introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader, Glotfelty acknowledges the many kinds of studies that "huddle under the spreading tree of ecological literary criticism," and, at the risk of mixing (cross-breeding?) metaphors, writes of her unsuccessful attempt to "devise a branding system that would make sense of this mixed herd" (xxii). The use of organicist metaphors reflects an acknowledged frustration on the part of many ecocritics with the remoteness of the academy from the beauty and, more significantly, the fragility, of the physical world. "Given the fact that most of us in the profession of English would be offended at not being considered environmentally conscious and environmentally aware," as Glen A. Love remarks, "how are we to account for our general failure to apply any sense of this awareness to our daily work?" (227). In some ecocritical writing, this failure is represented in the form of a split within the critics themselves, who seek to reconcile the difficulty of living in the "two very different worlds" of critical theory and deep ecology (Campbell 125). The belief that "there must be some way to bridge the gap" (Campbell 126) is informed by a faith in the possibility and the desirability of becoming, quite literally, organic intellectuals, whose connection to the world around them is unmediated by institutional structure or political contradictions. The tendency to downplay academic affiliations in favour of an emphasis on the integrated citizen/scholar whose life/work is grounded in the wider community, however that may be envisioned, is part of a long-standing tradition in the American academy, beginning with Emerson’s American Scholar, and extending to the contemporary scholarship of the so-called New Americanists.22

For some ecocritics, the problem is not so much the institutional context as the literally ungrounded content of contemporary literary criticism. Noting the tendency of critics to turn all literary subjects—including nature—into discursive constructs, Lawrence Buell asks the question that implicitly motivates much ecocriticism: "must literature always lead us away from the physical world, never back to it?" (11). Sue Ellen Campbell highlights the abstruse character of contemporary theory by imagining what eco-activist Abbey’s response might be to the writing of Jacques Derrida: "‘[t]hat arrogant, incomprehensible, disembodied lump of brain…. He’s more convoluted than the Grand Canyon. That deconstructive gibberish, it’s so French—pretentious and citified and elitist and esoteric. It’s about as clear as smog. I bet the closest he ever gets to the real world is a glass of Perrier and a bottle of artificial mesquite smoke’" (125). On its own, this obviously exaggerated image of the opposition between ecology and deconstruction gives the impression of ecocriticism as founded on a slightly paranoid defence of American authenticity against the denaturing threat of Continental theory. Most contemporary ecocriticism is, however, on the contrary, theoretically engaged almost by definition.

While some early ecocritical writing may have constituted little more than appreciative studies of nature writing, contemporary ecocriticism is acutely sensitive to the way nature is constructed in that writing. "What separates traditional from contemporary ecocritics," suggests Paul Tidwell, "is the attention paid [by the latter] to the ‘frame’ of human consciousness" (53); this "frame" is acknowledged by Buell and by Campbell, who follows her hypothetical critique of Derrida by Abbey with a hypothetical critique of Abbey by Derrida. While she considers some of the ways in which theory and ecology contradict each other, Campbell also identifies important commonalities in their critical stance: first, "both theorists and ecologists…are at core revolutionary. They stand in opposition to traditional authority, which they question and then reject" (127); and second, "theory and ecology agree that there’s no such thing as a self-enclosed, private piece of property, neither a deer nor a person nor a text nor a piece of land" (133). Here Campbell invokes the paradox of ecology noted above: it focuses on interdependency from the autonomous perspective of the romantic individual. Like ecologists before them, ecocritics are "voice[s] crying in the wilderness" (Glotfelty xvii), speaking natural truth (and the truth of nature) to institutional power. What has changed is the composition of the "truth"; as Campbell’s second point suggests: where meaning was once absolute and singular, it is now contingent and multivocal. Though most ecocritics would accept this premise, Campbell’s formulation of it reads a little strangely, perhaps intentionally so. The list of "deer," "person," and "text," suggests that these phenomena all resist self-enclosure in the same way, such that the interdependency of the deer with its ecosystem is analogous to the interdependency of signifiers within a sign system. This superficial comparison of ecology and poststructuralism masks the threat posed by poststructuralism to the self-evidence not just of the "deer," but also of the model of organic interdependence represented by "ecology." While Campbell comes close to acknowledging this threat in her conclusion, she does not abandon the attempt to hold ecology and poststructuralism together in dialectical tension, resolved through the synthesizing activity of the ecocritic. If, following Blodgett, it is possible to argue that the American identification with nature was predicted on a "naive" conception of language, then the slippage from "deer" to "text" can be construed as a kind of (un)fortunate fall into poststructuralist knowledge. By a peculiar coincidence of logic, the ecologist’s concern for a vanishing nature can be made to seem consonant with the critic’s recognition of poststructuralist challenges to the natural ground of meaning. For all its embrace of theory, Campbell’s argument carries longing for lost wholeness that is only possible in a cultural context that once believed it had access to such plenitude.

To the English Canadian critic, nature was neither so accessible, nor its reduction to "text" so unambiguous. Since Northrop Frye’s famous observation, in his Conclusion to the Literary History of Canada (1963), that Canadian poets approach nature with an attitude of "deep terror" (830), the image of nature in Canadian criticism has been refracted by symbolic tensions. In Frye’s formulation, the threat of nature derived largely from its unassimilability to the structures—social and linguistic—of colonial culture. Atwood extends Frye’s theme in her discussion in Survival (1972) of nature as an agent operating within the dynamics of power: either nature is an overwhelming force, betraying, when it does not actually kill, the characters in Canadian literature, or it is itself a victim, embodied in the figures of animals hunted down by rapacious humans. Nature, that is, can be understood in the framework of national politics, of Canada’s conception of its own "victimhood," at the hands first of England, then the United States.23 With its thematic emphasis, Atwood’s thesis might be seen to fit into what Glotfelty describes as the "first phase" in the development of ecocritism, which analyzes "images of nature" in literature (xxii). The political lens through which those images are viewed, however, anticipates the development not of ecocriticism but of postcolonialism, whose development in Canada might be said to not only parallel but actually oppose the development of ecocriticism in the United States.24

Seen in a postcolonial critical context, nature could never be read as natural; neither is it simply translatable into language, or "text." Rather, it is always framed within multiple discourses of unequal power. Nature, that is, is subject not only to representation, but to an ongoing contest over representation. This contest is barely acknowledged in The Ecocriticism Reader’s easy movement between America and the world. An ungenerous reading of Glotfelty’s prediction that "the next collection may well be an international one, for environmental problems are now global in scale and their solution will require worldwide collaboration" (xxv) might note that it mirrors, on a textual level the environmentalist trajectory outlined by Robert Kennedy: "[w]e’ve managed to keep the Hudson River clean…now we can go around the world and say: ‘Look, this is a way to do it’" (qtd. in McNish A6). Having developed a critical model that works in an American context, experts then solicit help for disseminating that model throughout the world. To note the imperialist bias implied in this formulation is nor to impute to the collection an agenda which is clearly not evident, not to argue against the possibility—or the desirability—of ecocriticism becoming "ever more interdisciplinary, multicultural, and international" (xxv). But it is to suggest that if ecocriticism is to become more relevant outside the borders of the United States, it needs to become more attentive to the political issues for which those borders serve as signposts.

For clear historical reasons, English Canadian critics have been particularly sensitive to the issues surrounding national borders, and many have chosen to pursue postcolonial criticism as a means of addressing them. Like ecocriticism, however, postcolonialism has some significant limitations.25 Though it has worked effectively to theorize the ways in which language and culture serve as vehicles for power in relationships between and within different human groups, postcolonial criticism has yet to address adequately the relationship between human and non-human worlds—a relationship which is of vital importance to many of the indigenous groups whose voices postcolonial critics claim to heed. Alone, neither ecocriticism nor postcolonial criticism possesses the theoretical apparatus necessary to address the position of the Cree in the Great Whale controversy that is represented in their saying: "when you destroy the land, you destroy the animals. When you destroy the animals, you destroy the people." It is to be hoped that, as ecocriticism develops in Canada, it will take on the issues raised by such positions, and by the literary and non-literary questions surrounding them. To do so, it will need to look to the significant ecocritical work that has already been done in the United States, and which is, through the initiative of critics such as Fromm and Glotfelty, beginning to develop into an increasingly powerful, increasingly well-recognized body of work. At the same time, a Canadian ecocriticism will not abandon the insights of postcolonialism but will rather deploy them to gain a clearer understanding of the way human cultures have shaped, as they are in turn shaped by, the non-human world.




  1. While calls for an ecocritical approach to Canadian writing were made in the early 1980s by critics such as D.M.R. Bentley ("A New Dimension") and Laurie Ricou, the response has been fairly modest. Beyond a few ecocritical readings of individual works (see, for example, Relke and Jaeger), very few works have attempted to address broad ecological questions in a literary context. Important exceptions are Bentley (see, for example, The Gay]Grey Moose), Bowerbank, Helms and Raglon. Ecology has made more substantial inroads into the humanities in Canada via the growing field of environmental history; see for example Gaffield and Gaffield. [back]

  2. British Columbian Premier Glen Clark raised the rhetorical stakes with dark warnings about the "enemies of B.C."—environmentalists who chose to "work with American interests against our own industry and jobs in B.C." (Cernetig A11). [back]

  3. Invoked as a first premise of the United Nations World Commission of Environment and Development, the argument that ecological issues exceed considerations of national sovereignty has been defended and extended in a politico-philosophical context by theorists such as Thom Kuehls. [back]

  4. Indeed, the Globe and Mail article that details Kennedy’s role in the Great Whale and Clayoquot Sound conflicts includes an appended list of Kennedys and their careers. [back]

  5. See Perry Miller. [back]

  6. See James Doyle. [back]

  7. "You wouldn’t believe the following Kennedys have in our community," says Francis Frank, chief of the Tla-o-qui-at First Nations. The community’s respect was shown on Kennedy’s arrival with his father by canoe at Meares Island, where their boat was lifted from the water in a ceremony performed only four times since the turn of the century (McNish A6). Kennedy reciprocated the Natives’ hospitality by inviting them back to the U.S. several months later, for what the some of the chiefs describe as "the most exciting week in their lives." The trip culminated in a night at Hickory Hill, Ethel Kennedy’s home in northern Virginia, where, Frank recalls "‘We were up until 2 a.m. in awe with the history and importance of the house’" (qtd. in McNish A6). While the awe of many Canadians might be diminished by cynical awareness of the national boundary demarcating that history and importance, Frank and the other chiefs are clearly concerned with different markers of territory, different spheres of allegiance. [back]

  8. Though the review was submitted anonymously, evidence points to W.J. Dawson as the likely source (Zeller 277, n.12). [back]

  9. While French Canadians constituted one-third of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec in the 1830s, involvement dropped during and following the 1837 rebellion. Of the first twenty members of the geology and biology section of the Royal Society, only two were French Canadians; eight years later, membership had jumped to twenty-seven, with the addition of only a single French Canadian (Berger 20). [back]

  10. In 1893 Queen’s University president George Monro Grant was still able to assure the Canadian public that their spiritual values had been "but faintly affected by the spirit of historical enquiry under the dominant principle of evolution" (qtd. in Roome 19). For further discussion of Canadian reactions to Darwin, see A.B. McKillop (100-103). [back]

  11. See Cynthia Eagle Russet (27-29). [back]

  12. For discussion of the connection between pragmatism and ecology, see Andrew Light and Eric Katz. [back]

  13. Even its expert practitioners were wary of over-academicization, and railed against what one ecologist described as "the bright high school boys now bombinating in the biological laboratories of our universities" (William Morton Wheeler, qtd. in Worster 325). [back]

  14. Michael Branch has noted the tendency for American naturalists of the early nineteenth century to adopt the persona of romantic hero. John James Audubon, for example, "was the romantic type of the solitary wanderer—the lonely figure who carried a higher vision of nature on his pilgrimage into the wilderness" (294). The lineaments of this image are detectable in the naturalists’ ecological descendants, among whom Thoreau is only the most prominent. [back]

  15. While conservatism might have prevented Canadians from seizing on the revolutionary significance of ecology, their insistence on inductive exactitude did allow them to launch valid critiques of its tendency towards flowery speculation. In 1904, the Canadian ecologist, W.F. Ganong (who actually worked in the United States) complained that "ecological publications in America are too often characterized by a vast prolixity in comparison with their real additions to knowledge, by a pretentiousness of statement and terminology unjustified by their real merits, and by a weakness of logic deserving of the disrespect they receive. The subject suffers, I fear, from a phase of the "get-rich-quick-spirit" (493). [back]

  16. I use the term "postcolonial" advisedly here, with the awareness that for many, it is an inaccurate description for nations such as Canada and the United States, whose majority populations are descended from colonizing settlers. It is precisely the phenomenon of settlement I am interested in, however, for it foregrounds the problem of a felt discrepancy between language and belonging. [back]

  17. This guarantee is confirmed (at least in theory) each time an American president invokes the constitution, a document whose putatively organic expression of the nation’s will—captured in the words "we the people"—legitimates the role of the president as a synecdochic voice of the nation. It is perhaps in the context of this authority—an authority that transcends mere politics—that national leaders from Thomas Jefferson, through Theodore Roosevelt to (Vice-President) Al Gore have come, in different professional capacities, to speak convincingly for nature. Roosevelt’s conflict with Canadian nature writers, Charles G.D. Robert and Ernest Thompson Seton over their unrealistic depiction of animals (extensively detailed by Ralph Lutts) provides an interesting gloss on the American notion of "direct representation." [back]

  18. Myra Jehlen goes on to note that "by comparison with this intentional plot, the histories of most other nations seem to have just grown…through multiple incomplete versions whose coherence and meanings are produced afterward, by retrospective interpretations" (6). Her comparative analysis of sections form Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (34-40) offers an excellent illustration of the way in which different conceptions of national incarnation affect representations of nature. [back]

  19. For a discussion of the apocalyptic tradition of environmentalist writing in the United States, see Michael Emsley. [back]

  20. See Sylvia Söderlind (9-33) for an extended discussion of deterritorialization in the language and literature of English and French-Canadian culture. [back]

  21. Indeed, it could be argued that it is partly out of a sense of alienation from those political bonds of nation, that nature writing has emerged so strongly as a voice for region—particularly in the Canadian west. [back]

  22. According to one formulation, the exemplary New Americanist scholar is one who, "never identifies with any of the disciplinary practices…developing within the field of Literary Studies," and who therefore "can discern the historicity of these developments as the basis for the discovery of his own imaginative agency" (Pease 13). [back]

  23. While Marcia B. Kline and Gaile McGregor, each of who comes to similar conclusions about the ambiguity of nature in Canadian literature, do not translate nature into political terms, their comparative approaches, which define the negativity of Canadian representations of nature in contrast to the American tradition of wilderness romance, reflect a general tendency to situate Canadian nature within a broader political context. [back]

  24. In setting up a distinction between Canadian postcolonialism and American ecocriticism I am certainly not suggesting that postcolonial criticism does not exist in the United States: it does, but has not, until recently, been seen as particularly relevant to American literature. One critic who has begun to read American literature through a combination of ecocritical and postcolonial approaches is Lawrence Buell, who suggests that American pastoral may be read as merely "one avatar of a pluriform new world naturism" to be found in many postcolonial cultures, including Canada (61). Buell’s argument—that postcolonial pastoral worked to counter imperialist myths of a New World Acadia with representations of "actual physical environments" (54)—dispenses with the issue of representation too quickly, and thus fails to account for the significant differences in how "nature" signifies in different postcolonial cultures. [back]

  25. These limitations are evident in Linda Hutcheon’s recent article, "Eruptions of Postmodernity: the Postcolonial and the Ecological," in which "the ecological" is framed almost entirely within a discussion of the discursive construction of place. [back]


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