Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments ed. by Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones (review)
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Reviewed by
Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones, eds. Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. xiv, 372. $42.99

Ecocriticism as a field of literary scholarship and practice has long struggled with questions of praxis and efficacy, or, put more plainly, how do reading, writing, and thinking help address environmental crises? Sustaining the West, a collaborative experiment in interdisciplinary cross-pollination, seeks to move these discussions in a new direction by demonstrating how, as editors Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones put it, "artists and scholars in the arts and humanities [can] work together more effectively to push for change in dealing with pressing and ubiquitous environmental concerns." Using an "expansive interpretation of the West" to ground the twenty-two pieces, the contributors to this volume all seek to explore and define diverse ways that the humanities might take a role in bringing about "real, significant, and immediate change." Against a growing trend to reduce environmental problems to narrow and specialized discussions of science and engineering, this volume asserts the urgency of addressing the broadly cultural basis of these plights. As creative non-fiction writer Trevor Herriot puts it in his piece: "it's important to name the monster, the thing that is behind all of the damage. And, of course, that monster is us." The twenty-two pieces in the volume include poetic manifestoes, environmental history, discussions of installation art and photography, an analysis of Vancouver's Camosun bog, and works of literary and cultural scholarship, all attempting to map out a possible path toward a sustainable future.

One of the most striking features of the collection as a whole is that the work remains rooted in a distinct place, in this case locations as diverse as the Manitoba Escarpment to the Juan de Fuca Strait, yet speaks to the global framework of environmental issues like grassland bird species decline and climate change's impact on forestry practices. As editors Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones make clear, this volume is intended as "an exploration" that allows readers to "take advantage of the connections that it advances from a range of cultural responses, past and present, [End Page 192] to the West and beyond." Each essay moves from a rooted position in the local toward larger circles of influence and causation, and I found this practice consistently provocative and productive. It also highlights the necessity of walking a fine line between the local and the global without sinking to a parochial localism or embracing a nebulous globalism. I must confess that I currently live and teach in Saskatchewan, so I found much of the work particularly relevant to my own thinking. The volume aims at a broad audience, but readerly location might limit the usefulness of some of the pieces.

Having said that, four pieces in particular stood out as exceptional works of scholarship. Warren Cariou's "Wastewest" brings together his Cree and Métis family's habits of recycling waste with a broader consideration of the repressed role waste has played in North American culture, while Rita Wong's "Understory Enduring the Sixth Mass Extinction" urges the necessity of paying attention to water and forests, especially in urban settings. Her manifesto acknowledges the stark reality of the ongoing sixth mass extinction but exhorts readers to embrace a politics and poetics of love that seeks out the "resilient, courageous, and creative." Christine Stewart's "Propositions from Under Mill Creek Bridge" illuminates the complex intersection of homelessness, gentrification, and material history in Edmonton's Mill Creek ravine while asking how citizens can ethically relate to this place/non-place. Finally, the late Jon Gordon's essay "What Should We Sacrifice for Bitumen?" raises the necessary question of just how much Albertans and Canadians have and are willing to sacrifice in the name of tar sands extraction. He suggests how literature might help a community to mourn the ecological costs of Canada's petroculture. As pipelines loom large in the near future, Gordon's work is a voice of sober reason amidst increasingly heated and shrill disputes.

Sustaining the West is a vital addition to a growing body of ecocritical scholarship in Canada...


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