- Shaped by the West Wind: Nature and History in Georgian Bay
The publication of this book seems an encouraging sign that environmental history and cultural landscape studies are gaining prominence in Canada. Asserting that Georgian Bay is a 'palimpsest of cultural landscapes,' the author convincingly demonstrates how settings may be studied both as in situ artefacts (place qua place) and through what they inspire in art, literature, and other modes of cultural expression. She asserts why landscape matters, which is especially clear in the responses that Georgian Bay has evoked from different user groups through time.
Claire Elizabeth Campbell focuses her comprehensive analysis on Georgian Bay's windblown North Shore, peppered as it is with tens of thousands of small islands. Without over-generalizing, the book develops a compelling set of interwoven themes through six chapters. It centres on an exposition of Anglo-Canadian mythologies of 'wilderness'-specifically examining how Georgian Bay has been cast at times in the role of a 'savage garden' where different users have had to contend, symbolically and pragmatically, with the challenges of everyday life in a harsh yet captivating setting. In this, Campbell suggests, is a metaphor for the Canadian settlement experience, at least in the colonial imagination. The case of this archipelago may thus tell us much broader things about Canada's history as a series of negotiations and interactions with specific environments, processes by which we have come to appropriate and refine more generic ideas about 'nature' and 'wilderness' that we partially share with the British and the Americans. In chronicling tales of social agency within a particular setting, it also examines the case of how a powerful regional identity was developed through iconographies and narratives of landscape, ultimately being touted as pan-Canadian - pace Group of Seven - when it was geographically limited, in effect, to central Ontario. [End Page 215]
The book's most cohesive portion deals with cultural discourses spawned by Georgian Bay at different spatial scales. Campbell explores how, for instance, Anglo-Canadian thinking has cast the Bay as a tangible link to the past, in the process often conflating Aboriginal cultures with the very barrenness of its rocky shores - a troublesome epitome of the 'Near North' as terrifying antithesis to the orderly and settled St Lawrence lowlands (chapter 3). This also informed a popular image of Georgian Bay as a place for titillating 'close encounters' with an unforgiving landscape in which no little danger was present (chapter 4), and ultimately as a regional setting thought to embody an anti-modernist nationalistic Canadian identity (chapter 5). Framing this trio of chapters is an examination of how maps of the area have reflected changing attitudes (chapter 1) as well as how the paradigm of 'improving' nature by making it useful for industrial purposes (chapter 2) has given way (or has it?) to notions of environmental stewardship embodied in recreational activity (notably cottaging) and park policy (chapter 6).
Campbell gives a well-reasoned and reflective yet unromanticized account of a place that has captivated many people for centuries (herself and myself included). Her prose is crisp and fluid, and the book is a true pleasure to read. Some critical questions remain unaddressed - such as why Georgian Bay seems quite unknown to the ethno-cultural diversity of contemporary metropolitan Canada, or indeed the significance of the Bay's situation, so near and yet so far relative to urbanized southern Ontario - and while these were not among Campbell's motivations, they might nonetheless have been more clearly acknowledged. These matters hardly detract from the book's greatest contribution: a demonstration of how we cannot theorize away the very materiality of landscape and the ecosystem processes that sustain life as mere social constructions with no external reality of their own. Campbell deftly reveals that while we must question our own cultural (mis)conceptions of nature and the 'wilderness,' this may more usefully be done by examining how social history and cultural discourses are bound up in a dialectical relationship with the land. Here, then, is a...