- Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments ed. by Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones
The field of environmental humanities study is, by necessity, an inter-, trans-, and multidisciplinary affair. Emergent scholarship in the area accepts as axiomatic the need to engage with scientific understanding of crises facing the biosphere, and it most often responds obliquely by drawing on a variety of humanities disciplines that focus on culture (including science cultures). But Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones, editors of the essay collection Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments, well understand that the humanities’ response to environmental exigency must exceed efforts to build bridges between the arts and sciences—such work must operate beyond narrow forums of specialized expertise, in defiance of institutional blocks to interdisciplinary work and representative of the many cultural voices speaking out on environmental issues.
Those three impulses clearly informed the generative event out of which this collection grew, a 2011 workshop held in Edmonton, Alberta and titled “Cross-Pollination: Seeding New Ground for Environmental Thought and Activism Across the Arts and Humanities.” It is perhaps this meeting that [End Page 200] led to the book’s geographical focus on Western Canada, where the contributors work and live. Ethical knowledge and sustainable action, as the editors argue, best arise from critics being present, alert, and patient in order to discover “how cultural forces alternatively mask and reveal particular aspects of a place’s history and nature, and to thus participate in a commitment to sustaining them well into the future” (Piper and Szabo-Jones 8). The list of contributors is impressive, indicating a wide range of Western-based writers engaging with diverse ecologies. And the editors succeed in their efforts to represent a spectrum of voices: university-based researchers (usually writing from intersections involving environmental history, ecocriticism, and indigenous studies) offer their perspectives along with visual artists, filmmakers, naturalists, poets, the head of an applied research company, a writing specialist, a digital humanities director, and eco-bloggers.
The collection consists of three main sections. Part One, “Acting on Behalf of,” involves histories of activism, analyses of interventions, and both research and contemplation as calls for action. The range is compelling: the writers discuss how prairies can recover through near-utopian idealism, Cree and Métis perspectives on place, a conservancy with four bioclimatic zones, the performance of restoration ecology, ecophilosophy and affect, and animals in relation to the sublime, visual art, consciousness, and perception. Collectively, the essays refuse delimited analyses and simplistic etiologies. Their shifts in focus demand a process-oriented reflection on how a reader might experience and absorb the essays and insist on discovering ecological relations between topics. Part Two, “Constructing Knowledge,” contains chapters that “examine how scientists, farmers, naturalists, poets, industrialists, and others arrived at their knowledge and understanding of western environments” (10). Poetry and science are compared and grounded on the West Coast, environmental imaginaries are treated as ethical action, agricultural histories are presented as a continuum on which we must act, the effects of environmental mythologies and their affects are explored, and poetry is presented as a species of environmental thought. The epistemological emphases illuminate the environmental issues discussed and provide second-level arguments on interdisciplinarity per se given the chapters’ varied perspectives. Part Three, “Material Expressions,” presents essays that reflect on specific places and, in four of five cases, involve poetry. Topics include how to “read” a place, meditations on extinction events, analogies between ecology and literary memory, epic poetry and mountains, and the uncertainties of eco-documentary. What the editors call “interludes” appear between the sections, and these do much to encourage readers, who proceed linearly, to think in decidedly non-linear fashion about the spirit and peripatetic impulses of interdisciplinary exploration. [End Page 201] In one interlude with colour photographs, installation artist Lyndal Osborne describes her eco-art; later, poet Harold Rhenisch offers his evocative “Symphony for a Head of Wheat Burning in the Dark.”
The collection inadvertently illustrates a major challenge facing environmental humanities research...