Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mark Leiren-Young, The Green Chain

I've had to put up my feet a bit this weekend, so it's been pleasantly productive amid the inconvenience. One person on whose work I've only now been able to lavish some belated attention is Mark Leiren-Young, a BC writer working on environmental subjects in assorted media (journalism, humorous nonfiction, podcasting, theatre, movies, and probably something else I'm missing). This weekend, I've managed to watch his movie The Green Chain as well as to read his interview collection of the same name drawn from his Tyee podcasting series.

But it feels funny to offer a review, in the traditional sense. The book is close to a transcription of the Tyee podcasts, so I get a little stuck in the new media vs. old media conversation when I think about that, and (a) the movie is unconventional in form (seven lengthy monologues, in sequence, by somewhat interlocking characters), plus (b) I'm no movie critic.

So let me just say this. If you have even the slightest need for some perspective on the role trees and forestry play in BC, Canada, or North America, then you need to pick up this collection of interviews. OK, fine, if you listen to podcasts on your iPhone or MP3 player or whatever, fine, download those from The Tyee, but the book gives it some heft, some texture. And because many of the questions are similar, it's a treat to be able to flip back and forth to check the assorted responses to questions about how the BC forestry system should be reimagined. (Hint: "appurtenancy" comes up more than once, and it's a word that every BCer needs to understand.)

As for the movie, well, hmm. I liked it a lot, but I had a hard time thinking of who else in my assorted circles might like it. Leiren-Young has seven characters offer lengthy monologues about trees and forests and forestry, each of them a character type but all of them overlapping in one way or another (teasers are available on YouTube). For me the Firefighter and the Waitress were the most impressive, almost mesmerizing, but there wasn't a weak link in the batch. But you know, I couldn't figure out why there wasn't the Reporter as an eighth speaker. The book's interviews occasionally talk about the need to connect with media, and more than one of the film's speakers brushed up against that topic as well (especially the Star, played by Tricia Helfer of the new Battlestar Galactica), so it would have been fascinating to see the nuances to that particular character.

In sum: buy the book and share it; watch the movie's trailers and take a chance on it!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Karsten Heuer, Being Caribou

Decision made: Karsten Heuer's Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd is one of the texts I'll be using in January 2011 for my literature/environment class. We'll be focusing on what can be termed the "environmental gaze," pondering the assorted ways humans have developed of looking at the world, so Heuer's multiple perspectives here of the Arctic, the Porcupine caribou herd, and individual caribou will give us lots to think about.

More than that, though, Being Caribou is a beautiful book. As other readers have noted, there's plenty of logistical detail, sure, and plenty of facts to learn from it, but it takes a rare book to live up to its chapter epigraphs from Rilke:
There's a lightness in things. Only we people move forever burdened,
pressing ourselves onto everything, obsessed by weight.
How strange and devouring our ways must seem
to those for whom life is enough.
While there are numerous ways to characterize the book, the most frequent is to emphasize the logistics and intent of the mission undertaken by Heuer and Leanne Allison: fifteen-hundred kilometres on foot in five months, supported by fully a dozen food drops by airplane, in pursuit of migrating caribou, in an attempt to understand and communicate the ecological significance of the threatened lands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in order to prevent oil and gas development there. Activism and natural history both float my boat, so I'd encourage anyone with those interests to read this book.

More interesting to others will be Heuer's charting of his own move from relying on his scientific background, toward something more akin to spirituality. Being Caribou ends up a long way from new-age mysticism, don't worry about that, but his perceptions of Being shift significantly through this experience of fatigue, repetitive movement, persistent quiet, isolation, and intimate companionship with Leanne, with the place, and with the animals.

And possibly most interesting to me, at least this time through the book, is the shift from inarticulacy to a voice, with the accompanying anxiety about whether the developing voice will find ears to hear it. At book's opening, Heuer gives up trying to explain what he's seeing as thousands of caribou surge past his Yukon cabin, holding up a cell phone up to the passing herd whose enveloping presence fails as disembodied sound. By book's end, Heuer's finding the different voices he needs to speak with the Gwich'in, with politicians in Washington DC, and inside his own head -- none of them easily found, none of them unconscious, but all of them valuable.

If this interests you in any way, you might want to watch the movie on the project's official website (courtesy of the National Film Board). It's a different experience, and actually Leanne Allison's movie tells something of a different story, but well worth your time.

And if you're REALLY interested, you should definitely watch him discuss the book and movie (and some other projects, too) in his appearance at ASLE 2009 at the University of Victoria. (Click the "Karsten Heuer" link.) More than one person told me that it was a real highlight for them, a number of them American visitors who had never heard of him or the project before arriving.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Recent reads notwithstanding, I don't think of myself as someone who reads murder mysteries or alternate histories. (Plus I can't help thinking of alternate history as a sci-fi mode, even though it manifestly isn't.) I enjoy them when I read them, always have, but you know how it is -- too many books etc. And with my long position as an underdog reader ("Toronto authors don't need my support!"), plus my recently confessed resistance to reading American (which connects to the underdog bit), it wasn't all that likely that I'd be picking up a Michael Chabon novel, especially since I was under the mistaken impression that he was a New York writer (cf Jonathan Franzen, Augusten Burroughs, Dave Eggers, and so on*).

But once I read and delighted in Summerland, it was clear that I'd be reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

The setup can be explained quickly: in 1940, the US acts on Harold Ickes' proposal that Jewish settlement be approved for Sitka, Alaska, and when Israel collapses in 1948, Jewish immigration to the US explodes and concentrates there. Decades later, with the sixty-year lease about to expire, there are more than three million Jews living in Sitka. The book opens with a murder, and with the introduction of a badly rumpled detective, which connects in the end to the fate of the region -- and maybe the world.

It was such fun to read this version of the west coast, thinking all along about the versions of the coast we're discussing in our grad course on the subject. But you know, one of the strongest impacts is that I keep finding myself using the turns of phrases that the novel's characters do! I'm hardly the first person to have this problem with a book in which you immerse yourself, coming out of it showing evidence of having been there, but it feels more odd to me when the evidence is coded in terms of a cultural identity that I don't share. (Confusing for me? Oy, you don't even know from confusing.) The characters sound like the Jewish characters in every movie or TV show you've seen about, so I feel suspiciously like I'm making fun somehow, in ways that just aren't right, but there's nothing bad about. It's just that Chabon has warped the linguistic centre of my brain, for at least the next little while.

Wait, did I just say it's not bad for someone to warp the linguistic centre of my brain? How deep is my commitment to reading, anyway?

* - Yes, I know that these aren't all New York novelists. Part of my ongoing self-evisceration so common to academics.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Werner Herzog knows chickens

Now, I don't know quite where this video is from, so I can't tell whether it's meant seriously -- but Werner Herzog appears to know a thing or two about chickens. And also about interior decorating: I'm loving the lion under glass beside his chair!

Werner Herzog on Chickens from Tom Streithorst on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature

I've been resisting finishing Timothy Morton's Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (finishing it again, actually, but I didn't review it the first time). Part of me wishes I could just point you to my comments on Doug Porteous' thoughtful but highly practical Environmental Aesthetics, but these are wildly different books, even if they share some core goals.

Resist as I might, eventually it had to happen: and now the book is closed.

A great part of my reluctance to commit to this comment, I need to say, comes from my conflicted feelings about the recent flap about theory, in and about ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. If you haven't read the relevant pieces yet, I encourage you to do so, because it should be essential reading for anyone trying to figure out how theory might fit into the L&E world. So that I don't have to wait for you to go read the assorted relevant articles, here's a potted and partial summary.

First, Simon Estok writes a mostly reasonable (but also too insistent) piece suggesting that ecocritics need to think and work in a more consistently theoretical way. Surely he expected some blowback from remarking on what he considers "an increasingly orthodox ecocritical machinery," but still. It's a solid piece, but it's not really theory in itself, more of a call for the development and tolerance of theory as a mode of inquiry in a field of study with a striking emphasis on realism. And (sorry, Simon) I wish it had performed theory at a higher level as a way (and in the context) of calling for more of it, but it's what we've got as the proponent of theory.

Second, Tom Hillard writes a fairly reasonable piece suggesting how he might use theory more consistently and usefully in his own research and teaching, specifically to talk about ecophobia in relation to Gothic fiction. He sensibly objects to Estok's call for ecocriticism to take on a focused theoretical approach as "overly proscriptive, potentially stifling, and, let’s be honest, unlikely to happen," too, but really effectively takes up some of the elements of Estok's argument, claim, and hope.

Third, S.K. Robisch writes - and to his great detriment, Scott Slovic publishes - an angry and unhelpfully ad hominem reply to Estok, representing as well as a broader response to "the ecocritical equivalent of cosmetics testers—from Neil Evernden through Timothy Morton." (I don't think I'm alone in not understanding the equation in this phrase, or in disliking what I think I understand.) In Robisch's view, "Poststructuralism, cultural criticism, and their sleazy uncle 'theory' have spun out of control to the point at which we should expect more frequent deformities resulting from inbreeding." Perhaps most startlingly, Robisch suggests asking this question of conference presenters talking about questions of the animal: "If I got naked right now and came running at you, howling, what would you do?" It's the kind of piece for which the word "screed" was invented -- and I don't think I've ever used the word before.

Scott has now added a comment on decorum to the ISLE disclaimer, remarking that ISLE will not publish pieces that "imply the incitement of violence." I thank him for it, though this seems to me inadequate to the specific case, though definitely not inappropriate in general terms.

All this informs how I respond to Timothy Morton's work, in Ecology Without Nature as with other texts. Brighter minds than mine see important things in Morton's work, and I've been an appreciator since his 1994 monograph on Shelley's vegetarianism.


As I was explaining to someone recently with theoretical chops much superior to my own, I feel the need to defend to many ecocritics almost any effort at theory. For those people, I will persist in describing Ecology Without Nature as a book with which those who work in the L&E field really should consider engaging. It raises provocative and serious questions, and if you refuse to consider serious questions, you're going to weaken, perhaps fatally, your credibility and your arguments. For those ecocritics who do theory, though, I'm underwhelmed by the outcome of Morton's considerable expenditure of effort in pursuit of a new theoretical model for apprehending, appreciating, seeing, etc environment.

Gosh -- am I drafting a proposal for ASLE 2011 in this already unnecessarily long commentary?

There's some good stuff here, like his very late remark that "Romantic environmentalism is a flavor of modern consumerist ideology" (p.172), though this is hardly new to Morton and could be profitably yoked to an analysis of capital and capitalism, of the trouble with wilderness (pace Cronon), and of related issues. But for those of you who already do or read theory in relation to the L&E discipline (and thanks ever so much for reading this far, btw), I've got three basic concerns:
  1. There are way too many straw figures in this book. I need more specific references to, and more detailed readings of, texts and writers against who I can measure Morton's claims. Even if I can find some of these texts and writers myself, I need to know whether this is a schematic statement on his part, or one informed by detailed knowledge of the field.
  2. Morton calls for "ecocritique," something he distinguishes from ecocriticism and which would leave us "awake to the irony that a national park is as reified as an advertisement for an SUV" (p.164). To which I ask -- aren't the cool kids doing this already? Keri Cronin's 2006 piece in Mosaic on postcards from the Rocky Mountains, for example, does some version of this (and her forthcoming book Manufacturing National Park Nature: Photography, Ecology and the Wilderness Industry of Jasper National Park promises to do exactly this). His description of "ecocritique" seems to me reflective of the work being done by so many attendees at the recent ALECC conference in Nova Scotia, such as Cate Sandilands, Cecelia Chen, Anne Milne, and Jon Gordon, as well as non-attendees more than once cited there like Nicole Shukin.
  3. And because of points 1. and 2. above, much of his complaint feels kind of obvious, where it doesn't feel unhelpfully fuzzy.
I've picked up a copy of Morton's new book The Ecological Thought, and I'll get there eventually, but I'm really not heartened by his move toward Buddhism in that book. To me, such a move doesn't promise greater clarity. And if I'm going to defend Morton's future work in detail, rather than just on principle and just to those who flat out need more theory in their lives, I need more clarity and a more detailed sense of engagement with current work in the field. The version of ecocriticism being questioned in this book feels out of date to me -- but maybe it's just because I was so excited by the good work being done at ALECC 2010!

(Longest review yet on this blog. God help me if I can't keep being brief.)

Sept 15 - UVic library

OMG free books, free books! The library didn't want them anymore, so ... oh no. I'm a hoarder as well as a giant nerd. Call A&E.
  • Theodore Davis, Study Designs for Evaluating the Effects of Forestry Activities on Aquatic-Breeding Amphibians in Terrestrial Forest Habitats of British Columbia (1999, though I knew him better as Ted Davis)
  • Drinnan, Emmett, etc, Saanich Inlet Study: Water Use Inventory and Water Quality Assessment (1995)
  • David Hatler, Perspectives on Inventory of Caribou in British Columbia (1987)
  • Lindsay Hoos & Glen Packman, The Fraser River Estuary Status of Environmental Knowledge to 1974: Report of the Estuary Working Group, Department of the Environment, Regional Board - Pacific Region (1974)
  • Inselberg, Klinka, & Ray, Ecosystems of MacMillan Park on Vancouver Island (from 1982 - aka Cathedral Grove)
  • Signature 4 (winter 1990), featuring articles by Will Garrett-Petts (on "a rhetoric of reading contemporary Canadian literature") and Heather Murray (on theory's reception in English Canada)
Oh man. It's worse than I thought.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September - from Routledge

Earlier this year I participated in a manuscript review for Routledge, and in lieu of payment they let me choose some books from the backlist, to a particular total value. Marvellous!
  • Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts
  • Allen Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art and Environment
  • Susan Castillo, Performing America: Colonial Encounters in New World Writing, 1500-1786
  • Lawrence Coupe, ed., The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism
  • Helen May Dennis, Native American Literature: Toward a Spatialized Reading
  • Andrew Mattison, Milton's Uncertain Eden: Understanding Place in Paradise Lost
  • Laura Wright, Wilderness into Civilized Shapes: Reading the Postcolonial Environment

Enough to keep me reading for months, I should say.

Sept 13 - mystery arrival

I think I know where this book came from, before it appeared in my mailbox this week, but confirmation has been slow in coming. Some time ago I'd loaned out a copy of Don Gayton's wonderful book The Wheatgrass Mechanism: Science and Imagination in the Western Canadian Landscape, and a copy of Terry Glavin's This Ragged Place (no slouch either). Both those returned to me, but my "loaned books" list is silent on who borrowed them from me.

More importantly, with these two appeared W. Gordon Mills' Timber Line & Other Poems. It may have been bought at Russell Books in Victoria on May 22, according to the enclosed debit receipt, except that the amount on the receipt doesn't match the pencilled-in cost of the book. Hmm.

Thanks, mystery donor! (Unless you're trying to make my shelves collapse and crush me, in which case, damn you, mystery donor!)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak

I confessed some time ago on this blog to a now-mild but long-standing anti-Americanism in my reading practices: kind of like disliking the Maple Leafs, Disney, economists, all those things with enormously broad cultural capital that have no apparent self-awareness that other options exist. Over the years I was called out on it more than once, and I accepted the critiques but persisted because of what I took to be an acceptable mildness.

Note that this isn't an apology, or a promise to change, just a confession. Do with that what you will.

In my reading, though, there are two important effects of my failing to get to some of the good stuff that this bias pushed aside. First, I'm now having to work overtime to develop a greater sensitivity to and deeper immersion in all that American literature that's relevant to my research interests. Even though my interests are primarily Canadian, it's intellectually criminal to overlook connections and links, especially in a transnational location like British Columbia, and I've got some seriously heavy lifting ahead of me that could have been avoided. Second, though, I get to read the good stuff while I'm genuinely hungry for it, and I couldn't be happier about that!

Rick Bass' Book of Yaak was such a treat to read. Sure, sometimes he gets more than a little insistent about what he's trying to achieve, and those of us without congresspeople could do with being less frequently exhorted to write our congresspeople, but there's such range to his writing that I don't much mind it. He describes sublime landscapes with what feels like gentleness, moments of beauty with what feels like the spirit of community, and these passages mark him as a truly impressive nature writer.

On the other hand, his self-awareness as crank, activist, greenie, and writer connect him with David Gessner, whose Sick of Nature I also really enjoyed this year. (Plus his self-awareness doesn't manifest purely as self-deprecation, so that's a welcome divergence from the standard approach.) Bass's voice is more closely connected to traditional nature writing than Gessner's, however, even though both these books are products of divided spirits, and the emphasis on bodily experience probably makes it a better choice for my upper-level undergrad course in January.

In amongst statistics and news briefs about the accelerating pace of logging in Montana through the 1980s and 1990s:
I never meant to get into it this deep. I meant only to live in these quiet green woods and live a life of poetry -- to take hikes, to read books, to lie in meadows with a bit of gold straw in my mouth and watch the clouds, and my life, go by. (p.102)
And then back into the news stories and the grief and the anger. From this interlude, Bass jumps immediately into the US Forest Service's 1987 decision to cut 90 million board feet of lumber in Montana, because of biologists' concerns about grizzly habitat -- only to see it lifted to 130 million, after the biologists say they made a mistake. Which they realized after meeting with some industry reps and Republican senators. Probably a coincidence.

He never meant to get it into this deep, but he's in now, and he's never coming out. Mostly, that makes me happy, but it's a tense life that he documents, and the night sweats are something I feel for and with him, here in BC. Distinctly a treat, The Book of Yaak. Another of those books that I'm glad someone else has written, thus relieving me of the need to live quite differently than I do and write something like it myself....