Walking With Bears: a meditation on the place of ecocritical writing today

This is a folded land. Not all lands are made like that, but this one is. We can expect folds from it, and lines of energy, planes tilted up at odd angles, and distance that comes sudden, a way in which the world falls away until it becomes the sky. It’s not a sky world. It’s a folded one. It can hide things. It can reveal them and then take them away. It shows you what is not present, and you live as much in that, in this land, as in what is present. Your sight is limited here, but your body is almost endless.p1270104

If I were an ecocritical scholar, I couldn’t stop with that observation, although it’s obvious that this is a land you climb up in, and one in which you use sagebrush, grasped in the hands, to slow you down on the way back. It’s a land suited for creatures who can do that more easily.

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The “prong!” “prong!” “Prong” “prong” of the feet of this mule deer mother and daughter as they bounded away, the earth drumming beneath them as they struck it, with a sound of leather stretched over a wood frame and tapped with the fingers, carried for hundreds of metres through the grass and sagebrush, and the choke cherries in the gully. If I were an ecocritical scholar, though, I would have to observe that observation, because I would be bound to a specific task, the task of standing at a distance, observing, arguing that people live in cities, cities are part of the bioregions in which they stand, and pretty soon I would be talking about cities, or at least of how different groups of humans, perhaps a poet like me, observes the hillsides, set within a context of colonialism and the rhetoric of indigenous and feminist studies, but here’s the thing, poems might contain intellectual ideas, even argue them, but they are not intellectual ideas, and this is not a city…

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It is within the boundaries of a city, yes, although barely, but I’m not sure what definition of city other than an arbitrary line drawn on the earth, could hold it. A definition of a city might be “organized human social space,” although the organization here is, well, a map that says this is a city, so arguing that contemporary human views of this space (garnered from individual human interviews) are essential to understanding this organized human social space and its life as a denatured indigenous territory (which it is) is only a way of saying: “humans are so powerful that what they think of on their own becomes implemented in the world, through their technology, so it’s best just to ask them, and then to provide a context for their answers, as a way of preventing people from enslaving them to ideas not of their own emotional making as embodiments of Christ on this earth.” That is actually arguable. In fact, it is so American, that it should be argued against, at least for the sake of clarity, because the alternative is to accept American culture as the evolutionary height of human social culture, and for all other humans, indigenous and otherwise, to be bound to the American will, as secondary world citizens. So, it should be debated openly. So, let me throw a word into this debate:

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If that can’t enter the debate without explanation, then the debate is not a debate but a form of display. Either the world, and art, and all human modes of consciousness are within the debate, or they’re not, and if they’re not then that’s a line that people, being the violent predators that they are, will cross. We’re watching in Europe right now. People are crossing borders. The borders are being armed. What will happen in the end? In one direction or another, people will cross borders, either peaceably or with force, but they won’t be boxed in. Even the ones, like the Hungarians, who are boxing themselves in, won’t stay boxed in, so it’s best to deal openly with boundaries, and, as every ecocritical writer knows, to change the boundaries, and let the world in. My country is also a place, as you can see below, in which the bed of the sea is lifted in the sky, the lake is deeper than the ocean offshore, and volcanic stone has lifted up through cracks in the broken sea, and has been ground away by glaciers, and is dry because of a ridge of volcanoes rising to the west, and choked with sagebrush because men thought that a country like this would be a good place to raise cattle. They thought this would be a good agricultural country, that it could be tamed.  Well, given to weeds, yes, which are then called nature, because like individual human opinion, weeds spring from the earth without interference.

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I adore ecocritical writing, and think it has a tremendous future. I do think, however, it has a problem: it is bound to universities and reflects the needs of the institution that pays for it,  and the society and industry that pays for the institution to mirror its own goals. Accordingly, this art form (yes, I believe it is an art form) is bound with criticism and scholarship and papers and classrooms and hierarchies of social order and accommodation of heavily argued social views and many other social paths that humans make within an institution designed to further those hierarchies, not only by splitting them up into various subjects but even by creating subjects like ecocritical writing, to reunite what has been divided. Let’s be clear. The earth is what has been divided:

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If you doubt it, look at that photograph, and then look at this one:

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We could keep stepping farther and farther back. We could keep accessing a greater and greater unity, within a greater and greater context, but that’s not the game. No one can survive within a university without dividing, or getting in close, concentrating not on the general derived from the particular, but from the particular standing in for the general. If you doubt that, consider this image once more:

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It is beauty, basalt upwelling, home for marmots, the mouth of the earth, a snake’s mouth (note the eyes) coming out of the hill above an ancient rattlesnake den bulldozed to make room for human houses the size of castles, and much more, and it smells like marmot urine, which is not a particularly bad smell. In winter, marmot breath freezes in delicate shapes on the cracks where their breath flows out into the cold, but it can’t be all of those things at once. That can be argued, though. You can explain, or show, how it is all those things at once, but the recognition that it is so is going to have to come from bodily knowledge. You’re going to have to walk up the hill. You’re going to have to do it many times. You’re going to have to get the point at which you see the unity first, and then don’t argue it. You just say this:

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You might hope that someone will wonder, as you have, what that darned snake had for breakfast, and why it doesn’t swallow. But you can’t, because you can’t stand apart from that observation and analyze it, or, if you do, you can’t have the observation. It’s a bind, or is it. It is a revolutionary academic who bridges subjects, such as poetry, ecology, social science and biology, for instance, and for this revolutionary work ecocritical scholars are to be praised, but here’s the thing: in the world, or among humans as a whole, this is not revolutionary. Neither is it revolutionary for poets or photographers or musicians. It is only revolutionary within the publication vehicle in which ecocritical scholars work: the university. The degree to which ecocriticism has been able to bring some degree of wholeness into hierarchal structures is commendable, but it’s still like saying that a scientific experiment is complete when it makes a hypothesis, or that a poem is complete when it unites its various threads into an image, although maybe it starts there. Western poetry wants it to start in you, the reader; to become incorporated in flesh and blood. Do you want that? Or do you want your poetry to be less of Christ’s blood and a wafer on your tongue? It should, perhaps, at least be openly presented and chosen, and if the choice is something other, then there should be avenues for that. I am arguing here that ecocritical writing could provide those avenues, but only if leaves the university. To bring that observation back into the language of the land, look how the land is folded, and how it holds a doe (below), yet how the world of the doe does not stop with this photograph …

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… just as it doesn’t stop with the observation that this land is heavily determined by human civic map making, nor with any attempt by an ecocritical scholar to heal this divide with argument, to clear away the everyday dullness of habit to show the deep structures at work here. This has never just been owned or farmed space, even though farming has choked it with an excess of sagebrush, which has given over to golf courses and castle-sized houses, which, like the university, are expressions of the petro state. That’s harsh, maybe, but it’s true. This lack of certain, of either an ending, a clear line of demarcation, or clear measurable amounts of wildness or domesticity in this place, or clear views of the webs between human and non-human use here, does not prevent photographs, poems or scholarship from becoming paths through this place, in its own language, so let me show you that language. You’ve seen it before.

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What you are looking at is a bear. That’s what a bear looks like here from down in the sagebrush. It is peaking over the hill in a green splash of water. Here’s what it looks like way up there. You’ve seen it before.

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The bear is large, and brown, and ran from me, just behind the basalt lump in the centre of the image. I ran up here to see if she’d show herself, but she wasn’t as dumb as all that. But let’s turn that around. If the aspens here, splashing above the hill in the wind, are the bear, then this …

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… is the bunchgrass of the hill far below, which is also the bear. The point is that without wildness, there is no bioregion. There’s just a region, that we can argue about till the cows come home, but we’re only talking about our ignorance. That’s not a bush to enter today, but that non-entering is strength. What’s more, take a look at Pyramid Mountain in behind. Everywhere you go in this country in the North Okanagan Valley, she watches, and everything of importance that has happened here for the last 10,000 years has happened along her sight lines. The trails, and the water, and this bear, and the villages, are all within various angles at which she comes clear from the folds of the land. That is the city here, and settler cities pale in comparison, and we could stop talking about them as if they were the story. They are set like jewels in the story, but in the end, this is a bear.

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I have spoken to ecocritical scholars who have argued, with all the skill of debate they are gifted with, that being bound to the university, having their art bound to the rigours of the scientific method and the history of meeting the rules of a classical society and its hierarchies is an essential part of keeping the discipline honest. Why, for sure, but only within the boundaries set by the university, and people always cross boundaries, which this big brown bear does every night when these trees disappear and she moves through the world down where the people live and eats the choke cherries growing along their fences. It is time for ecocritical scholars to accept the brilliance of their art and to move out into the world. They might cease to become scholars, but they will shed their colonial shackles, and they might just walk with bears.

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