Thursday, August 26, 2010

mary robinson sources and related issues that I'd like to talk about more

Several people at the conference asked me for more info about Mary Robinson so I thought it might be easier to post that here:

Pascoe, Judith, ed. Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Peterborough: Broadview, 2000.

Robinson, Mary. Poems, 1793.

---. Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson Written by Herself. 2 vols. London: Richard Phillips, 1803.

---. Poetical Works, 1806.

The Robinson works are all accessible through online sources, maybe all through ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) - most university libraries subscribe to this.

The Pascoe text is great, very helpful bio and cultural context stuff and comprehensive selection of poetry from all of R's collections.

Pickering and Chatto also has published an 8 vol. complete works that also includes the novels (Walsingham;Or The Pupil of Nature is the most famous). General editor is William D. Brewer.

I teach a wide variety of Robinson's poetry and many of her poems are well-suited to ecocriticism classes especially as part of 'green romanticism'. I like teaching "Oberon's Invitation to Titania" and "Titania's Answer to Oberon", "The Negro Girl", all of the poems that deal with marginalized (aka feral?) figures - there are many, including the two I presented on - "The Maniac", "The Savage of Aveyron" ("Poor Marguerite" and "The Fugitive" are good too). There are also sonnets that celebrate birds and flowers, etc.

There are also some schlocky biographies and historical fictions that feature Robinson. These mostly focus on her affair with the Prince of Wales but if you like reading that sort of thing...


There were, though, a couple of things that I raised in my paper and hoped to get more feedback on but didn't really. I think these are important things for us to discuss - especially in reflecting on our first ALECC conference (and where we're going with this).

The first issue was what I call "feral ecocriticism". My view is that in defining the field and finding our places in and out of the academy as ecocritics, we might want to resist merely 'fitting in' and I wondered in my paper about what a 'feral ecocriticism' might look like.
Is it an institutional resistance?
Is it beautifully bad behavior?
Is it unapologetically bringing environmental justice issues to the forefront of literary studies?
I'd love to talk about this more!

The second issue I really wanted to sink my teeth into at the conference was ecofeminism which wasn't raised in any of the sessions I attended (although I heard that someone talking about Atwood's new novel did talk about ecofeminism). My ecofeminist contribution in the Robinson paper was mostly just to say that Robinson's feminist critics up to now have engaged in recovery work and canonization and that I'm trying to get to the next step and read individual poems using ecofeminist methodologies.
Currently my fallback ecofeminist methodologies are:
"interlocking oppressions" which I use to read women and nature as critically intertwined: marginal/other/oppressed/powerful
"strategic essentialism" which came in really handy when talking about Robinson's orientation to the feral both as a beauty (with a self constructed by the public gaze) and as a disabled woman
I'd be very interested in other tools that ecofeminist critics are using to read women's literary and cultural productions.

Bring it on...
p.s. I had lots of fun at the conference too! Thanks to everyone who made it happen so smoothly!

The Conference in Review

I had high hopes of blogging throughout the conference, but I was too busy enjoying the conference and the surrounding landscape of Cape Breton to be on the computer!! I know a "highlights" post after the fact isn't quite the same, but here goes.

The conference kicked off with Thursday afternoon field trips. We selected to go on a tour of the Syndey Tar ponds reclamation site and found it quite interesting. It was fascinating to get a first-hand look at the site and to hear about the clean-up efforts. Seeing the site up close really helped me to get a handle on the scale of the operation. The site, the debate around the clean-up efforts and the different perpectives about both in the community kept resonating through my mind for the rest of the conference.

Thursday evening was a fantastic amount of fun and a chance to both catch-up with old friends and to meet some new ones. The literary evening has been blogged about below, but I wanted to echo Richard's comments about the richness and diversity presented through the readings. Fascinating stuff! I also really appreciated the music of Ken Chisholm and could have happily listened to at least one more set that evening at the Syndey Yacht Club.

The sessions on Friday and Saturday dealt with a wide range of subjects -- I heard so many great papers throughout the weekend and can't possibly blog about them all. Some highlights for me included:

-the "Ecological Art" panel which included Heather Davis's paper on the Spiral Garden at Bloorview and Linda Revie's paper on Hetty Kimber and Louise McClennan, two artists who were part of the Sydney Painters Club. I was especially taken with Tia McLennan's presentation on the Woodhaven EcoArt Project that she and Nancy Holmes worked on with their students at UBC Okanagan. Ever since that presentation I've been thinking about how a similar project could be set up in the Niagara region.

-the "Generating Story Through Place" panel. In this panel Edie Steiner talked about how photography can be used as a tool of auto-ethnography, Elizabeth Giddens discussed the often-contradictory uses of image and text in the campaign to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Wanda Baxter made a very compelling case for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) as a form of ecocriticism through her discussion of the EIAs that were recently completed in Digby Neck. I absolutely loved her point about how the Humanities have such a crucial role in these kinds of processes, helping communities tell and frame their stories. In the case of Digby Neck, Baxter argued that by coming together in this way the community was able to successfully resist a mine development and have, instead, focused on making environment of the region a priority.

-I am also still thinking about Jenny Kerber's paper on Jim Lynch's Border Songs. I've not yet had the opportunity to read this book, but after hearing this presentation it is on the top of my "must read" list for the fall.

-Andrew Mark's paper on "The Shock Doctrine of Bob Wiseman" is another one that keeps running through my mind. I am most familiar with Wiseman's work when he was with Blue Rodeo, but haven't kept up with it in recent years. It seems I've really been missing out! During his presentation Andrew showed us the short film made to accompany Wiseman's song, Uranium. Andrew was careful not to give too much away when he talked about this film before he showed it to us and I'm going to follow suit. All I will say is I'd encourage you to take a moment to watch it.

In short, a wonderful conference and I was delighted to be able to travel to Cape Breton to participate in it. Big thanks are due to all the organizers and, in particular, our local hosts, Afra Kavanagh and Sheila Christie.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sessions about which I've thus far failed to blog

It's a persistent theme for bloggers with off-screen lives, that we regularly fail to write about some of the good stuff. We get busy, and suddenly you're two days past said good stuff, and, well, what are you going to do?

My answer is simply to identify everyone I heard from in the regular sessions, promising to follow up with a little more info on a few of them in the coming days:
  • Ella Soper Jones and Richard Kerridge on environment and apocalypse, more or less -- Ella on Indra Sinha's Animal's People, and Richard on Ian McEwan's Solar (with the grave disappointment that I missed Ivan Grabovac's presentation on Angelina Grimke's story "Darkness")
  • Anne Milne on late 18th-century poet, beauty, and suspected sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis Mary Robinson
  • Robert Brown on Lyotard, and Rita Wong on the good work of Keepers of the Water
  • Jessica Gearing on Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (among other works by Ray), Joanna Dawson on Sid Marty's Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek, and Susan Moore on rats, particularly Bryan Talbot's graphic novel The Tale of One Bad Rat
  • Mark Leeming on Nova Scotia's unique forest history, Emilie Pommier on the roles of animals and environment in sacred folk tales and myths in France and Japan, and H. Louise Davis on the ethics of US food-activism documentaries
  • Lisa Szabo on Harry Thurston and Tim Bowling (on the subject of the "ecoautobiographical"), and Patrick Howard on middle-school Newfoundland kids' use of creative writing as a response to the cod collapse (aka "my panel," on which I was neither the smartest nor the most materially engaged member)
  • Peter Clair on the special characteristics of the Mi'kmaq language (for which I learned to pronounce the term "Pisquisasesigewey"), and Shirley Bear on her own genesis and path as an activist and artist
  • Nick Bradley on David Wagoner and Laurie Ricou (plus the idea of story), Shirley Roburn on what she referred to variously as "wild language," "cosmophony," and "the kinaesthetic nature of local language," and finally Travis Mason on Don McKay's and WH New's "unsonnets" (in Travis' term).
And then there was Friday's keynote, an incredible antiphonal reading by Harry Thurston and Anne Simpson, and tonight's post-banquet event featuring Nancy Holmes and Don McKay. Truly, an embarrassment of riches. I'll dribble out some notes over the next little while, but I'm hoping others will add to the good work done by CBU student volunteers Sara and Sarah!

A little more about Spiral Garden

When Heather Davis spoke yesterday afternoon about her experiences with the Spiral Garden, I was fascinated. I had never heard of anything like it. She spoke with such passion, and after a quick Googling, I began to put together my own picture of the garden.

Spiral Garden is an integration program at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, and each summer is run by a group of artists.  The Spiral Garden revolves around a collection of artistic stories, told and developed by the children who spend time there. Or to put it another way, the seeds of stories are planted and then are carefully nurtured and protected. Each story told builds on events that occur within the Spiral Garden. For instance, Davis told us about a tree in the garden that lost its top due to wind or lightening. However, Davis says that later it was determined that the tree had been used as a launching pad by invisible monkeys who were looking for fast travel to Mars.

Spiral Garden lies in between the hospital and a ravine. That, Davis says, is one of the wonders of the garden. Not entirely connected to either the wild ravine or the sterile hospital, Spiral Garden's structure is always changing slightly. There are no standards, there is no outline, and nothing is forbidden but violence and pop culture. The sense of existing, thinking, and working together lies at the heart of the program, and all who enter are challenged to enter on the garden's own terms.

To me, the Spiral Garden is a world I would have only dreamed of as a child. It is play at its very finest, with each child entirely and utterly immersed in it. And to have adults immersed as well! It makes the idea of the play all the more wondrous. To have a safe place where dreams can be teased out and taught to grow and intertwined with various characters, tales and the natural world... Someday I hope that the IWK Health Centre in Halifax can house such a beautiful place of opportunities.

For more information about Spiral Garden, check out these links:
Butterfly Garden (a similar project in Sri Lanka)

session - Ecological Art: Community and Representation-I

During this session we heard from speakers Heather Davis, Linda Revie and Tia McLennan. As an Art Education student here at CBU, I was captivated by the parallels between Heather Davis' work, "The Non-Human at the Heart of Community Art: Spiral Garden's Living Story Space", and Tia McLennan's, "The Woodhaven Project: Integrating Writers Into Community Based, Site-Specific Eco Art". I hope to address Linda Revie's lecture, "Views From Petersfield: The Sydney Painters Club's Early 20th Century Eco Canvases" in a later post.

The environment of the Spiral Garden, as described by Davis, is an inclusive space for differently abled and abled children and artists, a utopia of storytelling, art and play. The Spiral Garden occupies a space in-between the institutional and undeveloped natural environment, between a grassroots community group and looming corporate sponsorship. The Woodhaven Project is an approach to collaboration, learning, writing and art-making, also within a (sub)urban natural setting, but from a basis within an institution, UBC Okanagan. McLennan and Nancy Holmes implemented a project where students engaged in artmaking and creative writing with each other and a local nature preserve.

Both of these programs, the Spiral Garden and the Woodhaven Project, occupy different spaces in the world of learning and Eco Art. Both encounter different problems because of their position as institutional insider or outsider. Whereas the Woodhaven Project has steady financial support but was met with some indifference and neglect by local residents, the Spiral Garden seemed to be fully integrated into the community of the rehab centre and beyond, the project is struggling with funding requirements while remaining independent of corporate sponsorship and institutional control.

The students' and children's engagement with the physical space seemed to also reflect institutional affiliation. Davis suggests, the utopian community of the Spiral Garden may not extend beyond the physical space or weeks of participation, but while they are there the children are fully engaged with their surroundings, each other and the world they have created. McLennan suggests the Woodhaven students' engagement with the natural setting may have suffered because the setting and subject matter of the university course was off campus.

For me, as an Education student, this relationship between student engagement, subject matter and the learning and teaching environment is at the core of contemporary pedagogy and I look forward to continued exploration of the possibilities of the institution as well as the spaces in-between.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Session - Borders, Boundaries, and Crossing Over

As a student assistant with the ALECC conference, my real motivation for attending this session was pure curiosity about an academic paper on treeplanting. Janis Ledwell-Hunt in, "The treeplanters landscape; An ecology of clear cuts, "tree sluts" and "manufactured bears", touched on planting as a subculture where members embrace their outsider/renegade status. As such, I am ever curious (even in my retirement from planting) of how planting discourse extends into dominant and academic cultures, of how we are perceived and presented by others and by ourselves. I am a 4 year veteran planter of over 600,000 trees. Within the subculture of planting I, like the speaker, Janis Ledwell-Hunt, am an Alberta planter and hi-baller.

Some significant points were raised during the Q&A that linked themes from last nights plenary with ideas from this session. How and why is the relationship between planters and the Silviculture industry different than fishers and scientific management of the Newfoundland fisheries, as discussed by Dean Bavington, and rural farmers and agriculture/animal sciences, as discussed by Melissa Kleind. I strongly agree with Janis Ledwell-Hunt that planters' motivations are more in line with the interests of the silviculture industry as a whole, that is, to make money with few concerns about the future of the trees planted and ecological impact of treeplanting (of which we are fully aware).

The most significant difference, however, between fishers, farmers and planters is in the relationship between worker/workplace and home. Hearing Melissa Kleindl speak about her father's farm and the relationship between home and industry is a marked difference from planters who often work thousands of kilometers away from home in temporary camps trying to squeeze as much money as possible out of a season and get home (get in, get out ethic).

As a semi-retired planter who now does all of my planting within 200 km of my adopted home in Cape Breton, my planting ethics have shifted somewhat from capitalist self-interest to concerns about local economic, environmentally and socially sustainable practices. Because when I go home at night, rather than to a dirty, muddy bush camp, cook my own meals and sleep in my own bed, these concerns are more important than "cream shows", highballing and slutting them in.

For more funky treeplanter slang please see the planting forums on

A closer look at the CSEE

During the opening plenary on Thursday evening,  Ross McCurdy gave a detailed overview of the up and coming Centre Sustainability in Energy & Environment (CSEE) at Cape Breton University. McCurdy, who is the centre's Chief Executive Officer, began by discussing Cape Breton's past in the energy production industry.

During the early 20th century, Sydney was known for its steel plant and coal mines, and played an exceedingly important role in the Nova Scotian economy at the time. With the majority of the coal underwater, over 3200km of mining tunnels were established, running deep under the ocean floor. Coal and steel was mined with what this blogger deems a reckless abandon and a disregard for the environment.

This is where, McCurdy explains, the CSEE comes in. The CSEE, a collaboration of academic and industrial institutions, aims to provide education and training opportunities in the environmental sustainability sector. The centre  was founded to reflect both the legacy of environmental changes and future energy potential in Cape Breton. 
The building itself will be home to as many different energy efficient devices and utilities as possible. McCurdy named a few:
  • geothermal energy to heat the building
  • solar panels and windmills to provide electricity
  • natural ventiliation opportunties
  • stormwater collection for non-potable uses
  • "smart" lighting (lights turn on only when they detect movement)
  • a "living" wall (home to a variety of plant species)
For more information about the centre and its upcoming research opportunties, please visit the CSEE website.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010

    ALECC 2010, literary gala

    Admittedly, it wasn't billed as a gala, and it was run casually enough that it really couldn't be considered one -- I mean, what sort of gala serves only chili and vegetable soup as the main food attractions?

    But a poetry reading containing these figures can't be considered much less than a gala: big names Nancy Holmes, Brian Bartlett, Di Brandt, and Don McKay. And that's not taking into account less prominent writers who are producing very good work, namely Vivian Demuth, Brian Braganza, Katherine McAdam, Jessica Marion Barr, and Anita Lahey. The four major writers, all of whom are speaking or reading at more length on Saturday at our Sydney ALECC conference, performed admirably, with Holmes even reading unpublished work (a protest poem against Tolko's logging in an Okanagan community watershed), and Brandt reading two from her forthcoming book (which may or may not be Walking to Mojacar, but in any case look for the powerful "Apocalypso").

    The thus-far-non-major poets were warmly received as well:
    • Demuth offered a "true narrative poem" about her encounter with a family of black bears during her work as a forest fire spotter
    • Braganza commented on his family's ongoing construction of a longterm home near Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, on a farm that'd been in a single family for more than three generations that they'd bought in 2002, in a poem featuring the near-80-year-old former owner's arrival as they were disassembling his childhood home
    • in her first public reading, McAdam recalled a visit to Scotland in which she honoured her ancestors' lives during the Clearances
    • in an in-progress poem called "The Hawk," Barr told of seeing hawks along the 401 in southern Ontario, as well as seeing a dead hawk lying in the Toronto snow, and
    • local rock star Lahey won over the crowd with three quite distinct poems, ranging from one mocking the fizzling out of Hurricane Bill, to one which left her fighting off tears in detailing a wildly inappropriate care package for her partner who's on active duty in Afghanistan. (Her book will be out in late 2011, and I'll be ordering it.)
    A great night, capped off by local playwright and musician Ken Chisholm's post-poetry set on guitar, capped off for me by his own song "Muggah Creek":
    All along the wild untamed Muggah Creek.
    there's one thing we're all dreamers for:
    what was once will be once more....

    Muggah Creek, of course, is now better known as the Sydney Tar Ponds. Sobering, but ringing nonetheless.

    ALECC 2010, plenary #1

    Well, that was a seriously entertaining session!

    Even as a conference organizer, not everything that happens at a conference falls within the field of your prior knowledge. This evening, I'd been expecting a few minutes from Ross McCurdy, COO of CBU's new Centre for Sustainability and Energy and Environment (as he's been a strong local supporter for this conference), as a prelude before my introduction of our two keynote speakers, Mi'kmaq elder Albert Marshall of the Eskasoni First Nation and Dean Bavington, CRC in Environmental History at Nipissing University. Our energetic local host Afra Kavanagh said beforehand that it was going to be about twelve minutes, but instead Dr. McCurdy wound up delivering a genuinely interesting lecture that ran close to twenty-five minutes.

    Bad news? Mais non, because it mean that there were some really quite wonderful points of connection between what became in effect three opening lectures.

    Dr. McCurdy's position, quite clearly, is that if we're going to overcome the climate challenge, anything goes. Here on Cape Breton, they need to figure out how to address the urgent local environmental issues (such as rainwater accumulating in the estimated 3200 kilometres of tunnels for coal mining), they want to model ways to respond generally to climate and sustainability issues, and they want to contribute to global efforts to overcome the climate challenge, which might include actions as drastic as seeding the ocean with iron to promote algae growth, which would in turn fix carbon into the algae, which once deceased would fall to the ocean floor as basically a mat of carbon.

    Albert Marshall's view is a little different. He recognizes (as a more or less official Mi'kmaq position) that development is needed and in some measures inevitable, but he thinks it needs to occur in a collaborative vein. Nature has to be understood as a subject in its own right, roughly the Mother Earth model; nature has to be understood as both spiritual and physical at the same time, which he sees as anathema to science. The goal, as he puts it, is not to save the environment, but to save the human species, which includes saving a place for us to live richly and fully and in collaboration with a healthy environment.

    And then there was Dean Bavington, who argued forcefully that science is to blame for the Newfoundland cod fishery's collapse, and that science simply cannot be trusted to (in Vandana Shiva's terms) use the entire planet as an experimental vessel. The oceans cannot be seeded with iron; cloud formations cannot be vastly manipulated; forests cannot be converted whole hog to biomass: it's unconscionable, given what we know about the failings of the scientific management in Newfoundland. After all, in 1992 cod fishers went to sea with an alleged sustainable yield of 185,000 tons -- and caught roughly zero fish, because there were't any. There has been no commercial cod fishery since then, either, and there aren't enough in the water now to permit one, fully eighteen years later. In the 1970s Canada managed to extend its sovereignty to the 200-mile limit because of international respect for its scientifically managed cod fishery, except that less than 20 years later, the science said there were still enough cod that 185,000 tons could be taken and still leave enough as a breeding stock: that's 9,750,000 individual 20-pound cod fish, intended to represent only a small percentage of the total available fish, except that it turned out there were in fact approximately zero cod in the sea, including what now seems to have been a virtually nonexistent breeding stock.

    As I said afterwards, in remarking that we'd run out of time and thus wouldn't have a Q&A period, these three speakers left us a whole lot to think about. I know I'm fiddling with my presentation to account for the session, and I'm guessing I'm not the only one!

    Round and round the mulberry bush!

    The registration desk is open and with a minimum of chaos we have 27 people registered and on their way for the field trips.  Around 20 people are touring the tar ponds, and smaller groups are off to hike the newly refurbished Lighthouse Trail and visit the Louisbourg Fortress.  Come by and say hello to our lovely registration staff: Sarah, Courtney, Robin, Iain, and Sara.  They will get you set up and can help with other queries or get you in touch with the conference organizers.

    From Sydney

    Well, we're gathering! Last night fully ten of us had a table at the Governor's Pub for some food and drink, so this conference really must be happening after all.

    The registration desk will be open today from 10:00 onward, with field trips departing at 11:00 for the Sydney tar ponds; the Fortress of Louisbourg; and the lighthouse at Louisbourg. While I was expecting to remain on site to put out any fires that arose, local organizers Afra Kavanagh and Sheila Christie have done some great work, and I just might have the liberty to break under Anne Milne's pressure as a fellow 18th-century person to visit with her group A Real 18th-Century Fortress. Here's hoping!

    This afternoon at 4:30, the conference's first formal session begins, a plenary session featuring Albert Marshall and Dean Bavington. Albert is a Mik'Maq Elder, of Eskasoni First Nation, and Dean is a professor of the history of resource management at Nipissing University, and they'll be talking about how questions of ecology and community come together in material ways. Also speaking briefly will be two of our supporters at CBU, Rod Nicholls, who's the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, and Ross McCurdy, Director of CBU's new (and quite exciting) Center for Sustainability in Energy and Environment.

    More updates as circumstances warrant!

    Sunday, August 15, 2010

    Blogs & sites we like

    Okay, team -- how do we build a site together? So far I've been autocratic about things, to set up a starting point, but as time goes on it'll become more and more democratic. (Honest! Want to be an author? Just ask.)

    Today, I'm especially interested in fleshing out the page. Under "Blogs we like" and "Sites we like," I've posted lists based on my own reading, places I tend to go even if I'm not crazy about them. So, in the comments here, how about you suggest links to add as well as links to remove?

    ALECC 2010 arrivals

    I gather that the Sydney airport is very near the campus for Cape Breton University, where our conference is occurring this week, but the comments area under this blog post might be a good place to connect with others flying in -- not a bad idea to sit together on the plane, is it? If anyone's interested, I'm arriving Wednesday around dinner time myself. While I'll be reading most of the way across country (Rick Bass' Book of Yaak and Timothy Morton's Ecology without Nature, if the current reading holds until then), I'm always pleased to find someone to talk to!

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    ALECC - who we are, and what this place is for

    Rather than reinventing things, let me quote at some length from the ALECC home page:
    The Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada / Association pour la littérature, l'environnement et la culture au Canada (ALECC) is an organization for the creation, appreciation, discussion, analysis, and dissemination of knowledge about the work of nature writers, environmental writers and journalists, eco-artists of all disciplines, ecocritics, and ecotheorists in Canada. Collectively we are interested in artistic, critical and cultural studies work on activism, animals, ecology, the environment, environmental justice, geography, land, landscape, mountain literature and culture, nature and nature writing, natural history writing, plants, region, regionalism, the rural, sense of place, transborder environmental issues, wilderness and wilder places, and much more. To this end we maintain a vibrant listserv (which is free to join), and twice annually edit and publish the electronic publication called The Goose.
    This blog was set up initially so that attendees at ALECC"s inaugural conference could talk about sessions they've attended, but as time goes on, we hope it'll grow and develop into a collaborative space where we can brainstorm, strategize, and share our experiences. If you'd like to write on the blog, either post a comment below or send me an email. Either way, we're expecting that it'll be a pretty open door around here.