Reviews 2013

Wavelengths of Your Song by Eleonore Schönmaier

Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013

Eleonore Schönmaier is a Canadian-born writer whose award-winning poetry has been published widely in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In this newest collection, Schönmaier offers an assortment of carefully crafted poems, and conveys an underlying and powerful sense of longing for home. Indeed, these poems are evocative of a particular idea of home—as the speaker in her poem “Kafka” expresses, home can be found in “a time that in reality could not exist. Home is // after all the space we’ve arrived at exhausted, / holding our coats, many times before / and not a name of a beginning” (110). In this case, home is described as a transcendental place that occurs largely outside of time and reality—it is a product of memories regarding physical experience, personal interaction, and natural environment. This appears to be the motivating endeavour of Wavelengths: to retrace the various pathways and experiences that would lead to this understanding of home. Nevertheless, the movement in these poems is not a simple return; a tension emerges in the expressed necessity of journeying both forward and back. As the speaker in “Lost” discovers, she must not only “‘continue’” on her journey, but also be able to “‘follow [her] tracks safely // back’” (7). Inevitably, ‘back’ is associated with a childhood lived amongst “ice and snow” in the Canadian boreal forests (116), whereas, the movement ‘forward’ is linked with excursions across Europe—most likely this is a reflection of Schönmaier’s own experience of splitting her time between Canada and the Netherlands. It might be tempting to read this collection from an environmentalist perspective, due to its detailed and often poignant description of natural landscapes. However, the recurrent and nostalgic ruminations about home indicate a more intimate focus. The attention given to trees, mountains, birds, and animals presents a way of connecting to feelings or reminiscences, and not necessarily to a specific, physical space or to the issues that concern it. This is not to say that the collection does not encourage readers to observe and learn about their own surroundings. Certainly, the closing lines of the final poem suggest that readers should, “Go outside and gaze / up, and tell me what / you find there” (172)..

Lindsay Diehl

Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast by Maleea Acker

Transmontanus series #21; Vancouver: New Star Books, 2012

Gardens Aflame is an environmental work that advocates the conservation of Garry oak meadowlands. The text begins with a map tracing the decline of Garry oak ecosystems on Southeastern Vancouver Island from 1800 to 1997. In the 1800s this ecosystem thrived, not because of an absence of human interference, but because First Nations cultivated the ecosystem, as one nurtures a vegetable garden. An established poet and alumni of the University of Victoria, Acker parallels the historical and biological narratives of Garry oak meadows on Vancouver Island with her personal encounters with this ecosystem. By juxtaposing environmental research and fieldwork with journal entries and poetic ruminations, the organizational structure of Gardens Aflame enacts its thematic context: people should participate with nature rather than be isolated from it through gated conservation areas. Although Acker’s work is conservationist, it does not promote a breed of environmentalism that demonizes or blames. Instead, Acker recounts her personal experience and self-education of the Garry oak ecosystem, enabling the reader to progress through the narrative, learning and growing with Acker. Gardens Aflame blurs the lines between ecology, memoir, and poetry in a way that values scientific research, history, myth, literature, personal fieldwork and experience as equally important ways of learning and understanding the complexities and complications of conservation. Although Acker is attentive to endangered plants and species, she is more interested in the behavior of ecosystems, and human relationships with these ecosystems. Acker highlights the necessity of human interaction with nature. Natural conservation can only be accomplished through human participation and advocacy, which is not characterized by control, but cultivation, an important distinction and a vital step in environmental discourses.

Dania Tomlinson

Reviews 2012

The Ethics of Earth Art by Amanda Boetzkes

University of Minnesota Press, 2012

Coming out of the 1960s and 70s artworks of Robert Smithson and Albert Beuys and now engaging with digital technology and cosmopolitan mobility, Earth Art is an exciting, engaged mode of inter-species communication. In Amanda Boetzkes’ excellent 2010 monograph The Ethics of Earth Art, movement between the earth, artwork, and artist mediate intense contact between “elemental forces that overwhelm the senses and confound the stability” of a human’s “perceptual apparatus” (4). Boetzkes argues that earth art negotiates a unique, dynamic relationship between human and non-human agents. This relationship is inherently ethical because it reduces tendencies towards modes of domination in romanticized or anthropocentric representations of the earth; rather, earth art performs a “stance of retraction from and receptivity to the earth that foregoes the propensity to actively subsume it within the parameters of our existing logic” (4).
In the first chapter, Boetzkes’ rethinking of well-known earth artist Robert Smithson’s 1970 Spiral Jetty furthers the notion that, in earth art, forces of the earth engage the artwork as intensively as the artist or viewer. Spiral Jetty, Boetzkes argues, is not meant to disappear into the earth, traceless. Nor is it simply a dramatic representation of the molecular structures of salt – although Boetzkes admires Smithson’s attunement to crystallography. Rather, Boetzkes sees Spiral Jetty as an ethically important artwork precisely because it “fails to represent the site but reveals an indexical connection to it in the friction between solid matter and amorphous fluid, crystalline atemporality and dynamic time, a drive into an entropic future and a return to the primordial past” (100).
I was particularly taken by Boetzkes’ second chapter, “The Body as Limit,” in which she discusses “artists [who] use the body as the locus of the ethical relationship to the earth” (146). The artist’s body is at once from the earth, on the earth, and a receptacle for images of the earth. In Chapter Three, “Ecotechnology and the Receptive Surface,” Boetzkes writes about Chris Drury’s photographic earth art shelters. The rock, wood, dirt and stick shelters in the series are also camera obscura, reflecting forest floor or moving water into the shelters or to the shelters’ surroundings. Boetzkes shows how the combined influences of the site, the earth shelter, and the periscope lens do away with hierarchical nature/culture relations.
 Throughout The Ethics of Earth Art, Boetzkes references Martin Heidegger’s treatises in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics about the ontological differences between a stone (an “elemental,” as Boetzkes re-articulates it), an animal, and a human. By reading a focused selection of Heidegger’s writing, and by carefully exploring the vitalist claims of this writing, Boetzkes provides a valuable existential direction to the discussion of earth art and ethics. I would like to see Boetzkes’ writing discussed alongside Claire Colebrook’s work on ethics, vitalism, and Gilles Deleuze. Colebrook’s  Deleuze and the Meaning of Life, about vitalism and art, would be an excellent text to read alongside Boetzkes’ writing about existentialism and the ethics of earth art.



My Nature by Christine Lowther

Leaf Press, 2012

Free Spirit and poetic castaway in a watery world of moon jellies, mudstones and sea cows, B.C. poet Christine Lowther lives half the year on a floathouse in Clayoquot Sound. But if that conjures up idyllic notions of a peaceful life communing with harbour seals and river otters, Lowther steers you straight in her second collection of poetry, My Nature. Her work has a recurring sense of hard-won wisdom gleaned from life experience and close observation of the land. As she writes in “take the kayak out” – “this I have learned from the porpoise: / the feeding is best where the current / is strongest.” True, she details much of the teeming life of the region’s coastal ecosystems, but Lowther is also occupied with the grittier realities of open-pit mining and community activism. For instance, in “Not Complaining,” she tells of trying to save hundreds of dying squid washed up on a beach and observes: “There’s no hiding / from tentacles of growth.” She concludes the poem: “The only thing I can do is not hide./ Not lie./ Not turn my back on the portents, / but keep squirting ink just the same.”


The Shell of the Tortoise by Don McKay

Gaspereau Press, 2010

In this collection of ecocritical essays, Don McKay’s themes include the functions of language and naming; the challenges of contesting colonial norms; and the epistemological excess of “wilderness” (McKay’s term for the unknowable, natural world). The subject matter threatens to be heavy, but McKay’s deftness of touch renders it light as he explores these themes via works ranging from those of continental philosophers to the hospital-bound, would-be inventor of a better wood-splitter. McKay’s might be, as he reflects, a “rich and profane word-hoard,” but it is always spent carefully, and with the reader in mind. An example: In the opening essay, McKay writes of the discovery of fossils at Newfoundland’s Mistaken Point, and reminds us that Heidegger’s term for beauty is “unconcealment or aletheia.” The fossils are a case in point. Beauty lies beneath the surface of things, and for writer and reader alike the question is of knowing where to dig. McKay’s exploratory answers shift the basis of the question. Where we dig is important but even more so is how, and from his rich word-hoard McKay unconceals the analogy of a river expedition led by Hermes, the protagonist of the myth that gives the text its title. The analogy emphasizes the process (rather than product) of unconcealing, as well as the usefulness of a guide. Without the assistance of a canoe-paddling god, though, the reader might be guided just as well by The Shell of the Tortoise




Bill Burns, How to Help Animals Escape from Degraded Habitats - Volkswagen with Rodents

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Lake publishes fiction, poetry, critical essays, interviews, reviews and visual arts related to the environment.
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