Ecocriticism: Creating Self and Place in Environmental and American Indian Literatures by Donelle N. Dreese

Donelle N. Dreese’s short book, Ecocriticism: Creating Self and Place in Environmental and American Indian Literatures, manages to cover, in the space of only 116 pages (not counting the index or bibliography) and five chapters, 10 major works by contemporary Native American and feminist writers. The thesis and purpose of the book is quite ambitious: “Working from postcolonial and ecocritical theoretical notions that place is inherent in configurations of the self and in the establishment of community and holistic well-being, the purpose of this book is to examine the centrality of landscape in contemporary poetry and prose works by writers who, either through mythic, psychic, or geographic channels, have identified a landscape or environment as intrinsic to their own conceptualizations of self” (3). The first of the book’s six chapters contains the theoretical underpinnings that support her subsequent readings of N. Scott Momaday, Linda Hogan (whose work is examined twice, in chapters 2 and 4), Joy Harjo, Chrystos, Gloria Anzaldúa, Susan Griffin, Wendell Berry, Simon Ortiz, Wendy Rose and Gerald Vizenor. By covering major works by these important authors who frequently turn up on the reading list of a feminist or Native American literature class, Ecocriticism should be an important contribution useful for both students and professors.

Unfortunately, the book is marred by omissions in theory, lack of depth in the analysis of the works under consideration, and a severe case of “it’s-either-black-or-white” dichotomizing that splits the world into “the Western tradition,” which is the voice of white, patriarchal males, and everybody else, who are oppressed, de-voiced and otherwise marginalized, and which includes all people of color, women, and nature. Dichotomies too easily become blame games of causality: either black did it or white did it. No room for process. Skipping lightly over her chosen texts would be fine if the theoretical assumptions driving her readings were made clear. Since these assumptions are not made clear, and many key terms (such as the Deluzian “reterritorialzation”) are left un- or under-defined, it is often difficult to ascertain exactly what it is Dreese is driving at. As is, the book reads as a polemic for insiders rather than a useful contribution to the important and burgeoning practice of ecocriticism.

What Ecocriticism lacks in theory could probably be easily made up by considering epistemologies of place (and the twin correlatives of place, perspective and motion). As physicist and science fiction writer Greg Bear notes in his novel Legacy, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Epistemology of place is an idea that crops up again and again in the writers Dreese quotes, but that only ever barely surfaces in her discussions.

An example is in her extremely brief discussion of Chrystos’ poem “Vision: Bundle,” which ends with the line “The only part of us they can’t steal / is what we know,” which Dreese glosses as meaning “that the consciousness of [Chrystos’] people… can never be stolen or reduced to exhibition. Within the realm of this knowledge exists a safe refuge on her battlefield where the enemy [i.e., “ white culture,” according to Dreese] can never enter” (55). Leaving aside the problem, in both Chrystos’ poem and Dreese’s book, of a monological “white culture,” we are left with no sense of what this “safe refuge” might be like other than a place “where the enemy can never enter.” All Dreese says is that it’s a place where one can be safe and heal—two hopes that drive the writing in Ecocriticism. Is such a place, in order to ensure its safety, completely cutoff from other cultures? Or is a place from within which change (toward peace and healing) spreads to the “enemy” culture? Dreese names Chrystos an “activist” writer, one of several discussed in Ecocriticism, but just what sort of action is to be undertaken is not clear, even in broad terms.

Dreese writes that “landscape, sense of place, and identity… are integral in all human development but particularly in American Indian cultures and literatures” (9). But why “particularly” Native American culture? Why not Romanian culture? Could we possibly read the poems of Paul Celan without having some sense of the “place” of the concentration camps? Or why not English culture? Would Marvell’s mower poems make a wit of sense if we didn’t all have some operative theory of mind-in-place? Would Mary Webb’s proto-feminist novel Gone to Earth move us if we didn’t have an understanding of both place and patriarchy as both profound and subtle forces on both individuals and cultures? Dreese breezes right past this question, apparently assuming that we all agree that Native Americans are somehow more “placeful” than the rest of the world’s cultures. But Dreese quotes Gary Snyder, a poet and philosopher of place who is steeped in many “traditions,” including the Western one: “There are no limits to the possibilities of the study of who and where” (1).

This precisely pinpoints the romantic and anti-scientific position of much of contemporary ecocriticism. Dreese quotes Booth and Jacobs, who assume this stance quite rigidly: “American Indian cultures adapted their needs to the capacities of natural communities; the new inhabitants, freshly out of Europe, adapted natural communities to meet their needs” (6). Unfortunately for Dreese, Booth and Jacobs, there is absolutely no evidence that Natives always lived in harmony with nature, or even what such “harmony” would look like. (By the same token, there are plenty of well-documented examples of Europeans living, as the saying goes, lightly on the land. We tend to think of the Dark Ages as, well, dark, but in fact they were a period of enlightened pastoralism for many Western Europeans.) The use of fire, in Australia and North America, has an ancient pedigree as a tool for the control and modification of “natural communities.” The Great Plains of North America, stretching through the central part of both Canada and the U.S., were formed in large part by the manipulation of existing flora in order to create grasslands that were suitable to the needs, not of Indians, but of their favorite prey, the “buffalo” (bison).

Dreese flattens differences between various American Indian cultures, stating that while there is diversity, all such cultures nevertheless share “some fundamental ideologies of worldview” (9) which, in the words of Paula Gunn Allen, assume “that the earth is alive in the same sense that human beings are alive” (7). This shared ideology may indeed exist pan-culturally, but it does so, at least as far as there is any documented evidence of its existence at all, since colonization. Indeed, the Gaia Theory (as Dreese names it, following the British scientists James Lovelock), which holds that Earth functions (in deed if not in fact) as a living being, in as much as it is an Indian philosophy, is a modern ideology, a reaction-formation against the predation of colonialism. Dreese sensibly asks, “whether or not” the “response to the alienation” experienced by “colonized cultures to retrieve and reestablish a sense of cultural identity…. Is actually viable, or if the retrieval of a lost identity is merely a nostalgic reflection and imaginative construct” (15).

Science, like historical depth and veracity, is cast aside: “At the time of the Gaia theory’s introduction, there were arguments among its follows as to whether it was a scientific theory or a theological one, indicating that hard scientific and spiritual approaches to studying the earth were at odds. From an American Indian perspective, I don’t think this is an area of controversy because its life philosophies did not dictate such dichotomies” (7). This is all well and good as long as one doesn’t want—or need, which literary critics badly do—a theory that is useful across cultures. How could one use a theory striped of science and history to compare, say, Marvell’s mower poems with the work of Gerald Vizenor or Wendell Berry? Or, using such a science-starved theory, what could one possibly make of William Burroughs’s Interzone—an imaginary “place” that is an epitomization of the very idea of place?

This lack is ironic and painful in view of Dreese quoting, in the first few pages of the book, a chastisement by Glen A. Love, who wrote: “[T]he decision of those who profess English has been, by and large, that the relationship between literature and these issues of the degradation of the earth is something that we won’t talk about,” instead putting the discussion in to “pigeonholes” like “‘nature writing,’ or ‘regionalism,’ or ‘interdisciplinary studies’” (5). Dreese is correct in saying that the situation has improved a bit since Love wrote those words in the early 1990s. But English departments are still the safe haven for those who can’t or won’t do math and science—and that stubborn refusal to look beyond “the arts” has, at least in the U.S., resulted in the slow demise of literary studies. Where once English departments were seriously considered to be portals to the important work of cultural criticism (as a sort of anthropology of the text), now they are simply the purveyors of pre-requisite undergraduate courses, namely “college writing.”

In Dreese’s book there is a strong sense of black and white, of right and wrong. The black and wrong side is the European cultural inheritance of North America. I’ve no interest in defending that inheritance, but it is simply false to state, as Dreese does, that “it has been historically inconceivable to Western modes of thought to suggest such an all-encompassing connection between the environment and the state of human existence” (7-8). What then of Heraclitus and other ancient Greeks who conceived of a fabric or tissue, an arché, at work in the kosmos, in the form of “fire” or some other primal element? What then of the atoms of Democritus? What then of Leibniz’s monadology, with its soulful connective particles driving motion and desire throughout the universe? What then of Gregory Bateson, Richard Feynman and other formative connectionists of the twentieth century? And why then lump together the “Indian philosophies” under the distinctly Western rubric of “Gaia”?

I think the answer to this, and the key to so many of the omissions and contradictions in Dreese’s book, is that we simply can’t escape “Western” culture. We may love it, we may hate it, but we cannot get away from it. What happens too often, though, is that “Western” culture is monologized: it is made into a singularity, a nasty blood-sucking, village-sacking, women-raping singularity, like a rampaging black hole that drives a Humvee. There’s a certain amount of truth in that image, at least in as much as it implicates the United States (to a disaffected American, the E.U. looks like a green and pleasant land of feminists and peaceniks). A certain amount of truth, but it doesn’t reveal the whole picture, which is much more complex. The feminists of the 1960s and ’70s dramatically transformed “Western” culture (and some of the rest of the world, too): the power of that transformation is evident in the backlash that began in the Reagan-Thatcher years. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s likewise changed the face of the United States, and is likewise being retroverted by a “White Rights” movement that began in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the monological myth of Native American culture has taken deep root in environmental movements around the world, most especially in “Western” culture. As physicist Lee Smolin says, there are no things. There are only processes in a network. Trying to divide the network of human cultures, and of this planet full of life, into segregated “green zones” of safety and healing is naïve and dangerous. It is knowledge of the movement of information through this network that will allow us to resist imperialism and colonialism, or to act for change in attitudes and laws regarding people of color, women, and the world.

This review was originally published in Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, vol. 5, no 2, Aug. 2004, University of Wales Aberystwyth, Dept. of Theatre, Film and Television Studies

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