On GeoActivism / GeoPoetics - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

I claim no special expertise in the pedagogy of Ecological Studies.  Having worked many years on various campaigns and projects there are certain areas where I’ve gained knowledge, so what I can do is share beneficial ideas of others I’ve encountered to broaden public attention.

Among my own curiosities is the condition of our biosphere –what Buddhists might recognize as “an instance” that relates to our current ecological situation.   The kinds of neighbours and writers I enjoy passing time with find this situation cause for concern and often for engaging in forms of action.

GeoActivism incorporates attending municipal and regional planning committee meetings, community association and socially engaged organization meetings, public protests, marches and manifestations, writing letters to newspapers and politicians, and phoning politicians’ constituent offices, making signs, getting out to vote, organizing community and political and social issue campaigns, and perhaps cleaning up a local area we have an attachment to.

Standing in front of a bulldozer, enduring overt and covert police and intelligence agency surveillance while covering a story, getting arrested climbing an oil refinery tower to hang Greenpeace banners, getting threatened, roughed up or beaten by angry backwoods activists —are potentially optional.  Pushing a button for a computer petition does not count.

As Frank Stewart, my co-editor on Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World (issue 25:1 of Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing, observed, there  exist “many kinds of activism.  One of the most powerful is activism of the ethical imagination.”

Toward that end, the concept of “Cascadia” is not a self-absorbed literary or academic regionalism.  British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific North West is a prime geographic area in which to address environmentalism.   Vancouver, B.C, Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, and some outlying adjacent regions, have unique attributes – a diverse mix of cultures and peoples, particular economic strengths, and some innovative approaches to civic planning and public services.

As writers, a growing number of us here share a common regard for securing a future for ourselves and for our planet.  Intimacy brings understanding.  Because we get to know our region intimately, we see how easily it is violated, knowing what can be lost.

Cascadian eco-lit isn’t typically about details of awards, personal victory or defeat, nor about the shallower gestures of environmentalism.  It frequently evokes memories and feelings from our deep, personal, direct experience with the natural world.  It reflects our own historic period in adapting to what activist and writer Rex Weyler notes is “a global biosphere that is in remedial crisis.”

In his essay “Reinhabitation”, poet Gary Snyder, suggests that communities in Cascadia think in a way that transcends political boundaries and is unified by their experience with, and knowledge of, local flora and fauna, and the water, air, mineral, and nutrient cycles that are shared within the region.  Experiencing the intensity and power of the wilderness inevitably leads to consciousness of the devastation of old-growth forests, of salmon breeding grounds, pristine lakes, and other icons of the region. So it was no accident that Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver, B.C., here in Cascadia

As writers, part of our role is to witness how the wild is also our true home, the bioregion that connects us to each other.  This region we inhabit remains rich in its legacy of cultural traditions—ceremonies tied to the land & sea:  bonfires, pole-raisings, pow wows, rodeos, potlatches, agricultural fairs, canoe races.  The insignias of our school and sports teams are frequently totems from nature – the Lions, Cougars, Huskies, Orcas, Salmonbellies, Grizzlies, Bears, Eagles, Seahawks, Thunderbirds…

Alongside Indigenous writing by authors including Lee Maracle, the late Richard Wagamese, Garry Gottfriedson, Will George, Eden Robinson, often our non-First Nations writing adds weight to the legitimacy of an evolving Cascadian tradition and values held up by our colleagues, fellow writers, and artists. I’m thinking of poets Susan Musgrave and Eve Joseph, memoirist Theresa Kishkan, essayist/painter Emily Carr, and from Cortez Island, Rex Weyler, along with U.S. poets,  the late Judith Roche from Washington, Mike O’Connor from Port Townsend, Clem Starck from Oregon, with the old skipper Gary Snyder serving as a binding glue for all.

Snyder asks, “How does knowledge of place help us know the self?”  Fundamentally the answer is that we are all composite beings:  physically, intellectually we come from this place.  There are different ways of understanding what this means:  in English, you can “own” the land.  Among traditional First Nations peoples the meaning changes, the same as in Irish Gaelic.  You can’t say “my land”.  Irish contains no possessive pronouns.   What you say is, “the land that is me.”   The meaning is changed entirely.  In Irish, you embody the land.  My aboriginal neighbours up the road confirm something close to this in their Halquemaylem language.

The kind of writers and writing that I understand and recognize as actively Cascadian in nature offer ways to re-imagine culture, community, ecology, language, engaged citizenship, knowledge and the life of the spirit.  These writers address the wasteful and destructive practices of the present and propose creating a larger community that will collectively advocate for the preservation of this Cascadia region in all its bio-cultural diversity. .

Writers who write  only from home are different from those who write from the ‘wild’ of the world.  What we need, Robert Bringhurst says, is room in a shared world.  Cultures celebrate places. In grappling with the issues of how far we have strayed from nature, Cascadian writers have addressed ideas of mutual aid, interdependence, peace, self-discipline, lay witness, and cross-cultural ideas between Indigenous First Nations, European Settler, and East Asian spiritual traditions.

Regarding current affairs, some of us are concerned, or frustrated with the way the energy futures debate is being discussed right now.  Former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark wisely  said that, “we have to earn our way going forward” as a country, a people.” He’s right.  Cascadia offers a unique capacity for change in the way we respond to the world, and the first step in making things better is to recognize that holding an alternative view to rapacious corporate domination over the natural world does not represent an ideological blindness.  It means the way that we use our intelligence is different.

While making my documentary film Cascadia, I interviewed B.C. businesswoman, Liz McDowell, who proposed Canada has lost its way.   She argues that the benefits of economic development are enriching a relatively small group, and the risks are calculated to fall upon a much wider swath of our society.  We’re not nearly in agreement about what the real benefits are. The debate is increasingly divisive.

Concerning responsible economic development in Cascadia, we have the legacy of being a resource-based region. However, it’s not the same economic base that it once was. There’s a huge technology push going on.  More people now work in the info/high tech sector in the Vancouver area than in all the natural resource development industries in B.C. combined.  Liz McDowell further observed, “If we take the emotion out of the economic debate and look at all our sectors, at what contributes to quality of life here – if we consider which ones foster our spirit of economic innovation, as well as jobs and wealth –we find that the dominating noise isn’t really domestically focused; increasingly the push is about an export strategy.   Who benefits?  What are the risks? We’re not focusing on the whole strategy.

“There’s the idea of “social license”… How corporations sell themselves, gain credibility with the public by giving back.  That’s a good thing.  Big energy corporations tell us their proposed operations will be a tax bonanza, but let’s unpack all that.  Polling tells us that there’s very heavy public opposition to the pipelines and coal train proposals.  People don’t like what they see.”

The first principle of sustainability is the right to say ‘no’ when it doesn’t make good sense. Greenpeace was born in Vancouver around 1970 in anarchic, organic fashion when, as Bob Hunter says, “a handful of Canadian activists founded an organization devoted to improving ecological conditions and denouncing nuclear weaponry.”   A group of friends and allies said “No” to nuclear testing in the Amchitka area of Alaska. In protest, they sailed up in an old fishing boat and changed the way that we now live in the world.  Isn’t everybody an environmentalist now, a little bit?

Before Greenpeace, elder statesman of the eco-movement, Gary Snyder, was raised on a Depression-era stump farm just outside of Seattle.  During the 1950s, he and several writer chums, including Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen,  worked as fire-lookouts in the Cascade Range and helped to define a distinctive literature and poetics from the Pacific Northwest.  Head north, hang a right at Hwy 20, then head for Marblemount and the Diablo and Ross Lake areas.  That was their beat.

I’m situating a time and a set of ideas with our local bioregion for a couple of reasons.  Partly I wonder how much we continue to value that form of imagination.  Wade Davis, a B.C. conservationist and longtime National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence contends that forestry, for example, “as traditionally practiced in the Pacific Northwest is less a science than an ideology [that it’s] reflecting the social needs and aspirations of a closed group of professionals with a vested interest in validating its practices and existence.”

We know how forestry has worked here.  To borrow an image from poet Robert Bringhurst, the clear-cuts are spread like the bones of the buffalo across B.C.’s hills and valleys.  From my previous experience in municipal politics and Greater Vancouver Regional water and air quality issues, I’d say Wade Davis has it spot on.

Rex Weyler has observed that sometimes as eco-minded folks we get asked blunt questions – ‘Okay! What’s the solution?’  He clarifies that “what political leaders especially mean is ‘Give us solutions that will allow us to keep running our stuff the same way and not have to change much.’  That’s the wrong idea.   Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki warned us we outsmart ourselves with ’solutions” that trap us within destructive habits.  Political leaders love solutions that feature high-technology– solar panels, windmills, ethanol, nuclear fuels, ‘green’ products, ‘clean’ coal.  These ideas appeal to our longing for a solution we can control and from which someone can profit.  But all technological systems have hidden costs and limited life-spans.”

There isn’t always a ready answer, a magic silver bullet that’ll fix the holes in the ozone layer.   Sometimes the smartest thing we can do is try and figure out the right questions to ask.  In The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye wrote, “I think now that the simplest questions are not only the hardest to answer, but the most important to ask.”

It’s difficult not to feel voiceless sometimes.  Many of us are still from a generation that worked to build an inclusive political and educational model that provided with us a legitimate voice in the decision making process.  It’s getting harder to know who is calling the shots anymore, and democratic values are increasingly being threatened.

But we can keep on writing.  We can share what we know of this place, and why we love and care for it.  As I wrote in Cascadia, “Languages and literatures—primarily poetry, song narrative, whether oral or written bring us close to the truth of a place. They help us experience the bio-cultural region called Cascadia.”

What can writers do?  If it’s EcoPoetics, first, get us a clearer idea of the terrain. Kim Goldberg notes this kind of writing, “is not so much ‘nature-minded’ as ‘ecologically sensitive,’ meaning that its aesthetics are socially, politically, and spiritually grounded.”  As Andrew Schelling from Naropa University explained in a letter to me, “Let’s not fall for the academic poetry circuit crew, who at last month’s Transnationality conference massaged their previous autumn’s Marxist conference chat and next summer will surely be recycling the same mediocre rap at an Ecopoetics reading. Jed Rasula in a review has reminded us how bona fide eco-poets like Joanne Kyger, James Koller, John Brandi or Andrew Schelling are strangely not being included in the latest series of academic poetry anthologies—yet these are core individuals in the evolution and crafting of what we understand as modern eco-poetry.  We know that the academic lens fosters its own safe and often feeble wannabes, while our important original source ideas and creators are marginalized farther and farther away from conventional academic attention and from the student readers who should at least be made aware of them.”

What to do? As theologian Fr. Richard Neuhaus advocates, “we change a culture by creating a community.”  That’s what honest literature and art is doing—creating a meeting point where local community, artistic, academic and perhaps, colaboratively, even business and governance interests can work together regarding key cultural and ecological issues.  From a biocentric point of view, what’s to lose?   As poet Michael McClure writes, “Listen, the whales are singing very clearly in our hearts.”


Note: Trevor originally presented a version of this contribution at a poetics conference in Warsaw, Poland, and, earlier, in Seattle, Washington.



Trevor Carolan is Professor Emeritus at University of the Fraser Valley.  Trevor has published over twenty books, including poetry, prose, essays and translations. His new travel writing collection Road Trips: Journeys in the Unspoiled World is published by Mother Tongue. His most recent book of poems is published by Victoria’s Ekstasis Editions, In Formless Circumstance: Poems from the Road & Home. Trevor makes his home in Deep Cove, Vancouver.