Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Natural's Not in It: Postcolonial Wilderness in Steffler's the Grey Islands

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Natural's Not in It: Postcolonial Wilderness in Steffler's the Grey Islands

Article excerpt

SINCE ITS INITIAL publication in 1985, John Steffler's collection of poems, The Grey Islands, has earned a reputation as a classic work of wilderness writing, one that should sit, as its dust jacket proclaims, "beside the works of Thoreau, Annie Dillard, and Aldo Leopold." While reading The Grey Islands as a work of wilderness writing aligns it with a distinctive, ecologically-minded tradition, it also brings, perhaps unfairly, the attendant theoretical stigma occasionally associated with that tradition to bear on Steffler's work. Positing him as a wilderness writer emphasizes the primacy of ecological concerns in the book, but it also risks reiterating the anthropocentric notion of nature as the a priori source of individual human redemption. In such a reading, nature becomes the unmediated origin from which the liberal humanist subject affirms his or her integrity, and upon which he or she asserts authority. Reading Steffler in this manner risks not only asserting a logic of domination that exalts the primacy of human rationality above ecological passivity, it also posits Steffler as a poet invested in maintaining the illusion of a stable lyric self at a time when such claims to subjective integrity were being routinely subverted by postmodern critical concerns.

This paper proposes a reading of The Grey Islands that bridges its ecocritical concerns with postcolonial theory. Conventionally, postcolonial theory and ecocriticism have represented distinct, and in some cases incompatible, critical approaches. While postcolonial theory has proven itself potent by exposing and often deconstructing the provisionality of imperialist rhetoric in colonial and neocolonial discourses, ecocriticism has often sought firmer ontological ground by examining the ways in which human affairs are regulated by their relation to a stable natural environment. The Grey Islands, by attending simultaneously to issues of postcolonial identity and ecological awareness, affirms a space in which postcolonial and ecocritical approaches are both coextensive and mutually beneficial. Steffler accomplishes this critical merger by ironically deconstructing his narrator's desire to locate a stable identity within both a rural culture and a pastoral environment. In postcolonial terms, Steffler's narrator naively views the rural locale with the gaze of the dominant culture, seeking ways in which he can profit personally from its harsh beauty while responding to its populace with a mixture of ignorance and condescension. The naivete of his perspective, which is interrupted and challenged at several junctures by the regular dialogical intervention of local voices, emphasizes the discursive nature of the narrator's colonial mindset and foregrounds its rhetorical provisionality. While this postcolonial perspective represents an important, if not wholly unique, contribution to Newfoundland literature, the manner in which Steffler merges the provisionality of colonial discourse with ecological concerns signifies a distinct approach to ecocriticism. After the narrator's monologic authority as a liberal humanist subject is decentred by his dialogic postcolonial encounters with local voices and customs, it is then further destabilized by his encounters with a natural world that is inherently chaotic, unforgiving, and unconcerned with the private ruminations of his narrator's Romantic inclinations. Pitted against harsh environmental conditions, the boundary between the narrator's now fragile rational ego and the natural Other that he is confronted with becomes increasingly blurred. This happens as he recognizes that the ontological purity he sought in the wilderness is not only absent, but is in fact a discursive construct, just as his colonial notions about local identity proved to be. As various boundaries between self and other collapse in relation to both the local culture and to the wilderness, the narrator is forced to recognize the contingency of his own position as a liberal humanist subject, a contingency that shatters the integrity of his selfhood and drives him to the brink of madness. …

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