Beyond Survival? Wilderness and Canadian National Identity into the Twenty-First Century

By Gilbert, Emily | British Journal of Canadian Studies, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Beyond Survival? Wilderness and Canadian National Identity into the Twenty-First Century


Gilbert, Emily, British Journal of Canadian Studies


Are wilderness and industry reconcilable? This article examines recent examples of Canadian art and literature which draw upon the canonical theme of wilderness, but which encourage a reexamination of the impact of human presence on the land rather than idealising those spaces where humans are not. Recent works by Margaret Atwood, Thaddeus Holownia and Edward Burtynsky encourage a much more complex understanding of land and identity that reconfigures human-non-human relations. They not only draw upon themes of the sublime and survival, but they evoke another strain of nationalist writing on technology and communication found in the writings of Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and George Grant. As I will argue in this article, contemporary artists are rewriting narratives of wilderness and national identity in Canada.

Does one believe man is a part of nature, or outside it? If you think man's a part of nature then all of this, or a bridge over the Welland Canal, has as much right to exist as a beaver dam. But if you think we're unnatural, then man's industry is yet another blight on landscape, something that spoils the natural environment we were once given. I feel that we belong to nature - and that we've learned to shape metal and build bridges so we can solve problems that have existed for millennia. (Edward Burtynsky, quoted in Richler 2001: 24)

EDWARD BURTYNSKY'S LUMINOUS PHOTOGRAPHS of industrial landscapes have gained international attention, particularly with the release of Jennifer Baichwal's award-winning documentary, 'Manufactured Landscapes' (2006, Mongrel Media). Baichwal's film follows the photographer as he traces the impact of industrialisation on China: sweeping panoramas of workers on the factory floor, urban renewal in Shanghai, the building of the Three Gorges Dam. These images of China echo with some of Burtynsky's more mundane North American economic landscapes: the 'Breaking Ground' series featuring abandoned mineshafts in Barrie, Ontario; the Kennecott Copper Mine of Bingham Valley, Utah; the homesteads in Coleman, Alberta; the railcuts in British Columbia; the uranium tailings at Elliot Lake, Ontario; and the coal mines in Sparwood, British Columbia (Fig. 1).

Other photographs display endless piles of metal recycling or old tyres, ships and containers on the Bangladeshi and Canadian coasts, and oil refineries and pipelines in Canada and the USA. What Burtynsky captures in each landscape is the curious splendour of industrial activity on the land. As Mark Cheetham has written, his photos 'seduce us with the accidental beauty of environmental destruction around the globe' (Cheetham 2006: 82). They offer us a vision of an industrial sublime, which - in Burtynsky's own words - opens up a 'dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear.'1

These stunning industrial photographs reconfigure the ways in which the sublime has been yoked to North American wilderness narratives. As William Cronon has documented, in the USA nineteenth-century wilderness narratives cohered around the romantic sublime and the frontier ideal (Cronon 1996). The confluence of these tropes helped to propel a nationalist narrative in which landscape was to become a moral resource for the nation. In Canada, wilderness has also played a central role in the national imaginary, and it has been relentlessly repackaged and remarketed for domestic and foreign consumption (Mackey 2002; O'Brian and White 2007). The works of the Group of Seven have become stereotypical in this regard. These painters deliberately sought to forge a national way of seeing for a country beginning to assert its independence in the aftermath of the First World War. As they insisted, '[a]rt must grow and flower in the land before a country will be a real home for its people' (cited in Manning 2003: 9). They produced bright, bold landscapes, evocative in their use of light and colour, that aspired 'to make it possible for [artists] to see and paint the Canadian scene in its own terms and in their own way' (Harris, cited in Angus 1997: 1072). …

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