Peter Barry and William Welstead (eds), Extending Ecocriticism: Crisis, Collaboration and Challenge in the Environmental Humanities

Peter Barry and William Welstead (eds), Extending Ecocriticism: Crisis, Collaboration and Challenge in the Environmental Humanities (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017) xiv + 273 pp.  Hb £75, EPUB £71.  ISBN-13: 978-1-7849-94396 (Hb).

As Peter Barry and William Welstead explain in their introductory chapter, ‘Ecocriticism extends its boundaries’ (1-13), the aim of this collection of essays is to explore the ‘advance’ of ecocriticism beyond a form of ‘literary criticism’ (1), and ‘explore both praxis and criticism’ (6) as each now extends across genres, disciplines, and fields; indeed, personal, self-reflexive commentaries on ‘an ever-widening creative practice’ (11) constitute many of the contributions to this volume. 

Nevertheless, the collection opens with ‘literary critique’ (15), as Louise Squires (14-29) argues that humankind’s ‘denial of death’ (14) is itself a ‘cause of environmental crisis’ (16).  Touching on works by Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, and Jeanette Winterson, she explores ‘ecological death-facing as thematic device’ (26), whilst also engaging with ‘the unfolding aftermath of high theory’ (15), and the many, often ‘divergent discourses’ (15) thrown up by environmental crisis: as she argues, ‘no singular narrative can cater to its complexities’ (14).  The following three chapters explore collaborations across creative processes (7), beginning with poet Philip Gross’s meditation (30-46) on the way in which ‘ecological thinking’ (31) might be applied to (or emerge from) the ‘creative biodiversity’ (44) of his own, recent participation in collaborative projects such as In and Between, when his response to the River Taff was ‘closely observed by poet and critic Kevin Mills’ (37). 

In Chapter 4 (47-69), Harriet Tarlo and Judith Tucker discuss their ‘collaborative place-based practice’ (47), as respectively poet and artist, and the way that practice ‘might disturb and disrupt our understanding of social, environmental, temporal and spatial relations with place’ (47).  In Chapter 5 (70-90), Patti Lean records her experiences of a month-long walk across Iceland in the company of fellow artists Julie Livesey and Leslie Hicks (70), mapping ‘art-lines’ (72) that link their work to that of other artists, such as the Icelandic painter Louisa Matthíasdóttir (72-74) and filmmaker Bendikt Erlingsson (74-5).  In sharing their experiences – and their artistic responses to them – Lean opens up ‘“traditional” aesthetic categories like “sublime” and “landscape”’ (71) to wide-ranging discussion, whilst also relating their journey to the ‘recent proliferation […] of walking practices as strategies of artistic production’ (76).  ‘In the face of irreversible and catastrophic environmental change,’ she concludes, ‘artists can put out lines, literally and figuratively, to other disciplines’ (87).  

In Chapter 6 (91-108), Eve Ropek takes up a related point – that praxis can act as an ‘impetus to action’ (102) – in her discussion of ‘Ackroyd & Harvey’, the partnership of (respectively) Heather and Dan, two British artists ‘well aware of […] environmental issues’ (92).  ‘Artists who engage with environmental concerns’, Ropek argues, ‘can offer insights and experiences which challenge and lead to greater understanding’ (103); Ackroyd & Harvey do so by celebrating both ‘the natural world [and] human capabilities and potential’ (106).  Chapter 7 (109-134) is Peter Barry’s own contribution to the collection, an analysis ‘of “stone poems”’ (109), which ‘are roughly definable as poems on stones, or about stones, or among stones, or even stones viewed as in themselves poems’ (109).  Taking in prehistorical, historical (110-114), and contemporary (114-119) examples of the form, Barry also examines stone poems set ‘in urban or “edgelands” settings’ (119); he concludes with a tentative but insightful analysis of stone poetry’s sometimes paradoxical meanings (128-131).  Edgelands also form an important part of the work of photographer John Darwell, whose local walk led him to begin a project mapping the phenomenon of the ‘discarded dog shit bag (DDSB)’ (142); as he explains in Chapter 8 (135-148), even such an apparently ‘mundane subject’ (146) begs important questions about humankind’s response to its environment (145-7).

Praxis gives way to theory in Chapter 9 (149-169), in which Clive Caseaux discusses the difficulty of conceptualizing and classifying ecological (or eco-) art (149), and brings phenomenology to bear as the basis of a much more open approach that reflects ‘our aesthetic rootedness in the world’ (150).  In Chapter 10 (170-186), William Welstead considers another aspect of ‘experiential involvement with nature’ (172), in a discussion of the ‘twin pulls of science and art’ (170) as they impact on wildlife artists such as Kim Atkinson.  Next, Aaron S. Allen (187-211) links ‘ecocritical and musicological scholarship’ in a discussion of the pastoral symphony, and the ‘ideas about nature’ that thus form might relate (187).  In the following chapter (212-226), by contrast, Mike Pearson discusses Antarctica’s status as ‘a “global common”’ (212), its history of human intervention during ‘the “Heroic Era”’ (214) of early exploration, and the problematic challenge of modern tourism.  Against this background, Pearson discusses artistic efforts to respond to this unique (and uniquely governed) continent (219-224), and the questions those efforts raise for artistic practice elsewhere (224-225).  In Chapter 13 (227-246), his second contribution to the collection, William Welstead brings an ecocritical eye to bear on the variety of interpretive displays that now greet visitors to parks, conservation sites, and nature reserves such as Cors Dyfi near Machynlleth (237-244).  Sometimes those panels seem to have the express purpose of ‘imposing a brand image’ (228), paradoxical at best when they include (for example) the BP logo (233); on other occasions, they act as mediums for creative interventions by writers such as Katrina Porteous (228-9).  In the final chapter (247-268), Jean Welstead discusses the development of the photomontages used to assess the likely impact of new windfarm projects, and analyses their now crucial but problematic role (256-258); in turn, she suggests ways in which, drawing on ecocritical insights, the ‘smooth surface’ of these images might be disrupted to create a more immersive experience, and better articulate ‘what matters to the local community’ (265).

As Aaron Allen points out, ‘[e]cocriticism began as an endeavor rooted in text’ (187); today, it extends across disciplines and genres, as the (largely British) contributions to this collection demonstrate.  What the collection lacks is a more substantial engagement with the divergent theoretical directions that ecocriticism is now taking, from Human-Animal Studies (McHugh, Miller, Fudge) to new materialism (Barad, Alaimo, Haraway) and OOO (Morton, Harman), particularly when, as Timothy Clark (Ecocriticism on the Edge, 2015) has pointedly noted, these theoretical positions may themselves be incompatible (see, for example, Morton’s comments on OOO in relation to new materialism in International Perspectives in Feminist Ecocriticism, 2013).  Nor is it necessarily helpful to talk in terms of the ‘advance’ (1) of ecocriticism, as Slovic points out (‘Seasick among the waves of ecocriticism’, in Environmental Humanities, 2017).  There are also the (perhaps vexed) questions of whether, as a critical endeavor, ecocriticism should stand apart from political activism or artistic praxis (a point Gross discusses, 30-31, 36-7), and how, if at all, ecocriticism may now be distinguished from the environmental humanities.  Nevertheless, this collection provides an excellent sample of the diversity of what constitutes contemporary ecocriticism, particularly as it relates to environmentally-inflected artistic practice. 

Dr Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar