There are rabbits all over the lawns of the University of Victoria campus. Like little furry grass-eating balls, they scurry forward a little from time to time but otherwise placidly chomp away at the lawns, oblivious to humans or anything else. Sometimes they just sit there, or lay themselves out and stare forward, cutely extending their forepaws. (And yes, they leave behind a carpet of little brown pellets as evidence of their grazing.) While I’m not sure what kind of rabbits they are, Vancouver Island does have European rabbits as well as Eastern cottontails, which are native to the eastern side of the continent but established themselves here after a 1964 release near Sooke.
Someone said yesterday, “there’s only so many rabbits a cougar can eat.” Vancouver Island is apparently a hotspot for cougar attacks. According to one study, of 53 documented North American mountain lion (cougar) attacks on people between 1890 and 1990, twenty, or about 38%, occurred here on this island off the coast of British Columbia. One explanation that’s been forwarded for this high concentration of attacks is that their common prey species – porcupine, opossum, coyote, bobcat, badger, and spotted and striped skunks – are absent or nearly absent here (or at least they were up to the 1980s). I guess they don’t hang around the campus much, but they do appear in the city from time to time: one found its way into the parking garage beneath the Empress Hotel, and there are occasional school closings after a cougar has been sighted in the neighborhood.
Which brings me to the ASLE conference, which, like all of these biennial gatherings, defines and redefines the field of literary and, to some (growing) extent, cultural ecocriticism. Each field has its rabbits, quietly plugging away at the grasses of its institutionalized lawns – analyzing poems and novels by this writer or that school of drama, a quiet luxury allowed us by our (in this case, mostly English lit) departments. And each field has its cougars, who appear from the surrounding hills, cast long sidewards glances over the territory, then send broad salvos to shake things up a bit now and again.
Okay, the metaphor has its limits. But some of the names that cropped up repeatedly at today’s plenary are a bit like those cougars, except that their presence is a bit more in evidence than the ones of Vancouver Island. I’m thinking of Dana Phillips, Tim Morton, Stacy Alaimo, Cate Sandilands (one of the plenary speakers) — the ones who bring in uninvited names like Judith Butler, Lacan and Zizek, Haraway and Latour, among others, to “queer” a field that began, in many respects, as an outright repudiation of culturalist “high theory.” Doing that alone is not difficult, and the field by now has plenty of Foucauldian, Harawayan, and Derridean readings of nature, but doing it well, in ways that helps redefine the field, requires a cougar-like crafty brilliance.
Today’s plenary on “Our Critical Challenges: What’s Next for Ecocriticism?” featured two speakers who define the field’s recent growth (if not its origins) rather well: Bath Spa University literary critic Greg Garrard and York University “recovering sociologist” and ecopolitical theorist Cate Sandilands. Both were asked to comment on each other’s work and to provide pointers for the future of the field, and here is where some profound and interesting theoretical differences emerged.