The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture and Power on
November 4, 2013
Review By H.V. Nelles
WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES dancers yearn to sing or painters to write? Why are academics fundamentally unhappy within their disciplines? Inside each academician there seems to be an alter ego struggling to get out. Scratch a historian, it is said, and you will find a novelist; economists are humourists manqué. On the evidence of this book, geographers would really rather be philosophers.
When I was asked to review a book entitled The Intemperate Rainforest, I expected it would be about trees. But Bruce Braun’s book is really about words, and also paintings, photographs, advertisements, posters, diagrams, and (occasionally) maps. Had the book been about trees, I would have been notionally within the boundaries of my competence. But as it concerns itself primarily with the philosophical conception of the West Coast forest, I must confess as a reader to have spent much of my time lost in the epistemological woods. I came away with a vague sense that something useful and important had been said, but I could not be certain of this, specify it precisely, or shake off the uneasiness that perhaps amidst all the verbal cleverness I’d been had.
In the beginning was the word and words make forests. In this geography of the mind, Braun sets out to map the conceptual grid overlaying the physical contours of the West Coast. The recent violent confrontations over logging in Clayoquot Sound provide him with a point of departure for a series of extended meditations on the social construction of nature in a West Coast setting. Braun takes us back from the white heat of clashing interests and passions to the intellectual realm in which ideas that shape differing perceptions are created. He is mainly interested in the way facts come to be accepted, how the normal gets to be that way, how different perceptions of reality take shape and condition behaviour. Essentially he argues that we can’t see the forest for the metaphors.
A discourse on the social construction of nature opens the book. The five chapters that follow in one way or another illustrate the proposition, advanced in the introduction (11), that “nature is socially produced, in the sense that what we see as ‘natural’ internalizes not only ecological relations but social relations too.” “Producing Marginality,” connects functionalist ideas about the forest as a tree farm to George Dawson’s nineteenth-century Geological Survey reports that severed Native peoples from their habitat through inventory science. “Saving Clayoquot” unpacks the vocabulary of environmentalism, especially photographic imagery that contrasts indigeneity with modernity. Environmentalism too, he argues, denies Native peoples a modern place in nature. “Landscapes of Loss and Mourning” uses a sea kayak adventure tour as a point of departure for an examination of the images, expectations, and desires that sustain tourism. Again he finds that both forestry and contemporary Native peoples have no legitimate place in the picture. “BC Seeing/Seeing BC” provides a critical reading of Emily Carr’s paintings of totems and trees. Here he is at pains to avoid essentialism or reducing her work to a single meaning. Finally, “Picturing the Forest Crisis” uses two apparent satellite images of the Vancouver Island forest cover to expose the intellectual genealogy of the idea of nature as equilibrium. Where does all this lead? To the conclusion that the “forest” is a construction of words and historical concepts, that “there is no site outside culture and language from which to fix once and for all nature’s truth or to adjudicate competing epistemological and political claims” (259), and that “there are many forests, not one; there are myriad ways in which the physical worlds of the west coast are imbued with meaning and intelligibility, not a single unassailable truth that once found will show us the way forward” (260).
It must be said that this is a dense, difficult, sometimes exasperating book, but every now and then persistence is rewarded with illuminating aperçus. On the same page (143) that the reader is forced to struggle through semantic sludge such as “despite its supposed distance from an intrusive mass tourism, in its demarcation of the premodern and identification of this space with essential and timeless forms, the critique of Western modernity as colonizing that lies at its core doubles back as colonialisms most paradigmatic form, a sort of environmental orientalism that images modernity’s Other as fixed and immutable,” Braun tosses off a sparkling gem of insight that suddenly makes clear what he has been trying to say for several pages: “Whereas industrial forestry abstracts one commodity (timber) from its ecological and cultural context, adventure travel abstracts another (Viewscapes’) from their ongoing historical construction and places them in the mythic time of the premodern.” I was out of my depth on the philosophical issues: I have a nagging suspicion that, from time to time, Braun may have been as well. When geographers do philosophy, someone other than a historian is needed to judge.
The baroque prose is compounded by a predilection for postmodernist word play. But the bigger problem is that at times meaning itself is foregone for effect. For page after page, words are shot off like fireworks, bright bursts of verbiage fly off in all directions, secondary sparkles of learned references shower down in cascades: Bachelard, Bal, Bar thes, Baudillard, Bell, Benjamin, Benton, Berkhofer, Berman, Bhabha, Bordieu, Butler – to speak only of the B’s. Amidst all of the crackling verbal pyrotechnics, it is often difficult to know what, if anything, is being said. Then, just as suddenly, Braun is back among us offering some thoughtful and comprehensible commentary as he readies himself to fire off another “lit. crit.” rocket.
There can be no doubt but that a fertile and critical mind is at work in these pages. Braun subjects everything in his gaze to a relentless interrogation. He has a discerning eye and is skilled at revealing juxtaposition that transcends irony. He is also a sympathetic critic. He takes no pleasure in exploding environmental romanticism; he instinctively shields Native discourse from his withering intellect. When he finds his voice, disciplines his prose, takes his audience into his confidence, and leaves this trail of references behind, Bruce Braun will undoubtedly temper our thinking about nature in important ways.