Do you love, or are you fond of, woods and forests?
Do you take full delight in careful contemplation?
Are you a naturalist of close and patient study?
The dictionaries have a name for those like you.
It is the exclusive property of man, to contemplate and to reason on the great book of nature. She gradually unfolds herself to him…
— Carl Linnaeus
It’s like this vast wonderful Canada we have! White Canadians look at it, and they say, “Oh, this is an unused national resource! Let’s go and cut down the trees! Let’s go and mine! Let’s bring out the uranium! […] No one is using it. Look at this wild rice here: it’s an unused natural resource[!”][…] They never think! They never think that this is someone’s home.
— Lenore Keeshig-Tobias
1 Charles Linné [Carl Linnaeus], A General System of Nature through the Three Grand Kingdoms of Animals, Vegetables and Minerals, tr. William Turton (London, UK: Lackington, Allen, and Co., 1802), 1.
22 Quoted in Hartmut Lutz, Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors (Saskatoon, SK: Fifth House, 1991), 82.
much of the language in BETTER NATURE comes from a diary Walt Whitman wrote while travelling through Canada (Ontario and Québec) in the summer of 1880.
Whitman’s descriptions of the land, the lakes, the “grass and trees and bushery”reflect the qualities that make his poetry so striking: extravagant language, galloping syntax, endless catalogues of his own gloriousness, and that of the world around him.
The diary also reflects the qualities that make Whitman, in many ways, a typical late-19th-century “white settler”—a subject produced through the legal and social regimes that figured (some) Europeans, and their descendants, as entitled to the lands and labour of Indigenous people and other people of colour.
Whitman travelled Canada easy in the conviction that the land was the rightful property of a “great race” of “farm-families.” He praised the goodness of the Dominion government for “keep[ing]entire faith with […] all its Indians”; describing a visit to Ah-me-je-wah-noong (Aamjiwnaang, near Sarnia, Ontario), Whitman complained that the community’s reserve—a “beautiful and ample tract” of land—had been left “undeveloped” and was “quite an eyesore to the Sarnians.”
As Lenore Keeshig-Tobias makes clear, settler colonial ideas about “nature,” land, and resources are very much ideas about race. In Whitman’s work (as in much Canadian and American cultural history), the “new world” is an empty and available place—a place without any people in it.
It is a place of “primal naturalness,”a place of “Nature without check with original energy,” a place of raw beauty and possibility that must be brought to “usefulness” and “fruition” through settler governance.
As members of Indigenous communities have often pointed out, the idea that Canada grew out of a “vast wilderness” continues to circulate in popular and “official” histories,and “underlies […] issues going on today […] [around] aboriginal title and rights, land claims, the land question.” (To return to Keeshig-Tobias, settler “entitlement” to lands, trees, and minerals hinges on the idea of an empty, “unused” wilderness—the refusal to acknowledge that the land was already “someone’s home.”)
In considering how these colonial conceptions continue to find expression in Canadian culture and politics, Better Nature puts Whitman’s diary into conversation with archival texts, news stories, opinion pieces, municipal guidelines for the “management” of public greenspace, email spam, and fundraising for environmental NGOs.
In using Whitman’s diary in this way, Better Nature considers him as, in many ways, a very ordinary individual—not only in the 19th century, but in the 21st century as well. The point is not that he failed to transcend the tenor of his time, but that contemporary Canada has likewise failed.
this project began while i was studying Indigenous-based analyses of colonialism and work toward decolonization; it is necessary to acknowledge the specific writers and thinkers to whom Better Nature is most indebted (see “Major Debts/Reading List”).
I also want to recognize that, ...