Our changing climate is inspiring students to develop their personal relationships with the land
We found a salal shrub (gaultheria shallon), and my excitement withered immediately, like an ill-kept pot plant in a time lapse. I always thought that salal berries tasted like unripe grapes, only earthier, but every time we ran into some, someone thought that force-feeding me these things would change my opinion of them.
It was happening again. My friend bent a long green-and-red branch down into an arch, scooped off the little purple bunches of acid-reflux-inducers, and held them out to me in cupped hands. I sighed, took one, and ate it.
Salal certainly tasted the same as it had all of the other times I’d tried it, but now, perhaps in a display of lofty personal maturation, I liked it. And before I could voice my surprise, I realized that I hadn’t tried salal, let alone seen a salal shrub, in at least a decade. Apparently, salal has been experiencing a dieback across Vancouver Island as a result of the changing climate.
Is that why I like it now? Because there are less of them? Is it, in some perverted way, a matter of exclusivity?
I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that my new appreciation for this bit of nature that’s so representative of the West Coast has been generated by the climate emergency, and I’m not the only person to find a new relationship with the environment in recent years.
The climate crisis is not only compelling people to engage in more political activism and tune into discussions surrounding environmental legislation more often, it’s also obliging people to rethink their value systems that deal with the very ideas of “nature,” or “the environment,” or “the non-human” (take your pick).
This shift in values goes by many names: environmentalism, green ideology, ecopolitics, ecologism, social ecology, land ethics, sustainability… The list goes on, and each of these movements is different from the rest, sometimes slightly, sometimes enormously. Many of them also have some sort of presence at UVic. Currently, UVic has almost 20 different green clubs.
Last year, I heard another UVic undergraduate student use the term ‘New Romanticism’ to describe his own burgeoning relationship with ecology. A quick Google search of this term pulled up Taylor Swift and David Bowie. Unsatisfied, I tracked him down to uncover the meaning and perhaps significance of this new bit of jargon.
Alexander McLauchlan, a third-year English major, understands New Romanticism as “a return to heavy themes about nature, not on its own, but as a discursive thing.”
We sat down to talk in a dingy Clearihue classroom. Me and him, both in wheely chairs, separated by my voice recorder. Staring at the off-white walls and chalk-marked pillars surrounding us, he says, “Ecological collapse is a discursive thing that affects every other facet of humanity now. That’s what I’m interested in.”
He explains that he was inspired to use this term by his “genuine fondness and belief that nature is some extension of the divine.” Though he does not consider much of this contemporary ecological movement theologically charged, he’s interested in “the reverence we have for what nature can do.”
For McLauchlan, using this new term isn’t about quantifying ecological belief systems or gatekeeping green frameworks of thought from the uninformed — he is, as far as he’s aware, the first person to use New Romanticism in this context. It’s about communicating with people beyond the relatively isolated world of academia.
“There’s a hesitance to want to act on this stuff, even though the average person has genuine concerns about the environment, whether they’re on the right or left.”
McLauchlan is hopeful that, in addition to taking activist and legislative measures to combat the effects of the climate crisis that we’re seeing in B.C., from salal shrub dieback to the wildfires that recently devastated the Okanagan, that Canadians might “create a really forward-thinking, ecologically diverse, and self-sustaining future, and New Romanticism would be a response to these material changes.”
But if no one has heard of New Romanticism before, why might it be an asset in mobilizing awareness of ecological problems?
Because it hopes, at least in part, to take up the smouldering torch left behind by Old Romanticism.
Dr. Nicholas Bradley is an associate professor in the UVic Department of English who specializes in representations of the landscape and environment. Bradley defines Romanticism as “a set of artistic and philosophical principles, that in Western culture, came into existence in the later 18th and early 19th century.”
Our interview took place in his office, another room in Clearihue. Books of all shapes and sizes had been heaped on his tables, stuffed into corners, and lined the shelves so completely it looked like they had grown out of the walls like weeds.
“A lot of artists and writers and thinkers at the time were interested in the power of what they saw as the natural world to shape the human imagination,” says Bradley. “And so in a lot of the literature and visual art of the time … we get a celebration of the idea of going out into the natural world to be rejuvenated, renewed, reshaped.”
With this knowledge in mind, Bradley says that the moniker New Romanticism doesn’t mean much to him because, while it has evolved, Old Romanticism is still alive and well.
“I think the Romantic tradition is everywhere with us, from the provincial and national parks’ marketing strategies, to the marketing strategies of outdoor equipment companies, and even the way that social media celebrates the experience of nature,” he says. “This is all deeply rooted in Old Romanticism.”
Because its predecessor is still so pervasive, McLauchlan’s New Romanticism has a lot of cultural shorthand which it might exploit to generate awareness of the cultural dimension of ecological disaster. For example, if the Romantics believed that nature had the power to revitalize someone, as Bradley suggests, New Romanticism might use this belief to communicate to everyday people suffering from burnout or exhaustion that ecological concerns are their concerns too.
McLauchlan advocates for a “return to a methodist society where the method of production is based more on social good than profit,” qualifying this statement with, “but we’re still humans, and not wild animals.”
Some might understand this qualification as drawing a line between humans and animals, culture and nature, which is a tendency that Bradley warns against.
For New Romanticism to truly be new, he says it must “get away from the idea of separation of self and environment, and a New Romanticism would have to be predicated on ideas of enmeshment and inseparability.”
Enmeshment and inseparability sound like brilliant things to strive for, but implementing them might be difficult for many of us who, for our whole lives, have viewed nature as separate from our day-to-day activities, as the thing that animals live in, where we only go hiking or camping. And there’s a lot of difficult history to overcome here.
“Romantic ideologies have been used, especially in North American contexts, for the dispossession of land,” Bradley points out. “The creation of the national park systems in both the U.S. and Canada is predicated on the elimination of Indigenous peoples from their territories, such that the ‘wilderness part’ can be created.”
Dr. waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy, an associate professor in the gender studies department, explains in an email with the Martlet how essential it is for settlers to learn from and with the Indigenous peoples of a land by drawing on Anishinaabe philosophy.
Sy’s relationship with the land, water, and air is predicated on the understanding that the land and environment are alive with their own life forces; “it is also more-than-human in that humans rely on it for life but it does not need humans for the same.”
Sy explores her relationship with the land day-to-day by “offering [her] Anishinaabe asemaa (tobacco) and words of recognition and respect for the natural world that is also, first and foremost, from the perspective of humanity, lək̓ʷəŋən and WSÁNEĆ peoples’ homes.”
While Sy advocates for sociopolitical transformation, upon hearing the term New Romanticism for the first time, she says that it evokes “new colonization” though McLauchlan considers this movement to be anti-colonial and inspired by Indigenous concerns, specifically Land Back.
In response to Sy’s comments, McLauchlan sighed, and conceded that his whole idea is about finding a new language to describe our current ecological and social situation, so if new words with no history are what we need, we ought to find them quickly.
Sy recommends that settlers remain “in unison with Indigenous peoples, actively advocating for a new political paradigm (or paradigms) that transform the nation-state structure which itself is built from and through settler colonialism and is sustained through this structure.”
“I think there are abundant examples of settlers living well with the natural world — or striving to — and this is not directly restoring life for Indigenous peoples who have been displaced from the very lands settlers are renewing or transforming their relationships with,” she adds.
Sy is adamant that, regarding broad social progress, “if it’s good for the Indigenous peoples of a place, it is good for everyone.”
All of this discourse suggests that there is a sort of divide between students like McLauchlan, who are trying to understand and develop personal relationships with the land in the context of the overall climate crisis and social issues, and those like Bradley and Sy who have already cultivated such relations. New Romanticism, a phenomenon that seems to be new to UVic, might live a short life if experts see so many issues arising from its name alone.
But McLauchlan, Bradley, and Sy agree on more than they might realize, and the matters on which they do agree are certainly important.
To those who want to learn both about and from the environment but have no concept of how to do so, McLauchlan sums up all he has to say in one piece of advice: “Take an environmental criticism or studies class.”
Bradley takes the curricular side of things one step further, saying that “there needs to be a cross-campus environmental studies requirement, and there needs to be a cross-campus requirement that consists of a course on some aspect of environmental culture, whether that’s environmental writing or environmental art.”
“If UVic wanted to be a climate-savvy campus, all students would have to understand that all issues, including climate crisis, are culturally determined, as well as rooted in scientific matters. The science students need to be taking courses in the humanities. The humanities students need to be taking courses in the sciences.”
Sy explains that education can and must happen beyond the boundaries of the campus: “Learning from Indigenous peoples ethically means being reciprocal and to me, that means working hard to build new political economic structures, systems, and paradigms with Indigenous peoples.”
On the one hand, this agreement between students and faculty suggests that the most exigent way that we can connect ecological and social issues is by putting in the time to learn from a wide range of knowledgeable sources.
On the other hand, this same agreement means that the name that you apply to this shift in values is far less important than actually taking the first step towards self-edification, despite the fact that social examples of self-identification carry a lot of weight.
But as McLauchlan, Bradley, and Sy all seem to understand, culture and nature are not separated in a binary opposition. They are themselves enmeshed, and as Bradley clarifies, enmeshed in ecological disaster as well.
“Climate crisis is a cultural problem as well as a scientific problem, and therefore the solutions are going to be cultural as well as scientific.”