Elmer's English 304 Magazine


The Ontological Construction of Nature

by Elmer G. Wiens

In "Nature, Poststructuralism, and Politics," Bruce Braun and Joel Wainwright explain the "cognitive failures" which occur when "nature and society" are used as "points of departure" from which environmental issues are examined (50). Taking nature as an a priori category forecloses an analysis of the roles that politics and power play in determining what a society understands nature to be. As people in a community speak of nature, "something called 'nature' comes into being as an object of knowledge" (41). How does a community's discourse about "nature" stabilize it as a specific concept? Braun and Wainwright contend that if people in a community speak of nature in a definite way, they will interact and produce physical nature in specific ways (41). Over the last two decades, forest companies, forest workers, the Ministry of Forests, First Nations peoples, and environmentalists fought over the future of British Columbia's rainforests. At issue are their competing stakes and what society includes and excludes from the meaning of the word "rainforest" (45).

Cognitive failures transpire when a society limits members' understanding by excluding some possibilities from the process by which knowledge is created. In British Columbia, Government Commissions have shaped discourses on forest resources and legislation regulating the forest industry. Braun and Wainwright examine the 1945 Report of the Commissioner Relating to the Forest Resources of British Columbia by Gordon Sloan for instances of these cognitive failures. They observe that Sloan's report frames nature as "a 'natural' entity" based on "widely-held assumptions about what constituted the 'forest'" in 1945 (53). Rather than question nature's ontological status, Sloan's report perpetuates discourses of nature as a natural entity. Since he fails to frame nature as a "social entity," Sloan also fails to consider the interests of First Nations peoples and their cultural integration with nature. Excluding aboriginals and separating their culture from nature raises the subject matter of the political injustice that inheres in the colonial practices of the Government of British Columbia (57). Sloan's cognitive failures are embedded in subsequent Forest Acts, permitting forest companies to log B.C.'s colonial forests, without looking at forests as "cultural landscapes" (54).

In "Artless Chronicle," Roderick Haig-Brown alleges that Allerdale Grainger's character, Carter, in Woodsmen of the West misrepresents small-time logging operators. According to Haig-Brown, many operators ran efficient logging camps of various sizes in the early twentieth century along B.C.'s West Coast. These proprietors, who thrived as businessmen, behaved respectfully toward their employees, and left a healthy landscape with second-growth trees, place Carter's unbridled laisseze-faire capitalism into perspective (71). Grainger describes Carter as lacking in business sense, exploiting his simple-minded woodsmen, and compelling his loggers to "sack" the woods (77). This cognitive failure skews perceptions of the cultural practices of logging into man versus nature, instead of man living in harmony with nature.

In "The Construction of Masculinity in Martin Allerdale Grainger's Woodsmen of the West," Misao Dean likens Grainger's "nature" to a Garden of Eden ruptured by "the capitalist snake" of free enterprise, as embodied in Carter (79). Carter lusts for power over men, like Satan lusts for men's souls, while he gloats over his money and possessions (Grainger 99). Carter disrespects the freedom and judgement of his woodsmen's "natural" masculinity, toiling in nature's "natural" state (Dean 78). Carter's crude craving for power over men conflicts with his hunger for economic gain, a conflict he fails to understand even though good men continually quit his employ. Although Grainger criticizes how short-story writers and magazines romanticize the West, he presents an inadequate view of the relationship between boss and workers. This cognitive failure limits the reality of the culture of West Coast logging that Grainger seeks to describe for his English readers.

Works Cited

Braun, Bruce and Joel Wainwright. "Nature, Poststructuralism, and Politics." Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics. Eds. Noel Castree and Bruce Braun. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 84-110.

Dean, Misao. "The Construction of Masculinity in Martin Allerdale Grainger's Woodsmen of the West." Canadian Literature 149 (1996): 74-87.

Grainger, M. Allerdale. Woodsmen of the West. 1908. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996.

Haig-Brown, Roderick. "Artless Chronicle." Canadian Literature 23 (1965): 71-72.

Sloan, Gordon. Report of the Commissioner Relating to the Forest Resources of British Columbia. Victoria: B.C. Royal Commission, 1945.

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