Disaster as Spectacle: Fern Helfand Photography
I would like to acknowledge that the land on which this project was created is the unceded, ancestral territory of the Sylix Okanagan Nation.
About the Edition
Welcome to this digital edition of Sharon Thesen’s “The Fire." The poem sequence “The Fire” was originally collected in Thesen’s 2006 book The Good Bacteria. Here, you will find an introduction to the components of this edition, to eco-poetics, and to the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire. The edition also contains the full text version of “The Fire” accompanied by footnotes and annotations that explore the poems in relationship to the field of eco-poetics, interpret the poems in context with the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Fire and the local Okanagan community, and place the poems in context with Thesen’s larger body of work. The footnotes that I have generated for this edition move beyond traditional footnote format and content: they integrate research material, interpretation, and explorative thinking to offer readings of Thesen's poems that put them in conversation with eco-poetics and environmental writing, history, mythology, the Okanagan community, and the details of the 2003 fire. Maps and photos of the fire itself correlate directly to Thesen’s poems and situate the readers visually and geographically within the context of the fire encouraging a more sensory-rich experience of the poems. For a similar experiential effect, this edition includes a full audio version of “The Fire” read by the author herself. A brand new interview with Thesen, recorded and transcribed for this edition highlights the personal connection between us (humans) and environmental crisis as well as the role that art can play in mediating human-to-land relationships. The edition is bookended with biographical information about Sharon Thesen and about editor Amy Thiessen. Finally, a bibliography offers readers the opportunity to explore environmental writing and ecopoetics, the concept of digital editions, and more details pertaining to the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire.
Primary Research Questions
Sharon Thesen’s “The Fire” is an important piece of Canadian poetry because it grapples with how humans interact with the environment, with each other, and with their own bodies when facing environmental crisis. Through rich imagery, metaphor, myth, and exchange of affect Thesen explores the complexities of a devastating forest fire. Thesen's piece has the potential to alter the community’s relationship to their environment in the wake of natural disaster and invoke a deeper conversation about the role of literature in environmental studies. The main questions that inform this digital edition are: Forest fires have shaped and reshaped the Okanagan landscape; what are the effects of this on the community? What role does/can poetry play in a community’s journey through an environmental disaster? What can a community gain from the recording of personal reflections on environmental disaster in creative ways? How does poetry influence the community reflection on the disaster and its understanding of its lasting effects? How does poetry go alongside the community's changing relationship to the land? Can a work of poetry serve a community that has gone through a collective experience of trauma despite the varying personal emotional and physical experiences?
Why a Digital Edition? and My Editorial Work
Before addressing my decision to create a digital edition of Sharon Thesen’s “The Fire,” I want to ask: why do an edition at all? One answer, as Jerome McGann notes, is that “critical and other scholarly editions of our cultural inheritance are among the most distinguished achievements of our profession” in literary scholarship (55). In the formative work of Thomas Tanselle, we find concrete reasons why critical editions of literary works are a valuable form of scholarship. Discussing editorial practices Tanselle writes: "whatever form the apparatus takes—from the rudimentary to the elaborate—it represents some sort of thought about the extent to which the editor should make himself visible to the audience at which he is aiming" (41). And so I ask: to what extent should I make myself visible in this edition? And to whom is my edition responsible? As a resident of the Okanagan, a writer, and aspiring teacher I am a part of the communities for whom this edition is intended and I therefore make my presence visible through the narration and framing of the text. Moreover, Tanselle suggests a “basic principle to be borne in mind in making decisions about apparatus: that the kind of apparatus presented is an indication less of the nature of the text than of the type of audience for which the edition is intended" (42). One of my roles as editor, as I began this project, was to decide the intended audience for the edition. The four categories of audience I imagine are 1) the local Kelowna/Okanagan community who have memories of the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire; 2) members of the wider general public who have significant memories associated with forest fires having either experienced them or watched them unfold in other parts of the world; 3) poets, writers, teachers, and the literary community; 4) other scholars and the UBCO community, those who may know Thesen and her work well.
Before discussing the digital aspect of my project, I want to outline two primary reasons I chose to create an edition of “The Fire”: (1) The main research questions that my project is centred around are well-suited to be addressed through textual notes and annotations—directly correlating the poems to research and information—in a way I would not be able to achieve using a traditional essay format. Thesen’s practice of environmental and place-based writing is an important topic for this project to explore as it informed the occasion of her writing “The Fire.” Yet, Thesen's "The Fire" is not the only writing produced in response to the 2003 fire. The community members’ stories compiled in the Touch The Flame anthology—which was collected after the Okanagan Mountain Park fire and is full of personal accounts of encounters with the fire (published by Northstone Publishing and sponsored by Capital News, Kelowna and District Arts Council, Salvation Army, 101 Silk FM)—are important examples for other writing for me to consider as I grapple with the importance of “The Fire” within the physical and emotional scope of the fire itself. The history of Thesen’s writing practice is not related to the creation of the Touch The Flame anthology. However, I wanted to be able to speak to and demonstrate all these interconnected, yet completely separate aspects of my project and I argue that ordering them and forcing fluidity in an essay format would have disallowed the exploration that I set out to do.
(2) “The Fire,” while is exists within a book format with concrete limitations, beyond the page it exists within a network of relationships. Thesen's poem as it appears in The Good Bacteria is a successful piece of literature on its own. My act of creating an edition of the text transforms it into entirely an entirely new body of work. My edition, then, requires that certain relationships are explored and exposed. As John Bryant explains, “A literary work is more than the sum of its texts; it is the combined energies of individuals and social forces which through the process of authorial, editorial, and cultural revision evolve from one version to the next and emerge from time to time as documents to be read by readers” (112). In choosing to create an edition I am mixing my editorial energy with the original text itself to create a new work. My intent in doing so is to frame the text within the field of environmental writing. This is because I want to imagine the possibility of it holding a place within studies of environmental disasters that highlights the unique ways that poetry and literature can influence climate research and mitigation efforts.
Why a digital format? Important to my reasoning are my imagined users. Considering I have built this edition as my thesis project, my first user group consists of members of the university; it is particularly for that user group that I am explicating the decisions I have made surrounding the creation of my edition. My second and third user groups—members of the literary community and members of the general public (most prominently the local Okanagan community) who have had personal experiences with forest fires and climate disaster—more heavily influenced my format, design, and experiential-minded decisions. Of course there are users who will span across all three groups. I have identified three multifaceted reasons why I believe presenting this edition in a digital format is best suited for my project goals:
(1) Using a digital format allows me to present non-textual material—particularly audio clips (which, for me, are a non-negotiable component of this project)—and visually show the connectivity across these mediums. The experiential nature of navigating the edition digitally demonstrates the complex relationships that “The Fire” has to other media objects. Jerome McGann exposes that a limitation of critical editions in codex form is, “when readers want or need something beyond the semantic content of the primary textual materials—when one wants to hear the performance of a song or ballad, see a play, or look at the physical features of texts” (56). The codex does not afford these possibilities. McGann goes on to say that “when a book is translated into electronic form, the book’s (heretofore distributed) semantic and visual features can be made simultaneously present to each other” (57). When approaching this project what I imagined the most interesting part for users would be the visual display of the relationship between the poems, the physical landscape and form of the fire, and the audible voice of a fire victim.
(2) Building a digital edition that is a freely-accessible website opens the possibility for my project to be engaged with outside of the university. A cornerstone of my project is to explore the potential that eco-poetry has to affect a community’s relationship and attitude towards an environment in the wake of environmental disaster. This is coupled with my intention to highlight the potential power of storytelling in the field of environmental studies. Considering the evident community-focused aspects of my project I argue that it is important to give the community an opportunity to access and engage with my project. Given that this is an undergraduate thesis with no funding or resources, the most achievable format of publication seemed obviously to allow it to be born-digital.
(3) The process of creating this digital edition has allowed me to learn and develop many new skills while still applying, fine-tuning, and stretching the research and writing skills that my English degree has taught me to practice and value. While slightly less prominent than my previous two reasons, an essential reason that I chose to present my thesis in a digital format was to challenge myself personally, while also challenging the parameters of the English Honours thesis project. My aspiration when beginning this project was to explore the possibility of digital scholarship in a way that required research into editorial theory and ultimately to demonstrate the unique way that my project is able to explore complex relationships between text and non-textual material in ways that writing a traditional essay may not be able to.
The 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
The 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire devastated the Kelowna area causing the evacuation of 27 000 residents, destroying 239 homes, and ravaging the natural landscape. Both physically and emotionally the aftermath of the 2003 fire pervades the local community. Memories, stories, and photos have been collected in a number of anthologies commissioned and created by community members. To give a snapshot of the magnitude of the fire:
The fire near Squally Point in the southern part of Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park was spotted by Okanagan residents across Okanagan Lake soon after the lightning strike at 2:00 in the morning of August 16 . Five hours later, the flames had burned 10 hectares of fuel [...] The next morning it covered 1000 hectares. Within four days, the Okanagan’s largest park was destroyed [...] In one day it grew from 2000 hectares to more than 11 000. Firefighting conditions were the worst fire officials had ever seen. (Freake and Plant 59)
Later on August 22nd:
Southwest winds gusting up to 70 kilometres per hour whipped the Okanagan Mountain Park fire into a new fury, forcing the evacuation of another 17 000 people. Nearly a third of Kelowna residents were now barred from their homes. Firefighters described the front as a war zone [...] The damage covered an area of 170 square kilometres, and growing. (Freake and Plant 61)
The fire lasted until mid September.
Community Stories and Reflections
An anthology entitled Touch The Flame: Stories from the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, compiled by Jorie Soames and Glenna Turnbull features stories, reflections, and accounts from almost 200 Okanagan community members who had personal encounters with the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire. While my edition is primarily informed by Thesen’s story and experience, the existence of the collected anthology highlights the power and importance of storytelling within a community as it moves through disaster. Below are a few compelling examples of the stories collected within Touch the Flame:
At 9 p.m. we are fighting huge fires in the subdivisions. We make a stand with two other engines and set off with our hoses through the backyards. At one point I burst through a thick hedge only to almost land in a swimming pool. As I look around and realize I am alone, the scene is surreal. (Andrew Speed 29)
I realized we would never be able to observe smoke on the horizon again with the faith that it would not blossom into a raging inferno and eventually turn us into refugees. This has nothing to do with the ability or lack thereof ascribed to the firefighting services in our area. (Merly Duprey 77)
As you navigate through this edition you will see that community storytelling, collective processing and reflecting is being emphasized and explored as an important aspect within a population’s movement through environmental crisis.
The Good Bacteria
Sharon Thesen’s The Good Bacteria (Anansi 2006) is comprised of five parts. Part Four “The Fire” features Thesen’s account, reflections, and ruminations on the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire. As we see in the poem and my interview with Thesen, her experience with the fire was close and personal. During our interview Thesen expressed to me that the fire "was a very big thing. It was terrifying, of course, and it was landscape changing. The landscape of your own sense of the beauty of a place, the reason you came there, the gorgeous summer we were having and suddenly this hellish thing erupts and changes the beautiful landscape forever into something very sad and quiet.” Many of the stories, photos, and media that I consulted for this project affirm Thesen’s reflection of the fire as something horribly “hellish.” The fire reconstructed the Okanagan community in irreversible ways.
The present edition is also interested in the theme of The Good Bacteria at large. The title signifies the power and autonomy of the natural world. While less often highlighted, there is a good aspect of forest fires. As seen now, in 2020, there is a beauty in the regrowth and renewal that has happened as a result of the devastating 2003 fire; fire plays an important role in forest ecosystems (Hystad and Keller 57). However, from the perspective of an individual who has lived through the devastation of a large forest fire, it may be near impossible to imagine any positive aspect; this is also an element of Thesen’s book. In the title poem sequence “The Good Bacteria,” Thesen writes: “The penicillin killed the good bacteria as well as the bad. / It killed all the bacteria, good and bad, like death or God. / Though death, being a matter of bacteria, is also life” (11). The struggle between good and bad, death and life, pervades Thesen’s work and the community literature centred around the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire that I have consulted for this project.
Prior to writing The Good Bacteria, Thesen’s poetic practice had been invested in environmental and place-based writing, and the focus continues on into her later writing. There are a number of instances in Thesen’s 1987 book The Beginning of the Long Dash, where Thesen’s poems move in and around her physical environment focusing on how natural forces and instances are having an effect on the subject of the poem. In the poem, “The Green Wind,” Thesen writes:
A green wind
guides the frisbee through the goalposts, the horizon
melting, a few fraying clouds
as earth tilts towards autumn
& I drift (14)
And a second instance in “The Shroud of Turin”:
During the day the grass if the unreal green
of moss under streetlights.
The neighbour’s birch tree is going bald
from the top down; from it’s lower branches
dangle a few small orange leaves,
scant survivors of last night’s wind. (55)
In both of these excerpts there is a sense of the autonomy of nature and natural forces which is a prominent feature of “The Fire.” The motif of “the fire mak[ing] its / own weather anyway” (73), is a unifying element between Thesen’s work and stories from other community members. The way in which the forest fire is completely out of control, despite (on a certain level) successful efforts of containment, was a community-experienced phenomenon. Another theme that is present in these 1987 poems that resurfaces in “The Fire” is the idea of “surviving” nature: “just go ahead, you / and your nasty little freaking friend / the wind” (79). Again, a community aspect is present here. There is a collective sense of helplessness and Thesen's writing about it publicly, and my highlighting of it further with this edition means the community (of readers and users who have a shared, yet unique, experience with forest fire) may have an opportunity to reflect and process in a way that affords them the comfort of knowing their feelings and experiences are shared; and perhaps, for some, giving them concrete words that they have not been able to generate on their own that can adequately express their experience. In my interview with Thesen, she contends “it’s a big mistake for people to just try go back to their lives and recreate them somehow or carry on without communal processing of the trauma,” and she believes that poetry can play a significant role for a community journeying through trauma.
Environmental Writing and Ecopoetics
For over 30 years environmental literary studies has been an exponentially growing field of writing and scholarship (Glotfelty and Fromm xvii). An early description of ecocriticism defines the field as “ the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment [...] ecocriticism takes an Earth-centered approach to literary studies” (xviii). Related to ecocriticism is ecopoetics, in so much as it takes the critical practice that is the core of ecocriticism and expands it further into the onset of literary works rather than its being applied after a work has been produced. Both ecocriticism and ecopoetics are concerned with the concept of the Anthropocene: “ecopoetics is only one of the multiple critical/creative systems for exploring and engaging with the Anthropocene” (Solnick 57). On a large scale poetry has the potential to “explore how, in the Anthropocene, the ways we speak, write, think and act are part of the (unpredictable) interrelated processes that constitute local and global ecosystems” (Solnick 58). Poets who are consciously working within the traditions of ecopoetics or environmental writing are working to “push the boundaries of literary conventions as the poets seek forms and language adequate to respond to the complex and varied environmental issues of our time” (Keller 3), something that Lynn Keller describes as the poetry of the self-conscious Anthropocene (2). The importance and relevance of eco-poetry will be exposed as you navigate this edition; I will also provide a brief introduction here.
A range of scholarship advocates for the role of poetry in environmental studies. Sam Solnick writes that poetry offers better modes of thinking because it attunes humans to the Earth, enabling them to care for it” (22). Similarly, Marcella Durand suggests that “poets can be an essential catalyst for increased perception, and increased change” (124). This edition works to show how Thesen’s “The Fire” (consciously or not) uses these components to invite readers and users to consider their relationship to the land, how they have been affected by environmental disaster and how they, in turn, affect the environment.
Humans' relationship to land is strongly underscored near the end of "The Fire," when Thesen writes:
pine sap looks blue
against bark’s carbonic crust
and a spray of brown needles
on the forest floor we pretend
are a carpet of grass
and not a scorch of tears (84)
In this excerpt the strained relationship between the “we” and the forest pervades the tone of the poem. The emotional aspect of what has happened is tangible and there is a desperate sense of longing to feel reconciled or at peace despite the feelings of betrayal. The role of the poet to increase perception and change described by Durand is possible for Thesen (and for myself as editor) in these moments. There are moments such as these scattered throughout “The Fire” that are explored in other sections of this edition.