Why is it Always a Poem is a Walk?: disability, access and ecopoetics
In her 2008 review of Robert McFarlane’s The Wild Places, Kathleen Jamie coined the phrase ‘the lone enraptured male’ to describe the adventuring figure dominating the New Nature Writing. In the groundbreaking 2017 essay collection Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory, Sarah Jaquette Ray echoes Jamie’s phrasing, arguing ‘at the heart of adventure sports is the appeal of personal challenge. The individual – usually male – pits himself against Nature and survives.’ Ray calls this figure the ‘wilderness body ideal.’ In the foreword to the collection, Stacy Alaimo notes how environmental thinking and literature ‘has a “hidden attachment” to the abled, hyperfit body, which has resulted not only in scholarly and political exclusions of disability from environmentalism but also in the physical exclusion of disabled people’.
Ray links the wilderness body ideal to the dominance of risk in nature writing, questioning ‘if getting close to nature is about risking the body in the wild, what kind of environmental ethic is available to the disabled body?’ Jamie’s lone enraptured male is also necessarily ‘bright, healthy and highly educated’, and this is what enables him to ‘seek recreation in land which was once out to kill us’. Where does that leave the disabled nature writer, who experiences risk differently and daily, for whom the relationship with the land might still be too weighted towards risk? Ray finds ‘the only place for the disabled body in the wilderness ideal is as an invisible, looming threat— symbolic rather than actual’ to the body of the lone enraptured adventurer.
In this paper I will argue ‘the wilderness body ideal’ is at the core of the majority of mainstream nature writing at every stage of production. In so doing, I hope to raise questions about how we relate to our environment, and how we narrate our environment, how current practices unintentionally but systematically exclude disabled people, and where disability poetics and ecopoetics meet to create something we might call ecocrip poetics.
As well as my own experiences as an ecopoet with non-apparent disabilities, I will draw on an online survey I conducted during 2019-2020 - Disability and Ecopoetry: Writer's Experiences - which asked poets who identify as disabled, D/deaf, blind, partially-sighted, and chronically ill about their experiences of ecopoetry events and workshops, and how these tallied with the importance of environmental thinking to their work and practice. The responses to this survey reveal how excluding certain discourses around ecological writing, and particularly ecopoetry, have become, and the important perspectives that are thereby being lost. By raising issues around access and collaboration, and opening conversation around practices many writers take for granted. If it is a watershed moment it is a slow turning tide, as befits criptime. Nevertheless, this paper argues for an ecopoetics that is open to all, and may truly be a gathering ground.
Polly Atkin lives in the English Lake District. Her first poetry collection Basic Nest Architecture (Seren: 2017) is followed by a third pamphlet, With Invisible Rain (New Walk: 2018), which draws on Dorothy Wordsworth's late journals to express pain. She is working on a hybrid memoir reflecting on place, belonging and chronic illness. An extract, 'Swimming against the Nature Cure', focused on outdoor swimming and disability, was published in Ache magazine, 3. Her second poetry collection Much With Body, to be published by Seren in October 2021, won a 2020 Northern Writers Award. With Kate Davis and Anita Sethi she co-founded the Open Mountain initiative at Kendal Mountain Festival, which seeks to centre voices that are currently at the margins of outdoor, mountain and nature writing.
Kaitlin Blanchard, Jes Battis, and John Loeppky
Accessing Environmentalism, A Conversation
This video is a recording of an unscripted, unrehearsed, informal discussion of the challenges faced by three different people with different capacities at the intersection of the university and its environments. Anecdotal experiences of disabled body-minds in academic spaces mix with reflections on Indigenous sovereignty, access, and reflections on the practical challenges of cripping the commons. The discussion, as a crip-ecology, or a practice of home-ing that grounds itself in crip knowledges, resists offering prescriptive or expert knowledge about disability and begins by offering an extended meditation on the process of situating oneself following the conference’s prompts on access and territorial acknowledgements in conversation with Eugenia Zuroski’s articulation of the situation of learning in “where we know from.” The framing document for this discussion, as well as further resources and reading on disability justice, environmental and climate justice, and disability theory can be accessed here.
John Loeppky (he/him) is an MFA candidate at the University of Regina, journalist, and former wheelchair basketball athlete working and living on Treaty 4 territory. John has written for a number of periodicals. His work is collected here: https://linktr.ee/johnloeppky
Jes Battis (he/they) is an assistant professor in the department of English at the University of Regina where he teaches literature, creative writing, and LGBTQ2+ studies. Jes writes about the intersections of popular culture, queerness, neurodiversity, and the genres of urban fantasy, horror, and procedural crime. You can learn more about Jes’s writing at https://jbattis.com/
Kaitlin Blanchard (they/them) is a PhD student at McMaster University in English and Cultural Studies. They are a white settler who works and lives in Tkaronto, the territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River, and within lands governed by the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant. Their dissertation offers an exploration of the material and theoretical affordances of plastics and plasticity in the colonial governance of life. Kaitlin’s doctoral work is supported by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.