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Wilderness, Storytelling, Epistemology

Richard Costa

Hello. This project is about the importance of oral histories and cultures, and with that in mind, I wanted to write this piece as if we are just having a conversation. Before I go any further, I would like to say that I feel humbled and privileged to have been a part of the Wild Spirits project. At certain points, I felt burdened by the responsibility of writing short descriptions for these essays and lectures, fully aware of how difficult it is to encapsulate the wisdom and knowledge that the authors developed over years. I did my best, realizing that most of these authors would prefer to have a conversation with the reader. I tried to preserve this conversational register as much as possible, and I hope that comes across to anyone who reads these texts.

Let me introduce myself. I’m Richard, a settler scholar originally born in South America. When I applied to the doctoral program in English at the University of Alberta and received an offer letter, my dissertation project centred on the works of English poet William Blake. Previously, I had written my BA and MA projects on two different authors: Jonathan Swift and James Joyce. Halfway through the first year of my doctoral program, my research shifted from the author-centric paradigm of scholarship in literary studies to a branch of interdisciplinary environmental studies. There are numerous authors whose works are relevant to my research, but they are not central. Instead, animal and plant species came into focus, along with the bioregional habitats and spaces they inhabit. The literary works and cultural histories surrounding certain species and spaces are the main objects of study in my project now.

When my project shifted, I also developed an interest in epistemology. To be more specific, I wanted to think through an ‘epistemological ecocentrism’ in contrast with anthropocentric models of knowledge. My view is that most of science and culture is to some degree anthropocentric, and by that, I don’t mean to undermine either science or culture, but only to point out the difference in perspective. Even in evolutionary theory discourse, there has been a common perception of humans as a central or culminant species. A quick glimpse at a geologic time scale is enough to remind us just how new to the planet we are: two hundred thousand-year-old hyperconscious hominins in a world of trees, arthropods, whales, and other species that have existed for millions of years.

The Wild Spirits project helped me further understand that ‘epistemological ecocentrism’ is just an opaque and academic way of saying what Indigenous peoples in Canada and across the world have been saying for centuries. And even this realization is nothing new or original, as environmentalists in Canada and elsewhere have turned to Indigenous peoples for guidance and should continue to do so in this age of climate crisis and ecological collapse.

In what ways do I see this epistemology of ecocentrism in the Wilderness Storytelling bookwork? Joe Sheridan and Penelope Ironstone-Catterall encapsulate it beautifully (emphasis mine):

This entails the development of two sides of another conceptual river in which an environmental ethos and an ecologically grounded way of thinking about and knowing the material conditions of our existence may be brought together in a way that may also be mutually transformative. It suggests the need for an alternative epistemology that can do justice to both the natural and supernatural realities of the continent known to First Peoples as Turtle Island.

This conceptual river runs through several fields and ideas. It’s not a closed system in any way; instead, it gives us an openness of mind and heart that is crucial to the transformation required of our societies to avert environmental catastrophe. We are empowered to take steps towards this transformation through Robert Bringhurst’s ecological linguistics, Cheney and Hester’s Indigenous epistemology, Rishma Dunlop’s tawny grammar… Through the variety of stories, experiences and thoughts conveyed by the authors in Wilderness Storytelling, we come closer to glimpsing this alternative epistemology that disrupts anthropocentric epistemologies in science, art, and culture.