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Review of Reimagining Fire: the Future of Energy edited by Eveline Kolijn

Read fS volunteer Jennifer McDougall's review of Eveline Kolijn's eco-critical anthology of poetry, art, and criticism Reimagining Fire

In a buoyant effort to consider low carbon energy transition from a creative perspective, Eveline Kolijn has gathered the responses of 38 poets, writers, and artists. At a time when bookshelves are filling with futuristic–and frequently dystopic–imaginative works, this collection is refreshing in its optimism and is grounded in the present. The book was created collaboratively as each writer or poet was paired with an artist and together, developed their chapter. 

Reimagining Fire does not oppose progress in the energy field in favour of an undisturbed Earth; indeed, it embraces technology as a helpmate to reconcile the desires of humans with the requirements of a healthy ecosystem. In the initial carbon capture and geothermal-inspired chapter, Alice Major and her artist partner, Sylvia Arthur, offer not only Major’s fine poem, “Sometimes You Have to Dig for Hope,” and Arthur’s etching, “People Pipeline,” but Major has also written an inspiring short essay about locating hope. Arthur’s etching highlights these two technologies by portraying people working together to discover novel methods to fuel human activities. 

Donna Williams’ short story, “Busted,” portrays the difficult intimate decisions of one couple as they wrestle with their income and budget in the face of economic instability. This piece underscores how keenly the connection between the economic impacts of energy transition and personal relationships is felt as the couple considers living apart. Wrought conversations about what is lost when Alberta oil work closes down rarely appear in fiction, making this story one of the gems in the book. Williams’ work is paired with “Mendeleyev’s Dream,” Mary Kavanagh’s layering of the periodic table over an image of clouds which conveys the eternal linkages between “the contained and the uncontainable, the known and the unknowable”. Williams and Kavanagh’s chapter beautifully imparts the bewildering aspect of energy futures.

With her optimistic screenprint, “Cycle of Healing,” artist Jessica Semenoff teams with author Shannon Kernaghan to highlight the potential ahead. Semenoff’s illustrated fish develop lesions as they pass through a barrel of oil and are then cleared as they travel the full cycle encouraging us to “allow mother nature to restore itself”. In “Reversing the Flow,” Kernaghan expresses the unique ambivalence felt by many Albertans as knowledge about the devastating effects of oil extraction settles in. She writes, “feeling slippery because / love it, hate it, I’m connected to Oil country”. 

Among the short stories, essays, and letters, “Fireflies” is a diary of a displaced orphan imagined by Uchechukwe Peter Umezurike. Its entries explain that children live at the “Commune,” in a location that “does not matter [because] we have one another and together, we can reimagine our world, whatever that means”. The child’s observations of his new life at the Commune and his recollections of the explosion which brought him there resituate global fears of destruction as matters of individual concern. Additionally, the creative and collaborative children’s project at the Commune suggests the nature of work that will lead us as well, despite our inability to fully imagine the outcome. 

Every chapter depicts a sanguine perspective on the topic of energy transition including those that expose the consequences of our inattention including Natalie Meisner’s poem “Cling Wrap,” Peter Midgley’s story “Carbuncle,” and Tara Manyfingers’ etching “Narcissus Reimagined.” For those readers looking to learn more about the ways and means of energy alternatives, there are several satisfying sections. For example, the book’s accessible forward is written by Chris Turner, award winning author of books on climate, energy, and technology. Also, Maggie Hanna outlines the principles of transition and a comprehensive summary of the options before us in the final chapter. And, perhaps most valuable, in advance of the nineteen chapters dedicated to various artistic impressions of the opportunities for transition, editor Kolijn presents an overview of the journey from human discovery and gradual dependence on hydrocarbons to threats now made plain.

In the noise of public and private debates which tend towards blame-laying rather than resolution-making, this collection provides a heartening view of individuals responding to the unease around energy transition. Not only is Reimagining Fire an uncommon collection of hopeful offerings, each chapter’s creative pair captures an aspect of the Alberta view towards the oil and gas industry. 

Jennifer McDougall is a creative writer and will begin her PhD studies at the University of Calgary this fall. Her current novel project explores the past and present contributions of women professionals in Alberta's energy industry.

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