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Field-Guide View of American Literature

August 10, 2014

You will notice that on the syllabus for this course in American Environmental Writing I quote Annie Dillard. “I am no scientist,” she writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her account of a year spent living in southwestern Virginia along Tinker Creek: “I explore the neighborhood.” Elsewhere in the book she writes of how she lived by paying close attention to the environment–what an ecologist would call the biotic community–of her new neighborhood: “I took note. I took notes.” The same could be said of Thoreau, clearly Dillard’s inspiration.


A way to think of what Dillard and Thoreau are doing in their reading of the environment and the writing that results from it: they are turning literary experience (the experience of reading and writing words, the work we associate with authors, poets, creators) into a sort of field guide. They seek to map and survey where they are; and in doing so (as any user of a detailed topographical map or field guide could attest) they find that they are not the only ones out there.  And I propose that in our exploration of their experiences, we also think of reading from the field-guide view. I propose this as a way to consider, right off, how nature writing and environmental literature and ecocriticism (a more contemporary version of it) are literary and have a rightful place in the study of English and American literature. But also, most likely based on the previous studies you have done (novels, poetry, short stories, drama, various kinds of literary nonfiction), environmental writing will present a different text than the one you are most familiar reading. So environmental writing, I suggest, confronts us with territory that is very familiar: our neighborhood, the world in which we live, the real world, the world we know and see and listen to every day; or, if you are like me, more recently moved to the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake, it is a world we want to get to know.. And yet, at the same time, there is a crucial unfamiliarity in this proximity and familiarity, a central difference from which other differences emerge: it’s our neighborhood, but we are not alone, and not at the center of it. Those of you coming from environmental studies or the sciences, with some background in ecological thinking, will find some of this more familiar than you might have supposed–the strangeness will be in finding it show up in creative writing.

A key concern in ecocriticism–as environmental writing of recent vintage has come to be called–is to look at the world, including the world of literature and poetics (novels, poetry, creative nonfiction etc), from an ecocentric rather than anthropocentric or androcentric (human-centered) perspective. Ecology teaches us that, though we may be at the center of the world we think, we are not the center of the world in which we live–and depend on others for that living. Some ecocritics (example: David Abrams) refer to the “more-than-human” world. Thoreau writes of the value (and pleasure) of “being beside ourselves in a sane sense.” Most of us may know this, that there is more than I and you–but it can be surprising to think of literature, to think of representations of our world–without humans at the center. Or, perhaps, in the text at all.

I have a field-guide of the Mid-Atlantic region published by the Audobon Society. It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that the book has very little human presence in it. The book is a field guide to the larger biotic community (plants and animals, some geology) of my region. One section made this difference (my absence) particularly provocative: a reference to abandoned fields. “In perhaps a decade or two, the old [formerly cultivated] field will be home to aspen, pine, birch, and cherry saplings on their way to reclaiming the locale as a forest community.” The earth not only can and will live without us–as a recent book suggests, it might be better off. Someday my house and the lawn I cut and the gardens I weed will be returned to the woods currently on the border. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but soon enough by other ways of accounting.

That is, from one perspective, unsettling. And from another, a perspective that sees cultivation (and human culture, which would include writing and thinking) not at the center of the world but one of its intricate relations, its an unsettling perspective that can be enlightening.

Earth’s Eyes: Final Project Magazine Fall 2012

December 10, 2012

Earth’s Eyes

Explorations in American Environmental Writing: volume 3 /Fall 2012


Walden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature.

It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. [Thoreau, Walden]

[provide the url link to your final project (posted on your blog) by commenting/replying below; include the title of your project in the reply]

Final Thoughts: Merwin

December 4, 2012

Endings are beginnings. It is an ecological insight–one that poets, like others, have been meditating for some time. So where are we at the end of our exploration of American environmental writing? To go back to our beginning: what does it mean to be green (or: organic, ecocritical, environmental, natural) in our reading and writing?  You are exploring that in your projects.

Consider this poem by Denise Levertov, “The Almost-Island.”

Or this:  a poem that–it seems to me–echoes back and forward through thoughts we have been encountering. In any case, it takes me back to my first post in this class–thinking about literature from the field-guide view, which led me to thoughts of a world that will someday live without us. It is W.S. Merwin, currently the U.S. Poet Laureate, and like Wendell Berry, considered one of America’s important voices in literary environmentalism.

For the Anniversary of My Death


Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
Or, finally, there is this great passage from Walden’s “Spring,” the ending of the book that tells us we are, each year, each day by nature, always at the beginning:
Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast. There was a dead horse in the hollow by the path to my house, which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, especially in the night when the air was heavy, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this. I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp — tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal. Compassion is a very untenable ground. It must be expeditious. Its pleadings will not bear to be stereotyped.

Ecology and Rhetoric: thinking for the final project

December 2, 2012

Starting with Thoreau, and moving through Burroughs and Leopold and Berry and Dillard and Silko, we have been working our way around the idea that ecological thinking (philosophy) and the rhetoric/poetics of writing are related. In other words, we have been reading not merely texts that represent the environment in writing, but rather, texts that are interested in the mutual understanding of writing (more broadly, the arts–in Greek: techne) and the environment. The ecological can’t be separated from the rhetorical. As we learn from Ceremony, environmental orientation depends upon developing (or recovering) an “ear for the story and the eye for the pattern” (236).

Another way to put this is that in your own environmental writing in this course–in the first two writing projects and now the final project–you are enacting an ecological perspective. Or, that is something I want you to consider and develop. Here is a way to think about that. There is a heuristic (in classical rhetoric: a model or structure to generate or organize thinking for an essay, argument, project, a device for invention) known as the particle/wave/field heuristic. I summarize it below by way of the rhetoric book Form and Surprise in Composition: Writing and Thinking Across the Curriculum by John Bean and John Ramage [they take the heuristic from the Young, Becker and Pike's Rhetoric: Discovery and Change]. They suggest it as a method that helps develop an argument on a given topic by enabling the writer to switch perspective systematically. You can use this for any topic, though you will notice that it seems particularly apt for writing about topics related to environment and ecology.

Particle: First, take your topic X and view it as a static, unchanging entity (particle): note its distinguishing features, characteristics; consider how this entity differs from other similar things. For example: Thoreau on farming, particularly as he discusses it in “The Bean Field.” Or Berry on farming as discussed in “The Making of a Marginal Farm.” Think of this as specific ideas and statements made; specific quotations; deliberate reading of the material of the matter. We did something like this with the first project, reading deliberately like Thoreau.

Wave: Second, view the same topic as a dynamic changing process (wave): note how it acts and changes through time, grows, develops, decays. How does Thoreau’s view on farming change or develop elsewhere in Walden? Do we see the same vision in the end as at the beginning? What are some changes you observe? Think of this as places where you find echoes and contradictions and traces of the ideas or earlier statements. We did something like this with Dillard and the second project, Two Views of the Same.

Field: Third, view the topic as a Field, as related to things around it and part of a system, network or ecological environment. What depends on X? What does X depend on? What would happen if X doesn’t exist? Who loves (hates) X? What communities (categories) does X belong to? For Thoreau on farming: what does his vision of farming depend upon–what ideas does it belong to? Who would love this idea? Who would hate it? What is X’s function in a larger system.

This “field” view, I would suggest, has something crucial to do with Berry’s and Silko’s “pattern,” with Dillard’s complicated senses of seeing, with Leopold’s thinking like a mountain, with Abram’s idea of the more-than-human. My contention is that all good writing, whatever the topic, is ecological in this sense to the extent that a compelling and meaningful argument/essay/thesis (call it what you will) needs to move dynamically between focus on particulars and some sense and awareness of a larger field that informs the perspective, even when it can’t be always in view. A good argument or exploration is aware of what it is not focusing on–and needs to incorporate that into its perspective.

As Thoreau puts it: a truer discipline for a writer is to take two views of the same. Or as Berry suggests, a good argument (identifying a problem and attempting a solution) is ecologically minded when it solves for pattern.


Final Project: publishing your work

November 28, 2012

Thinking about publication as an eventual goal for your final project, your exploration in literary ecology.

You all will be publishing the final project on your blog–and then linking it to the Class Magazine I will set up on my blog. So, that is your most immediate audience. Here is a look at the Magazine from 2 years ago.

Other venues and models to consider:

Literary House: Warner Prize

Washington College Review (and other campus publications)

Orion Magazine: submission guidelines

Sierra Club: internship/video submission

A Photographic essay, such as Fraking Rachel Carson.

or inspiration from this site that published a collection of 21st-century American landscape photography.

A hybrid web text/exhibt/science experiment: Natural History of the Engima (think Thoreau’s echoing of Goethe’s natural philosophy of the leaf).

Video projects. There are the full-length documentaries, of course–a burgeoning venue for exploring environmental topics: Grizzly Man; Food, Inc; King Corn; The Cove…

But as a beginning, think of a smaller video project to begin exploring a topic or perspective.

Ceremony: Entanglement

November 23, 2012

Entangled Bank

Silko’s Ceremony is not an easy read. The uneasiness of the reading, I have been suggesting, has something to do with cultural difference we can associate with Native American perspectives. One version of this, for most of us, is the blending of myth (in the poetic sections) and realistic narrative (in the novel’s prose); such that we can loose focus on what we take to be the novel proper: Tayo, his story, our protagonist, the plot. In discussions, we have begun to explore ways that this confusion (or blending, hybridity) of poetry and prose and oral and literate tradition, of white/Christian and Native is important to the focus of the novel. Call it interconnectedness, as some have suggested on their blogs. The novel, ironically, offers its focus through our own inability to focus on it. The reader is something like Tayo, in this regard, entangled in the story.

But what if the uneasiness of the reading is not just a problem of our focus, a problem of our cultural difference or distance that we bring to the novel? What if it is also a mark of its environmental orientation? In other words, what if a lesson of this novel’s environmental perspective–what makes it ‘green’–is the loss of our own perspective? Silko uses the word entanglement to describe the struggle Auntie has in reconciling the old instincts of family and native tradition, and particularly, of “sensitivity” with the world, with Christian traditions and English words separating her from that older world :

But now the feelings were twisted, tangled roots, and all the names for the source of this growth were buried under English words, out of reach. And there would be no peace and the people would have no rest until the entanglement had been unwound to the source. [64]

Reading this passage, I thought of the famous concluding paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species, where he turns to the image of entanglement to reiterate his vision of nature’s biodiversity and its developmental difference from the prevailing view of separate, individual creation of species.

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.

Entanglement, from the evolutionary or ecological perspective, is necessary, fundamental. And note that with Darwin, we have a vision of natural development that is also spiritual, creative. In fact, reading this passage at this point in the course, you might well hear and see the likes of Thoreau, of Dillard, of Berry, of Leopold. I think of Thoreau looking at the sandbank, seeing in the thaw a prototype for nature’s entanglement of life and death, bowels and beauty: Walden was dead and is alive again. I hear Dillard, thinking about all that intricacy and fecundity, on the tangled fringe of creation. What else might you hear or see in this notion of entanglement?

And if we hear Silko as well, hear the problem of Tayo’s entanglement in the context of nature’s entanglement, that suggests to me that a lesson of the novel is that we need to understand the entanglement of roots, but not solve it. In some sense, I think we see that Auntie’s desire to untangle things is as problematic as the desire to destroy. Entanglement is a form of intricacy. And intricacy in the imaginative world of story, as in the natural world, dies when it stops shifting. “Things which don’t shift and grow are dead things,” Betonie tells Tayo (116).

Isn’t that kind of entanglement, call it weaving, the heart of a good story? But story also requires some sort of resolution. What does Silko’s story resolve?

For a related perspective, consider this poem by the Native American poet Joy Harjo, “A Map to the Next World.”

Ceremony: native/American mythology?

November 17, 2012

Early Indian Languages of the USA

A follow up to our discussion from last week: concerning the ways Ceremony weaves Native American mythology into its story, and the desire in American environmental writing (ever since Thoreau) to discover or create a mythology appropriate for the nature of the nation.

Is Ceremony’s mythology specific to Native American, and more specifically, Pueblo, culture? Or, is there a broader mythology, perhaps an allegory in the illness of Tayo, that can speak to an American audience, and toward the restoration of a national nature?

Katherine’s blog on Ceremony explores some of these issues, reading in the novel’s conflict between white/Christian conceptions of science and spirit and the Pueblo conceptions of a communal consciousness a larger story or (my term) allegory that can be extrapolated out to the effects of globalization on culture, evident even today.

This novel is an example of how globalization can ruin cultures and traditions. The introduction of the white man in North America completely ruined almost every aspect of Native American lifestyles. Christianity and technological advancements that have been forced upon Native Americans have threatened their religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and relationship with the land. However, Tayo seems to feel best when he is immersed in nature and his traditional Native American background. When drinking from a spring, Tayo “tasted the deep heartrock of the earth, where the water came from, and he thought maybe this wasn’t the end after all” (42). Compared to how he feels when he at the bar and drinking beer, Tayo’s closer and more spiritual experience at the spring makes him feel more at ease and less depressed or angry at his unfortunate situation.

That last detail is particularly insightful, and evocative: the contrasting imagery of natural spring drinking and a can of beer. This is a question worth pursuing as you head into the conclusion of the novel: is the story here only local, only for the Pueblo and only for what is past and lost? or is there a lesson for American nature woven into the story, translatable for today? Is this an American or a Native American novel? Can it be both?

Emily’s blog takes up the idea of allegory in some interesting ways–and provides an insightful reading and good grasp of the characterization important in the novel, Tayo and Auntie in particular.

Tom has posted a very cool image and exploration of Silko’s weaving of spider mythology and storytelling. Take a look.


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