Explorations in American Environmental Writing: volume 3 /Fall 2012
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]
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.
BY W. S. MERWINEvery year without knowing it I have passed the dayWhen the last fires will wave to meAnd the silence will set outTireless travelerLike the beam of a lightless starThen I will no longerFind myself in life as in a strange garmentSurprised at the earthAnd the love of one womanAnd the shamelessness of menAs today writing after three days of rainHearing the wren sing and the falling ceaseAnd bowing not knowing to what
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.
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.
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:
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.
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. 
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.”
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.
I too would fain set down something beside facts. Facts should only be as the frame to my pictures — They should be material to the mythology which I am writing. [Thoreau, journal: 11/9/1851]
These days, if you put “environmental mythology” into Google, you will end up with various links to some heated discussion about the myths of environmental crisis (global warming, etc). I have in mind, rather, Thoreau’s understanding in “Walking” that we (particularly in the West, in America) are lacking a mythology adequate to the expression of Nature and the wild. That we need more mythology, not less, in order to be “in sympathy with surrounding Nature.”
I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild ["words...with earth adhering to their roots"]…. Mythology comes nearer to it than anything. How much more fertile a Nature, at least, has Grecian mythology its root in than English literature! Mythology is the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted, before the fancy and imagination were affected with blight. 
From Thoreau’s perspective, to explore the “mythology” of Silko’s ceremony–the Native American world view as Momaday calls it–is to consider the novel as a candidate for the kind of adequate, imaginative or poetic expression Thoreau is in search of. And note that Thoreau imagines the American (New World) lack of natural imagination as a metaphor (or is it metonymy, more material) of soil exhaustion. Perhaps Ceremony (which deals in many ways with exhaustion and with drought) is native American mythology: a story about the need for stories in America with earth adhering to the roots. Think of the passage early in the novel–Tayo’s encounter with the healer Ku’oosh: we learn there that the fragility of the world is tied up with the ability of words to contain and convey their complex origins. So, storytelling is a way of being responsible to those words. Storytelling, in other words, is also a way of saving the world.
In her essay “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination,” Silko addresses the intricate relationship between the Pueblo creation, emergence, and migration stories and the land to which those stories refer. She writes:
The narratives linked with prominent features of the landscape between Paguate and Laguna delineate the complexities of the relationship which human beings must maintain with the surrounding natural world if they hope to survive in this place. Thus the journey [from the 4 worlds below, into the 5th world] was an interior process of the imagination, a growing awareness that being human is somehow different from all other life–animal, plant, and inanimate. Yet we are all from the same source: the awareness never deteriorated into Cartesian duality, cutting off the human from the natural world…. Not until they could find a viable relationship to the terrain, the landscape they found themselves in, could they emerge. Only at the moment the requisite balance between human and other was realized could the Pueblo people become a culture, a distinct group whose population and survival remained stable despite the vicissitudes of climate and terrain.
So, what are the myths and stories we have, we whoever we are, that relate to the natural world, to the earth, to the environment? What can we learn from them? When does our use of mythology become stereotype (the crying Indian?) When does it become vital, in the senses of “viable relationship” that Silko addresses? A partial listing of myths and stories we might consult with an eye to their environmental nature, to which I invite you to add others [comment below]:
- Apocalypsticism (ends)
- Creation Myths (beginnings)
- Native American Mythology about Animals
Films and Fiction and Nonfiction that focus in some crucial way on the environment–and as to how we might define such crucial focus, consider Buell’s categories.
- Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
- Audubon’s Birds of America
- Avatar (film)
- The Bear (Faulkner)
- Ceremony (Silko)
- Safe (film)
- The New World; Tree of Life (film)