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Ecology and Rhetoric: heuristic for your writing projects

June 23, 2010

Starting with Thoreau, and moving through Burroughs and Leopold and Berry and Dillard, we have been working our way around the idea that ecological thinking and the rhetoric and 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.

Another way to put this is that in your own critical writing–in the first essay and then the final project–you too will be 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.

First, take your topic X [for Thinking Like Thoreau: your topic is something (idea or issue or problem) in Thoreau in relation to one or more writers] 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.

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.

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.

As you can see from the questions asked from the “field” perspective, you are already moving toward some crucial ideas for the Thinking Like Thoreau assignment just in asking questions–the idea of relation. My contention is that all good writing 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 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.

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