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Organic Reading: from nature writing to ecocriticsm, from problem to pattern

August 30, 2016


What is a name for what we are doing in this course in environmental writing? Does the name matter? Perhaps. Traditionally, one would think of the matter of this course, evidenced by many of the readings, as a course in nature writing–a familiar shorthand. I can’t disagree, but do want to stretch our perspectives. Yes, it is writing about nature, writing that is interested and invested in the natural world. But what writing isn’t? Isn’t any text produced thus interested in nature? We see that the definition can quickly become too limiting and cliched: nature writing, a text with lots of trees.

Here is a taxonomy of more traditional forms of nature writing, where environmental writing begins in the 19th c. with Thoreau and Burroughs and others; these may or may not be eco-oriented–and in the case of Thoreau, sometimes at the same time.  Thomas J. Lyon, This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (Hougthon Mifflin, 1989). Lyon edits this anthology of American Nature writing and offers in his introduction an attempt to provide some critical perspective on the genre. You will notice that it pre-dates the emergence of ‘eco-criticism’ (coming later in the 1990s). In that sense, in dealing with ‘nature writing’ (with Thoreau at the center) and its contexts in literary history, and in providing a taxonomy or categorization of the different types of nature writing, Lyon’s perspective may well be viewed by ecocritics today as quaint. (In fact, I believe the anthology is out of print). However, Lyon makes an important point, I think, in emphasizing the following:

Nature writing itself, in any case, would not rest easily in any static system, prizing as it does vitality and variety, the virtues of its subject. The categories offered here are meant simply to show the breadth of the spectrum and to help indicate some of the special powers each type within the genre may possess. (7)

He emphasizes further that this virtue of dynamic ‘system’ is an ecological perspective that he sees in nature writing: the ‘wakening of perception to an ecological way of seeing’ that leads, ultimately to an ethical implication: “the turning of our attention to the natural world tends to subvert our anthropocentric heritage.” (xv)

So Lyon’s ‘nature writing’ is not as quaint as we might suppose. In any case, here are his categories. He defines the ‘literature of nature’ as having three central dimensions: “natural history information, personal responses to nature, philosophical interpretation of nature. He then offers this spectrum of writing about nature (focusing on, as we are in this course, nonfiction or expository writing–primarily essays–on experiences in nature):

  • field guides and professional papers (ex: Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to Western Birds)
  • natural history essays (ex: John Muir)
  • rambles (ex: Dillard, Pilgrim)
  • solitude and back-country living (ex: Thoreau, Walden)
  • travel and adventure (ex Lopez, Arctic Dreams)
  • farm life (ex: Wendell Berry)
  • man’s role in nature (ex: John Burroughs)

Part of what we will do in this course is to explore the problem of the criticism that we are also going to be engaging in: whatever we name it, nature writing, environmental literature, ecocrticism, literary ecology, green writing, geocentric, biotic–we will need to think about what we mean. And to do so by considering what others have taken these terms to mean. And more to the point: what others and what we can do as readers and writers of/in/from/for/by environmental or ecological perspectives.

Some historical perspective on ecocrticism from Wikipedia.

An Ecocriticism Page that offers some perspective on the various names for the discipline, a history, and a bibliography.

Some critical perspective on the difference between environmental and ecological criticism

In her history of the emergence of ecocriticism as a critical movement, Glotfelty contrasts the prefixes “eco-” and “enviro-”: in its connotations, enviro- is anthropocentric and dualistic, implying that we humans are at the center, surrounded by everything that is not us, the environment. Eco-, in contrast, implies interdependent communities, integrated systems, and strong connections among constituent parts. (xx)

“Enviro-” encourages the distinction between nature and culture, sometimes even to the extent of making them mutually exclusive so that nature, strictly speaking, exists only when it stands in magisterial independence of human fingerprints of any kind (the premise of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature); whereas “eco-” encourages seeing both nature and culture as interconnected parts contained by the Earth’s ecology. In taking Rueckert’s term instead of inventing a new term “envirocriticism,” this movement seems to side with “eco-” but it also sides with “enviro-” in the names, mentioned above, of its journal and organization. Perhaps early ecocriticism’s focus on nature writing, which fits readily into the “enviro-” model, has something to do with this terminological ambivalence. [Ecocriticism and Kenneth Burke]

One of the leading names in the critical study of environmental literature is Lawrence Buell. Buell’s first book on the subject was the pathbreaking The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995). This book, in effect, introduces the critical study of nature writing: critical in the sense of turning toward a more ‘ecocentric’ way of thinking about literature and the literary imagination in ways that had not been done before. One of the challenges in this book for literary critics–even for those who might consider themselves fans of nature writing and of a familiar author like Thoreau: can we imagine a way of reading and writing that does not have man at the center, is not ‘anthropocentric’?  Interestingly, in a more recent work, Writing For an Endangered World (2001), Buell seems to move away from the more radical view of eco back toward the environmental; not the quaintness of early studies and appreciation of nature writing, but an environment in which man (and in the case of this particular book, man’s impact on his environment and the physical environment’s impact in his world) seems to be back at the center.Buell addresses this shift as well in The Future of Environmental Criticism, the book we will use for some perspective on these issues of critical approaches to literature of/and the environment. As you will see in chapter one of that book, Buell has his eye on what he calls ‘second-wave’ environmental criticism, in which environment means both natural and buitl (cultural, social) environment. A view toward that mix can be seen in the digital journal Terrain; we can also see the ways current environmental writing is multi-genre and multi-media as well as multidisciplinary.

Buell suggests four characteristics that comprise an environmentally oriented work. We will be thinking/discussing these throughout the term:

1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. […]

2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. […]

3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. […]

4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

I think we hear in this “checklist” implications of a more systems-oriented perspective: that is, in Wendell Berry’s terms, we think about solving a text (which is in essence what critical readers do–problematize and propose a solution) not for problem but for pattern. So the movement from nature to enviro to eco might also be thought of as a movement toward pattern–and other elements of ecological/dynamic systems thinking, including nonlinearity, complexity, chaos. Indeed, as a useful thought experiment,  we could take Wendell Berry’s listing of 14 characteristics of a “good” or “organic” solution in “Solving for Pattern” and for farm substitute text–and ask: what makes for an organic reading or interpretation? This is something environmental writers have long been interested in–as we see starting with Thoreau: how to have a text that is itself natural, that represents nature in it as naturally, organically as possible; how to transplant words to his page, as he puts it in “Walking.” Thus, for example:

  1. A good [reading, interpretation] accepts given limits, using so far as possible what is at hand.
  2. A good reading accepts also the limitation of discipline.
  3. A good reading improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern–it is a qualitative solution–rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.
  4. A good reading solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems. I am talking about health as opposed to almost any cure, coherence of pattern as opposed to almost any solution produced piecemeal or in isolation…

Is it strange to substitute solution with reading, farm with text (or variants: imagination, writing, poetry, narrative)? At the same time that he is talking clearly about organic farming, can we really suggest a connection or relation to reading, a link between agricultural and cultural production? Yes–because Berry does precisely this in the same essay. He argues that the view of pattern is a view toward the health of a living system of relations: “the structures of organ, organism, and ecosystem…belong to a series of analogical integrities.” The final point in the essay gives us to understand that “analogy” is both a scientific and a poetic concept–it is how nature works, but also (since we can’t separate this completely) how humans see and interact with nature. Thus any solution we might call “organic” is not natural itself. “We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy.”  As Ralph Waldo Emerson would put it, and emphasize in his thinking about nature, man is an analogist, following the analogical patterns of nature. For example, notice how Emerson thus blends science with poetry in this passage from his essay “Poetry and Imagination”:

There is one animal, one plant, one matter, and one force. The laws of light and of heat trans-late each other ; – so do the laws of sound and of color ; and so galvanism, electricity, and magnetism are varied forms of the selfsame energy. While the student ponders this immense unity, he observes that all things in nature, the animals, the mountain, the river, the seasons, wood, iron, stone, vapor, – have a mysterious relation to his thoughts and his life ; their growths, decays, quality, and use so curiously resemble himself, in parts and in wholes, that he is compelled to speak by means of them. His words and his thoughts are framed by their help. Every noun is an image. Nature gives him, sometimes in a flattered likeness, sometimes in caricature, a copy of every humor and shade in his character and mind. The world is an immense picture-book of every passage in human life. Every object he beholds is the mask of a man.


Emerson’s vision of occult relation from Nature (transparent eyeball) is reinforced–though, to my mind, shown to be much more down to earth, material, not merely Romantic vision. Not far from Berry’s practical vision of farming. Though Berry may not use Emerson’s imagery, or the particular language of science needing to be poetic (and elsewhere in this essay, Emerson claims that poetry is a science), and being a problem when it is unpoetical, both share the vision of analogy, of system and relation. As Berry reminds us, both (the science and the poetry) are organic artifacts, parts of larger patterns in which we live as humans in nature. Science and poetry offer poor solutions and unnatural readings, when pattern is forgotten.

To anticipate another vision for this understanding that nature, or at least one’s relation to it, needs to be rethought in terms more usually associated with the humanities rather than the sciences, consider Aldo Leopold, the ecologist we will be visiting later in the semester. Leopold argues in this statement (taken from his most famous work, “The Land Ethic”) for needing to shift scientific understanding to include aesthetic, ethical, and rhetorical perspectives.

So, one of our challenges in exploring environmental writing this semester will be to consider how to read and think and write for pattern. How to read, write, and think in an English class, and more broadly in a college, like Berry’s poet-farmer. How to be or become (or Berry and Emerson might suggest, return to being) more organic in our readings. Those are some general goals and larger stakes for our exploration this semester.

For an animated essay that focuses on the ways physics deals with the tensions/relations between simplicity and complexity (in ways that 20th century writers like Dillard, informed by physics, will echo), watch this piece on “The Poetic Dance Between Simplicity and Uncertainty.”  I suppose, then, that I am asserting that an “organic reading” of books works much like the sort of organic reading of the world that physicists and ecologists and others engage.

Burroughs: Fine Print on the Art of Seeing Things

August 29, 2016
English: American naturalist and essayist John...

English: American naturalist and essayist John Burroughs (1837-1921) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some focal points from John Burroughs, an important figure in the emergence of American environmental writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I think McKibben’s note is relevant and useful: Burroughs “reintroduced reading America to the natural world.” Though he spent a great deal of time outdoors seeing, his audience was thoroughly folks sitting inside reading.
There are three terms in particular that I think about and want to explore as we move on: love, fine print, initiated. I also read this essay by Burroughs as being its own model for how to read, write, and think about nature. In other words, the essay demonstrates, in the ways it writes and sees, how Burroughs thinks the writer/reader (us) should see the environment. That last phrase of the essay–we must be initiated–is particularly resonant for our exploration. There are various connotations, beyond the initial you might hear, namely, beginning or beginner. It also suggests an intimacy and closeness (his sense of an order of secrets) we have, or should have, with nature. There is also the implication of devotion, a spiritual version of which is a pilgrim or anchorite (think novitiate). These are implications evident in Thoreau and Dillard and Berry, among others. And thus to live in nature is to love nature, and to love nature, one must read and see it closely, pay attention to the implications in the fine print. And use the OED.
  1. To love is the other half (147). Note Burroughs’s initial focus on love. To love is the necessary “other half” of knowing. With this Burroughs suggests that the scientific understanding of nature (science, knowing) needs to be combined with an artistic and “poetic temperament.”  This is a point embodied in Thoreau–and we see it in Dillard, as well as in the essays of Wendell Berry. All are, in the root sense of the word, amateur scientists and naturalists. And so the writer of nature must read nature as a book that demands both observation and imagination.
  2. To find what you are not looking for (149). Echoes with Thoreau (two views of the same) and with Dillard: her interest in seeing, in being restored to sight. Is it too much of a stretch to think of this as early versions of systems thinking? We could throw Emerson into the mix, Emerson whose famous passage in Nature(1836) is about imagining a different way of seeing (we will get back to this in a few weeks):
    1. To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.
  3. The focus on senses: seeing hearing, touching. The many senses of senses.
  4. Taking note–and taking notes–from the book of nature: to be read slowly…the reader/writer as ‘saunterer.’
  5. We must be initiated. Studying nature, writing and reading the environment as an art, but also something deeper, perhaps spiritual. Writers where this sense comes up, in various ways as we will see: Thoreau, Dillard, Muir (who famously wrote the we need wilderness parks as places to play and pray in), Abrams, Berry.

And so, if Burroughs is one field guide for us, if we are to read and write nature as Burroughs sees it, what do we do?

Field-Guide View of American Literature

August 10, 2016

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. To use the language of Rob Nixon, an ecocritic we will encounter toward the end of the semester, they are “writer-activists” who engage and intervene “representationally” in matters of the natural world. Both 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. It strikes me as the opposite of what this picture shows, the human presence connecting–or is it, re-claiming?–with the environment of a National Park.

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.


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