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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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