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Ecology and Rhetoric: two views of the same

October 25, 2018

Starting with Thoreau, and moving through Burroughs and Leopold and Berry and into Dillard, we have been working our way around the idea that ecological thinking  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. They are, as Thoreau puts it in his journal, “two views of the same.”

The second writing project challenges you to explore and enact this rhetorical perspective of environmental vision (and ecological vision of rhetoric).  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. Since Dillard herself engages in the rhetoric of physics, specifically the analogy of particles and waves, this heuristic seems particularly appropriate.

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 Dillard and her various examples of microscopic seeing. 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? Or Dillard on intricacy? 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. To use a favored word and image of Dillard’s, think about how the ideas loop, but also perhaps begin to fray and fringe.

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, has different views of X? What larger communities (categories) does X belong to? [These questions relate to counterargument–recall our discussion from project 1]. What is Dillard’s “field of vision,” as you see it? How does that field of vision compare to the vision of another writer, for example Leopold or Thoreau? What in Dillard depends on Thoreau?

This “field” view, I would suggest, has something crucial to do with Berry’s “pattern,” with Dillard’s complicated senses of seeing, with Leopold’s thinking like a mountain. 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, particularly when it can’t be always in view or comprehended.. A good argument  is aware of what it is not focusing on–and needs to incorporate that into its perspective. And to reverse the relation, therefore: an ecological vision is also rhetorical, knows its limits and proceeds with those limits always in mind.

Take a look at this model, Dan Teano’s essay “Seeing is Caring” (originally project 2 from this course) published in the Washington College Review in 2017.

Two pieces that bring Dillard to mind provide ways to think about complications in her project that you might bring into your project: Discovering the Great Indoors  and The Reason You Shouldn’t Anthropomorphize Animals.


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