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Rethinking Wilderness

November 27, 2018


Cronon argues that “it is time to rethink wilderness.” Are you persuaded? What ways would you rethink wilderness? How would such rethinking shape your environmental ethics? In order to help us do such rethinking, which author/writer/environmentalist/philosopher would you most rely upon–from this course? not included in the course (but you would argue should be)?

William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”

which refers to Berry’s “Preserving Wildness” and all the way back to the beginnings of the course, Thoreau’s “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” from “Walking.”

For more by Lauret Savoy, author of Trace and “Desegregating Natue,” here is another essay of hers published on Terrain (and drawing upon work that makes its way to Trace): “The Future of Environmental Essay”

And for more on the complications of race and environment, consider the work of Carolyn Finney (a visitor to the College a couple years ago), author of Black Faces/White Spaces. Here is a performance piece on her urban land ethic she created titled Ode to New York.

Ceremony: Entanglement

November 21, 2018

Entangled Bank

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 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. [64]

Reading this passage, I think of the ways we as readers are entangled in the twisted, tangled feelings of Tayo, the novel’s protagonist, making his way through the story. I am reminded of the literary idea of “radical empathy” promoted by the novelist Colum McCann: how storytelling crosses borders, boundaries, cultures, genders, races.

Reading this passage, I also think of the famous concluding paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), 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 an entangled 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. Entanglement in fiction, or more broadly in literature and the arts, is also fundamental: we cross into different places and people; we become “beside ourselves in a sane sense,” to cite Thoreau. 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. Leopold: thinking like a mountain, or rethinking (human) history as a simply a vehicle for atoms. 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 or where does it leave us?

Is the novel an earlier version of environmental apocalypse, a vision that has become more pressing in recent days in both film and in current events? Consider this recent report from the Times, “Like a Terror Movie: How Climate Change Will Cause More Simultaneous Disasters.”

For a related perspective, consider this poem by the Native American poet Joy Harjo, “A Map to the Next World.”

Ceremony: Environmental Mythology

November 15, 2018

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]

There are no unsacred places. [Wendell Berry]


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. [278]

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  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]:

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)

And a final image that gestures to American mythology, but also perpetuates myths about that mythology: the famous crying Indian from the 1971 PSA commercial on pollution.