All posts by Mark Long

It’s a Wrap

Writing in an Endangered World is a course title as well as a description of practice–of a group of people reading, thinking, talking, and writing and, for fifteen weeks, working to become more self-aware, interested, engaged, honest, generous, and collaborative.

Our course blog makes visible our practice. The sidebar includes fifteen weeks of student work organized by author, or activity, under Themes, the weekly essays syndicated from the student’s blogs to this Writing in an Endangered World blog appear under Discussion, and direct links to the student course blogs are listed as Blog Contributors.

How did we do? The Writing Portfolios and the projects below offer one answer. In addition, rather than writing learning outcomes for the students in advance, the students worked together at the conclusion of fifteen weeks to articulate what they have learned: the attitudes and habits of mind, knowledge and understanding, as well as skills and competencies that they are taking with them.

Writing Portfolios

Each blog is a portfolio of writing. At the center are eleven essays and a preface (a total of 12,000 words). The portfolios asked students to take ownership of their presence on the web; to express ideas, and integrate their learning, and interests; to use open-source platforms, build projects using digital tools, and create content using portfolios, exhibits, galleries; and to engage with communities beyond the classroom, construct the web, navigate and critically question digital technologies.

Madison Ballou Miss B “This world is but a canvas to our imagination.”―Henry David Thoreau

Chelsea Birchmore Mind Flowers Welcome to My Garden

Ethan Chalmers Eyes of the White Mountains We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.”―Henry David Thoreau

Nick DeCarolis Reconnecting to Nature“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”― John Muir

Ariel Freedman Feeling the Flood Emotions are Wild. Welcome to the Natural World

Meghan Hayman Coming Out of My Shell “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” -GD

Mickayla Johnson The River is Everywhere“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”―John Muir

Anna LeClere Pieces of the World You have big things. You know big things. But you don’t look into each other’s eyes, and you are hungry for quietness.”―Nell (1994)

Roy Martin Life Lessons Within Environmentalism A collection of thoughts, questions and speculations

Alexa Reichardt A Time for Tree Pausing our daily hubbub to sit down, drink tea, and give thanks to our Mother Earth

TJ Snow Snow My thoughts, feelings, and responses to various works and texts

Devon Sacca The Enchanted Forest“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”―John Muir

Lucas Thors The Islander“I thought to live on an island was like living on a boat. Islands intrigue me. You can see the perimeters of your world. It’s a microcosm.”―Jamie Wyeth

Colby Nilsen Wildcat: Overseer of the Mountain “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Writing in the Endangered World Projects

The projects below began with a question: What might you do with what you have learned by reading, thinking, and writing in the course Writing in an Endangered World? Each student was encouraged to make something that would apply what they learned.

Devon Coffee’s Taking a Walk Through the Forest of Environmental Literature: A Resource for High School Teachers

It takes action to make a change. Meghan Hayman’s blog Saving Mother Earth  is designed to inform the world about our earth’s environmental crisis and raises money for Greenpeace, a nonprofit environmental organization that helps to give the earth a voice.

Mickayla Johnson  Compassionate Natures: An Animal Emotions Directory is a collection of writings, images, stories, and other resources on the fascinating topic of non-human animal emotion

Anna LeClere and Chelsea Birchmore’s Food for Thought features interviews on people’s relationship to food

Alexa Reichardt has put together a site, Solitude, that seeks ways of the woods, positive change, resilience

Ethan Chalmers EcoConscious Climbing blog explores climbing and environmental ethics, specifically the impact of climbing on the rock and on the experiences of future climbers.

Ariel Freedman has composed “The Adventures of Geo the Rock,” her Illustrated Children’s Book

Roy Martin’s Nature In A Quarter Hour Podcast offers a series of reflections (and an interview) based in the field of environmentalism and it’s literary contributions

Madison Ballou has put together a video called Nature and Children that features conversations about nature with children

Nick DeCarolis’s The Milky Way Sports Club offers sustainable thinking about outdoor recreation and leisure

Devon Sacca’s Ecopoetry anthology includes poems from published poets whose work is preoccupied with the natural world as well as her own poems.

TJ Snow provides an Ecocritical reading of Anime film  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – A Critical Environmentalist Work

Lucas Thors One Planet Campus profiles the Eco-Rep Program at Keene State College and the efforts of students to bring ecological and environmental awareness to campus

Colby Nilsen’s No Such Thing as Empty Space is a response to the work of Gary Snyder in poetry and photography

So, what have you learned?

What we have come to call student learning outcomes, at least as I understand them, invite teachers and academic programs to articulate for students the expected attitudes and habits of mind, knowledge, and skills and competencies that they will be expected to learn in a course.

To be quite honest, this kind of language does not acknowledge the unique ways that a group of students make sense of the literary and cultural materials I teach. That is, I am far more interested in your own assessment of what you have learned in the course. On the one hand, your prefaces and essays offer one version of what you have learned—in every case, these essays chronicle your thinking about (and with) the books and essays and poems we read this semester. Another version of what you have learned is the list below that attempts to capture the attitudes and habits of mind, knowledge and understanding, as well as skills and competencies that you recorded during our final class session.

Attitudes and Habits of Mind

The environment is everywhere and I am in it

Not to be afraid of what we don’t know and what we do not want to hear

We are not separate from the world but are a part of it and we need to start acting as if this is true

Greater awareness of self and greater awareness of the more-than-human world

Greater awareness of the unknown and comfort with the unknown

Greater awareness of what is going on in our society that harms the more-then-human world and that we have to come together to figure out solutions

Instinctual urge to save the body that nurtures and sustains our life

Knowledge is power and what we do with that power is what will make a difference

The truth is difficult and it is hard to recognize that the problems are because of the way we live our lives. We have made the world the way it is and that is a hard truth to swallow

To become comfortable in the larger questions of life

Knowing and Understanding

I learned about (and learned from) new authors that I had never known about before

I learned to appreciate the many forms of environmental writing: including poems, essays, novels, and memoirs

I understand the origins and history of the environmental movement in the United Sates and the social movements of environmentalism around the world

I learned that the natural world has much to teach us and that we can learn how to be open to how it teaches us

I learned about the responsibility we have to both ourselves and to the more-than-human world

I understand the wild as the ultimate and most powerful force in our lives and in the world around us

I understand environmental issues as social issues

I understand that we are the environment, we are of it and we are in it

I understand that the idea of nature is socially constructed

I learned about the problems that lie within our current understanding of nature as a social construct (and what we falsely recognize as our inherent separation from natural processes)

I understand that the “human privilege” (anthropocentrism) that we have bestowed upon ourselves is the root of the environmental crisis

I understand environmental responsibility as having good manners in a human and more-than-human world, as etiquette, as Gary Snyder describes it in the essay “The Etiquette of Freedom”

Skills and Competencies

I read by listening to what the text says and make meaning through listening and thinking and writing

I read with an awareness of the inter-relatability of the context and the content of a text

I write from the words of the writer and editor Ed Hogan: “Know what you are doing and do it well”

I write as a process of self evaluation, self-identification, and self recognition

I write to find a place in the world and to articulate thought

I write for general audiences by cultivating a point of view and a distinctive voice or presence

I write not to forget about an essay or throw it away but to write in a place (a blog) where it is never over, so I was never motivated to never want to stop perfecting it


California Dreaming: The Tortilla Curtain

“My dream is that people will find a way back home, into their bodies, to connect with the earth, to connect with each other, to connect with the poor, to connect with the broken, to connect with the needy, to connect with people calling out all around us, to connect with the beauty, poetry, the wildness”

-Eve Ensler

“Fucking Beaners. Rip it up, man. Destroy it.”

Jack Jr’s comment, when he and his friend stumble upon Candido and America’s camp in the arroyo can be difficult to read. We know more than this young man precisely because Boyle has described the lives of the people, America and Candido, whose belongings are being destoyed. The passage will also bring to mind for most readers the evening meeting at which Jack Cherrystone offers his disquisition on what is “real,” and it will anticipate the later conversation he has with Delaney Mossbacher in what can only be described as a surreal scene in the supermarket.

Jack Jr’s comment throws us out of the novel as well. It brings to mind the early 1990s in California when proposition 187 was passed, and then later repealed. His angry and confused words suggest a literary predecessor as well, John Steinbeck, who Boyle uses as an epigraph for his novel, and whose novel The Grapes of Wrath Boyle pays homage.

On Tuesday I asked us how this novel brings us back full circle to the writings of Ramanchandra Guha. His distinction between omnivores (consumers) and ecosystem people (workers)–as well as the massive asymmetries between abundance and scarcity, richness and poverty, is useful as we talk about this novel.

Guha is one among many thinkers who can help us think beyond the necessary but not sufficient forms of environmental concern in what he calls environmentalism’s first wave, including the emphasis on conservation, of “going green” and heading “back to the land; on preservation of resources, including land (parks, wilderness areas) and biodiversity; even on the movement beyond the suggestion that we engage, to circle back to Gary Snyder’s words  in the “Preface to The Practice of the Wild, “in more than environmentalist virtue, political keenness, or useful and necessary activism. We must ground ourselves in the dark of our deepest selves.”

That passage in Practice goes on to say that a good part of that grounding takes place in “communities,” which exist whether we know it or not within the ‘natural nations’ shaped by mountain ranges, river courses, flatlands, and wetlands.” These places are inhabited, in more ways than many want to believe.

The Tortilla Curtain is up to a number of things. One of these things that readers find compelling is the way the story foregrounds the comfortable space in which environmental concern exists alongside a radically disconnected culture of consumerism predicated on social values (racism) that define “the way things are.”

One of the really interesting lessons here is the idea of thinking differently about the individual as a part of the world (ecological or systems or intersectional thinking, whatever modifier) and thinking this thought through the inevitable questions of access / equity / justice having to do with quality of life—for the individual thinking, and for others. This idea forces one to grapple with the patterns of production and consumption that have become so normative that we forget even how to question this pattern.

“Where is the justice?” Candido asks later in the novel, as he desperately tries to make some sense of the world around him.


I want to suggest that the “dream” in the words of Eve Ensler might find its place in a world less determined by the so-called “American dream” that has never been one accessible to all–as some people so desperately want to believe, and as The Tortilla Curtain so deftly makes clear.

Ensler’s word is “connect.” It is worth remembering that the very idea ecology rests on a capacity to think not of simply things, but of the ways things are only possible in a context of relations. The writer Timothy Morton has explained quite well on the radical implications of this idea, what he calls the “ecological thought.” The idea is in one sense found in words from environmental writers such as John Muir, who writes in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

However, the meanings and the history of the term ecology —both its origin and use in the scientific community as well as its resonance in the wider culture might take on a different hue when one considers Morton’s argument in The Ecological Thought (2010) :

“The ecological thought is difficult because it brings to light aspects of our existence that have remained unconscious for a long time; we don’t like to recall them” (9).

The ecological thought “forces us to invent ways of being together that don’t depend on self interest. . .the ecological thought can be highly unpleasant” (135).

“The ecological thought is about considering others, in their interests, in how we should act toward them, and in their very being” (123).

Which brings us back to the questions posed for this week:

How does this novel contribute to our understanding of environmental literature, and the discourse of environmentalism?

How do we read this novel into-and as a culmination of-the reading / thinking / discussion / writing we have done this semester?

On what terms might the people in this novel share a common future?

 How do multiple voices share equal status (in an unequal society) in defining the future? 

Writing about The Tortilla Curtain is one way to begin answering these questions.

Candido and America, Eddie From Ohio, from the album Quick (2001) and on the live album Three Rooms (2003).


One World Or Two?

The narrative strategy of the novel The Tortilla Curtain makes visible a number of contradictions that lurk within the environmental movement in North America. Years ago Ramanchandra Guha, author of Environmentalism: A Global History, during his time as a graduate student at Yale, published an essay entitled “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique” (1987). Here is an abstract of the essay:

I present a Third World critique of the trend in American environmentalism known as deep ecology, analyzing each of deep ecology’s central tenets: the distinction between anthropocentrism and biocentrism, the focus on wilderness preservation, the invocation of Eastem traditions, and the belief that it represents the most radical trend within environmentalism. I argue that the anthropocentrism / biocentrism distinction is of little use in understanding the dynamics of environmental degredation, that the implementation of the wilderness agenda is causing serious deprivation in the Third World, that the deep ecologist’s interpretation of Eastern traditions is highly selective, and that in other cultural contexts (e.g., West Germany and India) radical environmentalism manifests itself quite differently, with a far greater emphasis on equity and the integration of ecological concerns with livelihood and work. I conclude that despite its claims to universality, deep ecology is firmly rooted in American environmental and cultural history and is inappropriate when applied to the Third World.

The frank and polemical and controversial essay has been assessed by the author more recently as revealing his own chauvinism; still, the essay is a helpful introduction to a way of thinking that focuses attention on both the insights and the blindness of the environmental movement in North America.

Guha’s essay from the 1980s is productively read alongside a collection of his essays I recommended earlier in the course, How Much Should a Person Consume: Environmentalism in India and the United States (Berkeley: U California P, 2006). The title essay focuses attention on the focus of the environmental movement on threats to human health caused by pollution and threats to wild habitats, and to species by economic expansion. But as Guha reminds his reader, “consumption continued to be the great unasked question of the conservation movement” (223).

The Tortilla Curtain places these contradictions and this unasked question about abundance and profligacy at the center of its unfolding. The novel constructs a narrative that both reinforces the two worlds (consumers and workers, citizens or so-called “natives” and non-citizens or so-called “aliens”) at the same time that it merges these two worlds. The catastrophic (or what a former student of mine called the “downward spiral”) of the story is inexorable, or so it seems. Candido and America’s lives are slowly and painfully falling apart at the same time that the fiction of life Delaney has constructed (Boyle deftly foregrounds the slow unraveling of his “liberal humanist guilt”) around privilege and exceptionalism. In brief, the racism that serves as the catalyst for dehumanization in the novel is deeply entwined with the relationship between ecological entitlement and economic status.

When Delaney, the liberal humanist and environmentalist, reflects on the contradictions of his own actions following his confrontation with the Mexican men the night of the fire, a possible redemptive moment merely flickers in an increasingly desperate situation. Rather than reading this as an indictment of liberal humanism, or environmentalism, the novel allows a reader to experience the fracturing of the world view on which such commitments are often based–a world of abundance, richness and privilege as well as, when the fire leaps into the treetops on the Santa Ana winds, the moment when the two worlds become one.

To think ecologically is to think of one world–a world deeply and inextricably imbedded and interrelated. The radical openness of this kind of thinking is challenging, for it requires seeing the ecological crisis that animates the environmental movement as an inescapable condition. It also demands that the conceptual distinctions that proliferate under the banner of environmentalism (or that lie lurking beneath its ideals) become visible. That is to say, social and environmental questions are the same questions. The moral demands of this becoming, as Wendell Berry’s writing has pressed its readers to realize, require more humanity than we appear able to give. You can’t think of our environment and our environmental predicament without asking the question Candido asks, “Where was the justice”?

Before we talk this week I would like you to think more broadly about a question this novel asks: on what terms might the people in this novel (in this world) share a common future? How can these voices share equal status in a debate about a common future? How might the final image in the novel suggest that such questions are questions that can be asked? “He was beyond cursing, beyond grieving, numbed right through to the core of him. All that, yes. But when he saw the white face surge up out of the black swirl of the current and the white hand grasping at the tiles, he reached down and took hold of it” (355).

Thinking With Snyder

In addition to the term and the concept of wildness we write about and discussed at length in class on Tuesday, here are a few additional threads that will give you points of entry into The Practice of the Wild.

On Work and Wholeness

“If there is any one thing that’s unhealthy in America, it’s that is a whole civilization trying to get out of work – the young, especially, get caught in that. There is a triple alienation when you try to avoid work: first, you’re trying to get outside energy sources/resources to do it for you; second, you no longer know what your own body can do where your food or water come from; third, you lose the capacity to discover the unity of mind and body via your work.”

—Gary Snyder, 1977

On Collaboration and the Self

“ First of all, when I say [his book-length poem Mountains and Rivers Without End] is collaborative I’m thinking of two different kinds of collaboration. One is the collaboration with various living persons and dead comrades from the past. The insights and voices of those from whom I have learned, or, actually, those with whom I have engaged in the imagination—in some sense they are some of the contributing voices. In particular, of course, there’s a collaboration of sorts with my teachers—my living, actual teachers both in painting and calligraphy and also in poetry and poetics. And in other realms as well: working in the engine room on the Sappa Creek under the first engineer, learning how to be a caregiver to machinery.

So those all become part of a collaboration if one is able to free oneself from the notion that art is self-expression to begin with—or, like, ‘which self’? So, when I mention ‘which self,’ that brings us back to the other aspect of collaboration, which is the collaboration of your various selves in producing a poem, or producing a work of art. . . . [W]e are not just a single self—we are a number of selves, some of which come forward more than others—but an array of possible faces, possible angles, possible takes on the world. . . . The acknowledgement [is] that we reflect a number of selves, all of which, of course, are illusory anyway, and which resolve into a non-self—which is another way of speaking of the totally collaborative quality of any individual entity, namely that we are an intersection of influences in the present and in the past, from the present and from the past, that is a moving target. That’s the non-self.”

On Permanence and Practice

“[I]f you give up any thought of clinging to the ideas of the self and of permanence, then you’ve found your place. Then you are centered. And so there’s a metaphorical center, which is. . .a metaphorical place, which is nowhere, but also everywhere, or it’s right where you are. . . . [To] grasp the common-sense truth of impermanence is to realize your physical limitations. Each of us, in our brief life, can only be in one place at a time, and no matter how much we might move about, it’s finally not many places. We are born some-specific-where and die somewhere, and in truth live in specific places all our life. So this is, as Dōgen says, where practice begins.

Knowing one’s limits, to explore the sphere given us (this mind/body, this neighborhood, this valley and ridge) well. Then, to grasp the somewhat less common-sense truth of no self is to realize that the boundaries between inside and outside, yourself and the surroundings, is permeable, and that the air and water of this neighborhood, this valley, is an inextricable part of your being.”

-Gary Snyder Unpublished interview conducted at Kitkitdizze, May 22, 1998. By Eric Todd Smith. Qtd. in Smith, Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. Boise: Boise State UP, 2000. 45–46.

On Practice (notes from Turtle Island)

“How do we encourage and develop an ethic that goes beyond intrahuman obligations and includes nonhuman nature?”

–Gary Snyder, “A Village Council of All Beings”

Learn the facts of biology and related disciplines humans are a part of not apart from, cultivate contact with plants and animals (including the creepy and the crawly), “we are it– / it sings through us.”

Seek the Truth contemporary cultures now deep into the Holocene (in transition to the “Anthropocene”?) are often unreliable guides, “mind pollution,” seek using method, imagination and inquiry

Find your Place a process of discovery of where you are, where you are going (and you are not alone!), dig in, take responsibility, and remember that this continual discovery of where you are (“re-inhabitation,” what Barry Lopez calls “rediscovery)  does not (for Snyder) preclude motion or mobility)

Explore Alternative Lifestyles “imaginative extensions,” integration of past traditions and lifeways, mindful awareness of the resources and the limits of nostalgia

Share and Create skills, food, practice; slip out of grammar of possession (me, my, mine)Cultivate the Wild

Be aware, Be alive “live vastly in the present”  and be aware of wildness within and without, work through and not necessarily alongside five millennia-long trends; “Poetry and the Primitive”

Cultivate Wholeness, Mindfulness, and Simplicity food and labor, rethink our relationship to work: “If there is any one thing that’s unhealthy in America, it’s that is is a whole civilization trying to get out of work – the young, especially, get caught in that. There is a triple alienation when you try to avoid work: first, you’re trying to get outside energy sources/resources to do it for you; second, you no longer know what your own body can do where your food or water come from; third, you lose the capacity to discover the unity of mind and body via your work.” (Interview with Gary Snyder, 1977)

Think with Nature watersheds and bioregions

Promote Cultural and Spiritual Growth rather than the pleasures of merely circulating in the endless (and too often selfish and destructive) cycle of production and consumption, “true affluence is not needing anything,” “economics must be seen as a small sub-branch of ecology”

Research Alteranatives “varied and sensitive agriculture”

Explore Alternatives Sources of Energy “walk more, drive less”

Conserve Energy “do more with less”

Mind the House: Population birth rate, empower women, social policy

Respect for Life “creepy crawlies” included

We are the Problem and we are the Solution “Our immediate business, and our quarrel, is with oursleves”

Effective cross-cultural (international) Dialogue

a working list of key terms and metaphors Snyder offers readers in Turtle Island

Body (“is this is our body?” “this is our body”; mind (“No Matter, Never Mind”); balance (harmony, humility, homeostasis); web (of life, fabric and warp–horizontal threads to hold strength–and weft–fibers woven left to right); song (“we are it– / it sings through us”) healing (not saving); mother (Mother Earth); love (“with more love, not less”); language (“unmuddied,” Myths and Texts, “poetry a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics”); fear (embrace, “natural inner-self wilderness areas”) place (“find your place”); time (human time, earth time)

Thinking about Wildness

“My dream is that people will find a way back home, into their bodies, to connect with the earth, to connect with each other, to connect with the poor, to connect with the broken, to connect with the needy, to connect with people calling out all around us, to connect with the beauty, poetry, the wildness”

-Eve Ensler

The term wildness encompasses most everything in the physical universe—from the teeming microorganisms in our bodies to the unfolding realm of the cosmos. It is the real world, the world to which we belong. The phrase “search for wildness” describes the act of seeking awareness of this world–of seeking an understanding of the expression of the wild in nature and in culture.

The search for wildness takes many forms: it takes shape in individual questions about the meaning and purpose of human life; it gives rise to collective stories, myths, and purpose; it is organized in the cultural activities of natural history, spirituality, science and mathematics; it is pursued through historical and comparative studies of nature and/or culture; and it generates utopian and post-apocalyptic fictions about the ways human technologies are transforming the world.

Photo credit: Larry Miller, CC BY-SA 2.0

One might begin to think about wildness with Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild:

The word wild is like a gray fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of sight. Up close, first glance, it is “wild”-then farther into the woods next glance it’s “wyld” and it recedes via Old Norse villr and Old Teutonic wilthijaz into a faint pre-Teutonic ghweltijos which means, still, wild and maybe wooded (wald) and lurks back there with possible connections to will, to Latin silva (forest, sauvage), and to the Indo-European root ghwer, base of Latin ferus )feral, fierce), which swings us around to Thoreau’s “awful ferity” shared by virtuous people and lovers. The Oxford English Dictionary has it this way:

Of animals-not tame, undomesticated, unruly.
Of plants-not cultivated.
Of land-uninhabited, uncultivated.
Of foodcrops-produced or yielded without cultivation.
Of societies-uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government.
Of individuals-unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose. “Wild and wanton widowes”-1614.
Of behavior-violent, destructive, cruel, unruly.
Of behavior-artless, free, spontaneous. “Warble his native wood-notes wild”-John Milton.

Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what-from a human standpoint-it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what it is. Turn it the other way:

Of animals-free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.
Of plants-self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities.
Of land-a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine.
Of Food crops-food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of qualities of fruit or seeds.
Of societies-societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist economic and political domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem.
Of Individuals-following local custom, style, and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent. “Proud and free.”
Of behavior-fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploration. Far-out, outrageous, “bad,” admirable.
Of behavior-artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic.

Or, one might read Henry David Thoreau’s 1862 essay “Walking,” in which he says that every tree “sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild.” For Thoreau, the wild is contrasted “with a freedom and culture merely civil.”

Thoreau identified the wild with the world of nature, human culture, and mind. In his essay “The Etiquette of Freedom,” published in 1990, Snyder locates the term “wildness” in a particular historical and cultural moment:

‘Wild and free.’ An American dream-phase loosing images: a long maned stallion racing across the grasslands, a V of Canada Geese high and honking, a squirrel chattering and leaping limb to limb overhead in an oak. It also sounds like an ad for Harley Davidson. Both words, profoundly political and sensitive as they are, have become consumer baubles. (5)

Snyder’s elaboration of the wild, and the relationship of wildness to the term nature, is rooted in a comparative literary and cultural method as well as, with Thoreau, an impulse to engage in much more than what Snyder calls “environmentalist virtue, political keenness, or useful and necessary activism” (“Preface” ix). The practice of the wild, as Snyder’s poetry and prose so artfully says, goes much deeper-and requires much more.

Snyder defines the search for wildness as a practice: a deliberate sustained and conscious effort to become more aware of yourself and the world. Who am I? What am I doing here? What is going on?

Resources: Literature, Film, Music, Criticism

Henry David Thoreau, Walking (1862)

William Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong NatureUncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: Norton (1995)

Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild. Berkeley: Counterpoint: 1990. (Rpt. with a new preface 2010)

Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild. Tuscon: U of Arizona P, 1996

The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and the Practice of the Wild. Ed. Paul Ebenkamp. Berkely: Counterpoint, 2010. (Companion to the film)

Gary Snyder on The Practice of the Wild. The transcript of the interview with Steve Paulson is also available in audio

Commentary and Documentary
The Practice of the Wild. Directed by John J. Healey.  Produced by Will Hearst and Jim Harrison. San Simeon Films. 2010

The Call of the Wild (2007) is a documentary by independent filmmaker Ron Lamothe that raises questions about the causes of Chris McCandless’s death

Into the Wild (2007), written and directed by Sean Penn, is an adaptation of the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer that chronicles the travels of McCandless across North America and his death in Alaska. Features Emile Hirsch as McCandless with soundtrack by Eddy Vedder

Wild (2014), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, written by Nick Hornby, is based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, featuring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern

The Ballad of Chris McCandless by the Folk Singer Ellis Paul from his 2003 The Speed of Trees. (Lyrics to  The Ballad of Chris McCandles)

Edder Vedder performing Society”used in the soundtrack to the film Into the Wild. (Lyrics to Society)

Excerpts in Literature and Criticism
“The theme running through this exposition — indeed, the basic premise on which the book is constructed — is that human beings exist wholly within nature as a legitimate part of natural order in every respect. To accept this unity seems to be difficult for ecologists, who assume — as many do, in understandable anger and despair — that the human species is an interloper in the natural order of things. Neither is this unity easily accepted by economists, industrialists, politicians, and others who assume — as many do, taking understandable pride in human achievements — that reason, knowledge, and determination make it possible for human beings to circumvent and outdo the natural order.”

Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies

“To lovers of wild, these mountains are not a hundred miles away. Their spiritual power and the goodness of the sky make them near, as a circle of friends. They rise as a portion of the hilled walls of the Hollow. You cannot feel yourself out of doors; plain, sky, and mountains ray beauty which you feel. You bathe in these spirit-beams, turning round and round, as if warming at a camp-fire. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape and become part and parcel of nature.”

John Muir, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916)

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.”

. . .

“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild.”

. . .

“In literature it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us. As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild—the mallard—thought, which ‘mid falling dews wings its way above the fens. A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild-flower discovered on the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East. Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself—and not a taper lighted at the hearthstone of the race, which pales before the light of common day.”

. . .

“The wildest dreams of wild men, even, are not the less true, though they may not recommend themselves to the sense which is most common among Englishmen and Americans today. It is not every truth that recommends itself to the common sense. Nature has a place for the wild Clematis as well as for the cabbage. Some expressions of truth are reminiscent—others merely SENSIBLE, as the phrase is,—others prophetic. Some forms of disease, even, may prophesy forms of health. The geologist has discovered that the figures of serpents, griffins, flying dragons, and other fanciful embellishments of heraldry, have their prototypes in the forms of fossil species which were extinct before man was created, and hence “indicate a faint and shadowy knowledge of a previous state of organic existence.” The Hindus dreamed that the earth rested on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, and the tortoise on a serpent; and though it may be an unimportant coincidence, it will not be out of place here to state, that a fossil tortoise has lately been discovered in Asia large enough to support an elephant. I confess that I am partial to these wild fancies, which transcend the order of time and development. They are the sublimest recreation of the intellect. The partridge loves peas, but not those that go with her into the pot.”

-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” (1862)

Cactus Ed

“Because somebody has to do it, that’s why.” -Hayduke

Background and Context

“I for one am with thee, and who knows hat may avail a crowbar against Billerica dam” -Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)

“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothing can beat teamwork.” -Seldom Seen Smith, The Monkey Wrench Gang

When you have made some headway in the novel, consider some of the commentary on Edward Abbey (Cactus Ed) as a writer and his place in the history of North American environmental writing. You will want to know about his beautiful nonfiction account of his time in the desert Southwest, Desert Solitaire (a book that I hope you will seek out and read).  In A Few Words in Favor of Ed Abbey, written in 1985, Wendell Berry offers an astute assessment of Abbey as a writer and his commentary outlines some of the reasons why Cactus Ed continues to be a pain in the neck for many of his readers. images

For a broader overview, read Bryan L. Moore’s piece in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Twentieth-Century American Nature Writers: Prose. Eds. Roger Thompson and J. Scott Bryson. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 275. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 3-21. Edward Abbey (29 January 1927-14 March 1989). There is also an engaging 2006 Commentary on Edward Abbey by Philip Connors, editor of the New West Reader published in Salon, Where have you gone, Edward Abbey? 

Your work is to consider both the roots of Edward Abbey’s distinctively democratic mode of dissent and the legacy of Cactus Ed in the thinking and practice of environmentalism in the United States.


Doing it Well

“The effective use of words to engage the human mind.”

-Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014)

Steven Pinker’s succinct definition of what constitutes style in writing is useful. A cognitive scientist, linguist, and writer, Pinker knows well that the effective use of words is among the most challenging activities the human animal has contrived—and for students, more’s the pity: for whether you are writing a lab report, an abstract, a research proposal or paper, a review article, or a journal entry, writing will challenge you.

Much like an athlete building muscle-memory, writers need to practice and be persistent to become proficient at writing. For this reason learning to write—like learning to ski, surf, or dance—takes time. Writing teaches writing, for sure; but so does reading. “Many times the reading of a book has made the fortune of the reader—has decided his way of life,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, who happens to be one of the most helpful literary mentors for readers, thinkers, and writers.

There is, in fact, a broad consensus that effective writing is among the most important outcome of a college education. Working scientists need to be effective writers to contribute to peers in their field of study and to communicate and translate complex ideas for a general audience. Educators must communicate effectively with their students and other stakeholders to assure the integrity of educational institutions and methods. In any professional field of work, effective writing matters. No matter your major or academic interest, you should be faced with (and seek out!) writing in as many different situations as possible. Humanities students need to be writing papers in the biological sciences and science students need to be writing research papers.

But there we are, again, back at that word effective.


In our writing workshops during the first half of the course we have focused most of our attention on becoming a bit more clear about what we are actually doing when we we are writing. Questions of purpose and audience are primary. And, as we have discovered, it is often difficult for a reader (and, as we have also found) and for a writer to really understand what one is doing. This problem is particularly acute for people writing in school.

Guiding Principles Let me offer a set of guiding principles that will help you as you work on your essays in the next few weeks:

  • Principle 1: Effective writing requires thinking well. It demands the labor of getting thoughts into words
  • Principle 2: Effective writing earns trust. A reader know when a writer cares and has used that care to write something that engages an informed reader
  • Principle 3: Effective writing is writing that is not (merely) specialized. In this course, as in most courses, whether you are a declared major in one field or another matters very little. Purpose, evidence, and reasoning—these are precisely the expectations in the sciences as well as the humanities. Context and discipline specific conventions will come into play–but in this course, they are secondary. For whether you are describing the steps in a mathematical proof, articulating the relationship among constituent parts of a complex natural and cultural system, or analyzing a cultural narrative or symbol, the standards are much more alike than different
  • Principle 4: Effective writing—in this course and in other courses that involve reading—requires working (or thinking) with a text. Every paragraph you write will more likely than not have at least one quotation from the book. You need to explain clearly and precisely why the language you are citing is relevant to what you are writing about. Once you quote (your evidence) you need to explain with precision why that evidence is in your writing (your reasoning) and then connect the language you take to be important to other passages in the book (or in other books or texts) that you find important.
  • Principle 5: Effective writing is thinking in context In a chapter you read in this course, “The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture” Wendell Berry concludes that “moral ignorance” is the etiquette of agricultural ‘process’” (48). Berry is echoing what he calls earlier the cultural dis-ease of specialization, a point that Rachel Carson also makes in Silent Spring when she is arguing for what we might call thinking ecologically or, to use Tim Morton’s formulation, the ecological thought. Both writers are arguing that if we are not asking moral questions our thinking is incomplete.

Entering the Conversation: a Checklist for Writers In addition to the principles above I have pulled together a checklist for writers based on words about effective writing students have generated in some of my classes. These words for effective writing include flow/fluency, authentic/honest, authority, concise (no matter the length of the writing), using the text, thinking and writing in context. Here is the checklist

  • Be interesting: Your idea(s) matter. Make sure there is a reason that an informed reader would want to read your writing. Take a reader somewhere: begin but do not end with the commonplace. Move from the commonplace to the surprising, the simple to the complex, the familiar to the unfamiliar, the obvious to the less obvious
  • Be thoughtful Think. Then think again. To make sentences that are smart, engaging, exiting to read you will need to move from first to second and third thoughts. The work of writing is to use words effectively to engage other minds
  • Be Concise Say what you have to say. Blog posts are relatively short. But effective blog posts do more with less. Every word and phrase and sentence matters. Many engaging blog posts have a three-part structure: a subject (a subject, usually familiar, indicating what the post is about), a turn (can be a “yet” or a “however” or a “but,” and an angle (your stance, what you have to say, the move you make in your thinking that makes what you have to say matter
  • Be Authentic and Honest. Cultivate a Point of View Who are you? Where are you? What are you doing/ What are you thinking or feeling? What makes you interesting, worth talking with, or listening to? Your tone matters, too: conversational, strong, sharp, inviting—these are terms we use to describe effective writing
  • Be professional You are publishing your writing. For this reason alone, your prose should be revised, revised, revised. Then (and only then) do you edit. It takes a lot of effort to get things exactly right.
  • Format: Your essays will be more or less 1000 words. Each essay will include reflection / analysis / interpretation. For example, note key points or passages that you noticed in your reading and spend more time with it, dig in, probe it, try to understand it better, raise questions, suggest answers
  • Make Connections Experiment with embedding your thinking in thought: in most of your writing you will be quoting from the writing of the books we are reading; but also, make use of the affordances of the Word Press blog. Learn how to make use of hyperlinks; organize blocks of text using paragraphs or bullet lists; use italics (or parenthetical comments) and bold face type, when appropriate
  • Titles are a lesson in microstyle. Titles will be first and foremost informative, suggestive, substantive; but don’t miss opportunities to write clever, catchy, eye drawing titles. Most good titles are suggestions of better titles. Most often titles are the last thing you revise before you post
  • Beginnings First sentences matter. Make them count. In most case state your purpose and your angle or point of view or argument. You might also try personal anecdotes, a sentence or a quotation, a reference to another college class, an intellectual context, or a field of study. Pay attention to how other writers begin
  • Details, Details, Details Is the writing error free? If you have issues with spelling (one of my issues as a writer, as it happens) you need to build into your writing process a run through focused just on spelling. Are you using a consistent and unobtrusive system for citation: Are titles of books in italics and chapters, articles (and poems) in quotation marks? Are poems cited by line breaks or are dashes used to indicate line breaks? (“I went into the Maverick Bar / In Farmington, New Mexico.”)

The notes of the editorial assistants on the  Workshops page is really instructive. Thank you. I hope that you will talk with one another, too, as some of you have been doing, about what constitutes effective writing.

Notes Toward an Ecological Identity

Writing that expresses environmental concern circles back, again and again, to the recurrent story of a return to nature—a journey motivated by a desire to close the widening gap between the human and the natural, or the self and the world. “Where do we start,” asks Gary Snyder, “to resolve the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild?” (Practice 15). Both Linda Hogan and Terry Tempest Williams, who we will be reading over the next two weeks, propose that there is a place to begin this challenging work: we can begin with our selves.

Solar Storms and Refuge are books about the self, or identity—more specifically, both books explore how we define or to know the self in a changing and unpredictable world. But what constitutes a “self” or an “identity?” And what do we mean by the world or the word “nature?” These two stories (a novel and a memoir) chronicle the struggle to overcome broken connections between the self and the world. These two dramas of identity unfold as the protagonists in each narrative realize that memory, tradition, community are fundamental to what we might call an ecological identity. For identity in both narratives is defined in cultural, topographical, historical, and personal terms.

Think about how Angel, late in the novel, recalls “what it felt like to persist. . .to stand up with my people” (313). And think about Williams, who concludes, following her mother’s death, when she finds herself on the front lines protesting nuclear testing, “The price of obedience had become too high” (286). Is it a coincidence that in both stories an attempt to establish one’s self in relation to the land leads to political action in the face of social, economic and environmental injustices?

Two Dimensional Dreams

“It is the innocence that constitutes the crime”

—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Cover of the novel Solar Storms
Cover of the novel Solar Storms

The copyright page of the novel we are reading this week, Solar Storms, reads in part, “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental” (6). It is also true that the events that unfold in this work of imaginative fiction are taking place in a world in which human events, and the stories we call history, are taking place.

The novel is a story about ways of knowing, and their consequences. It is a novel, too, about cultural memory and history:

  • How does an awareness of the history of the James Bay hydroelectric project, started in 1971, specifically the government of Quebec’s claim that the ‘”common property resource” of water for all Canadians supplants First Nations claims to the lands, help a reader understand this novel?
  • How does this story help us think with an awareness of (if not sympathy for) the “kind of knowing” Angel begins to form at Adam’s Rib?
  • How does the actual cultural, ecological and environmental complexities of large-scale hydroelectric projects inform a reading of this novel?

Early in the novel, as Angel is stepping off the ferry on that narrow finger of land called “Adams Rib,” she says that “When I touched the ground, my legs still held the rocking motions of water. It seemed to move beneath my feet. In every curve and fold of myself. I knew that even land was not stable” (22-23). Angel’s emerging knowledge here is the knowledge that the world of land and water (the world of nature and human life) is a counter-narrative to the knowledge of land and peoples of her most recent years: the same knowledge that determines the planning and building of large-scale “renewable energy” projects.

The hydroelectric project is an example of what Hogan calls “two-dimensional dreams.” It is helpful to read about Hydro Quebec and the series of legal challenges to the James Bay Project by the Cree that were settled in 1975 by the first modern land claim settlement in Canadian history, the “James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.” You can learn about the James Bay Project and the ongoing work of Hydro Quebec on the web. But I would specifically like you to read in the materials on the web site of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee). The Grand Council of the Crees is the political body that represents the approximately (2012) 18,000 Crees or “Eeyouch” (“Eenouch” – Mistissini dialect), as they call themselves, of eastern James Bay and Southern Hudson Bay in Northern Quebec. There are brief accounts of the Social Impact on the Crees of James Bay Project as well as the environmental impacts. You will also be able to read about the Government of Canada and the Grand Council of the Crees Statement of Intention in August 2004 to begin an out-of-court process demonstrating a mutual commitment to settling issues through meaningful discussion rather than through the courts, the “Agreement Concerning a New Relationship between the Government of Canada and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee.” Finally, I encourage you to listen in on a series of reports produced by Vermont Public Radio in the summer of 2010 that examines the social, cultural, economic, and environmental consequences of long-term agreements to buy large quantities of power from Hydro-Quebec.