Category Archives: Texts and Contexts

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 It brings to mind the early 1990s in California when proposition 187 was passed, and then later repealed.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).

 

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

Essays
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)

Books
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)

Interviews
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

Film
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

Music
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

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“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


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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.

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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.

The Encyclopedia of Life

When we were reading Rachel Carson earlier this semester I recalled a talk by the biologist E. O. Wilson that I discovered years ago, “My wish: Build the Encyclopedia of Life.” I recommend listening to what he has to say.

Wilson is speaking on the occasion of receiving the 2007 TED Award. As he accepts his prize, he makes a plea on behalf of all creatures that we learn more about our biosphere and that we build a networked encyclopedia of all the world’s knowledge about life.

99039_260_190You will remember that one of the refrains in Silent Spring is “we don’t know.” This refrain is echoed by Wilson as he explains how ignorant we actually are about life on this planet. The result of not knowing is that, as Wilson cautions, “We are flying blind into the environmental future.” We need tools, he explains. One of these tools, inspired by Wilson, is a work in progress, an encyclopedia that now lives on the internet and has allowed scientists and laypersons to build toward a web page for every species on the earth.

So let’s say it is fall in New England and you find yourself looking out at the 97273_260_190pond and thinking about Pseudacris crucifer, that garralous friend of all who love the coming of spring in these parts. Or perhaps you are thinking about the first time you came across the elusive Ambystoma maculatum (Spotted Salamander). Because you won’t be able to hear the pond come alive until we navigate another winter , there may be no better place to explore the ecology of ponds and vernal pools right now than The Encyclopedia of Life.

We Are All In

Meeting with each of you this week in individual conferences—along with our class discussion of Wendell Berry’s writing and our writing workshop—has left me bristling with energy. And now that we are all in, I want to share a few notes on our conversations, some follow-up notes to our discussions, and a few notes on the course.

Nature and culture. Pune, India. Photo credit Mark C. Long

Conversation Notes I mentioned in class Devon’s question about whether we would be reading literature that offers a counterpoint to environmentalism, or that questions some of the working assumptions of this social movement.

Devon’s question offers an opportunity to remind us that the readings in this course do precisely that. In fact, I had you begin your reading this semester with Ramanchandra Guha’s Environmentalism: A World History for precisely this reason. This book is important as it offers not only a useful description of the first two phases of Environmentalism in the United States. It is a book that critiques this tradition of environmentalism—with critique understood as a fascination with, an appreciation for, and a specific commentary on the limits of an environmentalism focused more on “the rights of plants, animals and wild habitats” (x). On the first page of his “Author’s Preface” he offers the very counterpoint that Devon was asking about. It is no accident, I think, that Devon wrote an essay that began with Guha’s understanding of environmentalism as “principally a question of social justice, of allowing the poor to have as much claim on the fruits of nature as the powerful” (x).

When Guha came to the United States in 1985 he became fascinated with the field of American environmental history. Before he left Yale University in the fall of 1987 where he was studying, Guha published Radical American Environmentalism- a Third World Critique in the journal Environmental Ethics. I encourage you to read the essay. The essay will help you to think about both the strengths as well as the limitations of the distinction between the anthropocentric and the biocentric that determined the thinking of many environmental philosophers, most notably the philosophical platform of deep ecology, and many environmental activists.

In his essay Guha argues that the discourse of North American environmentalism that grew out of the conservation movement was not particularly useful in forming an understanding of the social dynamics of ecological degradation. As Guha would later point out, the essay was widely admired and widely condemned. In any case, it remains a useful essay for the study of the social movement of environmentalism as it takes shape in the 1960s and 1970s. For further reading I would encourage you to read the essays Guha collected in How Much Should a Person consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States (2006).

Culvert in Pune, India. Photo credit Mark C. Long

In the sequence of essays I have been writing under the category Texts and Contexts you will also find additional counterpoints and critiques. I mentioned in class that the post Slow Violence borrows its title from Rob Nixon’s book Slow Violence: The Environmentalism of the Poor (2011) that, not incidentally, cites Rachel Carson and Ramanchandra Guha among its forerunners. Nixon points to Carson as a writer whose approach “helped hasten the shift from a conservationist ideology to the more socioenvironmental outlook that has proven so enabling for environmental justice movements” (xi). The terms we have used in class in our conversations with Guha have included “the environmentalism of the poor,” “ecosystem people,” “omnivores,” and “socioenvironmentalism” are a product of the work of Guha and his collaborators in the fields of sociology, comparative environmental history, and ecology.

Panel of wall mural depicting contaminated drinking water, Bhopal, India,. Photo credit Rebecca E. Todd

In addition, I have been focusing your attention on the language of environmentalism in the spirit of appreciation and critique I mention above. In the posts The Language of Environmentalism and Language, Discourse, Values I shared with you another counterpoint—notably a talk by Peter Kareiva, Failed Metaphors and A New Environmentalism for the 21st Century. Kareiva’s talk begins with “the amazing writer” Rachel Carson and goes on to make passionate and provocative and polemical claims about the strengths and limits of the language and discourse in North American environmental thinking. One does not need to agree or disagree with Kareiva to appreciate his unsettling counterpoint. It is well worth fifty minutes of your time.

Finally, I have been mentioning other writers in our class discussions whose thinking is useful for us as we engage with the social movement, and the literature, of environmentalism. I mentioned, for example, Rachel Carson use of the metaphor the “balance of nature,” and the biologist John Kricher’s book The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth (2009) that traces this enduring (but biologically rather shaky) metaphor as it develops in the science of ecology, evolutionary biology, and the popular concept of ecology. If you are interested in the ways environmental language and discourse determine the practice of environmental activism and/or restoration, I would point you to the journalist and science writer Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in the Post-Wild World (2011) and to cultural theorist Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (2007).

Sign at Ajanta, Maharashstra, India. Photo credit Mark C. Long

Editorial Assistants We are grateful (or at least I am) for Miss B’s question about the intellectual work of the editor. I am grateful as I now have an occasion to explain a bit more about the editorial assistant role in this class. Let me say, first, that I was serious about a revolt: if there is a consensus that the editorial assistant role is not going to help you develop as a writer, then let’s rethink the role. But before we consider any changes, let me elaborate just a bit on editing as intellectual work, and its value for student writers. My elaboration will draw on a few decades as a working editor–first before I was a professor, at an independent press, and now as a regular editor for academic journals and publishers.

First and foremost, editorial assistant should begin with the principle that criticism is as an act of generosity. The editor is not setting out to critique writing. Rather she is practicing identifying and naming patterns—from the phrase and sentence to the paragraph and essay. The work of the editor begins with attention and care, and in most cases descriptive commentary. Second, the examples that the editorial assistants in this class draw out for discussion should not be exemplary of so-called “good” or “bad” writing.

A generous critique of writing would do well to replace good/bad with more effective/less effective writing. In most cases, less effective writing is not “bad” writing. Rather it is less effective given a particular purpose and context and audience. It might not know what it is doing, or it may be trying to do different things, and as a result it may not be doing this thing (or these things) effectively.

If we can allow this shift in perspective to guide our editorial work together this semester then the sites of writing we look at and discuss in our weekly writing workshops will become spaces to practice more effective writing. The first job, as you will likely find out, is to name the dozens of sites in a short essay and then to choose one on which we can spend some time working. In brief, as you read the essays for the week your job is to help us find productive sites for working and reworking.

Course Notes I have made a couple of changes to the course blog. These changes are designed to help you manage the reading materials as well as the weekly writing and other activities. Note well that the page Timeline has an arrow to the right. When you run your cursor over the page/arrow you will see that there is a dropdown menu called This Week. On Thursday or Friday I will post on this page the work for the coming week and will keep it there until after Thursday’s class. This change should make it easier for you to keep tabs on the flow of the course and what you need to do and by when.

I have also added a dropdown menu for artifacts. This change will allow us to add and organize additional cultural artifacts that register environmental concern. At this point there are two pages, Media and Poems. I may create a separate Music page in the menus as well to help us build the soundtrack to environmentalism. If you come across any artifacts, or have suggestions for new categories (like bumper stickers, I have always wanted to get photographs and collect these!)

I am looking forward to reading your essays on Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. The category for this week’s post is Wendell Berry. And make good use of your self assessment to make sure that your course blog is working well, and that you are up to date with your intellectual work in the course. This stage of reflection and revisionary work is really, really important for you to complete. For we are embarking on a wonderful and wild ride of reading longer narratives over the next few weeks: Linda Hogan’s beautiful and haunting novel Solar Storms, Terry Tempest William’s astonishing exploration of family and place in her nonfiction memoir Refuge, and Edward Abbey’s rollicking narrative romp in the desert southwest The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Wendell Berry on Imagination

This week we turn from the poems of Gary Snyder to the prose of Wendell Berry at the same time that we continue to experience and study the use of language by two friends, and accomplished writers, during the 1970s.

In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, “It All Turns on Affection,” Berry explains the interrelated constants at work when we use language. “The faculties of the mind—reason, memory, feeling, intuition, imagination, and the rest—are not distinct from one another,” Berry insists. He goes on to provide a working definition of the imagination as an active and constitutive faculty of the human mind:

The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

It is by imagination that knowledge is “carried to the heart” (to borrow again from Allen Tate).5 The faculties of the mind—reason, memory, feeling, intuition, imagination, and the rest—are not distinct from one another. Though some may be favored over others and some ignored, none functions alone. But the human mind, even in its wholeness, even in instances of greatest genius, is irremediably limited. Its several faculties, when we try to use them separately or specialize them, are even more limited.

Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lecture is worth your attention. Check it out.

Consider This: Language as Wild

Reading your writing about how Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island uses language to clarify our relationship to the earth? I was reminded of Snyder’s explanation of language as “wild” in an interview with Eliot Weinberger. Snyder’s explanation, and analogy, may be useful for your thinking and writing:

Interviewer You’ve written that language is wild, and it’s interesting that, in your essays and in some of the poems, you track down words as though you’re hunting or gathering. But do you believe that language is more a part of nature than a part of culture?

Gary Snyder Well, to put it quite simply, I think language is, to a great extent, biological. And this is not a radical point of view. In fact, it is in many ways an angle of thought that has come back into serious consideration in the world of scientific linguistics right now. So, if it’s biological, if it’s part of our biological nature to be able to learn language, to master complex syntax effortlessly by the age of four, then it’s part of nature, just as our digestion is part of nature, our limbs are part of nature. So, yes, in that sense it is. Now, of course, language takes an enormous amount of cultural shaping, too, at some point. But the structures of it have the quality of wild systems. Wild systems are highly complex, cannot be intellectually mastered—that is to say they’re too complex to master simply in intellectual or mathematical terms—and they are self-managing and self-organizing. Language is a self-organizing phenomenon. Descriptive linguistics come after the fact, an effort to describe what has already happened. So if you define the wild as self-managing, self-organizing, and self-propagating, all natural human languages are wild systems. The imagination, we can say, for similar reasons, is wild. But I would also make the argument that there is a prelinguistic level of thought. Not always, but a lot of the time. And for some people more than other people. I think there are people who think more linguistically, and some who think more visually, or perhaps kinesthetically, in some cases.

You can read the complete interview by Eliot Weinberger, Gary Snyder, The Art of Poetry No. 74 The Paris Review 141 (Winter 1996). An audio excerpt of the conversation between Weinberger and Snyder is part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review was recorded live on October 26, 1992.

The Question of the Opportunities

A series of wonderful events are happening on your campus that will enrich our work, your own thinking, and surely your ongoing writing in this class.

Teach In Day at Keene State College: Who is an Environmentalist?

Tuesday September 26 10-10:50 in the Madison Street Lounge

This session addresses the question of who is an environmentalist and who is not. The ENST faculty at Keene State College will discuss the notion that society is often “stuck” in antiquated ways of thinking, especially about polarizing labels like “environmentalist.” These prevent us from working together to solve mutual problems. Now, more than ever, there is an urgent need to get beyond polarizing environmental decision-making. We need to open up the walls of the tent so that everyone can recognize the value of actively caring for the natural systems that sustain us.

Indigenous Resistance to Hydroelectric Projects in Guatemala

Tuesday September 26 at 7PM in Centennial Hall

Caya Simonsen will speak about the six months she spent with the Maya people in the Huehuetenango department in Guatemala, where she accompanied them as they defended their lands and territories against the forced imposition of hydroelectric projects.

This talk will be an excellent introduction to the social and political process that plays out in Linda Hogan’s novel that we will read together, Solar Storms.  The cultural context of the novel is the Quebec Hydroelectric project.

October 3-November 3 The Natural and Cultural History of Soil

A series of educational events on the theme of soil as the foundation of a healthy food system  and society. Macarthur Fellow, scientist, and author, Dr. David R. Montgomery, will share his research on the history and future of soil, here in the Monadnock region in November with complimentary events in October leading up to his talks.

Oct. 3rd 6pm at Stonewall Farm

Film screening of Dirt! The Movie and facilitated discussion by Dr. Mark C. Long of Keene State College

Oct. 19th 6pm at Stonewall Farm Panel and Roundtable Discussion of David Montgomery books (Dirt and Growing a Revolution). Interested? Borrow your free copy of a book today from Toadstool Books or the Keene Public Library!

Nov. 2nd 5pm at the Marriott in Downtown Keene : a Keynote address by author, David Montgomery, at the CCCD Annual Meeting Banquet Dinner. Tickets just $20 for Cheshire County residents!

Nov. 3rd 11am at Keene State Alumni Center Public talk by David Montgomery about his research on the history and future of soil.

October 9-12 The Magic of Monadnock: Poetry Bridging Cultures Program Schedule

Opportunities include:

Tuesday October 10 in Mason Library, Room 104 at 10-10:45 A lecture on Monadnock Literary History by former professor of English at Keene State College, William Doreski.

Opening Recital in the Alumni Recital Hall at the Redfern Arts Center at 7 PM featuring local and visiting poets: Zi Chuan, Chen Yihai, John  Hodgen, Henry Walters, Susan Roney-O’Brien, Mi Zheng-ying, music by Dave  Gruender

Collaborating in creating a renga (linked verse) with the visiting poets. Each participant will contribute two lines of poetry and two three-brush-stroke glyphs to a 12 line renga that will then be hung from the balcony in Student Center.  On Thursday afternoon, the rengas will be taken down and moved to the Marion Woods Reading room for a concluding “Reading of The Rengas.”

Hiking to Thoreau’s Rock on Mt. Monadnock: Wednesday, Oct. 11. If interested let Mark know by Wednesday, Oct. 4. Timing likely 9 a.m. until afternoon. Bring a lunch. Weather issue: the event will be an indoor presentation at Monadnock State Park.

Questions? Be in touch with Mark