Introduction

One tired morning I sat on my living room couch and stuffed my backpack with algebra 2, American History and Marine Biology textbooks. My bag swelled with the heavy-as-lead books, a graphing calculator, an almost full notepad and a broken protractor. It was my sophomore year of highschool. I put my bag down to tie my shoes and came face to face with a small oil pastel painting. I remember it as crisply as if it were right in front of me—the gentle strokes of color, the smudged edges to accentuate shadows. It was my sister, looking right back at me with shimmering eyes of teal and ocean blue. It was my sister, at least a portrait of my sister, which began to peel back the layer of indecision that clouded my adolescent life.

She knew… That was what I was curious of and even a little bit jealous. My sister knew how to take her deepest thoughts, emotions and experiences and channel them into something that she could see, hold and make her own. I wanted that ability that at the time seemed like a super-hero power. As I sat looking at the portrait, I felt a great swelling desire. The desire for expression and exploration overwhelmed my senses. I needed to find that medium that would free my mind, define my style, and engrave my experiences in the wall of my mind.

 

 

Preface

I have gone through the process of writing and compiling these essays on environmental literature for an English class on environmental writing at Keene State College. Since I have never been acquitted with environmental literature outside of selected works by Henry David Thoreau and other Transcendental writers, I have attempted to draw connections between the literary works I have had the opportunity to read in other classes and the new texts that I have encountered in Dr. Long’s course. During my studies in this class, I have come to realize that in order to acquire a complete understanding of the purpose and importance of environmental writing, it is important to have a historical perspective considering both economic and political situations.

As society continues to face a rising epidemic of global and local environmental concerns such as global warming, pollutions, and shortages of available freshwater, it is important to have citizens who appreciate and are aware of the impact humanity has on the natural environment.

Barriers in TC Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain

In TC Boyle’s novel, The Tortilla Curtain, the wall serves as an important metaphor in both a positive and negative context in relation to society. While a wall can symbolize shelter for something or someone and provide protection from enemy threats, a wall can also become a metaphor for a self-absorbed attitude and withdrawal from the outside world similar to how the inhabitants of the Arroyo Blanco Estates attempt to separate themselves from the rest of the world. Additionally, walls also represent how a fear of outside influences and culture can result in distrust and ignorance.

Physical barriers are a major element in Boyle’s novel. In the scene depicting Candido and Rincon’s illegal crossing of the United States and Mexico border, both illegal immigrants discover that the United States does not offer the kind of safety that they were expecting. Due to their illegal status and the different culture in the states, both travelers were viewed as invaders who should not be accepted into American society. This section of Boyle’s text shows how many Americans view immigrants as a detriment to society since they do not fit into the perceived landscape of an ideal, traditional American culture. In addition to their inability to fit into a new society, the lack of employment opportunities that are capable of providing for a family (even when Candido finds a job). This element of the book shows that the American Dream is not available for all citizens which illustrates the inequality in American society. The inability of Candido and Rincon to find employment is also represented by their living location-Arroyo Blanco Estates can be found in a distant canyon which is a constant reminder of how far away the American Dream truly is.

Society’s conflict with walls and barriers in Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is also noticeable in the depiction of Delaney’s life in a gated neighborhood and his reluctance to accept the situations that illegal immigrants face in the United States in contrast to Candido’s struggle to realize the authenticity of the American Dream. While both characters come from different economic and social situations, both Delaney and Candido live their lives defined by a physical barrier.

The Humanity of Cancer

On page 58, Williams’ narration details 5-6 separate means of potentially solving the water crisis afflicting the Great Salt Lake, each with it’s own set of pitfalls as well as positivities, both financial as well as otherwise. These parallel both in level of impact upon the afflicted body as well as in number of desirable/feasible options, the anatomical crisis which so centrally plagues Terry’s mother throughout the narration of the memoir.

This parallel of destruction lends itself to a consistent deepening of the ways in which one understands the multiple ramifications of these diseases which affect both the human as well as the land’s “body”. Cancer, as far as humanity can tell, is simply the inability of the cells within an individual’s body to self-detonate at the end of their life cycle, in order to make room for new, developing cells. Now, while natural land masses certainly don’t possess this same characteristic trait of self-maintenance, they are subject to the same finitude of the human body, when met with certain degrees of widespread corrosion & harm with regards to their physical matter. It’s this finitude that both humans as well as their environment are inherently possessive of, which is highlighted by Williams’ mother’s struggle with the disease as well as her own sympathies towards the treatment of the environment around her place of origin.

Circling back a bit towards the idea of cancer; it poses a certain cultural connotation likened to that of a boogeyman or some other fictitious creature intended to scare; but it’s particularly the unknown origin of this fear which gives cancer it’s specific air of insidiousness as well as a certain animosity. Almost as though the disease possessed a consciousness of it’s own, humanity’s language with which it describes its ‘fight against cancer’ certainly allows for a narrative to be articulated as time passes and other facts are found out about the affliction, which I think in part helps us to be able to stomach it’s strange and peculiar nature. Strangely enough, at least functionally speaking, cancerous cells are almost entirely healthy. They perform literally every function that a cell should be performing for it’s body; all except the pre-programmed death which all cells eventually meet as a result of their genes. And so eventually, the body ends up with more physical ground to cover in terms of supplying it’s cells with necessary nutrients like oxygenated blood from the heart, as well as ATP for fuel, etc. which it would need in order to survive, until the demands made by these immortal cells outweigh the actual biological resources of the body to the point where total death becomes inevitable. It’s this failure to die by the affected cells which allows the ominously connotated affliction all of it’s power. To think immortality, a notion which humanity has been obsessed with as a result of its own fear of death; has been achieved at the microscopic level by none other than some bizarre genetic accident; and it directly threatens our lives as we know it. Oh, the cosmic irony.

Still, it’s this parallel between the life cycle of the cell and the life cycle of humans which is directly struck upon by Williams throughout her memoir, allowing for a more multi-dimensional view of just what exactly ‘life’ may be, by more than one definition. When one begins to make a shift from thinking about life in terms of its seeming endlessness (the way I’d like to assume most healthily-minded and generally fulfilled people would go about thinking of it) and instead begins to look upon it in regards to its inevitable end, something very interesting begins to happen in terms of dynamics. The way almost everything begins to relate to each other is markedly changed. As illustrated above, in the context of humanity, an endless life might not seem like a bad idea at all to many; however, if one were to zoom in a few thousand nanometers, into the world of the cell, the characteristic takes on a completely adverse meaning for the being as a whole. It’s this almost paradoxical parallel which invites the reader to think about humanity as potentially cancerous or even about cancer as maybe, in some ways, more human than one might expect at first glance.

The Wild: Humanity’s Hope/Hell

“Here was a man who would not let the mere threat of cultural extinction stand in the way of his values…In the world of his people, never over-populated, rich in acorn, deer, salmon, and flicker feathers, to cleave to such purity, to be perfectionists about matters of family or clan, were affordable luxuries.”

Upon learning of one of the only other humans on earth to’ve spoken his native and near-extinct language, Snyder is remarking upon this man’s complete and total lack of interest in any sort of interaction with this woman of similar linguistic origin as he. This almost sarcastic use of the word ‘mere’ to indicate an intentionally understated meaning serves to highlight the degree to which this individual prioritized his own values above those of the world or society or culture which might contrast with his opinion; that it’s better to preserve his own feelings of solitude and non-interaction than to potentially salvage an almost-completely-eradicated linguistic tradition. It’s this prioritization of personal over popular which characterizes this individual’s relationship to that which humanity refers to as the “wilderness”, with particular regard to the vast expanse of simultaneously liberating as well as terrifying freedom that comes in tow with it.

“It’s also clear that the humanist is not necessarily an agnostic. Socrates’ last act was to ask that his promised offering to the spirit realm be carried out: ‘I owe a cock to Asclepius.’ The philosopher might despise mystification, but will respect mysteries.”

Snyder’s making a clear characterization between humanism and spirituality as anything but mutually exclusive, through the illustration of one of the most universally practical minds throughout history as one who even on his death bed, showcased a certain respect and one might even be able to say reverence, towards that which humanity cannot explain, for all it’s self-obsession and apparent disdain for its own lack of consequence. Through this illustration Snyder implies that even those who champion human agency as a pinnacle of existence within life as one understands it, should take care to learn as well as regard the blatant fact that humanity is far from the apex predator of the world which it so comfortably likes to categorize itself as.

Both of these instances lend themselves to the idea of the wild as both an extra-human force as well as a space with an almost inequitable kind of personal freedom; one which allows for a completely individualistically-shaped mode of thought, if one so desires, as the stimulating yet simultaneously overwhelming buzz of dense human habitation isn’t to be found among the wilderness.

Uncle Sam: The Wizard Behind The Tortilla Curtain?

“…You heard Jack Cherrystone speak to the issue, and nobody’s credentials can touch Jack’s as far as being a liberal is concerned, but this society isn’t what it was — and it won’t be until we get control of the borders.”

While this might seem a bit minute as well as slightly out of place to some, I’m going to argue that this short piece of dialogue given by Jack Jardine while encountering Delaney in the supermarket, illuminates one of the more central aspects of this work’s dynamics as a text: the degree to which an individual’s politics is shaped by their worldview as well as the necessary ‘credentials’ (or non-credentials) that one requires of somebody of any labelled ideology. In saying this, practically, the interpretation is of course that Jack Cherrystone’s public reputation is such that no one would scrutinize the labelling of him as a liberal. However, it’s both the syntactical structure of this sentence as it’s uttered as well as the specific word ‘credentials’ which highlight this purposeful misuse of the term. Of course, one doesn’t ‘apply’ to be a liberal or a conservative in the same way one ‘applies’ for a part-time position at a local business or whatever other overtly capitalistic means Jack might feel appropriate in invoking here; no, the ‘credentials’ which Jack Jardine is referring to here are pre-meditatively non-applicable. While one could argue that there’s a certain creative figurativity given by Jack Jardin here, for my purposes I’m going to be treating his use as purely literal. Because while it would definitely behoove a politician to gain ‘credibility’ in the eyes of potential voters, that’s more-or-less where the buck tends to stop: after they’ve been given that great abstraction of approval which so many citizens so willingly hand proven liars and crooks of almost every governmental level throughout constant election cycles within the US. The difference between this political context which Jack is wrapping around the word, and the practical one which is known by anybody who’s ever worked a day in their life, is simple: a deficit in the product of this ascribed status which we know as being ‘credible’. What I mean to say is that while a politician is concerned with having credibility simply within the eyes of the voters (because that’s all they would need in order to perform their job; getting re-elected), somebody who’s applying for an entry-level job needs to both establish that same credibility in the eyes of their potential employer as well as maintain that reliability throughout the execution of their job as well, so as to keep it. That’s not to say that politicians can’t speak to their own credibility using the products of their labor as well, however, there are multitudinous other power structures as well as control systems at play which usurp the popular sovereignty of our coveted democratic process, and besides, I think most of us can agree that at least in the political arena, this outright method of “show & prove” leaves a good amount to be desired where the latter half of the phrase is concerned. This purposeful application of a condition which indeed isn’t at all necessary in order for the mind of one individual (Delaney, in this case) to understand another individual such as Jack Cherrystone as a liberal, is directly indicative of the inherently manipulative nature of political language as well as a certain ethos which surrounds the political sphere; that the arbitrarily highfalutin nature of the position we call ‘politician’ automatically bears actual practical constraints of the same unnecessarily upper-class attitude. It’s this exact idea that anybody’s in need of any real ‘credentials’ in order to pursue the actual definitional meaning of politics; which is the want & concern for the improvement of one’s community where any individual might see fit, that strikes a brilliantly resonant chord which reverberates throughout the entirety of the text itself; this unabashedly fear-driven means of massaging the mind of any individual with enough of a deficit in personal agency to give the actual job of representative government to someone who might ‘do it better’. As if caring for one’s fellow man at the communal (and in this text’s cases, the locally developmental level) required anything other than some semblance of a working participation in the community as well as even the most miniscule capacity for basic human empathy. It’s both the existence of this ambiguous and ominous mystique of the way in which politics plays upon even our most innately crude and malformed means of interpreting the inhabitants of the world around us, as well as some of the directly negative results of this application of subtle yet completely intentional social-cleavages via clever words & phrases that stand as central to the problems of race and resolution which are illustrated by this text.

“So what’d you hit–a deer? Coyote?”

A clear theme of T.C. Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain is racism.  An emphasis on race, class privilege, and the relationship between the two are present in every moment of this story.  We watch two couples live, separated only be a few miles, and the vast expanses of race and class in capitalist America.  This book stands out from the rest we have read in class.  The emphasis is on human relationships rather than our relationship with the earth.  However, seeing as we are a part of the earth, the way we treat each other is the way we treat the earth.  It is easy to compare the colonization of the planet to the colonization of other races.  Those who have power use it to strip the colonized of everything, leaving them with nothing.  This is what we do to each other, this is what we do to our home.

We exist in a capitalistic society.  It is a fact, money is everything.  Money is what separates the character of Cándido with that of Delaney.  Their citizenship status, their race, and their backgrounds because of these things set them up to exist where they do in society.  In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry wrote about racism and its relationship with industrialism.  He writes about our “contempt for work”.  This feeling that we are somehow above manual labor is very similar to the way the human race views its relationship with the rest of the planet.  We see ourselves as those who own the earth, not merely people who live here.  This is the same exact mentality that capitalist America wants us to believe in.  The idea that you must own, not work.  Berry writes, “Out of this contempt for work came the idea of a n*gger: at first some person, and later some thing to be used to relieve us of the burden of work.  If we began making n*ggers out of people, we have ended by making a n*gger out of the world”(12).  This is how the U.S. runs, even today.  The undocumented people who come to this country looking for something better, are used just as slaves were in America’s beginning.  They human beings who are not citizens, and therefor must do whatever they can to make it in a country that will not help them, even if that means preforming the hardest of physical labor for the lowest possible pay.  Throughout the novel The Tortilla Curtain, this is made very clear.  América must go find work, because her husband had been run over by Delaney.  She goes every day and watches the men work.  She knows that you must show up eager to work, while in competition with others who are just as desperate as you.  They wait to be picked out for jobs by rich, white people who underpay them because they can.  The competition means they can be severely under payed and not be able to do anything about it because this is the only possible way to eat.  

Throughout this novel, the traffic is often a topic of conversation between both the rich, white characters, and the undocumented immigrants.  The traffic is seen very differently by the two couples.  Kyra and Delaney exist as a part of it, with comments like, not caring if they had to be stuck in it.  América and Cándido on the other hand, see the traffic and marvel at the sheer amount and speed.  While the liberals add to the fast, noisy, dangerous stream of cars, the immigrant’s very lives are threatened by it.  The first interaction between the two worlds of the liberals and the immigrants was that of Delaney hitting Cándido with his car.  This was a jarring moment for both of them, Cándido, of course, suffering the most.  This moment was shocking, and I would say even slightly traumatizing for both of them.  In this moment Delaney was wrenched out of the safe world in which he exists.  He struck a person with his car.  However, his feelings about the situation change when he finds that Cándido is the person he has hit.  “Delaney felt a sense of relief wash over him–the man wasn’t going to die, he wasn’t going to sue, he was all right and it was over”(9).  Hitting another human being with your vehicle can be something that ruins your life forever.  Not only did Delaney hit Cándido, he sent him flying into the desert and nearly killed him.  If the hit had been fatal, and Cándido had been a white, legal citizen, Delaney’s life could very well be over.  However, as an illegal immigrant, Cándido could not even communicate with his perpetrator, let alone go to the doctor, or sue Delaney.  And, somehow, Cándido’s status relieved Delaney of any sort of human to human empathy or worry he would have had if Cándido had been someone else.  This shows the dehumanization of Mexican immigrants, even from the viewpoint of liberals who think they are enlightened on the subject of people’s lives.  When Delaney goes to his dealership to get his car fixed after the incident, he does not think twice about the fact that there is blood and hair and all sorts of evidence that he has just run down a human being.  His white, upper-middle class, privilege shields him from having to worry about being ‘found out’.  As soon as he walks in to the dealership the first question is, “‘So what’d you hit–a deer? Coyote?‘”(13).  There is not even a slight assumption that he could have hurt another person.  However, Cándido came out of this accident with brutal injuries, forcing him to stay at camp while América went out in search of work.  Delaney leaves him behind to suffer in the dirt, after depriving him of the only thing that could allow him to make money and better their situation–his body.  

Kyra and Delaney live within miles of América and Cándido.  However, they are separated into different worlds because of the societal labels on their very bodies.  While the liberals can exist in this space, freely and privileged, the immigrants are exploited and ignored by their fellow human beings.  In the capitalistic society of the United Stated of America, our economy and way of life is based on the exploitation and oppression of others.  This narrative sounds so familiar.  It reflects the way we, as the human race, exploits the earth on which we live.  The level of comfort that we have come to require in our day to day lives–electricity, readily available water, cars, clean Buddhas(93-97)–can only exist at the expense of other races, places, animals, etc.  Whenever there is privilege, there is power imbalance, there is oppression, and there is exploitation.

 

Preface

The wildcat is an overseer of the mountain: taking in nature for he is part of it. As a student, I am constantly taking knowledge in all day, sometimes forgetting about the beauty, awe, and power of the uncivilized wild. Exploration is food for the soul of the untamed, and I, myself, feel this way. The collections of pieces that are foretold capture the essence of the forgotten. Most of live our lives mostly consumed by what man has made for us and see the natural world as something like an escape. Ironic as it is, this is how we are living in the 21st century and it is neither good nor bad; it just is. What is horrendous, however, is how we have forgotten how to treat the Earth and its inhabitants with respect. We can learn a lot from Native people and their wisdom about our planet through works such as Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms. The utter negligence we have developed in American society and the non-seriousness we have had about it since the industrial revolution is pitiful. Granted, there has been reforms and acts the past few decades to establish a foundation for change, but our current administration does not even believe climate change is real (or in other words, may not align in their interests, especially with lobbying groups correlated with monetizing profits through natural resources). How I see it, the natural world is balancing smack in the middle of a very narrow teeter-totter, very easily able to slide one way or the other. Sooner than later, if we do not make a change as a whole, the whole population will see darker days. How ignorant to think that we can keep abusing Mother Nature and believe at some point, she won’t retaliate. Re-thinking our approach to products that harm the environment is our first step. Surely, there are already people who have been working to make this change happen, yet many times they are either bought out by big gas and motor companies, or don’t have the resources to make their products readily available.

CHANGE

It starts within every single one of us. But in order to change, we must be able to first identify who we are, where we are, and what we are doing. Life is magical and a blessing, truly. Appreciation for everything living starts with an appreciation for ourselves, for we are each a part of the whole. Yet, we should not JUST appreciate ourselves, for this is dangerous to the world, and ourselves. See yourself as equal to everything. Please be aware, be active, and be in tune the melody of the natural. Pay attention, such as the wildcat with its perked ears, listening on top of a mountain.

Preface

I grew up in a quant, rural village in the woods of Vermont. There was no gang of neighborhood kids riding their bikes through the dirt roads, and there was no playground just down the street, so I had to make my own fun. I used to play pretend as I would come up with strange characters, and act like I was no longer a little girl, but rather, a waitress from a posh restaurant in France, or a secret agent whose mission was to spy on the bad guys (my brothers), or my favorite: Velma, solving a new mystery all on her own, since everyone new she was the real brains of the operation. My imagination was bursting with these tales of adventure and once I learned to write, I made it a goal of mine to jot down every little thing that flitted into my head. Looking back on my childhood, it is no wonder why I became so inclined to devote all four years of my college experience to the craft.

Growing up in a log cabin in the woods of Vermont had an amazing impact on me as it allowed me to form an unbreakable bond with nature and the art of writing, so when I had the opportunity to take my first ever environmental writing course last Spring, I knew that I had to take advantage of it. Within this course we have read the works of renowned environmental writers such as Rachel Carson, TC Boyle, and Terry Tempest Williams. It was a rewarding challenge to compose this series of essays over the last few months, and it has taught me more than I could have imagined. As I have grown older, I have slowly come to the realization that there are very few people fighting against the institutions that contribute to the degradation of our planet and now that we have such a problematic figure in the white house, it has become increasingly more obvious that we have a long way to go until we make any further progress on this very serious issue. In writing this collection of essays, I have immersed myself in life changing environmental literature. From Gary Snyder’s collection of poetry in Turtle Island to Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang about a ragtag group of environmental warriors, I was inspired to look at the natural world in a completely new light because now, I no longer just look at nature as the beautiful setting of my childhood, rather I now look at it as the beautiful setting of my childhood that is in desperate need of help. The essays that follow chronicle my literary journey through the wild as I grapple with the problematic human existence by using memoirs, novels, and collections of essays and poetry from eight different environmental writers. I hope that anyone who comes across these essays will become motivated now more than ever to take action and stand up for the continued and healthy existence of the more than human world.

Table of Contents:

Exploring The Endangered World

The Destructive Human Existence

Identity and Change

Challenging Tradition

Making Connections

Featured Image Courtesy of: Myself

Preface Draft

When I first began this project, I viewed my assignments as “An Environmental Examination”. Through the reading of various texts and our discussions in class, this became far more than just an examination.

This class and the blog we produced for it became a dynamic and highly interesting outlet for creative writing, as well as self-education about some of the biggest problems we have in our world. As a student, I feel like our primary goal is to educate ourselves in a way that will benefit ourselves and our society. The field of environmentalism is concentrated in the betterment of the human race, it is of its core principles. To not take part in such an expanding and crucial field would do justice to beautiful Earth we call home. The writings of Rachel Carson, for instance, have been so impactful in the safety and environmental field. Her beautifully descriptive writing put her in the field of literature.

Communication has been and will always be an essential part of our society and culture, literature and other types of art included. It is an outlet for creative expression that can also stand as an impactful message for all those who see it. As we have seen in history, victors often write the history. We must come together as a people to address the problems we have, our excessive pollution, the overuse of dangerous and harmful materials as well as the worlds need for sustainable living practices. To fail to address these issues will eventually lead to a devastating point of no return for our natural world. If we actively try to transition our lives away from this direction, then we will be able to spend more time building for a better future.

The opportunity to work with such gifted and talented peers, with a brilliant professor at our helm has opened up a center for productive discussion and development as students. As we have learned, any major or focus within an educational program can be applicable to the environmental field. Whether you focus on science, English, math or history, this is room to learn and further what we know about environmentalism. One of the recurring themes of environmental literature, is the idea of people coming together and working towards a common goal. We live in such a diverse and beautiful world, with so many brilliant cultures and people, all of which show a shared love for our world. The different authors we have read have shared this principle idea. Gary Snyder, very often has a peaceful and unifying style of writing, the kind that seeks to destroy the social constructions that prevent people from understanding each other and working together.

In a day in age where media is a growing presence, people are drawn to it as their primary means of reading about current events or even just reading for pleasure. There are pros and cons to this, as it shows that selective distribution of information is highly practiced and easily done. This project is aimed to eliminate this factor and produce an educational and entertaining program that serves to deliver the world environmentalism to you. While all writers have bias, I believe the fictional aspect of the show will allow myself to openly discuss the texts and their relevance with little bias.

I found that the Socratic like discussions we had in class were key to understanding and interpreting the various things we read during the class.

literature and environmentalism at keene state college

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