Writing in an Endangered World

literature and environmentalism

Sincerity, Feeling, Interest

“If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in, the chances are very high that you will interest other people as well.”

—Rachel Carson, from The House of Life

“‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’”

––Mary Oliver, Long Life

Empowering yourself as a writer, Rachel Carson suggests, involves sincerity and interest. When your mind is fully engaged (thinking, feeling, interest) with what you are doing, readers are likely to notice. And as the poet Mary Oliver’s question reminds us, we are in the world (“we are it–– / it sings through us,” Gary Snyder says) and our experience in the world is an open invitation for thought and expression.


My reflection on our writing process is intended to prepare you for the revisionary work you will be doing over the next two weeks: rereading your essays and articulating the integrity of the essays as a sequence. My words are also designed to help inform your choice of one of your essays for revision that will appear in a class publication on writing in an endangered world.

Let me begin with an overview of our work together this semester:

  • reading books—real books, books that are distinctive, books that have unsettled the minds, hearts, and spirits of generations of readers
  • wrestling with ideas—“the control of nature,” “exploitative mind,” “two-dimensional dreams,” “wildness,” “compassion,” “ecology,” “work,” and so on
  • gathering evidence—not merely “kick-ass” quotes but also engaging in the art of elaborating connections among words and phrases and sentences in the books we are reading, as well as other experience, texts, and contexts
  • sharing your experiences as a reader through written work—offering testimony to the power of language and the constitutive place of ideas in our lives

Your essays on each of the books––your wrestling with the ideas with which the books are wrestling––each depend on your thinking, feeling, and interest in language and ideas. If you are less interested, then it is likely that the essay will be less interesting. And it may be that you spent less time on the essay than you might have.

You can hear the difference. That is, you can sense when a writer is engaged. As my friend and colleague Scott Russell Sanders explains in his essay “The Singular First Person,” when writing an essay I am attempting to “speak directly out of my life into the lives of others.” Of course essaying out of one’s life and into the lives of others, we might do well to keep in mind what Sanders adds, that “you had better speak from a region pretty close to the heart, or the reader will detect the wind of phoniness whistling through your hollow phrases.”

So the opportunity you have in the final weeks of the course is to disclose and to elaborate your engagement by 1) rereading and revising and editing the collection of essays you have produced for the course, and 2) choosing one of your pieces as a feature essay. We will collect these featured essays in an anthology that I will make available as a class publication.


The books on our reading list were composed by people who were reading and thinking in a specific sociological, cultural, and historical context— writing in what we have called “an endangered world.” As a writer, you may be more interested in these conditions of literary production—such as the challenges Rachel Carson faced as a scientist and a woman, the dominant cultural discourse of agriculture that Wendell Berry critiques, or the “way of knowing” of indigenous women in Linda Hogan’s novel Solar Storms.

At the same time, readers of books live in specific sociological, cultural, and historical contexts; and, as a writer, your attention may be drawn to literary reception—for example, how readers might make sense of Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms when considering massive hydropower projects as “clean” energy or how readers might respond to T.C. Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain during the immigration debates in California during the 1990s or in the more recent political discourse about immigrants and immigration. Whether you are writing about the making (production) of books or the reading (reception) of books, you are always faced with the ways that language in the books we come to call literary make available something that is not available elsewhere.

One way to say this is that literature is news that stays news. It is language that we turn to when ordinary language does not carry us beyond our understanding. Literature is equipment for living, too, because literary artifacts focus our attention, challenge our thinking, and offer practical ways to think about our lives, other lives, and the world. For example, we considered a question about form that I wrote to frame our discussion of Gary Snyder’s poems from the 1970s: “How does Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island,” I asked, “use language to clarify our relationship to the earth?” Or as the poet A.R. Ammons (from a 1989 interview with William Walsh) writes “. . .the poem is a verbal construct that we encounter, learn from, make value judgments with, and go on to sort out possibilities in relation to our lives in order to learn how to live.” When you sat down to write out your thoughts about how Snyder uses language to clarify our relationship to the earth, then, your commentary was describing your encounter, telling the story of what you are learning, and considering the ways a poem might offer a way to consider values and sort out possibilities about your life, and the world, “in order to learn how to live.”

An additional consideration for you in the coming weeks is the matter of writer-centered as opposed to reader-centered prose. We have talked about this distinction. But as you work on revising your essays in your portfolio, and select an essay from your sequence for publication in our class anthology, you need to challenge yourself to be present to the world beyond your self. This is a formidable problem for a writer. For how does one write with what Carson calls “sincerity” (without leaning too much on a posture of authority or objectivity) when taking up issues and questions that matter to others. How does one write without without making ideas simply a version of our own personal story?

One answer to this question comes from William Cronon, who we read last week week. For Cronon, an environmental historian, writing about the past is a form of storytelling. “As storytellers we commit ourselves to the task of judging the consequences of human actions,” he writes, “trying to understand the choices that confronted the people whose lives we narrate so as to capture the full tumult of their world.” What Cronon then describes is how these stories from the past help us to discover our own. “In the dilemmas they faced we discover our own, and at the intersection of the two we locate the moral of the story. If our goal is to tell tales that make the past meaningful, then we cannot escape struggling over the values that define what meaning is.”


I am writing just after reading your essays on Gary Snyder’s 1990 collection The Practice of the Wild. And I am excited by what your writing is doing. The writing is making visible sincerity, feeling, and interest. Your presence as writers engaged with ideas has developed since we began working together over ten weeks ago.

Both on the path, and off the trail. As you finish your essay sequence, and refine your featured essay, keep in mind that you are making these books, and your experience reading them, meaningful both to you and for others. If the books we are reading matter, who should read them and why? If literature is equipment for living, as Kenneth Burke once said, then how might you thoughtfully and generously share the books we have been reading to help all of us learn how to live?

Work Cited: William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, Narrative.” The Journal of American History 78 (4): 1347–76.­

Photo credit: Mark C. Long

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, is difficult to read. We are aware of more than this young man (and his father) because Boyle has described the lives of two human beings, America and Candido, whose belongings are being destroyed. The passage brings to mind for readers the evening meeting at which Jack Cherrystone offers his disquisition on what is “real”; and it anticipates the later conversation between Jack and Delaney Mossbacher in the supermarket.

Jack Jr’s comment can throw us out of the novel as well. It brings me back to the early 1990s in California when proposition 187 was passed–and then later repealed. His angry and confused words conjure 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 in The Tortilla Curtain.

This week we will consider 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, the Global North and the Global South, will be useful as we continue to think about this novel.

Guha is one among many thinkers who can help us to see more clearly the necessary but not sufficient forms of environmental concern in 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 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.” In this way, the novel seems prescient.

One of the 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. As I mention in an earlier blog post, 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).

The Practice of the Wild

“My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving. That’s simple, right?” 

––Hayduke, The Monkey Wrench Gang

But the trouble with wilderness is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. The flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world.

“Our challenge is to stop thinking of such things according to set of bipolar moral scales in which the human and the nonhuman, the unnatural and the natural, the fallen and the unfallen, serve as our conceptual map for understanding and valuing the world.”

––William Cronon

“‘Off the Trail’ is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild. That is also where––paradoxically––we do our best work. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You must first be on the on path, before you can turn and walk into the wild” 

––Gary Snyder 

Below are notes from the outline we generated during our class session today organized by section. For Thursday, our conversation will center on two essays, “On the Path, Off the Trail” and “Survival and Sacrament”

“Preface” (vii–x)

“Who am I? What am I doing here? What’s going on?” (vii)

“My own path is a kind of old time Buddhism which remains connected to animist and shamanist roots. Respect for all living beings is a basic part of that tradition. I have tried to teach others how to meditate and enter into the wild areas of the mind. As I suggest in one these essays, even language can be seen as a wild system”(viii)

“Expression of wild process” (vii), “Ferocious orderliness of the wild” (viii), “Wild areas of the mind” (viii), “The world is ultimately a wild place” (viii)

“The Practice of the Wild suggests that we engage in more than environmentalist virtue, political keenness, or useful and necessary activism” (ix)

“Culture itself has a wild edge” (ix)

“A bonding of the wild in ourselves to the (wild) process of the universe” (ix)

“A key term is practice: meaning a deliberate sustained and conscious effort to be more finely tuned to ourselves and to the way the actual existing world is” (24)

“The wild––often dismissed as savage and chaotic by “civilized” thinkers, is actually impartially, relentlessly and beautifully formal and free. It’s expression — the richness of plant and animal life on the globe including us, the rainstorms, windstorms, and calm spring mornings — is the real world, to which we belong” (25) 

“The Etiquette of Freedom” (3–26)

The Compact

“We also see that we must try to live without causing unnecessary harm, not just to fellow humans but to all beings. We must try not to be stingy, or to exploit others. There is enough pain in the world as is (4).

“Creatures who have traveled with us through the ages are now apparently doomed, as their habitat—and the old, old habitat of humans—falls before the slow-motion explosion of expanding world economies. If the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down” (4–5). 

“The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence” (5). 

“Wild and free.” An American dream-phrase loosing images: a longmaned 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 a Harley-Davidson. Both words, profoundly political and sensitive as they are, have become consumer baubles. (5) 

“It has always been part of basic human experience to live in the culture of wilderness. There has been no wilderness without some kind of human presence for several hundred thousand years.” (7) 

“Nature is not a place to visit, it is home — and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places” (7). 

The Words Nature, Wild, And Wilderness

“Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self organizing, self informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmeditated, freely manifesting, self authenticating, self willed, complex, quite simple.” (11) 


“So we can say that New York City and Tokyo are ‘natural’ but not ‘wild.” They do not deviate from the laws of nature, but they are habitat so exclusive in the matter of who and what they give shelter to, and so intolerant of other creatures, as to be truly odd” (12)

“Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and non living beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order “(12). 

“To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive.” (12) 

“The people were rapidly becoming nature illiterate.” (13)

“Wildness is not just the ‘preservation of the world,’ it is the world” (13). 

“In return for gold or raw sugar, the white men had to give up something of themselves: they had to look into their own sense of what it meant to be a human being, wonder about the nature of hierarchy, ask if life was worth the honor of a kin, or worth gold” (14).

“These are the shrines saved from all the land that was once known and lived on by the original people, the little bits left as they were, the last little places where intrinsic nature totally wails, blooms, nests, glints away. They make up only 2% of the land of the United States.” (15) 

“But wildness is not limited to the 2 percent formal wilderness areas. Shifting scales, it is everywhere: ineradicable populations of fungi, moss, mold, yeasts, and such that surround and inhabit us. Deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corners” (15) 

“Wilderness may temporarily dwindle, but wildness won’t go away. A ghost wilderness hovers around the entire planet: the millions of tiny seeds of the original vegetation are hiding in the mud on the foot of an arctic tern, in the dry desert sands, or in the wind” (16). 

“Where do start to resolve the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild” (16)

“Do you really believe you are an animal? We are now taught this in school. It is a wonderful piece of information” (16)

“Our bodies are wild.” (17)

 “Social order is found throughout nature––long before the age of books and legal codes. It is inherently part of what we are, and its patterns follow the same foldings, checks and balances, as flesh or stone” (19) 

The World is Watching

“To acknowledge that each one of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being ‘realistic.’ It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspects of our sacramental aspects of our shaky temporary personal being (20).” 

“The world is watching: one cannot talk through a meadow or forest without a ripple of reports spreading out from one’s passage (20).” 

“The other beings do not mind being killed and eaten as food, but they expect us to say please, and thank you, and they hate to see themselves wasted (22).” 

“Rudeness in thought or deeds towards others, toward nature, reduces the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential to physical and spiritual survival” (22) 

“Other beings (the instructors from the old ways tell us) do not mind being killed and eaten as food, but they expect us to say please, and thank you, and they hate to see themselves wasted” (22). 

Back Home

“The etiquette of the world requires not only generosity but a good humored toughness that cheerfully tolerates discomfort, an appreciation of everyone’s fragility, and a certain modesty.” (24) 

“Great insights have come to some people only after they reached the point where they had nothing left.” (24) 

“To resolve the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild, we must first resolve to be whole.” (24) 

“People of wilderness cultures rarely seek out adventures. If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for spiritual rather than economic reasons” (25) 

“The experience of emptiness engenders compassion.” (25) 

“The lessons we learn from the wild become the etiquette of freedom” (25)

“We can enjoy our humanity with its flashy brains and sexual buzz, its social cravings and stubborn tantrums, and take ourselves as no more and no less than another being in the Big Watershed” (25–26)

“The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, for the streams nd cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home” (26)

Photo credit: Mark C. Long, Pune, India

Searching for 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, Interview with Marianne Schnall

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.

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)

On Language and Literature

Language as Wild


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?


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.

––From Gary Snyder: The Art of Poetry, No. 174 , Interview by Eliot Weinberger, the Paris Review 141 (Winter 1996).

The Environment

“No settled family or community has ever called its home place an “environment.” None has ever called its feeling for its home place “biocentric” or “anthropocentric.” None has ever thought of its connection to its home place as “ecological,” deep or shallow. The concepts and insights of the ecologists are of great usefulness in our predicament, and we can hardly escape the need to speak of “ecology” and “ecosystems.” But the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind. The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people.

––Wendell Berry

The Real Work

“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

“And the real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is “work.” We are connected by work even to the places where we don’t work, for all places are connected; it is clear by now that we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another. The name of our proper connection to the earth is “good work,” for good work involves much giving of honor. It honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing. Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places, and it always involves a sort of religious humility, for not everything is known. Good work can be defined only in particularity, for it must be defined a little differently for every one of the places and every one of the workers on the earth.”

“The name of our present society’s connection to the earth is ‘bad work’ – work that is only generally and crudely defined, that enacts a dependence that is ill understood, that enacts no affection and gives no honor. Every one of us is to some extent guilty of this bad work. This guilt does not mean that we must indulge in a lot of breast-beating and confession; it means only that there is much good work to be done by every one of us and that we must begin to do it.” 

––Wendell Berry

And, in addition to the terms and the concept of nature and wildness we will talk through on Tuesday, here are a few additional points of entry into The Practice of the Wild.

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 (earlier 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)

Photo credit: Mark’s neighbor’s drone!

Two Dimensional Dreams

“It is the innocence that constitutes the crime”

—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The copyright page of the novel we are taking up, 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.

Photo Credit: The New York Times Archive October 12 1990

The Color of the River is Light

In the first section of Refuge, “Burrowing Owls, Terry Tempest Williams tells of a visit from a friend, Sandy Lopez, visiting from Oregon. At the time, Williams’ friend and visitor was the wife of the writer Barry Lopez, one of the major environmental writers of our time. His many books include Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven (1976), Of Wolves and Men (1978), Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986), and a book we will be reading in our course, The Rediscovery of North America (1990).

Lopez passed away on Christmas Day, 2020. A few members of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) shared their thoughts upon his passing. The feature Remembering Barry Lopez includes a special feature with links to articles that have appeared in our journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment  over the years.

I include below the tribute by Terry Tempest Williams.


The Color of the River is Light

Barry Lopez once showed me how to drive the back roads at night with no headlights. Why? I asked.  “So you can learn to see in the dark like animals do and not be afraid.”  He was disarming.  Playful.  Beyond serious.  Demanding.  At times, exhausting.  Always, illuminating.  And like all writers, sometimes self-absorbed.  I loved him.  I believe he taught me to see the world differently.  I cannot believe he is gone.  Now where do I look?

Before he was a writer, he was a photographer.  A good one.  In fact, the cover of “River Notes,” his collection of short fictions based on his own experience of living along the McKenzie River was taken by him.  It is a soft-focus rush of river met by a pair of moccasins placed on a rock facing the water.  A credit is given inside the flap of the book: Western Sioux moccasins courtesy of the Lane County Museum, Oregon.  The composition is studied and deliberate, aesthetically pleasing and evocative like each of his stories with a flare of magic.

On the back of the book that measures 8 3/4” x 5 3/4” with a mere 100 pages, is a horizontal strip of four black and white photographs of the author, reminiscent of the four flashes of pictures one would spontaneously pose for inside a photo booth with friends.  The first shot is Barry looking down, with his index finger resting vertically on his upper lip, the tip of his finger just below his nose. He is deep in thought; the second frame shows him looking upward, his eyes glancing to the right; the third frame is a straightforward gaze, direct; in the last frame he is looking down, slightly toward the left.  Had their been a fifth frame taken some time before his death on December 25, 2020, I imagine his eyes would be closed, his head in a slight bow with his two hands pressed together in prayer.

In our long, deep and complicated friendship, I came to rely on his varied moods of mind and heart.  I believe part of his genius as a writer was rooted in his access to the extremities between his vulnerability and strength; his knowing and unknowing, call it doubt; and the exquisite arc of revelations created from the depth of his searing intellect to what some critics saw as the naiveté of his beliefs in Nature.  In truth, this is where the urgency and wisdom of Barry Lopez dwelled.  His hunger to understand the roots of cruelty was located in his wounds.  His longing to believe in our species was housed in his faith.  When my grandmother died, I gave Barry her silver cross with a small circle of turquoise placed at its center.  His obsession with god and the power of our own creativity landed elegantly on each page he wrote, be it his fascination with the intricacies of a ship or plane or an imagined community of resistance where people took care of one another in the midst of darkness.  Very little escaped his closely set eyes.  Barry was the Michael Jordan of environmental writing and when my father gave us his tickets to see the1987 NBA championship game between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, Barry never spoke, he was transfixed on Jordan’s every move with his game stats on his lap.  Barry brought this same kind of intensity to every occasion. His fidelity was to his work where his devotion to language and landscape gave birth to stories.

Barry taught me early on that the color of the river is light.  For him, the river was the McKenzie that fed his life force for fifty years where salmon spawned each year in the shallows in the Blue River Valley just outside Eugene, Oregon.  As an exercise, he would often put on his waders and walk across the river as the mergansers would swim around him.

In 1983, I first visited Barry and Sandra, the artist he was married to for thirty years, at their enchanted home in Finn Rock. Sandra offered me my first cup of coffee on their porch.  Coming from the arid country of Utah, I had never seen such lushness, the delicacy of ferns, yews, and the density of alders below the Douglas firs and red cedars that drew your eyes upward toward a hidden sky.  In that moment, I recognized our differences, he was a man of the trees and I was woman of the desert.  Our friendship grew from what was hidden and what was exposed.  We pushed each other, challenged each other, and we relied on one another’s perceptions.

Barry and I met in 1979 in Salt Lake City when he came to read at the University of Utah, paired with Edward Abbey for a special fundraiser for the Utah Wilderness Association.  Two thousand people came to hear Cactus Ed court and cajole dissident behavior. He did not disappoint.  People howled like coyotes after he finished.  When the next speaker stood up on stage, few had heard of Barry Lopez.  But after he read from “River Notes,” with his deep, sonorous voice, a great and uncommon silence filled the ballroom.  No one wanted to leave.  A spell had been cast by a Storyteller.  We left the reading altered, recognizing we had not only heard a different voice, but a voice that offered a forgotten language that brought us back into relationship with the sensual world of humans and animals living in concert together.

In his story “Drought,” he showed us how one sincere act born out of love and a desire to help had the power to bring forth rain in times of drought if someone was foolish enough to dance.  I would exhort the river, his narrator said.

With no more strength than there is in a bundle of sticks, I tried to dance, to dance the dance of the long-legged birds who lived in the shallows.  I danced it because I could think of nothing more beautiful.  And with a turn of his page, we learned, A person cannot be afraid of being foolish. For everything, every gesture is sacred.

In Utah, we knew irreverence from a writer like Ed Abbey that inspired the antics of the Monkey Wrench Gang.  What we had not heard before on that landmark night, was a writer evoking reverence.

The next day, I drove Barry back to the airport located near Great Salt Lake.  Curious, he asked me questions about the inland sea.  I must have gotten lost in my enthusiasm about the lake, how it was our Serengeti of birds with avocets and stilts, ruddy ducks and terns, how one could float on one’s back and lose all track of time and space and emerge salt-crusted and pickled, and how the lake was a remnant puddle from the ancient Lake Bonneville whose liquid arm reached as far west as Oregon 30,000 years ago.  Before Barry boarded the plane, he turned to me and said, “I exhort you to write what you know as a young woman living on the edge of Great Salt Lake.”

There was that word again, exhort  I went home and looked it up:  “to strongly encourage or admonish….”  It was a biblical word, “a 15th-century coinage derived from the Latin verb hortari, meaning “to incite,” and it often implies the ardent urging or admonishing of an orator or preacher.”

Barry Lopez had given me an assignment.  I took his assignment seriously.

For more than forty years, I have known that wherever Barry Lopez was in the world whether he was kneeling on the banks of the McKenzie River awaiting the return of the salmon or watching polar bears standing upright on the edge of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic to flying his red kite in Antarctica with unbridled joy, the world was being seen by someone who dared to love what could be lost, that he was listening to what could be silenced and was finding an intimacy with —  rather than a distance from — the ineffable.  In those luminous moments, he would find the exact words to describe what we felt, but didn’t know how to say.  He exhorted his readers to pay attention through love.

The last time we were in Jackson Hole after a pause in our friendship, we stood on top of Signal Mountain facing the Teton Range.  It began to snow with goose down flakes in full sunlight and a clear blue sky.  He looked up and said, “Well, I’ve never seen this before.”

Barry Lopez’s very presence incited Beauty. Even as his beloved trees in Finn Rock burned to ash in the fires that engulfed the Blue River community in the fall of 2020, his eyes were focused on the ground in the name of the work that was now his — “the recovery and restoration of Finn Rock,” the phrase he used in our last correspondence, even as he understood what was coming.  In one of his last essays, “Love in a Time of Terror,” he wrote, “…in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?

Grief is love.  Barry Lopez was surrounded by the love of his wife Debra Gwartney and their four daughters at his death.  His love in the world remains.

Everyone has to learn how to die, that song, that dance, alone and in time….To stick your hands in the river is to feel the cords that bind the earth together in one piece.

Peace, my dear Barry. The color of the river is light.  You are now light.  Hands pressed together in prayer.  We bow.

(Terry Tempest Williams, “Remembering Barry Lopez,” published on the web site of The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. January 2021.) Photo credit: Mark C. Long. Rae Lakes Basin, California

Cactus Ed


“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

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


170px-The-monkey-wrench-gangWhen you are waist (or chest) deep in the novel, do consider some of the commentary on Edward Abbey (Cactus Ed) as a writer so that you are more aware of his place in the history of North American environmental writing. You will want to know about his 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 assessment of Abbey as a writer. His commentary outlines some of the reasons why Cactus Ed continues to be a pain in the neck for many of his readers.


For a broad overview you can turn to Bryan L. Moore’s essay 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? 


It All Turns on Affection

In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, It All Turns on Affection, Wendell 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 mental faculty:

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.

Featured photo: Gary Snyder (left) and Wendell Berry in front of the Grimblefinger bookstore, Nevada City, California. From the cover photo of Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (2014). Photo credit: Hank Meals.

Food for /and Thought

I dropped in the Week Five reading an invitation to anyone interested to consider Masanobu Fukuoka’s, The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming (1975) in relationship to Berry’s essays that were composed in the 1970s. Here is the first sentence of the “Preface” to a reprint of Masanobu Fukuoka’s 1978 book The One Straw Revolution by Wendell Berry

Readers who expect this to be a book only about farming will be surprised to find that it is also a book about diet, about health, about cultural values, about the limits of human knowledge

As you will understand having spent the good part of a week reading Berry’s essays, the surprise, as Berry notes, is really a product of modern habitual expectations of writers as specialists and books about a singular subject. For this comment would apply well to Berry’s essays as well

Berry notes that many of the practical farming strategies are not directly applicable to most North American farms. However, he recommends the book for a different reason:

Like many in this country, and sooner than most, Mr. Fukuoka has understood that we cannot isolate one aspect of life from another. When we change the way we grow our food, we change our food, we change society, we change our values. And so this book is about relationships, to causes and effects, and it is about being responsible for what one knows

This description of Fukuoka’s thinking can provide another point of entry into the essays we are reading in The Unsettling of America this week

fall garlic planting. photo credit Mark C. Long

Here are a few selected passages from The One Straw Revolution that may be useful for you as you continue thinking and writing this week:

“When you think about it, everybody is familiar with the words “natural food.” but it is not clearly understood what natural food actually is. There many who feel that eating food which contains no artificial chemicals or additives is a natural diet, and there are others who think vaguely that a natural diet is eating foods just as they are found in nature.

If you ask whether use of fire and salt in cooking is natural or unnatural, one could answer either way. If the diet of the people of primitive times, eating only plants and animals living in their wild state, is “natural,” then a diet which uses salt and fire cannot be called natural. But if it is argued that the knowldege aquired in ancient times of using fire and salt was humanity’s natural destiny, then food prepared accordingly is perfectly natural.

Is food to which human techniques of preparation have been applied good, or should wild foods just as they are in nature be considered good? Can cultivated crops be said to be natural? Where do you draw the line between natural and unnatural?” (123)


“Another problem is that spiritual and emotional values are entirely forgotten, even though foods are directly connected with human spirit and emotions. If the human being is viewed merely as a physiological object, it is impossible to produce a coherent understanding of diet. When bits and pieces of information are collected and brought together in confusion, the result is an imperfect diet which draws away from nature” (141).


“The prime consideration is for a person to develop the sensitivity to allow the body to choose food by itself. Thinking only about the foods themselves and leaving the spirit aside, is like making visits to the temple, reading the sutras, and leaving Buddha on the outside. Rather than studying philosophical theory to reach an understanding of food, it is better to arrive at a theory from within one’s daily diet” (146).

Featured image photo credit: Mark C. Long

The Ecological Thought

Now that you have read about the varieties of environmentalism in Ramanchandra Guha’s Environmentalism: A Global History, and considered the general orientation and action priorities of first- and second-wave environmental thought, we are prepared to consider whether across the differences there is something we might identify in common.

What unites different kinds of environmentalists, Guha writes, “which brings together America’s John Muir with India Mahatma Gandhi, Kenya’s Waangari Matthai with Germany’s Petra Kelly,” is the idea of restraint. The idea of restraint is present in Rachel Carson’s distinction between prudence and profligacy, Gary Snyder’s bioregional practice, and Berry’s emphasis on restoring broken connections. Guha includes an observation of the Indian Giri Deshingkar that “modern civilization has divorced us from both the past and from the future. By undervaluing traditional knowledge and traditional institutions, it has severed our links with our forefathers and our grandmothers. At the same time, by focusing on individual achievement and the here and now, it has has radically discounted the future.”

For Berry, to think again of the home land and house hold is to restore the connections that have been lost in modern life. As he writes in The Unsettling of America, “What I have been trying to do is define a pattern of disintegration that is at once cultural and agricultural. I have been groping for connections––that I think are indissoluble, though obscured by modern ambitions––between the spirit of the body, the body and other bodies, the body and the earth” (123).

These “radical disconnections” of modern urban-industrial life that concern Berry go deep. As Clara was noting in our conversation on Thursday, in addition to restraint, a common theme in environmentalist claims concern personal or individual transformation. Clara’s comments called to my mind words of the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who writes in an essay from the 1840s called “New England Reformers,”

The criticism and attack on institutions which we have witnessed, has made one thing plain, that society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things around him: he has become tediously good in some particular, but negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and vanity are often the disgusting result.

In his essay “Politics,” Emerson then offers a description of the relationship between this ideal of self “renovation” and the State or its institutions:

In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institution are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.

Environmental thinking in North American during the twentieth century is always trending toward this Emersonian possibility: that is, that institutions and systems are put together in the way that they are, and for this reason can be put together differently.

The question is where to begin: with the self, or with the system? In either case the work is about healing (restoring connections that have been lost) or by making (establishing new connections) as we strive to build a more inhabitable and more sustainable world. “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed,” Berry writes. And looking to the future he reminds his reader that “Good work is not just the maintenance of connections––as one is now said to ‘work for a living’ or to ‘support a family’–but the enactment of connections.” (139).

As we think with the past in the present, Berry suggests, and seek to imagine the good of the whole Creation––”that our land passes in and out of our bodies, just as our bodies pass in and out of our land; that as we and our land are a part of another, so all who are living as neighbors here, human and plant and animal, are part of one another, and so cannot possibly flourish alone” (22)––we are considering a way of thinking and being in the world that the literary and cultural critic Timothy Morton has more recently called  “the ecological thought.”

Many of you already know that the term ecology has its roots in the Greek oikos (house) and logos (order or knowledge). The concept and term surfaced in the mid-19th century in the study of natural history––most notably in the writings of the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel who defined ecology as the investigation of the relationship of organisms with their environment––and it was implied in the breathtaking integrative vision of the cosmos of Alexander von Humboldt. Today ecology points to a branch of the natural sciences concerned with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. For the term broadened in meaning during the 20th century to encompass an emphasis in the sciences on the study of the distribution and abundance of organisms as well as the study of ecosystems. Ecological scientists draw on physics, chemistry, and biology to explain specific phenomena. Its concerns are with organisms, groups of organisms and their interactions, including their interactions with the environment—or the physical, chemical and biological components of an ecosystem.

The term ecology is also used widely beyond scientific study or method as “eco” and ecology have become a part of culture and various discourses. And in this course our interest is less in the interdisciplinary field of ecology and more in the social and cultural meanings of the term ecology.

Morton’s book The Ecological Thought (2010) reminds us that ecology orients our thinking away from individual things to things in relationship—to interaction and interconnectedness, and to pattern and process. The ecological thought is the thought that follows from this orientation—or is, rather, the orientation itself. The ecological thought is the thinking that Berry suggests we can no longer think. (“The good of the whole Creation, the world and all its creatures together, is never thought of; our culture now simply lacks the means for thinking it”). The ecological thought, moreover, is thinking about the essence of a living thing as an expression of connections and context. The ecological thought is thinking the beauty and complexity of living systems. The ecological thought is the irreversible recognition that things exist in relation rather than in isolation.

Here is one of the early and most often cited passages from Charles Darwin’s writing that exemplifies this way of thinking:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (“Recapitulation and Conclusion,” The Origin of Species (1859)

Morton’s exposition and analysis of the term and concept is extraordinarily useful for environmentalists. Here are a few of the ways he frames the concept:

The ecological crisis we face is so obvious that it become easy. . .to join the dots and see that everything is interconnected. This is the ecological thought. And the more we consider it, the more the world opens up (1).

We’ve gotten it wrong so far—that’s the truth of the climate disruption and mass extinction (5).

Thinking the ecological thought is difficult: it involves becoming open, radically open—open forever, without the possibility of closing again (8).

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 is as much about opening our minds as it is about knowing something or other in particular (15).

A truly scientific attitude means not believing everything you think (16).

If everything is interconnected, there is less of everything. Nothing is complete in itself (33).

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

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).

Things will get worse before they get better, if it all. We must create frameworks for coping with a catastrophe that, from the evidence of hysterical announcements of its immanent arrival, has already occurred (17).

The ecological thought must transcend the language of apocalypse (19).

Next week we will continue exploring the ecological thought as we continue reading in Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America.

Reading Wendell Berry

“The good of the whole of Creation, the world and all its creatures together, is never a consideration because it is never thought of; our culture now simply lacks the means for thinking it” (22).

–Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

“Commercial conquest,” “exploitative economy,” the “exploitative mind,” the “mentality of exploitation,” “the industrial conquistador”—these descriptive terms in Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, as we discovered in our reading this week, tell a story about the economic and political system of which we are a part. But as Berry writes in the “Afterword to the Third Edition” of Unsettling, a number of people have disagreed with the argument of the book, though it has “never been answered, let alone disproved” (229). As Berry tells the story, the rapacious trajectory of agribusiness, and the economic and political incentives that perpetuate what many have more recently called an unsustainable food system, has become more and more evident.

Berry’s interest may be less in an ideology that has determined destructive agricultural practices (though he ably and polemically describes the origins and current manifestations of the ideology) and more in a foreshortened horizon of human culture. What is salient about the book, for our purposes in this class, is that Berry’s writing questions the commonplaces that make possible our thinking about environmental questions—as well as, after Carson, the need to ask both scientific and moral questions. Writing (and thinking) that simply points to the faults and contradictions of a system (call it what you will, capitalist, exploitative, free-market or global economy) is useful; but too many of these oppositional critiques reproduce the commonplace ways we think about these complicated issues. Some are bad, some are good. They (it) are doing this or that. We are obligated to something else. Industrial/organic (bad), the past (good), the present (bad). And so on.

The most productive environmental writing takes up what I might call, using one of Berry’s memorable phrases, “the practical intricacies of collaboration.” We are attempting, with Berry, to understand that a nostalgic appeal to the past only becomes the agenda of these kinds of arguments (and the agenda of critiquing these kinds of arguments as naive) because we interpret them in this way. Think here Gary Snyder’s engagement with so-called primitive cultures. He studied anthropology (his undergraduate thesis on Haida myth at Reed College was later published) and he is a comparative scholar of ancient languages and culture. And consider that Berry sees in past agricultural practices a vibrant set of practices and values that is no longer considered with seriousness.

As we think and write about The Unsettling of America I would urge us to not reduce arguments and demonstrations to what we are able to think about them. Rather think about the atrophy of democratic dialogue in his comment about the failure to engage in reasoning about moral questions. “Public discourse of all kinds now,” he comments, “tends to pattern itself either upon the arts of advertisement and propaganda (that is, the arts of persuasion without argument, which leads to reasonless and even unconscious acquiescence) or upon the allegedly objective or value-free demonstrations of science” (230). Note well how he then talks about how our language, in particular the conceptual metaphors in which our language is rooted, determine how it is we are able to think.

The Unsettling of America is a book devoted to sustaining an argument about human culture. Berry is saying that we are at once inheritors of a culture as well as stewards of that culture, and that the current state of the world is ultimately our responsibility. What do the current practices of agriculture, in this case, say about us? Berry is not interested in the thinking that reinforces the opposition between saints and sinners (we are all both, he points out) or righteously pointing to the shortcomings or faults of someone else or some system or another. Of course he talks about these things, but again in a descriptive mode, as the design of these series of essays is to promote a meditation on the ways that we might move beyond thinking that begins “with a set of predetermining ideas” toward thinking that begins with “particular places, people, needs and desires” (233). Recall that he elaborates on this idea in chapter two, where he points to the problems of institutional solutions that narrow and simplify as they propose particular actions or objectives.

Finally, as you consider what you might be writing about in the coming two weeks, consider how the indicators of “our” moral standing in the world have been a thread that links Carson, through Snyder and into Berry: affluence, comfort, mobility, leisure, entertainment. Berry is blunt about how these cultural values are not only selfish but part of a wider “moral ignorance” with which we appear to be perfectly content. The “we” here is each of us and all of us who have the privilege and political freedom to pursue choices not available to others. This is an environmentalist position that is commonplace for sure. But again, Berry knows that this knowledge is known. He has a particularly memorable way of saying these things and, in its limited sense, the book is valuable for that eloquence alone.

The Unsettling of America is about love, work, family, memory, tradition, workmanship—primary indicators of a human culture that is dynamic and whole and not subsumed under a broader ideological agenda. It is a book about the radical simplification of the mind and the character of democratic citizens that should (the book is full of imperatives) be pursuing a radical democratic alternative to the dependency and helplessness that have increasingly determined how we think and how we act in the world. And it is a book about us and the choices we make available to ourselves (or not) as we try our best to learn how to live.

If we are willing to entertain the possibility, as Berry puts it, that “our ‘success’ is a catastrophic demonstration of our failure,” then what might we do with this contradiction? And how might The Unsettling of America offer us a space to explore the questions that might follow? The reasoning Berry is engaged in is also an invitation. For example, how can we mount an argument that at once acknowledges the benefits of specializing in a particular endeavor or field of study at the same time that we critique the consequences of a culture of specialization? How might we talk about the personal and cultural resources of mobility at the same time that we recognize “the movement of the center of consciousness away from home”? (53).

The True Measure of Things

In A Controversy of Poets, Gary Snyder offered an assessment of his art. “As a poet,” he writes, “I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times.”

In Turtle Island, the book we are reading together, Snyder works at the intersection of values and practices. Like Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, Snyder is among writers concerned with the environment whose creative work emerges at the intersection of ecological threats at once urgent (requiring immediate action) and far reaching (requiring sustained and collective attention across decades and generations). Consider the following domains of thought and action, in the form of provocations and injunctions, as well as terms and discourse, suggesting ways readers might, in Snyder’s words, “approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times”:

  • 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)
  • Know where you Are Many if not most are settler colonialists, stories of origin and creation; invocation in “Anasazi” (first poem in book); awareness (and value for) biosphere and “ethnosphere” (Wade Davis)
  • Explore Alternative Lifestyles “imaginative extensions,” integration of past traditions and lifeways, mindful awareness of resources, the uses and the limits of nostalgia (the idea of the “balance of nature,” or the Native American living in harmony with nature, for instance)
  • 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; see Snyder, “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 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 from “arbitrary” boundaries to watersheds and bioregions, “bioregionalism” and “watershed thinking”
  • Promote Cultural and Spiritual Growth rather than the pleasures of merely circulating in the endless (and 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 Alternatives “varied and sensitive agriculture,” exploring alternatives sources of energy “walk more, drive less, conserving energy “do more with less”
  • Mind the House Population birth rate, empower women, social and environmental policies, environmental equity and inclusiveness, etc.
  • Respect for Life “creepy crawlies” included
  • We are the Problem, We are the Solution “Our immediate business, and our quarrel, is with ourselves”
  • Cross-cultural (international) Dialogue “Mother Earth: Her Whales”
  • Intergenerational Thinking and Ethics “For the Children”

Also, for writing, consider the key terms and metaphors Snyder offers his readers in Turtle Island

  • Body (“is this is our body?” “this is our body”); “The Bath”;
  • Mind “No Matter, Never Mind” and “Magpie’s Song”
  • 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). “What Happened Here Before”

These are suggestions. There is more. May your thinking and writing with Snyder go well!

Photo credit: shen-zhou (1427–1509). “Poet on a Mountaintop,” The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City,

Beyond Routine

“Not words of routine this song of mine,
But abruptly to question, to leap beyond yet nearer bring”

–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

In our first writing workshop I spent a good deal of time (with hope not too much) “teaching the why.” That is to say, for you to get the most out of your writing this semester I am asking you to think differently about what you are doing as writers and to use the genre of essay in ways that may be less familiar to some of you.

Most essay assignments in school, I explained, are demonstrations that you have completed the reading and thought about what you have read. The audience for the interpretive work is the teacher; and the teacher’s expectation is that the writer will make an interpretive claim––most often following a timeline that makes it difficult for a writer to account for the complexity of a text or the reader’s response.

One alternative to this routine is what we are doing in this class: the method includes regular practice responding to texts with an open invitation to revise the earlier work as you become more familiar with the material you are studying, and as you learn from in-class writing workshops strategies to improve your practice. The alternative is to experience writing differently. In the words of Rachel Carson, “writing is largely a matter of application and hard work, of writing and rewriting endlessly, until you are satisfied that you have said what you want to say as clearly and simply as possible.”

In the 1993 book The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work, edited by Paul Brooks, Carson connects a writer’s interest with the interest of readers. “If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in,” she says, “the chances are very high that you will interest other people as well.” I want to be clear that writing “what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in,” that will “interest other people as well,” is demanding work. To meet this challenge, I am inviting you to go back to your earlier essays until you are “satisfied that you have said what you want to say as clearly and simply as possible.”

By the end of the semester you will have composed 10,000 words, more or less. This is an accomplishment for sure. But more importantly, you will be working to develop as a thinker and a writer. The task is finding in your writing this semester (marking passages, transcribing passages in your reading notebook, using excerpts in your writing) what matters to you and, by implication, what might matter to a reader.

The question for you, then, is both about comprehension—the meaning you derive from the words—and how you link the words to the exploration of a common or a shared experience. For example, as Rachel Carson asks, how do we keep in mind scientific and moral questions? Or as Gary Snyder asks, “Where do we start to resolve the dichotomy between the civilized and the wild?” Or as we will be pondering in a few weeks, how we might understand the difference between what Linda Hogan calls “two-dimensional dreams” and a multidimensional world that honors the material and the spiritual world.

To “question, to leap beyond yet nearer bring”: to practice writing essays that might matter in the world––essays that, in the words of the writer Nicole Wallack, “make it most worthwhile for readers and writers alike: namely, the expression of a unique mind’s ideas in a form that honors singular achievement of the text the writer reads” (117). In our writing workshop last week, and in the weeks to come, we will be talking about your ideas and the singular achievement of the texts we have read together this semester.

Language, Discourse, Values

“Taste all, and hand the knowledge down”

–Gary Snyder, “Ethnobotany”

This week, in our discussion of Gary Snyder’s early writing, we will be thinking together about language. We will be thinking about language and how language works as part of a discourse.

“Mother Earth,” Ope-Ed page of the New York Times, 13 July 1972 (page 35). With a subscription to the Times you can view the full page.

Language: Consider Rachel Carson. The serial publication of the essays we now read as Silent Spring assured a wide readership, including the then secretary of the interior, Stuart Udall, and President John F. Kennedy, who commissioned a Scientific Advisory Committee whose report concurred with Carson’s cautionary narrative. The affective range of Carson’s language is of great interest to us in this course as we seek to understand the discourse of environmental thinking in the period from 1960 to the present. For it is not only the words, phrases and sentences that give language power: it is the way these terms function within a discourse.

Discourse: A discourse is a vocabulary shared by members of a community. The term is often used to describe the specialized vocabulary of a “discourse community”-such as organic gardeners, medical practitioners, city and regional planners, attorneys, economists, and so on. The language of a discourse constitutes the very things it seeks to describe. In this way, the discourse of environmentalism does more than describe the world in a particular way. It actually constitutes the world. The constituitive function of language (as opposed to its referential function) in part explains the remarkable transformation of environmental concern we are studying. (One example would be the constitutive function of the metaphor “the balance of nature.”)

As we continue reading in the literature of environmentalism, I ask you to pay close attention to the terms as well as the way those terms function as part of a discourse. Your attention will be drawn to metaphor (both linguistic and conceptual analogies—including more complex homologies), metonomy (the association of one thing with another) as well as ideology (usually defined as a set of tacit assumptions, norms or beliefs that inform the political and social attitudes of a group or society).

Values: When we say that something is good or bad (No GMOs!) or we insist that it would be good or bad to do something (reduce, reuse, recycle) or something we do is not good to do (eating beef, consuming refined sugar, buying processed foods) or a group of people is better or worse (people who make decisions about energy use and those who do not) we are making claims of value. Rachel Carson’s book is a good example.

For in addition to making claims of fact (this is what is happening) and claims of policy (we should regulate the use of chlorinated hydrocarbons) she is making claims of value. “Our attitude toward plants is a singularly narrow one” (63), “By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?” (100), “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man” (297)—these are representative examples of claims of value. Carson may not use the term value, but in each case we are talking about “good,” “better” and “best” as well as the corresponding “bad,” “worse” or “worst.”

The practice of poetry is a literary activity that intersects with environmental concerns; and the affective dynamics of reading poems is of interest to the historical study of social and cultural forms of environmental perception, a swell as ecological thought and action

Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

The Reception of Silent Spring

Readers interested in the social and cultural presence of Silent Spring will find a beautiful resource by historian Mark Stoll, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: A Book that Changed the World.” This virtual exhibition at the Environment & Society Portal presents the global reception and impact of  Carson’s book. The site offers insight into the reception of the book in popular culture, music, literature, and the arts. The exhibit begins with an overview and ends with a list for further reading.

Monsanto corporation’s parody of “A Fable for Tomorrow,” the opening section of Silent Spring. Monsanto Magazine, October 1962: 4-9

The reception of Silent Spring is complex, both in the United States and around the world. One of the interesting questions for readers of Carson is how a particular book like Silent Spring uses language to generate a response in readers. In particular, Carson explicitly urges her readers to consider the intersection of scientific and moral questions–an intersection where it is difficult to avoid thinking about knowledge, power, privilege, gender, social justice, and democracy in the social movement of environmentalism.


Selected Contemporary Responses

“Synthetics: they spell a better life for you,” Union Carbide advertisement, circa 1955

“The crux, the fulcrum over which the argument [of Silent Spring] chiefly rests, is that Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist, believes that man is steadily controlling nature.”

—Robert H. White Stevens (chemist)

“On the whole, her book will come to be regarded in time as a gross distortion of the actual facts, essentially unsupported by either scientific experimental evidence or practical experience in the field”

—Prediction by White-Stevens at the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturer’s Association in 1962. Qtd. in Van Fleet, 1963)

If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.

—White-Stevens, interview, CBS Reports (3 April 1963)

“…what I interpret as bias and oversimplification may be just what it takes to write a best seller” (From and editorial, qtd. In Diamond, 1963).

Carson is dismissed in print “hysterical,” “emotional,” “bird lover,” “cat lover,” “fish lover,” “nun of nature,” and “priestess of nature”

Carson “is unmarried but not a feminist (‘I’m not interested in things done by women or by men but in things done by people.’)”

Life magazine (105).

A USDA informational  advertisement for dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane, circa 1947

Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.

—Letter to the editor of the New Yorker [cited in Smith 2001, 741]

Reception and Legacy

“Forty years ago, Silent Spring delivered a galvanic jolt to public consciousness and, as a result, infused the environmental movement with new substance and meaning. The effects of pesticides and other toxic chemical pollutants on the environment and public health had been well documented before Silent Spring, but in bits and pieces scattered through the technical literature. Environmental scientists were aware of the problem, but by and large they focused only on the narrow sector of their personal expertise. It was Rachel Carson’s achievement to synthesize this knowledge into a single image that everyone, scientists and the general public alike, could easily understand.

The need for such a book was great even within the sciences. As the mild-mannered aquatic biologist was researching Silent Spring, ecology was near the bottom of the scientific disciplines in prestige and support; few Americans even knew what the world meant. Conservation biology, later to become one of the most rapidly growing disciplines, did not exist. At the time, the scientific culture was fixated on the spectacular success of the molecular revolution, which had placed physics and chemistry at the foundation of biology. Researchers were learning to reduce living processes to their molecular elements. I, for example, as a young naturalist trained in field biology, was busy collaborating with organic chemists to break the code of pheromones used by ants to organize their colonies.

The environment was also excluded from the mainstream political agenda. America in the late 1950s and early 1960s was an exuberant and prospering nation. Buoyed by record peacetime economic growth, an ethic of limitless progress prevailed, yet the country, locked in a cold war that threatened our way of life, was vulnerable to the formidable enemies that encircled us. The Soviet Union had matched the United States in nuclear weaponry and beaten us into space, and on the Asian mainland China held us at a military standstill. For the sake of our prosperity and security, we rewarded science and technology with high esteem and placed great trust in the seeming infallibility of material ingenuity. As a consequence, environmental warnings were treated with irritable impatience. To a populace whose forebears had within living memory colonized the interior of a vast continent and whose country had never lost a war, arguments for limit and constraint seemed almost unpatriotic.”

— Edward O. Wilson, “Afterword” to 2002 edition of Silent Spring

“In 1962, when Silent Spring was first published, “environment” was not even an entry in the vocabulary of public policy. Conservation — the precursor of environmentalism — had been mentioned during the 1960 Democratic and Republican conventions, but only in passing and almost entirely in the context of national parks and natural resources. And except for a few scattered entries in largely inaccessible scientific journals, there was virtually no public dialogue about the growing, invisible dangers of DDT and other pesticides and chemicals. Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history. Without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.”

—Al Gore, Introduction to 1994 Edition to Silent Spring

. . . I want to remember Rachel Carson’s spirit. I want it to be both fierce and compassionate at once. I want to carry a sense of indignation inside to shatter the complacency that has seeped into our society. Call it a sacred rage, a rage that is grounded in the knowledge that all life is intertwined. I want to know the grace of wild things that sustains hope.

—Terry Tempest Williams, “The Moral Courage of Rachel Carson”

Undergraduate Summer Research at Dartmouth

photo credit: Mark C. Long

Are you interested in research and development related to the biomedical industry? Would you like to expand your skills in ways that make you more attractive to future employers?

NH-INBRE’s Undergraduate Summer Research (ISURF Industry) program provides students with a 10-week, full-time, paid experience with a focus on research and development in the private sector of the biomedical industry. If you’d like to acquire professional, interdisciplinary skills and knowledge that can be directly applied toward careers and/or graduate studies in the biomedical sciences or industry, this is a great opportunity! For more information, including the application, please visit Undergraduate Summer Research at Dartmouth (iSURF)

ISURF Industry is open to all KSC students, regardless of major. The experience includes up to $4000 in salary, a $1000 food allowance, free housing, and travel costs. There are also ISURF tracks for the sciences and bioinformatics.

The deadline to apply is March 1 (note that the website may have the incorrect date). If you have questions, contact Lynn Arnold in the KSC SSH Dean’s office at larnold@keene.edu or Jennifer J. Smith, NH-INBRE Program Manager, at Jennifer.J.Smith@Dartmouth.edu.

Witness and Wonder

In 1957, the world watched in wonder as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into outer space. Despite Cold War anxieties, The New York Times admitted that space exploration ‘represented a step toward escape from man’s imprisonment to Earth and its thin envelope of atmosphere’. Technology, it seemed, possessed the astonishing potential to liberate humanity from terrestrial life.

But not all assessments of Sputnik were so celebratory. In The Human Condition (1958), the political theorist Hannah Arendt reflected on the Times’s strange statement, writing that ‘nobody in the history of mankind has ever conceived of the Earth as a prison for men’s bodies’. Such rhetoric betrayed an acute sense of alienation. Misplaced wonder at our own scientific and technological prowess, she worried, would isolate humanity from the realities of the world we share, not just with one another, but with all living creatures.

Arendt’s disquiet stemmed from the postwar context in which she lived: the United States economy was booming, and, for many Americans, the much-celebrated cycle of expansion and construction, of extraction and consumption, appeared infinite. Millions of Americans had bought into the glittering promise of limitless prosperity. While technologies such as plastic wrap and Velcro, microwave ovens and nonstick cookware might seem mundane today, they were unimaginably novel at the time, and pushed people further into a manmade world. While Arendt was concerned that humans would become self-absorbed and isolated, stupefied by the synthetic, and prone to totalitarian tricksters, others fretted that nature (for a large portion of the population, at least) was no longer a place to discover transcendence but had instead become merely a resource to be exploited. At mid-century, we were in the process of trading Walden Pond for Walmart.

If enchantment with ourselves and our artificial creations can alienate us, there is another conception of wonder that can help us transcend our self-centred, even solipsistic impulses. In the 1940s, Rachel Carson began developing an ethic of wonder that stood at the centre of her ecological philosophy.

Artist Bob Hines and Rachel Carson pictured conducting marine biology research along the Atlantic coast ca.1952. Photo Credit: Wikimedia.

A trailblazing marine biologist who sparked the modern environmental movement with Silent Spring (1962), Carson’s lesser-known writings – Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), The Edge of the Sea (1955) and the posthumously published The Sense of Wonder (1965) – encouraged her readers to consciously cultivate habits of awe, to pay careful attention to the often-overlooked ‘beauties and mysterious rhythms of the natural world’. ‘We look too hastily,’ she lamented. ‘[P]eople everywhere are desperately eager for whatever will lift them out of themselves and allow them to believe in the future.’

Disturbed by the devastation wrought by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and distressed by the spectre of the nuclear arms race, Carson understood that human beings could now annihilate the world along with all of its splendours and secrets:

Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world. 

This understanding fundamentally shaped her ethic of wonder. And while she admitted that there was no single solution to humanity’s hubris, or to the dangers and uncertainties intrinsic to the atomic age, she argued that 

the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the Universe about us, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.

For Carson, bearing witness to nature, and responding with joy, excitement and delight at the sight of a ‘sand-coloured, fleet-legged’ ghost crab scurrying across the starlit dunes of a night beach, or to the miniature, multitudinous worlds hidden within tide pools, those slant-rock shallow basins where sponges, sea slugs, and starfish so often reside; or even to the daily affirmation of the sunrise, which anyone – no matter her location or resources – could see, fostered a sense of humility in the face of something larger than oneself. At a time when US culture was becoming increasingly therapeutic, shifting from a focus on society to a focus on the self, Carson’s ethic of wonder moved her readers’ awareness from private vexations to the other-directed realities of the world, and she invited them to become ‘receptive to what lies all around you’, to revel in the exhilarating voyage of discovery. It also taught that human lives were linked to a vast ecological community inherently worth preserving and protecting from depletion.

Carson’s poetic prose about the wonders of the natural world allowed her to transcend science as mere fact, to find, as she put it, ‘renewed excitement in living’. She viewed her ethic of wonder as an ‘unfailing antidote’ to the boredom of modern life, to our ‘sterile preoccupation’ with our own artificial creations. It allowed her to ‘witness a spectacle that echoes vast and elemental things’, to live deeper, richer, fuller, ‘never alone or weary of life’ but always conscious of something more meaningful, more eternal than herself. By modelling wonder as a state of mind, as a habit to be taught and practised, she harkened back to a Thoreauvian call to experience amazement at all the daily beauties and mysteries that humans had no hand in creating.

Whatever piece of nature’s puzzle she contemplated – whether it was the nebulous stream of the Milky Way on a cloudless spring evening, or a migrant sandpiper skittering along the salt-rimmed coasts of Maine – Carson unearthed more than personal joy in nature. She also proffered a philosophy of how to live a good life as an engaged member of one’s larger community. She wanted to reunite our material and moral worlds, and she showed readers how they might make meaning out of science, against an age of materialism and reductionism. She intuited an ‘immense and unsatisfied thirst for understanding’ in a disenchanted world, and her readers responded in spades, revealing in fan letters sent after the publication of The Sea Around Us that they had been apprehensive and ‘troubled about the world, and had almost lost faith’ in it. But her writings helped readers ‘relate so many of our manmade problems to their proper proportions’ – small in the grand scheme of things, ‘when we think’, as an admirer observed, ‘in terms of millions of years’ of natural history.

When we read Carson as a philosopher, and not simply as an environmentalist, we might realise that we could use a little more wonder in our own lives. We remain captivated with ourselves, with our own individuality: from self-cultivation to self-care, from self-presentation to self-promotion, we too often emphasise the personal at the expense of the wider world. These days, we rarely stand in awe of the virescent landscape, too busy marvelling at the miraculous devices that allow us to trade our physical realities for virtual ones – devices that, as much as they have empowered us, keep us indoors and tethered to technology, gazing with reverence at our own greatest inventions.

But Carson reminds us to look up, go outside, and really see what lies beyond ourselves. If we redirect our sense of wonder outward, and not toward our own ingenuity, we might resist the worst of our narcissistic impulses; we might fall in love with the beauty that is all around, and come to the revolutionary realisation that power and profit from scientific and technological progress are worth neither the sacrifice of humanity nor the Earth. We might recover a little bit of enchantment, opening ourselves to experiencing radical amazement at the fact that any of this exists at all, and that something will continue to exist long after our lives cease. In learning, as Carson did, how to be a moral member of the ecological community, we might inhabit and love our shared world more fully, forging new connections to everyone and everything that exists around us, despite our differences. How wonderful that would be.

Essay by Jennifer Stitt, a PhD candidate in US intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, originally published at the nonprofit digital magazine Aeon and republished under Creative Commons.

Rachel Carson and the Modern

There are many good reasons to be suspicious of beginnings. Consider the narrative (we are tracing) of the environmental movement in the United States that begins with the transformative cultural presence of Rachel Carson and her most widely-read book Silent Spring. Here is former Vice President Albert Gore, in his “Introduction” to a 1994 edition of the book, rehearsing the story. “Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history. Without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all” (xv).

A narrative of the environmental movement in north American during the 1960s makes sense with Carson at its origins: as the alarming evidence her book offered—and, its philosophical approach to nature—caught the attention of a wide range of readers, and in turn shaped public opinion, science, political discourse, as well as local, state, and federal policy. (The book sparked one of the most dynamic periods of federal environmental legislation in the history of the United States.) It was translated into over a dozen languages, and in turn shaped environmental concern, discourse, and policy in countries around the world. Silent Spring also offers a convenient starting point for thinking about the development of literary and artistic work during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Yet while reading Silent Spring as a catalytic event in our collective environmental conscience makes a semester of study possible, at the same time, there is another reading of Silent Spring that situates Carson’s work in a way of thinking about the world that shows a nineteenth-century awakening to environmental concern with the unfolding history of human life and experience in the modern world. If you are interested in the history of environmental concern before the twentieth century, I recommend starting with Pamela Regis’  Describing Early America: Bartram, Jefferson, Crèvecoeur, and the Influence of Natural History (1993) and Dan Philippon’s Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement (2004)

At the same time, Carson’s contributions are one chapter in a series of expressions of environmental concern that have emerged around the world in response to industrialization—from the literary and artistic responses to questions of preserving park lands, engaging in resource and wildlife conservation; reflecting on the existential and spiritual presence of plants and animals in human life; and engaging with inescapable environmental questions of social justice and equity—what Ramanchandra Guha calls the first wave of environmentalism. The first wave of the social movement we call environmentalism is a response, in part, to what Guha calls the “onset of industrialization.”

Environmentalism is also a social and cultural discourse and activity that aligns with other responses to experiences of what the social critic Marshall Berman, among others, has called the modern, or the process we call modernization. To be modern, Berman writes in his book All that is Solid Melts into Air (1982),

is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. . . . The maelstrom of modern life has been fed from many sources: great discoveries in the physical sciences, changing our images of the universe and our place in it; the industrialization of production, which transforms scientific knowledge into technology, creates new human environments and destroys old ones, speeds up the whole tempo of life, generates new forms of corporate power and class struggle; immense demographic upheavals, severing millions of people from their ancestral habitats, hurtling them half way across the world into new lives; rapid and often cataclysmic urban growth; systems of mass communication, dynamic in their development, enveloping and binding together the most diverse people and societies; increasingly powerful national states, bureaucratically structured and operated, constantly striving to expand their powers; mass social movements of people, and peoples, challenging their political and economic rulers, striving to gain some control over their lives; finally, bearing and driving all these people and institutions along, an ever-expanding, drastically fluctuating capitalist world market. In the twentieth century, the social processes that bring this maelstrom into being, and keep it in a state of perpetual becoming, have come to be called ‘modernization.’ These world-historical processes have nourished an amazing variety of visions and ideas that aim to make men and women the subjects as well as the objects of modernization, the give them the power to change the world that is changing them, to make their way through the maelstrom and make it their own. Over the past century, those visions and values have come to be loosely grouped together under the name of ‘modernism.’

One gift of Rachel Carson’s writing is that it helps us to think about these visions and values: of modernism and modernization, regimes of discourse and power, and the questions that arise as one takes seriously the transformations of the human and natural orders, as well as the environmental consequences of modern life.

Starting Out

“There is no use pretending that the contradiction between what we think or say and what we do is a limited phenomenon. There is no group of the extra-intelligent or extra-concerned or extra-virtuous that is exempt. I cannot think of any American whom I know or have heard of, who is not contributing in some way to destruction. The reason is simple… to live undestructively in an economy that is overwhelmingly destructive would require any one of us, or of any small group of us, a great deal more work that we have yet been able to do. How could we divorce ourselves completely and yet responsibly from the technologies and powers that are destroying our planet? The answer is not yet thinkable… even though there are now groups and families and persons everywhere in the country who have begun the labor of thinking it”

–Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, Culture & Agriculture I977

“Knowing that nothing need be done, is where we begin to move from”

-Gary Snyder, “Four Changes,” Turtle Island (1974)


Writing in an Endangered World traces the development of environmental writing in relationship to the social movement of environmentalism in the United States since 1960. We will draw on the factual, policy, and value claims of environmentalism as a framework for considering how writers (and writer-activists) foster reflection and transformation of personal (and social) assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. In what ways has story telling shaped our sense of place and belonging in the more-than-human world? How has environmental writing contributed to cultural change? In what ways has poetry, fiction and nonfiction contribute to the environmental movement? How do we understand the environmental movement—and our cultural preoccupation with the environment—in relation to questions of equity, and environmental and social justice? What can we learn about the strengths and limitations of environmental concern and policy in North America by considering ecological historians in developing countries?

Near Ajanta, Maharashstra, India. Photo credit: Mark C. Long

The reading list for the course includes engaging, provocative, elegant, and culturally significant environmental writing from the 1950s. The book list provides one way to tell the story of the literary and cultural history of environmental thinking. Thinking with these authors will allow us to more thoughtfully engage with the pressing personal, social, cultural, and moral questions that face us in the present moment.  In addition to reading primary and secondary texts, we will trace the discourse of environmental concern through music, visual images, and advertising campaigns.

Complicated questions—at the center of the social movement (and discourse) we have come to call environmentalism—have motivated a range of writers whose cultural work begins with the paradox that the scientific, industrial and technological advances of the modern world have led to an inexorable ecological catastrophe of massive proportions. How do we understand settler colonialism in relation to the political imperatives of democracy? How do we reconcile our democratic aspirations with the failure to provide equal justice to citizens in the United States and the insatiable imperialism abroad that feeds the greed for resources to feed our insatiable consumer economy? How do we think about the environment in historical, political, historical, sociological, economic, technological, and moral terms?