Posts Tagged ‘literature and environment’

I’ve been avoiding revising this draft for months.  At some point , you just have to say enough is enough and let go.  Unclog the blog.  Even if it may ruffle some feathers among people I respect and enjoy.


Sitting in a lounge chair on the beach at Schist Camp, nursing a cold beverage, I’m wondering if I should be having more fun.  And I wonder if I should blame Ed that I’m not.  Wine and stories flow freely, laughter echoing from the canyon walls, but try as I might I cannot ignore the helicopters overhead, one or two of them at any given moment thwopping their way from rim to rim, giving sightseers a look at Crystal Rapid below (said sightseers drowning out their own noise with stereophonic music through Bose headsets, I understand.)  Abbey pesters me with his unequivocal vision of canyon visitation:


Damn straight.  “Can you believe the helicopters?” I ask one of my companions. He looks at me with surprise, listens for a moment.  “Gosh, I hadn’t noticed them,” he says, and now I feel guilty that my gift of awareness has shattered his peace and quiet, too.  Or maybe not—he returns to the food table and the enormous pile of nachos our guides have cooked up.  They do look delicious.

Later tonight the overflight procession will come to an end, and the stars, endless depths of stars, will come out. Belinda and I have set up our tent “just in case” but plan to sleep out in the open.  The nachos are good.  The first bats flit past, taking care of any interloping mosquitoes. The river slips on downstream as the shadows deepen.


Heat and unrelenting sun.  Dehydration headache.  Mid June in the depths of the canyon.  Midday.  Pulling over for a riverside lunch, we all clamber off the boats and scurry for cover against the canyon wall like cockroaches,  slathering on more sunscreen and picking at dry and cracking lips.  Quick-dry clothes redefining themselves.  Perhaps a quick swim in the river to cool off?



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It is not the writer’s task to answer questions but to question answers.  To be impertinent, insolent, and, if necessary, subversive.

Ed Abbey hitches along in my backpack as we head down the Bright Angel Trail at sunrise to meet the rafts near Phantom Ranch.  Up way too early in a foreign time zone, I yawn and rub my eyes—better be alert as we head down or a blundering step will find the shore of the world—while Ed slumbers snugly in a ziplock bag, along with my journal, tucked somewhere deep inside my pack.  It has been a while since we spent any time together, even though a good percentage of his collected works occupies a whole shelf in my study.  I lingered at this shelf a while as I gathered my stuff together for this trip, eventually selecting Down the River, inspired by its opening essay, ” Down the River with Henry Thoreau”:

With me are five friends plus the ghost of a sixth: in my ammo can—the river runner’s handbag—I carry a worn and greasy paperback copy of a book called Walden, or Life in the Woods.  Not for thirty years have I looked inside this book; now for the first time since my school days I shall.  Thoreau’s mind has been haunting mine for most of my life.  It seems proper now to reread him.  What better place than on this golden river . . .

Likewise, Abbey’s mind has been haunting mine for the past decade and a half, and to some extent I have him to thank that I ever became an English teacher.  When I spent my single season as a backcountry ranger for the BLM in Escalante, UT, I knew of him only by reputation, his subversive novel The Monkey Wrench Gang having inspired the eco-sabotage of EarthFirst! and their ilk. Far too radical for me, I figured.  But then a fellow ranger, the warden of the local state park, pressed copies of The Journey Home and Desert Solitaire into my hands as a parting gift before I made my way to Green River and the bus that would take me home when my nine-month tour was up.  I stayed up all night on that Greyhound bus, reading by the glow of my headlamp as we slid through the Colorado Rockies and then out onto the high plains.  Worn out from years of literature study, a pursuit that had become more and more a lifeless exercise in self-indulgent navel-gazing, I was thrilled to find a writer who was up to something, a writer who spoke for me:

Here yet you may find the elemental freedom to breathe deep of unpoisoned air, to experiment with solitude and stillness, to gaze through a hundred miles of untrammeled atmosphere, across redrock canyons, beyond blue mesas, toward the snow-covered peaks of the most distant mountains—to make the discovery of the self in its proud sufficiency which is not isolation but an irreplaceable part of the mystery of the whole.


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Several years back, I was asked to address my assembled colleagues at the start of the school year, to share some thoughts about environmental education (or the lack thereof) at my school. I was not (and still am not) speaking as an expert, only as someone willing to ask questions, and preparing the speech gave me the opportunity to do just that, to read and think on the topic for a whole summer. Among other conclusions, I made this critique of my chosen discipline:

Literature—with its timeless role of examining the human condition—has always evolved to address the significant issues before each generation. In our curriculum, then, we rightly read and discuss works that deal thoughtfully with weighty and complex themes like race and gender and war. But as contemporary writing rapidly evolves to raise new questions about humanity’s role as a citizen of the ecological community, this new environmental literature has yet to be significantly included in the mainstream educational canon. That omission, I think, does send a message.

Two nights ago, I found something of the same sentiment in the introduction to Cheryll Glotfelty’s The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology:

If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were hot topics . . . but you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress.  Indeed, you might never know that there was an earth at all.

That’s a fair description of my own classroom.

Things have started to change at the university level in the decade-plus since Glotfelty’s seminal work was published, but in secondary schools I’m pretty sure we’ve mostly stuck to business as usual.  Even though the reaction to my speech four years ago was overwhelmingly positive (people still speak to me about it), the only evolution I’m familiar within my own department is the addition of a two-week nature unit within a semester elective course in creative writing for 11th and 12th graders.  As a school, we’ve finally gotten serious about recycling and energy conservation and are even talking about building raised-bed gardens to produce some of our own food, but we remain wedded to convention at the curricular level.

Why?  At the risk of making some unfair, sweeping generalizations, I’ll float three possible answers.  This is how I see it from where I sit:

  1. Literature and the Environment is by nature an interdisciplinary pursuit, and schools are far too compartmentalized academically to encourage innovation in this respect.  As I said in my speech, “These borderlands between our disciplines may intrigue us intellectually, but because our day-to-day curricular concerns keep us well entrenched in the front-country, the territory remains wild and unpredictable—certainly not the place to lead our students.”
  2. Environmental issues are politically controversial in our modern hyper-partisan environment.  I’ve got a lot more thinking to do on this subject, but it strikes me that much of the literature we read and discuss is hardly revolutionary (any more).  Reading To Kill a Mockingbird, none of my students are particularly surprised or challenged by the injustices that Tom Robinson suffers, and there is no disagreement about the basic message—racism, bad! Rather than force the conversation toward thornier issues of race in contemporary society, we safely remain with the conventional bounds of New Criticism analysis, dissecting the text to focus on symbolism and irony and imagery.  And because nature writing is largely a nonfiction genre, we who are trained in the art of fiction and poetry don’t even have this safe terrain to retreat to.
  3. Reflecting the youth of literature-and-environment studies in higher academia, almost none of us at the secondary level have any real training in or even awareness of this field, and there aren’t many resources available, at least not targeted specifically at the teaching of English.  A quick search of upcoming sessions at the 2008 National Council of Teachers of English convention finds (as far as I can tell) only two sessions—out of hundreds offered—with an environmental theme, both of these having limited scope.  There’s certainly nothing equivalent to “We Can Do More: Sustaining and Enhancing Efforts to Integrate LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered] Literature Into Secondary English Curricula” on the agenda.  Moreover, among the various official NCTE Caucuses and Assemblies, there is nothing resembling an environmental literature advocacy group.  The professional organization for those at the cutting edge of scholarship in the field, The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment is perhaps the best resource, but it’s focus seems to be exlusively post-secondary, and it’s frankly intimidating terrain for the uninitiated.  Where are the trail guides for those of us ready to wander away from civilization?  (One notable exception: Literature and the Land: Reading and Writing for Environmental Literacy 7 – 12, by Emma Rous, the only publication of its kind that I’ve come across . . . it’s excellent).

So I’ve started to plow through Glotfelty’s Ecocriticism Reader. The introduction was great, several passages having made me sit bolt-upright in bed with recognition. I was particularly moved by this one: “Our temperaments and talents have deposited us in literature departments, but as environmental problems compound, work as usual seems unconscionably frivolous. If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.” (The essays themselves have proved slower going; I have only so much patience for sentences like “By neglecting the origin of this silence in the breakdown of animism, the humanist critics of deep ecology reiterate a discourse that by its very logocentrism marginalizes nature . . . .”)  I’ll explore this terrain as long as I can before the treadmill of my own business-as-usual gets too frantic to allow the luxury.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep . . .

In the meantime, I wonder what I’m missing, whom else I can turn to.  I know I’m not the only voice howling in the secondary-English wilderness.

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I’ve been sitting in on a writing class taught by one of my colleagues, Jen Dracos, and this is what came out in my freewrite at the beginning of yesterday’s class.  The prompt was “I’m not going to tell you about . . . ”

I’m not going to tell you about Old Faithful, about the tourists who gather in great half circles on the concentric-ringed benches, looking at their watches and wondering if the Park Service has lied to them. “It’s fifteen minutes overdue” they’ll say to one another.  I’m definitely not going to repeat the teasing “Okay, that was it” refrain that ripples through the crowd after every minor splatter of water in the buildup. To give you the full effect, I’d have to repeat it over and over in a variety of voices from all different sides, pretending to get up and leave each time, and I won’t do that to you, even though I might like your help in figuring out why they believe the joke gets better with repetition. “Old Faithful sure isn’t faithful anymore”  seems likewise to have staying power.

Instead, I want to tell you about the coyote in the Old Faithful parking lot, sliding between parked Winnebagos and Hyundais and Harleys on his arrow-straight transit to God-knows-where.  I’ll tell you about the disdainful side-long glance he gives me as he ghosts past, and how I freeze with one foot on the pavement and one still in my car. He passes by so closely that I can step out and scratch him between the ears, or at least could have if I had dared to disturb the universe.  I forget all about the camera I’m clutching, the bauble I had gone back to the car to fetch.  I’d like to tell you about the wall of lodgepole pines that swallowed him at the far end of the parking lot, but there’s just not that much to say about them, a nondescript clot of trees with nothing behind them but trees and still more trees rolling away for miles and miles and miles, nothing to speak of but the Firehole River, Pipeline Hot Springs, Mallard Lake, the Central Plateau, the Continental Divide.  Maybe someday I’ll find something to tell you about that terrain.

Instead, I guess I’ll have to tell you about Old Faithful after all.  I watched the coyote vanish, looked at my watch, and hustled off to rejoin my family.  I had to hurry; according to the official ranger prediction, the next eruption would occur within plus-or-minus ten minutes of ten minutes from now.

Exactly why I’ve been giving up a free period to audit her class is a topic I’ll write about soon enough–I do have something up my sleeve.

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The trip is over, the gear is packed away, Will and I head back to school in short order.  Is this the end of the road for Postcards from the Outback?  I don’t think so.  After returning home, I got to reading A Natural Sense of Wonder, by Rick Van Noy, another father’s account of trying to get his kids outside, and I realize I have (or will have as the boys get bigger) some of the same sorts of stories to tell.  (I’ve also come across and am inspired by Van Noy’s blog.) Our narratives shape our culture, and so if we are going to reverse in any way our kids’ wholesale retreat into artificial (and virtual) environments, then I think it’s important that these stories get shared.  I don’t presume to do it particularly well or have any radical new ground to cover; I’m just adding my voice to the chorus.

Moreover, I have some questions to ask of my profession.  In my darker moments, I wonder why I teach my students the distinction between a tercet and a quatrain when they know nothing about tanagers and cardinals.  Which kind of learning is more likely to help develop them into the kind of adults that will make our planet a more livable place?  And the narratives that might help us at this point in our history, why are they not a part of the canon we typically share in school?  In the early years of this new and uncertain century, what does it mean to be educated any more?  Should young people be more familiar with Chaucer and Harper Lee than Rachel Carson or Aldo Leopold?

For myself, I often think about the fact that I live a collection of half-lives–husband and father, teacher and coach, wannabe mountain man–rather than one whole.  Some wise-ass (like my good friend Chris) will inevitably point out that my math doesn’t work here, but go with the metaphor.  The times when I can get these worlds to overlap, these are by far my happier and healthier moments.  Can this virtual world help refocus my real-world vision? (Or maybe spending more time at the computer is moving in exactly the wrong direction.)

Anyway, that’s the idea.  Who knows.  Follow-through isn’t always my specialty.  When I look back through the naturalist journals I started keeping in 1999, I come across a number of embarrassing pledges to myself to journal more often followed by gaps up to a year in length before the next entry.  Then again, I have filled two of these journals . . . if my progress has to be measured in geologic time, then I’m comfortable with that.

By the way, after dropping Will off at a day camp he’s attending this week, I carried (literally) Andrew down to the Chattahoochee this morning, plopped his butt on a sand bar for a while, and spent a nice thirty minutes with him before the day heated up too much.  At one point I pointed out a resting butterfly, and he said “I wish we had your butterfly book so we could look up what kind it is.”   Our summer adventure has left its mark.

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