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Ecology and Rhetoric: Final Project Development

December 4, 2017

Beginning with Burroughs and Tom Horton and Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold and others, we have been working our way around the idea that ecological thinking and rhetorical, ethical, and aesthetic perspectives are related. In other words, we have been reading not merely texts that represent the environment in terms of art, philosophy, and writing, but rather, texts that are interested in the mutual understanding of representation  and the environment. The ecological can’t be separated from the ways we read, see, think, write, and relate to others.

In your weekly blog response, you began to practice this relationship among rhetoric, ethics, aesthetics and the various elements of the Chesapeake’s ecology, both natural and social. An excellent blog response begins to pursue these relations, moving from something specific–perhaps one text or lecture from one class–to relationships and analogies beyond that text and class. One way to do that: apply the idea, or question the idea, in relation to one or more of the other courses. The Stalkings were the next step in the process, where you have pursued these relations more formally. But the concept is the same. You are pursuing what Tom Horton calls “full context.”

In your final project you will be extending this work toward “full context.” Here is a way to think further about developing your ideas for the final project.

There is a heuristic (in classical rhetoric: a model or structure to generate or organize thinking for an essay, argument, project, a device for invention) known as the particle/wave/field heuristic. I summarize it below by way of the rhetoric book Form and Surprise in Composition: Writing and Thinking Across the Curriculum by John Bean and John Ramage [they take the heuristic from the Young, Becker and Pike’s Rhetoric: Discovery and Change]. They suggest it as a method that helps develop an argument on a given topic by enabling the writer to switch perspective systematically. You can use this for any topic, though you will notice that it seems particularly apt for writing about topics related to environment and ecology.

First, take your topic X and view it as a static, unchanging entity (particle): note its distinguishing features, characteristics; consider how this entity differs from other similar things. For example: Thoreau on walking or the wild. Or Horton’s definitions of ‘what is natural, what is right.’ Think of this as specific ideas and statements made; specific quotations.

Second, view the same topic as a dynamic changing process (wave): note how it acts and changes through time, grows, develops, decays. How does Horton’s definitions change as he explores various parts of the Chesapeake ? Do we see the same vision in the end as at the beginning? What are some changes you observe? Think of this as places where you find echoes and contradictions and traces of the ideas or earlier statements. And of course, you need not rely just on Horton for this: consider your own vision/definition of some aspect of the Chesapeake–how has it changed during the semester?

Third, view the topic as a Field, as related to things around it and part of a system, network or ecological environment. What depends on X? What does X depend on? What would happen if X doesn’t exist? Who loves (hates) X? What communities (categories) does X belong to?  Who would love this idea? Who would hate it? What is X’s function in a larger system. Think about Berry’s view of solutions that focus on pattern. In a sense, this field view is the point of the entire Chesapeake Semester–and thus is a view that the final project should work towards.

As you can see from the questions asked from the “field” perspective, you are already moving toward some crucial ideas for how we have been thinking during the Chesapeake Semester: to bend a famous phrase from Aldo Leopold, thinking like the bay. My contention is that all good writing is ecological in this sense to the extent that a compelling and meaningful argument/essay/thesis (call it what you will) needs to move dynamically between focus on particulars and some sense and awareness of a larger field that informs the perspective, even when it can’t be always in view. A good argument is aware of what it is not focusing on–and needs to incorporate that into its perspective. That’s where counterargument comes in.

As Thoreau puts it: a truer discipline for a writer is to take two views of the same. Or as Berry suggests, a good argument (identifying a problem and attempting a solution) is ecologically minded when it solves for pattern.

I will have open office hours on Tuesday 12/12 from 12.30-2 in my office, 116 Goldstein. At that point you will have an initial draft. You are welcome to stop by before then to talk ideas: my regular office hours are MWF 12.30-1.30; I can meet at other times as well.


Equal Consideration: thoughts on environmental ethics

November 28, 2017

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University

Lawrence Buell, a literary scholar who has focused on environmental aesthetics, rhetoric, and ethics in his studies of literature, has argued that there are four components of an “environmentally oriented work.”  In large part, the argument focuses on the ways that the imagination in and of a text, what we typically associate with a work of literature (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama) necessarily involves an ethical orientation. Environmental literature, in other words, demands ethos, not just pathos or logos. The following is taken from his book The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Harvard UP, 1995). We can think about these guidelines in response to Wendell Berry and Peter Singer. We can also take them with us as we head into the field.

  1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
    1. examples Buell offers: Forster’s Passage to India; any novel by Thomas Hardy
  2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
    1. example: Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” in contrast to Shelley’s “To a Skylark” or Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale. “
    2. “Cradle is more concerned with the composition of a specific place, and Whitman’s symbolic bird is endowed with a habitat, a history, a story of its own.”
  3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
    1. example: “By this standard, Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting’ comes closer to being an environmental text than his ‘Tintern Abbey,’ insofar as the function of landscape in the latter is chiefly to activate the speaker’s subjective feelings of rejuvenation and anxiety, whereas the former reminiscence prompts him to retell a self-incriminating tale of his youthful violation of the hazel grove.”
  4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.
    1. Susan Cooper’s Rural Hours … is a more faithful environmental text than any or her father’s Leatherstocking romances (Last of the Mohicans, etc)    [The Environmental Imagination, 7-8]

One ethical orientation we have just read is Wendell Berry’s. Consider the conclusion of “The Pleasures of Eating.” This ethical vision differs from Peter Singer’s in crucial ways. It is, to give it one word, anthropocentric. Berry admits this in places such as “Preserving Wildness.” So we can think about Berry as a counter to Singer’s ethics and his biocentrism. But, perhaps the case (like any good counterargument would show) is more complicated than that. Does Singer agree in points with Berry’s ethical vision, or at least give it consideration?

A keyword and concept of Singer’s ethics, particularly related to his philosophy developed in his groundbreaking book Animal Liberation (1975), is “equality of consideration.”

Equal Consideration versus Animal Liberation

Many people often use the terms animal rights and animal liberation interchangeably. This might be all right sometimes, but in a strict sense animal liberation is made up of two different approaches to liberating animals: equal consideration of interests and animal rights.

Singer advances animal liberation through equal consideration of interests. Although he often talks about animal rights he does so only as shorthand, what he really means is liberating animals by giving them equal consideration.

Equal Consideration versus Animal Rights

Considering the moral interests of all animals equally is not the same as giving rights to animals. If you maintain that animals and humans have the same moral rights that forbid harm to them, then you cannot, say, experiment on them. However, if you maintain that animal and human interests are morally equal regarding experimentation then you can experiment equally on humans as on animals. If you are not prepared to experiment on one then you cannot experiment on the other. []

For some further background on this ethical position of “animal liberation,” not the same thing as animal rights, link here.

Finally, we can consult William James from 1899, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” the beginnings of an ethical position for treating others, all others (including nonhuman), not equally, but respectfully given the very fact that we are not equal, not the same, but fundamentally different, individual, plural. You can think of this as the beginnings of a principle that some have called “animal pragmatism.”

OUR judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.

We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals.

Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!—we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life? The African savages came nearer the truth; but they, too, missed it, when they gathered wonderingly round one of our American travelers who, in the interior, had just come into possession of a stray copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and was devouring it column by column. When he got through, they offered him a high price for the mysterious object; and, being asked for what they wanted it, they said: “For an eye medicine,”—that being the only reason they could conceive of for the protracted bath which he had given his eyes upon its surface.

The spectator’s judgment is sure to miss the root of the matter, and to possess no truth. The subject judged knows a part of the world of reality which the judging spectator fails to see, knows more while the spectator knows less; and, wherever there is conflict of opinion and difference of vision, we are bound to believe that the truer side is the side that feels the more, and not the side that feels the less….

And now what is the result of all these considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.


Further reading by Singer on Animal Liberation.



Wendell Berry: Renewing the Margins of Farming

November 7, 2017
We will be returning to Wendell Berry in Journey 4 as we focus in on the “art of farming”–that is, exploring issues in agriculture from a humanistic perspective. However, as you head into Journey 3, you might look for aspects of Berry’s vision (as read in “Solving for Pattern” and “Preserving Wildness”) in Belize and Guatemala, in encounters with small-scale farming. For that reason, I post this commentary on Berry now.

Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist and one of the leading voices (particularly in his essays) in American nature writing today. He is also a farmer (from Kentucky); his vision combines thinking about the poetics and humanities of nature from the perspective of being what he calls a “marginal” farmer. We see the autobiographical roots of his environmental vision in his essay “The Making of a Marginal Farm.” Recall, as well, that Berry is mentioned in Wennersten’s environmental history of the Chesapeake Bay (p. 220-221: his vision of land stewardship is compared to the legacy of John Beale Bordley from the Chesapeake in the 1780s). The link between Bordley and Berry concerns husbandry, which we know from “Renewing Husbandry” Berry promotes. Elements of Berry’s vision of husbandry, and his understanding of the importance of pattern, might be compared to the concept of permaculture. So, what from Berry can we apply to the Chesapeake Semester?

In addition to his significant writings in nonfiction, largely essays such as “The Making of a Marginal Farm” about his own experience living on and restoring the land, or the more recent “Renewing Husbandry,Wendell Berry is known as well for his poetry and fiction.

But it is Berry, the essayist, we give  our attention to in this course. And so, with the genre and tradition of the essay in mind, I suggest that we can approach Berry’s agrarian–one might even call it, pastoral–vision from three perspectives that also comprise an essay. In the terms of classical rhetoric, a writer or speaker can appeal to an audience in one of three ways, ideally engaging in all three: ethos (credibility, character of the speaker), pathos (empathy, engaging the feeling of the reader), and logos (evidence).

In “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” a well-known essay that is first published in The Orion magazine, we see Berry focus on loss and restoration, on land and love, on responsibility and reclamation–in both the cultural and agricultural senses of those words. [Indeed, the subtitle of one of his many collections of essays is: Essays Cultural and Agricultural] The idea of loving the land seems crucial to Berry’s vision. So, too, being responsible to the land on which we live, the place from which we are from. We heard this initially from Leopold. As Berry puts it memorably, he is not talking about a pastoral vision, about “living an idyll.” What he has in mind is something more…basic, if not boring:

One’s relation to one’s subject ceases to be merely emotional or esthetical, or even merely critical, and becomes problematical, practical, and responsible as well. Because it must. It is like marrying your sweetheart.

What do you make of Berry’s notion of love as a model for environmental ethics?

Seems to me that in both cases, the case of mourning a loss and the case of marrying a sweetheart, there is a relation to the natural world (not the world made by machines) that Berry seeks that locates responsibility in some sort of heartache or love. What could that mean? One answer could take us back to “Solving for Pattern.” Berry has in mind a responsiveness that he names pattern–and defines, in some specific senses of the term, organic. Another answer could take us back to Thoreau: “I love a broad margin to my life” he writes in Walden, though that also means not farming all the time.

In “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” Berry calls the farm–and I would say as well, the essay–a “reclamation project.” Berry’s philosophical-rhetorical-poetic project, I would argue, can be characterized with the various words of return, words with the prefix “re,” that he often uses quite deliberately: reclamation, restoration, renewal, remedy, responsibility–and ultimately, the keyword relation.” These words mark places where Berry’s ethos emerges with his logos and pathos. For good reasons these essays sound like a jeremiad, essays or narratives denouncing and decrying the current state of society; but like the prophet speaking from the margins of the society, Berry understands that we can learn from the margins–ironically–about how to restore to the  center the complexity it lacks.

The margin reappears in Berry’s essay “Preserving Wildness.”  I would highlight for our initial discussion of Berry two places where he elaborates further his understanding of love and of margins. In both cases, in redefining and repurposing some words we otherwise and more commonly (Thoreau might say, too cheaply) use, I think we also find an example of his underlying premise, that the natural and the cultural, the human and the non-human natural world, for better and for worse, are inextricably linked.

523: “I would call this a loving economy, for it would strive to place a proper value on all the materials of the world, in all their metamorphoses from soil and water, air and light to the finished goods of our town and households, and I think the only effective motive for this would be a particularizing love for local things, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance.”

529:” Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins. The margins are of the utmost importance. They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins–lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like–are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention.”

Living in these margins, marrying one’s sweetheart may not be as boring as I had presumed. Berry’s invocation of love–as in marriage, as in “loving economy”–weaves together his ecological philosophy, poetics, and rhetoric. Love, he argues, is what moves us. In the preface to Home Economics, the collection in which “Preserving Wildness” is published, Berry writes of his essays in the root sense of the genre: “my essays as trials, not because I think that they render verdicts, but because they make attempts, trying out both their subjects and my understanding. Often, too, they try my patience.”

Berry was recently awarded the Jefferson medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can read the lecture he gave in Washington, “It All Turns on Affection.” In it, he explores and attempts a case for the ways imagination (call it poetics) leads to sympathy (call it rhetoric) and ultimately to his key value (philosophy), love and affection for one’s place: “As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.” You can watch a video of the lecture here.

For a sense of Berry’s voice and vision–listen to this reading, introduced by Bill McKibben.

For specific discussion of his views of education and the need for local culture, see the introduction to this 2012 reading (Circe Prize Acceptance).

For a reference point on Wendell Berry’s philosophical, poetic, and rhetorical influence in current environmental writing and thinking, consider Michael Pollan’s panegyric that positions Berry (in contrast to Thoreau and wildness) as the important voice in the current environmental focus on the food system, “Wendell Berry’s Wisdom”:

It was Wendell Berry who helped me solve my Thoreau problem, providing a sturdy bridge over the deep American divide between nature and culture. Using the farm rather than the wilderness as his text, Berry taught me I had a legitimate quarrel with nature–a lover’s quarrel–and showed me how to conduct it without reaching for the heavy artillery. He relocated wildness from the woods “out there” (beyond the fence) to a handful of garden soil or the green shoot of a germinating pea, a necessary quality that could be not just conserved but cultivated. He marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants.

Obviously much more is at stake here than a garden fence. My Thoreau problem is another name for the problem of American environmentalism, which historically has had much more to say about leaving nature alone than about how we might use it well. To the extent that we’re finally beginning to hear a new, more neighborly conversation between American environmentalists and American farmers, not to mention between urban eaters and rural food producers, Berry deserves much of the credit for getting it started with sentences like these:

Why should conservationists have a positive interest in…farming? There are lots of reasons, but the plainest is: Conservationists eat. To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd. Urban conservationists may feel entitled to be unconcerned about food production because they are not farmers. But they can’t be let off so easily, for they are all farming by proxy. They can eat only if land is farmed on their behalf by somebody somewhere in some fashion. If conservationists will attempt to resume responsibility for their need to eat, they will be led back fairly directly to all their previous concerns for the welfare of nature. –”Conservationist and Agrarian,” 2002

That we are all implicated in farming–that, in Berry’s now-famous formulation, “eating is an agricultural act”–is perhaps his signal contribution to the rethinking of food and farming under way today.

Knowing Berry’s critical views of food and animal science, one can only imagine what he would say of this short video from the Food Science trade group. Pollan links to this, asking: How did we ever eat before food science?

Photo-Essay: Big Food

November 2, 2017

Here is a photo-essay published in the New York Times on “big food,” “The Dizzying Grandeur of 21st-Century Agriculture.”

Gives you some things to think about as we head toward more direct study of agriculture and issues of food into Journey 3 and back home for Journey 4–and as you continue to use the photo-essay as a rhetorical/aesthetic means of expression.

Rethinking the Rhetoric of Wilderness

October 7, 2017

The time has come for us to rethink the Chesapeake. Why and how should we do such rethinking?

Both Wendell Berry (“Preserving Wildness”) and William Cronon (“The Trouble with Wilderness”) make an argument for rethinking wilderness form the perspective of a “middle” ground. This is the middle between the extreme positions that all is human culture and all is nonhuman nature. The problem with those extremes, both argue, is that it denies the indivisibility of the human and the natural. Instead, Berry urges us to look to the interchange of “the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins” (529). Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” one could argue, previews this vision toward a human-nature harmony in its ethical outlook: a thing is right when it preserves the stability  (nature)) and the beauty (culture) of “the biotic community.”

Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Berry’s idea of natural-cultural diversity, and its absence, in the monocultures of farming and housing that characterize much of how we live today, seems vividly evident in a photo essay in the New York Times Magazine. It’s about the blooming of McMansions in former rice fields in China. The images illuminate the sort of cultural and natural hybridity that these writers have in mind, the ways the cultural (in this case, human homes) are intertwined with the natural. Berry in his essays reminds us of this consistently when he describes his essays as “cultural and agricultural.” The problem all three thinkers are worrying: when this intertwining is viewed or manipulated as exclusively cultural (Berry’s monocultural) or exclusively natural (Cronon’s wilderness mythology of the sublime and the frontier).

As you head further into the nature and the culture of the Chesapeake Watershed, and particularly as you head into the “margins” and edges of this region, take these arguments about the rhetoric of wilderness with you. Is there a wilderness mythology of the Chesapeake of the sort Cronon identifies at large in the history of American environmental thinking? Do you encounter the sort of extremes of nature and culture that Berry worries about? Can you find, at the same time, a livable margin and middle ground?

We can also learn from, and continue to explore, a rhetorical perspective that both Berry and Cronon  not only argue for, but also enact in their writings. An effective rhetorical perspective also seeks a middle ground, the place where humans live, as Berry reminds us. This is a view of rhetoric as fundamentally an act and art of cooperation. But this “middle ground” should not be misconstrued as refusing to take a position or the inability to stand one’s ground. This is not, as I understand these authors, a matter of indifference (whatever?!) or the kind of false argumentation that we find often on cable television: you have your position and are entitled to be wrong.

Rather, these essays, as they develop an ethical and aesthetic perspective that challenges us to rethink our definitions of wilderness, do so through a rhetorical perspective that challenges us, and challenges themselves, to rethink our and their own positions. A rhetorical strategy that can help us think about this, and help you put it to work in your projects this semester, is Counterargument. We will talk more about it in coming classes. You can think of it as a strategy in which controversy, something you are focusing on extensively this semester, is engaged dynamically rather than statically. When we engage in counterargument, we show that our own argument and claims, our own position that we are developing and proposing, itself participates in the controversy that we are discussing and responding to. This is what makes our position arguable, and therefore worth listening to. An argument is, fundamentally, a response to a problem with a given or conventional or established way of understanding something that the rhetor (the person doing the arguing) puts forth. Even more basically, a thesis or statement of an argument always has its counterargument wrapped up in it. In this way, an effective argument uses counterargument to solve for pattern, rather than merely solve a problem that it, ironically, adds to by neglecting its larger contexts. Those larger contexts include the very real and necessary possibility that I, the person making the argument, could be wrong to the extent that I can’t present or even see the whole picture.

Berry’s (and following him, Cronon’s) “middle ground” is where we can find what he calls “proper relation,” proper limits, proportion. The adjective “proper” is one of Berry’s keywords. Consider the word’s etymology: that which is particular, specific, owing to the self. I would suggest that “proper” is also a key to our three perspectives. Ethical perspective: where we seek proper relation to others; Rhetorical perspective: where we seek proper balance and limits in our expression; Aesthetic perspective: where we seek proportion, proper balance or harmony in sight, sound, taste.

For some further reading on this rhetorical concept of Counterargument (a strategy for achieving proper balance), I recommend this brief discussion from Harvard’s Writing Center. Think about bringing counterargument into your next Stalking. Think about the ways your own positions on the Chesapeake Bay might begin to sound or think like Cronon’s: The time has come to rethink…


Stalking feedback: you got a problem with that?

September 26, 2017

Here is the basis for any argument–which is another way of saying (to use one of our key phrases), the basis for an effective or proper rhetorical perspective: a conventional/received/given view of some topic; a question, problem, confusion, trouble, limitation, disagreement, or other way of proposing that we need to rethink the conventional; the response to the question/problem, the specifics of how you propose to pursue that rethinking and what the implications are, the new way to think or understand things.

As you will see in your next reading, this is what Cronon is doing in “The Trouble with Wilderness” and what Berry is doing in “Preserving Wildness.” You can go back to each essay and identify these three elements: given, problem, response. And you should also be able to identify these three elements in your own Stalkings; I am looking for them there, and we can work on strengthening your complexity and clarity by improving this structure of given/problem/response. Kelsey’s first stalking has this basic structure at work in her first paragraph. It is basic, but highly effective in setting up the foundation for the complication and rethinking that she proposes in her position.

Why do we need problems? What, as someone asked, do we professors always think of things as problematic or (to use the verb form I like) in need of problematizing? Because that’s the way we generate new ways of thinking while also relating those new ways to existing and older ideas. Without a problem, or a different way of thinking about something, who cares? what’s the point? An argument (a thesis, a claim, a position) has to be arguable in order to be an argument. In other words, someone else has to be able to disagree, view it differently, find limitations in the argument. In other words, has to understand it as a problem (or question) that might have a different solution. That’s the basis for growth and renewal in thinking. In the Chesapeake Semester of the easy places you can look for problems, for differences and complications in perspectives, comes from a required element for the Stalking (and later for the Final Project): bring in a perspective (an idea, a source) that you cite from another course. So, while exploring Jamestown from the perspective of the social sciences (history, archeology, sociology), turn to Humanities or Natural Science to ask: how might we look at this differently? What analogies might these other disciplines and perspectives provide us? A reminder of this requirement from the Stalking description:

you must make connections to at least 2 of the 3 courses (Humanities, Natural Science, Social Science) in the process of stalking the ideas/experiences from the journey: reference to a lecture or quotation from a text, etc.; citations to texts and other sources must be provided.

Counterargument also provides a tool for clarifying the problem you are stalking and seeking to solve. Counterargument also anticipates and answers possible objections. Your argument has the counterargument wrapped up in it. Someone else might respond to the question or problem differently. In fact, someone else has to respond differently–otherwise no need to make the argument. [More reading on counterargument here.]

A good title can help start the reader to focus on the argument: the problem, the response, possibly both.

For further discussion of the ways that a good argument is built upon the response to a problem, you can read this post from my English 101 blog.

Revision. Unlike the blog posts, the Stalking is a more formal writing assignment. You should do some revision and editing. To help you think about revision, see this post from my Nonfiction/Essay course–where I identify 4 revision questions you can ask: What’s the project? What’s working? What else? What’s next?

Leopold’s Land Ethic and Aesthetics and Rhetoric

September 23, 2017

Among the environmental writers we have read thus far, Aldo Leopold is our first professional ecologist: not just the amateur naturalist/saunterer of Thoreau or Burroughs, or the poet-farmer like Berry but someone who studied (Forestry) and taught subjects relating to the environment.  From that vantage point, it does seem that we have left the poetics of Thoreau behind. Possibly. At least in Leopold’s more professional engagement with science and such things as the ‘land as an energy circuit’ and the biotic pyramid.  This could be discussion from an ecology text; in a sense, it is. I suspect that many of the environmental studies majors will be familiar with his concepts, if not the text itself. His most famous work is “The Land Ethic,” a series of writings and essays included in his book A Sand County Almanac.

But notice this idea at the heart of Leopold’s ecological thinking. The idea is that in order to be more ecological in our human perception and appreciation and understanding of the biotic community of which we are a part (and only a part, not the center), we need something that the poets do well. We need representation; relation. We need images and figures that foster love, faith, feeling, understanding. In order to think like a mountain we need, in part, writers like Thoreau (and Leopold himself). We need to imagine the mountain and its metaphorical thinking.

Consider how Leopold begins the section on “The Land Pyramid” by calling for a new figure of speech and mental image to understand and love the biotic mechanism. Plato be damned: we need the poets (the image-makers) in order to be more philosophical.

An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.

Ecology needs poetry. The biotic community, to be understood, needs to be dramatized. I would suggest that such poetry is evident in Leopold’s writing–though he may not be as interested or as gifted (in other words, as wild) as Thoreau is with his paradoxes. But I hear it in his evocation of elegy; in the alliteration of his ‘listening land’; in his “biotic drama” in which the lifespan of an atom is re-imagined as a Homeric odyssey; in a sense that Leopold performs an ecological consciousness in his descriptions and in his desire to have us think like mountains (a poetic figure, after all, for something radically non-human, and as strange as anything in Thoreau). I understand this poetry of Leopold’s ecology, finally, in his call for an ecological consciousness that is ethically and esthetically right: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Leopold calls for a more holistic, ecological, systems-oriented image or icon or representation of the relation between nature and human culture, in which humans are part of what he calls the “biotic drama,” but only part. I wonder how we might translate the image of the energy circuit (pictured above) into ethical relations. And furthermore, how we might locate those ethical relations more specifically within the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

We could turn, perhaps, to Richard Long, the environmental artist/sculptor that you will read for Professor Harvey: art understood as a layer of “human and geographic history.” You can view Long’s works here.

And to take this one step further, as Leopold suggests: what does the image look like when viewed from both an ecological and an aesthetic perspective? One possibility: a fractal, which is an image of nature’s type of geometry. A good example of fractal geometry can be found in tree branches (and leaves) and in the shape of coastlines.

For more on fractals, you can visit this discussion from my course on Environmental Writing, or check out this documentary on fractals. You won’t see the relationship between nature and culture in the same way again. You can read more about fractals here, at The Poetry of Recursion.

Or, for another blending (perhaps conflation?) of the ecological and the aesthetic, consider the work of Chris Jordan, “Intolerable Beauty,” which focuses on the aesthetics of consumption. Or something a bit more traditional, Andy Goldsworthy.  Is this what Leopold means by including beauty as a criterion for an ecological conscience?