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Environmental Writing and Reading

August 26, 2017

One of the leading names in the critical study of environmental literature, or more broadly the environmental humanities, is Lawrence Buell. Buell’s first book on the subject was the pathbreaking The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995). This book, in effect, introduces the critical study of nature writing: critical in the sense of turning toward a more ‘ecocentric’ way of thinking about literature and the literary imagination in ways that had not been done before. One of the challenges in this book for literary critics–even for those who might consider themselves fans of nature writing and of a familiar author like Thoreau: can we imagine a way of reading and writing that does not have man at the center, is not ‘anthropocentric’?  Interestingly, in a more recent work, Writing For an Endangered World (2001), Buell seems to move away from the more radical view of eco back toward the environmental; not the quaintness of early studies and appreciation of nature writing, but an environment in which man (and in the case of this particular book, man’s impact on his environment and the physical environment’s impact in his world) seems to be back at the center.

Buell suggests four characteristics that comprise an environmentally oriented work. We will be thinking/discussing these throughout the term:

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. […]

2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. […]

3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. […]

4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

I think we hear in this “checklist” implications of a more systems-oriented perspective: that is, in Wendell Berry’s terms, we think about solving a text (which is in essence what critical readers do–problematize and propose a solution) not for problem but for pattern. So the movement from nature to enviro to eco might also be thought of as a movement toward pattern–and other elements of ecological/dynamic systems thinking, including nonlinearity, complexity, chaos. Indeed, as a useful thought experiment,  we could take Wendell Berry’s listing of 14 characteristics of a “good” or “organic” solution in “Solving for Pattern” and for farm substitute text–and ask: what makes for an organic reading or interpretation? This is something environmental writers have long been interested in–as we see starting with Thoreau: how to have a text that is itself natural, that represents nature in it as naturally, organically as possible; how to transplant words to his page, as he puts it in “Walking.” Thus, for example:

  1. A good [reading, interpretation] accepts given limits, using so far as possible what is at hand.
  2. A good reading accepts also the limitation of discipline.
  3. A good reading improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern–it is a qualitative solution–rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.
  4. A good reading solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems. I am talking about health as opposed to almost any cure, coherence of pattern as opposed to almost any solution produced piecemeal or in isolation…

Is it strange to substitute solution with reading, farm with text (or variants: imagination, writing, poetry, narrative)? At the same time that he is talking clearly about organic farming, can we really suggest a connection or relation to reading, a link between agricultural and cultural production? Yes–because Berry does precisely this in the same essay. He argues that the view of pattern is a view toward the health of a living system of relations: “the structures of organ, organism, and ecosystem…belong to a series of analogical integrities.” The final point in the essay gives us to understand that “analogy” is both a scientific and a poetic concept–it is how nature works, but also (since we can’t separate this completely) how humans see and interact with nature. Thus any solution we might call “organic” is not natural itself. “We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy.”  As Ralph Waldo Emerson would put it, and emphasize in his thinking about nature, man is an analogist, following the analogical patterns of nature.

Like Emerson, Berry and Burroughs share a natural-humanistic vision of analogy, nature as a system of relation that includes the human mind, but in which that mind is not at the center. As Berry reminds us, both (the science and the poetry) are organic artifacts, parts of larger patterns in which we live as humans in nature. Science and poetry offer poor solutions and unnatural readings, when pattern is forgotten.

So, one of our challenges in exploring the environmental humanities this semester–that is, aesthetic, ethical, and rhetorical perspectives that are part of how we might understand something as complex as the Chesapeake–will be to consider how to read and think and visualize and write for pattern. How to read, write, see, and think in a humanities class, or the Chesapeake Semester, or more broadly in a college, like Berry’s poet-farmer. How to be or become (or Berry and Emerson might suggest, return to being) more organic in our readings. Those are some general goals and larger stakes for our exploration this semester into related perspectives of environmental art, ethics, and writing.

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