literature of the environment (rambled reflection of a college course)

Here I am to discuss the “value of nature” from my perspective as shifted from earlier this transitional winter-spring to now, to June 12th and to this moment, head dizzy from oven cleaner and hands chemically-sooted with the dampened rags of shower cleaner, and other cleaners, and brought to you by plastic wrap, the tawny owl of my spirited disposition for elbow grease is flown. How these chemicals affect the environment if they wrinkle my fingerprints. So the class. Even my dizziness cannot derail me with this tea in me.

– why you took the class –

I was torn between taking this course and “geography of the pacific northwest” and chose wisely. The sheer amount of critical thought flooding out of myself in response to the thickly engaging questions and ponderous texts widened my mind. Sure, imagining a glacier three times taller than the space needle covering much of the puget sound would have been fascinating and thought provoking in a different way – but this class, this clear liberal slant, was refreshing. Geography, I realized, would have been based on generalities and rote memorization of crust layers, probably.

I also took the class because of my growing interest in the joining of ‘natural world’ with ‘art’ and how the blending of these categories seemed to be the goal of the course- to blur the lines and make literature immediately relevant to the changing earth, to the manipulation of minds through the guise of popular entertainment, or the effects certain mindsets represented in literature physically have on the environment. This is good. Reading these novels and their differing opinions – seeing them mapped out on the physical world – instead of escapism.

Of other lit classes the immediate relevance of a text is not apparent outside of the boundaries of the page. Sure, I love reading existential literature, where those cave-dwelling Europeans bury their heads in their own art, examining every iota of their own sphere of the world. Literature literature literature.

– problems and challenges along the way –

Biggest issue is being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the arguments. There is a “family farm initiative” trying to take “back” land from the Olympic National Park. The building and destruction of dams. The introduction of non-native fish into rivers where they used to be numerous. In this case, even the ecological solution has dire consequences for the wild fish, because they will be outnumbered and out-evolved of the river. Larger ideas, such as Christian theology, the opinion of godly men for the ‘purpose of nature’ is even more distressing.

insert anecdote.

BUT – even with the weight of the world… no, the weight of human impositions on the world, the bowing of the world under pressure of humanities impatience for quick satisfaction of greed. I am not fully disheartened. This class reintroduced me to a lot of environmental issues I’ve tried to be aware of. Instead of taken a fatalist approach, I realize I can leap toward activism and this includes nature writing.

My own existence is inevitably hurting SOMETHING environmental. Like the oven cleaner I just used. Like the oil in the car I drove to the café. Etcetera forever.

This is why people knowingly refuse not to recycle. “It all ends up in the same place.” And in Canoga Park, California, the apartment block I lived on had no recycling bins because management thought they would attract homeless people to leap over the barbed fences and grab cans for cash at the 7/11. People like to avoid thinking about the difficulties we face because it is easy to ignore the larger ones. We have sunglasses for that. We have garbagemen for this. We have zoos for that. We have oven cleaner for this. Etcetera forever.

My understanding of the relationship between literature and the environment exploded and restructured. I thought nature writers did nothing but write romantically about English glens or with alarmist intentions to spark the societal conscious with stories of environmental horror, but I did not think there was much to be had in the middle.

Well maybe I did but I hadn’t thought of it. Some of my favorite books have the natural world as a huge focus to the action or narrative movement of the prose. This is why I love Jack Kerouac’s writing. The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch is great, and local, with a tight focus on the natural beauty of a deep Puget Sound inlet and an awkward boy’s mysterious discoveries on a barnacled beach down there. Into The Wild was a big influence on me as well.

I certainly did not consciously think about the impact of these books, or all the hiking books my Dad has on his shelf, until taking this course. I am changed for the better with the reading of accounts of philosophical reveries that can occur in vast landscapes. For Kerouac, Mt. Desolation, Big Sur, arroyos in Mexicon, and everywhere else he went. McCandless, and Krakauer both found value in nature. Miles, the young narrator in The Highest Tide, falls in love with sea creatures after he reads and memorizes Rachel Carson books.

I think what this course introduced me to something else, if I can retract my prior statement. Now I am more aware of the writer’s treatment of landscapes and animals. Is it scary, to be fought against? Is it scary, in the sense of hugeness and unpredictability? Along with this, many of the authors we read had a background in science. This is new to me. “Natural History” writing that combines accurate acute scientific integrity within the narrative. I realize the value in this kind of writing. There is a weight and a zest and a gumption behind writing that is both story-based and scientifically accurate. There is validity to be had here.

And so on.

I engaged in a general evaluation of the experience.


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