Friday, December 2, 2016

12/2: Clinton Crockett Peters, A New ‘I’ on Nature: An Exploration in Eco-Essays

Thoreau embarked on a wilderness sojourn. Emerson walked. John Muir swayed with the whip-like Douglas firs in high winds. Annie Dillard spied on muskrats at Tinker Creek. Terry Tempest Williams stalked the retreating waters of the Great Salt Lake. Ed Abbey crept upon dancing snakes. Barry Lopez retreated from an ocean clogged with ice. And Edward Hoagland tossed marooned turtles into a torrential sea.

The first person essay has a formidable history in the field of nature writing.

But here, I want to see if we can lose the contested terminology, “nature writing” in favor of the term “eco-writing” and specifically, “eco-essay.”

I have a soft spot for wilderness trekking writers who I read in high school and college, as I was backpacking in the American West and working as an outdoor guide for three years. They excited me and confirmed a sense of splendor that I felt when isolated in these remote spots. But I can’t, two decades and three degrees later, objectively, ignore the baggage the “nature writing” genre carts around.

“Eco-essay,” as a term, combines the lineage of essay writing, with its history dating back to Montaigne and occidental ancients, as well as Sei Shōnagon and Yoshida Kenkō and other Asian essayists (obviously, Essay Daily’s audience is well familiar) and “eco” to clue readers into the unfolding conversations that are connected to environmental-earth processes and the more-than-human world.

But there are nuances to this definition, which I am about to spend the duration of this essay expounding on.

If you are a Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart kind of person, who knows a thing when you see it, there are several recent, notable examples of eco-essay collections such as Amy Leach’s Things That Are, Alison Hawthorne Deming’s Zoologies, Nicole Walker’s Quench Your Thirst With Salt, Kurt Caswell’s An Inside Passage, Linda Hogan’s Dwellings, Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost, Steven Church’s One With the Tiger, Lisa Couturier’s The Hope of Snakes, and Elena Passarello’s forthcoming Animals Strike Curious Poses to name but a few, as well as Angela Pelster’s Limber and Yelizaveta Renfro’s Xylotheque which I will discuss in more detail below.

I do not pretend I’ve exhausted the genre. Certainly there are eco-essayists such as Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard who have been long at work. But today I want to highlight what I think is an emerging trend in essays.

For me what is important about what eco-essayists are doing is a lot of what they are not doing. Nature writing is too often identified, justly or unjustly, with white male writers, like John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Lummis, Edward Abbey, Ernest Hemingway, Farley Mowat, and Jon Krakauer, among others, trekking off to wildernesses where other people can’t, lecturing about humanity’s sins while benefiting from them. “Nature” itself is also too often seems codified as “pure” or “without people” in a way that I think has corrupted the word.

With eco-essayists, we also find no rough and ready male affirming masculinity and ignoring the ordinary, privileged, and toxic effects of human culture that make wilderness wanderings possible.

What I have assembled here is a kind of Rough Guide for investigating how the genre is evolving.

Many fellow environmental writers have often asked why many people seem to have an allergy to the genre. Why is the “Nature Writing” shelf at Barnes & Noble a dusty and lonely one?

I believe the perceived tone and sanctimoniousness of many nature writing texts has driven many readers to other shelves. As Phillip Lopate writes:
“The defect of much environmental writing in our time is its self-righteousness, and solemnity, its general shortage of humor, irony, wit. Regardless of how dire the situation may be and how correct are those sounding the alarm, their warnings do not often make for stimulating prose.”[1]
Joyce Carol Oates famously writes, in “Against Nature,” that nature writing, “inspires a painfully limited set of responses in ‘nature writers’ — REVERENCE, AWE, PIETY, MYSTICAL ONENESS.”[2]

These tones, I believe, though indicative of only one branch of environmental writing, reveal the strand steeped in privileged and unaware gawking, dating to the Romantics like Wordsworth, who notoriously (and lyrically) beheld the surroundings a few miles above Tintern Abbey but not the poor populations struggling to make a life around there.

Through quotation marks, Oates, questions the validity of nature writing.

Because what is it, really?

If nature writing is texts in which green spaces appear, Sense and Sensibility might warrant inclusion, though a text as engaged with ecofeminism as Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, with its Seoul cityscapes, might not.

I suggest, as many have, that “nature” doesn’t exist.[3]

Oates herself wrote that she doubted, “‘Nature’ as a single coherent noun, anything other than a Platonic, hence discredited, is-ness.”

There is no “out there.”

There is only the world and we who live in it. Or, as the essayist Kurt Caswell has said, “Everything is nature, the world is nature, and we all write about the world.”[4]

Nature writers as far back as Thoreau, and maybe further to Petrarch in his summit of Mount Ventoux, have often been about going “there,” a land separated from everyday human experience. “There” has often become a space of veneration, mysticism, and moral reckoning.

This reverence for spaces that are disconnected from most readers’ experiences has long been a problem. Edward Hoagland realizes why when he writes, “The survival of wild places and wild things, like the permanence of noteworthy architecture, or the opera, or a multiplicity of languages, or old shade trees in old neighborhoods, is not a priority for most people.”[5]

To travel to Yellowstone National park from, say, Dallas, requires funds and leisure time that many people can’t afford.

I am not suggesting anyone cease visiting Yellowstone. There are innumerable physiological and psychological benefits to visiting more-than-human-dominated ecosystems.

But when writers utter such phrases as “National Parks are for everyone,” and therefore it’s everyone’s interest to see them protected, I advocate that we realize that this is a farce. National Parks and wilderness areas serves those who have the privilege of getting there.

This may seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me and my co-workers when we worked for three years guiding participants on canoe and backpacking trips. It also still often seems outside the awareness of many writers on the Barnes & Noble “Nature Writing” shelf.

Just in October of 2015, at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, I watched a best-selling, white male writer, with a ridiculously fake macho name yell at his audience about the “sinfulness” of humanity, while also proclaiming what a mystical time he’d had in his wilderness travels, hawking his aggressive mountain climbing literature made possible through the burning of much carbon.


In a near canonized piece of ecocriticism, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon rails against the Edenic notions of “Nature” and wilderness.

Cronon argues that the creation of landscape purportedly unmolested by human tinkering was a way to make, “a product of the very history it seeks to deny.”[6]

“Nature” helped erase Western Civilization’s effects in the view finder, according to Cronin. Even part of the National Park Service’s mission today is to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources… for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”[7]

When the United States government turned California’s Yosemite Valley into a National Park, they first made sure to evict the Mexican-Americans and the Native Americans who had labored in the scenic park and called it home. These humans marred the “pristine” view of a national park as beyond human tinkering.

This white-washed projection is true for many other parks wilderness areas across the United States, once teeming with people before 1492. Backpackers and writers attend to these locations as if they are beyond the human clutches (as I did).

But as scholar of the Literature of the American West, Sara Spurgeon, said to me once, we have to remember that, “wildernesses were not unpeopled but rather de-peopled.”[8]

Eco-critic Wes Jackson writes, “To have a designated holy land and ignore the rest—to treat our wilderness as saint and Iowa farmland, or for that matter an East Saint Louis slum, otherwise—is a form of schizophrenia.”[9]

That doesn’t mean we can’t write about places as remote from most people as ANWR or Pacific atolls. But it might be profitable to be aware of what we’re insinuating when we compare Yellowstone with Cathedrals, or rafting the Grand Canyon as a transcendental experience, and that it is an immense privilege to go and write about these places, and an immense expenditure of natural resources.

I think the supposed vantage point one has on a mountain top leads writers to reflect on the backwardness of people, though no one ever transcends humanity. Many eco-essayists try to avoid holier-than-thou-ness all together or see it as counter productive. Nicole Walker, for instance, has said:
“When environmentalist writing, or even nature writing, sounds like a eulogy, I think it creates, just like a funeral creates, inaction. You go to funerals to sit and mourn, not do anything… I think instead of preaching or mourning or galvanizing the troops, environmental writing should be funny and fun and scientific and beautiful because that's what nature is and what we're trying to appreciate/save/illustrate--which, in the end, galvanizes the troops better than preaching or mourning.”[10]

One essay I find immensely useful in helping me understand what is possible with eco-essays is Scott Hess’s “Imagining an Everyday Nature.”[11] Hess writes about moving to Indiana, a place that conjures flat farm fields and overstuffed cattle, far from the grandeur of wall-calendar ready mountain vistas.[12]

But Hess became committed to, “positive imaginative and ecological models,” for the home he found himself in.

Rather than relying on escaping to more heralded (commercialized and advertised) locations, Hess wanted to, “encourage [a] deep commitment to the unspectacular, developed, aesthetically ordinary environments where most of us live.”

Similarly, I believe eco-writing does well when it highlights the ordinary because that is what most of us can relate to.

Another ecocritic who I find valuable in thinking about new eco-essays is Stacy Alaimo in her “Trans-Corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature.”[13] Alaimo argues that, “The time-space where human corporeality, in all its material fleshiness, is inseparable from ‘nature’ or ‘environment.”

In other words, human molecules (even the pious ones) are enmeshed with all the other molecules around them.

Thinking across boundaries, those of the mind and of the skin, can help us imagine and understand our environment not as separate from us, but as us.

Alaimo flattens out the destructive dichotomy of nature and human culture, often maintained, interestingly, by writers who write “nature” as a place “out there.”

Alaimo suggests humans are tied to their surroundings in a real dirt and blood and microbe way, not a mystical one, (Joyce Carroll Oates don’t worry). This is not always a friendly cohabitation.

That stuff around us acts, is not passive. So do viruses. So do rats. So do cockroaches. These are all “nature” too.

Dirt, one of the most benign thing in our imaginations, is actually a life form, a conglomeration of lives, each microbe separate yet as one trying to stay alive.

Which really, and this may seem creepy, is what our human bodies are.

I am astounded thinking about the multitudes of lifeforms that co-inhabit my body, many of which I could not live without. The scholar-celebrity Donna Haraway, has suggested that more-than-human beings make up to ninety percent of the total cell count in our corpus.[14] This fact may make “human,” as an isolated being experiencing the world, like “nature,” another false ideal.

Like Alaimo, Haraway, in her When Species Meet, believes we can level life (and non-life like rocks and water) into, essentially, matter. From there, at the very bedrock of existence, we can begin to define what’s healthy and not for the systems (including the solar systems of our human bodies) that make up this planet.

If you still believe in maintaining your sense of human identity (as I do) then maybe it’s necessary to at least remember that, as Lawrence Buell writes, one of the deans of environmental criticism, “Personhood is defined for better or for worse by environmental entanglement. Whether individual or social, being doesn't stop at the border of the skin.”[15] This border is porous in both directions.

I am my surroundings. In my case this is Dallas and an apartment on a hill above a threadbare creek and the millions of microbes encasing my skin and dust mites in the air, my dog, and the fire ants that mass their bunkers every twenty feet or so in the perimeter grass, the food in my fridge, the bacteria helping me digest breakfast, and on and on and on.

My surroundings are me. Certainly there’s no reason for me to travel to Yellowstone for “nature.”

It might because I am a white male who has spent time trekking in wildernesses that I am very receptive to criticisms of white males writing about their treks.

Many ecocritics have bashed the cliche adventure story outlet that white males have used for reestablishing outdated gender norms.

As ecocritic Mei Mei Evans has noticed, “Most often in these narratives, Nature is encountered (and subsequently conquered) by a (white) male figure, who then wrests from the confrontation in an instatement or reinstatement of his hegemonic identity.”[16]

This trend is surely still seen today with popular near-death narratives of mountain climbers, Everest surviver tales, and television personalities like Bear Grylls and Turtle-man, whose click-bait sensationalism reaffirms the necessity of being learned in a kind of Special Forces Wilderness Ninja mysticism.

“Nature,” thanks to these guys, has become a dark place where one will be immediately assaulted with violence.[17]

I’m not sure any writer has done more to foster this kind of macho land assault than Edward Abbey.

When I worked for three years as a wilderness guide, our shop had a modest bookshelf on which sat guides to various rock-climbing spots, wilderness medicine, packing tips, and almost all of Ed Abbey’s books. His name was as regularly spoken as Edward Said’s is at post-colonialism conferences.

Work from Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is widely anthologized. And in it, Abbey has eliminated his wife and child from his narrative. They were living with him in his park ranger trailer, during the stretch of his “Solitaire,” in which Abbey chases snakes, rafts a raging river, and searches for a dead body but never once has to change a diaper.

In his most popular novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, the main character, George Hayduke, fits in with his fantasy of backcountry superhero. He torches construction equipment, survives off the land, and wins the sexual affection of his friend’s lover through prowess and determination, all the while remaining aloof, rugged, and fearless.

But Abbey’s wilderness idolization trespasses farther in the essay “Immigration and Liberal Taboos” published in a later essay collection, One Life at a Time, Please. In the book’s introduction, Abbey describes the essay about illegal immigration as his favorite of the collection and that it was an Op-ed commissioned and then rejected by The New York Times.

In the essay, Abbey writes, speaking of undocumented immigrants, “…it might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-generically impoverished people.” Abbey feared the influx of southern neighbors would ruin the West.

Later in the same essay, he advocates for the U.S. military patrolling the Mexican border and opines that we should, “Stop every campesino at our southern border, give him a handgun, a good rifle, and a case of ammunition, and send him home.”[18]

Thus a white man worried about migrants invading the desert.


Luckily, not all eco-essayists are interested in proving themselves by penetrating wilderness, forgetting history and the contemporary political situation they find themselves in.

Two amazing, recent collections have caught my eye and seem to be embodying much of what I believe possible and hopeful about the genre of eco-essays. Oddly, they are both about trees.

Angela Pelster blends observation and research with personal reflection on human realities within the world in her stunning Limber: Essays, which was a finalist for the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Yelizaveta Renfro does something much similar but in her own unique, playful yet sobering Xylotheque: Essays.

Angela Pelster’s collection is often dark. In several of Limber’s essays, the writing swerves away from the fun to deliver rumination on the scarring of landscape and the fragility of human and environment alike.

In “Rot,” Pelster describes walking by a dead squirrel near her home for several weeks with her daughter, witnessing the decomposition process, and trying to understand. Pelster writes, “As soon as an animal’s heart stops beating, the chemicals in its body change and so its pH levels change and so its cells lose their structural integrity. They sway and crash like an old house in the wind” (96).

Enzymes break away and begin eating other cells, which is called “autolysis,” the term for the body feasting on itself. This is not mystical oneness.

Thus the fate of a squirrel is, without much preamble, transmitted over to a human’s. With autolysis, Pelster deconstructs nature/human binaries as well as undoing false Edenic notions. The human body consuming itself will likely not strike many readers as romantic.

Furthermore, she does not examine the demise of a polar bear, or a popularly beloved sperm whale, or an endangered creature far and away from most readers’ experiences. She inspects, rather, a garden-variety tree squirrel, as urban as dry cleaning.

Dissecting the processes of so familiar a rodent brings the lens of environmental literature to the city, where most humanity lives. This move helps imagine Hess’s everyday nature, one where humans and their close neighbors live and die together.

In the essay, “Burmis,” seemingly about a local landmark tree in Canada, where Pelster is from, Pelster weaves in the economy of the town that houses it, a once vibrant mining community in Eastern Canada. Like many of its kind, the mining town has suffered from the mechanization of industry, outsourcing, and from its own labors. Pelster takes her readers through the travesty of the mining accidents that have wrecked the town’s population, the brutality that is the community’s life blood and curse. The town’s mass graves are just down the road from the tree, which signifies the town.

Similarly, the Burmis tree is rotten from inside, held up by metal rods stuck through it like supports in a museum dinosaur skeleton. The heartwood of the tree, Pelster explains, has rotted away. “Every deep wound, broken branch, fire scar, sliced root and boring bug invited the fungus that causes heart rot to enter. The fungus grows, softening and weakening the wood, making it vulnerable to strong winds and breaking” (21).

Pelster details how the mining townspeople stayed on, despite many hardships, out of poverty and stubbornness, a commitment to the cause of mining and celebration of their trade.

This commitment flies in the face of the constant rumblings, the landscape’s warnings. Here Pelster is outlining a kind of agency of the land, transforming it, as Stacy Alaimo would do, from the blank slate to agent.

“They wanted the mountain the way a lover can want the flesh,” Pelster writes (18).[19]

Pelster then describes how the mountain was unable to retain snowmelt that soaked into the hollowed out mines and expanded as ice. “The mountain strained against the swelling, but its strength had been hollowed by the miners” (19).

The mountain exploded and sent ninety-million tons of rock into the town, killing hundreds and virtually wiping the place off the map.

As Stacy Alaimo writes with Susan Hekman, “Nature 'punches back' at humans and machines they construct to explore it in ways that we cannot predict.”[20]

Pelster again shows the direct life connection between the plight of a once living tree and the tragedy of a once alive town, both dead from a fissure that gave way to a kind of rot.

Though Pelster and Renfro’s writing does at times risk taking trees and nature as mere metaphor for the human condition, Pelster pushes against this easy reading by connecting the life she describes to her own, not only as commentary:
“Autolysis means that I live in a body ready to eat my own body, and that I exist inside the continual possibility of being split from myself. Once, when my once respectable father had started smoking crack, I thought I saw him stumble in front of my car as I stopped at a crosswalk. Who needs another tree metaphor?” (103).
In this passage, Pelster is grappling with the equation of tree life as human life. The appearance of her drug-addled father is so startling as to shake the reader into an awareness that all in Limber is very real. After all, everything is of the world, including dead city squirrels and crack cocaine. Here Pelster nudges eco-writing past the stereotype of privileged wilderness fetishization, and brings the writing to a place where many of us live and suffer.


Yelizaveta Renfro makes similar moves in her under-appreciated collection Xylotheque: Essays. In one essay, “Soviet Trees,” she recounts her twelve-year-old self at summer camp in the Soviet Union. Born between two cultures, Renfro had a Russian mother and an American father and would spend summers abroad.

At the Soviet camp, Renfro felt the distance between America and the Soviet Union in the manner of cloths, language, and how the children behaved and went through war parade drills and sang Communist fight songs. Through the bewildering experience, Renfro felt close to the trees surrounding camp, their apolitical life, the way they grow rooted in one place.

The essay, however, moves beyond the easy, nostalgic pinning for trees. By the end there is a narrative reckoning between Renfro’s young self and the real life of the forest. She writes, “The thing about trees is they don’t have twin selves, and the lesson you take from being among them as a twelve-year-old, you will see is not their lesson at all. The trees were never Soviet; they don’t strain under the forces of language or identity” (33).

In Renfro’s work here, the trees are not resisting by virtue of their biology. They do not care and are not shielding Renfro from the politicization of the human culture that they happen to find themselves in.

In “Soviet Trees” Benfro seems to be straining to identify the physical material of the tree beyond the language and politics projected onto them, something she then attempts to apply to herself.

In this she isn’t successful because she, unlike the trees, is enmeshed in the language construction of nations.

Renfro in “Soviet Trees” is extending her self-awareness to the trees at her Soviet summer camp, to understand their materiality and agency that connects to us, similar to the way Pelster assigns an agency to the mountains around the mining town in “Burmis.” The idea of agency includes the response, and sometimes lack of response, by the more-than-human creatures.

Renfro, in her essays, articulates multiple schisms: between her younger and adult self, American and Soviet, trees and humans. But these sides bleed into each other. Renfro craves the apolitical life of trees like the other Russian campers crave Renfro’s American t-shirts. This all encompassing view, like Pelster’s, overcomes the nature/culture binary and helps rid eco-writing of its former out-there, wilderness focus.

Renfro takes up this mantle further in the essay, “Cause of Death” about her time working as a salesperson for a cemetery. She writes, “The man who came to see me to buy a site to bury his wife looked like a man who’d been inexplicably slapped by the earth itself… He looked like a blind, burrowing animal that had been spit out by the dirt and left to blink and burn in the glare of full sunlight” (35).

Here again, we see the conflation of human and nature, geo-physical processes used to elucidate a private personal attempt to deal with overwhelming events. This is not an essay divorced from the every day world of existence but enmeshed inside it.

Renfro deepens this investigation:
“The one thing begins to stand in for the other, so if I hear of a young widower, I might think of a broken tree, and if I see a cracked tree, I might think of human death, and I might not even know why, except that now those are the strange incongruous shadows those cast of another in my memory.” (42)

Imagining a more everyday nature, Renfro uses the space of another essay, “Naval Country” to talk about the human-manicured forests of oranges her grandfather once owned in California. In it, she combines personal history, outlining her grandfather’s misogyny and hard-work ethic, with a history of California cultivation.

There are no easy answers for Renfro as she examines her nostalgic feelings and the fact that her grandfather wore out from a near lifetime of tree toil.

Renfro remembers helping her grandfather on the farm, her pride in her hard work despite common teenage rebelliousness. Renfro, like her grandfather, came to care for the orange groves, exhibiting the complex, messy reality more common than a pure-soul nature hero.

Renfro only later came to the understanding of agriculture’s destructive conquest, paired with Western Imperialism. But at the time, she felt enmeshed in the environment that she found her self born to and tied with, wanting to promote it. She writes:
“The reason for our toil is not just so I can have a little spending money, not just so Grandpa can spot the numbers easily. I can see that we are preserving the groves themselves, keeping them pristine, orange-crate worthy. We are protecting them from the encroach of the future, of other landscapes.” (121)
Of course the inevitable dawns for the oranges as they do for Renfro’s grandfather. After death takes him, she sees the orange fields carved up, her work destroyed as a greater penetration of urbanity takes over.

Yet this essay isn’t a requiem. Renfro shows her understanding of the manipulation of the landscape: the amount of water required to farm, the violent plowing of land, even her grandfather’s subjugation of his wife. She ends with a note of somberness, discussing the “disease of nostalgia” as she looks over the abandoned development that was once her family’s groves, talking to a “you” who is her younger self.

“You mistook the simplicity of a child’s life for universal simplicity, your own happiness for universal happiness, when you mistook the long yawn of time that makes up childhood for permanence” (134).

In this way, Renfro is, like Pelster, conflating nature and culture, looking at the agency of nature, but not ignoring the complexities of human history.

Renfro does not penetrate into the wilderness of orange groves, rather she is identifying with the sadness and responsibility of a Westerner enmeshed in the juggernaut of imperialist environmental devastation.


These essays are not reaffirming hegemonic norms, but question them as well as question the writers’ own place within the industrial and natural worlds.

These works are complex amalgamations, even if unconscious, of many of the critiques ecocriticism offers to help the “eco essay” genre develop.

For Pelster, Renfro, and their contemporary eco-writers, there is no “there,” separate from us, not even the center of the observable universe, nor the magical imagination. These essayists’ books swim in the relevant, present drama of the human and nonhuman worlds as they swirl, collide, and play.


The nature writing genre has enough of the whiff of clerical robes. But if I could rise up on a stump for a few paragraphs, I have a couple of suggestions.

During my undergraduate career and while I worked as an outdoor guide, I helped start the school’s only environmental service organization, so I know well the impulse to “grow the flock.” Also, global warming is undoubtedly the most complex and urgent social justice issue to grapple with. And I still care about wilderness areas, ones I will never visit, because I think their messy wildlife cities offer us another example of how to live much like other human cultures do. And there are many other issues related to the human-entanglement-with-the-more-than-human-world that get labeled “environmental.”

But I think the instinct to sermonize almost always backfires.

Eco-essays that work seem to lay bare vulnerabilities as any good essay. They confess, brood, struggle, meander, and yet broaden an understanding of what it means to be us in connection with other people and non-people.

What the eco-essay genre has in its utility belt is the ceaseless wonder of the natural world, of humans, of millions of lives trying in unique ways to stave off death. Eco-essays have the power to connect to other lives so that we may see our own in relief.

This may take a bit of learning. I was fortunate that one of my undergraduate majors was environmental studies, so I had a leg up on book-learning as well as outdoor experience when I began writing about human entanglement. But even so, during my MFA, I elected to take a course in Biogeography (the study of where animals and plants live and why), and this course was invaluable to me as I was composing my MFA thesis on misfit and invasive species.

Non-human things are funny. They are also extraordinary. Did you know that rabbits can see both sides of themselves at the same time? Or that occasionally the earth crakes open with a plume of hot hair, boiling liquid and sparkling diamonds, a jewelry store geyser?

But I wouldn’t use words like “beauty” and “awe.” And I shouldn’t forget the privilege it takes to visit the last wild places of the world nor forget the privilege it takes to have the time to reflect and put words on a page (as often as I do forget).

Nor forget the lives affected by the consumerism and pollution that make food and living and traveling possible.

One truth that grants any kind of environmental literature staying power is the physical, material interconnectedness among humans, other earthlings, and processes of this world.

People need air, food, water, friendly bacteria in our guts, soil, oceans, animals that we eat, hunt, or snuggle with, and the sun that keeps us warm and the ozone that keeps us from frying. Our cell phones include materials mined form the Earth’s skin, and plastic is simply the congealed leaves of long ago Triassic ferns.

These encounters may help the perspective of what it means to be a creature among many, a life among many non-lives, a view of humans’ place in the biological, geological, and anthropological processes of our existence. This wider view can aid understanding, not by eliminating humanity, nor slums, nor toxic waste, but including the more-than-human within our own cultural framework, where it is, actually, already.

Being aware of these connections and investigating them seems to be a way for eco-literature to stay alive, to create art and expression, to illuminate what it means to be human as creatures enmeshed within the processes, the metaphysical (if you want) and physical, of this earth.


Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is pursuing a PhD in English and creative writing. His work also appears in Orion, Southwest Review, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere.

[1] Lopate, Phillip. To Show and To Tell. Free Press, 2013. p. 193.
[2] Oates, Joyce Carol. “Against Nature.” On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors. Ed. Lee Gutkind. Putnam, 2002. p. 46.
[3] “Others” include ecocritic Timothy Morton in his Ecology Without Nature and Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek, to name two.
[4]I don’t balk at “environment” the way I do at “nature” because I think “environment” is a sufficiently ambidextrous term. Many things have been called “environments” from Yosemite to a classroom to a corporate office floor. Environment usually means “surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates,” which is vague that draws attention to the connections between subject and surroundings. This is sufficient for me.
[5] Hoagland, Edward. “Small Silences.” Sex and the River Styx. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011. p. 22.
[6] Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. Ed. William Cronon. Norton, 1995. pp. 69-90. p. 79.
[7]“About Us.” National Park Service. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.
[8] Spurgeon, Sara. Personal Communication. Sowell Collection Conference. 23 April 2015.
[9] Jackson, Wes. “Wilderness as Saint.” Aperture, vol 120, 1990, pp. 50–54.
[11] Hess, Scott. “Imagining an Everyday Nature.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 17 no. 1,Winter 2010, pp. 85-112. p. 90.
[12] Barry Lopez, interestingly, has suggested that scenic nature calendars are a kind of pornography because they highlight only a narrow range of beauty for consumption.
[13] Alaimo, Stacy. “Trans-Corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature.” Material Feminisms. Eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Indiana UP, 2009. pp. 237-64. p. 238, 249.
[14]Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. Minnesota UP, 2008. p 3.
[15] Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005. p 23.
[16] Evans, Mei Mei. “‘Nature’ And Environmental Justice.” Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, and Pedagogy. Eds. Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein. Arizona UP, 2002, pp. 181-193. p 182.
[17] To be transparent, I was certainly influenced by this male-typified writing. On my first backpacking trip I carried a very heavy machete, a Bowie knife, a hatchet, and a long, fish boning knife. I also remember well years later, mid-backpack in Northern New Mexico, I came across an exhausted young man carrying a katana sword up a mountain.
[18] Abbey, Edward. “Immigration and Liberal Taboos.” One Life at a Time, Please. Henry Holt, 1988. pp. 43, 44.
[19] There has been much fear of anthropomorphizing anything more-than-human, but I believe that fear is misplaced. Most writers can’t help using human descriptors for nonhuman elements (words themselves obviously), and the point is to create in the imagination a relatable construction of a thing. Those that think they can understand a thing in of itself are perhaps pushing a rock up a steep hill.
[20] Alaimo, Stacy and Susan Hekman. “Introduction: Emerging Models of Materiality in Feminist Theory.” Material Feminisms. Eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Indiana UP, 2009. p. 7.

No comments:

Post a Comment