Writing what comes naturally

From the dawn of history, our species has set down reflections on the environment

Ever since the first cave painting of a woolly mammoth, the first story of creation told as the moon rose over a cooking fire, men and women have yearned to express their thoughts and feelings about the environment.

From Sumerian epic poems, Greek mythology, biblical stories, and pre-Christian Celtic tales on up through the Old English, Middle English, Renaissance, and Romantic periods to the present, such writing has become more overt and more prolific.

At first, it was a way of exploring the natural word and the reactions - wonder and joy and fear of "the wild" - that it elicited. Then, as societies took root and expanded, as nomads settled down to become farmers and artisans, then factory workers, it was a way of expressing values - mankind's domination over nature, the place of gender in the human order.

At the turn of the millennium, more and more readers and scholars are seeing that this is not limited to "nature writing."

"All texts are at least potentially environmental ... in the sense that all texts are literally and/or imaginatively situated in a place, and in the sense that their authors, consciously or not, inscribe within them a certain relation to their place," writes Boston College English professor Robert Kern in the current journal of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE).

This was certainly true of much of William Shakespeare's plays most notably "The Tempest," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "The Tragedy of King Lear."

Thus can Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," Willa Cather's "O Pioneers!" and even the largely urban settings of Charles Dickens also be seen as environmental texts.

More obviously, the writing of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman are classic examples of the genre - forerunners of such well-known 20th-century writers on nature as Aldo Leopold ("A Sand County Almanac"), Rachel Carson ("Edge of the Sea"), Edward Abbey ("Desert Solitaire"), Gretel Ehrlich ("The Solace of Open Spaces"), Annie Dillard ("Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"), and Gary Snyder ("Practice of the Wild").

For many writers, the environment became more than a scene in which to place a tale.

"The salient feature of environmental literature is that nature is not merely a setting or backdrop for human action, but an actual factor in the plot, that is, a character, and sometimes even a protagonist," writes John Tallmadge, professor of literature and environmental studies at the Union Institute Graduate School in Cincinnati, in the ASLE journal.

This broadened view of "nature writing," coupled with the growth in environmental activism (particularly since the first Earth Day in 1970), has led to a new academic discipline called "eco-criticism."

The number of scholars now focusing on this area has grown from just 30 as recently as 1992 to more than 1,000 today. Most are Americans (and most of them are here in the West), but interest is growing abroad - particularly in England and Japan.

"I think one of the reasons it draws a lot of people is that, unlike a lot of the extremely specialized and esoteric, if not to say exclusionary, debates of the '80s in literary circles, this is accessible to everybody," says Louise Westling, professor of English at the University of Oregon and a pioneer in this new literary discipline.

"It is concerned with problems that a lot of people think are real and present," says Dr. Westling, who fly-fishes in her spare time and sees first-hand the impact growth and development have on the countryside around the Willamette Valley. "It's engaged with the world in a very direct way."

We all live in nature, we all relate to the environment - either through our neglect and overuse or through our awareness and preservation.

And this sense that none of us is separate from the natural world, increasingly it seems, can be applied to mankind's literary efforts as well.

"All literature, by illuminating the full nature of human existence, asks a single question: How shall we live?" write John Elder and Robert Finch, editors of "The Norton Book of Nature Writing."

"In our age, that question has taken its most urgent form in relation to the natural environment. Because it has never been more necessary, the voice of nature writing has never been stronger than it is today."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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