Organic Reading: an introduction to environmental writing


What is a name for what we are doing in this course in environmental writing? Does the name matter? Perhaps. Traditionally, one would think of the matter of this course, evidenced by many of the readings, as a course in nature writing–a familiar shorthand. I can’t disagree, but do want to stretch our perspectives. Yes, it is writing about nature, writing that is interested and invested in the natural world. But what writing isn’t? Isn’t any text produced thus interested in nature? We see that the definition can quickly become too limiting and cliched: nature writing, a text with lots of trees.

Here is a taxonomy of more traditional forms of nature writing, where environmental writing begins in the 19th c. with Thoreau and Burroughs and others; these may or may not be eco-oriented–and in the case of Thoreau, sometimes at the same time.  Thomas J. Lyon, This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (Hougthon Mifflin, 1989). Lyon edits this anthology of American Nature writing and offers in his introduction an attempt to provide some critical perspective on the genre. You will notice that it pre-dates the emergence of ‘eco-criticism’ (coming later in the 1990s). In that sense, in dealing with ‘nature writing’ (with Thoreau at the center) and its contexts in literary history, and in providing a taxonomy or categorization of the different types of nature writing, Lyon’s perspective may well be viewed by ecocritics today as quaint. (In fact, I believe the anthology is out of print). However, Lyon makes an important point, I think, in emphasizing the following:

Nature writing itself, in any case, would not rest easily in any static system, prizing as it does vitality and variety, the virtues of its subject. The categories offered here are meant simply to show the breadth of the spectrum and to help indicate some of the special powers each type within the genre may possess. (7)

He emphasizes further that this virtue of dynamic ‘system’ is an ecological perspective that he sees in nature writing: the ‘wakening of perception to an ecological way of seeing’ that leads, ultimately to an ethical implication: “the turning of our attention to the natural world tends to subvert our anthropocentric heritage.” (xv)

So Lyon’s ‘nature writing’ is not as quaint as we might suppose. In any case, here are his categories. He defines the ‘literature of nature’ as having three central dimensions: “natural history information, personal responses to nature, philosophical interpretation of nature. He then offers this spectrum of writing about nature (focusing on, as we are in this course, nonfiction or expository writing–primarily essays–on experiences in nature):

  • field guides and professional papers (ex: Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to Western Birds)
  • natural history essays (ex: John Muir)
  • rambles (ex: Dillard, Pilgrim)
  • solitude and back-country living (ex: Thoreau, Walden)
  • travel and adventure (ex Lopez, Arctic Dreams)
  • farm life (ex: Wendell Berry)
  • man’s role in nature (ex: John Burroughs)

Part of what we will do in this course is to explore the problem of the criticism that we are also going to be engaging in: whatever we name it, nature writing, environmental literature, ecocrticism, literary ecology, green writing, geocentric, biotic–we will need to think about what we mean. And to do so by considering what others have taken these terms to mean. And more to the point: what others and what we can do as readers and writers of/in/from/for/by environmental or ecological perspectives.

Some historical perspective on ecocrticism from Wikipedia.

An Ecocriticism Page that offers some perspective on the various names for the discipline, a history, and a bibliography.

Some critical perspective on the difference between environmental and ecological criticism

In her history of the emergence of ecocriticism as a critical movement, Glotfelty contrasts the prefixes “eco-” and “enviro-”: in its connotations, enviro- is anthropocentric and dualistic, implying that we humans are at the center, surrounded by everything that is not us, the environment. Eco-, in contrast, implies interdependent communities, integrated systems, and strong connections among constituent parts. (xx)

“Enviro-” encourages the distinction between nature and culture, sometimes even to the extent of making them mutually exclusive so that nature, strictly speaking, exists only when it stands in magisterial independence of human fingerprints of any kind (the premise of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature); whereas “eco-” encourages seeing both nature and culture as interconnected parts contained by the Earth’s ecology. In taking Rueckert’s term instead of inventing a new term “envirocriticism,” this movement seems to side with “eco-” but it also sides with “enviro-” in the names, mentioned above, of its journal and organization. Perhaps early ecocriticism’s focus on nature writing, which fits readily into the “enviro-” model, has something to do with this terminological ambivalence. [Ecocriticism and Kenneth Burke]

One of the leading names in the critical study of environmental literature 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 evnironment 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 readingfarm 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. For example, notice how Emerson thus blends science with poetry in this passage from his essay “Poetry and Imagination”:

There is one animal, one plant, one matter, and one force. The laws of light and of heat trans-late each other ; – so do the laws of sound and of color ; and so galvanism, electricity, and magnetism are varied forms of the selfsame energy. While the student ponders this immense unity, he observes that all things in nature, the animals, the mountain, the river, the seasons, wood, iron, stone, vapor, – have a mysterious relation to his thoughts and his life ; their growths, decays, quality, and use so curiously resemble himself, in parts and in wholes, that he is compelled to speak by means of them. His words and his thoughts are framed by their help. Every noun is an image. Nature gives him, sometimes in a flattered likeness, sometimes in caricature, a copy of every humor and shade in his character and mind. The world is an immense picture-book of every passage in human life. Every object he beholds is the mask of a man.


Emerson’s vision of occult relation from Nature (transparent eyeball) is reinforced–though, to my mind, shown to be much more down to earth, material, not merely Romantic vision. This is not far from Berry’s practical vision of farming; it is close to the vision Thoreau provides at the end of “Walking,” where his own understanding of the wildness of nature is at once familiar and unfamiliar, recognizable and unexplainable.  Though Berry may not use Emerson’s imagery, or Thoreau’s assertion that science needs to be poetic (and elsewhere in this essay, Emerson claims that poetry is a science), and is a problem when it is unpoetical, Berry and Emerson and Thoreau share the vision of analogy, of system and relation. 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 environmental writing this semester will be to consider how to read and think and write for pattern. How to read, write, and think in an English class, and 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.

One thought on “Organic Reading: an introduction to environmental writing

  1. Pingback: Thoreau: crafting the pastoral | English Graduate Studies

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