Environmental Writing — by Design

First a note:  Anne-Marie, I’m sorry I didn’t get to say good-bye on Monday.  I’ve really appreciated your insights in class and enjoyed meeting you.  I wish you were traveling on with us!  Congratulations and best wishes,  Ann


I’ve decided that environmental writing is like pointillism.  The French

impressionists who took a blank canvas and carefully painted it with tiny dots knew

that a grand picture would be visible from a distance.  Each dot had a purpose and

was necessary.  Georges Seurat used a long brush to paint the dots, to have sufficient

distance from the canvas to place each dot while able to sense how it would fit into

the whole.  We each have the potential to create a dot, to contribute to that grand

picture with transformative policies and action.  In a broader context, we each

actually are that dot.  We need variety and diversity.  The picture itself is in colorful

motion, causing the dots to move with each new iteration or generation.


We are players in the interdependence that makes up creation, the entanglement of

nature and history.  What we value determines what we think.  What we think

influences our choices.  Our choices are the collective state of the environment.  This

progression might be called fractal behavior, the gradual repeating and enlarging of

social patterns.  We are building what we experience.  What influences this activity?

Are humans  wired to understand the mystery of the earth?  The intricacies of life,

the texture and complexities, are hidden in nature’s masks, sometimes porous or

parasitic, and they beckon us.


I have wondered how well I have placed “my dot.”  How does a personal narrative

bring focus to issues of the environment?  How important is individual involvement

versus academic theorizing?  Have I enabled my children to see the coincidence of

aesthetics and science, to understand the responsibility of human culture to a wider

world?  Has my footprint left an impression?


Environmental writers explore the social relationships and responsibilities that

become a process of understanding.  Life is not fixed.  The painting is never finished.

Environmental history is built on attitude and reiteration, and man is changing the

atmosphere that we inhabit.  Our behavior has altered the meaning of wild and

wilderness and sustainable.  Voices of ecological conscience have tried to warn us.

Single topic prophets like Rachel Carson in her war against DDT have made a huge

difference, but the steady and consistent guidance by Wendell Berry and others has

provided fresh approaches to urgent issues.  Reduced consumption and adaptive

management of resouces are topics we can get our heads around.  There must be

practicality to ideology to effect change.


The valedictorian of my class at an all women’s college made the startling remark at

graduation that she was committing never to have children.  She specified

overpopulation and the strains on the environment as her motivators.  She walked

her talk.  More than 45 years later, she has remained a fierce proponent for

environmental issues, a vocal activist.  An eco-feminist?  Like Annie Dillard of the

same time period, she focused on details to give definition and outline to the greater

picture, and the details are important for understanding nature’s grand design.

Dillard gives so much detail to her observations because she is making mental

imprints of what will vanish with the next blink or the next walk.  Her eye is trained

on the illusive.  We are forced to consider the relevance of life, as she urgently

reminds us that death is the bringing together of all things, the shared finale of life’s



Design comes from the Latin designarede, out; signare, to mark.  So “to mark out”

or “define” is the job of design.  The aim is to make a plan, to have a purpose or

scheme.  The world, of course, is both a verb and a noun.  The noun allows us a view,

and overall artistic arrangement of color and detail.  It is a project.  Environmental

writers grapple with this evolving design of creation and the interconnected

relationship of human culture and nature.  Is evolution the creator, or is there a

design that blends science and religion?  These questions have no simple answers but

provide spiritual quest and literary epiphany, and their exploration is important to

practical outcomes.  A single dot does not a painting make.  Environmental writing

encourages self-awareness and introspection, replete with observation and critique;

but without a rallying call for changed collective behavior, it is often poetic, but

always academic.


The blend of the poetic with science is Berry’s often folksy appeal.  He looks for the

middle ground that will not offend, while encouraging his reader  —  or listener  —  to

pay attention.  Harmony is both mental and physical.  He wants us to focus our

thinking and get involved.  His vision sees the complicated tiny dots of nature, and of

human choices, that do not line up in simple patterns.  Life is complex, and how we

individually use space relates to the whole picture.  Berry didn’t draw me to Kentucky

farming, but he did remind me of when I scoured the countryside outside of

Charlottesville, Virginia, in the 1960s and took slides (!) of small country churches

that I thought would be wonderful converted homes.  Embraced by gardens and

dappled with sunlight, these modest buildings became magnets.  I was drawn to an

ecological context that awakened a desire for connection to landscape.


In middle school I won a prize for a poem that was published.  It was haiku and

spoke of the effects of raindrops “like David’s stones.”  Even a child’s thought can

understand the inherent power in nature.  While not anthropomorphic, the shifting

of characteristics from one inanimate thing to another invigorates the original.

Science operates through analogy and symbols, and we listen to the earth through

language, bringing the environment to the forefront of our orientation.  The earth

reminds us that what is out of order demands our attention and untangling.  While

haiku provides a crisp format for focus generally on subjects of the natural world, the

broadpoetic talent of Berry also inspires us with his reverence for nature.  He’s a

multi-media kind of guy  —  with essays, poems, and lectures  —  and uses whatever

will move his audience.


Song, sermon, and film can be models for discourse on environmental design.

Recent viewing of Great Expectations provided for me a stunning example of the

impact of environment on storytelling and home.  The grayness, the starkness, the

vast expanses of desolation were actually central players of the story and provided

relentless impressions.  The actors played out their roles in physical relation to one

another, but the overall design of the film, the intention, included their

subordination to and overcoming of their place in the environment.  The

arrangement of all the parts combined to produce the artistic intent.


( After more about Great Expectations, personal writing is included in the remainder, and then Dillard’s design, Al Gore’s contribution, and wrap with my family.)

Posted in Ann

5 thoughts on “Environmental Writing — by Design

  1. Oh, no worries! I wish (in some ways) that I was going on, perhaps I will pop by for exciting lectures! I enjoyed having you in class as well, this class was one of my most enjoyable.
    As to your rough draft (I’m a bit sleepy, so my comment might not be all that brilliant… or coherent). I’d say make sure you really pull the pointillism theme thru each paragraph, I felt like I lost focus a bit in a few of the middle paragraphs–perhaps a little too rambly? I’m also not entirely clear on eco writing as pointillism. I think I get what you are saying (everyone is contributing to a larger picture, a sort of unified message from the masses?) So how does Berry’s blue dot work with Thoreau’s yellow dot? What about your white dot? (I’m just throwing colors in there.) I love the image of the long brush. I’d love to see more strong images like it. What is the overall picture? I think you have the potential for something really neat, especially with all the imagery you can pull in with painters and artists and paintings.

  2. Though I love many of Seurat’s paintings, I never considered the style he used. Pointillism is cool and back in a new way…all of those advertisements of tiny pictures making up a big picture, and I love how the dots create more than one picture: up close and far away and all the pictures in between.

    Maybe the answers to all of the questions in paragraph three is a development strategy to unify the essay…answering the questions you propose shows how each one of us through parenting, activism, or studying is part of the picture.

  3. Thanks, Karina, for your thoughts. I have reorganized the essay (and renamed it), and, hopefully, tied up the questions by the end. Today’s the day, and since the world didn’t end this morning on 12/12/12, I guess I’ll send the homework in! Ann

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