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
A FEW PAGES, OR DRAFT, OF MY FINAL PROJECT (which is 9 pages):
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 designare: de, 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
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.)