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Sierra Magazine
Nature 101

Gazing at crows, pondering Thoreau, counting the needles of pines--it's all part of an academic adventure known as environmental studies.

by Joan Hamilton

On a balmy September afternoon, about a hundred students at one of the finest public universities in the nation are gathered under a sprawling Monterey pine. "What kind of tree is this?" a professor asks. Silence. "How many of you don't know any more than that it's a tree?" Most students raise their hands. They can converse knowledgeably about chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone hole, but most can't tell a pine from a fir, or even an oak. The professor is perturbed. "I don't think we have a chance of changing our relationship to the natural world if you don't know what's around you," he says. "The point is to pay attention."

It's the second week of environmental studies class at the University of California at Berkeley. In this brief venture outdoors, Professor Robert Hass is trying to get these brainy kids away from abstractions so they can really look at their surroundings. "They've read too much systems theory," he says. "They've learned to see the environment as diagrams and feedback loops."

Back in the classroom, though, the genial former U.S. poet laureate coaches and coaxes, respectfully eliciting student comments, finding a particle of profundity in each. Hass teaches the literary half of the course while pony-tailed Professor Greg Gilbert, an expert on forests and fungi, teaches the science. The reading list includes everything from stodgy peer-reviewed papers to swaggering Edward Abbey. At the end of one lecture, a confused student comes to the podium to ask Gilbert, "What is this class about?"

College courses in environmental literature, nonexistent 30 years ago, are immensely popular in the United States today, numbering at least 200 in 1998. "This is a new place in the curriculum," said Brown University English professor Barton St. Armand in the New York Times Magazine. "Students like it because it taps into some very basic concerns, and teachers of literature like it because they're bored with theory. Literary theory wasn't real. Nature is tangible." A professional organization has arisen, too, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, with 1,200 members, primarily in the United States. For the most devoted, studying environmental literature is a grand adventure, says Utah State University English professor Thomas J. Lyon, "a halting journey toward understanding the world, and ourselves in it, as one system."

In this class the journey begins with a name and a number on the chalkboard: "Walden, 1854." Hass has arrived a bit late, his thinning white hair disheveled. Born in San Francisco in 1941, Hass attended Catholic schools just across the bay in Marin County. For a while he toyed with the idea of writing essays or novels, but the work of authors like Theodore Roethke, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder convinced him to turn his life to poetry. He was a success from the start, winning the Yale prize for younger poets in 1973, then a MacArthur fellowship and two National Book Critics Circle awards before he was named poet laureate in 1995.

The title and the evocative descriptions of the California landscape in Hass's first book, Field Guide, might land the slim volume on the bookstore nature shelf. But his work encompasses far more than birds and burnished hillsides. Hass is a "plein air poet" whose natural world includes food and wine, film and painting, says playwright Brighde Mullins. "He sharpens our senses on the whetstone of his noticing."

In one of his first lectures, Hass tries to ease the fears of those unaccustomed to studying literature. Sometimes picking up a book can feel like coming into a room at a party where you don't understand what people are talking about, he explains. Knowing a little history can help. Nature has played a central role in poems and stories spanning all of human history. Nature was an intrinsic part of ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Indian literature, as well as Western classics such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, oral epics first written down in the 8th century B.C.

But none of these works is considered "nature writing" today. That genre developed in the last couple of centuries in Europe and the United States--an unintended by-product of the Industrial Age. Only when mechanization began to sever our ties with nature did writers invent new forms to try to repair the damage.

After Henry David Thoreau graduated from Harvard, he decided to spend a couple of years in a cabin he built on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." The thoughts Thoreau penned in his journal became Walden, the book that planted the seeds for the hardy new genre.

"It's hard for us to understand the originality of Walden," Hass says. Romantic poetry had touched on the same themes of divinity in nature and mechanization of society. Classic explorations like William Bartram's 1791 Travels (in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina) had cast just as close an eye on the nonhuman world. But Walden offered a nature essay that was more intensely personal than anything that had come before.

There are no Thoreaus in this California classroom (at least not yet), but the students are keeping journals. They are supposed to write in them every couple of days, to observe as accurately as scientists and as creatively as poets. Word choice is crucial. A seemingly serviceable phrase like "the bird sings," Hass explains, masks vast human ignorance about bird behavior. That so-called singing could mean that humans have invaded a bird's territory and it would like to peck their eyes out. A starling sounds like a rusty hinge, but sloppy writers call that "singing" too.

The first week, students pick a plant and observe it for 30 minutes. They draw the plant and describe it both scientifically and poetically. Another week, they watch a bird for 5 minutes or so and describe its doings. A robin reminds one student of a ping pong ball: "It seems to bounce from one place to another so lightly." Another student spots a crow: "I saw Corvus americanus perched on the branch of some tree. (Yes, I don't know which tree! Don't laugh.)"

When Hass was an undergraduate studying biology at Saint Mary's College, just east of Berkeley, he was given a pair of binoculars and told to read Aristotle's Physics and Darwin on evolution, watch birds for six hours a week, and write a paper on whether classification was knowledge. "It was great," he says. "The class never met."

Hass is offering Wednesday bird-walks at 7 a.m. "Is there any way of doing it a little later?" one girl pleads. "We could," Hass says. "But then there wouldn't be many birds." The class will roam nearby Mt. Tamalpais State Park and Stinson Beach on Labor Day. "There might not be swimming," Hass says, "because there's a great white shark offshore. But what a great thing you'd have to write about if you got attacked by a great white shark!"

When Hass taught this course a year earlier he assigned his students all 228 pages of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949. Reading the book's mix of natural history and philosophy as a young person had been a life-changing experience for him. Last year, though, most of the students were underwhelmed by the environmental classic--maybe because they haven't spent much time outdoors, Hass speculates. Leopoldian declarations such as "The chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech" don't mean much if you've never felt the joy of spotting this pale purple flower poking out of barren soil at the end of a long winter. So this year Hass is pushing the journals and field trips, while requiring only three chapters of Leopold. The class will read less and look more.
Students respond readily to Leopold's ideas about a "land ethic," the notion that we should view nature not as a commodity but as part of our community. But it's more difficult to teach what Hass sees as the "bedrock" Leopoldian way of looking at the world. "It is a habit of mind that goes with environmental biology," he says. "When you see something, you ask, why is it here and how did it get to be the way it is?" Leopold's way of thinking can yield a story, even literature, with nature serving not as the backdrop for human drama, but as the big story itself.

The Leopoldian melding of science, philosophy, and literature in this class attracts a diverse mix of students (whose names have been changed for this article). In one weekly discussion section, Sarah, who grew up in rural California, speaks longingly of starry nights and avocado groves. Louisa, back from a year living in the Middle East, has discovered, "I'm much more bored in the middle of civilization than in the middle of nowhere." Heather admits that she's an eccentric: Years ago she shocked her elementary school classmates by kissing banana slugs and collecting bugs. Many of the others, though, see nature as something alien. Rachel, a sharp-tongued young woman with close-cropped black hair pulled back in a bandana, calls it an "alternate reality." When the graduate assistant sums up by saying that most of us lack close connections to nature, David, one of a handful of African-American students in the class, objects. "Whether we know it or not, we are all connected," he says. "We are radically changing the planet."

With a bold "VEGAN" patch on his backpack, David is the most visible class activist, especially after he dyes his hair green in October. When he arrives for class with the new look, Hass walks over to admire it. "My goodness," the poet says appreciatively, while Professor Gilbert murmurs something about "growing ecological consciousness." For David, who leads class field trips and writes papers on fishery decline and the virtues of vegetarianism, environmental studies is not just a step toward graduation. It's revolution--a way of thinking that could change the world.

That puts David squarely in the nature-writing tradition. People may not think of Thoreau as an activist. But "Thoreau read Wordsworth, Muir read Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt read Muir, and you got national parks," Hass says. "It took a century for this to happen, for artistic values to percolate down to where honoring the relation of people's imagination to the land, or to beauty, or to wild things, was issued in legislation."

Sitting next to David in the section is Laura the aesthete, with dreamy dark eyes and long dark hair. The class gives her inspiring quotations for her calligraphy. When the students read "Daybreak," Galway Kinnell's poem about starfish moving across a muddy shore like stars traversing the night sky, Laura declares, "That's beautiful!" A stern English major interrupts: "We can't just say 'that's beautiful,' " she reminds her.

Nature writing has a happy, wholesome aspect that gives it a bad name in literature departments more accustomed to neurosis and angst. The genre displays "a painfully limited set of responses," says novelist and Princeton professor Joyce Carol Oates: "Reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness." Hass will agree that there are some treacly and preachy tomes "that offer moral uplift over science and reason and thought." He'll even admit that "a lot of nature writing is predictable and not very instructive." But, he adds, "you could say that about the writing in any genre." Good nature writers, Hass says, "model whole new ways of seeing," through meticulous, well-informed descriptions of the world and all its creatures. Author Gary Nabhan has half-seriously suggested that what we now call nature writing should simply be called "literature," while all the other writing in recent decades should be called "urban dysfunctional writing."

By the first week in November, the class has taken two midterms. On the first, they did better on the science than the literary portions. Hass is initially gentle: "It takes time to learn what questions to ask when reading literary texts." But he bristles when he finds that most students haven't done the reading for the day's lecture. "You are brilliant students at a great public university," he scolds. "You have got to do the reading. This stuff is going to be in your hands for the next 50 years."

They had problems on the second test, too. "There were some especially creative suggestions on the question about who the Secretary of Interior is," Hass notes. "But I'd like to clarify: The answer is not Bill Gates, Smokey Bear, or the guy Dave who does the Wendy's commercials. And it is not Gifford Pinchot. At the moment we don't have a dead Secretary of Interior . . . though it has been known to happen."

The assigned reading is voluminous and, at times, perplexing. To help the class read Gary Snyder's Myths and Texts, Hass passes out several pages of notes and offers this advice: "Don't be uptight about understanding every little bit of it. Try to get the drift and the feel." Written half a century ago by a man Hass calls "our best poet of nature," Myths and Texts uses techniques drawn from modernist art. There's sometimes no clear narrative or argument on the page, but rather ideas scattered like the parts of a collage. "I sit without thoughts by the log-road/ Hatching a new myth/watching the waterdogs/the last truck gone," Snyder writes in "first shaman song." In discussions, students seem to enjoy spinning wild theories about the poet's intent. Snyder's "this poem is for bear" mentions huckleberries and blackberries. Is the poem about fertility? Fecundity? Feminism? The students never quite decide, but they exhibit far more intellectual flexibility than author Jack Kerouac, who reportedly told Snyder, "I know what all the words mean, but I don't know what the hell you're saying."

By late November, the students no longer need Hass's help to understand the conversations at the nature-writing party. With finals approaching they have begun reading diligently and broadly, sampling works written over a span of 150 years, including those of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Mary Austin, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Wallace Stegner, Robinson Jeffers, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, Ann Zwinger, Wendell Berry, and Barry Lopez. Finally the class picks up the most recent work on the reading list, Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge, published in 1991. Refuge was an "instant classic," Hass says. Its naturalist author has read all the books the class has read, and builds on them to offer something new. She tells the story of her mother's struggle with cancer ("one of the most protracted deaths in modern literature," Hass admits) as well as the tale of the catastrophic flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in the 1980s. Set in Salt Lake City, the book is a deeply personal human drama, yet takes nature's struggles personally, too. "It's a new kind of writing that reflects a broader awareness," Hass says.

The reviews in class are mixed. "I like the autobiographical approach," says one quiet young woman. "I think this is the most impressive thing we've read." But some think the story of a drowning marsh and a heart-warmingly functional Mormon family is too tame. A young man grouses, "Why do we have to read this boring stuff?"

Hass is philosophical about such comments. "If you teach the nitrogen cycle, you just expect the kids to know it," he says. "But teaching literature is like planting seeds deep in the ground. You never know when your work will bear fruit."

Inevitably, some literature classes turn into lessons on life. Hass urges his students to build "strong dreams," to make sure their ideals will stand up to reality. Should they, like Thoreau, build a cabin and live alone? Shed technology and become hunter-gatherers? Become happy, humble farmers? "We don't want to tell ourselves sentimental stories, get scar tissue, and get cynical," he says. He quotes W. B. Yeats on the Irish: "We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart's grown brutal from the fare."

A strong dream for an environmentalist of our era might be different from the ideals projected in earlier nature writing, Hass suggests. "It would have something to do with cities. And it would allow for difference--not just the current multiculturalism, which can turn in a second to vicious ethnic rivalry, but in values that appeal to all different kinds of people."

For settled, rooted people an environmental life might include tending gardens and caring about community. ("Fighting to keep a chain store out of your neighborhood is environmentalism, in my mind," Hass says.) For more restless folk, it might mean artistic ventures and explorations farther afield. "Can you have Wendell Berry's agricultural, organic, and communitarian values and still have freedom, innovation, disruptions of rhythms, surprises--what people love about cities?" Hass muses. "Well, you can."

On the last day, Hass reaps part of the reward for good teaching. Sure, there is the comatose kid in rumpled khakis, half-dozing behind a blue and gray baseball cap. But half a dozen energetic scholars march up front and rattle off dates and names and ideas to help students review for the final. Another group describes its work helping the city of Berkeley bring long-buried Strawberry Creek above ground near campus. David, wearing a "No WTO" button on his cap, regales the class with his recent adventures as a nonviolent demonstrator in Seattle. It was outrageous, he says happily: He was tear-gassed by the police as he sat on the ground meditating. When Hass comes back to the podium, he is beaming. "You are inspiring. You look great," he tells the students. "You are going to be standing in public forums many times in the future."

More satisfaction comes after class is dismissed, when Hass reads the students' journals. Here is hard evidence of which ideas have (and haven't) moved the students. "The environment theme is sort of a constraint, really. A pain," complains one budding novelist. But there are signs of growth. "I have been forced to address my own complicity with the selfish, corporate forces in America," says another student. "Changing my point of view is slow and uncomfortable." Students who didn't know a pine from a pineapple at first have now made the acquaintance of at least a few of the plants and animals that surround them on the Cal campus. Some have hiked up the hill to the deer, frogs, and turtles of Tilden Park to investigate a wilder place. Initial consternation about the muddling of science and literature has morphed into pleasure in viewing the world as a whole.

In one journal, a child of Chinese immigrants explains how nature helps her straddle two cultures. She's not entirely comfortable in China because she was born in the United States. But some people don't consider her a real American, either, because of the way she looks. Out among the redwoods, bays, and oaks of the Berkeley hills, however, she feels totally, joyfully at home. "People will learn somehow or another," she writes. "They will understand the importance of nature. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but one day."


Joan Hamilton is editor-in-chief of Sierra.

Would you, too, like to study environmental literature? Here are a dozen classics.


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