Scripting the environment
I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one.
-Mary Oliver[I]t is impossible, ultimately, to preserve ourselves apart from our willingness to preserve other creatures, or to respect and care for ourselves except as we respect and care for other creatures; and … impossible to care for each other more or differently than we care for the earth.
BOTH PASSAGES ARE ABOUT CONNECTIONS, the vital network of interdependencies that sustain our lives. And both passages sound an alarm: if we ignore or belittle these “unbreakable links,” we lose not just dignity and self-respect but any chance for our species’ survival. Mary Oliver is not generally classed as an environmental writer or credited with having an ecological vision. Her poems have been rightly valued for their “slightly amended transcendentalism” (Maxine Kumin) and for being “as visionary as Emerson” (Alicia Ostriker). But Oliver’s recent workespecially in her essays and prose poems-suggests a more conscious ecopoetics, a more deliberate effort at recognizing connections. In her 1995 essay “Owls,” for example, she argues against seeing the great horned owl as evidence of nature’s otherness. The bird is awesome and frightening, especially in its appetites (an “insatiable craving for the taste of brains”) and in its aggressive screech (“the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer”). But it is part of our world’s mystery, not to be demonized or otherwise dissociated from ourselves: “The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.” The essay goes on to ask if the rapacious owl in winter is really any more terrible or frightening than an abundance of fragrant roses that “hook into the dunes” in summertime. Both are “excessive” and in different ways “terrible,” Oliver concludes, staring “into the cities of the roses.” Cities is a bold poetic stroke, which insists that we see the connections between urban habitat and those of roses and owls. How can we dissociate our environments and our appetites from those of other species, animal or plant? There is only one world.
Oliver has tried to shrug off the role of environmentalist. In “Winter Hours,” the essay that provides a title for her 1999 collection of prose, prose poems, and poems, she claims, “I don’t think in terms of the all, the network of our needs and our misdeeds, the interrelationship of our lives and the lives of all else.” Maybe she does not think programmatically about that network or write argumentatively about such interrelationships, but “cities of roses”? Surely she does think about such networks and interrelationships. Two pages after her counterassertion she declares that the landscapes her poetry values are not ornamental, not scenery or places of refuge, but landscapes “in which we are reinforced in our sense of the world as a mystery, a mystery that entails other privileges besides our own-and also, therefore, a hierarchy of right and wrong behaviors pertaining to that mystery, diminishing it or defending it.” If that is not an environmentalist speaking, it comes awfully close.
“Winter Hours” contains (among other eloquent things) Oliver’s poetic credo, a summation of all that she would have her poetry say and do. But it is also, and equally I think, an ecological credo. At its climax comes the line about “unbreakable links” used as epigraph above. Listen to it again, in its fuller context:
I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves-we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.
That moral fervor, insisting on the recognition of connections, reminds me forcibly of Wendell Berry, who said in 1987 that his whole career was an attempt to construct “an argument” about “the fact, and ultimately the faith, that things connect.” He concluded, “the understanding of connections seems to me an indispensable part of humanity’s selfdefense.”
Probably the fullest development of Berry’s idea of connections comes in The Unsettling ofAmerica (1977), where he argues for the interdependence of culture and agriculture, body and spirit, decay and germination, wilderness and domesticity, individual and community, animal and man. Nothing survives in isolation, he reasons. What we do to the land, to ourselves, and to others is always connected. Every freedom has its cost, every power its limits. My second epigraph is taken from Berry’s brilliant central chapter, “The Body and the Earth,” where he pauses to summarize. Again let me supply its larger context:
What I have been trying to do is to define a pattern of disintegration that is at once cultural and agricultural. I have been groping for connections-that I think are indissoluble, though obscured by modern ambitions-between the spirit and the body, the body and other bodies, the body and the earth. If these connections do necessarily exist, as I believe they do, then it is impossible for material order to exist side by side with spiritual disorder, or vice versa, and impossible for one to thrive long at the expense of the other; it is impossible, ultimately, to preserve ourselves apart from our willingness to preserve other creatures, or to respect and care for ourselves except as we respect and care for other creatures; and, most to the point of this book, it is impossible to care for each other more or differently than we care for the earth.
Berry too has kept himself at a distance from other environmentalists, criticizing the Sierra Club in the very book the Club itself published, questioning the purists who want landscapes to remain untouched, and excoriating E. 0. Wilson (a pioneer of recent biodiversity theory and a great environmental activist) because Wilson privileges science and dismisses spiritual modes of understanding. Unlike Mary Oliver, Berry has a strong contrarian streak. He even complains about the sterility of the word “environment.” But he clearly accepts the modern usage of the term ecology, which now extends far beyond its original, purely biological application. In The Unsettling of America he views “the ecological crisis as a crisis of character” as well as “a crisis of agriculture.” Berry would undoubtedly appreciate the Greek derivation of acology, from oikos, meaning home. He has much to say about what our homes really are, about returning to them and accepting responsibility for them. For Berry ecology is just another word for the study of indissoluble and inescapable connections.
I dwell on these terms and issues because they are the distinguishing feature of a relatively new field, environmental literature, whose interpreters engage in what’s sometimes called “literary ecology,” or “ecocriticism” or (less often) “ecopoetics.” “Nature writing” is a phrase still in use, but it lacks the note of urgency and relevance that has defined literary responses to nature ever since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1962. Lawrence Buell became a leader in this field with the appearance of his groundbreaking study, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture in 1995. There he suggested a radical shift in the way we look at American texts, using some new antianthropocentric criteria. The “environmental text” acknowledges that “human history is implicated in natural history,” that “the human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest,” that “human accountability to the environment” is a valid moral imperative, and that the environment needs to be seen “as a process rather than as a constant or a given.” The book refers to a wide range of contemporary environmental texts by poets (Berry, A. R. Ammons, Philip Booth, Simon Ortiz, Gary Snyder, John Haines, Derek Walcott) and essayists (Carson, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, Sue Hubbell, David Rains Wallace), and at least one novel (Leslie Silko’s Ceremony). But Buell also seeks out environmental texts in earlier periods, identifying neglected works and looking for heretofore ignored connections between, say, Mary Austin (The Land of Little Rain, 1903) and Aldo Leopold (Sand County Almanac, 1949) or between Austin and Celia Thaxter (Among the Isles of Shoals, 1873) or between Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974) and Susan Fenimore Cooper (Rural Hours, 1850). Crossing the standard genre barriers and redesigning the canon are central to Buell’s project. He claims, for example, that “the environmental nonfiction of Celia Thaxter, Mary Austin, and John Burroughs counts for as much as the novels of William Dean Howells and Mark Twain.” He also claims that Susan Fenimore Cooper’s writings “are as significant as those of her more famous father.” Behind such assertions is the idea that “today’s environmental problems involve a crisis of the imagination” and that we urgently need to search our literature, present and past, for “better ways of imaging nature and humanity’s relation to it.”
Now Buell’s project continues, with an altered set of criteria.’ The endangered world is not just a matter of woods and wilderness but of cities and tenements as well. In Lance Newman’s apt phrase, quoted by Buell, “South Boston is just as natural (and wild) as Walden Pond.” Accordingly, Buell’s purpose in the new book is to “put ‘green’ and ‘brown’ landscapes, the landscapes of exurbia and industrialization, in conversation with one another.” Much of his book emerges from a series of such conversations, for example pairing Wendell Berry’s agrarian model of restoring Kentucky farmland (in the poem-sequence Clearing, 1977) with Gwendolyn Brooks’s rehabilitory poetry about the Chicago slums (In the Mecca, 1968), or connecting John Muir’s sublime mountain views with Jane Addams’ urban interior vision at Hull House, or paralleling Theodore Dreiser’s crowded cityscapes with Robinson Jeffers’ inhospitable tors and crags. There is a kind of Marxian logic behind many of Buell’s pairings, suggesting that the greenness of the ‘green’ landscape may be a function of the brownness of the `brown,’ and vice versa: for every pastoral scene of peace and plenty there are huddled masses yearning to breathe free. In each case the point is ecological: one cannot talk about environmental crisis selectively, as if it mattered in only one kind of landscape.
As a prefatory demonstration of this principle Buell deconstructs “America the Beautiful,” the national anthem written in 1893 by Katherine Lee Bates. While the poem’s sappy sentimentality-purple mountain majesties, fruited plain, good crowned with brotherhood– seems to fly in the face of flagrant imperialism, racial prejudice, and exploitation in the 1890s, Buell shows that in fact the poem’s idealism “is future tense, not present.” It offers a vision of a possible America, as the final stanza makes clear: “Oh beautiful for spacious dream / That lives beyond the years, / Where alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears.” The dream was suggested to Bates, Buell demonstrates, by her visit to the “White City” of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In fact she was well acquainted with urban suffering and knew Jane Addams well; an earlier version of her poem concluded, “Till selfish gain no longer stain / The banner of the free.” The real landscape of the poem, behind those amber waves of grain, is a cityscape dimmed by human tears, stained by selfish gain, where good crowned with brotherhood is still only a dream “beyond the years.”
Another form that Buell’s environmental imagination takes is the invention of new genres. If his first book worked to establish a new canon, keeping Thoreau as a source and reference point, his second book sets Thoreau aside and devises one new syllabus after another. The three most interesting of these are “toxic discourse” (an unfortunate term, since so much academic discourse is toxic already), urban “reinhabitation” discourse, and “watershed aesthetics.” The idea of toxic discourse comes from Silent Spring, of course, but Buell connects it with a Virgilian archetype of “poisoned Edens” and suggests analogies ranging from Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter” and the “gothicized” urban epidemics of Charles Brockden Brown (Arthur Mervyn in 1800 and Ormond in 1799), to the industrial squalors reported by Melville, Dickens, Friedrich Engels (The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845), and Rebecca Harding Davis (“Life in the Iron Mills,” 1861), and thence to the protest photography of Jacob Riis and the muckraking journalism of Jack London and Upton Sinclair. In the twentieth century Buell’s examples range from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem about Appalachian silicosis victims, “The Book of the Dead” (1938) and Alice Hamilton’s autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943; she founded the study of toxicology), to post-Hiroshima fiction like Scott Sanders’ Terrarium and Paul Theroux’s O-Zone. More detailed discussion goes to recent works like Terry Williams’ Refuge, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Lois Gibbs’s personal narrative of Love Canal, and A. R. Ammons’ Garbage. It’s arresting to realize how easily one can come up with one’s own examples of contamination narrative-ranging from The Waste Land to Erin Brokovitch-proving, I think, that Buell has not invented the genre really, just aptly discerned it.
Urban rehabilitation discourse, as Buell characterizes it, is defined by the flaneur, an idler or stroller who walks the city with a certain detached receptivity. Joyce’s Leopold Bloom is a good modern example, but Buell finds the prototype in John Gay’s Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716). Buell is interested in the way so many flaneurs have “an environmentalist consciousness” and are alert to “the possibilities of urban reinhabitation.” Blake’s London poems figure here, as well as the haunted streets of Baudelaire, Brockden Brown, and Poe (e.g., “The Man of the Crowd”), but Buell’s centerpiece is a wonderful discussion of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where the flaneur (“Closer yet I approach you . . .”) wants to provoke a recognition of the “mutual suspicions of strangers in a crowd and make that the pathway to common understanding.” Buell suggests interesting parallels here with Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision for Central Park, but Whitman’s genius was “to seize hold of a mundane ritual of city life,” taking the ferry, and to imagine how it might embody a “transfiguration of city life”something Olmsted could only conceive of in a space apart. Buell’s suggestive examples continue with Eliot’s would-be urban critic, J. Alfred Prufrock, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as spectatorial wanderer in Chicago and New York, Woolf’s hyperacute Mrs. Dalloway, William Carlos Williams’ “ecopoetics of the city” achieved in his epic Paterson, Jane Jacobs’ recuperative visions of “sidewalk ballet” in New York. More recent poetry seems especially rich in what Buell calls, a bit heavily, a “bioregionalist grasp of the city in relation to its vicinity.” His valuable examples continue with Frank O’Hara’s “Walking,” Joy Harjo’s “Anchorage,” Gary Snyder’s “Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin,” and John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire. The moral here is summed up in a quotation from Wendell Berry, who admired Paterson for its “use of the art of writing as an instrument by which a man may arrive in his place and maintain himself there.”
Pointedly, all these examples concern “the place of nature in cities”-the central issue, it seems, for many a landscape architect these days. I was a bit disappointed that Buell offers no parallel chapter on the walking topos that has proved so useful to environmental writers for the last two centuries. But perhaps it’s too obvious to discuss Thoreau’s “Walking,” Wordsworth’s “Excursion,” Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” Bishop’s “The End of March,” or Ammons’ “Corson’s Inlet”-the peripatetic structure must be fundamental to virtually all the familiar nature writers. Then, too, I suppose a bucolic flaneur is a contradiction in terms.
Still another syllabus that emerges from Writing for an Endangered World derives from a familiar bioregionalist construction, the watershed. The term suggests the value of defining a region by its vital sources of water-its major river, its drainage basin-rather than by man-made boundaries (mapped lines, political borders, geographies of class, race, and ethnicity). Buell calls this “watershed aesthetics” because many a valuable environmental text takes its shape from a particular body of water-Walden Pond, Tinker Creek, the Colorado River (Ann Zwinger, John McPhee, Edward Abbey, John Wesley Powell). What’s more, the watershed idea suggests a way of looking at texts not usually classed as reflective of any great bioregional consciousness. Consider for example the Congo and the Thames in Heart of Darkness, or the Mississippi in Hart Crane’s “The River,” Faulkner’s “Old Man,” and Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, or even the Thames in The Waste Land and the Liffey in Ulysses. But Buell’s major examples here-he is always pushing the canon in new directions-are Mary Austin’s The Ford (1917), followed by a series of contemporary works with a “distinctly multicultural cast”: Percival Everett’s Watershed, Mary Stoneman Douglas’ The Everglades: River of Grass, Ellen Meloy’s Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River, Todd Levin’s Blood Brook, and Linda Hogan’s Power. (I wonder how many readers have heard of any of these titles.) In each case, Buell argues that the watershed and its bioregion generally become “potential mediators of cultural difference.” Not only does Buell turn up new texts, and new ways to read old texts, but he keeps turning up new paradigms for thinking about the ways we inhabit the landscape-and that takes a real environmental imagination.
The book is by no means without flaws. The style lapses into academic nouniness and jargon (there must be a dozen variants with the ecoprefix, including ecopopulism, ecofascism, and ecocatastrophe-all new to me). The book’s multiple arguments make for organizational stammer and sprawl. The voluminous footnotes often carry the argument better than the text, whose list-crammed pages sometimes resemble the footnotes. Superficiality is a risk taken a bit too often, as when the discussion of Melville’s ideas about “the hierarchies of species” suggest no significant “conversation” at all with the insights about animals in Barry Lopez (about whom, to his great credit, Buell writes beautifully). Another disappointment is the discussion of Faulkner’s “environmental revisionism” in Go Down, Moses, which offers no recognition of the Southern Agrarian schema that lies deep in the brains of so many Faulkner characters, sharecroppers and cotton-pickers with their “eyes full of the land.” Synthesizing and suggesting links between so many different works in such disparate eras, cultures and genres-all because they concern place or environment (what does not?)-generates a sensation of hollowness. Is there any center here? Wouldn’t less be more?
Yet given these limits Buell carries it all off well. Covering a staggering range of materials-including a vast critical literature-his own ideas remain fresh. He usually manages to be incisive and interesting even when a novel gets only a few sentences of comment or a poem only the briefest quotation. In fact Buell is an excellent reader of poetry and has a fine eye for selecting apt and surprising examples. The deeper problem for me is that this second book about environmental writing tends to undermine the first. It is driven too much by, alas, ecopolitics. “In order for ecocriticism to earn its claim to relevance,” Buell writes, quoting Lance Newman again, “its critical practice must be greatly extended . . . the environmental crisis threatens all landscapes-wild, rural, suburban, and urban.” Note how the need for relevance sends him back toward anthropocentrism again, toward engineered results, toward us. What were those criteria Buell suggested in 1995 that an environmental text must have? “The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.” Well put, I think. It reminds me of Mary Oliver when she declares, echoing Thoreau, that she does not wish to write about plants and animals “but on their behalf” Human relevance is not the only kind of relevance. “We need to see our own limits transgressed,” said Thoreau.
Nobody is more aware than Buell that the environment-landscape, the biosphere, nature “itself’-is always scripted. How we see it, if we try to see it at all, is a function of how we imagine it, and our imaginations are always mediated by texts-Darwin’s maybe, or Thoreau’s, or a way of looking designed by Ansel Adams or by an ecology textbook. Landscapes are also mediated by our own hot desires. There is no such thing as a “decentered” poem, as Buell demonstrated in 1995, discussing the efforts of various American nature poets-Williams, Ammons, Booth, Snyder-to escape anthropocentrism, surrender the self and disappear, leaving only nature in their poems. The effort fails, of course, but it still seems a worthy enterprise. I wish Buell had not wandered so far away from it. Trying to see nature for what it is, wholly apart from our own concerns, unscripted, may be at bottom a religious impulse. Thoreau says in Walden, “we crave only reality.” Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver would agree. It is ultimately a spiritual desire.
I WRITING FOR AN ENDANGERED WORLD: Literature, Culture and the Environment in the U.S. and Beyond, by Lawrence Buell Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. $35.00.
FLOWER will be reviewing E. O. Wilson’s The Future of Life in the
Winter issue of the magazine.
Copyright Hudson Review Summer 2002
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