by Ben Goluboff
Sophie Twichell was kind enough to invite me to submit a blog post for Brushwood Center, and to share, in anticipation of Earth Day, some thoughts on Environmental Literature. Even though this means tearing myself away from Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, a book I find extraordinarily compelling, I am more than happy to do so.
Yesterday, in the company of a room full of students who were polite enough to act interested, I indulged myself in a medium-long digression on the environmental writing of John McPhee, whose The Founding Fish (2002) veterans of Ryerson Reads will remember as a natural and cultural history of the American Shad. McPhee, I wanted my students to understand, is the environmentally-inclined member of a group of writers remembered now as Sixties New Journalists. These writers, in response among other things to the Vietnam-era distrust of government and media, produced non-fiction prose that abandoned traditional journalistic objectivity, in favor of a subjective, sometimes novelistic reportage in which strict fidelity to fact was abandoned. In his Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), for example, McPhee joins David Brower, then president of the Sierra Club, and Floyd Dominy, then Comissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in a rubber raft on the Colorado River not long after the completion of the controversial Glen Canyon Dam. The dialogue McPhee reports between the conservationist and the dam builder was certainly invented or adapted (the three of them were in the middle of a deafening rapids after all) but nicely dramatizes the clash of two opposing philosophies about the natural word.
Elsewhere, as in his The Control of Nature (1989) and Annals of the Former Word (1998), a collection of his writings on geology, McPhee writes with a more traditional objectivity. My favorite of his books, and the one I am most interested in re-reading is The Pine Barrens (1968), a survey of the landscape, ecology, history and folkways of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a wilderness of more than a million acres in one of the most populated corners of the nation. McPhee writes:
The Pine Barrens are so close to New York that on a very
clear night a bright light in the pines would be visible from
the Empire State Building. A line ruled on a map from Boston
to Richmond goes straight through the Pine Barrens.
The halfway point between Boston and Richmond — the
geographical epicenter of the developing megalopolis —
— is in the northern part of the woods, about twenty
miles from Bear Swamp Hill.
I am nostalgic about the New Jersey Pine Barrens. As a kid growing up in the seventies, first as a camper then as a counselor at a Quaker-Hippy summer camp in Jersey, I became confirmed as a nature nut on a series of excursions into the pines.
Another book on my mind right now is an anthology of very current environmental poetry edited, with G.C. Waldrep, by my wonderful colleague in Lake Forest College’s English Department, Joshua Corey. The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (2012) is a collection of challenging poems that repurpose the ancient mode of pastoral writing for a moment when not only is the environment in crisis, but when, to the artistic and philosophical imagination, the line between the natural and the man-made has been decisively breached. Corey writes:
Postmodern pastoral retains certain allegiances to the
lyric and individual subjectivity while insisting on the
reality of a world whose objects are all equally natural
and therefore equally unnatural. Celebrity websites
and abandoned factories and telenovelas and the New
Jersey Turnpike are all eligible objects of postmodern
pastoral’s dialectical nostalgia, sites in which the human
and the unhuman mix and collide, as much as in any
mountain peak or jungle or wetland.
To learn more about the book, visit: http://arcadiaproject.net
One of the environmental titles that I am looking forward to reading in the near future we will take up as a group next year at Ryerson Reads. Robert Pogue Harrison, a scholar of Italian literature at Stanford, was first known to me for his powerful work of environmental history, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992). In his new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008) Harrison offers, as I understand it, not a survey of garden history, but a series of philosophical reflections on what gardens – from Eden to Versailles – reveal about being human both today, in the shadow of environmental collapse, and throughout the long history in which our species has sought beauty, calm, even enlightenment from the artistic manipulation of natural materials.
Let me close by offering Brushwood Center’s readers a small specimen of my own writing – a poem on an environmental theme that is set in a landscape Brushwoood regulars will find familiar.
The Vegetation of Wisconsin
grows right to the doors
of the Adult Superstore.
Burdock and Mullein
live among the
Ho Chunk burial mounds.
At the Aviation Museum
where they keep a shrine
to the Doolittle raids,
Loosestrife and Chicory
blaze by the parking lot.
A well-kept lawn
covers the landfill.
At its base,
and at a little distance,
they fly the flag.
From the Hamilton Stone Review, Issue #30, Winter-Spring 2014.(http://www.hamiltonstone.org/hsr30.html#poetry).
Ben Goluboff is a professor of English at Lake Forest College. He has led vibrant discussions for our RYERSON READS book group for 10 wonderful years. Here are the selections for the 2014-2015 season. Hope you’ll join us!
Sept. 10, 2014: When the Killings Done by T.C. Boyle
Nov. 12, 2014: The Paradise of Bombs by Scott Russell Sanders
Jan. 14, 2015: The Last Animal by Abby Geni
Mar. 11, 2015: Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison