Review: How can we critique the dominant approach to nature writing and environmental literature?
Across American high schools and universities, a casual survey of course syllabi mentioning nature writing or environmental literature yields similar results. As if following a road map, many of these classes will begin with discussions of the tenets of American transcendentalism. Students read about Henry David Thoreau’s brave experiment in the wilderness of Concord, Massachusetts and Emerson’s simultaneous celebration of the Oversoul and the self over all. Some courses will cover Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, while others might venture into an attempt at selling students a modern reimagining of transcendentalism in Krakauer’s Into the Wild. However, these seemingly ubiquitous ecological narratives fall short in addressing the realities of intersectional-- and therefore accurate-- environmentalism and environmentalist literature.
Firstly, most American environmental literature courses or units entirely omit the voices of the Indigenous stewards of the land. If Indigenous voices are at all mentioned, they tend to be depicted (rather than heard) through the damaging stereotype of the magical Indigenous environmentalist, in which Indigenous people are portrayed with some primal and mystical connection to the Earth-- or to animals. This portrayal of Indigenous people as inherently connected to the natural world has its origins in white settler colonialism; for colonizers, portraying Native people as savages or near-animals was a convenient way to justify brutality, thievery, and violence. In a letter to James Duane, George Washington advocated for “good relationships” with Native people in order to seize land:
“Attempting to drive [Indigenous people] by force of arms out of their Country… as we have already experienced is like driving the Wild Beasts of the Forest which will return us soon as the pursuit is at an end and fall perhaps on those that are left there; when the gradual extension of our Settlements will as certainly cause the Savage as the Wolf to retire; both being beasts of prey tho’ they differ in shape. (5)”
The stereotype of Indigenous people as mystical and quasi-human environmentalists persists. One well-known example is the “Crying Indian” public service announcement, in which “Iron Eyes Cody” (actually Italian actor Espera de Corti) stares despairingly at the camera as trash is hurled onto his moccasins (6). This PSA unfortunately encapsulates the extent of Indigenous representation in environmental literature courses: inauthentic passes at Indigenous representation mired in tired stereotypes. Worse still, the environmentalism sold to the American public in the PSA was a campaign sponsored by the beverage industry, staunchly opposed to corporate environmental regulations. The PSA presents “Iron Eyes” as some sort of ancient vestige of another time, a mystic and almost inhuman figure. Environmental literature courses fail to depict Indigenous people in their full and current efforts to realize environmental justice against centuries of governmentally-manufactured oppression.
Environmental literature courses also tend towards deifying the Holy Trinity of nineteenth-century conservationists, transcendentalists, and nature poets. Presenting these canonical figures in environmentalist literature as infallible is not only ignorant, but inexcusable; many of these so-called great figures who advocated for seemingly innocuous causes like “self reflection,” “equality among men,” and “appreciation of nature” in fact held deeply-seated racist beliefs reflected, upon closer inspection, in many of their works. From John Muir (“The first specimens [of Indigenous people] I had seen, were mostly ugly, and some of them altogether hideous...Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape” (7)) to Walt Whitman (“Who believes that White and Black can ever amalgamate in America ? Or who wishes it to happen? Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not America for the Whites ? And is it not better so ?’’ (8)), a course or curricula which fails to fully capture the racism of its foundational authors teaches a single inaccurate and white-washed narrative.
This narrative of white supremacy in environmental writing is fundamental to the history of white American environmental conservation. Though the origin of many aspects of the environmental movement is deeply-rooted in a dark history of eugenics, this idea is not often taught-- or perhaps is not widely-known enough to be taught-- in environmental literature classes. For people such as Madison Grant, Gifford Pinchot, Charles Goethe, Henry Fairfield Osborne, and Theodore Roosevelt, their interest in environmental conservation was inextricably linked to their desire to conserve white supremacy (9). Still, perhaps because environmentalism is, on its surface, an inoffensive and progressive field of study, it is taught in most schools without examination of its disturbing history.
Without a critical understanding of the history of American environmental conservation, it is difficult for students in environmental literature courses to fully grasp the link between the environment and oppression-- both current and historical. This is a disservice to students, as well as to the generations of people working to transform dominant systems to assert new frameworks for engaging and understanding the environment.
Without a more comprehensive understanding, students will not understand the rich history of Black farmers in the US, of Indigenous activists demonstrating the link between human rights and the environment, or of a new generation of public health activists and citizen scientists working for ethical laws and policies in human-centered environments.
A new approach to teaching environmental literature, then, must seek to reverse the damage that centuries of colonized and commodified nature writing and white supremacist conservation have done to the collective understanding of what environmental writing entails. This begins with creating a new understanding of the environment; traditionally, somehow only spaces designated as certifiably remote or wild have been considered worthy of an “ environmental” status. In reality, a new understanding of environmental literature must seek to develop an understanding of the environment as a morally neutral and universal setting, inextricably linked to one’s identity. The exploration of the environment as morally neutral is central to the decolonization of nature writing and literature; in the dominant narrative, nature is somehow both healing and savage, both to be explored and to be dominated. The difference lies in narration; when Muir centers himself in nature, it is a salve for the soul, bringing Muir to an otherworldly transcendence reminiscent of Emerson’s transparent eyeball. When Muir centers the “ugly...altogether hideous” indigenous people in their own land, the land is then something to be conquered, dominated, to be conserved in its wild state for the benefit of settlers who will know how to properly appreciate its untamed beauty. To deconstruct this dominant narrative, a deeper understanding of the environment as morally neutral must take place; neither good nor evil, but read, as a text, with the same stereotypes, prejudices, and aspersions cast by generations of settler colonizers and their legacies.
In a new course centered around environmental literature, the environment must not be taught as a topic wholly separate from human involvement. Humanity is part of the environment, and the presence of humans does not negate a space’s designation as “nature” or “natural.” All spaces are impacted and crafted by the anthropocene, whether they are designated as a government-preserved wilderness or as a government-preserved redlined neighborhood. Students, in seeking to understand this concept of the environment, should engage in criticism of how environments are created, but must not be misled by generations of literature and practices which preach that some environments are inherently more valuable or more worthy of transcendentalist-era worship.
Curriculum Audit Through Critical Questions
In this multi-day project, students will work to examine the existing curriculum’s suggested texts for the study of environmental literature. Students will work in groups to examine the narratives conveyed by the existing literature suggestions: which stories are told or suppressed, which narratives are incomplete, which environmental interests are prioritized, and how the environment is viewed, used, or extracted in relation to human interests.
To open this project, the teacher will guide students through one typical representation of environmental literature: an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in which Thoreau preaches “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” as he takes an imaginatively idealized vow of poverty. As students read the excerpt, the teacher will lead them through critical questions:
- Which story is privileged?
- Whose story is told?
- Who created this story?
- Which stories are suppressed, missing, or ignored?
- Which narratives are incomplete?
- What implicit or unspoken messages are being communicated?
Students will annotate their thoughts surrounding these critical questions as they arise from a whole-class discussion, resulting in a group-created exemplar of a critical analysis of the place of Walden in the curriculum.
Once students are comfortable with examining the excerpt through the lens of critical questions, they are ready to move on to a group-centered project: auditing the existing district curriculum. In this multi-day project, students will assess the scope, accuracy, inclusivity, and complexity of the district’s existing environmental literature texts. The teacher will distribute excerpts from the district curriculum’s suggested texts; if the district does not have an environmental writing unit, many sample syllabi are available online. A typical sampling of suggested environmental literature often includes:
- Walden, Henry David Thoreau
- Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
- On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
- Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
- The Call of the Wild, Jack London
- Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
- Selected poems by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Wordsworth, John Keats
In their groups, students will work to annotate and critique 2-3 text excerpts, using the critical questions modeled as a whole group to assess their provided texts. If desired, teachers may also provide a scorecard adapted from or similar to the Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center’s tool, “Assessing Bias in Standards and Curricular Models. (10)”
Once students have thoroughly critiqued and annotated their findings within their groups, they will share their annotations and conclusions with the rest of their class. Students listening should take notes as their classmates present, and, before class ends, should complete an individual journal or quickwrite in which they capture their feelings surrounding their classmates’ findings and their impressions of the provided curriculum.
In the following days, students will work as a class to draft and send a letter to their district curriculum office voicing their opinions surrounding the existing curriculum. The letter should be a collaborative and student-centered effort, with students taking charge of the drafting, revising, and editing process. The final copy should be sent, along with the original group annotations, to the district curriculum office, and should request a response or address to the questions and criticisms raised.