Professor provides academic look at nature writing

November 8, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Professor Lawrence Buell of Harvard delivered the provost's distinguished research lecture at UC Davis last week. His topic was eco-criticism, which he described as a new, still unfolding movement of the '90s.

Buell is the country's leading scholar in this field of literature and the environment, an area of increasing interest among academics and the general public.

His book "The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture" (published by Harvard University Press in 1995) is said to be the most important study of American nature writing in the last few decades.

"We are in an age of unprecedented environmental concern," said Buell. "The 21st century could see the fate of the earth."

Poet Gary Snyder introduced Buell by saying that "The Environmental Imagination" is "changing the way American literature departments think and teach." Its effects also are being felt in Japan and Europe. "Nature is becoming a major player," said Snyder. "Man, this is new territory."

(Buell also credited eco-poet Snyder with a role in this change and Snyder returned the compliment.)

Two of Professor Buell's previous books have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, "Literary Transcendentalism" and "New England Literary Culture." He also served as dean of undergraduate education at Harvard from 1992-96.

I found a more interesting biographical fact to be his long association with Oberlin College in Ohio, since I attended nearby Hiram College. Buell taught at Oberlin for 20 years before moving on to Harvard in 1990.

We could have discussed ecological disasters of the early 1970s, which included warnings about the death of polluted Lake Erie, a body that has since recovered thanks in part, they say, by the flushing action created by the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Or who could forget Cleveland's Cuyahoga River? It was such an oily and befouled stream that it caught on fire more than once during those years.

In those days, too, English was in one department, ecology in another. But they were beginning to wave to each other.

Yet Professor Buell stuck to his topic and talked about two turn-of-the-century writers and activists living within vastly different environments: John Muir (of the Sierra Club) and Jane Addams (of Chicago's Hull House).

Muir ("Mountains of California") was a preservationist of wild places, Addams ("Twenty Years at Hull House") was the urban conscience of public health and hygiene.

Writes Muir on California's forests and mountains: "We catch their restful spirit, yield to the soothing influence of the sunshine, and saunter dreamily on through flowers and bees, scarce touched by a definite thought...."

And Addams on the garbage in Chicago's streets: "The system of garbage collecting was inadequate throughout the city, but it became the greatest menace in a ward such as ours, where the normal amount of waste was much increased by the decayed fruit and vegetables discarded by the Italian and Greek fruit peddlers, and by the residuum left over from the piles of filthy rags which were fished out of the city dumps and brought to the homes of the rag pickers for further sorting and washing."

At first glance, Buell admits, they don't seem to have anything in common. But they both saw open space as therapeutic: Muir wanted to preserve Yosemite and Addams wanted parks in the city.

"Both exemplified positive environmentalism," said Buell. "They both believed that human welfare was impacted by the quality of the environment."

Closer to home, English Professor David Robertson of UCD's nature and culture program is working on a pamphlet of photos and words about Putah Creek, "A Narrow Way to Nearby," based on the haibun form perfected by 17th century Japanese poet Basho.

"Basho wrote prose and a haiku for each day of his journey. I am doing some prose and a photo for each of 11 reaches of Putah Creek. The book will be published by Boise State University Press in 1999," he said.

Those who are interested in a straight shot of nature writing will want to read "American Nature Writing 1998" (Sierra Club, $16), a wonderful collection of essays and poems selected by John A. Murray including pieces by Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, W.S. Merwin, Barry Lopez and David Rains Wallace.

Nature writing does have a sense of humor, too, as Murray displays in his opening piece about a camping trip gone bad and the obnoxious guy he was traveling with.

But I hope next year's collection of American nature writing will include something by Professor Buell, too.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books [ Click Here ]

[Author Menu] [Date Menu] [Genre Menu] [Printed Matter Home]
The Davis Virtual Market