Douglas Tompkins

This week the well-known conservationist Douglas Tompkins died of hypothermia in a kayaking accident The following obituary by Tom Butler  offers a glimpse of Tompkins’ life and work. You can learn more about Tompkins, the founder of the outdoor retailers The North Face and the clothing company Esprit, by reading the obituary in the New York Times or 2009 or Edward Humes’ Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet (Ecco 2012).

Douglas Tompkins: A Force for Nature

 Douglas Rainsford Tompkins, 72, one of the Earth’s foremost conservationists, died today following a kayaking accident on Lago General Carrera in Chilean Patagonia. Through charitable organizations he and his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, founded, the Tompkinses have acquired roughly 2.2 million acres of conservation land, part of which comprises the world’s largest private nature reserve, Pumalin Park in southern Chile. Using persuasive advocacy and land donations to the national park systems of Chile and Argentina, the Tompkinses have helped create five new national parks in South America, expand another, and are working to establish several more. For his parklands protection efforts and organic farming projects, Douglas Tompkins received numerous honors.

A mountaineer with first ascents on multiple continents, Douglas Tompkins was known as the entrepreneur who founded The North Face outdoor retailer and cofounded the Esprit clothing company with his first wife, Susie Tompkins (Buell).  After leaving the business world “to pay his rent for living on the planet,” as Tompkins frequently said, the businessman-turned-conservationist spent the last quarter-century of his life living in South America. Through a suite of charitable organizations (see he worked to create parks, buy and restore degraded farmlands, and help advance conservation activism.

An American citizen, Tompkins’s land acquisitions and environmental activism were sometimes controversial in his adopted home, although he worked with two Chilean presidents of different political parties to establish national parks and was similarly successful in Argentina. His participation in the multiyear campaign to prevent a massive hydroelectric project that would have dammed wild rivers in Chilean Patagonia was crucial. That fight was ultimately won due to the tenacity of dam opponents and Tompkins’s funding and strategic input.

Deeply influenced by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, Tompkins was a supporter of “deep ecology,” believing that a shallow, reform-minded environmentalism was doomed to fail. Only through deep structural changes to society and adoption of an ecocentric land ethic—a belief that humans were but a member of the community of life and not lord over it—would humanity reverse its rush toward, as Tompkins often said, “the dustbin of history.” A vocal critic of megatechnology, Tompkins devoted considerable funding to technology criticism and was widely read in the literature on that topic.

At his core an activist for nature and beauty, Tompkins possessed an incredible love for the wild world he explored in climbing and paddling trips. He combined this with a refined aesthetic sense reflected in the scores of buildings he designed through the years for his parkland and farm restoration projects. After “cheating death” so many times on perilous climbing expeditions to some of the planet’s most remote places, Tompkins was enjoying a kayak camping trip with friends on South America’s second largest lake when the accident occurred.

Douglas Tompkins leaves behind his beloved wife Kristine Tompkins; his mother Faith Tompkins and brother John C. Tompkins of Millbrook, NY; daughter Summer Tompkins Walker and son-in-law Brooks Walker and their children Brooks Thomas Walker, Della Walker, and Susie Kate Walker of San Francisco; daughter Quincey Tompkins Imhoff and son-in-law Dan Imhoff and their children Gardner and Willa Imhoff of Healdsburg, CA.


Heart and Soul


Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing.,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

-Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems Volume Two

Some Questions you Might Ask

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

-Mary Oliver, House of Light


Course Update

A Writing Checklist

In class last week we reviewed the post “Effective Writing?” I encouraged each of you to make a schedule for revising your essays. And we talked through a set of principles for effective writing: 1) thinking well; 2) thinking that is not (merely) specialized or discipline specific; 3) earning the reader’s trust; 4) thinking with a text; and 5) thinking in context.

The qualities of effective writing are listed below in the form of a checklist for revising and editing your essays in the next few weeks.

Interest Is there a sentence that says what the interest is? Is my writing engaging a reader by moving from the commonplace to the surprising, the simple to the complex, the familiar to the unfamiliar, the obvious to the less obvious?

Authenticity What makes me interesting, worth talking with, or listening to? Am I honest with myself, and with the reader, about the interest of what I am writing about?

Title Are my titles informative, suggestive, substantive, clever, or catchy?

Beginning Does my first sentence matter? Does it state my purpose and my angle or point of view or argument? Am I using a personal anecdote? Am I starting with a sentence or a quotation, a reference to another college class, an intellectual context, or a field of study?

Organization Does my essay have a subject (a subject, usually familiar, indicating what the post is about), a turn (can be a “yet” or a “however” or a “but”) and an angle (my stance, what I have to say, the move I make in my thinking that makes what I have to say matter)?

Text Am I working with the language of the book? Is there at least one quotation in every paragraph? What I am I doing with the language I am quoting?

Context Does my essay include reflection / analysis / interpretation? Have I referenced key points or passages? Am I spending time with it, digging in, probing, trying to understand it better, raise questions, suggest answers for my reader?

Sentences Are my sentences necessary, smart, engaging, even exiting to read? Does every word and phrase and sentence matter? Have I read my post aloud and revised the syntax to create sentences that flow?

Format Is my essay 500 words (1500 words on the final book)? Am I using the digital affordances of the blog: hyperlinks, images and/or illustrations, text blocks, bullet lists, italics?

Citations Am I using a consistent and unobtrusive system for citation? Are titles of books in italics and chapters, articles (and poems) in quotation marks? Are poems cited by line breaks or are dashes used to indicate line breaks?

Professionalism Have I edited my writing sufficiently? Have I corrected errors in grammar, spelling? Have I put in the time and effort to get my prose exactly right?

Preparing for the Conference

Your conference is an opportunity to work with me as your editor. The job of an editor is to help a writer reach her objectives and to offer professional assessment of written work intended for an audience. The collaborative nature of the editorial relationship requires time and commitment; and, when done well, will help a writer reach beyond what she might be able to do on her own.

When you meet with me you will have reviewed the writing on your blog and developed a plan for completing your revisions by the deadline of Thursday December 17. Your plan should focus on prioritizing the global and the local issues on the Writing Checklist. I also encourage you to name additional issue you are facing as you approach the task of revising and refining the essays you have completed in this course.

I will prepare for our conference by reading over your work and reviewing the feedback I have given you in our writing workshops and in our first conference this semester. Here are a few questions to help you prepare for our valuable time together:

  • What specifically have I done in response to the feedback I have received this semester?

(Be specific by connecting the feedback to a change or changes you have made in one or more of your essays.)

  • What have I learned about myself as a writer this semester that confirms the feedback I have received on my writing in other classes?
  • What are the five areas of writing that this feedback suggests are my priorities as I work to improve my sequence of short essays in this course?

(List these five areas and write down exactly what you think can do to address them and how I might be able to help you address these priorities?)

  • What is my work plan in Week 14 and week 15 of the course?

(You have eighteen days to complete your work when we return from the holiday break. I welcome any ideas about how I can help you complete this work.)

I’m looking forward to meeting with you, and to assisting you as you complete the requirements for this course. Remember that I am available by email to answer specific questions as you continue to work on your writing.

Reading for Others

Here is the relevant material from the assignment on the course blog. Your responsibilities include

  • Meeting with your group to talk about the book and to strategize about how to effectively share your reading with the class
  • Preparing a clear plan for how you plan to use your hour of class time and
  • Deciding whether you will develop an artifact that will be used during your presentation or activity, and which your classmates can keep for permanent reference (e.g., a one or two page sheet of key quotations, a copy of a poster or other critical handout, a reading guide, or an outline of the text)

Busy schedules preclude an additional meeting of the groups with me. So I would like to ask a representative from each group to be in touch with me no later than twenty-four hours before the class session your group is scheduled to lead the class. An email message will suffice (though I am happy to meet with you if we can find a mutually agreeable time). What I really need to know is how exactly you plan to use the hour of time you have allotted to you. I also need any materials you would like me to prepare or post to the course blog. I can post writing on the blog, links to any web-based video or audio you plan to use in class, or that you would like members of the class to review before we meet. Finally, let me know how I can help. I can take part in the responsibilities of the group—offering contextual information about the book, the author and his/her other activities and/or writing, and so on. Do let me know how I can help!

One basic recommendation I have takes the form of a question: What will my group do that will engage the class and inspire members of the class to read the book?

Here are the groups. When we meet in class we will proceed in the order listed below.

Thursday December 3

1) Richard Louv Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (2005) Emily W., Claire, Elizabeth, Rachel

2) Mark Bekoff Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence (2014); Bryan, Meaghan, Michelle

3) E. O. Wilson. The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) Shauna, Karen, Jessica

Thursday December 10

4) Craig Childs Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of the Earth (2012) Vic, Kaitlin, Nick

5) Bill Mckibben, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (2014) Jess H., Brendan, Mark

6) Elizabeth Kolbert The Sixth Extinction: Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2014) Rose, Dane, Emily B


Effective Writing?

“The effective use of words to engage the human mind.” This is Steven Pinker’s succinct definition of what constitutes style in writing.

A cognitive scientist, linguist, and writer, Pinker knows well that the effective use of words is among the most challenging activities we have contrived—and for students, more’s the pity. For whether you are writing a lab report, an abstract, a research proposal or paper, a review article, or a journal entry, writing will challenge you.

Much like an athlete building muscle-memory, writers need to practice and be persistent to become proficient at writing. For this reason learning to write—like learning to ski, surf, or dance—takes time. Writing teaches writing, for sure; but so does reading. “Many times the reading of a book has made the fortune of the reader—has decided his way of life,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, who happens to be one of the most helpful literary mentors for readers, thinkers, and writers. Check it out.

As an educator my professional life is organized around the proposition that all students deserve (indeed, should demand) consistent and challenging writing across their four years of undergraduate study. No matter your major or academic interest, you should be faced with (and seek out) writing in as many different situations as possible. Humanities students need to be writing papers in the biological sciences and science students need to be writing research papers.

There is in fact a broad consensus that effective writing is among the most important outcome of a college education. Working scientists need to be effective writers to contribute to peers in their field of study and to communicate and translate complex ideas for a general audience. Educators must communicate effectively with their students and other stakeholders to assure the integrity of educational institutions and methods. In any professional field of work, effective writing matters.

But there we are, again, back at that word effective.

In class this week we gathered a list of words we have been using to name effective writing. But let me offer a set of guiding principles that will help you as you work on your essays in the next few weeks:

Principle 1: Effective writing requires thinking well. It demands the labor of getting thoughts into words

Principle 2: Effective writing earns trust. A reader know when a writer cares and has used that care to write something that engages an informed reader

Principle 3: Effective writing is writing that is not (merely) specialized. In this course, as in most courses, whether you are a declared major in one field or another matters very little. Purpose, evidence, and reasoning—these are precisely the expectations in the sciences as well as the humanities. Context and discipline specific conventions will come into play but they are secondary. For whether you are describing the steps in a mathematical proof, articulating the relationship among constituent parts of a complex natural and cultural system, or analyzing a cultural narrative or symbol, the standards are much more alike than different

Principle 4: Effective writing—in this course and in other courses that involve reading—requires working (or thinking) with a text. Every paragraph you write will more likely than not have at least one quotation from the book. You need to explain clearly and precisely why the language you are citing is relevant to what you are writing about. Once you quote (your evidence) you need to explain with precision why that evidence is in your writing (your reasoning) and then connect the language you take to be important to other passages in the book (or in other books or texts) that you find important.

Principle 5: Effective writing is thinking in context You will remember that at the end of the chapter “The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture” Wendell Berry concludes that “moral ignorance” is the etiquette of agricultural ‘process’” (48). Berry is echoing what he calls earlier the cultural dis-ease of specialization, a point that Rachel Carson also makes in Silent Spring when she is arguing for what we might call thinking ecologically or, to use Tim Morton’s formulation, the ecological thought. Both writers are arguing that if we are not asking moral questions our thinking is incomplete.

Entering the Conversation: a Checklist for Writers In addition to the principles above we promised to make a checklist for writers using the words we generated as a class. It is important that we work on this document together as I will be using it to determine your development and success as a writer when I sit down to read your collection of essays on the blog.

Here is what I wrote down: flow/fluency, authentic/honest, authority, concise (no matter then length of the writing), using the text, thinking and writing in context. And here is what I came up with during the first conversation we had about writing during week 4 of the course:

Be interesting: 
Your idea(s) matter. Make sure there is a reason that an informed reader would want to read your writing. Take a reader somewhere: begin but do not end with the commonplace. Move from the commonplace to the surprising, the simple to the complex, the familiar to the unfamiliar, the obvious to the less obvious

Be thoughtful Think. Then think again. To make sentences that are smart, engaging, exiting to read you will need to move from first to second and third thoughts. The work of writing is to use words effectively to engage other minds

Be Concise Say what you have to say. Blog posts are relatively short. But effective blog posts do more with less. Every word and phrase and sentence matters. Many engaging blog posts have a three-part structure: a subject (a subject, usually familiar, indicating what the post is about), a turn (can be a “yet” or a “however” or a “but,” and an angle (your stance, what you have to say, the move you make in your thinking that makes what you have to say matter

Be Authentic and Honest. Cultivate a Point of View Who are you? Where are you? What are you doing/ What are you thinking or feeling? What makes you interesting, worth talking with, or listening to? Your tone matters, too: conversational, strong, sharp, inviting—these are terms we use to describe effective writing

Be professional You are publishing your writing. For this reason alone, your prose should be revised, revised, revised. Then (and only then) do you edit. It takes a lot of effort to get things exactly right.

Format: Final posts will be 500 words (with an additional 1500 word essay on the final book). Each essay will include reflection / analysis / interpretation. For example, note key points or passages that you noticed in your reading and spend more time with it, dig in, probe it, try to understand it better, raise questions, suggest answers

Make Connections Experiment with embedding your thinking in thought: in most of your writing you will be quoting from the writing of the books we are reading; but also, make use of the affordances of the Word Press blog. Learn how to make use of hyperlinks; organize blocks of text using paragraphs or bullet lists; use italics (or parenthetical comments) and bold face type, when appropriate

Titles are a lesson in microstyle. Titles will be first and foremost informative, suggestive, substantive; but don’t miss opportunities to write clever, catchy, eye drawing titles. Most good titles are suggestions of better titles. Most often titles are the last thing you revise before you post

Beginnings First sentences matter. Make them count. In most case state your purpose and your angle or point of view or argument. You might also try personal anecdotes, a sentence or a quotation, a reference to another college class, an intellectual context, or a field of study. Pay attention to how other writers begin

Details, Details, Details Is the writing error free? If you have issues with spelling (one of my issues as a writer, as it happens) you need to build into your writing process a run through focused just on spelling. Are you using a consistent and unobtrusive system for citation: Are titles of books in italics and chapters, articles (and poems) in quotation marks? Are poems cited by line breaks or are dashes used to indicate line breaks? (“I went into the Maverick Bar / In Farmington, New Mexico.”)

The Ecological Thought

The final chapter of Ramanchandra Guha’s Environmentalism: A Global History can be productively considered in relation to what the literary and cultural critic Timothy Morton has called “the ecological thought.”

The term ecology has its roots in the Greek oikos (house) and logos (order or knowledge). It has come to stand for a branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. The concept and term surfaced in the mid-19th century in the study of natural history–most notably in the writings of the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel who defined ecology as the investigation of the relationship of organisms with their environment.

The term broadened in meaning during the 20th century to encompass an emphasis in the sciences on the study of the distribution and abundance of organisms as well as the study of ecosystems. Ecological scientists draw on physics, chemistry, and biology to explain specific phenomena. Its concerns are with organisms, groups of organisms and their interactions, including their interactions with the environment—or the physical, chemical and biological components of an ecosystem.

In this course, our interest has focused less in the disciplinary field of ecology and more in the social and cultural meanings of the term ecology. Morton’s book The Ecological Thought (2010) reminds us that ecology orients our thinking away from individual things to things in relationship—to interaction and interconnectedness, and to pattern and process. The ecological thought is the thought that follows from this orientation—or is, rather, the orientation itself. The ecological thought is thinking about the essence of a living thing as an expression of connections and context. The ecological thought is also thinking the beauty and complexity of living systems.

The ecological thought is the irreversible recognition that things exist in relation rather than in isolation. Here is one of the most often cited passages from Charles Darwin’s writing that exemplifies this way of thinking:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (“Recapitulation and Conclusion,” The Origin of Species (1859)

Morton’s exposition and analysis of the term and concept is extraordinarily useful for environmentalists who, as we have seen, so often find themselves walking on a bog of moral and conceptional certainty:

The ecological crisis we face is so obvious that it become easy. . .to join the dots and see that everything is interconnected. This is the ecological thought. And the more we consider it, the more the world opens up (1).

We’ve gotten it wrong so far—that’s the truth of the climate disruption and mass extinction (5).

Thinking the ecological thought is difficult: it involves becoming open, radically open—open forever, without the possibility of closing again (8).

The ecological thought is difficult because it brings to light aspects of our existence that have remained unconscious for a long time; we don’t like to recall them (9).

The ecological thought is as much about opening our minds as it is about knowing something or other in particular (15).

A truly scientific attitude means not believing everything you think (16).

If everything is interconnected, there is less of everything. Nothing is complete in itself (33).

The ecological thought is about considering others, in their interests, in how we should act toward them, and in their very being (123).

The ecological thought “forces us to invent ways of being together that don’t depend on self interest. . .the ecological thought can be highly unpleasant” (135).

Things will get worse before they get better, if it all. We must create frameworks for coping with a catastrophe that, from the evidence of hysterical announcements of its immanent arrival, has already occurred (17).

The ecological thought must transcend the language of apocalypse (19).

This week we will talk a bit more about the ecological thought in relationship to the books we have read this semester and are reading in the coming weeks.

One World Or Two?

The narrative strategy of the novel The Tortilla Curtain makes visible a number of contradictions that lurk within the environmental movement in North America. Years ago Ramanchandra Guha, author of Environmentalism: A Global History, during his time as a graduate student at Yale, published an essay entitled “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique” (1987). Here is an abstract of the essay:

I present a Third World critique of the trend in American environmentalism known as deep ecology, analyzing each of deep ecology’s central tenets: the distinction between anthropocentrism and biocentrism, the focus on wilderness preservation, the invocation of Eastem traditions, and the belief that it represents the most radical trend within environmentalism. I argue that the anthropocentrism / biocentrism distinction is of little use in understanding the dynamics of environmental degredation, that the implementation of the wilderness agenda is causing serious deprivation in the Third World, that the deep ecologist’s interpretation of Eastern traditions is highly selective, and that in other cultural contexts (e.g., West Germany and India) radical environmentalism manifests itself quite differently, with a far greater emphasis on equity and the integration of ecological concerns with livelihood and work. I conclude that despite its claims to universality, deep ecology is firmly rooted in American environmental and cultural history and is inappropriate when applied to the Third World.

The frank and polemical and controversial essay has been assessed by the author more recently as revealing his own chauvinism; still, the essay is a helpful introduction to a way of thinking that focuses attention on both the insights and the blindness of the environmental movement in North America.

Guha’s essay from the 1980s is productively read alongside a collection of his essays I recommended earlier in the course, How Much Should a Person Consume: Environmentalism in India and the United States (Berkeley: U California P, 2006). The title essay focuses attention on the focus of the environmental movement on threats to human health caused by pollution and threats to wild habitats, and to species by economic expansion. But as Guha reminds his reader, “consumption continued to be the great unasked question of the conservation movement” (223).

The Tortilla Curtain places these contradictions and this unasked question about abundance and profligacy at the center of its unfolding. The novel constructs a narrative that both reinforces the two worlds (consumers and workers, citizens or so-called “natives” and non-citizens or so-called “aliens”) at the same time that it merges these two worlds. The catastrophic (or what a former student of mine called the “downward spiral”) of the story is inexorable, or so it seems. Candido and America’s lives are slowly and painfully falling apart at the same time that the fiction of life Delaney has constructed (Boyle deftly foregrounds the slow unraveling of his “liberal humanist guilt”) around privilege and exceptionalism. In brief, the racism that serves as the catalyst for dehumanization in the novel is deeply entwined with the relationship between ecological entitlement and economic status.

When Delaney, the liberal humanist and environmentalist, reflects on the contradictions of his own actions following his confrontation with the Mexican men the night of the fire, a possible redemptive moment merely flickers in an increasingly desperate situation. Rather than reading this as an indictment of liberal humanism, or environmentalism, the novel allows a reader to experience the fracturing of the world view on which such commitments are often based–a world of abundance, richness and privilege as well as, when the fire leaps into the treetops on the Santa Ana winds, the moment when the two worlds become one.

To think ecologically is to think of one world–a world deeply and inextricably imbedded and interrelated. The radical openness of this kind of thinking is challenging, for it requires seeing the ecological crisis that animates the environmental movement as an inescapable condition. It also demands that the conceptual distinctions that proliferate under the banner of environmentalism (or that lie lurking beneath its ideals) become visible. That is to say, social and environmental questions are the same questions. The moral demands of this becoming, as Wendell Berry’s writing has pressed its readers to realize, require more humanity than we appear able to give. You can’t think of our environment and our environmental predicament without asking the question Candido asks, “Where was the justice”?

Before we talk this week I would like you to think more broadly about a question this novel asks: on what terms might the people in this novel (in this world) share a common future? How can these voices share equal status in a debate about a common future? How might the final image in the novel suggest that such questions are questions that can be asked? “He was beyond cursing, beyond grieving, numbed right through to the core of him. All that, yes. But when he saw the white face surge up out of the black swirl of the current and the white hand grasping at the tiles, he reached down and took hold of it” (355).

The Real Work: Revised Schedule

Week Ten (Thursday November 5) In addition to talking through the final book in the sequence, T. C. Boyle’s 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, we will

  • make any final adjustments to the book selections and form the reading groups
  • confirm your strategy to order the book so that you have a copy no later than next Thursday

On Sunday you will complete your final essay on The Tortilla Curtain. You will then have a three week period to work on your essays: from Monday November 9 to Thursday December 17th. Curating your blog will take time, and I encourage each of you to make a schedule to complete the work. We will talk about this writing period in class.

Week 11 (Thursday November 12)

  • Open discussion of environmental writing and environmentalism in the twentieth century (discussion prompts will be published on the blog early next week)
  • Questions about the Reading for Others assignment

Week 12 (Thursday November 19)

  • Workshop on Reading for Others and Reading Groups progress reports
  • Questions and Discussion about Writing: What have we learned about thinking and writing in the course? What we have learned about reading when writing will follow? What questions do we have about writing 500 word essays? How do I develop a revision strategy for the next few weeks? How do I prepare for the final writing conference during week 14 or 15?

Week 13 (No class: Thanksgiving break)

  • Reading and writing continues
  • Happy thanksgiving!

Week 14 (Thursday December 3)

  • Reading groups: 1) Richard Louv Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (2005) Emily W., Claire, Elizabeth, Rachel ; 2) Mark Bekoff Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence (2014); Bryan, Meaghan, Michelle;3) E. O. Wilson. The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) Shauna, Karen, Jessica
  • Final Individual Writing Conferences this week

Week 15 (Thursday December 10)

  • Reading groups: 4) Craig Childs Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of the Earth (2012) Vic, Kaitlin, Nick; 5) Bill Mckibben, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (2014) Jess H., Brendan, Mark; 6) Elizabeth Kolbert The Sixth Extinction: Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2014) Rose, Dane, Emily B

  • Final Individual Writing Conferences this week

Week 16 (Final’s Week)

  • Monday is Reading Day
  • Thursday December 17: Class will meet. Writing Learning Outcomes for course. Blogs must be complete. I will begin reading, assessing and grading your work on Friday morning.

Essay Checklist Your blog will have the following sequence of essays:

  1. Objects and Artifacts and/or Barry Lopez (The Rediscovery of North America)
  2. Ramanchandra Guha, Environmentalism: A World History
  3. Rachel Carson Silent Spring
  4. Gary Snyder Turtle Island
  5. Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
  6. Linda Hogan, Solar Storms
  7. Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge 
  8. Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang
  9. Gary Snyder,The Practice of the Wild: Essays
  10. T. C. Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain
  11. Essay on your final book (1500-2000 words)

The Tortilla Curtain

“Fucking Beaners. Rip it up, man. Destroy it.”

Jack Jr’s comment, when he and his friend stumble upon Candido and America’s camp in the arroyo, will bring you back to the evening meeting at which Jack Cherrystone offers his disquisition on what is “real,” and it will anticipate the later conversation he has with Delaney Mossbacher in what can only be described as a surreal scene in the supermarket.

Jack Jr’s comment throws us out of the novel as well. It brings to mind the early 1990s in California when proposition 187 was passed, and then later repealed. His angry and confused words suggest a literary predecessor as well, John Steinbeck, who Boyle uses as an epigraph for his novel, and whose novel The Grapes of Wrath Boyle pays homage.

In class this week we will talk about how this novel brings us back full circle to Ramanchandra Guha. It would be helpful for you to (re)consider his distinction between omnivores (consumers) and ecosystem people (workers)–as well as the massive asymmetries between abundance and scarcity, richness and poverty.

“Where is the justice?” Candido asks later in the novel, as he desperately tries to make some sense of the world around him.

Enjoy the reading. I am looking forward to reading your first thoughts and to our discussion on Thursday evening.

Cactus Ed

“What happened to the trees?”

“What trees?” says Hayduke.

“That’s what I mean.”

 -Bonnie Abzug & George Hayduke, from Edward Abby’s The Monkey Wrench Gang


In his essay “A Few Words in Favor of Ed Abbey,” Wendell Berry notes  “the extent to which this writer is seen as a problem by people who are, or who think they are, on his side.” He goes on to say that it takes care to appreciate Abbey’s literary project, as readers too often merely react to Abbey’s prose and provocations.

10th Anniversary edition (1985) from Dream Garden Press, with illustrations by Robert Crumb

Among the most enjoyable problems in environmental studies is the problem of Edward Abbey—or, for us anyway, Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. I would like you to begin with your response to Abbey but I would like to try to make sentences in your response to Abbey’s novel (your text) that offer a reader a broader context of understanding and appreciating Abbey’s contribution to environmental writing. Berry’s essay of appreciation is helpful in this regard, and I encourage you to work with and/or quote from what he says. Think about your blog post this week as a way of explaining to a reader (your friend, your dad, a co-worker, whatever) why reading Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang is an experience worth having—no matter where you come out.

As you read, think and write about this novel I encourage you to spend some time 1) thinking about the book (and talking about it with classmates or friends) to generate a broader perspective on Cactus Ed—his life and work as a writer, his irreverent and often uncongenial moral commitments, and his enduring presence in the North American environmental imagination; 2) considering the characters in the novel: Bonnie Azbug, Seldom Seen Smith, Doc Sarvis, and Hayduke; and 3) reflecting on each character’s outlook on the world–their opinions, beliefs, actions, moral and ethical commitments.


Excerpts from Wendell Berry, “A Few Words in Favor of Ed Abbey.” Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary Nature and Environmental Writers. Ed. John Cooley.

Two Dimensional Dreams

“It is the innocence that constitutes the crime”

—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Cover of the novel Solar Storms
Cover of the novel Solar Storms

The copyright page of the novel we are reading this week, Solar Storms, reads in part, “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental” (6). It is also true that the events that unfold in this work of imaginative fiction are taking place in a world in which human events, and the stories we call history, are taking place.

The novel is a story about ways of knowing, and their consequences. It is a novel, too, about cultural memory and history:

  • How does an awareness of the history of the James Bay hydroelectric project, started in 1971, specifically the government of Quebec’s claim that the ‘”common property resource” of water for all Canadians supplants First Nations claims to the lands, help a reader understand this novel?
  • How does this story help us think with an awareness of (if not sympathy for) the “kind of knowing” Angel begins to form at Adam’s Rib?
  • How does the actual cultural, ecological and environmental complexities of large-scale hydroelectric projects inform a reading of this novel?

Early in the novel, as Angel is stepping off the ferry on that narrow finger of land called “Adams Rib,” she says that “When I touched the ground, my legs still held the rocking motions of water. It seemed to move beneath my feet. In every curve and fold of myself. I knew that even land was not stable” (22-23). Angel’s emerging knowledge here is the knowledge that the world of land and water (the world of nature and human life) is a counter-narrative to the knowledge of land and peoples of her most recent years: the same knowledge that determines the planning and building of large-scale “renewable energy” projects.

The hydroelectric project is an example of what Hogan calls “two-dimensional dreams.” It is helpful to read about Hydro Quebec and the series of legal challenges to the James Bay Project by the Cree that were settled in 1975 by the first modern land claim settlement in Canadian history, the “James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.” You can learn about the James Bay Project and the ongoing work of Hydro Quebec on the web. But I would specifically like you to read in the materials on the web site of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee). The Grand Council of the Crees is the political body that represents the approximately (2012) 18,000 Crees or “Eeyouch” (“Eenouch” – Mistissini dialect), as they call themselves, of eastern James Bay and Southern Hudson Bay in Northern Quebec. There are brief accounts of the Social Impact on the Crees of James Bay Project as well as the environmental impacts. You will also be able to read about the Government of Canada and the Grand Council of the Crees Statement of Intention in August 2004 to begin an out-of-court process demonstrating a mutual commitment to settling issues through meaningful discussion rather than through the courts, the “Agreement Concerning a New Relationship between the Government of Canada and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee.” Finally, I encourage you to listen in on a series of reports produced by Vermont Public Radio in the summer of 2010 that examines the social, cultural, economic, and environmental consequences of long-term agreements to buy large quantities of power from Hydro-Quebec.

Literature and Environmentalism at Keene State College