Course: Eco Lit and Genius Loci: Humanity and Nature

HC 222H

Professor: Barbara Mossberg

Homer sang it, Aesop fabled it, Shakespeare sonneted it, Milton made it epic, Wordsworth gave us our words’ worth: since Gilgamesh scratched it on clay in cuneiform in 2700 BCE, eco-literature is a dynamic portrait of human engagement and concern with our world. Whether expressed in joy, gratitude, anger, or sorrow, what is at stake in how we represent earth and understand our relation to it. Our class takes up writing that turns our heads upwards, brings us to our knees, inspires us to climb and leap, make and break laws, save savannahs, wage war and peace, fight for civil rights, declare love, and try to preserve our earth. In the study of literature of our environment, we marvel at the fanged, the fierce, the lofty, the flowing. We rejoice at weeds and spiders. We ponder icons of the environmental movement, including Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry, and the poetry of Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Cullen Bryant, Emily Dickinson, Joyce Kilmer, and Pablo Neruda, and contemporaries. We’ll see the role of eco lit in law and public policy on the environment. We’ll note how leaders of countries (such as Charles, Prince of Wales, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, Abraham Lincoln) and organizations (such as Humane Society’s Wayne Pacelle, Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard), and the Supreme Court (William O. Douglas) write and are influenced by eco literature. We take a gander at ancient and classic foundations of eco-literature as we consider how we present our world to our children, from Dr. Seuss to E.B. White to Shel Silverstein.
In the process of asking, how does the human mind conceive and express nature, we are reflecting on how we see: such exploration reveals a consciousness and conscience for what it means to be human. From works narrated by pigs and dogs and elephants, to Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, Kenneth Bennett’s eco-thriller set in our Pacific Northwest, Exodus 2022, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s Canticle for Liebowitz, to writers such as Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, Scott Sanders, Barbara Kingsolver, Edward Abbey, and John McPhee, to Orion, ILSE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and CHC student-nominated favorites, students select examples of contemporary and modern eco-lit classics for an eco-literature review. We’ll explore and perform two iconic American plays in terms of how an eco lit reading reveals a joyous and anguished response to nature at the heart of our national psyche, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.We’ll research environmental topics, causes, and issues in terms of how writers address and shape them for the public conscience, preview a work in progress of a musical drama on trees, engage with local and regional eco-writers, create an original “poet-tree slam,” and develop your skills in "eco-crit" as both creator and scholar of a journal and essays. Class will include field trips on and off campus, including to our own Walden Pond, yes, in the early morning, as dawn rises.