My class “Literature and the Environment” is not for the student looking to sit back and chill. It’s a class for champions. And this semester, I got them. This little ode is for them.
We started in late January. It rained. We read essays by Barry Lopez, bell hooks, Luther Standing Bear, Edward Abbey and Jonathan Safran Foer. We read Wendell Berry on the Unsettling of America and pondered the ravenous drive for conquest that runs like a river of blood through our history. What is nature, we asked? Where is it? In what ways am I in it, of it? In the dance between nature and culture, must it be a zero sum game? And most importantly, what is our paradigm? What is the paradigm of western culture that has brought us so blithely to our current perilous brink? Can we change it?
Can reading literature change it? I want them to believe it can, because it has the power to change the way we think and see. These students have been willing to entertain that possibility. They’ve been willing to look into their own ideas and conceptions. They’ve even been willing to change.
In February (still raining), Thoreau led us through the woods to rapture of his morning bath and the Homeric trumpet of a mosquito, while Michael Pollan brought us back out into the garden and reason. Rather than roping “nature” off into wilderness preserves while we despoil every other corner of the planet, why not treat the whole thing like a garden? Let us get what we need while nature gets what it needs to survive. That way, when we have a woodchuck problem, we don’t have to firebomb the woodchuck burrow, we just need to build a fence.
So through it all, this class has kept with it, reading, thinking, debating, writing. They are not English majors, except for one. They will be doctors and lawyers and teachers and hospitality managers and financial consultants and bankers and musicians and landscape architects and chemists and engineers. A handful aim to do environmental work. When it comes to writing and reading literature, they were either rusty or brand, shiny new. But they’ve been willing. They talk, they have ideas, they’re funny, and willing to try.
When we launched into Mary Austin and Aldo Leopold, things really started to take off. They were writing well, discussion was fun. And then I said, “let’s read poetry!” And despite their fears or uncertainties, their skepticism that a single haiku could mean so much, they still said, “bring it on!” Or at least they came along. They did it. They devised their own odes (to bare feet, to my running shoes, to my snake, to the ocean), they wrote alliterated lines. They learned how to mark the rhyme scheme of a poem, they worked through its allusive, associative music. Even Denise Levertov couldn’t stop them.
So now the rain has finally stopped (my plum tree bloomed) and we’re reading fiction. We just left poor Melanie dead on the floor of her house, killed by the buck she was trying to save from a hunter, their two bodies stuck together by their mingled, frozen blood. Joyce Carol Oates! You’re awesome! And that fabulous sinkhole of Treviño’s? Well, we’re still pondering the significance of that Chevy that rises from the miraculous (or scientifically explicable) river.
The pages keep coming, and we’re about to start Ann Pancake’s novel, As Strange as this Weather Has Been, about a family living in Appalachian coal country. I’m feeling just a little fear. It’s a lot of pages between now and graduation. Other classes might not get through it. But this one can. This bunch is like a schooner with a fair wind in its sails. No matter what’s going on below decks—tiredness, skepticism, the complications of life and other, more pressing concerns—they just keep sailing on.
So in high ode mode, let me slip into apostrophe and say, Oh, Mahina, Anna, Jonathan, Chet, Bilkis, Lauren, Courtney, Alycia, Sanjeshni, Jenny, Abayomi, Taylor, Monique, Alice, Michael, Kaleen, Joanna, Alyssa, Megan, Liz, Nina, Jennifer, Aaron, Nancy, E.B., Jacquie, Paul, Kelsey, Kate and Lea! Thank you for your sportingness in trying something new. May you always keep your ear tuned to the music of language, and to the rhythms of the natural world.