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Books at High Noon–February 10 2000

The Environmental Imagination by Laurence Buell

Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1995

Steven Marx, English Department,

Cal Poly University, San Luis Obispo


I responded to Phil Fetzer’s call for speakers in the Books at High Noon series last November because a book I was immersed in at the time seemed worth talking about, and because I knew I’d have to study it closely to really get my money’s worth. In that sense it reminded me of other important books which taxed my brain and enriched my thinking–like Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Northrop Frye’s Words with Power, and Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations

The Environmental Imagination was written by Laurence Buell, a Harvard American literature professor, and was published in 1995. With 425 pages of text and 150 pages of small print notes, it's an intimidating academic treatise. But it’s also a popular gospel proclaiming a paradigm shift–a millennial new order of words and things.

On the second page, Buell introduces that gospel with a quote from a 1992 book by then Senator Albert Gore: "we must make rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." [Earth in the Balance, p. 269] Buell notes the sixfold increase of membership in environmental organizations between 1961 and 1980, and a widely-felt need for a changed way of living and thinking to stave off impending ecological catastrophe. His book addresses that need for rescue or salvation, not with a program of action but with a search through America’s cultural heritage for tools to remake a worldview. He discovers them in a tradition of nature writing whose center is the life and work of Henry David Thoreau..

Like Thoreau’s, Buell’s prose is dense, difficult and delightful–full of unexpected traps and surprises. And like Thoreau’s, Buell’s work is open to interpretation and questioning. Reading it closely encourages me to reaffirm my own beliefs on the environment, and reading it critically forces me to recognize some of the limits and paradoxes of those beliefs.

Environmentalism, genuine and fake, has permeated every aspect of American culture: science, art, technology, agriculture, business, ethics, politics, religion, sports, fashion and the media. Locally, the City of San Luis Obispo appoints an environmental coordinator as a major staff position, and the Tribune newspaper features two reporters and weekly sections devoted to Environment. At Cal Poly, numerous departments include the word in their names, including Environmental Horticulture, Environmental Engineering, and Environmental Design. Though the concentration in Environmental Studies was discontinued by the Biology department, a new interdepartmental major in Earth Science has sprung up to offer an environmental perspective on issues of natural resource conservation and management. The Provost’s Forum last year was dedicated to discussion of making Poly a green university, and the preamble of the University’s new master planning document states that environmental concerns are primary.

An instance of this boom is the birth of a discipline in literary studies called Ecocriticism, also known as Ecocrit or Ecolit. PMLA, the flagship professional journal in humanities, printed a special symposium on the subject in its October 1999 issue, and New Literary History, the trendiest of quarterlies, devotes its current issue to the phenomenon. A new worldwide organization, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment publishes its own journal, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment.

Some of the the principles of Ecocriticism are stated by Janet Arnold, Professor of English at Harvey Mudd College

Looking at texts for their ideas about the natural world results in a cross fertilization of the humanities with other academic disciplines: when literature combines with biology, cultural theory, biochemistry, art, ecology, history and other sciences, any combination of these fields forms a cauldron of brand new perspectives. Through ecocritical practice, the humanities can play a unifying role in creating a new form of knowledge. (1089-90)

Buell’s book has become a founding text in this field. A moral and political commitment informs its scholarship. Buell calls that commitment "Ecocentrism" or "Biocentrism," terms which he sets in opposition to "homocentrism," and defines with quotations from a number of its practitioners. Philosopher Timothy O’Riordan states that Ecocentrism "preaches the virtues of reverence, humility, responsibility, and care; it argues for low impact technology but it is not antitechnological; it decries bigness and impersonality in all forms…[it]seeks permanence and stability based upon ecological principles of diversity and homeostasis" [Environmentalism 2d ed. London Pion 1981 p.1] Political scientist Robyn Eckersly says that Ecocentrism regards "the question of our proper place in the rest of nature as logically prior to the question of what are the most appropriate social and political arrangements for human communities." [Environmentalism and political theory: toward an ecocentric approach Albany: State University of NY Press, 1992, p. 28] According to Jean Arnold, Ecocentrism finds that "… all human culture resides in the natural world…every penny of economic worth ultimately draws on resources of the natural world…" Buell asserts that Ecocentrism responds to a pressing demand: "…western metaphysics and ethics need revision before we can address today’s environmental problems…environmental crisis involves a crisis of the imagination the amelioration of which depends on finding better ways of imagining nature and humanity’s relation to it."(2) And Ecocriticism can fill that demand by "look[ing] searchingly at the most searchng works of environmental reflection...to find...both the pathologies that bedevil society...and some of the alternative paths that it might consider."(2)

The kind of revision he advocates recalls other controversial revisionisms in humanist studies during the last 30 years: ethnic studies, feminism, new historicism, deconstruction, postcolonialism. Ecocentrism rewrites accepted canons–of important texts, of methods of teaching and learning from them, and of individual leaders whose lives and works are worthy of emulation.

Ecocritics have replaced Emerson with Thoreau as the key figure of early American thought. They have added forgotten or unappreciated authors, like Susan Fenimore Cooper, Celia Thaxter, Mary Austin, John Burroughs, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez, Wallace Stegner, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard, to their reading lists. They have resuscitated observation, accuracy, and realism as literary values, reversing "postmodern" assumptions about the disjunction among text, mind and physical world. They have crossed barriers between fiction and non-fiction, autobiography and exposition, creative writing and criticism. They consider writers about evolutionary biology, geography, and social ecology as models of literary reflection.

Ecocriticism emphasizes a connection between canonized texts, teaching methods and the obligations of citizenship in a world where "Ecocide is more of a threat than nuclear war."(6) And ecocriticism emphasizes opportunities of citizenship in American democracy which is more conscious of that threat and yet more "consumption addicted" than any other in the world. The political significance of ecocriticism stems from the fact that, "We live our lives by metaphors that have become deceptively transparent…for instance ‘progress..’" and that "Aesthetics can become a decisive force for or against environmental change."(4)

The Environmental Imagination is ambitious, innovative, and provocative enough to warrant its own scholarly symposium. The book's subtitle indicates its breadth of scope: "Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture." In the first paragraph the author states his subject as a "broad study of environmental perception, the place of nature in the history of western thought, and the consequences for literary scholarship and … humanistic thought…of attempting to imagine a more ‘ecocentric’ way of being…."(1)

Buell gains authority for taking on such an extensive project with the quality of his scholarship. This was already established in previous books, here praised by one reviewer for their

…wide speculative range, their engaging of current critical concerns, their informed attention to literary and scholarly origins, and above all their ability to open up issues in ways that provoke further considerations from the reader rather than closing down upon terminal truths. (John McWilliams Nineteenth Century Literature)

He seems to have closely read everything related to his subject, from obscure nineteenth century advertisements and editorial correspondance to philosophical brain twisters by Heidegger and Merleau Pointy. And his analysis of literary works I’m familiar with, from Edmund Spenser’s The Shepherd’s Calendar to Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, is sound and original.

Buell’s writes ruminatively, chewing over subjects, swallowing and digesting them more than once. For example:

Consider Thoreau on the subject of muskrat houses, "singularly conspicuous for the dwellings of animals." (J5:440) Their regular appearance in autumn he always looked forward to and seldom failed to note, often at length. Thoreau had an engineer’s interest in the details of muskrat construction, but more noteworthy is his stylization of the inert data so as to enliven it with place-sense. Muskrat nests are not things but habitats, dwellings remotely like one’s own that provide a basis for erasing the line between village and outback and seeing both as variant forms of settlement in place.

At times this language gets inflated or clotted, at times paragraphs or sentences are so intricate that its hard to follow the thread of the argument. But the complexity of the style reflects the subject. Buell finds a similar characeristic in his master's prose: "One of Walden’s more frustrating charms is that it so easily loses the reader in the landscape of the text."

A book this dense and expansive needs to be mapped, and Buell does that with section and chapter headings, with prefatory and retrospective summaries and with explicit or sometimes hidden transitions. He divides the whole into three sections, each of which is long, rewarding and self-contained enough to take up a separate book. But my second reading discovered the shape of the whole and produced a coherent cumulative effect. From the preparatory abstraction of section I, it progresses to an engaging ramble through the ecoliterary landscape of section II, and it concludes in section III with a pilgrimage to the shrine of the saint, an homage to his achievement, an encounter with his presence, and a blessing to take home.

Section 1 drably titled "Historical and Theoretical Contexts," surveys the whole field of ecoliterature. Chapter 1, introduces the genre as a version of pastoral--the cultural tradition based on the "idea of a (re)turn to a more ‘natural’ state of existence." Buell notes the paradox that the pastoral tradition both contributes to an environmental aesthetic and blocks it by artificially romanticizing or ironically satirizing natural life. Similar paradoxes are explored in chapter 2, "New World Dreams and Environmental Actualities," where Buell shows how America’s historically acquired pastoral identity as a world of nature rather than civilization has led both to appreciation and pillage of the environment. Chapter 3, "Representing the Environment," derives a method of reading and writing about nature from examples that combine scientific observation with literary tools like metaphor, analogy, and shifting perspective. Buell calls this method of representation "dual accountability" to scientific and aesthetic truth. Chapter 4, "Walden’s Environmental Project," elaborates two ways that Thoreau models ecocentrism: first, his personal evolution away from human interests and toward purely natural ones--toward what Aldo Leopold called "Thinking like a mountain." Second is his staking out the territory of ecocentrism with six major concerns: 1.the glorification of nature 2. the correspondance between natural and spiritual 3. economy or self-regulation 4. interest in environmental science, 5. landscape aesthetics, and 6. a political program to conserve natural resources.

Section II of the book, "Forms of Literary Ecocentrism," takes a less schematic approach. Buell leads the reader on a kind of docent’s walk through characteristic features of environmental texts. Incidentally, such recurrent rhetorical topics are technically called "topoi," Greek for places in a landscape.

Chapter 5, "The Aesthetics of Relinquishment," is about "epics of voluntary simplicity." Buell links Thoreau’s retreat to his small cabin with traditional pastoral celebrations of leisure and solitude, early Puritan notions of austerity and holiness, and Benjamin Franklin’s ideals of economy and practicality. The same "master plot" shapes the writings of Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Annie Dillard, Scott and Helen Nearing and Bradford Angier. In this plot, material possessions and comforts are exchanged for inner awakening and a restored connection to nature. A variant of the plot is relinquishment of the individual ego. This is achieved by Wendell Berry through immersion in the village life of rural communities and by Robinson Jeffers through a claimed transcendance of both social and self-preservation instincts–an identification with sky, wind and rock he called "inhumanism." Another variant of ecocentric relinquishment is pure "extrospection"–that is, the effort to experience and record the world without any mediating feeling or thought–as practised at times by poets like W. C. Williams, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, A.R. Ammons and Gary Snyder. Acknowledging the probematical quality of such endeavors, Buell concludes this chapter by noting how Thoreau uses the pronoun "I" less and less prominently in the course of his career as his understanding of nature grows.

Chapter 6, entitled "Nature’s Personhood," surveys environmental literature’s theme of personification, often referred to as "the pathetic fallacy." Buell lays out the old conflict between pagans who find deities in trees and rivers and Judaeo Christianity’s abhorrence of nature gods. But despite religious and rationalistic objections, the impulse to personify nature still survives both in pietistic notions of kind or abused mother nature, and in Darwinist parallels between human competitive brutality and the struggle for existence, such as those portrayed by "naturalist" writers like Jack London or Frank Norris. Thoreau continually indulged in personification–Walden Pond whoops and farts (208). James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, stating that earth itself is a living organism, has achieved some credibility among scientists, and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 gives legal standing to natural species. In Native American myths which present animals, plants and landscape features as different kinds of "people," in narratives of bonding between gorillas and humans, in modern goddess religions worshipping the great earth mother, Buell finds metaphors of kinship between humans and nature, which, "whether true or not, when accepted as language can strengthen an environmental ethic."(218)


Chapter 7. "Nature’s Face/Mind’s Eye: Realizing the Seasons," follows the trail of the previous chapter but switches back from projecting human traits outward to discovering the natural pattern of the seasons within human existence. Buell attributes the ancestry of this convention to agricultural poems called Georgics, pastorals like Spenser’s The Shepherd’s Calendar, and heroic narratives like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Detailed analysis of seasonal motifs in Walden, in James Thomson’s The Seasons, and in works by Celia Thaxter and Annie Dillard show how this popular convention is fragmented and dislocated for sophisticated poetic effects. However, no matter how subtle, all literary parallels between seasons, moods and life stages "Tease us toward awareness of ourselves as environmental beings." (251)

If the cycle of seasons illuminates nature’s influence on human time, another aspect of environmental writing locates human existence in natural space. Chapter 8, called "Place," examines the topic of territoriality. Buell begins with cultural geographer Yi Fu Tuan’s observation that place-sense holds "psyche and society together by supplying a deeply satsifying sense of home base or home range…" and Wendell Berry’s assertion that "Without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly, and eventually destroyed." Environmental writing conveys knowledge and love of place with descriptions, maps and intineraries enabling people to appreciate their location as do aborigines or animals. Such literature also enlivens the experience of everyday places with new facts and rhetorical devices that can "recalibrate familiar landscapes…to keep alive a sense of the ‘undiscovered country of the nearby’"(262) Susan Fenimore Cooper, for example, describes her town from the vantage of an pinegrove, "Seeing things new, seeing new things, expanding the notion of community so that it becomes situated within the ecological community…"(266)

The principle of dual accountability to scientific and aesthetic truth applies here, in terms of what Buell calls "Map knowledge and place sense." In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez charts the landscape with official maps and then describes the same territory with traditional eskimo markers. William Least Heat Moon sets an account of the Dakota prairies divided into survey quadrangles against an account divided by drainages and migrations. Thoreau, the surveyor plays the mathematical mapping of Walden pond with soundings and calculations against symbolic tales of its false bottoms and mysterious depths. These writers direct both official and intuitive knowledge toward "topophilia," the love of place.

Chapter 9, "Environmental Apocalypticism" somberly concludes Buell’s tour with literary visions of environmental catastrophe. The whole order of Nature has been represented by various "master metaphors": a machine, an economy, a chain of being, a balance, a mind, an organism, a web. Buell shows how the web image is used by two authors to prophesy that unintended consequences of human interventions with nature can lead to worldwide disaster. Rachel Carson in The Silent Spring and Leslie Marmon Silko in Ceremony tell stories in which the introduction of DDT into the food chain and the release of atomic energy in bombs and uranium mines tear and eventually collapse the whole web of life. Apocalypse is another religious metaphor, one effective in lending urgency to calls for individual and social change. Indeed, as Buell points out, Carson’s doomsday book played a significant part in outlawing the use of DDT and in passage of the Endangered Species Act.

Section III of The Environmental Imagination, entitled "Environmental Sainthood," devotes even more attention to Thoreau than the others, but here we encounter him less as a text and more as a person, an icon and a spirit. In this section, Buell cleverly uses religious language to illuminate ways that any leader who bears a vital message of rescue or salvation can be elevated to sainthood by a combination of personal creativity, institutional support, historical accident, and audience appeal.

Chapter 10, "The Thoreauvian Pilgrimage," traces parallels between Thoreau’s lifelong migration toward ecocentrism, the "master narrative" of his pastoral retreat to Walden, and journeys of disciples like John Muir which included a visit to the holy shrine of the pond itself. Chapter 11, "The Canonization and Recanonization of the Green Thoreau," recounts the long history of Thoreau’s image as crafted by business, academic and political interests. Chapter 12, "Text as Testament," moves from the way Thoreau lionized himself in his writing to the ways his surviving personal presence affects later readers, sometimes with transformative power.

Succeeding generations’ regard of Thoreau confirms Buell’s observations that "Most people need role models as points of reference for constructing their lives,"(312) and that "Figures seen as ‘major’ or ‘great’ have the potentional…to further the process of cultural change…" While disposing of silly arguments about the "death of the author" that preoccupy some literary critics, Buell makes the important point that personal admiration for a real author can awaken a reader and motivate political action. He distinguishes such admiration from slavish hero worship by emphasizing the subtlety, complexity and evolving nature of Thoreau’s thought–qualities which make faith and imitation a broadening rather than narrowing experience. "Certainly Thoreau wrote Walden in such a way to help us to this liberated form of discipleship…"(384) This description is echoed by what the reviewer I quoted earlier said about Buell’s own work.

Though I am deeply grateful for this book, I have some reservations about it. First are stylistic ones. I think if Buell or his editor had considered his audience to be educated readers rather than academics, his prose might have been more jargon-free, fluent and lucid. And though he says coyly "I consider myself as a pretty fair natural historian,"(11) the author only includes one unimpressive passage of his own nature description: "the grove of second growth white pines that sway at this moment of writing, with their blue-yellow-green five-needle clusters above spikey circles of atrophied lower limbs, along a brown needle-strewn ridge of shale forty feet from my computer screen…is not the woods imagined by American criticism." (10)

Second, in respect to understanding the pastoral tradition, I was disappointed that Buell left out Arthur O. Lovejoy’s research on the history of the ideas of Nature and of Primitivism, research which could clarify and complicate Buell's central and I think oversimplified concept of ecocentrism. Buell’s opposition of ecocentric vs. homocentric outlooks is useful but limited. Theodore Kaszynski might be a model ecocentrist, but is he a more effective protector of nature than say NASA scientists with supercomputers who study global warming? Is corporate helicopter logging more homocentric than slash and burn clearing of rainforests by peasants? Is the environmental imagination distinct from, or just one dimension of the human imagination?

A negative reply to this last question is at the heart of another big book called Landscape and Memory(New York: Knopf, 1995) published the same year as Buell’s by former Harvard professor Simon Schama. Its 625 pages are also devoted to the analysis of nature writing and painting, its section headings are labelled "Wood," "Water," and "Rock," and its epigraph and closing words are quotations from Thoreau. Schama’s language is more graceful than Buell’s--as evident in their books' titles--and his many passages of descriptive writing are beautiful and vivid. But his thesis runs counter to the tenets of ecocentrism. Rather than polarizing ecocentric vs. homocentric, or nature vs. culture, Schama claims that they overlap, and he mocks the distinction:

The founding fathers of modern environmentalism, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, promised that "in wildness is the preservation of the world," …but of course the healing wilderness was as much the product of culture’s craving and culture’s framing as any other imagined garden." (7)

Though neither Schama nor Buell cites the other, their opposing views are useful correctives. Schama acknowledges "…that the impact of humanity on the earth’s ecology has not been an unmixed blessing," but claims "neither has the long relationship between nature and culture been an unrelieved and predetermined calamity."(9-10) He "unequivocally share[s] dismay at the ongoing degradation of the planet and much of the foreboding about the possibillities of its restoration to good health." And like Buell, he hopes to ameliorate the problem "by revealing the richness, antiquity and complexity of our landscape tradition." But, "Instead of assuming the mutually exclusive character of Western culture and nature, I want to suggest the strength of links that have bound them together."(14.) Though this sounds reasonable, European-born Schama’s own biases are evident in the revulsion with which he describes environmental activists, California forest-dwellers, and what he maintains is his childrens’ abhorrence of primeval wilderness: "…when they saw the redwoods, these seemed more like monsters than marvels. Their vague discomfort and irritability turned into something like fear…they wanted out of the reptilian tomb of prehistory." (242)

These books mirror my life experience and my reading. In 1970 my wife Jan and I followed the master plot of Aesthetic relinquishment when we moved from New York to the wilderness of British Columbia to seek a life of voluntary simplicity. During our first four years of adjustment, what we found was anything but simple, and during the second four years simplicity turned to boredom. My sojourn there ended with writing a Phd dissertation and a book on pastoral literature which concluded that life in the hinterlands is good for young people and old ones, but that middle aged citizens find a home in the city, where they can do more for the planet and themselves than off in the woods. The departure from the pastoral world is another master plot, one not treated by Buell.

These books also challenge me to state where I stand on the political issues they raise, issues which are unavoidable by those who appreciate their surroundings–here on California’s central coast or anywhere on earth. Last night San Luis Obispo’s City Planning Commission discussed the pros and cons of building a pedestrian and bicycle trail along the undeveloped section of the creek between Marsh Street and Madonna Road. Arguments flew among homocentrists who want to parkify the creek for people, ecocentrists who want to leave it alone for bird and fish habitat, and autocentrists who want to fill it with concrete for parking spaces and flood control. I think I prefer to make the creek a resource that can be shared by people and wildlife while it runs through the city, a resource that will demand energy to keep free from pollution by industrial garbage, by non-native weeds, and by various forms of human waste. But I’m not sure. What I know I don’t want is for us to follow the third alternative, like those in Southern California who paved over almost every natural watercourse and wetland in the hundred fifty miles between Santa Monica and Huntington Beach.

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