Saturday, January 9, 2010

Environmental writing redux

I’m thinking back over the directed study I taught at Finlandia University last fall, Environmental Writing and Literature. Leading this little course let me come at the topic from a different angle than usual.
Instead of being immersed in environmental writing as one of its practitioners, I got to step back and look at the whole body of environmental literature.
Examined broadly, environmental lit is more complex and varied than you might first imagine. It includes nature writing, which itself is quite varied. You can see this if you look at some of its classics, from HD Thoreau’s Walden to Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf to Terry Tempest William’s Refuge. You can also see this from looking at Tom Lyon’s wonderful anthology This Incomparable Land which proposes a marvelous taxonomy of nature writing.

Overlapping with but also going beyond nature writing is environmental journalism, which ranges from stories about sewage in your local paper to features on global climate change written for E Magazine. Sometimes it’s hard to tell on what side of the line a piece of writing might fall. Should we label Bill McKibben, for instance, a nature writer or an environmental journalist? Or is the more general “environmental writer” the best moniker?

Environmental journalism is further complicated by the drift into what some call advocacy journalism. Here I’m thinking about articles of the sort published in Sierra or Audubon or Earth Island Journal – often an important source of factual information, but clearly presented with a slant. In contrast, environmental journalists who write for mainstream news outlets strive for objectivity just as much as reporters on any other beat.

In our directed study, we also added ecofiction and green poetry to the mix. Originally I was just looking for a way to get a Carl Hiaasen novel onto the syllabus (we read Skinny Dip) but we really could have done an entire class on ecofiction alone, it’s that rich and varied a genre. Skinny Dip, by the way, details the environmental travesties of the Florida sugar industry in the context of a truly hilarious albeit raunchy story. Not so hilarious is the true part, i.e., what’s happened to the Everglades as a result of agriculture and development in South Florida.

Environmental writing and literature, I decided after teaching this class, is both expansive and expanding. The latter, no doubt, is a sign of our times.

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