First published as "Environmental Writing and Minority Education," in Voices in English Classrooms: Honoring Diversity and Change-Classroom Practices in Teaching English (Volume 28)
, edited by Lenora Cook and Helen Lodge, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, 1996, and revised for Luke’s Conservation Writing: Essays at the Crossroads of Nature and Culture
, 2006. It is cited in Echoes from the Poisoned Well: Global Memories of Environmental Injustice
, edited by Sylvia Hood Washington, Heather Goodall, and Paul C. Rosier, Lexington Books, 2006.
Five Kinds of Environmental Writing
For years I taught an advanced composition workshop in Nature, Landscape and Environmental Writing to African American, Native American, Hispanic and Portuguese students. During and after the course, they found ways to integrate personal environmental concerns within a wide range of career writing projects.
I will discuss several kinds of environmental writing. These include the environmental autobiography, the landscape history, the nature essay, and the environmental perception study. Finally I will illustrate the use of environmental writing in the master’s thesis. Development of this course began with the National Rural Fellows program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. My students were mid-career minority professionals, earning master’s degrees in Regional Planning. After two years in that program I continued to develop a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. My students here are of diverse backgrounds, including Portuguese, Cape Verdian, Native American, African American, French Canadian, Lebanese and Irish.
The Environmental Autobiography
This assignment is the cornerstone of my approach. It invites students to think and write about how the environment of their childhood, including the physical as well as the cultural landscape, has made them the unique individuals they have become. How might they be different if they had grown up elsewhere?
This can be a daunting question, and I have found the following structure helpful:
A ------------------------ B
where point A represents a significant childhood event, and point B represents a poignant moment in adulthood, which has been deeply influenced by point A. Older students often have a rich integration of their life stages to work with for this assignment, but undergraduates around 20 years of age frequently appreciate the simplification of this structure, in order to focus on the role of environment in the formation of selfhood.
This helps students think through one of the great illusions of our culture, the idea that we are autonomous souls or minds, free of the environment. As anthropologist Richard A. Shweder has put it:
By contrast [with the Oriyas of India], in the West, as Louis Dumont (1970) notes, each person is conceived of as “a particular incarnation of abstract humanity” (p.5), a monadic replica of general humanity. A kind of sacred personalized self is developed and the individual qua individual is seen as inviolate, a supreme value in and of itself. The self becomes an object of interest per se. Free to undertake projects of personal expression — personal narratives, autobiographies, diaries, mirrors, separate rooms, early separation from bed, body, and breast, of mother, personal space — the autonomous individual imagines the incredible, that he or she lives in an inviolate region (the extended boundaries of the self) where he or she is free to choose (see Friedman and Friedman 1980 for the purest articulation of this incredible belief), where what he does is his own business (151).
A particularly fine model of writing which does not detatch but rather situates the writer within a particular time and place is the novel Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende. Here is the opening:
My name is Eva, which means "life," according to a book of names my mother consulted. I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of those things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory. My father, an Indian with yellow eyes, came from the place where the hundred rivers meet; he smelled of lush growing things and he never looked directly at the sky, because he had grown up beneath a canopy of trees, and light seemed indecent to him. Consuelo, my mother, spent her childhood in an enchanted region where for centuries adventurers have searched for the city of pure gold the conquistadors saw when they peered into the abyss of their own ambitions. She was marked forever by that landscape, and in some way she managed to pass that sign on to me (1).
When students begin to inscribe their own identities through writing about landscapes of childhood, much spirit comes into their descriptive prose. For example:
Our summer-filled days always began the same. After breakfast we rode our bikes around the driveway for a while, or maybe tossed the half-ripped baseball through the air, anxiously awaiting the thrill of seeing one more tuft of soggy grey stuffing escape and float like a feather to the ground. Mom sat on the back steps, keeping a cautious eye on all five of us, one hand nervously peeling the worn grey paint from her perch, the other soothingly caressing the neighbor’s cat.
We played all day with grass-stained skin and shoes so full of sand we could hardly walk (O’Malley 1).
Environmental autobiographies are not always idyllic. In a recent class of 15 students, two wrote about places in which they were molested as children. Whatever the effects of early landscape and environment on the adult character, beginning with such explorations can give students a base, a grounding, for other kinds of environmental writing. Knowing where we came from, how we grew into our present identities, gives us an honest sense of position and perspective on environmental issues — and helps liberate us from the illusion of the inviolate self floating through life.
In the Environmental Autobiography assignment I stress the individual identities of the students. This is a place where anger, sometimes even rage, can be appropriately expressed, especially in revealing deep personal memories of the physical landscapes of poverty. Here scenes of Indian reservations with a family surviving on prairie dogs, and of Black Southern neighborhoods without sewerage or electric power, find voice. But it is also true that we, despite separate backgrounds, are joined together in a social enterprise, a hope and a search for common ground. I do not leave a fuzzy, sentimental 'closure' over the class as a kind of official denial of the individuals’ inscribed suffering. Rather, in the subsequent assignments, discussed below, we move together toward concrete solutions for environmental problems in specific cases. I assume and project an ideal of harmony and cooperation in specific landscapes, both cultural and physical. I do not presume to settle or decide the long-range movement of "our multicultural society," whatever that construct may turn out to be for each student in her personal future. But I know how to encourage the making of good stories from the painful, often silent, lives my students have led. And I know how to bring people together in problem-solving for very particular landscapes. Our discussions sometimes touch these questions of resistance v harmony, but we do not attempt totalizing solutions. I make no secret of my enthusiasm for our class, and I hope it may be a model for projects involving each writer — in strong personal voice — working with other people of diverse backgrounds, focused on particular intersections of community and terrain.
The Landscape History
Here the assignment is to take a particular site such as a house, farm, waterfront, or neighborhood woods, and follow it through time. Or one may take a group of people through time, and show how their treatment of the land changed. The inspirational model here is John Brinkerhoff Jackson, founder of the Landscape Studies field at Harvard. An excellent introduction is Janet Mendlesohn’s documentary video on his life and work, "Figure in a Landscape" (Mendlesohn). One of Jackson’s essays, "The Westward Moving House," traces several generations of a family through their houses.
Jackson begins in 16th century New England, moves through a generation on a midwest farm in the 19th century, and finally describes their contemporary descendants doing feedlot cattle farming in Texas. For each generation, Jackson focuses on the house and the ways it reflects and shapes the culture and psychology of the family. For example, of the Texans:
Now is the slack time of the year, and every afternoon the two men and Ray’s boy Don, and once in a while a neighbor, go to work on Ray’s new house. It is being built out of the best grade cement block, brought by truck some two hundred miles, and it is to be absolutely the last word in convenience and modern construction. It is to be flat roofed and one story high, with no artistic pretensions, but intelligently designed. It is located on a barren and treeless height of land on the outskirts of town (Jackson 1970, 31).
Jackson points out that the home is temporary; like their farm, they think of their house as a transformer of energy, a node of secular convenience. They are as far from their God-fearing ancestors in the dark, bedeviled New England forest as they can be.
For her Landscape History project, one of my students studied the history of the beaches in her community on the Massachusetts coast. She incorporated library research and family interviews:
A legend concerning the sand bar gives Horseneck Beach its name. The tale is of a man who lost track of time and stayed on the island past low tide. In an effort to get back to the mainland, he led his team of two oxen, a cart, and a lead horse across the bar when the tide was too high. Half-way across, the cart began to float and the horse was lifted off its feet. The horse swam out into deep water, dragging the cart and the man along with it. The cart sank, and the horse and the man drowned. The oxen managed to break free from the cart and washed up into shallow water on Horseneck. They were half-drowned with the wooden yoke wrong side up on their necks. Men had to use ropes to pull them out from the undertow (Fazzina 2).
Another student researched the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts:
Beginning at the 6:00 am bell, the mill bustled with activity, each successive level in the factory serving a distinct phase of the manufacturing process. The "mill girls" labored on foot for eleven to fourteen hours per day, six days per week (Signorello 4).
Often students present their landscape history essays to the class along with old and new photographs. The relatively impersonal perspective of the historical study, following close upon the environmental autobiography, provides a balance and a sense of the possible interpretations of any landscape.
The Nature Essay
This form includes Thoreau’s Walden, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and many of Barry Lopez’s fine essays. The typical structure is that of a journey, in which the writer leaves civilization and travels into nature, has an encounter of some kind — with a wolf, a storm, an eclipse, etc. — and then returns bearing a new understanding. The time encompassed may be a few hours or an entire year, but the experience is usually reported as a seamless, intense encounter. In his essay, "The Stone Horse," Lopez recounts his solitary search in the California desert for a huge horse carved in stone by early native peoples:
In the first moment of recognition I was without feeling. I recalled later being startled, and that I held my breath. It was laid out on the ground with its head to the east, three times life size. As I took in its outline I felt a growing concentration of all my senses, as though my attentiveness to the pale rose color of the morning sky and other peripheral images had now ceased to be important. I was aware that I was straining for sound in the windless air and I felt the uneven pressure of the earth hard against my feet. The horse, outlined in a standing profile on the dark ground, was as vivid before me as a bed of tulips (6-7).
One student wrote of her month-long experience as a governess to a seven-year-old Saudi prince, locked inside an exotic garden near Boston. She arrived and was ushered into an expanse of manicured roses:
...The flowers alone were incredible— big and bold, yet soft and serene, to allow the observer to take a closer look at their beauty. From afar the roses looked as if they were actually planted on the lustrous green plot of land. However, upon closer inspection one could clearly see the neat patch of soil needed for each to flourish. The colors reminded me of Easter and other pastel-celebrated occasions. Satiny shades of lilac, peach, champagne, and cameo-pink surrounded a single row of pearl-white roses. Placed several feet away, there was a big white wicker chair with ample armrests and a nearby foot stand. I was tempted to sit down, but when I checked to see if anyone was watching, sure enough a man was coming toward me with a multitude of horticulture tools and accessories to make sure nothing was damaged.
He had a stern look on his face and wore a blue turban on his head. I thought for sure he was going to yell at me for standing so close. Instead, he delicately reached out and carefully plucked a single white rose from the center of the arrangement. I accepted the gift graciously and held the flower gently with both hands. While I took the stem with my left hand, my right hand caressed the velvetiness and delicacy of the soft petals. I looked up to thank him and he was already on the other side of the garden (Carroll 2).
For Barry Lopez in the essay cited above, the stone horse represents the desert landscape and its biological and cultural heritage. The monument’s vulnerability to vandalism and careless tourism brings both writer and reader to reconsider our own actions and attitudes toward the earth. For Tracy Carroll, the rose garden comes to represent the elegant but tightly controlled web of social relations in Saudi life. She experiences the role of a woman under male eyes for a month — and finds her treatment highly ritualized and frustrating for an American used to expressing herself freely.
The Landscape Perception Study
This assignment involves formulating a research question and investigating it through interviews. Many fine examples of such studies may be found in Humanscape, edited by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan. ( An extended account of the methods of research and evaluation that are possible is contained in the Kaplans’ The Experience of Nature. Lawrence Holt and Diane Garvey’s video documentary, “The Wilderness Idea,” works well to introduce the diverse viewpoints that may compete for control of a single landscape.
This kind of project lends itself to teamwork. Four of my students combined their efforts to study the history of our university campus, focusing on the present-day feelings of the people whose land was taken by eminent domain when the institution was built in the 1960s. This passage is from their conclusion:
Many years have passed since they lost their land and they have adjusted, but they still have feelings concerning the issue. It is very difficult and oftentimes painful to re-examine the past, but [these five people] have been extremely helpful and cooperative for the sake of this project.
If there is one thing that we have discovered from our research, it is that this investigation is not truly complete until every previous owner has told his/her story (Carlson 10).
Environmental Writing in the Master's Thesis
Minority students have all experienced deep rifts between the physical and cultural landscapes they know, and those sung in the ideology of democratic America. Encouraged to explore this difference in their writing, they frequently rise to the task. Each kind of environmental writing discussed above may be used effectively. Examples from three projects follow.
James Edward Miller was a graduate student of great charisma. I worked with him in developing an Environmental Autobiography, and this process helped release a beautiful style which he later used in his master’s thesis, an exposé of corrupt black and white politics in the building of a nuclear power plant in his rural Mississippi county. James had terrible problems with grammar and spelling. But because his writing was integral to both his growing, powerful new sense of self, and to the telling of his local environmental story, his confidence in the language bloomed. He wrote:
An economy is a sometimes simple, sometimes complex set of institutions and social relationships that work to meet the material, social and cultural needs of its members. But it is also a system of power. Power is involved in decisions over who will get what, who will work for whom, and under what conditions (Miller 12).
Not only did James Miller write a clear, scathing indictment of corruption in Mississippi, he did it without compromising his energetic and fluid prose. In his thesis acknowledgments he said:
[To] the proud people of Claiborne County, especially those who fought to bring about social change within a southern racist climate, at a time when such a social expression could have meant death.
My deepest acknowledgment goes to Carolyn Turnipseed Miller, my friend, comrade and wife. I have benefited enormously from discussions with and encouragement from this sister. Her wisdom and understanding have put my social commitment into it’s proper perception. She has been like a ray of sunshine on the sometimes dark and bloody battlefield of community organizing.
May the Most High cherish and sustain this sister and may the winds of time always be at her back....my strength, my wife, my African Queen (1).
James Bluestone is a member of the Hidatsa Tribe. He is a person of intelligence, charm, and dignity, and all of these qualities show through in his writing. His master’s thesis is a clear, passionate account of his tribal history and prospects:
1. INTRODUCTION: THE PROBLEMS
This paper is concerned with the economic recovery of the Three Affiliated Tribes from the impact of the Federal government flooding the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in 1954. Today — thirty-two years later — the reservation has never recovered from their removal, their loss of prime lands, and their break-up of unity, communication and organization.
A. The State of Things Prior to the Dam
The bottomlands of the Fort Berthold Reservation, according to the reports of the Bureau of Indian Affairs done at the time of the taking act, abounded in natural resources. The naturally fertile alluvial soils, the natural shelter for the tribes’ livestock herds, the abundant deposits of coal, the standing timber, the availability of seasonal fruits such as june berries and chokecherries, the extensive habitat for wild game as well as a plentiful supply of good water for domestic and stock watering purposes, all combined to provide a solid economic base that sustained the tribes, virtually independent [of] the non-Indian economy around them. The tribal people for the most part, according to the Missouri River Basin Investigations (MRBI) reports, through a tradition of self-reliance and hard work, produced an income from their allotments, and from the common tribal lands, that made them economically self-sufficient (7).
Like Miller, Bluestone moved from personal writing to objective subjects without the deadening loss of self that accompanies so much scientific and technical prose. He found a way within his writing, to integrate his position in a unique place and time with his emerging professional life.
Linda D. Walton grew up in a small town in Missouri. When the white superintendent of her district finally accepted integration, he built a bonfire of the black high school’s history — the pictures, the yearbooks, everything of valued memory went up in flames. This experience left Linda with a fierce determination to fight for educational equality. In her thesis writing she sought to reveal the basic needs of students as these are constitutionally guaranteed, then to plan for implementation:
The issue is not "better" compensatory education, or even “better” test scores; the issue is better education in the hour-to-hour and day-to-day interactions between students and the teachers who serve them.
The quest is for education that will challenge, inspire, and stretch students, while opening doors to new opportunities rather than screening them out with curriculum and tracking policies that constrain real learning growth (Walton 4).
My evolving courses in Nature, Landscape, and Environmental Writing have provided some of the most satisfying experiences of my teaching career. The disjunction between American dreams and realities drives the subject, and it is a joy to watch thoughtful students find endless ways of revealing themselves within the landscape, and the landscape within themselves.