Feb 212011

Have you heard of the “Environmental Solutions Agency?” Newt Gingrich introduced this idea in a speech back on January 25, 2011, as something that would replace the Environmental Protection Agency and be “first of all, limited.”  Then, about a month later, a couple of U.S. House committees set hearings on the “Energy Tax Prevention Act,” which would strip the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.   Also in January, western Congressmen introduced a bill to remove the wolf from the endangered species list.  It passed: the first time that legislation, rather than science, has determined a species’ inclusion or exclusion.

In all this, there are two items of literary merit. First, look at the words they use: “Environmental Solutions Agency” and “Energy Tax Prevention Act.”  Verbal backflips, if you ask me.  And the wolf bill, in a way, proves the power of the sentence: the bill has only one sentence, which puts an entire species at risk.  When the Endangered Species Act (ESA) came into effect in 1973, it was partly because of the wolf.  At that time, there were only 300 left in the entire nation.

The ESA can also be credited, in large part, to writers (there’s the second literary reason, if you’re keeping track—and the more important one).  In 1959, Peter Matthiessen published Wildlife in America, essentially a call for protection of endangered species.  Three years later, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring became a best seller.  Concurrent to these works, Joseph Wood Krutch, Loren Eiseley, and Aldo Leopold were putting out nature writing that pushed a nascent environmental movement forward.

These writers were different than their predecessors, like Thoreau and Muir, who wrote in many ways as conqueror naturalists.  This earlier wave of writers wanted to understand nature on a technical level, strove to set certain bits of it aside for posterity, and always looked at it from a place slightly above and to the side.  Humans, they said, should protect and love nature, but not probably become a part of it (remember, Thoreau regularly went into town to dine with friends while living hermit-style at Walden, and ultimately gave up early on the experiment).

The mid-century writers, on the other hand, saw humans as part of nature.  They sought the passion and emotion that nature brings through personal immersion in it.  They spurred another round of legislation and regulation, this time not centered on large chunks of land set aside as preserves (like the National Parks), but on everyday nature: the air, the water, the plants and animals around us.

The late 60s were a time of upheaval in many arenas, and the environment was no different.  Between 1968 and 1971, the world saw seminal works produced by Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Loren Eiseley, John Hay, and two by Edward Hoagland.  Between 1970 and 1973, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Policy Act (which created the EPA), the Clean Water Act, and the ESA.  Coincidence?

So, because so many of these environmental advances are under attack right now (and because the perhaps ironically named Newt is trying to redefine the EPA), I thought it might be interesting to look back on that mid-century eco-literary boom.

Included here are life and work profiles of six of these masters: Carson, Krutch, Eiseley, Abbey, Berry, and Hoagland.  I am sure there are other favorites (Peter Matthiessen? Gary Snyder? John Hay?), but let me rule out a few that might be assumed to be part of this group.  Everyone on this list was born between 1893 and 1934 and reached the peak of their writing between the 50s and 70s.  They all experienced the Great Depression in some form, and all saw most of this environmental legislation passed (except Carson, who died rather prematurely in 1964).  Aldo Leopold was too early, Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard too late.  The last two are omitted simply because they probably didn’t affect this particular wave of environmentalism; they were affected BY it.

This group of writers took a diverse approach to the environment. From Eiseley’s mysticism and anthropology to Abbey’s radicalism to Krutch’s childlike curiosity, they manage to touch nearly every taste and temperament. They have certainly touched me, so on the following pages you will see both an analytical as well as a personal journey. This is the origin of today’s “green” thinking, and we are about 50 years farther along (Silent Spring, in fact, turns 50 in 2012). I think its time for another reading.

Proceed to the first essay,  on Loren Eiseley, or return to the Table of Contents.

–Adam Regn Arvidson

  7 Responses to “Introduction: Nature Writing in America — Adam Regn Arvidson”

  1. my students just read essays today about rachel carson. i love it when things like that happen in twos or more. now i want to learn more about ms. carson.

  2. I’m reading Abbey now, so he’ll be 2nd, after Eiseley.

  3. Great, necessary series, Adam. Looking forward to the first installment. I used to teach AP environmental science in high school…made the kids read Silent Spring for summer reading (big mistate, was a little dry for h/s reading tastes!). Another highlight of teaching that class was the unit I did on the wolf, which culminated in a live ‘wolf encounter.’ There was a Mexican Grey Wolf sanctuary in the county which did outreach education, and they would bring a wolf onto campus, right into my classroom. I’m excited to follow your ongoing project.

  4. I’m really looking forward to this, Adam. I LOVE Rachel Carson (while Silent Spring is undoubtedly her most important work, her sea narratives are so magical, some of my most-loved work), and I went through a pretty hard-core Berry phase while going to college in Kentucky.

    BTW, have you read The Third Culture? It’s an anthology of “literary scientific” essays supposedly attempting to transcend the “two cultures” you mention.

    • No, but it sounds great! I’ll check it out. Keep those reading recommendations coming, everyone!

      And I’m not that familiar with Carson’s “earlier work” but I plan to delve into it (as I’ve also heard what you’re confirming here: known for Silent Spring, but really shines in the sea pieces).

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