Notes on Literature and the Environment Course

Notes on Literature and the Environment Course

English 730, Literature and the Environment, page 1

English 730 Studies in American Literature: Literature and the Environment

Fall 2016; T 3:30-6:20, MHRA 2204

Professor Karen Kilcup

Office: MHRA 3314; or

Hours: Th 12:30-2; by appointment and by chance

“These stories have trees in them.”

Single-sentence rejection letter received by Norman MacLean for A River Runs Through It

* * * * * * * * * *

What do we mean by “the environment”? What is the traditional relationship between literature and “the environment”? What is the proper relationship? This course begins by examining some “American nature writing” “classics” with an appreciative and critical eye, and it continues by opening our investigation toward a more generous conception of both the genre and its practical, material resonances. For example, “nature writing,” often depicted as an entirely neutral discourse, seems unrelated to the more politicized mode that we might call environmental (or ecological) writing. Yet contemporary writers and critics have challenged this dichotomy; for example, the novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid asks, “What is the relationship between gardening and conquest?” The Nobel Prize Committee underscored the connections between the environment and peace when it recognized Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai as its 2004 Peace Prize Laureate. And thousands of Americans, often following Thoreau’s example and cherishing his words, have entered the voluntary simplicity movement. In the various discourses surrounding the environment, we find that social identity matters profoundly, with white women, people of color, and working people assuming central roles in speaking, writing, and acting for the future. This course explores the roots and branches of some of today’s important literary texts and affiliated social movements, with particular attention to women writers’ “outsider’s eyes.”

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Understand some principal modes of American writing about the environment, broadly construed
  • Think critically about how our biases and perspectives inform interpretation
  • Question the shaping of literary history to include only particular forms of writing about the environment (and the criticism associated with it)
  • Explore environmental writing as a matrix of cultural and political forces
  • Refine critical reading, thinking, and communication skills


Classroom participation; presentation of a two-page position paper (an abbreviated conference paper); fieldwork, outlined below [no class that week]; book review; a final written research assignment based on individual students’ interests and goals.

Required Texts [bookstore items = green; other texts on Canvas or Google Books [GB]

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire (1968)

Austin, Mary Hunter. The Land of Little Rain (1903)

Berry, Wendell. Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community (1993)

Carson, Rachel. Selections from Silent Spring (1962)

Catesby, Mark. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1771 ed.)

Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)

Edwards, Thomas S. and Elizabeth De Wolfe, eds. From Such News of the Land (2001)

Frost, Robert. Early Poems, ed. Robert Faggen (1998)

Glotfelty, Cheryl, and Harold Fromm, eds., The Ecocriticism Reader (1996)

Hearne, Vicki. From Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name (1986)

Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) and selected sketches

Johnson, Pauline; Buffalo Bird Woman; Owl Woman; Zitkala-Ša; Cherokee oratory (from Kilcup, Native American Women’s Writing, c.1800-1924: An Anthology)

Kincaid, Jamaica. My Garden (Book): (1999)

Kirkland, Caroline, Chapter XVIII from Forest Life (1844; vol. I); Google Books [choose the selection listed as Forest Life – Volume 1; this version has the complete chapter]

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007)

Oliver, Mary. Selections from New and Selected Poems (1963-2004)

Perrin, Noel. Selections from Second Person Rural (1980)

Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. Selections from The Squatter and the Don (1885); Google Books

Sigourney, Lydia, “Fallen Forests.” From Scenes in My Native Land (1845)

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (1854)

Thaxter, “Woman’s Heartlessness” (1887, from Audubon Magazine)

Various additional primary and secondary readings on Canvas

Recommended Texts

  • ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) website:
  • ISLE (ASLE journal: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment):
  • For further reading suggestions, see me and/or consult the ASLE website, listed above, which includes voluminous bibliographies and multiple syllabi with reading lists. I will also post on Canvas the bibliography for my book, Fallen Forests: Emotion, Embodiment, and Ethics in American Women’s Environmental Writing, 1781-1924 (Georgia, 2013).

Tentative Schedule


1. 8/23 New Worlds [Readings due on the first day of class]

Primary: “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky”; selection from Genesis; Columbus;
Kingsolver, “Saying Grace”; choose one image from Catesby, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands ( that you wish to discuss

[In class: “Botanical”; “Conversation on Botany” from Juvenile Miscellany, 1824; Katteuha; Tinker]

2. 8/30 Touchstones

Primary: Walden; Caroline Kirkland and Lydia Sigourney selections

Secondary: Glotfelty, Introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader; White, Jr. and Manes in The Ecocriticism Reader; Merchant, introduction to Reinventing Eden

[Suggested] Presentation topic: Walden, Then and Now [New Urbanism; Kunstler]

3. 9/6 Designing Nature

Primary: Frost, “A Prayer in Spring,” “Mowing,” “The Tuft of Flowers”; all poems from North of Boston and Mountain Interval; “Two Witches,” “A Hillside Thaw,” “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” [all included in required volume listed above]; “Design”

Secondary: Rueckert, Turner, and Campbell in The Ecocriticism Reader; Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” at:

Presentation topic: Masculinity and Nature in the Early Twentieth Century OR “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted”
[Sport: Field and Stream in the 1910s]

4. 9/13 Individual and Community

Primary: Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs; “A Winter Drive,” “River Driftwood” [these last two narratives online at the Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project at Coe College]; Celia Thaxter, “Woman’s Heartlessness”

Secondary: Richardson and Littenberg in Such News; Gaard in Feminist Formations

Presentation topic: Women and Environmentalism
[Feather Wars; Green Fashion; Kilcup, selections from Fallen Forests]

Another Country

5. 9/20 Fieldwork

6. 9/27 First Nations / Native Americans and Nature

Primary: Pauline Johnson poems and narratives; Owl Woman chants; Buffalo Bird Woman narratives; Zitkala-Ša essays

Secondary: Allen and Silko in The Ecocriticism Reader

Presentation topic: Indian Land Policy in the Late Nineteenth Century [Environmental Justice]

7. 10/4 Writing Out of Place: Resources and the West

Primary: Austin, The Land of Little Rain; Ruiz de Burton, from The Squatter and the Don, pp. 52-59

Secondary: Love in The Ecocriticism Reader; Dickson and Bolinder in Such News; Kilcup, “Writing against Wilderness: María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Elite Environmental Justice”

Presentation topic: Water Rights in the West [Resource Wars]

8. 10/11 From Wilderness to Conservation: Parsing Abbey’s Solitude

Primary: Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Secondary: Scheese in The Ecocriticism Reader; Price, “Looking for Nature at the Mall: a Field Guide to the Nature Company” in Uncommon Ground

Presentation topic: Conservation, Preservation, and the National Park System [Class and Conservation]

Final project abstracts due

10/18 Fall Break

Living in the Present

9. 10/25 American “Primitives”

Primary: Oliver, from New and Selected Poems; selections from Noel Perrin, Second Person Rural

Secondary: Donovan, “Animal Rights and Feminist Theory” in Signs 15.2 (Winter 1990): 350-75 (see also Nel Noddings’s response to Donovan in same issue, 418-22); from Vicki Hearne, Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name (1986)

Presentation topic: Animal Rights [Animal Studies]

10. 11/1 Individual and Community Encore

Primary: Berry, Sex Economy, Freedom, & Community; David Brooks, “One Neighborhood at a Time,”

Secondary: White, “‘Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?’: Work and Nature” in Uncommon Ground; Kilcup, selection from Fallen Forests

Presentation topic: Voluntary Simplicity

11. 11/8 Eclipses and Mirages

Primary: selections from Carson, Silent Spring; Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

Secondary: Slovic in The Ecocriticism Reader

Presentation topic: Science and Imagination OR Science and Nature [GM Food and BSE]

Writing Home: The Garden and the World

12. 11/15 Gardens and Domesticity

Primary: Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Secondary: Kilcup, selection from Fallen Forests

Presentation topic: Slow Food

Begin drafts of final projects

13. 11/22 (Re)Writing Home

Primary: Kincaid, My Garden (Book):

Secondary: Di Chiro, “Nature as Community: The Convergence of Environment and Social Justice” in Uncommon Ground

Drafts of final projects due

14. 11/29 Ecocriticism and the Future of the Profession

Conclusions (and food)

Secondary: Love, “Why Ecocriticism?” in Practical Ecocriticism

Final projects due

English 730 Studies in American Literature: Literature and the Environment

Fall 2016; T 3:30-6:20

Professor Karen Kilcup

Position Paper / Presentation

Each week, one person (or possibly two people, depending on class size) will be responsible for writing a brief (normally no more than 500 words, not including bibliography, illustrations, or other supplementary materials) position paper that accomplishes the following tasks: 1) provides a concise (usually no more than a few sentences) synopsis of the issues and arguments central to the presentation topic; 2) connects these arguments to one of the primary texts assigned for that day; and 3) engages analytically with the secondary reading you have done (either required for that week or that you’ve done to research your topic) to problematize or augment the argument that this reading proposes. That is, I want you to think critically, to take issue, with what you’ve read, and to do so in a way that will foster our larger discussion.

Each class will have a segment devoted to presenting these position papers; to this end, please bring copies of your paper for everyone. I will hold you fairly closely to the limit of about ten minutes (do try to see this endeavor as a presentation rather than simply reading a paper—engage your audience, use eye contact, etc.). Then I will invite others in the class to take a few minutes to think about and write comments on your paper and presentation. The ensuing discussion will both offer suggestions for ways to improve your articulation of those ideas and engage with the ideas you set forth in your essay.

Some suggestions for presentation material are incorporated in the presentation subject lines above. Please contact me if you have questions. The library has many useful volumes and essays on all the presentation topics; you should feel free to explore them. The items that I have chosen are meant to be indicative rather than inclusive (though I’ve tried to select some of the most useful ones).

In an effort to encourage creative thinking, I have proposed an ambitious, eclectic, and challenging group of presentation topics. While some relate overtly to the week’s primary texts, others will seem only glancingly connected to these texts. I do not expect encyclopedic knowledge of the subject in the secondary texts, only that you make an effort to think capaciously, critically, and synthetically. I hope that, if you have not done so already, you will begin to see resources putatively outside of literary studies proper as important resources for innovative perspectives and readings. Beyond the goal of critical thinking, the assignment aims to help you with your writing, particularly to make it concise, pointed, and meaningful. If you have problems or questions as you prepare the paper, please ask for help, either in person, by telephone, or via email. I intend these projects to be fun as well as intellectually challenging, so I will be delighted to offer suggestions and support.

English 730 Studies in American Literature: Literature and the Environment

Fall 2016; T 3:30-6:20

Professor Karen Kilcup

Fieldwork Assignment (Begins September 20)

For this week I would like you to work independently on one of the following Thoreauvian projects:

1. Keep a daily journal for the week that attempts to follow one or more of Thoreau’s injunctions about close observation of self and world. You might consider such subjects as economy, solitude, sounds, eating, and/or simplicity. I urge you, among other approaches, to incorporate both indoor and outdoor observations, to think of yourself privately and in relation to others, and to consider both physical and intellectual perspectives.

2. Keep a daily journal that parallels Thoreau’s interest in exploration and measurement. To this end, you might take a survey of the vegetation and animals in your yard, asking questions such as: What kinds of “neighbors” do you have? What stage are they at during this week? Are there any changes over the week (or over the course of a day)? Are all of the species native to this region of North Carolina? If any has been introduced, when and by whom? What changes has it made to the local ecosystem?

3. Keep a daily journal that pursues another project of close observation (please discuss briefly with me).

One object of this assignment is to encourage us to reach beyond our ordinary, daily selves. As Thoreau observes in “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.” How possible is it for us to get beyond habit (which he might see as a kind of conformity) and to be mindful of ourselves and others in creative ways? Is it possible—or valuable—for us, all intellectuals and teachers, to achieve a different, “non-academic” (I mean the word in at least two senses) perspective?

Please bring the results of your work to class on September 27 (and be sure to save a copy to give me at the end of the course). I’d like us to discuss, even if briefly, your results, as well as the challenges and pleasures of the assignment itself.

English 730 Studies in American Literature: Literature and the Environment

Fall 2016; T 3:30-6:20

Professor Karen Kilcup

Book Review Outline (Individual times)

Because there are so many interesting new books on the environment, I’d like you to select one on a topic that interests you. This assignment is straightforward: read the book, compose the outline for a review (or, if you prefer, write a one-page review) assessing what you find most interesting or compelling. Topics can be whatever you want: Peak Oil, sustainable living, Animal Studies, material feminism, environmental justice, land-use theory, an anthology of nature writing . . . . We’ll look at one or two volumes per class period (i.e., you can offer a very short overview, with recommendations to read or not). I’ll be happy to make suggestions. NB: You are welcome to dovetail this assignment with your presentation assignment.

English 730 Studies in American Literature: Literature and the Environment

Fall 2016; T 3:30-6:20

Professor Karen Kilcup

Final Project

I encourage you to develop projects that match your intellectual and professional interests; I am not eager to read papers written merely to satisfy course requirements, but rather, hope we can accomplish something that will be both useful to you and deeply engaging. I invite you to forage widely in thinking about what you might do, and I ask that you begin framing your project as soon as possible. Try to briefly dip into all of our texts before you make a decision—or see me for suggestions. In any event, I would like to have a short (no more than one paragraph) abstract from each of you by October 11 (the week before Fall Break) outlining what you hope to accomplish. I’ll ask that you post these abstracts on Canvas and bring two copies to class on the 11th. With these remarks in mind, I propose three possibilities:

1. For people who are pursuing a career that emphasizes teaching, I suggest that you create a course in American literature and the environment (or American nature writing, if you prefer—or you can narrow the focus even more to, say, American women’s nature writing, or Southern nature writing). Create a syllabus with a list of texts and assignments (you can interpret these terms broadly) geared to the students whom you define as your audience. Additionally, I would like a minimum five-page (1250-word) essay that details such matters as: the goals of your course, the audience, the course rationale, the rationale for the texts you’ve chosen (and why you present them in the order you’ve chosen), the anticipated challenges, and how you expect to deal with these challenges. Please be very specific. This project will mean doing substantial additional reading (both of primary texts that you might want to include and secondary texts on teaching nature writing) and research into courses currently being offered. Please include with your essay a bibliography of your sources (not included in the page count).

2. For those who wish to emphasize research, I suggest that you write an essay of about 5000-6000 words that aims toward eventual publication. In choosing your topic and developing your argument, you will of course need to do secondary research. You should view this research practically as well as imaginatively—so you should search for journals in which you might like your work to be published, those that accept work similar in subject and style to that which you hope to accomplish. Please document your essay in the format required by the journal you have in mind (normally this will be MLA or Chicago). In order to participate most effectively in the intellectual conversation currently underway, you might want to read some recent issues of ISLE, for example, or investigate recent essays in American Literature and American Literary History, among other journals. An older resource that you might find useful is the Forum on Literatures of the Environment, PMLA 114.5 (Oct. 1999).