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Literature and the Environmental Imagination


January 15, 2013 —

Literature and the Environmental Imagination

A Reading and Discussion Group with Susan Oliver, Visiting Fellow in English

You are warmly invited to come to a reading and discussion group with visiting fellow Dr Susan Oliver (University of Essex) in the Mathison Library, for four sessions beginning on Thursday 31st January. The focus of the group is Literature and the Environmental Imagination. Texts that we will look at engage with ways in which the imagination understands (or fails to understand) natural environments. The four sessions explore different genres, beginning with poetry and ending with a film and a related historical narrative.

The group will meet on Thursdays from 12pm - 1pm. A full list of dates is given below. Please join us, whether you would like to come to some or all of the sessions.

Reading list:

Session 1: 31 January 2013

Poetry: Environments and Human Encounter.

William Wordsworth: “The Ruined Cottage” and “Resolution and Independence.”

Robinson Jeffers, “All the Little Hoofprints” and “Point Joe.”

William Wordsworth and Robinson Jeffers wrote more than a century apart. Their poetry expresses in quite different ways their concerns for the natural environments in which they lived. Both men mark paradigm shifts in environmental writing. The poems for discussion share themes of human encounter and how to live with the threat of desolation, human and natural.

They are readily available online and in print editions. Copies will be provided.

Photos: top: Lake District, near Grasmere

bottom: Pigeon Gap Trail, Alum Gap Park, California

Session 2: 7 February 2013

Prose fiction: Eco-satire and Environmental Activism.

Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). Any edition. Suggestion: edition introduced by Douglas Brinkley, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.

“What was once a mighty river. Now a ghost. Spirits of sea gulls and pelicans wing above the desiccated delta a thousand miles to seaward. Spirits of beaver nose up through the silt-gold surface. Great blue herons once descended, light as mosquitoes, long legs dangling, to sandbars . . . . The people wait, the speech goes on, many round mouths, one speech, and hardly a word intelligible” (The Monkey Wrench Gang, “The Prologue: The Aftermath,” 2).

Photo: Edward Abbey and Robert Crumb in Arches National Park, Utah

A satire that critiques popular American culture and what Abbey deplored as its cavalier attitude toward the great landscape of the West, The Monkey Wrench Gang is still a cult read for environmentalists. The Lone Ranger, John Wayne westerns and war films, road movies, “soft” environmentalism, are vehicles for the wit of this picaresque novel. In literary terms, Abbey draws on traditions established by writers such as Cervantes and Voltaire.

Session 3: 21 February 2013

Prose non-fiction: trees and people.

Charlotte Gill, Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe (Vancouver: Greystone, 2011).

“We fall out of bed and into our rags, still encrusted with the grime of yesterday. We’re earth stained on our thighs and shoulders, and muddy bands circle our waists, like grunge rings on the sides of a bathtub. Permadirt, we call it” (Eating Dirt, 10).

“Logging routes are like human arteries, mainlines branching out into fine traceries. We pass from civilization to wilderness on a road with muddy ruts. Old snow decomposes along the shoulder. The land around here is jaggedly three-dimensional, fissured with gullies and brush-choked ravines. Mountains bulge from the seashore. We zoom through stands of tall Douglas-firs, conifers bearded with lichen. A green blaze, we’re driving so fast, skimming along the surface of our known world” (Eating Dirt, 13).

Gill’s prize-winning book is described by Greystone as “A tree planter's vivid story of a unique subculture and the magical life of the forest. Charlotte Gill spent twenty years working as a tree planter in the forests of Canada. During her million-tree career, she encountered hundreds of clearcuts, each one a collision site between human civilization and the natural world, a complicated landscape presenting geographic evidence of our appetites.”

Session 4: 7 March 2103

Film: Visual media, Languages and Impossibility: Meek’s Cutoff, Dir. Kelly Reichardt.

Historical narrative relating to film.

“Set in 1845, Meek’s Cutoff follows a westward-bound band of settlers who become lost on a desert stretch of the Oregon Trail. Told with a masterful economy of means, Reichardt’s trilogy depicts individual lives that speak of larger historical narratives, of an America that finds itself uncertain of the way ahead” (Whitney Museum of Art, New York, 2012 Biennial Film and Media Festival). There will be a screening of this film ahead of the session.

Photo: from Meek’s Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt won a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for her work as a film director. Meek’s Cutoff is one of three films that she set in Oregon. Reichardt teaches at Bard College.

Extracts from Joel Palmer, Journal of travels over the Rocky Mountains, to the mouth of the Columbia River ... containing minute descriptions of the valleys of the Willamette, Umpqua, and Clamet: a general description of Oregon Territory ... Also; a letter from the Rev. H.H. Spalding ... the organic laws of Oregon Territory, tables of about 300 words of the Chinook jargon, and about 200 words of the Nez Percé language ... &c. &c. (Cincinnati, 1847. Republished as Journals of Travels over the Rocky Mountains, Cleveland, Ohio: A. H. Clark, 1906. Available online as Palmer’s Journals of Travels over the Rocky Mountains, 1845-46. Library of Congress, American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920 Archive.)

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