The events of one’s life take place, take place. Have you thought about it? Really, deep down in your bones?
Imagine “environment” broadly—not just as surroundings; not just as the air, water, land on which we depend, or that we pollute; not just as global warming—but as sets of circumstances, conditions, and contexts in which we live and die—in which each of us is intimately part. This definition falls short without those experiences of place that are exiled or degraded or toxic or alien or urban or indentured.
The future of environmental essay? What should it be? What could it be?
There is no requirement that a writer deal with any particular subject—yet, it seems to me, for the genre and those who call themselves “environmental writers,” there has been avoidance. The discourse has proceeded in a narrow frame, with too few voices and storied lives of people not of Euro-American descent—experiences that transcend history and point to deeply embedded conflicts in this nation.
I was 14 when I first read A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. That his 1949 book was hailed as “landmark,” or in Wallace Stegner's words, “a famous, almost holy book in conservation circles,” I knew nothing about. In his last essay, “The Land Ethic,” Leopold enlarged the community’s boundaries “to include soil, water, plants, animals, or collectively: the land,” and his call for an extension of ethics to land relations seemed to express a sense of responsibility and reciprocity not yet embraced by this nation, but embedded in many indigenous traditions of experience.
To adolescent me, his ideas forced new questions and suggested troubling possibility. In a book so concerned with America’s past, why was it that the only reference to slavery, to human beings as property, was about ancient Greece? Only uncertainty and estrangement felt within my teenage reach, as if the book’s “we” and “us” excluded me and people with ancestral roots in Africa, Asia, and Native America. If as Leopold wrote “obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land,” then what part of this nation still lacked conscience broad enough to realize the internal change of mind and heart, to embrace what Leopold had called an “evolutionary possibility” and “ecological necessity?” Why was it that at least in the United States I knew at age fourteen human relations could be so cruel?
We all carry history within us, the past(s) becoming present in what we think and do, in who we are. Ecological interdependence between human beings and the land is framed by this history, which informs our senses of place and our connections with each other. Deeply rooted values and economic norms have institutionalized exploiting and manipulating the natural world—by fragmenting ecosystems, threatening biological diversity, and changing the atmosphere’s nature through fossil-fuel burning. And few honest self-reflections have yet considered how the roots of these “democratic” values and institutions link to sanctioned violence for power and profit, to class conflict, to the exclusion of peoples of color in a still deeply racialized America.
Compromising of nature, and compromising of human beings by “racial” separatism and inequities in political and economic power, in large measure define our “American” past and present. Witness poor communities of color that continue to suffer disproportionate levels of environmental pollution and toxicity. Witness the continued curtailing of civil rights and cutting back of even basic assistance to the poor and disenfranchised.
We, every aspect of our lives, have ecological ancestors because we all have been in relation, whether admitted or not, in time and place. What is key is recognizing the biodiversity of self and of others, and resisting any mono-identity or mono-culture of mind, self, knowledge because Euro-American ecological ancestry is not the whole. Consider these examples:
As African American abolitionists fought and wrote against slavery, they also fought and wrote against the use of arsenic in tobacco fields;
The idea of wilderness as untouched land to be preserved was accomplished hand-in-hand with its forced de-peopling and removal of native peoples to reservations;
A 1915 essay in the Atlantic Monthly by W.E.B. Du Bois on the African roots of the First World War is as much an environmental essay as a piece written that year on the need for a national park system. But it’s never been thought as such.
This past is not past because the same types of segregation of ideas, and of people, continue. The perceived “lack” of other voices beyond a traditional Anglo-American context continues to reflect a societal structure of inclusion and exclusion based on color, culture, and class. In recent years, though, some of the hardest hitting works in environmental writing have come from the environmental justice movement’s grassroots activism.
I think self-protective silence and denial have kept too much of America from even knowing who “we” really are, and have kept a language of possibility impoverished. By this denial, this not-remembering, we are dis-membered, broken into pieces.
To essay: to attempt, to try. . .
The hard thing to cultivate is a capacity to ask significant questions about our lives in a larger world, and about lives not our own. [It seems that those intent on imposing their will on the world do it without questioning.]
Perhaps a future of environmental essay begins in trying to meet all people where they are, wherever they are. Not where you think they are, or where you think they should be. It’s acknowledging and honoring difference as enriching and at the same time finding, across divisions, common interest, and common humanity. Diversity is a condition necessary for life, so why not bring as much difference to bear?
Perhaps environmental essay might attempt to bring into dialogue what has been ignored and silenced, what has been disconnected or dis-membered, whether by a failure of imagination, by narrowed –isms and –ologies, by loss of memory-history, or by unwillingness to be honest.
By re-imagining and enlarging our language and frames, then it might be possible to have creative interaction with many audiences, a calling back and forth, an exchange.
so we can be in contact with and confirm each other;
so through the multiplicity of true voices, their real stories, we could limn bigger stories that all of these are part of.
So that—from land distribution, poverty, suburban sprawl, to even how and by whom “nature” or “environmental” writing is defined—so that we can dismantle the patterns of living in this country that fragment and exclude and allow one to believe you don’t HAVE to think about or care about... some “other.”
Perhaps the future of environmental essay resides in two words taken to heart and made real: respect and responsibility. Respect, the willingness to look again (and again); Responsibility, the ability to respond, the capacity to attend, to stand behind one's acts.
What “truths” can we attempt to relate? What is authentic? Taken to heart?
Perhaps the future of environmental essay is in those who haven’t yet spoken, and in those who haven’t yet been heard. So many, like stars in the sky.