For the last 20 years I have taught a course at the University of Delaware called The Literature of the Land. It’s one of my favorite classes, not least because of the writing requirements: in addition to asking students to read a half-dozen books about a particular subject (nature and religion, industrial food production, climate change), I have them spend at least an hour every week sitting in the woods and writing about what they see. Not what they think about. What they see. Learning field observation, I tell them, is as important for aspiring writers as it is for aspiring naturalists. Both demand attention to detail, both demand the ability to shut up and listen. Students are required to carry a field guide with them, and to take detailed notes on the things they see springing to life, or dying back.
A few years ago, journalism professor McKay Jenkins went in for a routine medical exam. What doctors found was not routine at all: a tumor, the size of a navel orange, was lurking in his abdomen. When Jenkins returned to the hospital to have the tumor removed, he was visited by a couple of researchers with clipboards. They had some questions for him. Odd questions. How much exposure had he had to toxic chemicals and other contaminants? Asbestos dust? Vinyl chlorine? Pesticides?
Jenkins spent the next two years digging, exploring five frontiers of toxic exposure—the body, the home, the drinking water, the lawn, and the local box store—and asking how we allowed ourselves to get to this point. Most important, though, Jenkins wanted to know what we can do to turn things around. Though toxins may be present in products we all use every day there are ways to lessen our exposure. ContamiNation is an eye-opening report from the front lines of consumer advocacy.
Over the years, a pattern has emerged. At first, all students see are “trees.” A week or two later, they are seeing “white oaks” and “tulip poplars” and “sugar maples.” A few more weeks, and their eyes are more fully accustomed to the pace of life in the woods. They move through the space more slowly, and more quietly. They see foxes. And great blue herons. And barred owls.
My goals, not usually articulated until well into the semester, go beyond writing instruction, of course. What I’m trying to do is encourage students to spend some time, every week, turning down the noise in their lives. I want them to try—just for a time, but every week—unplugging from their cell phones and laptops, to disentangle themselves from the social and academic pressures of college, to take a walk in the woods. This also offers, not incidentally, an opportunity for self-reflection, for meditation, and for a renewed sense of engagement with the natural world.
Over the years, these goals have taken on a new urgency. Every semester, it seems, more and more students enter my classroom having spent virtually no time outdoors. They have not camped or climbed trees. They have not backpacked. They have not paddled rivers. They don’t fish, or hunt, or climb mountains. Not with their families, not with their friends.
A couple of years ago, on the first day of class, I asked my students what words they think of when they think of the word “wilderness.” In the past, I had heard everything from the concrete (“my family’s trip to Yosemite”) to the abstract (“jungle,” rainforest,” “wild animals”). But this time was different. What words did this group of students have me list on the board? What did wilderness mean to them?
“Rape,” said one.
“Fear,” said another.
“Loneliness,” said a third.
What was going on here? I knew most of these kids were suburbanites, but hadn’t they ever been Girl Scouts? Or gone to a summer camp? Where were they getting their news about the natural world? Nature, for these students, had somehow become little more than a vague source of anxiety. There was no sense of joy, or adventure, or wonder. Forget about fantasies of strapping on a backpack after college and hiking the Appalachian Trail, or paddling the Mississippi River, or bumming around Alaska. These kids seemed afraid to leave their backyards.
This shift has had many consequences. Among them is a vast (if unconscious) willingness live synthetic lives. I don’t mean this metaphorically. It’s no secret that our economy is built on bottomless consumption. What’s less well known is that the products with which we fill our lives—everything from cosmetics to plastic water bottles to footy pajamas—are made from an array of some 80,000 synthetic chemicals. What’s even less understood is that the EPA has a full set of toxicity information for just 7 percent of these chemicals, or that the $637 billion American chemical industry is so woefully under-regulated that 99 percent of the chemicals in use today have never been tested for their effects on human health.
So here we are. If a college student can’t tell you what river or reservoir her tap water comes from, why would she ever stop to think about the petrochemicals that water might be collecting on its way to her tap? These chemicals come from roads, and farms, and parking lots, but also (more circuitously) from the carcinogens in her cosmetics, the flame retardants in her mattress, and the hormone disruptors in her scented candles.
If her idea of a beautiful campus is an unbroken stretch of perfectly groomed lawn, why would she object to common herbicides like 2,4-D (once a component of Agent Orange) that lawns require to remain looking so pristine? As before, she is unlikely to consider that these chemicals will also wash off at the first rain, flow into a storm sewer and end up back in her water glass.
But why would she think about this? She can’t see the creeks on campus, because they are all buried underneath what she thinks of as a Frisbee field.