For my senior year english and lit, I took a weekly class taught by my mom, Mary Jo. The Theme for the course was American nature writing. The book list for the year is included below.
American Nature Writing: On Waldon Pond by Thoreau, My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir, The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and Pilgrim on Tinkers Creek by Annie Dillard.
American Nature Writing 2nd semester: Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, Heart of Home by Ted Kerasote, The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, a few essays by Wendell Berry, and The Ecology of Wisdom by Arne Naess.
In this course we focussed primarily on the writings themselves and how they impacted society. Each week I or my one other friend taking the class would research about the life and historical impact of the author we were currently reading and present the information at class. For the rest of the class times we discussed all aspects of the books. We would analyze them from a scientific, environmental, philosophical, and economic standpoint, along with the general quality of the writing. Due to the depth of our analyzation, and the large volume of reading, essay writing was not a focus in the course. By taking this class I learned that nature writing is actually quite diverse stylistically and substantively. It is distinct from ither writing in that it focusses on the relationship of humans to the rest of the world, whether natural or not. But otherwise, the writers are very different from one another. Some writers articulated their philosophy through descriptions of personal experience, such as Thoreau, Mary Austin, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. Some addressed specific environmental concerns in a more scientific and persuasive style, such as Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben. Annie Dillard and John Muir were different in that they wrote almost entirely about their personal experiences without specifically articulating a philosophy.
It was very interesting to read the books in chronological order. It was plainly obvious that every book impacted the literature that followed and inspired the subsequent writers to continue. Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and John Muir are all household names. But even Mary Austin, who is not widely known, was clearly known to the later writers. Each writer had a distinct effect, sometimes significant. Thoreau was the foundation for all that followed and was the first on the block to use nature as a legitimate subject for literary writing. John Muir’s writing led to the protection of large areas of our most beautiful lands in national parks and founded the sierra club, which still today is working to protect our environment. Rachel Carson almost single-handedly stopped the overuse of DDT and inspired individuals to stand up against the destruction of the environment. She also made society at large conscious for the first time of the dangers of “progress,” which has led to a broad-based environmental movement.
Reading these books has made me much more conscious of what is currently happening in our world as well as the historical context, how we got here. It has made me question every decision and idea we have about what we do and what it means to be a part of this precious world-wide ecosystem. This course has also helped change and solidify my own philosophy about the role of the human species in the world. Even though in many ways reading these books has been incredibly depressing, it has sharpened my thinking about things I already knew and has given me some hope to know that efforts by a single individual can change our physical impact on the world as well as our understanding of ourselves.