The field of ecocriticism has grown tremendously over the past fifteen years, ever expanding its scope in new directions. Nevertheless, much ecocritical scholarship downplays representations of nature as threatening or fearful, favoring instead more romanticized and idyllic versions. This is precisely the reason that Rinda West’s Out of the Shadow: Ecopsychology, Story, and Encounters with the Land comes as a breath of fresh air—it is a book that environmental literary studies has long needed. One of West’s goals is to investigate stories about humans and nature that offer “a powerful alternative to despair,” which she does; but just as importantly, she also argues that in order to do so one must directly confront that despair (161).
West’s approach is rooted in the growing field of eco-psychology, which she uses to explore how we might attain the “love, respect, and admiration for land” that Aldo Leopold famously called “the land ethic” (1). Drawing largely from the work of Jungian psychologists, West focuses on what Jung called the “shadow”—“the repressed, often frightening and shameful elements of the psyche” (3). By acknowledging those aspects of life that have been cast into shadow, and by bringing them into consciousness—a process that Jung called “individuation”—one can reach a state of wholeness. The basic premise of ecopsychology is that many environmental problems in Western cultures stem from an alienation from nature, and that alienation has psychological origins; that which is “‘natural’ about humans often occupies shadow,” as West puts it (21). Consequently, it follows that “[t]o bring a land ethic into practice requires the psychological work of individuation and maturity. Both demand conscious engagement with nature and an acknowledgement of shadow” (31). West presents her argument solidly, incorporating an impressive array of scholarly and theoretical material and drawing from a clear knowledge of the field. While these theories can be complicated for those unfamiliar with them, she writes about ecopsychology in a way that is both rigorous and surprisingly accessible.
Because her aim “is to explore alternative stories about nature,” West analyzes texts from a variety of regions and cultures, most of them Native American (27). In fact, one of the main storylines in Out of the Shadow is the tragic conflict between colonialism (which West sees as an early form of global capitalism) and indigenous cultures closely linked to land [End Page 194] and place. She begins by carefully presenting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1892) as models that show how the colonizers’ “projection of shadow onto nature and natives rationalized their brutal attempts to conquer” (33). After a counterpoint chapter investigating Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and James Welch’s Fools Crow (1986) as examples of how “writers from colonized cultures have begun rewriting colonization narratives from their own point of view,” the rest (and indeed most) of the book explores the possibilities of social, cultural, and psychological renewal by recovering a connection with nature (54).
To explore such renewal the book draws largely from Native American stories, which provide an alternative to the age-old tale of human separation from nature so prevalent in Western culture, instead offering a mindful sense of community that includes both human and nonhuman nature. Among her detailed close readings West includes Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972), Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), N. Scott Momaday’s The Ancient Child (1989), Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams (1990), and the novels of Louise Erdrich. The renewal and reconnection she finds in these tales is rooted in three main strategies for practicing a Leopoldian land ethic: wilderness protection, reinhabitation, and the restoration of natural areas. For each, she reads texts whose characters demonstrate, confront the shadow, and overcome psychological trauma; in the process, these characters find a wholeness that incorporates self, community, and the natural world. West’s close readings show that “characters who are able to connect with...