Beyond “The Trouble with Wilderness”
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Beyond “The Trouble with Wilderness”
A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History. Edited by Alan C. Braddock and Christoph Irmscher. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009. 304 pages. $60.00 (cloth). $29.95 (paper).
Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian. Edited by Michael E. Harkin and David Rich Lewis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. 370 pages. $24.95 (paper).

Since the late 1970s, first-wave environmentalism—from the Sierra Club and Earth Day to ecofeminism, deep ecology, and EarthFirst!—has been roundly and righteously criticized as romantic ideology, religio-spiritual irrationality, and recreational escapism. Some of the sharpest critics have been in literary and cultural studies. Working in the vein of anticolonialist and poststructuralist semiotics, cultural critics of the 1980s and ’90s argued that “nature” (like “woman” or “wilderness”) was the culturally constructed phantasm of historically contingent sign systems, or the ideological “reality effect” of social domination under capitalism. At the same time, on another side of the culture wars, critics in the social sciences attacked the myths and symbols of romantic environmentalism on empirical grounds. Rejecting poststructuralist cultural studies, discourse analysis, and new historicism, data-centered anthropologists and historians took comfort in the disciplinary boundaries set by what Bruno Latour calls “factish” argument,1 grounded in actual, rather than constructed, evidence.

The two essay collections reviewed here both confront, to very different ends, the 1990s critiques of environmentalist cultural politics as romantic ideology. In the environmental humanities, A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History extends and challenges the cultural studies critique of “wilderness,” as summarized by environmental historian William Cronon in his 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”2 In the environmental social sciences, Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian revisits and deepens the late 1990s controversy over Shepherd Krech III’s highly effective, empiricist attack on the [End Page 989] romantic myth of the inherently “ecological” behavior of American Indians, in The Ecological Indian, Myth and History (1999).3

With “ecocritical” in the title and a foreword by literary scholar Lawrence Buell, A Keener Perception initially identifies itself with the environmental turn in American literary studies. But Braddock and Irmscher’s remarkable foray into art historical ecocriticism goes well beyond the precedence of literary criticism to find itself in more uneven, and more definitively historical, topography. Organized chronologically, with twelve essays spanning more than three centuries, the collection includes literary scholars, art historians, and professors of architecture and history. It construes visual art broadly, with analyses of early American natural history illustration (Theodore DeBry, William Bartram, Antoine Sonrel, Louis Agassiz), nineteenth- and twentieth-century landscape painting (Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Albert Bierstadt, Alexandre Hogue, Aaron Douglass), modernist eco-architecture (Buckminster Fuller), Navajo chant weaving (Alberta Thomas), and photography (Carleton Watkins, Elliot Porter, Subhankar Banerjee). Eminently teachable across several disciplines, the book demonstrates that if art historians have learned much from environmental literary studies, scholars of literature and culture have much to learn from art history about how to read visual artifacts historically (and “ethically”) within fluid contexts of socioeconomic, cultural, and ecological change.

In contrast, the sharp-edged debates among ethnohistorians, anthropologists, and American Indian/Native studies scholars in Native Americans and the Environment are clustered around a site of epistemological and ideological gridlock. Many of these essays emerged from a 2002 conference occasioned by the publication of Krech’s controversial The Ecological Indian, in which Krech, an environmental historian and anthropologist, debunked the environmentalist storyline that American Indians practiced conservation (i.e., rational natural resource management) prior to European contact. Deploying data from the Pleistocene extinction to the North American fur trade, Krech argued that, in historical fact, the behaviors of Native communities often ran contrary to the green dream of the ecological or environmentalist Indian.

Offering a range of divided perspectives on Krech’s claim to tell the truth about pre- and postcontact harvesting and hunting behavior, Native Americans and the Environment goes to the heart of American Indian and Native studies’ troubled relationship with the putatively disinterested methods of academic anthropologists and ethnohistorians. Impressively, every essay in Native Americans and the Environment...