- Nature and Culture in (and Outside) the AcademyGuest Editor's Introduction
I am often asked just what constitutes the environmental humanities. As a literary scholar, I tend to prefer a literary answer. Literature fosters curiosity about ourselves and others; the environmental humanities expand this curiosity, encouraging us to learn about ourselves, our species, and others as sharing an evolutionary history and evolving planet. Basho's famous question ("Deep autumn /My neighbor--/ How does he live, I wonder?") applies equally to our nonhuman neighbors, to our curiosity about and sense of kinship with the other inhabitants of the world. If literature encourages engagement, then an environmental approach to literature and culture asks even more of us. We are asked to think both about and beyond our human perspective, to broaden our capacity for thought and experience that transcend the merely human. An environmental perspective considers multiple scales and types of connection and their manifold interrelations. This special issue of Western American Literature is an excellent example of this kind of work.
This issue on nature, culture, and academic life in the West reflects the diversity of work on flora, fauna, mineral, bioregion, geology, and ecology in the humanities. Even as this work emerges from the academy, it is personal even when it is overtly scholarly, researched when it is creative. The issue begins with an interview with the artist and scholar David Robertson on the enduring questions and complexities of creativity, materiality, and abstraction. Arguing that "the universe is imaginative," Robertson touches on relationships between image and text, nature and art, and the sciences [End Page xi] and humanities. Followed by eight more contributions, the issue contains everything from what one might call "nature writing" to memoir and essays about pedagogy and scholarship. What all these remarkably different pieces on place have in common is an emphasis on becoming in and outside the academy.
Cheryl Glotfelty, Chair of the Arboretum Committee at the University of Nevada at Reno, tells us how trees took over her life. With humor, joy, and sadness, she shares her story of learning about trees and what it means to curate a living museum, comprised of species both in and out of place. Eric Shaffer's essay invites us into his inhabitation of Hawai'i through language, history, ecology, geology, and astronomy. In doing so, he creates a poetry and poetics of place that astonishes, interconnecting and extending ways of knowing. Mike Madison discusses trading an academic career as a field biologist to become an artisanal farmer in the Sacramento Valley, graphing the differences between sustainable and industrial agriculture, articulating the way academic research supports (as it is so often supported by) corporate interests and challenging the divide between the best theory and its practice.
Jan Goggans examines a different, though connected, kind of growth in the Central Valley: the culture of migrant and other workers in the "fruit basket" of California. Writing about the process of a collaborative exhibit on working class culture, Goggans considers perceptions of this region "dependent for its culture on nature" and her work on depression-era conditions and literature, including Kathleen Thompson Norris's novel Treehaven, and the poetry of agricultural laborer Wilma McDaniel. In a narrative about angling with his son for a rare cutthroat subspecies in Yellowstone National Park, Scott Herring tells us just why saving a fish is "above money, above property, above economics." Laurie Glover pairs the history of the conversion of the McLaughlin Gold Mine into the Sylvia McLaughlin Ecological Reserve with the history of alchemy, reminding us that all matter is living substance, including the Earth.
Championing the importance of "direct experience of a place and the understanding of one's animal self in relation to that place," Scott Slovic chronicles his time teaching environmental writing in the University of Idaho's Semester in the Wild Program at the Taylor Wilderness Research Station in the Frank Church Wilderness: [End Page xii] the value and promise of discussing Aldo Leopold's "Thinking Like a Mountain" with wild wolves howling in the nearby mountains. An excerpt from Alan Williamson's new memoir, on coming to Davis, California, and his friendship with Gary Snyder (and...