The keyword I would like to discuss is “land” because land is the bedrock of culture. As we go forward into the future we ought to keep in mind the fundamental reality that culture exists in a biophysical, ecological context, which we can call “land.”
There are many different definitions of land, each implying a specific paradigm or worldview. Today I would like to invoke Aldo Leopold’s view of land, which he offers in his book A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, before the Western Literature Association even existed. By appealing to Leopold, I am obviously looking backward in time, but I would contend that our culture—and the WLA—have yet to make the paradigm shift implicit in his writing.
“Conservation is getting nowhere,” Leopold laments, “because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (xviii–xix; emphasis added).
Elsewhere Leopold argues that the image of “man the conqueror” must be replaced with that of “man the biotic citizen” and that the image of “land the slave and servant” must yield to that of “land the collective organism” (260–61). In the dominant paradigm, we are separate from the land, and we live on it; in Leopold’s paradigm, we are part of the land, and we live in it.
I would like us to think about what it means for us as readers, writers, and critics to be a “biotic citizen” of the “land community,” a member of the “collective organism.” Even though Leopold’s vision is very grounded, I find these concepts to be abstract and hard to translate into literary critical practice.
For me, bioregionalism is a helpful approach for turning Leopold’s ecological precepts into practice. A key insight of bioregionalism [End Page 45] is that our interactions with the land community always occur in a particular place. The bioregional perspective, then, asks us to reimagine place in ecological terms. For example, under the still-dominant paradigm, Harrah’s Casino is located at 219 North Center St., Reno, Nevada, USA. However, the bioregional address of Harrah’s is in the Truckee Meadows, two hundred meters north of the Truckee River, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains of the North American continent.
Let me propose three critical projects for western American literary studies that we might pursue in the next fifty years by adopting Leopold’s notion of land within a bioregional frame:
1. Remap western American literature. Organize an anthology or a study of western American literature by bioregion rather than by chronology, theme, or geopolitical region. This project might entail doing some new naming or reactivating of Indigenous place names.
2. Write species/habitat studies. We need many more studies like Michael P. Cohen’s A Garden of Bristlecones: Tales of Change in the Great Basin and Laurie Ricou’s Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory. These transdisciplinary studies of particular places combine cultural studies, science, and environmental history to illuminate our relationship with another member of the biotic community.
3. Make Critical Regionalism more ecologically engaged. Critical Regionalism appears to be intellectually detached from ecological perspectives and from transnational environmental issues. I think it is time to make critical regionalism become more eco-critical. Or, perhaps, taking a cue from Alex Hunt’s conference paper, “Working Toward a Critical Bioregionalism,” to work toward a critical bioregionalism. [End Page 46]
I’d like to leave you with two questions. The first is one I’ve already asked:
What might it mean for our practice as readers, writers, and critics to be a “biotic citizen” of the “land community”?
And, second, what critical project might you add to the ones I’ve mentioned?
cheryll glotfelty is a professor of literature and environment and chair of the Arboretum Board at the University of Nevada, Reno. She coedited The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology; The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place; and The Biosphere and the Bioregion: Essential Writings of...