- Reimagining Environmental History: Ecological Memory in the Wake of Landscape Change by Christian Knoeller
The title of Christian Knoeller’s book, Reimagining Environmental History: Ecological Memory in the Wake of Landscape Change, does not inform the potential reader that the volume is a work of literary criticism. Nor does it specify a regional, or even national, focus. This is both fortunate and apt. The title emphasizes instead the author’s central concern: how nature writing informs us about past human disturbances of ecology and how it can inspire and empower individuals and communities to restore as well as appreciate local ecosystems. If the title draws the attention of readers other than literary scholars, so much the better. Historians, ecologists, and general readers will enjoy and learn from the nature writers whose work Knoeller examines, from artists, naturalists, and essayists to poets and novelists.
Despite its title, Knoeller’s study does in fact have a regional focus: literature that evokes landscapes of the American Midwest and describes how they have changed over history due to human intervention. Knoeller presents the work of ten writers, grouped in pairs: nineteenth-century artist-naturalists; twentieth-century ecological essayists, poets with environmentalist leanings, Native American novelists, and two more ecological essayists. While acknowledging the wisdom and influence of better-known figures (such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Loren Eiseley, all of whom have Midwestern or Plains connections), Knoeller devotes chapters to writers whose ideas about ecology and the human place in nature deserve wider circulation. In working to save and restore remnants of formerly extensive wetlands in Indiana, for example, Gene Stratton-Porter anticipated the science of ecological restoration and the contemporary notion of rewilding the land. Her novels, essays, and photographs represent and narrate such efforts, preceding Leopold’s by a generation. Although poets like Theodore Roethke and William Stafford and novelists like Louise Erdrich are widely celebrated as literary authors, their participation in conversations about ecological destruction and the need for a new paradigm [End Page 84] of human-nature relations has been underacknowledged. Knoeller provides exegeses of each writer’s work, but also of interest are the continuities he traces among the ten writers: their fascination with local biota and ecological diversity; their reading of earlier naturalists (Scott Russell Sanders’s published appreciation of Stratton-Porter, for example); their interest in Native American history and ideas about nature; and a recurring consideration of landscapes and parallel environmental changes in the American West, including the loss of predators like wolves and the near extinction of the American bison.
The term “ecological memory” refers in science to adaptations in a landscape after disturbances both natural and human caused. In this regard, ecologists speak of “disturbance legacies,” which include species migration, extinction, and strategies by which plant and animal species and even entire ecosystems respond to disruption. Seeds, for example, left after the devastation of a forest by a storm—or by clear-cutting—constitute a material legacy, a memory that will in time express itself in nature. Christian Knoeller’s study, like the writing of Stratton-Porter, Sanders, and the other authors he discusses, represents another form of ecological memory: the considered recollection of what we have lost and what we have yet to learn from environmental history and earlier responses to changes on the land.