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  • Reimagining Environmental History: Ecological Memory in the Wake of Landscape Change by Christian Knoeller
  • Richard F. Nation
Christian Knoeller, Reimagining Environmental History: Ecological Memory in the Wake of Landscape Change. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2017. 352 pp. $32.95 (paper).

Despite its title promising some sort of historiographical intervention, Reimagining Environmental History is actually a work of literary eco-criticism, written by a professor of English, Christian Knoeller. Interdisciplinary in approach, the book also provides a useful intellectual history introduction to how ten writers, all connected in some way to the Midwest as a place, have imagined the environmental history of the landscapes with which they are intimate. Each of ten chapters focuses on a single writer and, in some cases, a single work by that author. The choice of writers is wide-ranging and inspired, including such notables as Theodore Roethke and John James Audubon, and it is most noteworthy for including the Native American voices of Louise Erdrich and Diane Glancy. Just as the term "Midwesterner" oft en has defaulted to "white," Native American writers have oft en been omitted from scholarly analyses of "midwestern" literature. Rather than focus on the obvious writers, such as Aldo Leopold, whose presence nevertheless is clear throughout the book, Knoeller introduces writers who may be less familiar to some readers—Gene Stratton-Porter, Paul Errington, Scott Russell Sanders, William Stafford, Elizabeth Dodd, and Paul Gruchow—who emphasize the midwestern landscape and what Knoeller calls its environmental history.

What I take Knoeller to mean by environmental history is that each of [End Page 203] these writers understands that the landscape they encounter in the present is different from the landscape that once existed in that place. Moreover, given that the process of change is ongoing, that place will be different in the future. For the most part, Knoeller's writers see that change as decline, as loss of habitat leads to loss of species diversity in a place and even extinction across the region. As Knoeller recognizes, the pitfall in such a declension narrative is that it oft en posits an ecological stasis that may have never been, a pristine world that is unchanging due to no or very light human touch. He points out that a number of his writers are cognizant of an ecological past that is dynamic, but I get little sense of how those writers distinguish between the ordinary dynamism of the ecological past and the sharp changes—I would call it decline, too—brought about by the invasion of European Americans into these lands.

Nor do I get the sense that all of these writers share the notion that ecosystems are naturally dynamic—and I should not, because the stasis view was the prevailing scientific notion during some of their lifetimes. Yet it seems to me that at this and other times in the book, Knoeller chooses to highlight those parts of these writers' insights that correspond to current scientific understanding—look how prescient they are—while underplaying the ways in which they understood the world that are currently not accepted by science; historians dismiss this as "whiggish" history.

What is most unclear is why Knoeller chose to focus specifically on writers connected in some way to an area that we call the Midwest. after all, besides Leopold, the other writer who looms over the book is Henry David Thoreau, whose engagement with the New England landscape directly influenced a number of these writers. As such, the Romantic understanding of nature exerted greater or lesser influence on this diverse group of writers. And yet midwestern landscapes rarely fit within this aesthetic movement's visions of a picturesque ideal, let alone an awe-inspiring sublime, found (these Romantics believed) in the likes of waterfalls and mountains. From my reading of Knoeller, what several of these authors seem to find in midwestern landscapes, even coming out of an intellectual tradition that would have disparaged the Midwest as bland, is, instead an awe-inspiring complexity—one they fear is being lost. Such a lesson is not uniquely midwestern—consider Marjory Stoneman Douglas and others' writings on the Everglades—but it is a message to find, celebrate, and protect...