The significant portion from my syllabus:
"This course focuses on writing that has reflected and influenced thinking about the natural environment in the United States. Through our studies of important works in environmental literature, we examine the ideological and philosophical bases for the conception of nature that have shaped both our own understandings of "environment" and the actual landscape of the United States. Through our analyses of significant literary and scholarly texts, we analyze concepts such as wilderness, sense of place, environmentalism, and bioregionalism. As we study our environmental history in light of our literature, we explore the connections between the ideas presented through our texts and ongoing cultural conversation surrounding the environment. Our goal is that we will each develop a deepened sense of the rich and complicated ways in which American literature has shaped--and has, in turn, been shaped by--the changing relations to and understandings of 'environment.'"
So far, we've read The Rediscovery of North America by Barry Lopez, (an essay in book form). He raises several very interesting points (well, I thought they were interesting) starting out with pointing out that the tales we hear about heroic Christopher Columbus who made our nation possible aren't very close to the reality of brutal exploitation of people and land. That definitely wasn't mentioned when I was first memorizing the names of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
Europeans, Lopez says, didn't come to the Americas for a new land, they came for resources, and they came to impose their culture and their approach to land. The New World was supposed to replenish the resources of the Old World. This is problematic because we still approach our land this way, even though we know the resources aren't unlimited.
Lopez's solution is to "rediscover" America, to expand our definition of wealth (he describes the Conquistadors as lacking imagination because the only wealth they could think of was mineral wealth), to listen to our land, and to develop a sense of place that makes us want to defend our place. (And I'm sure this could be applied outside the U.S. as well--any place where Europeans colonized.)
Anyway, that's been the most interesting reading so far. The other two books we've read from, Making Nature Sacred by John Gatta, and Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Frasier Nash, have been books about what other people have written about the environment. Nash manages to write in a way that's mostly easy to read, but Gatta puts me to sleep when I have to read large chunks from his book. In most cases, I'd rather just read the stories and poems we're reading about, though our prof assures us that the Puritans (which we've spent most of the past two weeks discussing) are even more boring in the primary documents.
The Puritans are interesting in how much they hated the wilderness, and how they really did come to the U.S. expecting to create a new Britain. Wilderness was full of demons and other dangers and to be conquered at all costs. It's also been interesting to hear how people came thinking America was empty of people, but it wasn't. Just, the Native Americans, because they did not live, worship or dress like the Europeans, were considered subhuman. It's interesting, having that brought to my attention, to realize how much of what I hear and how many every day things seem to be based on that myth.
We've also read some excerpts from James Fenimore Cooper's writings and those of his daughter (I think) Susan Fenimore Cooper about the Passenger Pigeons. That was pretty incredible to read about--flocks and flocks of birds that were capable of changing the ambient air temperature when they flew through a place, that made roosts ten miles wide and a hundred miles long, that toppled trees with the weight of the numbers roosting. And they went from overwhelming millions to extinct in less than a century. When Passenger Pigeons were still plentiful, cities and towns had to pass laws against shooting at pigeons from the windows and streets, and had to give up on enforcing them when the Passenger Pigeons came through, people went into killing frenzies, beat the birds from the air with sticks and nets and fired grape shot from canons at them, and then left the majority of them dead on the ground. It was appalling and strange to read.
Then our prof, as illustration, told us, "Think of the crows that stay here during the winter [the trees on campus are black with crows at night, and the campus is plastered with crow droppings, and in the day, dead crows and dead crow bits hang from the trees, and on the ground, and it's just weird ...]. Yeah, well, that's nothing compared to these pigeons in their masses."
Okay ... sorry, that was really long. I hope it was interesting ...