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Green guilt and the university classroom.


As we bring current environmental issues into the classroom, we risk overwhelming our students with "doomsday texts" cataloguing the ills that plague our planet. However, imaginative literature that truly brings nature to life can also bring our students to life, helping them confront the realities of ecological crisis without paralyzing them with "green guilt."


Though much is taken, much abides.--Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"

Stalled in traffic at the corner of La Cienega and Beverly Blvds., at the heart of West Los Angeles' shopping mecca, I gaze up at an electronic bulletin board perched atop the Beverly Center's Hard Rock Cafe. On the left, a steadily decreasing number tallies the acres of rain forest that remain, while a rapidly growing figure on the right lets me know just how much the earth's population has swollen as I wait out the light. My pollution-spewing vehicle noxiously idling, the gaily-wrapped spoils of consumerism squatting in the passenger seat, I'm sickened-with guilt, self-disgust, despair, and utter helplessness. (I'm also fuming at the corporate hypocrisy that allows a shopping mail to co-opt the environmental crisis.) I may decide, as I contemplate this grim scoreboard, to drive less, to buy less-and to contribute more to Greenpeace-but I certainly vow to avoid this distressing corner in the future.

My reaction to the Beverly Center's gloomy marquee parallels, I fear, some of my students' responses, evident in class discussion and daily journal entries, to the environmental issues they have confronted in my advanced composition course, "Writing and the Environment," a class that focuses on the kinds of topical, often contentious texts that create lively discussion and allow students to develop thesis-driven essays, including a long research paper. For many students, my course has served as a kind of initiation rite: into, on the one hand, the demanding world of university-level writing and research and, on the other, into a realm where beauty and fragility go hand in hand, where "DOOMED" is emblazoned on each feature of the land- and seascapes encountered in our readings. Eager to thrust my captive audience into the fierce green fire, I would assign text after text detailing the kinds of "actual and potential horrors" that Glen A. Love catalogues in his provocative essay, "Revaluing Nature: Towards an Ecological Criticism": "the alarming growth of the world's population.., mounting evidence of global warming, destruction of the ... ozone layer, ... acid rain, overcutting of the world's last remaining great forests, ... inundation in our own garbage, an increasing rate of extinction of plant and animal species" (22526). Add to these present plagues the increasing threat of bioterrorism and the less dramatic but perhaps more far-reaching shadow of bioengineering: the "familiar checklist of impending calamities," as Theodore Roszak puts it, just continues to grow ("Green Guilt" 535). Like Love, I believed that "The doomsday potentialities are so real and so profoundly important that a ritual chanting of them ought to replace the various nationalistic and spiritual incantations with which we succour ourselves" (226).

As students discussed and wrote about the ills besetting the natural world, and learned about the environmental problems plaguing the urban sector as well, I noticed that passion and engagement often gave way to weariness and even dejection. Our class sessions were becoming increasingly elegaic. We were all succumbing to what Roszak calls "green guilt and ecological overload." In his essay of the same name, Roszak warns of the numbing effect that information bombardment, coupled with the "shock and shame" approach to the environmental crisis, can have ("Green Guilt" 535). Similarly, pre-eminent ecocritic Scott Slovic, who confesses to his own bout with "ecodespair," points out that we "are already saturated with environmental consciousness," and perhaps hardened to the "usual litany of planetary degradations" ("Forward," The Greening of Literary Scholarship vii). Faced with a biosphere--and a syllabus--"Balkarnized into a landscape of disaster areas," my own compassion-fatigued students either obediently mimicked the texts' righteous indignation or turned a deaf ear to all the ranting (Roszak, "Green Guilt" 536). Even Joy Williams' remarkable piece "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp," one of the first polemical texts with which I clobbered my students, can contribute to the white noise she so brilliantly satirizes; readers may feel scolded and (brow)beaten rather than inspired and energized.

The 1981 film, My Dinner with Andre, the locus classicus of the electric blanket's sinister role in modern life, directly grapples with this problem of how urgency and concern may degenerate into hopelessness and apathy. In the the visionary theater director Andre Gregory discusses with playwright Wallace Shawn the kinds of serious plays that mirror the modern world's most disturbing facets. Gregory asks, does such art "help to wake up a sleeping audience," an audience cut off from the world and from their own deepest feelings?:
 I don't think so [he continues] because I think it's very likely
 that the picture of the world that [these works are]
 showing ... is exactly the picture of the world that they
 have already ... So the play simply tells them that their
 impression of the world is correct, and there's absolutely
 no way out, there's nothing they can do. They end up feeling
 passive and impotent. (87, 88)

Gregory's concern that shockingly, or at least depressingly, "realistic" art can in fact "deaden" its audience parallels Roszak's fear that people will simply tune out the increasingly shrill notes sounded by environmental whistle-blowers, that helplessness and hopelessness will greet each new snapshot of an ever-degenerating planet (Andre 87). However, both Gregory and Roszak believe that we can, as Gregory puts it, be "brought to life" (85), and for both, the imagination is the key. While Gregory focuses more on the creative, artistic imagination, Roszak puts a new spin on the sympathetic imagination, through which we experience not only our "shared identity" with other people, but with the natural world as well ("Green Guilt" 538). Roszak argues that this "sense of connectedness with nature [is] as rooted in the psyche as Freud once believed the libido to be", and whether we call it sympathy, compassion, or love, it results, according to Roszak, in "spontaneous loyalty" and promises to save the environmental movement from entropy as well as from the "angry chaos of conflicting agendas" ("Green Guilt" 538, 539). Now, my job as a writing teacher certainly doesn't entail enlisting my students for the green revolution-genuine engagement with the texts and issues we encounter is what I hope to promote-but avoiding entropy and the chaos of conflicting agendas sounds pretty good to me. I've found Roszak's model of "ecopsychology" [1], where imagination plays a crucial role, extremely helpful as I organize my syllabus, mediate class discussions, and guide individual students through the research and writing process.

Quite early in the semester, students discover that this process entails sorting through the sometimes overwhelming mass of materials they unearth. As Joy Williams says in her own piece on "ecological overload," "We know a lot these days. We're very well informed" (636). In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley knew what it meant to have "more scientific and economical knowledge" than could be digested, knew how it felt to be buried under the "accumulation of facts and calculating processes" (502). He writes in his Defence of Poetry, "We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life" (Poetry and Prose 502). From knowledge to creativity to action: as a literature and composition teacher who cares deeply about the planet, I see Shelley's desideratum as an ideal sequence culminating, fittingly, in the "poetry of life," a phrase that invokes both literature and nature. While for the conservationist, "action" would take the form of ecologically responsible behavior and perhaps political activism, the culminating "action" for my composition students involves writing a research paper that pushes beyond the mere "accumulation of facts" into the realm of original thought, a realm governed by the "creative faculty" that Shelley celebrates. (Often these two meanings of "action" dovetail, with students fashioning projects that display-and foster-genuine care for the planet's health.) Ideally, as students strive to "imagine what they know," creativity, knowledge, and generosity of spirit will coalesce within their experience as readers and writers of environmentally-conscious texts.

Because of the eclectic mix of majors who enroll in my course, my syllabus features texts from a variety of disciplines. However, I'm incorporating more "purely" literary works than I used to, especially at the beginning of the term. Poems such as William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and Elizabeth Bishop's "The Sandpiper," infused with the love of nature and flush with her beauties, spark the kind of "imaginative engagement" that, as Slovic argues, is "the first step toward active concern" ("Nature Writing" 365). The point is not to sentimentalize the natural world or to avoid/deny the fact that we do face an ecological crisis, but instead to find a way (back) into nature and into the environmental debate that leaves us feeling enlightened and motivated rather than paralyzed.

Recently, I have launched the class with a pair of texts that sets the stage nicely in terms of both the course themes and writing focus. John Muir's "Prayers in Higher Mountain Temples," written in 1873, and Joan Didion's "Los Angeles Notebook," from Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968), allow students to grapple with two drastically different writers who nonetheless share a highly attuned sense of place--and a highly imaginative stance towards the forces of nature. These two California writers get students thinking about, for example, the genre of regional literature and about how science, emotion, and spirituality may intersect in "nature writing." Moreover, these texts raise vital questions about rhetoric, diction, tone, audience, and purpose, questions crucial within the writing classroom. Where Didion, who with her trademark deadpan, seems rather detached both from her subject matter and reader, favors colloquial language and an oblique approach as she attempts to diagnose "the bad wind" and its place "in the local imagination" (155, 156), Muir joyously plunges into his text, just as he gratefully re-enters the paradise of the sublime Sierras. Adopting language that is much more obviously "literary" than Didion's, Muir nonetheless achieves a warmth of tone and a real intimacy with his audience (the piece, in fact, originated as a letter to a close friend), whom he eagerly invites to join him as he bounds through dense forest, scrambles up rock-faces, and gazes reverently at a moonlit waterfall. (In one journal exercise I ask students to compare and contrast specific excerpts from each text, scrutinizing them for rhetorical effectiveness and thus discovering how, separately and together, such passages can offer meaningful models for students developing their own styles, their own voices.) Finally, neither of the paired texts is overtly political-a plus for those students who may, at the semester's beginning, see the green movement as simply another tiresome brand of political correctness.

Muir and Didion also exemplify and provoke what Slovic calls the "prized tension of awareness," akin to the animating, motivating force that Roszak and Gregory link with the imagination. "Most nature writers," Slovic points out, "walk a fine line (or, more accurately, vacillate) between rhapsody and detachment, between aesthetic celebration and scientific explanation. And the effort to achieve an equilibrium, a suitable balance of proximity to and distance from nature, results in the prized tension of awareness"--on both writer's and reader's parts ("Nature Writing" 353). Students can see how, together, the "rhapsodic" Muir and the "detached" Didion promote intense awareness both of the external environment and of the self's responses to it. And as we delve more deeply into each work, we discern how "disjunction and conjunction," the "opposing modes of response to nature" that Slovic proposes, subtly shade into each other, complicating the textual dialectic and sharpening our own awareness of the natural and psychic landscapes we encounter on the page ("Nature Writing" 355).

We usually begin by exploring the key differences between the two texts, one a sublime love letter to Muir's cherished Yosemite, the other a dispassionate diagnosis of, as one of my students put it, "what ails L.A." In their journals, students contrast Muir's gorgeous Northern California wilderness with Didion's bleak Southern California cityscape, Muir's utter at-homeness in nature with Didion's deep distrust of her adopted city, and Didion's spare, sardonic prose with Muir's ecstatic lyricism. These stark distinctions allow students to explore their own sense of place, to move beyond the notion of landscape-as-surroundings implied by the rather bland word "environment," and to examine their own stylistic and rhetorical preferences. These three facets--geographic, psychological, and linguistic--not only anchor our discussion of these opening texts, but also ground the course as a whole. As students see how the physical, mental, and expressive intersect within individual examples of nature (or "environmental") writing, they can relate more closely to a subject that before may have seemed too "out there"-that is, too external to their own lives and interests and too divorced from "real-world" concerns. The title of the anthology that I have regularly adopted since first launching my course, Being in the World, nicely captures the sense of continuity between self and nature-wild or urbanized-that I hope my course will instill, and that Roszak's notion of the "shared identity" between the human and nonhuman conveys. As Didion's "Los Angeles Notebook" reminds us, even alienation is a form of relationship.

Class discussions and subsequent journal entries push us beyond the dichotomies dividing Didion and Muir, and the texts begin to meld into a kind of diptych that reveals, in Didion's words, "what it is about the place"-about the physical and psychological landscape that each writer invites us to enter (156). In her journal, one student comments on how Muir and Didion "use a wide variety of detail to build a sense of place":
 Didion offers us the literary equivalent of a single Polaroid-in her
 piece, we view snapshots of a smoky canyon, a surreally placid
 ocean, a sad piano bar in Encino. She also uses conversations to
 situate us geographically and emotionally; from the often prickly
 conversations she records, Didion uncannily picks out just the one
 sentence that illuminates the undercurrents that exist in Southern
 California. Muir's conversations are with the rocks and the trees,
 his "dear friends" (322). With great attention to the physical
 senses, Muir brings us right into the world, where, for example,
 we can view through transparent ice a lake's "beautifully
 wave-rippled, sandy bottom, and the scales of mica glinting back
 the down-pouring light" (325).

Another student observes how "both writers underscore nature's central role in our lives, a truth we can, like Muir, passionately embrace or, as Didion does, rather warily accept." It is this awareness--of, as Harold Fromm writes, "our roots in the earth" (39)--that literary works such as Muir's and Didion's help generate, a necessary step, I believe, before the class moves on to more politically-charged, topical texts that prominently feature the despoilation of the natural world.

However, before we encounter contemporary exposes such as Joy Williams' over-the-top "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp," where nature is "messy and damaged and sad" (634), and David Quammen's powerful "Planet of Weeds," whose subtitle "Tallying the Losses of Earth's Animals and Plants" signals its funereal theme, a few "transitional" literary texts help bridge the gap from art to argument, and help reveal the artist's polemical purposes and the crusader's creative (and sympathetic) imagination. The Romantic period of British literature, when an inchoate ecological consciousness emerged with the rise of industry, offers a rich array of unsettling poems-including William Wordsworth's "Nutting," where a young boy mercilessly ravages a virginal bower, and John Clare's "The Mores," which laments the enclosure of rural Britain's commons-that preview the more massive devastation that we now wreak and witness. It's that "we" anchoring a crucial poem from the Victorian period, Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Binsey Poplars," commemorating a stand of trees "All felled, felled, ... all felled," which suggests how contemporary defenders of nature might avoid what Roszak calls the "politics of blame" ("Green Guilt" 538). Hopkins' moving elegy laments, "O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew--/ Hack and rack the growing green!," thus including himself within his audience of the warned, the admonished, the accused (78: II. 10-12). This emphasis of the communal, of the "we" takes us back to Roszak's notion of the "empathic rapport with the natural world that is reborn in every child, and that survives in the work of poets and landscape painters," as well as reminds us of the bonds of sympathy that connect us with our fellow humans ("Beyond the Reality Principle" 62.)

As we watch the barriers between subject and object-the natural world or a human "other"--dissolve in these literary texts, we're more prepared for the sophisticated rhetorical strategy that Joy Williams develops in her scathingly satirical piece, a linguistically inventive jeremiad that begins as a self-righteous harangue and then complicates the relationship between the moralizing "I" and the wanton eco-criminal "you." As Williams co-opts her audience's weary sense of green guilt ("guilt is uncool" [635]), and as pronouns merge, allowing the preacher to become part of the congregation ("This is essentially a moral issue we face and moral decisions must be made" [645]), a piece that students may have rejected at semester's beginning as self-righteous, insulting, and downright depressing, near the end of the term can intellectually, imaginatively, and politically engage and even inspire them. Quammen's essay, too, though no tirade, tends to overwhelm students with its "urgently grim questions" and gruesome prophesies of mass extinction if assigned too early in the term (57). But when we trace the text's lineage from, for example, Muir's gorgeous celebration of "mountain wealth" (326) through Hopkins' preservationist plea for his "Sweet especial rural scene" (79: 1. 25), we recognize Quammen's willingness, his ability, his need to imagine a horrifically impoverished "planet of weeds" as intimately connected with his ability to imagine--that is, to really see, to really know--his own deep roots in the earth. Throughout the course, even as we move into more scientific, more political, more controversial texts, I hope to keep the power of imagination at the center. Creative, sympathetic, even visionary, the environmental imagination allows us to see both beauty and its devastation, to recognize crisis and envision healing, and to experience--and write about--our lives as beings in the (natural) world.

As Roszak reminds us, "Every political movement is grounded in a vision of human nature. What do people need, what do they fear, what do they love?" (538). Launching a course on writing and the environment, John Muir and Joan Didion get students thinking about these crucial questions, about how human nature and nature herself are bound together in intricate webs of mutual need, fear, and, yes, love. "Prayers in Higher Mountain Temples" and "Los Angeles Notebook" are just two rich literary texts that can help students imaginatively engage the natural world--and ultimately confront the realities of a planet in peril without succumbing to the paralyzing effects of green guilt. In some ways, the process that I'm sketching here-a course that openly aesthetically rather than polemically--resembles the sequence of rhetorical modes once so popular among composition instructors. This sequence moves students through an increasingly difficult set of assignments--from, for example, a personal essay to a compare/contrast paper and, ultimately, to a thesis-driven analytical essay. Ideally, this approach enables writers to build on and integrate each mode as the term progresses. Similarly, an ecologically-themed course that begins say, with Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal (1800-02), a kind of prose hymn to her beloved English Lake District, and gradually allows the picture to darken--as it will, for example, with Barry Commoner's Making Peace with the Planet (1990), which centers on the clashes between (natural) ecosphere and (man-made) technosphere, or Paula DiPerna's 1991 "Truth Vs. 'Facts'," an ecofeminist call-to-arms which examines how women's activists around the world are confronting specific environmental crises--helps us preserve even in the realm of environmental chaos the sublimely imaginative vision of the natural world that the Romantic writer offers. Or, as the term begins, Sarah Orne Jewett's 1886 short story "A White Heron" may joyously lead us through the wilderness whose passing Bill McKibben, in his recent meditation on global warming, The End of Nature, will mourn as we move deeper into the syllabus. Such texts, like William Blake's worlds of Innocence and Experience, must work together dialectically, helping us, as teachers, students, writers, activists dwell within the fallen world, where the Earth herself seems "cover'd with grey despair," while we remember and perhaps replant the fertile garden of delight (Blake, Poetry and Prose: Songs of Experience, "Earth's Answer").


[1] Roszak's The Voice of the Earth (1992) and "Beyond the Reality Principle" explore this recent therapeutic trend, which defines mental health "within a biospheric context," focusing on the individual's relationship (or tack thereof) with the natural world ("Reality Principle" 61).

Works Cited

Blake, William. The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman with commentary by Harold Bloom. New York: Doubleday, 1970.

Didion, Joan. "Los Angeles Notebook." In Slovic and Dixon. 154-59.

DiPerna Paula. "Truth Vs. 'Facts'." In Slovic and Dixon. 699-709

Fromm, Harold. "From Transcendence to Obsolescence: A Route Map." In Glotfelty and Fromm. 30-39.

Glotfelty, Cheryl and Harold Fromm, eds. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: U of Georgia Press, 1996.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 4th ed. Ed. W. H. Gardner and H. H. MacKenzie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Love, Glen A. "Revaluing Nature: Toward an Ecological Criticism." In Glotfelty and Fromm. 225-40.

Muir, John. "Prayers in Higher Mountain Temples, or A Geologist's Winter Walk." In Slovic and Dixon. 322-27.

Quammen, David. "Planet of Weeds: Tallying the Losses of Earth's Animals and Plants." Harper's 297 (October 1998): 57-69.

Roszak, Theodore. "Beyond the Reality Principle." Sierra 78: 2 (March/April 1993): 58-62, 80.

--. "Green Guilt and Ecological Overload." In Reading the Environment, ed. Melissa Walker. New York: Norton, 1994. 534-39.

Shawn, Wallace, and Andre Gregory. My Dinner with Andre: A Screenplay for the Film by Louis Malle. New York: Grove, 1981.

Shelley, Percy B. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: Norton, 1977.

Slovic, Scott. "Forward." The Greening of Literary Scholarship: Literature, Theory, and the Environment, ed. Steven Rosendale. Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 2002. vii-xi.

--. "Nature Writing and Environmental Psychology: The Interiority of Outdoor Experience." In Glotfelty and Fromm. 351-70.

Slovic, Scott H. and Terrell Dixon, eds. Being in the World: An Environmental Reader for Writers. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Williams, Joy. "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp." In Slovic and Dixon. 634-46.

Teddi Chichester Bonca. California State University, Fullerton

An Assistant Professor of English, Bonca is the author of Shelley's Mirrors of Love. Narcissism, Sacrifice, and Sorority (State University of New York Press, 1999).
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Author:Bonca, Teddi Chichester
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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