The Road’s Environment vs. Our Other Readings

During the presentation on Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, I was reminded of when I read the book in high school. It might have been the most depressing work I’ve ever read. I remember someone in class mentioning how the environment presented in The Road differs from everything else we’ve read: until now, every single work we have read refers to the environment in a positive light, it is always a force of good in the story. But in The Road, it is the enemy of the protagonists.

Obviously The Road is different from our other readings because it is a post-apocalyptic fiction. Our other readings are more based in reality than The Road. But does The Road paint the picture of how we might one day view the environment? If we pollute and destroy the Earth so badly, will the landscape eventually become our enemy, instead of a source of spiritual comfort like in Refuge?

I think it is important to realize that nature is not always beneficial. It will not always comfort us and help us, but may harm us in the case of natural disasters like hurricanes and floods. Although climate change may increase the effects of these natural disasters, they will always be a facet of nature. They remind us that the environment is something to be revered, respected, and understood. The Road is a reminder that the environment is ultimately more powerful than humanity. Even after we all die, the earth will still exist, but maybe not as it does now. Hopefully our negative influence on nature never reaches extreme proportions like in The Road.

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Thoughts on Chris McCandless

Although its been four years since I last read Into the Wild, my memories of the book hold strong as they seemed appealing at the time to a young outdoorsperson. Although I find McCandless’s story tragic, I still believe in many of the basic principles which McCandless espouses in his two years hitchhiking; he is free, able to build friendships with people despite his nomadic lifestyle, and is a true lover of nature.

Much of the criticism that McCandless recieves is due to the fact that he died; people felt that his death was a shame and a meaningless waste. If Chris had survived, how might the story have been different? Chris certainly would have been glorified by the locals for a successful survivalist expedition; is his death, perhaps mostly by chance, enough to strip him of all the praise he would otherwise have received?

 

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Wilde’s Debate: Art Versus Nature

In her essay, “Against Nature”, Joyce Carol Oates quotes a passage from Oscar Wilde’s 1889 essay, “The Decay of Lying”.  I read Wilde’s essay last semester in my Fiction class; he introduces a chicken-or-the-egg scenario regarding art and nature – essentially asking, does nature inform art or does art inform nature, and, which came first?  These questions, of course, can be debated extensively without ever coming to a conclusion, but I do have a strong reaction to the particular passage that Oates quotes, where Wilde says; “Nature is no great mother who has borne us.  She is our creation.  It is our brain that she quickens to life.  Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us […] There may have been fogs for centuries in London.  I dare say there were.  But no one saw them.  They did not exist until Art had invented them…” (844-5).  While I understand the logic behind this idea that he presents, here – that we create what we perceive as reality when, truly, there is no consistent “reality” at all – is it not human-centric to say that Nature is our own creation?  There must be something that exists outside of our own minds, something that we can relate to, and we express our relations to Nature through the creation of art.

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Bill McKibben’s American Dream

Bill McKibben wrote Wandering Home without any real voice. As he said in the book, he was just a writer. He purposes the job of a writer to be to pass down knowledge and awareness to larger amounts of people. In Wandering Home, he spoke only about his experiences not letting in on his personal views but instead just showing us the facts of how he lived and walked. I found this interesting because McKibben is a very outspoken person and has become an activist figurehead within the last few years.

I felt that his writing was much less elegant then what we have seen this year. It felt as though he was trying to put the readers in the mindset that this was a norm and that that people could live sustainably. The way he, and his community in Vermont, lived was a new American Dream. Instead of white picket fences there will be lush gardens beds. The book as a whole felt like liberal propaganda. From speaking about his daughters gay piano teachers and their sustainable living, to his hemp invested friends and how they went big and Asia. This is not a bad thing in my mind, and I defiantly enjoyed reading this book. In Wandering Home McKibben paints a picture of a progressive America where people can live as they please in a healthy community around people with similar values. McKibben makes it feel a little more romantically ubiquitous, when he talks about his walk from place to place. He puts himself in a time before industrial infrastructure and technological help. He ties it back to America’s roots when he goes picking apples as if he is doing a day laborers work, traveling to work in the back of a pick up truck.

Overall I enjoyed the book and felt as though it was pretty original in trying to paint a picture for Americas new dream lifestyle. Where people live sustainably with community, in a somewhat local environment.

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starling people and gulls

Two chapters I thought were very powerful in Refuge were California Gulls and Peregrine Falcon. In California Gulls, Williams explains how crickets invaded in 1848 and devoured all of their wheat. Pioneers fought them and tried everything they could to stop them but nothing worked. Eventually, a massive flock of gulls comes and instead of eating the wheat, the gulls kill off all the crickets and then leave the farmers to their fields. This is an amazing example of how nature works itself out through a natural cycle. Human interruption is unwarranted and will eventually prove unsuccessful in the long run.

In Peregrine Falcon, Williams discusses the similarities between humans and starlings- an overpowering species that is large in numbers and often depletes diversity by killing off species that invade their territory. Williams writes, “Perhaps we project on to starlings that which we deplore in ourselves: our numbers, our aggression, our greed, and our cruelty. Like starlings, we are taking over the world” (54). She describes a vicious cycle in which we ourselves kill of starlings because we loathe them, yet we make it impossible for other specialized species to survive- destroying their natural (specialized) habitats and consequently encouraging the starlings spread (considering they are very adaptable and can live in many different environments). I found Williams’ connection between humans and these birds very enticing especially because she explains how much we seem to hate them despite our similarities. I found myself reflecting quite a bit on these two chapters and what they teach about human interaction with the natural world. They seem to provide us with some of the themes we have heard through other readings in a very unique and specialized metaphorical format.

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The Wisdom of Aldo Leopold

I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the readings we did by Aldo Leopold this semester. Looking back on them I see many connections between his writings and the lessons and themes of the semester. First of all, in The Land Ethic, Leopold begins by exposing the similarity between women as property and land as property. This relates directly to the prompt I chose to write about for the final paper in which Professor Marx asked us to think about how eco-feminism is displayed in our readings. Leopold discusses how an ethic is a  “limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence” and extends to all individuals in a community, including women. He then goes on to explain how a land ethic would include all organisms included in the land and their common respect.

In The Round River, Leopold discusses how conservation is a state of harmony between humans and the land and how we must respect all elements equally in order to preserve it. He points out an important tendency in humans to only conserve what we feel is worth conserving and that group is limited. Because diversity creates stability in the natural world it is essential for humans to take care of the environment as a whole… paying attention to each ingredient rather than conserving selectively.    He writes, “A little repentance just before a species goes over the brink is enough to make us feel virtuous. When the species is gone we have a god cry and repeat the performance” (194). This is an excellent description. We do not learn from our mistakes. We are constantly taking and then briefly feeling bad and then just doing it again because it is easiest in the moment. What will it take to make us realize the significance of the damage we are doing?

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Our presentation on The Tiger today reminded me of all the issues there are with animal conservation. The book The Tiger helped me see that happy and healthy, wild tigers are not only a worthy goal to fight for in and of themselves; they are an indicator of a healthy bioregion. Since predators are at the top of the food chain, they are the most susceptible to any food shortages. They depend on a complex link of successively larger organisms. To successfully protect a tiger population, you have to protect the whole ecosystem that supports the tiger.
I have spent a lot of time volunteering at predator conservation projects and it is really sad to see where the future of lions, tigers, etc. lie. Many projects are corrupt and function more as businesses, although they market themselves as selfless conservation efforts. I have spent time with lions, tigers, cheetahs, baboons, and other ‘wild’ animals that are usually pretty tame. To this day I ask myself: to what cost?
The implications of hand-raising wild animals in captivity are very high. They live sad lives in enclosures and are almost never released into the wild like conservation efforts say they will. The truth is, it is almost impossible to successfully release a lion or cheetah back into the wild if it has been hand-raised. Conservation has to come from protecting the wild animals we already have, not by taming them. There is no future for them in captivity, and they are likely to be sold on the black market or exploited for some financial purpose.
I have also been jumped on by a tiger, and my good friend nearly lost his life being attacked by a lion. Humans were not meant to be this close to predators. And then when a human gets injured, we go and kill the animal and call them a ‘maneater’, when they were acting on their natural instinct by either defending or preying.
This is something I feel passionate about, so if anyone has questions, let me know!

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simply seeking solitude- not anti social.

I find it very interesting that many authors we have read are not anti-social, they are simply seeking solitude. In Into the Wild Krakauer quotes an acquaintance he had interviewed, “Everett was a loner, but he liked people too damn much to stay down there and live in secret the rest of his life. A lot of us are like that- I’m like that, Ed Abbey was like that, and it sounds like this McCandless kid was like that: We like companionship, see, but we can’t seem to be around people for very long” (96). Many of the writers we have read about seem very strong and independent. It takes a lot of courage to be able to leave human companionship (and technology) in order to seek an ultimate purpose in the natural world. I think this in itself is very admirable and enviable. The fact that these people were all very personable but could still find solace in solitude is a strong quality. Christopher McCandless for example was described very fondly by all who knew him. He was smart, funny, deep, and could connect with people that seemed impossible to connect with to others. There was one occasion described in which one of his friends brought him to meet his mother. The mother was described as a woman who was not very interested in many people, but the friend had a feeling she would like Chris. Sure enough, Chris and the mother ended up talking to each other for hours and she absolutely adored him. I think part of what gives these people the ability to enter nature in solitude is their comfort with themselves and independence. I think it would be difficult for me to isolate myself like this because there are often times when I feel I need human company. This is why I find it so admirable that these people can be happy both in solitude and in the company of others. It would be a gift to work up to that ability.

 

At the same time, I think in the case of Christopher McCandless this sometimes ended up hurting people. His company was thoroughly enjoyed by others and he connected with many and then left them quickly when he was ready to go back into solitude. Although he kept in touch with many of them, he was not interested in human intimacy therefore avoided getting too close to anyone who became attached to him.

 

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Moms

While Williams’ writes about the bird refuge in her book, it is apparent that she also finds refuge in her mother. I found myself relating to her frequently in the book when she wrote about her mother and their relationship which was why it was emotional for me to read about her mother’s death and its process. There was a moment in the book when she wrote about her curly hair as a child and being upset about it because kids were “calling her a witch”. Her mother sits her down in front of the mirror and tells her to sit there until she sees the beautiful girl that her mother sees. My mother has definitely done that exact thing for me! I think Williams’ truly captures the significance of a mother’s relationship to her child and how safe and important it is. As our life force, we find stability in our mother’s (and father’s) unconditional love. This is why a strong relationship with a mother produces a feeling of refuge. Williams’ really emphasizes this love and puts into perspective its power. Her portrayal of her mother is honest and inspiring and I really could feel their bond.

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Antithetical or Essential to the course?

Joyce Carol Oates’ writing is, in a way, deliberately antithetical to the thematic concerns of this course, but this makes her essential to a thorough examination of the relationship between literature and the environment. Oates has very specific demands that she makes upon any literature, that it has an intent, that it reflects on human nature, and that it has variety. I agree with her in the requirements she has for literature, however I would argue that environmental literature is a valid field precisely because it does more than she suggests. The varied nature of the works we have read and their widely different environmental perspectives has been one of the great strengths of the course and has challenged me to expand my previous definition of environmental writing to encompass broader terms.

If I thought that environmental literature was simply made up of gushy, artistic descriptions of a natural landscape I would never have taken this course; it is essential that literature have dimensions of reflection and fundamentally human elements beyond simply awe of nature.

It is precisely the need for reflection, however, that makes me feel that the challenges posed by Oates are critical to the course. If environmental literature as a genre were to truly deserve the criticism she heaps upon it, there would be no purpose to the course.

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