Literature and the Environment

In what follows, fourth-year English major Stacy Lee gives a brief meditation on what is it like to balance a study of literature with her second major, Conservation & Resource Studies.

When I see aching beauty in T. S. Eliot’s verses or understand why a no-till system is beneficial for soil fertility, I get the same kind of joy in learning something new and interpreting it in my own way. Because I major in both English and Conservation & Resource Studies, I constantly adjust my vision to see the connections between both fields. In analyzing novels, for instance, the role of the environment often goes unnoticed in the pursuit of a character’s agency. Yet, we are realizing the significant impact of nature in our lives now more than ever; why should it be any different when it comes to the works created to reflect our experiences? The resources within a region have a way of shaping how communities think, behave, and live. Perhaps the closest we come to this realization is through poetry: Whitman aptly writes, “if you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

So much of our humanity lies within our environment. Agriculture itself is a story of humans trying to manipulate nature, a world of struggles between protagonists. The greatest tragedy can be found not in books but on marginal lands and waters, in which farmers and fishermen export their food in debt-accumulating systems that leave them too poor to feed themselves. What is more horrifying than societies which consume resources at a rate that reduces the quality of life for future generations? Do we have any agency in determining how this story will end? These are the questions that my English classes inspire me to ask, to find the human heart that beats beneath policies of conservation and behind the manmade sources of particulate matter in parts per million. Just as we try to explain ourselves with words, we also define our humanity with our interactions with nature.

Balancing the two majors is not hard (obtaining advisors’ codes from both L&S and CNR is another story) when I remember to acknowledge a holistic perspective that connections are everywhere between English and Conservation & Resource Studies. I equally admire the flowing syntax of William Cronon’s works in environmental history and that of Tobias Wolff’s short stories. And I see how the portrayal of resource extraction in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is not much different than what continues today. In a narrow view, it would be easy to create a simplified dichotomy between nature and culture. But studying both has taught me otherwise: each becomes a lens through which I can examine the other and enrich my understanding. My hope is that others might also adjust their sights for another look.