L240 24758 LITERATURE AND PUBLIC LIFE
Scott Sanders

1:00p-2:15p TR (30 students) 3 cr., A&H, IW.

TOPIC: “The Fate of the Earth: Writing About the Natural World”

We’re made of the Earth, muscle and bone. What else could we be made of? We drink its water, breathe its air, eat Earth’s produce at every meal. Likewise, our sensory apparatus, our language, and our imagination have been tuned by this planet’s creatures and patterns. Everything we use, from aluminum for soda cans to zinc for computers, derives from Earth. If we exhaust this bounty, we impoverish ourselves and our descendants. Everything we cast off, from tailpipe fumes to out-of-fashion shoes, returns to the planet. If we poison the Earth, we poison ourselves and our descendants. The quality of human life is wholly dependent on the health of natural systems, all of which are millions if not billions of years older than our species, and most of which we’ve scarcely begun to understand. The fate of the Earth is our fate.

In this course we will read, discuss, and write about literature that seeks to understand this intimate bond between people and planet. Most of this literature will be by American writers, and mostly from recent decades. Such writing raises a host of questions: How is Earth suffering from the impact of human activities? What can we do about it? Should we care about the survival of other species? Should we care about the welfare of future generations? Are humans just clever animals, or are we somehow special? If everything is made from “nature,” can anything be “unnatural”? Does a concern for “nature” imply indifference to social problems, such as racism, sexism, poverty, and war? How do we speak or write about a reality that transcends language? How can we understand our lives as woven into the story of the universe?

Our readings for the course will include a selection from the following:

Lorraine Anderson, ed., Sisters of the Earth: Women’s Prose & Poetry About Nature (Vintage)
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (Counterpoint)
Alison Deming and Lauret Savoy, eds., The Colors of Nature (Milkweed)
Robert Finch and John Elder, eds., Norton Book of Nature Writing (Norton)
Mark Hertsgaard, Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future (Broadway)
Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer (Perennial)
Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put (Beacon)
Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge (Random House)

This is a discussion class, a semester-long conversation in which insights and ideas carry over from session to session. For this reason it is crucial that everyone be there consistently, and that everyone enter into the dialogue. You will be asked to keep a journal for the course, making at least two entries per week, either about the readings or about your own observations, reflections, and memories having to do with nature. You will also be asked to write three short essays (3-5 pp.) and one longer final essay (7-10 pp.) deriving from ideas and materials explored in your journals. No exams. Roughly three-quarters of the grade will depend on the journal, essays, and final project, one-quarter on the quality of your participation in class.