Environmentalist Art: Literature

So far in this blog, we have explored some of the complications of making environmental/activist art, visited some activist art and artists at Occupy Wall Street and learned about the role of art in protest, and discovered some of the artist and environmentalist activists at Columbia University. We now begin a new series of delving into environmental art, a different medium each post: today we will explore the written word, environmental literature.

ASLE's quarterly journal, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, explores the relationships between human beings and the natural world across disciplines. They publish articles ranging from literary scholars to specialists in the visual and performing arts to economists, ecologists, and others.

Authors have depicted the landscape in their writing much as painters have painted the landscape. The Association of the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), the “country’s premier membership organization in the field of literature and environment” (according to their website), lists naturalist authors such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman who wrote deeply about the environment around and nature as a way of most fully experiencing what it means to be human side by side with environmentalist authors such as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold who wrote explicitly to warn America about environmental degradation.

The distinction between the environmental activist and naturalist traditions is not just a divide in eras, however; contemporary author Annie Dillard falls much more in the naturalist camp. In fact, she does not even identify with the environmentalist movement. Her personal website states that she is not “an ‘eco-’anything,” nor has she ever been, and she rejects the scientific approach to environmental questions, writing, “We have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?” Yet her work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) is a modern Walden, a collection of essays about Dillard’s experiences in nature. Chanel Dubofsky, an author in New York City, was inspired by Dillard’s approach. She said to me,“As a writer, it’s really important for me to be in touch with a sense of wonder, about everything, wherever you can find it. Eudora Welty said that Annie Dillard’s work put forth ‘a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled.’ I think if we allow it, wonder can save us from our own darkness.”

Other authors do not fit so neatly into one camp. John Caddy is “an aging poet whose spirit is more lively all the time” (Morning Earth). He lives in Minnesota where he teaches environmentalism and shares poetry through his website MorningEarth.org, a resource for earth education which focuses on the connection between arts and ecology. He shares poetry and other art on Morning Earth, including this poem:

October 3

Off the trail a yellow aspen leaf

spins on a spider silk

spins with the breeze

without sound

blinks light

winks bright


each round

Caddy does not see a clear distinction between is roles as naturalist, environmentalist, artist, and teacher. Poetry, to him, expresses his deep appreciation for the world just as learning the ecology does. He lives the principles he teaches and the principles which guide his art.

Morning Earth's Daily image from May 14, 2010. Photo credit: John Caddy

Poet, storyteller, singer and songwriter Kay Grindland has favorite trees that she likes to visit to see the nuances of weather and between the seasons. She has worked as an interpretive naturalist at state parks and nature centers in Minnesota as well as a teacher at Self Expressing Earth at Hamline University. Like Dillard, she works to cultivate a sense of wonder in herself and to inspire it in other people. She writes, “writing or singing is how I teach myself (or remember) how to be in love with the world.”


Everything sings.
Birds do, of course
Even trees

have their own songs.
Wolves make easy
running rhythms.

Water plays in
and back beat drop

No song is ever
Frogs collaborate
with fish

and pond
water. Insects hum

to the beat of bird
Sunrise in spring
is a symphony.

Imagine the
in a forest, in a
inside of you?

If you listen,
you will find one.

If you sing
it won’t be a solo.

These poets and writers, and others like them, do not see a clear distinction between their lives, their art, and their environmental/naturalist values. John Caddy writes, “Humanity [is] not above nature or in conflict with it, but [is] a literal part of Earth, with a body made of Earth. An eco-centric world view recognizes that to injure the natural world is, ultimately, to injure the self.” This attitude of complete connections between humanity and nature parallels the attitude that many of these authors seem to take with regard to their art and their naturalism.