Geography & Nature Writing: Voicing Place

Professor: Dr. Gary Cummisk
Institution: n/a
Course Number: Geography, English, Env. Studi

Geography & Nature Writing: Voicing Place
GEOG 507 (Cross-listed with English and Environmental Studies)
4 credit hours


This course is designed to explore how geographical concepts are incorporated into works of nature writing. In its interpretation of land and life, nature writing shares much in common with geography. Early geographers
Humboldt, Kropotkin, Reclus, and Marsh shared the view that geography centered on the integration of humans and nature. Several contemporary geographical traditions share this perspective. It is also a central theme in the field of environmental studies. Since nature writing is necessarily a cultural response to nature, it is most closely allied with the humanistic tradition in geography. In America, this tradition is generally practiced under the rubric of cultural geography.

We live in an era when nature writing is receiving renewed attention and
emphasis in academic circles. In this time of environmental crisis and increasing urbanization, nature writing offers a broad perspective on the world that is informed by sciences and humanities.  At its heart, a nature book is a work of science–precise observation and clear explication. In form, it is of course a work of art–the carefully worked-out selection and presentation of material, the planning toward a certain kind of effect. Nature writing brings into careful balance the relations between content and medium, the ways that experience of the natural world gets transported into literary work. –Betsy Hilbert (in Waage)  In addition, it also challenges many societal assumptions and often offers visions that pose alternatives to the dominant paradigm.

Environmental studies and English departments are taking an early lead in
establishing a discourse regarding nature writing, but the field of geography also has much to contribute. Understanding the explicit and implicit dimensions of geography’s contributions will be one of our tasks this semester.

Thoughts on the Course
There is far too much important literature out there, and far too little time during this semester, for this course to be comprehensive. Instead, it has been designed with several goals in mind:

* On the one hand, the course encourages you to engage directly in the process of nature writing. You will see how others in the class express their
relationship to nature and place, and its meaning for them. Understanding the
motivations and approaches of your classmates should help you in your interpretation of your own work, and in your interpretation of works by
published authors. (Keeping a journal, or a notebook of ideas, may prove

* We will read essays, and thoughts on the writing of essays, by geographers and nature writers. A good book in which to garner the views of nature writers is Writing Natural History by Edward Lueders. Essentially, this little volume is a collection of transcribed conversations between paired sets of nature writers, including Barry Lopez and Edward Wilson, and Robert Finch and Terry Tempest Williams.

* Several excellent essays are available on the history of nature writing. Understanding the context in which nature writing was created helps significantly in its interpretation. Some of the best sources for historical overview include Speaking for Nature, by Paul Brooks; the introduction to Great American Nature Writing, by Joseph Krutch; part one of Thomas Lyon’s This Incomparable Land; Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy; and Nature and the American by Hans Huth. We will use these texts, and others, to help interpret specific literature and writers in historical context.

* Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is an excellent text for this course, not merely because it is an acknowledged classic in the field of nature writing and ecology, but because, within its relatively narrow bindings, it contains a least three distinct approaches to the nature essay. The first part of the book celebrates the author’s long-term engagement in the life of a particular place, his Sand County farm in Wisconsin. Herein, we see a continuation of the traditions of Thoreau and Gilbert White. Other prominent practitioners of this approach include Wendell Berry, Dayton Hyde, and David Kline. The second part of Almanac explores other places, what could be termed the travel or sojourn essays. Much of early geography was concerned with exploration. Alexander von Humboldt’s travels are a case in point. Nature writers today continue this exploration theme. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams or his Crossing Open Ground are examples.

Leopold’s Almanac concludes with “The Upshot” (part 3), a series of philosophical essays exploring the relationships between society, ethics, and the environment. This is yet another thematic approach to nature writing. I believe that a close reading of Leopold provides excellent preparation for the knowledgeable interpretation of other texts. This is why several weeks will be devoted to A Sand County Almanac and related materials.

* Another parallel between the teaching of geography and nature writing is the use of the regional theme. Many regional studies in geography are designed to provide a comprehensive overview of a distinctive geographical area, including interpretation of climate, geomorphology, vegetation, economy, and culture. Even the best of these studies necessarily falls short of a truly comprehensive overview of a region. Likewise, a work of nature writing is necessarily limited, as it is filtered through the unique lens of its author. But writers do provide insights into the many ‘realities’ that comprise a region. Looking at a region through the eyes of several writers rounds our view, and makes us appreciate the textures and moods of landscape.

We will look at least two American regions through the eyes of nature writers. We will primarily draw from selections in the Norton Book of Nature Writing. For example, in the unit on the Southwest we will see the Native American perspective represented by Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, and Gary Nabhan. Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and Mary Austin will further enlarge our viewpoint on Southwest geography. All members of the class will read the Norton selections. Selected individuals will read longer works, such as Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain and Austin’s The Land of Little Rain, and orally report to the class. Over the course of the semester, everyone will contribute a report on an outside reading. In this way, the class will derive a broader picture of the literature.

* William Faulkner’s story, “The Bear,” provides an excellent opportunity to study how fiction incorporates geography as a stage for action, and as a symbolic entity that has the presence of even the strongest characters. Indeed, in Faulkner, the land is a central character. Geographer Charles Aiken’s essay “A Geographical Approach to William Faulkner’s ‘The Bear,'” will complement our reading of the original text. Aiken’s combination of ground-proofing and symbolic analysis widen the sphere of criticism regarding one of our greatest writers. Faulkner has much to say about the relationship between wilderness and culture. He also provides an interesting foray into the American South as a region.

* One of our deepest connections to nature is through agriculture. Every time we go shopping at Safeway we participate in this link. Without it, our current civilization would collapse. Yet this relationship has changed drastically since World War II, with mechanization, fossil fuels, and pesticides. In order to address these concerns we will read writings by nature writers down on the farm (or ranch), among them Wendell Berry, Gretel Ehrlich, and Sue Hubbell.

* Finally, we will examine nature writing as a radical voice for change. Writers such as John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey have challenged the political and industrial status quo. We will discuss their writings and others. Students will be given some leeway in selecting works to present that express a radical point of view.

Importance of Participation
In order for this seminar to function well, it is essential that students come prepared to participate fully in discussions. The normal assigned readings are
intentionally short so you can give them a close reading, and so that we will have time to discuss the content in detail. One page of notes will be due for each weekly reading assignment.

Primary Texts :
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford.
Brooks, Paul. Speaking for Nature. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Faulkner, William. Go Down Moses. New York: Vintage Books.
Finch, Robert and Elder, John, eds. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. New
York: Norton.
Lueders, Edward. Writing Natural History: Dialogues with Authors. Salt Lake
City: University of Utah Press.

Secondary Materials:
*Additional materials will be placed on reserve in the map library (see bibliography).

Week One
Introduction to course: I will introduce materials and lecture on the relationship between nature writing and geography, specifically on how nature writing can
contribute to geographical understanding, and how geography informs nature
writing. assignment one: read Sanders, introduction to A Paradise of Bombs and ch.7 “Telling the Holy” in Staying Put; and Tuan, introduction to Space and Place. assignment two: write a three or more page (double spaced) personal essay on a place, or an encounter with nature that made a lasting impression on you.

Week Two
1. Students will read their personal essays, and discuss them with the class.
2. We will discuss Sanders and Tuan regarding the meaning of place and the
sense of place.

Week Three
1. Continued reading, discussion, and constructive criticism of student essays.
2. Possible continuation of discussion regarding Sanders and Tuan.
Assignment: read Robert Finch’s introduction in A Sand County Almanac. Then
read pp. 3-92, “January” through “December” (all of Part One).

Week Four
In depth discussion of Leopold readings.
assignment: read part two (pp. 95-162) in the Almanac and read Brooks, chapter XII, “The Wilderness Ideal.”

Week Five
Video on Leopold’s life and work. Discussion of reading assignment and Leopold’s ideas on wilderness. assignment: read part three (pp. 165-226), “The Upshot” in the Almanac.

Week Six
Concluding discussion of Leopold, including discussion of the land ethic, and
the utilitarian view of nature.
assignment: we will be beginning a new unit on American regions as reflected
in literature. The first region we will look at will be the Southwest. This region lends itself to a geographical analysis due to its distinctive climate and the accommodations people have made to live there. Read Silko, Momaday, and Nabhan in The Norton Book. We will need two volunteers to report on longer works next week.

Week Seven
Discussion will begin with Silko’s “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo
Imagination.” Then we will move on to Momaday and Nabhan. The last half
hour will be devoted to reports. assignment: read Austin, Stegner, and Abbey in The Norton Book. We need two more volunteers for longer assignments.

Week Eight
Discussion of assigned readings and reports.
assignment: This next unit will deal with the symbolic portrayal of landscape and region. The first reading will be William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” in Go Down Moses. In addition to Faulkner we will read Aiken’s Geographical Review article, “A Geographical Approach to ‘The Bear.'”

Week Nine
Discussion will center on “The Bear” and Aiken’s ideas about how geography is
utilized in the text.
assignment: The next reading will bring us closer to home. We will read “Silver Bullets” in William Kittredge’s Owning it All. Here Kittredge discusses the West as myth, symbol, and reality. Donald Worster’s Under Western Skies can provide useful background information. We will also read David Rains Wallace in The Norton Book. Wallace also examines myth and symbol, as well as the idea of evolution and its meaning. Two volunteers to read longer works by these two authors.

Week Ten
Discussion of Kittredge and Wallace and reports.
assignment 1: Down on Farm. This new unit will look at culture and agriculture.
We will read selections for Rene Dubos’s Wooing of the Earth; David Kline’s Great Possessions; and selections of Berry, Erdlich, and Hubbell in The Norton Book. Two volunteers are needed to read longer works of Berry and Dubos.
assignment 2: Final assignments will be due in written form on the last day of class.  Choose a thematic approach (i.e. regional, philosophical position, travel
writing, radical, etc.) and examine the works of at least three authors. Examine how these writers utilize geography in there work. Final papers should be ten to fifteen double-spaced pages. Use maps when helpful. Base maps are available in the map library.

Oral reports should be approximately twenty minutes each and will be presented the last two sessions of class. A sign-up sheet is available.

Week Eleven
Discussion of assigned reading and reports.
assignment: Radical Nature Writing. We will read Abbey and Muir in The Norton
Book. We will also read selections from Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. We need two volunteers to read longer works by these authors.

Week Twelve
Video on life and work Of Rachel Carson. Discussion of assigned readings and
No new assignment, keep working on your final reports.

Week Thirteen
Final oral reports, half the class.

Week Fourteen
Final oral reports and all written reports due.


Abbey, Edward. Down the River. New York: A Plume Book, 1991.
—. Desert Solitaire. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

AP (associated press). ‘Wilderness writer finds thrill in poetry.” [interview with John Daniel] Tri-City Herald, Sunday, p. B8, October 22, 1989.

Aiken, Charles. “A Geographical Approach to William Faulkner’s ‘The Bear.'”
The Geographical Review, Vol. 71, no. 4, October, 1981.

Austin, Mary. The Land of Little Rain. New York: Anchor, 1961 [reprint of 1903 Houghton Mifflin edition].

Bly, Robert, ed. News of the Universe. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980.

Brooks, Paul. Speaking for Nature. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980.

Brown, Bruce. Mountain in the Clouds. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Bunkse, Edmonds V. “Humboldt and an Aesthetic Tradition in Geography. The
Geographical Review, Vol. 71, no. 2, April, 1981.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Conron, John, ed. The American Landscape. New York: Oxford University Press,1974.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Daniel, John. The Trail Home. New York: Pantheon, 1992.
Dubos, Rene. The Wooing of the Earth. New York: Scribners, 1980.

Faulkner, William. Go Down Moses. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Finch, Robert & Elder, John, eds. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. New
York: Norton, 1990.

Halpern, Daniel, ed. On Nature. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987.

Huth, Hans. Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Hyde, Dayton. Don Coyote. New York: Ballantine, 1986.

Jackson, J. B. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1984.
—. Landscapes. The University of Massachusetts Press, 1970.

Kates, Robert. “The Pursuit of in the Environment.” Landscape, vol. 16, no. 2,
Winter 1966-67.

Kittredge, William. Hole in the Sky. New York: Knopf, 1992.
—. Owning It All. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf, 1987.

Kline, David. Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer’s Journal. San Francisco:
North Point Press, 1990.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. Great American Nature Writing. New York: Sloane, 1950.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press,

Lopez, Barry. Crossing Open Ground. New York: Vintage, 1989.
—. Arctic Dreams. New York: Scribners, 1986.

Lueders, Edward, ed. Writing Natural History: Dialogues with Authors. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989.

Lyon, Thomas J., ed. This Incomparable Lande. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Mallory, William E. & Simpson-Housley Paul, eds. Geography and Literature.
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, i987.

Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1976.

Meeker, Joseph. The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology. New
York: Scribners, 1974.

Merrill, Christopher, ed. The Forgotten Language. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith,

Momaday, N. Scott. The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of
New Mexico Press, 1969.

Nabhan, Gary Paul. The Desert Smells Like Rain. San Francisco; North Point
Press, 1987.

Nelson, Richard. The Island Within. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Oelschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness. New Haven: Yale University Press,

Pocock, Douglas. C. D., ed. Humanistic Geography and Literature. New York:
Barnes & Noble, 1981.

Pocock, Douglas C. D. “Geography and Literature.” Progress in Human
Geography, vol. 12 (1), pp.87-102, 1988.

Pyle, Robert Michael. Wintergreen. New York: Scribners, 1986.

Sadler, Barry & Carlson, Allen, eds. Environmental Aesthetics: Essays in Interpretation. Victoria B.C.: Department of Geography, University of Victoria, 1982.

Salter, Christopher & Lloyd, William. Landscape in Literature. [Resource papers for College Geography No. 763] Washington D. C.: Association of American Geographers, 1977.

Sanders, Scott Russell. Staying Put. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
—. A Paradise of Bombs. Athens: University or Georgia Press, 1987.

Sauer, Peter. Finding Home. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Shortridge, James R. “The concept of the place-defining novel in American popular culture.” The Professional Geographer, 1991, v43, n3, August, p280 (12).

Slovic, Scott & Dixon, Terrell F. Being in the World. New York: MacMillan, 1993.

Stafford, Kim. Having Everything Right. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Stegner, Wallace. The Sound of Mountain Water. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980.

Tuan Yi-Fu. Space and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1977.

Waage, Frederick 0. Teaching Environmental Literature. New York; Modern
Language Association, 1985.

Wallace, David Rains. The Klamath Knot. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books,

Worster, Donald. Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
—. Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1985.