Nature Writing: End of Nature?

Professor: Douglas Haynes
Institution: University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
Course Number: English 343/543

Office: Radford 204

Phone: 920-424-0914


Office hours: Tuesdays 11:20-12:20, Wednesdays 3:45-4:45, Thursdays 11:20-12:20 & by appointment

English Department website:


Required Texts:

Barry Lopez, editor. The Future of Nature: Writing on a Human Ecology from Orion

Magazine. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2007.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York:

Penguin, 2006.

Sandra Steingraber, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. New York:

Berkeley Books, 2001.


Course Description: As Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Natureargues, nature as both a reality and a concept has irreversibly changed in the last century, largely due to human influence. Human migration, growing human population, globalization, and climate change, among other factors, are shaping the physical world into something unfamiliar. This course will investigate contemporary nonfiction writers’ responses to changing ecologies and explore how the tradition of nature writing is evolving from its roots in natural history, as well. We will focus especially on unexpected kinds of nature in new nonfiction writing about the physical world—including the body, farms, political borders, and damaged landscapes—in order to construct our own positions on what constitutes nature today and address the question of whether nature as we know it is ending.

In addition to discussing the theoretical issues underlying contemporary writing about nature, we’ll approach reading the genre from a writer’s perspective. This means that we’ll pay close attention not just to what authors say, but to how they say it.

Throughout class discussions, we’ll analyze and imitate how contemporary nature writers use images, sound, scene, dialogue, and characterization, among other literary devices, to craft evocative descriptions and engaging narratives. We’ll also note how nature writers utilize the tool of exposition to reflect on and inform their stories, and we’ll identify and practice research strategies that we can apply outside of the classroom to generate perspectives and information. In sum, beyond understanding where nature writing has been and is going, we’ll discover and appropriate writing strategies that help us produce original literary journalism and personal essays about the ever-changing intersection of human culture and the natural world.


  • A portfolio of two original personal essays or pieces of literary journalism that show personal engagement with a local kind of nature or issue related to the intersection of nature and culture. Each piece should include a narrative and research that immerses you in your subject (including, but not limited to, field trips, interviews, volunteer work).  Your first draft of each piece will be due in class on a date you sign-up for in advance and will be discussed in a student workshop the following week. Your final draft of each essay should be between 2000-2500 words and will be due in your portfolio in class on May 13th, along with all of your previous drafts. Each piece will be evaluated on its evidence of revision, its use of specific details, its command of narrative and integration of research, and the clarity and inventiveness of its prose. Each piece in your portfolio will account for 25% of your final course grade.
  • A bound writer’s notebook that includes two typed query letters, in-class writing exercises, research and  reporting notes, quotes, and interview notes relevant to your final portfolio. Your writer’s notebook will be collected with your portfolio at the end of the semester and will account for 10% of your final course grade.
  • In-class reading responses: Occasionally, at the beginning of a class period, I will ask you to write a response to the reading due to be discussed that day. Each response will be structured by a question or theme for writing that I provide, and you will have a limited amount of time to write your response, without referring to the texts. Your reading responses will be evaluated based on their accuracy and specificity with a check (equivalent to a B), check-plus (equivalent to an A), or check-minus (equivalent to a C-) and will account for 10% of your final grade.
  • Class participation that includes the following contributions:

1)      On-time, complete submissions of drafts for workshop (5% of final course grade).

2)      On-time, detailed response letters for every draft submitted to your workshop group (10% of your final course grade).

3)      Immersion in research related to your portfolio subjects, as illustrated in bi-weekly D2L discussion postings that detail your research activities and occasionally respond to specific prompts(5% of your final course grade).

4)      Consistent and prepared vocal contributions to class discussions and individual conferences (10% of your final course grade).


Conferences: During the two weeks before Spring Break, you will meet with me individually to discuss your essays in progress. You should sign-up for your conference time in class the week before and bring your essay drafts to your conference. Conferences are a required part of your class participation grade. I encourage you to meet with me other times, as well, and I am available to do individual conferences during my office hours or at other times by appointment.


Workshop Guidelines: Each student will submit two drafts for workshop over the course of the semester, each a week ahead of the class when the draft is to be discussed. Each draft you submit should be typed, double-spaced, and titled. You will be required to hand-in one printed copy to me, but copies for workshop may be emailed.  Each student will prepare to workshop each piece submitted to her/his group by writing a one page (double-spaced) letter about it discussing its intentions and how it does and/or doesn’t achieve these intentions. In these letters and in workshop, we will avoid evaluative language such as ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘like’ and ‘dislike.’ Instead, we will use the vocabulary we acquire in our readings and discussions to articulate our sense of how an essay is working or not working to achieve its implicit or stated aims. Specific and constructive criticism is always best, as well as praise, at helping each other improve our writing. During workshop itself, writers will be asked to remain silent until their work is finished being discussed, at which point they may ask questions of the group.


Late Work and Attendance: In an upper-level elective course, we expect each other to be self-motivated and committed to a smooth class. If you are unable to come to class on a date when you have work due, please contact me ahead of time to arrange an extension or simply deliver a paper copy of your work early to my mailbox in the English Department office. Class members who miss class on the due date and do not notify me ahead of time or hand-in their work early will not be able to turn-it-in late for credit. Since the class only meets once a week, attendance is crucial. Missing more than one class will negatively affect your final grade, and missing more than four classes will automatically give you a failing grade.


Graduate Students: In addition to completing the coursework outlined above, graduate students enrolled in English 543 will be expected to lead a class discussion, write a more detailed and developed essay than undergraduates, and meet with the instructor for two additional workshop sessions to discuss work in progress. The details of these additional requirements are as follows:

  • All graduate students should complete one, extended original essay or piece of literary journalism totaling 6,000-7,000 words.
  • To help lead the class, each graduate student will be in charge of class discussion of one of the course’s book-length readings, either The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Having Faith.  To do this, each grad student will be responsible for researching and presenting biographical and critical background on the reading (e.g. summaries and excerpts of commentary and reviews), making observations about the writer’s literary techniques, and asking prepared questions. This information should be typed and distributed to each class member as a one-to-two page (single-spaced) brief and discussion guide.
  • All graduate students will participate in two additional workshop sessions outside of class to discuss their works in progress. The times and places of these sessions will be arranged in consultation with me.


Grading procedures for graduate students will be the same as undergraduate grading, with the following exceptions:

  • The one, extended creative work that each graduate student writes will account for 50% of the student’s final course grade.
  • Leading discussion and the extra workshop meetings will account for 10% of each graduate student’s final course grade. (In-lieu of bi-weekly D2L discussion postings and 5% of the “contributions to class discussions” grade.)


Syllabus: This list of assignments is subject to change. Please confirm all assignments in class or on D2L. All assignments should be completed by the date they are listed.

2.4: Introduction to the course.

2.11: TRADITION & ITS DISCONTENTS: Finch & Elder, “Introduction” toThe Norton Book of Nature Writing; White, From The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne; Thoreau, From The Maine Woods; Gessner, “Sick of Nature”; Hay, “The Nature Writer’s Dilemma” (on e-reserve); & Lopez, “Introduction” to The Future of Nature (FON).

Query letter (topic proposal) due.

2.18: END OF NATURE?: McKibben, “The End of Nature”; Sims, “The Art of Literary Journalism”; Kramer, “Breakable Rules for Literary Journalists” (on e-reserve).

2.25: CHANGING CLIMATE: Kolbert, excerpt from Field Notes on a Catastrophe (on e-reserve); & Wohlforth, “On Thin Ice” (107-116 inFON).  

3.4: Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (OD)Part I (Industrial), 1-119. Model workshop with one of my pieces (read beforehand).

3.11: Pollan, OD Part II (Pastoral), 123-273. Workshop.

3.18: Pollan, OD Part III (Personal), 277-411. Workshop.


Spring Break

4.1: Steingraber, Having Faith (HF) Part I, Preface-200. Workshop. Query letter due.

4.8: Steingraber, HF Part II, 203-287.

4.15: BODIES: McKibben, “Designer Genes”;  Sobel, “Beyond Ecophobia” (in FON); Perillo, “Sick Fuck” (on e-reserve). Workshop.

4.22: BOUNDARIES: Solnit, “Introduction” & “Thirty-Nine Steps Across the Border and Back” (on e-reserve); Strand, “Faux Falls”; Cronon, “The Riddle of the Apostle Islands” (in FON). Dr. Jim Feldman visits class to discuss his environmental history of the Apostle Islands.

4.29: REFUGEES & RUINS: Dowie, “Conservation Refugees”; Burwell, “Jeremiad for Belarus”; Reece, “Moving Mountains”; Nies, “The Black Mesa Syndrome”; Fox, “Radioactive Roadtrip” (in FON). Workshop.

5.6: ACTIONS: Kaplan, “Consent of the Governed”; Jensen, “Beyond Hope”; Loren, “Got Tape?” (in FON). Workshop.

5.13: Final portfolio & writer’s notebook due in class. Class reading.