Nature Writing

Professor: John E. Becker
Institution: Farleigh Dickinson University
Course Number: n/a


Crevecoeur. Letters from an American Farmer, 1782; Sketches of Eighteenth
Century America: More Letters from an American Farmer
. Ed. Albert E. Stone. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Henry DavidThoreau. The Natural History Essays.

Sarah Orne Jewett. Country of the Pointed Firs.

Willa Cather. Death Comes for the Archbishop.

William Faulkner. Go Down, Moses.

Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac.

Loren Eiseley. The Immense Journey.

Rachel Carson. Silent Spring.

Wendell Berry. Home Economics.

Lewis Thomas. The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher.


Attendance and Class Participation: This is very important both for your
grade and for the success of the course. After every class I give a grade for
class participation: X=absent; D=Present but without book; answers show that
the reading hasn’t been done; C=present with book and basically attentive;
B=able to answer questions; A=able to give answers that show insight and
appreciation. Five unexcused absences (all you have to do is speak to me, I
don’t need documents), means your grade will be dropped a full letter. Ten
unexcused absences gives you an automatic D for the course.

Papers: 40% of your grade: Weekly short papers (2 typewritten, double-spaced

Tests: 35% of your grade: There will be two tests before the final: an early brief
test, and a mid-term. The final examination will be essay-questions.

 The belief that thinking beings are part of a vast physical order can awaken a kind of awe, wonder, even natural piety. The reflection which moves us is that thought, feeling, moral aspirations, all the intellectual and spiritual heights of human achievement, emerge out of the depths of a vast physical universe which is itself, over most of its measureless extent, lifeless, utterly insensitive to our purposes, pursuing its path by inexorable necessity. The awe is awakened partly by the tremendous power of this world which overshadows us –we sense our utter fragility as thinking reeds, in Pascal’s phrase; but we also feel it before the extraordinary fact that out of this vast blind silence, thought, vision, speech can evolve. (Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989, p. 347)

No other nation equaled the American people in their paradoxical ability to devastate the natural world and at the same time mourn its passing. (Arthur A.
Ekirch, Jr. Man and Nature in America, New York: Columbia UP, 1963, p. 189)

Human beings simply cannot go on as they are now going, exhausting the earth’s resources, altering the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, depleting the numbers and varieties of other species upon whose survival we, in the end, depend. It is not simply wrong, it is a piece of stupidity on the grandest scale for us to assume that we can simply take over the earth as though it were part farm, part park, part zoo, and domesticate it, and still survive as a species. Up until quite recently we firmly believed that we could do just this, and we regarded the prospect as man’s natural destiny. (Lewis Thomas, The Fragile Species, New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1992: 122.)

1. S8: Introduction. The Peaceable Kingdom.
Assignment: Read Genesis and Job (handouts)
2. S10: Genesis
3. S13: Job
Assignment: Read “The Puritans” (handouts)
4. S15: The Puritans
5. S17: The Puritans
Assignment: Read Crevecoeur Letters from an American Farmer
6. S20: Letters from an American Farmer.
7. S22: Letters
8. S24: Letters
9. S27: Letters (Brief Test)
Assignment: Read Thoreau, Natural History Essays
10. S29: Thoreau
11. O1: Thoreau
12. O4: Thoreau
Assignment: Read Sarah Orne Jewett, Country of the Pointed Firs
13. Jewett
14. Jewett
15. Jewett
Assignment: Read Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
16. O6: Cather
17. O8: Cather
18. Oll: Cather
Assignment: Read William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses
19. O13: Faulkner
20. O15: Faulkner
21. O18: Faulkner
22. O20: Faulkner
23. O22: Faulkner
Assignment: Read Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
25. O27: Leopold
26. O29: Leopold
27. Nl: Leopold
Assignment: Read Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey
28. N3: Eiseley
29. N5: Eiseley
30. N8: Eiseley
31. N10: Eiseley
Assignment: Read Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
32. N12: Carson
33. N15: Carson
34. N17: Carson
Assignment: Read Wendell Berry, Home Economics
35. N29: Berry
36. Dl: Berry
37. D3: Berry
38. D5: Berry
Assignment: Read Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell
39. DB: Thomas
40. D10: Thomas
41. D13: Thomas
42. D15: REVIEW

This course is a literature course with a theme. The texts are literary texts.  But the literature of nature writers has been characterized from the beginning by its
scientific content. Early on that science was the work of amateurs. Today the best nature writing has solid grounding in both evolutionary and ecological theory, and many of the writers are themselves scientists. Moreover, a science-grounded appreciation of nature is something all citizens are going to have to acquire simply for survival. And this involves consideration of such philosophical issues as mankind’s place in nature, as well as the ethical responsibilities of humanity in the preservation of the environment. Relevant disciplines: literature, theology, Biblical studies, philosophy, ethics, biology, geology, astronomy, paleontology.

The course offers an extended examination of attitudes toward the American land, The first thing to remember is that the land, our land and landscape, is the product of imperial conquest. There was a nature before man. There was another nature created by the native inhabitants. There was yet another nature imposed by the European conquest, rooted first in the land-conquering ethic of Genesis and later in Rousseauistic dreams of a primitive paradise.

The Puritans added to their Biblical understanding of the wilderness–in terms
of both Genesis and Exodus–the further dimension of demonization.  The Pioneers were gripped by a “civilizing” enthusiasm which saw the land as
an inexhaustible resource.

Enlightenment thinkers rediscovered God in the sublime and picturesque
phenomena of nature, and immediately nationalists flaunted it as the American
counterpart to Europe’s historical monuments.

Romantic literary types exclaimed sentimentally over nature’s sublimity and
picturesqueness, but the Transcendentalists insisted that we had to come to nature with educated eyes and rediscover ourselves by studying it.

Meanwhile the problem of exploitation gave rise to the argument between
preservation of wilderness and conservation for wise use.

Eventually science began to make its mark, in such recent or contemporary writers as Aldo Leopold, Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard.