Power and Place

Professor: Nancy Langston
Institution: Institute for Environmental Studies
Course Number: n/a

When I was assigned to teach environmental literature (I’m an ecologist, environmental historian, and former medievalist who spent 6 years studying literature before moving into science), I decided not to teach the standard canon of environmental writing, and decided instead to teach novels, diaries, and essays that explore the ways we go about living in a place and transforming it. I made this decision for several reasons: most of my students were conservation biology majors getting a certificate in environmental studies, not literature majors. More importantly, I wanted the students to explore the different ways that cultures have transformed the land, and the many ways we’ve defined nature in the process of altering it. I also wanted them to consider what environmental literature might offer us in our attempt to define more sustainable paths.

A brief version of the syllabus follows.


This class is about the struggle to create just, decent relationships with a place and with the people in that place.  The readings for this course aren’t primarily descriptions of nature.  Instead, they are stories about power and place–about family, home, and community defined in the broadest senses, to include biotic as well as human connections. Each week, we will explore the ecological and historical context for these stories, before discussing them as literary works.

We start by reading several essays about the human place in the wild. We then turn to the literature of exploration and contact in the midwestern wilderness, paying particular attention to the various ways that different cultures saw wild nature and each other.  We next explore the myth of the West from both Indian and white perspectives.   We move to the literature of settlement, examining the myths and longings that different groups brought with them to the land. Finally, we read a set of novels and essays that are passionately concerned with a sense of place and the search for community.

The authors are split between men and women, whites and Indians, and westerners and midwesterners. This diversity of gender, region, and culture should help bring key themes into clearer focus: What is a sense of place?  What is a just relationship to home, to place, to community? How do we define the boundaries of our human and ecological communities? What is our responsibility to these communities?  Where do we go from here?


Week 1  Introduction: power and place and just relationships
Bill Kittredge, “The politics of storytelling” and
C. L. Rawlins, “The meadow at the corner of your eye”

Week 2   Visions of nature and culture:
Thoreau, Walden

Week 3  Exploration and contact-seeing the midwestern wilderness:
Radisson, Menard, Allouez, Dablon, Joutel,Silvy, Cadillac, Henry, Carver, Black Hawk

Week 4   Contact in the inland West–Indian perspectives:
James Welch, Fools Crow

Week 5   Contact in the inland West–White perspective:
A. B. Guthrie, Big Sky

Week 6  Two ways of seeing: comparing Big Sky and Fools Crow:
James Welch, “The Far North People”

Week 7  Great Plains settlement and myths of paradise:
Willa Cather, O Pioneers

Week 8   The consequences of settlement:
Jane Smiley, “So Shall We Reap”
Meridel Le Sueur, “Annunciation”

Week 9   Nostalgia and place: Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through it

Week 10  A sense of place in the arid West:
Kittredge, “Owning it All” and “Reimagining Warner”;
Gretel Erlich, “The Solace of Open Spaces”

Week 11  Place and myth: Marilyn Robinson, Housekeeping

Week 12   Animal stories:
Betty Husted, “Touching the Bear”
Gary Snyder, “The Woman Who Married a Bear”

Week 13  Ties to the past and land–the use of stories:
Louise Erdrich, Tracks

Week 14   Work and the land–old stories transformed:
Craig Lesley, Riversong

Week 15  Heart of the Land:
Terry Tempest Williams, “Clan of One Breasted Women”
Rick Bass, “On Willow Creek”
Barbara Kingsolver, “The Memory Place”

How did this work? I had mixed feelings, but the students were very enthusiastic.    They loved reading the novels (Fools Crow was a wild success), going on field trips (we went on 3), seeing slides and videos of the places they were reading about, and getting to integrate their ecology background into a literature class.  They also liked the fact that I ran this course as a discussion, rather than a lecture.  But the structure I chose meant that I didn’t really give them the tools they needed to do close readings of the texts.  Many of the discussions didn’t consider literary qualities in any detail.  I’m not sure if this is an unavoidable tradeoff.

Anyway, I’m curious about how other people teach their environmental literature classes.  I’m particularly curious about the ways you integrate environmental concerns with literary concerns. And finally, does it seem nuts to teach environmental literature while ignoring the biggies?  Thoreau was the least liked of all the readings, for some odd reason.  I thought the Jesuits would lose the popularity poll, but students were fascinated to read these strange, troubling documents about places they knew so well.

Nancy Langston
Institute for Environmental Studies
550 North Park St., Science Hall
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Madison,WI 53706
phone: (608) 263-2158
FAX: (608) 262-2273