Xerophobia: Deserts as Anthropocene Sacrifice Zones

The Case of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future

In 2020 Kim Stanley Robinson published the latest in a series of novels that address climate change and other emerging aspects of the Anthropocene, a 563-page tome titled Ministry for the Future. The novel opens with a searing description of an imagined heat wave in Uttar Pradesh, India that kills 20 million people when the wet bulb temperature exceeds 35 deg. C (95 deg. F. and 100% humidity) and excess demand for air conditioning causes the power grid to fail. Given current trends this is an entirely plausible scenario. This episode is a staggering piece of writing. Monica Byrne wrote on Twitter that “I feel like my circles have divided between those who’ve read the opening chapter of The Ministry for the Future and those who haven’t.” I understand what she means. You think about climate change differently after you’ve read it. After reading it, you’re a different person.

Robinson’s novel is set in the near future. The Paris Climate accords have failed to produce the necessary outcome in reducing carbon emissions (not exactly a fantasy scenario), and so the United Nations establishes a Ministry for the Future, a bureaucracy with the mandate “to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own.” Beyond concern for humans alone, the ministry is further charged with “defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection” (16).1 Dense with policy prescriptions and bureaucratic wrangling (it’s about a UN ministry, after all) the novel certainly appeals to policy wonks. Ezra Klein called it the most important book of the year. It was chosen as one of his favorite books of 2020 by no less a policy geek than Barack Obama.

In some ways it is an ideal Anthropocene novel, doing many of the things I have looked for, but usually found lacking, while teaching the genre over several years. It describes our current situation well, and it prescribes plausible–if certainly debatable–scenarios for mitigating the worst of the Anthropocene. Numerous chapters dramatize the plight of climate refugees, contributing to an important subplot. Cautiously hopeful in tone, it is neither utopian nor dystopian. It offers, instead, the realism of muddling through. It addresses causes and possible solutions rather than simply transporting us into a post-apocalyptic landscape where primitive frontier fantasies prevail–an all-too common scenario in climate change novels, alas. Its scale is global, taking us from India to Switzerland to California to Antarctica to Africa.

Unlike the bourgeoise novels criticized by Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement–Holocene novels, let’s call them–works obsessed with the personal concerns and interior lives of a few characters while oblivious to the threats the planet faces (a sort of sophisticated solipsistic climate denialism that pervades most contemporary literature), Ministry makes confronting climate change its principal concern. Eschewing the plot staples of the Holocene novel, in Ministry action sequences are limited, potential romance scenarios muted, inner lives are considered but not dwelled upon; there are more important topics to address.

Though focused mainly on a few characters, the novel includes multiple narrative lines and points of view. It has variously been described as polyvocal, heteroglossic, or polyperspectival. Influenced by John dos Passo’s experimental style in his U.S.A. trilogy, as one reviewer notes the book combines “traditional narrative with other prose forms like the encyclopedia article, the think piece, the news report, meeting minutes, the Socratic college seminar, the prose poem, the riddle game, and more.” It embraces what is often considered an unforgivable offense in the bourgeoise Holocene novel: didacticism. Reading Ministry, we actually learn something. Sometimes we are literally lectured to. Some chapters are narrated by objects (or hyperobjects, if you prefer) such as carbon atoms, photons, or blockchain technology.

The Ministry for the Future is headed by an Irish woman named Mary Murphy (modeled loosely on Ireland’s one time president, Mary Robinson). Under her leadership, and with the prodding of a man who survived the massive heat death in India, the ministry enacts a wide range of steps. Most central is the development of a digital currency called the carbon coin, which is to be paid to nations and corporations for carbon abatement and sequestration. For example, Arabia (no longer called Saudi Arabia after the imagined overthrow of the monarchy) is paid handsomely in carbon coins for agreeing to cease pumping oil. Convincing the world’s major central bankers to adopt the new anti-carbon currency is one of the main plotlines of the novel. I have no idea whether such a carbon coin is plausible, or would be effective, but some economists believe it might be, and the book has spurred renewed interest in the concept. (A major flaw in Robinson’s portrayal of the digital coin is his failure to address the massive energy usage of cryptocurrency.) But Robinson realizes that no single approach will solve the problem of climate change, and the novel adopts an all-hands-on deck approach. Many other strategies and tactics are adopted, including carbon taxes, rewilding projects, and a new socially responsible internet; the book even contemplates a new Earth-based religion. While working within the framework of current neo-liberal economics (for which it’s been criticized), the book also offer up alternative cooperative economies such as the Mondragon system in the Basque region of Spain.

And the book also envisions environmental terrorism. An eco-terrorist group that forms in India following the heat death disaster, calling themselves The Children of Kali, engages in a range of terroristic activities, such as assassinating oil industry executives, sabotaging industrial facilities, blowing up airplanes to frighten people away from air travel, sinking cargo ships to dissuade global trade, even infecting cattle with mad cow disease to discourage meat eating. The book is decidedly neutral on these activities, and includes several discussions along the lines of: if these oil industry executives are engaging in activities that kill hundreds of thousands of people and are destroying the planet, why is it immoral to kill them? A reasonable, if uncomfortable, question.

The book also describes a number of geoengineering schemes, including the injection of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, dyeing the Arctic Ocean yellow to reduce heat absorption, and a major subplot of the novel involves a complicated scheme to slow the movement of melting glaciers by pumping water from underneath them and pouring it into the Antarctic interior.

In spite of whatever flaws one might find in it, it’s hard not to admire the novel for its ambition, its willingness to take bold risks. All in all it is the sort of rich, sophisticated, capacious, experimental, erudite, yet passionate and engaged novel one might hope for in trying to grapple with the realities of the Anthropocene.

And so I was all the more disappointed to see Ministry perpetuate a misguided and outdated xerophobia, a notion that deserts might reasonably be sacrificed in the interests of climate mitigation.


We might define xerophobia as an irrational fear of and contempt for arid places. It manifests in portrayals of deserts as fearsome, god-forsaken, empty wastelands. This xerophobic imaginary entered European consciousness with Christianity, and later, from the Orientalist inflections of colonialism. In spite of the efforts of bioregional scholars, Indigenous people, arid zone ecologists, and many other desert dwellers, artists, writers, and activists, the notion that deserts are wastelands rather than lively, thriving, vital ecosystems that support a wide array of flora, fauna, and human communities, remains pervasive in much scholarship, literature, and global development discourse. In contrast to the xerophilia of Indigenous desert dwellers, for whom a desert is a beloved and comfortable home, a dwelling place filled with food sources, migration routes, stories, ancestors, cultural meanings and memories, and which functions as a community of worthwhile companionate plants and animals, xerophobia sees deserts as empty, trackless wastelands inimical to life. In the lingering colonial legacy of the xerophobic imaginary, deserts should either be transformed into something else–preferably something greener and wetter–or else they can be considered expendable and useful only as sacrifice zones.

But I would offer that any environmentally responsible discourse pertaining to deserts should begin with the understanding that deserts are healthy, biotically and culturally diverse ecosystems, perfectly fine just as they are, as worthwhile and as worthy of protection as any of the other biomes on the planet. And any ecocriticism or environmental literature that implies that some of the healthiest and most biodiverse ecosystems on planet Earth are nothing but abject wastelands to be feared and, when possible, transformed, should be viewed with suspicion. Unfortunately, this is the vision manifest in Ministry for the Future. The UN Ministry’s mandate to protect “all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection” seems limited by the novel’s xerophobic imaginary. Its otherwise radical ethics of care for planet Earth does not, it would seem, extend to the planet’s arid zones, which constitute roughly 30% of the Earth’s land mass, are home to approximately one billion people, and contain some of the planet’s richest biodiversity.

I first suspected this xerophobic dimension of the novel when Mary Murphy makes a visit to San Francisco to meet with the head of the US Federal Reserve and other central bankers to pitch her idea for the carbon coin. Throughout the novel California is held up as a progressive model for how to address climate change, and so Mary takes the opportunity to investigate some of the state’s ongoing climate-mitigation projects. In a conversation with the state water board she is provided with background information to contextualize the situation. In spite of California’s extensive water management efforts, they tell her, climate change was introducing increasing unpredictability into the system, with the weather swinging between exceedingly dry years and exceedingly wet ones. “The upshot,” she is told “would be more forest fires, then more flash floods, and always the threat of the entire state going as dry as the Mojave desert” (184).

On the one hand this is a perfectly plausible discussion, providing useful information on California’s hydrologic situation and increasingly unpredictable climate. But then one reaches that final sentence, and it jumps out that the Mojave Desert is being presented as just the sort of landscape we should hope to avoid, a dire potential destiny. While it’s fair for the water board members to be concerned with increasing aridity in the formerly more mesic regions of California, nevertheless the denigration of the Mojave Desert signals that the novel is inflected by a disturbingly xerophobic imaginary, one in which deserts would serve as the abject places of the planet, as examples of that which we should not become.

It’s admittedly a minor moment, easy enough to dismiss, and I thought perhaps I was being too sensitive. And by itself this scene would not be worth discussing. But several later sections of the novel confirmed that my anxiety about the passage was justified: One section is a discussion of geoengineering ideas that put arid endorheic valleys at risk, one is a related section that involves a scenic tour of planet Earth that takes us over a greatly altered Saharan landscape, and another is a litany of environmental organizations and their efforts to stem climate change, some by “greening” deserts or erecting great green walls of trees to stem their alleged advance. In each case the desert is stereotypically rendered as a wasteland, as a sacrifice zone, as a looming threat, as a place we should be perfectly willing to alter or destroy in order to save ourselves from climate change.

Flooding Endorheic Basins

One of the subplots of the novel involves a team of glaciologists in Antarctica seeking to reduce sea level rise by slowing the increasingly rapid slippage of glaciers into the ocean. Their specific project involves pumping water from beneath the sliding glaciers, hoping to slow glacial movement by increasing friction against the rocky surface beneath them; but, being engineers, in their spare time they also speculatively discuss other massive water pumping terraforming ideas. One of these involves a scheme to pump water from the rising oceans and pipe it into the endorheic basins of the planet, nearly all of which are located in arid regions. Their collective voice, narrated with the hubristic authority of geoengineers, explains:

The endorheic basins of the world, meaning basins where water does not drain to the sea, were many in number. And many of them in the northern hemisphere were dry playas, where water had existed at the end of the last ice age but dried out since, partially or all the way. The Caspian Sea had been helped to dry down to its current level by people, the Aral Sea even more so. The Tarim Basin was completely dry all on its own, Utah’s Great Salt Lake was the remnant of a much bigger lake from the past–on and on it went, mostly in Asia and North America, and the Sahara. Of course there were people living in some of these places, but not many of them, given the problems of desertification, or disasterated shorelines in the case of the Caspian and Aral. If you added up their volume of empty available space, it was considerable. A lot of seawater could be relocated there, in theory. We ran the numbers; well, it would do for a meter or two of sea level rise. But then all those basins would be full . . . (260)

Based on their number crunching, at this time the engineers reject the idea of flooding these desert basins. The volume of sea water that could be sequestered in them, though sizable, was not sufficient to substantially reduce the amount of sea level rise anticipated if the glaciers continued to slip into the sea. So, for now, they redouble their efforts in Antarctica. However it is noticeable that they express no concern for any environmental damage that such a flooding of arid lands might cause. Indeed the implication is that since during the Ice Ages many of these basins were filled with water, and other basins, such as the Aral and Caspian Seas, had only recently been depleted due to human actions, such a project was restoring an earlier and ecologically healthier and preferable condition.

Endorheic basins and major watershed divides

Fair enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. It’s worth noting, for example, that the Aral Sea is a massive freshwater lake. Despite the name, it is not really a “sea.” Hence pumping ocean water into it would not restore a lost ecology but would instead destroy whatever freshwater ecology remained. Similarly, the Caspian Sea is more accurately a massive saline lake, with a salinity roughly 1/3 that of the planet’s oceans. Filling it with sea water would likewise ruin rather than restore its remaining ecosystem. If one were truly concerned about the preservation of both the Aral and the Caspian seas it would be better to advocate for an end to irrigated agriculture (mostly for cotton) in their watersheds rather than for their inundation with sea water.

Aral Sea 1989 and 2014.

To Robinson’s geoengineers, the lingering aquatic ecology, and the surrounding arid lands within these endorheic basins, as well as the “not many” people who reside there, are treated as expendable. This attitude is not much different from the typical xerophobic thinking that considers deserts primarily suitable as places where one can blow up nuclear bombs or store toxic waste. In this case, they are seen as places to store excess sea water.

Colonial Origins of Desert Flooding Schemes

The idea that it is fine to destroy desert ecosystems if doing so serves some alleged greater good hardly represents the sort of innovative, environmentally aware thinking we need in order to confront climate change. Rather, it represents the desert wasteland imaginary linked to hubristic terraforming schemes that derive from colonial ideology. Everywhere that European colonialism encountered deserts–India, North Africa, Southern Africa, the US Southwest, Australia, northern Mexico–such deserts were perceived as impediments. The drier the desert the greater the impediment. Deserts, that is, resist colonialism. How perverse. If only they would be more like France or England, how much simpler colonization would be. And colonizers, therefore, have expended great effort to transform them into something resembling France or England.

Versions of Robinson’s geoengineering scheme to flood the endorheic valleys have persisted in the xerophobic colonial imaginary for at least 150 years. In 1874 the French military official François Élie Roudaire published an article titled “An Inland Sea in Algeria.” He proposed constructing a canal from Tunisia’s Gulf of Gabes to the Chott Melrhir in Algeria.

Chott el Djerid and Chott Mehlrir regions of Tunisia and Algeria, inland from the Gulf of Gabes.

“When we see the dismal and desolate regions of Chott Melhrir,” he wrote, “we think of the profound changes they would experience due to the presence of the sea, which would moderate the climate, regularizing the rains and thus developing the natural fertility of the soil” (qtd. 327). The completion of the Suez Canal only a few years earlier, in 1869, suggested the technology for such a feat existed. Despite his enthusiasm, however, Roudaire could not persuade the French government that the project was worth the considerable expense and effort.

Le chott Melrhir au Sud de Still, the abject of the colonial imaginary.

A few years later, in 1877, Donald Mackenzie, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, proposed a similar scheme. He outlined the proposal in a book titled The Flooding of the Sahara, with the imposing colonialist subtitle, An Account of the Proposed Plan for Opening Central Africa to Commerce and Civilization from the North-west Coast, with a Description of Soudan and Western Sahara, and Notes of Ancient Manuscripts, &c.

Mackenzie proposed to flood the basins of the Sahara via channels directing Atlantic ocean waters from Morocco’s Cape Juby region into the El Djouf basin on the present border of Mauritania and Mali. Like Roudaire’s proposal, Mackenzie’s plan was never put into effect. However Jules Verne envisioned a similar scenario in his final novel, Invasion of the Sea, published in 1905. In that novel, the engineering project fails, but, ironically, a massive earthquake opens a channel that accomplishes the same end.

One might conclude that in order to ward off a serious global crisis of sea level rise, the sacrifice of desert basins would be a perhaps lamentable but necessary solution. Such a notion, however, ignores the valuable role endorheic basins might play as carbon sinks. A recent study done in the Tarim Basin of northwest China concluded that “extensive sequestration of dissolved inorganic carbon can occur in the terminal lakes of endorheic basins.” The researchers concluded that “endorheic basins represent an important carbon sink on the global scale, with a magnitude similar to deep ocean carbon burial” (Yu Li, et al.). The subject is complex, with multiple variables, many as yet unknown. Serious research on the role of endorheic basins in sequestering carbon has only recently begun. But it’s quite possible that pumping rising seawaters into desert basins may prove to be counterproductive, reducing their ability to sequester carbon and so contributing to the very sea level rise their sacrifice is intended to mitigate.

Scenic Tour of Planet Earth

Robinson returns to this theme of flooding the desert toward the conclusion of Ministry for the Future. Our main character, Mary Murphy, has been introduced to Art Nolan, a dirigible pilot (a muted romance subplot). She is told that “he flies an airship all over the world, following wildlife corridors and wilderness areas, basically looking for animals. He takes people along with him” (464).2 A few chapters later, just before Mary retires from her leadership of the ministry, she makes a journey to San Francisco for one final meeting with the world’s central bankers. There she reconnects with Art, who invites her on a world-circling trip on his airship, the Clipper of the Clouds, (named after a Jules Verne novel) as a pleasant, scenic, and carbon neutral way for her to return to Europe.

This is a clever means for Robinson to provide readers with a sense of global scale. And it functions as a suitable conclusion to the novel, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the state of the planet. First, Mary and Art fly north, to the Arctic Ocean, watching wildlife along newly created corridors such as the Yellowstone to Yukon, and examining climate change effects and mitigation efforts along the Arctic Ocean. They then drift south over Greenland, cross Europe, then cruise over the Mediterranean to North Africa, where, alas, the xerophobic issues arise again as we see the effects of desert flooding projects we are expected to celebrate.

Across the Atlas Mountains, east over the Sahel. Here there were new salt lakes and marshes being created by water pumped up from the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. Salt seas in dry basins, an interesting experiment. They definitely changed things. Here in the Sahel, the dust storms that used to fly off these desert basins over the Atlantic were much diminished, . . . . For now, the desert below them was dotted by long lakes. Green, brown, sky blue, cobalt. Cat’s paws. Little towns hugged their shores, or stood on outcrops nearby. Irrigated fields formed circles on the land, circles of green and yellow like quilting art. Local culture was said to be thriving, Art said. Polls indicated most residents loved their new lakes, especially younger people. Without them we would have left, they said. The land was dying, the world had killed it. Now it would live. (527-28)

Here we see xerophobic colonial hydrological schemes repackaged as environmental improvements which the local people (according to polls at least) all love. For nobody, surely, could love a desert. Jean-Yves Puyo has proposed that colonial visions of an inland sea, though discarded in the 19th century, nevertheless continue to “‘haunt’ the long-term world of global planning.” Robinson’s Ministry for the Future seems a good example of such continued haunting.

Greening” Organizations

            One of the polyperspectival chapters in Ministry consists of nothing but a series of unidentified people at a gathering of environmental organizations introducing themselves by first announcing where they are from, and then identifying the organizations they are working with. The chapter opens this way:

Hi, I am here to tell you about Argentina’s Shamballa Permaculture Project. We are representatives of Armenia’s ARK Armenia, happy to be here. Down in Australia we’ve connected up our Aboriginal Wetland Burning, Shoalwater Culture, Gawula, Greening Australia, How Aboriginals Made Australia, Kachana Land Restoration, One Acre Small Permaculture Project, Permaculture Research Institute, Purple Pear Farm, Rehydrating the Landscape, Regenerate Australia, and the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor (425).

The litany goes on in precisely this fashion, alphabetically by country, for four pages, the entirety of the short chapter. It’s a clever way to get a sense of global scale and community into the novel. These all seem to be actual organizations, and the extensive list is intended to be hopeful and inspiring. And really, for the most part it is. Many of these organizations from around the world are doing important work in mitigating climate change and restoring damaged ecosystems.

But reading through the list I became troubled by how many of these organizations were involved in efforts to “green” or to reforest various deserts or semi-arid grasslands. The Chinese delegation mentions “Greening China’s Desert,” the “Horqin Desert Reforestation” project, the “Kbuqi Desert Greening the Silk Road,” and “Transforming Deserts to Cropland.” The delegate from Egypt announces that he represents “Creating a Forest in the Desert.” The Israeli delegate is from a group similarly called “Growing Forests in the Desert.” The Jordanian represents an organization called “Greening the Desert,” while the Mexican delegate represents the more specific “Greening the Chihuahuan Desert.” Both the Moroccan and South African delegates represent separate organizations with the perennially popular name “Making the Desert Bloom.” The representative from Qatar is a member of “Sahara Forest Project.” And the representative from Senegal lists the “Great Green Wall Initiative” and “Rolling Back the Desert” as organizations (426-27). Perhaps some of these projects are doing great work. But forgive me if I’m skeptical. Their names alone betray a xerophobic attitude toward the desert that yet again considers “green” the ideal color for a landscape and that encourage what are almost certainly bioregionally inappropriate and damaging afforestation efforts.

Research on the efficacy of these sorts of projects is decidedly mixed, and tends toward negative assessments. Recent research has identified the harm of afforestation projects in arid and semi-arid savannas, grasslands, and deserts. For example, an article in Birdlife International argues that

Grasslands are important for both carbon sequestration and biodiversity but are often misidentified as providing opportunities for forest restoration. Restoration of forest in grassland biomes can be devastating for biodiversity and ecosystem services and illustrates the importance of better integrating the distinct ecologies and conservation needs of forest and grass biomes into science and policy.

Similarly, ecologists Kate Parr and Caroline Lehmann argue that tree planting projects in grassland ecosystems provide little in the way of meaningful carbon sequestration but are environmentally damaging and can lead to species extinction.

A study by Geraldo Wilson Fernandes and colleagues makes the useful distinction between reforestation, that is, the replanting of forests in landscapes where they have recently been denuded, and afforestation, the planting of trees on landscapes where they have not previously existed. For the most part, the “great green wall” and similar projects listed by Robinson in Ministry are more often afforestation rather than reforestation. Fernandes and colleagues  warn that “afforestation of open [grassland] ecosystems is an incongruous disturbance and, indeed, an impending ecological disaster” (147). In a similar vein, South African botanist William John Bond argues that “concerns over deforestation have led to attempts to identify suitable areas for reforestation around the world.” These efforts, he notes, often target arid and semi-arid grasslands: “vast areas of open grassy vegetation have been identified as suitable for reforestation.” Bond argues that many grasslands are ancient and very biodiverse and that their afforestation would be environmentally damaging.

With this context, let’s take a look at two of the largest scale, most celebrated, but also more dubious projects Robinson mentions, China’s Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt and Africa’s Great Green Wall.

Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt

Map of the Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt, The Great Geeen Wall of China

Many of the Chinese efforts Robinson lists in Ministry are subsumed within the large “Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt” project, begun in the late 1970s. The effects of this 50-year-old project have been the subject of recent research and assessment. For example, an article in Journal of Arid Environments seeks to answer the question of its title: Has the Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt Program solved the desertification and dust storm problems in arid and semiarid China?” In their review of previous research, X. M. Wang and colleagues note that a 2008 study “provided a strong argument that large-scale afforestation has failed to solve the desertification problem in many parts of arid and semiarid China.” They cite another research project from 2005 that concluded that “the large-scale afforestation in the Three Norths had produced largely unfavorable results.” After a comprehensive review of the existing research. Wang and colleagues conclude that

Although the past three decades of the Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt program are claimed to have achieved dramatic rehabilitation of the ecological environment of arid and semiarid China, our results suggest that the program’s effectiveness at combating desertification and controlling dust storms in this region must be questioned. (14)

China’s Green Great Wall in Pinglu Qipan

The article alludes to the often well-meaning but naively boosterish propaganda such projects elicit. Given the political and economic contexts, there is ample motivation to be overly optimistic, and little incentive to voice skepticism:

. . . although local governments and previous studies have claimed that the Three Norths program achieved considerable success, the program’s efforts towards combating desertification and dust storms may have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes. (21)

In short, although the Chinese government has invested vast resources, labor, and national prestige in the Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt, behind a smokescreen of patriotic green propaganda the project can be seen to have achieved minimal measurable positive outcomes.

Africa’s Great Green Wall

Africa’s “Great Green Wall Initiative” is another interesting case. Begun by the African Union in 2007, the plan involves planting a 10-mile-wide swath of trees completely across the African continent along the northern edge of the Sahel, with the intent to hold back the allegedly creeping Sahara. Supporting the project, the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, declared that “the desert is a spreading cancer.” “We must fight it. That is why we have decided to join in this titanic battle.” But a bit of investigation into the The Great Green Wall Initiative opens a window onto a vast colonial and neocolonial enterprise steeped in xerophobia that undermines the president’s dramatic assertion and that questions the very premises of the effort.

Africa’s Great Green Wall

Colonial Roots of Desertification Narratives

In her book The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge, Diana K. Davis provides important evidence to challenge the widespread idea that the Sahara and other deserts are spreading and unpacks the colonial roots of the notion. She explains how European colonial officials in Africa came to the continent with their own xerophobic biases, leading them to believe “that deserts were landscapes in need of repair–misused and abused by indigenous and nomadic peoples.” This idea, she argues, “became a predominant feature of the colonial narrative justifying western science as the salve for the world’s ills. Europeans propagated alternative myths of arid landscapes as ravaged by overgrazing or as lush and fertile but poorly developed” (xii). That is, notions of desertification have served the interests of colonial powers, providing a pretext for the removal of often nomadic Indigenous people from their lands and a justification for claiming colonial control over those lands in order to save them. Davis points out that “the assumption that the world’s drylands are worthless, deforested, and overgrazed landscapes has led, since the colonial period, to programs and policies that have often systematically damaged dryland environments and marginalized large numbers of indigenous peoples, many of whom had been using the land sustainably” (4).

Similarly, in an exposé of the discourse of desiccation, Tor A. Benjaminsen and Pierre Hiernaux point out that the notion that the Sahara is expanding, though widely believed, is contradicted by long-standing scientific research:

The desertification narrative in the West African Sahel has had a long and successful life, despite being contradicted by scientific research from the early twentieth century. (223)

That is, early colonial fears about widespread desertification have been disproven by evidence, but such fears persist in part because they are useful for colonial and neocolonial enterprises.

The idea for the African Great Green Wall was first proposed in the 1930s by a British forester, E. P. Stebbing. Richard Grove discusses Stebbing in Ecology, Climate, and Empire, explaining how “perceptions of the dry season Sahelian landscape provoked [Stebbing] into writing a feverish warning on what he saw as the dangers of desertification” (35). Benjaminsen and Hiernaux explain that in order to stop the perceived advance of the Sahara, Stebbing “proposed to reserve two parallel forest belts through the French and British colonies, which should be fifteen miles deep and 1,370 miles long. These two belts would be closed and protected from farming, fire and grazing” (216). This early 20th-century colonial idea has served as inspiration for the current Great Green Wall initiative.

Davis points out that tree planting projects in arid regions usually fail. And when they “succeed,” that success is often at the expense of native biodiversity. “Many afforestation projects fail,” she explains, “because they are attempted where trees have not grown previously under the prevailing climate conditions.” When such projects do succeed in growing trees, she continues, “they have frequently used so much groundwater that local water tables have been lowered, wells have run dry, and nearby soils have been desiccated, reducing agricultural yields.” Citing recent research Davis concludes that tree-planting projects “can significantly impair ecosystem functions, damage the regional hydrology, and diminish biodiversity” (6-7). As a case in point, Davis describes a tree-planting project from Algeria in the 1970s. This was a so-called “green dam” effort to hold back the Sahara. The project planted a 1,500 km corridor of trees in southern Algeria. The project failed because “a great many of the trees died,” but as a consequence of the project “the nomads through whose traditional territory the green dam was planted were forced to relocate and sedentarize.” The effort, she concludes, “is now largely considered a failure” (7).

Benjaminsen and Hiernaux discuss how current concerns regarding climate change have revived worries about so-called desertification, and so in turn revived projects such as the Great Green Wall. They note that at the Paris climate summit in December 2015, the Great Green Wall project “was promised, in addition to the initial 100 million USD, another four billion USD from donors, as well as additional support from France for its anticipated contribution to mitigate climate change” (233). Though founded on dubious science, and with a history of failure, ecological harm, and the displacement of nomadic people, afforestation projects remain popular in the climate change donor community, but, as Benjaminsen and Hiernaux suggest, perhaps for less than idealistic reasons.

The Great Green Wall project meets the needs of northern governments to demonstrate a will to take action on climate change, while at the same time avoiding difficult political discussions at home. This is combined with the continued desire to stop the marching desert, which remains a powerful image in international media and policy-making. (223)

Benjaminsen and Hiernaux argue that the narrative of desertification and the need to deal with it has produced winners and losers. NGOs and other aid organizations, they claim, “have used the image of the spreading desert to collect funds, especially for planting trees to stop ‘desert encroachment’. These are examples of the winners emerging from the desertification narrative, while the losers have been Sahelian farmers and pastoralists” (224). And in spite of their dubious record, money continues to flow into such projects. At the November 2021 COP26 gathering in Scotland, Jeff Bezos pledged an additional $1 billion to Africa’s Great Green Wall effort.

There are, indeed, powerful incentives to promote great green walls and similar projects. Such efforts offer feel good solutions that seem to be win-win for all involved. Donors in the global north–governments, corporations, billionaires, and NGOs–can absolve their guilt for carbon pollution by funding these efforts. African governments, in turn, receive billions of dollars in aid. It all sounds wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to support planting trees to stop desertification and sequester carbon? Raising doubts feels cynical, churlish.

It would be one thing if this was simply wasted money, a salve to the conscience of wealthy polluters, but otherwise harmless. But this is far from the case. Benjaminsen and Hiernaux make clear that these projects have harmful consequences for the local people: “Their livelihoods and rights to use land and natural resources have been restricted, and the desertification narrative has served to justify such restrictions” (235). Davis likewise argues that significant social problems have been created by great green wall efforts, including “the marginalization and impoverishment of many local peoples in the drylands and, quite often, the expropriation of their land and other resources” (165-66).

Perhaps this harm to local populations could be justified in the service of a greater good if these projects actually succeeded. But a report from 2016 says that more than 80% of the trees planted in the Great Green Wall initiative have died. Jim Morrison writes in Smithsonian

Planting trees across the Sahel, the arid savanna on the south border of the Sahara Desert, had no chance to succeed. There was little funding. There was no science suggesting it would work. Moreover, the desert was not actually moving south; instead, overuse was denuding the land. Large chunks of the proposed ‘wall’ were uninhabited, meaning no one would be there to care for the saplings.

However, Morrison explains, some useful lessons can be learned from the failure. While studying the issue scientists noted that “farmers in Niger and Burkina Faso . . . had discovered a cheap, effective way to regreen the Sahel. They did so by using simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms.”

That is, rather than engaging in a massive continent wide, internationally funded afforestation program–a titanic battle against a spreading cancer–it might be more sensible to allow local farmers to encourage natural regrowth of native species on their own lands. And in fact Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative seems to be evolving in this less dramatic but more promising direction. Efforts are now being directed toward the re-establishment of indigenous agro-forestry systems, locally evolved and adapted regenerative agricultural techniques that had been abandoned during the colonial era. The idea is for “farmer-managed natural regeneration,” the nurturing of naturally sprouting native vegetation being integrated into and around agricultural fields. Environmental specialist Mohamed Bakarr explains how the idea has evolved: “It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of land use practices that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing.”

An aerial view of a newly built tolou keur garden in Boki Diawe, within the Great Green Wall area, in Matam region, Senegal

Perhaps the failure of Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative will lead to something less xerophobic, less ambitious and less seductive to environmental groups, government agencies and foreign donors, but more successful, more suited to the ecology and cultures of the region.

In a recent article titled “Phantom Forests: Why Ambitious Tree Planting Projects Are Failing” Fred Pearce quotes Lalisa Duguma of World Agroforestry, an international research agency in Nairobi, Kenya: “Too often . . . tree planting is ‘greenwashing’ aimed at grabbing headlines and promoting an image of governments or corporations as environmentally friendly.”

Pearce concludes his article by noting that many forest ecologists are now advocating that global tree planting efforts evolve in ways similar to the direction Africa’s Great Green Wall is trending:

. . . many forest ecologists say creating space to allow nature to do its thing is usually a better approach to restoring forests than planting.

Other Threats

“Green Wall” projects and flooding schemes, aren’t the only threats deserts face as humans look for ways to deal with climate change. The xerophobic attitudes manifest in such efforts–that deserts can serve as sacrifice zones for mitigating climate change–also align with the promotion of massive solar energy projects in deserts. Of course solar energy development is necessary. But must facilities be located in environmentally healthy desert landscapes? According to Basin and Range Watch and Desert Apocalypse there are currently multiple projects moving forward to install solar facilities that entail the destruction of healthy desert lands. These include the Aratina Solar Center in Kern County, California, set to destroy 2,400 acres and remove 4,200 Joshua trees; the Oberon Solar Project in Riverside County, California, that will bulldoze 2,700 acres and destroy ancient desert ironwood trees; Gemini Solar near Las Vegas, Nevada, which will cover 7,100 acres and threaten more than 1,000 endangered desert tortoises; and the Yellow Pine Solar Project, also near Las Vegas, encompassing 3,000 acres and set to destroy 90,000 Mojave yucca.

The Sawtooth Solar project near Beatty, NV threatens 70,000 Joshua Trees.

How ironic: The very desert Robinson derided, the Mojave, is in fact under threat from solar projects whose ostensible purpose is to protect the planet from climate change. There are so many other, less destructive ways to develop solar energy, so many other less ecologically sensitive sites where they could be located, that bulldozing the desert seems perverse. Environmentalists have begun to revolt against such ostensibly “green” projects.

The general public is often puzzled by such a negative response to solar projects. And, unfortunately, a book like Ministry for the Future, which offers the destruction of deserts as a positive tradeoff, provides little ethical guidance for understanding why such desert destroying projects are harmful.

Deserts Mitigating Climate Change

Reading all these descriptions of proposals to sacrifice deserts in the interests of offsetting climate change, I began to wonder what role, if any, regular deserts, left to their own devices, might play. The environmental movement, with its notorious tree fetish, focuses primarily on forests, and promotes tree planting as a way to sequester carbon. Sometimes, in the right location, with bioregionally appropriate species, that’s certainly a useful activity. While often overlooked, grasslands and prairies, with their deep-rooted, carbon sequestering flora, also have a major role to play. But what role, I wondered, might deserts serve in carbon sequestration?

A bigger role than one might think, I discovered. In addition to the role played by endorheic basins as carbon sinks, discussed above, other studies conclude that leaving deserts alone, or restoring damaged ones to their healthy ecological condition, might be the best way arid places can help us mitigate climate change. Range scientist Susan E. Meyer, for example, argues that “in a world where the metrics of the carbon economy have become a major issue, it may come as a surprise that intact cold desert shrublands [such as North America’s Great Basin] can sequester significant amounts of carbon, both as biomass and in the form of SOC (soil organic carbon).” Likewise, “xerophytic shrubs,” she explains, “invest heavily in belowground biomass, placing fixed carbon in an environment where it turns over only very slowly. In order for humans to gain this important ecosystem service,” she continues, “desert shrublands must be kept intact.” She concludes that “the best use of cold desert shrublands is mitigation of both short term and long term climate disruption.”

In short, it seems clear that deserts don’t need to be greened, or walled off, or flooded, to play a significant role in mitigating climate change. We just need to leave them alone. Given the evidence for this, it is surprising that a deeply researched novel such as Ministry for the Future, written from a progressive environmentalist perspective and brim full of intriguing ideas, nevertheless continues to recirculate out-of-date xerophobic tropes about the need to green the desert.


I wish to thank the Desert Futures: Sahara/Sonora collective for the opportunity to develop this paper, originally presented at their conference at Notre Dame University, Dec. 2, 2021.

  1. A fair criticism of the novel is its failure to acknowledge the roots of these legal ideas in Indigenous cultures. For a quick overview of this topic, see Ruby Russell, “Rights of Nature: Can Indigenous Traditions Shape Environmental Law?
  2. It’s worth noting here that Robinson has been an enthusiastic advocate for dirigibles and blimps as carbon-neutral forms of air travel. They appear in a number of his novels, including New York 2140 and the Mars trilogy. Similarly he also advocates a return to sailing ships that use high tech sails and hydrofoils.)

Loren Eiseley: Prophet of the Pyrocene

Presented to 

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Conference, July 26-August 6, 2021, Virtual

Tom Lynch

In a recent essay titled “Writing in the Anthropocene: Idle Chatter or Ecoprophetic Witness?” Kate Rigby argues for the value of returning to earlier voices in our attempts to come to grips with the Anthropocene era we inhabit: “I want to make a case for the value of writing in the anthropocene in the mode of prophetic witness,” she offers. “Such writing would seek to disclose the catastrophic consequences of continuing on our current ecocidal path and awaken us to the possibility of another way of thinking and being: one that holds the promise of reconciling urban industrial society with the Earth” (173-74).

            Rigby makes such a case for the writing of Australian poet Judith Wright. I wish to consider a quite different writer, Loren Eiseley. I want to make the case that Eiseley was likewise an ecoprophetic witness to the emerging Anthropocene. I wish to consider how Eiseley gives us an understanding of the Anthropocene as an emergent suite of phenomena that were a million years in the making, not simply a matter of the industrial revolution or the post WWII great acceleration, although to be sure he recognized those as important inflections points. And in particular, I wish to focus on how Eiseley gestures toward an understanding of the Anthropocene as, in Stephen Pyne’s term, the Pyrocene, the age of fire. 

            Eiseley is perhaps best-known today as a mid-20th century author of works such as The Immense Journey. A skilled stylist who worked in what he called the “concealed essay,” a prose form combining personal experience narrative, scientific knowledge, and philosophy, he helped lay the foundation for the flourishing of the nature writing genre in the latter decades of the 20th century. 

            Eiseley was a dual English-Anthropology major as an undergraduate during the 1920s and showed considerable promise as a writer and a poet. He chose to become a professional anthropologist, however, but he continued his forays into creative writing. And not surprisingly this writing incorporated the evolutionary insights he garnered from his scientific studies, as well as evocative personal experience accounts of his archeological field work. These are themes that served him well as we consider him as a prophetic writer of the Anthropocene.

            Of some relevance from the perspective of Anthropocene studies, Eiseley composed his nonfiction essays primarily during the initial jolt of the great acceleration, from 1946 thru the early 1970s. In these essays he regularly addressed the Cold War and the dangers of nuclear annihilation, the rise of consumer culture, increasing urban and suburban sprawl, and the promise and perils of the space age. Eiseley saw the direction the world was trending at an increasingly rapid pace, and he sought to caution his readers to consider a different path. Though other environmental writers of his time also warned about environmental damage, most notably Rachel Carson, Eiseley’s work is distinctive for its prescience regarding matters we now identify with theories of the Anthropocene.

            A number of the key traits of Anthropocene theory are apparent in his work. Among the most notable is the idea of scale framing. In Ecocriticism on the Edge Timothy Clark argues that “As a concept transferred from geology, the Anthropocene enacts the demand to think of human life at much broader scales of space and time, something which alters significantly the way that many once familiar issues appear” (13). 

            Eiseley had anticipated Clark’s thinking in this regard. In an essay titled “Paw Marks and Buried Towns,” first published in 1958, Eiseley observes that “A man who has once looked with the archaeological eye will never see quite normally” (Night Country 81). In our context, I interpret this to mean that an archeological eye–that is, an eye that provides us with a scale frame of tens of millions of years–allows us to see our current world in a context quite different from that in which we normally view it. The archeological eye, as it were, weirds our familiar world. Our everyday behaviors can be seen as adaptive traits from our primate lineage, perhaps now often maladaptive. Our bodies reveal traces of a billion years of the evolution of life. And the archeological eye allows us to see the emerging lineaments of the Anthropocene not as an abrupt break with our past, but as part of a continuum of human and proto human behaviors stretching back a million years or more.

            I might stick out my neck and claim that no nature writer engages in scale framing to the degree that Eiseley does. Examples appear on nearly every page of his work. Frankly, scale-framing is his most characteristic gesture as a writer. Eiseley appreciated the vast time and space dimensions of the cosmos in which we live. He pondered the billion years of life on Earth. Thinking in terms of billions of years of time, or billions of light years of distance, is not easy. Dare I say it’s impossible. And it is likewise impossible to convey such an awareness in writing. This impossibility of creating a true sense of deep time, of generating an affective comprehension of planetary time scales, poses a problem, I think, for the scale-framing impulse of Anthropocene theory. 

            In his anthropological work Eiseley primarily studied the period of the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene in North America. He was, that is, attuned to the transitions between geological epochs. He well understood that climatic conditions can change and alter the world around us, imperiling not only our own survival, but the survival of many of the myriad species with whom we share the planet. In particular, he was very interested in the mass extinctions of megafauna that occurred at the end of the most recent Pleistocene glacial period, and the question of what role, if any, humans played in such extinctions. In 1935, while on an expedition to the Lindenmeier site in Colorado, north of Fort Collins, Eiseley discovered a Folsom point imbedded in the vertebra of an extinct species of Pleistocene bison. At the time archeologists had assumed humans had been in North America for only 3,000 years. Eiseley’s discovery pushed the dating of human occupation of North America back to 11,000 years BPE. 

            In his professional guise, Eiseley published an article in American Anthropologist titled “The Fire-Drive and the Extinction of the Terminal Pleistocene Fauna.” He was writing in response to Carl Sauer who had recently advanced the then novel hypothesis that “the terminal Pleistocene fauna was destroyed by hunters making wide-spread use of fire-drives in the pursuit of game.” Sauer had argued that fire-drives would have been much more effective in killing large numbers of game animals than would the other available technologies of lance or atalatl, such as the spear point Eiseley had discovered (55). Eiseley summarizes Sauer’s position that “It is Man, not the climatic shifts of the Pleistocene, [Sauer] feels, that destroyed this great fauna” (55). After assessing and questioning Sauer’s evidence and logic, Eiseley concluded that these extinctions could probably not be attributed to any single cause–neither human generated fire-drive nor naturally occurring climate change–but to an accumulation of intersecting factors, climate change and human predation being important but not singularly decisive factors.

            In Ecocriticism on the Edge, Clark has a chapter subtitled “The Fire Ape.” When I first read this chapter, I expected Clark to refer to Eiseley. But was disappointed. Clark concludes this subchapter by suggesting that “one definitive image for the Anthropocene [is] the ape of fire playing with fire.” In 1949 Eiseley had published an essay in Harpers with the same title “The Fire Apes.” And in 1954 Eiseley published an article in Scientific American titled “Man the Fire-Maker.” In these essays he explicated human history as a matter of increasing control of fire, with increasingly dire consequences. “Man the Fire-Maker” concludes with the proposal that “Man is himself a flame–a great, roaring, wasteful furnace devouring irreplaceable substances of the earth” (57).

            It is notoriously difficult for anthropologists to determine when humans first gained control of fire. Current estimates range between 400,000 and 2 million years ago, with most estimates hovering around 1 million. Fire making is our most distinctive trait as a species. More than anything else it distinguishes us from the other animals. 

            In an essay titled “How Humans Made Fire and Fire Made Us Human” Stephen Pyne makes this point. “Just when hominins acquired the capacity to manipulate fire is unknown,” he says. “But we know that Homo erectus could tend fires and, by the advent of Homo sapiens, hominins could make fire at will.” As Pyne argues, we are a species who not only used fire but are ourselves crafted by fire: “Fire changed us,” he says, “even to our genome. We got small guts and big heads because we could cook food. We went to the top of the food chain because we could cook landscapes. And we have become a geologic force because our fire technology has so evolved that we have begun to cook the planet. Our pact with fire made us what we are” (“How Humans”). 

            Pyne credits Eiseley with anticipating this insight, and goes on to outline the key historical moments. “In 1954 the US anthropologist Loren Eiseley likened humanity itself to a flame – spreading widely and transmuting whatever we touch. This process began with hunting and foraging practices, but sharpens with agriculture. Most of our domesticated crops and our domesticated livestock originate in fire-prone habitats, places prone to wet-dry cycles and so easily manipulated by fire-wielding humans.” (“How Humans”)

            In a different essay, titled “The Planet is Burning,” Pyne provides an interesting suggestion that, in all likelihood, had the planet been allowed to follow its own path without human interference, the Holocene epoch would be recognized as simply the most recent inter-glacial period of a continuing Pleistocene. And in all likelihood, except for the intervention of the fire ape, the ice would by now be returning. “The era of the ice is also our era,” he writes: “We are creatures of the Pleistocene as fully as mastodons and polar bears. Early hominins suffered extinctions along with so many other creatures as the tidal ice rose and fell. But humans found in the firestick an Archimedean fulcrum by which to leverage their will. For tens of millennia we used it within the framework bequeathed by the retreating ice, and for more than a century we have been told that we thrived only in a halcyon age, an interglacial, before the ice must inevitably return. Gradually, however, that lever lengthened until, with industrial fire, we could unhinge even the climate and replace ice (with which we can do little) with fire (with which we can seemingly do everything). We can melt ice sheets. We can define geologic eras. We can, on plumes of flame, leave Earth for other planets. It seems Eiseley was right. We are a flame.” (“Planet Is Burning”)

            We are inclined to think of our current transition into the Anthropocene era as a period without precedent, as a wholly new phenomenon. Pyne argues, and I suspect Eiseley would have agreed, that there is indeed precedent, there is indeed a narrative continuity: “So dire is the picture that some observers argue that the past is irrelevant,” writes Pyne. “We are headed into a no-narrative, no-analogue future. So immense and unimaginable are the coming upheavals that the arc of inherited knowledge that joins us to the past has broken. There is no precedent for what we are about to experience, no means by which to triangulate from accumulated human wisdom into a future unlike anything we have known before.”

            But Pyne disagrees with this view: “Yet a narrative is possible. Where once there was one kind of fire on Earth [naturally occurring fire], then two [human generated fires], there are now three [industrial fire]. That’s the narrative. Between them, they are sculpting a Fire Age equivalent in stature to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. That’s the analogue. Call it the Pyrocene.” (“Planet Is Burning”)

            The book in which Eiseley most extensively considers the suite of phenomena we have come to refer to as the Anthropocene is The Invisible Pyramid. Published in 1970 it was based on a series of lectures he had given in the fall of 1969 on the theme of the book’s subtitle “a naturalist analyses the rocket century.” The lectures were given within a few months of the first moon landing by Apollo 11 and during the time of the second moon landing by Apollo 12. 

            The book deploys a series of interconnected tropes, that, admittedly, mix metaphors, but that also gesture toward various lineaments of the Anthropocene as he saw it. In the gendered language of the day they were: Man the fire ape, Man the world eater, Man the slime mold, and Man the time effacer.

            In the essay titled “The World Eaters,” Eiseley connected the human mastery of fire with an exponential growth in energy usage, particularly since the beginning of the industrial revolution: “Basically, man’s planetary virulence can be ascribed to just one thing,” he writes, “a rapid ascent, particularly in the last three centuries, of an energy ladder so great that the line on the chart representing it would be almost vertical. The event, at the beginning, involved only Western European civilization. Today it increasingly characterized most of the planet” (65). 

            While Eiseley recognized the ecological damage caused by human use of fire as a species-wide trait, he also recognized, as this quotation illustrates, that the blame was not distributed equally among all humans. He acknowledges that the industrial revolution and, ironically, the scientific method, bear much of the responsibility. “Man . . . is not by innate psychology a world eater. He possesses, in his far-ranging mind, only the latent potentiality. The rise of Western urbanism, accompanied by science, produced the world eaters . . .” (115).

            Eiseley is also aware that not all human societies treat nature in the same way. He discusses what at the time were referred to in anthropology as “primitive” societies. For such societies, he offers, “Nature was sacred and contained powers which demanded careful propitiation.” He contrasts such societies with what he refers to as “Modern man,” who “has come to look upon nature as a thing outside himself–an object to be manipulated or discarded at will. It is his technology and its vocabulary that makes his primary world. If, like the primitive, he has a sacred center, it is here. Whatever is potential must be unrolled, brought into being at any cost. No other course is conceived as possible. The economic system demands it” (59). And he later blames the problem on our growing modern consumer society, which, he argues, “draws into itself raw materials from remote regions of the globe” (104). Here, the rather politically conservative Eiseley is skirting with notions of the Capitolocene. 

            In his youth Eiseley often played in the fields of wild sunflowers that grew on the edge of a prairie stream near his Nebraska home. He refers to this as the sunflower forest. Throughout his writing he evokes the sunflower forest as representing all that is best about life on planet Earth, the quintessence of nature’s beauty and bounty. He both begins and ends The Invisible Pyramid with an invocation of that sunflower forest. Aware that readers might find his book pessimistic, he writes in the Prologue: “If, in this book, I choose to act in the ambivalent character of pessimist and optimist, it is because mankind itself plays a similar contradictory role upon the stage of life.” He then continues: “If I term humanity a slime mold organism it is because our present environment suggests it. If I remember the sunflower forest it is because from its hidden reaches man arose. The green world is his sacred center. In moments of sanity he must still seek refuge there.”

            Eiseley concludes the book by linking the sunflower forest to the flight of Apollo 13. As some of you might remember–if not for having lived through it, then for the film version–an explosion crippled the Apollo 13 mission, and its attempt at a 3rd lunar landing instead became a rescue mission. All energy was spent not to reach the moon, but to return to Earth. A topic Eiseley addressed throughout The Invisible Pyramid was the idea, widely shared during those heady days of space travel, that humans must ride the fiery plume of our rockets to colonize the solar system in order to ensure the survival of our species in the event that we made Earth uninhabitable. Eiseley was extremely skeptical of this idea for all the reasons that are obvious to most of us, if not to Elon Musk. 

            Eiseley then offers that, when confronted with the very real possibility of dying in space, the astronauts wanted nothing so much as a return to the safety and comfort of planet Earth. “The desperate crew” of Apollo 13, he writes, was “intent, if nothing else availed, upon leaving their ashes on the winds of earth.” To Eiseley, there is an ecoprophetic lesson in this: we are creatures of planet Earth. And he concludes the book with this message: “A love for earth, almost forgotten in man’s roving mind, had momentarily reasserted its mastery, a love for the green meadows we have so long taken for granted and desecrated to our cost. Man was born and took shape among earth’s leafy shadows. The most poignant thing the astronauts had revealed in their extremity was the nostalgic call still faintly ringing on the winds from the sunflower forest” (156).

            To return to Kate Rigby’s call for ecoprophetic witness with which I opened, I would suggest that in passages such as this, Eiseley’s vision “holds the promise of reconciling urban industrial society with the Earth.”

Lilacs by the Door: Ecocriticism, Grasslands, and Women’s Settler Colonial Narratives in the U.S. and Australia

Washburn University

November 12, 2018

On November 12, 2018, I gave an invited presentation to the Center for Kansas Studies at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas on the topic of settler colonialism in the US and Australia. It was based on my research and articles on women’s frontier gardening. Here is the text of the talk, along with the powerpoint. Thanks to Vanessa Steinrotter and all the folks at the Center for Kansas Studies for the opportunity.


The Lilac by the Door:

Ecocriticism, Grasslands, and Women’s Settler Colonial Narratives

in the U.S. and Australia

 Washburn University, Topeka Kansas, Nov. 12, 2018

Tom Lynch

University of Nebraska, Lincoln


When I began this project, nearly 18 years ago, it was intended to be an ecocritical comparison of US-Australian desert literatures. But as I worked my way into it and procrastinated completion, I discovered in emerging Australian scholarship an orientation to literature, history, and culture, (especially but not exclusively to literature of frontier, settlement, and arid places), that was to transform the way I thought about both Australian and US literature: settler colonial theory. Through this lens, I grew to see American literature and culture, especially in the West, quite differently than I had before.

SLIDE 2: Maps

Let me first note that the terms “The West” and “The Outback” have considerable cultural cache, are globally recognized, but they are in fact rather amorphous locations. For the purposes of my project, I define both the West and the Outback bioregionally. That is, they comprise the arid and semi-arid regions of their respective countries, the geographers “dry domain,” colored in yellows and browns and reds on these map. (It’s one reason we don’t think of “Westerns” as situated in the rainy and heavily forested Pacific Northwest, colored in blue.)


Most settler colonial studies efforts engage with the treatment and status of Indigenous people, or with how settler societies negotiate and claim their own distinct identity and sovereign status vis a vis Indigenous societies, on one hand, and the imperial metropole, on the other–appropriate and urgent areas of inquiry. But I have also found it to be an especially pertinent orientation for thinking about how literature both informs and reflects our relationship to the natural world, the domain of ecocriticism.

Patrick Wolfe, an early developer of settler colonial theory, offered that “elimination of the Native” is the central tenet of settler colonies. He was referring to Native people, but his claim is equally true for native flora and fauna, especially in arid and semi-arid regions, including, especially, grasslands.


In the United States, the history of the English-speaking settlement of the West is usually portrayed as a unique historical undertaking. While every place has its own distinctive history, it is equally true that this settlement was part of a much broader colonial phenomenon: the expansion of European, and in this case English-speaking, settler societies around the planet.


In addition to the US, this settlement occurred most notably in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. What I learned from my Australian studies was this key aspect of settler colonial theory, the need to situate the history, culture, and literature of the West within this broader context of a global pattern of Anglo-settler frontiers, especially those in comparable arid and semi-arid regions of the world.





The West and the Outback have some remarkable natural and cultural parallels that lend themselves to ready comparison.

They are both arid and semi-arid regions that have been colonized by primarily English-speaking settlers who have sought to impose cultural ideas and modes of living that evolved in, and are better suited for, much wetter climates.

Some of the specific parallel cultural experiences, all of which inform literary representations in varying degrees, include but are by no means limited to the following:


— the European exploration, claiming, and mapping of the new territories in a manner that included itemizing biological, geological, and other “natural resources.” (Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike, etc. have their Australian counterparts in Burke and Wills, Charles Sturt, etc.)


— the suppression and displacement of Indigenous peoples; sometimes this took the form of outright warfare or other violence, such as forcible child removal, but often it is reflected today, especially in the US, by a marginalization, if not a total erasure and collective forgetfulness of, prior Indigenous presence.


— the creation of a regional frontier mythology that was crucial to the formation of a national identity; this mythology persists in many ways, including in the proposition that people allied with rural frontier culture are more real or authentic representatives of national identity than are other citizens: REAL Australians live in the Outback, REAL Americans live in rural areas, especially in the West.


–a variety of homesteading schemes in which the government would give land that had been seized from Indigenous people away to settlers in exchange for their living on and “improving” the land. Australia’s first homestead act, the Robertson Lands Act in New South Wales, predates the US Homestead Act by one year. These improvements typically involved wholesale conversion of landscapes from indigenous flora and fauna to introduced flora and fauna along with the necessary infrastructure to support such a change. Entire rich biomes (such as the tallgrass prairie) fell to the plow, were intensively logged, or were similarly destroyed in a process that can only be considered ecocide.


— the emergence of frontier outlaw heroes who, whatever the realities, project a sort of Robin Hood like appeal. Such characters loom large in the cultural imaginaries as reflected in numerous novels and films, but their overall significance is rather slight.


— the introduction of a pastoral economy involving sheep and/or cattle ranching. The cowboy in the West, and the shearer or drover in Australia, take on mythic dimensions in both places. In order to create a welcoming home for such pastoralism, many native animals were destroyed, either because they competed for forage or because they were predators, and imported and often invasive grasses were intentionally spread over wide areas.


— though often celebrated as very eco friendly and innocent (note the children), in many settler colonial contexts tree planting and other afforestation efforts such as Arbor Day cause serious environmental harm. (As I’ll discuss in more detail later) Such projects arose as a response to the perceived deficiencies of native steppes and grasslands, which settlers sought to replace with imported trees, contributing to the degradation of prairie and desert grassland ecologies..


— the creation of dust bowl conditions due to inappropriate agriculture or overgrazing, along with a host of other problems such as invasive species, water shortages, native species decline, and other ecological difficulties too numerous, alas, to itemize.


— the testing of nuclear weapons and the storage of nuclear (and other highly toxic) waste.


–the creation of various irrigation schemes, whether massive dam project or the depletion of aquifers via center pivot technology, in order to “reclaim” arid lands and to make them suitable for industrial scale agriculture.


— the construction of a growing tourism economy, including a system of National Parks, wildernesses, and other protected areas.


— a related growing ecological awareness that challenges historical settler land tenure practices and that seeks to restore some aspects of pre-colonial environmental conditions.


— and a revival of Indigenous communities both culturally and politically in a manner that works to reclaim lost lands and cultural heritage.

There are also, I should point out, some notable differences. For today, I will note just two.


–there is no frontier gunfighter tradition in the Outback, a feature so common in the popular imagination regarding the West as to be, for many people, definitive. The code of mateship in the Outback allowed for plenty of fisticuffs–one can fairly beat the crap out of ones mates–but gunplay was considered unsporting and cowardly. It’s notable that Australia had to import Quigley when they needed a gunfighter.


— Another particularly interesting and significant difference is that in Australia the Aboriginal populations were often not displaced from their traditional lands, but were instead coerced into employment on cattle and sheep stations as domestic help and as stockmen. This enabled them to maintain ties to their traditional countries, even if they had to sacrifice much of their agency. It has also offered interesting opportunities today for them to reclaim title to their land under the new policies introduced in the wake of the Mabo and Wik court decisions that have set in motion a series of Indigenous land claims.


To paraphrase Patrick Wolfe, settler colonialism is an enduring social, cultural, ideological, and political structure not a singular historical event that we have moved beyond. It did not end with the “closing of the frontier,” but continues to operate in the contemporary world. There is no “post” in settler colonialism.

In my project I refer to the basic ideological and imaginative framework sustaining and motivating the Anglophone settler experiences in the West and the Outback as the settler colonial imaginary.


Like any sociocultural project, this imaginary envisions the world and its relationship to it in a particular way and generates an all pervasive discourse and symbolic system to enforce that perspective. Though local accents may inflect its expression a bit differently, the settler colonial imaginary is remarkably similar in both the U.S. and Australia. And it is sanctioned, empowered, and maintained via a constellation of integrated and recurring values, images, icons, archetypes, monuments, stories, discourses, lexicons, politics, forgettings, and expectations which, if not always identical yet retain obvious resemblances.

One of these similar expressions of the settler colonial imaginary, and the one I want to focus on today, involves the replacement of native flora with imported plants in acts of gardening and other horticultural interventions.


As I have noted, a key element of settler colonial ideology is the “elimination of the native,” which can apply not only to people but also to native flora and fauna. In Australia, this notion often goes under the name of terra nullius, and asserts that prior to the arrival of Europeans the land belonged to no one, at least to no one whose rights a white person had any obligation to respect. In this regard, in the US context, there is no clearer expression of the settler colonial ideology of terra nullius than that uttered by Willa Cather’s Jim Burden at the beginning of My Antonia. When, as a boy, he is crossing the tallgrass prairies of southern Nebraska, he peers out of his wagon and remarks in this well known and oft honored statement:

There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land . . . (7)

This passage encapsulates the settler colonial imaginary more succinctly and memorably than any other I have encountered.


The land is empty, a “nothing but” and awaits European settlers to transform it into a something. Cather, in particular, seeks to sidestep the implicit ethnic cleansing in this idea by placing her Nebraska stories in that period immediately following the forced expulsion of the Natives, whose ties to the land can thereby be conveniently ignored.

Of course removing the Indigenous people is but a first step to the conversion of a nothing into a something. Subsequent steps involve the elimination of much of the Indigenous flora and fauna and its replacement by species imported primarily from the home of the settler colonial people, creating a sort of neo-Europe.

One of the parallels between the US and Australia is the presence of both fiction and non-fiction narratives reflecting settler women’s experiences. Typically in these narratives women participate with men, though in different spheres, in the struggle to convert what they perceive to be wilderness into a domesticated space that seeks to replicate the natural environment of the place of origin. This frequently involves the replacement of native flora and fauna with imported varieties, most obviously in our bioregion the replacement of bison with imported livestock and the subsequent effort to eliminate animals, from wolves to prairie dogs, that were perceived to hinder that transformation.

While today the behavior of men on the frontiers of settler colonial society is often recognized to have been ethically suspect, the actions of settler women are normally seen to have been more benign. And indeed I want to focus on behavior that seems especially innocent, the planting of gardens, particularly flower gardens and ornamental shrubs and trees. For the purposes of this paper, I am going to ignore the planting of non-native plants for food, such as vegetables and fruit trees, which can be justified on different grounds, and consider only the plants used for aesthetic purposes, that is, flower gardens and other ornamental plantings that function in the boundary-establishing and home-making process more typically associated with women.


While the introduction of non-native plants has had sometimes severe negative consequences, with the escape of plants from cultivation to become troublesome invasive species, the consequences I wish to consider here are not so much immediately ecological as they are what we might call eco-psychological. That is, they influence the way we imagine ourselve to inhabit our places.

As scholars have noted, the planting of flower gardens was an almost exclusively female activity:

Annette Kolodny notes that “. . . the letters and diaries composed by . . . women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries strongly support the speculation that the gardens to which women personally attended were crucial in helping them to domesticate the strangeness of America.” (37)

Discussing Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who settled in S. Carolina, Kolodny writes that

like so many other immigrant women, [Pinckney] brought with her to S. Carolina seeds and cuttings from the landscapes she had known earlier (in this case, in England and the West Indies). To make a home of the place, both needed to be implanted on the alien soil. Physically and imaginatively, in short, the pioneer women of America carried their roots with them. (53)


Kolodny also cites Caroline Kirkland: who notes that cultivated women arriving in Michigan may now find the place less wild and strange and more comfortably homey because women such as herself have planted

Narrow beds round the house” which “are bright with Balsams and Sweet Williams, Four o-clocks, Poppies and Marigolds’ (New Home, 248). By the end of her first three years there, the plantings have become even more ambitious: ‘a few apple-trees are set out; sweet briars grace the door yard, and lilacs and currant-bushes’ (New Home 248), (147).

As Kolodny notes, “Kirkland emphasizes . . . that the garden is achieved ‘all by female effort–at least I have never yet happened to see it otherwise where these improvements have been made at all'” (248).


As the Australian Jill Ker Conway describes in her memoir of growing up on an Outback station in the western division of New South Wales, The Road from Coorain, the planting of flowers was something that women often made enormous effort to accomplish, and its succesful accomplishment was seen as the epitome of the arrival of settler colonial civilization. As her parents settled into their remote and arid homestead, she writes,


“They were desperately short of water. The only supply came from the rain which was collected on the broad, gently sloping roof of the house. Optimistically, they planted a line of sugar gums along the east, north, and south of the house, and to the west, fast-growing pepper trees which were drought resistant and would soon shade the house from the afternoon heat. Climbing vines were planted to shade the verandas and a few geraniums decorated small beds by the front entrance.


It was extremely hard to grow anything when the only water to be had was bailed out of the bathtub after the children were bathed in the evening. There was water deep underground, but it was costly to bore down to it, and the first investment had to be made in good water for sheep and cattle. So there was no garden, no fresh fruit or vegetables, and no way to mitigate the red baked soil, the flatness and the loneliness.” (24)


There is in the scholarship on this phenomenon a tendency to see the women who cultivated these gardens as engaging in an innocent endeavor. Kolodny, for example, discusses how many pioneer women cultivated the “innocent . . . amusement’ of a garden’s narrow space.” (7) And in her book Writing the Pioneer Woman, Janet Floyd discusses the Canadian settler Catherine Parr Traill, about whom she writes: “The cultivation of flowers had a particular resonance, expressing a gentle and wholly unproblematic form of land control.” Curiously, Floyd seems to unwittingly undermine this claim to unproblematic innocence by then pointing out that “Gardening and colonization made an especially apt and resonant–and self-justificatory–comparison for the colonizer: tending the garden expressed the continual effort in keeping ‘nature’ at bay and also suggested attractive, blameless aspects of the task of ‘civilizing’ the colony” (132). I remain puzzled how an action that resonates with colonization can be seen as “blameless,” or why one would feel compelled to insist on it, but such has been the tendency in scholarship on this topic.

I would now like to show how these various strands are made manifest in the work of two settler colonial women authors, Australia’s aptly named Myrtle Rose White (1888-1961) and Nebraska’s Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954).


Myrtle Rose White, published 2 memoirs recounting her own time as a pioneer mother in the arid regions of South Australia and northwestern New South Wales.

White’s husband was hired by the famous patoralist, Sydney Kidman, to manage several sheep and cattle properties.


The first was Lake Elder Station (which White renames “Noonameena”), in a very arid sandhill country in South Australia. Here, her husband managed a sheep station. In 1932 White published an account of her time at Lake Elder titled No Roads Go By.

The first year at Noonameena saw us with great plans for beautifying the place. A vegetable plot was fenced in with fine-mesh netting, neat garden beds were turned over, manured, and planted with seed. Two large lawns were laid out and sown with couch grass; roses were hopefully imported from the District City. . . . Purple bougainvilleas, mauve wisteria, a beautiful creeper with white waxy bells, and scented yellow jasmine were planted over trellises. . . Tamarisks that were a dream of frail feathery foliage and plumey pink flowers were put in, with cedars that were to scent the world with their tiny mauve stars, and rattle their polished brown berries like castanets in the wind; and there were grape-vines and citrus-trees, with melons of all varieties. . . . Ah, yes! We all worked and worked, expecting in due course to see the desert blossom like the rose. (White 1949; 65-66)

Alas, it was not to be. All of these plantings withered and died within the year, signifying a failed effort at control. And for all of her evident love of plants, White never did come to appreciate the native flora of the arid landscape on its own terms. Indeed White increasingly grew to despise the country, primarily for its perverse failure to yield to her efforts at transformation.

After seven years, White’s husband was transferred to a different, less arid station, in northwestern New South Wales. She describes this experience in a memoir titled Beyond the Western Rivers, published in 1955.


The book opens with:

“We were seven long years in the open country [as described in No Roads Go By] when our reprieve came.” (1) The reprieve, of course, was transfer to a less arid location. Upon arriving at the new station, she remarks:

“‘Trees!’ I said softly, with satisfaction, my eyes on the dark uneven line against the pale lemon lingering in the sky. I thought of the lone cedar left behind in the sandhills, the only tree near the homestead, and knew this was going to be much better. I loved trees and after years of bare red sandhills I felt that the rest of my life would be too short for me to get my fill of them. To me, green was the most glorious colour on earth.” (20)

This last comment should remind us of Wallace Stegner’s observation that if we are to learn to live in the American West we are going to need to learn to “get over the color green.”



Later, White happily describes her new homestead:

A sturdy earthen bank kept the billabong waters at bay and formed the front fence of the garden. Bush gum-trees marched along the bank, making a delightful break.


The garden or gardens were the quaintest of all features. Little fences and hedges ran in all directions, cutting up two or three acres into sections. Crazy trellises were broken-backed under vines and creepers. Rose-bushes that had grown into trees popped up in unexpected places. A scarlet hibiscus clung to the edge of a lawn. A summer-house with a lean to it like the tower of Pisa tried to come up for breathing space from a smother of purple-red / bougainvillaea. There were the red, pink, and white rosettes of oleanders, the yellow flare of tecoma, shiny leaves of wandering Jew, glistening ice plant, pink climbing geraniums, and a bed of violets. (31)

And, breathlessly, she continues:

” loved the garden, and when I could I stole a minute or two to wander among the green and growing things there. As I have already said, to me trees are the most beautiful of God’s creations, and after the lean years in the red sandhills so many of them were a never-ending source of joy. (31)

Over the years she adds to this garden, and finds great fulfillment:

My roses were a picture to gladden tired eyes. I hung over them entranced and then gathered a huge armful to take the rounds for all and sundry to admire. What matter if floors were half swept, beds half made and many other duties neglected? The garden was a wondrous place on such a morning. Paul’s Scarlet Climber, and deep-red Hadley, covered the entrance porch to the Big House with a piled mass of fragrance. The Golden Emblem climber, with each of its exquisite, elongated buds flushed with carmine, had already yielded seventy-five blooms in the last week or two. The wistaria had never been so lovely as this year. The jacaranda, breaking into a glorious mauve mist, promised to be a serious rival in a day or two. The varnished gold of eschscholtzias and the flaming yellows of every variety of marigold had been making a brave show, and when blue and purple larkspurs were flowering with them their beauty exalted souls of the heaviest clay. . . .

. . . This garden, with many other fragrant corners was truly enough to entice any housewife to turn her back on such mundane things as beds and floors.”

And yet, although the climate of her new home was less arid, it was still fickle and not to be trusted, as she continues:

            But, alas, that was in the morning! By nightfall, after hours of the worst dust-storm in many years—though each year has its nerve-shatterers—I looked on a blackened, blasted garden and felt the futility of it all.”(172-3)







In her dissertation “A Not So Innocent Vision,” a study of White and 2 other Australian women settlers, Janette Hancock argues that White’s “planting of rose gardens, fruit trees and lawns reflected the fantasies of a white woman attempting to transform an alien space into a known cultural geography on one level while legitimising the appropriation of Aboriginal land on another . . . ” (359)

And Hancock astutely refers to this planting process as an “Anglicised rite of habitation” (359). White, she continues, is a good example of how

Women could affix their own cultural symbols of ownership on the land . . . and participate in a national story of beautification and development whilst disguising notions of colonial destruction” (360). White’s gardens, she claims, were “aimed at transforming what she saw as the endless, timeless landscape into something that indicated a pioneer’s imprint on the land . . . . The flowers, vegetable plots and lawn were intended to make the unfamiliar, familiar, by stabilising her sometimes foreboding and unpredictable surroundings”(363).

As Bess Streeter Aldrich shows, things were not so different way off in the distant land of Nebraska.


Aldrich’s best known novel A Lantern in Her Hand, published in 1928, is a classic expression of settler colonial ideology. It’s continuing influence can be noted by its choice as the One-book-one-Nebraska selection for 2009. The novel is a fictionalized version of the life of Aldrich’s mother in the character of Abbie Deal. It’s setting is Elmwood, NE, referred to in the novel as Cedartown.

The novel’s Introduction sets up contrast that will pervade the narrative, when Aldrich notes that “Cedartown sits beside a great highway which was once a buffalo trail” (1), and a bit later, “The paved streets of Cedartown lie primly parallel over the obliterated tracks of the buffalo. The substantial buildings of Cedartown stand smartly over the dead ashes of Indian campfires” (1). As we will be reminded many times in novel, the unruly buffalo trail and the Indian campfires, markers of primitive wildness, have been appropriately replaced by an ordered, clean, domesticated civilization most symbolically represented by the flower garden.


When Abbie’s family moves from Iowa to Nebraska the narrative describes the landscape from a wagon in a passage reminiscent of Jim Burden’s observations in My Antonia :

The journey over western Iowa had been one endless lurching through acres of dry grass and sunflowers, thickets of sumac, wild plum and Indian currant. And now [having crossed the Missouri] save for the little clump of natural growth near the wagons, there was still not a tree in sight, not a shrub nor a bush, a human being nor any living thing,–nothing but the coarse prairie grass. (57)

Variations of the phrase “nothing but prairie” recur often in the book: “There was nothing to be seen in any direction but the prairie grass and the few native trees which traced the vagrant wanderings of Stove Creek” (63). As in Cather’s book, prairie grass and native trees are the equivalent of “nothing.”

Similar to Myrtle Rose White, Aldrich regularly contrasts the Nebraska prairie to a more desirable and well-treed landscape. While crossing the grassland of Nebraska, Abbie falls asleep in the wagon and she dreams of “the honey-locusts and the maples,” “the black walnut grove back of his [Grandpa’s] house and the hazel-nut thickets around the schoolhouse.” In this dream she “walked in the cool of the maples and oaks in the Big Woods, picked anemones and creamy white Mayflowers.” However she is awakened by a creaking of the wagon and realizes, sadly, where she was, “the sun shone hot on the flat prairie.” Swaying to the ups and downs of the wagon, “An intense nausea seized her, –the mal de meer of the prairie schooner passenger lurching over the hot, dry, inland sea.” (59). Whether the nausea is entirely a form of motion sickness, however, or a response to the Nebraska prairie, is a bit ambiguous.


In spring, Abbie’s husband plows the land for their first crop.

It’ll be a pull, Abbie-girl, but some day you’ll see I was right. The furrows will go everywhere up and down these rolling hills. Bigger plows than mine will roll them back. There’ll maybe be a town here,” he pointed to the limitless horizon, “and a village there. Omaha will be a big center. The little capital village of Lincoln will grow. . .  (69)

This first plowing might be considered another rite of settler colonial possession, as the ever-so intrusive narrator makes clear, speaking from the 1920s:

Prophetic words! A town lies here and a village there. Huge tractors turn a half dozen furrows in one trip across the fields. Omaha and Lincoln are great centers for commercial, industrial and educational interests. Where once the Indian pitched his teepee for a restless day, there are groupings of schools and churches and stores and homes. (69)


After planting local cottonwood trees around the homestead, Abbie imagines fences and a road that will someday arrive,

“And fences. . . Oh, I think, Will, when we get fences, I’ll like it better. It seems so sort of heathenish to come across the country any way. There ought to be nice straight roads everywhere and fences to show where our land begins and ends. And a picket fence around the house yard . . . a nice fence painted white . . . with red hollyhocks and blue larkspur along by it, against the white pickets.” (72)


Never one to let a symbol go unexplained, Aldrich then tells us that:

By 1880 the Deal land was all fenced. The fence was a symbol,–man’s challenge to the raw west. Every fence post was a sign post. More plainly than flaunting boards, they said, “We have enclosed a portion of the old prairie. We hold between our wooden bodies the emblem of the progressive pioneer,–barbed wire. We are the dividing line. We keep the wild out and the domesticated within.” The road, too, which followed the old buffalo trail had been surveyed and straightened. Man’s system had improved upon the sinuously winding vagaries of the old buffalo, and the road, although still grass-grown, ran straight west past the house. The development of the road is the evolution of the various stages of civilization. (111)

After one of Abbie’s newborns dies she lies in bed mourning:

She lay there and thought of the knoll and the prairie grass and the low picket fence against which the tumbleweeds piled . . . where the blackbirds wheeled and the sun beat down and the wind blew. She hated the barrenness of it. If she could put him in a shady place it wouldn’t be quite so hard. But to put him in the sun and the coarse grass and wind! She and Sarah would go over and plant some trees some day. (101)


Of course Abbie Deal was not the only Nebraska settler colonial to pine for trees. And the book notes the founding of Arbor Day: “The next spring (1872), the State Board of Agriculture, through a resolution offered by J. Sterling Morton, a Nebraska City man, set aside the tenth of April, as a special day on which the settlers should plant trees. They called it Arbor Day.” (78) Abbie is naturally delighted.

Within the context I am developing here, it should be clear that Arbor Day is a classic example of settler colonial ideology at work, the elimination of one biome and its replacement by another, and was indeed picked up within a few years in Australia, where it continues to be celebrated.


Aldrich shows us how Abbie, inspired by Sterling Morton, goes on a frenzy of tree-planting that is crucial to the home-making project:

The cedar trees, which Abbie had set out years before, had not lived through the droughts. So now, they put out a new group, nine on each side of a potential path leading up to the front of the house. Lombardy poplars in a long row were set at right angles to the main road, following the track to the barn which Will’s wagon and worn in the thirteen years. “It’ll make a nice shady land road,” Abbie would plan, “and some day we’ll have the white picket-fence.” Yes, the real home was beginning to shape itself.” (114)

then, the next year:


Abbie had her house-yard fence now, so that the chickens could not molest her flowers. Sea-blue larkspur and blood-red hollyhocks flaunted their colors against the dazzling white of the pickets. Flowers in the yard! No one but a rancher’s wife, who had lived in a soddie and up to whose door had come the pigs and the calves and the chickens, could realize what it meant to have a fenced house-yard with flowers. (116)

Toward the novel’s end, on a trip to Omaha in a motor car, Abbie “naturalizes” the “progress” she has witnessed:

In the distance the Platte sprawled out lazily in the morning sun, the thick foliage of its tree-borders green against the sky’s summer blue. There were acres of yellow wheat stubble where once the buffalo had wallowed, fields of young corn where once the prairie grass had grown, great comfortable homes and barns where once the soddies had stood. There were orchards and pastures and cattle, and a town nestling under the sheltering shade of huge trees. And soft white languorous clouds slipped into the east. (236)

The settler colonial transformations Aldrich is celebrating, the replacement of prairie grass with wheat, of buffalo with corn, are framed by references to the Platte and to the langorous clouds, as though they were as natural, and inevitable, as the flow of water and the movement of clouds.


In his book Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, Richard Manning discusses this sort of transformation of prairie flora by the settlers. He focuses on the work of Frank Meyer, the US Agricultural Dept. employee who travelled the world, especially central Asia, in search of plants to introduce in the American West, and explains that “. . . much of what lay behind Meyer’s work was the blank slate approach to the American West, that it simply had to be torn down and rebuilt botanically from the roots up” (172-73).


Manning notes that “In a Peking nursery, [Meyer] found Syringa meyeri, which every plains housewife came to know as a lilac bush, the fixture of farmhouses from Texas to Manitoba.”


“One might legitimately ask,” Manning continues, anticipating your possible objections, “how there is harm in all of this, something as simple and basic as a farmwife planting lilacs round her doorstep? In some cases,” he avers, “there probably is none, other than continuing our European worship of trees.” However, he concludes in a provocative phrase I have echoed in this paper’s title,

Those lilacs disconnect one’s yard from the prairie that is around and so disconnect our lives from reckoning with the real wonders of the grassland (173).

Surely, I would assert, disconnecting one imaginatively from ones place in the world, and fostering an alienation from the larger ecology of ones home bioregion, is not such an innocent activity for, among other things, it exemplifies and encourages unsustainable cultural practices and the continuing degradation of the larger natural ecology. The literal lilac by the door did not cause the dust bowl, did not drive the bison to near extinction, is not now causing a crisis in pollinator ecology, but the ideology and imaginary it represented and reinforced certainly did.

What Manning hints at, and what I am emphasizing, is our need, if we are to become prairie dwellers, to cultivate not settler, not frontier, not pioneer, not Nebraska or Kansas imaginations, but prairie imaginations. The lilac by the door, however sweetly it smells, can not help us do that.


Let me quickly conclude with an alternative, native plant gardening. And I’ll give a plug for a former student’s book, Ben Vogt’s A New Garden Ethic. Which passionately argues for the use of native plants as an alternative, one might say a decolonial, form of gardening, one that connects us to, rather than alienating us from, our place in the world.


Loren Eiseley’s Nebraska: A Digital Storymap

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) was a writer and anthropologist who spent his formative years in Nebraska. Much of the writing he did for the rest of his life was based on his childhood -1experiences in Lincoln and on the time during his college years when he worked on archeological digs in western Nebraska. Focused on these two areas, this project digitally represents Eiseley’s personal experience of the space and place of Nebraska. Using Eiseley’s work as the entry point, we have produced a deep map of Nebraska as Eiseley experienced and recreated it.

Loren Eiseley’s Nebraska

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Always Becoming Bioregional

Always Becoming Bioregional / Tom Lynch, in symposium internationalRegional Becomings in North America organisé, sous la responsabilité scientifique de Wendy Harding (Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes (CAS), Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France) et de Nancy Cook (University of Montana, USA), Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, 7-8 avril 2016. 

Session 1: Bioregional Becomings I.

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Using the American West as the primary example, Tom Lynch offers bioregionalism as an alternative to traditional regional formations. By foregrounding the characteristics of the natural world as part of personal and place-based identity, bioregionalism necessarily links identity with environmental concerns helping to generate an ecologically aware consciousness. 

Bioregionalism also helps us to avoid many of the unproductive dichotomies that bedevil place-oriented thinking. It links city and country, wilderness and heavily utilized landscapes, within the context of an encompassing bioregion or watershed. It mitigates us-them polarities of insider-outsider, since humans are primarily understood not as various cultures, nationalities, ethnicities, races, migrants, etc., some of which do and some of which do not belong in a particular place. Instead, it understands humans primarily as one among many animal species seeking to inhabit a territory and is suspicious of political borders. Bioregional borders are necessarily contingent, permeable, and shifting. Bioregions are understood as nested and interconnected, subsuming local vs. global or “roots” vs. “routes” binaries. 

The paper concludes by arguing that bioregionalism is a process-oriented sense of place, acknowledging systems and connections both within and beyond the local. Bioregional identity is a practice: it is something one does, not something one is. One is always becoming a bioregional inhabitant.

Originally published Sep 26, 2017, 9:43 PM

Humanities under the Sign of the Anthropocene

The University of Nebraska held a “Future of the Humanities” symposium on March 9 and 10, 2017. Here is the talk I delivered.


About 25 years ago, when the poet Gary Snyder was asked what literary period he identified with, he replied “the Holocene.” It sounds like a joke, but he wasn’t really kidding. Taking the long view, he described “the present” era as the last 10 or 11 thousand years, since the end of the last Ice Age. It is, he said, the world in which we were living, with a particular suite of familiar flora and fauna, and a relatively stable and predictable climate and sea level. He suggested that a recognizable style of human culture developed at the beginning of the Holocene, and as a poet he continues performing in that style. This all makes sense if you know Snyder’s archaic and elemental work. But then he also suggested that the Holocene is likely to last another 10 thousand years. And though Snyder has been right about many things, he seems, alas, to have been wrong about that.

As is now widely if not universally accepted, we seem to have departed the Holocene epoch and crossed the threshold into the Anthropocene, the epoch of Humans. I accept this as highly likely, and offer that it has profound implications for the future of the humanities.

Often conflated with one of its more obvious and most politicized manifestations, climate change, the Anthropocene actually signals many other human-caused planetary changes that amount to an inadvertant terraforming project, including mass extinctions, unprecedented human-aided migration of species between continents, ocean acidification, the collapse of coral reefs, massive soil erosion, nuclear testing, and a host of other deleterious effects of human habitation on planet Earth.

51xvrSzDFJL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_As Timothy Clark notes in his recent book Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (which I’ve recently taught and to which I will return frequently) “The term [Anthropocene] has rapidly become adopted in the humanities in a sense beyond the strictly geological. Its force is mainly as a loose, shorthand term for all the new contexts and demands – cultural, ethical, aesthetic, philosophical and political – of environmental issues that are truly planetary in scale” (2).

We humanities folks are inclined to blame our colleagues in other fields for the ecosystemic collapses and other calamities that have ushered in the Anthropocene: those ag school folks who foster massive changes in flora and fauna and blissfully tinker with the genes of other species (and indeed the beginning of agriculture is chosen by some as an early marker of the Anthropocene); or those engineers, who invented the steam engine and then petroculture and our fossil fuel dependence (and most folks cite the industrial revolution as the true beginning of the Anthropocene); or those physicists who split the atom (and the effects of their work will most assuredly be recorded as radioactive traces in the geologic strata for tens of millions of years). Or perhaps those business professors who promote neoliberal capitalism with no thought to its long-term consequences (and some argue that we should call this new epoch the capitalocene because of the primary role of capitalism in instigating environmental change). We humanities professors might smugly insist that it’s their fault that the planet is such a mess, these STEM and business guys.

Well yes, it is their fault, but it is our fault too. There’s plenty of fault to go around. We humanists, artists, and cultural producers of various kinds have contributed our share. And indeed, the very term Anthropocene bears our trace: Anthropos, of course, being just the Greek version of the Latin Human. How could we humanists not be implicated in the Anthropocene?

Though the tenor of this conference is to lament the general cultural weakness of the humanities, perhaps the humanities have done their work too well, centralizing our concerns upon ourselves, largely to the exclusion of consideration of our relationship to the 8 million other species on planet Earth, only an infinitesimally small fraction of whom ever appear in our humanistic and artistic productions.

As Clark notes, “In environmental contexts, humanism becomes another version of anthropocentrism, the evaluation of all other beings solely as they relate to human use or aims. (147). Humanism is a sort of intellectual solipsism.

In his manifesto on the importance of the Anthropocene, Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that “All progressive political thought, including postcolonial criticism, will have to register this profound change in the human condition.” This is true not just of progressive political thought, I would argue, but of humanistic thought as well; it too must register and respond to this profound change in the human and planetary condition.

Indeed a humanities for the Anthropocene probably should not be called “humanities” at all. The most commonly suggested alternative is “posthumanism,” which I have reservations about, but which probably is the term that has been settled upon and I’ll need to live with it. 

In the Anthropocene we can no longer operate as though humans are separate from and by implication if not outright claim more exalted than the rest of nature. We cannot study “us” without studying “it.” In fact we need to resist this very dichotomy. We are nature, we are animals, we are entirely constituted by our environment. Under the sign of the Anthropocene we need to recognize that all literature is environmental literature, all philosophy is environmental philosophy, all history is environmental history . . . all humanities are environmental humanities, whether labelled so or not.

Clark proposes that “An emergent effect of the Anthropocene is to revise strongly notions of what is or is not historically significant”  (52). In the context of my own field of Western literary studies, for example, I might suggest that what’s important about the gunfight at the OK corral is not the macho dispute between the Earps and the Glantons, not, that is, the gunfight, but, rather, the seemingly incidental feature, the corral: the environmental change it represents, which is a far more enduring legacy than who shot whom about what.

If the warnings of climate scientists are correct, and we have no reason to doubt them, in fact if anything they may be too conservative in their predictions, we and the planet we ride upon are in for some tough times. In fact those tough times are already upon us, as the ongoing collapse of the Great Barrier reef, one of the planet’s most precious biomes, demonstrates.

Given the realities we face, Clark asks “How . . .  to write literary criticism in a time of acknowledged mass extinction without just seeming absurd?”  (Clark 48). And I would extend his question, how can we conduct humanistic inquiry on the threshhold of the Anthropocene without seeming absurd, without seeming like Nero fiddling while the planet burns down around us. Clark asks us to “imagine the current canon of literature being read in some future . . . wasteland,  . . .  an Earth with no forests and in which no animal larger than a dog exists outside of factory farms or wildlife parks” (Clark 195). What will those readers think of us? Why, they will wonder, were we not bringing all of our intellectual and artistic capacities to bear on preventing the calamity that they now suffer.

The novelist Amitav Ghosh has raised a similar point:

51Kf4xo089L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museumgoers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they— what can they— do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

He continues:

“And if the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over— and this, I think, is very far from being the case”  (Ghosh, 106).

Clark similarly notes that

“the stakes of the Anthropocene are so extraordinarily high – a sixth mass extinction event that, over the very brief geological timespan, could well see the extinction of a large percentage of life on Earth – that any [literary] text which simply perpetuates long-dominant assumptions about humanity and human society (and which do not?) must come to seem suspect.”

We intellectuals tend to mock climate change deniers, suggesting they are possessed of either untold stupidity or venality, or some noxious cocktail of both. But Clark and Ghosh are suggesting that we humanists, artists, thinkers, writers, intellectuals, are also climate change deniers. The implications of the Anthropocene have not affected our work. Like most people, we live our lives, for the most part, as though it were not happening, and more importantly for this symposium, our academic work continues blissfully along as though it were not happening. We purport to know better than climate change deniers, yet for the most part we act no differently from them.

In short, I would suggest if we are to have a humanities and an artistic and literary culture for the future, (indeed if we are to have any future at all) it must be a humanities fully informed by and responsive to the reality of the Anthropocene.

Eco-memoir, Belonging, and the Settler-Colonial Poetics of Place Identity

In June 2016 I gave a talk at the Ecopoetics conference at the University of Perpignan Via Domitia, in southern France.  It’s a culturally fascinating part of the world–French Catalonia–with great food and lovely beaches. A wonderful place for a conference. Below is the text of that presentation. 

Catalan fire festival for Sant Joan Day, the summer solstice.
Perpignan, in front of Le Castillet 

Eco-memoir, Belonging, and the Settler-Colonial Poetics of Place Identity in Jerry Wilson’s Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-Memoir from the Missouri River Bluff

University of Perpignan Via Domitia, France

June 22nd-25th, 2016

The genre we might refer to as “eco-memoir” involves the writing of self into place and place into self. In many ways it is an ideal genre for the cultivation of an ecological awareness and bioregional identity, as key texts such as Thoreau’s Walden or Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, early versions of eco-memoirs, demonstrate. It is arguably one of the literary forms most suited to attuning us to the “land’s wild music,” as Mark Tredinnick, the author of another eco-memoir, The Blue Plateau, has phrased it. The genre clearly has much to offer in the development of a bioregionally informed place-based identity and eco-poetics of dwelling. 

On the other hand, however, to the degree that the genre works to generate a “becoming native to this place” sense of belonging among members of settler-colonial societies, it risks complicity with the settler-colonial project of, in Patrick White’s useful phrase, “the logic of elimination” of the native people. It is a genre that can be seen to at least unintentionally supplant, replace, or efface Indigenous claims to prior and, more importantly, to continuing belonging. It could be seen, if not physically, then at least discursively, to  eliminate the native.

That is, from a purely ecocritical perspective, the eco-memoir is an ideal genre, but from a settler-colonial studies perspective, it is suspect, and for that reason we ought to be prepared to analyze and put under critique one of ecocriticism’s and nature writing’s most cherished genres.

41R+bqQP4eLIn this paper, as an example of the genre and its issues, I would like to consider Jerry Wilson’s Waiting for Coyotes Call: An Eco-Memoir from the Missouri River Bluff, published in 2008. Like many such memoirs, his is situated in settler-colonial circumstances (in this case eastern rural South Dakota) in which “frontier” ideologies continue to predominate, and in various ways his text both animates and resists settler-colonial frontiering and homesteading tropes. Like many books in this genre, his is concerned with the idea of “belonging” and “becoming native” to place, a concept at once necessary and problematic. I want to examine how his eco-memoir negotiates the fraught territory where a discourse and, for our purposes today, an ecopoetics, of belonging to place intersects with the discourse and poetics of a settler-colonial frontiering imaginary. At this stage I am just beginning to think through these issues and so offer this paper more as a very initial foray than anything approaching a definitive claim.

Books such as this, environmentally inflected and bioregionally specific memoirs and autobiographies, are an increasingly common genre in the US, Australia, and other settler-colonial nations, such as Canada. This is not a coincidence, I think. Environmentally attuned people of settler ancestry who reside in these still rather recently colonized places often feel they lack a deep belonging, a circumstance exacerbated by the tendency of Americans, in particular, to move frequently to new locations. It is, indeed, out of such circumstances that bioregionalism developed. Bioregionalists (think, especially, of Wendell Berry and Scott Russell Sanders) often lament the rootlessness of settler North Americans. Early bioregionalism drew inspiration from Indigenous peoples, no doubt romanticized at times, but not completely wrong-headed, and the literature is replete with an awareness, at times a palpable envy, of the deep connections Indigenous people had, and these members of settler cultures wished they had, with their local ecology. In their 1977 manifesto that inspired the bioregional movement, “Reinhabiting California,” Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann propose that “Once all California was inhabited by people who used the land lightly and seldom did lasting harm to its life-sustaining capacity. Most of them have gone. But if the life destructive path of technological society is to be diverted into life sustaining directions, the land must be reinhabited” (36). Note in particular the “most of them have gone” passage and then the subsequent need to reinhabit the place these Indigenous people had once inhabited. The basic pattern is: Indians lived in harmony with nature; we eliminated them; we need to learn to be more like them.

I’m not suggesting that bioregionalism is inherently and of necessity complicit with settler-colonialism, in fact in some ways, and when I’m feeling most optimistic, I think it could be seen as an effort to reconcile settler societies with Indigenous ones. But it seems clear that as a felt need and as an aspiration it grew out of settler-colonial circumstances, and could be fruitfully understood as in part a response to those circumstances. To avoid complicity, bioregionalists, I think, at a minimum need to be cautious of the discourse of “Becoming Native to This Place” and to find alternative expressions of, and kinds of, belonging.

Though I appreciate what Berg and Dasmann meant by such a phrase, one that became the title of Wes Jackson’s best known book, I’d be reluctant to endorse it. It is noteworthy, for example, that Jackson begins with a discussion of the Native peoples who used to reside in Kansas prior to the arrival of European settlers, and notes that they prospered in large numbers in the very locations where Europeans have been struggling to persist, as indicated by ever declining population numbers in rural Kansas counties, but he fails to make any reference to contemporary Native cultures. In the “becoming native” story he tells, it seems as if Europeans need to figure out how to replace the perhaps regrettably displaced Kiowa, Kansa, Osage, Pawnee, and Wichita as the new natives. (And it’s worth noting that Indigenous forms of agriculture seem to play no role in the research work conducted at the Land Institute he founded). Early in his book Jackson makes continual contrasts between the Native way of living and the European settler way, noting, for example, how settlers unnaturally demarcate the land and divide it up into private holdings whereas the Indigenous folks held it in common. At one point he notes that in 1874, “Natives were in steep decline but still around” (18). He then offers that  “Now [today] a different sort of nativeness would be required” (18). The implication is that in 1874 there were still some Native Americans in Kansas, but “now” they are all gone, and the people who replaced them need to figure out how to become the new natives. “We are unlikely to achieve anything close to sustainability in any area,” Jackson argues, “unless we work for the broader goal of becoming native in the modern world, and that means becoming native to our places in a coherent community that is in turn embedded in the ecological realities of its surrounding landscape” (3).

Eco-memoirs in general, and Jerry Wilson’s in particular, can be seen as attempts to create the different sort of modern nativeness Jackson desires; the question is, do they do so at the expense of the original, and, in spite of what Jackson implies, still persisting, Indigenous inhabitants?

Wilson’s Waiting for Coyote’s Call describes his experience of 25 years settling onto and restoring an eastern South Dakota 140 acre farmstead perched on a bluff above the Missouri River. As the numerous quotations make clear, his book is heavily influenced by Leopold’s Sand County Almanac in terms of both philosophical musings and as a practical guide. Much like Leopold’s project at The Shack, Wilson is seeking to restore a damaged land. In bioregional terms, it is a reinhabitation narrative.

In terms of ecopoetics, it includes what we might consider to be lyrical or poetic prose, often at those moments when the sense of belonging to place is most affectively and emotionally developed in the narrative. One particularly numinous moment, expressed in some of the most “poetic” language in the book, occurs when the author first commits to living on the land.

When Wilson and his wife first moved to South Dakota (to teach at the university) they lived in Vermillion. But they soon began looking for a place in the country. One evening, out for a casual drive, with no real intent, they visited a farm that they heard was for sale. At first they just stood at the barbed wire fence by the side of the road, Wilson toting their new baby, Walter, in a backpack, and surveyed the farm from a distance. But soon they felt compelled to investigate, an experience Wilson describes in an extended “ecopoetic” passage.

We climbed the fence. We had planned an evening drive, a chance to look and dream; I was prepared for nothing more. My feet were shod in flimsy sandals, not ideal for a trek through pasture and brush and perhaps burs, but we plunged ahead regardless. Halfway across the forty acres, we paused on the southern slope to watch Venus define itself in the western sky. We sat down in the grass, surrounded by blooming prairie roses. From atop a box elder in the draw, a whip-poor-will sang the first bar of his nightly serenade. Dusk deepened, and in the distant valley, a farmyard light flickered on. A rosy aura enveloped Yankton, the old capital of Dakota Territory. A great horned owl hooted from up in a cottonwood on Clay Creek. Somewhere along Turkey Ridge, a pack of coyotes greeted the hunt with cacophonous calls. 

“Yes,” Norma whispered. 

We lingered too long on the hillside. The grass in which we lounged lost its resolution, but in the sky, uncountable points of light emerged. We rose and stumbled westward, picking our way toward the boundary line. When we hit the fence, we followed it south into the draw, toward the subdued babble of a spring. We followed a deer trail to the edge of a bog, then the trickle to its source. I knelt, cupped my hands, and drank. We climbed back to higher ground and picked our way east through a thicket of drooping sumac heads and overripe plums. Fruit fell into our hands at the lightest touch. We bit the bitter skin and sucked sweet meat and juice. Then we climbed again the sloping hill below Venus. (16-17)

As Wilson stood savoring the landscape, drinking from its springs and sucking its fruit that had fallen unbidden into his hand, his wife remarked: “You look so good here, I think we should buy it,”  . . .  and Wilson draws the scene to a close: “Walter stirred from his baby nap and murmured what seemed to be assent. Had we been chosen by this land? It seemed that we belonged” (15-16).

Here we see a quintessential ecopoetical moment of belonging. This is the place, and we haven’t chosen it; in a wonderful trope of the settler-colonial imaginary, the land has chosen us.

Wilson is aware, of course, of the pioneering and homesteading tradition which he is mimicing. However he notes that “It is too late for me to tell a pioneering story of ‘going back to the land’ or of discovering principles by which we might sustain Earth.” And he offers humbly that “Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Candace Savage, and many others have told that story before me, thought those thoughts, and confronted and clarified contradictions, dilemmas, consequences, and paths to salvation” (1-2). His is nevertheless a sort of reinhabitory pioneering story:

With help from my wife Norma and from friends, I designed and built our geo-solar home. I have rehabilitated over twenty acres of native prairie. I have slept under meteor showers and wandered the woods by moonlight. I have grown acquainted with a hundred species of birds. I have learned to watch, listen, and learn. (2) 

In spite of his claim that it is too late to tell a pioneering story, homesteading nevertheless remains a model. The book’s first section is titled “Rehomesteading the Prairie.” The first chapter, which I read from above, is titled “Chosen by the Land,” and opens with an epigraph from Cather’s My Antonia: “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” This is one of the classic expressions of the settler-colonial imaginary’s ecopoetics of belonging. The problem with Jim Burden’s humble expression of oneness, however, is that, as he is lying in his grandmother’s garden, the “something complete and great” into which he wishes to be dissolved, is land recently taken from Indigenous people, though you will never learn this from Cather. Such knowledge would undermine this classic moment of transcendental settler-belonging.

On the one hand, Wilson’s plan is to restore much of his property to native prairie. Like a good bioregional reinhabitor, he goes to great efforts to remove invasive plants and restore native prairie. On the other hand, he engages in the classic settler-colonial pioneer activity of tree-planting:

. . .  I have lived most of my life on the Great Plains. But I have never lived well without trees. That is why the first thing we did when we acquired a piece of the plains was plant trees. We planted many species, in many ways. Even before the land was ours, we had selected the hillside for our burrow, and on our first Saturday of possession, we planted the eyebrow of trees along our northwest rim—a token of hope for a future sheltered from winter winds. (63)

The species of trees they planted include natives, but also, surprising to me, many nonnatives, including “Russian olive, lilac and honeysuckle bushes, Austrian and ponderosa pines (21).

In spite of these classic settler-colonial gestures, the book also contains considerable references to Indigneous people. Indeed in the book’s acknowledgment he expresses his thanks to “the Yankton Sioux people for the land on which my family and I live, for the environmental ethos that we inherit from American Indian traditions, and for the inspiration to live in harmony with the natural world” (11).  When he is pondering local history, he shares numerous moments such as this:  “History books do not tell when the first woman or man dug the first tinpsila, or prairie turnip, from the soil or ate the first wild plum or butchered the first bison on our piece of bluff. It may be that Initial Middle Missouri Gardeners, ancestors of the Mandans or the Arikaras, tilled the river bottom and planted corn” (107).

In one extended passage he explicitly engages with the issue of land ownership and belonging, again waxing at times ecopoetic:

An entry in a record book at the courthouse says, in legal terms, that this land is our land. But we know that is not true. In a profound sense the land belongs to nobody, and even in legal terms one might argue that it still belongs to the Yankton Sioux, from whom it was extorted at the price of a dime an acre. So the land belongs to the Yanktons, to the Seversons, the Rices, the Oaklands, the Ourslands, the Paulsons, the Austins, the Jensens, the Johnsons, [all previous “owners”] and to every man, woman, and child who sweated, planted, and harvested here. It belongs to everybody who slept on the land and ate the bounty it produced. It belongs to the foxes, the coyotes, the raccoons, the deer, and the myriad other creatures that know nothing of deeds. But ultimately, it belongs to Earth, and we and our fellow creatures that inhabit it are but a brief blip in the vastness of time. (136)

This is a compelling passage, but, we must admit, a bit weasley. It acknowledges that the land on which he resides was stolen from the Yankton, a statement that has dire implications for his project if carried to its logical conclusion, for justice would require a restoration of stolen property. That won’t do, so he waxes metaphysical: Who can really own the land? It belongs to the Earth and its creatures, etc.

To be fair, Wilson is much more engaged with the Indigenous people in his neighborhood than are most Americans who write eco-memoirs, in ways that, I think, serve as a model for how to negotiate this fraught territory. For example, he engaged in support activities, working with the Black Hills Alliance “a coalition of ranchers, American Indians, and South Dakotans” to stop a planned uranium mine in the Black Hills. One of the goals of the Alliance, he notes, was also to seek to restore Indigenous ownership to the Black Hills (246).

His book concludes with a monthly almanac, modelled on the opening almanac section of Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. For each month a few pages are devoted to highly poetic descriptions of seasonal activities. Among these activities we glimpse some involvement with his Lakota neighbors:

As summer solstice approaches, prairie grasses and forbs define themselves in delicate hues. On a slope of unplowed native prairie, we gather sage with the Turtle Woman Society—Lakota women and friends. Sage smoldering in an abalone shell will purify participants to commence the Sun Dance and other sacred ceremonies. Before we gather the herb, elder Patty Wells seeks the blessing of the Great Spirit, a young woman sets out a plate of spirit food for the ancestors, and the living share a meal. (260)

And again in the the following month:

. . . Norma and I pick chokecherries, food for the annual Wase Wakpa Sun Dance north of Vermillion. We are not tempted to eat as we pick, as we do from our domesticated cherry tree; the chokecherry skin is bitter and the seed is hard as stone. But crushed dried chokecherries have for centuries been mixed with tallow and dried buffalo meat to make pemmican, and the cherries also make wojapi, a delicious pudding to eat with frybread. (261)

These passages, coming at the end of the book, were a bit surprising. Very little foundation had been laid for them previously, and I would have preferred to have seen these sorts of moments more fully integrated throughout the memoir. Neverthless, they do offer one element of a corrective to the “becoming native to place narrative.” Wilson shows himself in these passages not as a new native replacing the old, but as a friend, neighbor, ally, and so offers some suggestion of how settler-colonial bioregional reinhabitants can belong to a place without denying the rightful presence of its original inhabitants.

 Originally published Jul 22, 2016, 8:55 PM



Companion Species in North American Cultural Productions

Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France, June 17, 2016


I recently gave a talk at the University of Toulouse, Jean Jaurès. Here is a video of that presentation. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 9.55.51 PM



In the European settlement of North America, companion species were an essential component of the settler-colonial process. As Alfred Crosby and others have demonstrated, Europeans brought with them a suite of animals and plants from the old continent that they utilized both to supplant the Indigenous populations and then to reconstruct a neo-European landscape replete with grasses, shrubs, trees, and domestic animals that were either derived from, or closely approximated, European varieties.  This process had enormously detrimental effects on various native bioregions, at times completely altering their composition. 

 One of the most notable examples of this process was the replacement of native bison by imported European cattle varieties over nearly the full extent of their original range, resulting in the near extinction of the bison by the last years of the 19th century. As is well known, buffalo were an integral species in the lives of the Native communities of the prairie biogregions of the Great Plains, providing sustenance, shelter, clothing, and a variety of material goods; and the species was central to the religious life of most prairie cultures. The animal and the people had an intimate, one might say companionate, relationship. 

In the past century, the cattle ranching industry that replaced the bison hunting regime of the Indigenous populations has proven to be difficult to sustain ecologically, economically, and socially. This has resulted in renewed efforts to restore bison to some of their historic range, a project that can perhaps be seen as an attempt to renew a companionate relationship between humans and buffalo on the Great Plains. 

 In this paper I examine a number of works of non-fiction, in particular Dan O’Brien’s two memoirs, Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch and Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land, that recount efforts to supplant the settler-colonial cattle industry with a restored economy/ecology based on bison. I pay particular attention to several elements: 

1)    the efforts to prevent buffalo raised on ranches for slaughter from becoming industrialized like the cattle industry. That is, can ranched buffalo maintain much of their wildness and species autonomy? 

2)   the ecologically positive cascading effect of replacing cattle with buffalo, which seems to result in an increase in biological diversity and richness. 

3)    the similar potentially positive effect on familial and social relations of buffalo restoration. 

4)   the possibility of enhanced connections between European settler-colonists and Indigenous communities based on a mutual interest in buffalo ranching.  

 In short, my paper seeks to address the question of the degree to which buffalo ranching can be seen as an effort at reconciliation between settler-colonists and both native species and Indigenous communities. Can the companionate relationship between people and bison be restored on the Great Plains, and if so, with what rippling consequences? 

Originally published Jul 11, 2016, 9:20 AM

Haggling with Cactus Ed


La Veta

A few years back, in March 2010, I  presented a talk at the La Veta, Colorado Public Library for their “Two Peaks, One Book” program. The presentation was on their book selection, Ed Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang. Around 50 people attended and lively discussion followed my talk. I had planned to rework the talk for possible publication, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen, so I thought I’d post it here.

Anxiety of Influence: A Lifetime of Haggling With Cactus Ed

Tom Lynch

I grew up in Pittsburgh, in the southwestern part of Pennsylvania. Like a lot of kids raised in the heyday of the space race, I was a serious astronomy geek. When it came time to go to college, I headed west and south, to the University of Arizona in Tucson. My conscious reason was the clear skies and one of the best astronomy programs in the country, and at the time I fully expected that I’d be living on Mars by now. But having consumed a steady diet of “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train,” and “Bonanza,” I suspect I was also motivated by an incipient hankering for the Wild West.

Arriving in Tucson, it didn’t take me long to bomb out of the Astronomy program. The math made my head spin. I wanted to sit on a mountain top and look at stars, not run calculations in a windowless room. Having been an avid reader, and lacking any real career ambitions now that going to Mars was off the table, I switched to English.

And in Tucson, besides confirming my math aversion and discovering Walt Whitman and Loren Eiseley in my English classes, I also discovered the desert. The University had (maybe still does) a very active hiking club, the Ramblers. I joined those folks many a weekend for outings to the Chiricahuas, the Santa Ritas, the Grand Canyon.  I also rode my bike or hitchiked regularly out into the desert mountains that surround Tucson and took weekend-long backpacking trips into the Rincons and the Catalinas.

On these outings I developed a strong and, as it turned out, life-long love of the desert, and I could also impress my campfire mates by identifying all of the constellations for them, so my astronomy interest wasn’t entirely squandered.

I have to say, the amount of time I spent on mountain and desert trails significantly impaired my grade point average, but not, truth be told, my education. Really, for the most part, that time on the trails was my education.  

After two years at the University of Arizona, however, and now an English major, I couldn’t really justify paying out of state tuition. There were plenty of decent English programs back home. So for my Junior year I transferred to a school 50 miles from Pittsburgh, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a mid-size school in a college town surrounded by coal country and rolling farmland.

Searching through the shelves in the nature section of a local bookstore one day, I noticed a book titled Desert Solitaire.  Longing for the desert, I snapped it up and began to read, enrapt. Desert Solitaire struck just the right chord in the cynical outdoor loner that I was at the time. I’d read Thoreau in high school, not for classes but on my own–if you can imagine such a thing–so I was primed for Abbey.  Desert Solitaire validated and sanctioned the romantic impulses I had.  The crazy desire to throw a pack on my back and strike out, often alone, into desert mountains or deep forests no longer seemed so crazy. And Abbey’s disdain for conventional culture was perfect confirmation for my own sense of alienation from much of what I knew at the time as American culture, mid 1970s.

A while later, there was a party at the house where I was living, and one of the guests, noticing the book on a table, removed the beer bottle from his mouth, and announced, “hey, did you know that guy grew up around here?” “No, “I said, “I didn’t.”  “Yeah, and his old man owns a rock shop outside of town, up near Home.”

A few days later I was pedaling my bike through the green countryside, along the windy roads, while massive loaded coal trucks rushed past my left shoulder. I could hear them coming a long way off, and always cringed as they passed. Sometimes I thought the truck drivers liked to see how close they could come to the hippie on the bike, without actually hitting him, of course.  I was headed north along route 119 towards the improbably named town of Home.

Sure enough, beside the road, I spotted an old farm house with a sign out front “Rock Shop: Open.” As I recall, a detached garage adjacent to the house held the rocks, chaotically arranged in boxes and wooden crates. I sauntered in.  An elderly man greeted me, Paul Revere Abbey.  I cannily admired some rocks. At some point I mentioned Ed’s book, and he replied, “Oh, you’ve read that book, have you?” And we began to chat, about Ed, and about rocks.  I’d taken a few geology courses so I wasn’t a complete dunce. “Hmm, nice chunk of porphoritic rhyolite ya got there, sir.” “Oooh, cool obsidian, sharp, ain’t it.” The senior Mister Abbey collected most of the rocks and other artifacts on display during a yearly road trip to the Southwest, where he visited with his son, worked at times as a fire lookout, and regularly hiked across the Grand Canyon, rim to rim, even into his 80s.

Starving student that I was, I don’t think I actually bought anything. Frankly, I doubt he sold many rocks to anyone. Clearly the purpose of the rock shop was to give him a plausible excuse to head southwest every year. He gave me a few, as well as an Anasazi pottery shard, which, though I now suspect was illegally gathered, I still have as one of my most cherished possessions.

Over the next few months I read the books Abbey had so far published, The Brave Cowboy and Fire on the Mountain. I even tracked down a very rare copy of Abbey’s first novel, Jonathan Troy. It was in the covetous possession of a local bookshop owner, who loaned it to me on pain of death if I damaged or failed to return it. It wasn’t half bad, though Abbey disliked it and refused to allow a second edition to be published.

In the summer of 1976, in need of a desert fix. I hitchhiked from Pennsylvania, first to Rocky Mt. National Park, where I recall sitting on a ridge high in the park and watching fireworks for the bicentennial 4th of July blossom silently far out over the prairie.

I was heading for Tucson, but of course, having read Desert Solitaire, I had to stop at Arches National Monument.  I disdained camping in the official campgrounds, and since I was hitching and didn’t have a car, I found it easy enough to wander outlaw-like off into the rugged juniper, pinyon, and boulder filled landscape, prop my pack against a juniper, and roll out my sleeping bag in its shade.

Heading back towards the park facilities to fill my water bottles, I spotted a trailer through the trees.  Aha, I thought, what luck! There’s Abbey’s trailer! I reverently approached. As I got closer, I spotted a hand-written note on the door:

“Attention: This was NOT Ed Abbey’s Trailer.”

 I turned away chagrined and embarrassed, and resumed my search for a water pump.

While funny, this experience is also suggestive. Within 8 years of its publication, Desert Solitaire had made Arches enough of a pilgrimage site that the rangers were becoming annoyed. This suggests the remarkable power of the book, but also the ironic consequence that Abbey may have begun to encourage the very tourists that he had railed against. A mixed legacy, to be sure. And one has to wonder what role Desert Solitaire played in the evolution of Moab from a sleepy desert mining town into a poster-child for new western extravagance and the commodification of the desert.

Years later, when Jim Cahalan was researching his biography, Ed Abbey: A Life, I shared the anecdote of the trailer with him.  He later informed me that while doing interviews with Abbey’s friends, he had discovered that the note had been put there by Jim Stiles.  Jim, like me, had been an impressionable young man when he read Desert Solitaire, and had moved from Kentucky to Arches the year before I visited to become a ranger there. He lived in Moab, became friends with Abbey, his illustrations are on the cover of several of Abbey’s books, and he later founded the curmudgeonly newspaper The Canyon Country Zephyr. In October 2009, I finally met Jim at the Western Literature Association  conference in South Dakota, and we shared a good laugh about the sign.

After Arches, I continued my trip, hitching to the north rim of the Grand Canyon and hiking across to the south rim, just like Paul Revere Abbey did. Then on to Tucson.

Later, back in Pennsylvania, during my senior year, with a few other English majors I had started a little literary magazine on campus, the New Growth Arts Review, (which is still being published).  But if being editor of a campus literary magazine wasn’t heady enough, in December of 76 I heard that none other than Mr. Edward Abbey himself would be visiting our campus, his alma mater, on a promotional tour for his new novel, something called The Monkey Wrench Gang. And, luck of luck, as editor of the literary magazine I’d have a chance to interview him. I was in hog heaven.  And just the sort of shameless groupie Abbey later claimed to dislike though I think was always a bit pleased about.

What do I recall: I remember a big guy, and instead of the tie most other men his age wore around campus, he was wearing a red bandana around his neck, not typical garb in Western PA. then or now. And for a guy whose literary persona was so blustery, he had a very gentle demeanor and handshake. Others have written about that too, it was so unexpectedly gentle.

Abbey gave a reading, I guess from The Monkey Wrench Gang though frankly I can’t remember, probably from being in awe. Afterwards, he, I, and another editor went to our magazine offices for the interview. But as we closed the door, the first thing Abbey said, before we even sat down, and true to form, was “can we get some beer before we get started.” So we had to break for a ½ hour, traipse off to get a 12-pack at the local distributor, and return with the beer, clandestinely shrouded, to our campus offices, where the interview at last commenced, lubricated by cold Iron City Beer. Looking over the interview now, all these years later, I have to laugh. Most of the interview was about environmental activism and monkey-wrenching techniques, not about literary matters at all.

After the interview, my co-editor departed and Ed and I were destined to have dinner together at one of the fine local eating establishments. To my surprise, a young lady whom I’d never met before joined us as we left the office and accompanied us to dinner. I guess she’d been waiting in the hallway.

I was a bit peeved. She was honing in on my action with my hero, but, alas, her charms were more alluring than mine, and at dinner she and Ed increasingly chatted as I become a third wheel. Finally I got the hint, and left the two of them together. What occurred after that, I couldn’t say. But when I later heard of Ed’s reputation with the ladies, I was not surprised. That was the last I was to see of Cactus Ed.

Despite the minor disappointment of having my hero dump me for a young lady who seemed to know nothing about either literature or eco-sabotage, The Monkey Wrench Gang had a huge influence on me. For one, it transformed the 4 corners region into a numinous landscape. Though I’ve never actually spent a lot of time there, it’s a place that retains a powerful hold on my imagination, becoming one of the sacred landscapes in my personal geography.

And it authorized taking a stand, not just griping.  A buddy and I were inspired to practice a little bit of monkey wrenching ourselves. On a camping trip to the Allegheny National Forest, we came across a sign on the edge of a field of gas wells. The sign extolled the virtues of gas drilling in the forest as a good example of “multiple use” and explained the minimal harm the drilling would cause. We were not persuaded. We took out our trusty bow saw and, after considerable hard labor, managed to saw through the supporting posts, give the sign and nudge, and down it toppled. Ah, outlaws. Take that Forest Service toadies! Take that Catalyst Energy! We showed you, T. Boone Pickens!

Later we heard that gas wells were going to be drilled in an area called Whites Woods, a patch of semi-wild forest on the edge of Indiana PA, where I went almost daily for  hikes. My first effort to prevent this desecration was to pass a petition on campus. When I presented the petition, signed by several hundred students, to the board of County Commissioners, I was sure they would see the error of their ways and suspend the drilling project. Alas, they did not. Little did they know, however, that I had read The Monkey Wrench Gang and had something else in my bag of tricks.

Soon, a road was being punched into the forest. Strangely, survey stakes kept disappearing. Then, one spring evening, my co-conspirator and I, packs heavy with bottles of Karo syrup, marched into the woods. Along the way, sneaking through the underbrush, I was stung by a wasp. It hurt like hell, and I remember thinking, “some thanks from you, Mother Nature.” But still I persevered.  Before us in the clearing sat a caterpillar bulldozer, even more yellow in the yellow evening light. And no one was around.  We crept up with much more stealth than was required, and began searching for the gas cap. Frankly, neither of us knew the first thing about bulldozers, and it took us a long time to find it, but find it we did. But then, try as we might, the damn thing wouldn’t open. Stymied.  What to do? Off to the side, we spotted a little, innocent wood chipper. And that gas cap did open. Voila, down glugged the Karo syrup. And we slunk off into the night, triumphant.

We didn’t expect to hear any more of the matter. But through the small town grapevine we heard the following story. The next morning, the crew showed up for work, began cutting trees and brush. Someone fired up the wood chipper to shove the branches down, and all went well for a few minutes. Then the engine began to smoke and misfire and gobs of burnt sugary goop oozed out its pores. The workers were happy to get the day off while the chipper was replaced. Suspicion focused on an employee who had been fired a few days previously, though I don’t think he came to any harm.

By the summer of 77, I had graduated, but had no job prospects or even ambitions to find such prospects. Typical English major. Why wouldn’t someone pay me to read, write, and hike? I did know I wanted, once again, to “go west young man.” But I was torn between heading back to Tucson, where my fantasy was to pitch a tent in the Catalina Mountains and live there, writing on my manual typewriter, while biking to odd jobs in town. Seemed a perfectly sensible plan to me, especially if I ignored the student debt I had built up. But my other idea was to go to Oregon, and check out the mysterious mountains and deep old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. It was close, but Oregon won, and I spent July of 77 hitchhiking from Indiana PA, up to Toronto, across the trans-Canada Highway, with a jaunt up to Jasper, and then on to Vancouver, a ferry ride over to Vancouver Island, and a week camping on the coast at Pacific Rim National Park. Then down the coast of Washington, with a side hike up into the Olympics, arriving at last in Eugene, where I knew no one, and was nearly penniless, at the beginning of August.

Some of you may recall that this was a time when protesters were gathering at the sites of proposed or actual nuclear power plants, and committing civil disobedience, being arrested en masse for symbolic trespass. Earlier in the year, a massive protest and arrest had taken place in New Hampshire, at the Seabrook Nuclear plant, by a group calling itself the “Clamshell Alliance.” I was inspired by their approach, direct action civil disobedience, which, though not monkey-wrenching, seemed to have much in common with it. And I had read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” numerous times, so needed no convincing.

As luck would have it, I wandered into the local hippie health food restaurant and general ne’r do well cultural center, known as the Homefried Truckstop. Searching the bulletin board for a place to crash and job prospects, I spotted a sign: Join Us: Civil Disobedience Protest at the Trojan Nucear Power Plant, August 6.  I was ready.

Within a week of my arrival in Oregon I had been arrested at the plant near Portland, along with about 50 others, and had found a community. I got a part-time job at the Homefried Truckstop, and spent most of my spare time, of which I had plenty, organizing. I also began reading intensively in the theories of nonviolent civil disobedience, especially Gandhi’s writing and Gene Sharp’s 3 volume Politics of Nonviolent Action.

And so the haggling with Cactus Ed began in earnest.  What was I troubled by? It wasn’t Ed’s advocaty of property destruction that bothered me. The risk to life caused by the explosives was definitely a concern. But the main issue was the secrecy.

I heard of a fellow named Sam Lovejoy. Sam lived near the proposed nuclear plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. As part of the initial weather monitoring for the environmental impact studies of the plant, a tall tower had been erected. Sam went out one day, loosened the guy wires holding the tower up, and it toppled to the ground. So far, this seemed like solid Monkey Wrench Gang activity. But Sam then did something different. Instead of hiding out in the hills for a while, Sam drove to the local sheriff’s office and turned himself in, demanding a trial by a jury of his peers to which he could explain and seek to justify his actions.  Oh, what would Hayduke think of that? But I was coming to believe that this was a better way. One still took direct action to oppose wrongs that seemed unable to be stopped by more conventional means, but one also avoided an anarchic-free-for all of escalating lawlessness. Sam Lovejoy had a documentary made about him, “Lovejoy’s Nuclear War,” and even came to Eugene for a fundraising event.

As folks like Gandhi and King saw it, choosing to break a law in order to pursue a higher good might well be justified, but it carried with it certain serious risks. If everyone got to choose which laws they wished to obey, and felt justified in breaking those they found offensive, society could drift quickly towards chaos. And there was no reason to think this chaos would further the good cause, whether that cause was social justice or environmental protection. There was also something a bit, and dangerously, arrogant about it, as though one felt above the law, entitled to impose ones will on the law-abiding others. Gandhi and King thought a few basic guidelines could avoid this problem. The gist of these are: 1) Your actions should be nonviolent. (This might include destruction of property, but it should not risk harm to others, so explosives are probably a bad idea.) 2) You should engage in your actions openly, without guile or secrecy, even to the point of notifying the authorities ahead of time of your planned action. And 3) you should be prepared to accept the consequences of your conduct should a jury of your peers eventually decide you deserve punishment. These moral safeguards were, for the most part, missing from the activities of the Monkey Wrench Gang.

On the other hand, however, I realize that in a work of literature, chase scenes are a lot of fun, and the ones in the Monkey Wrench Gang are especially well written. I still laugh at the low speed chase up the 4-wheel drive jeep trail. Face it, you can’t get that kind of comic hijinks from Gandhi or King.

I don’t want to argue that there’s a slippery slope that inevitably runs downhill from George Hayduke to the Unibomber or to Timothy McVeigh. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think you could peer down that hill from where Hayduke romps to where McVeigh slinks. Certainly Abbey takes pains to emphasize, mainly through the conscience of Doc Sarvis, that the gang should avoid risking harm to human life. Still, the kinds of humbling moral safeguards that Gandhi and King take pains to maintain are not in place, and so I became wary of using The Monkey Wrench Gang as any sort of template for social action.

Now I realize that Abbey was, indeed, a philosophical anarchist, had studied anarchist philosophy in graduate school. And so respecting the rule of law was not necessarily a high priority for him. There was a time I was tempted by the individualist idealism of this sort of anarchy myself. But I never have been able to understand how Abbey’s professed anarchism could, for example, keep the ATVs out of the wilderness. It seems to me to that in order to protect the environment you need laws and regulations, strictly enforced; you need, in short. government.

For the next 12 years, I was involved in organizing numerous civil disobedience protests, at the Trojan Nuclear Plant, at the Trident Submarine base in Bangor, WA, and eventually at the Nevada Test Site, where I was one of the founders of the American Peace Test. All of these activities followed the guidelines for nonviolent direct action previously outlined, including notifying the authorities of the details prior to each action.

While I was involved in all these activities, I had decided to return to school, and was stumbling through a graduate PhD program in English at the University of Oregon, which I eventually completed in 1989.

After that, I spent six years in the San Francisco Bay area, teaching at a variety of schools. My life at this time seemed far from Abbey, stuck as I was for hours in rush hour traffic. But in the early 1990s a new field of literary study suddenly emerged, which folks had decided to call “ecocriticism.” Even before starting college I had been reading nature writers, and over the years folks like Thoreau, Sigurd Olson, Henry Beston, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder had become important to me. Yet, except for Thoreau, none of these writers was being studied in a serious academic way. But why couldn’t they be? Yes, I realized, I was an ecocritic, I had found my tribe. And, best of all, maybe I actually could get paid to read, write, and hike.

At the same time, I had been teaching a lot of courses in ethnic literature, and thinking about the way different cultures, especially Native Americans, perceived nature. This led me to write two essays. The first looked at Henry Thoreau’s book The Maine Woods, and analyzed the different ways he and his Penobscot Indian guide, Joe Polis, perceived the world around them. The second was an essay about Abbey, and again I found myself haggling with him. In the essay I contrasted the way Cactus Ed portrayed the deserts of the Colorado Plateau country with the way that same landscape was portrayed by three Native American writers: Leslie Silko, Luci Tapahonso, and Simon Ortiz. Though I may have exaggerated a bit for emphasis, the contrast, to me, was striking.

Also, I was startled to discover that when Abbey spent his two years working as a ranger at Arches, immortalized in the now suspiciously named Desert Solitaire, that not only was he married, but he had actually had a son only days before departing for his first gig at the Monument.  During his second year at Arches his one-year-old boy and his wife even spent time with him there in the trailer. None of this is recorded in the book, which seems, to me, a notable absence.

I began to feel that, as Abbey describes the wilderness and wildlands, they are mainly a playground for adventurous men, and sometimes their girlfriends. Over and over he describes wilderness as a place of freedom. Freedom from government, freedom from consumerism, freedom from urban life, freedom from conformity, freedom from confining cultural conventions, and, also, alas, freedom from wife and kid.

The gist of my essay was that: “Our understanding of Abbey . . . can be enriched and challenged by contrasting him with Silko, Ortiz, and Tapahonso; unlike Abbey, they portray the natural world of the Colorado Plateau as a place imbued with the presence of family and ancestors, and their experience of those places is valuable precisely because of, rather than in spite of, that familial presence. “

Now I admit I felt guilty about criticizing Abbey. He had to a not inconsiderable degree inspired the very course of study I had followed to reach the point where I now felt that I was qualified to criticize him. But I had to go where my intellectual endeavors led me.  I had to be honest with myself. And in some ways I think Abbey would appreciate that. Surely thinking for oneself is among his highest virtues. His dislike of his own groupies no doubt stems from this. He was never a fan of followers, even followers of himself.

In my recent book, Xerophilia, Abbey is sometimes praised and sometimes critiqued. My main critique, which may seem odd, involves his disdain of ants, something that appears not only in The Monkey Wrench Gang, but in nearly all of his published books. You may recall a scene early in the book, during the gang’s raid at Comb Wash, in which Doc Sarvis stumbles into an ant nest:

[Seldom Seen] Smith circumvented an anthill, a huge symmetric arcologium of sand surrounded by a circular area denuded of any vestige of vegetation. The dome home of the harvester ants. Smith went around and so did Bonnie but Doc stumbled straight into it, stirring up the formicary. The big red ants swarmed out looking for trouble; one of them bit Doc on the calf. He stopped, turned and dismantled the anthill with a series of vigorous kicks. [. . .] 

“Doc hates ants,” Bonnie explained. “And they hate him.”

“The anthill,” said Doc, “is sign, symbol and symptom of what we are about out here, stumbling through the gloaming like so many stumblebums. I mean it is the model in microcosm of what we must find a way to oppose and halt. The anthill, [. . .] is the mark of social disease. Anthills abound where overgrazing prevails.” (69-70)

This is an enjoyable scene, well written with fine examples of Abbey’s pleasure in humorous characterization and clever word play, but its portrayal of harvester ants is entirely lacking in ecological understanding. Doc is simply wrong. Harvester ant nests are neither sign, symbol, nor symptom of what the gang opposes. Indeed they are part of what the gang ought to be defending. I go on to quote from several entomologists about the important role of harvester ants in desert ecosystems and berate Abbey for letting sloppy symbolism get in the way of accurate ecological awareness. I expect better of nature writers, especially ones who are advocating direct action in defense of natural systems.

But elsewhere in Xerophilia I praise Abbey for his skill at evoking the environment, especially his ability to appeal to all of our senses. And, in retrospect, I probably should have praised him, too, for his willingness to fight for environmental protection, even if that fight was carried out in ways I now find questionable.

The literary theorist Harold Bloom coined the phrase “anxiety of influence.”  He used it to describe the situation of writers who have the misfortune to write in the generation following a major figure. How can one possibly be a playwright after Shakespeare? How be a poet following Milton? The influence of such figures is both a blessing and a curse. They break new ground, but later writers have a tough time flourishing in their shadow and inevitably seem imitative and derivative. I wouldn’t claim that Abbey casts a shadow as large as Shakespeare’s or Milton’s, but he has certainly had a major effect on how later authors write and think about nature, especially in the Southwest. And he’s certainly had a big effect on me, and I’m anxious about that influence.

Walt Whitman, a poet whom Paul Revere Abbey could quote by heart, and whose line “resist much, obey little” Ed uses as an epigraph to The Monkey Wrench Gang, makes the startling claim in “Song of Myself” that “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” Now I have no interest in destroying Ed Abbey, I couldn’t even if I wanted to. But I think Whitman’s point is that students do their teachers no honor by remaining under the spell of the teacher. At some point, if the teachers have been successful, the students challenge them, begin to think for themselves, even if that means quarelling and haggling. In my haggles with Cactus Ed, I trust I have also honored him.

Originally published Apr 15, 2016, 4:40 PM


In July of 2014 I attended a conference at the University of Queensland in Brisbane hosted by the Pastoral Reading Group on the theme of “Afterlives of the Pastoral.”


The papers delivered at that conference were subsequently revised and have now been published in a special issue of the journal Australian Literary Studies edited by Judith Seaboyer, Ruth Blair, and Victoria BladenMy own contribution is titled “Ecopastoralism: Settler Colonial Pastoral Imaginary in the US West and Australian Outback.” Below are the first paragraphs and a PDF of the whole paper. 


As Lawrence Buell has observed, the pastoral, which in the ‘old’ worlds of Europe was a type of symbolic allegory not expected to be taken literally, became in Europe’s ‘new’ worlds of settler colonialism, such as the United States and Australia, ‘a vehicle of national self-definition’ as well as a template for the construction of an idyllic settler colonial pastoral way of life (52). The settler colony was often envisioned as a type of Arcadia. Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill argue that the earliest European settlers in Australia, for example, ‘were bent on carving out familiar farms in unfamiliar settings; radically transforming landscapes into approximations of the Arcadian visions they had in their minds’ eyes’ (21). Similarly, in the United States Thomas Jefferson ‘saw America as a paradise of small farms, a rural arcadia with every freeholder secure under his own vine and fig tree’ (Schlesinger 221). Thus we note how, manifest in various settlement and homesteading schemes in both the United States and Australia, the allegorical discourse of the European pastoral mode became ideological and materially manifest. The purported discovery of new lands as yet untainted by the urban and court vices that the pastoral mode critiqued, and that Enlightenment-era political philosophers hoped to supersede, provided an opportunity for Europeans to fashion the discourse of Arcadian fantasy into a material reality that would influence the lives of millions of people and alter the ecology of millions of acres of land up to the present day. In its afterlife the pastoral would seem to be surprisingly vital.

I would like to examine how the pastoral imaginary functioned in settler colonial societies, the ecological consequences of this role, and a possible bioregionally informed alternative that seeks to develop a more sustainable and just version of that imaginary. By doing so I hope to show how the ancient pastoral mode, even and perhaps especially in settler colonial circumstances, inspires new forms of not just literary but also literal pastoralism and how, in Buell’s phrase, we might envision an ‘ecocentric repossession of pastoral’ (52).

Full text: EcoPastoral article


Buffalo on the Bottom Spring,  © Jill O’Brien, Wild Idea Buffalo LLC

Originally published Mar 21, 2016, 11:43 AM