Strange Lands

My long-delayed article, “Strange Lands: The Lexicon of Settler-Colonial Landscapes in Charles Fletcher Lummis’s and Arthur Groom’s Portrayals of the American West and the Australian Outback”  has finally been published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. Clicking on the journal cover image should take you to it. And here’s the introduction, to whet your appetite.


In 1892, the American journalist Charles Fletcher Lummis published a book titled Some Strange Corners of Our Country in which he described for his fellow citizens various ISLEdistinctive aspects of the landscapes and cultures of the American Southwest (a term he is credited with coining). In this book, he argued for the protection of what struck him as fascinating and unusual landscape features while simultaneously promoting a nascent tourism industry in the region. In 1950, the Australian journalist Arthur Groom published I Saw a Strange Land: Journeys in Central Australia, a book that portrayed the landscape and people of Central Australia with a similar goal of describing a vast but little-known region to his fellow citizens and of encouraging protection of the landscape and promoting tourism. Lummis and Groom, though separated by some


45 years in time and 8,000 miles in geography, were both Anglophone settler colonists engaged in a process of incorporating arid and semi-arid regions into their respective nation’s imaginaries while simultaneously championing a sometimes contradictory and morally ambiguous effort to preserve the character of the natural landscape. In each case, the author wrote for a distant urban audience that resided in a significantly more mesic climate. Each writer is a key figure in the transformation of the perception of their respective nations’ arid zones from forbidding and desolate wastelands into popular and accessible tourist destinations.

Admittedly, the appearance of the word “strange” in their respective titles may seem a slender coincidence upon which to hang a hefty thesis; however, through the use of an ecocritically informed comparative settler-colonial analysis, I wish to argue that the parallels are not accidental but rather derive from the common response of the Anglophone settler-colonial imaginary’s encounter with arid landscapes, whether in the United States or in Australia. 


Charles Fletcher Lummis, from Some Strange Corners of Our Country  


“In the southern portions of the desert are many strange freaks of vegetable life—huge cacti sixty feet tall, and as large around as a barrel, with singular arms which make them look like gigantic candelabra; smaller but equally fantastic varieties of cactus, from the tall, lithe ocalilla [sic], or whipstock cactus, down to the tiny knob smaller than a china cup, whose innocent-looking needles give it a roseate halo. The blossoms of these strange vegetable pin-cushions (whose pins all have their points outward) are invariably brilliant and beautiful.” 

Arthur Groom, from I Saw a Strange Land

“I wanted to see if Central Australia’s scenery was grand enough, the climatic downloadconditions moderate enough, to warrant tourist development in any large degree; and I wanted to find out what degree of protection over the native men and women and the wilderness areas they roamed in, might be necessary to preserve intact the heart of our continent for the education and benefit of future generations.


Originally published Nov 18, 2015, 5:53 AM

Searching for Adders with Richard Kerridge

As mentioned in a previous post, this semester (Fall 2016) I am teaching my Literature and Environment course for the University of Nebraska in an online format, while I am spending the year in Cambridge, England.  I thought I would take advantage of my presence in the UK to learn about, and to teach, some books of recent British nature writing.  As it happens, there’s currently a revival of the genre going on

41SHqYHNt1L._AC_US218_One of the books I decided to teach, and one that’s very much a part of that revival, is Richard Kerridge’s new work, Cold Blood: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians. Richard, who teaches in the Creative Writing MA program  at Bath Spa University, is one of the UK’s leading ecocritics and has been a guiding force in ecocriticism since the earliest years of the field. I’ve known him from ASLE conferences since the late 1990s.

In this book Richard blends his lifelong love of cold-blooded creatures with his understanding of ecocriticism into a highly readable memoir. He uses tales of his boyhood infatuation with collecting animals as the narrative around which he weaves information about the animals he loves, as well as ideas about a wide array of other matters of ecocritical interest including speculations about consciousness and awareness in animals, the value and limits of anthropomorphism, notions of what constitutes wildness and wilderness, species declines and restoration efforts, and the loss of nature experience for children. All this is combined with a reckoning with his trouble relationship with his father, a WWII veteran who suffered symptoms of PTSD, into a complex and rich but coherent and eminently readable narrative.


One of the things I’m most impressed with in the book is Richard’s ability to seamlessly weave together a personal narrative with natural history information about the animals being discussed as well as ecocritically oriented reflections. In many books of this kind, the seams are quite visible, and the transitions between different types of exposition are often clunky. Not so here. In the passage about the first time he attempted to catch an Adder, for example, he intersperses a highly dramatic tale, full of excitement and tension, with factual information about Adders in such a way that we don’t even realize how much we’ve learned until we’re finished, caught up as we are in the excitement. 

The book portrays a seemingly long gone world of childhood (he’s the same age as I am, so I can joke about how long gone it is), in which children, when not in school, spent most of the daylight hours outdoors. I certainly did. In Richard’s case, he and his buddies crawled around in the thickets, fens, streambanks, mud, and mire collecting their beloved reptiles and amphibians  and putting them into aquariums, terrariums, and back garden ponds. Portions of his narrative remind me of a young Loren Eiseley’s similar activities gathering small critters in the ponds and streams of Nebraska forty years earlier.

I thought the book would work very well for my class, so put it on my syllabus. Only later did I discover, to my dismay, that the book was not yet available in the US. The publisher hadn’t made it available for US distribution, and customs rules prohibited shipping bulk copies. God knows why. I did discover, however, that had numerous used copies available, many from UK bookstores with delivery times to the US of several weeks. I warned my students at the beginning of the semester that they would need to purchase the book via Amazon as soon as possible. Most seem to have heeded my notice.

It’s puzzling to me that the book hasn’t been made available in the US. Certainly it has aspects of being a field guide to the reptiles and amphibians of England, and so in that sense US book stores might shy away from selling it. But, as I’ve tried to make clear, the book is so much more than that. It’s a compelling, well-written narrative about issues of pressing relevance anywhere: how do we develop a love, and an ethic of care, for the animals, even the cold-blooded ones, whose planet we share?

Searching for Adders

Early in October we rented a car and my wife and I drove across England. On a partly cloudy afternoon in the first week of October I connected with Richard at his home in Bath, and the two of us drove out into the countryside, ostensibly to look for Adders and other reptiles. Richard chose the Ubley Warren Nature reserve in the Mendip Hills Southwest of Bath as a likely location. When we arrived we encountered a landscape of rolling green hillsides slipping towards autumn. This proved to be an old mining area. The website for the nature reserve explains that

With its rakes cut into the limestone and deep mine shafts, Ubley Warren bears the scars of an industrial past. Lead mining here dates back to Roman times and continued until the late 19th century. Romans were mining the site in AD49, only six years after landing in Britain and mining continued in the area reaching a peak in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, the site, which sits just south-east of Charterhouse-on-Mendip has become an important wildlife haven and is an element of the Cheddar Complex SSSI. Ubley Warren is characterised by the uneven ground of old spoil heaps and worked out mineral veins or ‘rakes,’ known locally as ‘gruffy.’

Ironically, the remains of the mining activity actually improved the reptile habitat. There were a number of exposed rocky slopes warmed in the sun. We wandered around looking at likely locations for Adders, but, alas, it was too late in the season. We found no Adders, though we did come across the shed skin of a grass snake. And under a piece of currogated iron Richard turned up a slow worm.

Searching for Adders and finding a Slow Worm

I wanted to film Richard in this landscape and get him to read some passages from his work for my class. I had brought along a little video camera, and Richard had a copy of his book. After an hour or so of wandering the “gruffy” landscape, we settled down in the bottom of small ravine, actually an excavated and collapsed vein of ore referred to locally as a “rake.” This was the most probable location to find Adders, and I like to imagine them hunkered back in the rocks, drowsing into hibernation, while Richard read them a bedtime story about themselves.

Richard discussing the genesis of Cold Blood

Reading and discussing a passage about Adders

Reading and discussing a passage about his father

As Richard and I were leaving after filming these clips, a funny thing happened. We encountered a woman on the trail who was gathering blackberries, rows of which bisected the landscape. We stopped to chat with her for a few minutes, exchanging pleasantries. She noticed Richard was carrying a copy of Cold Blood. She said, “Oh, I’ve seen that book in the bookshop and was thinking of buying it. Is it any good?” And he said, “Well I think so, but then I wrote it.” We had a good laugh over that. Then Richard gave her the copy he was carrying, and signed it for her.

Excerpts from Cold Blood

“This book is about what these animals mean—what they meant to me in childhood, and what they mean now. It is also about the animals themselves, Britain’s newts, frogs, toads, lizards and snakes. What is happening to them now, in a country where the human imprint is everywhere? Where and how can we watch them? What is their likely future?”

“The thought of these animals made the smallest patch of wild ground full of promise. Suddenly, my garden and the park at the end of it no longer seemed to be enclosed spaces, thoroughly finite, whose possibilities could quickly be exhausted. They seemed part of an infinite space, a depth of wildness on all sides, receding into the distance. This depth was wild England in its immense completeness, held together across the cities by secret corridors: railway-banks, river-banks, wasteland. Frogs, toads and newts—just the thought of them—did this for me.”

“. . . on a hot May morning we set out, cycling through the suburbs and freewheeling headlong down the great chalk drop into the Weald Valley, aiming for the heaths of Ashdown Forest. It was 1968. I was thirteen. 

     And then, just yards from the road, everything went still. I was poised above an Adder, which looked up at me, its tail-tip wriggling like a worm. The furious little face was oily black. White scales like tiny pearls lined the top of the mouth. Adders have faces intense with hatred, hot with it. The eyes were like blood-blisters.

    What had caught my eye in the heather was the zigzag, a pattern too clear to look natural. The shadows cast by bracken leaves have similar shapes. In these shadows, the zigzag evolved, presumably, but somehow the scatter of light and shade on the forest floor became on the snake a regular wavy line. It breaks up the animal’s outline. Hawks and crows see the snake from above. People do too. When the snake moves, winding through stalks and shadows, the zigzag goes in different directions, confusing the eye. On a motionless snake, it is insolently clear. In the heath’s debris, the zigzag looks stylised, like a printed or ceramic pattern, a logo or uniform, a badge of power and purpose. When we thought of Adders, the other creatures in our zoo seemed weak and flustered—the little biscuit-coloured lizards and soft, gaping frogs. They were low status. An Adder was deadly cool.” 

Originally posted Oct 29, 2015, 3:23 PM


With John Price at Glacier Creek Prairie

This coming fall, while I am in England, I will be teaching my Literature and Environment class in an online format. In order to liven up the online class, and take advantage of the digital format, I plan to include a variety of audio-visual materials, including conversations with some of the authors I’ll be teaching. 

Because I believe it’s important to teach literature of the local bioregion in classes such as this, one of the books I’ll be using is John Price’s new anthology The Tallgrass Prairie 51sTTjF6MdL._AC_US218_Reader. I was really pleased when this book was published last year, and have already used it, to good effect, in my class last fall. This morning (July 29) John and I spent some time at Glacier Creek Prairie Preserve, near Omaha, discussing his book and the prairie. 

A good rainstorm passed through the area earlier in the morning, and the weather was warm and very humid. But this time of the year the prairie was really beginning to bloom, and we saw a lot of wildflowers as well as a wide range of pollinators like butterflies, bees, and beetles. The dickcissels were singing throughout the prairie, making a nice soundtrack.


This was the first time I was using my new, rather inexpensive digital video camera (a Samsung HMX-F90), and I joked with John that he was my guinea pig as I learned how to use it. It actually worked quite well, except that since it was a moderately breezy day, the wind noise on the mic was a bit annoying. (I’ve since made a make-shift windscreen that I hope will solve the problem in the future.)

Here’s one minimally edited clip of John reading an excerpt from his anthology, a piece by Louise Erdrich

And here are a few still photos of some of the prairie flora and fauna we encountered on our stroll.


Jul 28, 2015, 9:06 PM

Bioregional Workshop at ASLE 2015

We had a great workshop on bioregionalism at the beginning of the ASLE conference, on June 23. Paul Lindholdt and I organized the workshop. We had 15 participants from a broad range of places, with diverse backgrounds and interests who produced a variety of interesting and sometimes conflicting ideas about bioregionalism and literature.IMGP7132

PARTICIPANTS: Jennie Bailey, Marlowe Daly-Galeano, Cathie English, Lenka Filipova, Evelyn Hess, Liz Hutter, Daniel Lanza Rivers, Adam Linnard, Josh Mabie, M. Isabel Perez-Ramos, Shazia Rahman, Linda Russo, David Tagnani, Donald Ulin, and Christian Knoeller (as an observer).

 Several months prior to the conference Paul and I shared a long reading list of bioregional works (appended to the end of this post) with the participants. They were asked to read a selection of the works and to write a 5-10 page response to one or more questions pertaining to bioregionalism:

  • What does it mean to identify primarily as a resident of a bioregion rather than as a resident of a political nation, state, etc.? What are the implications for culture and, especially, literature?
  • What is the role of mapping in bioregional consciousness in general, and bioregional literature in particular?
  •  What are distinctive local texts from your region? How might a bioregional approach enhance your perception and teaching of those texts?
  • Critics have charged that bioregionalism privileges rural life over urban. Do you agree? Why? If so, what might be done about it?
  • Is a cosmopolitan bioregionalism possible? What might it look like?
  • What role does/should literature have in developing a local bioregional consciousness?
  • What are the advantages, limitations, and challenges of teaching bioregionally?
  • What seems to be the relationship between bioregionalism and Indigenous communities? In what ways might a bioregional sense of belonging, of “becoming native to our place,” be seen as a settler-colonial displacement of Indigenous communities? How might this be avoided?

As it turned out, some folks followed these direction to a “T,” but others had bioregional projects they were working on and contributed drafts of these instead, which actually produced an interesting variety of texts. Indeed, because so many of the works contributed were drafts or excerpts from larger projects I anticipate in the next few year seeing some interesting publications in bioregional literary criticism appearing in various journals, books, and as dissertations. It’s great that this workshop was able to contribute to these efforts.

 I would say that the main topics covered in the workshop included the tension between the global and the local and the related idea of the possibility of a cosmopolitan bioregionalism, bioregional folklore, pedagogical concerns, canon questions regarding what should count as a worthwhile and teachable bioregional text, and the role of international and other sorts of borders in bioregional thinking.

 Here is a brief summary of the contributions:

Jennie Bailey, a writer and PhD Candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, addressed the question of “What role does/should literature have in developing a local bioregional consciousness?”

“I live in Stockport, a borough in the Greater Manchester region of North West England,” she writes, “and work, research, play and study on the Edgelands; the liminal shift between urban/rural.” Jennie discussed a proposal “to create a Merseyside – Manchester bioregion, a ‘corridor’ that followed the River Mersey from the Liverpool sea port to the slopes of Pennines and Peak – the southern edges of the Greater Manchester region.”

Her own project focuses on the town of Rochdale, the outskirts of which, the Blackstone Edge, have

“folk tales that include stories of Robin Hood, fairies, ghostly hauntings, and malicious black magic. These stories are effective as they are situated in a place, there are important to the identity of a town collected and passed down over the years by the community. The stories familiarise and mythologise place – constructing new “placial identities” (Massey, 1994), these identities are important when developing a consciousness of region and of the ecologies that link communities – human and more-than-human.”


Lenka Filipova of the Freie Universität Berlin addressed the prompt “Is Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism Possible?” and answered with a definitive “Yes, and it is necessary.” She explains her rationale by first distinguishing bioregionalism from eco-cosmopolitanism: 

“Bioregionalism can be characterised by a tendency to articulate a world view in which human beings are pictured along with other life forms and where the space of the country, or more broadly the non-urban space, predominates. It is primarily interested in the non-human material realities of particular places and tends to focus on biological relations of particular locations. Various forms of eco-cosmopolitanism, on the contrary, strive to imaginatively and effectively render visible vast force fields of interconnectedness against the always present temporal and geographical distance.”

Drawing upon the work of Ursula Heise, Lenka argues that her aim “is to outline a form of local environmental cosmopolitanism, a global sense of place, which does not resort to forms of local conservatism and which effectively negotiates the local and global socio-economic and environmental relations of particular places.” She acknowledges that “superficial forms of cosmopolitanism can entail a worrisome repudiation of responsibility to specific places, stemming typically from processes of external economic exploitation or wrong implementation of supranational legislation.” But she concludes

“If advocates of environmental localism wish to posit the particularity and agency of place against various discourses of singularity, ranging from nationalism, superficial forms of eco-cosmopolitanism and the potentially exploitative forces of capitalism, place must be understood in terms of both its local and global relations.”



In contrast David Tagnani of Washington State University also addressed the question “Is a Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism Possible?” and replied definitively: “The short answer: no.” And he wonders “how is bioregionalism transformed when abstracted into the classroom to be taught by that most cosmopolitan of creatures: the university professor.” Dave observes that

“Most academics move three times for their three degrees, and then the job hunt begins — a nationwide or even international search that downplays or outright discounts consideration of place in order to focus on more elevated concerns, such as the department and position that will best nurture the life of the mind and our abstract theorizing. 

 All of this is to say that academics are essentially itinerant. How then can we be teachers of bioregionalism? And how does our itinerancy influence our theorizing about bioregionalism?

These questions have been on mind since I taught [a class on bioregionalism], and these questions inflected my engagement with Ursula Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet. This is somewhat unfair to Heise, a bit of ad hominem conjecture that has little bearing on the cogency of her argument. But I couldn’t help wondering how her status as a deterritorialized scholar led her to write such a defense of disconnection and placelessness.”

“I do agree with Heise,” he offers, “that trans-local networks are important; many bioregionalists agree with her. So this bit of her argument is based on a straw-man if we apply bioregional ethos.” He notes that there are many kinds of localisms, but most aren’t necessarily bioregional and we need to distinguish between those that are and those that are not, something Heise does not do in her arguments in favor of the global perspective.



M. Isabel Pérez-Ramos, a graduate student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, contributed a piece titled “Situated Bioregionalisms: personal eco-cosmopolitanism and Southwestern perspectives.” She likewise addresses the relationship between the bioregional and the global, and likewise situates her work with that of Heise:

“My personal background sees a connection with Ursula Heise’s and her “sense of planet,” as an extensive traveler without a particularly well-formed connection to any specific bioregion, but holding nonetheless environmental concerns for the places I live/have lived in, and planet earth as a whole. It has been this global environmental concern that has actually led me to learn more about the places I inhabit: their nature, the species that inhabit it, the threats that menace it… My own research has also contributed much to expand my environmental knowledge about a particular region, influencing in turn my personal attitudes and concerns.”

Isabel notes that her current research as a PhD candidate “is on environmental justice issues on the U.S. Southwest, blending environmental history and ecocriticism.” She is primarily interested in analyzing literary texts by and about the Mexican American community (Chicano literature and literatura chicanesca).” Suggesting one way to combine a bioregional concern with a global one, she notes that she is also working towards a comparative project “doing some transnational comparisons of similar environmental histories and literary works, mainly produced in the Swedish Sapmi (also known as Lapland).”


Liz Hutter, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote about oceans and shorelines as possible sites of bioregional awareness.

 “My current project examines the dialectic between immersion in the sea and other bodies of water (through practices such as diving and events such as drowning) and experience of saving life and property at sea (through practices such as rescue, resuscitation, and salvage). For example, I examine drowning and death at sea as a phenomenon of maritime literature and culture, but also as an ecological phenomenon that entwines the human body and the natural elements (water, primarily, but also air and earth). Thus, the bioregion that absorbs my personal and scholarly energies is an aqueous one—tidal environments along shore and environments hundreds of miles removed from shorelines—the proverbial deep, dark ocean.”

This interest in oceanic environments led her to the conclusion (similar to Dan Wylie’s in his article ““Douglas Livingstone’s Poetry and the (Im)possibility of the Bioregion” in The Bioregional Imagination) that “If lived experience in fluid and hybrid regions such as coasts and tidal zones is “processual,” “integrative,” “progressive,” and “global,” then expressions of constancy, ritual, longevity, and deepening one’s literal and figurative roots in a bioregion becomes antagonistic, even unattainable.

Liz has applied some of these ideas to a study Harriet Beecher Stowe’s neglected 1861 novel, The Pearl of Orr’s Island, illustrating the way bioregional awareness (even if complicated by the oceanic flux) can help us appreciate overlooked works of literature and to define a bioregional canon that expands and perhaps challenges the official canon.


 Adam Linnard, of York University in Canmore, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies pondered the role of racial and gendered identities in the making of a place identity. Much of the most place-specific literature of his bioregion was written by male park rangers, such as Sid Marty, and primarily involves adventures with wildlife in remote locations. He notes that, on the one hand, “Becoming native, as it is written in Rocky Mountain literature, requires acceptance from the non-human assemblage that characterizes the bioregion: grizzlies obviously, but also avalanches, deadfall, river rapids, glaciers, limestone, wolves: ‘we were kindred souls, the wolf and I. Two loners on that winter pass,’ writes Mike Schintz (2005), another former warden.”

This, Adam explains, is an interesting approach to “becoming native,” suggesting that the landscape itself, and its creatures, make the determination. However, he notes,

“‘Native,’ to these authors, seems to mean indigenous fauna, flora, and geology rather than Indigenous people, who go largely unmentioned and (almost) completely consigned to the past. Becoming native, in Rocky Mountain literature, is not only an injunction for residents to “live in a native way,” with all the environmentally friendly behaviours that implies, but also to see themselves and to convince others that they are “people of the land” (Barnhill, p. 9). In other words, the new native acts like a bear but also insists he is as natural as a bear, indisputable in place and therefore retaining special rights to remain.”

While a compelling approach, Adam notes that Catriona Sandilands and Margot Francis, among others, have criticized the warden-as-true-native symbolism 

“for naturalizing white, heteronormative, and patriarchal masculinity in the Rocky Mountain Parks and, through the metonymy of the national park system, in the Canadian nation as whole. Wardens – the police of the national wilds – can only be natural if the national parks, and federal sovereignty over park lands, is likewise natural, a set of assumptions that conveniently obscures the parks’ role in asserting control over land to the enforced exclusion of Indigenous people.”


Marlowe Daly-Galeano of Lewis-Clark State College responded to the prompt: What seems to be the relationship between bioregionalism and Indigenous communities? In what ways might a bioregional sense of belonging (of “becoming native to our place”) be seen as a settler-colonial displacement of Indigenous communities? How might this pattern be avoided?

 Her answer suggests a possible solution to the problem Adam identified in his paper. Marlowe discussed a program at Lewis-Clark State College that examines the Hells Canyon bioregion and that incorporates Native perspectives:

“It is important to me that students in the Hells Canyon Institute learn about the canyon from many different storytellers. It is important to me that our understanding of this place is shaped by Nez Perce people (and others). I do not think it would be appropriate to teach this class without collaborative participation from the tribe. Without the contributions of the Nimíipuu people, I worry we run the risk of reenacting displacement, of using the canyon as palimpsest for institutional success stories. We are fortunate that a number of the faculty, presenters, and past students are Nez Perce people.”


Josh Mabie, of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater addressed the question “What is the role of mapping in bioregional consciousness in general, and bioregional literature in particular?”

Josh reports having been inspired by Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways to lean more about his local area, and for him this involved acquiring regional maps and using them to guide his local exploration: “Determined to overcome my prejudices against the modest landscape of my home region and determined to find ways around the problem of private property, I drove to the offices of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey in Madison the morning after reading The Old Ways to buy maps.”

Using these maps for local excursions, he discovers on one of his outings, much to his dismay, a toxic superfund site, noting that acquiring local knowledge can be painful and disheartening

“I would not have discovered the superfund site but for my map and my walk. Now that I know it is there, I’m not sure what to do with it or what it does to my relationship to this place where I have chosen to settle. The maps that I bought for a bit of ‘mild adventure’ and cheap tourism in the middle of a long winter have opened up this place where I live. I am thrilled, but I am also nervous about what else I might find.”


Shazia Rahman, a professor at Western Illinois University, also addressed the vexed issue of maps by considering the question “What does it mean to identify primarily as a resident of a bioregion (such as the Thar Desert) rather than as a resident of a political nation-state (such as Pakistan)?” 

 She begins by providing some background on the formation of the state of Pakistan and the regrettable violence that accompanied that formation in 1947, and the civil war that led to the formation of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan in 1971, and offers that

“I want to argue that given the violence that has ensued at the drawing of national borders first in 1947 and then again in 1971, a mapping of the bioregions that currently comprise Pakistan could help bring to light many of the crises, identity and climate alike, faced by the people of this particular part of South Asia. Bioregionalist Gene Marshall writes, “When life-regions become ‘my home,’ the nation immediately ceases to be ‘my home’ and becomes instead a set of institutions” (53). The set of institutions that represents the nation-state of Pakistan includes powerful military forces who have ruled the country on and off for its almost 70-year history. But the life-region of Pakistan extends from a river.”

This river is the Indus, and to provide background Shazia quotes from historian Ayesha Jalal,

“What is today the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was once part and parcel of a subcontinent that took its name in ancient times from the trans-Himalayan river Indus. Traveling nearly 2,000 miles southward from the highest mountain peaks in the world to the Arabian Sea, the Indus passes through terrain of breathtaking diversity in topography, climate, and culture. The lofty mountains of the northwest frontier and brown plateaus of Balochistan and northern Punjab cover 60 percent of the total area while lush green plains watered by the Indus River system in central and southern Punjab and parts of Sindh account for the rest. People inhabiting this variegated landscape comprising snow-capped mountains, temperate forests, fertile plains, and arid deserts speak a multitude of languages and take pride in their own specific cultural traditions.”

Shazia explains that she’s quoted this passage in order to “provide a broad overview of the landscape and topography of the region that comprises Pakistan and to give a sense of a different kind of map for this region, a map of topography, climate, and culture that focuses primarily on place rather than nationalist ideology.”

 This leads her into an analysis of a film Ramchand Pakistani, “an independent feature film by female Pakistani director Mehreen Jabbar about a Hindu family living in the Thar Desert on the Pakistani side of the border.” She explains

“Set in 2002 during the stand-off between Pakistan and India, Ramchand Pakistani (2008) is about an 8-year-old Hindu Pakistani boy named Ramchand who mistakenly crosses the border in the Thar Desert from Sindh, Pakistan into Rajasthan, India. His, as well as his father Shankar’s, five-year ordeal in a Gujarati Indian jail questions the border in the desert by lingering on topographical features of the environment showing how the border is man-made and arbitrary.

 The film is clearly advocating for a more place-based identity rather than a nationalist or religious one since Ramchand and his father Shankar consistently refer to home as Bhimra, their village in the desert. At no point in the film do they state any kind of allegiance to their country or even their religion.”

Shazia’s paper provoked an interesting conversation regarding issues of migration, nomadism, refugees, and other forms of transient communities, the similarities and differences between them, and their differing relationships to bioregional ideas.


Cathie English addressed the question “What role does/should literature have in developing a local bioregional consciousness?” She applied this specifically to her work at Missouri State University, located in the Ozarks bioregion, where she teaches English Education to grade 7-12 teachers. She noted the importance of field trips, and of reading literature in the places it describes:

“If we really want to create an ecologically literate citizenry, then we in higher education must consider that beyond our four walls of academia there are countless children who never have an opportunity to interact with a river, lake, cave, or even a public park or hiking trail. How can we honestly teach bioregionalism without going outside? Without our first exposure to poetry or fiction written in a specific place?”

  And she concludes that

“we must offer more opportunities for our present and future K-12 teachers in various content areas to develop curriculum and instructional strategies that allow young people to become mindful of their local ecosystem by reading about it, writing about it, and going out into it.”


Linda Russo, a professor at Washington State University, located in nearby Pullman, offered another pedagogically oriented paper titled “Writing/Teaching (Re)Inhabitory Poetries [Notes &/as Rivulets]. She notes that the literary dimension of bioregionalism is often neglected:

“Being bioregional – or becoming native to a place, as Wes Jackson puts it in Becoming Native to this Place – is usually proposed as a part of a process of ecological/environmental engagement that plays out on the material or legislative level: the work of biologists and activists, and activist-scientists; literature, as usual, is relegated to the soft/social work, of story-telling, of expressing the truths of the consciousness that other kinds of work (historical, ecological, scientific) reveal, as accompanying the hand’s-on cultural work of restoration. This is the Gary Snyder model. Is there another way to frame poetics as part of the work of reinhabitation?”

 She offers that writing literature, in her case poetry, can be seen as a primary, not secondary, means of achieving a bioregional connection to place, and of establishing the sorts of relationships that are essential to such an ecologically informed connection:

“Writing poetry is, for me, a way of reimagining/reinventing lines and relationships. It is, lately, largely emplaced, writing within the relationships that inform a specific site. One enacts an ecology as they inhabit the relationship between their organism and its context; they enact an ecology of their bioregion. I know (or imagine) that what I inhabit through this relationship is not my Cartesian isolated subject self, but my ecologically-shaped self (i.e. interconnected). If bio-region is life-place, then what can happen anywhere, if one pays attentions, is that one can experience different possibilities of “me” or “self” (if we must think of our organism in terms of our familiar-isolated identity), or one can begin to identify the relations and perceptions that shape our understanding of ‘place’ and ‘self’ as separate or connected.”

 Like many of the contributors to this workshop, Linda engages with issues of pedagogy:

A lot of students spend four years at a college somewhere having little idea where they are. Many students have difficulty unplugging from their technologies; they are of a generation in danger of what scientists are calling “learned deafness.” “Place” and “Self” is more disconnected then ever. Writing through bioregionalism is one way to begin to heal this schism.”

But, she notes, the writing isn’t enough, it must be integrated into action.  As part of her classroom practice this insight leads her to connect the poem as a site of self-place relation as part of the work of hands-on restoration:

“Drawing on Stephanie Mills’ example as documented in In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting the Damaged Land, inhabitant knowledge arrives hand-in-hand with the work of habitat restoration. Things like identifying plants are a “necessary chore for the aspiring reinhabitor”(78). Reinhabitation means a commitment to where you are as it is, as you work towards what it can be. It means becoming an inhabitant of a biotic community – which is much easier to imagine within the paradigm of the bioregion than the nation-state. Poems don’t restore habitats, but they can work on the level of self-place relation that is crucial to understanding them.”

(For more of Linda’s ongoing thinking on this topic, you can check out her blog post titled “Exquisitely marginal, folded into place, and revelatory.”) 


Also inspired by pedagogical concerns, Daniel Lanza Rivers, a PhD candidate in English and Cultural Studies at Claremont Graduate University, makes an effort to examine a neglected work of literature from a bioregional perspective, in his case John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown, a work that has implications for the bioregion where Dan teaches in Oakland, CA.

“Working through Steinbeck’s presentation of drought, I have uncovered a rich network of connections between the cattle trade, the mission system, regional agroindustrial boosterism, meteorology, and geography that all meet and mingle in what is likely Steinbeck’s strangest novel. Though To a God Unknown was initially conceived as an inter-generational drama, the finished novel collapses the region’s long history of development into a homestead story with a watery narrative structure that is part myth, part delirium, and part historical novel.”

He suggests that texts such as this “whose exploration of regional history, patterns of development, and ecological networks overflow traditional disciplinary boundaries around periodization,” can be challenging to teach and that such works are not often valued in the traditional canon.

 Dan was drawn to this text because of a project he did in a class he was teaching at Holy Names University:

“I began our unit on ecology with an excerpt from Carolyn Merchant’s Radical Ecology in which Merchant frames bioregional thought and offers a pretty strict bioregional literacy quiz—originally published in Co-Evolution quarterly in 1981. Though the quiz is couched with a disclaimer that most people will score low, my students (and I) did pretty poorly, especially on questions about Oakland’s soil composition, local grasses, garbage destination, and what spring wild flower grows first each season. I paired this quiz with another test that measured your ecological footprint, which my students fared a little better on, but the end result was that they felt somewhat alienated by their scores on both quizzes.

We discussed these quizzes in conjunction with a visit to SoulFlower Farm, an Oakland -based urban homestead that practices permaculture and herd-sharing, and which offers a CSA. After our tour, my students told me that the farm visit was far and away their favorite experience in the class, but I couldn’t help feeling that something of the larger scope of bioregional thought was absent from our adventure. Overall, I think our farm visit was great for awakening students’ sense of wonder and introducing them to ideas like permaculture, community supported agriculture, and herd-sharing, but I can’t help feeling that my emphasis on the present detracted some from a more enriching synthesis between the experiential impact of their visit and the sort of deep, developmental history that lays bare longer patterns of land use and development that makes the current agroindustrial impasse feel like a given fact instead of a structure that can either be deconstructed, altered, or extended over time.”


Evelyn Hess, from the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range, the Cascadia bioregion, wrote a submission titled “Living the Good Life and Spreading the Gospel” in which she described her 22-1/2 year experience “living off-grid on 21 wooded acres on an east edge of Oregon’s southern Coast Range.” Based on these experiences, she notes

“A book began to emerge, tracking the changes of the seasons along with my relations with both the human and non-human races, and eventually, exploring the wildness within myself as well. When I told my son that living so close to the natural world had changed me—had forged connections as it expanded my understanding, empathy and self-knowledge—he asked if the change had come from living here or from writing about it.

Fair question. Merely living simply or camping under the Douglas firs would do little for me if I weren’t paying attention. In order to do an acceptable job of writing about the flora and fauna and their seasonal differences, I journaled for three years, tuning my senses, and I read widely to be sure I understood what I was seeing.”

Evelyn makes an interesting observation here, and one with clear pedagogical implications, that writing about one’s natural surroundings makes one more attentive to them, and so can be an important practice for developing a bioregional awareness and identity. She concludes that bioregionalism should be taught in the schools and notes that it gives us all, and especially children, reason for hope.


Keeping with the theme of pedagogy, Paul Lindholdt addressed the question “What are some advantages, limitations, and challenges of teaching bioregionally?” Paul teaches at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, and observes that the region of eastern Washington and northern Idaho has attracted more than its share of right-wing militants, avowed racists, and others looking to escape multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and an overall sense of community responsibility. How to teach local and bioregionally, then, when so many of the locals were drawn to the place because of its association with right-wing and racist identities?

“Accountability to others and to place—an aspect of the bioregionalism I advocate in class and practice in person—is hard to champion when so many forces militate against it. Inland Northwest residents do not cotton to others telling them how to live, if those others represent the government, whose proxy as a state employee I am. They will not be told what to do.”

 Paul’s approach has been to directly confront these issues, giving the following example:

“In 1993, at a meeting of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, just down the highway from Hayden Lake, where Richard Butler erected swastikas and lit ceremonial crosses, I proposed to present a paper on the murder of the Denver talk show host Alan Berg. The RMMLA, when it adopted a conference theme of ethnicity and race, set out to thumb a nose at the racists very nearby. 

During the keynote address at the conference, four members of the Aryan Nations crashed our meeting. They made their way into the ballroom, dressed like street punks in leather jackets, high boots, patches, insignias, and berets. They stood behind my folding chair. It was a tense stretch. They worked to commandeer the discussion and redirect it toward home schooling.”

 Paul explains why he continues to teach bioregional responsibility in such a challenging environment:

“It has its challenges, teaching about environment and place to occasionally adversarial audiences, and I confess I sometimes wish I were preaching once more to the choir in the blue-state half of Washington on the coast. But I continue to fight the good fight, partly by asking my students to look their places and circumstances in the face. With some skepticism and caution, I situate difficult people, ideas, and social movements within the landscape. Custom and culture make them parts of this peculiar bioregion in the rural West.”


Don Ulin addresses a different pedagogical problem in his contribution “Some Thoughts on Bioregionalism in the Curriculum.” Don teaches at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, located in north central Pennsylvania and the upper watershed of the Allegheny River. He notes that so many colleges today are promoting global knowledge, which may be a good thing but often seems to come at the expense of local awareness: “Like a lot of colleges, mine is heavily invested (literally and figuratively) in global initiatives and the idea of global citizenry. We have even approved a hefty “global competency” requirement. No one really seems to know what it means, but if your course deals significantly with non-American material then you can apply for the designation and get a lot more students.”

In response to this effort, Dan has proposed his college also promote “local competency”:

“Thinking of the classic Coevolution Quarterly bioregionalism quiz (the administration ought to love a built-in assessment tool!) I have suggested that we add a “local competency” as well, but no one has done more than nod and smile appreciatively at the idea, and I don’t even know what such a thing would look like. I have, however, used a modified version of the quiz in a First-Year Seminar: students worked in pairs throughout the semester, by the end of which they had to turn all the answers and the sources for their information (an easy A, but a good learning experience for those who did it).”

Dan’s goal is to figure out how to combine the global competency his college promotes with the local competency bioregionalism supports, seeking to combine the two:

“It seems disingenuous, as well as administratively counterproductive, to present bioregionalism as being in opposition to globalism. I would rather present the two in some kind of productive conversation, as long as we can be quite clear about the significant differences between a bioregionally sensitive global understanding and the kind of globalism that dominates mainstream discourse from the Green Revolution to the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership.’” 

He notes that, because he teaches in a very rural area, and because many of his students engage in outdoor activities, many of his students

already have deep roots in the region and know a great deal about bioregionally distinctive elements (the first flowers to bloom, weather patterns, soil composition, water flow, and [maybe especially!] anything to do with deer behavior). My goal would be to help us think about the significance of that kind of knowledge: what principles give it coherence and why it has been devalued relative to other kinds of knowledge.

One problem he’s encountered is the lack of explicitly bioregional literature and other forms of writing about his region: “I’ve looked hard for literature suggesting bioregional concerns of this area, but I have nothing that I think would work. So, bioregional literature might have to emphasize bioregions with richer literary traditions, ironically devaluing our own bioregion.”


My own contribution to the workshop was titled “Braided Channels of Watershed Consciousness: Loren Eiseley’s “The Flow of the River” and the Platte Basin Timelapse Project.” Mixing personal narrative, theory, and literary analysis, I argue that watersheds, and the larger hydrologic cycle of which they are a part, provide a useful alternative to the local/global dichotomy:

“Theoretical conversations regarding place and space studies often revolve around the competing claims of lococentrism vs. a global perspective. I would argue that this formulation is a false and unproductive dichotomy that should be resisted at every opportunity, and I offer the bioregional concept of what Gary Snyder refers to as a ‘watershed consciousness’ as a particularly apt and rigorously materialist venue in which to demonstrate a more holistic perspective.”

I analyze Loren Eiseley’s essay “The Flow of the River,” about his experience of watershed consciousness on the Platte River in central Nebraska, and compare it to a new project, the Platte Basin Timelapse.

“In 2011, Nebraska photographers Mike Forsberg and Michael Farrell established the Platte Basin Timelapse Project. The PBT has installed more than 40 cameras placed strategically throughout the 90,000 square-mile Platte watershed, from Colorado’s Lake Agnes at 11,000 feet down to Plattsmouth, Nebraska, at 900 feet elevation, where the Platte debouches into the Missouri River. Each of these cameras takes a photograph every 30 seconds, which are then combined into stunning visual displays of the changing characteristics of the river that are made publically available via the internet and public television. They liken each camera to a chapter in a book in which each camera ‘tells one part of the story of [a] proverbial drop of water as it makes a journey of roughly 900 river miles through the heart of North America.”

I explained that the goal of their project “is to enable people to see an entire watershed in motion, to appreciate their place within this wider context, to understand the functional interconnectedness of land and water, and to generate advocacy for river restoration and protection.”

I offered both Eiseley’s essay and the PBT project as two different but complementary ways to cultivate a watershed consciousness, and I note that both Eiseley and the PBT attempt to put the regional watershed into a larger, more global context, emphasizing that the local/global distinction is yet another false dichotomy that unnecessarily distorts and limits our thinking.




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Jul 6, 2015, 9:11 AM

Braided Channels Blog

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I intend this blog to be an occasional commentary on a variety of topics related to ecocriticism, bioregionalism, settler-colonial studies, teaching, research projects, nature adventures, travels (including my upcoming year in England), and my editing of Western American Literature. Plus anything else that inspires me to commentary. I adopt the name “braided channels” to reflect these various streams that wander in more or less the same direction, intersecting at times, diverging at others. I have also been doing some research and writing about two literal braided streams, the Platte River in Nebraska and the Channel Country in Australia, so the phrase came immediately to mind when I pondered a title for this blog.