Braided Channels Blog

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. 

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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