Braided Channels Blog

Lilacs by the Door

Housewithlilacs2On November 12, 2018, I gave an invited presentation to the Center for Kansas Studies at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas on the topic of settler colonialism in the US and Australia. It was based on my research and articles on women’s frontier gardening. Here is the text of the talk, along with the powerpoint. Thanks to Vanessa Steinrotter and all the folks at the Center for Kansas Studies for the opportunity.

Powerpoint:  Lilacs Talk

The Lilac by the Door:

Ecocriticism, Grasslands, and Women’s Settler Colonial Narratives

in the U.S. and Australia

 Washburn University, Topeka Kansas, Nov. 12, 2018

Tom Lynch

University of Nebraska, Lincoln

SLIDE 1

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

SLIDE 2: Maps

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

SLIDE 3:  SETTER COLONIAL STUDIES BOOKS

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

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

SLIDE 4: EMPIRE

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

SLIDE 5: EMIGRANTS POSTER

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

SLIDE 6:  READY MADE FARMS

SLIDE 7: LAND FOR SALE

SLIDE 8: MILLIONS OF ACRES

SLIDE 9: SHADOW IMAGES

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

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

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

SLIDE 10: EXPLORERS

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

SLIDE 11: INDIGENOUS

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

SLIDE 12: PATRIOTIC IMAGE

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

SLIDE 13: HOMESTEADER IMAGE

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

SLIDE 14: OUTLAWS

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

SLIDE 15: CATTLE AND SHEEP

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

SLIDE 16: ARBOR DAY

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

SLIDE 17: DUST BOWLS

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

SLIDE 18: BOMB IMAGES

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

SLIDE 19: IRRIGATION

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

SLIDE 20: PARK SIGN IMAGES

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

SLIDE 21: RESTORATION IMAGE

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

SLIDE 22: INDIGENOUS IMAGES

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

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

SLIDE 23: GUNFIGHTER

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

SLIDE 24: ABORIGINAL STOCKMEN IMAGE

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

SLIDE 25: NODAPL

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

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

SLIDE 26: PIONEER MOTHER IMAGES

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

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

SLIDE 27: NOT A COUNTRY AT ALL

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

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

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

SLIDE 28: PAWNEE VILLAGE

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 29: KOLODNY

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

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 30: KIRLKAND

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

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

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

SLIDE 31: CONWAY

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

SLIDE 32: COORAIN

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

SLIDE 33: WILLANDRA STATION

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

SLIDE 34: JANET FLOYD

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

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

SLIDE 35: NO ROADS GO BY, ETC.

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

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

SLIDE 36: RED SANDHILL COUNTRY

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 37: WOONAMINTA 1

The book opens with:

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

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

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

SLIDE 38: WOONAMINTA 2 BILLABONG

SLIDE 39: WOONAMINTA 3 BILLABONG

Later, White happily describes her new homestead:

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

SLIDE 40: WOONAMINTA 4 GARDENS

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

And, breathlessly, she continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 41: WOONAMINTA 5

SLIDE 42: WOONAMINTA 6

SLIDE 43: WOONAMINTA 7

SLIDE 44: WOONAMINTA 8

SLIDE 45: WOONAMINTA 9

SLIDE 46: WOONAMINTA 10

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 47: ALDRICH

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

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

SLIDE 48: PRAIRIE

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 49: CATHER PLOW

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 50: CATHER FENCES

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

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

SLIDE 51: PRAIRIE FENCE

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 52: ARBOR DAY

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

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

SLIDE 53: ALDRICH HOUSE

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

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

then, the next year:

SLIDE 54: ALDRICH HOUSE FLOWERS

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 55: MANNING BOOK

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

SLIDE 56: LILAC HOUSES

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

SLIDE 57: MANNING

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 58: A NEW GARDEN ETHIC

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

 

Loren Eiseley’s Nebraska: A Digital Storymap

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

Loren Eiseley’s Nebraska

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Always Becoming Bioregional

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


Session 1: Bioregional Becomings I.

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Abstract

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.

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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. 

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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

COMPANIONS IN RESTORATION:

BUFFALO RANCHING AS INTERSPECIES AND INTERCOMMUNITY RECONCILIATION, THE CASE OF DAN O’BRIEN’S WILD IDEA

Companion Species in North American Cultural Productions

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

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Toulouse

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

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Abstract

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

 

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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