Daughter of the Earth and Water: A Syllabus for Environmental English

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By Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Better than all treasures/That in books are found . . .

–from To A Skylark by P.B. Shelley

When Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) needed some inspiration, he read the works of meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864), whose essay on clouds evolved into the classification system that weather professionals use today. The weather was Mr. Howard’s hobby, but he loved nature and wrote about science. The world was Mr. Shelley’s hobby, but he loved science and wrote about nature.

Fewer and fewer of my students become English majors. Their brains are immersed in science and math and technology; they want to become doctors and engineers. Many of them achieve their goals which are good for those of us who need the research done before we pick up our prescriptions that keep us alert enough to go to work and before we play outside in clean and sacred spaces.

Remember, and I shudder to write this, when these students leave my class, they may never read another poem or short story for the rest of their lives. What a world we live in when students spend most of their time on their phones or video games and do not go outside and look up or breathe fresh air or hike in the woods or notice clouds. How can we understand poetry if references to natural wonders are lost on the reader?

So, this year, I thought I would work with the HOSA (Health Occupation Students of America) teacher and devise a syllabus of topics that would immerse them in science and math, capturing their minds while I tried to capture what was left of their literary souls. Here is this year’s assignment and reading list:

Find the scientific, mathematical, and/or medical themes in your reading: patients’ rights, doctors’ rights, holistic medicine practices, right-to-die issues, AIDS, environmental justice and influences, Alzheimer’s, the role of government in health issues, addiction, poverty, medical care, philanthropic care, memory, sick societies, and preventative care.

Summer Reading, 2013-2014

Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen (nonfiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (nonfiction)

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (nonfiction)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (nonfiction)

Outside-of-Class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

August: Poboy Contraband by Patrice Melnick (nonfiction)

September/October: The Youngest Science by Lewis Thomas (collection of essays)

November/December: Small Wonders by Barbara Kingsolver (collection of essays)

January-February: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (YA fiction) and

                               The Professor and the Housekeeper by Yoko Ogawa (short fiction)

March-April: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (fiction)

In-class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Wit by Margaret Edson

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Long Day Journey’s Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

and one million poems and song lyrics and short stories

Okay, maybe not a million, maybe not even Shelley, and if I could, I would have my students subscribe to the paper editions of The Sun and Orion every year, to be able to appreciate the beautiful photographs and the exquisite nature writing. Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, on watching a grasshopper up close and personal is the first poem I teach every year.

For college students, the following syllabus is a little more academic as well as full of experiences: they choose an environmental justice issue to research. They volunteer hours to their new cause. And, this is the delicious part, we can have class in the open or in lab or a greenhouse or a park or a farmers’ market, at the botanic gardens, or in the science building.

Course Title: Environmental Activism: Discovering the Literary Influences

Course Objectives: 1) To analyze social, political, economic, cultural, historical, and spiritual factors that shape writers’ ideas about nature. 2) To discuss the literary art of nonfiction in environmental texts. 3) To consider environmental writers in choosing models for activism.

 Syllabus of Readings

Week 1: Inter-relationships: humans and the environment

Introduction to Course, A planned walk

Loren Eiseley, “The Angry Winter” from The Unexpected Universe

Robert Root, “Place” from The Nonfictionist’s Guide

Annie Dillard, “Heaven and Earth in Jest” and “Seeing” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

E. B. White, “Once More To the Lake” from Essays of E.B. White

Week 2: Bioregionalism

Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place” from The Sense of Place

Barry Lopez, “The Stone Horse” from Crossing Open Ground

Week 3: Environmental Justice

Eileen Gauna, “An Essay on Environmental Justice: The Past, the Present, and Back to    the Future” from Natural Resources             Journal

Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac

Week 4: Effects of Globalization

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed

Week 5: Resources and Conservation

Wendell Berry, “Conservation is Good Work” from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community

Gary Snyder, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons” from The Practice of the Wild

Joe Wilkins, “Out West” from Orion Magazine

Week 6: Overconsumption

Eric Schlosser, “Your Trusted Friends” from Fast Food Nation

Bill McKibben, ” Green from the Ground Up” from Sierra Magazine

Week 7: Pollution and Toxic Exposure

Kristen Iversen, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats

Week 8: Agriculture and Food

John McPhee, “Oranges” from Oranges

            Michael Pollan, “What’s Eating America” from Smithsonian

Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating” from What Are People For?

Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen

Week 9: Concerns about water

Midterm Exam

Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea

 Week 10: Indigenous Cultures

Leslie Marmon Silko, “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination” from The Ecocriticism Reader

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh

Week 11: Visions of present and future environmental conflict

Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

Week 12: Grass-root Movements and Setting New Courses

Wallace Stegner, “Wilderness Letter” from The Sound of Mountain Water

Edward Abbey, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” from Words from the Land:Encounters with Natural History Writing

Bill McKibben, “Where Have All the Joiners Gone?” from Orion Magazine

Week 13: Visions of Future Sustainability

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Week 14: Final Week

Thich Nhat Hahn, “Bathing a Newborn Buddha (Washing the Dishes)” from The Sun My Heart

Turn in Activism Project Paper, Final Exam

I did not get to Long Day’s Journey Into Night this year because of time, but I prefer to leave my students, not in the foggy coastal clouds of morphine addiction, but, instead, in the essence of the literary celebration of nature, just as Howard left Shelley in the throes of wind patterns, water cycles, and cloud forms.

All students of the world need recess where they can look up at a clean sky. All students of the world need to read the words that try to capture that beauty, a 10,000-year-old task, attempted by writers who understand that human beings struggle with the immensity of outside.

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4 thoughts on “Daughter of the Earth and Water: A Syllabus for Environmental English

  1. An incredible post, Natalie. I admire your goals and wish you well with them. Personally, I’m taking your reading list for myself as there are many there I’ve missed. Time to begin reading more deeply. Thank you.

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