Course description for American Nature Writing, Guilford College, Spring 2021:
“Autumn teaches us that fruition is also death; that ripeness is a form of decay.” So writes Gretel Ehrlich in one of the essays collected in The Solace of Open Spaces. The basic premise of her statement lies wedged in its first two words: “Autumn teaches.” It suggests that the natural world, perhaps peeled back for us through the carvings of observation and language intent on discovery, has things to show us, lessons by which we can learn. And while it has become abundantly clear in the past few years that many who lead nations in our world have been studiously deaf to the obvious messages of a natural world groaning in travail, this does not release us from the responsibility of re-learning how to listen to the spirit and teaching of nature. This course employs a number of guides—from Native American traditions to nineteenth-century transcendentalists to contemporary writers—whose words aim to assist in the recovery of a lost sensibility, a capacity to observe attentively those meanings lodged in the cycling processes and startling or ordinary occurrences of the natural world.
American Nature Writing surveys a range of creative non-fiction prose and poetry from the nineteenth century to the present written with the express intent of exploring the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Because this is both a course in literature and religion, we will look carefully at the ways in which Americans have viewed their encounters with nature as particularly evocative of the spiritual, as revelatory of that which they consider the divine.
Like the anthology we will read edited by David Barnhill, the original creator of this course here at Guilford College, the course will focus on the centrality of place as a concept in writing about and living rightly with the natural world; we will continuously return to the idea that living in and coming to understand deeply the ecology of a particular locale places human beings into a fuller relationship with the natural environment. We live in a culture that often values portability—think of books, the I-Pad, the smart phones, cloud computing, the Internet—well above the stability and particularity of place. Cultures that evolved before the advent of writing and reading (what David Abram calls “pre-alphabetic” cultures in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous) tended to develop profound relationships with special, sacred places and were no longer able to comprehend their world when separated from these particular sites. Contemporary American culture values the peripatetic, the mobile, the displaced. This course raises a counter-cry against the idea that we should over-value the rootless and the wandering because in order to appreciate profoundly the ecology of our world, we have to stay in place long enough to see the results of our actions out to the seventh generation. The readings and assignments for the course have been designed to make students pay attention to, to inhabit, the particulars of distinct place.