NFN18: “Sub/Urban Environmental Writing”

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Panel Participants: Taylor Brorby, Lisa Couturier, Michael P. Branch, Nick Neely, Amy Benson

Nick Neely opened this panel with a statistic: 80% of the US population currently lives in cities and towns.  Only 20% of us live in what can be called “dispersed areas” – areas we often think of as “natural.”  Given this reality, why isn’t more of what we call “environmental writing” focused on the landscapes which we actually inhabit?  The five panelists offered thoughts on how they have chosen to address the dearth of sub/urban environmental texts.

Amy Benson described her desire to write “away from nostalgia” and “towards what is.”  Benson has written from the first person plural point of view in an attempt to diminish the importance of the individual – the voice that has historically been prominent in American nature writing.  Through her work, she hopes to create a sense of the “we” that is interacting with its surroundings in the present, in order to foster a different way of looking at human beings’ relationships with the natural world in the future.

Mike Branch described the conundrum he faces as a person who has lived and written about rural landscapes for fifteen years but recently moved to a house in the suburbs.  He read an excerpt from his most recent book in which he responds to Thoreau’s essay about lawns.  Inn his text, Branch overtly criticizes lawns; then, he admits to having one and loving it.  He underlined the importance of always relating to the reader and avoiding any sense of superiority in communicating environmental themes.

Taylor Brorby read from his paper, “Country Mouse and City Mouse.”  In it, he contradicts the claim of this panel, stating that we do not need more urban and suburban nature writing; rather, what we need is to feel dwarfed by nature – to feel small and not in control.  In urban landscapes, human beings generally dominate.  Brorby holds that by listening to the voices of authors who live in rural settings where human beings are not in charge, we are more likely to achieve a non-dominant perspective.

Lisa Couturier’s book, The Hopes of Snakes, examines the lives of animals that live within a sixty-mile radius of New York City.  Her research had her studying rats, coyotes, snakes, vultures, crows, and other animals we often dismiss.  She proposed that animals help people to see beyond themselves to what is possible, nurturing the relationships of radical empathy that are needed in human interactions with the environment.

Nick Neely’s current project has him describing his re-creation of the Portola Expedition, the journey from San Diego to San Francisco undertaken in the 1800’s as a part of the Spanish conquest of California.  He read a section of his text in which he travels on foot and camps just outside of urban Irvine, CA.

For me, the most interesting discussion was one that arose out of Neely’s question of whether or not the panelists could identify a text that they thought might be the Walden of sub/urban nature writing.  Benson suggested that having and upholding a single canonical text, like Walden, is not something we should aspire to. A single dominant voice, Benson offered, is not appropriate for our constantly changing world.  Branch added that he often asks his students what the next Silent Spring will be, and their responses generally indicate that the next work of that significance will not, in fact, be a book.  It is more likely to assume some other medium.

The overarching theme of this panel, in my view, was the importance of making environmental writing relevant to where we are now in both space and time. In order to do so, work must avoid excessive nostalgia, mourning, anger, and grief, and instead consider alternate perspectives (such as radical empathy and a non-hierarchical view of animals), enable the reader to feel small, connect with the struggles of the reader, and foster a sense of global community.

Bridget A. Lyons is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University while also working as an editor and composition instructor. A graduate of Harvard University, she has had essays published in Atticus Review, Wanderlust, 1888 Center, and Elephant Journal and recently received a grant to travel with and write about bird biologists in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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