What is Environmental Imagination?

Poems, stories, and essays are not written in a vacuum; they arise from the imaginations of writers who are imprinted and influenced by specifics of place and landscape–by history, geography, geology, biology, and ecology, among others.  And the texts that writers create are also situated in and imprinted by particular bio-regions and multiple environments, often subtle and complex.

Where would William Faulkner have been without YoknapatawphaCounty, or Wallace Stegner have been without the American West, the Big Rock Candy Mountain?  Where would Janisse Ray be without the rural southern Georgia bio-region of her childhood, or Annie Proulx be without the austere landscapes of Newfoundland and Wyoming from which to draw stories?

Through creative writing workshops, study in literature courses, cross-disciplinary environmental coursework in disciplines other than English, self-designed fieldwork experiences, and intensive thesis work with a major professor, writers in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment will learn to develop and cultivate an eco-centric aesthetic in their writing.  The result is writing that is rich in specifics, subject matter, and imaginative content.

To begin considering how we, as writers, might come to a greater awareness of the environmental underpinnings and ecological considerations of the texts we create, we can begin with Lawrence Buell’s succinct phrase, “the environmental imagination.”  In his ground-breaking work, The Environmental Imagination, Buell outlines what he believes to be the four earmarks of an environmental text:

1) The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history;

2) The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest;

3) Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation; and

4) Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

Suggested Reading

Abram, David.  The Spell of the Sensuous:  Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World.

Bate, Jonathan.  The Song of the Earth.

Berry, Wendell.  The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

Buell, Lawrence.  The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture.

Buell, Lawrence.  The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination.

Carson, Rachel.  Silent Spring.

The Ecocritism Reader:  Landmarks in Literary Ecology.  Ed.  Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm.

The Future of Nature: Writing on a Human Ecology from Orion Magazine. Ed. Barry Lopez.

Gessner, David.  Sick of Nature.

Hawthorne Deming, Alison.  Writing the Sacred Into the Real.

Hogan, Linda.  Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World.

Homeground: Language for an American Landscape.  Eds. Debra Gwartney and Barry Lopez.

Leopold, Aldo.  A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River.

McDonough, William and Michael Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

McKibben, Bill.  Deep Economy:  The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.

Pollan, Michael.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. 

Snyder, Gary.  The Practice of the Wild:  Essays.

Turner, Jack.  The Abstract Wild.

Uncommon Ground:  Rethinking the Human Place in Nature.  Ed. William Cronon

Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

Williams, Terry Tempest.  Finding Beauty in a Broken World.


Environmental Journals & Magazines

Canary Online

Ecotone: Reimagining Place

Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment

The Fourth River

ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment

Orion Magazine

Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments