This will be an interdisciplinary course which familiarizes students with the complex history of human interactions with North American environments from the era of first European contact to the present. We will move through the material chronologically, and do justice, eventually, to the major bio-regions of North America. We will use Carolyn Merchant’s textbook American Environmental History as the major guide, along with chapters from Wilderness and the American Mind, Changes in the Land, and The Columbian Exchange. We will move from the contact/colonial period in which we will observe the clash of various land ethics amongst Amerindian, European, and African peoples; geographically we will focus on the Caribbean, Virginia, and New England, accounting for both the tropical plantation order and Puritan notions of wilderness. We will then move to the Revolutionary/Early National period to see how ideas of nationhood and citizenship were tied up both in notions of land ownership, but also territorial immensity in the west, and to see how Enlightenment science found systematic order in nature. We will then study Emerson and Thoreau (in New England), and John Muir (in California) to see how transcendent spiritualities were etched into, or discovered in, the delicate processes of natural history; we will see in these authors Romantic and conservationist responses to the rise of industry, rapid transport, and land despoliation—responses which still influence the language of environmentalism today. Next we will read early 20th-century texts which respond to two different bio-regional histories: Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, about the transformation of the prairie; and William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Zora Neale Hurston’s collections of African-American folk tales, about the plantation regime and disappearing forests in the deep south. From Rachel Carson and the Environmental Justice movement, we will decipher the late 20th-century turn towards a “toxic discourse” as regards a human fear of degraded environments. We will finish by assessing the present moment: Katrina; neo-transcendental writers; “locavore” and “slow food” movements; Global Climate Change debates and representations; the “trouble with wilderness”; and the new globalization of environmental thinking.
Such a course will help students understand American history as an environmental history. It will familiarize them with the ‘canon’ of environmental writing and thinking in the U.S. We will also do some field work in the Nichols Arboretum and the Museum of Natural History, making students aware of the ‘Public Goods’ which surround them at the University, and how these are caches of learning. We might also, in thinking about food and Environmental Justice issues, visit and do a day of service learning with the organization, The Greening of Detroit. You will write a number of short papers throughout the term, including both interpretations of texts we are reading and a more creative exercise in environmental autobiography.