Archive for category Environmentalism

The Problem With Wilderness

“I knew I must be nearing your woodland retreat when the Golden Pheasant lunchroom came into view—Sealtest ice cream, toasted sandwiches, hot frankfurters, waffles, tonics, and lunches. Were I the proprietor, I should add rice, Indian meal, and molasses—just for old time’s sake: The Pheasant, incidentally, is for sale: a chance for some nature lover who wishes to set himself up beside a pond in the Concord atmosphere and live deliberately, fronting only the essential facts of life on Number: 126.”

E.B. White, “Walden” (1938)

E.B. White, best known for his children’s book Charlotte’s Web, was just one in a long line of writers to document his disillusionment with Walden Pond. Most writers approach this physical landscape after reading Thoreau’s famous book about living on the shores of the pond. His writing creates the impression that Walden Pond and its environs are a wilderness. Yet anyone who had visited the area or studied its history knows that Walden is far from meeting our definition of wilderness.

Wilderness narratives in the US imagination are not dissimilar from colonial narratives of first encounters between Europeans and the First Nations that inhabited what became the United States. It is a central idea to most pioneer novels as well (whether set on earth or in outer space) and also to every Western. Wilderness presents to us a space that is largely devoid of human habitation. A blank canvas on which to present our thoughts about ourself and the universe.

Part of us knows as a reader that no such place exists, nor did it ever. The earth is much smaller than we think. Most places have traces of human habitation. Even John Muir’s Yosemite (made possible by Thoreau’s earlier encomium to Walden) was not untouched by human habitation. When Muir first lived there, it was as a sheep herder in a valley that was well used by highland flocks.

To their credit, authors like Thoreau and Muir acknowledge (albeit sporadically) the presence of humans in the landscape. They do so, however, merely to point out the threat of humans to this potential Eden. A few enlightened humans (such as Muir and Thoreau) must protect the landscape from those who would trash it.

This mindset gave birth to the 20th Century Environmental movement and also helped create numerous local, state, and national land preserves, including those at Walden and in Yosemite. These movements proved valuable as industrial growth used up large portions of the earth to produce disposable products. But their blindspots to settler colonialism, paternalism, and class bias have limited the value of these movements in the 21st century. Their obsession with unspoiled spaces has also constricted the ways in which environmentalism speaks to an age dominated by human-made climate change (often referred to by academic scholars as the Anthropocene). The whole earth now is changing rapidly and irrevocably, making the notion of untouched spaces ecologically quaint if not absurd.

Although the scale of change taking place in the world now is unprecedented, the concept of human made environmental change is not. Consider Walden Pond. This area outside of Concord could never be conceived of as a pristine landscape. It had been used as a woodlot, dumping ground, and shanty-town for as long as anyone in the village could remember. Most of its flora and fauna were either placed their by human action (especially the fish) or came after the alteration of the original landscape. Ignoring this fact is the source of much disillusionment for Thoreau’s disciples and leads to a seemingly never-ending call to save Walden from those who would harm it. To restore it to Henry’s pond.

The idea that nature has been “despoiled” by humans and must be restored regardless of the impact of that change on the humans currently living there is a problem. People only want to help the environment when they feel that they can have a meaningful relationship with it. That somehow it is a space they can interact with and enjoy. Just such a realization influenced the US government’s approach to national parks.

What would it mean, however, if we turned our gaze away from wilderness and all it represents and focused instead on a different set of metaphors? Emma Marris attempts to make this shift possible in her book The Rambunctious Garden, which I reviewed on my website over a year ago. Like the historian William Cronon, she asks her readers to imagine the everyday and ordinary space around them as a habitat. Then to ask themselves, am I living sustainably in relation to it? This doesn’t turn our yards or parkways into wilderness. It does, however, mark them as what they are–part of nature.

Humans have always lived in nature (even in the city) and the idea that we can manage or protect it is an illusion. Nonetheless, we can live in a more healthy landscape. One where human and non-human co-exist in symbiosis like two neighbors who only sort of understand each other. And we need to make this change if the planet is to have a future.

One way that this change in our relationship to the environment can be accomplished is through educating people on the landscape around them and encouraging them to tend that space as thoughtful inhabits, what I’m calling here “gardeners.”

A version of this takes place at the Chicago Botanical Garden, which is located in the northernmost lagoon of a water retention and flood control project completed in the 1930s by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). A human sculpted landscape within another human sculpted landscape.

Walking through this landscape one has an experience similar to that of Walden. You can hear the highway (Interstate 94) to the west of the garden. And on nice days the garden is swarmed with visitors. Not all of them respectful of the work done by the gardeners or all that interested in the plants.

Yet here is a place that makes it possible to change a mindset. A place like the Walden Thoreau imagined. Here if you can stop the noise (literal and figurative) of your daily life for a while you can realize that you are simply part of a larger biome. You can learn your place in that system and realize how fragile it is and how the fragility of that space directly affects your quality of life.

Another way in which this change from wilderness warrior to gardener takes place is in the efforts of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) to get local residents to plant trees. At select locations and times during the year, the MWRD gives away Oak trees for planting. These not only help retain stormwater that otherwise would overwhelm conventional sewers but also restore a green canopy to the region that soaks up carbon dioxide and helps lessen the urban heat island effect.

Gardeners are needed for the 21st Century not wilderness advocates and the pseudo-pioneer mentality they too often espouse. The former might spur people to action before the earth becomes unlivable because they focus attention on the land beneath your feet rather than somewhere far away. They also might encourage a changed attitude towards our habitat following that awareness. The latter, in contrast, will continue to fail in their attempts to persuade 2/3 of the planet to care about nature and then wax nostalgic on what we lost.

We also don’t need more technocrats to come and tell us what to do. In many cases, they are the same institutions and organization who created the problems we are living with today. Think of the corporations (for instance) who market their products as “green” without really caring at all about the environment. They simply know that such things sell today. Think of the solar panels that are made in China under unsustainable business practices and encourage the destruction of China’s landscape even as they are supposed to save that in the US.

No. Only people who care about the ground around them can change the way we live on earth. Start with your plot of earth, however small, and forge an ecologically healthy relationship to it. Then encourage your neighbors through your actions to do the same. This is the lesson I take from Thoreau and Walden in 2019. It’s a lesson I think that Henry would have been receptive to…

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My Spring Courses 2018 (Rhetoric/Composition)

Everything By Design–Writing About Chicago’s Infrastructure

ENGL 161 

Spring 2018

MWF 11-11:50 am (32287)

MWF 12-12:50 pm (14454)


Photo Courtesy of John Casey (2018)

Infrastructure is all around you. The roads you drive to work or school, the water that comes out of the faucet in your home, the lights you turn on when it gets dark, and even the schools you have attended are all examples of infrastructure. These intricately designed systems for organizing space are fundamental parts of our lives that we often take for granted until they malfunction. But what is the logic behind the systems that make up infrastructure and how were those systems created? What is the future for infrastructure, particularly in the Chicago area? These are just a few of the questions we will explore in this class as we use the subject of infrastructure to learn some basic skills of academic research and writing.




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NeMLA CFP (2019) Landscape and Immigration in the Long-Nineteenth-Century (Proposals Due 9/30)

In his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Hector St. John De Crèvecoueur asserted that “Men are like plants; the goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow.” Crèvecoueur imagined the land that would soon become the United States as nourishing soil for transplanted people arrived from other nations. Immigration was thus connected in his mind to metaphors of agriculture and the natural world. Immigrant narratives would remain attached to landscape metaphors throughout the long-nineteenth-century. This panel will explore some of those metaphors in the fiction written about immigrants to the United States from the early Republic to the early twentieth century. How do these narratives explain the relationship of immigrants to the new landscape they find themselves inhabiting? How do these metaphors shape national discourse on who belongs in the United States and who does not? These are just two of the potential questions that possible paper submissions might address. Research addressing questions of why immigrants fail to thrive in American soil or that explores undesirable groups through the lens of plant metaphors (such as weeds vs. productive crops) are particularly welcome.

This panel explores the relationship between immigration and fictional narratives about landscape in the United States from the early Republic to the early twentieth century.  Papers of between 15-20 minutes are sought that analyze natural metaphors used to explain why some groups of migrants to the United States thrive while others don’t.

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Redefining Nature in a Post-Wilderness World


Review: Emma Marris. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

“When conservationists focus on ‘pristine wilderness’ only, they give people the impression that that’s all that nature is. And so urban, suburban, and rural citizens believe that there is no nature where they live; that it is far away and not their concern. They can lose the ability to have spiritual and aesthetic experiences in more humble natural settings” (150).

This quote really captures the point that Marris is trying to make here. In a way, her book pairs nicely with Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989). Both argue that human induced climate change in what has been referred to as the Anthropocene Era has made the concept of ‘wilderness’ (land untouched by humans) untenable. Traces of the human are present in every landscape. When we try to remove them, we are simply engaging in a different form of human interaction, historical preservation applied to the land. Once we become aware of this fact, she argues, we must then consider what a responsible environmentalism can and should look like in this new era of human history.

Not surprisingly, Marris’s work also pairs well with William Cronon’s history in Nature’s Metropolis (1991), which shows the complex economic relationship between country and city, and also in Changes in the Land (1983), which demonstrates that the natives had already shaped the landscape to meet their needs before settlers from Europe arrived. It was simply shaped in a  way that was illegible to these eighteenth-century migrants from western Europe. Consequently, they saw the landscape as ‘untamed.’ 

Most of the book is designed to convince readers that we live in a post-wild world using research from science and the humanities as evidence. Near the end, she proposes a solution, in a model kind of like Michael Pollan’s in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), to create what she calls a ‘rambunctious garden.’ This is the kind of nature that we already see in and near our homes. Readers are simply encouraged to see that landscape as ‘nature’ and tend it more consciously for the benefit of the global community.

Marris’s book is highly readable and very useful to anyone who cares about the environment but feels stumped about where to start combatting climate change. As someone who came of age during the era of Earth First and the tongue and cheek “Save the Planet. Kill Yourself” bumpersticker, I find Marris’s approach to environmentalism surprisingly sane. This is a type of climate warrior ethos I can get behind. If you’re a teacher and are looking to teach popular science in your classroom, this is good place to start.

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Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #19)

Greetings from Chicago!

Looking at my blog posts, it’s hard to believe that my last was in March.  A lot of grading has happened since then as well as prep work for what promises to be a great conference in Pittsburg for NeMLA 2018.  You can find a list of all the Calls for Papers here:

Every year Area Directors have the opportunity to promote sessions and roundtables on topics of interest to them or that they believe are under-represented at the conference.  Among the sessions and roundtables I’ve proposed this year are:

What Counts As A War Story?  

This roundtable will examine narratives of war that don’t fit the traditional mold of male-oriented and combat-centered fiction.  After all, there are many ways to serve in the military and plenty of women in uniform.  You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here:

Material Culture Studies and American Literature

This panel examines the tension between objects and ideas in American fiction.  What do U.S. authors have to say about the physical environment around them?  How does it support or contradict their beliefs about the world?  Papers on book and periodical history are also welcome.  Especially when the author addresses their own concerns about the production and distribution of their work.  You can submit an abstract for a paper to this session here:

Teaching Disability in American Literature

This roundtable continues what was a fruitful discussion in Hartford, Connecticut on the topic of disability in American literature.  I’d like abstracts to consider not only new texts to teach as part of a disability studies curriculum but also new ways of teaching disability in the classroom using fiction.  You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here:

What Happened to the Reader?

This roundtable considers the experience of non-traditional and non-specialist readers of  fiction.  Presentations are especially welcome that examine teaching literary texts in not for credit courses and among non-traditional student populations.  You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here:

I hope you’ll consider submitting a proposal for NeMLA 2018.  If you have any questions about the sessions I’ve proposed, please feel free to contact me about them.

Now on to the topic for this month’s blog post.  Almost immediately after finishing up my grading and the session vetting for NeMLA 18 I jumped to the stack of books and articles in my writing space to start working on several projects that had been sitting, waiting for my attention for some time.

The first was a draft of an article based on my roundtable presentation in Baltimore on Drone Fiction.  Plan to submit that article soon to a journal.  The second was the manuscript of my second book on American Agriculture and Immigration that is slowly working its way into shape.  Most of the writing I’ve done on this second project has been in the form of reading notes for the books I’ve finished and brainstorming sheets where I think my way through the concepts I’m reading about in the slowly reducing book pile next to my computer.  I’d like to share some of that writing with you today.

From my reading on Agriculture in the U.S. so far, I’ve discovered three main issues.  The first is that the concepts of Independence and Industry lead the debate over agrarianism and the agrarian ideal.  I’m particularly interested in how the ideology of the physiocrats fits into this debate.  Their view seems to be that the “best” immigrants are those who have an independent mindset while also being hard-working.  This leads them to thrive and “take root” in the new soil in which they have been “transplanted.” The problem then becomes over time that the Yeoman ideal merges with the capitalist image of the entrepreneur.  Can you truly say that you work for yourself when you employ a significant number of non-family workers?  How does the nation feel about immigrant entrepreneurs?  What counts as self-sufficiency?  Writers like Jefferson clearly imagined a balance between independence and industry that historical events tip in favor of industry imagined in capitalist terms.  Profit and efficiency become more important than the dream of a “competency” held by many early national writers (i.e. enough resources to support a comfortable life for one’s family without making them rich).  Yet the image of the independent worker remains.

Second, a facile understanding of nature has hidden the distinction between the pastoral and the georgic in literary history.  The pastoral is an urban and elitist view of the land that excludes the presence of workers and work.  It is definitely a non-farmer’s view of the land.  For better or worse, this mode of literary production in relation to nature has dominated discussions on non-urban life and shaped our view of nature as space “untouched” by humans (i.e. wilderness).  Such spaces, as William Cronon suggests, don’t exist and never really have.  Even the native people in the United States shaped their landscape to fit their needs.  Georgic, in contrast to pastoral, is a working and highly complex landscape. People are part of the ecosystem in the georgic mode rather than intruders.  The question is not, therefore, how to remove them from that space but to imagine a proper relationship to the land.  How do we fit within the ecosystem?  What do we do has humans to shape that system for better and for worse?

Third, like the “West” the Jeffersonian Agrarian Ideal of the Yeoman farmer was always already lost.  Perhaps Jefferson looked out his window at the slaves tending his fields and created his writings on Yeoman farmers to distract him from that unpleasant reality.  Whatever the case may be, the writings on farming in the United States are elegiac and mythic from the very beginning.  We only see this, however, when we focus on the workers and the labor they engage in on the land rather than emphasizes the “virgin” wilderness.

That’s all for this post.  I’m going to go back to that stack of books and keep reading.  As I learn more, I’ll share it with you.

Until Next Time…..

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #13)

Greetings from Chicago!

Construction season is in high gear on campus as fall weather finally makes its appearance.  In spite of the ongoing budgetary problems in Illinois, UIC has managed to put together enough of a capital projects fund to finish several longstanding plans for improving the campus.  One involves repairing the exterior of the building that houses my office (University Hall).  Right now the construction workers are jackhammering outside my office window.  A friend of mine from work put it best when she said that it sounds and feels like what a tooth must go through when you’re getting a root canal.  It’s very hard to focus in my office.  I’ll be glad when they’re done.

Bureaucratic report season is also in full swing.  I just filled out my annual Report of Non-University Activities (RNUA) form, which always reminds me of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate committee in the 1950s each time I fill it out.  All state faculty are now required under existing ethics laws to report sources of income in addition to their campus employment.  This has always seemed unfair to me for the lowest paid tier of faculty who often need to have multiple sources of non-university income to survive.  Chicago is becoming an increasingly more expensive place to live and income is fast being outpaced by the growing  cost in housing, healthcare, and services.  Soon to follow the RNUA report is my annual ethics test, which state employees can thank their two former governor’s (one in federal prison, one recently released) for inspiring.  And then, of course, there is the new Title IX test that will soon follow due to the ongoing epidemic of campus sexual assault and harassment.  Don’t get me wrong, I support ethical and moral behavior.  But no one told me when I decided to become a professor that I would have a “workflow” and that it would be a lot like working at Dunder Mifflin.  I guess this is what theorists mean when they talk about the new “Corporate University.”

In my last blog post, I promised to talk more about my current research interests.  For those of you who have read through my blog posts and writing samples on this site or (perhaps) have read my book (Come on, what are you waiting for?  You know you want to.), you know that my research has focused primarily over the years on veterans.  I’ve emphasized in particular how civilians in the United States during the Civil War portrayed those who served in the army and how that image conflicted with the ways in which veterans wanted to see themselves.  My current research emerges from these interests in an indirect way.  It started with the second chapter of my current book where I examine the career options available for Civil War soldiers as they came home from the war.  Among the most common career paths followed by these veterans was farming.  Winslow Homer’s well-known painting, The Veteran In a New Field, which graces the cover of my book, represents the pastoral ideal that appealed to many soldiers after the war.  In this image the viewer sees a man in his shirt sleeves cutting a field of grain.  Buried under the pile of wheat on the ground is his former army jacket and canteen.  These details are hard to discern without careful scrutiny of the painting, but once found they explain the title of the painting.

Homer’s painting evoked for its nineteenth-century audience a wide variety of associations between war and farming.  One would have been the image from Roman history of Cinncinnatus returning to his farm after serving as a general and political leader and the attempts by early Republican authors in the United States to portray George Washington as the New World’s Cinncinnatus.  Another would have been the image present in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, which describes the turning of swords into plows with the end of conflict.  In addition, viewers would have probably been aware of the land grant policies for veterans of previous US conflicts, which preceded the generous pension system created during the post Civil War period.  Added to these historical associations would have been the politcal rhetoric of free soilers, a major source of inspiration for the Republican Party in the Civil War Era.

All of these images of warriors turned farmers inspired soldiers to return to the farms they had left in order to fight the Civil War but also encouraged many men who had never used a plow to start a life tilling the soil.  Of course, the ideal of working the land as a farmer was far removed from the realities of nineteenth-century agriculture.  As I mention in my book, Homer’s image is somewhat anacronistic at a time when machinery was a common sight in the agrarian landscape.  Moreover, the veteran cutting grain works alone.  Harvesting was (and in many cases even today remains) a communal or group activity.  Yet, in spite of these inconsistencies, the image of the soldier turned farmer, and all the associations it contains, remains powerful in the national imagination of the United States.  One example from our own time in the Farmer Veteran Coalition and attempt to get veterans (primarily from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) back to the land.

Veterans served as the start of my current research project, but they are not the only focus of my new book.  As I’ve been reading early Republican discourse on farming in relation to US nataional identity, I have been struck by how strong the association is between citizenship and agriculture.  Jefferson and Crevecoeur are just two of the more obvious examples of public figures arguing for the importance of ties to the land in the process of turning immigrants into “Americans.”  Farming  and soldiering (as a citizen-soldier volunteer) are the two main paths to acceptance in the body politic during the nineteenth century.  The latter emphasizes the role of “sacrifice” to belonging and the former the role of “rootedness.”  Those who till the soil may not be chosen by God (as Jefferson suggests) but they are far less likely to be constantly on the move and thus disruptive to social stability.

But what takes root and how?  What humans thrive by contact with the soil and what humans do not?  This is the current set of questions that my research is trying to untangle.  When we talk about “weeds” and “cash crops” we are also talking about immigration.  Crevecoeur is right (to a certain extent) that people are like plants.  Where he errs is in his overly optimistic view of an immigrant’s chances in a new environment as well as his lack of awareness of the social contructedness of what counts as a good plant and what gets labelled a weed.

I’m also increasingly intrigued by the ways in which scholarship on agriculture has been walled off from that on the environment.  Agriculture and farmers are often portrayed as the enemy in environmentalist scholarship.  (Of course, this is slowly starting to change with the movement towards whole foods and heirloom crops.)  William Cronon’s work has been immensely useful to me for this reason.  In his first book, Changes In the Land, Cronon counters the concept of “wilderness” as a space untouched by human hands that exists in contrast to “cultivated lands.”  He says “The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem” (12).  

The next step for me is to learn more about the history of agricultural practices in the US.  I will share what I learn with you on this blog.  I’m also in the process of learning more about ecology and ecosystems.  If my blog’s readers have any works they would recommend that I read, feel free to comment on this post or email me directly.

Thanks for reading what has turned into an uncommonly long piece of writing this month.

Until Next Time….

John Casey



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