Thursday, July 14, 2005

Literature and activism along the Pacific Crest Trail


For Corey Lee Lewis, who teaches environmental literature at the University of Nevada in Reno and a wilderness survival class at Truckee Meadows Community College, also in Reno, we are in the midst of an ecological crisis: "Today, we are witness to such a rapid eradication of biodiversity, massive disruption of the planet's life-support system and permanent despoliation of natural ecosystems that the very future of biological evolution seems to be threatened."

If this is true, how should higher education respond? What should students be learning?

His answer comes in "Reading the Trail: Exploring the Literature and National History of the California Crest" ($24.95 in paper from University of Nevada Press). The 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail, part of the National Scenic Trails System, "runs from Mexico to Canada, crossing three Western states -- California, Oregon and Washington -- and five distinct ecological regions." Lewis focuses on three environmental writers associated with California regions of the trail.

Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) explored Southern California in "The Land of Little Rain" (published in 1903) and unsuccessfully "opposed the diversion of life-sustaining waters from the Owens Valley to the city of Los Angeles."

John Muir (1838-1914) is associated with the "high Sierra Nevada to the Yosemite Valley floor. ... And running right through the middle of it ... lies the central portion of California's Pacific Crest Trail."

Finally, Lewis writes of a poet, born in 1930, who finds his home in the Northwest where the trail winds "its way through moss-covered California black oak, Douglas fir, bracken fern and mountain misery, or, as the native Wintu and author Gary Snyder call it, ‘kitkitdizze.’ ... Snyder's poetry has fused ecological insights and Native American wisdom with Buddhist teachings and practice to offer an alternative paradigm for Americans who wish to ‘reinhabit’-- or become native to -- their own home places."

Each of these writers represents another fusion: literature and activism. They are exemplars for Lewis. "An environmental education cannot simply stop after imparting information; it must also alter students' basic worldviews, values and actions if it is to be effective." Since for Lewis human culture is responsible for the environmental crisis, the goal of environmental education must be nothing less than cultural transformation. He hastens to add that, "far from being an authoritarian imposition of the instructor's personal values or political opinions, transformative education promises to liberate students from the chains of apathy and ineffectualism with which our current educational practices bind them."

Central to the kind of education Lewis proposes is a combination of ecological science, field work and what is called "ecocriticism." Scientific quantification alone cannot address "environmental values, beliefs and aesthetics." And too often ecocritics have explicated an environmental text (such as a Snyder poem) without adequate field experience or scientific expertise. As an example, Lewis quotes Snyder's "On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-one Years":

Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.

In love with what? Textual critics are mystified about the meaning of the last line; but when Lewis and a group of students climb the mountain, west of Bridgeport, looking down on the Pacific Crest Trail, it all comes clear: "As I read the poem again, amid the roaring wind, thin air, and sunlight, all of which seemed to be stretching space and vision out to eternity, the words seemed to come alive in my hand. ... Snyder's ‘love’ refers to the land beneath his feet, to the mountains and forests of Turtle Island's great western shores."

Lewis and his students, venturing in Muir's footsteps, examining individual plants for their field journals, can more readily understand the naturalist's sarcastic observation that the measure of the value of poison oak or mosquitoes is their usefulness to human beings. Lewis sees in Muir "the beginnings of an ecocentric philosophy."

Lewis calls, then, for a new environmental pedagogy, one that teaches students to "love and protect this miraculous planet" by converting not just minds but hearts as well. This is an accessible and thoughtful book, but one sure to stir controversy among at least some readers who will dispute the author's claim that we are living in a human-made global ecological crisis -- and that the only way out is through social change.

For others, though, the book will be a breath of, well, fresh air.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

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