Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present

Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present

Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present

Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present

Synopsis

Since colonial times, the sense of encountering an unseen, transcendental Presence within the natural world has been a characteristic motif in American literature and culture. American writers have repeatedly perceived in nature something beyond itself-and beyond themselves. In this book, John Gatta argues that the religious import of American environmental literature has yet to be fully recognized or understood. Whatever their theology, American writers have perennially construed the nonhuman world to be a source, in Rachel Carson's words, of "something that takes us out of ourselves."
Making Nature Sacredexplores how the quest for "natural revelation" has been pursued through successive phases of American literary and intellectual history. And it shows how the imaginative challenge of "reading" landscapes has been influenced by biblical hermeneutics. Though focused on adaptations of Judeo-Christian religious traditions, it also samples Native American, African American, and Buddhist forms of ecospirituality. It begins with Colonial New England writers such Anne Bradstreet and Jonathan Edwards, re-examines pivotal figures such as Henry Thoreau and John Muir, and takes account of writings by Mary Austin, Rachel Carson, and many others along the way. The book concludes with an assessment of the "spiritual renaissance" underway in current environmental writing, as represented by five noteworthy poets and by authors such as Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Peter Matthiessen, and Barry Lopez.
This engaging study should appeal not only to students of literature, but also to those interested in ethics and environmental studies, religious studies, and American cultural history.

Excerpt

Though I have spent the better part of my adult life pondering questions related both to religion and to the environmental imagination, this book represents my first extended effort to put the two together. In the past, my scholarly investigation of topics related to literature and faith rarely ventured out-of-doors. When I was growing up, in a typical American suburb after World War II, the environmental movement had yet to gain popular attention. But I always felt peculiarly drawn to the patch of field and woodland that I roamed as a child beside my home in Schenectady, New York. I suppose I never quite recovered from the shock of seeing this pleasantly enchanted, if not sacred, spot turn, some years ago, into a dreary strip mall. The local dairy farm, too, has long since been displaced by commercial development. So for me, as for countless others of my generation, the period that ended childhood's bucolic innocence happened to coincide with the beginning of decisive environmental and cultural changes. The postwar era saw development of a new interstate highway system, flourishing chemical and pesticide industries, limitless suburban sprawl, the decline of family farming, and the malling of America—but also, in time, new initiatives toward ecological restoration.

Like many others, too, I was moved when I first encountered Thoreau's Walden as an adolescent. This book, unlike any other I had read, awakened me not only to the beauty and surpassing worth of literature but also to the potentially religious—even sacramental— power of nature as reverenced by one committed to living deeply and deliberately. For me, this last awareness was reinforced by summer experiences at camp in the Adirondacks, a region that I still find sustaining during annual visits to Silver Bay on Lake George.

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