Coming into Contact: Explorations in Ecocritical Theory and Practice

Coming into Contact: Explorations in Ecocritical Theory and Practice

Coming into Contact: Explorations in Ecocritical Theory and Practice

Coming into Contact: Explorations in Ecocritical Theory and Practice


A snapshot of ecocriticism in action, Coming into Contact collects sixteen previously unpublished essays that explore some of the most promising new directions in the study of literature and the environment. They look to previously unexamined or underexamined aspects of literature's relationship to the environment, including swamps, internment camps, Asian American environments, the urbanized Northeast, and lynching sites. The authors relate environmental discourse to practice, including the teaching of green design in composition classes, the restoration of damaged landscapes, the persuasive strategies of environmental activists, the practice of urban architecture, and the impact of human technologies on nature.

The essays also put ecocriticism into greater contact with the natural sciences, including elements of evolutionary biology, biological taxonomy, and geology. Engaging both ecocritical theory and practice, these authors more closely align ecocriticism with the physical environment, with the wide range of texts and cultural practices that concern it, and with the growing scholarly conversation that surrounds this concern.


One of the many paradoxes confronting students of literature and the environment is the fact that “environments” are both places and processes. On the one hand, deserts, mountains, prairies, watersheds, and other familiar environments are clearly places; they “take place” in particular locations and inspire legions of devoted citizens to work for their protection. On the other hand, environments are never stable; they change all the time, shaped not only by the biogeochemical cycles of carbon, water, and nitrogen but also by the anthropogenic changes that accompany population growth and technological innovation. What may not be as obvious is that the term most often used to describe the study of literature and the environment— ecocriticism—is equally paradoxical, signaling at once the physical products of this lively form of critical theory and practice and also the ongoing process of scholarly conversation, the boundaries of which are as fluid as the sea itself.

The title of this collection—Coming into Contact—aims to acknowledge these paradoxes both in use of the progressive verb tense and in the allusion to Henry David Thoreau’s well-known passage from “Ktaadn”: “Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”

We allude to Thoreau not because we view him as an “environmental saint” (see Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination) but because his gradual awakening while descending Mount Katahdin in 1846 so clearly illustrates the significance of the first of these paradoxes to ecocritical theory and practice. Upon observing in “Ktaadn” that the land through which he was passing was not merely a place but also a process—“untamed, and forever untameable Nature”—Thoreau became filled with awe, first at the ground on which he was walking, then at his own wild body, and finally at . . .

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