Ever since the first cave painting of a woolly mammoth, the first
story of creation told as the moon rose over a cooking fire, men and
women have yearned to express their thoughts and feelings about the
From Sumerian epic poems, Greek mythology, biblical stories, and
pre-Christian Celtic tales on up through the Old English, Middle
English, Renaissance, and Romantic periods to the present, such
writing has become more overt and more prolific.
At first, it was a way of exploring the natural word and the
reactions - wonder and joy and fear of "the wild" - that it
elicited. Then, as societies took root and expanded, as nomads
settled down to become farmers and artisans, then factory workers,
it was a way of expressing values - mankind's domination over
nature, the place of gender in the human order.
At the turn of the millennium, more and more readers and scholars
are seeing that this is not limited to "nature writing."
"All texts are at least potentially environmental ... in the
sense that all texts are literally and/or imaginatively situated in
a place, and in the sense that their authors, consciously or not,
inscribe within them a certain relation to their place," writes
Boston College English professor Robert Kern in the current journal
of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment
This was certainly true of much of William Shakespeare's plays
most notably "The Tempest," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "The
Tragedy of King Lear."
Thus can Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," Willa Cather's "O
Pioneers!" and even the largely urban settings of Charles Dickens
also be seen as environmental texts.
More obviously, the writing of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo
Emerson, and Walt Whitman are classic examples of the genre -
forerunners of such well-known 20th-century writers on nature as
Aldo Leopold ("A Sand County Almanac"), Rachel Carson ("Edge of the
Sea"), Edward Abbey ("Desert Solitaire"), Gretel Ehrlich ("The
Solace of Open Spaces"), Annie Dillard ("Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"),
and Gary Snyder ("Practice of the Wild").
For many writers, the environment became more than a scene in
which to place a tale.
"The salient feature of environmental literature is that nature
is not merely a setting or backdrop for human action, but an actual
factor in the plot, that is, a character, and sometimes even a
protagonist," writes John Tallmadge, professor of literature and
environmental studies at the Union Institute Graduate School in
Cincinnati, in the ASLE journal. …