My current research program sets out to define what I call “literary ecology,” an emerging literary movement that, despite its importance to contemporary ecological thinking, has not been adequately theorized. A committed literature that in many respects aligns itself with the writing of such celebrated environmentalists as Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey, literary ecology artfully incorporates environmental ethics and politics, as well as ecological theory and science, into its literary compositions. The novelty of this movement is the artistic, especially narrative, innovation with which it thinks and rethinks ecological problems. The task of the critic of literary ecology is not to make ecological sense of the literature, or to interpret and evaluate the soundness and eloquence of ecology’s literary articulation, as the prevailing version of ecocriticism would typically set out to do; rather, it is to discover how the art of literary composition creates new ecological thinking beyond established ecological science. To fulfill such a task, this research program will assemble exemplary texts of literary ecology and demonstrate how they articulate and mobilize new ethico-aesthetic paradigms of ecological thinking. For a method of analysis, I draw chiefly upon philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who read literature for a specifically artistic potential to critique, diagnose, and recreate the social, mental, and environmental ecology of contemporary life, and whose “geophilosophy” rethinks ecological, geological, and biological theory for envisioning “a new earth” and “a new people.”
The primary objectives of “Literature for a New Earth” are to explore, theorize, and elaborate the concept and practice of literary ecology, and to demonstrate how, and how well, literary ecology creates new ecological thinking for enhancing environmental health. More precise objectives are to show how literary ecology composes landscapes of chaos and complexity over time, and how it foregrounds hidden time-generated change as an affecting, evolutionary earth force in degraded or devastated environments. My analysis focuses on literary ecology’s inventive use of narrative to envision the folds and flows of the earth over eons of time, and the way these movements affect present stratifications of ecological life. For example, in travelogues of the desert southwest, Ellen Meloy remobilizes ancient place names and nomadic cartographies, and she reads geological history and evolutionary biology back into the landscape, as she drives across nuclear test-sites in quest of remnant herds of desert bighorn sheep. Instead of picturing future doom or past Eden on a human time line of (ir)remediable progress, Meloy reveals a present landscape that is forever involved with earth forces of untimely and volatile creativity. One result of this research program will be a monograph that conceptualizes the expanding ethico-aesthetic terrain on which literary ecology prospects, as it composes, figures of ecological and environmental becoming. The Becoming Landscapes of Literary Ecology proceeds on the premise that landscape composition is literary ecology’s primary artistic act and activist aesthetics. My analysis will assess how–with what critical and clinical capability–literary ecology deploys narrative to compose and promote landscapes of prospective vitality.
“Literature For a New Earth” assembles for constructive compositional analysis a wide range of narrative writing. Forms of creative non-fiction that press the concept and practice of literary ecology furthest into new terrains of ecological thinking and expression are new and hybrid forms of nature writing, travel writing, western writing, bioregional narrative, place-based memoir, environmental journalism, First Nations’s stories of living with the earth, on-the-road narratives of rediscovering the land and other “nomadic” narratives. For example, Ellen Meloy’s The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, Art, and Spirit (2005) maps peripatetic narratives across the desert southwest, where turquoise is “mined” for its sacral value to the nomadic Navajo, and, conversely, for its Western equivalent–the extravagant blue of suburban swimming pools, drawn from desert watersheds at invaluable ecological cost. Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (1996) narrates serial, anthropological travels with Apache guides to remap the land as demarcated by indigenous place-names. Rebecca Solnit intervenes in traditional western landscape art by introducing environmental politics into the landscape compositions she reads and writes. Her Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West (2000) and Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (2007), and other activist-artistic landscape compositions, assemble the incisive components of geography, ecology, landscape art and geopolitics, or what she calls “elements of a new landscape,” into exemplary works of what I call literary ecology. These texts not only politicize the aesthetic by recomposing western landscapes to display their repressed politics but also ecologize the political by mapping mobilizing earth forces in the event of environmental affliction. The same can be said of landscape compositions by other literary ecologists featured prominently in The Becoming Landscapes of Literary Ecology, notably those of Rick Bass, Elizabeth Dodd, Gretel Ehrlich, William L. Fox, John McPhee, and Gary Paul Nabhan. Narrative is the featured literary genre of literary ecology because, through narrative, unquantifiable and unpredictable ecological change become perceptible and thinkable. Narrative, whether singular or composite first-person, expresses the affects and intensities of ecological volatility in evolving terrain.
Ultimately, this research program advances humanities-based ecology and environmental studies with fivefold originality: it theorizes the concept and practice of literary ecology as a distinct and creative form of ecological thinking; it develops an archive and place-based vocabulary of literary ecology; it assembles and showcases an emerging “minor literature” of contemporary ecology; it elaborates Deleuze and Guattari’s geophilosophy in concrete ethico-aesthetic analyses; and it substantially promotes ecological literacy in an age of ecological crises and uncertainty.