Attending the Sustainable City Year Program Conference at Univ of OR

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Eugene, Oregon, for the Sustainable City Year Program conference — the 3rd such gathering held annually at the University Of Oregon. I’m on a fact-finding mission to learn how the five-year-old SCYP got started at U of O, get insights from other colleges and universities who have started their own versions of the program at their institutions, and bring back good ideas to potentially implement at Roosevelt in Chicago.

13th Street at the Univ of Oregon in Eugene OR

13th Street at the Univ of Oregon in Eugene OR

I’ve already met some fantastic and interesting people here in Eugene, where we’re comfortably appointed at the downtown Eugene Hilton, and greatly anticipating today’s workshops and discussions. This gathering is rather small — more like a workshop than a conference — so I expect to get to know almost everyone in the group fairly easily in what will be three days of vigorous discussion and socializing. There are folks here from all across the US and even abroad (the Centre Transnational de Recherche Gabon), and it’s a nice mix of academics like myself as well as city professionals and officials — since the point of this program is connecting academic service learning to urban sustainable development in particular communities. But as far as I can tell, the only other folks from IL are a group from Augustana College in Rock Island; so I’m the sole participant from the Chicago Region. (That makes me rather happy, actually.)

According to By Nicole Ginley-Hidinger writing for the SCI blog, here’s an overview of the three-day conference:

A lot of student work goes to waste. After brilliant plans, layouts, and other assignments are turned in for a final grade, the reports, essays, and drawings are crammed into the back of a closet and forgotten about. SCYP changes that by creating a partnership between the University and a nearby city. Students get the chance to pitch ideas on real-world projects while cities get a wide array of proposals that they can incorporate into the development and growth of sites and programs. 

Institutions in over ten states have now implemented SCYP, adopting the program and crafting their own innovative approach. During April 16-18, many of these schools will converge in Eugene to share ideas and teach other universities interested in developing their own program during the SCYP conference.

The three-day conference includes SCI faculty who will discuss the Oregon model, panels made up of cities Oregon has worked with, cities other universities have worked with, and panels of program coordinators and faculty who will address how the format can be adapted and utilized in different locations.  

During the 2014 SCYP Conference, scheduled for April 15-18, the University of Oregon, will share tactics to creating a successful program centered on sustainability with the help of SCYP-like programs across the nation.

“The conference is huge,” says SCI co-director, Marc Schlossberg. “The conference will give new programs all of the context, and the nut and bolts, of how a program like this is organized, how it can be effective, and how to navigate through the system of cities and universities to get something done and organized.”

The SCI staff will share everything, from inspiring moments like the support they receive from the city staff and community to the more difficult aspects, such as not being able to find a city last year.

The three-day conference includes the SCI “program how-to”, where the Oregon model is broken down into city, student, and institutional engagement. The model is explained through presentations and discussions with cities Oregon has worked with, cities other universities have worked with, and panels of program coordinators and faculty who will address how the format can be adapted and utilized in different locations.  

“There’s been schools around the country that have been interested in this type of work and to this scale,” says SCI co-director, Nico Larco. “They have an interest in developing programs that are similar. We have all these different adaptations of this model.”

SCI wants to share that their model is versatile and can be implemented at any school, no matter the size or the type.

“The basic idea is that it takes advantage of classes that are already being taught in the university and leverages them in a different way,” says Schlossberg. “It can work anywhere there’s students, courses, and faculties.”

The main goal of the conference is to help schools build programs that take advantage of the resources that they already have to help the communities around them. In SCYP programs, classes help address vital community issues, such as climate change, minority outreach, and how to handle limited fiscal resources in conjunction with a community need for fresh ideas that are from a neutral source.

“Students are demanding applied learning opportunities and to make an impact in the world now, while they are students,” says Schlossberg. “We have idea-generating machines in students, classes and faculty, so if we’re going to make any progress at all on these big vexing multi-disciplinary problems in a community, the university should be active in addressing them.”

The first day of the conference will focus on schools that are interested in developing a program of their own. The University of Oregon is the sole presenter and will teach curious schools the ins-and-outs.  

“[It’s on] everything from how you structure within the university, like the faculty, to how you structure things within the city, like contracts, the schedule throughout the year, and the breath and depth of the projects” says Larco.

The second day is focused both on schools who already have programs and schools who want to build them. The discussions will center on engaging faculty, students, budgeting issues, funding issues and different ways to work with cities.

It will feature schools who have adopted the program and implemented it in unique and innovative ways, from the Oregon model where all thirty classes focus on one community to other campuses who engage with several communities at one time.

The third day is focused on developing a national network of SCYP programs and how universities can go after funding and develop together.

“We are interested in changing the way higher education is delivered in this country,” says Schlossberg. “The more people that are engaged in that endeavor, the stronger the message is.”

This is the third year the University of Oregon will put on the SCYP conference. The 2014 SCYP conference strives to share how to create an effective program while building a peer to peer network of institutions who are ready to improve the higher education model.

Posted in Conferences, Education, Faculty, Humanities, Roosevelt, Students, Sustainability | Comments Off

Teaching Climate Change through Literature

A somewhat interesting article from yesterday’s NY Times about literature-and-environment courses that are beginning to address issues of climate change. Unfortunately, the author didn’t know about Prof. Gary Wolfe’s groundbreaking seminar here at Roosevelt this spring, “Sustainability in Film and Fiction,” as that would’ve been a great example to profile here. Here’s the full text of the article:

EUGENE, Ore. — University courses on global warming have become common, and Prof. Stephanie LeMenager’s new class here at the University of Oregon has all the expected, alarming elements: rising oceans, displaced populations, political conflict, endangered animals.

The goal of this class, however, is not to marshal evidence for climate change as a human-caused crisis, or to measure its effects — the reality and severity of it are taken as given — but how to think about it, prepare for it and respond to it. Instead of scientific texts, the class, “The Cultures of Climate Change,” focuses on films, poetry, photography, essays and a heavy dose of the mushrooming subgenre of speculative fiction known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, novels like “Odds Against Tomorrow,” by Nathaniel Rich, and “Solar,” by Ian McEwan.

“Speculative fiction allows a kind of scenario-imagining, not only about the unfolding crisis but also about adaptations and survival strategies,” Professor LeMenager said. “The time isn’t to reflect on the end of the world, but on how to meet it. We want to apply our humanities skills pragmatically to this problem.”

The class reflects a push by universities to meld traditionally separate disciplines; Professor LeMenager joined the university last year to teach both literature and environmental studies.

Her course also shows how broadly most of academia and a younger generation have moved beyond debating global warming to accepting it as one of society’s central challenges. That is especially true in places like Eugene, a verdant and damp city, friendly to the cyclist and inconvenient to the motorist, where ordering coffee in a disposable cup can elicit disapproving looks. Oregon was a pioneer of environmental studies, and Professor LeMenager’s students tend to share her activist bent, eagerly discussing in a recent session the role that the arts and education can play in galvanizing people around an issue.

To some extent, the course is feeding off a larger literary trend. Novels set against a backdrop of ruinous climate change have rapidly gained in number, popularity and critical acclaim over the last few years, works like “The Windup Girl,” by Paolo Bacigalupi; “Finitude,” by Hamish MacDonald; “From Here,” by Daniel Kramb; and “The Carbon Diaries 2015,” by Saci Lloyd. Well-known writers have joined the trend, including Barbara Kingsolver, with “Flight Behavior,” and Mr. McEwan.

And with remarkable speed — Ms. Kingsolver’s and Mr. Rich’s books were published less than a year ago — those works have landed on syllabuses at colleges. They have turned up in courses on literature and on environmental issues, like the one here, or in a similar but broader class, “The Political Ecology of Imagination,” part of a master’s degree program in liberal studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

For now, Professor LeMenager’s class is open only to graduate students, with some working on degrees in environmental studies, others in English and one in geography, and it can have the rarefied feel of a literature seminar. Fueled by readings from Susan Sontag and Jacques Derrida, the students discuss the meaning of terms like “spectacle” and “witness,” and debate the drawbacks of cultural media that approach climate change from the developed world’s perspective.

Climate novels fit into a long tradition of speculative fiction that pictures the future after assorted catastrophes. First came external forces like aliens or geological upheaval, and then, in the postwar period, came disasters of our own making.

Novels like “On the Beach,” by Nevil Shute, and “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller Jr., and films like “The Book of Eli,” offered a world after nuclear war. Stephen King’s “The Stand,” Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood,” and films like “12 Monkeys” and “I Am Legend” imagined the aftermath of biological tampering gone horribly wrong.

“You can argue that that is a dominant theme of postwar fiction, trying to grapple with the fragility of our existence, where the world can end at any time,” Mr. Rich said. Before long, most colleges will “have a course on the contemporary novel and the environment,” he said. “It surprises me that even more writers aren’t engaging with it.”

The climate-change canon dates back at least as far as “The Drowned World,” a 1962 novel by J. G. Ballard with a small but ardent following. “The Population Bomb,” Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 nonfiction best seller, mentions the potential dangers of the greenhouse effect, and the 1973 film “Soylent Green,” best remembered for its grisly vision of a world with too many people and too little food, is set in a hotter future.

The recent climate fiction has characters whose concerns extend well beyond the climate, some of it is set in a present or near future when disaster still seems remote, and it can be deeply satirical in tone. In other words, if the authors are aiming for political consciousness-raising, the effort is more veiled than in novels of earlier times like “The Jungle” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Professor LeMenager’s syllabus includes extensive nonfiction writing and film, alongside the fiction, and she said she had little interest in truly apocalyptic scenarios or those that are scientifically dubious. She does not, for example, show her students “The Day After Tomorrow,” the 2004 film about an ice age caused by global warming that was a huge hit despite being panned by critics and scientists alike, though she says everyone asks her about it.

Stephen Siperstein, one of her students, recalled showing the documentary “Chasing Ice,” about disappearing glaciers, to a class of undergraduates, leaving several of them in tears. Em Jackson talked of leading groups on glacier tours, and the profound effect they had on people. Another student, Shane Hall, noted that people experience the weather, while the notion of climate is a more abstract concept that can often be communicated only through media — from photography to sober scientific articles to futuristic fiction.

“In this sense,” he said, “climate change itself is a form of story we have to tell.”

Posted in Arts, Books, Classes, Education, Humanities, Literature, News, Sustainability | Comments Off

SUST 350 Course Preview for Fall 2014

This coming fall semester (2014) I will be offering a transformational service learning course, SUST 350 Service and Sustainability, at the Chicago Campus. The specific course theme is  Urban Farming, Environmental Justice, & Community Development.

  • Title/number: SUST 350 Service and Sustainability (section 01)
  • Semester offered: Fall 2014
  • Location: Chicago Campus / Eden Place Nature Center
  • Day/time: Tues 12-3pm
  • Pre-req: UWR

SUST majors and minors may take this class to fulfill an upper-level SUST requirement, but 350 also is open to students at large who need a general education course or desire elective credit.

Introduction to the Course

SUST 350 focuses on one of sustainability’s “Three Es” — social Equity — within the broad context of Environmental stewardship and Economic development.  Students will learn about one of the most important components of sustainability — food production and consumption — in the context of urban neighborhoods and ecosystems.

Eden Place montageBy doing hands-in-the-dirt labor at Eden Place Nature Center on the city’s South Side neighborhood of Fuller Park, students will gain direct knowledge of contemporary organic/urban agricultural systems as well as learn about pressing urban social justice issues such as food deserts, gentrification, pollution, environmental racism, and persistent poverty. The initial class meeting will be at RU’s Chicago Campus, and subsequent class meetings will take place at Eden Place Nature Center.

An urban farm is about food, but so much more besides. The Fuller Park community is an economically stressed neighborhood that is bisected by the Dan Ryan expressway and bounded by railroads on its eastern and western borders. Here, an urban farm and community nature center is a source of freshly grown, organic produce; a training ground for local youth in need of practical job skills; a stop valve in the Cradle-to-Prison pipeline; a gathering place for people of all ages in the community for physical exercise, informal education, and social events; a demonstration site for sustainable agricultural and ecological restoration techniques; a model of economic development on a local, sustainable scale; and a means of reconnecting urban folk to the natural world. More generally, in urban areas starved for jobs, green space, safe outdoor gathering places, and fresh quality food, enterprises like Eden Place productively and powerfully address the need for social equity and progressive change.

Besides helping out with various urban ag and environmental restoration projects at the rapidly expanding sites of Eden Place Nature Center, we will also undertake collaborative Action Research Projects in teams on various topics in order to further contribute in a meaningful way to the mission and activity of EPNC. For an idea of what this might involve, see these research projects from my Spring 2013 SUST 350 Service course at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm.

Partner Organization: Eden Place Nature Center

From the Eden Place website:

Eden Place“In 1997, community member, founder, and Executive Director of Fuller Park Community Development Michael Howard [pictured at left] was concerned about the serious lead poisoning problems affecting the neighborhood children. Through research he discovered that Fuller Park contained the highest lead levels in the city of Chicago. As a community leader he wanted to make some serious changes for the sake of his family and his entire neighborhood, and he decided that this work would start with the illegal dumpsite located across the street from his home.

“Mounds of waste over two stories tall encompassed the entire three acres of land. Mr. Howard acquired the deed for the land and involved the community in a large scale, three year clean-up of the dumpsite. Alongside his wife and fellow activist Amelia, and in partnership with hundreds of volunteers and community members, Mr. Howard led a clean-up project in which more than 200 tons of waste including concrete, wood, tires and other toxin-laced materials were removed from the site.

“Upon clean-up of the site, the next step was development.  Tons of fresh soil were brought in to establish the Great Lawn, and the Hope Mound was established as the first permanent fixture on Eden Place.  South Point Academy trainees contributed a number of early structures to the Eden Place grounds, including the gazebo, DuSable Trading Post, and the storage sheds.  The Mighty Oak and other surrounding trees formed the woodland at the north end of the property, including a reflecting pond meant to encourage reflection and respite from the urban surroundings.

“In May of 2004, Eden Place was honored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Chicago Wilderness with The Conservation and Native Landscaping Award. The winners were recognized for their extensive and creative use of natural landscaping to support native plants and animals that contribute to the region’s biodiversity.  That same month, Eden Place was filmed for a PBS special documentary called Edens Lost & Found.  This documentary profiles activists and organizations in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Chicago who are attempting to ‘improve the quality of life and public health by encouraging community and civic engagement through the restoration of their urban ecosystems.’

“Eden Place has continued to develop and grow with the support and recognition of local leaders and organizations.  We have worked to raise awareness amongst community members about the environmental problems that have affected their families for years.  Local residents are making connections with nature like never before, and they are feeling a sense of community pride like never before.  However, our work in the community is not finished.  More than 3/5 of the local area is comprised of abandoned lots where homes and various industries once thrived, and Fuller Park residents still carry the burden of one of the highest local lead contents in the city.  Through our partnership with local and national conservation organizations such as the Chicago Zoological Society, the Audubon Society, the U.S. Forest Service International Programs, Chicago Wilderness, Openlands, and NeighborSpace, we will continue to establish green community space and education that will improve the health and well-being of our community.”

Posted in Agriculture, Chicago, Classes, Community, Education, Faculty, Food, Roosevelt, Social justice, Students, Sustainability, Urban ecology | Comments Off

Biodiversity in the News: the Practice of Biology in Modern Times

Daniel Molloy working in Sleepy Hollow Lake, Athens NY (photo: L. Mann/APO)

Daniel Molloy working in Sleepy Hollow Lake, Athens NY (photo: L. Mann/APO)

This past week I’ve come across two fascinating and instructive news articles about biologists in NY and IL doing important research in different contexts, with instructive lessons for how we conserve biodiversity in the face of urbanization and invasive species. Today’s NY Times‘ Science Times section features this piece on Daniel P. Molloy, a biologist at the New York State Museum who has spent his career studying and developing environmentally-safe biological controls for invasive species, such as the notorious zebra and quagga mussels that plague the Great Lakes ecosystem.

David Bohlen in his office (photo: Tom Handy, IL Times)

David Bohlen in his office (photo: Tom Handy, IL Times)

The other story, from my own state of Illinois, appeared on Feb. 6th in Illinois Times (Springfield) — a long feature article on the work of H. David Bohlen, who has studied the bird populations of Sangamon County in Central IL for a continuous 40-year period and just released a massive two-volume report on his research. Bohlen is a biologist with the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. His 2013 report, “A Study of the Birds of Sangamon County, Illinois, 1970-2010,” can be found here as pdfs (Volume 1 and Volume 2).

The valuable work of these two scientists illustrates several points about the impact of biological research in conserving biodiversity and making ecosystems more sustainable. Molloy’s research strives to find and implement natural biological controls (such as a species of bacteria) for invasive species, not just to effectively mitigate their impacts on the food chain but also to avoid using chemical toxins and further polluting freshwater aquatic systems as a means of “saving” them. His work also demonstrates the increasing prominence of microbiology in sustainability science, which is also a key starting point for developing biofuels (itself a really hot topic!).

Bohlen’s field-based research method, by contrast, is a throwback to the organismal field studies of natural history that were common in the 19th century but have largely fallen out of favor with the biological mainstream’s emphasis on cellular- and molecular-level work. Yet Bohlen’s phenomenal 40-year record of avian biodiversity in a representative Midwestern farm county shows how the land use changes resulting from decades of urbanization and industrial agriculture have negatively impacted the diversity and abundance of bird species in the Illinois landscape. It also illustrates what you can accomplish by walking around, observing, and recording systematic phenological data over a long-term timeframe.

Posted in Biodiversity, Great Lakes, Research, Science, Sustainability, Water, Wildlife | Comments Off

Reviewing “The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment,” by Timothy Clark

Cambridge Intro to Lit and EnvPart of an extensive series by this venerable university press, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment is a detailed and comprehensive overview of the many relations among literature, criticism, and the natural environment. Author Timothy Clark of Durham University has produced an ambitious, nuanced, and critically adept introduction to the heterogeneous field of ecocriticism that has emerged as an important current of cultural studies over the past two decades. Explicitly pitched to professors as a pedagogical resource but also valuable as a survey of a rapidly maturing academic field, this slim but substantive book is immensely useful for students and professional scholars alike. Clark effectively models the praxis of textual interpretation and intellectual engagement in his writing, which is unfailingly smart and stylistically lucid.

While several good overviews of ecocriticism have been published previously, some are more than 15 years old while others are edited volumes containing a diverse array of essays written by different scholars. Clark’s book is therefore both a much-needed update on as well as coherent assessment of the present state of ecocriticism, which he defines as the “study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment, usually considered from out of the current global environmental crisis and its revisionist challenge to given modes of thought and practice” (xiii). While Clark sees ecocriticism as “a provocative misfit in literary and cultural debate” (3) since it is a relatively young and unapologetically interdisciplinary field of inquiry, he convincingly documents its contemporary relevance as a means of bringing the humanities to bear on matters of ecological and political import.

Clark provides a 30,000-foot-high perspective on a sprawling and still-evolving critical movement that includes not just the study of Anglo-American nature writing (its historic core concern), but also embraces ecofeminism, critical theory, postcolonial studies, evolutionary biology, environmental justice, animal studies, and other interdisciplinary modes of humanistic inquiry. At the same time, Clark frequently descends from this high-altitude viewpoint to systematically inspect the surface, by which I refer to his frequent close readings of particular texts, authors, genres, or philosophical issues. In doing so, he models for students how ecocritics do their work of interrogating texts, unpacking words and concepts, making connections among disparate themes or ideas, etc. This effortless interplay between comprehensive critical overview and concrete interpretative engagement makes the text useful both for classroom use with advanced undergraduate or graduate students as well as the seasoned scholar seeking insights into ecocritical topics and methods.

The book includes an introduction and 20 chapters, which in turn are grouped into four main sections, the titles of which are more poetically suggestive than transparently informative: “Romantic and Anti-Romantic,” “The Boundaries of the Political,” “Science and the Struggle for Intellectual Authority,” and “The Animal Mirror.” Interspersed throughout are 13 concise “quandaries,” passages in which Clark poses “open invitations to further thought” (xiii). These are enclosed within grey boxes on the page, which along with numerous illustrations provide an arresting visual aesthetic as well as opportunities for stimulating dialogue within the college classroom.

In terms of scope, Clark covers tremendous ground in his elucidation of the connections among literature, criticism, and the natural environment — from Romanticism to questions of genre to current debates about posthumanism; from ecofeminism to science studies to nature writing to environmental justice; from ethics to animal studies to climate change. Two particular chapters highlight Clark’s success in weaving together and making sense of this wide array of subjects as well as his skills in parsing the meaning and relevance of particular texts.

Sand County AlmanacIn Chapter 7, “Thinking like a Mountain” (also the famous title of an oft-cited essay by the American conservationist, ecologist, and writer, Aldo Leopold), Clark identifies an important tension within environmentalism between radical theory and reformist practice. In his words, environmental advocates “must speak in terms accepted within existing structures of governance and economics, the very things they may consider ultimately responsible for environmental degradation in the first place” (77). Next follows a detailed reading of two foundational texts of 20th century American environmental writing — Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac; and, Sketches Here and There (1949) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) — in which Clark traces the aforementioned quandary between radicalism and pragmatism in the rhetoric of Leopold and Carson. While I feel his interpretation downplays the paradigm-challenging environmental ethic espoused by Leopold as well as the explicit critique of the industrial-chemical-military-agricultural complex that is at the heart of Carson’s Silent Spring, I nonetheless greatly admire Clark’s astute and eloquent explication of the form and rhetoric of Sand County Almanac (78-9) that seems tailor-made for introducing students to the deceptively simple yet well-wrought structure of this landmark work.

Similarly engaging is Chapter 13, “Questions of Scale,” in which Clark addresses the interlinked topics of bioregionalism, climate change, global versus local environmental activism, environmental sloganeering, and (lest you think he’s forgotten about literature) ecopoetry. One excellent feature of this chapter is Clark’s penchant for moving beyond Anglo-American literary borders, as he does in his commentary here on Derek Walcott and Édouard Glissant (132-135). Then there’s his especially insightful riff on climate change and the now-clichéd dictum of the Sierra Club, “Think globally, act locally.”

Think Globally Act Locally

While this phrase “says, in effect: try to understand ecological systems on the largest possible scale and then take action locally in accordance with that understanding,” Clark reveals how the urgent ecological crisis of climate change demonstrates an essential paradox — “one cannot only act locally, [because] . . . any action affects the whole world, however, minutely” (136, emphasis added). Clark correctly notes that the global/local tension as well as climate change are examples of critically important environmental issues that up to now have received scant attention from most ecocritics. What such engagement might entail is illustrated by a reading of Gary Snyder’s bioregional ecopoetry in the final pages of the chapter, work which “use[s] multiple scales of space and time to form a critique of the destructive, one-dimensional and ultimately fragile sphere of the modern neoliberal state” (138).

Two last points about the book, which is beautifully produced by Cambridge University Press (and thus inspired me to newly peruse the titles of this expansive series of “Introduction to” volumes). First, I greatly appreciate the “Further Reading” bibliography at the end, which lists well-chosen sources according to the text’s table of contents, rather than merely (and far less usefully) alphabetically. For those planning an advanced undergraduate course or graduate seminar on, say, “Environmental Literature” or “Ecocriticism or Nature in Literature” or “Art, Humanities, and the Environment,” etc., this bibliography is a must-read, as it provides both seminal background references as well as a cornucopia of potential syllabus readings.

On a less enthusiastic note, the conspicuous omission (for me, at least) of cities, sustainability, and urbanization from the book’s index reveal one lacuna in Clark’s otherwise catholic coverage of contemporary environmental concerns. In a world of accelerating climate change, ongoing pollution, feeble environmental regulation, habitat loss, poverty, and persistent socioeconomic inequity, the global movement toward urbanization that has paralleled the human population explosion (as of 2008, over half the world’s population now resides in urban areas) is something that ecocriticism has finally begun to acknowledge in productive ways, as urban-focused studies published in the field’s foremost scholarly journal, ISLE, testify. Clark’s otherwise valuable and instructive chapter on environmental justice (87-95), for example, misses an opportunity to connect this political movement to its urban origins and, somewhat curiously, features an extended reading of a prototypically male wilderness narrative set in the American West (Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella, A River Runs Through It).

That is, however, a decidedly minor quibble about a skillfully written, eminently readable, and immensely useful book. Far from a pedestrian college textbook, Clark’s Introduction to Literature and the Environment is an erudite survey of ecocriticsm accessible to both scholar and student, as well as a practical tool for demonstrating literature’s representation of and engagement with environmental issues of all kinds. As Clark writes in his concise and hard-hitting final chapter, “The limitations as well as the excitement of ecocritical work to date may reflect the fact that environmental questions are not just a matter of aesthetics, politics, poetics or ethics, but can affect certain ground rules as to what these things mean” (202). In other words, ecocriticism — and by extension, literature and the humanities — matters greatly, for it must join (and provide constructive critiques of) science and policy in engaging the pressing environmental issues of our time. With that bold claim in mind, I can think of no better intellectual map of ecocriticism’s present state or future prospects than this book.

Timothy Clark. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. vii+254.

Note: This is a modified version of a review that will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Modern Philology.

Posted in Books, Criticism, Education, Faculty, Humanities, Literature, Research, Sustainability | Comments Off

Pete Seeger, Legendary Musician and Activist, Dies at Age 94

Last night I had trouble sleeping, and found myself tossing and turning in the wee hours. When I got up to get a drink of water hoping to settle myself down, my night owl spouse solemnly greeted me with sad and wistful news. One of our musical heroes, Mr. Pete Seeger, had just passed away at the ripe old age of 94.

Pete Seeger atop the sloop Clearwater, which he used to promote the environmental cleanup of the Hudson River, along which he lived for many years in Beacon, NY (photo: AP)

Pete Seeger atop the sloop Clearwater, which he used to promote the environmental cleanup of the Hudson River,
along which he lived for many years in Beacon, NY (photo: AP)

It’s almost impossible for me to imagine a person who lived life as joyously, as productively, as meaningfully as Mr. Seeger. Chronicler and performer of folk music, advocate for social and environmental justice, celebrant of ordinary life’s victories and sorrows, political activist who stood up to the nasty oppression of McCarthyism — Pete Seeger was these things and many more during his lifetime, during which he never wavered from his ethical convictions and love of music.

For me, he’s best known in our household as “Pete” — as when I say to my two girls, “Hey, let’s listen to some Pete.” We put on a record or CD of his recordings for children, for which he is justly famous; and we sing, dance, and let the song stories he so effortlessly and skillfully wove fill the room. It’s as if he’s sitting there, on one of our old chairs, playing his banjo and singing to us. We love to imagine Pete dropping in at one of our schools here in Joliet and playing some songs for the kids and teachers — something he did hundreds of times at schools all across America during the course of his long and colorful life.

Pete, I never had the great fortune of meeting you; but I’m so glad you gave your music to the world. Thank you! You will be missed but never forgotten.

Jon Pareles, “Pete Seeger, Songwriter and Champion of Folk Music, Dies at 94” (NY Times 28 Jan 2014)

Posted in Arts, Humanities, Music, News | Comments Off

Sustainable Agriculture Jobs in Chicago

Growing Home Wood St Farm

Growing Home’s Wood Street Farm in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago

Just now I’ve had a couple of interesting sustainable agriculture job ads cross my desk. (OK, they appeared in my email inbox, to be precise — but that doesn’t sound as good.) The first is with one of RU’s arch-rivals here in Chicago, Loyola University — but since it’s a good job, I’ll post it here anyway. The second is with one of the area’s biggest players in urban ag / community developing, Growing Home.

Loyola University: Farm Operations Assistant (pdf of description/info)

Growing Home: Farm Assistant / Market Supervisor (pdf of description/info)

Posted in Agriculture, Chicago, Food, Green jobs, Sustainability | Comments Off

Environmental Studies at Roanoke College

Roanoke College campusThis week I had the opportunity to visit the Environmental Studies Program at Roanoke College in Salem, VA, and give two guest lectures.

Tuesday, Jan. 14th:
“Writing the Urban Landscape: Literature, Environmental Studies, and the Sustainable Future of Cities” (ppt and pdf of slideshow)

Wednesday, Jan. 15th:
“Exploring the Chicago River: Science, Policy, Ethics, and Sustainability” (ppt and pdf of slideshow)

Posted in Education, Faculty, Humanities, Literature, Research, Science, Sustainability, Urban nature, Water | Comments Off

New Book on Rachel Carson by Robert Musil

Rachel Carson and her Sisters coverThis looks to be an excellent new book on Rachel Carson and many other women scientist/writers/activists who have profoundly shaped environmental discourse and policy in the US. Notably included here is Sandra Steingraber, who recently spoke at Roosevelt University during the Great Lakes Bioneers conference on Nov. 1st. As the book’s website from Rutgers University Press notes:

In Rachel Carson and Her Sisters, Robert K. Musil redefines the achievements and legacy of environmental pioneer and scientist Rachel Carson, linking her work to a wide network of American women activists and writers and introducing her to a new, contemporary audience. Rachel Carson was the first American to combine two longstanding, but separate strands of American environmentalism—the love of nature and a concern for human health. Widely known for her 1962 best-seller, Silent Spring, Carson is today often perceived as a solitary “great woman,” whose work single-handedly launched a modern environmental movement. But as Musil demonstrates, Carson’s life’s work drew upon and was supported by already existing movements, many led by women, in conservation and public health.

On the fiftieth anniversary of her death, this book helps underscore Carson’s enduring environmental legacy and brings to life the achievements of women writers and advocates, such as Ellen Swallow Richards, Dr. Alice Hamilton, Terry Tempest Williams, Sandra Steingraber, Devra Davis, and Theo Colborn, all of whom overcame obstacles to build and lead the modern American environmental movement.


1 Have You Seen the Robins? Rachel Carson’s Mother and the Tradition of Women Naturalists

2 Don’t Harm the People: Ellen Swallow Richards, Dr. Alice Hamilton, and Their Heirs Take On Polluting Industries

3 Rachel and Her Sisters: Rachel Carson Did Not Act Alone

4 Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, and Ecological Empathy

5 The Environment Around Us and Inside Us: Ellen Swallow Richards, Silent Spring, and Sandra Steingraber

6 Rachel Carson, Devra Davis, Pollution, and Public Policy

7 Rachel Carson and Theo Colborn: Endocrine Disruption and Public Policy


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Verlyn Klinkenborg Publishes Final Column for “The Rural Life” in the NY Times

klinkenborgOne of my favorite journalists, commentator and essayist Verlyn Klinkenborg, published the final piece for his long-running column, “The Rural Life,” in today’s New York Times. His wise and observant prose-poems about his small farm and the nature that inhabits it were among the pieces of writing I most relished amid the dreck and disruption contained within the daily news.

Klinkenborg’s artful and well-wrought column will be greatly missed by many, I’m sure. I’m reprinting today’s essay in full here.



The first Rural Life appeared on the editorial page nearly 16 years ago. This is the last. This seems a good season to leave, with a long winter ahead, the wood stove burning, and plenty of hopes and plans for the coming year. When The Rural Life began, I didn’t imagine that it would last so long or chart so many changes in my life. Nor did I imagine that it would find so many good readers. But it has, and I’m grateful for that.

As for the farm, it will go on much as it has. The horses will stand broadside in the sun or paw the snow looking for last year’s grass. The roosters — two of them now — will breast the bright morning air as always while the hens go about their business. The dogs — two of them now, again — will chase each other through the snow. I’ll be fixing fence and hauling wood and feeding out hay and chopping ice in the horse tank when the power goes out. And I’ll be doing what I’ve always done: watching the way one thought becomes another as I go about the chores.

But what about your farm, the one you’ve pictured while reading The Rural Life all these years? I know, from talking to readers, that it’s far bigger and more orderly than mine. It has fewer rocks and richer soil and fences that somehow magically stay taut. It reflects who you are as surely as my place reflects who I am. And it seems to be just about anywhere, wherever there’s open land and some woods and enough time to walk the fence line. I’ve always wished that I could visit the farm that readers imagine I live on. It sounds like a very nice place.

I am more human for all the animals I’ve lived with since I moved to this farm. Here, I’ve learned almost everything I know about the kinship of all life. The only crops on this farm have been thoughts and feelings and perceptions, which I know you’re raising on your farm, too. Some are annual, some perennial and some are invasive — no question about it.

But perhaps the most important thing I learned here, on these rocky, tree-bound acres, was to look up from my work in the sure knowledge that there was always something worth noticing and that there were nearly always words to suit it.

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