Study Guide

Ecocriticism Basics

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  • Beginnings

    Though Ecocriticism-as-such is just an itty bitty baby theory these days, it got its start back in the day, with a dude named Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau wasn't the best student. And he didn't comb his hair, and he wore a neck beard that generally grossed people out—especially his friend Margaret Fuller. All in all, he was the perfect kind of guy to live by himself in the woods.

    So he took off and found himself a pond—which is actually a rather sizeable lake, but we digress—and lived off the land there for a couple years.

    Sort of. He had a lot of help from the wealthy Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists. The small cabin he ended up building and writing from was actually on Emerson's property.

    While there, he wrote gobs of prose about growing beans and watching bugs and the importance of walking and how people are generally out of touch with the natural world. We have to agree. We're not sure about his methods, but still. The message is clear:

    Live like a bean. Er, live life simply.

    This is nature's creed, and Thoreau thought it should inspire all of society's institutions. He thought we should model our human world after the natural one. Walden is Thoreau's masterpiece, and it remains the foundational text for Ecocriticism, even though it was never intended to be used to analyze literary texts—that part would come later.

    So, why is Walden such a big deal to today's ecocritics? It examines just how and why humans have become so disconnected from nature. (And neck beards. But we're hoping man's interest in those never, ever makes a comeback—unlike people's interests in conservationism, ecology, and Materialism.)

  • Big Players

    Ecocriticism is a theory still in diapers. It didn't officially get going until 1994 or so. Which means that most of the big players in Ecocriticism aren't actually literary critics (yet)—like Thoreau, they're just people who think a lot about the ways humans interact with nature.

    And long before 1994, the world witnessed an eccentric cast of gnarly characters who wrote about how and why humans need to go green. So now we'll discuss some of those dudes and dudettes who've argued that we need to alter our relationship to nature, and the stories we tell about it.

    Henry David Thoreau, king of the neck beard and all-around weirdo, is the designated grand pappy of Ecocriticism. Back in 1859 (which, if you haven't checked your calendar recently, came well before 1994), he wrote Walden, which describes living in a simply-built cabin, fishing, going on walks, raising and selling beans, and then not paying his taxes as an act of civil disobedience (to indicate his disapproval of the Mexican-American War and slavery).

    Thoreau's work has inspired some of the world's most influential people, from John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Roosevelt, and even Gandhi. His humble, no-frills, "authentic" life has had a big impact on a lot of people all over the world. He was kind of like the world's first treehugger, you know?

    Plus, when he hugged a tree in the forest, he made a lot of sounds (and wrote a lot of essays) about it. And people listened.

    So, who was that John Muir guy anyway? Well, we like to think of him as the Forrest Gump of his day. He didn't run coast to coast, but he sure did walk from Wisconsin to Florida—yep, you read that right—and then all over California and into Yosemite Valley.

    California was truly his box of chocolates, and he invited as many powerful people as he could to come be converted to his religion of wilderness-reverence and -conservation. His writings and public talks inspired the creation of the National Park System… as well as many family summer vacations and great American road trips forevermore.

    The First Summer in the Sierra, published in 1911, has become a Bible for nature writers, vacationers, and hikers alike. Muir became a kind of Forest Monk, actually—teehee—you know, a preacher for Nature with a capital N and all those bi-pedal outdoor activities.

    Some years later, a dude named Aldo Leopold came on the scene to impress us all with some different land-focused philosophies. See, he wanted a relationship with the land, and not just a one-night stand, but a serious relationship.

    In 1949, Leopold wrote A Sand County Almanac. In it, he developed the concept of the land ethic: the idea that you should treat the land as kindly as you'd treat Grandpa or your Aunt Suzie. Kind of sweet, when you think about it.

    With Leopold's ideas, the land was no longer just some pretty thing to go tromping through with Mr. Muir, or to visit on weekends, or to write essays about with Sir Thoreau. The land became man's spouse, woman's ward; you gotta live with it and care for it, you hear?

    After these white guys rule the nature-writing scene for a while, a female author soon steps into the spotlight. Enter Rachel Carson, who comes along in 1962. She points out that if we are in a human-like relationship with land, then it's an abusive relationship.

    In Silent Spring, Carson exposes the damage being done to animals and the environment by dangerous pesticides. DDT, for example, has caused many bird species to lay eggs with thin, weak shells. So when the use of DDT was banned, you know who was largely responsible for that? You've got it: Miz Carson.

    She's kind of a big deal. Truly, she was one of the first people to usher in the era of environmental activism. Her work has changed how humans view their relationship with natural systems, so as to make them a bit more... well… functional.

    But before you start thinking "ugh, environmental writing is so nice, and nice is boring," let us introduce you to Edward Abbey. He's like the grumpy old man next door who's always yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. Wilderness takes center stage in his masterpiece Desert Solitaire, written in 1968. In it, Abbey gives people this no-punches-pulled advice: if you want to experience nature, just get off your butts and walk into it.

    Getting out into the wild, he says, isn't about roads, shuttle buses, or the fossil fuels that tote overweight vacationers and their bratty kids to Yosemite every year. If you want real wilderness, you're going to have to work for it. Because of his heated language and anarchist tendencies, Abbey has been called the "Thoreau of the American West."

    And yes: he, too, had a gnarly beard. Plus, he detested anthropocentrism, and much of his radical rhetoric has been incorporated into Ecocriticism—in addition to most other types of environmental activism.

    Abbey's polar opposite just might be Lawrence Buell. (It's good to have an assortment of personalities in your movement, right?) Buell's a nice guy. He dresses well. He's Princeton educated, a Harvard professor, and clean-shaven to boot—the perfect dude for the budding environmentalist to take home to Mom and Dad.

    You can think of Buell as one of the first true ecocritics. Wielding that weighty academic prowess, he took the ideas of nature writers from the previous hundred and fifty years and applied them to the analysis of language and literature. In 1996, he wrote the seminal work of the whole Ecocriticism shebang: The Environmental Imagination. And lit critics' imaginations ran wild.

  • Key Debates

    There's really just one debate in Ecocriticism today. It centers around this question: What is nature? But what does this philosophical-sounding debate have to do with the study of literature?

    Well, well, well, Shmoopers. Today's ecocritic will tell you that how you define nature will determine how you understand it. And, therefore, how you write about it. But that's not all. The implications of defining the bounds of nature are more far-reaching than that.

    How a society thinks and writes about the natural world very much molds how people treat the environment. What their relationships are to it—like, are we the parents of this great globe? Is Mother Nature really our mother? Are we supposed to simply serve as stewards of this incredible set of ecosystems?

    These are tough questions, because how we define ourselves in relation to nature lays the foundation for how we want to define ourselves in general. Like, a civilization thinks Nature = God will look vastly different from one that thinks Nature = humanity's victim.

    And as you might have noticed, there's a heavy dosage of environmental activism in this style of literary analysis, no matter how we answer these questions. So grab your hiking shoes and your most reliable compasses, kiddos; things just might get a little rowdy.

    "What is nature?" Answer A: Nature is God.

    God, American, and Monday are all capitalized in English. Why? The answer isn't so simple as "because our English teacher tells us so."

    No, we capitalize certain nouns because we want to emphasize them. To make them seem more important than just any old, not-"proper noun." So when some Ecocritics want to write nature with a capital N, well—in many ways, they're equating the Natural world with Godliness.

    Sometimes, even, with God himself. Or herself. Or itself. You get the picture.

    The American Transcendentalists were a bunch of white dudes (no, really, most of them were white dudes) that wrote about nature and self-cultivation. Ecocritics would later link these spiritual and societal philosophies to textual analysis. But we mention this all because the ATs are famous for deifying Nature.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that Nature helped guys like him get away from corrupt human society and grow closer to God. Romantic Literature treated Nature in much the same way. In that tradition, Nature is God, and people are small and insignificant and only mess things up.

    Look what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden, say the authors of Romantic Literature. (Actually Eve was the one who really screwed it all up, but that's a whole other story that Ecofeminism addresses. We'll get to that later.)

    Even John Muir, that famous "Go West, Young Son" nature-writer and instigator-of-the-National-Parks-System, believed that Yosemite was a type of church. Every cliff was a cathedral, every cloud a choir of angels, every flower a prayer.

    But many Ecocritics and environmentalists oppose the idolization (and idealization) of the natural world. Why? Lots of reasons. For one, the science of trees and birds and all o' that is often far richer than what's implied by this human-desire-centric view of nature. Nature's got a lot of its own purposes, you know—it's not just around to serve as our guiding light.

    But what are those purposes? And if Nature is so high-and-mighty, how come it's so fallible? How are us humans even able to muck it up so badly? Debates surrounding these questions rage on today. And they're interesting to us because they raise fundamental questions about the human condition.

    If you think about it, the choice to position nature as our God or as our ward says a lot about who we are.

    "What is nature?" Answer B: Nature is a victim.

    Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold uncovered all the ways men and women are disconnected from nature. And how that lack of intimacy between us and our environment leads people to abuse the bejesus out of nature.

    In the same vein as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Carson's Silent Spring and Leopold's A Sand County Almanac both show how literature can be a tool to critique the harmful practices of human society—only the latter two works focus on the brokenness of the human-nature relationship.

    And so these writers pushed back against the idea of nature as a pristine religious experience (I will bless you, tiny human, with my awesome rainbow) by emphasizing how nature is a victim of our horrible practices.

    Instead of being there for man to worship, nature is there to be abused. And now that nature can't take it anymore, humans have got to step in and save it. Weird relationship, right? (I abuse you, then I save you. I abuse you, then I save you.)

    In addition to being yet another site for reflection on the fundamental nature of humans, this element of the great "What is nature?" debate raises a lot of questions about how invasive our "green," nature-savin' practices should be. Are we supposed to arrange our lives so as to impact the natural world less? Or do we have to get out there and plant some trees?

    "What is nature?" Answer C: Nature is a wild place for people to discover themselves.

    You want enlightenment in your life, kid? Then you gotta get out of the city. Our resident Eco-curmudgeon, Edward Abbey, barked loudly about how awful human habitats are. According to him, people are corrupt, and we corrupt the world we live in.

    So, he believed that true nature is only found out in the wilderness, and that traveling into said wilderness was the only way we can discover who we truly are, Transcendentalist-style.

    The wild wilderness adventures of the British and American male have been well-catalogued in The Canon—consider Moby-Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, and Heart of Darkness. In each of these tales, a man gets out of Dodge, discovers himself, conquers death (or not), has profound visions (or not), and returns to society changed. He then shares the secrets of the universe with his poor and limited society (or not).

    Or these guys just continue to make themselves rich and only return to wilderness on expensive vacations. "Spoken ideal" and "lived practice" can be different things.

    In any case, this Eco-school-of-thought positions Nature not as God, exactly, but as a place to discover God in one's self. Some people think that's a pretty self-centered and anthropocentric notion. Some people think it's pretty rad. You decide.

    "What is nature?" Answer D: Literally everything.

    Unlike prior thinkers, the newest ecocritics like to argue that there's as much nature in a National Park as there is in a shopping mall. Say what? Ecocritics like Lawrence Buell, Serpil Oppermann and Dana Phillips are now actively moving away from the debate over what is "natural" and what is "unnatural" or man-made.

    These guys and gal think human habitats can get pretty wild—anybody been to New York City lately? So cities can be counted as wildernesses. And there's little nature out there that's truly untouched by human hands at this point. Except a lot of the ocean bottom.

    So while today's ecocritics love them some Abbey and Muir and Thoreau, they think that in order to move environmental thought forward, we have to embrace action that cleans up our cities, too.

    And we know how you like the "All of the above" answer on multiple-choice tests, anyway, Shmoopers. And that's basically what those ecocritics are saying these days. Not A or B or C, but: all of the above… and more.

    As it turns out, the answer to that "What is nature?" debate might not be an answer it all—it might be a new set of questions. Like, you know, most important mysteries of literature and human behavior. Go figure.

  • State of the Theory

    Ecocriticism can seem like it's all over the planet—er, we mean, all over the place. And it's true; the theory has got some issues with focusing its attention on a particular topic, or moving in one steady direction. We guess that's what happens when your movement attempts to analyze the nature of, well, nature itself (which ultimately includes human nature and literature).

    It's also a really new branch of lit crit.

    But that doesn't mean that Ecocriticism is an anything-goes kind of theory. Today's ecocritics are interested in both analyzing how literature is a part of the problem—the way we portray nature in books reflects our problematic relationship to it—and part of the solution—the text can be an activist tool for helping people to take better care of the environment.

    So from the intellectual fray, two distinct groups of thinkers have emerged: the New Materialists and the Ecofeminists. And these two groups offer disparate approaches to trying to save the environment slash the world.

    New Materialism or Material Ecocriticism

    This crew believes that by paying attention to the physical details of our natural world, we will be better analysts of the text. And of people and life and the great everything. Hungry for an example? We've got you covered.

    Consider Watership Down. Why would author Richard Adams use rabbits as the primary characters in his story? Well, here's a fun, kind of gross scientific fact about rabbits: they feast on their own feces.

    Yes, that's right—they eat their own poop. Which means that they actually recycle their own waste. Rabbits are their own little reduce-reuse-recycle machines. Cool, right?

    The material rabbit stands in sharp contrast to the humans in the novel, who do great damage to the environment. So, while rabbits symbolize innocence and fertility and peaceful community living in Watership Down, Ecocriticism teaches us that there's more to it than that.

    The facts of bunny biology enrich the social message of the novel; not only are rabbits good personality-models for humans, they're great models for our interactions with the environment—they're the ultimate recyclers.

    Serpil Oppermann's the gal who's most famous for this material approach to analyzing nature-focused prose. She calls this splinter of the movement material Ecocriticism, but po-TEY-to, po-TAH-to.

    The important point is this: this branch of Ecocriticism uses biology and other natural sciences to inform how we understand the relations between people and nature—both in great texts, and in the world at large.


    We now interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to remind you of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; trust us, it's crucial to understanding Ecofeminism. So, Eve ate the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, after she was told not to. This little mishap—often dubbed the OS or Original Sin—got her and her man kicked out of Eden. And, as many Christian religions tell it, we've been trying to find our way back ever since.

    Nice job, Eve. You totes got all of humanity in trouble forevermore, you jerk, you might say. But ecofeminists like Vandana Shiva, Greta Gaard, and Catriona Sandilands have a few things to say about this Original Sin business, and similar male-female dynamics that show up all over nature writing.

    They want us to re-evaluate how we study science and how we tell stories about the natural world through a feminist lens. That is, these tree-huggin' activists want us to analyze how notions of masculinity shape how we view nature—in lit and in life.

    Ecofeminists claim that men like John Muir love to make rules and draw lines. As in, let's draw this line around this pretty piece of land and call it a National Park and here are the rules for this park: You pay to go in. No one can live there. The animals can't leave. The people running the place will wear snappy uniforms that will look like they're in the military.

    But that's not what nature is all about; that's what men in a sexist, heterosexist culture are often all about. So we find the influences of these oppressions all over our favorite nature-focused texts. Like how the whale from Moby-Dick is just a bit too big. See, sperm whales never grow to the size described in the novel.

    Why exaggerate the point, Mr. Melville? Hm. We hear that men with little… you know… hunt for the biggest whales. They go a-hunting in the great beyond in order to inflate their egos—to prove their manly-manness—rather than just to bring home a few fish for dinner.

    Quoth the ecofeminists: the depiction of nature in literature to date has mostly been an exaggerated male project. Men's "whales" are always bigger in a story than they are In Real Life.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    It's alive.

    An ecocritic believes that literature is a type of living, breathing being. Like any other animal, then, storytelling evolvesparticularly as scientific knowledge of the natural world expands. Have you ever thought about how Mary Shelley's horrible miscarriage must've influenced the writing of Frankenstein? What about the horrible weather during her summer vacation? How do you think that molded her prose?

    See, nature is always in literature. After all, nature is what creates literature.

    What is an author?

    An author is an animal. A human animal, but still—a being with a body. And our bodies house impulses that drive us to behave in all sorts of strange and wonderful ways.

    Then, there's this whole human culture thing we've constructed. The world of high art and Ducatis and busy cafes. So the ecocritics say: an author is both a product of human culture and a specimen of Homo sapiens, made of meat and blood and bone.

    So, whether the author is aware of it or not, she writes just as much from chemistry as she does from her imagination. An easy example of this is just how many writers have, historically, liked to write while on drugs of some kind.

    The Greek and Roman poets had their wine. The Romantic poets loved them some opium. And the Beat poets were fans of marijuana and just about every other chemical they could get their hands on.

    Keep in mind that we're not condoning drug use here, budding author-types. But if you experiment with reading literature like you read the periodic table, ecocritical analysis just might blow your mind.

    What is a reader?

    A reader is an animal that reads.

    Us human-things can read texts as well with our noses and ears as we can with our eyes and learned rationality, the ecocritic argues. All the smells and sounds and chemicals floating around in our great books tell us a lot about our texts and ourselves.

    Let us point this point to you another way: Ecocriticism compels the reader to filter the words on the page through our bodily senses. Smell the orphanage from Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. Feel the oppressive heat and humidity from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

    Then ask yourself, dear reader, questions like: How does one's climate influence mythology and storytelling? For example, do you think Santa Claus makes much sense to a Zimbabwean whose house has no chimney? Hm. These are the important questions in life, we thinks.

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