Study Guide

Ecocriticism Timeline

How It All Went Down

1854: Henry David Thoreau's Walden 

A young man goes into the woods. And (with the help of wealthy friends) builds a cabin, grows and markets a few beans, and walks a lot. Thoreau's big thing in this book is to "live life deliberately."

And by deliberately, he seems to mean: with a heightened consciousness of the world around him, and his place in that world. So this dude becomes a veritable one-man protest against the machinations of modern American society. But living in the woods all by himself turns out to be pretty lonely.

In the end, Thoreau ends up returning to society like a kid who runs away from home…to the back of the garage… only to return when his Halloween candy runs out. Still, Walden is a seminal text. Don't throw the book out with the bathwater.

1872: Yellowstone National Park is founded

Beautiful places should be made available to all people. That's the central idea upon which the National Parks system was founded. And it sure was a revolutionary idea in its day. Prior to the late 1800s, forests, mountaintops, rivers, and expensive rocks were owned by royalty and other wealthy folks.

That meant: no Boy Scouts. No middle class family road trips in crappy station wagons. The poor worked and played in cities, while only the rich got to see waterfalls and elk herds and have campfires.

But since National Parks became a thing, the country's wild lands are actively being preserved while also being made accessible to many, many different kinds of people.

Side-note: the s'more was actually created by Louis XVII while camping in the French Alps. The history of the Ecocriticism movement is rife with so many fun facts, we can hardly contain ourselves. (Focus, Shmoop. Focus.)

1911: John Muir's First Summer in the Sierra

John Muir = Just another guy in a cabin, eating beans and growing an impressive beard. Well, not exactly. Muir was extraordinary, to be honest.

In this text, he recounts living in Yosemite Valley during his early years, back in the 1860s. And because of his work, nature writing gains popularity. And people start planning their summer vacations.

The modern conservation movement begins with Muir and his Sierra Club, which works hard to establish and maintain natural places. Yes, for hikers and adventurers to run all around them. Love him, hate him, couldn't-care-less-about-him, Muir was an important guy. And we're impressed by his late-1800s wilderness survival skills.

1949: Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac

Leopold did a bad thing: he shot a female wolf. She died in his arms and, as she passed away, Leopold saw what he called a "green fire" go out in her eyes. And he was changed forever by this experience.

No, Leopold's comment about the green fire has nothing to do with the Green Lantern. Instead, it's about the heat and intelligence that resides in all living things. The lesson here? Be nice to nature.

And that's how the land ethic is born; Leopold's words teach us that we should have a positive, functional relationship with Mother Earth. Like, call her often, compliment her, listen to her, and help her out with the dishes and the laundry already. Wait, is the earth really a woman? And why does She need a (hu)man to take care of her?

Ouch, our brains hurt. There are some big questions afoot in the Ecocriticism movement, and none of them are easily answered.

1962: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring 

Carson shows the world just how bad our relationship with nature really is in this text. As humans treat the world with toxic pesticides and produce toxic plastics and so on, the eggs of many bird species start to break apart. And while broken eggs can make a great breakfast, they're bad for bird populations.

So this woman blows the whistle on the bad boys of many chemical companies… that are run by men, incidentally. Environmental activism really lurches into motion with this groundbreaking work. We'd go so far as to say Silent Spring changes the language of nature writing.

FWIW, Carson was even inspired by one of our favorite poets: John Keats. The title of the book refers to a springtime when all birdsong is missing. How scary. How sad.

But when poetic language makes friends with environmental activism, great things can happen. This book was also instrumental in getting the dangerous pesticide DDT to be banned in the U.S.

1968: Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire 

Edward Abbey was a kind of Thoreau of the American West. Only without the rich friends and the pond and the beans. Abbey did eat beans from a tin can, but they were cooked over an open fire in the middle of the Utah desert.

Anyways, while he was a bit grumpy at times, Abbey introduced us to the notion of nature as "the bare bones of existence." In his mind, human culture and wilderness did not go together. Abbey wanted all visitors to walk into National Parks.

He hated roads and "industrial man" and the "synthetic prisons" he makes for himself. As you can probably tell, this book uses the landscape of the desert to create a harsh language of isolation. It focuses on how us humans have made our lives, and our worldviews, really tiny by walling ourselves off from the natural world.

1996: Lawrence Buell publishes The Environmental Imagination and Ecocriticism as we know it is born

Lawrence Buell uses his academic chops to create a new way of reading texts that puts a critical eye on nature. Ecocriticism applies the philosophies behind Emerson and Thoreau and others' nature writing to analyzing nature, and man's relationship to it, in various literary works.

Under his tutelage, we learn that nature is everywhere in famous texts, and that we'd learn more if we stopped thinking about these natural objects in purely human terms. So, that squirrel is not just a symbol of the wisdom of saving for an emotional winter, or whatever.

Instead, that squirrel eats acorns, and so Buell encourages us to think about what an acorn might taste like to a squirrel. Or what it'd be like to sleep—you know, hibernate—for a couple months out of the year. This dude was all about considering nature-in-literature through the lenses of biology and ecology and all those science-y studies, not just analyzing it according to people's emotional logic.

2005: Vandana Shiva's Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability and Peace 

Shiva drums up some green girl power in this text. (No, we're not talking about a new Spice Girls album here. Sorry, everyone.) Though Ecofeminism is now becoming a literary theory unto itself, it grew out of the general Ecocriticism camp. And it's essential, because it shows us how popular books (and talk, and thought) make it seem like nature is made for the exclusive enjoyment of adventurous boys.

Along with Shiva, feminist scholars Greta Gaard and Catriona Sandilands are also pushing us to reconsider how our ideas of wilderness are almost always constructed by men. Wilderness is an essentially male concept, they argue, used to test (and sometimes prove) the masculinity of young men.

But not for long, we hope. Good thing we've got critical thinkers like Shiva on the front lines.

2012: Material Ecocriticism is born

Even the Pope poops. That's a Catalonian phrase that illustrates this new strain of Ecocriticism. The central idea is this: we live in a human culture, but all of us are still animals, with animal bodies that do animal things.

Thus, material ecocritics like Greg Garrard, Timothy Morton, Serpil Oppermann and Dana Phillips all explore the inextricability of nature and culture. Everything is part of the same system, see, from washing machines to zebras to soccer balls. And popes. And those systems are defined by their material elements: for humans, their brains and blood and cells and firin' synapses. For soccer balls: their stitching, and the physics of their rolling.

Groovy, baby.