Environmental history and storytelling

Earlier this week, Orion published a conversation between environmental historian Bill Cronon and food writer Michael Pollan (both reductionist epithets, as they’ve produced much more), called “Out of the Wild.”  It’s worth quoting in full the questions Orion identifies as important to both writers: “What is wild? What is cultivated? And what can these ideas teach us about our relationship to landscape?”

These questions are important, generally, to environmental historians, and people, in general. An interesting part of their conversation revolves around the idea of storytelling. Historians understand the importance of a good story, since it is the story that elucidates truths about the world, past and present. For Cronon and Pollan, stories about humans and nature reveal deep connections between them. And it is in the process of both listening to and telling stories that we see those connections. Listening to stories helps us to understand how others relate to the environment, but telling our own stories clarifies our positions in the natural world.

Illustrations of the natural world, too, help us understand humans and nature. In A Keener Perception (2009), art historians and literary critics write of artistic incorporation of ecological agendas. I chalk this up as another form of storytelling. Artists, illustrators, and literati reveal in their crafts their perceptions of the human relationship with the natural world.

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, or The Oxbow, 1836 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, or The Oxbow, 1836 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

But what of those who do not write, who do not draw or paint? Who speaks for the farmer, or, as the Lorax says, “Who speaks for the trees?” Artists, academics, writers listen to their stories in order to tell them. Michael Pollan does this for farmers, who live closer to the land than the vast majority of Americans. And Bill Cronon does this for the land, which sees changes with the movement of people.

The conversation between Pollan and Cronon is well worth reading in its entirety, as it touches on distinctions between wild and cultivation, seen in nature and in art. It’s not just for environmental historians, activists, sustainability advocates, or academics; the issues at stake touch all humanity.

About j.d.grunert

Historian, Science and Technology Studier, Librarian, Academish
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