Fall 2023 Undergraduate English Courses

359:352 Literature and Scientific Writings: Writing Forests

01  TF2   CAC   08218   EVANS    SC-216

Writing Forests

What stories do forests tell? What stories do we tell about forests?

Science and literature might seem to exist only in opposition, as when we find ourselves drawing lines between truth and fiction, or nature and culture. But intuitively, we likely know that it is something more like a creative tension. This class aims to consider that tension by considering how environmental science has given life to new modes of literary and artistic narration, as well as how stories have shaped the production of scientific knowledge about nature and the environment.

Our case will be the forest, and the starting premise will be that a forest is not just a thing but also an idea. We will trace the rich cultural history of thinking about forests in North America back to indigenous storytelling, including writing from the age of exploration through the emergence of environmental science and activism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We will study how and when the fundamental conceptual distinction between nature and culture, long central to Western thinking about the world, came into existence. We will also explore new theoretical work positing the idea that natural objects can be considered as subjects, agents organizing the world and our place in it. What happens, we will ask, when we begin to consider that plants communicate with each other and that forests think?

There will be three parts to the course. First, we will survey nature writing from the 18th century to the present—including nineteenth-century classics by Alexander von Humboldt and Henry David Thoreau, and twentieth century essays by Aldo Leopold, a forester whose invention of the idea of “endangered species” fundamentally shaped conservation efforts, and Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring (1962) led to the creation of the EPA. We will also read contemporary theorists associated with science studies and the environmental humanities, notably Donna Haraway’s work on human and animal kinship and Eduardo Kohn’s anthropological account of “how forests think” in the Amazon.

Second, we will slow down considerably to spend quite a bit of time with a brilliant recent novel by Richard Powers, The Overstory, whose main characters are trees. We will also read the award-winning book by the environmental scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

Finally, the course will explore the role the creative life has played in shaping public policy and civic engagement. To that end, a significant aspect of the course will involve visits to Rutgers Hutcheson Memorial Forest and discussions with professional writers and researchers there and at other local conservation organizations about their work in science and writing about it. Students will be encouraged to connect their work and research to public-facing environmental projects.

The course is open to both English majors and non-majors. Students in the sciences are strongly encouraged to enroll. In addition to the essays familiar to students of literature, options will be provided for scientific and creative expression in other media.