How to Read Environmental Literature 101

2010•09•22 Yuta Kinoshita Tokyo Metropolitan University, Kenji Watanabe United Nations University

Nature was a great teacher for American poet Emily Dickinson. She depicted small animals so vividly that it is clear to the reader that her everyday life was enmeshed in the natural environment. The message that these two facets (everyday life and nature) must be complementary to one another was evoked in her poems such as this one:

A Bird came down the Walk
He did not know I saw
He bit an Angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought –
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean
Too silver a seam –
Or Butterflies, off the Banks of Noon,
Leap plashless as they swim.

For Dickinson the bird symbolized the ungraspable wild essence of nature that evades our desire to tame it. Furthermore, she sketched the delicacy and fluidity of moving through air by comparing the bird’s flight with aquatic motion such as rowing and splashless swimming.

Poetry and literature, our inheritance from previous generations, help us to understand our place in nature. In fact, some literary circles have revisited classic environmental literature, mining that conserved knowledge in order to extract the means to cope with our current ecological dilemmas.

On the 23rd of September, the 76th International PEN Congress in Tokyo will cast a spotlight on environment and literature.  The symposium looks like being an exciting place to be as Nobel laureate in literature Gao Xingjian and other eminent authors have been invited from around the world.

Ahead of the forum, Our World 2.0 introduces the ideas presented by the recognized authors of environmental literature, citing words of wisdom from a number of writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gary Snyder, Basho Matsuo, Kenji Miyazawa and Gao Xingjian.

Their literature reminds us that nature is replete with so many aesthetic wonders.

The roots of nature writing

The American author, Henry David Thoreau is known as a naturalist, poet, transcendentalist and, above all, the father of environmental literature. But he is best known for his 1854 nonfiction narrative, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

This book portrays the transience of the four seasons amid Walden Pond, an area of the Massachusetts woods. In this autobiography of sorts, he shares the enduringly vibrant memory of his experiences over the course of two years living in a small cabin he built himself, and for the most part in isolation.

The Harvard graduate was doubtful of human-centrism and Adam Smith’s economic theory.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” he explained.

He demonstrated his unique understanding of economics in the first chapter and eventually came to the conclusion that nothing is more valuable than wilderness.

“Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength,” he discovered in his solitude.

[quote quote=”I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life” type=”image” image=”2445″ ]

“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it…”

Thoreau expressed his idea that interaction with nature creates a positive attitude. Walden endorses the pleasures of living nearby nature. The sound of falling rain, the rustling breeze, and voices of all the living fauna and flora remind us of the values lost in our modernized society.

Moving deeper into the woods

“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

The above quote from Emerson’s essay Nature (1836) guides us deep into the woods of Walden. Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose forested land Thoreau inhabited for his experiment, had an immense influence on Thoreau. The idea of “the transparent eyeball” is to see nature as “a vast array of symbols, which leads the individual interpreter to the eternal truth of cosmos”. By that, Emerson meant that humans could perceive everything and feel oneness in meditation by viewing nature.

Thoreau indeed refined Emerson’s ideas in such a way as to surmise that we can establish our own identities by direct and continuous correspondence with nature; in other words, through symbiosis. He thought that society would nurture a human identity that can absorb only what is given.

Both Thoreau and Emerson shared the same philosophy: that nature is an integral part of human identity. Their brilliant writings have convinced many readers of the necessity of being surrounded by nature.

Modern Thoreau

Another American, Gary Snyder is a Pulitzer Prize-Winning poet representing the 1950s Beat generation. He is also known as an environmental activist. During the1960s, he practiced Zen training in Japan and learned about Buddhist perspectives on life and living things. Currently, he lives in a hand-built cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and serves as an emeritus professor at University of California, Davis.

His masterpiece, A Place in Space (1995), reflects his environmental philosophy, namely, planet-thought: “Our hope would be to see the interacting realms, learn where we are, and thereby move toward a style of planetary and ecological cosmopolitanism.” In addition, he emphasizes that , “[w]e do need to nourish interactive playful diversity on this one-planet watershed.”

He proposes that people should feel and act, not as members of a given country, but as members of the planet. Such a notion should inspire humanity to work together to solve common environmental degradation problems.

Snyder envisions our common future with “clean air, clean clear-running rivers; the presence of pelican and osprey and gray whale in our lives; salmon and trout in our streams.” This vision of the future appears identical to the one Thoreau ruminated upon in the woods. It is worth reading his writings as that of a “modern Thoreau”, but with the addition of a Buddhist perspective.

Japanese environmental literature

The utter silence…

A cicada’s rasp

Cutting through the very stone

This famous haiku poem was composed by Bashō Matsuo. He stands as the most renowned haiku poet. Haiku, a form of Japanese poetry, typically consist of three phrases of 5, 7, 5 moras in original Japanese. Each haiku contains a kigo, a keyword referring to the season it represents.  For example, a frog evokes the coming of spring as it emerges into the paddy field as the weather improves and a cicada represents the summer.

Bashō’s major work, Oku no hoso michi, translated as The Narrow Road to The Deep North (1702), was published after his death. It was based on his travelogue written during 1689. He deserted his life in the capital city, Edo, and entered the wilderness of northern Japan to gain inspiration for his writing. His haiku was influenced by his firsthand experiences of the nature around him.

The spring is passing –

Eyes are wet with tears.

The birds all mourn and fishes’

The birds and fishes represent people who see him off. The haiku connotes a mixture of hope and sadness upon opening the pilgrimage.  Genuinely, he let his material desires fall in the years preceding the journey and had nothing else to cast away but himself. He meant to restore his true identity by walking the narrow road, to the north.

The country is destroyed;

The grass is green again.

Yet mountains and rivers remain.

Spring comes to the castle;

Bashō versed the above lines when he observed the ruins of the once mighty aristocrat, Fujiwara. This poem summarized well his perspectives on humans and the environment. Civilization undergoes vicissitudes, but green flourishes even after humanity fades.

A tale of a wildcat

Kenji Miyazawa is a Japanese poet and author of children’s literature. He is one of the most read and loved authors in Japan. He is also very popular outside the country. This is partly because Gary Snyder translated some of Miyazawa’s poems in The Back Country (1967) and furthermore almost all of his writings have been translated into English.

Among his works, The Restaurant of Many Orders (1924), from his first collection of short stories and fairy tales, is among the most famous literature works in Japan. It reflects Miyazawa’s insights into the relationship between humans and nature. The story follows two hunters from Tokyo who get caught in a word trap at an unlikely restaurant.

“I wish I could shoot the yellow flank of a deer with two or three bullets. That would be really enjoyable, I am sure. The deer might roll around and fell down with a bang. Don’t you think so?”

The two hunters enjoyed shooting animals for fun during the day and strayed into the middle of woods under the moonlight. By chance, they discover a sign which says ‘Restaurant Wildcat House’. They were so hungry that they enter. The unseen owner of the restaurant, a wildcat, has posted mysterious instructions for clients to follow, which the hunters proceed to also do.

“Customers are requested to set their hair decently and clean their shoes here.”…

“Keep your guns and bullets here.”…

“Please take off your hat, overcoat and shoes.”…

“Please apply the cream in the jar on your face, hands and legs completely.”…

“The food will be ready soon. You will not be made to wait even for fifteen minutes. It can be eaten soon. Please, spray the perfume in the bottle on your head properly.”

After a succession of signs ordering them to do such odd things, in the last room, the hunters find this note: “It must have been quite annoying, as there were ‘many orders’. We are sorry. This is the last order. Please rub your entire body properly with lots of salt from the pot.”

Finally, the hunters realized that the wildcat was in fact cooking them! Almost immediately they escaped from the restaurant. But their faces remained crumpled like “littered waste paper” out of fear even, after they were safely back to Tokyo.

The wildcat represents nature and the hunters symbolize destroyers coming from urban civilization. Miyazawa’s disdain for such hunters who travel from the city to kill animals for sport while trampling nature under foot is obvious. In this fairy tale, Miyazawa expresses both his awe of the natural environment and a warning to humans who do not value it.

Get ready for the forum

Gao Xinjian is a Chinese-born Nobel laureate in literature. His novel, Soul Mountain (1990) is based on the author’s own journey; an asylum from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

In his half autobiographical and half fictional novel, the journey commences in the forest of Sichuan province and continues along the Yangtze River in search for Soul Mountain. Nature serves as an important role in the protagonist’s quest of the self, of death, and of the society that limits freedom. The protagonist meets a mysterious botanist on his way up to the mountain who says:

“Young man, nature is not frightening, it’s people who are frightening! You just need to get to know nature and it will become friendly. This creature known as man is of course highly intelligent, he’s capable of manufacturing almost anything from rumours to test-tube babies and yet he destroys two to three species ever day. This is the absurdity of man.”

His story is replete with history, nature, myth, culture, and folklore of China. It has been described as the Odyssey of the Orient.

Indeed, the examples of literature we discuss above (as well as myriad other writings) highlight how nature is an integral part of humanity and vice versa. Something perhaps many of us have conveniently forgotten in this age of urbanisation. Fortunately, literature can provide us with new perspectives and rekindle our deeper feelings about the powerful bonds we have with the natural world.

Are you now ready to put your noses, hands and feet out into the natural environment again? Go on, we dare you.

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How to read environmental literature 101 by Yuta Kinoshita is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Yuta Kinoshita

Tokyo Metropolitan University

Yuta Kinoshita is completing the Ph.D. program in Anglo-American literature at Tokyo Metropolitan University. He specializes in the literature and poetry of William Faulkner, and undertakes numerous translations and book reviews including of environmental literature. He holds an LL.B. from Nihon University and a Masters of Arts from Tokyo Metropolitan University.

Kenji Watanabe is a former intern with United Nation University Media Studio in Tokyo. His research focuses on environmental law and intellectual property rights relating to energy technologies. He holds an LL.B. from Nihon University and LL.M. from The George Washington University Law School.