Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation
Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler
This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.
Going Away to the Wilderness for Solitude … and Community: Ecoambiguity, the Engaged Pastoral, and the ‘Semester in the Wild’ Experience (Scott Slovic)
Abstract: We often associate wilderness experience with solitude. In reality, we go into the wild in order to think more deeply about society. This article considers ecoambiguity and the engaged pastoral in the context of world literature and the University of Idaho’s ‘Semester in the Wild’ program, which sends students into the wilderness for two months.
1. Ecoambiguity and the Engaged Pastoral
One of the first lessons of ecological experience is that of relationship. Try as we might to leave society behind, we always carry its intellectual trappings with us, and we forge new societies, new networks of interaction, no matter where we go. This is not a bad thing. The hermetic myth offers an alluring vision of simplicity and perspective and focused commitment in such narratives as Kamo no Chomei’s “An Account of My Hut” (“Hojoki,” 1212) and E.J. (Ted) Banfield’s Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908). In the American context, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and his many-volume personal journal are among the literary icons of solitary retreat.
But relationship is the abiding motif in all of these works – Chomei could not fully abandon the political complications of urban Japan. Banfield and Thoreau established relationships with Dunk Island on the North Queensland coast and Walden Pond in surburban Boston, respectively – and they often thought about the behavior of fellow human beings even as they patrolled the woods and beaches of their isolated geographies. Ecocritic Karen L. Thornber uses the term “ecoambiguity” to describe this sense of relationship, of community, while in conditions of solitude – and to explain other forms of environmental irony. I tend to think about the social engagement that occurs when writers experience isolated places as examples of what I call the “engaged pastoral,” a mode of pastoral experience that enhances a sense of connection to society rather than emphasizing withdrawal from society.
These threads of ironic ecoambiguity and the engaged pastoral occur not only in the few examples mentioned above but throughout the field of environmental ← 275 | 276 → literature. Joshua DiCaglio’s article “Ironic Ecology” (2015) highlights irony as a central feature of recent American environmental narrative, pointing to such examples as David Gessner’s adoption of the pose of wilderness adventurer when describing his experience of canoeing down the Charles River in urban Boston. DiCaglio argues ultimately that the function of irony in environmental narrative is to “disperse” isolated, individualized identities by blurring boundaries between wilderness and city, otherness and self:
[P]opular environmental rhetoric tends to describe the displacement of the human while struggling to describe the fragmentation implied by ecological dispersal. I can more easily acknowledge my role in a network of relations; I find it more difficult to see how that network of relations implies that what I consider “me” (and “human”) cannot be limited by or contained within any clear boundary. However, the implications of ecology are not fully realized without both conclusions; in fact, … the failure to acknowledge the second conclusion underlies much of the confusion currently facing environmental rhetoric …. Irony in recent nature writing functions to overcome the resistance that those familiar with environmental discourse have developed toward the deeper implications of the identity-dispersing reality of ecological thinking. (451)
What may seem at first glance to be comically ironic inconsistency in a literary narrative – the hermit who cannot leave behind his obsessions with political life back in the city, the urban recreationalist who fancies himself a heroic explorer in the dangerous wilderness – can also be viewed as experimentation with boundary-breaking, which may be an essential verbal and psychological process in pursuit of integrating the individual with the collective, the human with the non-human.
In this article, I would like to consider a form of pedagogical ecoambiguity and the engaged pastoral in the context of the University of Idaho’s ‘Semester in the Wild’ Program, which sends approximately a dozen undergraduates deep into the wilderness of the American West, where they spend two and a half months living at a research station while taking a full schedule of classes, ranging from ecology to environmental writing. Many students are attracted to the program because of the allure of quiet solitude in a beautiful wilderness – they imagine themselves “front[ing] only the essential facts of life” (90), as Thoreau put it in Walden, and breaking through the buffers of twenty-first-century civilization to learn the realities of ecology. Some of this does happen. But the students and professors who participate in ‘Semester in the Wild’ also learn a lot about getting along (and sometimes not getting along) with other people, and about establishing other kinds of social relationships (including participation in the process of forming public policy), during the semester-long adventure in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Careful reading of Chomei, Banfield, Thoreau, and other writers of exurban retreat could have predicted this. Keeping DiCaglio’s notion of ← 276 | 277 → “ironic ecology” in mind, though, may reveal that even in the surprisingly anthropocentric social experience that occurs during ‘Semester in the Wild,’ the students are experiencing boundary-blurring relationships that contribute to their newly open sensitivity to wilderness ecology and the role of humans within such systems.
2. Chomei and the Ironic Persistence of Community
Perhaps the most forceful demonstration of irony in recent environmental discourse is Thornber’s Ecoambiguity, her study of environmental crises in East Asian literatures. Swarnalatha Rangarajan, Vidya Sarveswaran, and I summarized this project as follows in our introduction to Ecoambiguity, Community, and Development: Toward a Politicized Ecocriticism (2014):
The opening example of “ecoambiguity” in Karen Thornber’s 2012 book … describes a situation in contemporary Japan where a local tourism association at Shosen Gorge sought to cut down trees “so that people could have a better view of ‘nature’” (1). In the case of Shosen Gorge, an economically depressed region that relies on income from tourists, visitors are particularly keen to have unobstructed views of the spectacular rocky cliffs, so the natural vegetation has been targeted for cutting in order to facilitate an aesthetic or touristic experience. Essentially what Thornber is describing is a cultural tendency to selectively appreciate and resist the natural world, seeking to control our experience and the natural environment as a way of maximizing a desired mode of experience. In many other parts of Asia and the rest of the world, the irony of ecoambiguity is more painful and acute. (vii)
One of the strongest impressions conveyed by Thornber’s project is the idea that inconsistency in human relationships with the non-human world are nothing new. There has always been a human tendency to struggle with ambivalence, with conflicting impulses and concerns. She reveals this ironic inconsistency in copious examples, perhaps none more vivid than the case of Chomei (1155–1216), the author of the classic work of Japanese literature titled “Hojoki” (1212), which describes Chomei’s retreat to a ten-foot hut in the mountains outside of Kyoto after various disasters have devastated the city. Although Chomei declares his special devotion to nature, he also writes famously in “Hojoki”: “when I return and sit here I feel pity for those still attached to the world of dust” (211).
Again and again, the hermit Chomei turns his thoughts toward the city he has left behind, his physical solitude betraying an ongoing psychological attachment to community. We might refer to this tendency to retreat to a locus of rural solitude in order to contemplate the social concerns (and even political crises) of the urban community as a kind of engaged pastoral. Rather than using retreat as an opportunity to disengage and relish solitary peace of mind, just the opposite occurs – or ← 277 | 278 → rather, in addition to the solace that might come with focused contemplation of one’s immediate surroundings, stepping back physically from the complications of the urban setting facilitates clear-sighted analysis of society.
3. Thoreauvian Engagement
Centuries later, in the United States, Thoreau famously struggled to balance solitude and community during his two-year experiment in attentive living at Walden Pond on the outskirts of Boston (1845–1847) and throughout his life. In 1954, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Walden, E.B. White articulated Thoreau’s profoundly contradictory devotion to private enjoyment of nature and to social engagement:
Henry went forth to battle when he took to the woods, and Walden is the report of a man torn by two powerful and opposing drives – the desire to enjoy the world (and not be derailed by a mosquito wing) and the urge to set the world straight. One cannot join these two successfully, but sometimes, in rare cases, something good or even great results from the attempt of the tormented spirit to reconcile them. (238)
What White describes here is essentially the paradox of Thoreau’s engaged pastoral sensibility. It is true that Thoreau’s social engagement emerges most prominently in distinct works such as “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), which are clearly separate from his natural-history-focused journal and his nature-oriented essays. But in his best-known book, Walden, Thoreau does in fact display a twin sensibility, a simultaneous engagement with private life close to nature and with human society. Even when he is alone in the relatively rural setting of Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau writes as if he has not abandoned society. So content was Thoreau in his solitary observations of nature in suburban Boston that he did not feel he was alone when he lacked human companionship. He devotes an entire chapter of Walden, titled “Solitude,” to the idea of solitary community, which is akin to the ecoambiguity Thornber discusses in her book.
The following passage on lonesomeness and community suggests that Thoreau required no human company in order to feel at home in nature:
I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life … In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood ← 278 | 279 → insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. (131–32)
This feeling of infinitely vast friendliness seems to be a form of the dispersed identity DiCaglio describes in his recent study. The irony of being isolated from fellow humans but immersed in a community of fellow natural beings is perhaps different than the specific varieties of ecoambiguity Thornber identifies in Ecoambiguity, but it prefigures the communitarian experience of wilderness that occurs during the ‘Semester in the Wild’ program. Likewise, students in ‘Semester in the Wild,’ in learning to raise their voices to address the pressing issues of society, participate in the tradition of the engaged pastoral, retreating into the wilderness for a brief period in order to see and understand human culture more clearly.
Some two decades after the publication of Walden on the other side of the planet, the Australian nature-lover and author Banfield set out to live a solitary life in nature on one of Australia’s eastern barrier islands, inspired by the iconoclastic American. His biographer, Michael Noonan, records Banfield’s quest in A Different Drummer: The Story of E.J. Banfield, Beachcomber of Dunk Island (1986): “Thoreau wrote: ‘How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.’ The book in Ted Banfield’s case was, of course, Thoreau’s Walden …, and he carried a copy of it with him when he set out from Arafat in the late 1870s …” (37). And states further: “After deciding that Tam O’Shanter Point, being still part of the mainland, just did not have the atmosphere of isolation he was seeking, Ted headed out to Timana …” (96). In the end, Banfield found the isolated, Thoreauvian locale he was seeking on Dunk Island, off the coast of Queensland in the northeast of Australia. But he also found the paradoxical combination of Thoreau’s hermetic naturalist lifestyle and his sensibility as an activist-writer whose pastoral existence included engagement in social issues. In some of his writing, such as “The Gentle Art of Beachcombing” (1913), Banfield waxed poetic about the “sweetness and satisfaction” of enjoying the sound of the wind in the trees, “humming accompaniment to the measured cadences of old ocean, and the tree of beautiful leave … will waft pure and refreshing scent from flowers of milk-white and gold” (155). At other times, as in his piece “Ruthless Collectors” (1912), the writer railed against people who went to the bush to collect birds for their colorful plumage, complaining that, “being destroyers of birds they should be regarded as the most direful pest of the country breeds” (146). As I have described in my article “Epistemology and Politics in American Nature Writing” (1996), it is in the solipsistic rhapsodies and socially engaged jeremiads of Banfield’s work that we can find traces of familiar epistemological and political tropes, transferred from North American literature, such as Thoreau’s work, to island writing in the Southern Hemisphere. ← 279 | 280 →
4. Engaged Citizenship, the ‘Semester in the Wild’ Program, and the Idea of a Community of Students and Professors in the Wilderness
My own life as a teacher, literary essayist, and scholar working in the environmental humanities takes much of its combined emphasis on loving the world and fighting to address matters of concern from the tendencies I have inherited from intellectual ancestors such as Chomei, Thoreau, and Banfield. I have described these impulses at length in the essay “Savoring, Saving, and the Practice of Ecocritical Responsibility” in my book Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility (2008):
What I want myself is to find some way to balance the urge to savor and the urge to save, the impulse to enjoy life and the commitment to do some good in the world. Looking back on years of writing and lecturing in the field of ecological literary studies … it becomes clear to me that much of my own work wavers between these two poles of responsibility … the responsibility (shared by every living organism) to be fully present in this life and the responsibility (of a privileged, empowered human citizen) to be involved with the transgressions and the opportunities of my community. My writing demonstrates a vacillation between various forms of engagement and retreat, all in pursuit of “responsibility,” in quest of meaningful responses to the world as I experience it and gather information about it. (3)
To a certain degree, my own effort to bring together savoring and saving is a familiar dimension of ecocritical praxis. Other scholars in the field, such as Lawrence Buell and Michael P. Cohen, have recognized that ecocritical research is “usually energized by environmental concern” (Buell 97) and that ecocriticism “wants to know but also wants to do. Ecocriticism needs to inform personal and political actions” (Cohen 27). More recently, Polish ecocritic Wojciech Malecki, building on the tradition of pragmatist philosophy and the writings of Richard Rorty, has argued in “Save the Planet on Your Own Time? Ecocriticism and Political Practice” (2012) that socially engaged ecocriticism of the type that I describe and demonstrate in Going Away to Think is an appropriate convergence of professional and political activity to achieve what Rorty describes as “‘real politics,’ i.e., participating in demonstrations, supporting financially the political organization or party you find the most useful, or writing letters of protest to officials” (49). In 2012, when I moved from the University of Nevada, Reno, to the University of Idaho, I began working with my new colleagues in Idaho to develop a special program for undergraduate students at the Taylor Wilderness Research Station in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness of central Idaho, the largest wilderness area in North America south of Alaska, and one of my goals in the environmental writing class was, in a nutshell, to introduce my students to the experience of the ← 280 | 281 → engaged pastoral, to help them appreciate their remote, solitary experience in a vast wilderness, and to empower them to use their writing and speaking voices to engage with matters that concern them back in society.
Located in the heart of the Frank Church Wilderness, a 2,366,757-acre roadless area that was established in central Idaho in 1980, the Taylor Wilderness Research Station is the former homestead of a hunter and trapper named Cougar Dave Lewis (1855–1936), who, as described in Pat Cary Peek’s Cougar Dave: Mountain Man of Idaho (2004), could be labeled a mountain hermit. Lewis arrived in the Big Creek area, fifteen kilometers from the confluence with the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, in 1879 and lived there in almost complete isolation, with his dogs, until his death in 1936. Jess Taylor (after whom the property was named) purchased the ranch from Lewis in 1935. In the late 1960s, University of British Columbia mountain lion researcher Maurice Hornocker went to Taylor Ranch to conduct his doctoral research. When the property came up for sale as he was completing his thesis, Hornocker convinced the University of Idaho to purchase the land and the handful of rustic cabins as a future research station – this happened in 1970.
The University of Idaho had owned the Taylor Wilderness Research Station for more than forty years when I arrived in 2012, but it had not yet developed an actual curriculum for undergraduates. The facility had been used mostly by graduate students and faculty members to conduct research on bighorn sheep, elk, wolves, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, salmon and steelhead, and larger ecological topics. I worked with stream ecologists, specialists in wilderness policy and management, botanists, wildlife experts, historians, and literary critics to develop the curriculum for the new program that we called ‘Semester in the Wild.’ Our plan was for twelve to seventeen students to travel to Taylor for a full autumn semester each year (about two and a half months), where they would live in tents or cabins, cook together, and study a complete set of courses (fifteen to seventeen credits) in a range of disciplines. It would be similar to studying abroad, except that these students would need backpacks and hiking boots instead of passports. The program was launched in the fall of 2013 with eleven students, and as I write this article, we are preparing to welcome our fourth group of ‘Semester in the Wild’ students in for the Fall of 2016 semester.
As I have suggested above, this unique academic program reinforces Thornber’s concept of ecoambiguity and my own idea of the engaged pastoral. Students may anticipate their ‘Semester in the Wild’ experience as being one of lonely isolation in the backcountry, but in fact they spend much of their time in a richly social environment, together with a group of fellow students who quickly come to resemble a large family of brothers and sisters. They also get to know their professors, who fly in to the research station on tiny bush planes each week to work, hike, and cook with them, much better than they know their professors back at the university. ← 281 | 282 → When professors are not at the research station, the students are accompanied by the station managers, Pete and Meg Gag and their six-year-old daughter Tehya, who live in one of the cabins and keep track of all aspects of the station, including the comings and goings of researchers and students. There are certainly opportunities for solitude at Taylor, and students take advantage of the chance to climb nearby mountains and fish for cutthroat trout and whitefish in the Big Creek River that flows through the station. But most of the time they are immersed in a culture of solitude that consists of a community of students and professors living in temporary isolation from mainstream society. There is no telephone access to society and only limited internet capacity, but news still makes its way daily to the station and paper letters and packages arrive each Wednesday morning on the mail plane, along with groceries. The station is located some two hundred kilometers from the nearest small town and is not reachable by automobiles – only by plane, on horseback, or on foot. The students themselves hike in to the station at the beginning of their experience, studying river ecology along the way.
I teach a course on environmental writing each fall as one of the five courses in the program. We begin by working on the ‘building blocks’ of what I call ‘the personal essay of environmental experience,’ studying the work of Scott Russell Sanders, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez, among others, as the students practice small descriptive, narrative, and reflective writing exercises aimed at deepening their attentiveness to the place itself. Often I team-teach these early units of my class with colleagues who are ethnobotanists or ornithologists, and they lend their scientific expertise to our discussions about writing carefully and vividly about the natural world. In order to quickly ramp up my students’ awareness of the power of words, I engage them in an activity at the beginning of each day that I call ‘wrapping ourselves in language.’ We are not in a particular hurry because I have come to work with the students for several days (sometimes for an entire week), and ours is the only class happening during this time period. So we spend an hour or so each morning, reading a book aloud to each other as we sit on a mountainside, gradually warming up in the rising sun. One year we read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977) together, each student and teacher reading a paragraph or two and then passing the book to the next classmate. Last year we used Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (2012) as our warm-up text. Even this reading-aloud exercise is a simultaneously individual and collective activity, each student projecting her or his voice alone to the community but also listening carefully to the voices of the other readers and to the words selected by the author. We learn the sound of our own voice and the sounds of our companions’ voices through such reading – and we develop the habit of listening deeply to language, which is a new focus for some of these students (fig. 1). ← 282 | 283 →
I typically visit the students in the wilderness for two week-long, intensive stints. The first week focuses on the personal essay of environmental experience, the second unit on writing vividly about abstractions (scientific, political, or philosophical ideas). The students, who entered the wilderness in late August at the beginning of our academic year, leave the wilderness in early November when winter begins in the mountains of the Frank Church Wilderness. We bring them up to Moscow, Idaho, in the northern part of the state, where the University of Idaho main campus is located. The university allows the ‘Semester in the Wild’ students to de-compress gradually from their wilderness isolation by giving them a house to stay in on Moscow Mountain, about twenty minutes’ drive from campus. At the Twin Larch Retreat (the name of the house), the students complete their final projects for their various ‘Semester in the Wild’ classes, including the last few projects for our writing class. The third and final unit of my environmental writing class involves preparations for the group public presentation that the students will offer on campus on the last day of the program and also the writing of a ‘personal testimony’ on some topic of interest and concern (fig. 2).
I consider the personal testimonies to be a vital culmination of the ‘Semester in the Wild’ experience. The students and I begin talking about these while we are still in the wilderness, using our isolation in the wild mountains as an opportunity to think about matters of concern back in society. Free from the hectic pressures of daily life in the city, students seem able to reflect more deeply about what really matters in their lives. They come up with such topics as the importance of developing organic gardens on their home campuses (either the University of Idaho campus or the campus where they normally study – approximately half of the ‘Semester in the Wild’ students come from other universities in the United States or abroad) or the need to protect predators (such as wolves or sharks) in order to preserve the health of ecosystems. The most important thing, from my perspective, is that the students are learning to use their writing and public speaking in order to imagine themselves as engaged citizens. They can draw on their growing confidence as writers to craft letters to the editor for local or national newspapers or magazines or websites or to prepare oral testimony for public meetings on their campuses or in their cities. Only a few of the students may go on in their lives to be professional writers, but all of them have the potential to live their lives as engaged community members, making a difference in the creation of reasonable public policy by showing up at meetings and offering thoughtful opinions. But in order to make a difference in this way, they must have some confidence in their ability to write and speak publicly.
I see a direct intellectual through-line from Chomei, Thoreau, and Banfield to my students in the twenty-first-century American academic program that we call ‘Semester in the Wild.’ Thornber’s ecoambiguity and my own concept of the engaged ← 283 | 284 → pastoral point to the ironic revelation that learning to write and speak well while living in the remote wilderness is important to students’ lives back in society. The relative solitude of the wilderness setting contributes to students’ appreciation of the social purpose of their university education. In wilderness solitude, students develop not only a sense of the value of meaningful community, but a hunger to contribute to society through the careful exertion of their own writing and speaking voices.
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–. “The Gentle Art of Beachcombing.” 1913. The Gentle Art of Beachcombing. Brisbane: U of Queensland P, 1989. 153–58. Print.
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–. “Savoring, Saving, and the Practice of Ecocritical Responsibility.” Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility. Reno: U of Nevada P, 2008. 1–9. Print.
Slovic, Scott, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, and Vidya Sarveswaran. “Introduction.” Ecoambiguity, Community, and Development: Toward a Politicized Ecocriticism. Ed. Scott Slovic, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, and Vidya Sarveswaran. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2014. vii–xvi. Print.
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Fig. 1. Scott Slovic teaching at the Taylor Wilderness Research Station in central Idaho.
Photo: Sadie Grossbaum
Fig. 2. An engaged student presents her personal testimony.
Photo: Scott Slovic