Answering The Question: “What the [bleep] does American Literature have to do with nature?!?!”

Posted on August 18, 2015


From 1999 until 2012, I used an interdisciplinary approach in my ELA 11 classes in which students  blended information they gathered by taking field notes outdoors with research they did into genres they wanted to write–to create original, powerful, multi-genre compositions, complete with original artwork and annotated bibliography.  Since I wrote this piece, Adrian High School has become an authorized IB World School and is engaged in the authorization process to be an IB Middle Years Program School as well. As we move into the interdisciplinary approach of MYP, we have the perfect opportunity to explore nature through the arts, including language arts, as well as history, ethics, mathematics, natural sciences, and human sciences. With plenty of research showing the benefits to attention, learning, critical and creative thinking, and emotional well-being, we have every reason to Leave No Child Inside. Since I had the pleasure of hearing David Orr present this weekend and the “Building a Land Ethic” conference last weekend, I thought I’d post this piece from the archive.

Saturday Morning, January 19, 2008

The forecast includes a sub-zero wind chill advisory until tomorrow. We’ll be lucky if we reach a single digit temperature today, but I am anxious to get outside and walk. As I walk down McKenzie street, I think about Gary Paulsen’s description of his first Iditarod race in Winterdance (1994). It isn’t just the cold that has me thinking about it, but the way he talks about the changes that occur in him that make it impossible for him to consider living a “normal” life ever again. I know that feeling. It has happened to me. Ever since I went to my first Leopold Education Workshop in 1998, the changes have happened. Some were gradual and some subtle, some were swift and some severe, but now a decade out, I know the changes are permanent. What I learned at the Stubnitz Center that autumn afternoon has penetrated every aspect of my life.

I am walking from Maumee Street to the high school, because it’s a beautiful day, and because I have two desires: to go for a walk and to go to the school to do some work. I decided to drive part way and walk part way in order to satisfy them both. The sun is out, and the sky is clear and bright blue above. Thick, dark gray snow clouds hover below, indicating the possibility of snow in the near future. Before I can step out onto the sidewalk from the driveway of the party store where I’ve parked, I can feel the cold creeping into the tips of my fingers and toes. Dang, it is cold. A little windy, too. I pull my scarf up around my chin, which is starting to freeze. I decide to pick up the pace.

Even in the frigid air, I keep my eyes open. I fight the urge to put my head down against the wind, and I look up in time to see the tips of maple branches. I notice the tiny, cute, red, branch buds. I can feel the coming spring in my soul, even as I have to wiggle my toes and fingers while I walk to keep the blood circulating. I’m glad I decided to park on Maumee instead of Madison; ten minutes is plenty of time for a walk in this weather.

As I walk, my thoughts turn to what my students would say if they saw me walking out here today. I know that many of them would declare, “You’re crazy!” I know this is true, because they often tell me I’m crazy when I talk about my outdoor adventures. I wonder if any of them are riding by in the cars that pass. Their exasperated questions echo in my mind.

“What does basketball have to do with nature?”

“What does my dinner have to with nature?”

David Orr, closing presenter, "Building a Land Ethic: Teaching and Learning Across Boundaries," Baraboo, WI, August 2015

David Orr, closing presenter, “Building a Land Ethic: Teaching and Learning Across Boundaries,” Baraboo, WI, August 2015

“What does being Black have to do with nature?”

“What does mental health have to do with nature?”

“What does football have to do with nature?”

“What does auto mechanics have to do with nature?”

“What does music have to do with nature?”

“What does being Mexican have to do with nature?”

“What does school have to do with nature?”

“What does cosmetology have to do with nature?”

“What does Christianity have to do with nature?”

“Ms. eddy, what the [bleep] does American Literature have to do with nature?!?!”

The simple answer? Everything. Every single thing we do, all day long—from opening our eyes in the morning to the very last breath we take on earth—every moment we’re alive is dependent on and affecting the natural world. Technology lulls us into blind ignorance. Sometimes students say that their lives are not bound up with nature, but all that can change in a split second. A windstorm, an ice storm, a tornado, a flood—any of these things can happen right here in Lenawee County, and we are instantly reminded of nature’s power over our puny lives. It has only been a couple of weeks since a powerful wind storm ripped through our region and knocked out power for thousands of people across the state and took down the sweat lodge in Hillsdale where I go for Ceremony.

But it’s more than that. It’s deeper than that. Since Inconvenient Truth came to movie theaters, people who had never considered themselves environmentalists are beginning to face the consequences of their everyday lives on the natural world. It is slowly dawning on Average Joes and Janes that they are, indeed, dependent on Mother Nature and that the seemingly small decisions they make throughout the day can hurt or help her ability to sustain all of our lives.

I’ve made it to Maple Avenue, and the high school is one block away. Ordinarily, I would be disappointed that my walk is nearly over, but today one block feels like one mile. I look across the street at the Tamarack tree in the yard of the corner house. The branches that glow golden in October are now brown and drooping, almost as if the tree is bracing against the wind. Still, I know that if I get close to it, I’ll see that it, too, has tiny branch buds on its tips.

My life has been permanently and nearly completely altered by what I have learned over the past decade. I reflect on the changes that I’ve made to try to live a more earth-friendly lifestyle. I’ve changed my diet, my personal care products, my household cleaning products, my driving habits, and my garbage disposal habits. I eat more locally-produced and organic foods; I drive less and walk or bicycle when I can; I compost and recycle and put garbage on the curb once a month–or less. I don’t run the water when I brush my teeth, and I put plastic on the windows and keep the thermostat in the sixties in the winter. I don’t use the air conditioner in the summer; the basement’s always cool, so if it’s hot outside, I go down there. I unplug appliances that are not in use. I use a rain barrel to collect water to use in the garden. Each year, I dig up more lawn and replace it with Michigan Native flowers that will attract pollinators. I grow some of my own food–chemical-free.

Perhaps the biggest changes have occurred in my teaching. I may be teaching literature and composition, but that doesn’t mean I forget about nature. Not at all. I can’t. If I did, it would be unethical. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the generations that follow me. No matter what course I teach, I teach for Ecological Literacy. David W. Orr, in the foreword to Ecological Literacy (2005), sums up the reason I am compelled to teach this way when he says, “Education, as [every great philosopher from Plato, through Rousseau, to John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead] knew, had to do with the timeless question of how we are to live. And in our time the great question is how we will live in light of the ecological fact that we are bound together in the community of life, one and indivisible.” I feel absolutely responsible to find answers to my students’ questions, to show them the indivisibility of life. Lately, I’ve been looking for answers in novels written for young adult (YA) audiences.

Having taught American literature in a chronological manner for thirteen years with no funds available to buy new books, I don’t know much about YA literature, so I start my YA exploration by contacting an expert. Jennifer Buehler is a walking encyclopedia of YA, and she’s one of my grad-school teachers. I email her a request for YA books that have a strong sense of place. She graciously sends me a list of books, and later, when I see her, she adds to it. I hurry to write down her suggestions. The next thing I do is go to the high school library with my list of books. Mrs. Myers takes the list, and when I return a couple of hours later, she hands me a stack of 8 books. I start reading.

Over the weekend, I read two books, and I’m ready for Jamie to ask, “What does basketball have to do with nature?” When she does, I can hand her a copy of Counting Coup, Larry Colton’s journalistic account of a year he spent in Montana, watching and writing about a women’s high school basketball team. I see how, over the course of the season, nature affects the team: in the summer when practice starts, players get sick from running in the heat. In winter, storms create treacherous bus rides, knock out power, and cause car accidents that bench players with injuries. In class, I can play a story from NPR about professional sports venues that are “going green” by starting recycling programs and remodeling for energy efficiency and sustainability. I can ask her to think about where the products she needs for her game come from and how the sport affects the air, soil, and water on the planet.

When Jesus asks, “What does being Mexican have to do with nature?”, I can hand him Rudolpho Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima to read, and remind him that “if you’re Mexican, you are Indigenous.” In class, I can play a radio story from Living On Earth about a teenage boy in California who is learning what medicines grow in his local landscape so that he can practice traditional Mexican medicine. I can remind him that corn is an important staple in Mexican food, and that the growing ethanol industry is taking corn out of the mouths of some Mexican citizens by causing prices to rise. When Garrett and Josh talk about TV shows about guys trying to survive in the wilderness, I can hand them Gary Paulsen’s books.

I’ve reached the high school parking lot. The space between the driveway and the door seems to take three times as long, now that all my toes are numb and my breath has created condensation inside my scarf. I check the time on my cell phone. Not quite ten minutes has passed since I left the warmth of my van. When I step inside the building, the warmth is overwhelming. I immediately start to sweat. I pull off hat and mittens and unbutton my coat as I walk toward my classroom. My thigh muscles tingle as they warm up. It certainly is cold out today. Is it crazy to walk to work on a Saturday in sub-zero wind chill just so I can find more ways to incorporate ecological literacy in literature and composition classes? Possibly.

Dave (AHS '97) and I share a tradition of greeting the sunrise at Winter Solstice. We've been hiking together since Dave was my student.

Dave Leonard (AHS ’97) and I share a tradition of greeting the sunrise at Winter Solstice every year. We’ve been hiking together since Dave was in high school.

Gary Paulsen’s voice echoes in my mind: “It was in some way a fundamental change in how I perceived myself and the world. I did not elevate myself any longer, nor did I put the other aspects of nature down. It became, truly, we….When I came off the run—had been living in beauty for those days and nights, had seen and done those things that basically altered me, I…could not think of ending” (52).

I turn on the computer, then step to the window to open the shades. Bright sunlight streams in and warms the air for four hours while I design assignments and rubrics, and create a file for storing my NPR radio clips for easy access. I look at the stack of YA books on the shelf, deciding what to read next and thinking about which students need recommendations. I pull my chair into a pool of sunlight and grade field notes.

When I leave, the sun has dropped behind dark, heavy clouds, and the temperature has dropped considerably. Tiny snowflakes swirl in front of me, dancing on brisk, swirling wind. Even with my hat pulled down and my scarf pulled up, the cold creeps into my ears and they ache by the time I get to the first intersection. I try to keep my head up, but it’s just too cold. I put my head down and lean into the wind. Crazy? Maybe, but it feels so much better than driving. Even though it’s too cold to walk the whole way. It’s only ten minutes, I say. It’s NOT the Iditarod.

My mind is on that book again. Like Gary Paulsen, I have experienced a fundamental shift in the way I perceive myself and the world: my students, my community, my landscape, and me. It feels like “truly we,” and I cannot think of teaching for Ecological Literacy as ending. I’ve come outdoors to learn and teach, and I’ve discovered unimaginable beauty—in the landscape, in young adult literature, and in my students’ writing. You can call me crazy, but you can’t call me in.