Lyrical views of a finite planet
Freshman course weds scientific, literary thinking for a fresh approach to the environment

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

11 September 2002 | A seamless survey of environmental studies — through the words of conservationists, nature lovers, and writers ranging from John Muir and Aldo Leopold to Alan Watts, Stewart Udall, and Rachel Carson — has 150 undergraduates thinking about their natural environment in a holistic way.

The freshman course, “Intro-duction to Environmental Studies,” fills a void in the traditional curriculum by bringing the imagination and spirit of literary thinking into a discussion of today’s most pressing environmental issues, says Garrison Sposito, professor of environmental science, policy, and management in the division of ecosystem sciences.

In addition to studying the objective nature of ecosystems, class participants will gain imaginative entrée to California’s most treasured mountaintops and wilderness sanctuaries through exposure to poetry, fiction, and nature writing.

For example, students can retrace, on paper, the footsteps of the prolific naturalist John Muir along the High Sierra trail that bears his name, starting at the edge of Yosemite Valley and rambling southward 212 miles to its terminus atop Mount Whitney.

His poetic descriptions — of a melting snowpack at 10,000 feet or a burst of blue flowers from a small mountaintop perennial, the sky pilot — exemplify the ways that writers can bring vision and insight to our understanding of the natural world, says co-instructor Robert Hass, a poet, English professor, and self-described amateur natural historian.

A widening embrace
In the tradition of Muir, students will make their own explorations of nature, and use journals to record their observations. Already, just a few weeks into the semester, they have hiked the banks of Strawberry Creek, identifying and cataloging wild birds and sniffing the Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines to determine which is which. “Jeffreys smell like pineapple; Ponderosas smell like Christmas trees,” says Hass. For another planned outing, students will explore the writings of California poet/philosopher Gary Snyder in conjunction with a trip to the marshes near Mt. Tamalpais.

Environmental studies began in the sciences — geology, biology, and meteorology — but has since widened its embrace to include the humanities and social sciences. “Introduction to Environmental Studies” — cross-listed by three de-partments (English, Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Environmental Science, Policy and Management) — attempts to bridge the science/humanities divide.

For Sposito, a scientist specializing in soils and ecosystems, the marriage of literary and scientific thinking is a natural. “Everything in the real world is connected. There are no compartments, except for those who make them for convenience,” he says, “so it makes sense to offer a course that is integrative rather than compartmentalized.”

Alertness to language
Co-taught twice in the past by Hass and former environmental science professor Greg Gilbert, the course grew from Hass’s term as U.S. Poet Laureate, when he brought dozens of prominent environmental writers to the Library of Congress for an event called “The Watershed” — since institutionalized in the city of Berkeley as an annual poetry and environmental festival.

“If we are going to cope with the intensity of pressure that comes with increasing population growth and energy use on a finite planet,” he says, “we’ve got to give younger generations a grasp of natural history, a living sense of the ideas of nature in the literary and artistic and philosophical traditions they’re inheriting, and at least an educated person’s knowledge of environmental science.”

The hope is that students will gain a clearer sense of what is at stake with environmental issues, and become better citizens as a result. “We want to teach students to be alert to the language in which value issues are framed and to ask the tough questions,” Hass says. “Not only about who stands to profit from drilling in Alaska, say, but about how you adjudicate this incessant war between economic development and the ideals of who we are as a people.”


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail