The Role of the Environmental Writer | Juliana Roth

Our implicit agreement for being on Earth is that our time here will end—at the will of our bodies, a natural disaster, an unnatural disaster, at the hands of another or the state, but at some point, we go. And as the best estimates of our scientists predict, the earth, as we understand the composition of the matter and molecules around us, has its own end coded into existence. Half-lives, transmutations, evaporations. And this knowledge is somehow, at its best, meant to both free us and inspire us to live and serve each other better. What is the role of the environmental writer in shaping this practice?

When I was in high school, I didn’t want to go to college. After many long conversations—verging on fights—with my mom, we came to an agreement that I could defer to college only if I had a plan. I looked to the earth, what I thought of then as “the environment,” and wanted to escape there. I decided to do a one-month backpacking trip in Utah, then live on an organic farm. I didn’t have an understanding of the other half of Henry David Thoreau’s legacy, which seemed to inform this choice to disconnect, to retreat as a way to explore and understand the world better. He wasn’t just a man who locked himself in a cabin to reach enlightenment; he was a politically active citizen who harbored abolitionists and runaway slaves in his cabin at Walden, too. Because he took time to understand the privilege of his personal freedom, the true expanse of selfhood, he knew it was cruel not to fight for the liberation of others.

As Rebecca Solnit writes of the reductive image of Thoreau (whom perhaps immortalized this vision of the environmental writer musing in a cabin rather than with acts of civil disobedience):

“This compartmentalizing of Thoreau is a microcosm of a larger partition in American thought, a fence built in the belief that places in the imagination can be contained. Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us… this makes politics dreary and landscape trivial, a vacation site. It banishes certain thoughts, including the thought that much of what the environmental movement dubbed wilderness was or is indigenous homeland—a very social and political space indeed, then and now.”

Thoreau’s social activism and civil disobedience as acts interwoven with his celebration of nature, his complicated understanding of freedom, has largely been forgotten, which continues our idealization of nature as a space defined by whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity. This misremembering is an act of exclusion of the true diversity of Earth’s landscape. Solnit asks of Walden, “What kind of a forest was this, with slaves, rebels, and the ghosts of the original inhabitants all moving through the trees?”


What I am briefly going to discuss is the role of the writer within the environmental movement in terms of both reportage and imagination. My main reference text is American Earth by Bill McKibben. This is a solid anthology for those who want a general understanding of canonical environmental writers from Thoreau to Walt Whitman to Rachel Carson, one that maps the progression of popular thought and analysis. You may note that much of the canon, as with most canons, is less populated with the voices of people of color and women, native stories, and queer folks, but the anthology itself seems to struggle with this lack of representation. Other collections, like Camille Dungy’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Poetry, seeks to answer this limited imagination of what counts as environmental writing.

Since this exploration was originally delivered as a lecture at Sierra Club, I will leave out much of why we should care about the environment and the background of what our most pressing issues are. I imagined the participants already had some level of care for and stewardship towards the earth. What I think I can add to this conversation is how the use of the imagination by artists—in particular, writers—can help to mend and expand our understanding of and response to these issues, and that may in turn be of use to activists.

The research and teachings of Raymond De Young on behavior and the environment at the University of Michigan suggests that the difficulty to get the public to understand and act on climate change is that it is “too big of a problem to be seen.” Our brains don’t process these unseeable risks in the same ways as their immediate indicators: more intense storms, climate migration, polluted water. How do we frame the conversation towards longevity of solution rather than on short-term problems?

De Young argues that most of our mental maps are incomplete, that the human brain cannot imagine something that is not composed of images and experiences we have already encountered, so it is very difficult for a brain to process the suggestion of a climate disaster that is inherently unknowable, only a prediction—similar to how we find it difficult to imagine the fact of our own deaths or the end of our planet’s existence. The role of the writer then is to help people imagine these things, and not just for the sake of terror, but to console, offer coping strategies, and suggest ways to mitigate the damage of present actions on the future. How, too, can our behavior reflect sustainability and avoid exhaustion of our cognitive processes? How does the creative writer respond to these demands?

One thing De Young suggests is a practice of mindfulness as part of this cultivation of imagination and an engagement with sensory experiences around us, something that a writer or artist can reproduce or guide their audience through in their work. The effects of paying attention to the environments around us may combat the drain of cognitive attention and mirror the restorative nature of the outdoors on the mind.

I’ve been thinking about these possibilities for art to heal as I write my novel, River Swell, which imagines an environmental crisis perpetuated directly by industrial animal agriculture and seeks to imagine a future beyond disaster. I’ve been considering how often the ideas of anthropomorphism or pathetic fallacy (giving human emotions to nonhuman beings or inanimate objects) are associated with “bad” writing and, in particular, with “bad” environmental writing. But how do we enliven the land, the city, the air without these tools? And to whose taste are we curating our work?

What separates environmental reportage from fiction is the integration of scientific observations and predictions in an imagined world on the page. This is slightly different in scope from historical fiction, which reconstructs a world based on artifact (and perhaps, too, from science fiction), and in turn often lays more extreme hypotheses on non-Earth worlds. But I am wary of any sort of reductive genre category that names the role of the imagination as distinct from what its main purpose is in writing: to translate experience and connect with the reader. These stories can emerge from surreal details or hard realism, but the world needs to feel alive and well constructed. Regardless, many writers and readers find genre distinctions useful in creating constraints for their work or to help them find the sort of story they might be looking for.

Some recent writers who come to mind, who specifically imagine worlds affected by climate change, are Margaret Atwood with her The MaddAddam Trilogy, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, plus many short stories, films, and other works of art and artful reportage—Rachel Carson and John McPhee in particular. But beyond climate change, I am interested in writers who investigate our perceptions of the environment as something we are both connected to and which also exists separate from us, who use an ecotonic framework to imagine ourselves in the ecosystem of the world. Perhaps poetry is a more natural landscape for this examination, where the poet has the space to unpack specific words and contexts. Poetry may even more readily celebrate immediate beauty and preservation.

I am very curious about the use of scientific and biological knowledge in poetry and how a successful poem asks us to consider an idea, gesture, or state of being past its performance on the page. By narrowing my focus to ecopoetics, a poetic movement that grew from pastoral traditions, certain craft choices can be examined. In her 2013 lecture “Contemporary Practices of Ecopoetics” at the New School, Jane Hirshfield argued that ecopoetics ask the writer to consider “the way our conceptions, our language, our inhabiting of art, homes, sentences, even our dream life… makes our household. It affects it, what we think and how we think it is consequential not only to ourselves but to all beings that we are connected to in our lives.” Ecopoetics reflects an awareness in the poet of their conceptual relationship to the world, species, and perhaps, as Hirshfield goes on to say, “lean counter to the mainstream consciousness’ central awareness” in their work.

Largely, engaging with ecopoetics involves the inclusion of the natural world (as conceived by the human seer) against cognitive constraints and patterns of thought. Yet there is a danger to oversimplifying the idea of ecopoetics as just the inclusion of environmental imagery, that ecopoetics is only a tool within a poem to push a certain political agenda rather than an artistic approach to building language and image systems on the page. An enduring poem engaged with ecopoetics does more than comment on the natural world; it finds a way to evoke and challenge the senses and intellect of the reader. “In a sense, poetry has always been ecopoetry,” writes Robert Hass in his introduction to The Ecopoetry Anthology. “The origins of poetry are embedded in the natural world… in our contemporary sense of it, ecopoetry isn’t just any poetry garnished with birds or trees; it is a kind of paradigm shift.” Hass imagines “ecopoetry not as a particular form or subject or style or school but as a way of thinking within and through all of these… a way of thinking ecocentrically rather than anthropocentrically. Of seeing the same things we’ve always seen, stuck on the same preoccupations, humming the same tunes of key, but with humankind as a contingent part of a much larger whole rather than the be-all and end-all of everything.”

We see this sort of imaginative regime operating within the work of some of the most prominent “environmental” poets, like in Gary Snyder’s use of Buddhist and ecological aesthetics, and within the work of emerging poets like Katie Willingham, concerned with the posthuman, who makes indistinguishable the thought processes of her speakers and the dominant biological discourse, and within Ross Gay’s cross-pollination between organicism and the narrative of the body, collective and singular.

But how does one craft a particular “paradigm shift,” as Hass purposes? How can a poet examine their subject position and make efforts towards an ecocentric existence on the page without the reaction of the reader being something along the lines of “shut up, you damn hippie”?

The poem must be considered globally.

After studying the work of Gay, Snyder, and Willingham, I mapped what ecopoetic scholar James Engelhardt calls the “ecotone,” an appropriately appropriated scientific term referencing “the transitional area between two biomes.” The term not only joins two seemingly disparate communities (science and poetry), but uncovers the desire to name and describe blended spaces, the shared spaces between mechanical biological processes and human experiences that both poets and scientists interrogate in their work.

In her poem “Darwinist Logic on Unrequited Love,” Willingham constructs a parallelism between biological theory and emotional abstraction (Darwin’s logic and failures in love). In this ecotonic space, the speaker recounts Darwin throughout the poem, not only through quotation but with obsessive naming and categorizing, pushing natural and man-made images against each other: “a teacup overflows, / we call it a spill; a riverbed overflows, we / call it a flood.” The speaker repeatedly focuses on representation and categorization, preferring the way light “doesn’t distinguish between different types / of darkness.” Here, Willingham breaks the line and draws attention to the process of naming distinct spaces. By separating the line between “types” and the thing that’s being typified, “darkness,” the poet signals a resistance towards Darwinian classification as well as her own impulse to characterize and separate nonhuman entities, like the dark. This choice may also reflect the struggle of the unresolved love, the “him” who is not explicitly mentioned until the seventh stanza.

By the final stanza of the poem, the speaker grows weary with imposed meanings, how the “purple statices / on the dresser stand for / remembrance” and yet the speaker’s very human urge towards remembering and ruminating needs no assistance; things are “right / in front” and “fully loaded.” The central conflict in the poem arises from the space of the ecotone, the transitional boundary between 1) what meaning the speaker naturally finds in things and what they are told these things represent (nature versus nurture, in essence), and 2) the way in which scientific and poetic logic applies to human experience only to create “simulacrum,” or representations or images of a thing that are not the thing itself. Willingham’s speaker is acknowledging what makes up their Hirshfieldian “household,” and how their experiences affect the relationship they have to the world they inhabit.

In “Mother Earth: Her Whales,” Snyder similarly deploys the ecotone, challenging the naming process like Willingham’s speaker in “Darwinist Logic on Unrequited Love,” but focuses instead on place. The concern of Snyder’s poem is the way natural landscapes become property, the way names are decided from political standpoints in disregard to the logic of a land’s geographical features. A border may be drawn across a body of water; a state line is erected a mile from where the desert gives birth to a mountain. These spaces are physical ecotones in their truest biological sense, but exist simultaneously in Snyder’s poetic imagination. He suggests what Hass distinguishes as humankind being a part of a whole rather than a defining trait. By opening the poem with animals that are “watching” instead of the poet/speaker or another human being doing the observing, Snyder immediately de-centers the human experience, employing his Buddhist sentiment on the page by working to silence the ego. This philosophy is demonstrated through his craft, through his exclusion of human-centered pronouns. Snyder enlivens the typically inanimate parts of the world instead, calling attention to “living light” and histories of the land that have lost their “home to rice,” a removal imposed on the earth by and for people.

In addition, Snyder uses the ecotonic framework to imagine a new plane of existence in which countries are places that can speak, that have a shared agenda—“Brazil says” and “Japan quibbles”—to call attention to imposed political identities and the way a collective party maintains its self-interest rather than attending to global or ecological concerns. Snyder refers to those who dominate and control the land as devoid of essential humanness; instead, they are imagined as “a robot in a suit,” mechanical beings who run “robot nations,” disregarding the native names of places that were informed by geography, like North America not being called Turtle Island. So in Snyder’s poetic imagination, human identity is essentially erased. A distinct, recognizable person isn’t presented in the poem until we get to Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist whose life work was on studying the difference between nature and nurture, and who challenged imposed cultural norms. This allusion reflects the larger conceit of the poem, of reimagining the world without imposed human boundaries.

Snyder plays further with the ecotone by flipping the human qualities and attributing such traits to animals and plant life: “an owl winks… a lizard lifts on tiptoe… the grasses are working in the sun.” This application of verbs typically associated with human behavior to nonhuman entities not only does the work of ecopoetics by reflecting a new sort of ecocentric subject position, including “breathing planets,” but blurs the qualities of the human with the nonhuman. The ecotone allows for Snyder to upend our familiar language system by playing with expectations, a subversion deepened by the general fragmentation of imagery in the poem; there is no reliant pattern to stanzas or lines other than what the voice of the speaker allows. Here too, the ecotone seems to be in operation. While Willingham shows greater loyalty to traditional syntax and grammar, both poets seem concerned with the process of naming and how transitional spaces disrupt this process, demonstrating the futility of classification and the seeking of definitive meanings or categories. While Willingham dissects what distinguishes “off/on” from “let go/resurrect” as a sort of “game your mind plays,” Snyder analyzes how the “basins of the Yang, the Huang” come to be “what we call ‘China.’”

The concept of the ecotone allows the poet to examine new boundaries where a surprising insight may be found, not only in the investigation of what it means to name, document, or remember, but to also allow for the poet to play. Engelhardt writes that “more so even than our animal cousins, we are creatures who play. Ecopoems must allow our full range of joy and experimentation as we try to connect to our world and the other creatures here with us. Play allows for interdependent coevolution… lets the mind roam without limit. Play reveals deep connections.”

This idea of play carries the narrative in Gay’s “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian.” The first word of the poem even hints at a sort of rambunctiousness as the speaker is “tumbling through / the city.” The poem itself seems to tumble, written in 138 short lines, rarely exceeding five words each. The poem gains momentum, speeds up as the reader realizes the entire poem is a single sentence, a 138-line sentence. That in itself is a playful choice, a game-like gesture, containing invented words like “lugwork.” Gay seems to be having the most fun in his wordplay, picking ecotonic words and images that have double meanings, human and ecological: in line 26, we get “sod,” which refers to both a patch of grass and a pathetic person, followed swiftly by “hands” that “flutter” in lines 40-44, evoking the image of a bird through the movement of a human body part. The human body continues to conflate with garden-associated movements and gestures, such as the old woman’s teeth that “cleaved the fig,” the man who discovers the “stoned” sugar, and the description of the fig as a “velvety heart rolling.”

This registry of senses does more than just give a chorus-like animation to the scene. It also intentionally blurs boundaries between the human experience of the tree. The speaker of the poem continues to build in slippages between plant life and human life, even implicating the reader when Gay writes “you are now / too the canopy / of a fig.” The tree is “favoring” another climate but chooses to grow in Philadelphia regardless, simply because “no one told the fig tree / or the immigrants” that they didn’t belong there. Artificial boundaries are called into question by the speaker whose entire evocation of the poem began after he stopped existing “in my / mind without once / looking up.” Gay even brings attention to these craft choices, proclaiming that “yes I am anthropomorphizing / goddamnit,” which is perhaps a moment of celebrating the ecocentric being foregrounded in the poem. But this is further complicated by a line that follows shortly: “people” stands as a singular line. And while the poem is addressed to the fig tree, it ends with the group of people feeding each other from it. So is Gay exploring how the eye of a fig and the human eye become one, or is he using ecotonic moves to craft a more heightened human-centered experience of the natural world?

What I think the ecotone truly offers the poet is a way of making the reader aware of the poem’s movable parts. While examining the boundaries between two systems, one may open space to discuss ethics, challenge social construction, play with words, slip between perceptions, and the real craft concern addressed through the ecotone is how to use conflict and tension to produce revelation. And while that seems to be what some poems seek to do, the ecopoetic imagination asks that we move towards revelations that are beyond us and worlds we already understand, that we can clearly define. The ecotone moves us towards the undefinable, the ether.


“Muir used his platform to better effect, in terms of public interest, contributing to the establishment of the National Park System and the creation of the Sierra Club while at the same time presenting his own explorations as the embodiment of a life lived close to and mindfully with wild nature,” Erik Hage wrote in American Wilderness Writing. Moving forward, I think creative writers interested in the environment must challenge eco-norms that celebrate dominate paradigms like traditional masculinity and heterosexuality. The ecology of natural landscapes must not only be pastured lands but the complex systems of city streets. As Tommy Orange describes in There, There, “cities belong to the earth… the process that brings anything to its current form—chemical, synthetic, technological, or otherwise—doesn’t make the product not a product of the living earth… the land is everywhere or nowhere.”

The role of the environmental writer then, I imagine, especially in this political landscape, is not just to warn, document, and report. These writers are also meant to enliven the complexity and beauty of all environments through the creation of exciting, diverse art, to not just motivate but also sustain.

Juliana Roth is a writer, performer, and educator whose writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Irish Pages, Reckoning, Entropy, and VIDA Review, among other publications. Learn more about her work at