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Reading and Rambling
Take a hike, read a book
By Jessica Hirst
When I was a kid, my parents would often haul me and my brother out of bed at the crack of dawn to engage in various outdoor endeavors. At 11 years old, hard as it is to admit, I would much rather curl up with the latest Sweet Valley High novel on a rainy day than slog up misty, muddy Mount Si in the Cascade foothills (my brother and I called it “Mount Sigh”). And it wasn’t only the rain dripping down my neck that got to me. The scratchy polypropylene turtlenecks weren’t my favorite either, and even in 1987 I knew my parents didn’t have the right look going with those hot pink Lycra athletic tights.
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Thankfully, my taste in literature has matured a lot since then, and so has my appreciation for the wilderness (perhaps helped along by the invention of Smartwool and silkweight Capilene). Now I love a good hike through rain-drenched firs or a dip in a mountain lake. And when I pause to reflect on how this transformation occurred, it seems to me it had as much to do with the environmental literature I started reading as it did with all the time I spent outside when I was growing up. From Edward Abbey to Gretel Ehrlich to John Krakauer, environmental writers have inspired me and helped me recognize the importance of wild spaces.
And now I’ve found myself living in a place where environmental writing seems to grow from, well, the trees. The Eugene area is home to writers like Barry Lopez, whose book Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award, and Carol Ann Bassett, a UO professor who writes about the Galapagos Islands. At the UO, which boasts one of the top environmental literature programs in the country, grad students and faculty in the Mesa Verde organization debate the finer points of ecocriticism before embarking on excursions to Odell Lake and the Metolius River. And at South Eugene High School, students in Peter Hoffmeister’s English class get an education in environmental literature and wilderness survival.
Given Eugene’s propensity for eco-lit, perhaps it’s not surprising that Hoffmeister’s Integrated Outdoors Program has survived and thrived since it began five years ago. The class, which students take for English and P.E. credit, includes readings by authors like Abbey and Krakauer as well as overnight camping trips to different types of wilderness environments. Students build and sleep in snow caves, orienteer by the stars, rappel down a rock face and kayak down rivers.
“We’re interested in exposure,” says Hoffmeister. “We want students to care about deserts, mountains, rivers and watersheds. We also expose them to ideas through books and try to get them thinking about ethics,” he says.
“The class gets you thinking about a lot of different things in a different way,” says Ramzi Habib, 18, a student in the class. “The big thing in all the books we read is that there’s still a lot of beauty in the world,” he says. “Nature is more important than concrete. You should respect and appreciate nature for what it is and learn to live with it.”
The IOP program isn’t the only group of wilderness-minded intellectuals around town. The UO’s English department offers a specialty in environmental literature, and former UO professor Glen Love is one of the founders of ecocriticism, the school of literary criticism devoted to the study of literature and the environment.
The UO is the home of Mesa Verde, an informal social group whose members read and discuss works of eco-lit and critical theory. “We think about the role of literature and language in connecting us to nature,” says Sarah Ray, a member of Mesa Verde and a doctoral candidate in the Environmental Sciences, Studies, and Policy Program. “Some students see literature as a mediator that stands in the way of experiencing nature, and see language as a social construct. But many others in the field would say that it’s through language that we connect with nature,” she says.
So, the next time a rainy day rolls around, take a lesson from some of Eugene’s literary adventurers — and the wisdom of an 11-year-old. You can still prepare for this summer’s wilderness endeavors by simply curling up on the couch with a good book.
A few not-to-miss works of eco-lit:
Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich
Ordinary Wolves, Seth Kanter
Into the Wild, John Krakauer
River Notes, Barry Lopez
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams