Literacy Matters Vol 24 Winter 2024

Two Roads Diverged in theWoods: A More Inclusive Look at American NatureWriting

by Kristie Camp

2021. I sought to diversify the voices of American nature writing in this unit to present a more complete picture of the complex relationship Americans have with nature, to offer modern and relatable examples of nature writing, and to honor the plurality of identities within the classroom. Here, I present evidence from two journal assignments from our study of the anchor text for the unit: World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by

ABSTRACT —The history of America’s romance with the outdoors has primarily been told from the perspective of white males, which is reflected in the canon of American nature writers and in the traditional secondary English language arts (ELA) class. This action research study examines student responses to the nature memoir, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments , by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, as part of the teacher’s attempts to make their nature writing unit more diverse and representative. The study includes comments from students who responded to two journal writing prompts, and the responses are examined through the lens of culturally sustaining pedagogy theory (Paris 2012). The study finds that students connected to the author and text regardless of identity markers, but in different ways, and they expressed a desire to further their inquiry of environmental protection after reading the book. Two Roads Diverged in theWoods: A More Inclusive Look at American NatureWriting “I think I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree” (Kilmer, 1913, lines 1-2) writes a white man in 1913 before he dies a heroic death as an American soldier in WWI (Poetry Foundation, 2023). A few years later, an African American woman croons about “Strange Fruit” as a metaphor for black bodies hanging from a tree. This paired example - the poem“Trees” by Joyce Kilmer (Kilmer, 1913) and “Strange Fruit,” a song made famous on the 1939 record by legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday and written by a Jewish American man named Abel Meeropol whose family had fled persecution in Russia (Carillo, 2023) - gives us a glimpse of the complexity of perspectives on nature and nature writing in United States history. Both legacies are present among students in just about any high school English language arts (ELA) classroom today, but only one is often found in the curriculum. Nature writing remains a genre of significant influence and stature in the canon of American literature dating back to when explorers first viewed the North American coast as their wild adversary to be conquered and tamed. As colonization thrived, “the idea of access to land and the ability to work and own it became a bedrock of American identity” (Young, 2021, p. 6). The division in perspectives of what land represents appears as early as the explorers themselves. For centuries, students have learned to think about the American wilderness through the traditional voices of the canon (such as Emerson, Thoreau, or Muir). However, those traditional voices alone do not reflect the complex and layered relationships between students and the American image of the Great Outdoors. In this action research study, I critically examine one section of a unit on American nature writing that I taught in an AP English Language and Composition class in the Fall of

Literacy Matters General Articles

Figure1 photo by Kristie Camp

Aimee Nezhukumatathil (2020, Figure 1). In an analysis of student responses, I hope to answer the following research questions: • To what extent do students express a personal connection with the author and the text? • To what extent do students engage critically with the text in conversation with their own understanding of the natural world? Studying American nature writing is a valuable task for several reasons. First, American mythology, identity, and history are inextricably tied to stories of land and wilderness (Finney, 2021; Kevles, 2008; Marx, 2008; Young, 2021). Second, one’s relationship to nature can have profound implications for one’s health (Becker et al., 2017; Hicks et al., 2021; Jackson et al., 2021; Thomsen et al., 2018). Third, since time in nature holds value to our health, helping students to feel safe in exploring nature is a matter of equity for our students (Hicks et al., 2021; Schelhas, 2002; Shores et al., 2007). Therefore, this action research study aims to examine the extent to which a book study of modern nature writing might equip students to reflect critically on nature writing and their personal relationship to the natural world. Literature Review America’s love affair with the outdoors is a paradoxical one. The image of the Great Outdoors andWallace Stenger’s declaration that the National Parks are “America’s Best Idea” (Dustin et al., 2016, para. 1) remain pervasive elements of American mythology. Despite Stenger’s comment about America’s National Park System being “absolutely democratic” (National Park System, 2023, quotation 8), the origins of the National Park System are mired in the exclusion of people of color (Young, 2021), which

Literacy Matters | Volume 24 • Winter 2024 | 7 |


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