Finding Abbey, Environmental Writing, and Storying the Landscape: A Conversation on Art & Environment with Sean Prentiss and Erik Reece

October 22, 2015
Eric Magrane

As the seventh in an ongoing series of cross-posts with A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, this Proximities features a conversation between environmental writers Sean Prentiss and Erik Reece. Prentiss will be at the University of Arizona reading along with poet Steve Coughlin on Tuesday, October 27, at the new ENR2 building at 5:30 p.m., and Reece will read for the UA Prose Series at the Poetry Center on Tuesday, November 17, at 7 p.m.


Sean Prentiss is the author of the memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave. Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. He is the co-author of the forthcoming environmental writing textbook, Environmental and Nature Writing: A Craft Guide and Anthology. Sean and his wife live on a small lake in northern Vermont and Sean serves as an assistant professor at Norwich University. 



Erik Reece is the author of five books, including An American Gospel: On Family, History and the Kingdom of God and Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, which won Columbia University’s John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism and the Sierra Club’s David R. Brower Award for Excellence in Environmental Writing. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The Nation, Orion, Oxford American, and elsewhere. He teaches environmental writing and regional literature at the University of Kentucky. 


Magrane: As environmental writers, what is your relationship with science and particularly with environmental scientists?

Prentiss: Having a background in creative writing (with business management as my undergrad degree) but not in environmental studies or environmental science has required and allowed me to focus more on science. When I was younger, even as recently as 12 years ago, when I was 30 and just beginning my MFA, I would never have imagined myself drawn so deeply toward the sciences. But now I find the sciences not just vital to understand how our world works and how it is being abused but also so filled with amazing metaphors. Now I find myself surrounded by science, drawn toward learning the science of the landscapes around me.

Reece: I was in the same leaky humanities boat as Sean. Back when I was an English major, I could quote Thoreau until the cows came home, but my understanding of ecology was rudimentary at best. When I started working on Lost Mountain, I surrounded myself with top-notch naturalists, wildlife biologists, hydrologists: people who know a world I knew nothing about. And they were very kind about helping me understand all of that. In return, I worked with them to make their own writing more accessible to audiences outside the sciences. That’s what they wanted most from me, as it turned out. So we had a great, symbiotic relationship, and in some cases, still do.

Magrane: I'm interested in the role of the imagination in the face of environmental crisis. For example, Erik has written of strip mining as "more than a moral failure; it is a failure of the imagination." What, precisely, is the role of the imagination here? Can you point to any examples where imagination has come through to counteract this moral failure? 

Prentiss: Imagination will need to be the key to protect us. We cannot rely on our old habits of increasing population, using more resources, and swallowing up more lands for housing, logging, mining, and commerce. Instead, we need to dream anew, to think outside the box. Every great idea is an act of imagination. I’m thinking of Boston’s Fen, which once was a sewage polluted landscape until Frederick Law Olmstead transformed it into both an urban wild and a sanitation system to deal with sewage. Olmstead turned this ravaged landscape into “a winding, brackish creek, within wooded banks.” That took imagination. And Olmstead had to see this polluted land as both old (restoring the marsh) and new (reclaiming it for human recreation). And, to tie into your question about science, it also took science to make this happen. Olmstead had to rely on new sanitation engineering to pull this off. So imagination might be learning from the past, leaning on the science, and dreaming toward the future.

And to tie this to Ed Abbey, his biggest contribution to human thought might have been blending anarchist thought with environmentalism. Again, Abbey had to take old ideas—anarchism and environmentalism—and dream them anew. From him we get eco-sabotage and Earth First! And for where we are today? I’m teaching Thoreau in one of my classes right now, and we talked about Thoreau’s famous quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” What we maybe need is wild imagination for how we view our extraction industries, our economic system, even, as Ed Abbey liked to write about, our governmental system. We need, to lean on another word, wilderness, a self-willed imagination.

Reece: For me, the failure of the imagination has been a failure to conceive of a different way of doing things. When it comes to energy in this country, we seem to have a psychopathic desire to find the most destructive form of extraction—strip mining, fracking—and then we pretend there are no alternatives. The role of the social imagination, from Walt Whitman to Martin Luther King, was to help us believe in our better selves. That’s a powerful thing, I think. And that’s what’s lacking in so much of our public discussion. When thinking about the financial crisis or the environmental crisis, we just fall back to the easy notion that such injustice and corruption is inevitable. But as Wendell Berry has written, the word inevitable is for cowards.

But to point to one particular example of the imagination conquering the status quo, up in Pennsylvania, a group called AMD&ART used some pretty amazing landscape design and public art to actually treat an acid mine drainage site. The art inspired that community in a way I don’t think strict science would have.

Magrane: When Terrain editor Simmons B. Buntin and I first invited you to do this cross-post, Sean sent some opening questions to Erik. One of those made a connection with Abbey and Lost Mountain: “Ed Abbey, who I studied, was a massive advocate for land preservation and a stop to overpopulation. Do you see a correlation between the issues of Lost Mountain and Ed Abbey's concerns?” In relation to this question, and in relation to land degradation and overpopulation: Narratives of overpopulation can have racist and xenophobic undertones, and in fact, this is one of the critiques of Abbey's work. Uneven development, unbalanced consumption, resource use, and extraction, some would argue, are much more at issue in environmental crises than overpopulation. For example, some figures have shown that the world's richest 20 percent consume about 50 times more than the world's poorest 20 percent. How would you address this, and the inherent questions of privilege intertwined here?

Prentiss: Ed Abbey, for his many incredible ideas, also had some weaker arguments. One was that nations like Mexico were the problem to American overpopulation. Abbey just got that one wrong. Still, I’d agree with Abbey that overpopulation is the silent devastation that we need to be talking more about, in conjunction with climate change, even if so many of the previous conversations were laced with those racist and xenophobic undertones.

Why do we need to be talking about overpopulation? Because as we increase population, we run into issues of how to conserve our resources and preserve our landscapes and habitats. As Reece mentions in Lost Nation, as we fragment our landscapes, we are destroying (again, along with climate change) our ecosystems, leading to mass extinctions. So, at least to Ed Abbey and to me, overpopulation is a concern. When my grandmother was born in the 1910s, less than two billion people needed food, shelter, water, and heat. When my parents were born in the 1940s, we had 3.5 billion people. When I was born in the early 1970s, we reached five billion. When my niece was born in the mid-1990s, we had six billion. Now as a new nephew of mine is being born any day, we’re racing to eight billion people. We need to feed, shelter, and keep warm each person. So we keep increasing our need for resources and decreasing our available space. Our world is becoming urbanized in front of our own eyes. We are a nation of pavement, buildings, and cement.

But, as you mention, “Narratives of overpopulation can have racist and xenophobic undertones.” So what to do? Just ignore the whirl of numbers as our population increases? No. What we should do is think about how we can reduce population kindly, smartly, and justly. And the best way to do that is to educate and empower all people. So rather than blaming poorer nations for population issues, we should educate them. We should pull them from poverty. Especially women. And, again, through education, rather than any prescriptive system that forces people, we can reduce population growth.

But, as you also mention, we have to be aware that not all populations use resources equally, and maybe this brings us back to imagination. It takes no imagination to keep doing what we, first world Americans, are doing—swallowing up more resources, building larger homes, heating with dirty fuels, and paving more roads for our car culture. But it does take wild imagination to envision a way that the richest among us also use the least resources rather than the most. How do we live with less?

Reece: Peter Barnes’ suggestion about a cap-and-dividend system is very important here. Basically, you make those in affluent countries pay into a trust for all the ways they pollute the commons. Then that wealth is distributed equitably to the poor countries that need that money but did nothing to pollute the commons. The greatest commons of all, of course, is the atmosphere. We need a global climate trust on the model of the Alaska Permanent Fund for oil. On that score, I encourage everyone to read Barnes’ Liberty and Dividends for All and Who Owns the Sky?

Magrane: Regional literature and place are important in both of your work. Can you say something about the role of literature in helping to develop a sense of place or a bioregional imagination? 

Prentiss: What I find most interesting is that the places I love are the places I want to write about. For Finding Abbey, I longed to write about the desert Southwest, a place I love and long to protect. But now I’ve moved to northern Vermont, a place I never expected to end up. Now that I’m here on the shores of our little lake, I have fallen in love with this new landscape. Because of this love affair with this landscape, now I find myself writing about and studying this new landscape. I’m learning water fowl—“Look, a wood duck. Look a loon chick.” I’m learning how to tap trees with my wife, Sarah. I’m learning to bow hunt from Sarah’s Uncle Bear. Sarah is teaching me to raise bees. So it takes, for me, a place to love, to long to write about it. And to love a place, I need to know it. I need hands in the dirt, roots in the earth.

Reece: Sean brings up a good point. I think too much emphasis has been put on the idea of home in environmental writing, as if it’s some kind of betrayal to leave a place. I grew up in Kentucky and I may spend the rest of my life here. If I do, I won’t regret it one bit. I love this place and I will never exhaust myself writing about it. But things change and people move for jobs and family, etc. The leaving isn’t what’s important but, as in Sean’s case, the deciding to ground oneself in that new place and take some responsibility for it.

Back to the question about a bioregional imagination. I have students at the University of Kentucky who grew up in this state and know nothing about the heroes of the eastern Kentucky coal fields, people like the Widow Combs, Uncle Don Gibson, and Florence Reece. These should be household names around here. And when students take my Appalachian Lit class, they always ask me why they’ve never heard of them before. When they do, they feel empowered: the Widow Combs stood up to a strip miner’s bulldozer, by God, and she was a Kentuckian! If she could do that at 80, I can do something at 20. There’s something incredibly profound about learning the literature of one’s own place. It stories the landscape, as my friend Gurney Norman says. It gives it texture.

Sean Prentiss will read from Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, at the UA’s ENR2 building (Room S225) on Tuesday, October 27, at 5:30 p.m. Joining him will be poet Steve Coughlin.

Erik Reece will read for the University of Arizona Prose Series on Tuesday, November 17 at 7 p.m at the UA Poetry Center.