Liberal Arts Honors – LAH 350 – The Human Place in Nature

The University of Texas at Austin

I created this course at the invitation of the Liberal Arts Honors Program at UT and it’s been a sheer delight to teach it every spring over the past several years.

Course Description:

When people go “out into nature,” something seems to change within them. Some speak of insignificance and mortality, others timelessness and eternity. Some yearn for solitude and reflection, others vigorous recreation. Some sense the mysterious and the sacred, others find their inspiration for creativity. Many speak happily of freedom, having found release from crowded, stressful cities and an overly materialistic culture. Others speak sadly and desperately of vanishing species, ecosystems, and a world out of control. Some choose words of disgust and fear.

The heart of this course charts these perceptions and attitudes through the nature writing of the United States, which some critics hail as our “most distinctive contribution to the world’s literature.” Henry David Thoreau’s insights on the deliberate life in his cabin retreat, John Muir’s ecstatic mountain proclamations, and Aldo Leopold’s re-visioning of wilderness have become canonical reading for nature enthusiasts. Many others, like Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey, have become well-loved clarion calls for environmental change. And writers like Annie Dillard take nature observation to a profound spiritual level of meaning and identity.

What we think nature is, and the extent to which we include ourselves in it, is inevitably shaped by our cultural history. The Biblical command for human dominion over nature, the expulsion from paradise and redemption, the puritanical fear of wilderness, the rise of the sublime in the 18th century, the Romantic Revolution, Transcendentalist self-rediscovery, and the American frontier, all still influence our views today. As counterpoint and critique, we look beyond these traditions at Native American, Latino, and African American writings, and at the end of the course we will grapple with the unsettling proposition that in the Age of Humans–the so-called Anthropocene– nature no longer even exists.

How we make sense of nature and how we understand our place in it have broad implications. Environmental policies, urban planning, land use, law, and ethics are obvious contenders, but more broadly the questions raised here help us to define our place in the universe and inform us on how we should be living on Earth.