Speaking for nature: Q&A with professor Roberta Hill

July 26, 2012

Can a student fully grasp environmentalism without diving into Aldo Leopold’s legendary essays and books? Understand environmental crises without reading the work of Rachel Carson?

These are questions that Roberta Hill, a UW-Madison professor of English and Nelson Institute affiliate, raises in the classroom.

UW-Madison professor Roberta Hill
Roberta Hill; photo credit Mark Anthony Rollo.

Hill teaches a course called Literature of the Environment: Speaking for Nature, created by Nancy Langston, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology and environmental studies, as a way to introduce science-minded students to the world of literature, poetry and art.

Hill, who joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1992, began teaching the class several years ago and has continued to find creative ways to explore nature themes in 19th and 20th century British and American literature.

Hill was asked to share her experience teaching the course, along with her thoughts on the importance of blending science and the humanities. She also shared two of her poems, which you can view here.

What sets this class apart and what brought you to teaching it?

Hill: I chose to teach environmental literature because, as I started reading more and more of it over the years, I found it to be a tremendously interdisciplinary subject. The students that take the class are from unique backgrounds.

It’s good for students of environmental studies to read work by authors who have different perspectives on nature and literature. When I first started teaching this class, I was fortunate to have several science students. One of them told me that, for most of her coursework, she memorized the course content, so this class was exciting because it wasn’t about memory; it was about reading, listening to other students’ ideas, reflecting on those ideas and coming to understand a number of perspectives.

One of the things that Nancy Langston set up for the course was a field trip. If we’re speaking for nature, but we never leave Madison, we have a limited perspective.

What I found most unique about the field trip is that it helps the students create a bond with each other. Once it has taken place and students have stayed with each other over night, there’s a difference in the kind of discussions we have. Those who had not spoken up found their voice and those that were often very verbal learned to listen.

What do you think this class brings to environmental studies?

There are literary classics that students going into environmental fields should have read and understood. For example, to think about some of the crucial issues of mineral development and not have heard of Edward Abbey prevents an understanding of the changes and challenges to the environment in the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States and the ways Abbey argued for its protection.

"If we’re speaking for
nature, but we never
leave Madison, we have
a limited perspective. " 

To not know about Aldo Leopold’s The Land Ethic or not be aware of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the midst of our ongoing environmental crises creates a lack of depth, not only in knowledge, but also in deepening experience which we gain through reading literature. Each of these books offers insight into the real complexities and challenges facing our social institutions.

I think of [Leopold’s] A Sand County Almanac, with its hominess, like we’re all here on this acreage together. At the very end, Leopold challenges our way of perceiving an environment. It’s not just looking at the fox in the woods, we’re looking at the entire mountain -- he gave his readers and subsequent generations a new depth of perception.   

Going Back to Abbey, a lot of students don’t like the fact that he so abrasive and can be downright offensive, but what they don’t see is his frustration and rage at seeing things that belong to everyone destroyed.

What other works do you think are important for environmental studies students to read?

It’s such a large field and it’s growing and growing. I always try to include Michael Pollan’s work. I include poets like Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin. Chickasaw author Linda Hogan has written a spiritual memoir about living on the earth. And Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats gives readers insights into the relationship between DES (a synthetic form of estrogen), the beef industry and women’s reproduction.

There are so many writers and each of them brings something different; I try to bring various crises and concerns together.

How do science students tend to react to poetry?

Hill's poetry and stories
appear in numerous
publications including
The Southern Review,
Northwest Review,
American Poetry Review
The NationNorth
American Review
The Norton Anthology
of Modern Poetry
two of her poems, Rain
through Wires and
Small Power

Poetry is for many of the students a completely undiscovered art. The language is being used differently than in the sciences.

I try to explain that it creates a virtual world or realm we enter, where we find emotional truth. It’s a way of deepening our sensitivity to other people and to the natural world. It isn’t about research and outcomes and hypotheses; it’s a matter of entering a space where experience is created.

A lot of students think we’re going to analyze and figure out what the poems really mean; I try to get them to see that that’s one of the ways we can look at it, but maybe not the most productive.

Far more productive is to enter that experience and share with others the meaning it offers. If I can get students to read more poetry through their lives, that’s great. If I can get them to read outside of research, then the course is successful.

Each semester you try to change the focus of the class, whether it be about economics, climate or social issues. How do you choose the theme and how does that shape the class?

When I first started teaching the course I followed the title Science and Nature Writing and incorporated themes like the forest and the sky. I started to realize that it was more than just pristine areas and it was more than just places; it really involved the world, so I include texts that relate to questions about food, health and important terms in the discourse, like wilderness and deep ecology.

The next focus was climate and catastrophe, and then I moved to the economy. I’m still using a lot of things from the economy lessons, because I think these are crucial issues we can manage and address without being economists or political scientists. We can question some of the major assumptions that uphold our social institutions and question commodification, question private property, and question corporate power.

I think finding and questioning assumptions leads to good science, but it also leads to a sense of empowerment and the expanding ways of experiencing the earth and each other, particularly in our feelings, deepens the vitality of our lives.