When the MacArthur Foundation announced its 2022 annual “genius” fellowships, readers of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants weren’t surprised that the book’s author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, was among the 25 accomplished individuals who received the bolt-from-the-blue MacArthur recognition (and, of course, the accompanying $800,000 no-strings-attached grant).
Since its publication in 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass has proven to be “a word-of-mouth publishing wonder,” according to an October 12, 2022 story by Washington Post reporter Karen Heller. Milkweed Editions, a small Minneapolis-based nonprofit publisher, initially printed 5,000 copies of the book. Since then, writes Heller, “more than 1.4 million copies [are] in print and audio, and it’s been translated into nearly 20 languages.”
Braiding Sweetgrass comprises a series of essays, many of them in the form of parables rooted in Native American traditions and stories. The separate pieces are loosely but coherently connected through Kimmerer’s personal experience as a botanist and university professor, single mother of two daughters, and member of the Citizen Potawotomi Nation.
Robin Wall Kimmerer in her own words. (The MacArthur Foundation)
Various names and descriptions of sweetgrass reflect the combination of perspectives encompassed by Kimmerer’s background: Hierochloe odorata in scientific terminology; “the fragrant, holy grass” in that term’s English translation; wiingaashk (“the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth”) to the Ojibwe speakers of the Great Lakes region, who have used the plant for its fragrance, as a medicine, and for basketmaking.
Kimmerer also describes the importance of sweetgrass as a central element of her people’s creation myth. It was “the very first plant to grow on earth,” she writes, brought from Skyworld by Skywoman, who planted her gift in “the daub of mud on Turtle’s back until the whole world was made.”
The act of braiding the plant’s slender leaves thus carries a lot of metaphorical weight in Kimmerer’s book, which she describes as
a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. The braid is woven in three strands: Indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabek scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story–old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and the land are good medicine for us.
I had difficulty finding my way into the book at first, setting it aside for a few years. Like many readers during the imposed stillness and isolation of the early COVID era, though, I found Kimmerer’s calm, warm, graceful style and distinctive perspective a source of comfort and hopefulness. I read Braiding Sweetgrass deliberately, an essay at a sitting, in no hurry to reach its final page. I was not alone. “In February 2020, more than six years after initial publication,” the Post‘s Heller wrote, “the paperback edition of Braiding Sweetgrass reached the New York Times bestseller list,” where, as of Heller’s article, it had remained for 129 weeks.
Kimmerer previously received the John Burroughs Medal for her 2003 book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, which shares some of the same style and approach as Braiding Sweetgrass, though on a more modest scope and scale. The award in honor of Burroughs, a popular American nature writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, recognizes “books of distinguished nature writing that combine accurate scientific information, firsthand fieldwork, and creative natural history writing.”
A quick scan of previous winners of the John Burroughs Medal, first awarded in 1926 by the John Burroughs Association, may leave today’s readers questioning the contemporary appeal and relevance of some of these formerly popular writers and their books. There is no question that Robin Wall Kimmerer is a talented, distinctive practitioner of the literary genre sometimes pigeonholed as “nature writing.” The recent attention to her book prompted me to consider the different perspectives, styles, and objectives reflected in the work of a wide variety of American authors, from previous generations and currently, who write about the natural environment and humanity’s place within it. Such writers, whose books, essays, and articles persist in popularity and influence, might include (among many others) the likes of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Mary Austin, Aldo Leopold, Roger Tory Peterson, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Janisse Ray, Edwin O. Wilson, and Terry Tempest Williams.
Eminent scholars have examined this American literary tradition in nuanced depth and detail, such as Lawrence Buell in The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Indeed, the 1992 creation of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment carved out such writing as a discrete academic domain. My perspective is neither particularly scholarly nor at all comprehensive.
Various words used to describe this ever-evolving literary genre suggest how rapidly and dramatically the scientific, cultural, and political context and understanding of “nature” have changed since John Burroughs’s time. How, if at all, does “nature writing” differ from other literary works described as “natural history,” “ecological,” “conservation,” “environmental,” or some forms of “science” writing?
Even the most obsessive reader could only begin to whittle down the stack of books representing the range and scope of such writing. My own totally unscientific and unsystematic conclusion, based on a mere sampling over the course of decades of reading, is that American “nature writing” is an elastic category that can take many forms. However, one defining feature of the genre, it seems to me, is that it is primarily intended for a general, popular audience, rather than solely for academic or professional readers.
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I’ll return to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass in a subsequent post. Two other recently published non-fiction books portray the careers and impact of American writers of different generations whose literary output has been substantially devoted to advocating preservation of the natural environment, in the United States and beyond. One is an animated biography of writer Bernard DeVoto and his wife Avis, the other an equally readable memoir by writer/activist Bill McKibben. DeVoto from the 1930s until the mid-1950s, McKibben from the late 1980s until today, represent models of crusading and prolific American journalists/freelance writers who have regularly churned out articles and books for a wide popular audience. They ground their writing in shoe-leather reporting and verifiable facts, but they waste little time or energy worrying about journalistic “objectivity.” Both men write as fervent advocates. Instead of the stylistic lyricism that characterizes some nature writing, they deploy bold, blunt language intended to stir readers into action. They exemplify the subspecies of American nature writers who have had a direct impact on public policy and public consciousness, in the form of legislation enacted, landscapes and resources protected for public use and benefit, and the creation of durable conservation and environmental organizations.
As it happens, I have a tenuous and coincidental connection to both DeVoto and McKibben through a common geographical landscape and institution, the Bread Loaf campus of Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont. For almost two enjoyable decades, Nan and I owned a small, somewhat tired 1960s-vintage “chalet” immediately adjacent to the Bread Loaf campus, situated high on the western slope of the Green Mountains. The DeVotos were regular participants in the annual summer Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, during the gathering’s heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. (I attended the Conference one summer in the early 1990s.) The couple, as Schweber relates, “were martini- and advice-dispensing mainstays and [poet Robert] Frost was a guest star.”
McKibben is just about a decade younger than I am. But our personal paths through life have somewhat paralleled and literally crossed each other’s. I spent my earliest years in small Massachusetts towns 20 or 30 miles at Boston’s exurban fringe west of Lexington, the suburb McKibben examines in his new book. Like him, I attended Harvard College. I am not personally acquainted with him, but for quite a few years I was McKibben’s part-time neighbor in Ripton. He and his wife, writer Sue Halpern, are both Middlebury College “scholars in residence.” Their home was a mile or two directly through the woods from ours. Both properties were adjacent to a substantial expanse of undeveloped forest and mountain land in central Vermont, comprising Middlebury’s Bread Loaf campus and the Green Mountain National Forest, including the Breadloaf Wilderness, Vermont’s largest federally designated Wilderness Area. Our Ripton backyards offered a rich abundance of publicly accessible mountains, forests, trails, and gravel roads, which we shared with hikers, cross-country skiers, mountain bikers, hunters, dogsledders, and snowmobilers (not to speak of the particularly inept murderer who thought he could get away with stashing his victim’s body in the woods not far up the road from our house). On one or two occasions, on my solitary skiing circuits, I encountered McKibben huffing and puffing in the opposite direction. Conserving our breath, we didn’t speak, except to exchange a nod. Ever industrious, McKibben in fact wrote a book, Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, about his mid-life quest to become a competitive cross-country skier.
Nate Schweber’s empathetic dual biography is titled This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild. Bernard DeVoto may be “forgotten” today because his best-known writing for the conservation cause, a throwback to the muckraking days of the Progressive Era, appeared beyond the memory of most living Americans. Journalism is ephemeral by definition and purpose, literally the news of the day.
Nonetheless, in Schweber’s view (and that of other writers and historians), DeVoto’s journalism and energetic advocacy helped set the stage for the growth and successes of the evolving environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which produced such legislative landmarks as the Wilderness Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, National Trails System Act, and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. But DeVoto’s once-popular writing, including both his books and his journalism, is perhaps familiar to relatively few readers today.
A Montana native and a journalist, Schweber briskly and sensitively narrates the personal life stories of the DeVotos, individually and as a couple. A welcome strength of Schweber’s book is to bring DeVoto’s talented wife Avis fully into the picture of her husband’s career and accomplishments. She was not only a supportive spouse, but also her husband’s chief editor, proofreader, sounding board, diplomat, and advocate. “Their marriage was a steel fuselage,” Schweber writes, “and their literary partnership was a jet engine.”
Moreover, Schweber’s detailed depiction of Avis’s consequential role in promoting the career of her close friend, cookbook author and television personality Julia Child, demonstrates her unsung but meaningful cultural impact on American life, in terms of both cuisine and women’s empowerment.
The principal focus of Schweber’s book, however, is Bernard’s journalism and activism in the cause of protecting the nation’s extensive public lands from privatization and commercial exploitation, especially in the American West. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was a student in DeVoto’s Harvard composition class (“He taught me how to write), his companion on a 1940 cross-country auto trip to trace the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, and a regular at his friend’s Cambridge martini hours. He later described DeVoto as “the first conservationist–we would today call him an environmentalist–in nearly half a century, except for Franklin D. Roosevelt, to command a national audience. No one did more in the postwar years to rouse public opinion against the spoilers than DeVoto.”
“I am a literary department store,” as DeVoto once described his vocation to Avis. A native son of Utah, who came east to attend Harvard and to begin a teaching and literary career, he maintained a deep personal connection to his home region. In the 1920s, he hoped his niche would be as a fiction writer. The novels he wrote under his own name earned only cool critical responses and modest sales. Under the pseudonym “John August,” though, he cracked the financially remunerative market for short stories in such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post. He also built a following as a trenchant critic, editor, and essayist. DeVoto’s principal platform for several decades, beginning in the mid-1930s, was his widely read monthly column, “The Easy Chair,” in Harper’s Magazine. His greatest and most lucrative literary success was a popular trilogy documenting American expansion across the continent during the 19th century: 1846, Year of Decision (published 1943); Across the Wide Missouri (1947), a Pulitzer Prize winner; and The Course of Empire (1952), a National Book Award winner. I think I first picked up and started reading my way through these books, written in a sweeping narrative style, during my undergraduate years, when I should have been concentrating on the assigned books on my course reading lists. He also edited a popular edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953).
On a cross-country family automobile trip in 1946, to retrace the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition, DeVoto first learned of a behind-the-scenes “secret plot” by Western politicians, large-scale ranchers, and other regional business interests to get their hands on a huge trove of the region’s publicly owned lands and resources. Their plan was to transfer as many as 230-million acres of federal lands, including holdings of the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, to individual states, for sale to ranchers and other private owners. Cultivating sources in federal agencies, DeVoto wrote what Schweber calls “the most important article of his life,” titled “The West Against Itself.” The extensive, widely read “blockbuster exposé,” appearing in Harper’s in January 1947, blew up pending Congressional legislation to implement what DeVoto memorably labeled as a “landgrab.”
Schweber details the professional and personal price the DeVotos paid for Bernard’s pull-no-punches journalistic efforts to thwart what he depicted as the plot by homegrown Western interests to exploit what he called their “plundered province.” His particular nemesis was Nevada Democratic Senator Pat McCarran, a principal Congressional power broker in promoting the plans and interests of Western bankers, stockmen’s associations, and developers. McCarran “was in lifetime alliance with the largest-scale crookedness of his region,” DeVoto wrote after the senator’s death in 1954. “In my time no other Senator has so constantly worked against the interests of the United States.”
McCarran was also a fierce anti-Communist and an ally of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, spearhead of anti-Communist investigations and accusations of the late 1940s and early 1950s. McCarran and McCarthy, with the help of false or misleading information provided by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, pursued a smear campaign against DeVoto, nationally and in the West, insinuating that he was a Communist or Communist sympathizer.
DeVoto “was by temperament a contrarian,” according to his friend Schlesinger. “People either adore DeVoto, or resent him violently,” Avis once wrote Julia Child. During the 1930s, as a literary critic and, for a short time, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, Schweber recounts, “Bernard charged Depression Marxists with ‘monumental credulity’ for buying into a critical system whose conclusions were ‘settled in advance of the facts.'” Progressive and left-wing publications attacked him as a “fascist,” a “spokesman for the literary right,” and a “snob.” During these years, as Schweber writes, DeVoto at times “found himself in the ridiculous position of being simultaneously attacked as a Communist and also by Communists.”
For several years, DeVoto was blacklisted by well-paying magazines, like the Saturday Evening Post and Readers’ Digest, on which his family’s livelihood relied. His award-winning books appeared on banned-book lists circulated by anti-Communist activists and organizations. For a time, struggling to supplement his suddenly depleted income, he was kept financially afloat by exhausting speaking tours and by the sympathetic editor of Women’s Day Magazine, who carried his monthly column about domestic life under the pseudonym “Cady Hewes.”
DeVoto survived this crisis and redoubled his efforts in a barrage of articles opposing what he saw as the continuous assaults on the West’s public lands during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Over the course of the remaining decade of his life, Schweber writes, DeVoto “would call himself not just a historian, but a historian and conservationist.” He inveighed against the lack of funding for maintenance of national parks, even as park visitation grew dramatically in the postwar years.
Perhaps most importantly, he became a leader of an epic political battle, which galvanized conservation activists and stimulated the growth and influence of national conservation organizations, over a proposal to build a dam on the Green and Yampa rivers in Echo Park Canyon, in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. He died in November 1955 from an aortic aneurysm, only a few weeks before the Echo Park Dam was removed from legislation, enacted in April 1956, approving the Upper Colorado River Storage Project. Schweber credits DeVoto with assembling a “conservation coalition . . . of strange bedfellows” for the political victory, including regional and national conservation organizations of all varieties, hunting and fishing groups, women’s clubs, and fiscal conservatives who considered the dam a wasteful boondoggle. The campaign’s success in killing the dam ensured DeVoto’s principal objective, which was to preserve from intensive development the integrity and environment of federal lands designated as National Monuments and National Parks. Along with other historians of the era’s conservation and environmental movements, Schweber observes that the Echo Park dam controversy triggered the campaign that led to passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which legally protected from commercial exploitation and development vast and expanding swaths of federal land. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System comprises 806 federal Wilderness Areas, totaling almost 112-million acres.
In his effort to emphasize DeVoto’s significant contributions to the conservation cause, Schweber offers only cursory attention to the attributes and attitudes that, in the eyes of some, have diminished the reputation and value of DeVoto’s once-popular historical writing. Like Schweber, other scholars and historians have described DeVoto’s unique role as a talented, driven native of the American West who, especially through his journalism, effectively communicated to many Americans their stake in the nation’s federal lands. But those critics have also offered harsh assessments of some of DeVoto’s prejudices and assumptions, which reflected and reinforced those held by many of his fellow contemporary citizens. For better or worse, DeVoto was a man of his times.
Environmental historian Mark Harvey, author of the definitive history of the Echo Park dam story, A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement (1994), has written a recent discerning article about the evolution of DeVoto’s perspectives on the history, use, and destiny of the American West. Harvey’s article, “Bernard DeVoto and the Environmental History of the West,” appears in a special DeVoto-themed 2021 issue of the journal Weber: The Contemporary West.
Harvey (with whom I have been acquainted for many years) describes how DeVoto absorbed a deep and detailed understanding of the region’s “micro-geography” during his youthful years in Utah, his later automobile explorations, and his studious examination of the maps and journals produced by early American Western explorers and travelers. DeVoto’s experience and learning enriched the style and texture of his historical sagas, which “evoked the smell of sage, taste of alkali, and blinding sun.”
But DeVoto’s vision of the West and its inhabitants, by Harvey’s account, was in certain respects seriously blurred and distorted:
If DeVoto had great empathy for the migrants who made their way across the dry and hot Great Plains and intermountain region, he had none at all for older, deeply rooted inhabitants of the West, indigenous and Hispanic people. His portrait of Hispanic people in California in the 1840s was simplistic, prejudiced, even cartoonish…. He could not conceive that native peoples had the ability or power–much less sovereign claim–to withstand throngs of white people flocking to the West.
Indeed, in his historical trilogy DeVoto reflected the deep-seated American attitude and philosophy of Manifest Destiny, based on a theory of “geographical predestination” that emphasized “American expansion and imperialism,” as
Antebellum Americans, their population growing, their industry and markets expanding, their self-awareness of exceptionalism mounting, looked westward to a continent of vast space and few geographical fault lines with a powerful sense of self-assuredness and national destiny.
Like many Americans in the post-World War II era, though, who possessed the freedom, means, and, not least importantly, affordable and dependable automobiles, DeVoto in effect rediscovered his native West. He set out to explore the region’s historical routes and landscapes, but he also surveyed the condition of its vast federal lands and the attitudes of its people. Thus, DeVoto in a relatively short window of time experienced a kind of conversion experience.
“For much of his career,” Harvey concludes, “DeVoto had been a cheerleader for western expansion and conquest of the Far West. Now he advanced a more cautious view of the West, essentially encouraging the sustainable maintenance of its lands and waters and looking toward the region’s ecological future rather than harkening to its more exploitative past.”
It’s not easy to measure or quantify the impact or legacy of a writer like DeVoto, whose conservation journalism was tough, gritty, and linked to the politics of the day. He was not a lyrical nature writer, reporting “an epiphany around every corner,” as I once heard writer Terry Tempest Williams, also a native Utahan, warn about a tempting pitfall of the genre.
Nonetheless, Nate Schweber’s useful and readable account of the productive partnership of Bernard and Avis DeVoto documents how passion and well-honed literary workmanship can have a significant and lasting impact on American public consciousness and public landscapes. There’s more than one way, through words, to motivate others to understand the natural environment and to unite with others in protecting it for future generations.
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A modern-day successor to a writer like Bernard DeVoto is Bill McKibben, author of almost 20 books. His breakout 1989 bestseller, The End of Nature, provided an early, clearly written, well-documented, and alarming warning about the threat posed by the “greenhouse effect” and climate change. And that threat, which some corporate interests, cautious scientists, political ideologues, and other skeptics rejected or were not ready to accept, was primarily the result of human activity. The cumulative global and environmental impact of “anthropogenic” climate change represented a new challenge to human consciousness and beliefs comparable to, say, Darwin’s theories of evolution introduced in the mid-19th century. “We have produced the carbon dioxide–we are ending nature,” McKibben declared in his 1989 book.
McKibben is not a pathbreaking scientist like Charles Darwin, of course, and doesn’t purport to be. As a talented journalist, however, his End of Nature, as he explains in his own words, “combines reporting on the emerging science with a sometimes despairing meditation on the ideas that now no place on earth is beyond the altering touch of humans.” McKibben’s subsequent journalism has at times been no less despairing. But rather than surrender to despair, he has since continued, through both writing and committed activism, to challenge others to acknowledge humanity’s role in altering the global environment and to work with others to ameliorate those impacts.
His most recent book is The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at his Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened. McKibben’s memoir is a lively, pointed, sometimes comic self-portrait of his upbringing in the Boston suburb of Lexington during the 1970s. He offers up his own experience and his home community as a sobering case study of the American suburb as a major incubator of social, economic, and political inertia. The multi-pronged physical and cultural impact of the suburban environment, by his stringent accounting, has hindered, rather than engendered, meaningful responses to both climate change and the tightly intertwined web comprising such issues as social justice, racism, and income inequality.
Like DeVoto, McKibben has assumed, with energy and rhetorical skill, the role of writer/activist, commanding a wide audience. After graduating from Lexington’s high school, he continued his education a few miles further east at Harvard College, where he “soon found a happy home on the school newspaper,” the Harvard Crimson, of which he became president. This experience and background led directly to a staff job for The New Yorker. Before he was thirty, he had written the attention-grabbing The End of Nature, excerpts of which were published in the magazine. McKibben has never let up since, as both a prolific writer and a rabblerouser with a cause.
He is today a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications. He describes his Substack website as “a fighting newsletter.” Anyone who has heard or seen his articulate, fact-packed speeches or media appearances won’t be surprised to learn from McKibben’s new memoir that he was a repeat state champion high-school debater. He is a principal founder of the climate-change activist group 350.org and, more recently, The Third Act, “a community of experienced Americans over the age of sixty determined to change the world for the better.”
In an extensive, sometimes critical 2013 study of McKibben’s career, Northeastern University professor of communications and public policy Matthen C. Nisbet has variously described McKibben as a “knowledge journalist,” “celebrity author,” “public intellectual,” the most visible environmental activist in the United States,” and, in the title of his study, “Nature’s Prophet.”
It is a measure of McKibben’s influence, as both writer and activist, that he was chosen by the Library of America to edit the 1000-page 2008 anthology, American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. As an arbiter of the genre, McKibben in that volume provides a useful compendium of the range and variety of literature encompassing, at least from an American perspective, humanity’s swiftly changing relation to and understanding of nature.
“To a considerable degree, environmental writing can be said to overlap with what is often called ‘nature writing,'” he writes in the introduction to American Earth. “[B]ut it subsumes and moves beyond it, seeking answers as well as consolation, embracing controversy, sometimes sounding an alarm. While it often embraces nature, it also recognizes, implicitly or explicitly, that nature is no longer innocent or invulnerable.”
In McKibben’s new book, his observations about patriotism (the “flag”), religion (the “cross”), and the darker consequences of American suburban culture (the “station wagon”) represent a civil, if tough-minded sermon. Like many preachers and prophets, McKibben’s message can be at the same time inspiring, entertaining, thought-provoking, and righteously dogmatic.
In The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon, McKibben portrays himself, often in self-deprecating style, as an earnest, somewhat nerdy adolescent. Through the “sharp lens” of suburban Lexington and its heritage, he looks back to the 1970s as a battleground for many of that era’s many contentious political and social issues. He recalls the night in 1971 when his father, an accomplished journalist himself, was among 458 protestors arrested for disorderly conduct during a protest against the Vietnam War on Lexington Common. Not long afterwards, though, the town’s voters overwhelmingly rejected a rezoning proposal to facilitate construction of more affordable housing in the community. Conventional political labels and identities were turned on their head, as recounted by McKibben. Lexington’s “liberal” antiwar protesters turned out to be downright “conservative” when it came to protecting their property values and suburban way of life.
Later in the decade McKibben was an editor of his high school newspaper, while also writing for pay for the town’s weekly newspaper. As the issue of “forced busing” to integrate the city’s schools roiled nearby Boston, some suburbs like Lexington instituted the state’s METCO program, which allowed city students to voluntarily enroll in suburban schools. As a teenage newspaperman, he went “undercover” to report on students in next-door Concord who “had listed the KKK among their activities in the high school yearbook.” He concluded that his contemporaries intended that “the Concord Klan was mostly a joke.” The students’ casual racism, McKibben observes in retrospect, reflected persistent, deep-seated forces and feelings that were not confined to the times or to local teens. “Lexington’s population was 1.3 African American in 2020,” he writes, “down from 1.5 percent in 2010, down from 3.1 percent in 2000.”
Wearing a tricorne hat, McKibben was a teenage tour guide on Lexington Common during the nation’s bicentennial, recounting for visitors the historic revolutionary events of 1775. As time went on, though, he learned more about the history of slavery in the town during the colonial era, as well as the violence sometimes visited upon the region’s early indigenous and Black residents. “[M]y life, and the life of others like me, was built in very real part on the suffering of others,” he declares. “That’s not wokeness, and that’s not ‘critical race theory.’ That’s history.”
Before, during, and after his Lexington years, McKibben remained deeply involved in and committed to religious practice as a member of three Christian denominations–Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Methodist. Through his own experiences, he charts the decline of what he describes as “mainline Protestantism” and the rise of evangelistic denominations. The result of this changing religious landscape, he asserts, has been “the replacement of a sense of community with a sense of hyper-individualism.”
McKibben’s own religious journey led him away from what he depicts as a complacent and privileged “suburban consensus church.” “If you’re the culture, then you can’t be the counterculture,” he concludes. “And Christianity, or so it seems to me, is far better suited to be the counterculture”:
I’ve spent much of my life as an activist, trying to make big changes so that we can head off the climate crisis. And in the process I’ve come to understand the difference between the inside game and the outside game. The former is important: you need people inside the system who can implement, compromise, push, pull. Because it’s where you change the zeitgeist: all those marches and protests and essays and coalitions–that’s actually how, over time, you change what the world thinks of the as normal and natural and obvious.
As an activist of far-reaching influence, McKibben has played the “outside game” alongside people of many other religious traditions. “[B]uilding a religious environmental movement,” he writes, “has been part of my work.”
Like mine, McKibben’s own lifespan (to date) and fossil-fueled American lifestyle has unfolded during what may prove to be the most wasteful and environmentally disruptive era of human history (time will tell). “If you’re sixty,” he writes, calibrating this impact to his own existence on earth, “82 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions have occurred in your lifetime.” The “station wagon” of his book’s title is the emblem of that era and way of life. McKibben hammers home his point that the American suburb and the suburban lifestyle, as it grew rapidly in the mid-twentieth century, did not represent a refuge from the nation’s economic forces, both beneficial and detrimental, but the very heart of that economy. “The affluent American suburb,” he asserts, “may be the greatest wealth accumulation engine of all time,” fueled by the creation, growth, and preservation of real estate values.
In the 1970s, when his family moved to Lexington, McKibben experienced at close hand the town’s residential build-out, as the 40-acre “Idylwilde” Farm across the street from his home was developed for new houses, which “looked embarrassed, standing there without a tree in sight.” The McKibben family, like all new suburbanites, did not really stand apart from dastardly “developers”; they (indeed, most of us who have lived in similar communities) were complicit with them.
[W]e think of a suburb as a place without industry, but in fact the suburb is itself an industry, creating massive amounts of wealth through the building of homes and the escalation of property values. The total value of all the real estate in the United States is $33.6 trillion, or more than the GDP of the United States and China combined. That spectacular number helps explain . . . much of the racial wealth gap in this country. It also helps explain a great deal about how America came to be a deeply conservative country and why most of the ice in the Arctic has melted. Understanding how we lost that opening for justice in the 1970s, understanding the rise of Reagan and libertarianism, understanding the failure to grapple with climate change: that means grappling with the sheer economic force of the suburbs.
Which is not easy; we don’t necessarily want to hear it.
In 1978, in his summer job as a reporter for the town’s weekly paper, McKibben reported in a story about the then-booming local real-estate market that Lexington’s average home price was approaching $100,000. The town’s realtors–who were also important newspaper advertisers–protested to his boss. Their complaint? The realtors “were suddenly dealing with angry clients wanting to know why their homes were still listing below that century mark.”
McKibben had obviously learned early one subtle and essential skill of his journalism craft, as representatives of the local real-estate trade casually let down their guard to reveal to the unthreatening teenage reporter how Lexingtonians’ righteous self-image sometimes clashed with their self-interest as property owners. “This town has a reputation for being relatively progressive,” one realtor told him. “But when push comes to shove, property values prevail. That’s it in a nutshell.”
The suburban landscape of McKibben’s youth, he writes, was “a reflection in concrete and wood and brick of the logic of the automobile, designed for its dimensions, its turning ratio.” The exploding number of America’s gasoline-wasting automobiles represented the nation’s dubious global leadership in generating the carbon emissions that have accelerated climate change.
McKibben marks the end of the 1970s–from Jimmy Carter’s well-intended but short-lived efforts to promote energy conservation to Ronald Reagan’s election–as the moment when “the close battle between progress and regress was breaking the wrong way.” The forty years since, he asserts, “broke the back of the climate system. . . . The choices we made in those years around 1980 will turn out to be more important than any choices any nation ever made–they’ll be visible in the geological record long after everything else about us is forgotten.”
The disproportionate impact of the way of life represented by the American suburb, in McKibben’s gloomy portrayal, nonetheless impels his persistent and energetic activism. His primary tools remain his words, whether delivered on page or in person. Organizing efforts of which he has been a highly visible leader, and which have sometimes landed him in jail, have included worldwide demonstrations to press political leaders to control carbon emissions, opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and campaigns to persuade banks, universities, and other large institutions to divest their investments in and loans to fossil fuel industries.
Bill McKibben reads from and discusses The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon at the Free Public Library of Philadelphia, June 2, 2022.
The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon might not be classified as American “nature writing” in the traditional sense. As the author of a landmark book titled The End of Nature, McKibben, along with other writers of his generation, has redefined the nature of nature in what some scientists argue is a new geological epoch they call the “Anthropocene.”
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Bernard DeVoto and Bill McKibben are representative and successful “freelance” writers, in the several senses of the term. Few American writers have earned the status and freedom that has enabled the two to exert such significant influence as environmental advocates. But few writers have combined their skill, nerve, discipline, and drive. ♦
Part 2 of this three-part series of posts will consider writers Rachel Carson, Richard K. Nelson, and, again, Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose publications and personal backgrounds offer perspectives somewhat different from those of Harvard-educated white men.