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Notes Towards Day 1 (Wed, Jan. 22): "All things natural are strange"

Anne Dalke's picture

J. Henry Fair, Dragon shape in phosphate fertilizer mining waste, Industrial Scars
(@ Swat last February, with stunning, beautiful, horrifying images of toxic sites)

I. (2:40-3:00) Defining together

In the center of a harsh and spectrumed city

all things natural are strange.
I grew up in a genuine confusion
between grass and weeds and flowers
and what coloured meant.... (Audre Lorde, “Outside”)

"all things natural are strange"--what's that mean??

break into pairs
(w/ someone you don't know)
and work on defining terms:
what does "natural" mean? "unnatural"?
"ecological"? "unecological"?
(define "ecology"?)
"environmental"? "not environmental"?
(define "environment"?)
what is the difference between "ecological" and "environmental"?
between "ecology" and "environment"?

how can you tell the difference (define the difference)
between an "organism" and its "environment"?
between "inside" and "outside"?
between "country" and "city"?
"home"? "unheimlich"?
what is "strange"?


In the center of a harsh and spectrumed city
all things natural are strange.
I grew up in a genuine confusion
between grass and weeds and flowers
and what coloured meant.... (Audre Lorde, “Outside”)

what is natural? what is strange?
what is the difference between "ecology" and "environment,"
between an "organism" and its "environment"?

what are we learning about these particular definitions?
about the act of defining, more generally....?

one of my foundational assumptions: language is always slippery--
and meant to be: there are precise languages (math, computer languages),
but ordinary language is meant to be ambiguous: its primary function is not
to transmit from sender to receiver, but to elicit information from the receiver,
to find out what the sender doesn't know; so in the gap (between what is said
and heard, and understood) is where we learn--and where we have our work to do;
it's where a conversation/a dialogue/a dialectic is provoked....

One of the issues we have been talking about, since we began planning this course cluster, has been how to broker "difficult conversations" among folks who think-and-act differently around issues of environmental concern and social justice. It occurs to us that a major problem on campus is our many "non-conversations" (folks talking past each other, not interested in or able to engage w/ one another's concerns). One of the problems we want to "give" you all is how to help folks, with different orientations on and investments in the world, hear-and-understand one another. How to break out of the script of "transmitting a message," learning how to convert it into a real dialogue, a two-way bridge rather than a one-way presentation?

We are planning to work with Ava Blitz on this, throughout the semester, on visual creation and expression. We are also going to meet with three other activists--Evalyn Parry, Paula Palmer and Dorceta Taylor--whose work may inspire us. And we will be working, mostly (but not entirely) in Jody's class, on structuring a campus-wide conversation.

Getting the words right--or hearing their different resonances, for different people-- is just step one!

(3:00-3:20) Assistance/complexification from Timothy Morton,
Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics-->

"When I suggest that we drop the concept of nature, I am saying that we really drop it....
'Ecology without nature' is a relentless questioning of essence (p. 21).

"...what if...we coexist in an infinite web of mutual interdependence
where there is no boundary or center..."? (p. 23)

"...what is 'natural' to thought [is] dissolving whatever has taken form. Ecological thinking
that was not fixated, that did not stop at a particualr concretization of its object,
would thus be 'without nature' (24).

Morton, The Ecological Thought (Harvard, 2010):
The ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness….it’s also a thinking that is ecological (7)….it involves becoming open, radically open—open forever, without the possibility of closing again (8).

Nothing exists all by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”…other beings…are…intrinsically strange. Getting to know them makes them stranger….The ecological thought is therefore full of shadows and twilights (15).

The ecological thought is intrinsically dark, mysterious, and open, like an empty city square at dusk, a half-open door, or an unresolved chord (16).

A more honest ecological art would linger in the shadowy world of irony and difference. With dark ecology, we can explore all kinds of art forms as ecological…irony insists that there are other points of view (17).

(3:30-3:45) Our overfull "syllaship" is on-line @

you should bookmark this, and check it in preparation for every class;
it will change as the semester goes on, so be sure to "re-fresh" each time you go back.
I'm going to review a lot of material now that you'll be using for the course;
all of it is available/verifiable from this homepage.

For instance: you’ll have reading-or-viewing to do for each class;
you should buy/rent/check out/share four book-length works;
the rest of the material will be available via active on-line links from the syllabus.

Some of the reading will be on-line; and all of your writing will be.
We'll be using a "digital ecosytem" called Serendip, which is on the internet:
this is not Moodle, not closed, but open to, and readable by, the world--
and discussable in class (starting point for most class meetings....).
Learning to be a public intellectual, thinking out loud.

We will be meeting virtually each weekend in this inbetween space,
our on-line/class forum @

By 5 p.m. tonight, again by 5 p.m. on Sunday,
and by the same time every Sunday evening thereafter,

you will post a comment in that space, reflecting on our
discussion from the week before, or anticipating what's upcoming
(more deliberate than speaking in class, less formal than written work:
excellent place for showcasing revisionary thinking).

This informal writing is background/preparation/warm-up/frequent source
for your 4 more “formal” writing assignments, which will also
take the form of four "web events," due once/month
I'll also want to have (@ least) 2 conferences with you about your writing.

To access the readings and post your reflections, you will need to log on to Serendip.
(you've each already been registered for an account...)

What is (probably) distinct about this course is the form of evaluation:
I will not grade any of your individual projects. At the end of the semester,
you will complete a portfolio of all your work, and evaluate yourself.
The checklist of my expectations are all on-line
(this is not mysterious: come prepared to all the classes and conferences,
contribute in-person and on-line, post your web events on time,
be responsive to instruction, engaged in the conversation...).

Questions about any of these details of "course-keeping"?

reminder that links to all these pages--on-line course forum,
syllabus, instructions for posting, a growing file of my "talking notes"
for class--are available as links from our course home page @

Immediate assignments:

By 5 p.m. tonight, introduce yourself on-line
(I've done so already...), explaining your user name and avatar.
Give some time to selecting your user name:
how do you want to represent yourself in this on-line conversation
about ecological literacy/representing the world?
Also create an avatar for yourself
(asking, again: how do you want to appear on-line?
what sort of persona do you want to project?--
this can be revised as the semester goes on...)
What does it say about who/how you are in this conversation/this world?
How important is ecology in that representation?


By 5 p.m. on Sunday, post on-line a 5-pp. description of where "home" is, where you "belong."
Be thoughtful about your language, and consider what larger claims you might use your story to make
(or questions you might use it to provoke), in describing your own experience.

We'll start Monday's class by sharing these stories with one another,
then reflecting on them in light of two readings:

the Preface, Chapters 1 and 20 of bell hooks' book, Belonging: A Culture of Place;
and Part I of Eli Clare's memoir, Exile and Pride.
(as the titles indicate, one's about belonging, one about the impossibility of doing so....).
We will lay their stories alongside those that you write,
about your own investment in place/a place's investment in you....

IV. (3:45-4:00) This is a class, in other words, about questions of representation:
of ourselves, others, the world we all share...
and how these representations might be altered.

I've divided the course into 3 sections;
the first is called "Inside/Out: What's Home Got to Do with it?"

we'll focus on "place attachment" and connectedness in a(n ever more?) placeless world;
our primary text will be Exile and Pride, but we'll read some shorter things, too,
Ursula LeGuin's science fiction short story, "Vaster Than Empires, and More Slow,"
Paula Gunn Allen's reading of a Keres Indian tale, Stacy Alaimo's description of "trans-corporeality";
you'll end that section w/ a 5-pp. paper about home and exile: place investment/divestment.

Section II is called "Single/multiple; or, how much latitude can we allow?":
we'll spend those weeks thinking about the danger of a single story--and of multiple ones;
our primary text is a VERY LARGE (and very readable) novel by Ruth Ozeki called All Over Creation
(you might put it by your bed and start reading now....), along with J.M. Coetzee's essay collection,
The Lives of Animals...; at the end of that section you'll write another 5-pp. paper about
how much "latitude" you can allow, in telling multiple stories

Section III is called "'Re/presenting: A Space for Justice ":
it includes
Amitav Ghosh's (also large!) novel, The Hungry Tide, as well as some essays
aimed @ getting us to reflect on our role as activists in the world; you'll end that
section with your fourth 5-pp. essay, on "doing justice" in/to fiction.

Woven and and around these sections will be a series of field trips, led by Ava Blitz,
an artist, friend and creative resident for our cluster,
who will mentor your visual and visceral awareness and expression,
and guide you in the creation of responses to each of the field trips,
as well as two long-term creative projects. Ava will be giving you feedback,
and evaluating your work for her, which will become part of your grade for this course...

Some eco-artists...

Chris Jordan, Midway: A Message from the Gyre

J. Henry Fair's Industrial Scars

Andy Goldsworthy and the Limits of Working with Nature