Heidi Hutner is Director of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University, New York, Director of Environmental Humanities, Associate Professor of Sustainability and English, and a writer. In addition to her magazine and academic publications, she’s working on a narrative nonfiction environmental memoir.
By my bed I have a basket full of books. It’s overflowing. I’m a professor and a writer. So, almost everything I read has something to do with what’s on my class syllabi, or what might be on a future one. Occasionally, there’s a “pure” pleasure book. No, that’s not true; work and pleasure are one and the same for me. I find a way to weave what I love into the classroom, and what’s on my syllabi ends up in my writing as well.
My basket full of books is a basket full of love.
Here’s a little sample: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Bill McKibben’s American Earth (a collection of environmental writings from Muir to the present). Digging deeper, you’ll find Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge and When Women Were Birds, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. There are a bunch more, but I’ll spare you.
So the Swift, Fielding and Austen say what? They indicate that I was once, not so long ago, an eighteenth-century scholar/professor. I still teach these books in my university classes, but less and less often as I’ve moved into a new field. Don’t get me wrong. I love Swift’s sharp wit, Fielding’s bawdy sexuality, Austen’s knack for creating pitch-perfect characters and dialogue, and I still feel strongly about the need to recuperate lost eighteenth-century women writers (one of my specialties), but a more urgent interest fills most of my reading time now.
These days I’m passionately engaged with reading (devouring, really) literature on environmental topics—so that’s where Refuge, Silent Spring, American Earth, and Wild, all come in.
The former of these I’ve read and taught but, but I’m on a first run with Strayed’s Wild. I didn’t expect to like it at first. So her mother died and she fell apart and went hiking? Really? My father and mother died when I was young, too, and I went on Outward Bound for three weeks when I was sixteen, so this plot didn’t impress me much. Little did I know!
Strayed showed me. The book is feminist, environmental, and the voice is deeply wise. Still, Wild doesn’t hit you over the head with any of these points. The book adds a new rich dimension to the meaning of wilderness in American literature, which up until recently has been mostly based on the hyper-white-male finding himself as MAN in the American wilderness—from Robinson Crusoe (okay not American, but colonial), John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Wendell Berry, Bill Mckibben, and on and on. Strayed repeatedly plays on this shifting of the gendered theme of the human-wildness throughout her text and in doing so she creates a new kind of woman in nature. In Strayed’s memoir, being female doesn’t mean you can’t go it alone, and going it alone doesn’t mean forever alone, either. It also doesn’t make her a man hater or social outcast. In fact, she likes men; she likes sex; she likes people. Strayed just needs this time in the wild to figure things out, because, yes her mother died, and a bunch of other horrible things happened throughout her life that can only be understood through the solo pilgrimage. Female solitude in the wild leads to transformation and healing. And that’s important, since our culture repeatedly tells women to be afraid, and to be really afraid in the woods. Little Red Riding Hood—we all remember that. That kind of fear leads to all sorts of cultural repercussions that would take me too long to write about here and now, but it’s really important to constructions of both femininity and the environment.
Along this journey, Strayed takes notice of the beauty of the Pacific Coast Trail, of the mostly goodness of people, of the bad things that happen in life, of the need for clean drinking water, and of how a good pair of hiking boots and a not-too-heavy back pack make all the difference in the world.
This book will definitely make it into my next syllabus. And, maybe I’ll have the courage to take my own, short, solo wilderness pilgrimage soon . . . a tent in my backyard?