One of the problems Christians face in engaging today’s environmental challenges is appreciating the depth and breadth of our heritage. I’ll confess to a gap in my teaching. In the past, when I was assigning supplemental readings for environmental studies courses, I tended to stick to titles, like A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, that are classics of modern environmental writing. I often looked to the deep past and included Scriptural selections or Irish monastic poetry to provide a Christian foundation. When teaching a writing-intensive class, I might assign Anne Dillard or Wendall Berry to establish a further springboard for discussing Christian green spirituality. The environmental ethics components of these courses engage a range of eco-justice issues, such as chemical dumping or releases adjoining minority neighborhoods.
However, I only recently began experimenting with environmental literature from outside the western, white-dominated mainstream. Perhaps the art side of my brain has been in the slow lane. Still, as my classes have become more ethnically diverse and incorporated more international and first-generation students, I have been regularly expanding the scientific and policy cases we cover. The syllabi have infused case histories reflecting their backgrounds and social contexts that might interest them — while clinging to my old favorites in literature.
In updating a mid-level general education course in “Environment and Society,” I broke my habit of requiring everyone to read the same books and provided a selection of contemporary environmental fiction from diverse authors, including African American and non-US-based writers. Students chose one and then joined a presentation and discussion team. One of the “hits” of the exercise is Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes, a winner of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. The syllabus identifies the novel as Chicana literature. It suggests that students majoring in Spanish or international studies or those interested in policies concerning immigration, agriculture, or farm chemicals will find the novel especially relevant.
The adolescent heroes who find first love, Estrella and Alejo, temporarily work and camp in the vineyards of California under strenuous conditions. Despite their harsh lives, they observe and appreciate the living creatures and landscapes around them. Viramontes’ prose is simple and aesthetically aware. Lovely reading. Estrella and her siblings were born in the US; thus, they are citizens. Their mother, abandoned by her husband, is not. The story ends tragically for Alejo, who absorbs a rain of insecticide from a crop-dusting aircraft. As Alejo becomes too ill to take care of himself, Estrella begins to gain a more empowered sense of self and her potential to overcome the exploitation and indifference farmworkers face.
While it does depict popular piety, Under the Feet of Jesus is not specifically Christian literature. Yet, the issues are the same ones the class is tackling more abstractly in their environmental economic, and ethical reading assignments and are of great concern to Christian ministries in Texas and the southwest, where my university is located. The fictional account brings feelings, futures, and family relationships into otherwise analytic reviews of environmental regulations and trends in farm management. The migrants are no longer invisible. Impassioned student presenters have spoken about their family heritage and the loss of loved ones to cancer and central nervous system disorders, possibly stemming from exposures to pesticides. As much as I find Wendell Berry thought-provoking, only assigning authors like Berry forwards suppositions of “parental” authority and who is American and who is not. The students know better. We should give them a chance to engage role models, who, like themselves, are outside the environmental old guard.
This exercise in culturally extending the arts has also caused me to question whether the general process of academic selection and editing is deleting obvious, venerable Christian works from environmental anthologies. The African American spirituals, for example, have had an irreplaceable impact on American music, both in Christian and secular contexts. Their religious content, communitarian folk authorship, and multiple versions may discourage counting them as nature poetry. Yet, songs such as Deep River express American thought concerning the landscape as effectively any “high art” eighteenth or nineteenth century verse. Theologian Howard Thurman (1975, p. 13) identifies the surrounding environment as one of four essential sources that “furnished the spirituals much material that was readily transformed into religious truth.” (The other three are the Old and New Testaments and personal experience.) The characterizations of living creatures and natural objects are simple, unembellished, and easily understood.
In a demonstration of how to read the spirituals, Thurman utilizes Deep River as his text. For Thurman “The restless movement, the hurrying ever-changing stream has ever been the bearer of the longings and yearnings of mankind for the land beyond the horizon where dreams are fulfilled and deepest desires satisfied….in this spiritual there is a happy blending of majestic rhythm and poignant yearning…” The river as a metaphor for life has an unpretentious and modest beginning. Nonetheless, it “increases in momentum, in depth, in breadth, in turbulence as it makes its journey…It is the nature of the river to flow; it is always moving, always in process, always on its way.”1 Despite its relentless quest for the sea, the river is not always in the same place, nor does it remain on a set course.
Humans are similarly on a dynamic and living passage that is essentially unfinished. We are like the river in that, “Every bank that is touched by a river gives of itself to the water. It has no option; it is the nature of the relationship that the bank yield itself to the river that drains it.” Like life, the river has its floods and droughts. The river can be “full of peace and quiet balance” or “a wild, unrestrained monster.” The river always has the sea as its goal — just as the goal of life is God, the source of all living. Playing a Paul Robeson recording of Deep River and reading a few pages of Howard Thurman is not a usual assignment for an environmental studies course…but why not?