Embracing Identity in the Environmental Classroom

A photograph of a tree branch with many initials carved into the bark

At this year’s annual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey, the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil ended her reading with a comment about the nonhuman environment that vitalizes her work: “Once you have a name for it, you start to care about it.” Her words gesture toward a point I increasingly emphasize in my environmental literature classrooms: that identity is central not only to how we understand environments, but often also to our ability to recognize both sudden and gradual changes to them.

Many definitions of identity focus on how it organizes around race, class, gender, or other social indexes, gesturing toward shared characteristics or experiences around which particular communities of people gather. But individuals also experience identity in terms of place, forging connections over time with plants, animals, and whole landscapes that contribute to a sense of home. We live in a moment of great collective struggle to reckon with massive alterations to our local, regional, and global ecosystems. Identity furnishes a remarkably malleable tool for grasping and communicating such changes in its capacity to render one’s surroundings and the nonhuman others that populate them meaningful.

Individuals experience identity in terms of place, forging connections with plants, animals, and whole landscapes that contribute to a sense of home.

Translating global crisis to a manageable, graspable, and above all engaging scale requires helping students to draw connections between monumental, planetwide trends and changes in their personal lives. To take just a few examples from students in my own classrooms (in New England and the near-Appalachian Midwest), such changes might encompass suddenly sickly patches of local forest, unprecedentedly intense snowfall, or a sharp decline in seasonal ladybug swarms. Depending on geography, they might also include dustbowl symptoms or fires raging especially virulently across the West Coast.

These unexpected and radical changes threaten long-established homes and, in many cases, place-based livelihoods. Foregrounding overlooked environmental aspects of identity generates motivation to not only reflect but also act on these dramatic shifts. The attachments and affiliations that connect humans to places and nonhuman organisms create investment in those things, just as identities along and across lines of race, gender, and other social identities make possible personally meaningful and politically consequential kinships. The environmental dimensions of identity can get stuff done.

The Power of Identity in the Classroom

It doesn’t hurt that students are, on the whole, deeply interested in the concept. In my years teaching literature, there is only one book that I have assigned on a syllabus that one hundred percent of my students recognized. Given the incredible diversity of media that attracts students’ attention, other educators might be as surprised as I was to hear that fifty-odd undergraduates—hailing from both working- and middle-class backgrounds, mostly white but also including students of color—were all familiar with any one text, let alone one published only twenty years ago. The book was Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a wilderness narrative that’s far more critical of its subject matter than people often give it credit for. The students in my introduction to literature courses found themselves enamored of Chris McCandless, the young man Krakauer studies in detail, found dead in 1992 south of Denali in Alaska. Despite much (valid) eye-rolling about McCandless’s continued relevance, we should take seriously Into the Wild’s popularity, or at least recognition, among young readers. What is it about that particular story that stands out?

A person sits on a folding chair in front of a green, rusted bus

Many are captivated by the life and death of Chris McCandless, whose story is told in Into the Wild. Sgt. Sumy Guzman recreates the famous pose of the late McCandless during a vacation to the “bus camp” in Denali National Park and Preserve in 2008. Photo from the Department of Defense, 2008.

If my own students are any indication, it’s Krakauer’s suggestion that McCandless identifies with the whole of his environment, by which I mean that the young man, as a character, sporadically imagines himself like Gaia—a singular, harmonious, planetwide self. Unsurprisingly, this aspect of the text always elicits raucous debate. Women and students of color tend to find the character intolerable, but often in a fun, love-to-hate-him kind of way. An argument would inevitably break out between two roughly divided camps: students from rural Appalachia and students from the university’s urban neighborhood, split on whether McCandless was a naïve idiot or a romantic hero. It is worth noting the disparity in these responses. Social identities played a central role in students’ reactions to an account of the natural world—a point that is unlikely to surprise environmental humanists, but one that’s worth exploring in more detail.

Identity is as much a public concern as an intellectual one.

What is arresting about Into the Wild in particular is the sheer energy of the conversation surrounding it, and how plainly it demonstrates readers’ overwhelming fascination with the role played by identity in the book, no matter their perspective. Their interest is not necessarily surprising. Identity is as much a public concern as an intellectual one. As a general category of thought, it has been a topic of political discussion in the United States at least since the 1960s, and a recent spate of general-readership books on the subject suggests that its significance as a matter of public debate remains potent.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves about Ourselves

One of the most successful recent books on the subject is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity, which distills his decades-long work on identity for a general audience. Appiah’s success as a public intellectual speaks to a broad readership strongly interested in matters of identity and, as Appiah puts it, identity’s pragmatic dimension, the way a sense of identity facilitates political action when it becomes threatened. Appiah is as cognizant of this notion’s potential limitations as he is of its strengths. If a sense of shared yet threatened identity resulted in the profound gains made by modern civil rights, feminist, and LGBTQIA+ activists, for example, it may have also contributed to the increasingly vocal renaissance of American white supremacy in the buildup to and wake of the 2016 election, as well as to similar movements in Europe.

The book cover for The Lies That Bind, with alternating colorful fabrics in the background behind the book titleAppiah’s overall point, though, is to communicate to a general audience that in all of these respects, identity is not a nature but a narrative. It is neither set in stone nor strictly part of our DNA, but shifty and reliant on the stories a given society tells at a given moment about different people, places, and things. This argument is familiar to those who grew up reading cultural theory, but it is certainly not the only account of identity. Often students understand identity in terms of essence or authenticity, the idea that a given identity is intrinsic to a person. Into the Wild fascinates some students because McCandless seems to them so utterly natural, rather than artificial. Because it is important to me to suggest that there are other ways of understanding identity, we have lengthy discussions about the idea that his authenticity is itself the product of a narrative he tells about it.

From Appiah’s perspective, more adaptable narratives make it possible to organize, to define and redefine identity and, above all, to advocate for policy that hopefully serves an ever-greater human (and nonhuman) community. Identities, at their best, are pragmatic. They are imperfect “lies that bind” that generate motivation. Identity is useful. It can get stuff done, prompting policy changes from civil rights legislation to electoral reform. Appiah’s discussions of identities like race, class, gender, and creed suggest an important corollary: place and environment.

Narrating the World around Us

Place-based identities catalyze motivation too, even if the concept of identity does invite caution in an environmentalist context. Feminist scholars, in particular, have spent a good portion of the past forty years troubling the way in which identity has been equated with “essence” or “nature” over the course of recent human history. At the same time, philosophical attempts to decouple social identity from “nature” have at times appeared to uphold a different cultural assumption: that nature exists separately from human culture, over there. As McCandless’s tenacious, at times even cult popularity demonstrates, those assumptions have proven persistent. In the age of climate change, this conclusion could not be more dangerous. We cannot afford to assume that nature is over there, and that it therefore has little to do with us.

The globally communal failure to preempt, mitigate, or otherwise grapple with our current climate situation poses challenges at the micro level, in the classroom, as well as the macro level, in policy. More often than not, I struggle to articulate the gravity of the moment even for myself, let alone inspire readers and listeners to do something about it. I suspect one primary culprit is the difficulty of perceiving—and therefore communicating—the sheer immensity of the problem. And given the current political climate, talk of the actual climate has struck some of my students, by their own admission, as yet another polemical fly buzzing around an already swarming room. The eco-philosopher Timothy Morton has elaborated beautifully on these difficulties. I am more interested in how small-scale efforts can help to alleviate them.

We cannot afford to assume that nature is over there, and that it therefore has little to do with us.

Identity presents itself as an indispensable tool for the public-facing environmental humanities in this respect. When I taught William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses at the University of Kentucky, my class of mostly white, mostly Appalachian students gravitated to several aspects of the novel. In particular, the book’s narrative focus on hunting for livelihood spoke personally to many of my students, given our geographical location. It was that element of personal identity that opened students to Faulkner’s own commentary on environment in the novel.

A black-and-white photograph of a young boy sitting on steps while holding a long gun with a dog

Faulkner’s focus on hunting for livelihood resonated with students in Kentucky and connected his 1942 novel to their contemporary lives. This photo, taken c. 1940 by Farm Security Administration photographer Marion Post Wolcott, shows a young man just returned from hunting in Knox County, Kentucky. Photo via Library of Congress.

What began as skepticism toward Faulkner’s political themes became something else. It became, first, a series of observations by students on the rapid alterations they observed, between childhood and adulthood, in the seasonal appearance and population size of local game. It became a lament that autumn seemed to have abandoned southern Appalachia in recent years, leaving behind a blunt divide between record-high summer heat and sudden snow. It became, in other words, an opportunity to examine stark transformations in personal attachments, connections between our experiences, and the larger forces those patterns implied. The exercise would not have been nearly as successful at, say, my current institution, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Students’ social identities (in this case, primarily white, working-class men and women) intersected with a place-based identity (Appalachia) such that this particular text resonated especially strongly with their experiences of local environmental change. Successfully fostering this sort of dialogue requires taking these intersectional details into consideration.

Using Environmental Identity to Shape a Better World

What I am describing doubtless reflects many classrooms. Despite the fraught place of identity in both humanities scholarship and public discourse, many educators (including others published in this magazine) have found open discussion of identity to be integral to environmental humanities instruction. These approaches succeed not because they treat identity as a series of fixed categories, but as a pragmatic, narrative act. The stories we tell about ourselves are also stories about our relationships to the world we live in. Indigenous writers and environmentalists of color—from poets and novelists such as Leslie Marmon Silko to critics such as Kimberly Ruffin—have long stressed the narrative aspects of ecological relationships, as well as the importance of taking control of these narratives to assert the kind of world we want to live in. But Indigenous writers such as Simon J. Ortiz, for example, do not ask non-Indigenous readers to colonize their perspectives—far from it. Indigenous writers instead ask that settlers search their own individual and community histories for their own narratives of kinship that might redeem historically damaging attitudes toward the nonhuman world (as well as Indigenous peoples).

That sort of thinking is precisely what educators must encourage among students. Identity is a pragmatic pedagogical tool. Narratives of identity are, in a manner of speaking, evidence. The identities we form in interaction with the world collate a personal sort of evidence that speaks to those who might otherwise pass by scientific data with a shrug.

The cover of Lace & Pyrite, a magnified image of a molding yellow and red leafWe are rich in models that superbly articulate that kind of evidence. Nezhukumatathil’s Lace & Pyrite, a collection of epistolary poems exchanged with Ross Gay, illustrates the importance of personal attachment to environmental knowledge and action. By working with and alongside soil and plants in personal and community gardens, the poets develop a sense of kinship with those nonhuman others and with each other. Their situated identities as members of their own social communities are central to this dynamic; Gay’s community orchard, for example, connects him both to the landscape and to his fellow humans. These ties among poets, communities, landscapes, and nonhuman others foreground for both writer and reader not only the relationships among them, but the reliance of all these stakeholders on an adaptable yet stable environment. Such literature illuminates how changes to local, regional, and global ecosystems affect people and landscapes we care about in small ways. To catalog those changes on a personal scale is to glimpse more massive transformations gripping the planet.

As broad as the concept is, identity might be the single topic that every one of our students, friends, and family members recognize and respond to with interest. As Appiah might say, use it.

Featured image: A tree carved with initials that suggests an intimate connection between person and environment. Photograph by Jim Larrison, 2010. 

Alexander Menrisky is a Lecturer in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He is currently wrapping up a book manuscript tentatively entitled Wild Abandon: American Literature and the Identity Politics of Ecology. His related article, “The Natural Death of Alexander Supertramp: Ecological Selfhood and the Freudian Rhetoric of Into the Wild,” appears in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. Website. Twitter. Contact.