Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2003: Volume 7, Issue 4

Editors' Choice
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line versions.

A Novel Understanding of Ecology
Colin C. Irvine,  Augsburg College, MN

Colin Irvine earned his Ph.D. from Marquette University in the spring of 2002.  
He is now working as an assistant professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, 
and his teaching and research interests include ecocriticism, American 
literature, and education.

While it enjoins readers to embrace radically new ways of thinking about the land, 
Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac bids teachers in particular to identify and 
develop means for encouraging students to better understand and appreciate the 
environment.  As a response to Leopold’s implicit call for papers, this essay 
contends that the genre of the novel has untapped potential to facilitate an 
understanding of the natural world and to kindle student interest in ecological 
issues.  Braiding together a discussion of Leopold’s philosophy, phenomenology, 
and Bakhtinian theory, this essay presents reasons why the often-overlooked novel 
lends itself well to helping teachers achieve these goals.  

			  * * *
Today, over a half-century after the publication of A Sand County Almanac, a number 
of scholars and teachers have begun to discuss the connection between reading 
literature and understanding a land-based view of the world.  Glen Love, for one, 
in his essay “Revaluing Nature:  Toward an Ecological Criticism,” analyzes the 
reader’s role and the correlative importance of complex literature.  He outlines 
the present state of affairs within literary criticism, noting the absence of 
emphasis on the land and our understanding of it, and then—as a disciple of 
Leopold—calls for further contributions to this field of criticism:  
	our profession must soon direct its attention to that literature which 
	recognizes and dramatizes the integration of the human with natural 
	cycles of life.  The time cannot be far off when an ecological perspective 
	will swim into our ken.  Just as we now deal with issues of racism or 
	sexism in our pedagogy and our theory, in the books which we canonize, 
	so must it happen that our critical and aesthetic faculties will come 
	to reassess those texts—literary and critical—which ignore any values 
	save for an earth-denying and ultimately destructive anthropocentricism. (235)

Appropriately, part of the purpose of this essay is “to direct attention” to the way 
in which the genre of the novel—unlike other more conventional genres often assigned 
in courses dealing with literature and the landscape—“recognizes and dramatizes the 
integration of the human with the natural cycles.”  Therefore, it is valuable and 
instructive to appreciate why assigning novels can enable students to “recognize” 
ideas as complex and unconventional as “the integration of human with natural 
cycles.”  It is beneficial, moreover, to realize that the time “when an ecological 
perspective will swim into our ken” and into our criticism is not in the least bit 
far off; in fact, the material for this “ecological perspective,” as it relates to 
literature, has existed for over thirty years in the form of Leopold’s philosophy, 
phenomenology, and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the novel.  What has been needed thus 
far is the assembling of these parts into a working theory.

Aldo Leopold was one of the first and most influential teachers to wonder about how 
he might use literary language in conjunction with ideas pertinent to ecology to 
change ways of thinking about the land.  A skilled, inspired writer and knowledgeable, 
meticulous scientist, Leopold took issue with customary approaches to teaching 
students about environmental issues.  In the section of A Sand County Almanac 
titled “The Outlook,” for instance, he asserts, “our educational and economic system 
is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of the land” (261).  
Though colleges and universities offer courses that wrestle with questions related 
to conservation and the environment, few instructors, contends Leopold, are teaching 
students to “love, respect, and [admire]” the land in order to locate themselves 
effectively in the biota.  Taking aim at traditional pedagogical methods for teaching 
conservation, Leopold states that, “One of the requisites for an ecological 
comprehension of land is an understanding of ecology, and this is by no means 
co-extensive with ‘education’; in fact, much higher education seems deliberately to 
avoid ecological concepts” (262).  

Though Leopold makes this statement in a book first published in 1949, his conclusion, 
“ecological training is scarce,” remains accurate due to the fact that teachers 
continue to cling to traditional pedagogical theories while the subject 
matter—ecology—demands a new approach.  Because ecology, with Leopold’s emphasis 
on the ecological conscience and the land pyramid at its center, involves a 
definition of land that includes humanity, traditional approaches to teaching 
conservation—including those that utilize literature—no longer apply; studying land, 
geology, ecology, and environment as if these were somehow separate from humanity 
and our actions perpetuates the extant epistemology and related problems.  Simply 
put, if the self is actually considered part of the land, then the means for teaching 
and learning about Leopold’s revolutionary and inclusive idea of “the land” must 

The problem is that the customary subject/object-based epistemological stance 
employed by most scholars and teachers prevents students from appreciating that 
ecological education needs to begin with the self (the mind) and move toward an 
understanding that does not precipitously separate the self from the subject matter.  
In short, teachers must remember that learning is an experience, and that the primary 
objective of a course in ecological literature must be to engender a deeper 
understanding of the relationship between the self/student and the 
material/environment.  If the object/text is always separate from the student/reader, 
then the student/reader will struggle to comprehend ideas such as Leopold’s inclusive 
definition of “the land” and “the land pyramid.”  

As if speaking to this point, reader-response theorists Louise Rosenblatt and Wolfgang 
Iser have constructed phenomenological models of reading around what Love calls our 
“aesthetic faculties.”  In both cases, the models for explaining what happens when we 
read help us to trace the outlines of a critical theory that emphasizes what 
transpires when we negotiate a novel and how this interpretive event translates 
analogously into a deeper appreciation for our place in the vibrant real world 
beyond the book.  

In her groundbreaking work The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory 
of The Literary Work (1978), Rosenblatt discusses the reading event in terms similar 
to those that ecologists use to describe the relationship between humanity and the 
environment.  She describes the transactional event as “an ongoing process in which 
the elements or factors are […] aspects of a total situation, each conditioned by 
and conditioning the other” (17), and she explains that a “coming-together, a 
compenetration, of a reader and a text” takes place (12).  This “compenetration” 
of subject and object, reader and text, is the cornerstone of her theory, as is 
evident in this passage:  “Just as knowing is the process of linking a knower and 
a known so a [a work of literature] should not be thought of as an object, an entity, 
but rather as an active process lived through during the relationship between a 
reader and a text” (20).  Similarly, an ecologist would likely assert that we are a 
part of nature that is as much an ongoing event (that includes us and our actions) 
as at is an entity.

Aware of the close analogical tie between her theory and ecology, she fleshes out 
this correlation in order to illustrate her point.  First she draws upon the words 
and ideas of Arthur Bentley, her predecessor in this philosophical discussion.  
Bentley, explains Rosenblatt, describes the connection between the knower and the 
known in this way: 
	‘We do not […] take the organism and environment as if we could know 
	about them separately in advance of our special inquiry, but we take 
	their interaction itself as a subject matter of study.  We inspect the 
	thing-seen not as the operation of a organism upon an environment nor 
	as the operation of an environment upon organism, but as itself an event.’ (17)

Rosenblatt, then extends Bentley’s analogy.  “The current interest in ecology […] 
illuminates the transactional formula,” she states, before adding, “To see man as 
separate from his environment, being affected by it, or affecting it, does not do 
justice to the ecological process, in which man and his environment are part of a 
total situation […] each conditioned by and conditioning the other.”  Finally, after 
having located the origins of her idea, she proceeds to delineate in specific terms 
the association between her idea of transactional reading and ecology:  
	In ecological terms, the text becomes the element of the environment 
	to which the individual responds.  Or more accurately, each forms an 
	environment for the other during the reading event.  Sharp demarcation 
	between objective and subjective becomes irrelevant, since they are, 
	rather, aspects of the same transaction […]. (18)

Now, over thirty years after the publication of The Reader, the Text, and The Poem, 
at a time when the field of ecocriticism appears to be gaining ground, I would like 
to revisit the metaphor associated with an organism in its environment in order to 
argue that, just as the “current interest in ecology […] illuminates the value of 
the transactional formula,” the transactional formula, illuminates the value of 
ecology.  When we invert Rosenblatt’s statement in this way, we can more readily 
discern that we can begin with literature and an appreciation of what happens when 
one reads so that we might then be better able to grasp ideas related to ecology 
and, specifically, to how “the land” operates.  My point is that rather than using 
the idea of the land simply as a means of explaining how we read novels that take 
as their subject matter the environmental crisis we can use discussions related to 
how we read literature to explain how we might better appreciate this idea of the 

The relationship between Leopold’s theories of the land and Rosenblatt’s theory of 
reading—between ecologically and phenomenology—becomes increasingly clear when we 
look at Wolfgang Iser’s book The Act of Reading:  A Theory of Aesthetic Response, 
also published in 1978.  Iser discusses what he describes as “the intersubjective 
structure of the process through which a text is transferred and translated” during 
the act of reading.  Just as Leopold’s conception of conservation involved positioning 
people within the construct of “the land,” Iser’s theory of reading locates the subject 
and the text (object) within the same sphere.  Furthermore, it underlines the idea 
that when reading were imaginatively immersed with the text.  This means, as he 
points out, that the “relation between text and reader is therefore quite different 
from that between object and observer:  instead of a subject-object relationship, 
there is a moving viewpoint which travels along inside that which it has to apprehend” 
(109). He then concludes—somewhat mistakenly—that, “This mode of grasping an object 
is unique to literature” (109); the exception, of course, to his argument can be 
found at the intersection of epistemology an ecology.  In this situation, as in the 
one Iser describes connected to reading literature, the subject is not separate from 
the natural world but instead is seamlessly woven into that world.  

In the introduction to The Implied Reader, Iser addresses the question as to which 
kind of aesthetic, literary text would best enable an author to present the reader 
with an experience analogous to negotiating the living, natural world and its 
corresponding crisis. He opens by summarizing the “history of the novel as a ‘genre’” 
(xi).  He notes that, from its inception in the eighteenth century, the novel has 
taken as its subject matter issues related to the actual world encompassing the 
writer and the reader.  “Like no other art form before it,” he states, “the novel 
was concerned directly with social and historical norms that applied to a particular 
environment, and so it established an immediate link with the empirical reality of 
its readers” (xi).  Iser proceeds to explain why and how the novel, unlike “other 
literary forms [that induce] the reader to contemplate the exemplariness that [these 
genres embody],” forces readers to confront the “problems arising from his own 
surroundings, [while] at the same time holding out various potential solutions which 
the reader himself [has], at least partially, to formulate” (xi).  He then asserts, 
“What was presented in the novel led to a specific effect:  namely, to involve the 
reader in the world of the novel and so help him to understand it—and ultimately 
his own world—more clearly” (xi).  

Coincidentally, in the same year Iser’s The Implied Reader—with its focus on the 
genre of the novel—was published, the four essays that would eventually make up 
Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination first appeared in a Soviet journal.  When coupled 
Leopold’s philosophy of the land and Rosenblatt and Iser’s arguments about the 
subject/object integration that “happens” when one is reading a certain kind of 
aesthetic text, Bakhtin’s rigorous theory of the novel helps us to understand better 
what takes place when a one reads a novel that takes as its subject matter “the land” 
and how this act/event engenders an appreciation of ecology and the corresponding 
ecological crisis.

Bakhtin’s theory of the novel provides a means of outlining the criteria for the 
specific type of text that has the capacity to help people understand their place 
in something akin to what Leopold calls the biotic pyramid.  When describing “The 
Land Pyramid” as “a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly,” and when 
adding that, despite this apparent chaos, the land pyramid “proves to be a highly 
organized structure,” Leopold outlines a concept that comes exceptionally close to 
Bakhtin’s definition and explanation of discourse in the dialogic novel:  “The 
discourse orientation of a word among other words (of all kinds and degrees of 
otherness),” Bakhtin states, “creates new and significant artistic potential for 
a distinctive art of prose, which has found its fullest and deepest expression in 
the novel” (275).  He proceeds to explain that, in a context such as the mind of a 
speaker, writer, or narrator who is immersed in reality and thus receptive to 
language coming from countless prior sources and contexts, “The living utterance, 
having taken meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially 
specific environment, cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic 
threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an 
utterance […]” (276).  

The cognitive linguistic environment—this meeting place of words and phrases that 
carry with them traces of prior contexts—is analogous in many ways to an ecological 
understanding of the land.  Or, as critic James Zappen states, “In Bakhtin’s broad 
concept of dialogue, all human discourse is a complex web of dialogic interrelations 
with other utterances” (3)—just as all ecosystems, when combined, constitute “a 
context web of […] interactions among members.”  And, interestingly, as is the case 
in Leopold’s “The Land Pyramid,” this dynamic, “web of dialogic interactions,” 
though it would seem to lack order or coherence, adheres to what Bakhtin describes 
as a ‘“unity of a higher order”’ (Morson, Emerson 293).  This unity, like the 
“highly organized structure” of the “Land Pyramid,” does not separate the subject 
from the object in much the same way Leopold’s concept includes humanity within its 

In closing, Thomas Lyon, in his essay, “A Taxonomy of Nature Writing,” identifies 
seven different genres commonly associated with literature and the landscape.  
Among these he lists “Field Guides and “Rambles,” “Solitude and Backcountry Living,” 
and “Farm Life,” and he includes within these respective categories such familiar 
titles as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, 
and Wendell Berry’s A Continuous Harmony.  Missing from this list—and often absent 
in such catalogs—is the genre of the novel.  Based upon the ideas outlined above, I 
would argue that the novel, above all other genre available to those interested in 
literature and the landscape, has the greatest potential to kindle an interest in 
ecological issues and to facilitate a thorough understanding of the natural world.  
Thus, to Lyon’s taxonomy I suggest we add an eighth column and label it “Novels.”  
And because an empty column demands we provide examples, I ante up the following 
suggestion and invite others:  in my estimation, Wallace Stegner’s All of the Little 
Live Things is perfectly suited for this category.  This novel, due to its content 
and construction, complicates the reader’s conventional understanding of time and 
place, and, in the process, reminds us that the land and “all the little live things” 
comprise a complex, evolving entity of which we are a part.
Bakhtin, Mikhail.  The Dialogic Imagination:  Four Essays.  Trans. Caryl 
	Emerson and Michael Holquist.  Ed. Michael Holquist.  University of Texas 
	Press Slavic Series, No. 1.  1981.  Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1992.
Iser, Wolfgang.  The Act of Reading:  A Theory of Aesthetic Response.  
	Baltimore and London:  The John Hopkins University Press, 1978.
---.  The Implied Reader:  Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyon 
	to Beckett.  1974.  Baltimore, Maryland:  The Johns Hopkins University 
	Press, 1975.
Leopold, Aldo.  A Sand County Almanac:  With Essays on Conservation From Round 
	River.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 1966.
Love, Glen A.  “Revaluing Nature:  Toward an Ecological Criticism.”  Western 
	American Literature 25, no. 3 (November 1990): 201-15. 1990.
Lyon, Thomas.  “A Taxonomy of Nature Writing.”  The Ecocriticism Reader:  
	Landmarks in Ecology. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm.  
	Athens, Georgia:  University of Georgia Press, 1996.  276-281.
Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson.  “Toward a Reworking of the Dostoevsky 
	Book.”  Critical Essays on Mikhail Bakhtin.  Ed. Caryl Emerson.  
	New York:  G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.  283-302.  Adapted from chapter 6, 
	“Polyphony:  Authoring a Hero,” in Mikhail 
Stegner, Wallace.  All the Little Live Things.  1967.  The Viking Press, 
	Inc.; New York:  Penguin Books, 1991.
Zappen, James P.  “Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975).”  Twentieth-Century Rhetoric 
	and Rhetoricians:  Critical Studies and Sources.  Ed. Michael G. Morgan and 
	Michelle Ballif. (2000):  11 pp.  27 January 2002. 

Please consider submitting your manuscript
August 2003