Further information on Winter 2019 courses


Dan Van Tasssel: American Nature Writers – Thoreau, Leopold, and Carson


Expanded description

The three works we propose to read and discuss are compelling in their literary appeal and urgent in the messages they convey. They provide a backdrop against which to judge reports of environmental degradation piling up day by day, year after year. Nearing midnight on the clock ticking off the alarm of irreversible global warming, we are clearly beyond discounting the harm to fish and fowl from oil spills, the loss of timber from fires, the destruction of houses and the attendant deaths being caused by those raging fires and record floods, and the harm to all life on the planet from fouled air and contaminated, warming waters. The reduction in species and the growing list of the endangered is fact. So too the documented rise in carbon dioxide, temperature, and water as glaciers thaw and disappear and pollution persists. The increase in erratic behavior of climate and the mounting magnitude of natural disasters call for urgent action worldwide. One enjoyable and interesting route to the heart of environmental issues lies in getting acquainted with the prophetic and intimate portraits of nature by seminal American naturalists Thoreau, Leopold, and Carson, the basis for our study together in this course. Welcome!

The attached study and discussion guides are intended to prime the pump. The syllabus below pinpoints the selected chapters and excerpts assigned for our reading and class discussions. Inexpensive paperback editions of the three works have been ordered and are available for purchase at Content, the bookstore downtown Northfield (at 314 Division St. S.): Dover Thrift Edition of Walden and Oxford University special editions of both A Sand County Almanac and The Sea Around Us. Alternatively, cheap used texts can be obtained from Amazon.com or AbeBooks.com.


Schedule of classes (subject to modification)

Jan. 7      To start, we’ll get acquainted with each other and then go over the purposes and outline of the course as delineated in the course packet, a copy of which I’ll hand out to each member of the class. Knowing that not everybody will have begun to read Thoreau, I’ll set the stage by providing some background on this iconic American original and by highlighting Thoreau’s reasons for taking to the woods.

Jan. 14    Armed with Walden and our accompanying study guide, we’ll discuss matters addressed in chapters 1, 2, and 5.

Jan. 21    Today we’ll focus on chapters 7, 8, and 9 from Walden.

Jan. 28    We’ll wrap up our time with Thoreau by concentrating on chapters 11, 16, 17, and 18.

Feb. 4      In preparation for today’s session, read and reflect on chapters “January” through “June” from Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Items from the related study guide will spark our discussion.

Feb. 11    Our discussion today will center on the remaining chapters from Almanac (“July” through “December”) and the first two chapters, “Wisconsin” and “Illinois and Iowa” from Leopold’s Part II: Sketches Here and There. Read the aforementioned chapters closely and address the items that pertain on the study guide for Leopold included in your course packet.

Feb. 18    For today’s class, read chapters 1, “The Gray Beginnings,” and 2, “The Pattern of the Surface,” from Part I, entitled “Mother Sea,” in Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us and go over the relevant items from the study guide in your packet. Helpful too are Carson’s “Preface” and Zwinger’s “Introduction.”

Feb. 25    We’ll wrap up the course by reading and discussing chapters 3, “The Changing Year,” 7, “The Birth of an Island,” and 8, “The Shape of Ancient Seas,” from Part I of Carson’s The Sea Around Us”; the chapters “Wind and Water” and “The Moving Tides” from Part II, “The Restless Sea”; and the first chapter, “The Global Thermostat,” from Part III, “Man and the Sea About Him.” Relevant here besides the study guide is the “Afterword” by Levinton.