Each year, on April 22, we celebrate Earth Day as a moment to reflect on our debts and responsibilities as humans to the environment. Below is a selection of NEH-funded resources on historical and literary examinations of the environment and our relationship to the natural world.
Mapping Nature across the Americas
This summer K–12 schoolteachers will participate in a 4-week virtual seminar to study, discuss, and conduct research on the Newberry Library’s renowned collection of historical maps. The seminar “Mapping Nature across the Americas,” led by a geographer and an environmental historian, will focus on how maps reveal the complex, contradictory, and contested ways in which humans have conceived their place in nature throughout history.
John Muir in the New World
Streaming online at PBS American Masters, this NEH-funded documentary examines the life of preservationist, naturalist, author, explorer, activist, scientist, farmer, John Muir (1838–1914.) The Scottish-American Muir is remembered as the father of the environmental movement and founder of the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States. John Muir in the New World delves into Muir’s life and influences with reenactments filmed in high definition throughout the majestic landscapes he visited: Wisconsin, Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, the Alhambra Valley of California, and the glaciers of Alaska.
The Latest Oldest Tree: Survival Stories for a Time of Extinction
Jared Farmer, professor of history now at the University of Pennsylvania, is using an NEH Public Scholars grant to complete work on a book titled The Latest Oldest Tree: Survival Stories for a Time of Extinction, examining the history of various searches for the oldest living tree in the world and the scientific developments that enable us to measure extreme biological age. For all recorded history, Farmer argues, people have used trees to think about deeper time. This respect for ancient trees—“emblematic elderflora”—is an instinct shared by many ethnic and religious groups. Ancient trees are more than carbon sinks and providers of ecosystem services; they help enlarge and sustain the human spirit. Old trees are also technical tools for scientists to model past and future climates.
Several episodes of the NEH-funded BackStory Radio podcast series from Virginia Humanities dealt with themes of nature and the environment in American history. Darkness Over the Plain: The Bison in American History explores how bison went from an animal in excess to near extinction. Tapped Out: Thirsting for Fresh Water examines how Americans have managed access to water across the generations. Revisionist Climate: Americans & The Atmosphere discusses how Americans have interacted, dealt with, and tried to actively change the North American climate. And 1980s Environmentalism and How the Reagan-Era Shaped the Natural World documents the shift in how people—from protestors to the president— approached environmental issues in America in the 1980s.
China: Its Environment and History
Supported by an NEH Fellowship, scholar Robert B. Marks has published China: Its Environment and History, a comprehensive history of China from prehistory to the present with a focus on the interaction of humans and their environment. Tracing changes in the physical and cultural world that is home to a fifth of humankind, Marks illuminates how historically sustainable practices can, in fact, be profoundly ecologically unsound. Read an NEH article about the book.
Living with the Urban Ocean
The University of Massachusetts-Boston used an NEH grant to design a 3-course undergraduate sequence, “Living with the Urban Ocean,” focusing on Boston Harbor, the Boston Harbor Islands, and the diverse coastal communities surrounding the harbor. Co-taught by humanities and environmental science faculty, the course cluster incorporates humanities approaches and experiential learning, with the goal of increasing students’ appreciation for and engagement with the harbor ecosystem, and awareness of the role of humanities in addressing environmental issues.
The Dust Bowl
Available through PBS, this NEH-funded 2012 documentary series by Ken Burns chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history. The Dust Bowl tells the story of the environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts, and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that, for many, seemed to herald the end of the world.
Re-Enchanting Nature: Humanities Perspectives
Scheduled for July 2022, this NEH summer seminar at Carroll College will bring schoolteachers to the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone National Park for intensive study of the stories, ideas, and practices that shape the interaction between humans and nature. The interdisciplinary seminar will draw upon religious, cultural, literary, fine arts, and cinematic perspectives to explore and evaluate the role of the humanities in public discourse about the environment, and how the humanities can provide opportunities to deepen our relationship with nature in ways that complement scientific study.
Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx
This verdant 2019 NEH-funded exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden celebrated the legacy of influential Brazilian Modernist landscape architect, conservationist, and artist Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994) with immersive gardens highlighting native plants of Brazil and an exhibition of Burle Marx’s art, paintings, and textiles. Burle Marx’s powerful modernist vision produced thousands of gardens and landscapes, including the famous curving mosaic walkways at Copacabana Beach in Rio and the beautiful rooftop garden at Banco Safra in São Paulo. NYBG’s largest botanical exhibition to date, Brazilian Modern explored the connections between Burle Marx’s artistic practice and his commitment to environmental conservation.
John Steinbeck: Social Critic and Ecologist
For several summers, Susan Shillinglaw and William Gilly, co-directors of the Steinbeck Institute at Stanford University, have led an NEH-funded summer institute for middle and high school teachers that examines Steinbeck’s novels about California in connection with his ecological vision and his influence on environmental writing.
Into the Amazon
This 2018 NEH-funded PBS American Experience documentary tells the remarkable story of the journey taken by President Theodore Roosevelt and legendary Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon into the heart of the South American rainforest to chart an unexplored tributary of the Amazon.
Ecohumanities for Cities in Crisis: Conversations for Miami’s Future
An NEH Humanities in the Public Square grant supported a series of community conversations, panel discussions, a public forum, and a community walking tour focusing on the challenges Miami faces from climate change. Led by Florida International University, the project put the public in dialog with humanities scholars, environmental scientists and activists, and local artists on topics such as climate change, rising sea levels, and how cities adapt to environmental change.
Wendell Berry, 2012 NEH Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, “It All Turns On Affection”
In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, and conservationist Wendell Berry lamented the increasing divergence of modern man from the environment and local communities. Invoking the words of his mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner, Berry observed that throughout history Americans have been divided into two kinds: the “boomers” who “pillage and run,” and the “stickers” who “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” Inspired by a passage from E.M. Forster’s Howards End, Berry called for a land use ethic that is shaped by a sense of “affection” for land and place. Read the text of Berry’s Jefferson Lecture here, or watch archived video of the event.
NEH Preservation & Access
Grant programs such as Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions and Sustaining Cultural Heritage Programs support efforts by museums, archives, and libraries to improve their ability to care for their humanities collections—often with environmental sustainability in mind. The Monhegan Museum, for example, which chronicles the history of Monhegan Island, Maine, used an NEH grant to improve the museum’s energy efficiency through improved lighting and climate control systems. Winterthur Museum in Delaware was also able to both reduce its environmental footprint and create significant savings through NEH-funded upgrades to the museum’s environmental controls. NEH Preservation & Access grants have also funded “green” initiatives at Maine’s Abbe Museum, and the Litchfield Historical Society in Connecticut.
EDSITEment, NEH’s educational portal, features numerous resources and lesson plans that encourage students and lifelong learners to delve into connections between the environment and culture. Discover how works by American artist Thomas Cole reflected anxiety and ambivalence within industrializing America about changing relationships to the natural world with this Picturing America resource; introduce students to primary documents detailing the history of America’s national parks; learn the key characteristics of American literary naturalism in this section on the writings of Stephen Crane and Jack London; and study how folktales from all over the world have depicted humans and animals in conflict and cooperation.
State Humanities Council Programs
NEH’s local partners, the state and jurisdictional humanities councils, support local humanities programs and events on topics relevant to their communities. Among the environmentally-focused programs offered by the state humanities councils are “Museum on Main Street” programs around the traveling exhibition Water/Ways, which focuses on individuals’ and communities’ relationship with water; and a Missouri Humanities public program series on “Missouri’s Natural Environment: 200 Years and Beyond.” Indiana Humanities’ Next Indiana Campfires project immerses participants in literature and nature to spark conversations about Indiana’s future, while Michigan Humanities’ Third Coast Conversations grant program sponsored public discussions across the state on the cultural, social, historical, and environmental factors that connect Michigan’s people to their water. The Alaska Humanities Forum’s Alaska Salmon Fellows program facilitates conversations about the history and contemporary impact of salmon policy; Minnesota Humanities Center’s We Are Water MN deepens connections between the humanities and water through a network of partnerships, a traveling exhibit, and public events in communities around the state. Delaware Humanities’ Trek and Talk program, a partnership with the National Park Service, sends participants out on a hike with readings on topics such as bats, wetlands, and Piedmont geography; Nevada Humanities’ 2021 statewide Nevada Reads program, focused on the theme of “cultivating environmental literacy,” features reading and discussion programs on the memoirs Miracle Country: A Memoir by Kendra Atellwork and World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
Humanities Magazine Reading List:
What Can We Learn from Trees?
Mountains and Molecules
The Second Act of Louis Bromfield
Drawn From Nature
John Muir, Nature's Witness
The Wild All Around
Frenemies John Muir and Gifford Pinchot
Roughing It (with Servants, of Course)
George Orwell, Outdoorsman
Environmental Prophet Rachel Carson Cultivated a Culture of Wonder
Rivers Held a Spiritual Place in the Lives of the Cherokee
The Blue Humanities
Thoreau on Flora
Eudora Welty Relished the Southern Summer Heat
The Artist Who Shaped Brazil
Winterthur Inside Out
Jens Jensen Designs the Prairie
Gardens of Presidents
Georgia O’Keeffe Paints Hawaii
Emily Dickinson, Gardener
Wild Time in the Poconos