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“The Book of Knowledge” in River Teeth 20 Anthology


I'm pleased to announce that my essay, "The Book of Knowledge" is reprinted in the the anthology River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction. Thanks to editors Joe Mackall and Daniel W. Lehman for their support over the years. Learn more here—THE.

March 27, 2020


from “Is All Writing Environmental Writing”

in Best American Essays 2019

by Camille T. Dungy


“Camille T. Dungy…calls for a ‘de-pristining’ of nature, a term she invents for her rejection of a ‘rapturous idealized’ view of the wild.”—THE


Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade. Dungy has also edited anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and From the Fishhouse. Her essays have appeared in The Best American Travel Writing, the Georgia Review, New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is a professor at Colorado State University. The Paragraph of the Week is from her essay "Is All Writing Environmental Writing" which in Best American Essays 2019.

The Paragraph of the Week


Looking out my office windows where I live now in northern Colorado, I see the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on most days, and the actual Rockies on really clear ones. People in Fort Collins navigate by those mountains—which are to the west, and so, except on about five overcast days a year, you always know just where you are. The mountains are a constant guide. Consider how different this topographical navigation is from an orientation based on your proximity to a particular building, to a particular street—south of Houston, or SoHo, for instance—or navigation by some other man-made landmark—east of Central Park. Here I'm using references from New York City, the environment of my husband's youth; for him, thinking to navigate by nonhuman landmarks took a little time. Similarly, “two streets down from the Waffle House,” we might have said in the Virginia town where I once lived, or “just after the entrance to the college,” or "We're the house with the blue trim. If you reach the Church of Life, you've gone too far." In such urban environments, it might be difficult to remember that you are, in fact, in an “environment,” given that we've come to think of the terms environment and nature as referring to someplace wild and nonhuman, more akin to the foothills of my childhood than to the cul-de-sacs terraced into their sides. But that line of reasoning slides us toward the compartmentalization I resist. Our environments are always both human and other than human.


—Camille T. Dungy



The answer to the question in the title of Camile T. Dungy’s essay “Is All Writing Environmental Writing?” is “yes,” but only if we resist the idea of compartmentalizing literature into “human” and “other than human” subjects.  She does not want a literature that forgets that we are a part of nature and focuses solely on human experience, one that fails to see the mountains through the skyscrapers or the paths in the foothills running behind suburban cul-de-sacs. At the same time she resists the tendency to see “the terms environment and nature as referring to someplace wild and nonhuman,” one that might attempt to separate the scenic beauty of the Tallahatchee River, for instance, from the murder of Emmett Till whose body was discarded there. She calls for a “de-pristining” of nature, a term she invents for her rejection of a “rapturous idealized” view of the wild.  “Writing takes off for me,” she explains, “when I stop separating human experience from the realities of the greater-than-human world.” She is not insisting that we all write about the perilous fact that we are headed toward the sixth great extinction on planet earth, no matter how urgent that issue is, but Dungy’s notion of a literature of “fuzzed lines” between the human and more than human is radical because it bring us “face-to-face with the fragility of the Holocene—or, more precisely—the destructiveness of the Anthropocene,” reminding writers and readers alike of the damage that is done when we “build an age around the concerns of one species” and ignore the “delicate balance required” to sustain a rich variety of plant and animal life on a shared planet. If all writing is environmental writing in this way, it asserts that the edges of the natural and human worlds overlap and never lets us forget that “we live in community with all the other lives on earth.”



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THE New Video Archive

We have started a new archive of video-essays at The Humble Essayist.  The emphasis at THE will always be on the written word, but we embrace the possibilities  of occasionally bringing word and image together. Check it out  here.


"Madre Luz": Notable

in Best American Essays 2019


My essay "Madre Luz" has been recognized as one of the notable essays of 2019 by The Best American Essays series. It contrasts the Nazi rally in Charlottesville with the stunning statue of Madre Luz that replaced the Lee-Jackson statue in Baltimore and becomes a plea for courageous non-violence in the face of violence, hatred, and racism.  Thanks to Another Chicago Magazine for publishing it.  You can read it here.


You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.

THE Mission

We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques.  A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought.  But what is a paragraph?  And what, in particular, is a good one?  You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith.  So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary.   We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life.  Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work.  We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.


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