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Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement
by Daniel J. Philippon
University of Georgia Press, 2004
Hardcover, $39.95, 416 pages
ISBN: 0820325767

Daniel J. Philippon, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, has written an excellent history of environmental activism in the United States that reminds us that the conservation movement is also a literary movement as well as a tradition rife with its own lore and legendary personalities. In Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement, Philippon focuses on five significant activist authors—Theodore Roosevelt, Mabel Osgood Wright, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Edward Abbey—who while active individually in conservation efforts and in the creation of influential environmental organizations, are equally important as nature writers. 

Philippon’s premise in Conserving Words is that each of the five naturalists employs a central literary metaphor, and that each metaphor in turn allows us to understand the author’s perspective on the natural world. For Theodore Roosevelt the threshold of nature was the “frontier,” a place of moral and physical renewal. Co-founder of the conservation minded Boone and Crockett Club, Roosevelt argued in his histories of the west that the fast disappearing American frontier was a necessary antidote to the enervating effects of urban life. Mabel Osgood Wright was Roosevelt’s contemporary, but her perspective grew out of an entirely different context: the burgeoning suburban culture at the turn of the century. Wright played a critical role in the revival of the National Audubon Society and her prolific finds its central image in the “garden” of nature.  

The book’s most interesting chapter deals with John Muir, grandfather of the National Park System and founder of the Sierra Club. Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf chronicles his solo odyssey of self-discovery in a walk from Indiana to the Florida coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Muir’s works, according to Philippon, articulate a vision of the natural world as “park.” Twentieth century urban sprawl and the encroachment of civilization on the wilderness spawned the formation of the Wilderness Society in 1935. American “wild” places provided Aldo Leopold, cofounder of the Society and author of A Sand County Almanac, with the governing metaphor of “wilderness.” Most controversial is the “utopia” claimed for the natural world by Earth First! co-founder Edward Abbey. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) became radical environmentalists’ bible for a war of ecosabotage against developers, loggers, and other perceived threats to the environment.  

Conserving Words concludes with a brief chapter on the “island” metaphor adopted by many contemporary environmental writers. Like island ecosystems, our environments are indeed interrelated spheres, and ultimately we share a destiny with all plant and animal life on the planet that is our island home.  Beneath the historian’s detachment in Conserving Words we find traces of the author’s deep sympathy with environmental concerns. Understanding the history of the conservation movement as a literary history of words, works, and writers, Philippon gives notice that the next critical chapter of environmental awareness remains to be written.


Vince Brewton
Southern Scribe Reviews


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