August 23, 2016
Environmental Literature: A Look at Pulitzer-Prize Winning Authors

In honor of the Pulitzer Prizes' Centennial and Next Indiana Campfires, we're sharing a few of our favorite Pulitzer-Prize-winning environmental writers.

As part of the Pulitzer Prizes’ Centennial Celebration, Pulitzer is providing support for state humanities councils to facilitate campfire programs across the nation. The initiative comes with the greater goal of engaging society in a conversation of storytelling. Although most of the campfire programs take place around metaphorical fires, we at Indiana Humanities decided to hit the trail with firewood in hand. Thanks in part to generous support from Pulitzer, we took the Centennial Campfire idea and made it literal for our Next Indiana Campfires Bicentennial celebration.

In honor of our partnership with Pulitzer and the natural theme of our Next Indiana Campfires program, we wanted to share a few of our favorite Pulitzer-Prize-winning environmental writers. Take a look:

First, we bring you our own Indiana boy, Edwin Way Teale! He won the General Nonfiction Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his book Wandering Through Winter. The book is part of a four-part “Seasons” series wherein Teale and his wife Nellie travel across the country, tracing the path of the seasons as they journey across the wide span of American geography. Teale also wrote Dune Boy, an autobiographical work of boyhood musings on nature and life set on his grandparents’ Porter County farm. We’ve read Teale at several of our Campfires, including this passage describing the Kankakee area in northwest Indiana:

“Late we came by this field again. The cerise glow had faded from the sky and the deep purple of twilight was merging with the velvet blackness of the night. Birds had fallen silent. The rolling waves of the windrows now stretched away unseen. The beauty of the day was gone. But the beauty of the night had replaced it. For, from end to end, the field was spangled with winking, dancing lights. They rose and fell. They flashed on and off. They waxed and waned in brilliance…. For a long time after we had left this field behind, we followed firefly roads. We made turns, passed dark barns, went by lonely farmhouses where moths fluttered at the lighted window screens. Around us always, wherever we went, streamed the sparks of living fire…. They passed us in a constant meteor shower. So we wandered—half-lost and forgetful of time. For hours we followed little roads, roads without a name, roads we could never find again, but roads we will never forget.”

We’ll revisit Teale at the Indiana Dunes on September 10 as we trek and talk the Dunes succession trail alongside Lake Michigan, learning what makes this landscape so special and such an inspiration to generations of writers.

For the next all-star in our lineup, we bring you Mary Oliver, who won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection American Primitive. Heavily influenced by Whitman and Thoreau, Oliver’s poetry most often explores nature, specifically the nature of her Ohio childhood home and of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she lived her adult life. Recently we read her poem “Tecumseh” as we trekked Prophetstown State Park. Here’s an excerpt:

I went down not long ago

to the Mad River, under the willows

I knelt and drank from that crumpled flow, call it

what madness you will, there’s a sickness

worse than the risk of death and that’s

forgetting what we should never forget.

Tecumseh lived here.

 His name meant Shooting Star.

from Mad River country north to the border

he gathered the tribes

and armed them one more time. He vowed

to keep Ohio and it took him

over twenty years to fail.

 We’ve used a lot of Oliver’s poetry while on Next Indiana Campfires, but I hope we never read “The Kitten,” which is about a poor dead cat that the persona of the poem buries in a field. Tragic! Ah, the ruthless circle of life.

Lastly, we’re a big fan of Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. The narrative book draws from Dillard’s own personal journals and details a year spent in nature, observing the seasonal change of the area outside of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Here’s an excerpt we used while trekking Wesselman Woods in Evansville and again at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis:

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.” My eyes alone can’t solve analogy tests using figures, the ones which show, with increasing elaborations, a big square, then a small square in a big square, then a big triangle, and expect me to find a small triangle in a big triangle. I have to say the words, describe what I’m seeing. If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present. It’s not that I’m observant; it’s just that I talk too much. Otherwise, especially in a strange place, I’ll never know what’s happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

 When I see this way I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones; I study the bank a square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head. Some days when a mist covers the mountains, when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall.

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

We like the book enough to keep it in our Novel Conversations library so that books clubs across Indiana can read and discuss Dillard’s carefully crafted writing.

We hope you spend these last few weeks of Indiana summer exploring nature and reading some Pulitzer-Prize-winning environmental literature (We encourage you to add N. Scott Momaday and Wallace Stegner to your list). Your reading choices can even reflect the seasonal change around you as you switch from one Edwin Way Teale book to another—first his Journey Into Summer and then Autumn Across America. And if you’re feeling inclined, pick up one of our free Trek and Talk Toolkits to further enrich your outdoor Indiana campfire experience with trivia, discussion prompts and literary excerpts.

This program is part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Council in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

For their generous support for the Campfires Initiative, we thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University.

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Next Indiana Campfires is a unique way to connect nature, literature and Indiana’s Bicentennial. The program is supported by the Efroymson Family Fund, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires. Indiana Humanities is supported in part by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the National Endowment of the Humanities. 

This post is part of the weekly blog series devoted to the initiative. The post was written by Bronwen Fetters, executive assistant and program associate at Indiana Humanities. Check back every Tuesday to learn more about Indiana’s great environmental literature, find out interesting facts about Hoosier stewardship, get all the latest program details and more.

Photo via state humanities.org
Photo via state humanities.org
Edwin Way Teale (Photo via in.gov)
Edwin Way Teale (Photo via in.gov)
Mary Oliver (Photo via literaryarts.org)
Mary Oliver (Photo via literaryarts.org)
Annie Dillard (Photo via anniedillard.com)
Annie Dillard (Photo via anniedillard.com)
Posted In: Next Indiana Campfires, Spotlight

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