Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. Environmental Studies Program


Philip J. Nyhus

Second Advisor

Gail Carlson

Third Advisor

Elisabeth Stokes


What is environmental writing? Phil Condon, author and professor at the University of Montana's Environmental Writing Institute, defines it as any piece of writing in which an important factor is nonhuman—be it animal, place, weather, et cetera. At the same time, he acknowledges that the primary limitation of this definition is its lack of limitations; because humans are constantly interacting with—and affected by—the nonhuman, virtually any piece of writing could be considered environmental. The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), the nation's predominant organization for the academic study of environmental writing, defines itself through its focus on “the natural world and its meanings and representations in language and culture." Nature Writing: The Tradition in English by Robert Finch notes that the most common form for the genre is the first-person narrative essay; but most of the pieces in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2010 are third-person profiles, generally of an individual or a specific discovery, with no mention of the writer at all. Annie Dillard‟s work is heavily lyrical, guided not just by the meanings of words but by their poetry, while Bill McKibben‟s writing is straightforward and journalistic, a call to arms.

Although there is no standard definition, I have interpreted “environmental writing” as writing that communicates the emotions and ideas of the environmental movement, and/or depicts places that are worth protecting. Most of the pieces included here are first-person, and several (“Rangefinder Girl” and “Reindeer Boots”) could be described as place-based memoir. In other pieces, like “Wasteland,” I have tried to combine journalistic inquiry with personal narrative, while the three op/eds in this collection are more fact- than emotion-based, more indignant than reflective.

The first piece that I wrote specifically for inclusion in my thesis was “Useless Bay,” which I composed in the middle of a very jet-lagged night in my grandmother's apartment in New York City. I had just spent the week traveling with my parents, and was struck—as I had been many times before—by how strongly my mother's mood comes as a result of her surroundings; something that I have inherited from her. (My father, on the other hand, couldn't care less where he is—as long as he has access to coffee and an Internet connection.) In fact, my mother wrote her own version of the same story about a decade ago—under the title “Dogfish”—and because I've never read her version, I'm only loosely familiar with the details of the piece. When I showed this essay to my parents, my mother, sobbing, told me it was the truest thing she had ever read. My father said, "Now just wait a moment—it didn't happen anything like this!"

I mention this in order to bring up an important concern in nonfiction writing, which is the difficulty of adhering to an absolutely "true" version of events. In my own writing, I value honesty above all else—readers can easily sense when writing is not emotionally accurate, and a reader's trust is not just precarious, but the most valuable thing that a writer has. This does not mean, however, that I haven't taken some liberties in describing past events, always in the interest of making for a more streamlined and compelling piece of writing. I sometimes prune people from stories in which introducing each character would be more unwieldy than beneficial, and have omitted many scenes for the same reason.

I often imagine an essay's job is to take a tangle of memories and ideas— people, places, events— and pull from it a single strand, a narrative that is able to draw connections that would otherwise have been hidden. This requires that some adjustments be made to the past, but always in the interest of better serving the reader while retaining a truthful integrity. That said, please know that all people and places in this thesis are real, and I have done my best to ensure that all scientific and political information is correct.

Although many of these essays deal with similar topics, they are each meant to stand alone. “Life and Ice” and “Ice and Ashes,” for instance, both start by introducing an unusual location—a dogsled camp atop Alaska's Norris glacier. Since both of these essays have been or will be published individually, each one must establish the location anew. For this reason, I hope that the reader will be patient in tolerating a small amount of repetition between pieces.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that these essays are meant to be entertaining. I think that the best environmental writing is, first and foremost, good writing—writing that takes the reader somewhere he or she has never considered, and that, without browbeating or guilt-tripping, leaves him or her with a slightly different understanding of both the natural and human worlds. More than anything else, this is my goal.


Useless Bay Washington, Alaska, glacier, chemicals in personal care products, safe chemicals legislation

Multimedia URL