UC Davis Magazine

A Mind Competent in All Its Concerns NatureDeck

It's the first meeting of the quarter for "Nature and Culture 1, Intersections of Nature and Culture," and the students are packed into 001 Wellman Hall. Up in front, Scott McLean and Eldridge Moores--one a poet and scholar of 18th-century German literature who started his undergraduate career as a fisheries biology major, the other a geologist of international repute who takes his cello along on field trips--hand out the syllabus and the reading list and begin, each in turn, to share with the students what this class is all about.

Ultimately, says McLean, what it's about is ethics--how do we humans understand our world and then act within that understanding? Using texts ranging from the Epic of Gilgamish to Descartes' Discourse on Method to John McPhee's Basin and Range and drawing on their rich and diverse experiences, these two faculty members will bring their strikingly different disciplines into this classroom, comparing and contrasting for these undergraduates their approaches to the gaining of knowledge and its hoped-for outcome, the getting of wisdom.


The New York Times Magazine called it "the greening of the humanities" in its October 1995 article about the widening of environmental sciences to include the humanities and social sciences alongside the more traditional disciplines like biology, geology and meteorology. The movement marks a shift away from the notion that only ever-more-specialized knowledge can solve the vastly complex problems besetting late 20th-century civilization. Issues cross so many lines--political, economic, geographic, ethnic--that the conventional, single-discipline approach to solutions makes no more sense than trying to build a house using only a hammer. And interest in the intersection of the humanities and the environment is growing rapidly; the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) has estimated that some 800 courses in environmental literature and in American nature writing are now being taught in universities and colleges throughout North America.

UC Davis is among them. That same New York Times Magazine article cited UC Davis English professor David Robertson's "Literature of the Wilderness" as a top course and called Robertson a "guru" of the movement. And an August 1996 Chronicle of Higher Education story mentions UC Davis as having one of the most prominent departments in the field of ecocriticism, the term often used for the study of literature about the environment. Now, along with the Art of the Wild summer writing program, the recently established John Muir Institute and the campus's environmental initiative comes the Program in Nature and Culture, a unique undergraduate major that offers students a coherent, interdisciplinary approach to understanding the multitudinous relationships among human cultures and the natural world.

The Nature and Culture Program has been in place officially only since 1991, but it had its genesis in 1987, when several faculty--among them Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, comparative literature lecturer Scott McLean and English professor David Robertson--met at Snyder's home on San Juan Ridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills to talk about creating an interdisciplinary program. They were joined there by then-Chancellor Theodore Hullar, who encouraged the group to continue its discussions. A series of meetings on campus followed that included several faculty from the sciences, all of which culminated in a proposal to the dean of Letters and Science that a committee be formed to design a program in nature and culture. The first course was taught in the spring of 1993, with the major approved for the academic year beginning in fall 1994. Now in its fourth year, the program continues to gain strength. Figures from Student Affairs and Information Services show there are 28 students who have officially declared Nature and Culture as their major.

And interest in offering graduate studies in Nature and Culture is growing, both inside and outside the institution. Lenora Timm, professor of linguistics and Nature and Culture's current director, says the Nature and Culture faculty have recognized both the need and the desire for a graduate program--a recognition based on the steady local, national and international inquiries they receive. "We wanted to establish our credibility and viability on the undergraduate front before proposing a graduate program," she says. "We know now we do have those attributes, and so will more seriously contemplate the next move."


The program got a jump start in 1993 when it received a coveted three-year FIPSE grant (for Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, pronounced "FIP-see,") from the U.S. Department of Education. The FIPSE grant made it possible for two faculty members to team-teach the Nature and Culture core courses--a component at the heart of this interdisciplinary program.

Three core courses are the "glue" of the program; they provide a matrix where students can tie together the knowledge and experience they acquire from their other classes required for the major (a total of 84 units in all). The introductory core course explores the concepts of nature and culture as human constructs and the importance of nature in human thought, both scientific and spiritual. In a second course, students undertake in-depth study of one or two problems in nature and culture, and in the third, the fieldwork course, they examine scientific and literary/artistic approaches to the study of nature and culture in a single place.

In the program's first few years the fieldwork course has been held on the San Juan Ridge in Gary Snyder's community. (McLean lives nearby.) Recently, though, the opportunities for fieldwork have been expanded with the advent of yet another interdisciplinary component--Dennis Johnson, manager of UC Davis' Outdoor Adventures, has collaborated with Nature and Culture to develop a program that combines a wilderness experience with an extended visit to an indigenous group that has made efforts to preserve and transmit traditional ways. The first exploratory trip was to Isla Tiburon in the Sea of Cortez, and others are slated for British Columbia.

"Nature and Culture isn't just a combination of humanities, social science and natural science," says McLean. "It is that combination, yes; but what gets re-established in a subtle way is the basic core curriculum of important things everybody should know." He adds that interdisciplinary studies traditionally have gone on everywhere in intellectual history. "Certainly Kepler and Galileo talked to theologians and all kinds of people all the time. Interdisciplinary work is not anything new, and it's not anything surprising. What's surprising is that it doesn't happen more often."

An examination of the other required courses provides ample evidence that majoring in Nature and Culture isn't for science sissies. General chemistry, introductory biology, general ecology, survey of plant communities of California--nary a "for non-majors"class in the lot. It's not for literature-phobes, either; students must take classes in literature of the wilderness, Native American literature, the great books of western civilization. "This is not science for poets," comments Peter Dale, vice provost for undergraduate education and a strong supporter of the Nature and Culture Program. "And it's not--what would the other side be?--Goethe for engineers."

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