Upon registering for classes last fall, I made the decision to venture outside of my major, English, and take a few classes in the sciences. I wanted to try out a different way of thinking, one that I hadn’t tested out since high school. I registered for Environmental Issues and Environmental Geology because I believed both would prove to be topical and refreshing. I hoped to apply my new coursework to what I did in my literature classes. As one might guess, sustainability is the fulcrum of environmental science in this day and age, but as I have come to learn, it applies to literary study as much as it does to my science classes. It would make sense that more and more courses are addressing sustainability as it is now encoded in Geneseo’s values. However, the more we read and talk and think in ENGL 337, the more clear it has become just how important the theme of sustainability is to African-American art.
The close relative of sustainability is renewable energy. In environmental science, sustainability demands a transition from traditional, exhaustible sources of energy such as oil and coal to inexhaustible sources like wind and solar. How does renewal factor into a class on African-American literature? Unfortunately, as we have seen, hate can sustain itself through self-organizing mechanisms that do recycle, but in a destructive way (white supremacy, memetic warfare, and radicalization all function according to a reifying production of hate). However, if we exchange the seed of hate for the seed of good, productions like the fractal, the organic farm, and the community art project emerge. I have found sustainability to be fundamental to the work of Ron Eglash, Leah Penniman, and our friend Steve Prince. Additionally, what each of these individuals have created reminds me of my work in other environmentally focused classes.
In African Fractals, Eglash begins with the Cantor set whose formula erases the middle of a line and recycles the output to infinity. This mathematical fact is the impetus for artistic representations of renewal, such as Baluba and Jola snail-shell spiral art, meant to signify infinity (Eglash 148). The model, often depicted as a loop, can indeed go on forever; it can sustain itself. From the outset, then, we can see that recycling and sustainability can go hand in hand with cultural production.
To Penniman, reciprocity is both informed by different spiritual traditions of Africa and the African diaspora and crucial to a sustainable relationship with our natural surroundings. Thinking and acting as if the earth was made for us to take from indefinitely and wastefully is one huge way we can end up doing harm to ourselves as a species. The people at Soul Fire Farm acknowledge that we are “not the most powerful force in nature,” which is crucial to creating a sustainable future (Penniman 54). Acting contrary to this belief has proven destructive in my study of environmental science outside of ENGL 337 as well. In Environmental Geology, I have seen how deforestation by agriculture in Colombia causes massive landslides. In Environmental Issues, I have seen how a heavy reliance on non-renewable oil reserves has threatened our economy, security, and natural environment.
Luckily, I have also seen how thinking in line with Penniman can be fruitful in Literary Study in the Digital Age (ENGL 340) where we have engaged with Henry David Thoreau. Like in Farming While Black, reciprocity plays a major role in Thoreau’s Walden. The book especially focuses on how impactful humans are to their environment: “the surface of the earth is so soft and impressible by the feet of men, and so with the paths which mind travels” (from “Conclusion”). By going to live deliberately in the woods, Thoreau becomes acutely aware of how repetition can produce both harm and good. On the one hand, repetition can solidify bad habits and wear away the earth. On the other hand, training the mind in sustainable thought through repetition can prompt us to see the effects of other repeated behaviors.
Finally, the art of Steve Prince makes very real and tangible connections to the concept of sustainability. His community based art project launched earlier this semester focused on the development of an “urban garden” where community members could contribute to one collective piece. The product sustained itself on committed community members and focused, thematically, on growth and cyclicality of all things from hate and violence to flowers and music. The method and medium (erasing and etching with charcoal) allowed for continual growth and revision which gave the piece a special sustainable character.
It is no accident that sustainability is what Dr. Robertson in the Geography Department calls the dominant paradigm of environmental science today. This can be extended to learning across disciplines here at Geneseo. My ventures into the sciences this semester have supported similarity, which is not to say that I did not find the different way of learning of I was looking for. Instead, I have found unique ways to explore a very important topic, sustainability, which both exceeds this campus and drives it forward from within its classrooms.