“Delving and Carving Rude Nature”: An Ecocritical Reading of Don Lee’s Wrack and Ruin
Staple genres of American environmental literature such as nature-writing and the pastoral have tended to be by, for, and about privileged whites, typically Thoreauvian types whose relationships with nature apparently enable their self-recovery by seemingly offering a simpler, more rewarding life divorced from degraded urban environments. Rather than approaching nature as a privileged white refuge, race scholars, including environmental justice critics, postcolonial ecocritics, and a growing number of Asian Americanists, historicize the category of nature in order to understand how nonhuman environments and affi liated discourses are constructed. Through a process of historicization, so-called natural landscapes, for example, Thoreau’s New England pond, John Muir’s Californian mountains, and Aldo Leopold’s Wisconsin sand counties, become national landscapes. The American ideology of geopolitical mobility may encourage the belief that all citizens are equally entitled to frequent or inhabit these nationalnatural landscapes, but, crucially, not all are afforded equal recognition in mainstream discourses as having been there, much less of belonging there, because these landscapes are racialized. As T. V. Reed observes in a slightly different context, “white folks go to play with wilderness, while others are locked into urban ‘jungles.’ ” 1
Geopolitically confi ned thus, nonwhite others are assumed to contribute little to the historical formation of national-natural landscapes. Just as a New England pond is most readily associated with a white man, rather than Chinese itinerant workers, 2 the nineteenth-century American West where Asian immigrants worked in large numbers is generally assumed to be white: “Just who built California?” asks a working-class white man. “Certainly not the Chinese, Japanese, and Hindus.” 3 This impoverished view of American history provides Leopold with a pertinent environmental analogy when he observes that “a dead Chinaman” and “the erasure of Silphium” are “largely painless-to us” because “we grieve only for what we know.” 4 Such limited perspectives have effectively whitened labor and environmental histories, if not national-natural landscapes per se, thus leaving unacknowledged the parts played by nonwhites in their construction.