By Sarah Fiorello

Can the written word raise ecological consciousness? How might writing help us imagine and enact sustainable futures? These were our big questions this semester in ENGL 1120: Writing Ecology, a First-Year Writing Seminar at Cornell. Ranging across disciplinary divides, we examined a wide variety of ecologically-minded writing by naturalists, journalists, scientists, poets, fiction writers, and philosophers in order to investigate the diverse strategies that writers have developed for responding to the overwhelming environmental crises of our moment, climate change above all. 

Our investigations began, back in September, with our local surroundings. With the aim of sinking mindfully down into our specific time and place, those of us in Ithaca met at the Cornell Botanic Gardens for a series of captivating guided tours with Kevin Moss and Sarah Fiorello. We learned about the deep geological history of the landscape and about the indigenous communities of the Cayuga Nation on whose traditional homelands Cornell is located. Kevin and Sarah introduced us to the fascinating, restorative splendor of the Garden’s “living museum,” and we experienced first-hand how aesthetic attention and scientific knowledge can conspire to evoke a deep sense of care for our natural and cultivated environments.  

We have widened our focus considerably in the months since those first visits to the Gardens, exploring the enactment of ecological thought in texts that took us far from the Finger Lakes: to the forests of Japan and the plateaus of New Mexico, to the vanishing ice of the arctic, the halls of the U.S. Congress, and the invented planets of science fiction. But throughout all these travels, our early experiences at the Botanic Gardens kept us alive to our own messy embeddedness in local ecosystems with specific natural and social histories. In fact, we discovered that the urgent tasks of ecological thinking and climate justice challenge us to bring the “local” and the “global” together, in dynamic conjunctions.    

Voltaire concluded his 1759 novel Candide with some now-famous advice: “we must cultivate our garden.” In the context of his philosophical novel, Voltaire meant that we should mind our own business, not worry too much about the wider world of politics and social systems, and keep our eyes fixed on the ground beneath our feet. But all the reading, writing, and collaborative thinking we have undertaken this semester has provided ample testimony to the contrary: in the Anthropocene, our “local” environments are already, irrevocably bound up with the global biosphere. In other words, our garden is a lot bigger than we thought. 

In the final weeks of the semester, students embarked on individual research projects, tracing the complex relationships between climate change, on the one hand, and a particular ecological subject of their choosing, on the other. Students threw themselves into interdisciplinary research on a range of exciting topics, from water in the MeKong Delta, cutting-edge eco-cities, and the spotted lanternfly, to universal healthcare, hamburgers, and the racist legacies of redlining. After composing our researched arguments as formal academic papers, we decided—with the gracious encouragement of the Cornell Botanic Gardens—to revise our work for a public audience. We hope these blog essays will help visitors to the Gardens understand why, in this age of climate disaster, we cannot “cultivate our gardens,” as Voltaire advises, without also adopting a “planetary consciousness” that permits us to think on larger scales and longer timelines. 

Thank you to the Cornell Botanic Gardens, for hosting these essays, and for the privilege of the Gardens themselves—a space of discovery and refuge. We can’t wait to return. 

Matt Kilbane and ENGL 1120 
January 2021

Read essays from students in "Writing Ecology," a First-Year Writing Seminar at Cornell.