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Journée d’Étude : “Travel, Environment and Nature Writing”

Université d’Artois, France, March 22nd, 2024
Juliette Cousin et Benjamin Wattebled

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1The conference “Travel, Environment and Nature Writing” was part of Scott Slovic’s lecture tour. It was organized by Gérald Préher (Artois University) and took place on the Arras campus on March 22nd, 2024. The main event was the talk given by Scott Slovic, entitled “To Save the World, First We Must Love It.” For about an hour, the Senior Scientist (Oregon Research Institute) and Distinguished Professor Emeritus (University of Idaho) focused on the “singularity effect” in psychology, and presented the participants with their own responsibility in saving the world. His collaboration with psychology professor Paul Slovic in Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data (2015) was evoked several times, in relation to Scott Slovic’s current studies of the psychology of decision making and the perception of risk—the tragic insensitivity to large-scale phenomena. Scott Slovic highlighted his work as a writer, and the importance of using the right vocabulary to explain environmental issues. To him, the essential purpose of environmental literature is to foster the readers’ emotional engagement. He explains that “[E]cocriticism is the study of explicitly environmental texts from any scholarly approach or, conversely, the scrutiny of ecological implications and human-nature relationships in any literary text [or other artistic text], even texts that seem, at first glance, oblivious of the nonhuman world” (S. Slovic, 2000 160). His talk, as its title suggests, delved into ways and means for each and every single one of us to be considerate of our environment, and think about future generations. In response to the day’s topics, participants examined travel, environment and nature writing through the lens of literature. Researchers in the fields of literature and translation studies looked into ecocriticism focusing on the power of nature and ways to save its resources. The works of Joan Didion, William T. Vollmann, Jesmyn Ward, Cormac McCarthy, Daphne du Maurier and Richard Ford were analyzed in light of their relationship to place, history, and memory. Translation was also an important topic of discussion throughout the conference. Questions regarding language and responsibility were regularly addressed by participants. This was evident during the round table discussion about Françoise Besson’s French translation of Scott Slovic’s Going Away to Think, entitled, Voyager pour penser. All in all, the topic chosen for this conference prompted wide-ranging contributions that demonstrate the continued relevance of nature writing and the care for the environment.

2The purpose of the conference was to present the concept of ecocriticism and Slovic’s take on it. Slovic started off by presenting what, in psychology, is called the “singularity effect”—the challenge of fathoming abstract concepts on a big scale. Psychologists who have coined this concept say that people respond much more to a single phenomenon than to phenomena on a big scale, whether it relates to an entire ecosystem, a large group of people or a large-scale catastrophe. In their book Numbers and Nerves, Scott and Paul Slovic explore the concept of “psychic numbing” according to which people tend to be quickly overwhelmed by numbers larger than one: any large phenomenon becomes abstract to the human psyche, numbing the mind and making it difficult to care for large scale causes like environmental issues, hence the importance of the “singularity effect.” Therefore, one of the main goals for writers concerned with any cause is to overcome this numbing by a poignant approach to communication: by directly connecting to the emotions of their readers, writers can have an impact on their perception of things and sense of care. The essential purpose of environmental literature is then to foster the readers’ emotional engagement—teach them how to pay attention. Slovic lingered on John Nichols’ The Sky’s the Limit: A Defense of the Earth (1990), where the author underlines the jarring dissonance between the beauty of nature and the knowledge of the danger looming over it. This inherent dissonance, which conveys a feeling of anticipatory nostalgia, can help readers connect and care for such issues. As Nichols writes, “to save the world we must love it” (80). To Slovic, environmental writers need to bring their personal attachments to place into the sensibility of their readers, which is often done through a first-person narrative to create a more direct connection. He explained that when we imagine the natural world, we rarely envision inherent issues: to make them visible, writers need to anchor their work into a specific location to evoke empathy from the readers. Slovic ended his lecture by reflecting upon the difficulty of tackling the environmental cause. Yet, he insisted that in desperate times, when it seems that the cause is lost and the planet cannot be saved, the reason not to give up is people’s duty and a token of their love for the world. Slovic quoted Kathleen Dean Moor and Sue Ellen Campbell in their essay “Why we won’t quit”: “I won’t walk away from the hurting world any more than I will walk away from my mother as she grows old and frail and sometimes confused.” This metaphor of the planet as a mother comes back to the initial concept of the “singularity effect”: by reducing love for the planet to the love we feel for a single, identifiable person, we bypass psychic numbing and we can connect more closely with the cause.

3In her talk, “Water and Power in California: A Comparison Between William T. Vollmann and Joan Didion,” Isabelle Boof-Vermesse presented a comparative study of Joan Didion and William T. Vollmann. She examined the “obsession” for water Joan Didon wrote about—especially for California water, with the Hoover Dam (“At the Dam,” “Holy Water”). Boof-Vermesse told us about California’s technological control of water, and how, as a “hydraulic society,” its identity rested on irrigation—and the transformation of the wild into a garden of Eden. Joan Didion became fascinated with water at a young age, so much so that she mentioned it in her graduation speech in 1948. Ever since her encounter with the dams, the image never left her, as she recalls in “At the Dam” (1970): “Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye” (324). Isabelle Boof-Vermesse went on to compare Didion’s approach to William T. Vollmann’s poisonscapes. His work, through a much more journalistic approach, presents water in California as the substructure that powers the cultural superstructure. Vollmann is defined as a “New New Journalist,” who leads dramatized investigations, for example about the New River: “Scum and bubbles in the water’s brownishnesss reminded me that it’s not always wise to examine ideality up close” (65). Their visions can be contrasted: while Joan Didion’s views on water are objective, Vollmann introduces a moral commentary.

4Following Isabelle Boof-Vermesse’s talk, Frédérique Spill (University of Picardy Jules Verne in Amiens) explored “Enraged Nature in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011),” which focuses on the consequences of hurricane Katrina on an African American community. Before “surviving the hurricane,” Ward brings out elements related to birthing and struggling, the ending in “-ing’ suggesting an ongoing process (giving life and death). Indeed, the main character’s teenage pregnancy echoes the fecundity of the earth: Esch is found lying in fetal position, in denial, upon discovering her pregnancy, while the father’s impairment reflects the collective struggling: he is mutilated, in an equally mutilated world. Frédérique Spill insisted on the parallel between “salvage,” used throughout the novel, and “savage”: a mangled world, one letter shorter, that symbolizes the return to the primal version of the world. The depiction of an African American family in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, announces the upcoming storm, as they prepare for damages ruining both their lives and their bond as a family. This storm will challenge the nature of all things, everything becoming undistinguishable from the rest. In her novel, Jesmyn Ward reappropriates and redefines nature and words.

5Christine Chollier (University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne) steered the discussion towards Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger (2022), and the environmental issues introduced in his work in relation to mankind and self-destruction. In “Back in the Picture,” she focused on traveling through space and time—rather than simply addressing the concept of “place”—and insisted on “screen memories” and memories of screens in relation to what she called “Horror-shima or the undocumented.” In this section of her talk, the emphasis was placed on McCarthy’s reintroduction of people into depictions of tragedies, such as Hiroshima. This can be linked to Chollier’s ideas on various cameos used as memento mori in McCarthy’s latest novels—the author is more interested in cause than he is in consequences. Chollier concluded by saying that the universe does not require our survival—“When all trace of our existence is gone, for whom then will this be a tragedy?” (McCarthy 114). McCarthy seems to be suggesting that preserving contradictions rather than getting rid of them is likely to benefit mankind.

6Picking up on the general topic, Charlotte Arnautou (Artois University) detailed the ways in which Daphne du Maurier’s short stories are full of “Silenced Voices and ‘Under-stories’” (silent, untold stories beneath the authoritative text). She showed how accounting for what happens in du Maurier’s stories is often impossible and took the example of “The Birds”—“Why did the birds attack in the end?” Focusing more specifically on “The Apple Tree” and “Monte Verità,” Arnautou then looked at silence from an ecocritical and feminist perspective, and silence as what connects women and nature. The dramatization of nature, with the tragic end of the husband’s life in “The Apple Tree,” but also the riddle of silence that acts as a connecting thread, makes it possible for us to view the understories as tactics of communication. Arnautou then suggested that silence can be active and act as a form of resistance to social constructs—in the case of women in “Monte Verità”—or even interpreted as a weapon, increasing fear and tension.

7Gérald Préher (Artois University) then shared his reflections on the “Landscapes of Memory in Richard Ford’s fiction.” With the use of first person narratives and detailed accounts of particular locations—even when those places no longer exist or never existed at all—he makes them alive in the mind of the narrators as “screen memories.” The emphasis laid on places of memory in fiction is central to the stories as they give a lesson in survival. Indeed, in “Great Falls,” the gap between teen years and adult years is clear: “The house itself is gone now—I have been to the spot” (Ford 30). In Wildlife, both the town and the surroundings are the main characters. While the town symbolizes hope and new beginnings, it can also serve as a reflection of the human drama. Préher insisted on the importance of time and place in relation to characterization. Ford’s characters are time travelers; they explore the past and their family history. The landscapes become characters and the characters (symbolically) become landscapes of memory.

8Françoise Besson (Toulouse 2 – Jean Jaurès University) and Sigolène Vivier (Artois University) wrapped up the symposium with a round table. Françoise Besson translated Going Away to Think into French (Voyager pour penser) and this conversation led her to discuss her choices for the title, her feelings regarding different chapters of the book, but also the position of the translator. Her views on translation as a journey brought our attention to her choice of “going away” as opposed to “voyager.” She then mentioned her teamwork with Scott Slovic, which she sees as a collaborative effort to best transpose the scholar’s ideas into another language—it is a transition between two languages, two cultures, two different minds. Besson insisted on the importance of embodying and understanding the author for a good translation. Beyond the reflection on translation itself, Besson linked her experience as a translator to nature—the text is a place, and the reader goes from one place to another. She mentioned her attention to nature and the environment, and her need to feel connected with a particular place when translating.

9This symposium’s focus was on saving the planet and nature writing, as illustrated by the different papers presented throughout the conference. Whether they focused on resources (Boof-Vermesse), environmental catastrophes (Spill), ecofeminism (Arnautou) or memories (Préher, Chollier), these talks established a connection between nature and literature which enabled the participants to think about their own relation to the environment.

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DIDION, Joan. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. Collected Nonfiction. New York: Knopf, 2006.

FORD, Richard. Rock Springs. New York: Grove Press, 2010.

McCARTHY, Cormac. Stella Maris. New York: Knopf, 2022.

MOOR, Kathleen Dean, and Sue Ellen CAMPBELL. “Why We Won’t Quit the Climate Fight.” Earth Island Journal. 14 January 2019. . Accessed 24 April 2024.

NICHOLS, John. The Sky’s the Limit: A Defense of the Earth. New York: WW Norton & Co, 1990.

SLOVIC, Scott. “Ecocriticism: Containing Multitudes, Practising Doctrine.” The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. Ed. Laurence Coupe. London: Routledge, 2000. p. 160-162.

SLOVIC, Scott. Going Away to Think. Engagement, Retreat and Ecocritical Responsibility. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2016.

SLOVIC, Scott. Voyager pour penser. Engagement, retraite et responsabilité écocritique. Trad. Françoise Besson. Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Midi, 2023.

SLOVIC, Paul, and Scott SLOVIC. Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data. Chicago: Oregon State University Press, 2015.

VOLLMANN, William. Imperial. London: Penguin, 2009.

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Juliette Cousin et Benjamin Wattebled, « Journée d’Étude : “Travel, Environment and Nature Writing” »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Juliette Cousin

Université d’Artois.

Benjamin Wattebled

Université d’Artois

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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