WMU News

Nature writers come to Kalamazoo to discuss a 'diminished thing'

May 20, 1999

KALAMAZOO -- Environmental decline is the focus of a June conference that will bring some of the country's foremost environmental writers to Kalamazoo.

Writers and naturalists including Wendell Berry, Scott Russell Sanders and Michigan's Stephanie Mills will be among the speakers at the third biennial conference of the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment at Western Michigan University's Bernhard Center June 2-5.

The conference, titled "What to Make of a Diminished Thing," is expected to attract more than 400 participants from around the world to spend four days exploring humankind's relationship to the natural world. More than 360 scholarly and creative papers will be presented including some by attendees from such far-flung places as Norway, Hong Kong, England and Japan.

Participants won't be spending all their time indoors talking, however. They'll experience the environment firsthand through 17 trips planned to natural spots throughout southwest Michigan. Arranged and guided by the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, the trips include jaunts to sites such as Asylum Lake, the Kalamazoo Nature Center, Hidden Marsh Sanctuary and Bishop's Bog. Among the outings are a series of float trips down the Kalamazoo River from Comstock through the Allegan State Forest, showing the river in its industrial, suburban and wild environments.

Thomas Bailey, WMU ombudsman and coordinator for the conference, says the river is symbolic of the types of diminished environments the conference will address.

"We have seen a real ecological crisis come upon us in the last 35 years. The East doesn't have the natural world it once did, hence the 'diminished thing'," Bailey explains, noting this is the first time the ASLE conference has been held east of the Mississippi. "When it comes to nature, there's a big difference between East and West. Natural descriptions of the East are less rhetorical than those of the West as well. We have hills, not grand mountains; woods, not forests. But our nature is just as complex and worthy of study."

A highlight of the conference will be an evening reading by naturalist author Wendell Berry. A noted environmental poet, novelist and essayist from Kentucky, Berry will read at 8:15 p.m., Thursday, June 3. He is the author of a number of books including "What Are People For?" and "The Gift of the Good Land."

Another evening reading from 7:30 to 9 p.m. on Friday, June 4, will feature native American poetry presented by Marilou Awiatkta, an author and member of the Spokane tribe, and Gloria Bird, poet and member of the Cherokee tribe.

Six plenary sessions are planned featuring a number of noted environmental writers. They include:

The conference won't focus exclusively on American nature. A number of sessions are devoted to the environmental writings about other locales, including Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain. There's even an international poetry reading presented by Terry Gifford of Bretton Hall College at Leeds University in England and Shinji Watanabe of Japan's Rikkyo University from 8 to 9:15 a.m. Friday, June 4.

Lest one think the seriousness of the topic will diminish the enjoyment of the participants, there is also at least one evening of "Poetry Karoke" planned. Dreamed up by the conference planning committee, the event is somewhat of an "open mike night" where attendees can provide readings of a nature poem that they or someone near and dear to their hearts has written. Other attendees, who also fashion themselves as troubadours, also will provide entertainment.

"This is really a five-day celebration of humankind's concern for the natural world," Bailey says.

Fees to attend the conference are $80 or $40 for students. Membership in the ASLE is required. The public can attend the conference for a daily fee of $10, or $5 for each evening. The banquet featuring Wendell Berry's reading is $17. There are also additional fees for the field trips.

ASLE was founded in 1992 to promote the exchange of ideas and information about literature that considers the relationship between human beings and the natural world. The organization has grown to several hundred memberships including chapters in Japan, Mexico and England.

For more information about the conference, contact Bailey at (616) 387-5300.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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