Nature, Environments, & Place in American Thought

Christiaan Honig (Spring 2014)

Throughout this course, I believe that the most important theme that I experienced was the relationship between myself as an individual and the natural world along with the endless questions that this theme entailed. When I wrote my nature contemplation paper, I took the assignment as an opportunity to truly explore my thoughts about how I fit into the environment around me and what my role as a human was within the natural world. My experience helped me appreciate the sheer lack of time that I took to interact with nature each day and that my 15 minutes of sitting by the creek was the first time I had been outside for an extended period of time in months. Although this thought sounds basic, it proceeded to grow and develop as I advanced through the semester and completed the other assignments.

After realizing how disconnected I was from the natural world during the contemplation paper, I expanded upon this idea while completing the photo essay, in which my group documented the precarious relationship between mankind and nature and how this interaction often goes awry. While selecting images such as a bird covered in oil after a tanker spill, my initial thoughts from the contemplation paper returned and I began to wonder if my disconnect from nature carried over from mere ignorance into actual harmful effects. I started to think about which of my daily activities were causing negative effects on the world around me. It was at this point in the semester that I actually began to time my showers to make sure I was not over-consuming water and managing my environmental footprint carefully. I decided to take little steps in order to cut down on my impact in multiple areas of life. It was at this point that my line of questioning actually changed into a tangible effort to eradicate some of my wasteful habits.

My place study of South Hall inadvertently led me to continue this line of questioning as I learned more about the "green" features of the building and how it was constructed in order to minimize students’ impacts on the environment. I started to use the interactive boards regularly to determine which areas of life were most energy-intense and how to mitigate this usage. While talking to my hallmates on my floor, I learned that the LEED-certified appliances raised their awareness as well and that they had also adjusted their habits to reduce waste. It was amazing to see how a single year in a "green" dorm could change the daily routines of so many young adults and create a future generation that is more environmentally-conscious than they would have been. The actual research for the project furthered my understanding of the purpose of the large quantities of information provided by South Hall as part of Wake Forest’s efforts to create a more eco-friendly campus.

The final project, which involved interviewing Isaac Oliver and creating a video about Harmony Ridge Farms, served as one last piece of inspiration for my effort to restructure my life in a positive way. I was deeply impressed by Mr. Oliver’s commitment to organic farming. His decision to use highly labor-intensive farming practices instead of utilizing pesticides and artificial fertilizers struck me as a difficult choice that reflected his personal views and placed the health of nature above all else. Even though his neighbors were using tractors and pesticides, Mr. Oliver stood by his choice to only use organic farming practices. I admire his determination to protect his land even as one of his neighbors was purposefully letting crops fail in order to collect government checks. My experience with Mr. Oliver was the final step in my personal journey and convinced me that if he could remain strong and committed to protecting the environment around him, it was possible for all of us to make small sacrifices in our lives to better the natural world in our local areas. It also connected back to my original, more personal theme about my direct connection with the environment. Although I have found it rare to buy groceries in college, I have talked to my parents about purchasing local produce back in Pennsylvania instead of buying from the nearby supermarket.

I believe that my personal evolution during this class has caused many positive changes in my lifestyle and that each project allowed me to develop and expand the core idea that I started with during the contemplation paper. Although I did not realize it throughout the semester, each assignment served as a yet another step in the process of changing my views about my relationship to the environment. The one aspect of this development that I found most interesting was the fact that I did not notice these changes while completing the assignments and only was able to trace this path when I sat down to write this reflection. The process of writing this current paper has helped me understand how much this course has affected my mindset in a positive way.

The class website serves as a great way to disseminate our discoveries about the environment and natural world around us. However, I believe that in certain instances the digital medium is less effective than artwork. For example, our photo essay attempted to follow the main theme illustrated by Thomas Cole from his collection of paintings known as The Course of Empire. Although we chose our images carefully and thoughtfully, I do not believe that any digital medium or print text can compare to the sheer amazement and shock that accompanies a personal viewing of the series of images. I also believe that site visits convey a personal connection not only to certain physical areas but also to thoughts and ideas tied to that place. When I interviewed Mr. Oliver, I became aware not only of his specific farm and the daily operations at Harmony Ridge, but also of the CSA movement in general and the need to support local agriculture. Our digital presentation of the interview does not even begin to cover many of his ideas and goals that can only be experienced by visiting the farm. The idea to make a commercial in addition to the documentary film appeals to me because it would prompt people to visit the farm in person and undergo the same experience that I did, which I think is incredibly beneficial (and at the very least a relaxing and enjoyable experience—Mr. Oliver was very fun to talk to). However, the place studies and interactive map are a great way to educate people about the local areas around themselves and show standard buildings or locations from a radically different point of view.

I hope that our website is able to better the public’s understanding of its local environment and bring the attention of the masses to the issue of environmental sustainability. Our website contains major potential to change people’s attitudes and create a positive change for the future.

Christiaan Honig (Spring 2014)