UW News

October 10, 2023

“Ways of Knowing” Episode 4: Environmental Humanities

Centuries ago, writers depicted the natural world as terrifying and dangerous, no place for humans. But that fear, in the decades to come, gradually turned to appreciation, awe and joy, for poets and artists, sightseers and backpackers.

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Ways of Knowing

The World According to Sound

Episode 4

Environmental Humanities




[person reads lines of a poem in French]


Ce que j’ai dit des Montagnes, ameine

Joye et profit a cete vie humeine.

Mais le bon eur de l’homme et special

A sa nature, est d’estre social

C’est l’homme seul, qui rend le lieu spectable,

Non pas le lieu, qui rend…



Sam Harnett: This is “La Savoye,” a poem published by Jacques Peletier du Mans in 1572.


[person continues reading poem in French]


SH: It’s a long poem about the Savoy region in the French Alps, a place that has become prized for its beauty. Millions visit every year to see the nature Peletier wrote about.


[person continues reading poem in French]


Louisa Mackenzie: He’s describing the experience of going for a long walk in the mountains after a spring rain.


SH: Louisa Mackenzie, associate professor of comparative history of ideas at the University of Washington. She studies Peletier’s unorthodox wilderness writing.


LM: What this poet says about mountains is that actually humans don’t belong there.


SH: Peletier is emphatic about that.


LM: Don’t go up there. It’s dangerous, it’s terrifying, stay put, stay in your place; God created these mounts to be a barrier, and you should respect that.


SH: To Peletier, this nature is far from beautiful.


LM: These words I’ve circled mean ruinous, outrageous, inhospitable and proud, horrible, passersby are drowning, deceptive; un horreur bruitive means a really loud horrible experience; effrayer is extreme fear. Horrible, furieuse is horrible and hideous. There is a whole semantic field of fear and extremely loud noise that he associates with being in the mountains, which I think just reinforces this idea that you shall not pass.


SH: At the time in Europe, this was not at all an unusual way to feel about the mountains of Savoy — or any other wild place for that matter.


LM: This was fairly standard understanding of what we would call wilderness. It has been delineated from human activity for a reason. Chances are, hundreds of years ago it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to go hiking in the mountains for pleasure, which is sort of what interests me, is, is that it is not always eternally a given that human beings are going to find certain kinds of landscape attractive, beautiful.


SH: What is unusual about Peletier’s descriptions of the mountains is that he even chose to describe them at all.


LM: It is one of the few instances that I found in the whole period where a poet, or a writer of any genre, tries to describe a mountain.


SH: Instead, poets in 16th century France lauded the beauty of nature that was closer to civilization — pastoral farms, gardens, parks, hunting forests — environments that were shaped by human activity. By the end of the 18th century, that began to change. Poets still described nature as powerful, even terrifying — but also sublime, a place that reflected the depths of the human spirit. The poetry during this period sounds much different than Peletier’s writing.


[music plays]


[person reading a poem]


Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: the power is there,

The still and solemn power of many sights,

And many sounds, and much of life and death.


[person reading a second poem]


O Sun! bright face aye undefiled;

O flowers i’ the valley blooming wild;

Caverns, dim haunt of solitude;

Perfume whereby one’s step’s beguiled

Deep, deep into the somber wood;


[person reading a third poem]


The margins of the forest are beautiful,

as if painted onto the green slopes.

I walk around, and sweet peace

rewards me for the thorns

in my heart, when the mind has grown

dark, for right from the start

art and thinking have cost it pain.



SH: Those were excerpts from poems by Percy Shelley, Victor Hugo, and Friedrich Hölderlin. During this era, the contemporary Western understanding of wilderness begins to appear —wilderness is beautiful not because of what it has, but because of what it lacks: humans.



[person reading a poem]


Away, away, from men and towns,

To the wild wood and the downs—

To the silent wilderness

Where the soul need not repress

Its music lest it should not find

An echo in another’s mind,

While the touch of nature’s art

Harmonizes heart to heart.



SH: By the middle of the 20th century, the absence of humans isn’t just the defining characteristic of natural beauty…But a selling point.


[person reading an article]


While the pristine turquoise waters of Lac d’Annecy are renowned, the remote massif of Les Bauges, which rises to its west and south, is one of the least-visited areas of the French Alps. The landscaping below the peaks is no less enticing…


SH: This is a description of the Savoy region from a 2021 travel article written in The Guardian.


[person continues reading the article]


… It’s perfect for wild swimming, too, and along its course and tributaries are some spectacular limestone gorges and waterfalls to explore.


SH: Louisa calls this relationship to nature, “the wilderness impulse.” People are driven to find places where they can’t see evidence of other people. That would ruin the experience…Make it less beautiful.


[person continues reading the article]


Fringed on almost all sides by great forested limestone ridges and escarpments, the interior of the Bauges feels a place apart in time as well as in geography. In summer this verdant oasis of green, cut by deep gorges and ravines, is a nature lover’s dream. 


While the peaks here may not have the height or glaciers of those farther east, they lack nothing in drama. The isolated monoliths of gleaming white limestone make for challenging but achievable hiking. Perhaps the finest for views is Mont Trélod, surrounded by ever more jagged ridges. Luckily it has one side that is a little less steep, offering a practical (although still hairy) approach, with the chance to spot rare mouflon and chamois along the way. The walk starts from the end of a narrow road above the village of La Compôte, where you can stock up on tome de bauges cheese from the farmers’ co-op. 


[music plays]


[person continues reading the article]


The climb begins through woods to the high pastures, and the summit panorama will have you planning further days on Mont Colombier or the Dent de l’Arclusaz to the south.


SH: The idea that nature is more beautiful and pure without humans is no more true than the idea that nature is scary and horrible when there are no humans around. Both are just a reflection of cultural values. In a way the contemporary understanding is the most problematic because it suggests that nature has some pure, essential value. It hides the role humans play in deciding what nature is beautiful and what is not.


LM: Nature is always already cultural. We’ll always bring our human perceptual filters to whatever nonhuman elements we’re interacting with. And perhaps the ethical stance is to really embrace and understand that interaction rather than try to distance ourselves from it and assume there is a relationship to the nonhuman world that can somehow bypass our human existence.


SH: Natural beauty is not a fixed idea. What’s terrifying to a 16th century poet is sublime to a 19th century romantic, and a spot for a good hike to a 21st century tourist.


[music plays]


SH: Louisa’s work is in the intellectual tradition of environmental humanities, a discipline that gained steam in the ‘70s and ‘80s and became its own field of study in the early 2000s. It’s one of many theoretical frameworks in the humanities where you’re trying to understand the world through a specific lens, similar to Black studies or disability studies. In the case of environmental humanities, the lens is the relationship of humans to the environment. Much of the work, like Louisa’s, is looking at how humans depict the environment in cultural productions like art and literature.



SH: Here are five texts that will help you learn more about Environmental Humanities as a way of knowing.


“What is Nature?” by Kate Soper


This 1995 text is a classic introduction to the discipline. It outlines the historical and philosophical roots of contemporary understandings and conceptions of nature.


“The Future of Environmental Criticism” by Lawrence Buell


Here’s another essential text from a foundational thinker in the field. Buell has published several books, each of which constitutes a snapshot on the state and evolution of the field since the 1990s. Buell has critiqued how the “first wave” of ecocriticism didn’t take into account how different human social positions – gender, race, class, geopolitics – affected views and relations with the natural world. This book traces the evolution of ecocriticism and how the field has grown to include these perspectives.


“Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature” by William Cronon


Cronon critiques the contemporary wilderness impulse and how it could be making us more intolerant of each other in a way that’s not good for society or for nature. His book is a landmark work cited by almost every subsequent critique of wilderness ideals.


“The Poetry of Place” by Louisa Mackenzie


Louisa’s book is one of relatively few book-length studies in English of Renaissance French poetry.


“Lyrics of the French Renaissance”


And finally, if you want more French Renaissance poetry itself, this is a collection of English translations, along with an accessible introduction and overview of the period and its poetry.



Chris Hoff: Ways of Knowing is a production of The World According to Sound. This season is about the different interpretative and analytical methods in the humanities. It was made in collaboration with the University of Washington and its College of Arts & Sciences. All the interviews with UW faculty were conducted on campus in Seattle. Music provided by Ketsa, Chad Crouch and our friends, Matmos.


SH: The World According to Sound is made by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett.






Louisa Mackenzie, associate professor of Comparative History of Ideas

Louisa Mackenzie, associate professor of Comparative History of Ideas

Louisa Mackenzie, associate professor of comparative history of ideas at the University of Washington, describes how the view of nature has evolved. What was once frightening is now enticing – what Mackenzie calls the “wilderness impulse.” In her translation of “La Savoie,” a 16th century poem by Jacques Peletier du Mans, the French Alps are ruinous and horrible; that same region of the Alps, according to a 21st century article in “The Guardian,” is “perfect” for exploring. The fewer people around, so goes the wilderness impulse, the more beautiful a place is.

This is the fourth of eight episodes of “Ways of Knowing,” a podcast highlighting how studies of the humanities can reflect everyday life. Through a partnership between The World According to Sound and the University of Washington, each episode features a faculty member from the UW College of Arts & Sciences, the work that inspires them, and suggested resources for learning more about the topic.

Snow covered mountains

Picture of SavoieWikipedia



Next | Episode 5: Disability Studies