A new leaf


Has Robert Pogue Harrison turned over a new leaf?  The author whose professorial terroir is the Italian lyric, Renaissance Humanism, Dante, Pirandello, Vico, and the Baroque,  has written two pieces for New York Review of Books this year, but the topics are rather a surprise:  “The Ecstasy of John Muir” (March 12, 2009) and “A Great Conservationist, by Jingo” (November 5, 2009).  Blustering Teddy Roosevelt and the Sierra Nevada’s conservationist Muir?

It’s not as far-fetched as one might think, Harrison says, noting he is the author of Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, The Dominion of the Dead, and last year’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.

“The fact is that my work – Forests, Dominion of the Dead, Gardens – is a trilogy united around theme of earth, humus, nature and culture,” he said.

“Thoreau actually figures quite prominently in Forests and Dominion of the Dead.  My interest in the  American

Harrison as DJ (Photo by L.A. Cicero)

idea of nature was well-known to them” — that is, to the editors at the NYRB.  “It’s not completely out of the blue.”

In any case, Harrison thinks scholars in the humanities should have more than one string in their lute: “I know a lot more than Italian literature.  We have to know whole story – we’re not scientists with just a sliver of knowledge.  If you know Dante, you know the whole damn story.”

From his November 5 piece:  “…how long it took for many Americans to consider America’s nature as their own, to see it as a gift to be received and not as a wilderness to be feared or a resource to be plundered. One of the hardest lessons for Americans to learn is how to receive, perhaps because we believe so fervently in earning, or perhaps because we have a long history of merely taking, if not grabbing. Perhaps Robert Frost had it wrong in his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’ when he wrote: ‘the land was ours before we were the land’s.’ What if you first have to feel that you belong to the land before you can feel that the land belongs to you?”

(By the by, Harrison has launched a new season of his weekly radio talk show, Entitled Opinions, on Stanford’s radio station KZSU FM 90.1.  All the programs are available on the website. You can listen online at noon on Tuesdays by going to the KZSU website and following the link to “listen live.”)

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