Nature Resources

September 30, 2016

“We do not organize education the way we sense the world. If we did, we would have departments of Sky, Landscapes, Water, Wind, Sounds, Time, Seashores, Swamps and Rivers.” - David Orr, Author of Ecological Literacy

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

Merriam-Webster defines nature as: the physical world and everything that is not made by people. It also says, however, that nature can be: the way that a person or animal behaves. This addition, makes us wonder how much of our behavior is made by us, which would, according to Merriam-Webster, imply that our behavior is both natural and artificial. Understanding nature versus artifice sounds straightforward, that is, until you try. In the Syntopicon, Mortimer Adler writes, “The conception of nature which tries to separate the natural from what man contributes seems to depend upon the conception of man. Controversies concerning man's difference from other animals, especially the dispute about human freedom (considered in such chapters as Man and Will), bear directly on the issue of the naturalness of the things which result from man's doing and making.” Man simultaneously acts upon nature both internal and external to himself.

Vitamin N, a new book by Richard Louv, also tries to understand nature through immersion. He claims that all humans have an inherent connection to nature and the more we step away from this aspect of ourselves, the more barren we will feel. Therefore, instead of separating man and animal (as in the Syntopicon), Louv writes,

“Defining 'nature' isn't easy. To some people, nature is everything. To other's, it's the Grand Canyon or the wren outside the window. Science has tended to leave the definition of nature up to the poets. This lack of a clear designation is one of the prime reasons why scientific research on the impact of nature on human development has been so thin until recently and that such a high proportion of current research is funded by commercial interests.
“Here's one working definition of nature: biodiversity. That definition may not include, say, rocks – at least not directly – but it does describe the process: in order to survive, life needs other life, and it needs variety.”

He continues to claim that the more interaction with nature, the higher the satisfaction and sense of well-being one feels. Nature fills a primal need within us, one that we may not yet be aware of or able to understand. Furthermore, nature filters into nearly every view of ourselves as human beings. It is relevant when discussing our biology, psychology, creativity, imagination and religious structures. Louv continues: “Most religious traditions, especially in indigenous cultures, intimate or actively offer ways to discover the divine in the natural world.” Therefore, humans may be better able to understand their own nature while walking in nature. Added to that, physically moving in nature often improves memory and clarity of thought.

While a discussion of nature can quickly overwhelm, Vitamin N gives simple ways of interacting with nature. His book demonstrates that nature, while daunting, impressive and ubiquitous, is also necessary, energizing, thrilling and restorative. It is filled with ideas for all levels to gain access to nature. In it, he writes of a “hybrid mind” in which one can access nature to their own level, using both technology and the outdoors. Therefore, no one is left out or obstructed. Simply step into nature to the extent that it pleases you.

Therefore, coinciding with the National Parks 100th anniversary, I thought it fitting to place a couple of resources mentioned in Louv's book on today's blog. His book proposes many other ideas, 500 to be exact. There are also excellent suggestions for getting children involved with nature. For more from Richard Louv visit his website.


“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” - Crowfoot, Chief of the Siksika First Nation, 1890


Understanding Land Ethics from the master himself, visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation for more information:

Humans need to interact with nature, but wonder how to do so without changing it. Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics studies the same things:

Humans are always interested in navigation – internal and external – as a way of locating ourselves. Find out more about celestial navigation and navigation in general from AMC, Appalachian Mountain Club:

The National Audubon Society's tips for getting outdoors:

If you have no time or place to garden, create a seed bomb (try sticking to plants that are native to the region):

Create, volunteer or learn about Homegrown National Parks:

Learn about nature firsthand – from your own surroundings. Be aware of the first buds, birds or insects in your area each year. Check out National Phenology Network to understand more:

Help for teachers and parents of K-12 from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Learn all about hiking from the American Hiking Society. There are also volunteer opportunities:

Become an environmental education advocate through the North American Association for Environmental Education:

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Why the Syntopicon?

December 18, 2015

In the Preface to Genius, literary critic and professor Harold Bloom asserts the existence of and need for a discussion of genius. In the book, Bloom describes one hundred different voices in which he finds an element of genius, of creation. He writes, “Talent cannot originate, genius must.” These authors are considered geniuses because they created something where nothing existed before. Vergil, for example, ordered the Roman world, which adhered to the ideas presented in the Aeneid for centuries (and it still informs our worldview). Shakespeare used bits of foundational texts and contexts (like the Bible) to weave an actual, physical, present character of humanity in a way that no one before (or since) has. These are creators.

Bloom believes that these authors live for us because they have created something unmatched, something that pulls at us in an important and vital way. He writes, “We all know the empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such fictions become period pieces.... It is worth knowing that our word 'character' still possesses as a primary meaning, a graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word's likely origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or mark of the stylus's incisions. Our modern word 'character' also means ethos, a habitual stance towards life.” Bloom readily admits that these are not the world's only geniuses. And in organizing them into a list, he has created a sort of literary canon. Harold Bloom is a man who thinks seriously about serious literature and therefore, his list is not to be taken lightly. These types of lists often offer insight into the authors that deserve a long-standing place among human tradition. The importance and relevance of this type of list cannot be overstated.

Every human functions within a context. This context enables us to navigate a world of endless possibilities and create meaning from it. It is very difficult for the mind to create meaning from chaos. Present within chaos are strands of importance and strands of distraction. In the Preface, Bloom explains that he chose these literary giants because they have important, meaningful messages that discuss the path of humanity. They deserve our time and study. He writes, “The study of mediocrity, whatever its origins, breeds mediocrity. Thomas Mann, descendant of furniture manufacturers, prophesied that his Joseph-tetralogy would last because it was well-made. We do not accept tables and chairs whose legs fall off, no matter who carpentered them, but we urge the young to study mediocre writings, with no legs to sustain them.” In other words, some literature may benefit us more than others and it is an important, valid discussion to ensure that we are discussing the important texts.

Everyone would probably agree with this statement, yet it is difficult to get everyone to agree on any exact list. Of course, literature serves many purposes. There are light books, enjoyable reads, difficult texts, terminology-laded texts and varieties of genres from science-fiction to romance. Everything may serve a purpose and may fit a specific moment. However, if we are talking about the path of human intelligence, then there are works that require more thought and understanding and, for this reason, deserve more of our time.

Harrison MIddleton University chose to study The Great Books, another example of a canon, because it incorporates so many ideas across so many genres. These canons are simply attempts by serious men and women to maintain a list of what is important to human history. Dissent is understandable: so many legitimate voices arguing for so many legitimate pieces of literature. As with Bloom's Genius, the Syntopicon's Introduction tells us that 102 ideas is just about as much as can logically be held together and distributed, but should not be considered a sum total of all ideas. It is possible that both Bloom and Mortimer Adler had similar ideas when creating their canons (many of which overlap): that their scholarship might lead to more enlightened scholarship in decades and centuries to come. Of course, this is always the hope.

At Harrison Middleton University, we pursue the Great Books and great ideas because we too want to understand major arguments. We delve deeply into texts, we discuss these texts and we gain immeasurable results. Adler's 102 ideas form a foundation from which we leap, enabled by many voices, both ancient and new. We embrace conversation and study with purpose and energy.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Comparisons, Intersections and Margins

July 10, 2015

Comparative Literature is an intellectual field that requires a combination of research from more than one disparate fields. It is interesting to think about Comp Lit in relation to the Great Books. Mortimer Adler created the Great Ideas in hopes of having a searchable, navigable reference when looking at big issues that affect human civilization. Big ideas are, generally, generated by those facing a big problem. Therefore, solutions generally fit a specific issue at a specific time and involve a specific population. Each solution will offer information which may enable us to find better and better solutions as we learn the full argument. Likewise, the field of Comparative Literature arose in the nineteenth century at a time when intellectuals' began to inquire about the best types of literature for reading and education. These intellectuals were interested in man's transition from the existence of solitary family units to city dwellers and citizens. Comparative Literature, much like the Great Books, then, is a study of transitions.

In the twentieth century, Mortimer Adler first introduced the Great Ideas to the world. He worked for ten years to understand and trace the Great Ideas through all of western literature. From there, Encyclopaedia Britannica published Adler's extensive (and expensive) Syntopicon. With this rigourous endeavor, Adler was attempting to solve a problem that Francis Bacon had pointed out much earlier. Bacon (among others) had noted that large topics of discussion centered around specific arguments which were essentially the same, but these could be difficult to trace due to the every changing terminology. Bacon also believed that to understand the idea, one must come to terms with all possible sides of an argument. Bacon states, “I understand those differences of opinions touching the principles of nature, and the fundamental points of the same, which have caused the diversity of sects, schools, and philosophies, as that of Empedocles, Pythagoras, Democritus, Parmenides, and the rest...yet to those that seek truth and not magistrality, it cannot but seem a matter of great profit, to see before them the several opinions touching the foundations of nature” (Advancement of Learning 48). In this very same vein, Adler proposed 102 Great Ideas, traced through years of literature, philosophy, natural science and social science in order to better understand human civilization. The big questions regarding humanity may always exist and there are innumerable ways of approaching them.

Students of Comparative Literature undertake great questions from seemingly odd communities. Take, for example, the life of a mushroom, as Anna Tsing (professor at UC Santa Cruz) does in her research. She studies mushrooms with an ethnographic eye, one that gleans details about the earth and the people on it through the mushroom itself. In a recent blogpost (, she writes, “Domination, domestication, and love are deeply entangled. Home is where dependencies within and among species reach their most stifling. For all its hyped pleasure, perhaps this is not the best idea for multi-species life on earth. Consider, instead, the bounteous diversity of roadside margins. Consider mushrooms.” She instructs us to see the small as a very vital piece of the large. Much like Bacon, she believes that by focusing on details, we can build a more informed picture.

Fellow professor Mara de Gennaro discusses Tsing's mushrooms as a point of entry into the complex web of life. On a recent American Comparative Literature Association blog*, de Gennaro writes, “I want to close by reflecting on another word that very often recurs in multispecies ethnographies: 'entanglement.' With the burgeoning of transnational approaches to literary studies over the last decade and more, the metaphors we favor for challenging inequality have been changing. In Globalectics, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o asks us to imagine works of literature and orature as points on a globe where 'there is no one center; any point is equally a center' and all the points are 'balanced and related to one another by the principle of giving and receiving' (8, 61). Shu-mei Shih also advocates a 'relational method' of comparison, arguing that 'relational comparison is not a center-periphery model, as the texts form a network of relations from wherever the texts are written, read, and circulated' (96).” The challenge is to trace an argument without a center. The scholars of Comp Lit departments as well as those involved in the Great Books dialogues prove that this can be done.

Furthermore, these ideas, as generated from the question of a single mushroom's purpose, mirrors arguments made by Kimberlé Crenshaw regarding intersectionality. She states, “[T]he failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness is not simply a matter of political will, but is also due to the influence of a way of thinking about discrimination which structures politics so that struggles are categorized as singular issues. Moreover, this structure imports a descriptive and normative view of society that reinforces the status quo” (“Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race” 48). She speaks of the compoundedness of nature, the complexities of life, as it labels us, creates our communities. These scholars look to broaden our understanding of life in general, beginning with a small detail and tracing its path through to the larger picture.

Complexity is inherent to the ideas that we study. We pursue these large questions despite title, genre or form. The large questions that affect society are complicated and intermingled. Mortimer Adler understood this as he created the Syntopicon. It is not meant to be the consummation of the argument, but a single reference point from which to begin.

*Find the full article at:

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog post and scroll to the bottom.