ASLE Comes to Spartanburg

The summer of 1997 I traveled west to Missoula, Montana to take part in a panel on “Southern Nature Writing” at a biennial conference of an emerging academic group called ASLE (The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment). When I received the invitation the group was new to me, but a little research showed ASLE had met once, two summers before, in Fort Collins, Colorado.

A friend in Spartanburg, a Converse College professor who wrote about early naturalists, was a founding ASLE member and he explained organization was mostly young English professors like him who didn’t fit so easily at the other academic meetings, job markets, and cocktail parties. They were helping define the emerging area known as “eco-criticism.” Their interests were often the nature writers from Thoreau to Barry Lopez and they liked to hike, paddle, and argue about environmental issues and policy. Some of them (like me) wrote nature essays, and there were even a few scientists hanging around at the sessions to set the humanities types straight about the natural world when they wandered too far into metaphor and post-modernism.

When I arrived in Missoula I felt as if I had found my tribe. I’ve been a member of the organization ever since and haven’t missed a conference. Since Missoula they’ve met in Kalamazoo, Michigan; Flagstaff, Arizona; Boston; and Eugene, Oregon. The organization has grown from a hundred to well over a thousand. There are now ASLE international affiliates in Canada, India, Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, and Europe

And this year’s conference? It happened right here, Spartanburg, South Carolina. With my co-conference organizer, Wofford biologist Ellen Goldey, we hosted an intimate and exciting program like nothing ASLE has ever seen before.

On June 12th almost 500 ASLE members descended on our fair city. They stayed in the Marriott, the Inn on Main, and in Wofford dorms. Some even stayed in a tent village on Wofford’s frat row.

They ate wings on the square, drank local beer in the bars and cafes. They walked our city streets wearing their name tags and carrying ASLE tote bags.

On Tuesday night our progressive mayor Bill Barnet got to address the crowd and informed our visitors about Spartanburg’s hopeful present and expanding future. Bill McKibben, the recent founder of the organization “Step it Up 2007” and one of the first to write about climate change, was our keynote. His flight was grounded by thunderstorms and he drove from Charlotte an hour to make the meeting. He delivered a passionate talk.

On Wednesday morning Wofford’s magnetic president Bernie Dunlap read a poem and everyone to our campus. That evening Fred Chappell read nature poetry. Later in the week there was a panel on Hurricane Katrina, featuring a novelist and historian, and one on the coastal Carolinas, featuring writers and an activist, and another on a new book called “Home Ground,” featuring writers discussing rare and endangered landscape words. There was a photo exhibit on mountaintop removal.

During the conference field trips visited the ReGenesis Project, Hatcher Gardens, walked downtown Spartanburg, and toured our “green” buildings, and went up the Saluda Grade to explore Carl Sanburg’s home.

For a week Spartanburg probably had more vegetarians and vegans than it’s ever seen before, and Thoreau scholars walked the streets, and post-colonial ecocritics ate cheeseburgers and fried bologna sandwiches at Ike’s. I heard somebody downtown say that this group looked more like a Phish concert than a convention.

I loved having my tribe close at hand-close enough to rub elbows with my home-town friends, family, and colleagues.

Now it’s over. Why was ASLE so important to Spartanburg? Because it places us at the center of important conversations that have never really been very public here before-global climate change, biodiversity, the fragile relationship between nature and culture-and it allowed for us to hear some of the best and the brightest discuss it all.

It also let us put our best foot forward. Arthur Cleveland’s vision put the Marriott in place. Now we need to continue bringing the world to Spartanburg. We’ll charm them-just like we did for a week with ASLE.

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