The Limits of Environmental Writing: Thirlmere Lake, Hetch Hetchy Valley & Storm King Mountain

by Paul Kane

“Is then no nook of English ground secure/ From rash assault?” So begins William Wordsworth’s sonnet “On the Projected Kendal and Windemere Railroad”, published in 1844, the year he became Poet Laureate. Wordsworth’s protest against the railroad was ineffectual but his resistance inspired a later campaign in the 1870’s against the damming of Thirlmere Lake by the city of Manchester to increase its water supply. That effort, too, failed but it became a rallying point for environmental conservation in England. Much the same can be said for the unsuccessful attempt – led by the formidable naturalist John Muir – to stop the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913 for purposes of supplying water to southern California. In both cases, the intersection of literature and nature was crucial to the conservationist struggle, but in each instance the result was disappointing. Environmental writing and literary culture were no match for political and economic rationalism. Why then did the effort to stop the combined forces of Consolidated Edison, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Power Commission – which were bent on supplying New York City with hydroelectric power at the expense of scenic Storm King Mountain in 1965 – finally succeed? The answer to that question tells us much about effective environmental writing and organizing, and opens up questions about the limits and possibilities of literature.