Can an environmental reading group make a difference?

A botanist’s view of the center of the universe (Richard S. Felger) involves some Latin names like Proboscidea altheifolia and Euphorbia albomarginata, which we would call devil’s claw and rattlesnake weed. Some of the writing might be viewed as dry by some, but it is also a relief sometimes to simply be told what a pack rat hoards, or why deserts have few vines, and how to name the trees.

We are in ERead, Rice’s environmental reading group, and we’ve been meeting weekly for about 15 years. Right now we meet in Anderson Biology Building in room 211, and you are welcome to come. Just email for the short reading, and bring your lunch. Andrea Galindo is our wonderful coordinator who picks some of the readings. Lisa Slappey is the only person at Rice in environmental literature, and she teaches a course a semester. The rest of the time she sells the best Persian rugs in town, at Pride of Persia and teaches about them too in Rice’s Continuing Studies program.

The group has had a lot of members come and go from Rice and elsewhere. We miss the passing of Walter Isle, who brought environmental literature to Rice. Paul Harcombe was the expert on the Big Thicket, but now he’s moved to Corvallis Oregon, putting to practice simple, sound living. We’ve met all over the place too. We started, I believe, in the private dining room of Baker College, the oldest. We’ve also met in Wiess, McMurtry, in the student center, and now in EEB.

We are faculty, from chemistry to sociology, students, alums, and interested community members, including a federal judge. We all care about the environment, and want to learn and act.

The unofficial leader of the group, someone who has read and is expert on a marvelous swath of environmental literature is Ron Parry. He’s a chemistry prof at Rice, but you’d never guess it in the reading group. He follows the literature, the blogs, and the desert, above all else. We have read Ed Abbey, of course, and pondered Desert Solitaire, wondering at the power of the writing, annoyed at the misogyny. We’ve also read Craig Childs’s Secret knowledge of water, Jack Turner’s Abstract Wild, and Doug Peacock, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Ellen Meloy, James Hamilton-Paterson, and many others.

We also read political articles, and straight science. We’re planning on reading the latest on climate change in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And we wonder. What can we do? We’re living in the USA and we consume too much, just like you do. We can bike to work, but that is offset by our air travel. We can eat down on the food chain. We wonder if local or bulk really saves the most in energy costs. Individually, we write our mostly pathetic Texas legislators, hoping for cleaner air, more places to get back to nature. We eat our lunches, and no, they are not vegan. Like us, they are a swath across America, and I won’t tell you who comes with Chick Fil-A more often than not. You’ll have to come see for yourself.

We read, we meet, we argue, we talk, we’ve done this for ages, and I’ll miss it in St. Louis.


Andrea Galindo, CSES coordinator.


Lisa Slappey, English Professor, and Persian rug pro.


Ron Parry, right, and Philip Queller

Walter's table.jpg

Walter Isle in the light yellow shirt at a party after his wife, Pam Walker’s book signing.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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