by Jacoba Mendelkow

At the beginning of this millennium, scientists sometimes took opposing stances on key environmental issues. These challenges—global climate change, disappearing species, and natural resource preservation— created strong divisions, especially among those with different academic, cultural, and political backgrounds.

In response to this conflict, Paul Crumbley and Melody Graulich, two English professors at Utah State University, decided they’d like to begin a conversation about the future of the Earth and talk about the environment from both scientific and humanistic perspectives, in the hopes of finding a “common language.” They invited experts from numerous disciplines to Utah State’s 2002 O. C. Tanner Symposium and asked them to share their insights. Crumbley and Graulich combined the presentations from the symposium into the book The Search for a Common Language, published by USU Press in 2005.

“The book was a direct result of the symposium,” said Crumbley. “The plan was to bring together people from multiple disciplines to discuss how best to address the growing environmental crisis.” Thus grew the symposium, where each day included major presentations, discussion sessions, and readings, nearly all of which are included in Crumbley and Graulich’s volume.

The Search for a Common Language tells the multidisciplinary story of a world in crisis and proposes solutions to vexing problems. Each author brings his or her expertise to bear on the questions that we as human beings need answered about the planet on which we all rest our feet. A combination of scientific expertise and artistic sensitivity provided by these writers fills the pages of this book: poetry by Utah’s former poet laureate and USU emeritus faculty member Ken Brewer; nature writing by Robert Michael Pyle, who was invited to teach nature writing courses during the symposium; scientific insight by Hartmut Grassl, a member of the Max-Planck-Institute für Meteorologie in Hamburg, Germany, who advocated for government support of global research on climate change; and a final piece by noted American Indian author Louis Owens, who wrote that we must remember “the shelters we build, the footprints we leave, the very thoughts that form within and around us are natural and acceptable and even, at times, beautiful strands woven into the natural fabric.”

It is this “natural fabric” and the tying together of disciplines and people that allowed for the creation of the symposium itself, which “grew from a desire to develop ties between American studies and natural resources for students interested in both fields,” said Graulich. “USU was ahead of the curve in developing a relationship between these disciplines.”

The Search for a Common Language is a text that Graulich and Crumbley envisioned for use in classrooms for all varieties of students. The pieces are short; they can be read in a single sitting; and because they were first conceived as talks for a broad audience, according to Crumbley, they are easily digestible.

Both Graulich and Crumbley found their editorial experience on the Common Language project to be different from other books they had authored. “Being an editor, you have a lot less control,” said Crumbley. “You can recommend changes, but the contributor has the last word.” And Graulich agrees: “Turning a project like [the symposium] into a book is a lot of work.” This is especially true when the essays within the book itself were created as presentations. Crumbley says this was one of the most difficult parts of the editing process—working with authors to evolve performance into a readable text (especially when the Symposium was over, and the speakers had gone on to other commitments).

Although Graulich has continued to serve as the director of the biennial O. C. Tanner Symposium (which covers a spectrum of topics from alternative medicine to the Beat culture of the 1950s), she doesn’t yet see another book in the future. Instead, she is working to put presentations from 2008’s symposium on Latino contributions to U.S. culture into podcasts for classroom and scholarly use.

Graulich is currently the director of American Studies for graduate students in English and the editor of Western American Literature, the quarterly publication of the Western Literature Association. Additionally, she is involved in various symposia to discuss the work and contributions of Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author with strong ties to Utah on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Other notable and key participants in these commemorative events include former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit, Governor Jon Huntsman, and writers Wendell Berry and Terry Tempest Williams.

Crumbley is the director of American Studies for undergraduate students and the faculty mentor for undergraduate and graduate students studying USU alumnus and poet May Swenson. He is also the book review editor at Western American Literature.