A global history of literature and the environment 9781316212578, 1316212572

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A global history of literature and the environment
 9781316212578, 1316212572

Table of contents :
Title page
Copyright information
Table of contents
List of Figures
List of Contributors
Chronology of Major Works Discussed
I. Beginnings
Land of Israel/Judea
II. The Development of Humanism and the Industrial Age
Medieval and Early Modern Britain
Enlightenment and Eighteenth-Century Europe
Nineteenth-Century Europe
Nineteenth-Century North America
Nineteenth-Century Australasia
III. The Anthropocene
North America
West Africa
Human History in Environmental History/The Long Life of the Earth and Recent Appearance of Modern Humans
The Shadow of the Anthropocene
Literature and Environment
Foundation, Shape, and Structure of the Book
Organisation of Chapters
The Development of Humanism and the Industrial Age
The Anthropocene
Part I Beginnings
Chapter 1 The Natural World in Ancient Mesopotamian Literature
Chapter 2 Environments of Early Chinese and Japanese Literatures
Chapter 3 The Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible
Chapter 4 Ecopoetics and the Literature of Ancient India
An Inclusive Vision and Organic Worldview
The Literature of Early India
Upanishads - Structure and Texture
The Metaphysical Democracy
Upanishads: Dimensions of the Sacred and Cosmic
Upanishads: Toward an Aesthesis of Disownment
By Way of a Conclusion
Chapter 5 Ancient Greek Literature and the Environment:A Case Study with Pindar’s Olympian 7
Chapter 6 ‘‘Who Shall be a Sustainer?’’: Maize and Human Mediation in the Maya Popol Vuh
Chapter 7 I Invoke God, Therefore I Am: Creation’s Spirituality and Its Ecologic Impact in Islamic Texts
Monotheism, Nature Religions, and the Environment
Theoretical Debate on Monotheistic Environmental Ethics
The Shade of Pantheism
Nature’s Goodness and Creaturely Status
Creation’s Devotion to God
Ecological Impact
Kinship and Admiration
Concrete Impact
Part II The Development of Humanism and the Industrial Age
Chapter 8 ‘Viking’ Ecologies: Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge and Environmental Memory
Settlement and Society
Environment and Climate
Economy and Climate Impacts
The Climate of Iceland in Medieval Times
Early Historiography and the Development of Saga Literature in Iceland
The Sagas of Icelanders
The Sturlunga Sagas
The Bishops’ Sagas
The Legacy of the Icelandic Sagas
Chapter 9 Human Responses to the Environment in Medieval Literature
Njál’s Saga
Piers Plowman
Chapter 10 Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility
Figuring Arboreal Mobility
Globalizing Timber: Timber Famines, Traveling Botanists, and Acclimatization
André Michaux’s Transatlantic Logs
Anonymous Mobility: the Illegal Timber Market
Chapter 11 Romantic Ecology, Aboriginal Culture, and the Ideology of Improvement in British Atlantic Literature
Chapter 12 Natural History in the Anthropocene
Chapter 13 Bleak House, Liquid City: Climate to Climax in Dickens
Chapter 14 Fantastic Metabolisms: A Materialist Approach to Modern Eco-Speculative Fiction
‘Golden Age’ Science Fiction
‘New Wave’ Science Fiction
Part III The Anthropocene
Chapter 15 Climate and Culture in Australia and New Zealand
Climate Change and Extinction
Climate and Colonization
Nationalizing Climate Tropes: Burning and Felling the Landscape
Demonizing, and Re-valuing the Land
1970s: ‘Climate and Culture’ Eutrophication and the Anthropocene
1980s: Social Darwinism in a Flooded Landscape
1990s: Salt: Self as Prey in a Sterile Landscape
‘‘Singing Up Country (Despite the Anthropocene)’’
Aotearoa New Zealand: ‘‘We Oceanians’’?
Chapter 16 Modern English Fiction
Surveying the Field of Environmental Modernism
Modern Pastoral Problems and Wild Alternatives
Folded Flesh and Vibrant Matter: The Modern Self Embedded in a Dynamic Environment
Green Stories and Ambiguous Endings
Chapter 17 Ecological Thought and Literature in Europe and Germany
The Influence of Anglo-American on European Ecocriticism
The Diversity of European Ecocriticism
The Rhizomic Genealogy of European Ecological Thought
The Influence of European Ecological Thought on Contemporary Ecocriticism
The Contribution of German Literature and Philosophy to Ecological Thought
The Proto-Ecological Dimension of Literature from Fairy Tales to Romanticism
Confluences between Literature and Science
German Ecocritical Theory and International Ecocriticism
Frankfurt Critical Theory
Ecological Extensions of Critical Theory: Gernot Böhme’s Aesthetics of Nature and Ulrich Beck’s World Risk Society
Cultural Ecology
Environmental Issues in Recent German Literature
Chapter 18 From Birds and Trees to Texts: An Ecosemiotic Look at Estonian Nature Writing
Ecosemiotic Framework
Texts and Culture are Locally Situated
The Umwelt Perspective Taken into Account
Texts and Their Reception Form an Intertextual Ecosystem
Case Study: In the Western Estonian Archipelago
In the North-East Estonian Woodlands
Discussion and Conclusions
Chapter 19 Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment
Chapter 20 Rescuing Nature from the Nation: Ecocritical (Un)Consciousness in Modern Chinese Culture
Rescuing Nature from the Nation: How to Reimagine Time and Space
The Field of Life and Death: Disability, Animality, and the Nationalist Subject
Breathing under the Dome: The Essay and Documentary Film
Conclusion: Cultural and Institutional Solutions to Environmental Crisis
Chapter 21 Eating Life at a Contaminated Table: The Narrative Significance of Toxic Meals in Contemporary Japan
Chapter 22 Commodity Frontiers, Caribbean Natures, and the Aesthetics of Ecological Revolution in Trinidadian Literature
Modernization in Trinidad and the rise of Queen Cocoa
‘Capitalism Gone Mad’: The 1970s Oil Boom
Oil in the Blood: The Post-2000 Hydrocarbon Boom
Chapter 23 Petro-Violence and the Act of Bearing Witness in Contemporary Nigerian Literature
Chapter 24 Black Ants and Bones: Nehruvian Science and Third-World Environment in the Fiction of Satyajit Ray
Other Worlds
Peripheral Modernism
Third-World Utopias
Nehruvian Techno-science
Provincials in Space
Science, Fiction, Environment
Chapter 25 Brazilian Women Poets on Gender, Nature, and the Body
Gilka Machado
Arriete Vilela
Conceição Evaristo
Helena Parente Cunha
Chapter 26 Can Environmental Imagination Save the World?
Imagination vs Will
Crises of Environmental Memory
Concluding Thoughts
Further Readings
General Sources: Environmental Impact, Climate Change, the Anthropocene
Part I: Beginnings
Texts and Authors
Part II: The Development of Humanism and the Industrial Age
Texts and Authors
Part III: The Anthropocene
Texts and Authors

Citation preview


In A Global History of Literature and the Environment, an international group of scholars illustrate the immense riches of environmental writing from the earliest literary periods down to the present. It addresses ancient writings about human/animal/plant relations from India, classical Greece, Chinese and Japanese literature, the Maya Popol Vuh, Islamic texts, medieval European works, eighteenth-century and Romantic ecologies, colonial/postcolonial environmental interrelations, responses to industrialization, and the emerging literatures of the world in the present Anthropocene moment. Essays range from Trinidad to New Zealand, Estonia to Brazil. Discussion of these texts indicates a variety of ways environmental criticism can fruitfully engage literary works and cultures from every continent and every historical period. This is a uniquely varied and rich international history of environmental writing from ancient Mesopotamian and Asian works to the present. It provides a compelling account of a topic that is crucial to twenty-first-century global literary studies. john parham is Associate Head (Research) and Principal Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the Institute of Humanities & Creative Arts at the University of Worcester (UK). He has written the books Green Media and Popular Culture: An Introduction (2016) and Green Man Hopkins: Poetry and the Victorian Ecological Imagination (2010), edited The Environmental Tradition in English Literature (2002) and has co-edited Literature and Sustainability: Exploratory Essays (forthcoming). He has published extensively on ‘Victorian ecology’ (including studies of Dickens, Mill, Gaskell, and Zola) and green popular culture. louise westling taught in the English Department at the University of Oregon from 1977 to 2015 and in the Environmental Studies Program from 1996 to 2015. Among her books are Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor (1985); The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction (1996); The Logos of the Living World: Merleau-Ponty, Animals, and Language (2013); and as editor, The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment (2014).


LOUISE WESTLING University of Oregon

University Printing House, Cambridge cb2 8bs, United Kingdom One Liberty Plaza, 20th Floor, New York, ny 10006, USA 477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, vic 3207, Australia 4843/24, 2nd Floor, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, Delhi – 110002, India 79 Anson Road, #06–04/06, Singapore 079906 Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence. www.cambridge.org Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9781107102620 10.1017/9781316212578 © Cambridge University Press 2017 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published 2017 Printed in the United States of America by Sheridan Books, Inc. A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library. isbn 978-1-107-10262-0 Hardback Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party Internet websites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.


List of Figures List of Contributors Acknowledgments Chronology

page viii ix xvii xviii



Louise Westling and John Parham

part i beginnings


1 The Natural World in Ancient Mesopotamian Literature


Stephanie Dalley

2 Environments of Early Chinese and Japanese Literatures


Karen Thornber

3 The Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible


Deborah A. Green

4 Ecopoetics and the Literature of Ancient India


Murali Sivaramakrishnan

5 Ancient Greek Literature and the Environment: A Case Study with Pindar’s Olympian 7


Chris Eckerman


“Who Shall Be a Sustainer?”: Maize and Human Mediation in the Maya Popol Vuh


Allen J. Christenson

7 I Invoke God, Therefore I Am: Creation’s Spirituality and Its Ecological Impact in Islamic Texts Sarra Tlili v


Table of Contents


part ii the development of humanism and the industrial age 8 ‘Viking’ Ecologies: Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge and Environmental Memory

123 125

Steven Hartman, A.E.J. Ogilvie and Reinhard Hennig

9 Human Responses to the Environment in Medieval Literature


Gillian Rudd

10 Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility


Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook


Romantic Ecology, Aboriginal Culture, and the Ideology of Improvement in British Atlantic Literature


Kevin Hutchings

12 Natural History in the Anthropocene


Laura Dassow Walls

13 Bleak House, Liquid City: Climate to Climax in Dickens


Karen Chase and Michael Levenson

14 Fantastic Metabolisms: A Materialist Approach to Modern Eco-Speculative Fiction


Tom Sykes

part iii the anthropocene


15 Climate and Culture in Australia and New Zealand


CA. Cranston and Charles Dawson

16 Modern English Fiction


Kelly Sultzbach

17 Ecological Thought and Literature in Europe and Germany


Hubert Zapf

18 From Birds and Trees to Texts: An Ecosemiotic Look at Estonian Nature Writing


Timo Maran and Kadri Tüür

19 Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment Leo Mellor


Table of Contents 20 Rescuing Nature from the Nation: Ecocritical (Un)Consciousness in Modern Chinese Culture

vii 320

Hangping Xu

21 Eating Life at a Contaminated Table: The Narrative Significance of Toxic Meals in Contemporary Japan


Yuki Masami

22 Commodity Frontiers, Caribbean Natures, and the Aesthetics of Ecological Revolution in Trinidadian Literature


Michael Niblett

23 Petro-Violence and the Act of Bearing Witness in Contemporary Nigerian Literature


Byron Caminero-Santangelo

24 Black Ants and Bones: Nehruvian Science and Third-World Environment in the Fiction of Satyajit Ray


Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee

25 Brazilian Women Poets on Gender, Nature, and the Body


Izabel F.O. Brandão

26 Can Environmental Imagination Save the World?


Lawrence Buell

Further Readings Index

423 429


19.1. Still taken from film Nothing Stranger by Rod Mengham and Marc Atkins – vimeo.com/ channels/soundingpolefilms (2009) © Marc Atkins / marcatkins.com 19.2. Photograph by Marc Atkins, from series Vacant Histories by Marc Atkins and Rod Mengham (2013) © Marc Atkins / marcatkins.com


page 315



izabel f.o. branda˜ o is Professor of English and Brazilian Literatures at the Federal University of Alagoas (Brazil). She has edited/co-edited several books about women writers and feminist criticism and has published extensively both in Brazil and elsewhere (France, England, Italy, Spain, and the USA). Traduções da cultura (2016, forthcoming) translates articles of four decades of feminist theory and criticism (including feminist ecocriticism). Recent research work includes D.H. Lawrence and Grace Nichols. lawrence buell is Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature Emeritus at Harvard University and a pioneer of environmental literary criticism. His many books include The Environmental Imagination (1996), Writing for an Endangered World (2001), Emerson (2003), The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005), and The Dream of the Great American Novel (2014). byron caminero-santangelo is Professor of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Kansas. Recent publications include Different Shades of Green: African Literature, Environmental Justice, and Political Ecology (University of Virginia Press, 2014) and a co-edited volume entitled Environment at the Margins: Literary and Environmental Studies in Africa (Ohio University Press, 2011). karen chase is Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She is author of Eros & Psyche: The Representation of Personality in the Works of Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot (1984); George Eliot’s Middlemarch (2006); The Spectacle of Intimacy: A Public Life for the Victorian Family (2000) (co-author, Michael Levenson); Middlemarch in the Twenty-First Century (ed.); and The Victorians and Old Age (2009).



List of Contributors

allen j. christenson is Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies in the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters at Brigham Young University. His MA and PhD degrees are in Maya Art History and Literature from the University of Texas, Austin where he studied under Professor Linda Schele. He has worked as an anthropologist, linguist and art historian among the highland Maya of Guatemala since 1976. His publications include an online dictionary of the K’iche’-Maya language; Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community (2001, University of Texas Press); a two-volume critical edition of the Popol Vuh (2003, 2007, University of Oklahoma Press); and a new monograph currently in press, Bearing the Burden of the Ancients: Maya Ceremonies of WorldRenewal (2016, University of Texas Press). elizabeth heckendorn cook is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches long-eighteenth-century British literature and culture. She is currently researching the early modern history of environmental ethics for a book entitled “Talking Trees.” Recent publications include essays on the work of the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle and Swift’s mock-pastoral Market-Hill poems; the latter appeared in her co-edited volume Invaluable Trees: Cultures of Nature, 1660–1830 (2012). ca. cranston is the General Editor of AJE: Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology; was President of the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture – Australia and New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ) and convened their “Sounding the Earth” conference in 2010. Books include The Littoral Zone (2007) the first Australian collection of ecocriticism, co-edited with Robert Zeller; and Along These Lines (2000) a place-based anthology. Published chapters include “An Ecocritical Reading of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger” (2012); “Challenging Contemporary Ecocritical Place Discourses: Military Brats, Shadow Places, and Homeplace Consumerism” (2009); “Literary Ecoconsciousness” (2009); and ”Wet, in the Mindscape of the Dry” (2008). She has taught ecocritical courses in Australia, Canada, Austria, and Tamil Nadu, and is a University Associate with the University of Tasmania. stephanie dalley is an honorary Senior Research Fellow in Assyriology at the Oriental Institute and Somerville College, University of Oxford. She has a BA from Cambridge and a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London University. She has excavated extensively

List of Contributors


in the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey – and taught cuneiform Babylonian language at Edinburgh and Oxford. Among many publications are Myths from Mesopotamia (1989) and The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon (2013). charles dawson is Director of the New Zealand environment and culture programme for Minnesota’s Higher Education Consortium on Urban Affairs (HECUA). He is founding Vice President (New Zealand) of the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture – Australia and New Zealand (www.aslec-anz.asn.au). Charles worked as a policy adviser on Treaty of Waitangi relationships, and as a research analyst and inquiry facilitator at New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal. His reviews and articles on literature and the environment have appeared in North American and Australasian journals. His interest in cultural aspects of freshwater is explored most recently in the 2015 volume Ecocriticism of the Global South (ed. Scott Slovic, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, and Vidya Sarveswaran). chris eckerman is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Oregon. His research interests lie mainly in Greek lyric poetry, on which he has published a number of articles concerning cultural geography and ecocriticism, including “Pindar’s Delphi” (2014), “The Landscape and Heritage of Pindar’s Olympia” (2013), “Was Epinician Poetry Performed at Panhellenic Sanctuaries?” (2012), and “Pindar’s Pythian 6: On the Place of Performance and an Interpretive Crux” (2011). deborah a. green is Greenberg Associate Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature and Program Director of Judaic Studies at the University of Oregon. She is the author of The Aroma of Righteousness: Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and Literature (2011) and co-editor of Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context (2008) and Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination (2009). steven hartman is Professor of English at Mid Sweden University, where he also leads the Eco-Humanities Hub (ECOHUM) and chairs the Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (NIES). He coordinates the Circumpolar Networks program of IHOPE (Integrated History and Future of People on Earth), a core project of Future Earth. His most recent work focuses on mapping environmental consciousness and environmental memory in literature; integration of environmental humanities in global change research and policy; and collaboration between artists and academics in mobilizing public action on climate change.


List of Contributors

reinhard hennig holds a PhD in Scandinavian studies from the University of Bonn, Germany. Currently, he works as a postdoctoral researcher at Mid Sweden University’s Eco-Humanities Hub where he is involved in the major interdisciplinary research initiative Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas. In 2014, he published a monograph on contemporary environmental literature from Iceland and Norway (Umwelt-engagierte Literatur aus Island und Norwegen. Ein interdisziplinärer Beitrag zu den Environmental Humanities), in which he analyzes works ranging from Halldór Laxness’s provocative essay The War Against the Land (1970) to Jostein Gaarder’s climate change novel Anna (2013). Hennig’s research and other publications focus on environmental change in history and literature, the Anthropocene, contemporary literature from Northern Europe, and Old Norse literature and culture. kevin hutchings is Professor of English at the University of Northern British Columbia. His publications include Imagining Nature: Blake’s Environmental Poetics (2002), Romantic Ecologies and Colonial Cultures in the British Atlantic World 1770–1850 (2009), and (with Tim Fulford) the co-edited collection Native Americans and Anglo-American Culture 1750–1850: The Indian Atlantic (2009). He is currently completing a monograph entitled Literature, Ecology, Indigenous Governance: Transatlantic Perspectives on Upper Canada and co-editing (with John Miller) the collection Transatlantic Literary Ecologies: Nature and Culture in the Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Atlantic World. michael levenson is William B. Christian Professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of A Genealogy of Modernism (1984), Modernism and the Fate of Individuality (1990), The Spectacle of Intimacy (co-author Karen Chase 2000), and Modernism (2011); and editor of the Cambridge Companion to Modernism (2000, 2nd edition 2011). His forthcoming book, The Humanities and Everyday Life, is due from Oxford in 2017. timo maran is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia. His research interests include ecocriticism and semiotic relations of nature and culture, Estonian nature writing, zoosemiotics and species management, and semiotics of biological mimicry. His publications include Mimikri semiootika (Semiotics of Mimicry) (2008), Readings in Zoosemiotics (ed., with D. Martinelli and A. Turovski, 2011), and Semiotics in the Wild (ed., with K. Lindström, R. Magnus, and M. Tønnessen 2012). He serves as a co-editor-in-chief of the journal Biosemiotics (Springer).

List of Contributors


leo mellor is the Roma Gill Fellow in English at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. His work includes Reading the Ruins: Bombsites, Modernism and British Culture (2011), and essays on subjects ranging from autodidactism to wildflowers, and from Graham Greene to Dylan Thomas. His own poetry has been published in Britain and Germany; in 2006 he was awarded the Harper-Wood prize and spent a month travelling among the Welsh-speaking communities in Patagonia. upamanyu pablo mukherjee is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University. He teaches and researches in British imperial literatures and cultures, postcolonial literary and cultural theories, environmental studies, urban studies, and world and comparative literary theories. He is author of Crime and Empire: The Colony in Nineteenth-Century Fictions of Crime (2003), Postcolonial Environments: Nature, Culture and the Contemporary Indian Novel in English (2010), and Natural Disasters and Victorian Empire: Famines, Epidemics and Literature (2013) as well as a variety of essays, articles and book chapters. He is currently convening, with colleagues at Oxford University, King’s College, London, and the Open University, a Leverhulme Trust-funded international network project called Planned Violence: Urban Planning, Infrastructure and Literature and working on research projects on the relationship between science fiction, technoscientific policies and the ‘non-aligned’ movement and crime fiction in the Indian Ocean territories from 1890 to the 1940s. michael niblett is Assistant Professor in Modern World Literature at the University of Warwick. He is the author of The Caribbean Novel since 1945 (2012) and co-editor of Perspectives on the ‘Other America’: Comparative Approaches to Caribbean and Latin American Culture (2009). A new co-edited collection, The Caribbean: Aesthetics, WorldEcology, Politics, is forthcoming with Liverpool University Press. astrid e.j. ogilvie is a climate and environmental historian and human ecologist. Research interests include: impacts of past and present climate change in Arctic and Subarctic regions; literary and historical sources from Iceland; environmental humanities; historical climatology and syntheses of climate proxy records. She is a Senior Affiliate Scientist at the Stefansson Arctic Institute, Akureyri, Iceland, a Fellow of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado, USA, and at the time of writing is a Visiting Professor at Mid Sweden University.


List of Contributors

john parham is Associate Head (Research) and Principal Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the Institute of Humanities & Creative Arts at the University of Worcester. He has written the books Green Media and Popular Culture: An Introduction (2016) and Green Man Hopkins: Poetry and the Victorian Ecological Imagination (2010). John has published extensively on ‘Victorian ecology’ (including studies of Dickens, Mill, Gaskell, and Zola) and green popular culture and is co-editor of the Routledge journal Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism. He also edited The Environmental Tradition in English Literature (2002). gillian rudd is Professor of English at the University of Liverpool, where, amongst other things, she teaches medieval literature. Her publications include Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (2007); articles on mice (YES 36:1, 2006), clouds (Essays and Studies 2008: Literature and Science), and flowers (The Oxford Handbook to Medieval Literature, 2010), various pieces on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and ‘Animalia’, a paper colloquium for Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34 (2012). murali sivaramakrishnan is Professor in the Department of English, Pondicherry University. A painter and poet, he is the Founder President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment in India (ASLE India), and author of several books on aesthetics and literature and five volumes of poetry. A pioneer of Indian ecocriticism, his work includes Nature and Human Nature (2009) and Ecological Criticism for Our Times (2011). Murali was awarded the Life-Time Achievement Award for literature by GIEWEC, Guild of Indian English Writers, Editors and Critics, in 2014. kelly sultzbach is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Her forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press is Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination: Forster, Woolf, and Auden. She has a forthcoming chapter on transAtlantic modernism and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Bloomsbury Academic Press’s Understanding Merleau-Ponty, Understanding Modernism, in addition to ecocritical articles on Eudora Welty in The Southern Literary Journal, and Christina Rossetti in a special issue of the United Kingdom’s Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism. tom sykes is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth, UK. His research interests include ecological science fiction, Marxist literary theory, Filipino literature and culture, psychogeography

List of Contributors


and travel writing. For ten years he has been a jobbing journalist and writer of creative nonfiction, publishing in The London Telegraph, New Internationalist, Red Pepper, New African, London Magazine and many other journals around the world. karen thornber is Professor of Comparative Literature and of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. She is the author of Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature (2009) and Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures (2012), in addition to many articles and book chapters on Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese literatures, as well as comparative and world literature, gender, postcolonialism, transculturation, trauma, and the environmental and medical humanities. She is also editor of World Literature and Health (2013) and translator of Toge Sankichi and Poems of the Atomic Bomb (2012). sarra tlili is Associate Professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Florida. She is the author of Animals in the Qur’an (2012). Her other publications include “The Meaning of the Qur’anic Word ‘dābba’: ‘Animals or Nonhuman Animals’?”, “All Animals Are Equal, or Are They? The Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ’s Animal Epistle and its Unhappy End,” and “Animals Would Follow Shāfiʿism: Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence to Animals in Medieval Islamic Thought.” kadri tu¨ u¨ r is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Culture Studies and Arts, University of Tartu, Estonia. She has edited collections and published articles on Estonian nature writing and ecosemiotics. Recently, she co-edited the collection The Semiotics of Animal Representations (2014) with Morten Tønnessen. laura dassow walls is William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, where she is also affiliated with the History and Philosophy of Science Graduate Program. She has written extensively on Thoreau, Emerson, and related figures, with a particular interest in American Transcendentalism and in the intersections of literature and science. Her first book was Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (1995); her most recent book, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (2009), won the James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Language Association and the Organization of American Historians’ Merle Curti Award. Currently she is completing her biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life, forthcoming in 2017.


List of Contributors

louise westling is Professor Emerita of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon. She was a founding member of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and was its president in 1998. Author of many recent articles on ecophenomenology, animal studies, and literature, she has written The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction (1996) and The Logos of the Living World: Merleau-Ponty, Animals, and Language (2013), and edited The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment (2014). hangping xu is a PhD candidate at Stanford University, where he primarily researches modern Chinese literature and comparative literature, and he holds a PhD minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. He is currently completing his dissertation entitled “Vulnerable Bodies as Agents: Disability Aesthetics and Politics in Modern Chinese Culture.” yuki masami is Professor of English, Ecocriticism, and Comparative Literature at Kanazawa University. She has been publishing books and articles on environmental literature with special focus on topics such as literary soundscapes, urban nature, discourses on food and toxicity, and cultural–natural environments called ‘satoyama.’ Her books include Foodscapes of Contemporary Japanese Women Writers (2015) and (co-edited) Ishimure Michiko’s Writing in Ecocritical Perspective (2016). She is currently President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment in Japan (ASLE-Japan). hubert zapf is Professor and Chair of American Literature at the University of Augsburg. His main areas of research are literature and cultural ecology, English and American literature, literary history, literary and cultural theory. Besides numerous articles, he is author of Literatur als kulturelle Ökologie (2002); and editor of Literature and Ecology, Special Issue of Anglia, 124, 1 (2006); Kulturökologie und Literatur. Ein transdisziplinäres Paradigma der Literaturwissenschaft (2008); Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte (3rd edition, 2010); American Studies Today: New Research Agendas (co-ed.); Literature and Science: Special Issue of Anglia, 133, 1 (2015); and Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology (2016). His monograph Literature as Cultural Ecology: Sustainable Texts was published in 2016.


We would like to thank our Senior Commissioning Editor, Ray Ryan, at Cambridge University Press for advocating and supporting this book. We would also like to thank the following for their support: Lorenza Toffolon and Edgar Mendez at Cambridge University Press; our copyeditor, Ken Moxham; and Alex Diaconescu for, as always, a meticulous and wellinformed index. We would like to acknowledge support provided, in the production of the index, by the Institute of Humanities & Creative Arts at the University of Worcester, UK. Lastly, of course, we wish to thank all of our authors who gave us the benefit of their learning and contributed to what is (in deep time and global space) an astonishingly wide-ranging volume.


Chronology of Major Works Discussed

I. Beginnings (Dates for ancient literary texts are approximate, since most were oral for centuries before being written down. Even later written versions went through many forms as cultures developed.) Australasia 25,000 BCE – the present Dreamtime stories/songlines of indigenous Australian and New Zealand peoples preserve memories of major geological transformations from volcanic eruptions to rising and falling sea levels. Mesopotamia c. 2600 BCE c. 2100 BCE

c. 2000 BCE c. 1700 BCE 714 BCE

Earliest Sumerian writings Sumerian stories of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BCE Early versions of Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 1200 BCE ‘Standard’ Babylonian version of Epic of Gilgamesh) Sumerian Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis Letter of Sargon II King of Assyria Egypt

2100–1700 BCE

Narrative literature created China

1045–221 BCE 206 BCE–220 CE

Shijing (Classic of Poetry) Han Dynasty poetry of cities and royal palaces xviii

Chronology 222–589 CE 618–907 772–1101 1368–1912


Six Dynasties poetry of landscapes Tang Dynasty poetry by writers such as Du Fu and Liu Zongyuan Tang and Sung Dynasties imperial poets Poets of Ming and Qing Dynasties Japan

712 CE 759 CE 1130–40 1212 1332 1694

Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) Konjaku monogatarishū (Tales from Times Now Past) Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki (Ten Foot Square Hut) Yoshida Kenkō, Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) Matsuo Bashō, Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) India

1500–1200 BCE

900–700 BCE 900–400 BCE 700 BCE c. 550–450 BCE

Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur-Veda, Atharva-Veda (Sanskrit scriptures and hymns passed down orally until almost the Common Era). Include the Aranyakas (Wilderness Texts or Forest Treaties) composed by recluses meditating in forests Brahmanas (originally transmitted orally for centuries, while written codification occured around 600 BCE) Mahabarata (oral transmission; authorship ascribed to Vyasa, with written versions from 400 BCE to 400 CE). Includes the earlier Bhagavad Gita Upanishads (earliest originally passed down orally, while later ones composed from around the Common Era through the medieval period) Ramayana (oral transmission; authorship attributed to Valmiki, with surviving written versions from 6th–11th centuries CE) Greece

c. 750 BCE

The Iliad and the Odyssey (transmitted orally at first; attributed to Homer)


xx c. 700 BCE c. 522–443 BCE 429 BCE 406 BCE

Theogony (attributed to Hesiod) Pindar, Odes (a Greek copy attributed to Polykleitos c. 440 BCE) Sophocles, Oedipus the King Euripides, The Bacchae Rome

8 CE

Ovid, Metamorphoses (fragments of the manuscript survive from the 9th century, but the earliest full manuscript dates from the 11th century) Land of Israel/Judea

c. 9th century BCE–post-70 CE

The Hebrew Bible (Torah: books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, final form c. 5th century BCE; books of the Prophets, c. 2nd century BCE; and Writings, 167 BCE) Mesoamerica

c. 2nd century BCE–1558 CE

Popol Vuh (K’iche’-Maya text composed in preColumbian times from probable earlier oral traditions, but texts destroyed by Spanish invaders until recreated by Maya nobles between 1554 and 1558) Arabia

c. 609–32 CE

The Qur’an or Koran (revelations to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of years until his death and compiled by companions who were scribes)

II. The Development of Humanism and the Industrial Age Iceland 1122–33 CE 12th century

Ari Thorgilsson the Learned, Íslendingabók (or Book of Icelanders) Landnámabók (or the Book of Settlements)



Sagas of the Icelanders (esp. Njál´s Saga, Laxdæla Saga, Sturlunga Saga, Egil´s Saga, Saga of HenThorir, and Saga of Bishop Guðmundur Arason)

13th century

Medieval and Early Modern Britain 1370–90 Late 14th century Late 14th century 1516

William Langland, Piers Plowman Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Pearl Thomas More, Utopia

Enlightenment and Eighteenth-Century Europe 1664 1669 1684 1733–34 1749–1804 1781 1789 1790 1792 1799 1801 1803

John Evelyn, Sylva, or, A discourse of forest trees and the propagation of timber in His Majesties dominions Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Grand Ordonnance sur le fait des eaux et forêts Aphra Behn, “On a Juniper Tree, Cut down to make Busks” Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man Louis Buffon, Histoire naturelle Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason) Gilbert White, Natural History of Selborne Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden Thomas Taylor, A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes Thomas Campbell, “The Pleasures of Hope” Andre Michaux, Histoire des chênes de l’Amérique septentrionale Flora Boreali-Americana (2 vols.) Nineteenth-Century Europe

1805–08 1807 1808 1813

Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) Alexander von Humboldt, Essay on the Geography of Plants Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust Georges Cuvier, Essay on the Theory of the Earth

xxii 1814 1830–33 1845 1845–47 1853 1859 1867 1871 1883–84 1887 1890 1899

Chronology William Wordsworth, The Excursion Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos Charles Dickens, Bleak House Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species Karl Marx, Das Kapital Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection According to Sex Wilhelm Raabe, Pfister’s Mühle W.H. Hudson, A Crystal Age William Morris, News from Nowhere Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature) Nineteenth-Century North America

c. 1809 1838 1850 1851 1854 1861 1864

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bamewawagezhikaquay), “To the Pine Tree” Anna Brownell Jameson, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada George Copway (Kahgegagahbowh), Recollections of a Forest Life George Copway, Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation Henry David Thoreau, Walden Reverend Peter Jones (Kakewaquonaby, or Sacred Feathers), History of the Ojebway Indians George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action Nineteenth-Century Australasia


1849 1859

William Wentworth, A Statistical, Historical, and Political Description of the Colony of New South Wales, etc. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, A View of the Art of Colonisation Louisa Atkinson, Cowanda, the Veteran’s Grant

Chronology 1872 1883


Samuel Butler, Erewhon W.A. Brodribb, Recollections of an Australian Squatter


The Anthropocene Australasia

1922 1938 1942 1959 1987 1990 2005 2009 2013

Alec H. Chisholm, Mateship with Birds Hilda Bridges, Men Must Live Jock H. Pick, Australia’s Dying Heart: Soil Erosion in the Inland Mary Durack, Kings in Grass Castles George Turner, The Sea and Summer Gabrielle Lord, Salt Steven Lang, An Accidental Tourist Jim Sampson, The Apocalypse Rising Alexis Wright, The Swan Book North America

1947 1957 1962 1966 1972 1993 1995 1996 1997 2004 2007 2009 2010


John W. Campbell, The Mightiest Machine Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey Rachel Carson, Silent Spring Isaac Asimov, Foundation Series: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation A.R. Ammons, Collected Poems 1951–1971 Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache Gary Paul Nabhan, Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture, and Story Michael Crichton, State of Fear Alan Weisman, The World Without Us Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History” Brett Clark, Richard York, and John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth Jeffrey Sachs, The Age of Sustainable Development

xxiv 2015

Chronology Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis: On Care for Our Common Home Europe

1916 1924 1927 1932 1933 1934 1935 1940 1944 1964

1965 1966 1971 1972 1979 1979 1986

1987 1989 1995 2004 2004

Ernst Haeckel, Die Natur als Künstlerin (Nature as Artist) E.M. Forster, A Passage to India Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse Alma Toom, Vilsandi Linnuriik (Vilsandi Bird Kingdom) Franz Xaver Graf Zedtwitz, Vogelkinder der Waikariffe (Birdlings of Vaikas) August Mälk, Lugusid lindudest (Bird Stories) Johannes Piiper, Pilte ja hääli kodumaa loodusest (Pictures and Sounds from the Nature of Homeland) Jakob von Uexküll, A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men (Eng. trans. pub. in 1957) Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l’invisible suivi de notes de travail (published in English as The Visible and the Invisible, 1968) Brian Aldiss, Earthworks Fred Jüssi, Kajakad kutsuvad (The Call of the Gulls) Michael Moorcock, The Warlord of the Air Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind Günter Grass, Die Rättin (The Rat) Max Frisch, Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (Man in the Holocene) Ulrich Beck, Risikogesellschaft (published in English as Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, 1992) Christa Wolf, Störfall (Accident) Arne Naess, Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle Gernot Böhme, Atmosphäre: Essays zur neuen Ästhetik (Atmosphere: Essays on a New Aesthetic) Frank Schätzing, Der Schwarm (The Swarm) W.S. Graham, New Collected Poems

Chronology 2005 2009 2011 2014


Alice Oswald, Woods, etc. Thomas A. Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times Peter Larkin, Give Forest its Next Portent China

1932 1933 1935 2015

Mao Dun, chunchan (Spring Silkworms) Ye Lingfeng, meiyan (“Coal Smoke”) Xiao Hong, shengsichang (The Field of Life and Death) Chai Jing, qiongding zhi xia (Under the Dome) Japan

1969/72 1975 1981 2001 2013 2014

Ishimure Michiko, Kugai jōdo (Paradise in the Sea of Suffering: Our Minamata Disease) Ariyoshi Sawako, Fukugō osen (Compound Pollution) Katō Yukiko, “Umibe gurashi” (Living by the Sea) Ogata Masato, Rowing the Eternal Sea Taguchi Randy, Zōn nite (In the Zone) Kimura Yūsuke, Seichi Cs (Sanctuary Cs) Caribbean

1907 1969 1975 1996 2011 2013

Stephen Cobham, Rupert Gray Eric Williams, Inward Hunger V.S. Naipaul, Guerrillas Earl Lovelace, Salt Earl Lovelace, Is Just a Movie Oonya Kempdoo, All Decent Animals West Africa

1992 1995 2005

Ken Saro-Wiwa, Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy Ken Saro-Wiwa, A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary Ogaga Ifowodo, The Oil Lamp

xxvi 2006 2007 2010

Chronology Kaine Agary, Yellow-Yellow Tanure Ojaide, The Tale of the Harmattan Helon Habila, Oil on Water India

1955 1961–67 1988 1998 2008

Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) Satyajit Ray, Stories in Sandesh Baldev Singh (ed.), Jawaharlel Nehru on Science and Society: A Collection of His Writings and Speech Satyajit Ray, Childhood Days Satyajit Ray, The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories Brazil

1915 1978 1989 1995 2008


Gilka Machado, Cristais partidos (Broken Crystals) Gilka Machado, Poesias completas (Complete Poems) Helena Parente Cunha, As doze cores do vermelho (The Twelve Tinges of Red) Arriete Vilela, O ócio dos anjos ignorados (The Leisure of the Forgotten Angels) Conceição Evaristo Poemas da recordação outros movimentos (Poems of Memory and Other Movements) Helena Parente Cunha, Impregnações na floresta – Poemas amazônicos (Impregnations in the Forest – Amazonian Poems)

Introduction Louise Westling and John Parham

In this millennial era, we appear to be in an ever-deepening environmental crisis. The era has been characterised as the Anthropocene in the formal geological sense of human action effecting stratigraphic change within rock formations that will be visible to future geologists. More generally, it defines a period marked by interrelated, potentially cataclysmic human environmental impacts: mass extinction, invasive species, climate change, increased atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, rising sea levels, and the dumping of nuclear or chemical waste. In that context, this volume offers a series of global literary perspectives on human relationships with the earth and its organic communities ranging from the earliest known texts to the present. Patrick Murphy’s 1998 collection of international literary treatments of nature was perhaps the first attempt in environmental criticism to offer a broad survey of global literatures, though it specifically focuses upon the last two centuries.1 The present book takes a longer, deeper literary historical perspective. While that perspective is vast, complex, and impossible to synthesise, nonetheless these essays serve as a beginning, offering representative studies that help to show how various historical and geographical perspectives on literature capture the ancient, ‘modern’, and contemporary environmental experiences that have shaped our presentday ecological awareness. These perspectives might further inform the questions that the present catastrophic moment poses for environmental history, the environmental humanities, and ecocriticism. Within a broadly chronological movement, each chapter is a discrete study but woven into a consideration of how the historical drift towards crisis has been variously experienced both in particular places and across common, intertwined, but contested spaces. We have chosen essays by experts from many global regions. These begin with scholars of ancient Mesopotamia, India, China, the Levant, Greece, and Central America. With ecocritical debates now beginning to affect those fields of study, these approaches to ancient literatures – informed by specialist archaeological 1


louise westling and john parham

and linguistic knowledge – are varied and often innovative in approach. In distinctive and instructive ways we see how these ancient cultures continued to express preliterate traditions of interaction with the natural world while at the same time responding to historical conditions and challenges such as the expansion of cities and agricultural systems. The middle part of the volume, “The Development of Humanism and the Industrial Age”, is premised upon the view that humanism/industrialism is a Western epistemology. It focuses, accordingly, on Anglophone and European literature with essays ranging from the medieval and eighteenth-century (Enlightenment) periods to the Romantic and Imperial era in an age of great naturalistic explorations. During the past several hundred years, the expansion of British and wider European colonial interests created the global industrialized system which, formulated in the environmental historian Alfred W. Crosby’s notion of “The Columbian Exchange”, has had profound environmental effects while radically disrupting traditional populations and their ways of life.2 As the British Empire grew to dominate this global colonial system, so its language and literary culture were transformed with the production of new literatures in English in North America, the Caribbean, Oceania, India, and Africa that have continued to develop and respond to environmental challenges in the postcolonial period. Consequently, the final group of essays, labelled “The Anthropocene”, concerns our present era and encompasses global environmental writings about Australia, China, Japan, India, Brazil, Africa, and the Caribbean as well as others from Europe including the UK. With ecocriticism and environmental humanities having developed markedly since their emergence in the 1990s from predominantly English-speaking and European scholarship, these contributions offer variant ways both of doing ecocriticism and of registering, narrating, and contesting what, in the entanglements of politics, economics, geological, atmospheric, and environmental change, has been and continues to be a world environmental history as well as a globalised present. Aside from the historical scope, the other predominant feature of the essays in this volume is the interdisciplinarity which has marked much of the most accomplished ecocriticism. More than a decade ago, Glen Love and Dana Phillips pointed out that the life sciences provide the most careful available attention to the ecosystems and bioregions, global climate history, and evolutionary relations among living organisms which are the matrices of cultures and political movements.3 In a similar interdisciplinary vein, a knowledge of the effects of the Black Death, the Lisbon Earthquake of 1788, or the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora helps shape our



understanding of literary works from the late medieval period and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and their wider cultural associations. Economic and political histories inflect the interpretation of genres like the English pastoral, as Raymond Williams demonstrated so forcefully.4 And archaeology, geography, or climatology can illuminate descriptions of landscapes and catastropic droughts and floods, as described in the ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian works discussed in our opening chapter. These disciplines also help contextualise the Central American environment of the Maya Popol Vuh, or reveal the Neolithic and Celtic dimensions of meaning associated with the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Accordingly, interdisciplinary engagements pervade this volume including Mesopotamian archaeology and cuneiform studies, climatological history, ecosemiotics, Hebraic and Islamic studies, Chinese political history, Japanese food studies and marine biology and toxicology, the effect of relativity theory on modernist literature, petroleum studies, the industrial history of London, landscape and gardening history, and eighteenth-century botany. Demonstrating “naturecultures” as Donna Haraway terms them, these exciting, interdisciplinary approaches symptomise and acknowledge both the ‘entanglement’ of politics or economics with environmental, global, or atmospheric change and the intertwining and interdependence of human communities within their biological and geological environments.5 The ‘history’ in this volume is therefore not a ‘history of ideas’. Rather, it is what Greg Garrard describes as the dual project of the environmental humanities: the “historicization of ecology” and the “ecologization of history”. As he continues: “just as all evolution is coevolution, all history is environmental”.6 Taken in that spirit, the wide-ranging chapters in this volume register vacillations in the conceptions of the environment that human literary culture has generated across its chronological sweep, suggesting a trajectory towards ‘crisis’ that has not been inevitable and may not be irreversible.

Human History in Environmental History/The Long Life of the Earth and Recent Appearance of Modern Humans Planet Earth has a 4.5 billion year history. Most scientists now think life appeared about 3.5 billion years ago. During the vast span of time since then the biosphere has undergone many phases of emerging species and extinctions caused by catastrophic geological and climate changes. Ninetynine per cent of all pre-existing life forms have now disappeared. In this


louise westling and john parham

panoramic geological and biological spectacle, modern humans are very recent participants. Nevertheless, their own deep history goes back millions of years to primate origins and, before that, to the evolution of mammals. Anatomically modern humans, including Neanderthals, appeared some 500,000 years ago, but only about 70,000 to 50,000 years ago did people with our full suite of behaviours and abilities emerge.7 Writing is extremely new among these behaviours – only about 5,000 years old. Drawing on evidence from geology, archaeology, genomics, and neuroscience, Daniel Lord Smail has proposed a radical deep history of humankind that includes the preliterate era in “a seamless narrative that acknowledges the full chronology of the human past”. Yet he wonders about “what possible legacies were transmitted to us from the Paleolithic” and where we might find our connection to that world.8 We suggest that these were transmitted verbally for thousands of years, that some became encoded in cave paintings and bone carvings from southern France, South Africa, and other early human sites such as the Mongolian Altai and North American Southwest before the invention of writing allowed further, fuller expression. Literary examples can be found in Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cuneiform tablets, as Stephanie Dalley’s opening chapter in this volume reveals. Other chapters, by Karen Thornber on ancient Chinese and Japanese literature and Allen Christenson on the Maya Popol Vuh, illuminate different early traditions of this kind. In such forms, human artistic behaviours are semiotic events – culturally sedimented conversations between people and the living world around them, that perform relationships necessary for survival. A few traditional societies still overtly see the world in this way and sustain themselves in those kinds of semiotic relationships and conversations. While such societies are rapidly becoming extinct,9 both the excavation of such understandings and the application thereafter of an approach in which literary texts seek to understand and converse with our environments retain a fundamental value. In his much cited essay “The Climate of History: Four Theses”, Dipesh Chakrabarty reflects that all his readings over the past twenty-five years into theories of globalisation, the Marxist analysis of capital, and postcolonial theory had not prepared him for making sense of the contemporary planetary crisis. He concludes that dualism and human exceptionalism must be abandoned, and that historians must reintegrate human history with natural history.10 This reintegration (as part of an ecologically necessary re-evaluation of the human) can be informed by reacquainting ourselves with the deep past.



The concept of “a geohistory that extends in deep time, independent of human history or even human existence”,11 was opened up by eighteenthand nineteenth-century scientific developments such as evolutionary theory and, notably, geology. These developments initiated a sense, first, that nature, like humans, has a history, and secondly, that nature is dynamic, fluctuating, hybrid, and permeable both in itself and in relation to corresponding human histories. This geological positing of a natural history that is independent of but interconnected with human history opened a necessary sense that humanism, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution have to be contextualised by a deep history to which human history is answerable. This deep history has included periods of drastic climate change such as glaciation that rendered much of the globe uninhabitable for humans; catastrophic floods or droughts; dramatic changes in vegetation; volcanic eruptions; and earthquakes.12 Like all creatures, humans have to adapt to such environmental changes in their modes of foraging, finding shelter, and migrating to favourable regions for survival.13 And yet, just as recent animals have created whole ecosystems, like the watery landscape beavers developed in the upper midwest of North America, it is essential to remember that humans also remain biological agents shaping environments to suit their needs. In their own deep history, humans have slowly evolved towards exercising greater control. Cranston and Dawson’s essay in this volume highlights, for example, how the original human colonists of Australia 40,000 years ago effected major changes in that continent by hunting and the wide use of fire to clear large areas for its success, a legacy whose discontents continue to this day. Conversely, geological events such as the end of the last Ice Age further created ideal conditions for humans to develop agriculture and colonise the entire globe. Opening the book Humans at the End of the Ice Age, Lawrence Guy Straus notes that “the nature of the Pleistocene– Holocene transition (roughly 12,000 years ago) in each region” was diverse in both “environmental manifestations” and “human reactions”. Michael A. Jochim, closing the book, agrees and argues that, as the most dramatic moment of environmental transformation humans have faced, this transition is exemplary in allowing us to consider how humans adapt to environmental change. Nevertheless, Jochim notes an “adaptive shift worldwide toward wresting greater control over natural resources” seen in ceramics, the domestication of plants and animals, and advances in weaponry (e.g. the composite bow and arrow) and other technology.14 Domestication of animals and plants in the Neolithic allowed settled communities to develop, while widespread deforestation for large-scale agriculture and


louise westling and john parham

the building of cities resulted in a loss of plant diversity and wildlife. Moving right forward, Lewis and Maslin suggest that the key moment precipitating the ‘Anthropocene’ (coupled with nuclear weapons testing in the 1960s) was Crosby’s “Columbian Exchange” – where colonisation and the establishment of global trade networks linking Europe, the Far East, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, from the late fifteenth century onwards, created a mixing of hitherto separated ecosystems.15 Yet throughout these last 12,000 years in particular, the circle of human coevolution has continued turning the other way. Soil salination, for example, has led repeatedly to the collapse of great civilisations, occurring across the globe in ancient times from Mesopotamia to China, North Africa, Central America, Greece, and Italy.16 Such dangers persist in the present, for example in the clearing of Amazon forests, the destruction of the great American prairie grasslands for the planting of wheat and raising of cattle, and through industrial irrigation in the Middle East and arid regions in North America. These effects of human-created ecosystem changes remain always interrelated with, and potentially exacerbated by, wider geophysical processes such as glaciation and volcanism bringing catastrophic ecosystem alterations in landscapes and life forms.17 We appear to have arrived at one such moment now as the climate warms and glaciers melt, perhaps the most critical for the world we know, and the one for which we are most culpable. Yet while the spectre of the ‘Anthropocene’ potentially “offers”, as Nigel Clark argues, “a bold depiction of an Earth that has no need of humankind” and that might “scour most of the traces of human existence from its surface”, such a danger also motivates us, as Clark goes on to argue, to think anew and urgently about our dependence on the “geologic and biological conditions bequeathed to us by Earth and cosmic systems”.18 Such thought encompasses reflection upon how we write and read the Earth.

The Shadow of the Anthropocene While it appears to have a 150-year history,19 the current pervasiveness of the ‘Anthropocene’, not least in the environmental humanities, stems from the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and marine ecologist Eugene Stoermer’s proposal in 2000 for a new geological epoch.20 The notion of an Anthropocene epoch has been hotly contested in debates ranging from its precise periodisation to its premise and connotations. While Lewis and Maslin have painstakingly sifted preceding hypotheses and scientific records to try to establish when the new epoch began, both the endurance



of geological forces way beyond human influence and the brevity of human existence compared to geological epochs of millions of years imply a hubris or arrogance in comparing humanity’s brief span to (say) the Pleistocene (though that may be countered by the enhanced speed and rapidity of anthropogenic change, as discussed below). Hence, while Clark views the Anthropocene as foregrounding human vulnerability, Martin J.S. Rudwick questions the concept by emphasising the “sheer contingency” of our knowledge of Earth’s deep history.21 Likewise, Eileen Crist has lambasted the arrogance of a term that represents for her “the timehonored narrative of human ascent into a distinguished species ... on a par with stupendous forces of Nature” while bolstering “technological and managerial approaches that would make human dominion sustainable”. This denies any sense of a nature that is ‘wild’, undomesticated, and beyond our control.22 Mindful of these debates, we would argue that the interest and value of the Anthropocene lies not in whether the concept is ‘real’, or advisable, but rather, as Chakrabarty suggests, in that “the cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding” itself. Humanity’s apparent epochal environmental impact questions a narrative of history constructed around past human achievements, development, and ‘progress’, while intimations of human annihilation threaten to end history altogether by precluding the historicist act of imagining the future.23 Yet if the “crisis of climate change” does qualify “humanist histories of modernity/globalization” (as Chakrabarty’s second thesis states), the fact that we inadvertently “tumbled” into the Anthropocene by over-exercising our “reason” need not preclude reason, analysis, thought, or, indeed, imagination as offering a way of addressing it. Such a project informs the literary investigations of this volume which broadly follow the approach of enquiry envisaged by Chakrabarty. The Anthropocene engenders a conundrum, he argues: we need to think about ourselves as a species in a universal sense, even though contemporary critical theory and political experience teach us that humanity and human identities are fractured. A potential way forward lies in Darwin’s precept of species as mutable. We can think of ourselves as a species shaped by/shaping our environments, while recognising that this happens in numerous, uneven, and unequal ways. Amidst the perils dramatised by the Anthropocene, the best we can do, Chakrabarty argues, is “mix together the immiscible chronologies of capital and species history” and attend to discrete, innumerable mutations (political, social, economic, national, regional formations; ecological, environmental, and animal) that made us “tumble”


louise westling and john parham

into “geological agency” or which sought to resist that “tumbling” or which were caught between different ontologies. Only by a mixing of philosophies, space, temporalities, disciplines, such as we find in literature, might we discover “formations” that could point towards an ecological future. Chakrabarty implies what several critics writing about the Anthropocene directly state, that humans are the first geological agent able to reflect upon their agency. Lewis and Maslin’s interest in dating the Anthropocene is directly motivated, for example, by how it could influence subsequent actions. For example, locating the Anthropocene too early might risk normalising global environmental change.24 Szerszynski conjectures that “maybe the Anthropocene in all its geohistorical specificity really starts when humans become aware of their role in shaping climate”.25 Likewise, for Palsson, et al., if the Anthropocene has been about “humans being basically in conflict with themselves through the structures and systems that they have themselves created in order to improve their lifestyles and well-being”, then “Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene”, as their title suggests, rests upon two things: diagnosing how the conflict with ourselves arose; and a more “radical” project of envisaging a “new human condition”.26 Clark proposes one way such a project might work. He suggests that just as cataclysmic events like tsunamis are reminders that deep time impinges on human historical time, so too we might make “a riftbridging offering or gift” in which the disturbing geological knowledge gathered from the natural sciences is met in dialogue by the humanised modes of the humanities and social sciences.27 These disciplines’ reflective, agential force, whether through reason or the imagination, might be summoned to counter a potential cataclysm and/or to envisage ecological futures.28 Clark mainly concentrates on the socio-political. Yet his references anticipate literary interventions such as that by Leo Mellor in this volume. Considering contemporary British poetry, Mellor argues that “reflexivity about human selfhood while in the environment” can be nourished in a form such as poetry that has a “particular agility of applying pressure on language”. Indeed; the essays across this volume reflect both how we came to be in conflict with ourselves and where writing – from the distant past to the recent past, and present – might have envisaged alternative human ways of being in this world.

Literature and Environment For Smail there is no ‘“normal” society – all is contingent upon “environmental circumstances” and “particular cultural patterns”.29 Hence, as



geographies, environments, and climates shift, and peoples adapt, so too does nature writing or “environmental literature”.30 In that context, looking at cross-cultural, cross-historical literatures helps us appreciate the myriad forms that nature writing takes whether as writers ourselves, readers, or critics seeking ways to inform how we might adapt to or contest environmental change. As Murphy pointed out, from the same perspective of a “cross-cultural, multi-foundational” ecocritical research, the American Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century turned to the texts of antiquity in their own writing. Similarly, the British writer William Morris drew from the reservoir of the Icelandic Sagas detailed in this volume by Hartman, Ogilvie, and Hennig; conversely, in Pablo Mukherjee’s essay, we see how the Indian filmmaker and novelist Satyajit Ray adapted Western genres like science fiction – as a consequence of “the peculiarly statist and nationalist character of techno-scientific policies” in his country – to critique and parody modernity. Founded upon the multiple foundations and spatial and temporal crosscurrents of literary environmental engagements, we believe that the vast range of literatures covered in this book evades the remorseless historical progressivism that has created the contemporary ‘environmental crisis’. We have aimed for a collection that testifies both to the richness and persistence of environmental thinking and broadly seeks to unearth a counternarrative of ecological ontologies – before, beyond, and within the age of humanism/industrialism – as a means to explore reasons why the contemporary crisis arose and how we might envisage a future, greener world. Essays range across this vast territory but include: • examination of environmental problems such as drought, disease, overpopulation, and deforestation, in writing as old as 5,000 years • essays about ancient writing that has celebrated nature’s abundance, fertility, and beauty, and works from two or three hundred years ago that, even at the zenith of Humanism, posited a truly planetary ecological unity • works of cultural excavation highlighting a counter-history of halfburied or obscure literary traditions, both ancient and contemporary, that describe both holistic or eco-social interrelationships of humans with the world around them • examinations of how literature has dramatised the permeable boundaries among animals, plant species, and humans, thus demonstrating and seeking to place in historical context the conceptual instability of terms like ‘environment’, ‘nature’, ‘animal’, ‘resource’, or ‘person’

10 •

• •

louise westling and john parham writing that addresses the dichotomy between deep ecological respect for the integrity of other species and a social ecological pragmatism that regards nature, within limits, as a human resource; or the balance between affinity with and alienation from nonhuman species that preoccupies posthumanism explorations of how particular moments within the history of conflicts between humanist/colonial and indigenous/environmental perspectives played out in widely different settings such as the Americas, India, Australia/New Zealand, and China literature investigating the political formations that underlie environmental impacts that critics such as Raymond Williams exposed in the English pastoral tradition, the effects of industrial pollution on the urban poor, and environmental degradation resulting from imperialism and colonisation environmental justice writing where a determination to witness environmental horrors and cries for justice runs up against despair over possibilities for restoration writing that questions, more generally, how humans might adapt to coming climactic challenges in company with other organisms, and musings about how the possibilities for cultural change might be influenced by environmentally focused poetry, fiction, and criticism lastly, as a work of literary scholarship, examination of how writers in numerous periods and places have employed literary techniques to synthesise and try to shape into coherence the scientific, social and epistemological complexities of their own and their culture’s engagements with the environment.

Foundation, Shape, and Structure of the Book Although human history is minuscule in the scale of geological history, scientists have recently discovered that humans have evolved very rapidly in the last 5,000 years – the very span of literary history. Though the human genome has undergone much reshuffling in the past 200,000 years, “over the past five thousand years alone, humans have evolved as much as a hundred times more quickly than at any time since the split of the earliest hominid from the ancestors of modern chimpanzees some 6 million years ago”.31 Thus close attention to the historical sweep of literatures can be revealing and can encompass much older layers of cultural sedimentation from the preliterate past such as deep affinities with wild spaces, plants, and nonhuman animals. Given its geographical and historical scope, this



book will explore a plurality of conceptions of the environment and norms concerning our relationship to it. We seek to counteract the Western dominance and Eurocentrism of much mainstream environmental thinking, beginning with ancient texts and writers, and ending with versions of contemporary resistance, critique, and alternative visions from across the globe.

Organisation of Chapters While our emphasis on mutability, adaptation, and cross-cultural influence makes clear that all we can offer is a history not the history, the essays in this book do coalesce around an ongoing, rhizomatic, global dialogue which we believe has gradually moved towards, while often resisting, the ‘Anthropocene’. Accordingly, the chapters in this volume are organized into three parts that, in very broad terms, trace epochal shifts in humanity’s relation to the natural environment.

Beginnings This section of the book will consider the extent to which selected ancient writings perpetuated an understanding of humanity’s immersion in a ‘more-than-human’ nature expressed in far earlier preliterate cultural forms, while at the same time celebrating the clearing of forests, the planting of cereal crops and orchards, and the building of large cities that required massive amounts of timber and stone. It thus begins a dialogue among largely non-Western perspectives that offers possible alternatives to the Western humanist/industrialist epistemology explored in Part II, while also revealing many similar attitudes and problems. The parallel traditions examined here imply a certain foundational, global epistemology of humanity’s embeddedness in a nature of which we are, simultaneously, both a part and apart. This found literary expression in different times and places, with particular aesthetic styles coloured by environmental influence. Thus the chapters in the first part examine the earliest writings of literate civilisations in Mesopotamia, Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, India, and Central America, and explore texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew bible, ancient Chinese poetry and philosophy, Hindu spiritual texts, the Qur’an, and the Popol Vuh. Deborah Green’s discussion of the biblical Garden of Eden is related in both cultural and aesthetic ways to the forests and gardens in Mesopotamian literatures as examined in Stephanie Dalley’s opening chapter.


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Environmental disasters are consequences in both traditions of human arrogance toward the sacred energies of the natural world. As Sarra Tlili discusses, both Hebrew and Muslim scriptures convey a sense of the deity’s gift of bounty but also retribution for failed obedience or faithfulness to the covenant of YHWH or Allah. In a very different ancient tradition, Karen Thornber points out how Chinese and Japanese poetic traditions of respect for nature are belied by actual behaviour. The ecstasy of art in Sanskrit tradition is akin to the ecstasy of divine experience, according to Sivarakrishnan Murali, and both are closely involved with a Pan-Indian vision of the aesthetic dimensions of sacred trees and plants. An even closer interrelation of plants and humans among the Maya in Allen Christenson’s chapter stands in dramatic contrast to the classical Greek emphasis on patriarchal control of feminised landscapes that Christopher Eckerman’s chapter details. Already in these very old literatures, we find tensions between humans and the natural world – faint memories of unity and bounty, senses of loss and guilt, recognition of environmental disasters, conflicts between poetic ideals and practical manipulations of environments, but also the maintenance of some really archaic sedimentations such as the human/animal/ plant metamorphoses in the Maya Popol Vuh. These form an enduring basis for later ecological understandings.

The Development of Humanism and the Industrial Age Positing the industrial mode as a development from humanism, the majority of essays in this section focus on the ‘Western’, often Englishspeaking world encompassing medievalism, eighteenth-century perspectives, and romanticism before leading, thereafter, to the literary traditions and texts of the Industrial Age itself. While ‘humanism’, broadly conceived, formed as a culturally specific, economic and political ideology in the West during the early modern to twentieth-century period, we will also argue that there has been a persistent counter-narrative within Western modernity from which an explicit environmental critique and ethos has emerged. The chapters in Part II explore the extent to which humanist and industrialist values, harboured in literature, sometimes constructed a human alienation from the environment. Yet they also consider the emergence of alternative literary trends that consciously engaged with scientific, democratic, or ‘Romantic’ thinking and, indeed, sometimes referenced the connections between human and nonhuman nature available in the pre-industrial period. These traditions of literature thereby anticipate the later writing explored in Part III.



Hartman, Ogilvie and Hennig illustrate how oral culture and then the Sagas registered both Iceland’s deep environmental history and the human struggle for existence in ways that might inform contemporary environmental challenges. Gillian Rudd, likewise, suggests that placeattentiveness in medieval literature generated both an early environmental ethics and models for personal human action. Yet a dialectical tension between modernity and environmental ethics is foregrounded in two chapters on early modern literature. Elizabeth Cook’s focus on trees explores globalisation, contrasting the economic mobility of timber during the long eighteenth century with counter-narratives in which imaginative writing and botany continued to emphasise plants’ ecologies of origin. Kevin Hutchings considers how the discourse of ‘improvement’ in North America was endorsed by popular writers but ‘disrupted’ by both British Romantic travellers and Native American writers. Recognising that cultural narratives adapt to new scientific insights, Laura Dassow Walls’s essay marks a turning point – the geological revolution which, in proving nature’s history of often violent change, made visible anxieties associated with the Anthropocene. Karen Chase and Michael Levenson posit Dickens’s Bleak House as an equivalent leap forward. His association of atmospheric and climate change with systematic environmental degradation brought about by the city prompted Dickens to explore how this might be represented through narrative. Lastly, with literature in the ‘Industrial Age’ increasingly dramatising environmental impact, Tom Sykes traverses the three ‘ages’ of this book to trace a history of reflexive environmental writing that culminates in twentiethcentury speculative or science fiction that has alternately vindicated and critiqued humanity’s technocentric remodelling of the Earth.

The Anthropocene Alternative perspectives to Western thinking re-emerge fully in Part III with a global focus upon our own period in which human populations are shaping and impoverishing the planet’s ecosystems in unprecedented ways. The chapters here recognize that our species is still deeply industrial in its modes of sustaining itself, but also that alternative environmental perspectives have come to magnify the anti-industrialist, anti-colonialist critiques described in Part II. These “peripheral” modernities, Mukherjee argues, are culturally different but share an experience of modernity’s environmental risk. Our chapters illustrate the differing ways in which contemporary national literatures have addressed this global pattern of


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damaging, unprecedented, and ruinous human environmental impact that also encompasses other humans. Contemplating Australia and New Zealand’s deep environmental history, Cranston and Dawson highlight the environmental and climatic legacy of the so-called ‘masculine nurturing’ of the land which arose with nineteenthand twentieth-century colonisation, immigration, and globalisation. Nevertheless, they also trace an ongoing cultural resistance contained in sources as varied as ornithology, environmentalism, indigenous literature, and nature writing. Similarly, Kelly Sultzbach argues that British Modernist writers responded to these forces, as well as to revolutions in physics and other sciences, by expressing a new awareness of embodiment and flux which destabilised anthropocentric certainty. There then follow three chapters which explore how European literature has negotiated modernity by modelling environmental relationships and how those engagements have been informed by a blend of particular places, cultures, and eras with a growing transnational environmental culture. Contextualised within European ecocriticism, Hubert Zapf examines a strong tradition of ecological thinking and literature in Germany that arose, however, from a broader cultural ecology; Timo Maran and Kadri Tüür detect the cultural and political influence of Russia, Germany, Sweden, and England in Estonian nature writing but find also a nationally distinctive bio/semiotic awareness whereby we are enmeshed in webs of ‘natureculture’ to the extent that wolves have learned to navigate human irrigation ditches to move easily across forests! And, from a different time and space, Leo Mellor suggests that the “poetic precision” and “ethics of attention” of recent Anglophone poetry is well equipped for the essential task of reflecting upon our environmental impact. Subsequent essays examine how literatures from across the globe have mediated the consequences of this unparalleled, ruinous environmental impact on Earth and other humans alike. Hangping Xu prefaces this, exploring tensions between Chinese narratives of progress and environmental critiques in fiction and film. Environmental justice themes emerge in the subsequent three essays. Yuki Masami analyses the representation and interrogation of complex “foodways” in Japanese literary narratives and how these cipher differing (sometimes surprising) perspectives on toxic seafood; Michael Niblett explores the subordination of land and people to Trinidad’s export commodities over the “long time and large space” of colonialism and globalisation but also how “irrealist” literary forms (Gothic or magic realism) resist these forces. In a related mode, the dilemma of bearing witness to petro-violence in the Nigerian River Delta is examined by Byron Caminero-Santangelo, revealing the profound



tension between literary cries for justice, demanded equally by devastated human communities and poisoned landscapes, and despair over the possibility of redress. Against environmental degradation and injustice, two final essays tentatively offer hope. Through Satyajit Ray, Pablo Mukherjee explores how a distinctly Indian science fiction exposed the pretensions of Nehruvian technoscience, summoning both older Indian traditions that mingle nature and culture and sci-fi tropes of the robot and alien to challenge our damaging technological arrogance. Correspondingly, Izabel Brandão recovers a Brazilian tradition of eco-feminist writing where notions of the body as discursive text generated a fresh sense of our interdependence with ‘nature’ that resisted a masculine power epitomised, in this case, by military dictatorship. Drawing on a profusion of recent critical approaches that include new materialism, the sub-Marxist notions of ‘world ecology’ and ‘metabolic rift’, biosemiotics, food studies, and theories of nation and subjectivity, Part III demonstrates that a ‘Western’, humanist, technocentric ideology – and its environmental consequences – is being challenged, albeit not always successfully, by the disparate forces of national, postcolonial, or diasporic perspectives. These perspectives can, in some cases, unify the ancient patterns of ecological understanding delineated in Part I with contemporary environmental justice movements. Likewise they speak to the emergence across world literature of genres ranging from contemporary avant-garde poetry to the magical realist novel that have adapted conventional modes such as pastoral, romanticism, and science fiction in order to pose fundamental and urgent questions about the impact of technology or industry. In bringing these wide-ranging literary histories to bear on what might be called ‘the anthropocene present’, this final section leads towards a projection of future trends in the environmental humanities, trends that will grow out of historical as well as global perspectives on our present-day environmental concerns. Concluding their chapter in this volume, Cranston and Dawson compare scientists drilling Antarctic ice-core samples to literary criticism uncovering “creative acts from the ancient records handed down through songlines”. These include literary texts that document both “the violence and amnesia of colonization” and an “ecopoetics of hope and warning”. While governments prevaricate, we can learn from the tools offered by writers across the ages for “understanding, enduring or re-membering a possible world”. In the volume’s concluding chapter, Lawrence Buell calls upon environmental humanists to take more confidence in the power of


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literature to motivate change with “affect, aesthetics, mindfulness, and value commitments” that scientific and policy approaches cannot provide. The rich array of perspectives we offer in this book, from the very earliest Mesopotamian writings to recent, genuinely worldwide contributions, shows the complexity and range of a power that has existed for five thousand years but needs now to be urgently summoned. Notes 1 Patrick Murphy (ed.), The Literature of Nature: An International Sourcebook (Chicago: Fitzroy-Dearborn, 1998). See also Greg Garrard’s brief discussion of this history in his Introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 1–8; and Alexander Beecroft, An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day (New York: Verso, 2015), which offers a new comparatist approach to world literature focused on the ecological relations among languages and literatures, rather than on literary engagements with the natural world. 2 Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003). 3 Glen Love, Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and Environment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), pp. 37–64; and Dana Phillips, The Problem of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America (New York: Oxford, 2003), pp. viii–ix and 83–134. 4 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973). 5 Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), throughout the book, but for example pp. 15–16, 25, 32, 62, 98, 113, and 138. 6 Garrard, “Introduction”, pp. 3, 5. 7 For planetary history, see Martin J.S. Rudwick, Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); for the human emergence in that history, see Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) and Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink, A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries About the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2015). Bolstered by genomic research, supplementing archaeological and climatological work, Nicholas Wade provides a 2006 survey of recently assembled knowledge about human origins and migrations in Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (New York: Penguin, 2006); see esp. pp. 1–13 and 100–13. 8 Ibid., pp. 2–7. 9 Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, trans. Janet Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); and http://news.nationalgeographic.com/ 2015/08/150813-uncontacted-amazon-tribes-peru-brazil/.



10 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses”, Critical Inquiry 35 (2009), pp. 199–201. 11 Bronislaw Szerszynski, “The End of the End of Nature: The Anthropocene and the Fate of the Human”, The Oxford Literary Review 34, 2 (2012), p. 178. 12 See, e.g., Wade, Before the Dawn; and Lawrence G. Straus, Berit V. Eriksen, Jon Erlandson, and David R. Yesner (eds.), Humans at the End of the Ice Age (New York: Springer, 1996). 13 Smail, On Deep History and the Brain, pp. 190–96. 14 Lawrence G. Straus, “The World at the End of the Last Ice Age”, in Straus et al., Humans at the End of the Ice Age, esp. p. 7; Michael A. Jochim, “Surprises, Recurring Themes, and New Questions in the Study of the Late Glacial and Early Postglacial”, ibid., esp. pp. 357–59. 15 Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene”, Nature 519 (2015), pp. 171–80. 16 Rebecca Lines-Kelly, “Soil: our common ground – a humanities perspective”, Third Australian New Zealand Soils Conference keynote paper, www.regiona .org.au/au/aussi/supersoil2004/keynote/lineskell. 17 Straus et al., Humans at the End of the Ice Age, pp. 1–8. 18 Nigel Clark, “Geo-politics and the Disaster of the Anthropocene”, The Sociological Review 62:S1 (2014), pp. 19–37; see p. 27. 19 See Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene”, pp. 172–73; Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369 (2011), p. 835. 20 Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene’”, IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000), pp. 17–18. 21 Rudwick, Earth’s Deep History, pp. 307, 299. 22 Eileen Crist, “On the Poverty of our Nomenclature”, Environmental Humanities 3 (2013), pp, 140, 129, 132. 23 Though Crist sees the Anthropocene as perpetuating both of these. 24 Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene”, p. 171. 25 Szerszynski, “The End of the End of Nature”, p. 171. 26 Gisli Palsson et al., “Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the Social Sciences and Humanities in Global Environmental Change Research”, Environmental Science & Policy 28 (2013), p. 8. 27 Clark, “Geo-politics and the Disaster of the Anthropocene”, pp. 27, 32. 28 Crist, “On the Poverty of our Nomenclature”, p. 134. 29 Smail, On Deep History and the Brain, p. 196. 30 See Murphy, The Literature of Nature, p. xvi. 31 Ward and Kirschvink, A New History of Life, p. 352.

part i


chapter 1

The Natural World in Ancient Mesopotamian Literature Stephanie Dalley

The earliest literature in the world has been uncovered by excavation from ancient cities in modern Iraq, from the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The whole area is often referred to by the Greek term Mesopotamia, but the environment includes regions of striking diversity. Its southern part, roughly from modern Baghdad down to the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, is chiefly alluvial: flat and fertile, ideal for agriculture by irrigation, with extensive areas of marshland rich especially in fish and wildfowl, bordered in the east by high mountains, and to the west desert or steppe, hence in the verse of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, ‘along the strip of Herbage strown / That just divides the desert from the sown’.1 It was home to the non-semitic Sumerians, whose population and culture were gradually superseded by that of the semitic Babylonians, with a smooth and interactive change in language and literature. Later the Assyrians, whose heartland was in hilly country to the north, centred around the upper Tigris, adopted much Babylonian literature, likewise imbued with the authority of legend. They also created fine literature of their own, much of it as royal inscriptions, yet building on past tradition. All those peoples wrote on clay, which survives because it is not organic, in contrast to paper and parchment. Clay tablets, which were usually sundried rather than baked, are often found damaged, so literary compositions usually have to be reconstructed from fragments, sometimes using different versions in the struggle for coherence. Cities were built many centuries before writing was first used for literature. Around 2600 BCE the first, rather sketchy compositions can be recognised, but they are better understood from later, fuller versions. The Sumerian Instructions of Shuruppag is a good example.2 Almost all the very ancient literature seems to have evolved by accretion and redaction, so it is difficult to disentangle the input of different periods. Authorship was attributed to the gods at first, giving way to named ‘authors’, whose names in fact disclose the fame of scribes who copied and revised older texts, 21


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rather than single, individual authorship in the modern sense. Myths and legends of Sumer were enjoyed and studied by Babylonians and mined for themes and approaches when they composed or recomposed their own works, guided by deep respect for antiquity. Some works of literature, such as the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis, continued to be popular in various revisions for almost two millennia, both in Babylonia and Assyria. The background of change and continuity means that we cannot necessarily isolate particular understandings of the environment, which may have altered over time. But it seems to be true that forces of nature were personified in earliest times, and then, in later times, were abstracted to become spheres of influence for particular deities. Seasonal fluctuation was attributed to the actions of the gods. One specific change, however, can be described. The language of the Sumerians, which is not related to any other, divides words for objects into two classes: animate and inanimate. From a modern, Western perspective one might expect to have an intuitive understanding of the two categories, but not so: there are, for example, buildings and items of furniture that belong to the animate category. Men were not so very different from animate nature: in myths animals and plants can speak like men – the eagle and the serpent converse in the Babylonian Legend of Etana,3 and the palm and tamarisk trees engage in direct speech to argue in a debating contest.4 At the very least, the division suggests how different from ours their attitude to their environment may have been. By contrast, the Babylonians and Assyrians wrote in a Semitic language (related to Hebrew and Arabic) in which words for objects were divided into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, although some nouns alternated inconsistently between the two genders, and some have, for example, a morphologically ‘feminine’ gender even though one cannot find any reason for the use of that category. Life in ancient Mesopotamia was dominated by the supply of water. The two rivers, especially the Euphrates, divided into branches that shifted from time to time, and since cities were built beside the supply of flowing water, they would be abandoned in the event of diversions, whether by silting or enemy action, unless a new canal could be dug. The gods originally provided the water: in the words of the Sumerian myth Enki and the World Order, the god Enki ‘stood up full of lust like a rampant bull, lifted his penis, ejaculated and filled the Tigris with flowing water’,5 but as the god with power and responsibility over water, he could alter the course of the two rivers, ‘that on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates bad weeds should grow, banishing hoeing, seeding, the tunes of cowherds’ songs, ensuring no more butter and cheese made in the cattle-pen, no

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more dung (for fuel) stacked on the ground, the marshes so dry as to be full of cracks’ as described in the Sumerian Lament for Sumer and Ur.6 Buildings were almost all of bricks in which mud was mixed with chopped straw (a regular agricultural tax), as well as reeds, so that ruined cities quickly degraded to form hills in the flat landscape, inspiring reflection on the antiquity of civilisation and the brevity of human achievement. The tombs of later rulers were sometimes inserted into such mounds, or artificial mounds were heaped on top of such burials. Such was the ability to alter the landscape that the course of the river Euphrates was diverted, according to the Sumerian Death of Gilgamesh, so that the hero Gilgamesh could be buried beneath the river to prevent his opulent tomb being disturbed once the river resumed its normal course.7 A similar, Greek legend about a king buried beneath the river Orontes in Syria is aetiological: the coffin of a giant hero called Orontes was discovered when an unnamed Roman emperor diverted the river, according to Pausanias.8 Cities were first built by the gods of earth and sky. The Legend of Etana begins with the following words: The The The The The

great gods, the Igigi, designed a city, Igigi laid its foundation, Anunnaki designed the city of Kish, Anunnaki laid its foundation, Igigi made its brickwork firm.9

Cities rose up above the plain as buildings were periodically replaced or renewed, with temples at the highest point. Roads and tracks radiated out from city gates. Canals and rivers often attracted settlements on both banks, so that eventually the watercourse would run through the centre of a single city, with a harbour area alongside the stream. Land for agriculture in the south was very productive under irrigation, allowing a picture of field systems and plantations of trees, mainly datepalms, poplars and willows growing alongside rivers and extending through a network of canals. That required strict maintenance controlled by a central authority which is encapsulated by one of the king’s titles, ‘the one who extends cultivated land’, and is compared to a garden in the Legend of Etana, the childless king who was taken to heaven on the back of an eagle, and was thrilled to get a bird’s eye view of the landscape. The Eagle took him upwards for a second mile. ‘My friend, look at the country! How does it seem?’ ‘The country has turned into a garden, And the wide sea is no bigger than a bucket.’10


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Land in the same areas, often close to cities for reasons of security, was used for grazing sheep, goats and cattle. Some livestock was driven inside the city walls at night for protection against human and animal predators, a practice which explains, for instance, why the city of Uruk, which the hero Gilgamesh ruled, was called ‘Uruk the sheepfold’ in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. ‘One square mile is city, one square mile is orchards, One square mile is clay-pits, as well as the open ground of Ishtar’s temple’11

Outside the cities, sheepfolds, cattle-pens, fish-ponds, orchards and tree plantations marked a landscape transformed by human activity, filled also with domesticated animals preyed on by lions, wolves and jackals, and with wild birds and insects. King Ur-Namma of Ur (2112–2095 BCE) recognised that ‘the canal whose ditches are clean has birds’.12 Metaphors and similes were taken abundantly, and with almost infinite variety, from the countryside. The hero Lugalbanda stepped forward ‘like a pelican emerging from the pure reed thicket’; his brothers and friends embraced him ‘as if they were small birds flocking together’.13 Many kings described themselves as a lion or a goring wild bull, or as a hunter; Gilgamesh was not only a wild bull and a raging flood-wave, but also ‘a strong net, the protection of his men’.14 All nature was a source of imagery for literature; and it is evident from iconography that many different animals including deer, wild asses and ostriches were hunted, as well as lions which were the king’s prerogative to kill. The threatening aspect of the countryside beyond the city gates gave a more than symbolic reason for royal hunts, showing the king, hunting lions like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, protecting his people at home and travellers on roads abroad, sometimes in hunting parks with the controlled release of lions previously captured. Hunting might lead to scarcity of a species at times; on the other hand, kings collected animals in zoos from time to time, from which escapees might form feral herds; this is thought to have happened with a breed of small elephant. Lack of control would lead to invasion of urban spaces by lions and dogs.15 Epics and myths put a special emphasis on food in its variety and plenty, particularly on cakes, beer, dairy products, meats and fruit, all gained from expert farming. In the Sumerian Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave the prince Lugalbanda fell sick on an expedition into the Zagros mountains, and had to be left behind in the shelter of a cave; the provisions left there for him, in the hope that he would recover and survive, are astonishing:

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‘They made him an arbour like a bird’s nest . . . Dates, figs and various sorts of cheese; They put sweetmeats suitable for the sick to eat . . . They set out for him various fats of the cattle-pen, the sheepfold’s fresh cheese, Oil with cold eggs, cold hard-boiled eggs . . . They arranged for him beer for drinking, mixed with date syrup, and rolls with butter . . . Dark beer, alcoholic drink, light emmer beer, wine for drinking which is good to taste . . .’16

The farmer-god Enkimdu was the one in charge of dykes and canals, patron of the farmer who grows grain and makes beer. His counterpart Dumuzi the shepherd-god produced wool, milk and butter according to the Sumerian myth Dumuzi and Enkimdu. Date-palms had a special significance, owing both to their dioecious nature and to their many products, of which the female tree boasted in competition with the tamarisk, in a traditional and long-lived genre of dispute literature. As a female tree of great productivity, it was especially linked to the goddess Inana, and a metaphor for fertility. ‘My mother is a date-palm with the sweetest fragrance,’ wrote a loving son named Lu-dingira in a letter home.17 When evidence is found in texts for Babylonian gardens, they appear to be laid out on flat ground belonging to temples, probably with date-palms and orchard trees shading vegetables and herbs growing beneath. In Assyria, on the other hand, hilly country and the several tributaries of the Tigris encouraged a more imaginative approach, leading to a tradition of royal palace gardens in which artificial terracing and running water were designed explicitly to imitate the natural beauty of the Amanus mountains far to the west. The large internal courtyards of temples and palaces may sometimes have featured enclosed gardens, with shrubs and trees sometimes planted directly in pits; at other times, if we are to understand iconography literally, in pottery vessels.18 Southern Mesopotamia was thickly populated with large cities from early times. When one considers the demand for tools, weapons, currency bars and rings, jewellery, and all the adornments that enriched the temples and palaces, one may infer that there were sources in the mountains of raw materials – stones, metals, timbers – that were depleted, or, in the case of some types of mines, polluted the surroundings too much for work to continue there. Trading expeditions therefore sought out new sources, to which a few literary royal inscriptions refer, notably those of Gudea of Lagash c.2300 BCE,19 and Sargon II of Assyria c.720 BCE.20 As one might expect, it was the gods who revealed such sources of wealth to deserving, energetic kings.


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So dense was the clustering of cities, and so easy was interaction by boat along the many waterways, that the Mesopotamian heartland was noisy, crowded, mobile, sociable and, in good times, well fed. Prone to overpopulation, its inhabitants must have longed for solitude, which could be found in adjacent lands with their sparsely populated terrain. Plentiful though food was for ancient Mesopotamians in good times, many raw materials had to be imported from abroad over long distances. The homeland was bordered to the east, north and far to the west by mountains from which metals, timbers and stone, also dyestuffs and herbs for medicinal and culinary use, could be extracted by trading expeditions. Travelling merchants were backed up by military force, which was a popular theme for epics such as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta21 and Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave.22 They present the mountains and forests as places of danger and hardship, in which traders on roads were open to ambush by hardy locals as well as wild animals, so copper, tin, gold, silver, lapis lazuli and carnelian, diorite and alabaster had a very high value. Other myths have a quite different background among the southern rivers, canals and marshes that allowed people and deities to travel by boat and raft between cities, constructing their means of transport from reeds and the bitumen that was so easily accessed in Mesopotamia. Desert lands, whether they featured sand dunes or were littered with boulders and sharp stony debris, provided minimal grazing to the west and south of Mesopotamia. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes how the heroes had to dig wells at regular stages on their way to reach the forested mountain lands.23 Semi-nomads of the desert and the steppe, like hardy mountaindwellers, were alien enemies, uncivilised by the standards of Mesopotamia. The desert Semites known as Mardu in Sumerian, Amorites in Babylonian, were ‘people ignorant of agriculture’, though they had their uses in bringing ‘spirited cattle and kids for the goddess Inana’. The Gutians, traditional vandals from eastern mountains, ‘do not resemble other people, an unbridled people with human intelligence but canine instincts and monkeys’ features; like small birds they swooped on the ground in great flocks. Nothing escaped their clutches’.24 Uncivilised men wear skins and do not cook. By coming into the cities, a man of the mountains would be tamed and civilised, as Enkidu was in the Epic of Gilgamesh: ‘Mountains gave him birth . . . He used to suck the milk of wild animals.’25

The world as the Mesopotamians understood it was created by the gods, who laid down its essential features and then created mankind to perform

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the labour of maintenance and production. This is most clearly illustrated by the opening of the Epic of Atrahasis: ‘When the gods rather than man The gods’ load was too great, The gods had to dig out canals,

Did the work, bore the loads The work too hard, the toil too much . . . Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land. For 3,600 years they bore the strain, Hard work night and day . . . Ea made his voice heard And spoke to the gods his brothers. “The mistress of the gods, the womb-goddess is here: Let her create mortal man So that he may bear the yoke . . . Let man bear the load of the gods.”’26

In common with other beliefs, more than one way of accounting for creation was allowed, perhaps because different city-states originally had their own version of events; so the Babylonian Epic of Creation presents the creation of the earth from the dead body of Tiamat, a sea-monster from whose eyes, opened up by a victorious god, the Tigris and Euphrates flow. In this composition the patron god of Babylon, Marduk, is credited with the main deeds: ‘Marduk opened up the eyes: water gushed out. He opened the Euphrates and the Tigris from her eyes . . . He piled up clear-cut mountains from her udder, Bored waterholes to drain off the catchwater.’27

Again, the emphasis is on the water supply. In the Sumerian myth Enki and Ninhursag the god Enki, whose responsibilities include controlling the pure water beneath the earth, created the island of Dilmun (modern Bahrain), presenting it to his spouse Ninhursag who complained of boredom – no birds, no wild or domestic animals, no humans, no singing – until it was populated with plants, animals and mankind.28 These myths all show that the resources and inhabitants of the lands were supplied by the gods in specific acts of creation. Each great city would attribute to its own patron god acts of creation. Other texts show that temples were built to resemble mountains, each one a cosmic location where god and man could communicate, ensuring that kings and priests carried out their divinely appointed functions as managers of their country and its people. So close was the connection that the temple of the great god Enlil in the holy city of Nippur was called the bond between heaven and earth, Dur-an-ki, a rope or cable joining humanity to the divine sphere. ‘Enlil fixed the axis of the world in Duran-ki’ is a line from the Sumerian Song of the Hoe.29 This shows the crucial symbolism that is expressed in similes and metaphors.


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The various accounts of creation underlie the great sense of duty that spurred the king to administer his kingdom, and to extract the maximum productivity from agriculture and trade. But it is clear from myths and epics that Mesopotamians understood the toll taken on the environment by their activities, as well as ascribing the suffering and destruction of catastrophic events to the actions of the gods. These environmental problems are clearly linked to creation in the Epic of Atrahasis, because the gods, when they created mankind, failed to take into account the need for a natural lifespan, so that overpopulation was an inevitable result. The gods were unable to sleep for the noise, and on three occasions sent a disaster to reduce humanity to a few families, by drought which brought famine, then disease, and finally a great Flood.30 Each of these catastrophes is to be understood as an archetype related to intermittent real occurrences rather than a single historical event of worldwide impact; indeed, the interpretation of such events as archetypes likewise in the Sumerian Lamentations over the destruction of Sumer and Ur, of Nippur and of Agade, is now generally preferred to the initial assessment of them as actual historical disasters. Such lamentations were recited whenever a temple required repairs, exaggerating current misery in order to persuade the disrupted gods to return to their holy dwellings. At the conclusion of the Epic of Atrahasis the gods altered their plan for mankind, allocating a lifespan which does not allow an infinite existence, and they also created classes of women who would not bear children.31 Mesopotamians, like their gods, realised the perils of unrestricted human fertility. Floods were quite common occurrences, especially when the water from melted snow at the sources of the two great rivers happened to reach lower Mesopotamia at the same time. If the banks of both rivers burst, the land between was totally flooded, and the courses of the rivers themselves might alter, so the maintenance of weirs and branch canals was crucial. Intensive irrigation without sufficient drainage probably led to periods of extreme salinity in the soil, reducing crop yields. These environmental factors were largely beyond human control, so the gods were held to blame, as in the Epic of Atrahasis, or were due to the gods abandoning a city in anger at man’s behaviour, as in the Lamentation over Sumer and Ur. Several compositions refer to a destructive Flood, not all of them of the same period of time. Trees and plants were regarded as animate, so that weeds in neglected places, in the countryside and on towpaths alongside silted-up canals, were described as plants in mourning. At the death of Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh not only do the men of Uruk, ploughmen and shepherds, weep,

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so also do trees, wild animals and rivers.32 Trees speak for themselves in dispute literature; their sap was their blood – a single word has both meanings. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu travelled to the cedar forest – Sumerian versions locate it in the Zagros mountains to the east, Babylonian versions in the mountains of Lebanon in the west – they slew the monster Humbaba (Sumerian Huwawa) who had been appointed by the gods to guard the trees, and they cut down cedars to make a door for the temple of the great god Enlil. Those deeds, not just the killing of the guardian but also the cutting down of his trees, were both regarded as acts of sacrilege and vandalism, even though the end result was to beautify Enlil’s temple in Nippur, so the gods had to take their revenge by killing Enkidu. The sense of awe, the holy aura of the forested mountain, is expressed in the Epic of Gilgamesh: They stood and admired the forest, Gazed and gazed at the height of the cedars, Gazed and gazed at the entrance to the cedars, Where Humbaba made tracks as he went to and fro. They beheld the Cedar Mountain, dwelling-place of gods, shrine of Irnini. The cedars displayed their luxuriance on the face of the mountain. Their shade was good, filling one with happiness. Undergrowth burgeoned, entangling the forest.33

The whole episode shows an understanding that human action has both good and bad aspects, a dualistic theme found in the behaviour of gods as well as men. When in later times Assyrian kings failed to capture a hostile city, they would cut down the trees that surrounded it, as a punishment for insubordination against their national god Ashur. Not only the defeated populace, but also the environment, must suffer from defeat. Since mountains harboured tough and rebellious people who made useful mercenaries in times of prosperity and violent enemies in times of weakness, yet contained so many of the stones and metals that could be transformed for works of construction, weaponry and decorative art, they instilled in Mesopotamians conflicting emotions: fear of their hardships and dangers, awe at their beauty, and excitement at challenges of trade and exploration. If a hero-king wanted to win renown to last beyond his own lifetime, he must travel away from the comfort of the civilised cities in the plain, and he must return with exotic goods to embellish the temples and accoutrements of his gods. As one looks from the plain towards the mountains, the junction between the two types of terrain is almost as marked as that of the seashore. In myths the gods had created bolts that separated the different zones: the land from the sea in the Babylonian story Adapa, and the mountains from the


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plain in Lugalbanda and the Anzud bird. Each type of terrain, therefore, had its proper place in the world, but the gods controlled the bolts. In Lugalbanda and the Anzu-bird, the cosmic bird associated with thunderclouds said: ‘An (the sky god) has let me bar the front of the mountains as if with a great door’.34 Enki and the World Order refers to lightning bolts, ‘the holy bar which blocks the entrance to the interior of heaven’.35 The god Ninurta used stones to divert mountain torrents into the Tigris. In the Epic of Atrahasis tablet II the land is kept separate from the sea by a bolt: ‘Enlil organized his assembly again, addressed the gods his sons: “The noise of men has become too much, sleep cannot overtake me due to their racket. Order Anu and Adad to keep the (air) above (earth) locked, Sin and Nergal to keep the middle earth locked. As for the bolt that bars the sea, Ea with his lahmu-creatures is to keep it locked.”’36

Stones in the mountains were personified in Ninurta’s Exploits. The god Ninurta, whose weapons included ferocious torrents that drown the unwary and flash floods that hurl boulders down slopes and smash the traveller, took control of the stones, and allocated a different destiny to each kind.37 The storm-god too had the power to destroy peaks and boulders. Impenetrable dark forests, thorny undergrowth, snakes and scorpions added to the discomforts and terrors of the forbidding and uncivilised mountain lands. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that of all the different types of environment, this was the one to fear most. No Mesopotamian king could control what happened there, but he must risk his life there to win fame. In the Babylonian Epic of Anzu the scheming and envious Anzu-bird, who resembles a thunder-cloud, flew off into the highest mountains after stealing the tablet of destinies from the responsible god while he was taking his bath, having laid the tablet aside. The vital powers were only restored after a cosmic battle on top of the mountain, just as vandals from the mountains intermittently poured down into the Mesopotamian plain and carried off valuable booty which was not always retrieved.38 In the Sumerian Inana and Ebih it is the great goddess who can roar like thunder, sending the rocks that formed the body of the mountain Ebih clattering down its flanks.39 But even in the mountains the gods of Mesopotamia were in charge, and had the interests of settled people in mind: ‘Ninurta made a pile of stones in the mountains . . . With a great wall he barred the front of the land . . . He blocked the powerful waters by means of stones.

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Now the waters will never again flow down from the mountains into the earth . . . Where in the mountains scattered lakes had formed, He joined them all together and led them down to the Tigris, He poured carp-floods of water over the fields . . . He provided water for the speckled barley in cultivated fields, He raised the harvest of fruits in garden and orchard, He heaped up grain piles like hills.’40

According to a Sumerian hymn to the same god, ‘through him fallow deer and wild sheep are made plentiful in the forests.’41 Mountains were covered in thick, dense forests in early human history, although nowadays they present a bare and desolate face to the world, after millennia of human exploitation. An abrupt, thin line of mountain range separates Assyria from the alluvium of Babylonia, and stretches across both the Tigris and the Euphrates, extending for hundreds of kilometres. In modern times it is called the Jebel Hamrin, with its western extension the Jebel Makhul. The Sumerians called it Ebih, and personified it as the enemy of settled land, representing the uncivilised groups of mountaindwellers who frequently threatened the great cities. In Inana and Ebih, the goddess went into battle against the personified Mount Ebih, describing the terrain in the following words: ‘It has poured its terror and ferocity over this land . . . Its arrogance extends deeply into the centre of heaven. Fruit hangs in its flourishing gardens and luxuriance spreads forth. Its magnificent trees are themselves a source of wonder to the roots of heaven. In Ebih . . . lions are abundant under the canopy of trees and bright branches. It makes wild rams and stags freely abundant. It sets wild bulls in flourishing grass. Deer couple among the cypress trees of the mountain range.’

The humiliated goddess in her rage attacked the mountain for its failure to yield to her: She sharpened both edges of her dagger. She grabbed Ebih’s neck as if ripping up esparto grass. She pressed the dagger’s teeth into its insides. She roared as thunder. The rocks forming the body of Ebih clattered down its flanks. From its sides and crevices great serpents spat venom. She condemned its forests and cursed its trees. She killed its oak trees with drought, She poured fire on its flanks and made its smoke thick. Inana asserted authority over the mountain. Holy Inana did as she wished.42


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Although this myth concentrates on the adversarial relations between mountains and civilisation, it is clear from many other myths that mountains were appreciated for their abundance of wild game to be trapped, their extensive forests, and for the diversity of their plant life. In Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave ‘the god Enlil caused life-saving plants to be born’ there, and so the invalid Lugalbanda, emerging from the solitude of a mountain cave, found how to sustain life: ‘The rolling rivers, mothers of the hills, brought life-saving water. He bit on the life-saving plants, he sipped from the life-saving water’

He set traps for wild animals, captured a wild bull and wild goats, slaughtered and butchered them; and with the provisions left for him by his long-gone companions, he found out how to bake bread and cake, and garnished it with date syrup.43 This is an ancient version of Robinson Crusoe, a heroic story of survival in isolation, the Romantic ideal of the human spirit succeeding in an adverse environment. Gudea, governor of Girsu in the late third millennium BCE, built a temple for his city god and extolled its beauty: ‘It was like a mountain range of lapis lazuli, like a mountain range of alabaster.’44 Even the wild men of the mountains could be tamed: the Old Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh describes the origins of Enkidu who became a companion to the hero-king, even though ‘mountains gave him birth, . . . he used to suck the milk of wild animals’ and had not learned to eat cooked food.45 As the offspring of silence, the circumstances of his early life represent the attractions of solitude to those who lived in crowded cities. As for the desert, solitude was valued there too. Despite the hardships that desert travel involved, the Babylonian Epic of Erra and Ishum makes it clear that people idealised the simple life of the nomad. The Seven, demon weapons of the raging war-god Erra, tempted the god to leave home comforts, the soft life of the city, and come out on a military campaign, saying: ‘City food, however fancy, cannot compare with what is cooked on the embers. Best beer, however sweet, cannot compare with water from a water-skin. A palace built on a platform cannot compare with the shelters of a camp.’46

Just as in Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave, these lines express an idealised life in a ‘natural’ environment. As Simon Barnes has written in the context of recent work to preserve indigenous animals in their natural habitat in India: The more you are in a city, and the noisier and more citified that city, the more the wild world means. It’s the same principle that drove the Romantic movement.47

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It is remarkable that the same reaction to city life is found in literature four thousand years before the Industrial Revolution. The Moon-god was especially important for desert travellers who would move at night by the light of the moon when the air was cool, and would be especially aware of the brilliance of stars. Several myths drew upon the Mesopotamian tradition of celestial divination. Already in the early second millennium BCE, and probably earlier still, groups of stars had been given names which in many cases correspond to our names of constellations, such as the Bull and the Scorpion; the planet Venus was already identified with the great goddess, Inana in Sumerian, Ishtar in Babylonian. As the Venus star in the Sumerian Inana and Shu-kale-tuda, Inana’s behaviour is linked to the movements of the planet;48 and in the Sumerian and the Babylonian renderings of Inana’s/Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld, one purpose of the myth is to explain why the planet is periodically invisible.49 In the Babylonian Erra and Ishum a significant number of astronomical metaphors, concepts and terminology have been identified; they are harder to render in translation than other features of the environment.50 Deforestation in the mountains is certain according to what we know of timber imports into Babylonia for many purposes at all periods. Mining and processing of metal ores certainly created poisonous conditions along with deforestation for fuelling furnaces. Salination and erosion in the fertile alluvium are also alluded to in the mythology. It is easy, but mistaken, to think of the desert as an unchanging environment: the great donkey caravans of the third and second millennia BC gave way to camel caravans early in the first millennium, and the salt desert of central Iran may have had a lake of usable water in early times. Although camel caravans do not find their way into the mythology because the essential composition took place earlier, the tribute taken from various Arabian kings includes hundreds of camels. This observation shows that the royal inscriptions of late Assyrian kings can also be used like the more established literature of the Sumerians and Babylonians, to explore environmental issues. Late in the eighth century BCE the Assyrian king Sargon II reported in a long and literary letter an account of his campaign to the mountainous region southwest of Lake Urmia. Two extracts give a poetic description of the great Zagros range that lies between modern Iraq and Iran, as given by a city dweller who leads his men over some of the harshest terrain in the world: mountains that were still covered in forests, at heights that approached heaven, trees with roots that reached down to the netherworld:


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I passed through between Nikippa and Upa, high mountains which are entirely clothed in trees – their interior is chaotic, and entering them is terrifying. Shadow spread over their surroundings like a cedar tree, and whoever makes his way there does not see the Sun’s rays. I crossed the stream Buya which runs between them 26 times, and not once did my army fear its mighty flood-waters. Simirriya, a great finger of mountain which is as sharp as the blade of a spear and whose top is even higher than the mountains where the Mistress of the Gods lives, Whose top props up the sky above, whose roots reach the depths of the Underworld below, And has no access from one side to the other, like the back(-bone) of a fish, and whose ascent from front to back is extremely arduous – Cliffs and gorges cut deeply into its sides and the very sight of it inspires terror . . . On Uwaush, a great mountain whose top like the form of a cloud presses upon the middle of heaven, Whose space no living thing has traversed since time immemorial, nor has any traveller seen its heartland; Even the birds of the sky which soar do not pass over it, nor teach their young to flap their wings there; A sharp mountain which projects upwards like the blade of a dagger, and caverns, distant mountain precipices, cut through to its roots; Through the great heat of summer and fierce cold of winter then the Bowstar (Venus) and Arrow star (Sirius) shine out morning and evening, Snow day and night pile up on top of it, every surface is coated with frost and ice, So that the body of one who passes its border is blasted by a gale of wicked wind, and his skin is burnt by fierce heat . . .51

The idea that mountains with their plentiful if dangerous waters were where the gods resided is directly stated, and reflects the concept that ziggurats (temple towers) imitated mountains as homes for the gods on the flat plains of Mesopotamia. A different landscape with its own dangers and terrors is described by Sargon’s grandson, king Esarhaddon. The stony desert lacks a feeling of contact with a divine presence, and lacks water essential for the life of gods and men: As for the land Bazu, a district in a remote place, a forgotten place of dry land, saline ground, a place of thirst, 140 leagues of desert, thistles, and gazelle-tooth stones, 20 leagues of land where snakes and scorpions fill the plain like ants – I left Hazu the mountain of saggilmut-stone 20 leagues behind me and crossed over to that district to which no king before me had gone since earliest days.52

By the time Sargon and Esarhaddon were writing, the gods had long withdrawn from the Earth, so men had to entice them down from heaven by imitating a landscape in which they had lived so long ago.

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Notes 1 The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. Edward Fitzgerald (London: Macmillan, 1903) stanza X. 2 Instructions of Šuruppag, in The Literature of Ancient Sumer, ed. and trans. Jeremy Black, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson and Gábor Zólyomi (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004), pp. 284–92. 3 The Legend of Etana, in Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, trans. and ed. Stephanie Dalley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 191–95. 4 The Palm and the Tamarisk, in Wisdom from the Late Bronze Age, trans. Yoram Cohen (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), pp. 181–98. 5 Enki and the World Order, in The Literature of Ancient Sumer, ed. Black et al., pp. 220–21. 6 Lament for Sumer and Ur, ibid., pp. 127–41. 7 Antoine Cavigneaux and Farouk Al-Rawi (eds.), Gilgameš et sa Mort. Textes de Tell Haddad VI (Groningen: Styx Publications, 2000), pp. 59–60. 8 Pausanias, Description of Greece, vol. 4, ed. and trans. W. Jones, Loeb edn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), 8.29.3–4, p. 51. 9 Myths from Mesopotamia, ed. Dalley, p. 190. 10 Ibid., pp. 198–200. 11 Ibid., p. 50. 12 Ur-Namma D, in Esther Flückiger-Hawker, Urnamma of Ur in Sumerian Literary Tradition. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 166 (Göttingen: Fribourg University Press, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1999), p. 237. 13 Lugalbanda and the Anzud Bird, in Black et al., Literature, p. 27. 14 Epic of Gilgamesh, in Dalley, Myths, p. 51. 15 Ur-Namma C, in Flückiger-Hawker, Ur-Namma, p. 211. 16 Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave, in Black et al., Literature, p. 14. 17 Lu-dingira’s Message to his Mother, in Black et al., Literature, p. 191. 18 Dalley, in Patrick Taylor (ed.), The Oxford Companion to the Garden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 308–09. 19 Gudea Cylinder A, in Dietz Otto Edzard, Gudea and his Dynasty. Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamian Early Periods 3/1 (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1997), pp. 78–79. 20 Walter Mayer, ‘Sargons Feldzug gegen Urartu’, Mitteilungen der Deutsche Orient- Gesellschaft 115 (1983), pp. 65–132. 21 Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, in Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk. 22 Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave, in Black et al., Literature, pp. 11–22. 23 Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh. A New Translation (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1999), pp. 30–36. 24 The Cursing of Agade, in Black et al., Literature, p. 119. 25 Epic of Gilgamesh, Old Babylonian version, in Dalley, Myths, pp. 138, 140. 26 Atrahasis, ibid., pp. 9–14.


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27 Epic of Creation, ibid., p. 257. 28 Enki and Ninhursag, in Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, wwwetcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk. 29 The Song of the Hoe, in Black et al., Literature, p. 312. 30 Epic of Creation, in Dalley, Myths, pp. 16–35. 31 Atrahasis, ibid., p. 35. 32 Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet VIII, ibid., pp. 91–92. 33 Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet V, ibid., p. 71. 34 Lugalbanda and the Anzud Bird, in Black et al., The Literature of Ancient Sumer, p. 24. 35 Enki and the World Order, ibid., p. 222. 36 Atrahasis, author’s trans. based on Andrew George and Farouk Al-Rawi, ‘Tablets from the Sippar Library VI. Atrahasis’, Iraq 58 (1996), pp. 177, 183. 37 Ninurta’s Exploits, in Black et al., Literature, pp. 163–80. 38 Epic of Anzu, in Dalley, Myths, pp. 205–21. 39 Inana and Ebih, in Black et al., Literature, p. 338. 40 Ninurta’s Exploits, ibid., p. 172. 41 Hymn to Ninurta, ibid., p. 187. 42 Inana and Ebih, ibid., pp. 337–38. 43 Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave, ibid., pp. 17–18. 44 Edzard, Gudea and his Dynasty, p. 84. 45 Epic of Gilgamesh, Old Babylonian version, in Dalley, Myths, p. 140. 46 Epic of Erra and Ishum, in Dalley, Myths, pp. 138, 140. 47 Simon Barnes, The Times, 24 November 2012. 48 Inana and Shu-kale-tuda, in Black et al., Literature, pp. 197–205. 49 The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld, in Dalley, Myths, pp. 154–62; Dina Katz, The Image of the Netherworld in the Sumerian Sources (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2003), pp. 65–68. 50 Jeffrey Cooley, ‘I want to dim the brilliance of Šulpae! Mesopotamian Celestial Divination and the Poem of Erra and Išum’, Iraq 70 (2008), pp. 179–88. See also Cooley, ‘Inana and Šukaletuda: A Sumerian Astral Myth’, Kaskal 5 (2008), pp. 161–72. 51 Letter of Sargon II, in Mayer, ‘Sargons Feldzug’, lines 15–21, 96–102 (author’s trans.). 52 Erle Leichty, The Royal Inscriptions of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria (680–669 BC), Royal Inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian Period, vol. 4 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), p. 31.

chapter 2

Environments of Early Chinese and Japanese Literatures KarenThornber

If nets of fine mesh do not enter pools and ponds, there will be more fish and turtles than we can consume. If axes enter the hills and forests only at the proper times, there will be more wood than we can use. Mencius (372–289 BCE)1

People’s destruction of the Primal Forces of Yin and Yang [by plowing, felling, drilling, digging, and building] is even greater [than that of vermin] . . . People make it impossible for Heaven and Earth and the myriad things to attain their true state . . . In my opinion, if there were someone/something that could afflict people and make them daily fewer and diminish year by year, and make the damage to the Primal Forces of Yin and Yang steadily decrease, then such an entity would be someone/something who had achieved merit for Heaven and Earth. Liu Zongyuan, Tian shuo (Theory of Heaven, 814)2

East Asia – understood as China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan – has long been associated with belief systems advocating reverence for nature, especially Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto, as well as numerous indigenous philosophies and religions. Popular perceptions often hold that environmental degradation in the region began in the late nineteenth century, when East Asians, pressured by Western nations, assimilated the latter’s technologies and industries. But in fact, as suggested in Mencius’ warning and Liu Zongyuan’s despair cited above, East Asian societies have long histories of transforming environments. Rhoads Murphey has gone so far as to argue: The Asian record . . . makes it clear that, despite the professed values of the literate elite, people have altered or destroyed the Asian environment for longer and on a greater scale than anywhere in the world, even in the twentieth-century West.3 37


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Murphey perhaps overstates the case, since the changes early East Asian peoples made to environments did not have the reach of those instigated by societies in the twentieth-century West. Nevertheless, the disjuncture between beliefs and behaviors is significant. The historian Mark Elvin has observed concerning China: Through more than three thousand years, the Chinese refashioned China. They cleared the forests and the original vegetation cover, terraced its hillslopes, and partitioned its valley floors into fields. They diked, dammed, and diverted its rivers and lakes. They hunted or domesticated its animals and birds; or else destroyed their habitats as a by-product of the pursuit of economic improvements. By late-imperial times there was little that could be called “natural” left untouched by this process of exploitation and adaptation . . . A paradox thus lay at the heart of Chinese attitudes to the landscape . . . On the one hand it was seen . . . as a part of the supreme numinous power itself. Wisdom required that one put oneself into its rhythms and be conscious of one’s inability to reshape it. On the other hand the landscape was in fact tamed, transformed, and exploited to a degree that had few parallels in the modern world.4

Japan’s ecosystems fared similarly: beginning in the eighth century, when agricultural practices had developed sufficiently to support consolidated ruling elites in new political centers with high timber consumption, the archipelago’s landscapes underwent significant transformations.5 Given the tumultuous environmental history of the region, it is not surprising that East Asian literatures have engaged with environmental degradation from their beginnings. This might surprise readers accustomed to the widely publicized conventional Asian literary images of Asian ecological harmony; by idealizing people’s interactions with their nonhuman surroundings and by giving the impression that East Asian peoples are inherently sensitive to the environment, that they love nature and intermingle peacefully with it, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese writers have made East Asian literatures famous for celebrating the beauties of nature. But these literatures also reveal much of the abuse to which ecosystems were subjected and disclose changing and conflicting understandings of transformed environments. The pages that follow give several examples of these phenomena in early Chinese and Japanese literatures, bringing to light understudied aspects of these creative corpuses.6 Nature takes many different guises and serves many different functions in early Chinese literature: as mood setter, as microcosm of the universe, as antagonist or refuge, as foil, as metaphor, as allegory, and as object of celebration, comparison, and contemplation.7 References to the natural

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world appear prominently in the Shijing (Classic of Poetry, 600 BCE), China’s first poetry anthology, whether as straightforward presentations, metaphorical images, or evocative descriptions.8 Han (206 BCE–220 CE) yuefu (Music Bureau poems) on capital cities and royal palaces and parks enumerate flora and fauna. Part of imperial ideological construction, these texts “[presented] the royal dwelling place as a microcosm for the whole universe.”9 The Six Dynasties (222–589) yielded the first distinct genres of Chinese landscape poetry, arguably the world’s earliest extensive literary engagement with the nonhuman.10 During this period flora and fauna were socially, religiously, and philosophically idealized in poetry of seclusion, including in the work of Zuo Si (250–305); farmstead poetry (tianyuan shi, lit. poetry of fields and gardens), particularly in the oeuvre of Tao Yuanming (365–427); and landscape poetry (shanshui shi, lit. poetry of mountains and waters), most notably in the writings of Xie Lingyun (385–433). Fostering the development of these genres were the loss of northern China to ‘barbarians,’ who drove China’s artist-intellectuals from office and forced them to the mountainous southeast; renewed attention to Daoist thought, which encouraged withdrawal and tranquility; and the embrace of elements of Indian Buddhism.11 Scholarship on depictions of nonhuman phenomena in early Chinese literature stresses their aestheticism, even artificiality; many texts are described as more visionary than visual in their portrayal of environments. At the same time, a preoccupation with linguistic construction and stylistics often obscures early Chinese literature’s attention to human injury of physical landscapes. Although greatly outnumbered by representations of ecological abundance, portraits of anthropogenically damaged or destroyed landscapes occupy an important position in the premodern Chinese literary corpus, especially poetry. On the other hand, unlike much late twentieth-century creative work on the topic, early Chinese literature is more likely to celebrate than to bemoan, much less condemn, human changes to environments. Even texts that express delight, reverence, and sensitivity vis-à-vis landscapes sometimes also rejoice in their (partial) capitulation. References to deforestation are sprinkled throughout premodern Chinese literature. This is evident from the Classic of Poetry, which was compiled during the Zhou (1045–221 BCE), a dynasty founded on the clearing of landscapes.12 “Zaishan” (Mowing Grasses), one of the two agrarian hymns in the Classic of Poetry celebrating the agricultural cycle, stresses that the first step of this cycle is clearing away grasses and trees; the poem applauds people for replacing less desirable flora with grains. Even


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more enthusiastic about this form of human manipulation of environments are selections in the Classic of Poetry such as the following: Hating the excesses of the Xia and Yin Heaven looked around and turned its sights to the west, and there it gave an abode to the Zhou. We cleared them and got rid of them, the dead trees that still stood and those that had fallen. We pruned and flattened bushes and trees that grew closely together. We opened and cleared them the tamarisks and the cane trees. We cleared away and cut wild mulberry trees. Heaven transferred the bright virtue from Yin to Zhou, their customs and virtue became grand. Heaven established a counterpart on earth, the given appointment became solid. Heaven examined the mountains, the various oaks were uprooted, the pines and cypresses were cleared, here Heaven made a state.13

Far from censuring the Zhou as excessive like the Xia and Yin in their own reshaping of landscapes, Heaven instead rejoices at these changes, recognizing them as having legitimized the new dynasty. The poem enumerates the many types of trees that have been cut and cleared, highlighting biodiversity loss: dead and fallen trees, those growing thickly together, tamarisks and canes, wild mulberries, various types of oaks, and pines and cypresses. Interestingly, the more sunlight that reaches the soil, as opposed to the treetops, the brighter the virtue; the fewer the trees and the less dense the vegetation, the more solid the imperial appointment. Cleaning land became an important marker of becoming civilized; peoples the Chinese perceived as barbarians called attention to their deforesting prowess as proof of their own progress. Other early Chinese poetry, such as the exiled Xie Lingyun’s famed “Shanju fu” (Exposition on Dwelling in the Mountains) which celebrates the wonders of lush nature and harmonious interactions between people and the landscape, simply mentions felling trees. But when deforestation notably changes environments and threatens human well-being, creative texts explicitly lament it. A poem by the late-Ming writer Jiang Tingyi comments:

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In the courtyard are many grasses and weeds, beneath the stairs are many pines and bamboos. In the morning we gather the fuel to cook our breakfast, and in the evening we take more to cook our dinner gruel. It’s easy to exhaust the pines and bamboos, and the grasses and weeds don’t grow enough . . . When we traveled through the mountains last month, the trees on the mountains appeared to pile up together, but now that we’ve come down from the mountains, we see afar they’re sharp and bare. The farmers have nothing to use as fuel, so they set on fire the axles of their water carts.14

The text is based on a landscape (the lower Yangzi region) that had been subjected to millennia of human transformations and that by the seventeenth century was chronically incapable of meeting human demands. The poem suggests that people have razed surrounding landscapes neither out of hubris nor repeatedly over time, but that when faced with an emergency they have done so quickly with no objective other than stoking their cooking fires. Depicting the inability of environments to meet human needs, Jiang Tingyi’s poem underlines people’s complete dependence on fragile ecosystems that appear to give little warning of their imminent collapse. Other premodern Chinese literature suggests that the only thing preventing animals and plants from being destroyed by humans is their perceived uselessness. The Tang (618–907) poet Du Fu’s (712–70) “Gu bo xing” (Ballad of the Ancient Cypress), for instance, features massive ancient trees, at which people and their oxen gaze but which they nevertheless do not fell when wood is needed to rebuild their great halls: “[The tree] would not object to being cut / but who would be able to send it? . . . / It has always been true that the greatest timber is hardest to put to use.”15 “Ballad of the Ancient Cypress” is the most famous poetic articulation of the metaphor of timber as talent. But the relationship that texts deploying this metaphor identify between people and trees also can be read more literally. This is particularly true of Tang poet Liu Zongyuan’s “Xing lu nan” (Troubles on the Road), which describes profligate squandering of natural resources and points to similar wasting of human talent: The axes of officials charged with managing the forests have spread through a thousand hills,


karen thornber At the orders of the Work Department they’re lumbering and hacking posts and beams For every ten trunks chopped in the depths of the forests, only one gets taken away . . . Trees of tremendous height and girth block the path Wood all over tumbling, flames on the hillsides burning, The remaining shrubs are completely unprotected, Trampled over, how could ravines and valleys exist? A group of unused wood dies young, Thrusting mountains and deep gorges now empty cliffs and ranges.16

Although highlighting the poet’s own position as an exiled government official, the line “For every ten trunks chopped in the depths of the forests, only one gets taken away” also points to needless destruction of timber. In contrast with Jiang Tingyi’s poem, where people search desperately for wood to take home, “Troubles on the Road” states explicitly that only a small fraction of chopped trees are actually hauled away. Liu Zongyuan’s poem then makes clear the long-term consequences of such activities. Imperial Chinese writers also expressed concern for the welfare of animals. The speaker of Xie Lingyun’s “Dwelling in the Mountains” is proud that he has never hunted or fished and instead finds pleasure in caring for animals.17 Poems and jottings by the Tang literatus Bai Juyi (772–846) and the Song (960–1279) literatus Su Shi (1037–1101) suggest that the scholarly elite of the middle imperial period occasionally freed animals from captivity, sparing their lives.18 And from the 1580s the custom of saving animals became more entrenched among the literati. As Joanna F. Handlin Smith has argued: More than ever before, members of the scholarly elite recorded how they, upon spotting a pig in the hands of a butcher or a chicken up for sale, hastily bought the hapless creatures and set them free. They also wrote much about their concern for animals – not just for the oxen whose labors were so valued in tilling the fields, but for birds and fish, tortoises and tiny insects; not just for plump animals destined for the cooking pots, but for irksome flies and poisonous scorpions.19

Handlin Smith sees this new sensibility as arising not simply from increasing social instability, a growing economy, and a deepening spiritual quest but also from “literati attempts to maneuver and redefine themselves in an increasingly complicated society.”20 The theme of ‘liberating lives’ became an important element of didactic tales and other writings in the late Ming (1368–1644) and early Qing (1644–1912) dynasties.

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Qing authors also devoted increased attention to other forms of ecodegradation, demonstrating strengthened environmental consciousness. Poems included in Zhang Yingchang’s (1790–1874) edited volume Qing shi duo (Qing Bell of Poesy, 1869) are particularly noteworthy. For instance, Wang Taiyue’s (1722–1785) “Tongshan yin” (Laments of the Copper Hills) describes the difficulties of miners confronted by deforestation and increasingly scarce mineral reserves: The mining paths go deeper and deeper with every day . . . What once was just a morning’s walk, now takes at least ten days. The lumber too has grown increasingly scarce, the woodlands resemble clean-shaven heads. For the first time they regret that all this logging, day after day has left them without the firewood they need . . . So fertile are the hills and seas that it seems ridiculous to ask whether they flourish only when protected by disaster . . . But if people take everything, if they have no restraint, then they will exhaust heaven and earth.21

Read literally, the poem’s concern extends beyond the mines and nearby woodlands to the biosphere more generally. Unlike much early East Asian literature, “Laments of the Copper Hills” depicts not a flourishing environment, nor even one whose damaged areas are relatively contained, but instead a world threatened by an increasingly robust and ravenous human population. The poem acknowledges that calls for caution might appear absurd, but it stresses that people in fact do have the capacity to wreak irreparable harm. Wang Taiyue’s poem and similar texts laid the foundation for twentieth-century Chinese creative negotiations with local, national, and eventually regional and global environmental degradation. So too did many works of early Japanese literature. The attention Japanese literature has devoted to nature since the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712), Japan’s oldest extant text, and the Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, eighth century), the earliest surviving collection of Japanese poetry, is often cited as evidence of Japanese ‘love of nature.’ So consistently have Japanese literature and other art forms discussed, celebrated, and demonstrated sensitivity toward the nonhuman that this ‘love of nature’ is said to have “uniquely distinguished Japan since before the advent of agriculture.”22 It is easy to understand why such beliefs have persisted, how


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attention to and appreciation of the natural world have been so readily conflated with love, and love with stewardship, despite ample empirical evidence to the contrary. To be sure, classical Japanese literature highlights the impermanence of flora and fauna. Yet theirs is a predictable, ‘natural,’ and celebrated impermanence; blossoms flourish and fade, but they do so in time with the seasons, or at least the seasons as constructed in literature, and there is no fear that they will not be replaced.23 Human transformation of landscapes generally occurs on the smallest of scales. Premodern Japanese literature mainly depicts people as seeking refuge in and drawing inspiration from nature, not as radically altering their surroundings; changes to environments, including the felling of groves to construct homes and temples, tend to be minimized. With several notable exceptions, including the waka poet Kamo no Chōmei’s (1155–1236) famed Hōjōki (Ten Foot Square Hut, 1212), it is environments that shape people, at times harming them physically or economically but most often benefiting them artistically and fulfilling them emotionally and spiritually.24 Most scholarship on depictions of nature in classical Japanese literature focuses on these representations. Yet an important subset of pre-Meiji Japanese literature – beginning with several poems in the Man’yōshū – alludes to or even speaks explicitly of significant human-induced changes to environments. To be sure, as Edwin Cranston has asserted, “the feeling for the divinity and beauty of the land is one of the most attractive aspects of Man’yō [Ten Thousand Leaves] poetry.”25 But some verses in the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves that praise Japan’s wondrous terrain also appear to be celebrating people’s notable reshaping of it. These include the anthology’s second poem: “There are crowds of mountains in Yamato, and among these is Heavenly Mount Kagu. When I [Emperor Jomei, 593–641] climb Mount Kagu and look out over the land [kunimi, lit. survey the realm], above the plains the smoke rises and rises; above the seas, the gulls rise and rise. A beautiful land, Dragonfly Island, the land of Yamato.”26 This poem describes a “land looking” (kunimi) ritual, whereby a ruler would climb a mountain and look out over the land to affirm his power and the prosperity of his terrain.27 Here the realm includes both land (kunihara, lit. land plain) and seas (unahara, lit. sea plain); the emperor claims that smoke occupies the airspace above the plains and that gulls – whose vertical ascent parallels that of the smoke, the verb tachitatsu (to rise) used to describe both – occupy the airspace above the sea. The smoke often is interpreted as manifesting the spirit of the land and the gulls as manifesting the spirit of the sea. This poem celebrates Jomei’s authority

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over both parts of his realm; his powers are such that he can see water not actually visible from the diminutive Mount Kagu.28 But what are the implications of smoke, presumably from human activity, rather than an animal or other nonhuman body, embodying the spirit of the land? Emperor Jomei’s reign (629–41) coincided with the early decades of Japan’s ‘ancient predation’ (600–850), an era of construction and logging on a scale never before seen on the archipelago as its rulers, inspired by the introduction of large-scale architecture from the Asian continent, “dotted the Kinai basin with a plethora of great monasteries, shrines, palaces, and mansions” and eventually felled all the old-growth stands in the region.29 Read ecocritically and taking into consideration historical circumstances, the poem suggests that although gulls and presumably other animals continue to flourish at sea, people have commandeered the land. Moreover, the emperor seems not in the least disturbed by these changes; in fact, he celebrates them. This smoky land not only is declared “beautiful” but also is referred to as “Dragonfly Island,” a common appellation for Japan. Flying animals give the land its name, but the fact that they no longer fly above the land is taken as a sign of progress. In addition to allusions to human encroachments on landscapes, prominent in premodern Japanese literature are creative works that contrast the ephemerality of human love/life with the endurance of the nonhuman, in the form of seeming permanence (e.g. that of a mountain) or reliable impermanence (e.g. the successful reproduction and predictable lifecycles of animals and plants). A number of Tokugawa-era kanshi (Chineselanguage poems by Japanese) echo such sentiments, including works by Hara Sōkei (1718–1767), Oka Kunshō (fl. c. 1814), and Toriyama Shiken (1655–1715) that comment on “autumn grass [that] has buried all footprints [by a grave mound],”30 depict ancient battlefields that now are places “where birds grieve . . . the setting sun illuminates green moss . . . [and] the only thing left to see is the moon moving back and forth in cold trees,”31 and assert that although “flowers and spring are never exhausted, / human and worldly affairs are completely different.”32 Some texts are more ambiguous, suggesting that it is precisely such beliefs that facilitate human shaping of environments. The celebrated Japanese writer Matsuo Bashō (1644–94) points to this phenomenon in Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1694) when he intertextualizes Du Fu’s famed “Chun wang” (Spring View). Du Fu’s poem, primarily a lament on the sorrows of war, was written on the occasion of An Lushan’s (703–57) rebellion and occupation of the Tang capital Chang’an in 755. It begins, “The kingdom is destroyed, hills and


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rivers remain; in the city in spring, grasses and trees grow deep.”33 These lines most obviously contrast fragile human life and easily crumbled human constructions with more enduring geological bodies (hills and rivers) and more quickly reproducing bodies of flora (plants and trees). But they also point to human displacement and destruction of vegetation: the mention of plants and trees growing deep in the toppled city is a reminder that before kingdoms can exist to be toppled, vegetation must be felled; the grasses and trees that now grow deep are the descendants of those cleared to build and trimmed to maintain the once magnificent capital.34 Some passages in Narrow Road to the Deep North challenge the paradigm of resilient nonhuman and ephemeral human. Confronted with the ruins of Lord Yasuhira’s house at Hiraizumi, Bashō cites Du Fu’s poem and one by his own companion Sora: “The words ‘The kingdom is destroyed, hills and rivers remain / In the city in spring, grasses grow green’ came to mind . . . [Sora wrote] ‘Summer grasses are all that remain of the drums of ancient warriors.’”35 But then, admiring the two adjacent temple halls, Bashō is relieved that former generations thought to protect their buildings; so doing, he writes, has prevented cultural properties from disintegrating and being replaced by grass. The latter sentiment exchanges respect for apprehension: the grass no longer simply endures longer than people; when left to its own devices, it threatens to disassemble human creations. Yet by speaking of earlier people’s preemptive thwarting of this vegetation, the poem also suggests that people can successfully manipulate environments. Other reconfigurations of Du Fu’s verse in Narrow Road to the Deep North are more suggestive. Admiring an enduring eighth-century monument in Ishikawa, Bashō notes: “Many places of yore have come down to us in poetry, but mountains crumble, rivers carve out new paths, covering roads and rocks with earth. Trees get old and are replaced” (81). In contrast to Du Fu’s lines, Bashō’s emphasize the instability of nonhuman bodies (mountains, rivers, rocks, trees) as compared with human creations such as poems and monuments. Changes to the environment can occur independent of human behavior, but they also can be anthropogenic: mining and forestry, both well established in Bashō’s time, can destroy mountains; dams, also prevalent in his age, can force rivers to carve out new paths; and afforestation, which he likely also witnessed, replaces trees. Nature endures, but Bashō’s ambiguous discourse suggests that its shape might be more determined by human behavior than his literary predecessors had acknowledged.

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More obviously contradictory are texts such as Yoshida Kenkō’s (1283–1350) Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness, 1332), which decries the abuse of most animals but condones that of horses and oxen: Domestic animals include the horse and the ox. It’s a shame that we have to bind and hurt them, but there’s nothing else we can do, since they’re invaluable to us . . . When animals that run are confined to pens or fastened with chains, when birds that fly have their wings clipped or are caged, their longing for the clouds and their sadness at being away from the hills and fields know no end. How can those capable of imagining how terrible they would feel under these conditions enjoy keeping such animals as pets? A person who enjoys hurting living beings is just like Emperor Jie [the last ruler of Xia, 1728–1675 BCE] and Emperor Zhou [the last ruler of Shang, 1105–1046 BCE].36

Kenkō strongly advocates the humane treatment, indeed freedom, of nearly all animals, comparing those who hurt living beings to the tyrannical and oppressive Emperors Jie and Zhou. Yet instead of suggesting how people might improve interactions with draft animals, he declares that mistreating these species is unavoidable. Revealing environmental ambiguity especially acutely are several of the tales included in the Konjaku monogatarishū (Tales from Times Now Past, 1130–40), a collection of more than one thousand stories in thirty-one volumes (of which only twenty-eight survive) that provide an unprecedented glimpse into the daily lives of medieval Japanese common people, those obscured in the Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji, eleventh century) and other celebrated classics. As Bruce Allen and Naoshi Koriyama have noted, the Tales were collected in an era when forests, together with their “resident gods, spirits, ogres, demons, and other supernatural beings,” were being cleared, when rivers were being diverted and waterways disturbed. In particular, stories such as “How a Man Copied the Lotus Sutra to Save a Dead Fox” (14:5), “A Man from Michinoku Province Who Catches Hawk’s Chicks is Saved by Kannon” (16:6), and “On Seeing a Wild Duck Mourning the Death of the Drake He Shot, a Man Becomes a Monk” (19:6) reveal the tensions between religion’s spiritual callings to preserve nature and the human need to hunt, fish, and farm to survive.37 For instance, “On Seeing a Wild Duck” centers on a samurai whose wife, weakened by childbirth, asks him for meat. Too impoverished to purchase any, he goes to a local pond, where he kills a drake and takes it home. That night, he discovers a duck flapping its wings by the dead drake. Identifying the duck as the “wife” of the drake, he becomes nearly as distraught as the animal, his “pity and sorrow . . . beyond description.” His religious feelings


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inspired, he soon leaves home to join a monastery, where he eventually becomes a high priest. The tale concludes with a warning that “the man’s sin in killing a creature was grave.”38 In this and other tales, the Konjaku monogatari reinforces the challenges people face as they attempt at once to ensure their own health, or that of their loved ones, and to demonstrate appropriate deference to the natural world. Over the centuries Chinese and Japanese writers articulated a broad range of human interactions with environments. Although explicit references to and condemnations of human-induced ecological degradation did not become prominent in East Asian literatures until the second half of the twentieth century, and although much early Chinese and Japanese literature celebrates the beauties of nature and harmonious relationships between people and the natural world, classical writings from China and Japan grappled with human transformations of environments in multiple ways, ways that are by no means unique to East Asia. In the preface to Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9/11, Iraq, the Japanese historian John W. Dower reveals that while researching this book, he found himself returning to “all the clichés about the uniqueness of Japanese culture.” Dower acknowledges that “culture,” in the conventional sense of “distinctive societies bound together by shared beliefs, values, attitudes, and practices,” is obviously important and that cultural differences matter.39 But as Dower and others have stressed, emphasis on cultural uniqueness tends to minimize important variations within individual societies. Just as significant, focus on cultural specificity, much less cultural essentialism, also can obscure the even more important resemblances among disparate societies, resemblances that enable us to understand more deeply our common humanity, and in particular the fundamental similarities of contacts between people and environments, throughout time and space, in life as well as in literature. Notes 1 Mencius expresses similar sentiments in the parable of Ox Mountain. 2 I thank Steve Owen for the reference and the translation, adapted from H.G. Lamont, “An Early Ninth Century Debate on Heaven,” p. 67. Liu Zongyuan (733–819) here is transcribing a conversation with Han Yu (768–824), another celebrated Tang (618–906) poet and prose writer. 3 Rhoads Murphey, “Asian Perspectives of and Behavior toward the Natural Environment,” in Karen K. Gaul and Jackie Hiltz (eds.), Landscapes and Communities on the Pacific Rim: Cultural Perspectives from Asia to the Pacific Northwest (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), p. 36.

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4 Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), pp. 321, 323. 5 For more on land clearance in early Japan see William Wayne Farris, Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645–900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985). 6 For a discussion of early Korean literature and environmental crises see Karen L. Thornber, Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), pp. 77–84. 7 Martin Powers, “When Is a Landscape Like a Body?,” in Wen-hsin Yeh (ed.), Landscape, Culture, and Power in Chinese Society (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California Press, 1998), pp. 1–22. 8 Xiaoshan Yang, “Idealizing Wilderness in Medieval Chinese Poetry,” in Karen K. Gaul and Jackie Hiltz (eds.), Landscapes and Communities on the Pacific Rim: Cultural Perspectives from Asia to the Pacific Northwest (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), p. 94. The Classic of Poetry contains writings that date back as far as the tenth century BCE. Stephen Owen (ed.), An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911 (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 10. 9 Yang, “Idealizing Wilderness in Medieval Chinese Poetry,” p. 94. 10 David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (New York: New Directions, 2002), pp. xiii–xxi; Zong-qi Cai, “Introduction: Major Aspects of Chinese Poetry,” in Zong-qi Cai (ed.), How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 3. 11 David Hinton, Mountain Home, p. 5; Wendy Swartz, “Pentasyllabic Shi Poetry: Landscape and Farmstead Poems,” in Zong-qi Cai (ed.), How to Read Chinese Poetry, p. 121. 12 Mark Elvin, Retreat of the Elephants, p. 42. 13 Translation adapted from Bernhard Karlgren, The Book of Odes: Chinese Text, Transcription and Translation (Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1974), pp. 193–96. 14 Zhang Yingchang (ed.), Qing shi duo (Beijing: Xinhua Shudian, 1960), p. 446. 15 Stephen Owen (ed.), An Anthology of Chinese Literature, pp. 432–33. 16 Liu Zongyuan, “Xing lu nan,” in Liu Zongyuan ji 4 (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1979), pp. 1240–41. 17 See Xie Lingyun, “Shanju fu,” in Gu Shaobo (ed.), Xie Lingyun ji jiaozhu (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou Guji Chubanshe, Henansheng Xinhua Shudian Faxing, 1987), pp. 318–34. 18 Joanna F. Handlin Smith, “Liberating Animals in Ming-Qing China: Buddhist Inspiration and Elite Imagination,” The Journal of Asian Studies 58, 1 (February 1999), p. 52. 19 Ibid., p. 53. 20 Ibid. 21 Wang Taiyue, “Tongshan yin,” in Zhang Yingchang (ed.), Qing shi duo (Beijing: Xinhua Shudian, 1960), pp. 927–28. 22 Julia Thomas, Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 8. Thomas gives


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numerous examples of Japanese assertions that the Japanese people’s “unique love of nature” provides both the nation’s aesthetic guidelines and a foundation for environmental stewardship. See also Haruo Shirane, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), which examines how Japan has appropriated, interpreted, and valued nature across the centuries and in a variety of genres: textual, cultivated, material, performative, and gastronomic. 23 Haruo Shirane and Unno Keisuke highlight the constructedness of nature in early Japanese literature, noting for instance the differences between seasonal phenomena as codified in creative work and as evident in the experienced world. Haruo Shirane and Unno Keisuke, “Ekokuriteishizumu [Ecocriticism] to Nihon bungaku – Koronbia [Columbia] Daigaku Haruo Shirane kyōju ni kiku,” Kokubungaku 52:6 (June 2007), pp. 118–32. For an introduction to impermanence in Japanese literature and culture more generally, see Charles Shirō Inouye, Evanescence and Form: An Introduction to Japanese Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). 24 The Ten Foot Square Hut describes fires, typhoons, floods, earthquakes, and aftershocks as devastating the city of Kyoto. At the same time, Chōmei emphasizes that much of the human suffering that accompanies these disasters stems from attachment to impermanent human constructions: Chōmei abandons the city and finds comfort in the hills, where he declares flowers and the moon among his best friends. 25 Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology, vol. 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 164. 26 Man’yōshū, in Nihon koten bungaku taikei 4 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1957), pp. 9–11. 27 Haruo Shirane (ed.), Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 64. The references to kunimi in Nara texts are so diverse that they point less to a single, specific ritual than a “diffuse rhetoric of ‘envisioning the realm’ that drew from a variety of disparate sources and models.” Torquil Duthie, “Envisioning the Realm: Kunimi in Early Japan.” Paper presented at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Chicago, March 27, 2009. 28 Ibid. Jomei’s ability to see what ordinary mortals cannot points to his ties to the “other world” of spirits and gods. Mount Kagu is a mere 152 meters high. 29 Conrad Totman, The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Preindustrial Japan (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998), p. 11. 30 Hara Sōkei, “Lu pang mu,” in Gozan bungaku shū, Edo kanshi shū, Nihon koten bungaku taikei 89 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1975), p. 251. 31 Oka Kunshō, “Gu zhan chang,” in Gozan bungaku shū, Edo kanshi shū, Nihon koten bungaku taikei 89 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1975), p. 261. 32 Toriyama Shiken, “Chu ri jiao xing jing gu cheng mo you gan,” in Gozan bungaku shū, Edo kanshi shū, Nihon koten bungaku taikei 89 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1975), p. 198.

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33 Du Fu, “Chun wang,” in Wu Gengshun, Chen Gang, and Wen Shaokun (eds.), Du Fu shi xuan (Jinan: Shandong Daxue Chubanshe, 1999), p. 43. 34 Michael Fuller explores other ambiguities of Du Fu’s poem in “The Aesthetic as Immanent Assent to Pattern within Heterogenity, or Wen,” in Zheng Yuyu (ed.), Zhongguo wenxue yanjiu de xin quxiang: ziran, shenmei, yu bijiao yanjiu (Taipei: Taiwan Daxue Chuban Zhongxin, 2005), pp. 74–78. 35 Matsuo Bashō, Oku no hosomichi, in Bashō bunshū, Nihon koten bungaku taikei 46 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1971), p. 84. Also contesting Du Fu’s assertions are writers such as Sakai Kozan (1798–1850), who in “Sengakuji” (Sengaku Temple) argues that “The mountain peaks might crumble and the oceans might overturn, but the souls of the forty-seven ronin will never fade.” Andō Hideo, Nihon kanshi hyakusen (Tokyo: Tairiku Shobō, 1977), pp. 122–23. 36 Yoshida Kenkō, Tsurezuregusa, in Nihon koten bungaku taikei 30 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1957), p. 187. 37 Bruce Allen and Naoshi Koriyama, “Introduction,” in Collection of Tales from Times Now Past: Stories of Fantasy and Folklore from the Konjaku Monogatari Shu (Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2015), pp. 16–22. See also Konjaku monogatari shū, Nihon koten bungaku taikei 22–26 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1963). 38 Ibid. 39 John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9/11, Iraq (New York: Norton, 2010), p. xx.

chapter 3

The Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible Deborah A. Green

The Garden of Eden – that sublime original home of Adam and Eve in which every plant, grass, animal, and tree lives in harmony, in which God walks in the “breeze of the day” – does not show up in the Bible “in the beginning . . .” (Genesis 1:1).1 In Genesis 1, God creates the entire world, including flora, fauna, and humans, without even an allusion to a garden. Genesis 2, however, introduces Eden and recounts in many ways a very different myth about creation, nature, and the intimate relationship among humans, the natural world, and God. Much work in this area has already been accomplished by Ellen Davis in her volume on the role of agriculture in the Bible and its relevance to us today.2 In Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, Davis includes a thorough study of the two creation accounts. Building on Davis’s work, this study reviews the creation myths and situates Eden within the larger framework of religion, cultivated spaces, and the human role with respect to the earth within the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The creation myths appear one right after the other. Therefore, to more fully understand the place and nature (pun intended) of the creation story in Genesis 2 and the role of Eden in the Hebrew Bible, the reader must first examine the creation narrative in Genesis 1.3 From the outset, water already exists, and is all that exists. The “earth [is] unformed and void.” Darkness and the “breath” or “wind” of God (ruah Elohim) cover the _ to the chaos that water. God creates by means of speech, bringing order 4 already exists. He moves the water. He calls for there to be an expanse to separate water above, which he names “sky,” from water below. He tells the water below to gather to one place and land appears. He names the dry part “earth” and the water part “sea.” God continues speaking until he has created the sun and moon, all the mammals, fish, and insects, as well as all the grasses and trees. After each creation, God pronounces the creation “good.” He creates man and woman last; they are the pinnacle of his creation.5 At the close of creation, God blesses the man and woman and 52

The Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible


tells them, “Be fertile and increase; fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all living things that creep on earth” (Genesis 1:28). God gives all the trees and plants that produce seeds to the humans for food. To every animal on the earth, he gives all the plants and trees, all that is “green” (Genesis 1:30). For many readers, God’s instruction to humans to “conquer” and “rule” over the earth is problematic. Some see the Bible as providing a justification for the destruction humans have wrought upon the earth so far: industrialized farming, deforestation, and excessive waste and pollution. But Ellen Davis reads this instructional verse in concert with an earlier verse in the narrative, “Let us make a man in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).”6 God declares that humans should be like Him; not to conquer the earth and thereby destroy it, but to care for the plants, animals, and earth as God does, so that they may grow and multiply. God demonstrates his care for humans by giving the couple every plant that has seeds for food. As Davis points out, the authors have ordered the creation, called each creation “good,” and demonstrated the human role within creation. Davis asserts that the role of humans on earth includes acting responsibly, justly, and appreciatively toward God’s creations as humans are part of the process and exist in the image of God. Many scholars argue that this narrative was authored by those of the Priestly tradition (the P source) after the exile of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. As a result, the priests are writing a creation narrative informed by hindsight about Israel’s history with respect to the land and how that interaction is woven into the fabric of Israel’s relationship with God. This quality of retrospection imparts a certain irony in the text. As Davis notes: What is stated in Genesis 1:28 is that humans play a special role, both powerful and responsible, in maintenance of the order that God has established. The earth may be “conquered,” that is, claimed for God’s purposes and rendered hospitable to the whole created order. Opposition to God, from whatever quarter, can be overcome. What is left unstated here – but should be burned into the memory and moral understanding of those who hear – is that land, the habitable earth, can be lost in penalty for disobedience. Again, what is left unsaid, but is clarified in the third chapter of Genesis and then reinforced time and again through the rest of Scripture, is that humans are the primary source of opposition to God, the source of most if not all threats to the integrity of the created order.7

Davis refers to the “rest of Scripture”; that is, Israel’s acceptance of the Covenant at Sinai after redemption by God from slavery in Egypt,


deborah a. green

settlement in the land of Canaan, disobedience and iniquity by not following the Covenant, and eventual exile as a result. The Covenant represents Israel’s agreement to follow all of God’s precepts and commandments.8 It is a bilateral covenant, meaning that both sides agree to certain conditions. Israel agrees to worship God and only God, as opposed to worshipping another god or gods, and to follow and carry out the commandments. God agrees to make the land fertile and productive and to secure peace for Israel in its relations with its neighbors. If Israel does not maintain its side of the bargain, God will ensure that rain does not fall (the primary source of water in the region), the earth will dry up, drought and famine will ensue, and Israel’s enemies will attack and exile the community. Much of the rest of the Bible describes Israel’s deviation from the ritual, social, moral, and ethical prescriptions and proscriptions of the Covenant. The prophets implore the Israelites to remember the Covenant and to stop violating its terms. They often focus on the Covenant’s requirement to eschew foreign gods and “nations” and to believe and follow only Israel’s God. The prophets also enjoin Israel to follow the Covenant’s moral stipulations and ethical guidelines (e.g. to welcome the stranger and to care for the poor, widow, and orphan – those who are the most vulnerable in society). The prophets speak the words of God and echo the curses laid out in the terms of the Covenant. Viewed through a prophetic lens, natural catastrophes, destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and exile are the result of the Israelites failing to follow the Covenant. Throughout the entire text of the Bible, the earth and humans and God are in a dynamic association; their actions and reactions are inseparable. While Davis argues that Genesis 1 alludes to the tripartite relationship among humans, God, and the earth, the narratives of the creation of Eden (Genesis 2) and Adam and Eve’s first act of disobedience in the garden (Genesis 3) articulate and define that relationship clearly. And that relationship resonates in the Covenant’s requirements and promises. The beginning of creation seems to drop the listener into the middle of an ongoing story: 2:5

No shoot of the field was yet in the earth, and no grass of the field had yet sprouted; for God YHWH9 had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground;


But a mist10 went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground.


Then God YHWH formed man11 of the dust of the ground, and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils; and the man became a living being.

The Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible


2:8 And God YHWH planted a garden in Eden, in the east. There he put the man whom he had formed. 2:9 And out of the ground God YHWH caused to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food, with the tree of life also in the midst12 of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 2:10 And a river goes out of Eden to water the garden. And from there it was parted, and became four heads.

The next four verses impart information about the four rivers: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates. The text continues: 2:15 And God YHWH took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and to keep it. 2:16 And God YHWH commanded the man, saying: “Of every tree of the garden you may surely eat; 2:17 But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it. For on the day that you eat from it, you will surely die.”

The narrative in Genesis 2 is more personal than Genesis 1. It refers to God by name: YHWH.13 God is physically active in his creation work, and the text employs words and activities more akin to a craftsman. YHWH “forms” man out of the earth, “plants” a garden, and “builds” the woman from the man’s rib. This God is physically close to his creation. He blows the breath of life into the man’s nostrils (Genesis 2:7), and later he must take the man’s rib and reseal the man in order to build the woman (Genesis 2:21). And this God has an emotional interest in his creations. He says that it is “not good for the man to be alone. I will make a fitting helper for him” (Genesis 2:18).14 When no suitable mate can be found for the man among the animals, YHWH makes a woman for the man. Unlike Genesis 1, in which God tells the couple to have dominion over the earth, in this second account, God creates man because “there is no man to work the earth” (Genesis 2:5). Once YHWH creates the man, he explicitly tasks the man to “work” (or serve) in the garden and to “keep” (or guard) it.15 The nuances of these words are easily missed by contemporary readers. The verb ‘work’ (’avad) also means to ‘serve’ in the sense that priests serve or work for God in the Temple. The noun ‘slave’ (or ‘servant,’ ’eved) derives from this root as well. These connotations indicate that the man serves God by cultivating the earth; in essence, by being his gardener. Likewise, the verb ‘keep’ (shamar) has the additional meanings to ‘watch’ over something or someone, to ‘preserve,’ or to ‘protect.’ These senses require the man to watch over the garden and


deborah a. green

to protect it so that it remains fertile.16 If the man’s job is to cultivate and maintain the garden at God’s behest, then it is God who has dominion. The garden belongs to God, and Adam is his servant. Unlike Genesis 1, there is no ambiguity in this narrative. The Covenant echoes God’s power and ownership even more clearly when referring to the land that the Israelites will soon possess, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:23). The land belongs to God. And, humans belong to God as servants or slaves, “For the Israelites are servants (’avadim) for me; they are My servants whom I freed from the land of Egypt. I am YHWH your God” (Leviticus 25:55). The Israelites are also required to protect the land and keep it fertile by giving it rest (a Sabbath) every seven years and in the year of the Jubilee (the fiftieth year); they are not to plant, prune, or harvest (Leviticus 25:1–17). Returning to the Eden narrative, the text references a variety of water sources: rain, mist or springs, and rivers. The ambiguity between the fields needing rain (2:5) and the garden being “watered” by the river (2:10) would remind the hearer of the differences between Israel and other lands. For example, in Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the Exodus from Egypt and wandering forty years in the wilderness; he rearticulates the Covenant; and intones the blessings and curses that may come about once Israel enters the land. Throughout, Moses reiterates God’s words and reminds Israel again and again to follow the Covenant: Keep (shemartem) every commandment that I command you this day, so that you will be strong to enter and possess the land that you are crossing into in order to possess. And therefore, you will long endure upon the earth that YHWH swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey. For the land that you are entering in order to possess it is not like the land of Egypt from which you went out. There you planted your seed and watered it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, is watered17 by the rains of heaven. It is a land that YHWH, your God, looks after always and on which YHWH, your God, keeps his eyes from year’s beginning to its end (Deuteronomy 11:8–12).

The text refers to Egypt and the Nile, which may be easily irrigated and therefore makes farming as easy as cultivating a vegetable garden. It also recalls Israel’s hill country where the first settlements took place and beneath which lay Israel’s most arable land. But unlike Egypt, Israel’s

The Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible


fields require rain, and the amount of rain depends on Israel’s ability to adhere to the Covenant. The logic of Moses’ words is that if Israel does not ‘protect,’ ‘preserve,’ ‘keep’ God’s Covenant, God will withhold the rain.18 Returning to the Garden of Eden, it is difficult to get a clear sense of its boundaries. We are told that it is east of the created mass.19 Regardless of the translation, the Hebrew text is unclear about whether Eden is the whole of creation and the garden a subset, or whether Eden is only the garden. Unlike the descriptions in Genesis 1, God makes things grow in this garden that are pleasant for sight and taste. And once the text has introduced the idea of ‘pleasantness,’ the reader is left to wonder where things grow that are not for food or particularly beautiful. If there is another place outside of the garden, are there other plants there? It is possible that Eden is the entire geographic area, and the garden a subset because water initiates from Eden and waters the garden before it separates into four rivers. The size of the watercourse must be enormous in order to sustain four rivers – two of which, the Tigris and the Euphrates, were big and long, and at the center of civilization. As for the Trees of Life and Knowledge, the text reveals virtually nothing. What are their fruits? The Tree of Life is in the center or midst of the garden, but where is the Tree of Knowledge? The text is very elusive.20 It is apparent, though, that the Garden of Eden is domesticated space, ordered, with particular flora and fauna. God commands Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 2:16–17). From Eve’s answers to the snake, however, it seems that Adam told Eve not to even touch the tree: “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die’” (Genesis 3:2–3). The snake dupes Eve into touching the tree. When she does not die as Adam had told her she would, she eats. Then she hands the fruit to Adam, and he eats. Once they have eaten of the forbidden fruit, they feel shame about their naked bodies and sew together fig leaves for cover (Genesis 3:7).21 When the two hear God walking22 in the “breeze of the day,”23 they become afraid and hide (Genesis 8). The first two emotions that Adam and Eve feel are shame and fear. Next it will be guilt and remorse, for God questions them and, learning of the truth, curses them and bans them from the Garden. God says to Adam: 3:17 The ground is cursed on account of you. By toil24 you will eat All the days of your life.


deborah a. green 3:18 You will cause thorns and thistles to grow; And you will eat the grass of the field. 3:19 By the sweat of your nose You will eat bread, Until you return to the earth Because from it you were taken. For you are dust, And to dust you will return.

Although Adam is already gardening in Eden, God’s curse indicates that Adam has not had to work hard. Now he will be farming: plowing, planting fields, weeding, harvesting, threshing, and finally baking. This is a myth that explains many facets of human life and social order. But God’s curse to Adam clarifies why we toil for our food. In comparison to life after the Garden, life in the Garden was one of relaxation, tranquility, good food, and pleasant foliage to look at. It was Paradise.25 Adam did not work by the “sweat of [his] nose” – an apt metaphor for Adam and his progeny who will bend over in fields of wheat with their noses almost to the ground. Of note, at the time of the curse, God has not yet banished Adam and Eve from the Garden, but he has already decided that they will die. To be human, to exist outside of the Garden, is backbreaking work that must be done in order to feed oneself. And at the end of life, when one can no longer work, to be human is to return to nonexistence, to die. Before Adam and Eve get a chance to eat from the Tree of Life, God exiles them from the Garden. He stations two cherubs and a sword of fire at the entrance (Genesis 3:24). Cherubs are not little decorative angels one sees on notecards. On the contrary, as described in Ezekiel (chapters 1 and 10), they are fiery beings whose duties include guarding God’s chariot (throne). They stand among the wheels and move with it. They have two pairs of massive wings that make a loud sound when they move. They have hands underneath the wings, and fire, lightning, and coals move among the cherubs. They have legs that are fused into a single rigid leg. They each have four faces (human, lion, ox, eagle), and they can move in the direction of any one of the four faces without turning. Cherubs are scary in the sense of being big, magnificent, and otherworldly. Angels are referred to as God’s “hosts,” particularly in the Psalms, because they serve as God’s soldiers and guards. The “host in heaven” is God’s army. The two fiery cherubs in the Garden narrative stand guard for all time at the burning entrance to Eden. No one may enter. In addition to God having his military representatives guard the entrance to Eden, there are many other details in the Eden description

The Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible


that point toward the Garden as a royal garden or palace. Throughout the ancient Near East, royal gardens and orchards (these terms are somewhat interchangable in the Bible and later Jewish literature) appear in the literature and in the archaeological record. Gardens are a form of highly domesticated nature. Humans need to plant, weed, and prune them as they do fields and groves – but usually on a much smaller scale, and much closer to a house. Vegetables and leafy greens were common plantings in everyday gardens as these required special attention and probably more water per plant than bulk crops. A royal garden, however, enabled a king to move beyond the ordinary. He was able to demonstrate his wealth and power through complex design, the cultivation of exotic plants and animals, and construction of attractive waterways and drains, porticos, and paths. Unlike planted fields and groves of necessary crops or fruit trees, royal gardens afforded a certain kind of freedom and display of luxury and indulgence. The text links Eden to a royal garden by indicating that YHWH “caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). He also grows trees that are so exotic, they are sui generis (the Trees of Knowledge and Life). Gardens of the royalty and other elites were often enclosed with walls, tall trees, or gates as Eden is. In 589 BCE, when King Zedekiah and the city of Jerusalem fall to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (final destruction of the city and Temple is in ~586 BCE), the Babylonians lay siege to the city for more than a year, perhaps two years. Finally they breach the city wall. Zedekiah’s troops wait until nighttime and then flee “through the gate between the double walls, which is near the king’s garden” (2 Kings 25:10; Jeremiah 39:4).26 King Zedekiah’s garden is walled. So too, God must have some kind of barrier all around Eden, as Adam and Eve cannot return through the gate or anywhere else. The archaeological record demonstrates the existence of an imperial palace and very large garden at Ramat Rahel, just south of Jerusalem, during the Persian period (after the Jews _ return to Judea to rebuild the Temple). This imposing garden sat at the top of a large hill that was leveled and cleared on three sides to enlarge the garden and make it more prominent from below. The garden served as a reminder to all the people below of who was in power. It not only had lovely waterways, it also introduced new species of plants into the area (e.g. citron and black walnut). Maintaining such a garden would have required skilled labor in terms of gardeners and builders – much like Adam in Eden. God’s stroll in the garden in the afternoon would have recalled for


deborah a. green

the listener several narratives or even personal experience of royal or imperial gardens. In some cases, entire cities are compared to Eden or God’s royal garden. The prophet Isaiah comforts Israel after destruction, desolation, famine, and war (Isaiah 51:19) by proclaiming: a a1 b b1

Truly YHWH has comforted Zion; Comforted all her ruins. He has made her wilderness like Eden; Her desert like the garden of YHWH.

(Isaiah 51:3)

Biblical poetry often employs ‘parallel structure’ in which the idea, words, or meaning in the a stich of the verse repeats or is amplified, embellished, or deepened in the b stich of the verse. In stich a of this verse, God comforts Zion (Jerusalem) because the city and the people are in “ruins” (a1). The b stich repeats the idea, as God restores Zion to a level that is even better than her original position, “He has made her wilderness like Eden and her desert like the garden of God.” The poetry also compares the destroyed city of Zion, wherein God established his palace (i.e. the Temple), to the “wilderness” and “desert.” Destruction is thereby parallel to the untamed wild and the dry, unproductive, and unyielding desert. Because the inhabitants did not follow the Covenant, God destroyed both Judea’s magnificent city and caused the land to return to chaos or wilderness and to dry up and become like desert. The comfort of stich b indicates a return to the Covenant by which the inhabitants of Judea will find sustenance and peace. The unarticulated promise is that God’s palace (the Temple) will be reconstructed, and his garden (the land) renewed. In another example, the prophet Ezekiel proclaims the fall of Tyre at the hands of Nebuchadnezzer and equates Eden to Tyre in order to convey its beauty before destruction. God explains that “because Tyre gloated” over the fall of Jerusalem, God will “hurl many nations” against it, “as the sea hurls its waves” (Ezekiel 26:1–3). In Ezekiel 28, God commands Ezekiel to sing a dirge over the king of Tyre: 12 You were the seal of perfection Full of wisdom and flawless in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; Every precious stone was your adornment . . .. 14 . . . And you resided on God’s holy mountain You walked among stones of fire.

The Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible


In these verses, the king of Tyre resided in a veritable Eden – the garden of God. Although the reference in verse 14 to “God’s holy mountain” typically refers to Jerusalem in the Bible, here the prophet refers instead to the city of Tyre. Although YHWH’s prophet affirms Tyre’s beauty, he does so as a reminder that the “garden,” the entire city, belongs to God. Similarly, when God proclaims against Egypt that it too will be wiped out, he refers to the “Nile as my own” (Ezekiel 29:3). Tension builds in the prophecy cycle against Lebanon and Egypt. In chapter 31, Ezekiel declares to the Pharoah in Egypt and “his hordes” that the only land comparable to Egypt was Lebanon. The chapter continues with an extended metaphor of Lebanon’s beauty and fertility having exceeded that of Eden. Lebanon had trees that were leafy, shady, and taller than all others. And, similar to Genesis 2, these bountiful trees were nourished by abundant water that welled up in order to water them. The branches multiplied and grew so big that: 6 In its branches nested All the birds of the sky; All the beasts of the field Bore their young under its boughs . . . 8

Cedars in the garden of God Could not compare with it; Cypresses could not match its boughs, And plane trees could not vie with its branches No tree in the garden of God Was its peer in beauty


I made it beautiful In the profusion of its branches; And all the trees of Eden envied it In the the garden of God.

Verse 6 recalls the creation in Genesis 1 by describing “the birds of the sky” and “the beasts of the field.” And, just as Genesis 2 recounts that all the animals lived together in Eden (Genesis 2:20), so too do the animals in Lebanon. Ezekiel expands upon the images of fecundity and fertility in Eden by exclaiming that in Lebanon all the animals give birth under the lush and verdant branches of the trees. In the poem’s climax, Ezekiel announces that cedars, cypresses, and plane trees in Eden could not compare to those of Lebanon. In fact, the trees of Eden were jealous of the Lebanese trees; that is, the garden of Lebanon was bigger, more beautiful, and richer than God’s garden. In a demonstration of wealth and strength by the size and bounty of the king’s garden, one could say


deborah a. green

that the garden of the king of Tyre (i.e. Lebanon) outsripped that of God, the ruler of the universe. But the poem pulls back from this declaration of superiority by inserting God’s statement, “I made it beautiful.” God is the ruler in charge, and the prophecy continues with God bringing about the utter destruction of Lebanon because of its haughtiness and arrogance. Through Ezekiel, God reminds the Pharoah of Egypt that “I delivered it into the hands of the mightiest of nations” (Ezekiel 31:11). Like Judea, Lebanon falls at the hands of the Babylonians. Although there was no covenant between God and Lebanon, God banishes the inhabitants of the land and destroys the garden entirely. He causes all of the garden (Lebanon) to descend into Sheol (the netherworld) along with the people. At the end of the prophecy, God applies the metaphor to Egypt as he affirms that Lebanon was “comparable to you in glory and greatness among the trees of Eden. And you too shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the lowest part of the netherworld; you shall lie among the uncircumcised and those slain by the sword” (Ezekiel 31:18). Ezekiel also uses Eden as means by which to gauge Israel’s return to God’s favor and his return of the people to their land. God consoles the Israelites by telling them that he will cause the nations to know him by showing himself through the Israelites. God will gather the Israelites from all the countries of their dispersion; he will purify them with water; and he will cleanse them from the impurities they have acquired through sin and idol worship. God will remove the Israelites' hearts of stone and replace them with human hearts (Ezekiel 36:23–26). He avows, “I will put my spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow my laws and faithfully to observe my rules. Then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people and I will be your God” (36:27–28). God asserts that he will make the grain, the fruit trees, and all the crops abundant so that there will be no famine. The people will recall their evil ways and atone. And, once God has purified the people from the filth of their iniquities, God will rebuild the settlements and renew the land through tilling (36:33–34). YHWH declares, “And men shall say, ‘The land, once desolate, has become like the garden of Eden; and the cities, once ruined, desolate, and ravaged, are now populated and fortified’” (36:35). “Eden” (“the garden of God”), appears more times in the book of Ezekiel than in any other book of the Hebrew Bible. In the writings of this Jewish prophet in captivity in Babylon, a memory of what happened to Israel because it failed to follow the Covenant floats to the surface. The calamities of drought, famine, war, and exile have already occurred.

The Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible


But in the memory also lies the answer to renewal and the message of consolation: follow the Covenant and the land will return to its productive and fecund state through the work of the human gardener. Then the land will be like Eden. The echo of Genesis 2 can be heard time and again in Ezekiel. But for Israel, the perfect garden is the tilled garden and the field that produces food. The key to that perfection is through following the Covenant, both its laws and its moral statutes. While many of the laws as written in the Covenant may not apply to our current beliefs, perhaps the ethical codes and pursuit of social justice and protection for the more vulnerable in our society might help the earth replenish itself. The land is not really ours, we are merely its caretakers. Notes 1 All translations are those of the author unless otherwise noted. 2 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). 3 Davis makes a case for considering Genesis 1 as a poem rather than a narrative. Ibid., pp. 42–48. 4 Scholars have often noted the relationship of Genesis 1 to the Babylonian Epic of Creation in which Marduk conquers and kills Tiamat, goddess of the water, and builds man from her body. Stephanie Dalley refers to this event in her chapter in this volume, p. 27. Of note, water has no personality in the Genesis 1 narrative, ostensibly to set precedence in the text that there is only one God. Some of the Psalms, however, depict the water as somewhat uncompliant with or afraid of God (e.g. 33, 74, 77, 89, 93, and 114); see also Proverbs 8:24–29. 5 The text first describes the creation of the man and then states “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Rabbinic interpretation includes a discussion of the hermaphroditic Adam and Eve, who are separated in the second creation narrative (i.e. Gen. 2) (Gen. Rab. 8:1). 6 Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, pp. 53–59. 7 Ibid., pp. 62–63. 8 The Ten Commandments are the first ten of the many commandments. Of note, Jews and Christians count the commandments slightly differently. 9 Common translations employ “Lord God,” but the translation should be more akin to “God YHWH” (commonly pronounced as “Yahweh”). This biblical text is considered to be part of the source tradition known as the Yahwist (or J) source because it uses God’s name. The correct pronunciation of the four letters of God’s name (tetragrammaton) are not known. Jewish tradition holds that only the high priest knew the name and said it only once per year, on the Day of Atonement, as he stood in the Holy of Holies (the innermost sanctum of the Temple) in order to supplicate God on behalf of Israel. The


10 11

12 13 14 15 16 17 18



21 22 23 24 25 26

deborah a. green pronunciation of the name was passed on in secret among the priests and so lost sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple. Some kind of water that comes up from the ground. The text uses the term adam to refer to the “man.” Hence, Adam’s name. The root also refers to the color red (adom) and is employed in the term for “earth” (adamah). Can also be “center.” See note 8 above. In Hebrew, the word for ‘fitting’ (kĕnegdô) has the literal sense of “as in front of him” or “as opposite him” in the sense of a pair. See Dalley, p. 28 above, on the Epic of Atrahasis. The idea of watching over, or protecting, someone or something includes the nuance of ‘guarding’ in the Bible. Literally, “drinks its water.” Another, albeit more tenuous, parallel can be found between the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Tigris and Euphrates are considered to be located in the ‘cradle of civilization.’ Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylonia, each a great empire, evolve along the banks of these rivers. Likewise, the greatest empire at the time of Israel’s formation and in proximity to it was Egypt. Egypt, considered the ‘bread basket’ of the region, evolved on the banks of its river, the Nile. See Stordalen, who disagrees. He believes that the word ‘east’ should be translated as “from the beginning”; both are possible readings. He also views Eden as a place, not at the center of the earth from which the rivers emanate but at the edge of the earth near the nexus of earth and heaven. Terje Stordalen, Echoes of Eden: Genesis 2–3 and Symbolism of the Eden Garden in Biblical Hebrew Literature (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), pp. 261–70. In fact, some commentators believe two separate narratives have been woven together: one about the Tree of Life and the other about the Tree of Knowledge. See Claus Westermann, Genesis 1–11: A Continental Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion S.J. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), pp. 211–14. Stordalen disagrees; Stordalen, Echoes of Eden, p. 229. Literally, “pacing,” or “walking back and forth.” Likely, “afternoon.” Literally, “pain.” In the sense of, “your work will be painful.” A loan word from the Persian word pardes, which means “orchard” or “park.” The account of the rebuilding of the Temple also refers to the “King’s garden” (Neh. 3:15). Other royal gardens include those of King Manasseh and his son, King Amon, who were buried in the palace garden (2 Kings 21:18, 26) and King Ahasuerus (Esther 1:5; 7:7).

chapter 4

Ecopoetics and the Literature of Ancient India Murali Sivaramakrishnan

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. (Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac)

Yato vaco nivartante, aprapya manasa saha, anandam brahmano vidvan, na bibheti kadacana [Whence words return along with the mind, not attaining it, he who knows that bliss of Brahman fears not at any time.] (Taittiriya Upanishad, iv)1

History tells us that humans have constantly transformed nature and the environment, altering our perceptions in the process. In part, social, economic and industrial revolutions on a global scale have hastened these transformations. The increased pollution of air, water and earth has added to the mounting global pressures of waste disposal, depleting biodiversity, habitat destruction, and population expansion, and threatened an inevitable, enduring transformation of life on the planet, assuming humanity’s hazardous march continues on a similar scale. Both the so-called developing and developed nations face this global crisis. A recognition the world over of the limits to growth and the absurdity of the metanarrative of development and progress calls for a desperate reassessment of the very system that has instigated this blind march to destruction. A spatio-temporal dimension to the study of environment can recognize, by attending to different cultural environments and traditions, that we cannot continue naively to distinguish nature from ourselves, that nature is inbuilt into everything, including ourselves, our own nature. The value we attribute to the environment should be holistic and complete, not peripheral and derivative. We need to understand how our perception of nature and ourselves has undergone drastic transformation and when and where the human’s being might have been identified more completely with the non-human world. While that is a reason for studying 65


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the literature of ancient India, such literature also indicates where environmental aesthetics can step in. In day-to-day life we habitually turn to the physical sciences for concurrence and approval because only they appear to account convincingly for our corporeal experience. Similarly, in spite of their theoretical inclinations the social sciences gain sanction only by following the methodology of the non-human mathematical sciences. As perceptive intellectuals have pointed out, our thinking and perception have been determined by the cultural/technological environment rather than the natural, while our lives have become removed from the organic unity of the poetic and the spiritual. How, then, can we expect to see and sense the elemental harmony that was so apparent and palpable to the ancient Upanishadic seer who sang: iyam prthivi sarvesam bhutanam madhu, asyai prthivyai sarvani bhutani madhu [This earth is like honey for all the creatures and all the creatures are like honey for this earth (Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad, II, V Brahmana.1)]. An ecologically sensitive critical thinking has evolved by virtue of a historically necessary recognition that ‘Nature’ as a living concept and existential being is intrinsically valuable in itself. It is not contingent on human being, nor there for human disposition and dispensation; indeed, nature’s resource is not, we now realize, unending. Such eco-sensitive theorizing can have political, economic, literary or aesthetic implications when the dominant paradigm is questioned and confronted by alternative beliefs, traditions and poetics. I will contend here that aesthetics belongs to the order of ecological value; it is not to be dismissed as mere sensual perception but is something that offers a more general ‘aesthetic-ethical’ framework. That framework, available in the historically grounded literature of India that I will be describing, is one that issues a challenge to our contemporary, globally dominant model.

An Inclusive Vision and Organic Worldview It is now a commonly held view that before the advent of Western ideas of development and progress, inflicted through the expansion of colonies and the empire, highly evolved and literate societies in India had already given emphasis to an environmentally balanced way of life wherein nature was sacralized and worshipped, and all life forms were looked upon with equal reverence and respect. In several ways these age-old practices, though with inevitable differences, have continued into the present. Of course, many significant attempts have been made to explicate the now-fragmented

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environmental implications in the Hindu way of life, most especially around the Rig Vedic hymns and the Jainist and Buddhist ways of living.2 Arguably concepts like vasudaiva kutumbakam (“the entire living universe is one family of Vasudeva”) have been unduly overemphasized in order to highlight the integral nature of the Hindu religious vision. However, much more remains to be unearthed and brought forth into current scholarly debates in this direction. In the many acts of Indian spiritual traditions there remain traces of an eco/logical wisdom that is dormant and hieratic. The term ‘Hindu’ is complex and I use it only to show its distinct geographical and spiritual connections. ‘Hinduism’ has only fairly recently in history been tied down into the concept of a single, homogenized belief system and was, historically, a geographic, social and cultural term. The Persians used to refer to the river Indus as Sindhu, and the people who lived on this side of the river came to be called Hindus. There is no word akin to this in any of the Indian languages, but the way of life referred to by this term does share common roots with Jainism and Buddhism (in being dependent on dharma) as well as the many secular and radical belief systems which existed side by side. In highlighting the concepts and practices of an earlier time, it is important not to fall into fundamentalist or essentialist views. This is especially so in the case of ancient India where literature, art and culture were all spiritually motivated and where an inclusive vision requires our notice.3 Often absent in accounts of the Hindu vision, religion and worship, art forms, logic and metaphysics mingle with the aesthetic in a combination of celebration and beatitude. The ecstasy of art as the ancient Sanskrit aestheticians saw it is akin to the ecstasy of God-experience – rasasvada brahmasvada sahodaraha! Nature, art and the experience of the spiritual – these form a triad, which together with their conceptual aesthetic constitute the locus of an ecopoetic. At no point is the aesthetic sidelined or relegated to the background, while beauty, as saundarya, occupies a significant space in living experience. For beauty formed part of the foundations of an ancient Indian religio-spiritual tradition which bears testimony to that attitude of reverence for all life forms and their presence and function in rituals that govern conceptions of ecological harmony. My attempt here will be to highlight certain cardinal issues in the context of reading some Upanishadic mantras that would contribute to the foundations of an ecological aesthetics and ethical thought. The Upanishads are a source for both the margi and desi traditions of art-activity and performance. Bharata Muni’s Natya Sastra (c. first century CE) is considered the foundational Indian treatise on performing


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arts, including the visual, theatre, dance and music. The tradition of the Natya Sastra came to be known as Margi, literally of the highway, or otherwise classical. However, there were innumerable regional and local traditions and these came to be seen as Desi, the folk, or of the people. A diverse and multifaceted Indian culture encapsulated both these rich streams. Further, not all systems of Indian beliefs have been theistic, for there have been dissident voices raised by the radical rationalistic Lokayata4 and by materialistic cults too. Nevertheless, one can trace the textures of a unique spiritual, and ecological, aesthetic via the Upanishads which follow upon the line of thinking derived from the Vedic texts.5 It is strange that there is little or virtually no significant artistic or architectural residue of the Vedic tradition:6 it was primarily an aural– oral culture. But as we have seen, conceptual ideas of beauty as abiding and potent have survived from these early times. This is not specifically through the reverential notions engendered by latter-day religious worship or its iconic representations, but through the idea of the poetic as integral to any spiritual understanding of life and living.

The Literature of Early India Early Indian literature can be grouped under two general heads: primary scriptures (Sruti) and secondary scriptures (Smriti). The Sruti scriptures are held to be of divine origin, whose truths were directly revealed to the ancient rishis (sages) during their profound meditations. The Smriti scriptures are of human origin and were written to explain the Sruti writings and make them understandable and meaningful to the general public. Sruti scriptures include the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva) and the Bhagavad Gita, textually incorporated into the Mahabharata. Smriti scriptures include five distinct groups of writings: Itihasas (History or Epics), Puranas (Myths and legends), Dharma Sastras (Codes of Law), Agamas and Tantras (scriptures of various sects and schools), and Darshanas (manuals that offer philosophical insights under six heads: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimasa and Vedanta). Entering this terrain, our commonly held notions of literature and the literary need to be gently laid aside: because here we encounter philosophical speculations, religious practices, spiritual insights and a host of socio-political practices couched for the most part in the language of the human imagination – an imagination, including an aesthetics, that connects to larger questions of ethics and value. The borderlands of literature disappear.

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The earliest literary evocations in the Indian subcontinent are, as mentioned, the Vedas: these texts are mantric (incantatory) codes that harbour insights for living and encountering the real in the world. The Vedic texts offer motifs and views of life as ritual and the idea of the self as an offering. Such understandings have survived as symbolic rituals and celebratory acts up to the present (albeit with a few changes as they are upheld by Brahmanical rites and practices). These ideas are elaborated in the manner in which the mantras – spiritually codified incantations – are chanted, and in the use of specific materials and forms of ritualistic worship. The Vedic vision in such texts posits life itself as cyclical (e.g. the Vedic poets structured their thought in terms of Chhandas, or universal rhythm). The Vedas have likewise been seen as secular narratives poetically encompassing the pastoral vision of the ancient people of the Indo-Gangetic plains. Nevertheless, many insightful scholars have perceived in the Vedic mantras a symbolic structure, an outer exoteric order combined with an inner esoteric meaning that makes sense only to the initiated.

Upanishads – Structure and Texture The Upanishads are intellectual renderings or philosophical speculations that branched off from the Vedic codes. They are often called Vedanta, vedasya antah, the end of the Veda, encapsulating the essence of their wisdom. They occurred around the eighth and seventh century BCE and belong to what Karl Jaspers calls the Axial Era of the world. Romila Thapar dates the composition of the Brahmanas and the Upanishads from 700 BCE onwards.7 Though there are more than the 108 Upanishads that are traditionally held to be canonical, Sankaracharya edited and commented on only eleven: Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitereya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka and Svetasvatara. These have come to be held as the principal Upanishads.8 The wisdom of the Upanishads is couched in the language of esoteric mysticism, because the devas, it is said, love the secretive, and not the obvious. Parokshapriya iva hi deva, pratyaksha dvisah (“the devas, the divine creatures, are fond of the cryptic and the enigmatic; they do not contribute to the obvious and the evident”). However, while scholars of ancient Indian literature have concentrated, in their search for ecologic connections, only on selected Vedic passages – e.g. the text of the Bhagavad Gita, the nature connection in the Buddhist, or non-violent idea in the Jain, tradition – nowhere is the human concern with nature and human


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environment more clearly evidenced than in the early texts of the Upanishads. A great wealth of environmental thought remains hidden here, as do other alter/native narratives. Similarly, if one were to dig a little deeper into the traditions of different regions and tribal and folk narratives, one could reach other dimensions of the human nature nexus. The mantras of the Upanishads encode a pan-Indian vision of the aesthetic dimensions of the environment, and an ecological wisdom thereby linking aesthetics with a spiritual value that is intrinsic and not derivative. It is my contention that they evidence a profound relevance to our own times, and that their obvious link to ecology, poetics and theory forms the foundation of Indian ecopoetics.9

The Metaphysical Democracy Each Upanishad is single-minded in its pursuit of metaphysical problems fundamental to this nexus. The term ‘Upanishad’ is derived from upa (near) ni (down) and shad (to sit), i.e. sitting down near. Groups of pupils sat near the teacher to learn the secret doctrine. In quiet forest hermitages the Upanishadic thinkers pondered on the problems of deepest concern, of nature and the human being, and communicated their knowledge to diligent pupils who were close to them. Their teachings were codified into texts a little later. Each Upanishad explores, in cryptic as well as poetic terms, the prime Vedic doctrines like self-realization, yoga, meditation, karma and rebirth, and explores fundamental questions like what, when and how. The Upanishadic texts are collective verses that address issues related to the individual’s self-realization/salvation as well as issues of larger public good. True, they are the creation of perhaps isolated visionary individuals – rishis (seers or ur-poets) – who had resorted to the forest in a sort of withdrawal from their urban existence; however, their implications are largely societal and human-centred. For these are essentially the intense outpourings of a poetic mind compelled by the collective search for truth. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his process of discovering Indian roots, chose to describe their all-embracing approach as “metaphysical democracy”. He wrote: “There is, in the Upanishads, a continual emphasis on the fitness of the body and clarity of the mind, on the discipline of both body and mind, before effective progress can be made. The acquisition of knowledge, or any achievement, requires restraint, self-suffering, self-sacrifice.”10 When the Upanishad speaks of yajna (sacrifice) and prayer it touches the heart of the matter, for both the individual and collective. Structurally, each Upanishad performs a two-part project: it reveals its difference from

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the ritualizing religious tendencies of both the Vedas and the Brahmanas – primarily textual commentaries on the four Vedas, that incorporated facts, legends and explanation of Vedic rituals and to some extent their philosophy – while at the same time arguing for a new direction in human thinking.11 We now live in a dehumanized present wherein an obsessive commercial culture has reduced human existence into merely another commodity, but the Upanishads constantly reinforce the idea that the spiritual is at the heart of what matters and enjoin us to look upon life as prayer and sacrifice. The spirituality that surfaces in these texts is one that is of a collective nature and opposed to the alienated existence that wayward technology and urbanized ideas of development have led us to. “Prayer and sacrifice are means to philosophy and spiritual life,” S. Radhakrishnan has noted. “While the true sacrifice is the abandonment of one’s ego, prayer is the exploration of reality by entering the beyond that is within, by ascension of consciousness. It is not theoretical learning. We must see the eternal, the celestial, the still.”12 On account of their cryptic nature, the mantras of the Upanishads have been interpreted (indeed, over-interpreted) as directives concerned with a one-dimensional spiritual life and derided as negating the material of living reality. Yet, in their own codified poetic terms, the Upanishads hold forth a profound eco/logical dharma, one relevant to the present because the cryptic verse structure of Upanishadic thinking underscores the rudimentary ideas of a later poetic that evolved into a pan-Indian aesthetic. That aesthetic invokes us to holistic living and spiritual well-being. The Upanishads were creations of deeply inquisitive human beings, seeking solace and harmony in the silence of the self in the midst of a changing society, yet they speak out for the true reintegration of the human into the non-human world. Consequently, the materialist thought of the Charvakas, as well as the ethical and spiritual inquiries of the Jain and Buddhist philosophers, could, for example, be traced to the profound existential inquiries that the Upanishadic seers raise. These reflections on the fleeting and evanescent nature of all life, the existential choices confronted by the thinking mind in a changing universe, and the abiding issues initiated by its poetic interrogations, logically lead toward an aesthetic resolution.

Upanishads: Dimensions of the Sacred and Cosmic The natural realm for the early settlers in this part of the world as elsewhere had been the forest. The concept of the ‘sacred forest’ is equally ancient.


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In the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cultures, as in the Indian tribal and adivasis (aboriginal) cultures, sacred trees or forests are of particular significance. According to popular Hindu belief, all trees and plants are created from Brahma’s hair. The Puranas hold that Vishnu was born under the shade of a banyan tree, as was the Buddha. The early Aryans portrayed Indra as standing with his queen under a tree from whose branches people gathered jewels, clothes, food and drink. Indian thought is, at several points, replete with the imagery of the tree, which often symbolized life that always regenerates itself and is immortal. Further, at every point in the great chain of being and becoming, the Indian psyche – whether theistic or atheistic – has grounded itself on intimate links with all nature. As early as eight centuries before Christ, Jainism had upheld the philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence) and propounded a worldview built on respect for and religious veneration of the natural world (Mahatma Gandhi would later expound this in socio-political terms). Likewise, the Hindu eschatological view in the Puranas foretells of the whole world flooded during the great pralaya and Sri Krishna as the eternal child floating on a banyan leaf, biting his toes. In another example, Markandeya Purana has a well-known section called Devi Mahatmya that depicts the glory of the goddess. In this the goddess herself makes a declaration: Next, O ye Gods, I shall support (i.e. nourish) the whole world with the life sustaining vegetables, which shall grow out of my own body (atma deha samudbhavaih) during a period of heavy rain; I shall gain fame on the earth then as Sakambhari.13

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya draws attention to the name Sakambhari as significant. Under this name lies an archaic belief that the plants actually grew out of the female body. He also throws light on the Harappan seal where a nude female figure is depicted upside down with legs apart and with a plant arising from her womb.14 The Vedic Rishis strove for a unification of knowledge, or ‘Knowledge’, itself, because knowledge of the universe becomes knowledge of God. The world of the Vedic poets was essentially a biological and ecological world. According to M. Vannucci, the ancient traditional Indian way of life “was objectively correct, rationally sound, and ecologically valid”.15 The Vedic vision of life itself as cyclical is an extension of the order of nature (the Vedic poets structured their thought in terms of Chhandas, universal rhythm). These motifs and views of life as ritual and the self as an offering have survived as symbolic rituals and celebratory acts in the present Brahminical rites and are elaborated in the manner in which the mantras

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are chanted, and also in the use of specific materials and forms of ritualistic worship. As one instance, the prime place in Vedic ritual is of course given to Agni, the god of fire. Agni symbolizes purity and fertility. In every ritual ceremony, even today, agni – sacrificial fire – occupies a pivotal role: marriages are sanctified by the witness of agni – agnisakshi. Yagas and Yajnas16are performed round the fire altar which is built of baked bricks – earth purified in the fire. Even now the building blocks for the temples – whether burnt bricks or stone or wood – are called ishtika, those belonging to the sacrifice. Right from birth to death the presence of fire is an assurance for the Hindu of an elemental participation. Consequently, the Upanishads too reinforce the ritual significance of fire. During the death ceremonies a prayer for the vision of the ultimate is raised: Vayur anilam amrtam athedam bhasmantam sariram Aum krato smara krtam smara krato smara krtam smara [“May this life enter into the immortal breath; then may this body end in ashes. O intelligence, remember, remember what has been done. Remember, O intelligence, what has been done. Remember.”] (Isa Upanishad, 17)

Whether we see this integrated vision as an offshoot of the Vedic worldview in a wider sense (i.e. surviving with variations in a religious-cultural mould) or behold this in isolation as a cryptic Indic tradition, the idea borne home is one that recognizes sacredness in a cosmic dimension. Despite its multifaceted and chequered history, Indian life has retained, therefore, the dynamics engendered by the Vedas and Upanishads, reinforced and kept alive through a variety of ritual acts such as the relatively common practice in Hindu households of lighting oil lamps at dawn and dusk. As this emphasis on fire tells us, the Upanishads do not endorse a static universe but at every stage recognize the dramatic order of change. In the Brhd-aranyaka Upanishad (15.1) (and again in the Isa Upanishad, 15) there appears a prayer to Aditya, the Sun, by a dying person: Hiranmayena patrena satyasyapihitam mukham; Tat tvam, pusan, apavrnu, satya-dharmaya drstyate. [“The face of truth is covered with a golden disc. Unveil it, O Pusan, so that I who love the truth may see it.”]

The interconnection of truth and liberation in Indian philosophy is a wellrecognized fact, borne forth by this cryptic mantra. Pusan serves here as a metaphor for the Sun, the Upanishad enjoining us to go beyond the visible light to perceive the greater liberating light that is the true, the


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rhythmically beautiful and the vast (satyam, ritam, brihat). The Upanishads are replete with mantric invocations like this – invoking the reader or listener to seek moksha or liberation through deeper meditation and perception. For, ultimately, even light or effulgence can be an impediment to the process of enlightenment. Nevertheless, such unified or holistic awareness still comes by combining transcendental with elemental, as two frequently cited images from the Upanishads signal. The first occurs in the Mundaka Upanishad (III,1): Dva suparna sayuja sakhaya samanam vrksam parisavajate Tayor anyah pippalam svadv atty anasnann anyobhicskasiti [“Two birds, companions (who are) always united, cling to the self-same tree. Of these two, the one eats the sweet fruit and the other looks on without eating.”]

This can be interpreted as the body–soul nexus: the body relishes the samsara – the world of sensations – while the soul looks on as witness, karma sakshi. Later in the Taittiriya Upanishad (II, 9, 1) we read: Yato vaco nivartante, aprapya manasa saha anandam brahmano vidvan na bibheti kutaschana [“Whence words return along with the mind not attaining It: He who knows that bliss of Brahman fears not from anything at all.”]

This is the hieratic truth ungraspable by word and mind alike, unattainable whether in isolation or in unity. Yet while the unseen (formless) arupa is coupled with an infinite bliss, akhanda rasa, that needs to be realized/ relished internally, the “unrealizable” remains both transcendental and immanent. For what remains significant in both these examples is the idea that, while these are spiritual texts proclaiming what is “unrealizable” without faith, the Upanishads nevertheless continue to speak in natural and elemental images. The earlier Bhagavad Gita had described the human being as the inverted aswattha tree (Urdhva mulam adha sakham/ashvattham prhuravyayam (chapter XV.1)). This aswattha (banyan tree), that stands with the roots above and branches stretching below, is said to be imperishable – for its leaves are the hymns of the Veda, he who knows it is the vedaknower, vedajna. Consequently, the Brahman is identified with the bliss of experience – raso vai sah – the knower of this accomplishing immortal bliss. Yad vai tat sukrtam, raso vai sah, rasam hy evayam labdhvanandi bhavati [“Verily, what that well-made is – that verily, is the essence of existence. For, truly, on getting the essence, one becomes blissful.”] (Taittiriya Upanishad, VII, 1)

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Upanishads: Toward an Aesthesis of Disownment Everything that we know comes from nature and our nature is also determined by our knowledge. We change and transform nature unknowing, perhaps, the fact that we ourselves are an integral part of this process. In the opening, cardinal lines of the Isa Upanishad we read the essence of ancient ecological wisdom couched in a spiritual language: Isa vasyam idam sarvam. Yat kim ca jagatyam jagat, Tena tyaktena bhunjita ma gridha kasyasvit dhanam

This mantra invokes us to enjoy through abandonment. All this, that which is both seen and unseen – rupa and arupa (form and formless) – constitutes the jagat (world); all that moves in this world, is enveloped by Iswara, the Godhead. Call it by whatever name we will, be it matter or mind or life or energy, there is a pervasive movement of a unified source that unites all and everything in its origin and continuity. Therefore, the Upanishad states categorically, find your enjoyment in renunciation, for to whom does it all belong? Naturally, to all. Do not grab what belongs to others. Here we find ecological wisdom in its sublime essence. What the history of European imperialism and colonial depredation, founded on the Hebraic-JudeoChristian belief in one masculine potentate as creator, conceived under a metaphysics of power, dominance and subjugation, has effected in the main is to sideline other non-European ways of thinking and living which had been eco-friendly and sensitive to the pulsations of a vital universe. The need of the present is for a shift in perception – a real paradigm shift – from the anthropocentric to the bio-centric, and herein we need to recognize the alter/native awareness rooted in ecological wisdom that was once prevalent in this part of the world. We need to discover our own earthly roots, and uncover our essential selves into the bargain. Do not grab what belongs to others, learn to share and sympathize. In the final analysis the poetic perception that surfaces from Upanishadic wisdom inspires us to reconnect with the vital roots of the living universe.

By Way of a Conclusion The Upanishads, of course, belong to a time of integral imagination when nature was not alienated from the human’s being. The spirituality that surfaces in the Upanishads is one that is of a collective nature too. And the Upanishads reinforce the idea that the spiritual is at the heart of what matters while enjoining us to look upon life as prayer and sacrifice.


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The Sanskrit word for ‘Nature’ is prakrti: which could be interpreted in two ways – as outer nature comprising all non-human being inclusive of the physical human’s being, and also inner nature, the essential characteristic of something. The outside nature was of course a continuation of the inner, because all being – cosmic and atomic – was essentially one: aham brahmasmi, says the Upanishad (“I am Brahman, the all-pervading”). We should note, however, that in this ecstatic statement of enlightenment the “I” or aham does not refer to the individuality or self of the outer nature, but to the essence of the soul that is ever-identical with the spiritual at the heart of all being. There is no call to self-aggrandizement or conquest of the other (nature), but the insights lead to an inclusive empathizing: Tat tvam asi (“that thou art”). This spiritualized vision of outer nature and inner being accorded, in turn, a spiritual aesthetic, because only as an aesthetic relish could the world finally be resolved, as the dance of Siva symbolizes. Iconic representations of Siva as Nataraja, the dancer-king, apparently proclaim this unified vision – the fluidity of the material and the spiritual, the integration of earthly and cosmic. The phenomenal world (virat) was seen as constantly changing in a flux – it was vivarta, or illusion (maya); the illumined mind can reintegrate itself in the ultimate relish or paramaananda, in the cosmic dance of Siva. In the process of ritual performance as much as in any art activity the human being enters into a symbiotic relationship with nature. As Stella Kramrisch has pointed out, it is the integrative nature of experience, that does not segregate the secular and the spiritual, that constitutes the fabric of Indian art. The art of India, she observes: is neither religious nor secular, for the consistent fabric of Indian life was never rent by the western dichotomy of religious belief and worldly practice. Every aspect of this life is incorporated into a known hierarchy of values in the physical, psychological and metaphysical realms. In this ordered body of values, each member with its own particular function is placed in accordance with a transcendental norm.17

Nature, man/woman and the categorizing human consciousness all form one integral whole, itself informed by a dharmic view of life and world, later valorized as ‘Purushartha’ – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. The path to liberation lies through the righteous dharma, its integrative awareness realized through desire – kama – and the pleasures of material wealth – artha. This dharmic consciousness could probably also be the underlying awareness leading to a ritual cleansing of space by the creation of mandala prior to any sacred act, or when seeking self-expression through the chitra

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vadivu (painting mode), the silpa vadivu (sculptural mode) or the bhooda vadivu (relief mode). In the natural world, the continued flourishing of sacred groves and the reason why they are preserved religiously might also find sanction in this dharmic consciousness. Tradition survives in collective memory, and otherwise inexplicable cultural acts often connect with the archetypal symbolic order. Whatever the reasons, we can trace in the residues of ritualistic practices the ethical essence of a structure that is founded on the finer values of mutual respect and reverence for all life and which forms an ancient Indian ecological sense. In our times, to heap the blame solely on the West for environmental plunder and biodegradation would be unfair and unsubstantiated by historical records. Nevertheless, environmental thought would do well to recognize those non-Western attitudes or perceptions which have evolved and survived over the years through religious practices and esoteric traditions such as the worldview afforded by the Upanishads. There is, too, a distinctive humanist strain in the heart of the Upanishads, one sometimes overshadowed by their mysticism. Gerald James Larson, albeit in a different context, has made a substantial point: the truly important task for the comparativist in the environmental debate is not offer up non-Western, alternative “world views,” for possible adoption, but rather, precisely the opposite, namely through comparative analysis to come to a more critical understanding of what it means to be human at a time when all of the old certainties of our Western and non-Western traditions have largely collapsed.18

The Upanishads belong to our wisdom traditions: they harbour the directives for a true and meaningful living as humans integrated well with non-human nature. Here, both in largely exoteric acts of religious worship and in creative art activity, the forms of logic and metaphysics mingle with aesthetics in a celebration of beatitude, the touch of which affords the genuine soul to feel the tremors of that space – whence words return along with the mind – and to sense a completeness of being leading toward a realization that this earth is (like) honey for all creatures and all creatures are (like) honey for this earth. Notes 1 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the Upanishads and their reference numberings are from The Principal Upanishads ed. and trans. S. Radhakrishnan (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1953).


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2 Dialogue between religious practices and ecology has increased over the last few decades, on the widely felt realization that no understanding of the environment is complete without a grasp of the religious life of the human societies which saturate the natural environment. See Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker (eds.), Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky and Water (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Eric Katz, Andrew Light and David Rothenberg (eds.), Beneath the Surface: Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000); I. G. Simmons, Interpreting Nature: Cultural Constructions of the Environment (London and New York: Routledge, 1993); Murali Sivaramakrishnan, “Rediscovering the Roots of Eco-Consciousness”, Summerhill VII, 1–2, (Summer–Winter 2001), pp. 16–18; Murali Sivaramakrishnan, “Ecological Wisdom and Alter/native Discourses: Some Aspects of Spatio-Temporal Awareness in Ancient Indian Culture with Special Reference to South India”, Summerhill VIII, 2 (Winter 2002), pp. 8–12. 3 I have attempted to make a demarcation between the terms religious and spiritual. The first refers to codified systems of belief in ritualistic practices which have over a period of time ossified and become rigid and systematized; the second refers to radical and self-explorative, metaphysical quest as with the Upanishads. The Upanishads in the Hindu canon are not in any way similar to the Biblical texts in the Christian canon: they do not claim any immutability nor are they deified as sacrosanct. They rarely occur in the everyday life of the average Hindu. They may be held as holy by the Indian mind that consecrates the religious. However, their sublimity and virtuousness are characterized by their metaphysical passion and fervency in the search for inner truths. 4 See Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism (7th edn) (Calcutta: People’s Publishing House, 1992). 5 For a detailed discussion of Vedic natural imagery and symbolism, see O.P. Dwivedi, “Classical India”, in Dale Jamieson (ed.), A Companion to Environmental Philosophy (Malden: Blackwell, 2003). 6 G.C. Pande argues that, together with the Harappan, the Vedic gave us a “matrix of Indian art both as image and idea”. He continues, “Although no art remains date [sic] from the Vedic period there can be no doubt that ideas, forms and symbols developed during this period acted as seed and mould for the succeeding ages.” See G.C. Pande, Foundations of Indian Culture: Spiritual Vision and Symbolic Forms in Ancient India (vol. 1) (2nd edn) (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990), pp. 318–19. 7 Romila Thapar, A History of India (vol. 1) (New Delhi: Penguin, 1999), p. 33. 8 Though Radhakrishnan includes seven more under this category in his study. 9 Limiting my inquiry to select Upanishads is not to imply that the innumerable Brahmanas, Puranas and other narratives on a similar scale do not proffer comparable ecopoetic insights, merely that the verse structure of Upanishad thinking underscores specific ideas that formed a later poetic. These other forms would, though, merit further analysis in another context. For example, the numerous Puranas evolved soon after the Vedic narratives and with the

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10 11

12 13 14 15 16

17 18


professed intention of revealing the esoteric dimensions of the cryptic Veda mantras and taking these closer to the common man and woman. Furthermore, these narratives, much in tune with the Vedic cosmology, take off from visually recognizable landscapes rooted in the earth and pursue elemental questions of existence while roaming through the limitless wonder worlds of human imagination. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (London: Meridian Books, 1956), pp. 80, 82. These Brahmanas, the textual treatises, should not be confused with the commonly used term of reference to the priestly class the Brahmins, sometimes written as Brahmana, or with another term that can confuse the common reader, Brahma, the creator. The Brahmanas here are the hymns and liturgical books grouped as Karma Kanda, while the Upanishads refer to the Jnana Kanda, the knowledge portion. Radhakrishnan, Principal Upanishads, p. 50. See Chattopadyaya, Lokayata, pp. 292–93. See Chattopadyaya, Lokayata. M. Vannucci, Human Ecology in the Vedas (Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1999), p. 42. Yajna, an integral part of Vedic sacrificial rites, primarily means “to worship”, though there are several contextual meanings to this ritual act. Several types of Yajnas are mentioned in the Vedic texts. Yaga is an elaborate ritual act involving many priests. Stella Kramrisch, The Art of India: Traditions of Indian Sculpture, Painting and Architecture (3rd edn) (Delhi: Motilal, 1987 [1965]), p. 10. Gerald James Larson, “Conceptual Resources in South Asia for Environmental Ethics”, in J. Callicott, J. Baird and Roger T. Ames (eds.), Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought (Delhi: Satguru, 1989), p. 277.

chapter 5

Ancient Greek Literature and the Environment: A Case Study with Pindar’s Olympian 7 Chris Eckerman

We can’t just strike out with a brand-new story With brand-new characters, or no story at all, and hope to make sense of where we are. For better or worse, the old story still holds the keys to who we are, why we are here, where we have come from, and where we might now go – Val Plumwood1

This chapter begins with the epigraph by Plumwood because, with earnest and poetic simplicity, Plumwood reminds us of the importance of reflecting on intellectual inheritances. If we wish to know how we got to where we are environmentally, we ought to spend a fair amount of time with the ancient Greeks. Accordingly, we may begin by asking: how did the Greeks envision their relation to the earth?2 Was the environment something that should be exploited or something that should be sustainably stewarded? I leave out the possibility of non-use since the preservation of human life requires sustenance, which derives from external sources. On the one hand, the Greeks, as we shall see, generally believed that the earth was a commodity that was allotted among gods, and this construction of the earth as the property of individual gods motivated and legitimated (at the same time that it was motivated by and legitimated by) the concept of private property, a concept that encouraged the use of the environment in the interest of its owners. And the common Greek view that it is legitimate for humans to control the earth is paralleled in the common Greek view that it is legitimate for humans to control living things, such as animals and plants.3 On the other hand, the Greeks envisioned the earth, as well as particular parts of the earth, as gods: for example, as river gods and springs nymphs. In Greek thought, the earth is the divinity Gaia (see, for example, Hesiod, Theogony, 108–114), but the earth can be further divided into divinities that inhabit particular slices of


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earth and water. That a slice of earth would thus be multiple divinities at one time does not seem to have caused the Greeks any considerable problems. For example, Gaia is earth at the macro-scale, and Rhodes is earth at the micro-scale, and the importance and presence of Gaia fades away whenever people focus their attention on Rhodes.4 This conception of an animate earth regularly encouraged reverence for parts of the earth since divinities were believed to be earth, and were believed to deserve human attention. Upon preliminary consideration, then, we may think that there was a tension in Greek practice and discourse between exploiting the environment in the interest of human consumption and respecting the environment in the interest of exhibiting reverence toward gods who were envisioned as soils, plants, and waters, or who were envisioned as frequenting certain locales and thereby making them sacred.5 It should be noted, however, that the Greek interest in respecting the environment derived from self-interest, for it was generally believed that divinities (landscape divinities included) had the power to help or to harm humans, and Greeks, like many peoples, generally desired help from gods. Accordingly, Greek religious thought and cultural practice were generally aligned toward maximizing human utility (whether the environment was ‘exploited’ or ‘reverenced’), and human relations with the environment were negotiated with this end in mind. There was nothing akin to our contemporary environmental movement in ancient Greece, since the possibility that human beings could degrade the earth to such a degree that humans and other sentient beings could no longer inhabit it was largely left unconsidered.6 This chapter explores what Pindar’s odes, Olympian 7 particularly, can tell us about Greek relations to the environment. Pindar composed epinician (i.e. for victory) odes in the first half of the fifth century BCE to celebrate the victories of athletes who had won competitions, such as the ancient Olympic games. We know little about how and where these odes were performed, but what we do know suggests that the odes generally would have been performed in the home communities of the victors at celebrations held in their honor. The odes could have been performed in various manners, but choruses seem regularly to have played an important role in the performance of the odes when they debuted.7 Olympian 7 has been chosen for consideration in this chapter because the worldview that Pindar constructed in his poetry (as well as those of personages in his odes) provides a good example of a standard elite Greek worldview that can tell us much about culturally privileged, dominant thinking patterns that elite male Greeks, such as Pindar, propagated in relation to humans and the


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environment in the classical period. Pindar was an extremely influential poet in Greco-Roman antiquity, and his poetry helped mold Greek thought patterns as to the relationship between humans and their environments; accordingly, an engagement with Pindar’s odes on environmental topics can help us uncover ancient, systemic, Western thought patterns that have been influential in shaping the way contemporary Western societies, developing partially out of Greco-Roman antiquity, use, produce, and envision the environment today. We begin by considering Pindar’s vision of landscape, particularly in relation to gender and property. In Olympian 7’s myth,8 Pindar narrates how Rhodes became an island and that it, a ‘she,’ was allotted as a perquisite to Helios, after Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades allotted the sky, sea, and underworld among themselves.9 Having been overlooked in the allotment of sky, sea, and underworld, Helios requests that Rhodes will be his possession after she appears from the sea. Helios’ request is granted, and, after Rhodes has appeared from the sea, Helios attains Rhodes, copulates with her, and, according to Pindar, has seven sons (no daughters!); these sons are elsewhere known as the Heliadai, the Sons of Helios. Thus, although Helios was overlooked in the allotment of sky, sea, and underworld, things, we are to infer, turned out well for him: Rhodes is Helios’ property, and Helios’ sons and their sons will have control of Rhodes as property also, with three of Helios’ grandsons being the founders of the three important poleis (Kamiros, Ialysos, and Lindos) that were named after them in the historical period. The relevant section of Olympian 7 is the following: 55



The ancient reports of men tell that when Zeus and the immortals were apportioning the earth, Rhodes had not yet appeared in the expanse of the sea, but the island lay hidden in the salty depths. Since he was absent, no one designated a lot for Helios, and thus they left him with no portion of land, although he was a holy god. And when he [i.e. Helios] spoke of it, Zeus was about to recast the lots for him, but he [i.e. Helios] would not allow it, because he said that he himself could see a land rising from the floor of the gray sea that would be bountiful for men and favorable for flocks. He [i.e. Helios] immediately ordered Lachesis of the golden headband to raise her hands and not to forswear the mighty oath of the gods, but to consent with Kronos’ son that once it had arisen into the bright air

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it would henceforth remain a possession of honor for himself. The essential points of these words fell in with truth and were fulfilled. The island grew from the watery sea and belongs to the father who engenders the piercing sunbeams, the master of the fire-breathing horses. There at a later time he lay with Rhodes and engendered seven sons who inherited the wisest thoughts among men of old, One of whom engendered Kamiros, and Ialysos the eldest, and Lindos. They divided their inherited land into three parts and separately held their allotment of cities, places that still bear their names.10

In response to this narrative, we may begin by asking: who is Pindar’s Rhodes?11 Pindar says that Rhodes was an “island hidden in the salty depths” (57) at the time of the allotments taken by Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon, and Helios is able to see her moving out of the sea as land (gaian, 63). In the myth, then, Rhodes is first introduced as soil, being referred to as an island (nesos) and as land (gaia), but Pindar complicates Rhodes’ substance when, using language derived from plant life, he says that Rhodes “rose from the floor of the sea” (auxomenan pedothen, 62).12 Pindar continues to use vegetal imagery when he says that Rhodes grew as an island from the watery sea, for the verb grew (blaste, 69) firstly refers to vegetal life.13 Accordingly, Pindar encourages his audience to begin thinking of Rhodes as plant as much as soil, and since the name ‘Rhodes’ shares the same root (rhod-) as the word ‘Rose’ in Greek, this also encourages Greeks to envision Rhodes as a plant, even if roses do not grow from the sea. Rhodes’ existence as soil and her existence as plant, however, are further complicated by the fact that Rhodes is the daughter of anthropomorphic Aphrodite; accordingly, Rhodes also takes on anthropomorphic traits.14 As Sfyroeras notes, although Rhodes is allotted a father elsewhere in Greek myth, the absence of a father in Pindar’s myth seems purposeful; the absence of an anthropomorphic father allows us to envision Rhodes more easily as non-anthropomorphic. Rhodes’ identity as soil, plant, and anthropomorphic female is further intertwined with her urban identity, which Pindar celebrates in this ode by developing etiological myth for Rhodes’ three prestigious poleis: Kamiros, Ialysos, and Lindos. Pindar’s vision of Rhodes as soil, vegetal life, anthropomorphic life, and urban landscape encourages us to think of her as a wondrous being, seemingly outside standard thought patterns that may envision the biological world


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in polar terms as either an ‘other’ external to humans or as a ‘self’ in which humans may or may not participate. Given Rhodes’ complex substance in Pindar’s myth, we may consider her to be a good example of the wondrous in “the environment.”15 Although the rest of the earth is fully formed in Pindar’s myth, Rhodes has not yet appeared as land out of the sea, and this seeming disjunction derives, I suggest, from the fact that it is important that Rhodes will be a virgin when she meets Helios. If Rhodes had already existed above the surface of the sea, Helios would have been penetrating her with his rays previously, and she would not be a virgin when Helios receives her as a possession. Pindar says that Rhodes was “hidden in the salty depths” (57), and Pindar stresses the point that Rhodes was hidden in the depths so that we understand that she was so deep that light from Helios’ rays would not have reached her in the sea.16 As Dougherty notes, “Rhodes is truly virgin territory; this land has never before been seen, let alone touched.”17 In the myth, Rhodes rises from the depths of the sea just when she is needed, that is, when Helios needs an allotment that will provide him with prestige, since Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades have already received allotments that provide them with prestige. It is not only Rhodes’ virginity that motivates Helios’ interest, but also her beauty and her fertility. As noted above, Rhodes is the daughter of Aphrodite (14), and Rhodes’ descent from Aphrodite helps explain Helios’ attraction to her. Furthermore, as a new fertile land arising from the sea, not only has Rhodes not been overworked agriculturally and pastorally, she has never even been worked. Although Helios says that Rhodes will be “bountiful for men and favorable for flocks” (63), he does not mention that Rhodes will be fertile for himself. As the myth progresses, however, we learn that she will provide useful output for Helios, since she will give birth to seven sons for him. Rhodes’ remarkable fertility, then, will allow her to fulfill multiple functions: she will be a fertile object to suit the need for sustenance for animals,18 a fertile object to suit the need for sustenance for humans, and a fertile object to suit the sexual and procreative needs of Helios.19 It is not only the fertility of the female but also the male’s real or imagined power to control that fertility (through customs such as marriage) and his real or imagined power to control the fertility of the land through customs such as agriculture that makes the imagery of land as female and female as land so useful to androcentric Greek thought.20 In ancient Greece, agricultural work was firstly in the control of males, the dominant sex, and, since females are subject to male domination in

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systemic patterns of Greek thought and practice, it is unsurprising that the earth would be feminized and subject to the privileged sex in myths, such as that of Olympian 7, that revolve around human–land interactions. Accordingly, it would not be unfair to say that Pindar constructs Rhodes in line with a heterosexual male’s vision of utopia. Rhodes is a beautiful virgin and she has a remarkable ability to provide output, seemingly for all beings, and the male, in control of said beings, will profit therefrom. Although scholars regularly interpret Rhodes as Helios’ bride in this ode,21 Rhodes does not have to be Helios’ bride, and, if we assume that Rhodes is Helios’ bride, we enable systemic violence against the female because we do not acknowledge that Rhodes may be envisioned, not as a bride, with all the trappings that marriage to an elite husband might offer, but as a mere possession. Pindar refers to Rhodes as the nymphe of Helios (14), and nymphe can mean nymph, bride, or simply girl. And it may be argued that Pindar does not do enough to encourage his audience to infer that Rhodes should be interpreted as something other than a nymph.22 In fact, Rhodes is also Helios’ geras (possession of honor) in this ode, and, in Greek thought before Pindar, the female as geras is most closely linked with concubinage, since Agamemnon’s decision to take Achilles’ geras, Briseis, motivated Achilles’ wrath, around which the Iliad revolves.23 Some members of Pindar’s intended audience may have assumed that Pindar refers to Rhodes as Helios’ geras precisely because he wishes to activate the Homeric concept of female as geras. Furthermore, Pindar asserts that Rhodes is “inherited” (patroian, 75) land for Helios’ grandchildren, and this may further encourage the audience to think of Rhodes as a commodity, such as a slave, passed down the family line, rather than as a wife of Helios. Accordingly, although it would be in the interest of the Rhodians to envision Rhodes as Helios’ bride and to construct a matrimonial relationship between them, since their own status is thereby privileged, Pindar has not constructed the ode in such a manner that a matrimonial relationship can be assumed. Given that Helios refers to Rhodes as a geras, given that Helios shows no interest in Rhodes other than as a fertile object, and given that it may be questioned whether the Olympian male deity would be interested in a female of lower status as a bride,24 we should acknowledge the seeming powerlessness of Rhodes in her relationship with Helios in this ode. Recognizing the ambiguity of Rhodes’ status in this ode, then, has ramifications for our understanding of various possible ideological visions of Rhodes. In Greek thought, the female-as-land metaphor was activated in Greek marriage custom, and such cultural practice resonates with Pindar’s


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construction of Rhodes’ connection to Helios. At the time of marriage, a father (or other male guardian) could hand over the bride at a wedding ceremony and could, in a speech act, say, “I give this woman to you for the plowing of legitimate children.”25 With the phrase “I give,” the female is constructed as an object that moves between male hands in a transaction. With the phrase “for plowing,” an agricultural metaphor is used with the female being envisioned as agricultural land, ripe for seeding. The purpose of marriage and agriculture is clear: the production of legitimate offspring. The audience, then, can position Rhodes, in her relationship with Helios, within the Greek matrimonial thought system that envisions lands and females as objects to be used in the production of legitimate offspring, since Helios and Rhodes (as land and female) will have seven male children who have foundational positions in Rhodian tradition. Pindar privileges the male in the procreation of children in this myth. He declares that Helios “engendered” (teken, 72) seven sons, and, by asserting this (72),26 Pindar makes the male, Helios, the focal point in the procreation of offspring. Pindar uses a verb (tikto) that can be used to express the procreation of children by both males and females, and Pindar’s choice of verb is all the more remarkable since the female is seemingly elided from the process of procreation.27 Of Helios’ seven children, one, known elsewhere as Kerkaphos, “engendered” (teken) Kamiros, Ialysos, and Lindos. By using the same verb in relation to the fathering performed by Helios and in relation to the fathering performed by his son, Kerkaphos, Pindar makes the action of the son mirror the action of his prestigious father. Pindar privileges Helios’ son in the procreation of children, furthermore, by leaving unmentioned the female who served both as sexual partner to Kerkaphos and as mother to Kamiros, Ialysos, and Lindos. In these birth stories, the land-female, Rhodes, and the human-female, Kerkaphos’ partner, serve as little more than vessels for the male’s seed.28 Pindar legitimates male authority and socio-economic power at Rhodes by inscribing them upon the Rhodian landscape. Kamiros, Ialysos, and Lindos are offspring in a prestigious line of males, and, following the example of Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon, they divide sections of the environment into three portions over which they will have control. Pindar says that they divided their “paternal” (75) land, and the construction of the land as “paternal” stresses the legitimacy of the brothers’ control: the audience should infer, following the argument of the myth, that Kamiros, Ialysos, and Lindos hold their land through patrimony. The myth, then, provides a legitimation for the transmission and control of property on Rhodes.

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In this ode, Pindar weaves the myth of the coupling of Helios and Rhodes together with the myth of Tlepolemus’ arrival at Rhodes as a colonist. Pindar narrates the story of Tlepolemus’ foundation of Rhodes at lines 25–33: Thus it is that the founder [i.e. Tlepolemus] of this land [i.e. Rhodes] once struck Alkmene’s bastard brother Likymnios with a staff of hard olive in Tiryns 30 when he came from Midea’s chambers and killed him in a fit of anger. Disturbances of the mind lead astray even a wise man. He [i.e Tlepolemus] went to the god [i.e. Apollo] for an oracle, and from the fragrant inner sanctum of his temple [i.e. at Delphi] the golden-haired god spoke of a sailing of ships from the shore of Lerna [i.e. in the Peloponnese] straight to the seagirt pasture [i.e. Rhodes].

Tlepolemus, at the behest of Delphic Apollo, had to leave his home community in the Peloponnese and sail to Rhodes as a colonist because he killed his grand-uncle, Likymnios.29 Apollo spoke of a “sailing of ships” (32) to Rhodes, and Pindar’s audience would infer that Tlepolemus’ ships would have both male and female colonists on them. The audience realizes that the offspring of Helios and Rhodes, the Heliadai, would not have been able to procreate without females. Accordingly, the lineage of Helios would seemingly have come to an end without the arrival of Tlepolemus at Rhodes. The audience infers that the settlers that Tlepolemus brought with him from the Peloponnese would have intermixed with the Heliadai and thereby created the ‘historical’ Rhodians. By linking the myth of the coupling of Helios and Rhodes with the myth of Tlepolemus’ arrival at Rhodes, Pindar constructs a cohesive etiology for the historical Rhodians, intermixing the indigenous population with the colonists. Pindar’s narrative of the historical colonization of Rhodes, then, mirrors his narrative of Helios’ symbolic colonization of Rhodes. Pindar’s vision of Rhodes was celebrated at Rhodes, for we hear that the ode was inscribed in golden letters and dedicated at the temple of Athena at Lindos on Rhodes.30 Accordingly, the ode’s ideology (replete with its systemic violence against the female and its concept of land as property) is further affirmed through the ode being publicized in Athena’s sacred space, and the viewer of the ode in that place, regardless of race, gender, or class, is encouraged to assume that Athena too supports the ideology of the ode: otherwise she would not have allowed it to remain, inscribed at her temple. That a female divinity would be in favor of celebrating Pindar’s vision of Rhodes further legitimates Pindar’s worldview that privileges elite males and their control of the environment.


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Pindar has constructed Olympian 7’s myth to suit the needs of his patron, Diagoras, who is able to take advantage of the prestige that his privileged socio-economic status and his privileged geopolitical heritage offered him on Rhodes.31 Diagoras was from Ialysos, and his connection to Ialysos helps explain why Pindar claims that Ialysos was the eldest (74) of the three brothers, who are, through one father, grandchildren of Helios.32 As the eldest brother, Ialysos would be allotted more prestige than the other brothers, and, by giving Ialysos more prestige, Pindar also gives Diagoras more prestige since Diagoras’ polis is thereby privileged.33 It is not only Diagoras’ connection to Ialysos that gives him prestige, however, but also Diagoras’ connection to Tlepolemus, the colonial founder of Rhodes, for Diagoras’ family claimed decent from Tlepolemus.34 Thus, Pindar has coherently woven together two discrete strands of myth (the myth of the coupling of Helios and Rhodes and the myth of Tlepolemus’ colonial foundation of Rhodes), so that they both redound to the glory of his patron’s family.35 Olympian 7 should be read as a foundational text in environmental literary history because it provides an early example of the dominant narrative of the Euro-masculinist West, which has largely viewed geological and biological phenomena as feminine objects fit for subjugation and exploitation.36 Pindar, a member of the privileged sex and of the elite socio-economic class, reproduces systemic violence against the female in his representation of Rhodes as voiceless female, who seemingly would not have even come into existence had Helios not needed a possession wherewith to assert his status in relation to his fellow elite males, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon. Hierarchical power is inscribed within Pindar’s landscape poetics, since the higher-ranking male Olympian deity, Helios, is positioned above the lower-ranking female epichoric deity, Rhodes.37 With the narration of the foundational role that Tlepolemus played at Rhodes intertwined with the narration of the foundational role that Helios’ grandchildren, especially Ialysos, play in the foundation of political settlements on Rhodes, Pindar celebrates Diagoras’ family’s geopolitical heritage and thereby roots Diagoras within a landscape of privilege on Rhodes.38 Furthermore, Pindar does such a good job of positioning Rhodes in relation to her prestigious male partner and male children that audience members may conclude that Rhodes leads a privileged life as female. If Pindar’s intended audience drew this conclusion, it was to the advantage of the elite socio-economic males who commissioned and composed this ode. In Olympian 7, Rhodes’ voice, her vision, and her purpose (as she might envision it) are never explored because they are irrelevant to

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the male ideological interest that makes of Rhodes what it wants to make: a voiceless, subordinated object that will be used as males see fit. Pindar’s Rhodes is familiar to us precisely because we have met her countless times in countless Western narratives that construct the environment through an environmental frame that is analogous to Pindar’s environmental frame in Olympian 7. This is a frame that has helped lead to our current state of environmental degradation. Notes 1 Val Plumwood, “Toward a Progressive Naturalism,” in Thomas Heyd (ed.), Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 45. 2 Although it is helpful to refer to ‘the Greeks’ and to ‘Greek thought’ (because systemic patterns of thought and behavior, rooted in particular ideologies, manifested themselves in ancient Greek cultures), I do not mean to suggest that the Greeks can be interpreted as having one system of thought and practice. The Greeks displayed remarkable diversity with regard to their engagement with the environment. For an overview, see, e.g., J. Donald Hughes, Environmental Problems of the Greeks and Romans: Ecology in the Ancient Mediterranean (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), pp. 43–67. 3 Legitimations of control are offered by, for example, Aristotle and the Stoics. For Aristotle, see Politics 1254b 10, 1256b 15. For the Stoics, see Seneca’s Letter 76.9–10. Therewith see Lukas Thommen, An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 47; Anthony Preus, “Some Ancient Ecological Myths and Metaphors,” in Laura Westra and Thomas Robinson (eds.), The Greeks and the Environment (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), pp. 12–13; David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), pp. 47–48. 4 For conceptions of sacred space cross-culturally, see, e.g., J. Donald Hughes and Jim Swam, “How Much of the Earth is Sacred Space?” in Joseph Des Jardins, Environmental Ethics (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1999), pp. 581–89. 5 Thus, Thommen, Environmental History, pp. 29–32. 6 In the Critias, Plato recognizes the effects of overharvesting timber and its relation to the erosion of soil and loss of springs in mountains. The passage is widely cited as an example of Plato’s recognition that the manner in which humans use the environment has noteworthy ecological consequences. For discussion, see Owen Goldin, “The Ecology of Critias and Platonic Metaphysics,” in Westra and Robinson, The Greeks and the Environment, pp. 73–80. 7 For a recent introduction to Pindar, see A.P. Burnett, Pindar (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2008).


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8 Pindar’s odes generally contain an extended myth, and this is the case with Olympian 7. For a recent overview of Pindar’s mythography, see, with reference to further bibliography, Ian Rutherford, “Singing Myth: Pindar,” in Ken Dowden and Niall Livingstone (eds.), A Companion to Greek Mythology, (Malden, MA: Wiley–Blackwell, 2011), pp. 109–23. 9 For these allotments, see too Iliad 15.189–92. No deity is allotted the surface of the earth. The earth is itself a divinity, Gaia. 10 The translation, with a few adjustments, is that of William Race, Pindar. Olympian Odes. Pythian Odes, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). 11 This paragraph draws on Neil Evernden’s concepts of nature as ‘other,’ ‘self,’ and ‘miracle,’ in “Nature in Industrial Society,” in Susan Armstrong and Richard Botlzer (eds.), Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2003), pp. 191–200. I replace Evernden’s miraculous with wondrous, however, since miracles are generally believed to derive from external agents, and the term miraculous, accordingly, does not capture the ‘inherent’ complexity of nature, as Evernden understands it. 12 On the vegetal imagery, see, e.g., Michel Briand, Pindare. Olympiques (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2014), p. 107; Franco Ferrari, Pindaro. Olimpiche (Milan: Bibliotecha Universale Rizzoli, 1998), p. 134; M.M. Willcock, Pindar. Victory Odes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 112, 128; Willem Verdenius, Commentaries on Pindar: Volume 1, Olympian Odes 3, 7, 12, 14 (Leiden: Brill, 1987), p. 76; David Young, Three Odes of Pindar: A Literary Study of Pythian 11, Pythian 3, and Olympian 7 (Leiden: Brill, 1968), pp. 88, 95–97; Basil Gildersleeve, Pindar. The Olympian and Pythian Odes (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1885), p. 190. 13 Cf. Paola Bernardini, Mito e attualità nelle odi di Pindaro (Rome, 1983), p. 83; Gordon Kirkwood, Selections from Pindar (Chico, CA: Ateneo, 1982), p. 96. 14 Pavlos Sfyroeras, “Fireless Sacrifices: Pindar’s Olympian 7 and the Panathenaic Festival,” American Journal of Philology 114 (1993), pp. 1–26, p. 17. Elsewhere Rhodes is the daughter of Amphitrite and Poseidon; cf. scholion 24 C (Anders Drachmann, Scholia vetera in Pindari carmina, volumen I (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1903), p. 23 and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Pindaros (Berlin: Weidmann, 1922), p. 364. 15 We may be tempted to use the word ‘nature’ here, but I am persuaded by Steven Vogel (Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), pp. 1–31) that the term nature does more harm than good in environmental thought. On the problematics of the term nature in relation to environmental studies, see too, for example, Kate Soper, “Nature/‘nature,’” in G. Robertson, M. Mash, L. Tickner, J. Bird, B. Curtis, and T. Putnam (eds.), FutureNatural: Nature, Science, Culture (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 22–34. 16 On Helios’ rays in relation to sexual penetration, see Chris Eckerman, “The Landscape and Heritage of Pindar’s Olympia,” Classical World 107 (2013), pp. 3–33, pp. 20–25.

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17 Carol Dougherty, The Poetics of Colonization: From City to Text in Archaic Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 70. 18 Rhodes is referred to as “seagirt pasture” (33); therewith see Bruno Gentili, Carmine Catenacci, Pietro Giannini, and Liana Lomiento, Pindaro. Le Olimpiche (Milan: Bibliotecha Universale Rizzoli, 2013), p. 485. 19 From these early functions derives her function as a partner to Helios and mother to seven sons; this relationship helps legitimate socio-economic control of portions of Rhodes by the descendants of Helios and Rhodes. 20 See too Alain Bresson, Mythe et contradiction. analyse de la VIIe Olympique de Pindare (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1979), pp. 26–27. 21 E.g. Gentili et al., Olimpiche, 479; Lucia Athanassaki, “Transformations of Colonial Disruption into Narrative Continuity in Pindar’s Epinician Odes,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 101 (2003), pp. 93–128, p. 111; Dougherty, Poetics, p. 121; N. Felson Rubin, “Pindar’s Creation of Epinician Symbols: Olympians 7 and 6,” Classical World 74 (1980), pp. 67–87, pp. 74, 78; Bresson, Mythe, passim; Wilamowitz, Pindaros, p. 363. 22 According to a scholiast, the myth is Pindar’s invention. For discussion, see Young, Three Odes, p. 87, cf. J.T. Hooker, “A Reading of the Seventh Olympian,” BICS 32 (1985), pp. 63–70, p. 65; Felson, Pindar’s Creation, p. 76; Lewis Farnell, The Works of Pindar, v. II Critical Commentary (London: Macmillan, 1932), p. 55. 23 On the geras, see, e.g., Bresson, Mythe, 22–23. 24 Apollo takes Cyrene as bride, however, in Pythian 9. 25 Menander Perikeiromene 1013–14, cf. Plutarch Moralia 144b; therewith see, e.g., Dougherty, Poetics, pp. 63–64. 26 Making Helios the subject of the sexual liaison between Helios and Rhodes, Pindar says that Helios once mixed with Rhodes and engendered seven sons. Pindar uses the word ‘there’ (71) and the word ‘Rhodes’ (71), however, when he describes Helios’ sexual encounter with Rhodes, and Pindar’s use both of the word ‘there’ and of the word ‘Rhodes,’ seemingly making ‘there’ and ‘Rhodes’ discrete phenomena, brings to our attention the complexity of having a god, such as Helios, sleep with a landscape divinity, such as Rhodes. By separating ‘Rhodes’ from ‘there,’ Pindar allows the audience to envision Rhodes as an anthropomorphic divinity that would be a standard object of sexual attraction for a Greek god, but we, as audience members, also note that ‘Rhodes’ and ‘there’ are supposedly one and the same. This may encourage us to consider Rhodes a wondrous being. 27 Pindar similarly privileges the male Zeus in the birth of Athena in the ode (35–7; therewith see Felson, Pindar’s Creation, p. 72; Bresson, Mythe, p. 64). 28 Pindar’s vision of procreation in Olympian 7 is well corroborated in Greek thought. See, e.g., Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers; cf. Plumwood, Toward, p. 34. 29 Cf. Willcock, Victory Odes, p. 121. Homer also tells the story of Tlepolemus’ colonial foundation (Il. 2.653–70). 30 This derives from the historian Gorgon of Rhodes (FGrHist 515 F 18). The reference is preserved in the Pindaric scholia (Drachmann, Scholia vetera, 195).



32 33

34 35




chris eckerman We do not know the manner of inscription. For various suggestions see, e.g., Briand, Olympiques, p. 102 (on the temple); Gildersleeve, Pindar, p. 184 (citing Graux’s suggestion that it was on parchment); Charles Fennell, Pindar: The Olympian and Pythian Odes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1879), p. 56 (on a stone tablet). Diagoras’ family had a long history of domination at Ialysos (and on Rhodes more broadly) and was ultimately deposed as tyranical. See, with reference to further bibliography, Gentili et al., Olimpiche, pp. 169–70; G. Nagy, Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), p. 175. On the significance of Ialysos being the oldest brother, cf. Willcock, Victory Odes, p. 129. On the eldest child as best, see Verdenius, Commentaries, 80. Furthermore, the prominent status of Ialysos among his brothers mirrors the prominent status of Zeus among his brothers. On Diagoras’ elite status, cf. Willcock, Victory Odes, p. 110; Kirkwood, Selections, pp. 102–03. This explains “the representation of the status and merit of the indigenous population” of Rhodes; cf. Athanassaki, “Colonial Disruption,” p. 113, whence the quote. Cf., for example, Louise Westling, “Introduction,” in Louise Westling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 4; Plumwood, Toward, pp. 25–27, with reference to further bibliography. A polarity (above (power) / below (subject to power)) structures the relationship between the male environmental divinity and the female environmental divinity. This gendered vision of the environment is paralleled elsewhere in Greek myth. We see it, for example, in the construction of Ouranos, sky (i.e. above), as male, and Gaia, earth (i.e. below), as female. In Greek myths of male divinities sleeping with land-females, the female is of lower spatial and/or ontological status than the male. Cf. Dougherty, Poetics, p. 66. On Pindar’s use of aetiological myth in relation to contemporary politics, see, e.g., Rutherford, Singing Myth, p. 110.

chapter 6

“Who Shall be a Sustainer?”: Maize and Human Mediation in the Maya Popol Vuh Allen J. Christenson

The ancient Maya saw themselves as intimately interconnected with the natural world, but it was nature of a certain kind – that which is dependent on humanity for its existence. The Maya struggled with the apparent chaos of a wild, natural world that hindered their efforts to tame it through cultivation of the land. The earliest Maya literature to have survived the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century, particularly the Popol Vuh, attempts to explain the origins of chaotic nature as the first in a series of unsuccessful stages of creation leading ultimately to an agriculturally centered world of predictable cycles of life, death, and regeneration, mediated by humans. Those aspects of nature that are independent of human intervention, such as the animals that inhabit the untamed forest, represent chaotic ‘wildness’ that constantly seeks to reclaim cultivated land. This view mirrors what Robert Pogue Harrison characterizes as “the enduring hostility between the institutional order and the forests that lie at its boundaries,” untamed environments that “easily confuse the psychology of human orientation.”1 The Maya perceived the forest and its denizens as antagonistic not only to human agency, but also to the gods who intended an anthropocentric order with the power to perpetuate nature in an orderly and life-generating way. In Maya belief, even gods are not self-sustaining and require human mediation for their existence. Maya anthropocentrism places the responsibility to sustain divinely sanctioned nature squarely on the shoulders of humans, a terrible burden but also one that gives them a measure of control in the face of a world that is at once conducive to human existence and antagonistic toward it. As in many cultures whose livelihood is based to a significant degree on agriculture, the traditionalist highland Maya of Guatemala believe that human birth, death, and rebirth are inextricably linked to the life cycle of sacred cultivated plants, particularly maize. Among the Maya, maize is not only essential to survival as the principal staple of their diet, but to significant aspects of their cultural identity, familial relationships, and even 93


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the ability to speak their language properly. There is no such thing as wild maize. It is a wholly domesticated creation, genetically altered in ancient Mesoamerica over thousands of years by cross-breeding until it cannot reproduce itself without human intervention. Maize fields require nearly constant attention. Fully grown maize grows to a height of between seven and nine feet in the Guatemalan highlands. But its root system is remarkably shallow to anchor a plant of such height. To compensate, Maya farmers must periodically use a hoe to build up a mound of earth around the base of growing maize plants to support them. If they did not do this, the plants could easily topple over in a stiff wind or driving rain. Over the millennia ears of maize have developed a tough husk that must be physically shucked for the seeds to be released. Otherwise the maize seeds are trapped and cannot germinate. The Maya are dependent on maize, but maize is equally dependent on the Maya to live and reproduce. It is this reciprocity that intertwines the needs of both humans and maize. One cannot live without the other. Much of what is known concerning the Pre-Columbian Maya view of the origin of maize in Maya culture is found in the Popol Vuh, a text composed by anonymous members of the ancient K’iche’ nobility, a branch of the Maya that dominated the highlands of western Guatemala prior to the Spanish Conquest in 1524. Although the extant version of the Popol Vuh is undated, internal evidence points to the work as having being compiled between the years 1554 and 1558. In the preamble to the text, its authors wrote that the contents were based on a far older Pre-Columbian book, also called Popol Vuh.2 The authors located the place of origin for these writings chi releb’al q’ij (“where the sun rises,” or, less precisely, “in the east”),3 likely the Maya lowlands, although it is also possible that it is a mythic location associated with the place of creation.4 The Maya lowlands had a tradition of literacy dating back to at least the second century BCE, centered on a sophisticated hieroglyphic script.5 According to the Popol Vuh, the climactic event in the creation of the world occurred when maize was discovered within the clefted mountain of Pan Paxil, from which the grandmother goddess Xmucane formed the flesh of humanity.6 The cultivation of maize represents the basic metaphor for the creation of the earth and its spatial orientation. Prior to the creation of the maize people, the gods came together beneath the waters of a vast primordial sea to determine how the world was to be made. This creative act is described nine times in the text as a couplet pairing the verbs awaxoq (“to be sown”) with saqiroq (“to dawn”): “How shall it be sown? How shall there be a dawn for anyone?”7

Maize and Human Mediation in the Maya Popol Vuh


To sow and to dawn are not considered independent actions, but analogous expressions for the same generative event, linked with childbirth. Among the modern K’iche’s of Momostenango, when a woman becomes pregnant the event is announced by a respected elder of the community at certain lineage shrines. The ceremony is referred to as “the sowing” of the future child.8 This connection between maize and human flesh influenced birth rituals in highland Guatemala for centuries. Francisco de Fuentes y Guzmán wrote in the seventeenth century that, when a male child was born, the Maya of Guatemala burned blood shed from its severed umbilical cord and passed an ear of maize through the smoke. The father then planted the seeds from this ear in the child’s name in a specific area of the maize field. Parents used the maize from this small patch of land to feed the child “until he reached the age when he could plant for himself, saying that thus he not only ate by the sweat of his brow but of his own blood as well.”9 Mothers in the Tz’utujil-Maya community of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, place an ear of maize into the palm of their newborns, and as much as possible eat dishes made from maize while breast-feeding to ensure that the child grows “true flesh.” Once the child is weaned, it is given only food prepared with maize for several months. For the Tz’utujils, the maturation of the child must take place by means of locally grown maize or it will not grow to become a legitimate member of the community. Nicolás Chávez Sojuel, a traditionalist sculptor from Santiago Atitlán, explained to me that a child must eat maize in order to learn to speak Maya properly: When a woman prepares maize dough for making tortillas, she repeatedly dips her hands into a bowl of water in order to keep the dough moist. Mothers give this water mixed with maize to their young children to drink so that they will learn how to speak and learn the customs of their ancestors. This mixture of water and maize we call “blood,” and it is what makes the blood of the growing child. If an older child can’t speak well the mother will also give this same mixture of maize and water. One must be careful, however, because if a child receives too much of this at an early age, he will never shut up.

Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta wrote in the sixteenth century that rituals and beliefs concerning maize were the most persistent ancient Maya elements to survive the Conquest because they were so intimately tied to their everyday way of life: “They continue to worship their devils by night, especially at the time of planting and harvesting of maize, such rites having been performed since time immemorial by their ancestors and thus


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understandably difficult to abandon.”10 Fray Francisco Vásquez noted that this tendency continued in Guatemala more than a century after the Conquest: “Everything they did and said so concerned maize that they almost regarded it as a god. The enchantment and rapture with which they look upon their maize fields is such that on their account they forget children, wife, and any other pleasure, as though the maize fields were their final purpose in life and the source of their happiness.”11 Maize continues to be sacred in modern Maya society, and is treated with a great deal of respect at all stages of its preparation. On one occasion near Nimasaq, Totonicapán, I was visiting with a family in their house complex’s cooking area. The hearth is traditionally placed at the center of such buildings and consists of three stones surrounding an open fire on which pots are placed to boil maize kernels, or flat griddles for cooking the prepared maize dough in the form of tortillas or tamalitos. While we talked, the woman of the house ground the maize to be used for the evening meal. At one point the couple’s little two-year-old daughter playfully reached into the large pot that contained the soaked maize kernels, pulled out a handful, and carelessly let several fall onto the hardpacked earthen floor. The mother had been paying attention to the conversation and didn’t notice what her daughter was up to. When she saw what had happened she immediately stopped what she was doing, gathered the child up in her lap, gently took the remaining grains of maize from her hand and replaced them in the pot. She then picked up each of the kernels from the floor one at a time, breathed on it (a tradition in many traditional Maya communities that is described as a sharing of life), carefully cleaned every speck of dirt from it and apologized for the disrespect that had been shown. She then kissed each grain before dropping it back into the pot. By the last kernel, she was weeping softly. When all the maize was returned to the pot, the mother hugged the little girl and told her that she must always treat maize with love and respect because it is sacred and will soon become her own flesh. In much the same way that maize depends on humans to maintain its life cycle, traditionalist Maya believe that the world itself is dependent on them. Ceremonies and ritual prayers have life-regenerating efficacy. If they are not carried out properly the world could not hope to negotiate the perils of sunsets, dry seasons, and the perceived death of the world at crisis points on their ceremonial calendar such as harvest season and the last days of the calendar year. In the Maya view of the world, gods, saints, and ancestors have great power, but they depend on humans to help them carry out their labors as mediators.

Maize and Human Mediation in the Maya Popol Vuh


The Popol Vuh describes the world prior to the creation of mankind as a place of lifelessness and darkness, consisting only of a vast primordial sea of black water: THIS IS THE ACCOUNT of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky .... Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night.12

The only source of light in this primordial world comes from the creator gods within the waters who recognize that without mankind, even deities could not continue forever. The gods declare: “It shall be found; it shall be discovered how we are to create shaped and framed people who will be our providers and sustainers. May we be called upon, and may we be remembered. For it is with words that we are sustained.”13

The gods who created the earth focus their efforts on forming beings who will be able to perpetuate not only the life of the world they established but their own lives as well. The word used in the text for “providers” is tzuqul, which is a term used for a person who provides for the necessities of life, generally in the sense of food. Barbara Tedlock notes that one of the names for Maya shamans in Momostenango is tzuqunel (“feeder”) because he or she symbolically ‘feeds’ the Mundo [Spanish “World,” the principal earth deity] as well as his ancestors with their ceremonies.14 Sacred ritual, performed at the proper time and in a manner established by ancient precedent, is necessary to maintain the link between this world and the world of the sacred, or all creation runs the risk of collapse. The authors of the Popol Vuh also call humans q’o’l (“sustainers”). This title is generally used to refer to someone who gives life-sustaining nourishment, but it may also describe anyone who nurtures, such as a mother caring for the needs of her infant child. Thus the creator gods seek to form beings who would be able to take care of them as a parent would supply the needs of his or her children. This reciprocity is fundamental to Maya thought – humans could not exist without the gods nourishing and sustaining them with food, light, and water. At the same time, however, the gods require nourishment as well in the form of prayers, offerings, and properly timed rituals of rebirth. The goal of creation was to create ‘true people’ who would act as mediators. Through ritual prayers and ceremonies, the gods would be “sustained,” literally recreated and reborn as they are venerated by humankind.


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Maya gods are not infallible and they made several botched attempts to create such beings before they were successful. Their first attempt was the animals of the mountains and forests, specifically deer, birds, pumas, jaguars, and various poisonous serpents. Once formed, the gods called on the animals to speak aloud the names of their creators.15 But the animals proved incapable of doing so. Instead they merely squawked, chattered, and roared. Because of their incapacity to speak properly, the animals were consigned to live only in the forested mountains and to have their flesh eaten.16 The animals reappear later in the Popol Vuh account as the guardians of wild nature, perpetually interfering with the bond between true people and domesticated maize by reassembling the pristine forest even as humankind attempts to tame it by clearing away wild trees and bushes in order to lay out the cultivated maize fields: But on the second day, they arrived at the maizefield to find that all the trees and bushes had been raised up again. All the stalks and briars had again fastened themselves together. “Who is playing tricks on us?” they asked therefore. Now it was all the animals, both great and small, that had done it – the puma and the jaguar, the deer and the rabbit, the fox and the coyote, the peccary and the coati, the small birds and the great birds. These had done it. In a single night they did it.17

The text asserts that the animals are the “guardians of the forest, and all that populate the mountains,”18 protectors of the wildness of the natural world in opposition to human attempts to cultivate the land on behalf of maize. The present age is seen as an endless struggle between the denizens of the forest as guardians of wild plants that grow spontaneously, and the tamed fields of humans that require their constant attention to produce a harvest: They went out again to cut down the trees, and then they hid themselves there, taking cover. At length all the animals gathered together, coming together as one. All the small and great animals arrived in the very heart of the night, chattering as they came. And this was their speech: “Arise trees; arise bushes,” they all said when they came. Thus they congregated beneath the trees and the bushes.19

The gods lamented that their first attempt to create beings that could sustain them, the wild animals of the forest, had failed: “Let us try again before the first sowing, before the dawn approaches. Let us make a provider, a sustainer for us. How shall we then be called upon so

Maize and Human Mediation in the Maya Popol Vuh


that we are remembered upon the face of the earth? We have already made a first attempt with what we have framed and what we have shaped. But we were not successful in being worshiped or in being revered by them. Thus let us try again to make one who will honor us, and will respect us; for one who will be a provider and a sustainer,” they said.20

It may seem odd that the most important attribute of these created beings should be their ability to speak the names of the gods intelligibly. When I first started work on a new translation of the Popol Vuh in 1978, I requested the help of a group of ajq’ijab’ (Maya shaman-priests) in the area of Momostenango with regard to certain esoteric terms in the text related to traditional Maya ceremonies. They approached this work with a great deal of caution because to fail to find the right words in translation would be to put b’anom tzij (“lying words”) in the mouths of the ancestors, an act that they believed could bring upon themselves illness or even death. In Maya belief, to speak the name of something in a ritual context is to make it physically manifest. This is also true of modern Maya ceremonialism. Before our first session together, one of the ajq’ijab’ asked me to put together a list of all the names of any gods or ancestors that would be mentioned on that day. When we had all the names compiled, the ajq’ij prepared a brazier with hot coals from the fire and placed a spoonful of copal incense in the brazier. Once there was a good steady cloud of incense smoke we each prepared ourselves in a cleansing ceremony, commonly done before any major ritual. Each person takes the brazier and waves it under both arms (to purify the actions of our hands), then in front of our chests (to purify our hearts), then finally in front of our faces, breathing the smoke into our lungs (to purify our thoughts and words). Then the ajq’ij took the brazier and waved it over the sheet of paper with the list of names as well as the computer-generated pages with the original K’iche’-Maya text that I had prepared for that day. Having done so, the ajq’ij knelt before the pages and invoked each of the names of the gods and ancestors in turn, inviting them to be present in the room and to help us in the work we were to do that day. In this way our hearts and minds would be pure in order to translate the words of the gods and their ancestors properly. At the end of each day of work, one of the ajq’ijab’ would repeat each of the names again, thanking them individually for being with us. On one occasion, the ajq’ij apologized if they had something better to do that day but insisted that their presence was necessary for us “to know their words and their thoughts.” Often the ajq’ijab’ would pause after reading a name and briefly nod in acknowledgment of that god or deceased person’s presence in the room. For the ajq’ijab’, this was a physical presence,


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brought about by the pronunciation of the god’s or ancestor’s name. When a god is remembered, or his name is spoken aloud, he is in a sense given a kind of rebirth. On a number of occasions, the ajq’ijab’ noted that were it not for the Popol Vuh, and for their ability to read and know its contents, the names of their gods and ancestors would be forgotten. They would therefore be truly dead, never able to live again among their descendants. The word they used in the ceremony when reading through the litany of names was k’astajik (“to resurrect or to give life”). The Popol Vuh text asserts that the creation of the earth came about when the gods first pronounced the names of things: Then the earth was created by them. Merely their word brought about the creation of it. In order to create the earth, they said, “Earth,” and immediately it was created. Just like a cloud, like a mist, was the creation and formation of it.21

After the creation of the animals, the gods make a second attempt using moistened earth to form the flesh of a being they hoped would be able to sustain them. The resulting “mud person” turned out to be a failure as well: Then was the framing, the making of it. Of earth and mud was its flesh composed. But they saw that it was still not good. It merely came undone and crumbled. It merely became sodden and mushy. It merely fell apart and dissolved. Its head was not set apart properly. Its face could only look in one direction. Its face was hidden. Neither could it look about. At first it spoke, but without knowledge. Straightaway it would merely dissolve in water, for it was not strong.22

The mud person was able to speak, but there was no na’oj (“knowledge”) behind its words. In highland Maya languages, this word also includes the larger concept of the soul, socialization, the capacity to learn, and even conventions of morality.23 Only human beings have na’oj. It is what separates them from animals. Thus the mud people lacked the essential awareness and understanding that a person must have to honor the gods properly. The third attempt by the gods resulted in beings carved of wood. But these “wood people” also turned out to be incapable of fulfilling their purpose as sustainers and providers for the gods: They had the appearance of people and spoke like people as well. They populated the whole face of the earth. The effigies of carved wood began to multiply, bearing daughters and sons. Nevertheless, they still did not possess their hearts nor their minds. They did not remember their Framer or their Shaper. They walked without

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purpose. They crawled on their hands and knees and did not remember Heart of Sky. Thus they were weighed in the balance. They were merely an experiment, an attempt at people. At first they spoke, but their faces were all dried up. Their legs and arms were not filled out. They had no blood or blood flow within them. They had no sweat or oil. Their cheeks were dry, and their faces were masks. Their legs and arms were stiff. Their bodies were rigid. Thus they were not capable of understanding before their Framer and their Shaper, those who had given them birth and given them hearts.24

Although the wood people could speak, they did not remember their creators. The word “remember” is derived from na’, which also means “to touch,” “to feel,” or “to know.” For a Maya to remember a deity or ancestor is equivalent to ‘feeling’ them or ‘knowing’ them. When viewing an old photograph taken in the nineteenth century, an ajkun (a traditionalist healer or shaman) from Santiago Atitlán pointed to a number of individuals in the picture and identified them by name. When I asked how he knew them he replied, We all know them. They still visit us in dreams and in person. We know their faces, they still are very powerful, the soul of the town. White are their minds, white are their souls. This is our inheritance. These people live because I live, I carry their blood, I remember. They are not forgotten.

The Maya do not worship separable ancestors. They recognize the presence of the ancestors within them. It is part of their blood and their flesh, renewed at each meal by the same maize used to create the first ‘true people’ at the beginning of time. As long as they are alive the ancestors are alive and present. In ritual prayers, Maya priests often say that their memories reside in their flesh, and especially in their blood. In the Maya worldview, memory is not a function of the brain, but of a person’s blood. For a Maya to remember a deity or ancestor is to bring him or her forth from his own blood. E. Michael Mendelson was told by a traditional Maya healer in Santiago Atitlán that sacred knowledge cannot be passed from one person to another.25 Apprenticeships to become an ajq’ij do not involve memorization of prayers or learning the steps of a ritual by observation. The perception among Maya traditionalists is that the senior ajq’ij merely encourages his apprentices to ‘remember’ the knowledge that his or her ancestors already knew and therefore exists within their blood. The ability to conduct efficacious prayers and ceremonies must come directly from within oneself, directly from his/her own blood, or it is powerless. Non-Maya do not necessarily have this kind of ability, because their blood does not originate from the same visionary ancestral source. In my own experience working


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with ajq’ijab’ as an ethnographer in the 1970s, my frequent displays of ineptitude in learning divinatory and calendric skills were interpreted as the lack of Maya blood in my veins. I couldn’t ‘remember’ Maya prayers and ceremonies with my blood or see through the eyes of the ancestors because I had a different lineage, likely not a very divine one. The wood people in the Popol Vuh account lacked blood, and their flesh was dry and rigid. As a result, though they looked like people and could reproduce, they still lacked the essential blood-memory and intimate knowledge of the gods within their flesh to allow them to remember the gods and sustain them with their words. According to the Popol Vuh, the final, successful attempt to create true human beings occurred when maize was discovered and used by the gods to form the substance of their flesh. Because of the sacred nature of maize, these first humans not only had the power of speech, but of extraordinary vision: Thus their countenances appeared like people. People they came to be. They were able to speak and converse. They were able to look and listen. They were able to walk and hold things with their hands. They were excellent and chosen people. Their faces were manly in appearance. They had their breath, therefore they became. They were able to see as well, for straightaway their vision came to them. Perfect was their sight, and perfect was their knowledge of everything beneath the sky. If they gazed about them, looking intently, they beheld that which was in the sky and that which was upon the earth. Instantly they were able to behold everything. They did not have to walk to see all that existed beneath the sky. They merely saw it from wherever they were. Thus their knowledge became full. Their vision passed beyond the trees and the rocks, beyond the lakes and the seas, beyond the mountains and the valleys.26

Although the creator gods eventually clouded this vision so that the first men could only see those things which were “nearby,”27 the progenitors of the Maya and their descendants nevertheless believe that they bear within their blood the potential for divine sight. Present-day ajq’ijab’ believe that their ancestors continue to operate through them as conduits at appropriate times and under appropriate circumstances. It is their ancestral vision that allows the ajq’ijab’ to ‘see’ beyond the limits of time and distance as the first men once did. The authors of the Popol Vuh wrote that because of their ability to speak with knowledge and understanding, the first created human beings were able to remember the gods and provide for their needs through their

Maize and Human Mediation in the Maya Popol Vuh


prayers and ceremonies. The following is a prayer given by the lords of the K’iche’s in the “houses of the gods”: “Yea, pleasing is the day, you, Huracan, and you, Heart of Sky and Earth, you who give abundance and new life, and you who give daughters and sons. Be at peace, scatter your abundance and new life. May life and creation be given. May my daughters and my sons be multiplied and created, that they may provide for you, sustain you, and call upon you on the roads, on the cleared pathways, along the courses of the rivers, in the canyons, beneath the trees and the bushes. Give, then, their daughters and their sons.”28

Maya language is intimately bound with the concept that qas winaq (“true people”) are composed of the flesh of maize. To be a qas winaq, and to speak the Maya language properly, a person must first eat maize. This notion implies that the power of human speech is not merely a means of communication that may be imitated by memorizing grammar and vocabulary, but a function of the physical essence of the Maya as a people. Evon Vogt noted the belief among the Tzotzil-Maya of Chiapas that “unless people eat maize tortillas, they are never fully socialized, nor can they ever speak BAZ’IK’OP (‘the real word,’ or the Tzotzil language).”29 When I first began working as an ethnographer in K’iche’-Maya communities in Guatemala, I found it curious that when I struck up a conversation in K’iche’ with someone I didn’t know, that person would sometimes interrupt me in mid-sentence and ask me what I ate, specifically whether I ate maize tortillas. When I affirmed that I ate what they ate, including tortillas, they would nod as if that explained a great deal. After a number of such experiences I asked a friend of mine why people were curious about what I ate. He replied, “You can speak our language. I wondered if it was because you ate maize from here. If so then you have the flesh of the ancients in your flesh and therefore can speak what they spoke.” This is apparently a very old Mesoamerican concept. In the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, a sixteenth-century indigenous text from central Mexico, barbarian Chichimec messengers from the north arriving at the court of the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica were given a grain of local maize to eat so that they could speak intelligibly in Nahuatl.30 Bunzel noted that the K’iche’s of Chichicastenango claimed that their formalized speech and ceremonies were attributed to ancient ancestral precedent: “And now this rite and custom belongs to the first people, our mothers and fathers ... This belongs to them; we are the embodiment of their rites and ceremonies.”31 To alter the actions of the ancestors would be to change the very fabric of their existence in potentially destructive ways. As mediators between this world and that of the sacred, it is the Maya’s obligation to continue the


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actions of their divine ancestors in as authentic a manner as possible: “It is our name and destiny to repeat and perpetuate these ceremonies before the world.”32 When asking Tz’utujils when certain rituals began, a common response is that they are as old as the world and were first performed by their ancestors who had divine power.33 I had the opportunity to read through the creation story of the Popol Vuh with a group of ajq’ijab’ in Canquixaja, a small community near Momostenango. When we had finished the passage that recounted the gratitude of the first maize people and their extraordinary vision, one of the priests stood and said that he had a word to say: I wonder if these words belong only to the ancient past. I think all of us pass through the various stages of creation. When we were born we were like the animals. We could only squawk and make animal sounds. Later we learned to say a few words, but they were words without any understanding behind them – like the Mud People. I think Wood People are like teenagers. They can speak, they can reproduce, but they forget who they are. They do not remember their mothers and fathers or the ancient people. They don’t know their purpose in life. Wachalal (“Brothers”), we bear a heavy, sweet burden on our backs, because we remember. And because we remember we must bear the burden of carrying out our work so that the ancestors may speak to us through our blood and our flesh. This is often very hard. But if we didn’t do this, who would? Everything would end.

The Maya priest referred to his work as a “heavy, sweet burden,” one that must be done if the world is to continue. The Maya authors of the Popol Vuh wrote that the purpose of creation was to form beings who would be able to support and sustain the gods. In traditional Maya theology the gods are not immortal, any more than the elements of the natural world. The sun dies each evening, maize plants dry up and die at the time of harvest, gods suffer weakness and death in regular cycles. Human beings stand as mediators between this universal life and universal death. Each phase of the agricultural cycle is accompanied by ritual actions intended to maintain life. Modern agricultural techniques such as chemical fertilization, though practiced widely among the Maya, are often seen as foreign intrusions on ancestral precedent and are blamed for decreasing yields and the inexorable weakening of the earth’s ability to bear new life. Traditionalist Maya believe that they alone bear the burden of carrying out life-renewing ceremonies so that rebirth can follow death naturally and in its proper time. If traditional ajq’ijab’ and elders do not carry out the proper ceremonies in season, they believe that the world and its gods would simply cease to be.

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Notes 1 Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 8. 2 Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), pp. 64, 259. 3 Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: Literal Poetic Version Translation and Transcription (Winchester, UK: O Books, 2003), pp. 223–25. 4 Frauke Sachse, “Over Distant Waters: Places of Origin and Creation in Colonial K’iche’an Sources,” in John Edward Staller (ed.), Pre-Columbian Landscapes of Creation and Origin (New York: Springer, 2008), pp. 123–60. 5 William A. Saturno, Karl A. Taube, and David Stuart, “The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala. Part 1: The North Wall,” Ancient America 7 (February 2005), pp. 41–48. 6 Christenson, Popol Vuh, pp. 193–95. 7 Ibid., p. 71; see also pp. 78, 80, 82, 110, 200, 206, 207. 8 Barbara Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), p. 80. 9 Francisco de Fuentes y Guzmán, Recordación Florida (Guatemala: Biblioteca Goathemala, 1932–33 [1699]), I:281, translation by author. 10 Fr Gerónimo de Mendieta, Historia Eclesiástica Indiana (México: Editorial Porrua, 1993), p. 232, translation by author. 11 Cited in J. Eric S. Thompson, Maya History and Religion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), p. 287. 12 Christenson, Popol Vuh, pp. 67–68. 13 Ibid., p. 80. 14 Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya, p. 114. 15 Christenson, Popol Vuh, p. 76. 16 Ibid., p. 77. 17 Ibid., p. 149. 18 Ibid., p. 74. 19 Ibid., p. 150. 20 Ibid., p. 78. 21 Ibid., p. 71. 22 Ibid., p. 78. 23 John M. Watanabe, Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), p. 100. 24 Christenson, Popol Vuh, pp. 83–84. 25 E. Michael Mendelson, Religion and World-View in a Guatemalan Village. Microfilm Collection of Manuscripts on Middle American Cultural Anthropology, no. 52 (Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 1957), pp. 281–82. 26 Christenson, Popol Vuh, pp. 197–98. 27 Ibid., p. 201. 28 Ibid., p. 289.


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29 Evon Z. Vogt, Tortillas for the Gods: A Symbolic Analysis of Zinacanteco Rituals (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), p. 50. 30 Paul Kirchoff, Lina Odena Güemes, and Luís Reyes García (eds.), Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1976), p. 169. 31 Ruth Leah Bunzel, Chichicastenango (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1952), pp. 232, 238. 32 Ibid., p. 242. 33 E. Michael Mendelson, Las escándolas de Maximon, pub. 19 (Guatemala: Seminario de Integración Social Guatemalteca, 1965), p. 91; Allen J. Christenson, Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community: The Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlán (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), pp. 22–23, 68.

chapter 7

I Invoke God, Therefore I Am: Creation’s Spirituality and Its Ecologic Impact in Islamic Texts SarraTlili The view that Abrahamic religions are incompatible with environmental ethics has gained ascendancy in the last few decades, particularly after the publication of Lynn White’s article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” In that article White traced the roots of current ecological problems to Western Christianity, arguing that by destroying pagan animism this tradition “made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”1 In White’s view, animism owed its positive ecological impact to the fact that it ascribed divinity to natural objects, something that supposedly inspired animist societies to treat nature with deference, whereas Western Christianity, in his opinion, owed its negative ecological impact to the fact that it exaggerated humans’ status on one hand and objectified nature on the other. Even though White intended his piece as constructive criticism rather than forthright condemnation,2 many authors before and after him subscribed uncritically to the view that monotheism was inherently incompatible with environmental ethics. In response to this, the large body of the so-called apologetic literature that engaged with White’s thesis invoked several principles, such as the notions of stewardship, nature’s goodness and creaturely status, and creation’s praise of God, to demonstrate monotheism’s compatibility with environmentalism. Much of this debate, however, remains to date limited to the theoretical sphere, striving to illustrate monotheism’s environmental potential rather than record. This is primarily due to the fact that the debate continues to focus on the Judeo-Christian tradition, reflecting little awareness of Islam’s significantly different environmental legacy. The aim of this chapter, however, is not to give an historical survey of this legacy, as this remains beyond the scope of a single essay, but rather to examine the principles on which this legacy was founded. This, I hope, will contribute to the ongoing environmental debate in two ways. First, it will illustrate the compatibility between monotheism and environmentalism in more concrete terms. Second, the theoretical discourse on this 107


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question can be reevaluated in light of historical data. To provide the backdrop against which this discussion is set, in this chapter I will first introduce the so-called myth of primitive ecological wisdom and the parallel myth of monotheism’s incompatibility with environmental ethics. Second, I will briefly review some of the concepts that have been proposed as possible foundations for monotheistic environmentalism. Finally, I will discuss the principle of creation’s worship of God, which served historically as the main foundation for Islamic environmental ethics.

Monotheism, Nature Religions, and the Environment The view that eastern and shamanic religions are more environmentally friendly than Western ones is one of the relics of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic movement. Western authors who were disturbed by the negative impact of industrialization on their environments tended to attribute to non-industrial communities the ecological wisdom which they considered to be missing from their own cultures. In the view of Kay Milton, this construction of non-industrial cultures became so ingrained in environmental thought that it acquired the status of a myth, in the sense that it was in no need of proof and not easily amenable to refutation due to its centrality to environmentalist thought. Without it, Milton explains, “there would be no grounds for arguing that industrialism is the cause of environmental destruction.”3 In spite of its seemingly favorable character, many protest that, like all stereotypes, the depiction of non-Western traditions as paragons of ecological wisdom is both inaccurate and damaging. In some criticisms, it is maintained that by emphasizing the spiritual and mysterious character of Eastern traditions – the theme that supposedly underpins Eastern ecological wisdom – environmentalists magnify the differences between East and West and portray Eastern traditions as the alien, non-rational other. This depiction also reduces complex and diverse traditions into monolithic ones. As Ramachandra Guha points out, “This reading of Eastern traditions is selective and does not bother to differentiate between alternate (and changing) religious and cultural traditions.” Guha maintains also that this conception “does considerable violence to the historical record,” because agricultural knowledge in the East “can hardly be said to rest on a mystical affinity with nature of a deep ecological kind.”4 On a more concrete level, this conceptualization of non-Western societies often results in disregard of the actual needs of their members and can even result in policies that are damaging to people and their environments.

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As Milton notes, “many, perhaps most, of the changes that have been introduced in the name of environmental conservation have been insensitive to local cultures, particularly those which disrupted people’s traditional ways of using their environment.”5 Although ecological problems in much of the non-Western world have become as serious as they are in the West, through the primitiveecological-wisdom prism they can be accounted for in surprisingly different ways. A view expressed by Arnold Toynbee is a case in point. Toynbee acknowledged the gravity of the ecological situation in Japan, yet, in his insistence on absolving Eastern traditions from blame and laying the responsibility on the notion of monotheism, he not only asserted that Japan’s ecological problems were happening “in defiance of the ... Weltanschauung that is implicit in the Japanese people’s ancestral religions,” but also insisted on blaming these problems on Christianity, even though he admitted that “Japanese converts to Christianity have been few.”6 This explanation is problematic not only because it reduces the complex set of causes underlying Japan’s ecological problems to mere religious ones, but also because it perpetuates the myth of the passive Oriental. The theme of monotheism’s incompatibility with environmental ethics is as engrained in Romantic environmentalism as is the theme of primitive ecological wisdom. Indeed, considering their interdependence, the two themes often appear as facets of the same coin. As Guha has noted in the case of Eastern traditions, however, this perception fails to do justice to the multifaceted and internally differentiated monotheistic legacy. It is particularly remarkable that these negative claims barely reflect any familiarity with Islam. Seyyed Hossein Nasr wonders whether “it is as a result of ignorance or arrogance that in discussions taking place in the West on monotheism and the environmental crisis, during which monotheism is usually criticized ... practically no account is taken of Islam except when it is criticized as part of the monotheistic family.”7 His discussion implies that although Islam is not animistic in the sense of ascribing divinity to nature, it still perceives nature as alive and argues that this tradition’s historical record offers a concrete illustration of the compatibility between environmental ethics and monotheism, yet he notes also that there is neither effort nor desire to explore Islam’s position on this topic, a lacuna that I hope can partly be redressed in the present study. The assumption that Eastern traditions are more eco-friendly than monotheistic ones can be detected even from the work of more informed authors. For example, Richard Foltz hints that a “pantheistic” reading of


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Islamic doctrines may be the cure for the tradition’s supposed hierarchical worldview and proposes as an alternative reading of the notion of God’s oneness (tawhīd) – the most pivotal notion to Islamic creed – the _ of “wahdat al-wujūd,” or Unity of Being, embraced “all-inclusive” notion _ by the controversial, though prominent, medieval Muslim thinker Muhyī al-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 638/1240). Such reading, combined with_ a number of Qur’anic themes, Foltz elaborates, would temper “the hierarchical notion of stewardship implied in the concept of khilāfa.”8 A better course to go, however, would have been to verify whether the notion of stewardship is in the first place Qur’anic. As several studies have demonstrated, close investigation of the Qur’anic word khalīfa (supposedly, “steward”) shows that the connotation of acting on someone’s behalf crept into its meaning post-revelation and, more importantly, that the more specific connotation that humans are God’s representatives among nonhuman creatures became prevalent only as recently as the late nineteenth or twentieth century.9

Theoretical Debate on Monotheistic Environmental Ethics Implicit in the debate described in the foregoing discussion is the question of ‘intrinsic value.’ White’s article led most environmentalists to abandon the ‘instrumental value’ approach, whereby nature’s worth is limited to its usefulness to humankind, and look for plausible theories where value can be independent of humans. Whereas in the secular arena value is often placed directly in natural entities, whose behavior (such as competition for survival in the case of living organisms) is interpreted as a sign that they value their own existence, in religious thought the value is linked to divinity, either in a pantheistic sense, where natural entities themselves are considered divine, or in a transcendental sense, characteristic of monotheisms. In response to White’s criticism of the transcendental model, many scholars have argued that monotheism de-divinizes but does not desacralize nature, and find in the principle of nature’s sacredness an adequate foundation for environmental ethics.10 The principle of nature’s sacredness, however, is derived from a number of scriptural and doctrinal themes which, upon close examination, do not prove to be equally compelling. In some discussions, the idea of nature’s sacredness comes too close to the pantheistic model to fit smoothly with monotheistic doctrines. Besides, even though the stewardship ethic has acquired major prominence, many question its environmental merit. The scriptural motifs of creation’s ‘goodness’ and ‘creaturely status’ are clearly positive, but

Creation’s Spirituality in Islamic Texts


whether they can inspire, or have historically inspired, enough reverence for nature is less certain. In contrast, the theme of creation’s devotion to God comes across as the most solid foundation for monotheistic environmental ethics, something that can be demonstrated by assessing its impact on traditional Islamic thought. In this section I will give a brief overview of some of the less compelling foundations for monotheistic environmental ethics; in the next I will discuss the theme of creation’s devotion to God.

The Shade of Pantheism The insistence on the principle of God’s transcendence notwithstanding, in many discussions the notion of nature’s sacredness seems to evoke pantheism. Nasr, for example, presents the esoteric doctrine of wahdat al-wujūd (Unity of Being) as a plausible translation of the notion_ of nature’s sacredness, defining this doctrine as the existence of “only one Reality in the ultimate sense, that is God.” Even though Nasr insists that this definition does not equate God with the universe and does not deny divine transcendence, he still considers that creation is not merely generated by God, but also that it exists in God. To elucidate this notion, Nasr offers a metaphor whereby he likens the cosmos to a garment “which at once veils and reveals” divine reality.11 This metaphor is perhaps founded on the ‘sign’ motif, implying that as a sign of God’s existence and attributes the cosmos points to (reveals) its creator, yet since it is different and separate from God it also veils the divine reality. This metaphor, however, not only seems too anthropomorphic to fit with the Islamic conception of the deity, but also appears to blur the lines between creator and creation. Aside from these theological concerns, the profoundly anthropocentric character of the wahdat al-wujūd notion sheds doubt on its environ_ theology of ibn al-ʿArabī, the most prominent mental merit. In the architect of the doctrine, the human being is the reason God has created the world,12 the medium through which God has contact with the universe,13 and the microcosm that encapsulates the entire cosmos.14 Such anthropocentrism is clear even in the writings of Nasr, who proposes the notion of wahdat al-wujūd as a foundation for Islamic environmental _ ethics yet continues to think that man “is at the axis and centre of the cosmic milieu at once the master and custodian of nature,” “the channel of grace for nature,” and “the mouth through which nature breathes and lives.”15 In view of such pronounced anthropocentrism, it is understandable that hardly anything resembling the modern concept of


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environmental ethics is detectable from the pre-modern treatments of this notion. Prior to the contemporary surge in environmental awareness, the idea of wahdat al-wujūd was invoked consistently to testify to the exalted _ status of humans, not nature.

Stewardship In spite of its popularity both in secular and religious circles, the stewardship environmental ethic has incurred much criticism. Defenders of this model emphasize the attitudes of responsibility and benevolence characterizing it. Unlike the notion of dominion, they maintain, the stewardship ethic aims at taking good care of the earth and managing it wisely. Critics of this model, on the other hand, protest that through its hierarchical paradigm and managerial role the notion of stewardship continues to place humans above nature and to view nature as a resource to be managed. More practically, many believe that humans do not possess the qualifications needed to perform this task. White contends that, because of humans’ moral limitations, stewardship will exacerbate rather than put a stop to the environmental disaster.16 Bron Taylor argues that humans have neither the knowledge nor the capacity that are required to perform this function.17 This notion is also fraught with theological problems. Matthew Fox protests that the stewardship notion “represents God as an absentee landlord.”18 It is indeed unclear why the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God of monotheism would need or want someone to represent him among creation. Scripturally, even if it can be argued that this notion has some roots in the Bible, the same cannot be said as confidently about the Qur’an. Enough studies have demonstrated that, contrary to the now prevalent view, the Qur’anic word khalīfa (supposedly, “steward”) conveyed to its earliest audience only the meanings of “successor,” “follower,” and “substitute” (of a former party). This precludes the possibility that Adam can be the khalīfa of God, as this would imply that God is either absent or dead, a most blasphemous idea in the monotheistic worldview. Historically, those who subscribed to the view that humankind is God’s representative among the rest of creation derived from this principle insights attesting to humans’ privileged status and nature’s instrumentality. To date, when the word khalīfa is understood as “representative of God,” it is more often invoked to attest to humans’ distinction than responsibility. This poor environmental record further illustrates the environmental inadequacy of the stewardship metaphor.

Creation’s Spirituality in Islamic Texts


Nature’s Goodness and Creaturely Status Both the Bible and the Qur’an discuss nature in favorable terms. Joshtrom Kureethadam points out that in the priestly account of creation the expression “and God found it good” is repeated “after each day of God’s creative labor of bringing things and living beings into existence.”19 Similarly, based on verses such as 27/al-Naml:88, where the Qur’an asserts that God perfected everything that He created, İbrahim Özdemir highlights the Qur’an’s insistence on the order, beauty, and harmony of nature.20 The scriptural themes of creation’s goodness and perfection are invoked to illustrate the view that God cherishes his creation, something that supposedly endows it with intrinsic value. The same conclusion is derived from nature’s creaturely status. Ali Rizvi states that “the property of being created by God is something that is not only shared by everything in the universe, but is something that has intrinsic value, which is to be valued for its own sake.”21 Kureethadam notes that “For believers, the material world is not just a surrounding ‘environment’ or even just ‘nature,’ as in the physical sciences. For them, the world is, above all, God’s marvelous handiwork. It is creation.”22 Therefore, by merely developing the awareness that nature is the work of God, it is contended, one can develop feelings of respect toward it out of respect for its maker. These are plausible readings. Since humans typically find it reasonable to think that authors value their work, there seems to be no compelling reason to think otherwise of God. Furthermore, the principle of creaturely status lends weight to the suggestion that the relationship between humans and other creatures is horizontal rather than vertical. Humans are as much under God’s control and in need of his grace as any other creature, and the fact that God sustains and otherwise attends to the needs of all beings indicates that he cares for all creatures, not only for humans. Moreover, the ‘creaturely status’ motif is not without practical bearings. Kim Fortuny states that many contemporary Turkish people justify their considerate treatment of dogs by the fact that “God created him [the dog] too.”23 From earlier sources we learn about a Sufi who reprimands a butcher for mistreating a goat, reminding him that the goat “is a creature like you!”24 Similar insights are derived from the ownership dimension of this theme. Because creation technically belongs to God, some contend that humans are allowed to benefit from it only in the ways and to the extent that God allowed them to do. Such restrictions were, for example, invoked to disallow castration and other mutilations of animal bodies.25 The creaturely status motif is thus interpreted as something that entitles at least animals to considerate treatment.


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These insights notwithstanding, the motifs of nature’s ‘goodness’ and ‘creaturely status’ played a rather informal role in Islamic environmental ethics. This is perhaps due to some conceptual factors. When the Qur’an discusses creation favorably, the point is always to draw attention to the perfection of God, of which humans may gain a glimpse only when they look at his work. The point, therefore, is not to allow our gaze to rest on creation, but rather to direct it above. Besides, considering that some creatures can, and do, fall out of divine grace, the creaturely status argument does not seem sufficient to endow creation with intrinsic value.

Creation’s Devotion to God The ecological thrust of monotheism lies in the theme of creation’s devotion to God. Not only does this theme have considerable merit at the conceptual level, but it also has a rich historical record attesting to its effectiveness. Both the Qur’an and the Bible affirm that nonhuman creation hymns the praises of God, and the Qur’an and other Islamic texts mention additional acts of worship. The main point of this theme is, of course, to underscore God’s oneness and majesty by showing that everything in the cosmos acknowledges his divinity and worships him and none but him. The aim, therefore, is to stress the theo-centric, rather than the eco-centric, character of monotheism. Nevertheless, by ascribing to the created realm behavior that is pleasing to God, this theme indicates also that God values the world not simply “by virtue of [its] being the creation of the divine,” as Emma Tomalin states, but rather by virtue of its possessing a quality that God values: devotion to Him.26 Among the strengths of this theme is that although it strips nature of all traces of divinity, it does not transform it into a lifeless or unconscious set of entities. Besides, when one takes into consideration the equally important theme of God’s care for his creation, it becomes clear that the relationship between creator and creation is far from being hollow or meaningless. Rather, at one end there is a caring God who is tuned to the interests of creation and who attends to each creature’s needs; at the other, creation is full of awe of God’s majesty and of gratitude for his care. In this final section I will first highlight the scriptural foundations for this theme, then assess its ecological impact on Islamic tradition. Devotion to God is a chief characteristic of the Qur’anic world. This scripture says, “The seven heavens praise His [God’s] glory, and the earth, and all that is therein; there is not a single thing but sings His praise, though you [humans] do not grasp their praising hymns” (17/al-Isrāʾ:44).

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The same affirmation is reiterated a number of times, most notably in five suras known as al-Musabbihāt (The Glorifying Ones), thus called because _ the affirmation that all creatures hymn their opening verses restate God’s praises (57/al-Ḥadīd:1, 59/al-Ḥashr:1, 61/al-Ṣaff:1, 62/al-Jumuʿa:1, 64/al-Taghābun:1). Furthermore, many creatures are mentioned by name as practicing tasbīh (glorification of God), including the seven heavens, the _ Considering the frequency of its mention and the fact earth, and thunder. that all creation engages in it, tasbīh is the foremost form of creaturely _ worship in the Qur’an. Nonhuman creatures also pray to God. The Qur’an says, “Do you not see that it is God that all creatures in the heavens and the earth glorify, (including) the birds in their flight? Each of them knows how to pray unto Him and how to glorify Him” (24/al-Nūr:41). Another act of worship attributed to the nonhuman creation is prostration: “And Before God prostrate themselves ... all (beings) that are in the heavens and on earth, as do their shadows in the morning and the evenings” (13/al-Raʿd:15). Most interestingly, the Qur’an affirms that everything submits itself to God, when it asks rhetorically, “Do they [disbelievers] desire other than the religion of God, when to Him all creatures in the heavens and in the earth submit, willingly or unwillingly?” (3/Āl ʿImrān:83). Since submission to God (islām) is what the Qur’an invites humans to do, the assertion that the nonhuman realm is already in a state of submission becomes noteworthy. Reports attributed to the Prophet, his companions, and other pious Muslims elaborate on these acts of devotion and add others to the list. In spite of the Qur’anic assertion that the hymning praises of nonhuman creatures are undecipherable to humans, many, including the Prophet, are reported to have understood the hymns of animate and inanimate beings. The croaking of frogs, the creaking of doors, and the splashing of sea waves, among innumerable other sounds, are interpreted as praising hymns. Creatures from the seven heavens to the tiniest beings are so engaged in God’s glorification, we are told, that if their hymns were not concealed from humans none would have experienced a moment of quiet.27 Remarkably, nonhuman beings display awareness of, and even take part in, humans’ religious activities and are alert to metaphysical realities of which most humans are heedless. Stones and trees chant prayers with human pilgrims in Mecca.28 Nonhuman creatures are particularly alert on Fridays, knowing that this is when the end of this worldly existence will take place.29 When believers die, the heavens and the earth mourn them.30 Mountains check on one another every day to find out if any of them were


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traversed by someone who remembered God’s name and rejoice when the answer is in the affirmative.31 Heavens, earth, mountains, and animals pray for the forgiveness of those who fast during the month of Ramadan.32 The earth also participates in the world’s moral drama in the capacity of a witness. On the Day of Judgment it will testify either for or against people and describe the deeds they performed while living on it.33 In brief, nonhuman beings are not only God-conscious or self-conscious, they are also conscious of the religious behavior of fellow creatures, including human beings. This contrasts drastically with humans’ general unawareness of other creatures’ spirituality. Indeed, among humankind, it is only prophets and the most pious who have the ability to grasp religious behaviors across species and kind lines. Nonhuman creation thus appears to be comparable to the most pious humans. The image that emerges from these descriptions is of a world vibrant with life and emotion, albeit of a kind that remains in the most part beyond human experience and understanding. Creatures are enraptured with adoration of the divine, and their God-consciousness endows them with purposefulness. This is a far cry from the inert and objectified creation that is typically associated with the principle of divine transcendence. In this model, creation itself affirms the transcendence of God, not only in the passive – albeit important – capacity of being a sign of God’s existence and attributes, but also in the active role of worshipping God. The goodness that endows nature with value is not only what qualifies as goodness by human standards, such as physical beauty and harmony, but also what qualifies as goodness by divine standards, i.e. devotion and submission to God.

Ecological Impact Kinship and Admiration Muslims are often recommended to learn from nonhuman creation. The Prophet reportedly taught believers to hymn the phrase “Praise and glory be to God,” because this is “the hymning invocation of the entire creation.”34 The Sufi Master Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī (d. 672/1273) recommends that we learn how to give up our will from nature’s exemplary submission to God.35 Indeed, the Qur’an itself, as noted earlier, asks how disbelievers could reject God’s religion (islām/submission) when the entire cosmos already submits to him. One of the aims of this theme thus appears to integrate humanity in the rest of creation. By hymning God’s praises

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and submitting themselves to God, humans will simply join the ranks of other creatures and be part of a universal chorus of divine hymns. A remarkable feature of this theme is that the leading role is given to nonhuman beings. Humanity is not to serve as the priest of creation, giving it voice or leading it to the path of God, as some Christian theologians have proposed; nor is it to serve as “the channel of grace for nature,” as Nasr maintains, nor is it the care-taker of creation, as implied in the stewardship metaphor; rather, creation serves as a ‘role model’ that humans are invited to emulate. Besides feelings of kinship, this approach fosters feelings of admiration toward the nonhuman creation. It teaches humans to look up to nonhuman creatures not as divine beings to be worshipped, but rather as fellow, though more righteous, creatures from whom one can learn humility and submission to God. The same stance can be discerned from creation’s function as a witness on humans’ deeds, which became an incentive for believers to remember God near “every stone and every tree” with the hope that these creatures witness on their behalf on the Day of Judgment.36 Such awareness thus taught the pious to be vigilant around nonhuman creatures not out of fear that they may harm them, but rather out of confidence that they will testify to God on what they observe in this life. If any creaturely hierarchy can be detected, it is a hierarchy that places the rest of creation above humankind. Concrete Impact Several prophetic traditions derive practical teachings from the theme of nature’s spirituality. In one report, Muhammad relates that God reproached a prophet of a previous nation for burning an anthill after one ant stung him, telling this prophet, “Because of one ant’s sting you destroyed an entire community that used to hymn my praises!”37 From this account one discerns that ants are entitled to life not by mere virtue of being created by God, nor because of the fact that they are sentient (although sentiency is invoked in Islamic law as an important validation for animal welfare), but rather by virtue of their devotion to God. This justification not only reiterates the theo-centric character of monotheism, it also assigns creation a more proactive role. Creation earns its right to considerate treatment through its moral uprightness. The link that this Prophetic tradition establishes between devotion to God and right to life had a significant impact on attitudes toward the nonhuman creation. When the second caliph, ʿUmar ibn al-Khattāb __ a (d. 23/644), once ordered the killing of two roosters that were used in


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gambling contest, he revoked the order because someone reminded him that the roosters praise God.38 Observing Muslims to the present day are vigilant about the lives of animals, including harmful ones, again because animals “praise God the Almighty.”39 The way nature’s spirituality inspires respect for life is perhaps best captured in an anecdote cited by Annemarie Schimmel. She writes, This feeling of the never-ending praise of the creatures is expressed most tenderly in the story of the Turkish Sufi, Sünbül Efendi (sixteenth century), who sent out his disciples to bring flowers to the convent. While all of them returned with fine bouquets, one of them, Merkez Efendi, offered the master only a little withered flower, for, he said, “all the others were engaged in the praise of God and I did not want to disturb them; this one, however, had just finished its dhikr [remembrance of God], and so I brought it.”40

For the pious, the theme of creation’s praise of God became an important deterrent from taking life wantonly even in the case of vegetation. Creation’s spirituality became also a foundation for animal welfare. Another Prophetic tradition mentions that Muhammad was displeased with a group of Muslims whom he saw sitting idly on the backs of their mounts. He consequently instructed them not to burden the animals unnecessarily, adding that “a mount may be better than its rider as it may remember God more frequently.”41 This report reiterates the same themes encountered earlier: a nonhuman creature may have a higher status than the human being, this status is derived from devotion to God, and being a worshipper of God translates into concrete privileges, in this case: considerate treatment. Devotion to God also entitles nonhuman beings to dignity. A prophetic report instructs Muslims not to slap any animal on the face, again “because all animals hymn the praises of God.”42 Interestingly, such respect extends even to inanimate beings. The early exegete ʿIkrima (d. 105/723) says, “Let none of you disparage his clothes or his mount, because everything hymns the praises of God.”43 Al-Fudayl ibn ʿIyād (d. 187/803) states that any time _ or an object, _ that creature retorts, “Let the a human being curses an animal more disobedient to God among us be the cursed one!” Al-Fudayl does not neglect to point out that the more disobedient is always_ the human being.44 ʿAlī ibn ʿAbd Allāh (d. 118/736) dislikes to see clothes sullied with dirt because “clothes praise God.”45 Nonhuman creatures can earn respect also by helping others perform their devotional acts. The Prophet forbids Muslims from vilifying the rooster because it wakes Muslims up for their morning prayers.46 Fleas deserve the same respect because they once awakened a prophet to pray.47 In fact, the Prophet taught Muslims

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not to vilify anything (wa-lā tasubbanna shayʾan),48 a stance that seems to be equally informed by the fact that all things glorify God’s name.

Conclusion Several authors, including Lynn White and Richard Bauckham, have noted the environmental potential of the theme of creation’s worship of God. This chapter builds on their work by providing a concrete illustration of their thesis. Islamic sources provide ample evidence attesting to the environmental merit of this theme. This chapter also offers a brief evaluation of the current environmental discourse. Close analysis shows that, historically, the notions of wahdat _ al-wujūd (Unity of Being) and khilāfa (supposedly, stewardship) were invoked to testify to humans’ privileged status rather than responsibility toward other creatures, something that sheds doubt on the environmental merit of these notions. Monotheistic environmental ethics has historically been founded mainly on the theme of creation’s worship of God. This chapter sought also to draw attention to the importance of studying Islamic environmental themes more carefully and to the need to pay closer attention to this tradition’s concrete environmental legacy. Strangely, based on surface, selective, and misinformed readings, discussions of this tradition continue to hold that the Qur’an gives humans dominion over other creatures – a most strange idea since there is no mention of it in the Qur’an – and that it appoints humankind as God’s representative among other creatures, paying no attention to the scholarship that questions the prevalent understanding of the Qur’anic word on which this assumption is founded.49 Meanwhile, little attention has been paid to the historical dimension, thus neglecting a most vibrant environmental legacy and clouding insights that can inform the current environmental debate. Notes 1 Lynn White Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, 3767 (1967), p. 1205. 2 Matthew T. Riley, “A Spiritual Democracy of All God’s Creatures: Ecotheology and the Animals of Lynn White Jr.,” in Divinanimality: Animal Theology, Creaturely Theology, ed. Stephen D. Moor (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 241–60. 3 Kay Milton, Environmentalism and Cultural Theory: Exploring the Role of Anthropology in Environmental Discourse (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 109.


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4 Ramachandra Guha, “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” Environmental Ethics 11, 1 (1989), p. 77. 5 Milton, Environmentalism and Cultural Theory, p. 53. 6 Arnold Toynbee, “The Religious Background of the Present Environmental Crisis,” International Journal of Environmental Studies 3 (1972), p. 144. 7 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 214. 8 Richard Foltz, “Islamic Environmentalism: A Matter of Interpretation,” in Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, ed. Richard Foltz, Frederick M. Denny, and Azizan Baharuddin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 250–54. 9 On this point, see Fritz Steppat, “God’s Deputy: Materials on Islam’s Image of Man,” Arabica 36, 2 (1989), pp. 163–72; Wadad al-Qadi, “The Term ‘Khalifa’ in Early Exegetical Literature,” Die Welt des Islams 28, 1/4 (1988), pp. 392–411; Rudi Paret, “Significations coranique de ḫ alīfa et d’autres dérivés de la racine ḫ alafa,” Studia Islamica 31 (1970), pp. 211–17; Jaafar Sheikh Idris, “Is Man the Vicegerent of God?” Journal of Islamic Studies 1 (1990), pp. 99– 110. Sarra Tlili, Animals in the Qur’an (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 115–23. 10 Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature, p. 215; Richard Bauckham, “Joining Creation’s Praise of God,” Ecotheology 7, 1 (2002), p. 59. 11 Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature, 63, pp. 282–83. 12 Mahmūd Mahmūd al-Ghurāb, Al-Insān al-kāmil min kalām al-Shaykh al_ Muhyī _l-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī (Damascus: Matbaʿat Zayd ibn Thābit, Akbar _ 1981), p. 12._ 13 Masataka Takeshita, “The Homo Imago Dei Motif and the Anthropocentric Metaphysics of ibn ʿArabi in the Inshaʾ al-dawāʾir,” Orient 18 (1982), p. 124. 14 Al-Ghurāb, Al-Insān al-kāmil, p. 13. 15 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man (London: Unwin, 1968), p. 96. 16 Lynn White Jr, “The Future of Compassion,” Ecumenical Review 30, 2 (1978), p. 106. 17 Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality, and the Planetary Future (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p. 36. 18 Matthew Fox, cited in Robin Attfield, The Ethics of the Global Environment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p. 49. 19 Joshtrom Kureethadam, Creation in Crisis: Science, Ethics, Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014), p. 296. 20 İbrahim Özdemir, “Toward an Understanding of Environmental Ethics from a Qur’anic Perspective,” in Islam and Ecology, ed. Foltz, Denny and Baharuddin, p. 9. 21 Ali Rizvi, “Islamic Environmental Ethics and the Challenge of Anthropocentrism,” The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 27, 3 (2010), p. 57.

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22 Kureethadam, Creation in Crisis, pp. 293–94. 23 Kim Fortuny, “Islam, Westernization, and Posthumanist Place: The Case of the Istanbul Street Dog,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 21, 2 (2014), p. 276. 24 Najm al-Dīn Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib _ _ al-sāʾira bi-aʿyān al-miʾa al-ʿāshira (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1997), 3:29. 25 Sarra Tlili, “Animals Would Follow Shāfiʿism: Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence to Animals in Medieval Islamic Thought,” in Violence in Islamic Thought from the Qur’ān to the Mongols, ed. Robert Gleave and István T. Tristó-Nagy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), p. 232. 26 Emma Tomalin, Biodivinity and Biodiversity: The Limits to Religious Environmentalism (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p. 64. 27 Jalāl al-Dīn al-Ṣuyūtī, al-Durr al-manthūr fī l-tafsīr bi-l-maʾthūr (Cairo: Markaz _ Hajr li-l-Buhūth wa-l-Dirāsāt al-ʿArabiyya al-Islāmiyya, 2003), 9:350–66. _ 28 Abū al-Shaykh al-Asbahānī, Kitāb al-ʿazama (Riyadh: Dār al-ʿĀsima, 1991), _ _ _ 5:1705. 29 Mālik ibn Anas, Muwat taʾ al-Imām Mālik (Abu Dhabi: Muʾassasat _ _ li-l-Aʿmāl al-Khayriyya wa-l-Insāniyya, 2004), Zāyid ibn Sultān Āl Nayān _ 2:150. 30 Al-Asbahānī, al-ʿAzama, 5:1714. _ 31 Ibid.,_ 5:1717. 32 Ibid., 5:1722. 33 Abū ʿAbd al-Rahmān al-Nasāʾī, al-Sunan al-kubrā (Beirut: Muʾassasat _ al-Risāla, 2001), 10:342. 34 Abū l-Qāsim al-Ṭabarānī, al-Duʿāʾ (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1993), 488. 35 Linda Clark, “The Universe Alive: Nature in the Masnavī of Jalal al-Din Rumi,” in Islam and Ecology, ed. Foltz, Denny and Baharuddin, p. 44. 36 Al-Ṣuyūtī, al-Durr al-manthūr, 5:584. _ Sunan, 4:493. 37 Al-Nasāʾī, 38 Al-Asbahānī, al-ʿAzama, 5:1740. _ _ 39 http://fatwa.islamweb.net/fatwa/printfatwa.php?Id=288910&lang=A (accessed June 9, 2015). 40 Annemarie Schimmel, Deciphering the Signs of God: A Phenomenological Approach to Islam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 21. 41 Ahmad ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad Ahmad (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 2001), _ _ 24:392. 42 Abū l-Qāsim al-Ṭabarānī, Al-Muʿjam al-awsat (Cairo: Dār al-Ḥaramayn, _ 1995), 5:122. 43 Ibn Abī al-Dunyā, Kitāb al-hawātif (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Kutub al-Thaqāfiyya, 1993), 96. 44 Al-Asbahānī, al-ʿAzama, 5:1762. _ al-Dunyā, _Hawātif, 96. 45 Ibn Abī 46 Al-Asbahānī, al-ʿAzama, 5:1754. _ _


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47 al-Ṭabarānī, al-Duʿāʾ, 569. 48 Abū Muhammad ʿAbd Allāh ibn Wahb, al-Jāmiʿ fī l-hadīth (Riyadh: Dār ibn _ al-Jawzī, _1995), 492. 49 See, e.g., Baird J. Callicott, Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 30–31.

part ii

The Development of Humanism and the Industrial Age

chapter 8

‘Viking’ Ecologies: Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge and Environmental Memory Steven Hartman, A.E.J. Ogilvie and Reinhard Hennig

Introduction Flóki and his companions sailed west over Breiðafjord1 and landed at the place that is called Vatnsfjord by Barðastrond. The fjord was full of fish, and because they did so much fishing they neglected to gather hay, and all their livestock died during the winter. The spring was rather cold. Then Flóki climbed a high mountain and saw, to the north over the mountains, the fjord full of sea ice. Therefore they called the country Iceland, and so it has been called ever since.2

While literary texts are often considered to be relevant to the study of cultural memory, the application of literature and memory studies to environmental questions remains insufficiently developed as a research area. This chapter addresses environmental memory as it relates to medieval Icelandic literature. Traditionally, Icelandic culture has placed great value on historical and literary memory, a fact reflected not least in the story of how Iceland got its name. Deciding whether such an account represents a folk tale, or reality, or somewhere in between, lies at the heart of environmental humanities studies. This chapter begins with an account of the unique way in which Iceland was settled, before illustrating how the early development of Icelandic society was both documented and memorialized in its literature. This literature provides valuable information concerning past perceptions of the environment, while also providing a useful context for questioning how a cultural memory of past environments and changes may influence contemporary societies’ responses to vulnerabilities and rapidly changing environmental conditions. Such questions prompt reflection within the environmental humanities on how the literature and history of the deep past may relate to future scenarios involving human perceptions of environmental change. With ‘ecology’ used here in its broadest sense, encompassing both environmental and human systems, medieval Icelandic 125


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literature may be regarded as a repository of environmental memory conveying varying degrees of local ecological knowledge.3 Iceland is renowned for a wide variety of medieval literary sources, both poetry and prose, and in particular for the narratives known as ‘sagas’. The term derives from the verb segja (to say or tell), and thus encapsulates the sense of telling a story. The sagas cover several literary forms, including: Kings’ Sagas, concerning histories of early Norwegian kings; Legendary Sagas encompassing mythical tales, of which one of the best known is Volsunga Saga (whose story of Sigurd the dragon slayer was later popularized in Wagner’s Ring cycle); the Sturlunga and Bishops’ Sagas, concerning twelfth- and thirteenth-century secular and religious leaders; and the most well-known genre, the Icelandic Family Sagas, now usually referred to as the Sagas of Icelanders. The emphasis in this chapter will be on environmental descriptions from the Sagas of Icelanders, and the Sturlunga and Bishops’ Sagas. The Sagas of Icelanders have been selected because they are often counted amongst the front rank of world literature and continue to draw considerable interest from modern readers and critics not only in their native tongue but in the many languages into which they have been translated. They are also the most numerous of the sagas. Both the Sturlunga and Bishops’ Sagas are sometimes referred to as ‘contemporary’ sagas because they were written down not long after the events they recount, and include eyewitness accounts. They are of especial interest when considering ecological memories as their descriptions have some claim to reliability. In the sections that follow, brief descriptive passages have been chosen to illustrate various aspects of the environmental representation discussed. It should be noted, however, that the quoted passages represent only a small fraction of the environmental memories inscribed in the sagas. The passages chosen here from the forty extant Sagas of Icelanders come from six sagas: Njál´s Saga; Egil´s Saga; Hen-Thorir’s Saga; the Saga of the People of Laxardal; the Saga of the People of Eyri; and the Saga of the Sworn Brothers.4 One extract is discussed from the Bishops’ Saga genre (the Saga of Bishop Guðmundur the Good)5 and one passage is highlighted from The Saga of Thorgils and Hafliði in the Sturlunga Saga compilation.6 There is also a brief discussion of early historiographic works: Íslendingabók (The Book of the Icelanders), Kristni Saga (The Saga of the Conversion)7 and Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements).8 Such works laid the foundation for the age of saga writing that came later, not least by establishing narrative conventions and details later adapted in numerous Sagas of Icelanders.

Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge, and Environmental Memory


Settlement and Society Skallagrím was a great shipbuilder and there was no lack of driftwood west of Myrar. He had a farmstead built on Alftanes and ran another farm there, and rowed out from it to catch fish and cull seals and gather eggs, all of which were there in great abundance. There was plenty of driftwood to take back to his farm. Whales beached there, too, in great numbers, and there was wildlife there for the taking at this hunting post; the animals were not used to man and would never flee. He owned a third farm by the sea on the western part of Myrar . . . and he planted crops there and named it Akrar (Fields).9

Iceland was settled primarily by people from Norway and the northern British Isles at the height of the Viking10 expansion into the North Atlantic. The exact dating of the Viking age has been the subject of much debate, but is often given in precise terms as beginning with the sack of the Lindisfarne monastery in 793 CE and extending to the fall of the Norwegian Harald Sigurðsson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge and the subsequent Norman conquest of England in 1066. The time frame for our discussion extends from c. 871 to c. 1430, beginning with the ‘Age of Settlement’ (in Icelandic, Landnámsöld, literally “the age of land-taking”) from c. 871 to 930. The extract quoted immediately above from Egil’s Saga describes the environment when Skallagrím, father of the eponymous character, settled Iceland, and suggests recollection of highly favourable conditions at this time. Except for the possibility that there were Irish monks who fled when the heathen settlers arrived,11 there was no previous human habitation on Iceland. In this sense Icelanders are aboriginal. During the early period, political and religious power was vested in the hands of individual chieftains (in Icelandic goði, plural goðar).12 Judicial and legislative matters were dealt with by regional assemblies called ‘things’ (þing). The establishment of the Althing (Alþing) or parliament, the first national legislative assembly, inaugurated the Icelandic Commonwealth period (930–1262). A major cultural change occurred with the acceptance of Christianity in the year 999 or 1000.13 Although the power of the chieftains was no longer vested in their role as pagan priests, their dominance in society remained. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, internecine conflicts among chieftains led to conditions comparable to civil war. In an attempt to bring peace and order, during the years 1262–64, Iceland accepted the rule of the Norwegian kings. In later centuries Iceland became part of the Danish realm. Home rule was granted in 1904, and in 1944 the modern Republic of Iceland was established. Throughout its history, and well into the modern era,


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Icelandic society remained entirely rural, with settlement based on isolated farmsteads in coastal and lowland valley regions rather than in towns or even villages.

Environment and Climate Then a man came running up and said that there had been a volcanic eruption at Ölfús and it was about to engulf the homestead of Þóroddr goði. Then the heathens spoke up: “It is no wonder that the gods are enraged by such talk.” Then Snorri goði said: “What were the gods enraged by when the lava we are standing on here and now was burning?”14

Iceland is a highly active volcanic island. While not numerous, there are some descriptions of eruptions in the early literature, as quoted here. Located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge on a volcanic ‘hotspot’, Iceland was created by volcanic activity some 16 to 18 million years ago and is still greatly affected by geothermal activity. Iceland also lies at the intersection of cold Polar and mild Atlantic air and ocean currents. This location results in highly variable climate and weather on both short and long timescales. Another important feature of the climate is the sea ice arriving on the East Greenland current, which often caused difficulties in the past by lowering temperatures and blocking sea routes.15 The association of sea ice with hard times is reflected in the epigraph at the beginning of this chapter. The environment of Iceland has posed difficulties to inhabitants and visitors in other ways too. Glacial flash floods, avalanches and landslides were common. At the same time, the earliest settlers came to a pristine environment that must, initially, have seemed extremely attractive.

Economy and Climate Impacts That summer there was very little grass for fodder, and the quality was not good because it could not dry. People had a very poor hay harvest . . . Summer passed and winter came. North of Hlid there were severe shortages early on, and provisions were few. Life got hard. It went on like that until Yule, and when the Thorri month16 came, people were really hard pressed and many of them just could not go on.17

The farming economy that the early settlers brought with them was based on animal husbandry, with sheep, cattle and horses as the main domestic animals. Initially, agricultural practices were based on those of the settlers’

Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge, and Environmental Memory


homelands, though they soon discovered that conditions on Iceland were much harsher. Although barley appears to have been grown during the first few centuries after settlement, and possibly for some time after, grass and hay for the livestock was the main crop. Milk and meat products formed a major part of the daily diet from early times. Sea fishing was also important, sometimes acting as a buffer in times of hardship.18 The marginality of agricultural pursuits on Iceland has had a profound influence on all aspects of the country’s economy and society.19 As a simple fact of life, if there was insufficient hay for winter fodder, then domestic animals could die, and the human population, in turn, might be subject to famine and death. The passage quoted above (from Hen-Thorir’s Saga) is illustrative of the importance of the hay crop. Throughout Iceland’s history, difficulties resulting from economic and political volatilities were thus often exacerbated by the impacts of unfavorable climatic variations.20 Humans also influenced the environment. Deforestation and eventual soil erosion due to overgrazing followed from the fairly rapid scale of settlement and landscape transformation for new human uses, as did other anthropogenic changes. This history makes Iceland a very interesting case for the study of pre- and post-human impacts on pristine ecosystems and landscapes.

The Climate of Iceland in Medieval Times The winter had been a cold one and there was a thick layer of ice along the shore and far out into the bay of Breidafjord, preventing ships from setting out from the coast of Bardastrond . . . The following day the weather was mild and calm.21

One of the best known of the Sagas of Icelanders is the Saga of the People of Laxardal (meaning the people of “salmon river valley”), often referred to simply as Laxdæla Saga. This epigraph emphasizes the variability of Iceland’s climate. A discussion of the variations in climate during medieval times is beyond the scope of this paper, and has already been undertaken elsewhere;22 however, a general summary should help to contextualize our discussion of narrative accounts in the sagas. When reconstructing climate variations from documentary evidence it is essential to apply rigorous source criticism to ensure the reliability of the information used.23 Much has been written concerning the issue of whether the climate was ‘milder’ when the early settlers first arrived in Iceland. An example of this is a heated debate amongst oceanographers, geologists and historians that took place in the early to mid-twentieth


s. hartman, a. ogilvie and r. hennig

century.24 Some early research regarding the climate of Iceland suggested that it provided a mild and favorable background that constituted a golden age during the settlement period.25 The reality was undoubtedly more complex, with a high level of climatic variability.26 The true nature of the climate of this time is also heavily obscured by the fact that the settlers to Iceland came to an untouched landscape with ‘natural capital’ consisting of pristine soils, grass and birch forests. This undoubtedly provided a ‘buffer’ against inclement weather. Consequently, later difficulties within the agrarian economy of Iceland may have had at least as much to do with environmental degradation as with an unfavourable climate.27

Early Historiography and the Development of Saga Literature in Iceland At that time Iceland was covered with woods from the mountains to the seashore.28

A precondition for the development of Icelandic historiography and saga literature was the country’s adoption of Christianity and import of Latin alphabetic literacy. Monasteries were probably founded as early as AD 1030,29 and other centres of culture and learning were established in various locations around Iceland. Some still operate today.30 Interestingly, the greater body of literature produced in such centres was written in Icelandic rather than Latin, was secular rather than sacred, and concerned itself, in part, with the environment. The first extant vernacular text dealing with the history of Iceland was Íslendingabók (the Book of Icelanders), written by the priest Ari Thorgilsson the Learned (1067–1148) between 1122 and 1133.31 In ten short chapters the history of Iceland from settlement around 870 until 1118 is outlined. Ari emphasizes the importance of writing an accurate historical account and mentions several oral informants, whose memories extended far back. In pre-literate Iceland, the need to commit information to memory was central to the functioning of society, and the tradition of memorizing poetry, in particular, has continued to the present day. Some compelling evidence that an oral tradition could be reliable in transmitting information about much earlier times can be seen in the fact that, writing 250 years later, Ari was able to date the beginning of the Icelandic settlement with precision to AD 870, for the date has since been confirmed through archaeological finds and tephrochronology (volcanic ash dating) also placing the earliest traces of human settlement in Iceland in 871 (plus

Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge, and Environmental Memory


or minus one or two years).32 Íslendingabók does not contain much environmental information, but it does make the extremely interesting statement noted in the quotation above that, at the time of the arrival of the first settlers, Iceland “was covered with woods from the mountains to the seashore”. Another highly significant historiographic work, which does engage with environment and settlement, is Landnámabók, or the Book of Settlements. This is also likely to have been produced initially in the twelfth century, but has a very complex textual history, and is preserved only in several later versions. Landnámabók takes the form of a narrative catalogue of approximately four hundred settlers who staked land claims in Iceland. In many cases, not only is genealogical and property-related information given, but brief anecdotal stories connected to individual settlers are included as well. While its historical reliability is no longer taken for granted,33 it is likely that many of the entries served as historical, genealogical and place-focused geographical source material for later saga authors. Indeed, the account from Landnámabók included as the epigraph of this chapter gives an explanation of how Iceland got its name, and associates this with the damaging sea ice.

The Sagas of Icelanders That winter Thorodd paid Thorgrima Magic-cheek to bring out a wild storm while Bjorn was crossing the heath. One day Bjorn went over to Froda, but when he left to go home that evening, the sky was overcast and it had started to rain, and he was rather late getting going. By the time he came up to the heath, the weather had turned very cold and there were snow drifts. It was so dark that he could not see the path in front of him. After that a blizzard blew up with so much force that he could hardly stand up.34

Scholars have long debated the origin and provenance of the sagas themselves.35 Early research (in the late nineteenth century) emphasized the sagas’ historicity and suggested that they were based largely on oral tales. The Sagas of Icelanders are now primarily regarded as works of literature, albeit based upon historical events and characters. Although written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they describe events that occurred two to three hundred years earlier during the so-called ‘Saga Age’ from around AD 930 to 1030. Unique in medieval European literature both in regard to their accomplished narrative style and their content, in sparse but elegant prose they document the conflicts and


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tribulations of individuals, families, and contending factions in Iceland and abroad. While saga narratives tend to focus on the escalation and eventual resolution of social conflicts, the actions precipitating these disputes frequently concern the use of natural resources. Hence, the sagas contain descriptions of the environmental conditions encountered by the settlers, and of how the island’s natural resources were used and exploited. As such, they demonstrate how ancient literatures can not only complement knowledge of past environments, but also help us to understand degrees of social-ecological resilience over the longue durée. The epigraph above is illustrative of the creation of weather by magical means. As the discussion below suggests, such descriptions may have emanated, however, from detailed knowledge of local weather lore.36

The Sturlunga Sagas At Reykjahólar in those times the lands were so fertile that the fields were never barren. It was quite usual to have new meal and good things to offer guests and there was a feast on St Olaf’s day (3 August) every summer.37

The Sturlunga Saga compilation covers nine different sagas relating to the history of Iceland from 1117 to c. 1264. These individual sagas were composed by different (mainly unknown) authors during the thirteenth century, and put together by a compiler early in the fourteenth century. They cover the period that has come to be known as the ‘Age of the Sturlungs’, after one of the leading families of the time, a family that included the writer and historian Snorri Sturluson (1197–1241) and his nephew, Sturla Thórðarson (1218–84). Sturla was the author of the longest text of the Sturlunga Saga compilation, Íslendinga saga (translated as the Saga of Icelanders, though this is not to be confused with the Sagas of Icelanders genre). The Sturlunga Saga compilation is the most important historical source for the period it covers. The epigraph above is taken from The Saga of Thorgils and Hafliði, which concerns the feud and eventual reconciliation between two chieftains, Thorgils Oddason and Hafliði Másson, during the period 1117–21. It suggests a time when the land was more fertile than at the time the saga was written (perhaps shortly after 1237).38 Though this passage may reflect a nostalgic longing for a lost golden age, and is similar to the passage quoted earlier from Egil’s Saga, it may also reflect reality insofar as the early settlers came to an untouched landscape. The unknown author seems to display a personal knowledge of certain places and traditions, and the description of the Reykjahólar fields plausibly reflects cultural memory of a more fertile past environment.

Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge, and Environmental Memory


The Bishops’ Sagas This servant of God was bishop of that country which . . . northmen call Iceland. It must certainly be said that is a suitable name for the country as there is plenty of ice both on land and sea. On the sea are great quantities of drift ice which fill up the northern harbors and in the high mountains there are permanently frozen glaciers of such an incredible height and breadth that they are immensely dense . . . There are other mountains in this country which produce terrible eruptions of fire and stones such that the crashing and crackling noise is heard all over the country . . . Such eruptions can be followed by such a darkening of the air that at noon in mid summer one cannot see one’s own hand clearly. There are no woods apart from birch, and they are small. Grain grows in a few places in the south, but only barley.39

Following the adoption of Christianity two bishoprics were established: at Skálholt, in the south, in 1056, and at Hólar, in the north, in 1106. Several sagas were written about some of the more notable medieval Icelandic bishops. The Bishops’ Sagas were in most cases written a short while after the death of the respective bishop, and some rank among the most important historical sources for the decades immediately following the dissolution of the Icelandic commonwealth. However, due to their hagiographical elements, these sagas are not all (or not entirely) historically reliable. The Saga of Bishop Guðmundur Arason (quoted above) concerns Guðmundur, who was bishop of Hólar from 1203 to 1237. There are three versions of this saga. The one of interest here was written by the priest, scholar and writer, Arngrímur Brandsson (d. 1361). There was considerable agitation in Iceland to have Guðmundur canonized, and the saga must be seen as written in this context. Presumably because the saga was intended for foreign as well as Icelandic readers, Arngrímur included the short description of Iceland, quoted at the start of this section, at the beginning of the saga. This account is extremely valuable because, uniquely in the entire corpus of saga literature, it highlights the main features of Icelandic topography, the glaciers and the volcanoes, as well as mentioning the sea ice. There seems little doubt that the description is accurate, not least because conditions suggestive of a relatively cold climate around 1350 are found in other sources such as the medieval Icelandic annals.40 However, the statement that barley was only grown in the south at this time is problematic. Other evidence (e.g. pollen analysis, archaeological research and further documentary records) suggests that the practice continued in both southern and western Iceland to the fifteenth century.41


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Summary It had been a bright day with a good deal of sunshine, but as Thormod reached the booth the weather began to thicken. Thormod looked by turns up at the sky and then down at the ground in front of him. Egil said, ‘What are you doing that for?’ Thormod answered, ‘Because both the sky and the earth indicate that a great blow is imminent.’ ... As they were speaking, there was a great shower of rain, a downpour that no one had expected, so that they all ran to their booths.42

Considering the rural social context in which medieval Icelandic literature developed, it hardly seems surprising that the sagas contain a wealth of details related to farming and environmental conditions. In contrast to many writers in the rest of Europe, who had little direct experience of the close human interaction with nature and environment that characterized everyday life for most people,43 almost all those who were able to read and write in Iceland were deeply embedded in a precarious agrarian economy. This background may help to explain why the natural and environmental concerns of life in a rural society feature so strongly in the Icelandic sagas. The passage quoted earlier from Egil’s Saga relates to the settlement period of Iceland. While it has overtones of a convention seen elsewhere in the European literary tradition involving valorization of a golden age in a country’s past, the description of a pristine landscape with favourable conditions could also plausibly reflect a cultural memory of how the environment may have appeared to newcomers at the time of first settlement. In this passage the growing of crops is mentioned – “he planted crops there and named it Akrar (Fields).” The cultivation of grain in medieval Iceland is recorded in a wide variety of documentary sources, for example the Saga of Bishop Guðmundur Arason, as noted above. Such statements are corroborated by evidence provided by the numerous placenames containing compounds that meant “ploughed field”, “arable land” and so on. Archaeological evidence and the use of pollen analysis have also furnished proof of grain-growing during the first few centuries of Iceland’s history.44 The passage from The Saga of Thorgils and Hafliði quoted above (“in those times . . . the fields were never barren”), referring to the fertility of the fields at Reykjahólar in c. 1119, also reflects this. Even if barley-growing continued well past medieval times,45 the cultivation of grass and hay was crucial, as described in the section on economy

Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge, and Environmental Memory


and climate impacts. The passage quoted earlier from the Saga of HenThorir, describing a difficult time due to a dearth of hay, seems to resonate with poignant cultural memories of times of past hardship, whether or not they occurred exactly as described in the saga. For its part, the quotation from the Saga of the People of Laxardal, in the section on medieval climate, describes typical conditions in a cold winter, with layers of ice along the shore, but also emphasizes variability as “the following day the weather was mild and calm.” The passage chosen from Ari Thorgilsson’s Íslendingabók in the section on early historiography in Iceland is the oft-quoted statement that when Iceland was first settled there were woods between the mountains and the sea. Archaeological and other evidence suggests that this description is accurate.46 Large woodlands are mentioned many times in the Book of Settlements which, in one instance, refers to trees so large that a seagoing ship could be built from their wood.47 The clearing of original woodlands by settlers in order to make land arable as farmland is also described.48 The memory of lost woodlands would have been powerful in localities lacking forests capable of yielding lumber for building during the great period of saga-writing in the thirteenth century. For example, as noted above, the Saga of Bishop Guðmundur Arason, written some two hundred years later, echoes Ari’s statement in Íslendingabók: “There are no woods apart from birch, and they are small.”49 Medieval sources do contain some descriptions of volcanic eruptions, and the extract from Kristni Saga quoted above is interesting in relating how the Icelanders were initially divided, at the meeting of the Althing (in 999 or 1000), over whether Christianity should be accepted throughout the country. Shortly before this decision is taken, a man reports that a volcanic eruption is threatening the homestead of one of the chieftains, Thorodd Goði. The pagans immediately interpret this as a sign of the old gods showing their wrath at the talk of accepting Christianity, at which point another chieftain, Snorri Thorgrímsson, asks: “What were the gods enraged by when the lava we are standing on here and now was burning?” These events are recounted as having occurred at the Althing site of Thingvellir, where the solidified lava from ancient eruptions is clearly to be seen, now as then. What is so interesting about this passage is the obvious familiarity of Snorri with the geology of the area, and the understanding that volcanic eruptions had occurred there in the past. Iceland has been described as the land of fire (from the volcanic eruptions) and ice, both from the glaciers on land, and the drift ice on the sea.50 The Saga of Bishop Guðmundur Arason quoted in the section


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above states that “On the sea are great quantities of drift ice which fill up the northern harbors and in the high mountains there are permanently frozen glaciers,” suggesting there was a cold period at the time this saga was written (around 1350). As noted above, other sources also mention cold years around this time.51 Such passages appear, then, to inscribe memories of real environmental events and situations. The quotation from The Saga of the People of Eyri in the section on the Sagas of Icelanders refers to the creation of difficult weather conditions by magical means. This serves as a reminder that descriptions of weather and the environment in these sagas were often part of a narrative technique to create a mood, or are otherwise used figuratively. However, it is also possible that the saga characters said to be skilled in weather magic are adept at reading the signs indicating a change in the weather, as in the quotation from The Saga of the Sworn Brothers above.52 Living close to the land, as they did, Icelanders have long had a finely tuned knowledge and sensibility in regard to their local environment. Although not quite lost, the official weather forecast and now the internet have supplanted the old way of evaluating the state of the sky to see what sort of weather might be in store. To summarize, the Icelandic sagas offer a rich repository that combines Icelandic environmental history with a cultural memory of the environment. These medieval writings play a valuable role in foregrounding what early Icelanders may have known about their environment, for example by noting the one-time presence of lost woodlands or by describing landscapes richer and more varied than is suggested by the volcanic–glacial archetype. More concretely, the sagas illustrate the experience of a society living with climatic variation and throughout periods of known anthropogenic and naturally occurring environmental change, often in a state of heightened vulnerability. Stark environmental memories of a recent, preliterate past inscribed and adapted in early Icelandic literature serve as latent resources that may help us to better understand not only past societies’ perceptions of their changing environments but also the relevance of their experiences to our own challenges as we strive to come to terms with present and future environmental change.

The Legacy of the Icelandic Sagas Lovely is the hillside – never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.53

Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge, and Environmental Memory


The Sagas of Icelanders have continued to inspire later generations in many ways. The sagas were ‘rediscovered’ by scholars and travellers to Iceland in the nineteenth century. One of those visitors was William Morris (1834–1896) the English saga translator, designer, poet and writer. Together with his friend the Icelandic scholar Eiríkur Magnússon (1833–1913), Morris produced the first saga translations into English. Both men played an important role in introducing saga literature to the English-speaking world, and laid the foundation for wider scholarship and appreciation of the place of the Icelandic sagas in world literature. The epigraph above is from Morris’s translation of Njál’s saga. It is the famous statement made by the saga’s principal heroic figure, Gunnar of Hlidarendi, friend of Njál, and its power lies both in its suggestion of abiding love for the Icelandic landscape, and in the circumstance that this decision will ultimately lead to Gunnar’s tragic death. For the most part, the Sagas of Icelanders do not express sensibility to a landscape in this manner; this is an exception, and is a sentence well known to all Icelanders, and all students of Icelandic literature, and represents an enduring memory of a past environment. Saga scholarship continues in many institutes around the world, not least in Iceland. A more systematic study of environmental content and representations in the Icelandic sagas is the aim of a major international research initiative, Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas (IEM), representing a new trajectory in saga scholarship and environmental study defined by an integrated environmental humanities approach as illustrated in this paper.54 Notes 1 The Icelandic language contains the letters ð (upper case Ð) pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘clothe’ and þ (upper case Þ) pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘thing.’ Unless in a quotation, the letter ‘Þ’ is transliterated to ‘Th’ here. 2 Jakob Benediktsson (ed.), Íslendingabók. Landnámabók: Íslenzk Fornrit I (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka fornritafélag, 1968), p. 38. Translation Astrid Ogilvie. 3 See, e.g., A.E.J. Ogilvie, “Local Knowledge and Travellers’ Tales: A Selection of Climatic Observations in Iceland”, in C. Caseldine, A. Russell, J. Harðardóttir and O. Knudsen (eds.), Iceland – Modern Processes and Past Environments. Developments in Quaternary Science 5 (Amsterdam–Boston–Heidelberg– London: Elsevier, 2005), pp. 257–87. 4 Unless otherwise stated, quotations from the Sagas of Icelanders are from Viðar Hreinsson (ed.), The Sagas of Icelanders (vols. I–V) (Reykjavík: Leif Eiriksson Press, 1997).


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5 Guðmundar Saga Biskups Arasonar (The Saga of Bishop Guðmundur the Good), in Guðbrandur Vígfússon et al. (eds.), Biskupa Sögur II (Kaupmannahöfn: Hinu Íslenzka Bókmentafelagi, 1856–78). 6 Ursula Brown (ed. with introduction), Þorgils Saga ok Hafliða (The Saga of Thorgils and Hafliði) (London: Oxford University Press, 1952). 7 Íslendingabók. Kristnisaga. The Book of the Icelanders. The Story of the Conversion (trans. and introduction Siân Grønlie) (University College London: Viking Society for Northern Research Text Series XVIII, 2006). 8 Benediktsson, Íslendingabók. Landnámabók. 9 Hreinsson, Egil’s Saga, Sagas of Icelanders I, p. 66. 10 ‘Viking’ is used here to refer to a time period rather than specific peoples. The settlers to Iceland were, for the most part, farmers, not ‘Vikings’. 11 Ari Þorgilsson, the author of Íslendingabók, states that, when the first settlers came, there were Irish Christians already there who left “as they did not wish to stay with heathens”; see Benediktsson, Íslendingabók, p. 4. 12 There is no exact corresponding term in English for goði but it is usually translated as “chieftain” or “priest”. 13 Orri Vésteinsson, The Christianisation of Iceland: Priests, Power and Social Change 1000–1300 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). 14 Íslendingabók. Kristnisaga, p. 48. 15 A.E.J. Ogilvie, “The Past Climate and Sea-Ice Record from Iceland Part 1: Data to A.D. 1780”, Climatic Change 6 (1984), pp. 131–52. 16 One of the old Icelandic months corresponding to approximately mid-January to mid-February. 17 Hreinsson, Hen-Thorir’s Saga, Sagas of Icelanders V, p. 242. 18 A.E.J. Ogilvie and Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir, “Sea Ice, Climate and Icelandic Fisheries in Historical Times”, Arctic 53, 4 (2000), pp. 383–94. 19 A.E.J. Ogilvie, “Climate and Farming in Northern Iceland, ca. 1700–1850”, in Ingi Sigurðsson and Jón Skaptason (eds.), Aspects of Arctic and Sub-Arctic History (Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press, 2001), pp. 289–99. 20 Ogilvie, “Local Knowledge”. 21 Hreinsson, The Saga of the People of Laxardal, Sagas of Icelanders V, p. 102. 22 See A.E.J. Ogilvie, “Climatic Changes in Iceland A.D. c. 865 to 1598”, in Gerald F. Bigelow (ed.), The Norse of the North Atlantic, Acta Archaeologica 6 (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1991), pp. 233–51; A.E.J. Ogilvie, “Historical Climatology, Climatic Change, and Implications for Climate Science in the 21st Century”, Climatic Change 100 (2010), pp. 33–47; and Ogilvie, “Local Knowledge”. 23 W.T. Bell and A.E.J. Ogilvie, “Weather Compilations as a Source of Data for the Reconstruction of European Climate During the Medieval Period”, Climatic Change 1 (1978), pp. 331–48. 24 A.E.J. Ogilvie and Trausti Jónsson, “‘Little Ice Age’ Research: A Perspective from Iceland”, Climatic Change 48 (2001), pp. 9–52. 25 See discussions ibid. and in Ogilvie, “Climatic Changes in Iceland A.D. c. 865 to 1598”.

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26 Ogilvie, “Historical Climatology”. 27 A.E.J. Ogilvie and Thomas H. McGovern, “Sagas and Science: Climate and Human Impacts in the North Atlantic”, in W.W. Fitzhugh and E.I. Ward (eds.), Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), pp. 385–93. 28 Benediktsson, Íslendingabók, p. 4. 29 Personal communication from Steinunn J. Kristjánsdóttir, archaeologist. 30 An example is Reykholt in the west of Iceland, where Snorri Sturluson would have had a scriptorium, as in other medieval centres, and which still functions as a centre of scholarship. See www.snorrastofa.is. 31 From Grønlie’s introduction to Íslendingabók Kristnisaga, p. xiii. 32 Andrew J. Dugmore and Orri Vésteinsson, “Black Sun, High Flame, and Flood: Volcanic Hazards in Iceland”, in Jago Cooper and Payson Sheets (eds.), Surviving Sudden Environmental Change. Answers from Archaeology (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2012), pp. 67–89. 33 Jón Jóhannesson, Gerðir Landnámabókar (Reykjavík: Félagsprentsmiðjan, 1941). 34 Hreinsson, The Saga of the People of Eyri, Sagas of Icelanders V, pp. 181–82. 35 See, e.g., Gísli Sigurðsson, The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method, (Cambridge, MA: Center for Hellenic Studies/Harvard University Press, 2004). 36 A.E.J. Ogilvie and Gísli Pálsson, “Mood, Magic and Metaphor: Allusions to Weather and Climate in the Sagas of Icelanders”, in S. Strauss and B.S. Orlove (eds.), Weather, Climate, Culture (Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2003), pp. 251–74. 37 Brown, Þorgils Saga, p. 17. 38 This late date is suggested by Ursula Brown, Þorgils Saga, p. xi. 39 Vígfússon et al., Guðmundar Saga Biskups Arasonar, p. 5. Translation Astrid Ogilvie. 40 Ogilvie, “Local Knowledge”. 41 Árni Daníel Júlíusson, Landbúnaðarsaga Íslands. 1. bindi. Þúsund ára bændasamfélag (Reykjavík: Skrudda, 2013). 42 Hreinsson, The Saga of the Sworn Brothers, Sagas of Icelanders II, p. 377. 43 Richard C. Hoffmann, An Environmental History of Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). 44 See, e.g., Þorleifur Einarsson, Jarðfræði Íslands, in Sigurður Lindal (ed.), Saga Íslands (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka bokmenntafélag Sögufelagið, 1974–90). 45 Júlíusson, Landbúnaðarsaga Íslands, p. 178. 46 Dugmore and Vésteinsson, “Black Sun, High Flame, and Flood”. 47 Benediktsson, Íslendingabók. Landnámabók, ch. 13, p. 58. 48 Ibid., p. 84. 49 For an interesting study suggesting a more complex picture of woodland exploitation than indicated by the traditional model of settlement period deforestation, see M. Church et al., “Charcoal Production During the Norse and Early Medieval Periods in Eyjafjallahreppur, Southern Iceland”, Radiocarbon, 49, 2 (2007), pp. 659–72. This study identifies two distinct


50 51 52 53 54

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phases of charcoal production and woodland exploitation (in the vicinity of Þorsmörk in southern Iceland) during the Viking Age and early medieval era, the first within the first two centuries of settlement (cal AD 870–1050), the second more than a century later (cal AD 1185–1295). Sigurður Thórarinsson, The Thousand Years Struggle Against Fire and Ice (Reykjavík: Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs, 1956). See Ogilvie, “Climatic Changes in Iceland A.D. c. 865 to 1598”. Ogilvie and Pálsson, “Mood, Magic and Metaphor”. From Njáls saga (trans. William Morris), http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/ icelandic1871notesJul21.html. The Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas (IEM) project is a major cross-cutting initiative of the Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (NIES), The North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) and the Global Human Ecodynamics Alliance (GHEA). See http:// ihopenet.org/circumpolarnetworks/.

chapter 9

Human Responses to the Environment in Medieval Literature Gillian Rudd

. . . ok mun ek ríða heim aptr ok fara hvergi (I will ride home and I will not leave):1

Much has been written about various aspects of the medieval environment. Forests have been particularly well served, but seas, gardens and the landscape have all received due attention.2 A good deal of this work is literary history, tracing tropes across the period, or offering insights from knowledge of the development of forests and forest law, or of hunting practices and handbooks. This essay will not seek to recapitulate such studies; instead it takes a different approach, partly serendipitous, partly consciously enabled by the acceptability in both critical and popular circles of a current trend for writing about the environment in ways that weave together literary allusions and direct descriptions of landscape, thereby illuminating our understanding of both.3 Arguably, this method of writing reflects the way we humans, as creatures formed by stories and traditions as well as landscapes and environs, experience and respond to the world around us. One may add to that such social concerns as affect us individually or collectively, for they, too, doubtless tint how we read both text and landscape. I take two of the major concerns of the early twenty-first century to be the right use of the natural environment and resources, and an accompanying sense of the importance of bestowing due attention and appreciation on the world immediately around us. This may seem a peculiarly modern preoccupation, but the resulting awareness of a need to take stock of our surroundings, and recognition that landscape can evoke powerful responses in humans, is something that has been part of our ways of seeking understanding of ourselves both as individuals and components of a wider network across the centuries. In this chapter my attention is primarily upon the power of a familiar landscape to shape ethical understanding and, therefore, personal action. 141


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Two very different texts exemplify this, with each featuring a moment when the protagonist pauses to take in a well-known view. The Icelandic Njál’s Saga (authorship unknown) was written in the late thirteenth century and relates events taking place some three hundred years earlier. It includes the story of Gunnarr whose decision to remain at home leads inexorably to his death. William Langland’s Piers Plowman was composed in the latter half of the fourteenth century and relates a series of complex dreams experienced by its narrator, Will, who constantly seeks knowledge of the best way to live in the world. The effect of Gunnarr and Will’s long looks over broad landscapes shapes their respective stories. Their consideration of those views, in both senses of the word, tells us something about the range of response to the environment available to inhabitants of the European Middle Ages, and offers ways to think through our current critical and environmental preoccupations.

Njál’s Saga My first example of a passage that depicts a person pausing to take in the world around them is signalled by my title quotation. The words are spoken by Gunnarr in Njál’s Saga and are a literal turning point, both to the story in general and Gunnarr’s story in particular. Having accepted the decree of a three-year banishment passed upon him as punishment for killing men in a fracas that was part of an ongoing feud, Gunnarr is on the point of leaving Iceland, his home and his people, with no certainty of ever returning. As he goes his horse stumbles and Gunnarr of Hlíðarendi finds himself involuntarily looking out over his farm’s valley. The short speech runs in full: Fǫgr er hlíðin, svá at mér hefir hon aldri jafnfǫgr sýnzk, bleikir akrar ok slegin tún, ok mun ek ríða heim aptr ok fara hvergi. [Beautiful are the slopes, more beautiful than they have ever seemed to me before, pale cornfields and new-mown hay, and I am riding home and I will not go away.]4

The succinct expression, so typical of a saga genre renowned for its lack of florid descriptions of both landscape and emotions, couples emotive observation of a homeland with powerfully understated intention. The events that precede this scene mean that the force of Gunnarr’s resolution is tantamount to defiance of fate as well as law – “I am riding home and I will not go away” – and this defiance is itself an assertion of the power exerted by the natural environment and his sense of belonging to a

Human Responses to the Environment in Medieval Literature


particular geographical spot. Variously described as the instinctive reactions of a farmer to his land seen at the most productive moment in the farming year5 or as a projection of Gunnarr’s desire to stay,6 this moment of narrative crux might also be regarded as a moment of revelation. What is revealed is not new; rather, as with the keenest kind of revelation, it is a moment when the familiar is suddenly seen afresh and more deeply understood. Or, more accurately, more deeply felt, as in such moments feeling is itself acknowledged to be the fuller, more fitting and more insightful response to the connection between the world we see around us and ourselves. In this case the connection is deep indeed. Not only is Gunnarr’s entire identity encapsulated in this one view, but also his recognition that to stay and thus retain that identity is also to accept certain death. In his discussion of this passage, and of R.F. Allen’s critique of it in particular, Andrew Hamer points out how Allen seeks to combine a traditional reading, according to Icelandic literary conventions, with a latter-day psychological reading of how the landscape appears transcendentally beautiful because it is about to be lost.7 In keeping with the former, Gunnarr, the hero, is led by fate (here manifested in the stumbling horse) to fulfil the destiny which is also his identity; according to the latter, Gunnarr’s projection of his desire to stay upon the valley not only makes the land aesthetically outstanding, but also imbues it with the power to make him remain. How could anyone who sees such loveliness, leave such a country? Departure becomes practically immoral, and thus recognition of the physical beauty becomes a pretext for obeying the human desire to remain at home while also satisfying a reckless urge tantamount to a death drive. The appeal of this reading is enhanced by the way it so directly links Hallgerðr, Gunnarr’s wife and femme fatale, with Hlíðarendi the farmland. Each elicits from Gunnarr a strong sense of not just desire, but rightful belonging which becomes a moral imperative – he should be with Hallgerðr just as he should remain at Hlíðarendi. This parallel lends force to Lönnroth’s epitomising of Gunnar as a hero who suffers two “moral falls” – the first in marrying Hallgerðr, the second in refusing to leave his land.8 Although Lönnroth attributes these falls to Gunnarr’s twin flaws of vanity and ambition, his reading also attributes to Hlíðarendi a similar degree of agency, or at least power of affect, to that possessed by Hallgerðr, whose actions, Hamer writes, “embroil him [Gunnarr] in the chain of violence that leads to his death”.9 If we follow this lead and look again at Gunnarr’s reaction to the sight of his land, we may see that Gunnarr is struck not simply by the beauty of a valley, but by the particular


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appearance of the cornfields which tells him that the hay has been cut as it should be and that the grain is now due to be harvested, something it would fall to him, as landowner, to ensure happens in timely fashion. In short, Gunnarr is a man equally aware of his responsibility as husband and husbandman. As Heather O’Donoghue points out, the landscape observed and so deeply felt is not an untouched natural scene of the kind we postRomantics now associate with sublime response, but an appreciation of land productively farmed.10 At the same time, the moment of harvest allows other critics to point out the Christian overtones in this scene, hinting that Gunnarr is about to reap as he has sown and suggesting, through his own strong identity with his land, that he, too, is part of a harvest and due to be gathered in. While it is tempting to delve further into the Icelandic sagas, these have already been discussed extensively in this volume’s preceding chapter. For the purposes of this discussion the salient points are that the composer of the saga can rely upon his audience to accept without question the concept of direct and deeply felt association with the land and the image of a man of action looking out across a view and both reading and responding to it at a level beyond the descriptive or aesthetic. The natural environs are not only familiar, or magnificent, or productive, they are also integral to our human idea of ourselves. In Njál’s Saga, the integral connection is signalled by the concept of ‘home’. As we read or hear Gunnarr’s speech we know that the home to which he is about to return is not just a farmhouse, but also the fields, the valley and all the associations the land brings with it. Gunnarr’s speech, in short, articulates that we are products of our actual geographical environment as much as our social one. In this instance, that assertion is made not through prolonged explanation, but through sparse juxtaposition and a deft use of ok (and). This shifts from coupling the closely associated terms “pale cornfields and new-mown hay” to the implied causal ‘and’ which links these fields to Gunnarr’s immediate action and future intention (“and I am riding home and I will not go away”). Landscape has become cause and effect, but it could also be argued that seeing his landscape thus has returned Gunnarr to himself. Were he to leave Iceland under banishment, as he was due to do, he would no longer be Gunnarr of Hlíðarendi, even were he to return after the three years of imposed absence.11

Piers Plowman Where Gunnarr looks back by accident and across scenery that has particular personal connection, Langland’s dreamer in Piers Plowman is

Human Responses to the Environment in Medieval Literature


deliberately taken to a mountain vantage point in order to see the wonders of the world displayed before him and be edified by them: and sithen cam Kynde And nempned me by my name, and bad me nymen hede, And thorugh the wondres of the world wit for to take. And on a mountaigne that Myddelerthe highte, as me tho thoughte, I was fet forth by ensaumples to knowe, Thorugh ech a creature, Kynde my creatour to lovye. [and then came Kind [Nature] and called me by my name and bade me take heed and learn lessons from the wonders of the world. And on a mountain that was called Middlearth, as I thought then, I was fetched forth to learn from examples to love my creator, Kind, through each and every creature.] (B.XI.320–35)12

At one level this is a succinct expression of the kind of response to the natural world often associated with the Middle Ages, one in which everything is automatically read in allegorical terms. The over-arching belief system is that of divine creation, the world made as an expression of God’s rational principles. Integral to that system is mankind’s place as guardian of the natural world, occupying a mid-point at which humans share something of animal nature and so may learn from them, but are also superior to them, due mainly to possessing a capacity of reason that humans share with the Divine. Undeniably, these lines encapsulate much of that attitude. “Kynde” denotes, for example, not only Nature as we might use it now, but also Nature as the operational power of God in the world, and indeed God Himself (signified above where Kynde is also “my creatour”). Significantly, this passage is a corrective to too much academic theological wrangling. Kynde’s summons interrupts an increasingly detailed and complicated dispute that sprang up as a series of allegorical characters presented themselves to the poem’s dreaming protagonist to argue over how best to live one’s life, the right way to treat material goods and good fortune, and who to trust: in a world of corrupt clergy and ignorant priests, where is an earnest person to look for guidance? Kynde’s solution is to look to the phenomenal world, a point he demonstrates by offering the dreamer a panoramic view of the world and telling him to look and learn. This reliance on examples drawn from the animal kingdom is perhaps only what we might expect from an entity whose name can be translated as “Nature” and who may be interpreted as being a personification of the natural world as a whole. But ‘kynde’ can also mean “species”, particularly the human species (humankind) and its characteristics.13 Following that definition, we might also say that the habit of drawing lessons from our immediate


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surroundings is an innate human trait and that we best fulfil our humanity by paying close attention to our environment as a whole. Nor should we overlook the name of Langland’s dreamer here, not least because Kynde calls him by it, although we do not hear the name at this point in the text. His name is Will, and the assonance which so deftly links naming (“nempned” is “called” in both modern senses) with taking notice (“nymen hede”) reminds us that paying attention demands an effort of the will. Will the dreamer is being called not just to look but also to consider what he sees. Accordingly, Will pays attention. He remarks upon the way the animals conduct themselves with due reason, particularly when it comes to matters sexual (no animal is seen meddling with another once conception has occurred) and he marvels at how birds learn to build their nests. He is struck by the beauty of the heavens and the myriad colours of the flowers in the grass. Everything seems to have a place and be content to remain in that place; all are governed by Reason, another personification, whom Will spots following and silently directing every species, excepting humankind. All too quickly and easily Will moves from taking in a landscape with admiration to quibbling with Reason about the bad behaviour of humans, eventually waking from this inner dream of revelation and apparent attention to the natural world into his typically human, selfreferential, confused and anxious self. Yet the poem does not let it rest there, returning in the next Passus to the question of the role of the natural world for humans and how we ought to respond to it. Here, in Passus XII, now under the aegis of Ymaginatif (the power of the Imagination, and so the power to create mental images) Will is told to curb the indignation and questioning that marks the end of Passus XI and his conversation with Reason. Instead Ymaginatif embarks on a speech reminding both Will and the reader that the natural world has long acted as a source of educational examples: Ac of briddes and of beestes men by olde tyme Ensaumples token and termes, as telleth thise poetes, And that the faireste fowel foulest engendreth, And feblest fowel of flight is that fleeth or swymmeth, And that is the pecok and the pehen – proude riche men thei bitokneth. [But in the old times, men drew examples and analogies from birds and from beasts, as these poets tell, such as that the fairest fowl gives rise to the foulest, and the most feeble bird in flight is the one that runs or swims and those are the peacock and the peahen – they represent proud, rich men.] (B.XII.236–40)

Human Responses to the Environment in Medieval Literature


And thus we are back to seeing the relationship of humans to the natural world as one dominated by mankind’s compulsion to understand the environment in terms of humans and human preoccupations, both social and religious. Piers Plowman is one of the great poems of the Middle Ages, and as such the undeniably anthropocentric compulsion that marks out Will’s relation with and reaction to his surroundings, and which, as the above shows, segues so easily into allegory, is surely a reflection of one of the dominant ways of responding to the environment, particularly the natural environment, in that period. Yet, while allegory is certainly central to the poem, we should not overlook that this text, like many others of its time, begins with a depiction of the poet in a landscape: In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne, I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were, In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes, Wente wide in this world wondres to here. Ac on a May morwenynge on Malverne hilles Me bifel a ferly, of Fairye me thoghte. I was wery forwandred and wente me to rest Under a brood bank by a bourne syde; And as I lay and lenede and loked on the watres, I slombred into a slepyng, it sweyed so murye. [One summer season, when the sun was warm, I clothed myself in garments as if I was a sheep/shepherd. Dressed like a hermit of unholy works, I went abroad in the world to hear wonders. And on a May morning on the Malvern hills a marvel befell me, I thought it was of fairy origin. I was weary having wandered and took myself off to rest under a broad bank by a stream’s side. And as I lay and leaned over and watched the water, I drifted into sleep, it sounded so sweet.] (B.Prol.1–10)

It is easy to focus on the invitation to allegory present in these lines, with their allusion to the Christian flock, and on the fourteenth-century antifraternal satire present in the wolf in sheep’s clothing hinted at in lines two and three. Such figurative aspects are certainly ways in which the environment is present within medieval literature. Yet perhaps more typical is the convention of a description of an ideal landscape acting as both introduction and backdrop to the ensuing vision. This trope is found in many places from Dante to Malory and while the time of year is often mentioned (usually, but not inevitably, spring or summer) it is less common for the landscape to be as geographically specific as it is here. The Malverns are present as actual hills and while the stream may be stereotypical, it is also


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credible. Poetic convention meets geographic fact here, just as in the contemporary work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where the winter landscapes of Wirral and North Wales are present as both very real and somewhat hostile environments. The point here is that Langland’s landscape is as specific as it is generic; it is as real as Gunnarr’s farmland and like Hlíðarendi has a direct effect on the protagonist which reverberates throughout the text. This contrasts to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (author unknown) where Gawain has an equally powerful, but opposite, reaction. Where Will and Gunnarr feel a sense of familiarity and belonging, Gawain feels estranged and alone: “Mony klyf he ouerclambe in contrayez straunge. / Fer floten fro his frendez, fremedly he rydez” (He scaled many cliffs in strange regions, where, far from his friends, he rode as a stranger).14 This sense of being out of place continues until he rides into an area where the trees are clearly managed and espies the walls of a castle: A castle þe comlokest þat euer knyȝt aȝte, Pyched on a prayere, a park al aboute, With a pyked palays pyned ful þik, Þat vmbeteȝe mony tre mo þen two myle. [A castle, the best looking that ever a knight owned, / built in a meadow, a park all about / with a piked, close-set palisade, / that encompassed many trees [for] more than two miles.]15

Gawain’s longing for and appreciative response to the battlements of Bertilak’s home (the description stretches to forty lines across two stanzas) is the nearest we see him get to either the emotive reaction evinced in Gunnarr by Hlíðarendi or the easeful response of Langland’s dreamer as he looks into the stream on the Malvern Hills. It is certainly a realistic reaction in a weary and frozen traveller to the prospect of food and warmth, but it is also a reminder that humans have their own built environment which may too evoke a deep and emotional response. Gawain is a creature of the court, happiest amongst its codes and customs, even if he is nearly caught out by them. His poem, though, and arguably his poet, is less comfortable with an entirely human environment, and warns against relying on courtly values that fall short or habits that ignore the responsibilities of good land management.16 In this we may detect something of a kindred spirit to Langland: each poet reveals the spiritual hollowness underpinning human social relations and suggests that a broader understanding of our human place as part of a wider landscape of living creatures offers a more balanced and richer way to live well.

Human Responses to the Environment in Medieval Literature


The built environment is not absent in Piers Plowman but for the most part it features only as a site of corrupt legal practices. However, there is one short moment when London is mentioned as the dreamer’s home, perhaps coming as a surprise given the prevalence of agricultural settings and referents in the bulk of the poem: Thus y awaked, woet god, whan y wonded in Cornehull, Kytte and y in a cote, yclothed as a lollare, [Thus I awoke, God knows, when I lived in Cornhill – Kit and I in a cottage – dressed as a layabout/lollard.] (C.V.1–2)17

These lines appear only in the C-text, and in them Langland specifically places Will (and thus arguably himself) in London with a wife. Yet the rural sensibility of our poet-narrator soon surfaces in lines 7–8 as he moves into an exchange with Reason, met “In an hot heruest whenne y hadde myn hele / And lymes to labory with” (During a hot harvest when I had my health and limbs to work with). Despite being hale and hearty, Will is not engaged in manual labour, which draws sharp criticism from Reason. This, in turn, provokes a defence of poetic endeavour as work couched, crucially, in agricultural terms. Will avers that he lives both in London and on it: poetry is “laboure”, and the soil (lomes) with which he toils are the prayers he says (C.V.47–50). The language of cultivation underpins his defence and turns those he serves into crops, just as his opening vision did the folk in the Malvern field. The city-dweller’s nostalgia for country living is something familiar to us today, but in this is no townie, rosy-tinted view of the countryside; Will knows that the land is not always bountiful, far from it – his countryside is stalked by Hunger, an embodiment of a naturally occurring late-summer food scarcity exacerbated by human laziness and greed.18 It is this sensibility that underpins the poem’s shift from using a half-acre of ploughed land as the symbol for an ideal society in B. Passus VII to a Barn of Unity in Passus XX. As we shall see shortly, this shift from land to agricultural building reflects another facet of how the environment could be considered during the medieval period. These past paragraphs have indicated the power of allegory in Piers Plowman and in medieval literature as a whole, as my attempts to illustrate how far Langland’s poem is rooted in the land have been usurped by symbolic interpretation. Nevertheless, the point remains that Langland chose to begin his text with the poet in a known location, not a generic landscape or invented land. This use of a setting that is both specific and of personal significance to the poet-persona can be found in other texts as


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well. The unknown author of Pearl set that poem in a “erbere,” a garden planted with flowers designed to heal the spirits. It is here that the poetpersona lost his pearl and it is to this spot (a word which gathers resonance throughout the poem) that he frequently resorts. As with Piers, the poem combines intricate allegory with detailed attention to environment, and, as with Njál’s Saga, the appreciation of that environment is not solely aesthetic. Here, too, the peculiar look and feel of a landscape at harvest time strikes home as the poet “entred in þat erber grene, / In Augoste in a hyȝ seysoun, / Quen corne is coruen wyth crokez kene” (entered that green garden, in August, in high summer [a high season], when the corn is cut with sharp sickles).19 Of course the harvest is symbolic, but, as is the case with Gunnarr, the power of the allegory rests on an assumed and shared response to the actual harvest landscape. For the Pearl-poet and certainly his jeweller/father persona, there is pathos in the ripe corn being cut with scythes that are both sharp and cruel (“keen” here being used in the sense that we still use of the wind today). That pathos marks a different reaction to essentially the same association as Gunnarr’s to the crop. For Gunnarr, the fields of pale corn display the land at its most beautiful: ripe and ready for cutting. For the Pearl narrator, the fact that the right time for the corn to be cut is August only highlights the premature gathering-in of his pearl/daughter. The power of this response to ripe crops is such that the poem can counter it only by seeking to replace the dreamer’s pearl symbol with another, recasting the perfect pearl as a simple rose. Both flower and stone were acceptable images for a maiden, but by introducing a different symbol the poem is also able to take advantage of a different response to the natural world. Roses are not a crop in the same way as grain is, hence the response to the environment that the Maiden is trying to elicit is closer to the one Ymaginatif demands from Will than the one Hlíðarendi evokes in Gunnarr. A rose is a flower and as such should rightly bloom and die as its beauty and value for humans rests at least in part on its transience; pearls are valued for their smooth perfection and changelessness; the value of wheat is realised only when (and indeed if) it not only ripens, but is cut and safely stored for future use. Each estimation reflects a human response to the environment and each is rooted in knowledge of the natural world, even while offering the writer great scope for symbolic elaboration. Such symbolic scope is perhaps best exemplified in the way Isidore of Seville elaborated the meanings of things, both concrete and conceptual, in his Etymologies. This monumental work drew together much of the knowledge of the world as available to the highly educated and well-connected

Human Responses to the Environment in Medieval Literature


scholar of the seventh century (the Etymologies were probably composed between c. 615 and 635). It went on to become a standard reference work for centuries, informing works of the literary imagination as well as scholarly, religious and philosophical treatises. Then, as now, reference to Isidore tended to be to the knowledge stored in his compendium, cited to prove a case or an argument. For example, it might be appropriate here to refer to his definition of ‘field’. This begins by offering a Latin etymology explaining that “Field (ager) in Latin is said to get its name because in it something ‘is done’ (agere).”20 Significantly, book 15 of the Etymologies, where this definition is found, is devoted to “Buildings and Fields”, a combination which reveals a closeness of association which our post-industrial living, and even post-post-industrial lives, has rather lost. Piers Plowman’s use of field and barn, mentioned above, shows how the link between cultivated land and agricultural buildings, which seems automatic to Isidore, may be seen to provide a framework for a literary text. That association may also be detected in the dream landscape of the Prologue to the poem, in which the dreamer looks out over “a fair feeld ful of folk” (PP B.Prol.17) which lies between a tower on a hill on the one side and a dungeon (at this date also a tower) in a dale on the other. Will himself is in a wilderness, but is able to define the vale he sees as a field because it lies between two buildings. Isidore’s first definition of field adds a further dimension to the people Will sees: “alle manere of men, the meene and the riche / Werchynge and wandrynge as the world asketh” (all manner of men, the poor and the rich, working and travelling, as the world requires). Some people are seen to be at work, thus fulfilling Isidore’s definition of a field, but there are also wastrels who fritter away all that is gained by those labouring. The social satire is evident, but running beneath it is perhaps a suggestion that the folk Will sees are not only the workers, but also the crop, just as Gunnarr and the Pearl-maiden are also the crops of the harvest of their respective works. Aiding such a reading is Isidore’s further information that fields come in four types, as Varro and later Virgil explained. In each case the key element is that of cultivation – and with cultivation comes not just the work of planting but also of harvest, as opposed to the open country where, as Isidore’s definition runs, honey, milk and cattle are found. Such land is the rus from which the rusticus or country person is named, who, according to Isidore, benefits from the “supreme toil-free happiness of peasants.” Isidore betrays his removal from the exigencies of rural life at this point, but also reveals a clear division between land that is deliberately cultivated and land apparently left to its own devices,


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although grazed by livestock, or plundered for honey. It is logical that both ager and rus are dealt with in a section of the Etymologies that begins with buildings, as both are kinds of land that are understood primarily in terms of the use to which they are put by people who gain their living from them. This is the kind of land which evokes that strong sense of belonging that calls Gunnarr back to his farm and also gives emotive strength to Will’s view of both the opening field of folk, and, later, his two views of Middle Earth. For Will, as for Isidore, the world is to be interpreted, not just understood. In this they echo the attitude towards the natural environment, which is to say the created world, articulated by Hugh of St Victor, for whom the world was a book, with the animals equating to pictures designed to be fully understood by the literate while still offering some edification to the illiterate.21

Conclusion This concept of nature as a book, written by God primarily for the instruction of humans, relies upon seeing humans as part of the created world, but also removes humans from that world, since interpretation presumes some degree of separation. We have already seen how this notion of mankind standing at a slight remove is evident in Langland’s use of dream panoramas: Will may walk through the Malvern Hills, but when he falls asleep and sees the field of folk he is looking down and out across a valley. Likewise when he is shown Middlerthe he is again raised up to a vantage point. This is, on the one hand, realistic in reflecting our love of a view (a trait not unique to humans of course – many animals seek out vantage points, either to find prey or to spot predators); on the other, it is a neat if unintentional reflection of that sense of being a species at one remove from its environment that seems endemic to the human psyche within and beyond the medieval period. These traits may likewise be detected in Gunnarr as he looks upwards across his valley and responds to the sense of belonging which is also a sense of ownership. His reaction towards moral duty parallels Will’s easy appropriation of the natural world as a source of moral example. In each case, readers (medieval and modern) may both sympathise with Gunnarr’s and Will’s emotional responses and question the moral certainty of their respective reactions to their surroundings. Hence, both characters demonstrate that uneasy mixture of open and affective response to the natural world and anthropocentric abrogation of it that has bedevilled human relations with nature, making it difficult to see our human selves as anything but central to creation.

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Notes 1 Njál’s Saga, ed. Einar Ólafur Sveinsson (Íslenzk Fornrit 12, 1954), p. 182, cited in Andrew Hamer, Njál’s Saga and its Christian Background: A Study of Narrative Method (Germania Latina VIII; Leuven, Paris, & Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2014), p. 134. The translation given here is based on Hamer’s and that by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), p. 166 but slightly adapted. 2 The central work on medieval literary forests remains Corinne Saunders, The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden (Cambridge, MA: D.S. Brewer, 1993). Those interested in the actual forests of the time are advised to consult Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape: The Complete History of Britain's Trees, Woods and Hedgerows (London: Phoenix Press, 2001) and A.T. Grove and Oliver Rackham, The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History, 2nd edn (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003). Derek Pearsall and Elizabeth Salter discuss forms and functions of literary landscapes in Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World (London: Elek, 1973) as does Arthur K. Siewers in Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) in more theoretical vein. The sea is well served by Sarah Rose, The Medieval Sea (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2007) and Sebastiean Sobecki, The Sea and Medieval English Literature (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2008). A succinct and insightful overview of medieval views on nature in general is provided by Richard Hoffman, “Homo et Natura, Homo in Natura: Ecological Perspectives on the European Middle Ages”, in Barbara Hanawalt and Lisa Kiser (eds.), Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), pp. 11–38. The close link between concepts of the environment and other worlds is ably demonstrated by Arthur Siewers, in “The Green Other Worlds of Early Medieval Literature”, in Louise Westling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 31–44. 3 Books such as Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey by Foot (London: Penguin Books, 2013) or Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wildernesses (London: Vintage Books, 2012) attest to the success of this approach in both popular and critical circles. 4 Njál’s Saga, p. 182, cited in Hamer, Njál’s Saga and its Christian Background, p. 134. Translation as in endnote 1 above. 5 See Pearsall and Salter, Landscapes and Seasons, p. 46; Heather O’Donoghue, Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 60. 6 See R.F. Allen, Fire and Iron: Critical Approaches to Njál’s Saga (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971), p. 150. 7 Hamer, Njál’s Saga and its Christian Background, pp. 134–41.


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8 Lars Lönnroth, Njál’s Saga: A Critical Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 155. 9 Hamer, Njál’s Saga and its Christian Background, p. 68. 10 O’Donoghue, Old Norse-Icelandic Literature, p. 60. 11 Gunnarr’s brother, Kolskegg, does not feel this pull of the land and goes into exile regardless, demonstrating how personal the link is between Gunnarr and Hlíðarendi. 12 Piers Plowman has come down to us in three main versions, denominated the A-, B- and C-text by W.W. Skeat, the poem’s first editor, in the 1880s. In 1983 it was proposed that a unique manuscript of the work was in fact a likely first draft of the poem, in recognition of which this text is now referred to as the Z-text. The precise order of composition is unknown. Skeat’s proposition that A is the earliest version, B an expanded and completed rewriting and C an incomplete revision remains widely, but not universally, accepted. Charlotte Brewer offers a detailed account of the editing history of the poem in Editing “Piers Plowman”: The Evolution of the Text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). As here, the version quoted is denoted at the beginning of the in-text reference. Citations from the B-text are all from William Langland: The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text, ed. A.V.C. Schmidt (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1982). Translation mine. 13 See Hans Kurath and Sherman M. Kuhn (eds.), The Middle English Dictionary (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1956–2001), especially definitions 7 and 9 of “Kind”. 14 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (5th edn), ed. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002), ll. 713–14. Translation mine. 15 Ibid., ll. 768–71. 16 In Language and the Imagination in the Gawain Poems (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), J.J. Anderson argues that all four poems attributed to the Gawain- (or Pearl-)poet show disenchantment with courtly conduct. Michael George puts the case for reading the Green Knight as the preferred model for right living, in “Gawain’s Struggle with Ecology: Attitudes toward the Natural World in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, The Journal of Ecocriticism, 2, 2 (2010), pp. 30–44. 17 Piers Plowman by William Langland: An Edition of the C-Text, ed. Derek Pearsall (London: Edward Arnold, 1978). Translation mine. Pearsall’s note to these lines points out the echo of the Prologue in the reference to being (again) dressed in clothes which might denote a false religious or idle person. 18 See Robert Worth Frank, Jr, “The ‘Hungry Gap’, Crop Failure, and Famine: The Fourteenth-Century Agricultural Crisis and Piers Plowman”, Yearbook of Langland Studies 4 (1990), pp. 87–104. 19 Pearl in Andrew and Waldron (eds.), Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, ll. 38–40. Translation mine.

Human Responses to the Environment in Medieval Literature


20 The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. Stephen Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), XV.xiii.1. p. 314. 21 See Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), pp. 188–98.

chapter 10

Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook

We have always been fascinated by stories about the mobility of trees. Though we know them to be rooted in the earth, we dream that their nature might be fluid, bordering on and sometimes crossing over into the zone of the human. In imaginative works from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to, say, James Cameron’s Avatar, trees and humans interact, converse, even fuse identities. This chapter argues that early modern literary explorations of the borders between human and non-human identities coincided and resonated with the acceleration of a literal global mobilization of the natural world that has enriched and complicated relations among humans and non-human others ever since. Read together, these different ways of understanding identities as fluid and permeable provide insight into the assumptions that underlie how we today construe and manage our relations with other species, even as the global circulation of fauna and flora now generates concerns about ‘invasives’ and ‘aliens’ along with our creative explorations of human/non-human encounters.1 By the eighteenth century, Anglo-European landscapes both at home and in Europe’s colonial outposts were already material articulations of complex imperial, commercial, and aesthetic practices and objects.2 The ‘English’ landscape-garden style of the period, ostensibly less formally artificial than the Continental gardens that preceded it, frequently featured non-native flora and theatrically framed views of imported specimen trees. It emerged in tandem with an ethos of improvement that led to the creation of thousands of acres of cultivated land out of fens, wastes, commons, and disafforested Crown land.3 Gardens and fields, ornamental and productive terrains, were both reshaped in this period by the international expansion of colonial and commercial botanical networks. With colonial administrators and diplomats in foreign postings doubling as plant-collectors and transshippers of botanical specimens, along with commercial nursery agents, amateur botanical enthusiasts, and the growing corps of traveling disciples sent out by the national botanical-garden 156

Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility


managers, this was the great age of bio-prospecting (and often, where access to valuable plants was tightly controlled, of bio-piracy): thousands of new kinds of foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, tree-products, and ornamental plants flowed from the Americas, Asia, Australia, India, and Africa back to the commercial nurseries and national and private gardens of Europe, as well as to experimental gardens in the colonies and to military-supply depots around the globe.4 This flow was facilitated by the topographical and botanical illustrators, ships’ crews, administrators, surveyors, engineers, cartographers, and field-scientists employed by governments, the great trading companies, and commercial-nursery entrepreneurs. Trees in particular, as indispensable sources of fuel and building materials, were on the move. Against accounts of early modern botany that highlight its focus on taxonomizing – the assignment of specimens extracted from their ecologies of origin to the abstract fixities of the taxonomic table and the herbarium – this chapter argues that the global mobility of timber during the long eighteenth century was qualified by the material fieldwork practices of early modern botany, in particular botanists’ recognition of the importance of plants’ ecologies of origin. This balancing of mobility and embeddedness, to use Marie-Noelle Bourguet’s terms, chimes with imaginative explorations by early modern writers of Ovidian flows and exchanges between arboreal and human natures.5 Read together, scientific practices and literary texts endorse the possibility of a mobility that does not erase original identity, but rather extends and enriches it.

Figuring Arboreal Mobility In the first section of the story of Orpheus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, poetry itself mobilizes trees. After his failure to bring Eurydice back from the underworld, the measure of Orpheus’ elegiac power is that his song animates the natural world around him. In describing that animation, Ovid dwells not on the animals or stones that come to listen, but on the trees that gather around Orpheus from a nearby forest. In the 1717 English translation of this passage, twenty-four tree species transplant themselves to Orpheus’ meadow, with the oak, king of the forest, leading the way; the catalogue is closed by the cypress, which commemorates one of the loves of Apollo, god of poetry. In contrast, the second part of Orpheus’ story reverses the arboreal mobility of the first part. Coming upon the mourning Orpheus during one of their ecstatic frenzies, the Bacchantes fail to recognize him as a fellow celebrant of Bacchus’ rites and tear him to pieces.


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Bacchus avenges his poet’s murder by brutally transforming the killers into trees rooted in place, unable to flee their new nature. [He d]ecreed that each Accomplice Dame should stand Fix’d by the Roots along the conscious Land. Their wicked Feet, that late so nimbly ran To wreak their Malice on the guiltless Man, Sudden with twisted Ligatures were bound, Like Trees, deep planted in the turfy Ground. . . . as they stove in vain To quit the Place, they but encreas’d their Pain. They flounce and toil, yet find themselves controul’d; The Root, tho’ pliant, toughly keeps its Hold . . . One smites her Thighs with a lamenting Stroke, And finds the Flesh transform’d to solid Oak; Another, with Surprize and Grief distrest, Lays on above, but beats a wooden Breast. Their branching Arms shoot up delightful Shades; At once they seem, and are, a real Grove, With mossy Trunks below, and verdant Leaves above.6

While the passage stresses the metamorphosized Bacchantes’ new wooden fixedness, it nonetheless closes with a reminder of the pleasure we find in imagining the nature of trees to be shifting and fluid. The Bacchantes become a grove of trees, they “are” transformed, yet at the same time, in this translation, only “seem” to have changed. A space opens between the discrete categories of tree and human natures, allowing us to linger in a potentially reversible moment between seeming and being.7 A similarly fluid arboreal identity is the subject of Aphra Behn’s Ovidian poem “On a Juniper Tree, Cut down to make Busks,” in which a tree describes how it stood as the pride of the forest, self-sufficient and selfcontent – until the day that Philocles and Cloris meet beneath its boughs. The human lovers make the tree their bed, its roots their pillow, and soon there are three partners: the tree’s moving branches, concealing and protecting the humans during their transports, sometimes dip low enough to steal a kiss. Post-coitally replete, Philocles and Cloris turn to embrace and thank the tree: “The shepherdess my bark caressed, / Whilst he my root, Love’s pillow, kissed.” The tree now falls into despair at the thought of losing this inter-species intimacy: “If before my joys were such, / In having heard, and seen too much, / My grief must be as great and high, / When all abandoned I shall be / Doomed to a silent destiny.” The tree weeps tears of crystal sap, and Cloris, taking pity on it, has it cut down to allow it to leave the forest and join human society. This, the juniper claims, “did translate / my being to a happier state.”

Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility


This happier state is both a translation and a metaphorical transplantation, from forest to lady’s dressing room. The tree’s mighty trunk is reduced into busks, those slim strips of baleen, metal, ivory, or wood that stiffened corsets, and in this new form, the tree “still guard[s] the sacred store, / And of Love’s temple keep[s] the door.” Comically miniaturized, in contrast with its earlier incarnation as “the pride and glory of the wood,” the tree may strike us as deluded in its celebration of its own apotheosis, yet the Ovidian both/and structure allows the poem’s erotic play across multiple identities: tree, corset busk, and shepherdess, and implicitly shepherdess’s lover. As the busk flexes to mold and protect her, the tree is literally implicated in the erotic shaping and circulation of Cloris’ body.8 In Ovidian stories of human-to-tree metamorphosis, humans experience an arborealization that distances them from their original nature, yet through the narrative and syntactic structures of these texts they linger on the margins of humanness. Similarly, trees draw closer to human beings, inhabiting charged liminal zones between fixed categories of identity. Their transformations are as much about mutability – a slipping-aside toward a new identity – as about loss. Embracing this Ovidian ‘both/and,’ other long-eighteenth-century writers from Margaret Cavendish to Jonathan Swift and Mary Leapor on to William Cowper told stories of arboreal metamorphosis in which trees similarly embody fluid and mobile identities, hovering on the edges of the human. Taking these imaginative mobilities as models, the remainder of this chapter examines early modern botanical fieldwork practices that, while putting flora into circulation, at the same time prevented the erasure of ecological context that some historians have seen as a damaging effect of early taxonomic work. The field-based work of plant-collecting, specimen and seed circulation and exchange, plant propagation and particularly acclimatization was as central to botany as the study-, laboratory-, and library-based work of classification, taxonomy, and systematization of plant materials extracted from the field. In this sense, we can more accurately characterize early modern botany as necessarily shaped by a “tension between mobility and embedding,” to return to Bourguet’s terms.

Globalizing Timber: Timber Famines, Traveling Botanists, and Acclimatization If trees have always been figuratively mobile, by the early modern period they were literally traveling the world. The synecdochic image of forests carrying forests across the world’s oceans that anchors Alexander Pope’s


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triumphant naturalization of British imperial maritime commerce – “by our [native] oaks the precious loads [of foreign wood] are borne” – was literally true in the eighteenth century, as lumber and forest-products in ever-growing amounts were floated down rivers and shipped across oceans to reach European cities where wood was burned as fuel and used for building, as well as being turned into ship timbers, musical instruments, machine parts, household utensils, wheels and wagon-beds and barrel staves, yokes and tool handles, the elaborate inlay-work of luxury furniture, and of course busks.9 The increasing volume of timber-imports to Europe was due in part to population growth and in part to decreasing European forest cover: in his invaluable Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis, Michael Williams estimates that the population of Europe rose from about 105 million in 1600 to 140 million in 1750, and that in roughly the same period “from 1650 to 1749 between 18.4 million and 24.6 million hectares of forest disappeared in Europe.”10 Only about “7.7 percent . . . of England and Wales was forest-covered at the end of the seventeenth century . . . northern France might have been 16.3–18.0 percent covered, with the proportion increasing the farther east one went” (150). By 1701, riverside forests in the Loire valley, within transport distance of Paris, were completely gone. These changes were widely observed and commented on by contemporaries, especially in connection with the specialized lumber needed for military and commercial shipping.11 In England, John Evelyn’s Sylva, or, A discourse of forest trees and the propagation of timber in His Majesties dominions (1664) had originally been commissioned for the Royal Society as a report urging a replanting program after the damage caused to the Crown forests during the Civil Wars; in France, Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Grand Ordonnance sur le fait des eaux et forêts (1669), codifying centuries of forest law, similarly aimed to protect forests and promote reforestation after years of mismanagement, administrative corruption, and overharvesting for naval timber supplies during years of war, with little attention paid to reforestation. Despite Colbert’s regulations, under Louis XV (r. 1715–74) alone some 800,000 acres of royal forest would be sold off.12 In some cases, international timber shipments addressed geographically localized cases of resource depletion and the need for new supplies. For example, the Caribbean ‘Sugar Islands’ were largely deforested as early as the end of the seventeenth century, due to the sugar industry’s appetite for both fuel and new arable land; fuelwood had to be shipped in from New England.13 Once the tallest trees were logged out in European, Scandinavian, and Baltic forests, forest surveyors hunted mast timber in

Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility


North America. Simultaneously, Europeans developed a taste for the colored and patterned wood of tropical trees like ebony and mahogany, so exotic timber used for paneling and fine inlaid furniture was on the move as well.14 Williams comments, “That lumber continued to be moved around the world irrespective of its bulkiness and low per-unit value was a measure of its essential nature . . . Timber had turned the bulk trade of the world upside down.”15 Along with commercial timber markets, scientific work also kept trees traveling the globe. Botanists, whether commissioned by governments or working as independent bio-entrepreneurs for nursery businesses, were committed to collecting and sharing trees and tree parts and products. They shipped bags and boxes of seeds and cones, seedlings, saplings, timber samples, saps and resins, and occasionally full-grown specimen trees, from their original ecological niches off to both the metropolitan centers of Europe and to other colonial outposts. Scientific societies sponsored botanical exploration projects and offered prizes for particular achievements: Peter Kalm, a student of Carl Linnaeus, was sent to North America in 1748 by the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, where he studied the potential acclimatization of sugar maples in Scandinavian countries.16 Captain Bligh’s Bounty voyage of 1787 was aimed at a Royal Society award for the discovery of a cheap calorie source for slaves on British colonial plantations.17 As a necessary complement to all this transshipping of trees for propagation elsewhere, the study of acclimatization – how to get specimens to grow in new environments – became central to the work of botanists, nurserymen, and garden administrators, as Giulia Pacini and E.C. Spary have shown.18 Acclimatization – which necessarily entangles ecologies of origin with new ecologies and showcases Bourguet’s “tension between mobility and embedding” – exemplifies what Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing calls “friction,” or “the sticky materiality of practical encounters” in the contexts of global connections and exchanges.19 Recovering the history of acclimatization revises the critique of Enlightenment associated with Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970).20 Foucault’s account of the development of biology takes early modern European botany to represent a particular epistemic phase, directed primarily toward taxonomic classification projects that flattened biological entities and their cultural histories into schematic tables and necessarily excluded the rich materiality of their natural and cultural contexts. As Foucault notes, Linnaean taxonomy relied on a limited number of data points by which to order individual species, disregarding ecologies of origin and


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knowledge arising out of field observations or offered by local informants.21 Against this restrictive critical view of Enlightenment botanical science, however, post-colonial scholars and historians of science have emphasized the full repertoire of botanical scientific practices contemporary with and complementary to Linnaean taxonomy. Richard Grove’s study of French island colonies shows that by the mid-eighteenth-century scientists and administrators were already recommending conservation-oriented forest- and soil-management practices based on careful empirical observation of local ecologies. Grove comments that “the hypothesis of a purely destructive [early modern] environmental imperialism does not appear to stand up” in light of studies of field research and nursery-management in the colonies.22 Marie-Noelle Bourguet points out that bio-prospecting necessarily entails both a techno-optimism about extraction and transplantability, on the one hand, and on the other the recognition that the specimen’s ecology of origin must be taken into account for successful acclimatization: “No living plant or seed can be extracted from its native habitat and transferred elsewhere without some elements of its environment (type of soil, degree of heat or moisture) and some precise information (about mode of cultivation, techniques of preparation, or practices of consumption) being imported along with the sample to its new terrain. Should one of these elements be missing, the whole transfer and naturalization process might fail.” Against Foucault’s image of taxonomy as extraction and reduction, Bourguet offers the image I have already cited of a balancing act: “This tension between mobility and embedding lay at the core of eighteenth-century botanical science and practice.”23 Scholarship on the botanical correspondence networks and meticulously documented catalogues that accompanied shipments of seeds, saplings, dried leaves and flowers, fruits and nuts, logs and bark specimens, resins and pitch, around the globe, support the same argument: botanical practices put flora into circulation, yet without effacing ecologies of origin.24 The notion that Enlightenment science stripped flora of its history, materiality, and ecological contexts can only be sustained by ignoring field-work practices that were part of the training of all botanists, including the students of Linnaeus at the University of Uppsala, of André Thouin and Bernard de Jussieu at the Jardin du Roi (later the Jardin des Plantes), and of Joseph Banks at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, among other great administrator-botanists of the long eighteenth century. These networks created a global mesh of plant materials that traveled along with richly detailed narratives about their sources and how they were collected. On the move yet still embedded, the botanists’ plants

Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility


were consistently referred back to where they originated even as they moved into new ecological contexts.

André Michaux’s Transatlantic Logs The remarkable collecting record of André Michaux (1746–1802) exemplifies how deeply the material practices of botanical science were shaped by the tension between circulation and global flows on the one hand and ecologies of origin on the other. André Michaux began life as the son of a farmer employed on the royal estates around Versailles, but became one of those relatively new figures of early modern science, the scientifically trained traveling botanist.25 He studied under Jussieu at the Jardin du Roi and then undertook a series of arduous collecting trips to the mountainous areas of Auvergne, the Pyrenees, and northern Spain. These were followed by a three-and-a-half-year collecting trip across present-day Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, during which he amassed a remarkable amount of plant material and consolidated his reputation as a resourceful and dedicated botanist-explorer. Just weeks after his return to France from this trip in 1785, Michaux received a royal commission as, in effect, king’s botanist. Signed by Louis XVI, the commission makes clear the Crown’s recognition of the importance of trees: “His Majesty . . . [has] fixed his ideas on the desire . . . to introduce into his kingdom and to acclimatize there, by an intelligent and consistent culture . . . all the trees and forest plants which nature has given, up to the present time, only to foreign lands.”26 A month later, Michaux received formal instructions for a North American venture. He was to establish and manage a state-sponsored, quasi-diplomatic botanical import–export business, arranging for the most useful and attractive plants of Europe to be sent to the USA and collecting and exporting to France useful New World materials – particularly tree specimens – accompanied by detailed information about habitat and instructions for acclimatization. The “Instructions to Le Sieur André Michaux, botanist to the king” specify that Michaux was to examine, in particular, mature trees of great height, and to collect not only seedlings but also samples of wood with bark, preferably logs two to three feet long. Back in France, the timber samples would be tested for strength, durability, and utility, the seeds or seedlings cultivated in the national nurseries.27 Michaux’s transatlantic plant-exchange mission formalized longstanding unofficial botanical relationships between North America and France. When Thomas Jefferson took up his position as US minister to France


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in 1784, he sought out André Thouin, an authority on the acclimatization of plants, to discuss French and American flora. Michel Guillaume St-Jean de Crèvecoeur, appointed French consul for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in 1784, argued for the value of establishing a North American-focused botanical garden in France.28 Michaux’s appointment as the Crown’s official botanist formalized these discussions at an elite diplomatic level: he was to present himself as the equal of “all ambassadors, ministers, . . . consuls, vice-consuls, chancellors . . . and all other agents for France, public or private, under the protection and immediate safeguard of his majesty.” His salary and the expenses of running the two nurseries that served as research, propagation, and shipping-preparation facilities would be paid by the government. The French general consul was to facilitate Michaux’s shipments of plant materials, and French ship captains to expedite his cargos.29 Once out in the North American field, however, far from this officially authorized assistance, Michaux’s labors were Herculean. During his eleven years of collecting there, he traveled thousands of miles across difficult terrain, often without roads, sometimes without paths; he was sometimes accompanied by local guides, by one or more of the three slaves he owned, or by his son, with or without a pack-animal to carry his campkit and the materials he had collected, including, we imagine, those yard-long chunks of timber demanded in the royal instructions. Michaux visited nearly every then-existing state, ranging from Spanish East Florida north to Canada’s Hudson Bay, west as far as the Mississippi, and into the mountainous terrain of Kentucky, Carolina, and Tennessee.30 When not in the field, he oversaw the operations of the two nurseries and prepared shipments for France, carefully documenting specimens to facilitate their acclimatization in France. He had also to negotiate funding with the French government, an ongoing process complicated by changes of regime from 1789; and last but not least, he painstakingly assembled a comprehensive herbarium, each dried specimen accompanied by detailed directions to and descriptions of the original collection site. The sheer mass of live material Michaux sent to France was prodigious, estimated at upwards of sixty thousand seedlings and saplings along with ninety boxes of seeds. Within the first few months of arrival he sent off two shipments, the second with twelve crates of “interesting trees” accompanied by a catalogue with both common and botanical names and comments on habitat and local uses of each kind of tree. For example, of the 150 white cedar seedlings in the shipment Michaux recorded that they grow “in the most moist and even in submerged places; they are so close packed

Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility


and crowded, one against the other, that it is very difficult to penetrate.” Of the tree’s uses he noted, “The wood is less heavy than that of the red cedar. As it combines lightness with other qualities good for construction, the best ship’s boats are made of this wood.”31 The same shipment included 100 red cedar and 130 tulip tree saplings, along with spruce, rhododendron, magnolias, and other species, all meticulously documented as to origin and uses. Ironically, given this commitment to data collection, Michaux’s field journals, herbarium, and other specimens were nearly lost when he was shipwrecked off the coast of Holland on his return to France in 1796. What was recovered was saturated by seawater. On his urgent plea, the French consul in Amsterdam rushed eighteen reams of drying paper to him, and Michaux spent nearly two months rinsing and drying the specimens and manuscripts before resuming his travel to Paris. They were at last deposited, more or less as envisioned in the original royal commission, in the Museum of Natural History. Yet his collections continued to provoke further examples of the interplay of mobility and embeddedness we have been tracing. One of his specimens, found in the Carolina mountains in December 1788, had been labeled ‘ignota’ or unknown: Michaux described it as a “new plant, with denticulated leaves,” and recorded precise directions to the collection location. In 1838 the American botanist Asa Gray, visiting Paris to gather material for a North American Flora, found this plant in Michaux’s archives. Determining that it was still ignota, he named it Shortia galacifolia, saluting in the genus name a botanical correspondent. On his return to the States, Gray launched several expeditions to search for Shortia, but without success. The plant became a kind of botanical crux, with travelers and scientists combing the Carolinas in search of it. In 1877, a seventeen-year-old boy found Shortia at a different site and took a sample home to his father, a pharmaceutical forager. The father sent it to a scientist friend, who in turn forwarded it on to the now-eminent Gray, almost four decades after he’d seen Michaux’s dried specimen in Paris. Gray traveled to the region in 1879 and at last saw the plant in the wild – though not where Michaux had collected it.32 Had Gray recognized Michaux’s fieldwork practice of documenting the ecology of origin of his specimens, he could have found Shortia in the wild much sooner. Not until 1886 did the Harvard botanist Charles Sprague Sargent track down Michaux’s detailed description in his field journal of the collection location. Sargent’s subsequent Shortia expedition, informed by his reading of the journal, collected living samples at the Michaux site, one of which he triumphantly delivered to Asa Gray.33 This was possible


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because of Michaux’s practice of precisely recording a plant’s collection site, mapping the plant’s ecology of origin even while unloosing it into the global flow of eighteenth-century flora.

Anonymous Mobility: the Illegal Timber Market The transatlantic chain traced by the Shortia story – from the Carolina mountains to Europe’s Atlantic coastline to Paris back to the Carolinas and ending in Massachusetts – attests not only to nineteenth-century collectors’ fascination with a good botanical mystery but also clinches the point that early modern botany was as committed to embeddedness as to mobility. In this sense, Shortia stands as the antithesis of the anonymized mobility that characterizes how plant material moves around the globe today. This anonymity is particularly evident, and particularly problematic, in the case of trees and wood products. Despite the development of new materials substituting for virgin timber – engineered wood products, composites that mix plastic with sawdust or other wood fibers, all-plastic lumber – and advances in recycling plant fibers, our species’ appetite for wood has not diminished. Estimates of the global market for wood products range from US$246 billion (counting a limited number of categories) to as high as US $1 trillion a year.34 It is difficult to settle on a figure in part because the wood we use moves from forests to consumers both through commercial channels regulated by domestic and international law and also through unregulated back doors, with perhaps as much as a fifth of the world’s wood supply coming from countries where forestry regulations are weak or not consistently enforced.35 A recent study calls illegal logging “a major problem in all producer countries studied,” with “more than 100 million cubic metres of timber . . . being cut illegally each year, leading to the degradation and possible eventual destruction of five million hectares of forest. The illegal logs still being cut each year, laid end to end, would stretch ten times around the earth.”36 The last few decades have seen the rise of international log-smuggling networks, producing a suggestive and sinister coinage borrowed from the trade in illegal gems: “conflict timber.”37 A black market in timber is possible because of the ontological identity shift that overtakes wood after it leaves its ecology of origin: a tree, felled and processed, is no longer a tree but a log, a slab of lumber, a two-by-four. Anti-timber-smuggling taskforces such as the Environmental Investigation Agency and Indonesia’s Telepak have suggested that illegal logging could be controlled if the link between a tree’s origin in a specific terrain and the anonymous material that arrives at a sawmill could somehow be restored

Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility


and sustained. Proposals range from establishing mandatory independent audits for forest-products companies to bar-coding each felled tree and each of the pieces of lumber it is cut into to DNA testing. These strategies would link resource back to source, an anonymous piece of lumber to its original arboreal identity, and beyond that to its ecology of origin and the human and non-human entities who share that ecology – thus recovering and extending the original identity of what otherwise becomes mere anonymous hyle.38 In bringing together early modern imaginative writing about trees and early modern botanical fieldwork practices, my goal has been to show that both recognize identity as produced through the tension between what an entity is – its original nature, we might say – and what it may become. Against the erasure of origin and the resulting anonymity that characterizes much about the current global circulation of flora and fauna – an anonymity that in the case of timber markets encourages deforestation and forest degradation, with crucial implications for climate change – these models may offer ways to rethink how we put trees in motion around the world. Together they suggest a more complex ethical engagement with natural resources, one that recognizes the importance of balancing the benefits of the global flow of plant materials against impacts on those materials’ contexts of origin, as we continue to remake our world’s ecologies today. Notes 1 For an assessment of the current scale of floral invasives, see Mark van Kleunen et al., “Global Exchange and Accumulation of Non-Native Plants,” Nature, August 15, 2015, doi:10.1038/nature14910 (accessed August 26, 2015). David M. Richardson notes that “trees and shrubs now feature prominently on lists of invasive alien plants, and in some areas, nonnative species in these life forms are now among the most conspicuous and damaging of invasive species” (“Trees and Shrubs,” in Daniel Simberloff and Marcel Rejmanek (eds.), Encyclopedias of the Natural World, Volume 3: Encyclopedia of Biological Invasions (2011), ProQuest ebrary, accessed August 26, 2015). 2 On colonial gardens and plantations as imperial re-landscaping, see Jill Casid, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization (2004), and Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (1995). 3 On non-native plantings in England, see Douglas Chambers, The Planters of the English Landscape Garden: Botany, Trees, and the Georgics (1992). On ‘theatrical’ planting and exotics, see Mark Laird, The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds, 1720–1800 (1999). On the range of the




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‘English’ landscape garden, see Yves-Marie Allain and Janine Christiany, L’art des jardins en Europe: de l’évolution des idées et des savoir-faire (2006) and Nicholas Pevsner (ed.), The Picturesque Garden and Its Influence outside the British Isles (1974). Vittoria di Palma’s Wasteland: A History (2014) discusses improvement. Juliet Berger Hochstrasser’s “The Conquest of Spice and the Dutch Colonial Imaginary: Seen and Unseen in the Visual Culture of Trade” describes the Dutch control of the spice trade. Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World, ed. Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan (2005), pp. 169–86 and 187–203. See also Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bio-prospecting in the Atlantic World (2004). Bourguet, “Measurable Difference: Botany, Climate, and the Gardener’s Thermometer in Eighteenth-Century France,” in Colonial Botany, ed. Schiebinger and Swan, pp. 270–86, pp. 270–71. Ovid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Fifteen Books, trans. Samuel Garth, John Dryden et al. (1717), pp. 374–75, emphasis added. This space between ‘seem’ and ‘are’ appears as well in modern English translations. Cf. Rolf Humphries: “. . . their arms / You well might call long branches and be truthful” (Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1955), p. 261); Allen Mandelbaum: “Her breast and shoulders now were wooden, too; / you could have taken – not mistakenly – / her arms to be the boughs of an oak tree” (The Metamorphoses of Ovid (1993), p. 362). Alvin Snider comments, “Both tree and shepherdess find pleasure in destabilizing fixed categories: they come to resemble one another through a kind of emulative hybridization”. Snider, “Cartesian Bodies,” Modern Philology 98:2 (2000), pp. 299–319, p. 316. See Laura Brown’s discussion of this couplet’s naturalization of the trade monopolies granted by the Treaty of Utrecht (Alexander Pope (1985), pp. 28–29). Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. An Abridgement (2006). Population figures are on p. 140; deforestation statistics on p. 172. For the English context see R.G. Albion, Forests and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy (1926). A 1,000-ton warship required between 1,400 and 2,000 oaks, each at least 100 years old (Williams, Deforesting the Earth, p. 174). Williams, Deforesting the Earth, p. 152. On sugar’s impact on Caribbean forest cover and imported fuel wood, see ibid., pp. 201–03. The rise and fall of the mahogany trade is documented in Jennifer L. Anderson’s Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (2012). Williams, Deforesting the Earth, p. 181. The Braudel reference is on p. 157. Michael Guenther, “Science and Sugar Maples in the Age of Improvement,” in Invaluable Trees: Cultures of Nature, 1660–1830, ed. Laura Auricchio, Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook and Giulia Pacini (2012), pp. 135–49, p. 145.

Remaking Eighteenth-Century Ecologies: Arboreal Mobility


17 The Bounty’s crew collected 1,000 breadfruit plants in Tahiti, lost in the mutiny. After another voyage Bligh ultimately received the medal. (Though the fruit was never accepted as a food source by slaves on West Indian plantations, his tomb is capped by a stone breadfruit.) 18 Acclimatization as a botanical scientific practice was linked to debates about reshaping social order, as Giulia Pacini shows in “At Home with their Trees: Arboreal Beings in the Eighteenth-Century French Imaginary,” in Invaluable Trees, ed. Auricchio, Cook and Pacini, pp. 103–15. Spary’s Utopia’s Garden: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution (2000) discusses “naturalization” in similar terms. 19 Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connections (2005), p. 1. 20 Originally Les Mots et les choses (1966). 21 Influential work inflected by Foucault’s analysis includes Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (1980) and Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992). 22 Green Imperialism, p. 7. 23 Bourguet, “Measurable Difference,” pp. 270–71. 24 See Spary, Utopia’s Garden, on André Thouin’s networks. Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (2006), and Schiebinger, Plants and Empire, discuss “Atlantic correspondence networks” and “creole science” respectively. See also Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession (2008). 25 Beth Fowkes Tobin, “Arthur Young, Agriculture, and the Construction of the New Economic Man,” History, Gender, and Eighteenth-Century Literature. For a double biography of Michaux and his botanist son, see Henry and Elizabeth J. Savage, André and François André Michaux (1986). 26 Savage and Savage, André and François André Michaux, p. 34. 27 Ibid., pp. 38–39. 28 On these advocates of Franco-American botanical exchange, see Elizabeth Hyde, “William Livingston and the Cultural Politics of Trees in the Atlantic World,” in Invaluable Trees, ed. Auricchio, Cook and Pacini, pp. 185–99, pp. 191–94. 29 Savage and Savage, André and François André Michaux, p. 35. 30 Michaux’s North American range would have increased significantly had he carried out a proposed expedition to explore a route to the Pacific, for which Thomas Jefferson solicited funding from members of the American Philosophical Society in 1793. Jefferson’s instructions for the journey resembled those he gave a decade later to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (ibid., p. 130). 31 Ibid., p. 45. 32 A full account by Charles F. Jenkins of Gray’s decades-long search for Shortia appears in a double issue of Arnoldia (Vol. 2, Nos. 3–4, April 10, 1942, pp. 13–28). 33 Of Gray’s failure to follow Michaux’s directions, despite having consulted his journal, Jenkins notes, “in all the journal no species location is so faithfully



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described as . . . that of Shortia, but Gray unfortunately missed the significance of Michaux’s directions, or did not realize that the passage . . . appertained to the much desired Shortia” (p. 17). Fittingly, while the plant’s scientific name remains Gray’s, the plant’s common name of Oconee Bell re-embeds the plant in the now-so-named South Carolina county where Michaux originally found it. The higher figure comes from Raffi Katchadourian’s “The Stolen Forests: Inside the Covert War on Illegal Logging,” The New Yorker, October 6, 2008, p. 9. Katchadourian excludes wood gathered and consumed locally, such as fuelwood, which never registers as part of a market. www.newyorker.com/ magazine/2008/10/06/the-stolen-forests (accessed June 3, 2015). The UN Food and Agriculture Organization website, FAOSTAT, gives a lower value for “Global production and trade of forest products in 2013” of US$246 billion, but considers only a limited number of categories of wood products (roundwood, sawn wood, wood-based panels, wood and other fiber pulp, recovered paper, and paper and paperboard). www.fao.org/forestry/statistics/80938/en/ (accessed June 3, 2015). Katchadourian, “The Stolen Forests,” p. 4. Sam Lawson and Larry MacFaul, Illegal Logging and Related Trade: Indicators of the Global Response (2010), p. xvii. The report stresses the intersection between illegal logging and carbon emissions. Lawson and MacFaul note, “Illegal logging . . . undermines the rule of law, fosters corruption, and creates and fuels armed conflict” (p. 1). See also Jamie Thompson and Ramzy Kanaan, Conflict Timber: Dimensions of the Problem in Asia and Africa. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNACT462.pdf/. An archive of reports on “Timber in Conflict” is at the following website: www.globalpolicy.org/secur ity-council/dark-side-of-natural-resources/timber-in-conflict.html. (Both sites accessed May 30, 2015.) Aristotle used hyle, the Greek word for wood, to signify matter in the most general sense, suggesting that wood is the touchstone for all matter used to make things.

chapter 11

Romantic Ecology, Aboriginal Culture, and the Ideology of Improvement in British Atlantic Literature Kevin Hutchings One of the nineteenth century’s most significant Enlightenment legacies was the concept of ‘improvement’. Derived partly from Renaissance humanist notions of human perfectibility, this progressivist paradigm gained traction during the eighteenth century as a result of new scientific discoveries and technological innovations. According to many ‘improvers’, humans could better their lives both materially and morally by transforming natural terrain both at home and abroad, rendering ‘wastelands’ productive and capable of meeting the enhanced needs of expanding and shifting human populations. Because forests were for the most part considered unproductive spaces, the nineteenth-century Atlantic world witnessed an assault on trees unprecedented in scope. The spirit of progress informing this assault found broad acceptance both in Britain and in North America; its advocates included philosophers, agricultural theorists, colonial officials, and popular writers such as Thomas Campbell and Susanna Moodie. But this general consensus was disrupted by a minority of dissenting voices, including British Romantic travelers such as Charles Waterton and Anna Brownell Jameson, and Native American authors such as Peter Jones, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and George Copway, each of whom challenged the ideology of improvement by contesting contemporary stereotypes of human and environmental savagery. By investigating some of the ways in which Romantic and Aboriginal voices paralleled each other, and sometimes converged, in opposition to the Europeanization of the land in North America’s Great Lakes basin, this chapter attempts to illuminate some related environmental and cultural aspects of transatlantic literary history. During the early nineteenth century, perhaps the most enthusiastic literary proponent of improvement was the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell. In his early twenties, Campbell found widespread fame when he published The Pleasures of Hope (1799), a poem William Hazlitt praised as one of literature’s ‘gifts to the world’.1 In an exuberant 171


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apostrophe influenced by Scottish Enlightenment ideals of progress, Campbell’s speaker exclaims Come, bright Improvement! On the car of Time, And rule the spacious world from clime to clime; Thy handmaid arts shall every wild explore, Trace every wave, and culture every shore.2

The scope of Campbell’s vision is impressive. An agent of British imperial power, ‘bright Improvement’ promises to transform ‘every’ corner of the globe, exploring ‘every wild’ place until it comes to ‘rule’ the entire ‘spacious world’. Although improvement’s reach is global, Campbell chose to epitomize its effects by focusing on the densely forested shores of Lake Erie’s ‘Indian world’3: On Erie’s banks, where tigers steal along, And the dread Indian chants a dismal song, Where human fiends on midnight errands walk, And bathe in brains the murderous tomahawk – There shall the flocks on thymy pasture stray, And shepherds dance at Summer’s opening day. . .4

As I have observed elsewhere,5 these lines demonstrate Campbell’s conviction that cultural and environmental change would proceed hand in hand in North America. By transforming the continent’s primeval forests into ‘thymy pastures’, ‘bright Improvement’ would replace dangerous animal predators with docile pastoral ‘flocks’ and their predatory human counterparts with dancing shepherd swains, thereby transforming savage landscapes into civilized pastoral ones. Since American settlers coveted the continent’s terrain ‘not as it was but only as they might remake it’,6 and British emigrants to Canada ‘wished to replicate’ the English landscape ‘as nearly as possible’ in their new homeland,7 it is no wonder Campbell’s poem was popular among North American settlers. By justifying the appropriation of Indigenous lands and the extirpation of Indigenous societies in the name of enlightened progress, The Pleasures of Hope was an exemplary colonial text. As the writings of key Romantic travelers indicate, however, not everyone was sanguine about the transformation of the North American landscape. Although they represented a small minority of dissenting voices, Romantic writers were often profoundly disturbed by North America’s accelerating deforestation. Consider, for example, the case of the British natural historian Charles Waterton who, as a transatlantic tourist in search

Romantic Ecology, Aboriginal Culture, and ‘Improvement’


of the picturesque, recorded the following observations during his 1824 travels along the Erie Canal: Nature is losing fast her ancient garb, and putting on a new dress in these extensive regions. Most of the stately timber has been carried away; thousands of trees are lying prostrate on the ground; while meadows, corn-fields, villages, and pastures are ever and anon bursting upon the traveller’s view as he journeys on through the remaining tracts of wood. I wish I could say a word or two for the fine timber which is yet standing. Spare it, gentle inhabitants, for your country’s sake; these noble sons of the forest beautify your landscapes beyond all description; when they are gone, a century will not replace their loss; they cannot, they must not fall . . .8

Among North American settlers, such admonitions did not go unheard; but, even where some sympathy existed, the preservation of trees for aesthetic purposes was often considered impractical. As the prominent Canadian clergyman and amateur poet John Strachan (a friend of Thomas Campbell) noted, homesteaders ‘may attend to the preservation of the beautiful and the picturesque; but even they will, at first, be put to serious inconvenience by such patches. They are a harbour for vermin of various kinds; and especially for birds, which destroy the fruits of the orchards, and devour the grain as soon as sown.’9 It is important to note, of course, that ‘preservation’ is here an aesthetic rather than an ecological concern; trees are deemed valuable not in their own right but for the pleasure people could derive from viewing them. Another Romantic travel writer, Anna Brownell Jameson, summarized mainstream colonial attitudes towards North American forestlands nicely when, in Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838), she remarked that ‘A Canadian settler hates a tree, regards it as his natural enemy, as something to be destroyed, eradicated, annihilated by all and any means.’10 This statement’s truth is affirmed in the writings of numerous other nineteenth-century authors who were intimidated by ‘the dark, tall, and frowning forests’11 that ‘marched like hostile battalions’12 across the landscape. For contemporary settlers, whose very survival necessitated the carving of homesteads out of densely treed terrain, it was difficult to think of forests otherwise. During his travels in the English countryside, for example, Upper Canada’s attorney general, John Beverley Robinson – a literary enthusiast who befriended Thomas Campbell, cultivated the acquaintance of Walter Scott, and wrote loco-descriptive poetry in the Lake District – found rural England’s ‘picturesque disposition of woods, groves & shrubbery . . . very remarkable to an eye used to consider woods as an encumbrance to be got rid of’.13 For Canadian pioneer Susanna


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Moodie (yet another reader of Campbell’s poetry), ‘that horrid word bush [a vernacular term for the woods] became synonymous with all that was hateful and revolting in my mind’.14 It is thus no wonder that her husband, J.W.D. Moodie, could sing so exuberantly of the woodsman’s backbreaking labour: Come chop away, lads! the wild woods resound, Let your quick falling strokes in due harmony ring; See, the lofty tree shivers – it falls to the ground! Now with voices united together we’ll sing – To the woods! – to the woods!15

According to these lines, the very purpose of going ‘to the woods’ was to cut them down. Given the ubiquity of such sentiments among British North American settlers, it seems apt that Romantic author and Upper Canadian lieutenant governor Sir Francis Bond Head characterized ‘emigration to this country’ as ‘War with the Wilderness’.16 In the Romantic imagination, the consequences of such ‘warfare’ were dire not only for the land but for the Native Americans who relied on the forests for sustenance. As William Wordsworth imagined the scenario, ‘the encroaching axe’ was a weapon of ‘dire rapacity’ wielding a double-edged blade; in the process of consuming America’s forests, it would also drive Indigenous people farther and farther into the continent’s interior, until ‘the remnant of [their] line’ was ‘swe[pt] away’.17 Wordsworth was hardly alone in his belief that, as the forests vanished, Native peoples would become extinct; as Brian W. Dippie has shown, the myth of the ‘vanishing American’ was ubiquitous in contemporary colonial culture,18 so common, indeed, that many Native people came to share the white man’s belief in their nations’ impending demise. But some Aboriginal activists rejected this notion altogether. In his posthumously published History of the Ojebway Indians (1861), for example, the Reverend Peter Jones (Kakewaquonaby, or Sacred Feathers), a Mississauga chief of Welsh–Ojibwe descent, wrote, ‘I cannot suppose for a moment that the Supreme Disposer has decreed that the doom of the red man is to fall and gradually disappear, like the mighty wilderness, before the axe of the European settler.’ As a Methodist convert who urged his people to renounce the chase and become farmers, Jones admitted that he ‘longed for the time when the game and fur shall be . . . destroyed’,19 but he steadfastly refused the quietism and defeatism informing the myth of the vanishing American. For more traditional Ojibwe people, the destruction of the forest and its fur-bearing animals was a catastrophe. According to German ethnographer

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Johann Georg Kohl, who traveled to Lake Superior in 1855, Aboriginal people were ‘filled . . . with terror’ when they first observed the remains of a forested area that had been clear-cut by white settlers.20 Such a response is easy to appreciate when one considers the status of trees and other organisms in Ojibwe tradition. As Peter Jones remarked, non-Christian Ojibwe ‘suppose that all animals, fowls, fish, trees, stones, &c., are endowed with immortal spirits’ (Jones 104); or, as the Ojibwe author George Copway remarked, in the traditional world ‘The skies were filled with . . . deities . . . and the whole forest awakened with their whispers’.21 In such a world, the wholesale destruction of trees was considered sacrilegious, as Jesuit priest Father Dominic Du Ranquet discovered in 1844, when he cut down ‘an ancient grove of oaks’ near his chapel on Walpole Island in Lake St Claire. Having ‘defiled’ the Indians’ ‘sacred space’, he roused the anger of the island’s eleven hundred Ojibwe, who demanded his removal from their territory.22 As Kate Rigby has shown,23 the idea of sacred space also informed European Romantic thought. In the poem ‘Nutting’, for example, Wordsworth recounts a scene from his rural youth, where, wreaking havoc on a grove of hazelnut trees, he destroyed a ‘virgin scene’. Articulating an overt moral, the remorseful poet tells his addressee to ‘move along these shades / In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand / Touch, – for there is a Spirit in the woods.’24 Although William Blake took issue with Wordsworth’s implicit pantheism, he attributed a kind of visionary subjectivity to ‘Trees on Mountains’, which in Milton ‘thunder thro’ the darksome sky / Uttering prophecies & speaking instructive words to the sons / Of Men.’25 Blake’s related observation that ‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way’26 provides a succinct critique of a worldview enabling the destruction of forests on both sides of the Atlantic. In her Canadian reminiscences, Anna Jameson – who toured the lower Great Lakes region with a copy of Wordsworth’s poetry among her possessions – expressed a sense of sympathy for forests that was thoroughly Romantic. ‘No one who has a single atom of imagination’, she declared, ‘can travel through these forest roads of Canada without being strongly impressed and excited’ by the ‘seemingly interminable line of trees before you; the boundless wilderness around; the mysterious depths amid the multitudinous foliage, where foot of man hath never penetrated’ (pp. 252–53). Although her claim that Canada’s interior forests had never been touched by ‘foot of man’ partakes of a colonial ideology that imagined North America as ‘a vacuum Domicilium waiting to be inhabited


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by a more productive people’,27 Jameson’s sense of wonder in the midst of the forest demonstrates her sense that a tree is much more than a ‘Green thing that stands in the way’. Indeed, Jameson’s sympathy for trees invites comparisons with the philosophy of the traditional Ojibwe people through whose territory she passed. As Chief Peter Jones noted, Indians in ‘their heathen state . . . very seldom cut down green or living trees, from the idea that it puts them to pain; and some of the pow-wows [medicine men] have pretended to hear the wailing of the forest trees when suffering under the operation of the hatchet or axe’ (p. 104). Showing a similar concern, Jameson confessed that The pity I have for the trees in Canada, shows how far I am yet from being a true Canadian. How do we know that trees do not feel their downfall? We know nothing about it. The line which divides animal from vegetable sensibility is as undefined as the line which divides animal from human intelligence . . . Without exactly believing the assertion of the old philosopher, that a tree feels the first stroke of the axe, I know I never witness nor hear the first stroke without a shudder; and as yet I cannot look on with indifference, far less share the Canadian’s exultation, when these huge oaks, these umbrageous elms and stately pines, are lying prostrate. (Jameson, p. 246)

In making a case for ‘vegetable sensibility’, Jameson strays onto some risky philosophical terrain, inviting the sort of ridicule Thomas Taylor articulated in A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes (1792), a book he waggishly hoped would ‘be followed by treatises on the rights of vegetables and minerals’,28 or courting the kind of lampoon that informed a contemporary parody of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (1790), whose anonymous author invited readers to ‘See plants, susceptible of joy and woe, / Feel all we feel, and know whate’er we know!’29 Just as European settlers often disdained Indigenous understandings of nature, so did many British rationalists have contempt for Romantic notions of other-thanhuman being. Among the friends Jameson made on her rambles in the southern Great Lakes watershed was ‘the first known American Indian literary writer’,30 Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800–1842), an Irish–Ojibwe poet also known as Bamewawagezhikaquay (Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky). As a writer, Schoolcraft composed roughly fifty poems in English and Ojibwe while also transcribing or translating traditional stories and songs. During her childhood in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, she learned traditional Native knowledge and lore from her Ojibwe mother, while at the same time acquiring knowledge of European culture from her

Romantic Ecology, Aboriginal Culture, and ‘Improvement’


Irish-born father, whose library included volumes of British poetry by Scott, Moore, Byron, Southey, and Campbell, as well as literary works by such American authors as Irving and Cooper (Parker, 4, 14). Articulating a mixture of British, American, and Ojibwe worldviews and values, Schoolcraft’s writings reflect the hybrid knowledges, values, and sensibilities of the American Midwest’s Métis cultural milieu. Schoolcraft’s most interesting poem for the purposes of this discussion is one in which she recollected her first encounter with the trees of her homeland upon returning from a visit to Ireland in 1809. Having first written the poem in Ojibwe, Schoolcraft translated it into English under the title ‘To the Pine Tree’: The pine! the pine! I eager cried, The pine, my father! see it stand, As first that cherished tree I spied, Returning to my native land. The pine! the pine! oh lovely scene! The pine that is forever green. Ah beauteous tree! ah happy sight! That greets me on my native strand And hails me, with a friend’s delight, To my own dear bright mother land Oh ’tis to me a heart-sweet scene, The pine – the pine! that’s ever green.31

Like J.W.D. Moodie’s ‘To the Woods’, Schoolcraft’s poem makes liberal use of exclamation points to emphasize a spirit of woodland exuberance; but far from encouraging the forest’s destruction in an anthropocentric economy of pioneer labour, ‘To the Pine Tree’ expresses a sense of delight in the ‘cherished tree’ itself. Such delight is markedly at odds with the attitudes often expressed by white settlers, who labeled many pine forests ‘barrens’ on account of their perceived lack of value and fruitfulness. As Robert Dale Parker observes, the land in Schoolcraft’s poem ‘seems animated, as well it might be to an Ojibwe steeped in Ojibwe patterns of thought and grammar: the tree greets her’ (pp. 51–52). Indeed, by depicting the tree as ‘hail[ing]’ her ‘with a friend’s delight’, Schoolcraft suggests that her delight in the encounter is reciprocated by the tree itself. Moreover, the syntactic ambiguity in her reference to ‘The pine, my father!’ suggests a familial tie, thus further emphasizing the close relationship between speaker and tree. In another poem composed in response to a journey (this time to Philadelphia and Princeton, where in 1839 she reluctantly delivered her


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children to boarding schools), Schoolcraft reflected on her role as a mother and on her relationship to her own ‘mother land’. Originally composed in Ojibwe, the poem was translated into English by Schoolcraft’s American husband Henry Rowe Schoolcraft under the title ‘On leaving my children John and Jane, in the Atlantic States, and preparing to return to the interior’. Instead of examining Henry’s conventional metrical translation of the poem, it can be helpful to consider the new English translation recently prepared by Ojibwe speakers Dennis Jones, Heidi Stark, and James Vukelich: As I am thinking When I find you My land Far in the west My land My little daughter My little son I leave them behind Far away land [emphatically] But soon It is close however To my home I shall return That is the way that I am, my being My land My land To my home I shall return I begin to make my way home Ahh but I am sad[.] (Schoolcraft, pp. 142–43)

The profound sense of disconnection expressed here is twofold: separated both from her children and from her woodland home, Schoolcraft gives vent to her feelings of loss and sorrow by communicating them directly to the ‘land’, the poem’s addressee. Although the land remains silent, it is depicted as a sentient subject, a ‘you’ capable of hearing and understanding the poet’s lament. As the poem progresses, however, poet and land converge into a single entity, ‘my being / My land’. Home is, in other words, not an endpoint along ‘the way that I am going’; rather, it is ‘the way that I am’. This notion of human being challenges the subject/object dualism implicit in the Western idea of ‘landscape’,32 a dualism informing European notions of human mastery that underscored the colonial imperative to ‘improve’ the land.

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For Schoolcraft, such ideas were highly suspect. Although as a Métis woman she embodied Ojibwe, American, and British forms of identity, she could not ultimately embrace the changes that ‘improvement’ wrought upon her native land. Consider, for example, the following lines from her poem ‘The Contrast’, in which she reflects upon these transformations: But ah! how changed is every scene, Our little hamlet, and the green, The long rich green, where warriors played And often, breezy elm-wood shade. How changed, since full of strife and fear, The world hath sent its votaries here. The tree cut down – the cot removed, The cot the simple Indian loved, The busy strife of young and old To gain one sordid bit of gold By trade’s o’er done plethoric moil And lawsuits, meetings, courts and toil. (p. 118; lines 35–46)

According to Parker, Schoolcraft’s poetic critique of her homeland’s colonial transformation is compromised by ‘colonialist condescensions’ implicit in her depiction of the Indian as ‘simple’ (Parker 53), a term often used by whites to denote the absence of a capacity for complex reasoning. In British Romantic poetry, the counterpart to this stereotype may be found in pastoral depictions that idealized rural peasants, as in Wordsworth’s reference in The Excursion to the ‘simple’ shepherd (Book 4, line 887). Schoolcraft’s use of such terms as ‘hamlet’ and ‘green’ – conventional descriptors for British village settings – further highlights the pastoral influence she inherited from her reading of the British poets whose writings found their way into her father’s library. And just as these poets often invoked the innocent delights of the rural idyll to highlight the urban metropole’s moral corruption, so does Schoolcraft engage similar pastoral contrasts to criticize a colonial world in which people busily strive ‘To gain one sordid bit of gold’, a line recalling Wordsworth’s poetic condemnation of his society’s vulgar obsession with ‘Getting and spending’.33 Unlike Thomas Campbell, who invokes pastoral fields, flocks, and swains in The Pleasures of Hope to celebrate the destruction of America’s woodlands, Schoolcraft deploys the pastoral mode to condemn ‘improvement’ practices for their simultaneous assault on both nature and local culture (as suggested by her juxtaposed references to ‘The tree cut down – the cot removed’). For a Christian Ojibwe poet who believed that ‘even a leaf


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cannot wither and die, / Unknown to [God’s] care, or unseen by his eye’ (‘Pensive Hours’, p. 109), the tree’s destruction, like that of the Indian’s cottage or wigwam, is much to be deplored. Elsewhere, Schoolcraft engages the Christian moral dualism of light and darkness to query the ideology of improvement on both literal and philosophical levels. As Donald Smith has recently noted, the lower Great Lakes watershed during this period featured ancient forests whose ‘tall trees grew interlocked thirty to forty metres above the ground leaving the land beneath in dark shadows’.34 Settlers made much of these shadows, emphasizing the primeval woodlands’ aesthetic gloom and associating it with benighted forms of human and animal savagery. But Schoolcraft felt strongly otherwise, as indicated in the following passage from her ‘Lines written under affliction’: how could a beautiful landscape please, If it showed us no feature but light? ’Tis the dark shades alone that give pleasure and ease, ’Tis the union of sombre and bright. (p. 126)

If these lines are not a direct response to Thomas Campbell’s poetry,35 they might be seen as a general commentary on his ideal of ‘bright Improvement’, which, as noted above, banishes the supposed gloom of Indigenous forests in favour of sunny pastures. For Schoolcraft, the forest’s ‘dark shades’ are not spaces bereft of God’s light or of Enlightenment knowledge, but places of woodland otium that actively bestow upon humans the gift of ‘pleasure and ease’. The forest’s sheltered spaces also appealed to one of Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe contemporaries, George Copway (1818–69), also known as Kahgegagahbowh, or ‘Standing Firm’. Born in Upper Canada’s Trent River Valley, Copway became ‘a literary lion in the United States’,36 and in his writings he engaged the work of such British Romantics as Scott, Burns, Byron, and Southey. Prior to his Christian conversion and English education, Copway spent his boyhood learning to hunt and to worship the deities that presided over the Ojibwe world. In his Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation (1851), he describes that world as follows: The earth teemed with all sorts of spirits, good and bad; those of the forest clothed themselves with moss. During a shower of rain, thousands of them are sheltered in a flower. The Ojibway, as he reclines beneath the shade of his forest trees, imagines these gods to be about him. He detects their tiny voices in the insect’s hum. With half closed eyes he beholds them sporting by thousands on a sunray. (pp. 148–49)

Romantic Ecology, Aboriginal Culture, and ‘Improvement’


Far from being the locus of real or metaphorical darkness, Copway’s Ojibwe forest is a place of visionary plenitude: combining ‘shade’ and ‘sunray’, it embodies Schoolcraft’s ‘union of sombre and bright’ while similarly being a place where the ‘reclin[ing]’ Indian experiences a sense of ‘pleasure and ease’ amidst the voluble deities who filled ‘the whole forest . . . with their whispers’ (p. 147). To prevent his white Christian readers from confusing such beliefs with pagan idolatry, Copway defends the forest as an edifying space in which the Indian learns to revere God: Living as he does, amid the happiest creations of the Great Creator, he cannot but adore and worship Him. His devotion is pure. He Sees God in storms and hears him in the wind.’ Nature points him up to Nature’s God. I love my country; and will any of my readers condemn a child of the forest for loving his country and his nation? (pp. 24–25; emphasis added)

In this passage, Copway strategically quotes a line from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1733–34), wherein the condescending poet shows pity for ‘the poor Indian’ and his ‘untutored’ pagan mind.37 By quoting a renowned English poet, Copway burnishes his literary credentials while also exhibiting his own ‘tutored mind’, thereby contradicting Pope’s stereotypical depiction of Indigenous people. Crucially, moreover, he claims his Christian readers’ goodwill by arguing, contrary to Pope’s assertion, that the Indian is ultimately a monotheist whom nature has taught to ‘adore and worship’ the one true God in a spirit of ‘pure’ ‘devotion’; and he ties this devotion to the Indian’s love of ‘his country and his nation’, thus legitimizing a form of patriotism not tied to the colonizing power. Although he strove to find favor with a transatlantic audience of white Christian readers, Copway was unwilling to accept the Eurocentric idea, implicit in The Pleasures of Hope, that woodland habitats produced violent and predatory ‘human fiends’. In the British edition of his autobiography, titled Recollections of a Forest Life (1850), his chapter on hunting includes a discussion of the moral lessons he learned from his father, who taught him not only that ‘a great hunter’ must share his bounty with the elderly and the poor, but also that he must show compassion for his prey: ‘“You must never laugh at any suffering object, for you know not how soon you may be in the same condition: never kill any game needlessly.” Such was his language when we were alone in the woods.’ Presenting his father’s woodland teachings as ‘lessons directed from heaven’,38 Copway suggests that his people practiced Christian virtues of charity and stewardship well before the arrival of the missionaries.


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Despite his defense of traditional hunting practices and his claim to have ‘delighted in running after the deer’ (p. 25), however, Copway ultimately rejected the hunt, advocating the need for his people to forsake forest life and become pious Christian farmers. Indeed, after exuberantly recounting the rituals of song and dance characterizing ‘the great feast of the first deer that a young hunter caught’ (p. 25), he performs a volte-face, reassuring his Christian readers with a somber testimonial: ‘In the days of our ignorance we used to dance around the fire. I shudder when I think of those days of our darkness . . . I thank God that those days will never return’ (p. 26). As I have argued elsewhere,39 this sudden association of traditional woodland practices with ‘ignorance’ and ‘darkness’ is far from convincing, in part because it exists in tension with a combination of complementary Romantic and Ojibwe strains informing Copway’s thought. Consider, for example, Copway’s engagement with Lord Byron’s poetry. In Recollections of a Forest Life, the chapter on hunting and woodland ethics begins with an epigraph quoted from Byron’s ‘To the Countess of Blessington’: My life is not dated by years – There are moments which act as a plough; And there is not a furrow appears, But is deep in my soul as my brow. (p. 16)

In Byron’s agricultural metaphor, the ‘moments’ ‘dat[ing]’ the speaker’s life may ‘act as a plough’, but the ‘furrow’ thus created produces not fertile ground suitable for new growth (as one might expect given Copway’s pious Christian claim to have rejected the hunt) but a wound or scar that is both spiritual and intellectual (as the respective references to ‘soul’ and ‘brow’ imply). Such a reading gains support from the lines in Byron’s poem immediately preceding the quatrain Copway chose for his epigraph: I am ashes where once I was fire, And the bard in my bosom is dead, What I loved I now merely admire – And my heart is as grey as my head.40

In Byron’s poem these lines prepare the ground, as it were, for the deployment of the plough metaphor; the speaker’s loss of artistic passion turns living flame to cold ash, killing the bard of inspiration that had formerly resided in his heart. As in much of Byron’s poetry, the cause of these unfortunate events is not specified; all we are told is that the speaker’s mind and soul have become deeply ‘furrowed’ in their encounter with the

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‘plough’ of time. Like Byron’s speaker, Copway gestures in his narrative towards a life he had once loved passionately; ‘I loved the woods and the chase. I had the nature for it, and gloried in nothing else’ (p. 3; emphasis added). In light of such exuberant outbursts, his pious denunciation of the hunt in favor of a Christian agrarian life comes across as forced and unconvincing. In a chapter wherein Copway defends the exceptional morality of traditional forest life while also directly advocating the need to reject that life, his choice of Byronic epigraph suggests a significant internal conflict. As an Ojibwe author who spoke ‘in the double voice of the “noble savage” and the “pious convert”’,41 he arguably rejected the hunt and its associated traditions not from a deep conviction of their moral evil but to appease his white Christian reading audience, for without their sympathy he knew his voice would not be heard. Interestingly, Copway wrote his Traditional History with the expressed hope that it would ‘awaken in the American heart a deeper feeling for the race of red-men and induce the pale-face to use greater effort to effect improvement in their social and political relations’ (p. vii; emphasis added). Rather than emphasizing his people’s need to embrace improvement practices associated with European ideas of progress, Copway put the onus on members of America’s settler society to ‘improve’ a colonial system that marginalized and oppressed Native Americans. Ultimately, in northeastern North America, ‘bright Improvement’ came at great cost. While the majority of white settlers celebrated deforestation as a necessary prelude to the land’s pastoral transformation and socioeconomic development, British Romantic travel writers such as Charles Waterton and Anna Jameson criticized improvement’s adverse effects, lamenting the widespread loss of aesthetically pleasing trees and forests. While generally agreeing with and extending this Romantic critique, Aboriginal writers such as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft and George Copway went further, emphasizing improvement’s negative consequences not only for the land but for the Aboriginal people who lived there. Unfortunately, these Romantic and Aboriginal voices remained very much in the minority during the early decades of the nineteenth century; as a result, massive deforestation remained unchecked, leading to the extirpation of many native species42 and the destruction of traditional societies that relied on them for physical and spiritual sustenance. Nevertheless, by pointing towards roads not taken, these dissenting voices provide a counter-history that might help modernday readers to appreciate the positive values associated with forests and traditional modes of forest life, values we would do well to consider as we work to construct an alternative, sustainable future.


kevin hutchings Notes

1 William Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age (1825), Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, ed. Duncan Wu, 9 vols. (London, 1998), vol. VII, pp. 75–262 (p. 144). 2 Thomas Campbell, ‘The Pleasures of Hope’, The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell, ed. J. Logie Robertson (London, 1907), pp. 1–42. Part 1, lines 321–24. 3 Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812 (New York, 2010), p. 28. 4 Campbell, ‘Pleasures of Hope’, Part 1, lines 325–30. 5 Kevin Hutchings, Romantic Ecologies and Colonial Cultures in the British Atlantic World 1770–1850 (Montreal and Kingston, 2009), pp. 182–84. 6 Frederick Turner, Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit against the Wilderness (New York, 1980), p. 257. 7 A.A. den Otter, Civilizing the Wilderness: Culture and Nature in Pre-Confederation Canada and Rupert’s Land (Edmonton, 2012), p. 3. 8 Charles Waterton, Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, 3rd edn (London, 1836), p. 263. For an expanded discussion of Waterton’s American tour, see Kevin Hutchings, ‘Romantic Niagara’, Transatlantic Literary Exchanges, 1790–1870: Gender, Race, and Nation, ed. Kevin Hutchings and Julia M. Wright (Farnham, 2011), pp. 153–68 (pp. 163–65). 9 James [John] Strachan, A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada (Aberdeen, 1820), p. 76. 10 Anna Brownell Jameson, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838) (Toronto, 2008), p. 61. Subsequent references to this volume are cited in-text. 11 John Richardson, Wacousta (1832) (Toronto, 2008), p. 13. 12 Johann Georg Kohl, Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway (St Paul, MN, 1985 [1860]), p. 175. 13 John Beverley Robinson Papers, Diary entry for Tues. Oct. 17, 1815, Archives of Ontario, F 44 (MS 4, reel 2). 14 Susanna Moodie, Roughing It in the Bush (Toronto, 1989 [1852]), p. 81. 15 Quoted in ibid., p. 216. 16 Sir Francis Bond Head, The Emigrant (London, 1846), p. 34. 17 William Wordsworth, The Excursion, The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. William Knight (Edinburgh, 1884),V, pp. 1–412; Book 3, line 922. 18 See Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Middleton, CT, 1982). 19 Peter Jones, History of the Ojebway Indians (London, 1861), pp. 29, 172. Subsequent references to this volume are cited in-text. 20 Kohl, Kitchi-Gami, p. 246. 21 George Copway, The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation (Boston, 1851), p. 147. Subsequent references to this volume are cited in-text.

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22 Mark G. McGowan, ‘Michael Power, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelization of the First Nations Peoples of Western Upper Canada, 1841–48’, Irish and Scottish Encounters with Indigenous Peoples, ed. Graeme Morton and David A. Wilson (Montreal and Kingston, 2013), pp. 195–219 (pp. 204–05). 23 Kate Rigby, Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (Charlottesville and London, 2004). 24 Wordsworth, ‘Nutting’, in William Wordsworth, reprinted edn, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford, 1990), pp. 153–54, lines 19, 52–54. 25 William Blake, ‘Milton a Poem’, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, rev. edn, ed. David V. Erdman (New York and London, 1988), p. 123, plate 26, lines 7, 9–10. 26 William Blake, letter to Rev. Dr Trusler, Complete Poetry and Prose, p. 702. 27 William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, 1983), p. 56. 28 Thomas Taylor, A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes (London, 1792), p. 19. 29 Qtd in R.S. White, Natural Rights and the Birth of Romanticism in the 1790s (New York, 2005), p. 230. 30 Robert Dale Parker, ‘Introduction’, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky, ed. Robert Dale Parker (Philadelphia, 2007), pp. 1–84 (p. 1). Subsequent references to Parker’s Introduction and notes are cited in-text. 31 Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky, ed. Robert Dale Parker (Philadelphia, 2007), p. 89, lines 1–12. Subsequent references to this volume are cited in-text. 32 For an incisive critique of the ‘landscape’ concept, see Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko, ‘Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination’, The Ecocriticism Reader, ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (Athens, GA, 1996), pp. 264–75 (pp. 265–66). 33 Wordsworth, ‘The world is too much with us’, William Wordsworth, p. 270, line 2. 34 Donald Smith, Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices from Nineteenth-Century Canada (Toronto, 2013), p. 129. 35 Schoolcraft’s engagement with Campbell is apparent, for example, in her couplet entitled ‘When the Stormy Winds Do Blow, After Thomas Campbell’, The Sound the Stars Make, p. 159. 36 Donald Smith, Mississauga Portraits, p. 165. 37 Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, ed. John Wilson Croker, The Works of Alexander Pope, 10 vols. (New York, 1967), vol. II, pp. 347–456 (p. 355, epistle 1, line 99). 38 George Copway, Recollections of a Forest Life (London, 1850), pp. 19–20. Subsequent references to this volume are cited in-text. 39 Kevin Hutchings, ‘“The Nobleness of the Hunter’s Deeds”: Romanticism, Christianity, and Ojibwa Culture in George Copway’s Recollections of a Forest Life’, in Native Americans and Anglo-American Culture, 1750–1850, ed. Tim Fulford and Kevin Hutchings (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 217–40 (pp. 231–34).


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40 George Gordon, Lord Byron, ‘To the Countess of Blessington’, Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols. (Oxford, 1993), vol. VII, pp. 75–76, lines 10–12. 41 A. Lavonne Brown Ruoff, ‘The Literary and Methodist Contexts of George Copway’s Life, Letters and Speeches’, Life, Letters and Speeches of Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh, ed. A. Lavonne Brown Ruoff and Donald B. Smith (Lincoln, NE, and London, 1997), p. 9. 42 See Turner, Beyond Geography, p. 259.

chapter 12

Natural History in the Anthropocene Laura Dassow Walls

I begin with the proposition that anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history . . .

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History” (2009)

Properly speaking there can be no history but natural history. Henry David Thoreau (March 8, 1842)

In 2009, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s landmark essay “The Climate of History” announced the collapse of human history into natural history. As he reiterated recently, our climate crisis reveals “the enjambment” of the separate orders “of recorded and deep histories of the human kind, of species history and the history of the earth systems, revealing the deep connections through which the planet’s carbon cycle and life interact with each other.”1 While this crisis has been in the news for a generation, not until 2007, when the sudden and unanticipated melting of the Arctic ice cap hit the news media, could I say aloud what I had long been thinking: This changes everything. Clearly it changes the future, for we face the real possibility that we have none; and clearly it changes the present, the only time in which we can act; but it also changes the past. In hindsight one can see that Chakrabarty’s ‘enjambment’ began early in the nineteenth century, at the moment when nature itself became fully historical – or in Thoreau’s words, when all of history became natural history. This chapter seeks to tell the history of natural history as a story of how the Anthropocene came into visibility in the mid-nineteenth century through the agency of natural historians; and how that revolutionary insight was disguised, denied, and resisted at various levels, even as it powered the dramatic syntheses of modern natural science around the foundational insight that nature has a history of its own – that is, that Planet Earth is not the eternal embodiment of nature’s eternal laws, but the sedimented product of historical processes that are directional, 187


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contingent, highly specific, intensely local, constantly operating, and profoundly unpredictable. For roughly 150 years, ‘natural history’ has been widely dismissed as the quaint pursuit by amateur ‘nature-lovers’ of such inconsequential outdoor things as bugs and birds, while the real work of professional science goes on indoors, within the controlled spaces of laboratories sealed off from the messiness of ‘the field,’ or on computer screens where models of system dynamics and energy flows can weightlessly unscroll their abstract logics. Until recently the charms of natural history still had a place in the education of school children, but today, even that nostalgic relic is in steep decline: frogs, sadly, cannot live on i-Phones, and the birdsong one can call up on a schoolroom computer lacks the dimension of meaning. So how can one convey today what was once so intuitive – that felt sense of the astonishing plentitude of nonhuman nature, the intimate otherness of self-willed patterns of life playing out across the spaces of ravine or mountain, forest, tundra or shoreline? In 1962, the naturalist Rachel Carson sounded an alarm: “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”2 The spring is just as silent to one who sleeps oblivious to that chorus; one will neither protect nor miss what one cannot hear, see, or name. The lesson is blunt: without natural history, there is no human history either. To rewind to the world of Thoreau: one of his abiding interests was the colonial history of New England, and he pored over its pages to glimpse what we would now call ‘environmental history’: pilgrim’s reports of forests on Cape Cod, where no tree had grown for generations; colonial accounts of setting fire to Mount Monadnock to destroy the wolves’ last refuge, leaving a summit of barren rock; a neighbor’s hearsay of the last deer ever seen in Concord, once a center for the global trade in deer hides. From such histories Thoreau learned that the world he had inherited from his ancestors was, as a consequence of their actions, very different. As he commented in 1856, “when I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here, – the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverene [sic], wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc., – I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country.” He had taken “infinite pains” to read the entire poem, only to learn “that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an

Natural History in the Anthropocene


entire heaven and an entire earth.”3 As Thoreau’s inventory of lost species reminds us, his world was, like our own, deeply damaged, and the damage was accelerating: even as he watched, most of the remaining forests surrounding Concord were clearcut. Thoreau treasured his world, but the fact that he had inherited a “mutilated” earth grieved him as an incalculable loss of human possibility, a stripping away of human consciousness, as if a language had been robbed of its vocabulary. To him, as both poet and scientist, a loss in language was an injury to the possibility of thinking the world. How did Thoreau, a child of early America, learn to care about wild nature? His home in Concord, Massachusetts locates him in the first inland settlement of what was to become the United States, on land that had been farmed by English colonists for well over 200 years – a mere appendix to the 11,000 years during which indigenous peoples, following the glaciers as they melted northward, had settled, farmed, and managed the landscape. When, in this long human history, did the Anthropocene begin? Around 1635, the year of Concord’s founding, suggests one proposal: when the post-contact genocide of Native Americans caused two continents of Native cultivation to go suddenly fallow, regrowing forests sequestered so much atmospheric carbon that Antarctic ice cores reveal a sharp dip in atmospheric CO2. Or around 1780 with the elaboration of the steam engine, suggests another: so in 1843, when the Concord town fathers routed the railroad from Boston to their front doors – right past Walden Pond – their ability to steer the engines of the Anthropocene transformed Concord from a regional market center into a leafy suburban byway on the global market network. “We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside,” said Thoreau, as he watched the Anthropocene arrive.4 Thoreau was born into a nineteenth-century world where milk came from the family cow, chickens scratched about the front yard, and what was served on the dining table had been grown in the kitchen garden. His parents were fond of long nature walks, which no one then thought peculiar; his mother taught him to recognize bird calls, and his sisters gave him his first lessons in botany. Though he missed by a decade Harvard’s push to lead the nation in astronomy, zoology, and botany, Harvard’s librarian, Thaddeus Harris, was a widely respected naturalist of real skill. Under his guidance Thoreau’s class of ’37 founded the Harvard Natural History Society, a gang of boys who joined Harris on gleeful Saturday excursions for their first field lessons in entomology, botany, and ornithology.


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This was natural history at the local scale level, part of a solid AngloAmerican tradition with an established literary voice: Thoreau was frequently compared with England’s Gilbert White, whose engaging Natural History of Selborne (1789) established both a literary genre and the scientific validity of close study of a single region in detail over many years by a generalist who, like Harris, was fascinated by the whole range of creation from minerals to plants, moths and beetles, fish, frogs and turtles, birds and mammals. It was an attractive model: young Charles Darwin aspired to be a country parson like Gilbert White, and Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had moved to Concord to become a kind of secular country parson himself, thought every town should have its resident naturalist, right alongside its doctor and lawyer. Natural history had a well-established social role in New England village life: farmers were curious about the creatures they encountered; boys learned to shoot by collecting bird specimens, while girls took to the fields to collect flowers, and the more progressive schools made nature outings part of the curriculum. Lyceum lectures brought natural science to public audiences in towns across the United States, and expanding networks brought traveling menageries through the countryside – though of uneven quality; when one came through Concord, Thoreau was angry to find bored and ignorant handlers rather than “some descendant of Cuvier’s there to improve this opportunity for a lecture on Nat. Hist.”5 Many towns maintained cabinets of scientific specimens, a few scientific instruments, and a small library for public use; many urban centers founded natural history museums, zoological parks, and botanical gardens, in emulation of Paris and London, as spaces for public edification as well as research and study. Through the beautification of such public spaces as streetscapes and parks, ‘nature’ appreciation became a normal part of a modern, Euro-American culture of self-improvement through the cultivation of mind, body, and landscape, traces of which remain part of the civic landscape even today.6 But the disturbance registered in Thoreau’s lament for the mass extinction of New England’s megafauna points away from local natural history to global scale levels, managed along cosmopolitan networks by men of science. From the perspective of the local natural historian, the steam engine was a curse: the railroad tore into natural spaces, polluted them with noise and fumes, damaged them by sparking fires, destroyed them by clearcutting forests for fuel and railroad ties; the global trade networks it mobilized carried small farmers off the land and replaced them with suburban housing developments inhabited by consumers who set their clocks to standard Greenwich, or ‘railroad,’ time rather than the local time

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set by sun and stars. But from the perspective of the nineteenth-century global naturalist, the steam engine was a blessing: by mobilizing the world, railroads and steamships carried globetrotting naturalists into its farthest corners, whence they returned with books and collections to urban centers where, at last, the farthest and the nearest could be assembled and compared, named and catalogued, assessed for usefulness, acclimated, adapted, displayed. The nineteenth century thus carried forward the heroic scientific exploring expeditions of the century before: the circumnavigations of Captain Cook and Bougainville, the Baudin expedition to Australia, Alexander von Humboldt’s voyage to South America. In the decades after Jefferson directed Lewis and Clark across the North American West, the United States spent from a quarter to a third of its national budget funding natural history exploration, including the US Army Corps Expeditions across the West and the US Exploring Expedition, led by Captain Wilkes, from Antarctica to Hawaii to the far Northwest. Exploration and mapping established claims to territory, and imperial rivalries turned natural history from an avocation into a paying profession, requiring field collectors as well as experts in geology, botany, and zoology to process the specimens which flooded institutions of natural science across Europe and the United States; the Wilkes expedition’s collections filled the new Smithsonian Museum.7 Thoreau angled for a spot on Charles T. Jackson’s natural history expedition to Michigan, and though they left without him, he contributed as a field collector for Louis Agassiz, who had arrived from Switzerland to the United States in 1846, bringing, as Harvard’s new professor of zoology, the big new European ideas on natural history to popular American audiences. At Harvard, Agassiz joined Asa Gray, who had risen in the ranks of US botanists and was himself swiftly becoming a world figure in his own right. Thoreau, who knew them both, was well aware that in appointing these world-class specialists, Harvard had passed over his old friend Thaddeus Harris, the local naturalist who for years had expected a professorship for himself. Natural history was mutating: as scientific expeditions returned with their immense collections from around the globe, tidy eighteenth-century taxonomies exploded. Only specialists could catalogue and describe specimens coming in by the thousand; to bring order to such overwhelming biodiversity, global natural history had to reorganize the nature of knowledge. The wide, wide globe was becoming a deep, deep planet. The original goal of eighteenth-century naturalists had been to group minerals, plants, and animals by their shared features to discern an


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underlying order: Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature became the standard means for classifying and naming natural kinds because of its success at placing individual species into a comprehensive global order of being. While Carl Linnaeus established the basic tools of nomenclature and taxonomy, his Paris rival, Georges-Louis Buffon, popularized natural history through the grand tableau of his monumental encyclopedia, the Histoire naturelle, which offered a comprehensive state-of-the-art description of rocks, minerals, and all living beings. In Buffon’s radical new vision, nature was neither static nor divine, but a generative power forming and shaping itself through time, starting with the cooling of the molten earth and ending with the plentitude of creation: “all that can exist, does.” Nature, that is, could only be understood historically; in Paul Farber’s phrase, “To understand the present, according to Buffon, one had to know the past.” From then on, the pattern of order in nature was understood to be historical. As naturalists labored to articulate the extent of that history, they burst open the bounds of time.8 By the time Charles Darwin was old enough to look forward to life in a cozy country parsonage, the leading edge of natural history was geology: wildly speculative ‘theories of the earth’ had given way to the meticulous quest to untangle and define the precise chronology of rock and fossil formations, understood as nothing less than the archives of nature’s selfdevelopment through untold millions of years of deep time. The naturalist Georges Cuvier, who had taken Buffon’s place at the Paris Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, completed the transformation of “descriptive ‘natural history’ into a true history of nature.” Even pre-human history could be read like an open book: famously, Cuvier could reconstruct from a single fossil bone the entire organism as it had once lived and moved. Cuvier’s museum organized all natural things into what Emerson, visiting it in 1833, called “a perfect series” of animated forms, butterflies, shells, birds, beasts, insects, snakes, fish, “and the upheaving principle of life every where incipient, in the very rock aping organized forms.” A stunned Emerson vowed to redefine his career: “I say I will listen to this invitation. I will be a naturalist.”9 When Cuvier’s student Louis Agassiz came to Harvard (where he and Emerson became fast friends), his own Museum of Comparative Zoology sought to recreate Cuvier’s great surging spectacle of life, and he delighted lecture audiences by reconstructing on the blackboard, in swift chalk strokes, from a single fish scale the entire living animal. Agassiz also brought his radical theory that the Northern Hemisphere had, until fairly recently, been covered by an immense glacier that had carved the planet into its present state – an astonishing insight that launched climate science.

Natural History in the Anthropocene


By the 1830s, both the planet itself and the life upon it were fully historical. The challenge now was how to integrate these two great histories. Like many in their generation, Emerson and Thoreau were both introduced to modern geology through Charles Lyell’s hugely popular work, Principles of Geology (1830–33). Lyell’s guiding principle was the power of present-day geological processes to alter, given the vastness of deep time, the face of the planet itself. The young Thoreau, reading Lyell in Emerson’s library in 1840, took notes in his Journal: “we discover the causes of all past change in the present invariable order of the universe.”10 And at the end of his life, after reading Darwin’s Origin of Species, Thoreau reiterated: “There has not been a sudden re-formation, or, as it were, new creation of the world, but a steady progress according to existing laws.”11 In Walden, this founding premise of contemporary natural history allows Thoreau to become present at the creation: standing at the “Deep Cut” of the railroad embankment by Walden Pond, Thoreau watches as the spring sun melts the frozen earth, creating a “sand foliage” that affected him as if he “stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me, – had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about.” Foliaceous, leafy, branching, the sand “organizes itself as it flows,” showing the creative principle of nature at work: lichens, leaves, trees, rivers, excremental lobes and fingers, until he can exclaim, “The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which preceded flowers and fruit, – not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.”12 Darwin’s plans for a country parsonage evaporated when he was recruited to be the gentleman naturalist on board HMS Beagle, charged with charting the coastline of South America. When the Beagle sailed in 1831, Darwin carried Lyell’s volumes with him, and it was Lyell’s guiding principle that gave Darwin the strength to insist that his theory of evolution, or descent with modification, had to be true even though the fossil record was still, in the 1860s, too incomplete to provide firm empirical evidence of species change. The other foundational naturalist in Darwin’s shipboard library was Alexander von Humboldt, whose earlier expedition to South America had inspired in the young Darwin a burning desire, as John Muir would say decades later, to “be a Humboldt” – or as Darwin said, once he stepped ashore and looked around, “I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another sun illumines everything I behold.”13


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It was Humboldt who had originally inspired and aided Charles Lyell and mentored Louis Agassiz. To the emerging historicity of nature, he added a final key ingredient: the distribution of natural kinds across the entire face of the planet. Though Humboldt was a competent taxonomist, his real flair was for sweeping comparative studies pursued in the finest possible grain: his grand vision of natural history shifted the scale level of inquiry from the local to the global to the planetary and back with a vertiginous ease that no one else could match. It was Humboldt whom Emerson had in mind when he called for the American Scholar to be a “university of knowledges.”14 In 1853, when Thoreau – an active member of the Boston Society of Natural History – accepted an invitation to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he cited two models: Gilbert White and Alexander von Humboldt. Thoreau’s pairing speaks to both the local intensity of White and the planetary extensivity of Humboldt; it also points back to White’s felt and loving descriptions of local nature, and forward to Humboldt’s emergent vision of Earth as a planet in space, inscribing its own history as part of the emerging history of the Cosmos itself. For Humboldt’s comparative perspective extended from the earth, seen as a planetary system, all the way through astronomy and astrophysics to the evolution of stellar systems in “the great garden of the universe.” He thus looked ahead to, and helped to found, twenty-firstcentury comparative planetary science – the very science which, as Chakrabarty observes, makes global warming visible as “an instance of planetary warming that has happened both on this planet and on other planets, humans or no humans, and with different consequences.”15 In his earth-bound modes, Humboldt concentrated on the distribution of species, especially plants, in an attempt to define all the factors that affect what kinds of beings can live where, and how living systems form, associate, and change. As the biologist Richard Lewontin reminds us, for ‘environment’ to surround or encircle, there must be a center: “Just as there can be no organism without an environment, so there can be no environment without an organism.” Humboldt’s breakthrough insight pressed this thought to the next level: everything surrounds, and everything is surrounded; we are all each other’s environment. To demonstrate this, he correlated the composition of plant communities – the “physiognomy,” or “face,” of nature – with elevation, showing how living communities intergraded in consistent ways from a mountain’s base to its alpine heights in a zonation roughly equivalent to the climate zones that belt the planet from equator to poles.16 But remarkably, in outlining this ecological interrelationship Humboldt also attended to the formation of

Natural History in the Anthropocene


the mountain itself, which, in his model, was a volcano. This meant considering the distribution of volcanoes across continents, which meant understanding the historical formation of volcanoes, as well as all other ways the molten depths of the planet communicate actively with its surface. This in turn meant analyzing “geognosy,” or the threedimensional structure of rocks from surface to depth, including their stratigraphy and associated fossil sequences. All this combined made Humboldt the acknowledged founder of what his disciple Ernst Haeckel would, in 1866, name “ecology,” the study of the interrelationships among organisms and their environment – though this captures only one strand of Humboldt’s research. He was also, startlingly, a pioneering ethnographer and an energetic and focused collector of indigenous languages who worked in concert with his brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the famous founder of scientific linguistics and the philosophy of history. In short, to the two founding queries of natural history – the history of the planet, and the history of life – Humboldt added a third: the history of mind, as an integral part of the history of the planet and of all life upon it. Humboldt detailed this in Cosmos (1845–47), an international blockbuster that carried his views to educated readers around the world. The face of nature does not hide, but reveals, the depths within, depths which are above all temporal. That is, all natural objects encode their past in their form; to understand their nature, we must look at “the mode of their formation.” This is most obvious in the case of sedimentary rocks, which, laid down in successive ages, entomb the remains of organic worlds long since destroyed, like the leaves of a cosmic book of history. The notion that one could ‘read’ strata in the rocks like leaves of a book was already a commonplace, as Thoreau’s allusion in Walden suggests. But Humboldt’s point is rather different, for he integrates book, writer, and reader: “In tracing the physical delineation of the globe, we behold the present and the past reciprocally incorporated, as it were, with one another; for the domain of nature is like that of languages, in which etymological research reveals a successive development, by showing us the primary condition of an idiom reflected in the forms of speech in use at the present day.” Just as language reveals to the linguist a long history of linguistic evolution, so does the face of nature speak, like a language, of its own past, “reciprocally incorporated” into the present – a present which, as Charles Lyell insisted, bespeaks the very causes of all change.17 For Humboldt, landscapes are languages – and vice versa. Both embody their own self-inscribed past “reciprocally incorporated” with the present; both bespeak their emergent identity and coherence; both make present


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their unique “physiognomies” or perceptual and experiential wholes; both are subject to further analysis in themselves, as well as through cross-natural or cross-cultural comparisons; and both are fundamentally, foundationally, historical, evolved and evolving, subject to a dynamic of change in response to the contingencies of environmental circumstance and a kind of interior, creative resourcefulness. Finally, both landscapes and languages are as profoundly social and aesthetic as they are natural. Languages evolve as the individual will of the speaker interacts with cultural and linguistic limitations and opportunities, embedded all the while in a dialogue with the natural environment. Landscapes, too, evolve, both geologically – the upthrust of mountains and continents, the draining of valleys, the formation of deserts – and also culturally, as human inhabitants invent technologies and arts, creatively shaping the landscape to their own design. Natures, arts, technologies, nations and peoples, all are borne up through the landscape, and vice versa, in a mutual embrace. Wherever Humboldt looked, whatever he looked at, he saw spatial patterns of distribution and change pointing back in an unbroken continuum through human history to the deep geological, and even deeper astronomical, past: Humboldt’s Cosmos was a lesson in deep history. As he urged across its pages, all this can be “read” in the present by those who speak the language of the planet, to whom the archive of the Cosmos was readable. The face of the land tells its own story, and in reading its geo-graphic, ‘earth-written’ features, we recognize how fully we are a part of it: in Humboldt’s words, we “animate the scenery by the associations of the past which they awaken, acting upon the imagination of the enlightened observer like traditional records of an earlier world. Their form is their history.”18 There was no word in modern European languages for Humboldt’s insight. So he resurrected and reintroduced the ancient Greek word Κοσμος for the universe as both ordered and beautiful; his point was that while the physical universe exists apart from and without humans, the universe as a Cosmos, beautiful and ordered, exists only through human reciprocity with nature. Humboldt’s doublehelix narrative, at once scientific and cultural, attempted to implode the Cartesian dualism separating spirit from body, mind from matter, humans from nature – and history from ‘natural’ history – by weaving mind and material nature together, showing how humans and nature together generate the Cosmos. Humboldt demonstrates how to rewrite history as natural history – and live to tell about it. In the practices developed by Cuvier, Humboldt, Lyell, Darwin, and Thoreau, natural history teaches the valuable skill of moving adeptly across

Natural History in the Anthropocene


scale levels from micro to macro, keeping the various levels attuned to each other without deranging them, or collapsing one into the other. Thoreau routinely used his daily walks to rehearse such observational skills, resulting in his contribution to the emerging science of ecology, “The Succession of Forest Trees.” This was the labor through which he came to know the land, and after he read Origin of Species (and Thoreau was quite possibly the second American, after Asa Gray, to read Darwin’s book on American soil), he dedicated himself to problems of seed distribution that Darwin said were both crucial, and unsolved. When Thoreau took his methods into the woodlots around Concord, he found he could use the evidence before him to read backward into the history of the forest for four generations: “I have an advantage over the geologist, for I can not only detect the order of events but the time during which they elapsed, by counting the rings on the stumps. Thus you can unroll the rotten papyrus on which the history of the Concord forest is written.”19 But where, in this lengthening deep-timescape of accumulative change, was the agency of human beings in causing such change? Darwin avoided discussing human origins in Origin, lest the resulting controversy derail serious discussion of his evolutionary theory; but in Descent of Man he fully integrated humans into nature at the species level, suggesting the uncanny insight that humans, too, have a natural origin and are therefore subject to extinction. Certainly not! protested Lyell, who feared that humans would lose their humanity if not cordoned off from ‘nature.’ So, as Martin Rudwick details, Lyell devised a cyclic, steady-state interpretation of nonhuman history: “the underlying processes were in dynamic equilibrium,” and dinosaurs would walk again – a contrarian rejection of the scientific consensus.20 Humboldt did not live long enough to enter the Darwin debate, but he had integrated human beings into natural systems as ecological agents of global change ever since his 1807 Essay on the Geography of Plants – a virtual Rosetta Stone to the puzzles Darwin would finally solve. Humboldt’s leading example was the migration of human populations, together with their domestic plants and animals, “from one end of the planet to the other,” which had for millennia been rearranging natural communities worldwide. As he proclaimed, “So does man change at will the surface of the earth.”21 Thoreau, thinking on a local level, called capitalism to account by recommending “forest wardens” be appointed to guard the public interest against private owners who destroyed forests for personal profit; indeed, he hoped his work on forest trees would establish better methods of harvesting trees for use, allowing the forest itself to thrive – what a later generation would call ‘sustainable forestry.’


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The person who made the leap to human agency as a destructive force on the global level was another acolyte of Humboldt, George Perkins Marsh, whose revolutionary book Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864) documented the wholesale environmental destruction of the Mediterranean dating back thousands of years. From this, Marsh deduced not merely local extinctions in the present (as had Thoreau), but also, extrapolating into the future, the wholesale destruction of Earth’s support systems. Listen, pleads his biographer David Lowenthal, to Marsh’s “tirade,” written over 150 years ago: the operation of causes set in action by man has brought the face of the earth to a desolation almost as complete as that of the moon . . . . and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence . . . would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.22

Only a short step separates Thoreau’s lament for human-caused extinction of animal species to Marsh’s anguish at human-caused extinction of the human species. But it was a step few would take. Even as Lowenthal details the many paths of influence radiating outward from Marsh’s career, he remains baffled by the steady hold, in the face of overwhelming evidence, of the “environmental optimism” that refused to believe humankind could seriously harm the globe, insisting only “scientific idiots and crackpots” took seriously such doomsday warnings.23 Marsh’s alarm reads out the full challenge of perceiving nature as historical. But not until the naturalist Rachel Carson gave her final years to writing Silent Spring did planet-scale environmental consciousness acquire political force. Carson survived her book by only two years, and so did not live to see the success of her campaign to ban DDT and the nomination of her book as the founding text of modern environmentalism. Nor did she live to offer her insights into the conundrum that paralyzes us today: the catastrophe of global warming is fed not by the nefarious actions of the few, but by the mundane actions of the many. The scandal of Thoreau’s day was an economic system that profited by trading in human beings as capital, and he joined his voice with the many who called for the absolute and unconditional end of slavery. While there are clear parallels, our peril is neither local, like saving Walden Pond, nor global, like ending slavery; it is planetary. We are offered an impossible conundrum: if we don’t end life as we know it, life as we know it will end. There is no precise analogue to the Anthropocene in Earth’s history. The closest parallel seems to be the ‘great oxygenation event’ of 2.3 billion

Natural History in the Anthropocene


years ago, when excess oxygen produced by anaerobic cyanobacteria as a toxic waste product of photosynthesis accumulated in Earth’s atmosphere, triggering a ‘snowball earth’ – an Earth encased in ice, lasting 300–400 million years – which almost destroyed life itself. Almost: new organisms evolved that metabolized oxygen. The rest, as they say, is history – our history, human beings being, of course, their direct descendents. As Rudwick observes, it is through such work that geologists have fully integrated the history of life and of the planet into a single Earth system.24 Life itself, and the Earth itself, have coevolved for billions of years. Anyone tempted to imagine that the ‘Anthropocene’ is an invitation to human hubris – a whole geological epoch named just for us! – might want to meditate on this earlier event. The moral of the Anthropocene might be that we are grown so large that we, too, are no longer protected by the planet from the consequences of our actions. Chakrabarty ends his more recent essay with a startling insight from Gayatri Spivak: “The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it.” But if this is true, then insofar as we are of that planet, that alterity is profoundly our own to ourselves. We, too, like everything we surround and that surrounds us, are as old as the planet. To deny this – as Lyell did in denying Darwin, as we do when we deny the fact of anthropogenic global warming – is to deny that we have never not been an incarnation of our planet. Insofar as we deny this truth, we are paralyzed; were this not so, solving global warming would be easy, for unlike our microbial ancestors, we know the solution and could easily enact it. That the solution seems nevertheless so abysmally impossible registers our refusal of our own, intimate planetary being. But the planet’s profound otherness is part of us – is us: we are that part of the planet responsible for bespeaking the immensity of its deep history. Only if humans learn how to read that history will they walk on into futurity. Notes 1 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009), pp. 197–222; “Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories,” Critical Inquiry 41 (Autumn 2014), pp. 1–23, p. 15. 2 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 2. 3 Henry David Thoreau, The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1906; New York: Dover, 1962), vol. VIII, pp. 220–21. Hereafter cited as ‘J.’ 4 Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature 519 (March 12, 2015), pp. 171–80; Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 118.


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5 Henry David Thoreau, The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981–), vol. 3, pp. 350–51. Hereafter cited as ‘PJ.’ 6 See Mark R. Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 7 Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 123–29. 8 Paul Lawrence Farber, Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E.O. Wilson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 13–21; see Martin J.S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). 9 Martin J.S. Rudwick, Earth’s Deep History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 110; Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Uses of Natural History,” The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1833–42, vol. I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959–72), 5–29, pp. 9–10. 10 PJ 1:191. 11 J XIV:311–13. 12 Thoreau, Walden, pp. 306–09. 13 Walls, Passage to Cosmos, pp. 291, viii. 14 Ibid., p. 252. 15 Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), vol. I, p. 84; Chakrabarty, “Climate and Capital,” pp. 21–22. 16 Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 48; see Walls, Passage to Cosmos, pp. 44–45, and passim. 17 Humboldt, Cosmos, I:72. 18 Ibid., emphasis added. 19 J XIV:151–52. 20 Rudwick, Earth’s Deep History, pp. 166, 170, 203–04. 21 Alexander von Humboldt, Essay on the Geography of Plants, ed. Stephen T. Jackson, trans. Sylvie Romanowski (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pp. 70–71. The apt phrase “Rosetta Stone” is Thomas E. Lovejoy’s, from the dustjacket. 22 David Lowenthal, “Nature and Morality from George Perkins Marsh to the Millennium,” Journal of Historical Geography 26.1 (2002), pp. 3–23, pp. 3–4, 10. 23 Ibid., pp. 7–8. 24 Rudwick, Earth’s Deep History, p. 281.

chapter 13

Bleak House, Liquid City: Climate to Climax in Dickens Karen Chase and Michael Levenson

1 It is a novel of climate change, Bleak House, a work marking the start of Dickens’s full absorption in the emergencies of the environment and offering terms of thought that will influence an early eco-activism. Culminating five years of reconsideration and re-imagination, the novel registers change in the climate in a double sense. First, it gives Dickens’s new understanding of the modern eco-system, and second, it approaches atmospheric change as impetus to, and outcome of, narrative. The two concerns – developments within the career, developments within the plot – intersect and inter-animate. In the precise center of the nineteenth century, they prepare space for reflection on the systematic degradation of the environment, its causes and conditions, and the tender hopes for redress. What makes the issue difficult is that for Dickens environment arises as a problem of urbanism: ‘Nature’ as world and concept is seen from inside the city and through its obscurity. Sunlight descends to the smoke below; air thickly circulates, while the river arrives from the green countryside to the west. When these non-human forces enter London, they mix with human life and labor in an age of dawning modernity; the green world and the machine world interpenetrate. Climate in Dickens is weather plus the city. The result is that London makes a climate all its own, one that predicts the future and fate of industrial humanity. In the opening sentences of a long book, as sodden pedestrians go “slipping and sliding” along the muddy streets, they add “new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud.”1 We set aside the condundrum of the ‘Anthropocene,’ but the presence of the human “crust” is indelible in Bleak House. Bodies mix with the grit and mud of the streets, while coal and air stir in a foul atmosphere. Bleak House, we suggest, brings a notable change in the relation of these and other elements, moreover a change that occurs when environmental terms and categories were still forming for the 201


karen chase and michael levenson

Victorians. At the very middle of the nineteenth century, a new urgency supervened; Bleak House is a reaction to the urgency and the articulation of a response. But its immediate antecedents are as important as the novel itself. Dickens’s career began when the conversion of natural to human worlds was fast advancing. Everywhere the city wore signs of transformation. Forces apparently beyond the reach of resistance, causes beyond naming, brought change that seemed the inevitable effect of modernization. The accelerating increase in population, the railway upheaval cutting through the urban fabric, the spread and sprawl of new suburbs, these events accompanied Dickens’s first success and the early formation of a style, and a style of thought. The contrasting domain to urban modernity was an ideal of ‘nature’ inherited from Romanticism – nature as preserve of the countryside, as an equilibrium among its elements (sky, breeze, water, green), as serene in itself and an invitation to serenity. In the early forties, Dickens recalled a visit to Yorkshire just when he was inventing the London of Martin Chuzzlewit: What do you think of Mrs. Gamp? And how do you like the undertaker? I have a fancy that they are in your way. Oh Heaven such green woods as I was rambling among, down in Yorkshire, when I was getting that done, last July! For days and weeks, we never saw the sky but through green boughs; and all day long, I cantered over such soft moss and turf that the horse’s feet scarcely made a sound upon it.2

Yorkshire will play a telling role in Bleak House. Here, already, it stands as a signifier of nature as unsullied purity, which excites the formulaic lyricism of breathless pleasure. Against this background, the emerging questions assume their shape. How can we explain the pervasive degradation of the green non-human world that surrounds us? And how do we comprehend our participation, physical and ethical, within that fall? Our suggestion here is that Dickens came only slowly to these crisp formulations. Moreover, a slow pace was essential to his understanding. He witnessed radical developments, but needed to grasp their interconnections, and to invent a vocabulary, a body of imagery, a social hypothesis, and a form of plot-making that would let him absorb the changing climate within his fiction. Bleak House is the result.3

2 What prepared for Bleak House? What delayed its insights? It is clear that Dickens was among the first to see the environmental catastrophe

Bleak House, Liquid City, Climate to Climax in Dickens


of London. He was endlessly curious about the city, and ever eager to report what he found. A legendary walker, he traversed regions of the city that others preferred not to know. As early as the Sketches by Boz, he held readers by the collar, dragging them to the scandalous neighborhood, “filthy and miserable,” that spread behind St. Giles’s church (“Scenes,” ch. 22, Gin Shops). Near its end, Oliver Twist arrives at Jacob’s Island, where you find “dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage” (Oliver Twist, ch. 50). These scenes are evocative, but intermittent. Through the first half of a momentous career, Dickens only glancingly surveyed the urban wasteland. The sketch of St. Giles’s ends abruptly, when the next paragraph begins, “You turn the corner. What a change! All is light and brilliancy” (“Scenes,” ch. 22, Gin Shops). London has dirty corners, but they remain corners within a social world that need never notice them at all. Many of the scenes of decay are set, like that of Jacob’s Island, along the riverside, as selfcontained zones of deterioration, fed by the detritus that the Thames has deposited. These ‘rookeries’ are not so much products of industrial modernity as relics of ancient habits of low conduct, the waterside world of petty crime, prostitution and alcoholism. All through the later 1830s and the 1840s, as Dickens offered his occasional, resonant forays into urban failure, the discourse of sanitary crisis gathered force. The waves of epidemic disease (cholera, influenza and typhus) exerted pressure on social and medical reform. The writings of Edwin Chadwick, James Kay (later Kay-Shuttleworth) and Thomas Southwood Smith, the report on “The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes” (1842), and the formation of the Health of Towns Association (1844) were visible and consequential. They led to the passage of the Public Health Act in 1848. They lead us to a difficult puzzle in the mid-Victorian relations between the social field and the literary imagination. Dickens was fully conscious of the intervention of the reformers; no one can doubt the depth of conviction and outrage. Yet, what is most striking is not Dickens’s encounter with the crises but his inattention. The paragraph-length set pieces gather rhetorical fury but then subside. They remain horrifying vortices, located in determinate sections of the city, which nurture but also confine them. Our questions then are, ‘What kept Dickens from recognizing an interlinked “climate” of relationships?’ and then, ‘What brought him to that recognition in the middle of his career at the middle of the century?’


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One reason for the neglect is that Dickens had another pressing, quite different, environmental concern: not the filth of London but its modern building and re-building, all the churning manufacture that came under the banner of ‘improvements.’ The excavation of railway London is a major emphasis. But he was also drawn to, and repelled by, the headlong construction of new districts and neighborhoods, and the new technologies of local transport and shop-front glass. Dickens’s attitude toward the upheaval is mixed and agitated. He deplores shallow fashion, which replaces the “modest public-house of the old school” with one of “your stuccoed, French-polished, illuminated palaces” (Sketches, “Characters,” ch. 5, The Parlour Orator). Stucco is indeed a special vexation, the deceiving paste that conceals the old organic substances beneath: in the aspect of high middle-class “Stucconia” (Our Mutual Friend, ch. 10), it grew west, as one pale, widening blight. There are others. The high-shouldered commercial presence of Dombey and Son, like the ill-conceived model prison in David Copperfield, also signifies the folly of the new. But then there are compensations. The lighting of the streets and theaters of London is a great boon. The cutting of the rail lines through the center of London is wildly disruptive early in Dombey and Son: industrial, ruthless, and metallic. But it eventually generates a welcome civic order, “originating wholesome comforts and conveniences . . . never tried nor thought of until they sprung into existence” (Dombey and Son, ch. 15). In positive or negative valence, the dominating problem is the onrush of pervasive change. Railway geometry pressing straight angles through the tangle of streets corresponds to the measured regularity of the new expensive squares. These mark the birth of rational London, which threatens to overwhelm organic local community. The smoothing of corners, the lighting of darkness, the freshening up and brushing up of shop fronts, the stucco on facades and the metallic screech of the trains – these signal the end of the old city. The change brings loss, brings gain, but always brings an aura of modernity. What, then, of those left aside as the city preens in its new sheen? What of those crowding into the dirty enclosed courts and the dilapidated houses, which grow dirtier as each year of the decade passes? What of all those marked out by the public campaigning of the sanitation reformers? Where are they in the attentive, engaged, aroused fiction? In his 1849 preface to a new edition of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Dickens staunchly declares that “In all the tales comprised in this cheap series, and in all my writings, I hope I have taken every possible

Bleak House, Liquid City, Climate to Climax in Dickens


opportunity of showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor.” But has he? Both the comment and the date are worth marking. Dickens is now intent to align himself with the efforts of reform. In this light, the next sentence in the preface is as revealing as it is forced: “Mrs. Sarah Gamp is a representation of the hired attendant on the poor in sickness.” Irresistible as she is, and unhygienic as she remains, Sairey Gamp gave no window into the expanse of urban poverty; she shed no light on the burning public question of sub-standard sanitation and life-shortening housing, the objects of public outrage. Begun in the mid-1840s, Dombey and Son is Dickens’s first novel to take the modern city as explicit setting and subject, but the “neglected dwellings of the poor” remain just that – neglected. In a telling sequence the young Florence Dombey is snatched by Good Mrs Brown and led quickly out of sight. They had not gone very far, but had gone by some very uncomfortable places, such as brick-fields and tile-yards, when the old woman turned down a dirty lane, where the mud lay in deep black ruts in the middle of the road. She stopped before a shabby little house, as closely shut up as a house that was full of cracks and crevices could be. Opening the door with a key she took out of her bonnet, she pushed the child before her into a back room, where there was a great heap of rags of different colours lying on the floor; a heap of bones, and a heap of sifted dust or cinders, but there was no furniture at all, and the walls and ceiling were quite black. (ch. 6)

Grim as it is, the evocation remains meager. The under-described street and hovel sustain a paragraph, before the novel’s eye turns back to the bustling main streets. Yet in 1849, Dickens is keen to affirm that he has always attended to the sanitary failures in the dangerous tumbledown breeding grounds of urban poverty. The statement must be seen as an act of retrospective justification, even wilful self-misreading, stirred by a desire to join the reformist cause. After years of deep sympathy but shallow representation, Dickens proclaims solidarity with an environmental activism. If full conviction was a long time coming, it would soon bear representational fruit.

3 What made the new ardor urgent and possible? Partly it must have been the sheer accumulating weight of the sanitary argument, promulgated by


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those in Dickens’s circle. Pamphlets, speeches, and public meetings kept up steady pressure on government, ensuring the salience of concepts and images of environmental danger. Indeed, the history of the reform serves as a case study in the relations of discourse and power. Making change depended on being heard. Relentlessness was an indispensable virtue. The tactical use of statistics was another, as was the recruitment of an interested press. Because sanitation was both an intimate domestic question, as well as a grave public concern, it was able to solicit the fascination of abomination. It was crucial, after all, that the emergency wasn’t only a matter of words, though it was tellingly that. If you didn’t believe what you heard, you only had to smell. And then you were never sure what you were breathing, when you scented the wind. The 1840s were a decade of epidemic disease as well as scandals in housing: if it was possible to move through the city bypassing the districts of the poor, the avoidance of illness was less certain. Moreover, one achievement of the reforming discourse was to secure the connection between the seething poverty of the courts and the movement of epidemic across the metropolis. Extreme poverty and deadly illness had stood close in both popular and scientific imagination, but it required the convergence of sanitary reform and mass anxiety over cholera and typhus to produce an avid audience for the sensational articles Henry Mayhew wrote for the Morning Chronicle in 1849. Part of the shock-effect of Mayhew’s early accounts is that the crisis now came with street names, occupations and singular individuals. Poverty-illness had an address. The stimulus to Dickens is plain. It shows up immediately in his own return to journalism, when he assumed editorship of Household Words, itself a minor landmark of environmental journalism. Beginning in 1850, the first issues offered a succession of essays on the decaying fabric of London. Taking for granted the technical and scientific conclusions of the sanitation movement, the essays adopt the everyday language of the common reader. “Lungs for London,” which appeared in August of the year, notes that travelers fear locusts, but “Londoners are the victims of equally efficient destroyers of their green places.”4 Then in February 1851, R.H. Horne contributed a jaunty, searing fantasy of an encounter between ‘Mr. Beverage’ and ‘Father Thames.’ As the river entices him to drink, Beverage pauses before the “black sluggish stream” and “inky flood” that trickle from a nearby sewer and a graveyard. When his hand grazes the water, he draws it back to find a “thick, dingy, slimy liquid of an offensive odour.” Revolted and

Bleak House, Liquid City, Climate to Climax in Dickens


appalled, he asks how this horror has come to befall London; the Thames responds with memorable fury: you cannot expect me to shed tears over the punishment which they bring upon themselves. For every dead dog and cat that is flung into my bosom, there’s a typhus patient – perhaps a dozen; for every slaughter-house, fishmarket, or graveyard near my banks, there’s a dozen scarlet fever patients – perhaps a hundred; – for every main sewer draining into me, there is a legion of cholera patients, in due season. I have been deeply injured, but I am amply avenged.5

The tone and the angle of vision are arresting. Horne sees, and speaks, from the standpoint of the river, which is given a claim that exceeds even the wrenching human cost. No body of water should be so befouled. In the face of such spoilage, the natural world enters the practice of justice and ethics. Dickens’s Household Words develops this tone of public address, familiar yet excited, homespun and aroused. Its informality opens to a wider gaze across the environment; no topic is too incidental for the everyday satire of the new journal. But satire represents only a first shaking of the fist. What often follows, as it does clinchingly in Horne’s small piece, is a portrait of the city as an apparatus of interconnected and fatal parts. They die, you bury them, they seep into the river. They mix with sewage and animal waste. You drink the dreadful sludge, which carries a hungry disease. You die, they bury you, you seep, they drink . . . That first word of Bleak House, the two equal beats of “London,” marks the width of the new perspective. The problem is now a totality. The vastness and variety of the city had always been Dickens’s fascination and his gift to the reader. But for a long time, the profusion obscured any path toward synthesis. Sketches by Boz moved street by curious street, always in “our parish.” But the first lines of Bleak House suggest what it means to live within an atmosphere – “Fog Everywhere” – a pervading environmental condition that can no longer be escaped by crossing the road or turning a corner. The descent of gloom binds the city into unity. As Bleak House began to percolate in mid-1851, Dickens spent an evening in the company of the police, gathering material for a celebrated piece in Household Words, “On Duty with Inspector Field,” where he broaches the question that is now stirring for him. How many people may there be in London, who, if we had brought them deviously and blindfold, to this street, fifty paces from the Station House, and within call of Saint Giles’s church, would know it for a not remote


karen chase and michael levenson part of the city in which their lives are passed? How many, who amidst this compound of sickening smells, these heaps of filth, these tumbling houses, with all their vile contents, animate and inanimate, slimily overflowing into the black road, would believe that they breathe this air?6

That the degradation surrounding St. Giles’s church is “not remote” is the central insistence. What is vile is near. If in the first half of his career Dickens had looked to the riverside for scenes of wretchedness, the strong turn of the fifties is toward the horror at the center. The crossing-sweeper Jo from Tom-All-Alone’s in Bleak House is the narrative pivot who lives in the urban interior and provokes the novel’s foundational question: “What connexion can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step?” (ch. 16) Always taken as self-conscious reflection of narrative method as well as of class critique, the passage must also be placed at the core of Dickens’s environmentalism. The crucial recognition is that the onrush of modernity – railways, stucco, omnibuses – is now linked, inseparably and dialectically, to the filth of urban decay. The dream of rationality, efficiency, and cleanliness generates its antithesis in the slum (the ‘rookery’); they are not separate manifestations but elements in the same urban ecology. The new thought appears in the article on Inspector Field: “we make our New Oxford Streets, and our other new streets, never heeding, never asking, where the wretches whom we clear out, crowd.”7 The fog may be everywhere, but it cannot conceal the differences under its shroud. Burial yards are somewhere in particular, as are the sewers, the fever dens, and the hovels of human dispossession. They are not relicts of the past but productions in the present. The article raises another question, How much had Dickens seen before mid century? We think of him as the great urban explorer, walking tirelessly though London – and so we should. But within the sprawling metropolis, even wide daily rambling will miss many, especially sordid, spaces. Dickens had long known of the claims of sanitation science, and had lived, and written, near the campaigns of the reformers. The formidable task was to see what he had come to know, and then to represent what he now could see. What makes the late forties complex, but also instructive, is that it saw the emergence of a modern environmentalism out of so many events, practices, and vocabularies. Epidemic disease and mass poverty, the waste of water and air, techniques of medicine and plumbing, engaged journalism and parliamentary debate; these became inescapably

Bleak House, Liquid City, Climate to Climax in Dickens


present, without meeting in coherence or consensus. But by the time of his speech to the Sanitary Association, Dickens had identified a healthy urban environment as the foundation of all reform. It “must precede all other social remedies” and “even Education and Religion can do nothing, until the way is paved for their ministrations by Cleanliness and Decency.” It remained for him to invent a fiction for this truth.8

4 A prefiguration of the change occurs near the end of Dombey and Son, in an extraordinary passage which asserts that what we call ‘unnatural’ in human beings – their brutality, ignorance, vice, and recklessness – is in fact the inevitable (therefore ‘natural’) outcome of the hard conditions they endure. In this sense, it is ‘natural to be unnatural.’ For our purposes, the philosophic conundrum is less important than the conceit that Dickens elaborates to explain it. Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them, and in the eternal laws of outraged Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and a long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of mankind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure. Then should we see how the same poisoned fountains that flow into our hospitals and lazar-houses, inundate the jails, and make the convict-ships swim deep, and roll across the seas, and overrun vast continents with crime. (ch. 47)

Here is a new language. The vehicle of the conceit, these roiling words of disease, – noxious, vitiated, pestilence – had only scant use in the earlier career. Just as notably, they had played no role in the urban portrayal earlier in Dombey. That great novel of London, penned in the middle of the disease-ridden forties, is revealingly inattentive to the festering glens that appear suddenly here. Its London has been fever-free. The date of the late eruption is revealing. As Dombey was entering its final stages, the Public Health Bill, introduced by Lord Morpeth in the spring of 1847, was moving steadily toward its passage the following year. Dickens wrote to Morpeth, advocating for his brother-in-law, Henry Austin, who had been active in the Health of Towns Association.


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Then in the fall, Lord John Russell appointed a commission to study the sanitary health of London with Austin as its secretary, – a fact that Dickens noted with pleasure. Upon publication, Austin sent Dickens a copy of the report. These events give the context for the evocative passage in Dombey’s chapter forty-seven. It marks a recognition scene for Dickens; he will never again see the urban eco-system in the same way. Nor will he ever describe it in the terms he used before. Over the next several years, his social activism aligns him firmly with the sanitary reformers. His letters and speeches, like his editorship of Household Words, become saturated with the vocabulary of public health, which he absorbed into a language of fiction. By 1851, he was ready to pen the first paragraphs of Bleak House. So well known, we need but a few reminders of the “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes,” or the “Fog everywhere,” falling even on “Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all around them,” and “Gas looming through the fog” with “a haggard and unwilling look” (ch. 1). The world has become fluid – and what a change this marks. Dickens’s rendering of London until now had been strikingly ‘dry.’ You find token mention of mud in the streets, and you find the ominous lapping of poverty along the river. But the narrow lanes and courts were typically cast in images of spatial disarray: labyrinths, tangles, fences, gaps. The zone of poverty was a ‘waste’ space. Our suggestion is that in the very late forties and very early fifties, when Dickens learned more, and saw a great deal more, of interstitial London, he reinterpreted the condition of the environment as an emergency within a liquid universe. Within the dense sloppy atmosphere that inaugurates Bleak House, fog has had the best of it. Smoke, mud and mire have their adherents, but fog has been the instrument of interpretive choice: it comports well with a picture of social obscurity and psychic shadow where human hope loses its way. We begin, however, with a different vapor. The “gas” that occupies the third paragraph belongs to a nearly invisible history within Dickens’s writings, one that can alter our understanding of his fiction, even as it helps us recover the Victorian encounter with gas as substance, category, and instrument of environmental thought. At the beginning of his career, gas floated as a talisman of progress, perhaps the most positive sign of changing times. The use of gas lighting spread steadily in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century; it must have offered one of the regular excitements of Dickens’s childhood.

Bleak House, Liquid City, Climate to Climax in Dickens


Dickens is chief among the gas poets, but gas means more to him than beauty. It also measures a passage of generations and a vector for history. The story “The Lamplighter” (1838) introduces the protagonist’s uncle, an old lighter of oil lamps who refuses to accept the change that gas is bringing: “he laughed at the credulity of human nature. ‘They might as well talk,’ he says, ‘of laying on an everlasting succession of glow-worms.’” But gas has a better laugh in store: “In course of time . . . the thing got ground, the experiment was made, and they lighted up Pall Mall. Tom’s uncle went to see it. I’ve heard that he fell off his ladder fourteen times that night.” The uncle clings to the technology of oil, which is why history, and Tom, must pass him by.9 The comic parable comes to the surface revealingly in Bleak House, when the battle between oil and gas is twice joined. An intricate pattern of street iron-work still contains oil extinguishers that can only “gasp at the upstart gas” while the “oil itself, yet lingering at long intervals in a little absurd glass pot, with a knob in the bottom like an oyster, blinks and sulks at newer lights every night.” Even this is not enough for the vengeful Dickens. Later as the day’s gloom descends, “the bright gas springs up in the streets,” while “the pertinacious oil lamps which yet hold their ground there, with their source of life half frozen and half thawed, twinkle gaspingly like fiery fish out of water – as they are” (Bleak House, ch. 48). Gas lights up the streets of London; then it begins to illuminate the home and also, crucially for Dickens, the theater. His irrepressible fondness for the stage and amateur collaborations brought him into informal theater management, where he found no preparation more essential than the provision of gas. A note of 1845 is representative: “We shall want the Gas on, in the dressing-rooms on Tuesday night, if you please” – and not just the dressing rooms. Exhilarated, he reports a great public success to his wife: “The enthusiasm was prodigious; the place delightful for speaking in; no end of gas.” He writes to Bulwer-Lytton of the triumphant departure from Liverpool, “so blinded by excitement, gas, and waving hats and handkerchiefs, that I can scarcely see to write.” What Dickens plainly enjoyed was not only the vivid illumination but also the vigor of the flame with all its associations of energy, intensity, and resilience. Capping it all, he liked to refer to himself as “Young Gas.”10

5 It never faded, this simple buoyant enthusiasm for light, but as the first mention in Bleak House suggests, even modern gas can grow haggard when


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mixed with dense fog and smoke. When Esther Summerson first arrives in London, she wonders whether something has caught fire: “For the streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen” (ch. 3). Despite victory over oil, gas-light dims in the smoke. Indeed, the problem extends much further, because as Dickens only slowly realizes, gas has effects other than light. He comes to describe the taint in the nostrils and eyes (the “stale gas (involving a faint smell of pepper)”).11 Still more disruptive are the gas-works themselves, the machinery that becomes a blight on any district containing it. The dangers are common fare in journalism, in particular the threat of explosion. Bleak House gives the case of the ever-injured always-loyal Phil Squod, who was “scorched in an accident at a gas-works” (ch. 26). Then, when they’re not exploding, the works are spewing vaporous by-products into the nearby air. The report of the London branch of the Health of Towns Association, with brotherin-law Austin as secretary, is unsparing in its account of the poisons. In cool relentless language, it describes how “unburnt particles” from the “large quantity of smoke” irritate “the air passages of the lungs, and [tend] to increase the mortality from pulmonary affections.” The rhetoric heightens, as the authors report the everyday misery from the spewing “gas liquor, the stench of which is so foetid that, even when the poor poisoned victims are confined to their rooms by typhus fever, consumption, &c., they dare not, and cannot open a window.”12 The spontaneous combustion of Krook took on comic notoriety from the first. Critics mocked its possibility; Dickens recited historical accounts; and then interpreters settled on metaphoric readings that the text obligingly invites. Krook, the parallel Lord Chancellor, “has died the death of all Lord Chancellors in all Courts and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done” (ch. 32). But the extravagant event is more than a dire social warning. It is also a controlled experiment – a thought experiment – in environmental science. At the inquest, doctors, scientists, and philosophers have some “learned talk about inflammable gases and phosphuretted hydrogen” (ch. 33). Outside the fiction, Dickens parried the skepticism of George Lewes, using the same technical language. “I know very well,” he writes, “that phosphuretted hydrogen gas will burn when it is almost surrounded by water,” also that “this gas is not usually formed in human beings,” and that “before such a death can take place, there must be a stupendous disturbance of the usual functions of the body.” But, he ringingly concludes, “to tell me that if the gas were not there, and the water were all

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there, or other usual proportions and balances were preserved, the body could not be consumed, is merely to tell me in other words that if I be always quite well, I shall never die; or that if I retain the sight of both eyes, I cannot possibly be blind.”13 Merely to see Dickens as giving way to imaginative over-reaching, playing with a science that he doesn’t understand, is to miss the force of the “experiment.” Krook’s body is not only a trope for all Lord Chancellors; it is also a figure for the spoilage of the environment. A death that is “inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself” is an emblem of the poisoned city, oozing with decay. Some of the most verbally strenuous passages describe the foul gasification. The hapless clerks Guppy and Jobling (sometimes Weevle) slowly grasp that they are moving within a new atmosphere, where “a thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.” A “hateful soot,” a “thick nauseous pool” clings to Guppy’s arm: “it won’t blow off – smears like black fat!” This gaseous catastrophe is as an effect prepared in those first three paragraphs of the novel. Take your smoke, your fog, your soot, and your gas. Mix thoroughly. Then watch as London dissolves in “foetid effluvia” (ch. 32). This is the laboratory of Krook. The social effects of these poisons show themselves most deeply in Tom-all-Alone’s. We know Bleak House as the great novel of the law, but to the extent that it is a legal, it is also an environmental, fiction. The courts create waste products, the mass of useless documents, within a society chronically short of paper. These wasted papers, moreover, sustain the tangle of abstractions that allow the material/moral degradation of Tom’s. The slum is “in Chancery, of course” (ch. 16), but what counts is not its legal dispensation, which is irrecoverable, but the material force of its putrid presence. For Dickens, legal practice nourishes the catastrophe precisely by perfecting an abstract, meaningless language that creates impasse, the same circuit of meaninglessness that Parliament also perfects with its parade of Boodles, Coodles, and Doodles. In Bleak House impasse is an actively corrosive agency that fertilizes the “nauseous air” and “black stagnant mud” of the slum (ch. 16). When poison is spewing through the air, neglect preserved by law becomes a friend to decay. Tom-all-Alone’s is an ecological counterpart to Krook’s gaseous laboratory, “a swarm of misery”: “As, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils


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itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever” (ch. 16). Krook can be sacrificed, as a figural effect of the self-destructive chemistry of a dangerously damaged ecology. But unlike spontaneous combustion, the swarming misery of the rookery has a secure referent outside the pages of fiction. The novel’s sense of environmental justice requires that Tom, like the Thames, has his revenge. Even the winds are his messengers, and they serve him in these hours of darkness. There is not a drop of Tom’s corrupted blood but propagates infection and contagion somewhere. It shall pollute, this very night, the choice stream (in which chemists on analysis would find the genuine nobility) of a Norman house, and his Grace shall not be able to say nay to the infamous alliance. There is not an atom of Tom’s slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution through every order of society up to the proudest of the proud and to the highest of the high. (ch. 16)

With its “slime” and “pestilential gas,” Tom-all-Alone’s deepens and thickens the bad goo in the atmospheric cauldron (ch. 16). But its vapors give it the power to retaliate. A universe of fluids and gases is one that cannot protect itself with the older barriers of streets, walls, police, and politicians. Contagion can leak through stone. The new picture is of a fatally oozy world, where disease can seep through the locked doors of high buildings. Such a universe promises a dread fairness. The neglected poor will nurse the fever in their dens, releasing it to the moving vapors until no one is safe. In his address to the Metropolitan Sanitary Association, Dickens had warned that “the air from Gin Lane will be carried, when the wind is Easterly, into May Fair, and that if you once have a vigorous pestilence raging furiously in Saint Giles’s, no moral list of Lady Patronesses can keep it out of Almack’s.”14

6 Can there be better weather? The predicament and the slim hope of response are written into the novel’s celebrated double narration. The terrible scenarios of slime, gas, effluvia, and their revenge unfold within the ironic third-person perspective. This is the voice of system and totality: the total failure of the urban climate. But the other voice, the first-person speech of Esther Summerson, gives the sound of repair. From the standpoint of the novel’s environmentalism, Esther is a tireless laborer within a

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deteriorated ecology. The Public Health Act of 1848 entailed the appointment of local Inspectors of Nuisances – nuisance being the term of art for all significant public blight. Within Bleak House, Esther surely qualifies as Inspector of Nuisances, the one (and only one) who descries the full reach of dirt, decay, and disease. She finds herself in, and gives her shoulder to, the realm of filth. Her relentless housekeeping can be seen as a figure, even a hopeless figure, for tenacious acts of recovery in the face of debilitating neglect. Taken together the two narrators lay out Dickens’s response to the emergency: criticize globally, sweep locally. London, finally, is too large to sweep clean, not then, in the Victorian mid century, and not yet, in the new millennium. Dickens’s only solution is a radical one: to leave the city behind and to build a flourishing world where it can still blossom. The departure from London in the last chapters of Bleak House is at once a sign of despair and an opening to recovery. In the chapter “Steel and Iron,” George Rouncewell – scapegrace, soldier, favorite son – travels north to the “iron country” to visit his successful brother. As he approaches, he finds that “coal pits and ashes, high chimneys and red bricks, blighted verdure, scorching fires, and a heavy never-lightening cloud of smoke become the features of the scenery” (ch. 63). The sequence predicts Dickens’s next novel, Hard Times, which will show still more aggravated conditions ahead. His brother offers George a place in the thriving industry, but after living in London’s Leicester Square, George has seen too much of what spreading smoke and gas can do. Refusing the generosity, he returns to Chesney Wold, left in “dull repose” after the death of Lady Dedlock, but where the trees still “arch darkly overhead, and the owl is heard at night making the woods ring” (ch. 66). The final chapter places Esther and her circle securely outside London, in that faraway Yorkshire that Dickens had praised so lavishly ten years earlier. The second Bleak House is warm pastoral, with sun to dry the memories of slime, smoke, oil, and effluvium. Here is a new place accompanied by different adjectives: “We went on by a pretty little orchard, where the cherries were nestling among the green leaves, and the shadows of the apple- trees were sporting on the grass, to the house itself, – a cottage, quite a rustic cottage of doll’s rooms” (ch. 64). This picture is at once an image of long-deferred escape and implied critique of the taint that will be left behind. Space is time in these late pastoral settings. The miles between London and Yorkshire correspond to the long time it will take to recover a green world within the city. As a debased modernity poisons itself (“inborn, inbred”), Bleak House can only


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imagine relief through a return to the green life beyond and before the city, where a surviving few might begin again. “Beginning the World” is the chapter where Richard Carstone dies. As he languishes, he thinks of the “pleasant country where the old times are” and summons strength enough to proclaim, “I will begin the world.” “Not this world,” Esther clarifies, as he dies, “oh, not this! The world that sets this right” (ch. 65). The Christian heaven that receives Richard exists at an absolute remove from combusting London. But in the novel’s rendering, it is little further from the city than its earthly counterparts: Esther’s second Bleak House in Yorkshire, or the self-contained Chesney Wold in Lincolnshire. All three confirm the discontinuity that the novel labors to achieve. The work of Bleak House is incomplete until it has brought catastrophe to the senses and measured the long distance between a fever-pit and a garden. Notes 1 Charles Dickens, Bleak House, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), ch. 1. Unless cited otherwise, we have used Oxford editions throughout; as there are as many editions as there are Dickens novels, we provide chapter instead of page numbers in the text. 2 To C.C. Felton, September 1, 1843. The Letters of Charles Dickens, Pilgrim Edition. General Editors, Madeline House, Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson (London, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965–2002), vol. 3, p. 550. 3 Although our emphasis falls upon the close eco-kinetics of Bleak House, we locate Dickens’s transformation within a wider history of Victorian environmentalism. Here we direct the reader to James Winter, Secure From Rash Assault: Sustaining the Victorian Environment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); John Parham, “Dickens in the City: Science, Technology, Ecology in the Novels of Charles Dickens,” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long 19 Century no. 10 (2010), www.19bbk.ac.uk/index.php/19/article/view/ 529/689; and Tristan Sipley, “Capitalism, and the Ecological Contradiction of Great Expectations,” Journal of Ecocriticism 3.1 (January 2011), pp. 17–28, all of whom admirably resist a simple contrast between healthy and unhealthy ecologies. 4 John Morley, “Lungs for London,” Household Words I (August 3, 1850), pp. 451–52. 5 R.H. Horne, “Father Thames,” Household Words I (February 1, 1851), pp. 446, 448. 6 “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Household Words (June 14, 1851), repr. in Charles Dickens: Selected Journalism 1850–1870, ed. David Pascoe (London: Penguin, 1997), p. 307. 7 Ibid., p. 310.

Bleak House, Liquid City, Climate to Climax in Dickens


8 Charles Dickens, “Sanitary Reform,” Speech delivered to the Metropolitan Sanitary Association in London, May 10, 1851, Dickens’s Speeches, Literary and Social, http://dickens.classicauthors.net/speeches/speeches54.html. 9 www.gutenberg.org/files/927/927-h/927-h.htm (rept from The Works of Charles Dickens, vol. 28, ed. David Price (London: Chapman & Hall, 1905). 10 Letters, vol. 4, p. 372; vol. 6, pp. 537, 599; For a few of the references to himself as “young Gas,” in the late 1840s and early 50s, see vol. 5, pp. 409, 476, 615. 11 To Macready, May 24, 1851, Letters, vol. 6, p. 399. 12 From the Health of Towns Association (London), “Report of the Committee to the Members of the Association, and the Public, on Sanitary Improvements” (1847), rpt in Sanitary Reform in Victorian Britain, ed. Michelle Allen-Emerson, vol. 1, Medicine and Sanitary Science, ed. Tina Young Choi (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012), pp. 85–86. 13 To G.H. Lewes, 25 February 1853, Letters, vol. 7, p. 29. 14 Dickens’s Speeches, Literary and Social, http://classicauthors.net/Dickens/ speeches/speeches54.html.

chapter 14

Fantastic Metabolisms: A Materialist Approach to Modern Eco-Speculative Fiction Tom Sykes

The current environmental debate is dominated by ‘modernising’ ecologists who assert that minor reforms to the global capitalist system can avert climate change’s grievous threat to all life on Earth without stalling continuous economic growth. However, socialist and certain ‘deep’ ecologists have found these efforts so far to have largely failed. Measures such as ‘the paperless office’1 and fuel efficiency2 have increased consumption and energy use instead of reducing them. The radical ecologists Foster, Clark and York contend that the fundamental logic and constitution of capitalist production has and always will set it in antagonism with nature, as “a potentially fatal ecological rift has arisen between human beings and the earth, emanating from the conflicts and contradictions of capitalist society.”3 In modernity, ‘ecological rift’ has been characterised by unchecked capital accumulation; the voracious abuse and wastage of nature’s raw materials; the ‘unequal ecological exchange’ of imperialist, neo-imperialist and globalised geopolitics; and calibration of the means of production towards the consumerist wants of a small part of the globe rather than the basic material needs of all human beings on the planet. Influenced by Epicurus, Francis Bacon, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Stephen Jay Gould and other materialist scientists, radical ecologists seek to understand the specific ways in which human beings have historically organised themselves into productive class societies, and the repercussions of the operation of such societies on the whole biosphere. “Metabolism” is Marx’s shorthand term for this complex, dialectical system of relations. In his commentaries on Marx’s ecological writings, John Bellamy Foster applies the term “metabolic rift” to Marx’s examples of challenges to the integrity of the metabolism that arose from specific conflicts and contradictions within class societies, notably


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rural soil degradation and urban pollution that resulted from imbalanced economic interaction between city and country: Capitalist production . . . disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing . . . All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility.4

In this chapter I want to apply some of the insights of radical ecology to a long-standing trajectory of speculative fiction that, throughout history, has addressed the environmental violence done by particular sets of sociopolitical conditions. My definition of speculative fiction is informed by Robert A. Heinlein, who coined the term in 1941 to cover non-realist literary genres such as science fiction, fantasy and horror, and by Adam Roberts’s proposal that speculative fiction comments on real-world social, political and ecological issues through eloquent metaphor rather than direct mimesis.5 My critical approach is influenced by Terry Eagleton’s theories about how literary texts are produced by specific historical conjunctions of six “constituent structures” of “artistic production” in society: “General Mode of Production (GMP),” “Literary Mode of Production (LMP),” “General Ideology (GI),” “Authorial Ideology (AuI),” “Aesthetic Ideology (AI)” and “Text.”6 Although the texts under consideration date back to the earliest written narrative in human civilisation, this chapter will focus on the most dramatic phase of the trajectory, when many writers were compelled to engage with the ecological ruptures of the modern industrial and post-industrial periods. In the nineteenth century, the adverse effects of rapid industrialisation upon both the natural world and human society informed a new social-ecological, material awareness. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, that awareness became more pronounced and urgent, as rampant capitalist productivism began to put the planet at risk of total annihilation. Not all speculative fictional responses to this crisis can be termed politically progressive, though. The generally reactionary writers of the ‘golden age of science fiction’ (1930s–60s) tend either to take an ‘economistic’ approach to nature or follow the modernising inclinations above, positing technology as a ‘magic bullet’ to solve whatever ecological challenges arise, even while such challenges were an unavoidable consequence of the capitalist mass-activity these authors typically support. However, in line with the preoccupations of ‘second wave’ ecocritical thought,7 the ‘new wave’ science fiction movement


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(1960s–70s) and its successors explore the myriad types of biospheric devastation instigated by capitalist social relations, from overpopulation to human psychic estrangement from nature. A third tendency portrays utopian ‘resolutions’ to the ecosystemic emergency. While some of these texts suffer from the idealist, impractical and – at times – supernatural excesses of ‘deep’ ecology, others are intriguingly credible in their constructions of alternative eco-social formations.

Origins It is necessary to go back to arguably the first work of ecological speculative fiction ever composed in order to begin, in the materialist mode, to “trace the connections among environmental conditions, economic modes of production and cultural ideas through time.”8 The stone tablets bearing the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh emerged in Sumeria approximately 4,000 years ago at the turning point of the bronze age Neil Faulkner has dubbed “the Urban Revolution.”9 To overcome the predicaments of soil infertility and overpopulation caused by the contradictions of the “Early Neolithic mode of production,” new elites in civilisations like Sumeria instituted a “great leap forward, based on land reclamation, irrigation schemes, and the ploughing of fields.”10 If, as Ursula K. Le Guin claims, “science fiction is the mythology of modern technology” in which technology is “founded upon continuous economic growth,”11 correspondingly Gilgamesh uses mythic tropes to express anxieties about the interconnections between ecology, economics and technology in its own time. When the demigod protagonist Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu enter the Cedar Forest, the sacred sanctuary of the Mesopotamian pantheon, and begin chopping down the trees, the demon Humbaba takes them on in fierce combat. Gilgamesh slays Humbaba, though not before the demon can place a lethal curse on Enkidu. Gilgamesh then uses the forest’s timber to construct a gate for the city of Nippur and a raft for traversing the Euphrates river. While the struggle between Gilgamesh and Humbaba has been read as a cipher for the “contradiction between the city and the wilderness and the conflicting values of their inhabitants,”12 Gilgamesh’s victory ultimately validates the exploitation of natural resources for the hegemonic benefit of his own class (the gate assures the security of the political hierarchy, the raft will boost prosperity through trade). The eventual death of Enkidu, shown to be a “wild man” with a greater empathy for non-human nature than Gilgamesh, is a regrettable but necessary sacrifice; the sanctifying, sentimentalising attitude towards nature that Enkidu

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embodies must be superseded by a more hard-nosed, instrumentalist ideology that sees nature’s wealth as exploitable, and imperative to the sustenance of a new social order. As Faulkner notes, Gilgamesh’s historical moment saw the cementing of the power of “rulers . . . whose social roles gave them control over scarce resources.”13 To find a text that is more overtly condemnatory of class society’s exchange with the environment, one might travel temporally forward and geographically westward to early modern England. After critiquing the eco-social status quo, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) proposes a famous alternative. More’s narrative begins with excerpts from his real-life correspondence with the Dutch explorer Raphael Hythlodaeus, where More denounces the policy of enclosure (the privatisation of common agricultural land) in England, as “a plague to his country”; rural labourers have been impoverished and deterritorialised by a new landowning elite profiteering from an intensive, low-outlay sheep farming that, in turn, has caused “great scarcity” of essential natural products such as wool.14 For Karl Marx, such events were emblematic of another crucial turning point in natural– human history: the emergence of a prototypical capitalism he termed “primitive accumulation.”15 Book two of Utopia depicts the eponymous island as a panacea for the horrors above; all land in this enlightened colony of the New World is owned and worked collectively, and food and other resources are distributed equitably. More’s diagnosis of the condition of Tudor England is, understandably, ‘anthropocentric’ because, in his time, the most evident costs of early capitalist productivism were to human rights and welfare. The ascendant class of “worthy countrymen,”16 as More sardonically labels them, had not yet devised the technologies to pollute or defoliate the Earth. It was not until the industrial revolution, however, that speculative fiction began to properly interrogate capitalist development’s assault on all life on Earth. In protest at such offences as the flattening of the wilderness by railway expansion, the ‘romantic ecology’ of this period was a materialist thinking about nature that sought to restore “the web of complex relations”17 between humans, animals and plants, and to “teach human beings how to live as part of it [nature].”18 William Morris’s 1890 utopian romance, News from Nowhere, is at once an endorsement of Romantic values pertaining to nature and a reaction to Romanticism’s failure to translate these values into a coherent programme for social and environmental liberation. As Terry Eagleton explains, The finely passionate idealism of the Romantics, then, was also idealist in a more philosophical sense of the word. Deprived of any proper place within


tom sykes the social movements which might actually have transformed industrial capitalism into a just society, the writer was increasingly driven back into the solitariness of his own creative mind. The vision of a just society was often enough inverted into an impotent nostalgia for the old ‘organic’ England which had passed away. It was not until the time of William Morris, who in the late nineteenth century harnessed this Romantic humanism to the cause of the working-class movement, that the gap between poetic vision and political practice was significantly narrowed.19

Other leftist critics such as H.G. Wells and Raymond Williams have accused Morris of exactly this “impotent nostalgia for the old ‘organic’ England,” upbraiding him for his medievalism and concluding that News from Nowhere was “impractical” in implying that the clock must be turned back to an earlier phase of civilisation.20 This judgement misses the crucial detail that, far from subscribing to the ‘deep’ ecological “conception that if industrial civilisation were removed, the world could return to its natural state, where a balance of nature exists,”21 Morris knew full well that, by 1890, England was irreversibly industrialised and that making it a fairer, more sustainable place would necessarily depend on a ‘mixed economy’ of industry, technology, agriculture, art and craft. He was not – as sometimes alleged – a Luddite, but rather a supporter of the morally and politically responsible use of the scientific method: “I have spoken of machinery being used freely for releasing people from the more mechanical and repulsive part of necessary labour; it is the allowing of machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays.”22 In the late Victorian London that William Guest, the hero of News from Nowhere, inhabits, Trafalgar Square has been ruined by supposedly rational planning that serves the interests of industrial capitalist organisation rather than the human needs of hygiene, safety and comfort. The upshots are “tall ugly houses” and “a sweltering and excited crowd.”23 When Guest travels to the Trafalgar Square of his idyllic dream of twentyfirst-century London, it has been markedly improved by genuinely rational planning geared towards human happiness and unity with non-human nature: We came presently into a large open space, sloping somewhat toward the south, the sunny site of which had been taken advantage of for planting an orchard, mainly, as I could see, of apricot-trees, in the midst of which was a pretty gay little structure of wood, painted and gilded, that looked like a refreshment-stall. From the southern side of the said orchard ran a long road, chequered over with the shadow of tall old pear trees, at the end of which showed the high tower of the Parliament House, or Dung Market.24

A Materialist Approach to Modern Eco-Speculative Fiction


While it is unfair, then, to insert Morris into a discourse that Williams castigates for snubbing the urban present and idealising the rural past,25 other “pastoral utopian”26 speculative fictions of the fin-de-siècle are guilty of reconstructing pre-modern culture.27 As Williams reminds us, in these supposed “good old days . . . four out of five men were villeins, bordars, cotters or slaves.”28 Moreover, from a materialist perspective, such texts labour under the deep ecological misapprehension of “nature as an ideal functional system, of the earth as a literal (rather than metaphorical) superorganism, existing in a grand state of balance if unmolested by humanity”29 (my italics). W.H. Hudson’s A Crystal Age (1887) imagines American society collapsing under the weight of its own corrupt institutions, amongst them “politics, religions . . . churches, prisons, poorhouses,”30 and supplanted by a community of flower-clad nymph-like people who till the land with rudimentary tools rather than industrial apparatus. They espouse a specious metaphysic that denies the natural world has a material history (“the origin . . . is covered with the mists of time”31), and, in their implausible realm of total biospheric harmony, man-made constructions such as houses are never endangered by “natural force – by floods, or subsidence of the earth.”32

‘Golden Age’ Science Fiction As Cheryll Glotfelty observes, twentieth-century literature informed a shift in ecocriticism’s focus from the sorts of “improbable pastoral past” of A Crystal Age towards “sites of ecological destruction.”33 The same may be said of speculative fiction. Materialist reasons for the shift include the acute injuries done to the environment by “the largest increases of economic production and consumption in human history.”34 Before discussing this type of problematising speculative fiction, it is worth examining a more commercial and ideological strain that is optimistic – sometimes preposterously so – about technocratic capitalism’s capability to face down ecological challenges and continue ‘business as usual.’ “The idea that technology,” write Foster, Clark and York, “can solve the global environmental problem, as a kind of deus ex machina without changes in social relations, belongs to the area of fantasy and science fiction.”35 The fantasy and science fiction that most invites this charge is that of the Golden Age authors Isaac Asimov, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, A.E. Van Vogt and John W. Campbell. Campbell’s space opera The Mightiest Machine first appeared as a magazine serial in 1934–35 and reached a much wider audience when released in novel form in 1947. Campbell’s decision to publish that year


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is telling. The book’s staging of the conquest of the solar system by brawny, all-American space rocketeers and military physicists is not an unreasonable extrapolation from the USA’s post-World War II rise to global economic, military and cultural supremacy, a rise the fervently right-wing Campbell wholeheartedly endorsed.36 It is also significant that The Mightiest Machine appears shortly after the USA’s dropping of the atomic bomb – the most devastating martial technology so far devised by humanity – to simultaneously win the war in the Pacific and demonstrate American puissance to rival superpowers such as the Soviet Union. To sate the energy demands of further dominion over space, the bright young scientist Russ Spencer devises an economistic plan to extract power from the “mightiest machine” of them all: the sun. While experimenting with this new super-technology, Spencer and his colleagues are accidentally whisked into an alternate dimension ravaged by war between a civilisation known as the Magyars, “absolutely human in every character,”37 and the hairy, goat-footed Teff-Hallani species, “the result of the evolution of a strange crossing of utterly different races.”38 The scientists intercede on behalf of the humanoids to exterminate the animalistic, racialised Teff-Hallani, who possess the materials to build covetable hi-tech weapons such as the “radio-frequency induction beam,”39 thus symbolically justifying the subjugation of nature, non-human animals and non-white ethnic groups to sustain a resource-hungry, imperialist-capitalist order. Consistent with, to use Eagleton’s phrase, the “General Ideology” of gung-ho American exceptionalism, the human combatants do not pause to question the ethics of their intervention. Rather, they blindly adhere to a “polarized social simplistics that regard genocide with equanimity,”40 as the science fiction scholar Everett F. Bleiler explains. Similarly, the early novels in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation cycle (1966–82) suffer from what Adam Roberts has called a “blind faith in science”41 and, indeed, a blind faith in science’s potential to heal deep socio-political fissures and their relationship to the distribution of vital natural resources. Another egghead character in the mould of Russ Spencer, Hari Seldon, pioneers the predictive science of “psychohistory” and discovers that the “Galactic Empire” of which he is a citizen will soon be destroyed by an internal conflict over political representation and mineral wealth. Early on in the series, the reader is asked to invest her sympathies in the “foundation” of brilliant minds that Seldon assembles to avert the coming catastrophe. However, by the penultimate book, Foundation’s Edge (1982), Asimov has realised the limitations of Seldon’s “plan” both as a workable narrative device and a plausible metaphor for the uses of science. As James

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Gunn points out, “Foundation’s Edge altered the message of the trilogy – the message that rationality is the only human trait that can be trusted and that it will, if permitted to do so, come up with the correct solution.”42 Inspired by theoretical developments in science since he published the first Foundation book (including James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and, as Adam Roberts claims, Chaos Theory which challenges the positivist assumptions of “psychohistory”43), Foundation’s Edge displays a mystical, Gaia-indebted faith in the universe’s inherent ability to defend and sustain itself, come what may. “Galaxia! Every inhabited planet participating. Every star. Every scrap of interstellar gas . . . A living galaxy and one that can be made favourable for life in ways that we cannot see.”44 Ecological materialism would counter that this idealist, almost theological model of nature is unscientific: “Natural history is a record of drastic changes and discontinuities in the biophysical world. The assumption of a natural harmony is not consistent with a critical historical understanding of nature.”45 Furthermore, Asimov’s earlier belief in scientific change without meaningful social change (which resembles the contemporary modernisers referenced above) is as problematic as his later deep ecological position, as both proposed remedies evaded the awkward truth that only wide-scale reorganisation of human economic and power structures can achieve ecological integrity.

‘New Wave’ Science Fiction The writers of the 1960s new wave of science fiction dissented from the eco-political values of the golden age. This intervention is best understood as the dialectical outcome of a new ‘General Mode of Production’ (the globalised, technology-dependent, ultra-consumerist ‘late capitalism’) combined with equivalent factors that determined the ‘Literary Mode of Production’ of that period (such as, John Baxter contends, the growth of British short story magazines as a consequence of protectionist bans on imported American publications46) and the ‘Authorial Ideology’ of a generation of socialist and left anarchist writers.47 Nowhere was the ideological break between the two movements more evident than in their differing responses to world overpopulation – a prime concern for the nascent counterculture and environmental movements of the 1960s, Gilbert LaFreniere argues.48 Given its affiliations to oppositional groups, the new wave was quick not only to grapple with overpopulation, but to understand how its dangers would be amplified by unbridled capitalist ‘progress.’ By contrast, in a 1964 essay for the New York Times, Asimov’s


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orthodox political loyalties preclude him from systemic critique; instead, in predictably scientistic mode, he offers up some fanciful techno-panaceas to overcrowding (such as underwater hotels) before concluding that it is probably inevitable that “society will collapse” unless the birth rate reduces or the death rate increases.49 Asimov’s thinking owes something to the deeply reactionary, often chilling researches of the Georgian era parson-economist Thomas Malthus. In 1798, Malthus asserted that humanity was expanding so fast that the Earth was running out of land to supply the food “sufficient to nourish its numerous inhabitants.”50 He saw the famines of his own time as insuppressible correctives to the burgeoning menace of overpopulation and argued that any attempt by the state to aid the “weak” who could not access food by themselves was a dangerous and heretical violation of the God-given laws of nature. A few decades later, Friedrich Engels took issue with this. By the mid-1800s, he reasoned, only a third of the world’s surface had been cultivated for food production; there was and would continue to be easily enough sustenance for every man and woman on Earth, supposing the sustenance was shared equitably.51 Thus famines were not a natural inevitability, but due to artificial divisions caused by a particular modus operandi of agrarian production founded on private property, competition and capital accumulation; or, wrote Engels, “the monopolization of the Earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life.”52 Brian Stableford has characterised John Brunner’s dark, panoramic vision of future overpopulation, Stand on Zanzibar (1969), as “Malthusian,”53 but this is misleading, for Brunner, a lifelong socialist, offers a diagnosis of how his nightmare came to be that is much closer to Engels. It is 2010 and the presence of nearly eight billion people on Earth has created a panoply of metabolic rifts: filthy, rubbish-filled streets, widespread recreational drug abuse and the mishandling of genetic technology in the sole interests of an authoritarian ruling class. The omnisicient narrative of Stand on Zanzibar is interwoven with fictional advertising slogans, brand names and other signifiers of a sophisticated consumerist mass-media that impels the public to spend profligately in order to keep the economy growing. Yet precisely this frenzied overconsumption is the source of eco-social woes: you’re being commanded by today’s aggressive advertising to throw out those cherished belongings and get others which are strange to you . . . it’s considered normal for well-paid businessmen to share their apartments in order to enjoy luxuries their own salaries won’t stretch to, such as rooms large enough to hold their private possessions as well as themselves.54

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As Eric C. Otto observes of the novel, “it is predominantly such an exhausting economic system and the culture it creates and then feeds that wreaks the ecological havoc.”55 Furthermore, Brunner dramatises the terrible repercussions of moral restraints – such as prohibiting the poor from marriage – that the later Malthus, in a volte-face with regard to the efficacy of state intervention, recommended authorities enact to alleviate population explosions. Applied within the context – and according to the logic – of the cruel class societies of Stand on Zanzibar, eugenic technologies are financially lucrative enterprises which exacerbate crime, alienation and disenfranchisement. Fourfifths of wealthy Americans can afford to engineer their bodies into physical health, yet a genetic underclass of haemophiliacs and others lacking the means to cure their conditions are marginalised and banned by the state from procreating, lest they compromise the overall fitness of the species. One of the new wave’s innovations was to “turn [science fiction] inward”56 by exploring through futuristic extrapolation the psychological effects of the strange and dislocating new world of late capitalism. Stand on Zanzibar echoes Engels’s descriptions of mid-Victorian Manchester slums in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). “Muckers” are those driven to sudden, unfathomable acts of violence by the pressures of close-quarter living and almost non-existent privacy. Both the overcrowding of bodies in the street and the ubiquity of artificial methods of communication (such as videophones) paradoxically make the businessman Norman Head feel profoundly lonely, prompting him to question whether other people exist independently of his paranoid thoughts or whether they are “just puppets on strings.”57 Knowle Noland, the serf-turned-sailor of Earthworks (Brian Aldiss, 1965), is plagued by hallucinatory episodes brought on by varieties of alienation from nature. His “terrible sorrow”58 begins when he is “rusticated” or coerced into working on a landscape that seems to be the grotesque end-product of Marx’s pedological concerns in Capital. The terrain has been so “altered” by the demands of chemical-dependent, scorched-earth farming that the soil has turned near infertile. Noland is equally depressed by the “struggling plant life”59 he is tasked with protecting, the “work-overseers” who do not “care a rap about what happened to us” and the “cattle”-like60 treatment of him and his fellow “landsmen.” Estranged from land, labour conditions and his co-workers, Noland’s state of mind seems to conform to Marx’s definition of the mental repercussions of alienation under industrial capitalism: “Man denies himself, feels miserable and not happy,


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does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself.”61 Throughout the novel the avowed socialist Aldiss repeatedly reminds us of Marx. There follow numerous allusions to previous forms of oppressive agrarian production, from Saxon feudalism to enclosure; correspondingly, the mechanics of “rustication” are grimly redolent of the labour camps and collectivised farms of the Soviet Union and other twentieth-century state capitalist societies that travestied Marx’s ideas. In his interplanetary political parable Enemies of the System (1978), Aldiss is even more explicitly critical of Stalinist ideology’s offences against individuality and cognitive liberty.62 Another achievement of the new wave is to explicitly address latter-day ‘ecological imperialism’ where the wealthier capitalist economies of the globe ‘export’ environmental degradation to poorer regions while exploiting their eco-economic resources, whether labour, land or natural products. In The War Lord of the Air (1971), Michael Moorcock presents a counterfactual wherein, by 1973, the Western empires of the nineteenth century have yet to relinquish their colonies in Africa and Asia. A number of clues point to this imagined world-order being an allegory for the real-life failure of anti-colonial movements (of which Moorcock was a keen supporter63) to deliver true emancipation from Western eco-ecological exploitation. One such clue is that both the real and alternate 1973 share the same origins in imperialist resource wars: “Do you know how they first began the ruin of China, Mr Bastable? . . . They [the English] grew opium in India – vast fields of it – and secretly shipped it into China where, officially, it was banned . . . the foreigners sent in armies to teach the Chinese a lesson for their arrogance in complaining.”64 The other aforementioned new wave texts address ecological imperialism through ironic inversion and dystopian/utopian juxtaposition. The Africa of Earthworks is the only continent left that can grow enough food to sustain itself and achieve a measure of political stability and material comfort. At the beginning of Stand on Zanzibar’s narrative, the invented West African state of Beninia has avoided overpopulation by eschewing overconsumption: “there aren’t any murders, there aren’t any muckers, there aren’t any tempers lost, there aren’t any tribal squabbles, there aren’t any riots, there’s nothing of what people in supposedly more fortunate countries have come to take for granted.”65 However, Brunner is pessimistic about this idyll’s chances of survival. In what had, even by 1969, become an alarmingly familiar ecoimperialist manoeuvre, an American corporation will soon be descending

A Materialist Approach to Modern Eco-Speculative Fiction


on Beninia to extract its vast deposits of oil and minerals and impose the same market productivism that has ruined the rest of the planet. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1993) is contrastingly optimistic in its realisation of a human settlement on a terraformed Mars that devises an egalitarian mode of production as an antidote to the metabolic rifts capitalism has inflicted on Earth. As the revolutionary anarchist character Arkady Bogdanov explains, “our work will be more than making wages – it will be our art, our whole life. We will give it to each other, we will not buy it. Also there should be no signs of hierarchy.”66 Rather than a privileged few selfishly benefiting from the exchange value generated by the rest of society labouring furiously to extract natural materials, the novel’s team of eco-economists decide that “a living, ecologically defined, is determined by one’s use values with respect to ecosystemic integrity, with respect to safeguarding and contributing to the processes of interrelated, flourishing human and non-human life.”67 Robinson’s ecotopianism offers a constructive answer to the gravest question ever to have confronted mankind: do we significantly change our material association with nature or die out for good? It is a question that was crystallised by particular economic shifts and scientific discoveries in the late twentieth century. A virile strain of transnational capitalism, characterised by privatisation, liberalisation and production outsourcing, was causing unprecedented eco-degradation, which scientists were realising for the first time was jeopardising the very conditions of planetary existence. That being said, in keeping with Slavoj Žižek’s comment that “it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism,”68 most of Robinson’s liberal and conservative contemporaries have found more fame in vividly detailing eco-ecological catastrophe than they have by speculating on what political action might avert it. Michael Crichton, another contemporary, became even more famous – and influential (he helped persuade President George W. Bush to opt out of the Kyoto Treaty on carbon emission reduction) – with State of Fear (2004), an uneven hybrid of pulp eco-thriller and under-researched polemic that parroted the hegemonic view of ‘climate change denial.’ In Prey (2002), Crichton uses the fig leaf of a deep ecological fatalism about mankind’s humble place in the ecosystem to disguise his reactionary quietism about the possibility of a more progressive human interaction with nature: “The total system we call the biosphere is so complicated that we cannot know in advance the consequences of anything that we do.”69 Unwittingly or not, this platitude also precisely contradicts ecological materialism’s endeavour to understand the dialectical processes of the human–natural metabolism.


tom sykes

Conclusion While they may be in the minority, utopianists such as Robinson (and the tradition that stretches back to More and Morris) offer a glimmer of hope amid a generally dark prognosis for the future of the planet. Furthermore, depending on your point of view, it is either grimly ironic or a glowing testament to the intellectual acumen and special formal capabilities of speculative fiction, that these fantastical conjectures about how a better biosphere might be achieved seem more sensible and sustainable than some of the real-world, present-day efforts towards ‘environmental justice’ that radical ecologists support. Ending their book on what they hope will be a positive note, Foster, Clark and York praise a number of Latin American ‘socialist’ nations for “opposing the ecological depredations of capitalism and promoting radical ecological change.”70 One example of this resistance, they argue, is the United Nationsadministered ITT Yasuni initiative which would stop the rich nations drilling crude oil in Ecuador while at the same time compelling them to invest in that country’s alternative energy industries.71 It is a curiously modest piece of reformism for writers who, throughout the rest of their book, repeatedly call for the total overthrow of global capitalism due to its inherent incompatibility with ecological vitality and who criticise other contemporary ‘market-based’ solutions such as carbon taxation because they “kowtow to the ‘bottom line’ of capital accumulation.”72 Tellingly, in 2013, three years after The Ecological Rift was published, the president of Ecuador abandoned the ITT Yasuni initiative as economically unviable.73 It would appear that, when envisaging the material conditions of a truly free, fair and sustainable future, some modern speculative fiction is ahead of even the most progressive environmental scientists and economists working today. The same may be said of Thomas More’s and William Morris’s respective historical moments. As Ursula K. Le Guin says, “The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method.”74 Notes 1 Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper, The Myth of the Paperless Office (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), p. 13. 2 John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), p. 186. 3 Ibid., p. 14. 4 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), pp. 637–38.

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5 See Alec Ash, “An Interview with Adam Roberts on Science Fiction Classics,” www.fivebooks.com (22 November 2011), http://fivebooks.com/interviews/ adam-roberts-on-science-fiction-classics. 6 Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: Studies in Marxist Literary Theory (London: Verso, 1998), p. 44. 7 Ken Hiltner, “Second-Wave Ecocriticism,” in Ken Hiltner (ed.), Ecocriticism: The Essential Reader (Oxford: Routledge, 2015), p. 131. 8 Cheryll Glotfelty, “Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis,” in Hiltner, Ecocriticism, p. 124. 9 Neil Faulkner, “A Marxist History of the World Part 8: Crisis in the Bronze Age,” www.counterfire.org (9 August 2010), www.counterfire.org/articles/ a-marxist-history-of-the-world/6201-a-marxist-history-of-the-world-part-8-crisisin-the-bronze-age. 10 Ibid. 11 Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in Hiltner, Ecocriticism, p. 356. 12 Patrick D. Murphy, “Editor’s Note and Guide to Usage,” in Patrick D. Murphy (ed.), Literature of Nature: An International Sourcebook (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998), p. xiii. 13 Faulkner, “Crisis in the Bronze Age.” 14 Thomas More, Utopia [ebook] (Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2005), ch. 2. 15 Karl Marx, Capital: Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1990). 16 More, Utopia, ch. 2. 17 Jonathan Bate, “The Economy of Nature,” in Hiltner, Ecocriticism, p. 78. 18 Ibid., p. 80. 19 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 2008), p. 18. 20 Wells and Williams cited in Patrick O’Sullivan, “¡Homenaje a Aragón!: News from Nowhere, Collectivisation, and the Sustainable Future,” The Journal of William Morris Studies, Winter (2011), p. 94. 21 Foster, Clark and York, The Ecological Rift, p. 259. 22 William Morris, Signs of Change [ebook] (Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2014), ch. 1. 23 William Morris, News from Nowhere [ebook] (Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2007), ch. vii. 24 Ibid. 25 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Vintage, 1975), p. 10. 26 Jean Pfaelzer, The Utopian Novel in America, 1886–1896: The Politics of Form (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984), pp. 51–77. 27 Such ‘pastoral utopianism’ anticipates some of the weaknesses of later deep ecological thought alluded to in the introduction. 28 Williams, The Country and the City, p. 11. 29 Foster, Clark and York, The Ecological Rift, p. 260.


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30 W.H. Hudson, A Crystal Age [ebook] (Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2014), ch. 19. 31 Ibid., ch. 2. 32 Ibid. 33 Glotfelty, “Literary Studies,” p. 131. 34 Eric C. Otto, Green Speculations: Science Fiction and Transformative Environmentalism (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012), p. 101. 35 Foster, Clark and York, The Ecological Rift, p. 116. 36 Isaac Asimov, “Introduction: The Father of Science Fiction,” in Harry Harrison (ed.), Astounding (New York: Ballantine, 1974), p. xii. 37 John W. Campbell, The Mightiest Machine [ebook] (London: Orion, 2011), ch. 5. 38 Ibid., ch. 6. 39 Ibid., ch. 10. 40 Everett F. Bleiler, Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1998), p. 59. 41 Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 198. 42 James Gunn, Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction (Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2005), p. 196. 43 Roberts, History of Science Fiction, p. 198. 44 Asimov, cited in Gunn, Isaac Asimov, p. 196. 45 Foster, Clark and York, The Ecological Rift, p. 260. 46 John Baxter, The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard [ebook] (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011), ch. 13. 47 China Miéville cited in John Newsinger, “Fantasy and Revolution: An Interview with China Miéville,” International Socialism Journal 88 (2000), p. 24. 48 Gilbert LaFreniere, The Decline of Nature: Environmental History and the Western Worldview (Salem: Oak Savanna, 2012), p. 304. 49 Isaac Asimov, “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014,” www.limitstogrowth.org (5 January 2014), http://www.limitstogrowth.org/articles/2014/01/05/isaacasimovs-50-year-predictions-from-1964-are-considered. 50 Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population and A Summary View of the Principle of Population (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 205. 51 John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000) p. 107. 52 Friedrich Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” in Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (New York: International Publishers, 1964), p. 221. 53 Brian Stableford, Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature (New York: Van Volumes, 1995), p. 102. 54 John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar (London: Arrow, 1978), p. 82. 55 Otto, Green Speculations, p. 62.

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56 J.G. Ballard quoted in Benjamin Noys, “Better Living Through Psychopathology,” www.ballardian.com (16 May 2010), http://www.ballardian.com/ better-living-through-psychopathology. 57 Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar, p. 125. 58 Brian Aldiss, Earthworks (London: New English Library, 1972), p. 35. 59 Ibid., p. 38. 60 Ibid., p. 31. 61 Karl Marx, Early Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p. 318. 62 Michael R. Collings, Brian Aldiss (Rockville: Wildside Press, 2006), pp. 54–58. 63 Ben Graham, “Talking To The Sci-Fi Lord: Regenerations & Ruminations With Michael Moorcock,” thequietus.com (November 22, 2010), http://thequietus.com/articles/05325-michael-moorcock-interview-dr-who-thecoming-of-the-terraphiles. 64 Michael Moorcock, The War Lord of the Air (London: Quartet, 1974), p. 134. 65 Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar, p. 428. 66 Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (New York: Bantam, 1993), pp. 60–61. 67 Otto, Green Speculations, p. 117. 68 Quoted in Astra Taylor (dir.), Žižek! [film] (Canada/USA: Zeitgeist Films, 2005). 69 Michael Crichton, Prey (London: Harper, 2006), p. 33. 70 Foster, Clark and York, The Ecological Rift, p. 421. 71 Ibid., pp. 419–20. 72 Ibid., p. 116. 73 Amy Woodrow-Arai, “Yasuni-ITT Initiative to be Scrapped,” www.gaiafoun dation.org (22 August 2013), www.gaiafoundation.org/blog/yasun%C3%ADitt-initiative-to-be-scrapped. 74 Le Guin quoted in Eileen Gunn, “How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future,” smithsonianmag.com (May 2014), www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-americas-leading-sciencefiction-authors-are-shaping-your-future-180951169/?no-ist.

part iii

The Anthropocene

chapter 15

Climate and Culture in Australia and New Zealand CA.Cranston (Australia) and Charles Dawson (New Zealand)

‘Australasia’ Like a template for a climate-changing world, Australia – the driest inhabited continent on Earth – exists in an imaginative and emotional landscape shaped from extremities. Situated within the geopolitical region of Australasia/Oceania, Australia’s trans-Tasman relations with earthquake-prone Aotearoa (“land of the long white cloud”) began in 1788 when New Zealand was included within the British colony of New South Wales. New Zealand, however, was never a penal colony and separation from its rough cousin came after Māori (consolidated under a single language) signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown in 1840 – itself a marker of difference between the First Nations of both countries. Australian Aborigines, scattered across the continent, each nation speaking its own language – saw land rights withheld under the illegal fiction of terra nullius, “nobody’s land.” Being Antipodean, both countries suffered imaginative inversions under the rubric of the ‘Great South Land’: Europe was the cultural norm, Australia was transgressive,1 and New Zealand was ‘nowhere’ as in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872). The white histories and literary environments of both came out of this common cultural heritage where ‘Home’ was elsewhere. Grouped under post-colonial, or Commonwealth Literatures, the language, characters and thematic concerns are no longer Eurocentric, but shaped by southern hemispherics and wider Asia–Pacific and global experiences. Central to literary intersections between climate and cultures is the land – from indigenous fire-stick farming beginning an estimated 60,000 years ago2 to representations of fire, flooding and drought. Relating the literature of the region to a concise environmental history, this chapter takes a chronological route: the nineteenth-century depictions of economic gain and (unrecognized) ecological damage are revealed in the twentieth 237


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century as factors which, in their environmental impacts, gradually influenced climate change. Such factors included colonization, immigration and the lucrative damage of intensive farming and deforestation. Writing just before his death, New Zealand farmer and naturalist W.H. Guthrie-Smith queried the pastoral imperative: “Have I then for sixty years desecrated God’s earth and dubbed it improvement?”3

Climate Change and Extinction Climate change for Australasia means an already extreme climate will become more extreme. Milutin Milanković (1869–1958) identified three major cycles affecting climate (natural processes), all to do with the Earth’s position in relation to the sun. The first cycle is driven by the Earth’s elliptical orbit changing every 100,000 years during its path around the sun; the second is driven by the Earth’s angle of tilt on its axis, which shifts every 42,000 years; and the third is the Earth’s wobble on its axis, occurring every 22,000 years.4 According to Milanković’s calculations, the Earth should now be cooling. Instead, the troposphere is warming. Greenhouse gases such as methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) trap heat and are being released into the atmosphere and absorbed by the oceans at an unprecedented rate. This is where greenhouse gases, in excess, result in global warming. Australia’s per capita emissions are the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).5 Like climate change, extinction has always been with us. Along with the catastrophic Big Five extinction events (Ordovician–Silurian; Late Devonian; Permian; Triassic–Jurassic; and Cretaceous–Tertiary) that restructured the biosphere, bursts of extinctions occur “on average no more than every twenty-six million years.” Climate change associated with the Last Glacial Maximum (when ice sheets were at their maximum extension) continues to be scapegoated when explaining fauna extinction and the arrival of indigenous peoples, such as the Clovis people in the Americas. When Polynesians first inhabited New Zealand a millennium ago “almost 50 per cent of the islands’ species vanished.”6 Aboriginal Australians (a group that believes, however, that its relation with the continent is sempiternal) used fire to clear vegetation, the staple for browsing megafauna. With the extinction of megafauna, vegetation shifted to sclerophyll eucalypt forests7 and “Australia became a land of fire.”8 But megafauna live on in literature – the Dreamtime stories of time before creation. The extinct Wonombi naracoortensis is named for the Rainbow Serpent, a powerful ancestral creator of major landforms. It also

Climate and Culture in Australia and New Zealand


heralds rain, associating it with weather as well as sacred landscapes.9 The ‘literal’ topography made by the Ancestral Spirits is a singing map, with borders defined by songlines. These stories/songlines (oral and written) speak of the inseparability of land and literature. Consequently, “our country is a very big story.”10 Creation stories from the Atherton Tableland, in present-day Queensland, were confirmed by geological research as resulting from volcanic explosions occurring 10,000 years ago.11 The Wati Nyiinyii Dreaming (Tjukurpa) of the Spinifex people, and Tiwi origin stories possibly encode knowledge of rising sea levels.12 These narratives, rendered as ancestral memory, poeticize land transformations during the Late Glacial Maximum (around 10,000 years ago) and Last Glacial Maximum (around 25,000 years ago).

Climate and Colonization Captain James Cook charted the New Zealand and Australian coastlines in 1769–70. His assessment of good grasses and luxuriant flax was made during the Little Ice Age, defined by NASA as a cold period between AD 1550 and 1850 with three particularly cold intervals, one of which began around 1770.13 Eventual colonization, however, occurred on the edge of the 1789–93 El Niño event that caused European crop failures and major rainfall reduction in southern India where weather patterns are similar to Australia’s.14 The First Fleet struggled to grow food. Governor Phillip attributed the calamity to seeds overheating “on the long journey from England and having been planted under a severe Australian summer sun.”15 The ecological violence of colonization16 included the importation of hard-hooved herbivores that destroyed the ancient Gondwana soil17 and the introduction of birds, cats, rabbits, mice and foxes. New Zealand’s introduction of Australian opossums (like rats, and stoats imported for rabbit control) devastated native bird life, leaving, Jared Diamond observes, merely “the wreckage of an avifauna.”18 In “Extinct Birds” (1962) by Australian Judith Wright, Charles Harpur (1813–68) is honoured for recording “birds long vanished with the fallen forest.” Elsewhere, Harpur remarks “that as the blacks were killed off or left the districts that were settled, the goannas increased more and more and ate the eggs and nestlings.”19 Australia’s mammal extinction since 1788 is the worst globally, with a further 30 per cent threatened with extinction. The primary factors include habitat loss, along with invasive species – feral cats and foxes – introduced by settlers.20 Settlers also populated the land with flora from a remembered place. In Here on Earth, climate scientist Tim Flannery argues, however, that changing


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human behaviour is less the problem when it comes to understanding environmental consequences than persistent human thought patterns, or mnemes such as population increase. The first published work by an Australian, William Wentworth’s (?1790–1872) A Statistical, Historical, and Political Description etc. (1819),21 is credited with influencing “a generation of free migrants, not only convincing them of the benefits of migration but also grounding their political beliefs.”22 By the 1830s, with the settler population around 70,000, the colonial government began assisting passage for white immigrants. Across the Tasman, Edward Gibbon Wakefield (A View of the Art of Colonisation (1849)) set up the New Zealand Company to acquire land cheaply from Māori, that was then sold on to wealthy British and worked by assisted-passage ‘Better Britons.’ In 2009, Kevin Rudd’s Australian Labor Party (ALP) government announced plans for a Big Australia, increasing population to 35 million by 205123 even though estimates for Australia’s carrying capacity – the availability of local resources to sustain a population without damage to the ecology – range from 6–12 million24 to 23 million (Hansard 1994).

Nationalizing Climate Tropes: Burning and Felling the Landscape These tensions between population growth and the ecosystem are played out via livestock grazing and the creation of cultural differences between the squattocracy (pastoral aristocracy), and selectors (smallholders) immortalized in literature as Aussie Battlers. Wentworth’s verse, Australasia (1823), imagines “A new Britannia in another world.” This “new Britannia” means rethinking the mneme of Sunday roast beef: one cow emits 100 kg of methane annually, far more than the edible, sustainable kangaroo and camel. Louisa Atkinson (1834–72), raised at Oldbury cattle station (New South Wales), is the first Australian-born female novelist.25 Atkinson introduced readers to indigenous plants and animals, rather than engaging in agoraphobic distortions that dismissed the local as dangerous or inferior to British biota. Predictably, her fiction depicts the hardships of drought (Tress’s Resolve (1872)) and flood (Cowanda, the Veteran’s Grant (1859)). “The Burning Forest” (1853) highlights new chum (British immigrant) incompetence as a fire is lit for a “pot of tea.”26 The bush catches fire with tragic consequences. Rather than investigating human impact on local biomes, such representations of the national drama of fire, flood and drought served instead as nation-building exercises, reflecting Australian tenacity. (Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country” (1908) is paradigmatic of this literary legacy.)

Climate and Culture in Australia and New Zealand


Mortality figures for humans and animals resulting from the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires make it, so far, Australia’s worst bushfire disaster. Bushfires, not being anthropogenic, are not included in the official CO2 count. Yet in producing CO2 they exacerbate the fact of Australians already producing more CO2 per person. CO2 contributes to temperature increase; increasing temperatures (heatwaves) contribute to increased bushfires (due to the volatility of eucalyptus oil), thus releasing even more CO2 into the atmosphere. In that context, ‘bushfire’ ceases to be a nationalist literary hyperbole. Instead, it illustrates the folly of isolationist thinking, and the reality of global environmental reflexivity. And whether lost to fire or axe, deforestation influences climate change. Writing in 1876 the colonial travelogue of Edmond La Meslée (1852–93) records “immense tracts of land” in Victoria where the “forest has been killed”: And all this is caused by the squatter’s axe. Every tree had a ring cut through its bark . . . The only purpose of this vandalism is to let the grass spring up more thickly so that a few more sheep can be fed per acre of land. It is a sight a poet would scarcely appreciate but one on the other hand which the squatter, with his characteristic love of gain, calculates will profit him a little for a few years, without caring that he is prejudicing his own future.

La Meslée notes, however, that New South Wales’s law recognized “that this system of de-forestation was helping to make the climate, already too arid, drier than it has ever been.”27 Squatters’ stories historicizing their industries’ impact on land and indigenes include New Zealander Samuel Butler’s A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863), W.A. Brodribb’s Recollections of An Australian Squatter (1883), Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles (1959) and Judith Wright’s The Generations of Men (1959). Conversely, the conflict between proponents of old-growth forests (ecology) and industrial wood plantations (economy) is recorded in Hilda Bridges’s Men Must Live (1938), James McQueen’s Hook’s Mountain (1982), both set in Tasmania, and Steven Lang’s An Accidental Terrorist (2005) set in New South Wales with doublecrossing hippies and eco-terrorists. Jack Davis’s “Forest Giant” and Kevin Gilbert’s verse “The Land Clearers” are equivalent twentieth-century indigenous responses to ruination with impunity.

Demonizing, and Re-valuing the Land Extreme weather and degraded soil set the scene for “battlers” in the work of social-nationalist poet and writer Henry Lawson (1867–1933). Battlers – a word heavy with attitude – are selectors tied to the poverty


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of their smallholdings. Lawson counters the landscape romanticism of balladists such as A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, noting in “Some Popular Australian Mistakes” (1893) that “We wish to Heaven that Australian writers would leave off trying to make a paradise out of the Out Back Hell . . .” His most tenacious battler in a God-forsaken landscape is “The Drover’s Wife,” in a story of that name featuring an outback farm visited by drought, fire, flood, a mad bull and more. The wife struggles in this apocalyptic Eden with a “rotten native apple tree” and intrusive snake. Generations passed before Lawsonian readings of smallholders’ ‘land’ could be critiqued within a global ecology context, rather than as a failed part of the national economy. Such national and social (‘mateship’) imperatives continued in the work of New Zealander Frank Sargeson, but a significant shift from anthropocentricism to ecology and ethics can be seen in “Our Lady of the Plains” (1902) by Australian-born New Zealander G.B. Lancaster. While melodramatic, the narrative presages both Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” (1949) – where ‘community’ includes the organisms of the Earth – and Erich Fromm’s “biophilia” (1964), which refers to the love of living systems, including the Earth. A philosophical drover wonders, “Have inanimate things soul-power over humans?”28 His question is answered when “Our Lady” chooses death over separation from the South Island plains. Along with attitudes towards Country, drovers and other bush types were undergoing cautious transformation: ‘mateship’ – an epic literary trope in the Australasian imaginary – is reconfigured by the ornithologist Alec H. Chisholm, whose Mateship with Birds (1922) opens a dialogue with natural science. Previously-heroic bush characters become parodic fodder. In the verse “Said Hanrahan” (1921)29 drought or rain is met, regardless of season, with the pessimistic choral response, “We’ll all be rooned.” For Elyne Mitchell, the farmers’ lament, “Seasons have been bad,” holds no water. There’s “no thought that man himself is changing Australia’s climate.”30 Mitchell, whose non-fiction credits including Speak to the Earth (1945), connects culture and climate to shift the prevailing perspective from human as victim, to Earth as victimized. The distinction crucially separates nineteenth-century portrayals of human/earth interactions from this early period of earth/climate portrayals where characters discern anthropogenic impact. Francis Ratcliffe’s Flying Fox and Drifting Sand (1938), a biologist’s investigation of cultivation and soil erosion, and Jock H. Pick’s Australia’s Dying Heart: Soil Erosion in The Inland (1942) further demonstrate this. Furthermore, Alec Chisholm’s nature columns and anthology of nature

Climate and Culture in Australia and New Zealand


writing, Land of Wonder (1964), helped popularize environmental literacy for a lay readership whilst advocating intrinsic (rather than economic) values of land.

1970s: ‘Climate and Culture’ Eutrophication and the Anthropocene In this period, two pivotal but conflictual environmental views, ecocentrism and anthropocentrism, were being played out in Australasia. Although the latter approach is more common amongst writers and politicians, nevertheless the world’s first green party (the United Tasmania Group, formed in 1972) challenged (unsuccessfully) the state government’s utilitarian plan to flood a natural lake and change its ecology. From this, the 1972–75 Whitlam ALP government created an Environment portfolio, a timely response to the effects of Australia’s ‘later’ industrialization (particularly a transformation of cities to adapt to the motor age which intensified between 1950 and 1970).31 Textually, Don Whitington’s The Effluent Society (1970) targeted polluting industries, auto-emissions, their impact on human health, as did Jack Hibberd’s play A Stretch of the Imagination (1972). Set near One Tree Hill, South Australia (possibly alluding to a Maralinga Nuclear Tests Ground Zero location), ‘Monk O’Neill’ collects his effluent to nurture the scion of the tree he chopped down. This apparent act of nurturing exemplifies, however, what cultural and radical feminists recognize as the death-directedness inherent in androcentric relationships with the earth, where a masculine ‘nurturing’ is both egocentric and ecocidal. Whether we choose a neologism of the ‘Androcene’ or ‘Anthropocene,’ the decades of Australian environmental literary history described above are marked by a resultant ecological anxiety. In “For the Quaternary Age” (1976), Judith Wright’s (1915–2000) speaker articulates climate-change fear: “fertile and violent, swung from ice to heat / to flood to famine – what you’ve grafted in! / Could I be so calm when you are so extreme?” The “Geology Lecture” (1973) prefigures a nuclear Anthropocene: humans contain “all prehistory in our bones / and all geology behind the brain / which in the Modern age could melt these stones / so fiercely, time might never start again.” Wright’s synthesizing poetics turn divisive, brought on by suicidal practices and the long history of ecosystem mismanagement: “I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust, / the drying creek, the furious animal, / that they oppose us still; / that we are ruined by the thing we kill” (“Australia 1970”).32 Gone is the colonial conceit of tyrannical extremes: Wright, an environmental activist,


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engages the Frankenstein metaphor, giving the land agency (“the furious animal”), as it rebounds on a morally irresponsible human oppressor. While the subsequent decades’ literature reflects these concerns it also perpetuates the trope of human tenacity.

1980s: Social Darwinism in a Flooded Landscape The 1980s is marked by the El Niño drought of 1982–83, dust storms, and the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983. The Federal Labor government and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), discussing the climate scenario for 2030, predicted a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere.33 Futurologist George Turner’s (1916–97) climate-crash novel The Sea and Summer (1987; reprinted 2013) lists Population, Food, Employment, and Finance as topics for consideration in the human/earth rift, set between 2041 and 2061. The frame story, set in the fourth millennium, shows the Autumn People preparing for the Long Winter, “perhaps a hundred thousand years of it,”34 a reference to the first Milanković cycle. The existence of fourth-millennium survivors demonstrates Turner’s contention that there will be no Anthropocene35 (i.e. humans, at least, will survive); action in the contemporaneous 1980s is nevertheless shown to be crucial to avoid climate-change disaster. The inner story, set in the twentyfirst century (i.e. Milanković’s “Long Summer” cycle), canalizes the exigencies of climate collapse through the Conway family’s complacency. Fred Conway’s assertion that melting ice caps will drown the world’s coasts (which happens) prompts his son’s retort, “Not in our time,” an axiom for climate-change inertia. Automation results in Fred losing his job; he commits suicide, and Alison Conway and her sons slide down the fiscal scale from Sweet (employed) to Fringe status, inching towards Swill (subsistence) level. A thousand years later, the New City rests on the Dandenong foothills; the Old City (Melbourne) lies drowned. An academic, resurrecting the Conways’ history, discovers that twenty-first-century solutions to overpopulation and food shortages include attempting a class-specific cull in the form of a chewy that renders users infertile. A second cull is intimated when women, including Alison, die suspiciously of anorexic wasting, raising the questionable ethics of intervention engineering.

1990s: Salt: Self as Prey in a Sterile Landscape Gabrielle Lord’s novel Salt (1990) allows little room for ‘morality’ in the context of climate extremes, diminishing resources and increasing anomie.

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The unrecognized ecological damage caused by colonizers clearing native vegetation for farming has dramatically materialized by 1976: winter rains decline; summer rains fall on vacant wheat-fields; “water far saltier than the sea” creeps upward. “Today,” writes Tim Flannery, “bankrupt farmers in the west of Australia are facing the worst case of dry-land salinity in the world with salt-affected land increasing at a rate of one football field per hour.”36 Mindful of real-time ecological disaster, publishers changed Salt’s setting from 2024 to 2074 “because anything closer in time would be too disturbing and unpalatable.”37 In the climate-destabilized world of the novel, civil war produces anti-human moral relativist frameworks. Food, or lack of it, divides Sydney 2074 into seaweed-eating city-dwellers (the feedback loop being colon cancer), and Hobbesian characters from the “corrosion country, where each outlaw did what he could to survive” (including cannibalize). Over-population is no problem: ovulation and sperm count is low; the problem is obtaining food from a saline-sterile Earth. Predatory and parasitical, Salt’s world struggles under 57 C temperatures with the ozone layer “inexorably destroyed.”38 Deformity, DNA damage, an inability to tolerate sun and salt: headless incubating ‘mothers,” human and ape, are clandestine gestation vehicles for a posthuman world. Human life has no intrinsic value and little utility. Nevertheless, in the fin de siècle Epilogue, a neo-nomadic generation appears reflecting genetic- and biodiversity loss in a human-induced ecosystemic failure. Living nocturnally to avoid ultraviolet radiation, characters accept, and adapt to, ecological disconnect, adopting a ‘business as usual’ approach. While violation of human and non-human rights within the context of climate change is portrayed in The Sea and Summer and in Salt, the overriding concern remains to engineer a (white) single-species future.

“Singing Up Country (Despite the Anthropocene)” Two decades on, political responses to climate change are ambivalent. The 2011 Gillard ALP government introduces carbon tax and sets up the Climate Commission, with Tim Flannery as Chief Commissioner. In 2013 the Abbott Liberal government axes the Commission, abolishing carbon tax in 2014. Public initiative sees the sacked Commission members form the independent Climate Council via crowd-funding. Meanwhile, responding positively to the Gillard initiatives, the University of Queensland publishes “Theorising Climate Change Narratives for the Humanities


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in Australia: An Annotated Bibliography” (Kitty van Vuuren, Susan Ward and Deborah Jordan, 2011–12). The following summarizes Australian literature’s registering of anthropogenic change. Tess Williams’s Sea as Mirror (1990) concerns cetaceans’ alarm over ocean pollution in the 2020s; Jim Sampson’s The Apocalypse Rising (2009) a volcanic cloud after eruptions in Antarctica; L.A. Larkin’s Thirst (2012) depicts the melting Antarctic and a Chinese plot to solve their water crisis. Philip Machanick’s No Tomorrow (2008) questions the Nobel committee’s decision to award the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore the 2007 Peace Prize. Set in Adelaide, Theodore Xenophou’s Mountain in the Sky (1982) proposes splitting H2O into hydrogen gas as a fossil fuel replacement. Queensland settings include John Litchen’s And the Waters Prevailed (2010), where an epidemic is planned for the population of a drowned city; in Tasmania, Selenna (Pam Giblin)’s Nemeton (1992) deals with global warming, and Jean Vormair’s A Rain Forest in Time (1988; set in 2011) presents global warming and a tilting of the Earth as paramount.39 Accepting Crutzen’s and Stoermer’s hypothesis that greenhouse gases were seriously altered during the Industrial era, we should remember that this was also the period of Australasian colonization. There can be few other indigenous nations that have experienced the rapid systematic destruction of their culture simultaneously with the ecological ruination of the land from which their culture arises. Particularly resonant is The Swan Book (2013) by Waanyi descendant Alexis Wright. Referred to as the “first great novel of climate change,”40 it distinguishes between human rights violations as a result of colonization and global human rights violations as a result of climate change. It blends science references and mythopoeic insights, like the naming of Oblivion Ethyl(ene), or ‘Oblivia,’ an elective mute, gang-raped by kinsmen. Internecine betrayals reveal selfinterest above connection to Country – the land – while the attraction of indigenous ecological worldviews as solutions to global catastrophe is both upheld, and sharply criticized in the novel through the actions of Warren Finch, Australia’s first indigenous president. On the degraded land of the Swamp People, Bella Donna, a climatechange refugee, nurtures ‘Oblivia’ (an archetypal guardian, and the conscience of the novel) as she sings up Country, albeit the mneme of white swan cosmology from a now-frozen European North. Black swans arrive at the swamp, climate-change indicators, forced into species relocation “where there was no song for swans.”41 After Bella dies, ‘Oblivia’ assumes custodianship, creating songlines for a changed Country and

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culture, a “mixed dreaming” of European and indigenous origins. The swans are vatic, forewarning a “Black Swan Event,” an unexpected unprecedented event. Against an El Niño/La Niña backdrop, desertion and rescue accompany human “flight” from now flooded Southern cities; Australians become climate-change refugees, desperately following people smugglers. The swans’ decimation in the city, and en route to the swamp, affectingly signifies loyalty in contrast to anthropic machinations; it reaffirms earth-centeredness and an interspecies ethics of care in the midst of a climate- and war-ravaged planet. Nevertheless, the novel, allegorically and in reality, points to the broader ‘Black Swan Event’ – the Anthropocene, as expressed through Oblivia’s despair: how to console an ageing swan whose flock has perished? How to console the human living on a spirit-broken place? How to begin to tell a creature that it is the last of its species, that its habitat is gone? Australian environmental literary history poses questions with, seemingly, little hope. If hope is to be found, it might lie in the agency of young adults. Yet Young Adult (YA) novellas such as Tony Davis’s The Big Dry (2013) only intensify the disquiet: children live in a “world where parents are a thing of the past. Like rain.” Landscapes promising a return to the safety of the family environment have gone.42 Nevertheless, non-fiction work, such as Tim Winton’s Island Home (2015) and Flannery’s Atmosphere of Hope (2015),43 asserts the power of youth. Flannery looks at the technological advance and finds hope in a youthful social media: the crowd-funding of the Australian Climate Council; disinvestment pressure on universities and banks not to fund fossil fuel mining; community-owned electric and solar retailers; and the rise of the global Youth Climate Movement. Says Flannery, “[i]f their elders had been half as effective as they [today’s youth] are, we would have the climate problem under control by now.”44

Aotearoa New Zealand: “We Oceanians”? The scale and pace of human interaction with the land in New Zealand has left a complex ecological and cultural legacy, comparable to that in Australia. New Zealand writing that attends to this legacy similarly offers insights into inter-cultural dialogue, colonization, and reconciliation with site and history. Much of this writing has, Stephen Turner observes, probed what it means to belong within, occupy, or misremember a place.45 While critics such as David Eggleton read landscape as “the country’s cultural centre of gravity,”46 literary responses


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to climate change have emerged from a context of relatively rapid ecological and cultural adjustment. Polynesian seafarers made remarkable migrations to Aotearoa, harnessing a likely shift in prevailing winds between 1100 and 1300 CE. Those settlers encountered an abundant, endemic (but vulnerable) biota, including impenetrable rainforest, the giant eagle and its prey the moa, and, like all first impact settlers, caused extensive species loss.47 Gradually, however, kaitiakitanga, an integrated harvest and guardianship practice, was honed through trans-species dependence and holistic genealogy. Māori understandings of environment live within traditions like carving, weaving, oratory and song chants (mōteatea) which “can act as portals to the past.”48 These inextricable links between biodiversity and culture bind species survival with the transmission of knowledge. However, European settlement after the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 accelerated environmental impact. Settlement numbers rose from the 1870s, after the New Zealand Wars, and pastoralism dominated, underscoring “one of the most striking elements of Anglo-settler history – the connection between climate and settlement.”49 The unprecedented pace of landscape change between 1860 and 1920 attracted literary tropes of fascination with the vanishing forest and (as with Australian Aborigines) the Māori as a ‘Dying Race.’ Christian and utilitarian imperatives marked wild land as ‘waste.’ Clearance was motivated by the need for survival, and a desire to ‘civilize’ places and peoples. Nevertheless, considerable attention has also been paid, within this history, to the issue of deforestation, its climatic effect and the risk of drought and erosion.50 Alex Calder observes that a “ruination” trope haunts the literature of hard-won rural toil.51 The trope emerged from understandable anxiety over what one settler termed a “boisterous, ramping, uncertain” climate, quite unlike the condition of “Home.”52 Denis Glover’s poem “The Magpie” exemplifies a prospect of failure stalking the persistent “Pastoral Dream.”53 Blanche Baughan’s poem “The Bush Section” (1908) depicts, similarly, “a silent skeleton world; / Dead, and not yet re-born, / Made, unmade, and scarcely as yet in the making.” Yet “making” involved significant toil and pastoral gain, while overriding Māori rights and local ecosystems.54 In that context, Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station (1921) is unusual because it attends to the long view and the “myriad agencies” of Māori, plants, animals and climate.55 Since the 1980s the Treaty of Waitangi reconciliation processes have prompted a Pākehā (white New Zealand) revision of ‘belonging,’ that has

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encompassed some Māori rights being (belatedly) recognized. Certain policy innovations, such as the 2012 declaration of legal personality for the Whanganui River, are of global significance: animating Māori knowledge within legal language. That river has functioned as a crossroads “of cultures and discourses” for Māori, and for Pākehā such as activist poet James K. Baxter, while near the Southern Alps Brian Turner’s poetry limns a Pākehā-based homing.56 The recognition of damaged ecosystems as sites of knowledge and inter-cultural dialogue informs a significant range of recent research and creative work, energized by (admittedly limited) awareness of ongoing biodiversity loss, and a “still flimsy sense of Pākehā identity,” what Vincent O’Sullivan calls “this shiver of our brief occupancy.”57 Climate change is emerging as a creative locus, yet in 2015 the New Zealand National government has, for David Young, “a casual, almost dismissive attitude” to it.58 Emission reduction targets are weaker than Australia’s and there is little planning for climate migration, or export market upheaval.59 Consequently, writers foresee disruption: Gareth Renowden’s protagonist in The Aviator (2012) travels the globe via airship, recording decades of civic and climate collapse and caricatured neo-tribes of survivors. Philip Temple’s novel MiStory (2015) presents a post-climatechange surveillance state at civil war, while producing food for parched, besieged Australia. Aroha White’s 2015 play 2080 imagines 25 million US citizens invited to take over the South Island, while Pacifica citizens have become climate refugees, detained and surveilled elsewhere by a Māori elite. Writers and critics nevertheless look for ways through: interconnection is one. Oceanic imaginary grows in appeal (alongside Oceanic militarization). Joni Adamson and Alice Te Punga Sommerville situate Māori authors Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace in Oceanic contexts.60 Weaving Māori and Permaculture traditions, Cath Koa Dunsford calls for wide adoption of kaitiakitanga guardianship “to create, nurture and encourage a climate change of consciousness.”61 Scientists recognize indigenous knowledge as part of the solution.62 Pākehā writers are responding; location begetting responsibility: Gregory O’Brien’s poetry Whale Years (2015) regards immersive journeying and transspecies/trans-cultural interdependence as a guiding force for “we Oceanians.”63 Likewise, in “The Uprising,” poet Dinah Hawken refigures anger, attentiveness and compassion in a connective caul of vigilant intent for “The whole indivisible ocean, / that [. . .] / fits over the earth like a blessing.”64


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Foretellings New Zealand’s second Governor, Robert FitzRoy, pioneered weather forecasting, which he first termed “foretelling.”65 Climate-change scientists now take that foretelling to an intricate level as they drill Antarctic ice core samples, isolating and assessing the tiny pockets of air – environmental history – frozen for millennia. This chapter has considered another kind of foretelling: creative acts from the ancient records handed down through songlines, the violence and amnesia of colonization, to an ecopoetics of hope and warning. The Australian and New Zealand experiences differ, but a shared history of colonial amnesia and utilitarian relentlessness neglectful of localized climate challenge has served us and the Earth poorly. While governments stall, writers and artists create new tools for understanding, enduring or re-membering a possible world. Notes 1 See Jan Bassett, Great Southern Landings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). 2 Libby Robin, How a Continent Created a Nation (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2007), p. 216. 3 W.H. Guthrie-Smith, Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station (1921; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999 [preface to 3rd edn, 1940]), p. xxiii. 4 Tim Flannery, We Are the Weather Makers (Melbourne: Text, 2006), p. 33. 5 Ross Garnaut, The Garnaut Review (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 157. 6 Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, The Sixth Extinction (London: Phoenix, 1996), pp. 65, 185. 7 James Freeman, “Study Suggests Humans Caused Extinction of Australian Megafauna,” Sci-News.com (26 March 2012), www.sci-news.com/paleon tology/article00229.html. 8 Tim Flannery, Here on Earth (Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin, 2010), p. 83. 9 Howard Morphy and John Carty, “Understanding Country,” in Gaye Sculthorpe, John Carty et al., The BP Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation (London: The British Museum Press, 2015), pp. 20–117, 91. 10 Alexis Wright, Carpentaria (Sydney: Giramondo, 2006), p. 347. 11 Robert M.W. Dixon, The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 28. 12 Morphy and Carty, “Understanding Country,” p. 93. 13 Tom Keneally, The Commonwealth of Thieves (Sydney: Chatto & Windus, 2006), p. 155. 14 Richard H. Grove, “Global Impact of the 1789–93 El Niño,” Nature 393 (May 28, 1998), pp. 318–19.

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15 Keneally, Commonwealth of Thieves, p. 191. 16 See William J. Lines, Taming the Great South Land (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991). 17 For essays on invasive species and drought, see Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds.), A Change in the Weather: Climate and Culture in Australia (Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press, 2005). 18 Jared Diamond, “Distributions of New Zealand Birds on Real and Virtual Islands,” New Zealand Journal of Ecology 7 (1984), p. 41. 19 Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney (eds.), Judith Wright: With Love & Fury (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2006), p. 108. 20 Australian Wildlife Conservation, www.australianwildlife.org/wildlife.aspx. 21 William Charles Wentworth, A Statistical, Historical, and Political Description of the Colony of New South Wales and Its Dependent Settlements in Van Diemen’s Land (Lane Cove, NSW: Doubleday Australia, 1978 [1819]). 22 Justin Lucas, “William Charles Wentworth,” in Selina Samuels (ed.), Dictionary of Literary Biography: Australian Literature, 1788–1914 (London: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 2001), pp. 420–24, 421. 23 Kerry O’Brien, “Rudd on ‘Big Australia,’” The 7:30 Report, ABC (28 January 2010). www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2010/s2804229.htm. 24 Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters (Sydney: Reed New Holland, 2002 [1994]), p. 371. 25 Patricia Clark, “Louisa Atkinson,” in Samuels (ed.), Dictionary of Literary Biography, pp. 3–19, 3. 26 Louisa Atkinson, “The Burning Forest,” Illustrated Sydney News (22 October 1853), p. 20. 27 Edmond Marin La Meslée, The New Australia (trans. Russel Ward) (London: Heinemann, 1973 [1883]), p. 30; p. 31. 28 G.B. Lancaster, “Our Lady of the Plains,” in Elizabeth Webby and Lydia Wevers (eds.), Happy Endings (Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1987), pp. 101–18, 116. 29 John O’Brien, Around the Boree Log (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1976), pp. 80–83. 30 Elyne Mitchell, Soil and Civilization (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1946), p. 8. 31 Robert Lee, “Linking a Nation: Australia’s Transport and Communications 1788–1970,” Department of the Environment (2003), Australian Government Online, www.environment.gov.au/resource/linking-nation-australias-transportand-communications-1788-1970-0. 32 Judith Wright, Collected Poems 1942–1985 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 2000), pp. 363, 323, 287. 33 Ruth A. Morgan, “Imagining a Greenhouse Future: Scientific and Literary Depictions of Climate Change in 1980s Australia,” Australian Humanities Review 57 (November 2014), p. 47. 34 George Turner, The Sea and Summer (1987; London: Grafton, 1989), p. 13. 35 Michael Pollak and Margaret MacNabb, Hearts and Minds (Alexandria, NSW: Hale & Iremonger, 2000), p. 94. 36 Flannery, Weather Makers, p. 117.


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37 Pollak and MacNabb, Hearts and Minds, p. 15. 38 Gabrielle Lord, Salt (Ringwood: Penguin, 1990), pp. 4, 107. Ozone depletion was a concern at the time of writing. The 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone agreed to phase out harmful substances including CFCs. The Antarctic ozone hole, however, continues to grow (www.theozonehole.com). 39 Deborah Jordan, Climate Change Narratives in Australian Fiction (Saabrücken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing, 2014), pp. 16–18, 20–22, 26–29. 40 Jane Gleeson-White, “Going Viral,” Sydney Review of Books (23 August 2013), www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/going-viral/. 41 Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Sydney: Giramondo, 2013), p. 14. 42 Tony Davis, The Big Dry (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 2013). 43 Tim Flannery, An Atmosphere of Hope [Kindle]. (Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 2015). 44 Ibid., ch. 21, para. 6. 45 Stephen Turner, “Settlement as Forgetting,” in Nicholas Thomas, Klaus Neumann and Hilary Ericksen (eds.), Quicksands: Foundational Histories in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1999), pp. 20–38, 20. 46 David Eggleton (ed.), Here On Earth: The Landscape in New Zealand Literature (Nelson: Craig Potton, 1999), p. 7. 47 Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris, Tangata Whenua Wellington: BWB, 2014), pp. 31, 83. 48 Ariana Tikao, “The Taonga of Others,” in National Library New Zealand, Turnbull Library Record 47 (2015), p. 30. 49 Tom Dunlap, Nature and the English Diaspora (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 127. 50 Julian Kuzma, “New Zealand Landscape and Literature, 1890–1925,” Environment and History 9, 4 (November 2003), pp. 451–61. 51 Alex Calder, The Settler’s Plot: How Stories Take Place in New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2011), p. 134. 52 Peter Holland, Home in the Howling Wilderness (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2013), p. 12. 53 Lydia Wevers, “The Short Story,” in Terry Sturm (ed.), The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998 [2nd edn]), p. 264. 54 Turner, “Settlement as Forgetting,” pp. 20–38, 20. 55 Annie Potts, Philip Armstrong and Deidre Brown, A New Zealand Book of Beasts (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2013), p. 59. 56 John Newton, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011), p. 173. 57 Vincent O’Sullivan, Grahame Sydney. Paintings: 1972–2014 (Nelson: Craig Potton, 2014), p. 94. 58 David Young, “Cloud Nine on the Manawatu: Treachery and Ecology,” Overland 219 (2015) Aotearoa IssueOnline, www.overland.org.au.

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59 Ian Axford, “Climate Change: Reflections on the Science,” in Jonathan Boston, Ralph Chapman and Margot Schwass (eds.), Confronting Climate Change (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006), p. 67. 60 Criticism includes Alice Te Punga Sommerville’s Once Were Pacific (Minneapolis: University Minnesota Press, 2012), and work by Epeli Hau’Ofa, Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Michelle Keown and Teresa Shewry. 61 Cath Koa Dunsford, “Protecting our Oceans, Islands and Skies,” in Mohit Prasad (ed.), Dreadlocks: Oceans, Islands and Skies (Auckland: Auckland University of Technology, 2013), p. 20. 62 Darren Ngaru King, “The Climate Change Matrix Facing Māori Society,” in R.A.C. Nottage, D.S. Wratt et al. (eds.), Climate Change Adaptation in New Zealand (Wellington: New Zealand Climate Change Centre, 2007), pp. 100–11. 63 Gregory O’Brien, “Poetry Shelf interviews Gregory O’Brien” (14 March 2015), http://nzpoetryshelf.com. 64 Dinah Hawken, “The Uprising,” in Vincent O’Sullivan (ed.), Best New Zealand Poems 2014 (Wellington: International Institute of Modern Letters, 2014), http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/iiml/bestnzpoems. 65 Paul Moon, FitzRoy: Governor in Crisis 1843–1845 (Auckland: David Ling, 2000), p. 259.

chapter 16

Modern English Fiction Kelly Sultzbach

Surveying the Field of Environmental Modernism When Virginia Woolf offered her views on “Modern Fiction” in 1925, she imagined her task as a landscape to be traversed and surveyed: “for down in the plain little is visible. We only know that . . . certain paths seem to lead to fertile land, others to the dust and the desert; and of this perhaps it may be worth while to attempt some account.”1 From the outset of her essay, it is clear that the modern imagination is one of situated perspectives and uncertain prospects. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it is possible to appreciate how modernity brought new pressures to bear on the self and the world which have distinct ecocritical relevance. As Matthew Stevens defines it, modernism is best understood not as a set of canonically ossified themes about war, the self, or urban society, but rather as an inquiry into “the processes that produced [them].” Modernist authors were recording the world they inhabited and the processes that were changing it, pondering: “What model of the self is adequate to modern life?”2 Many of those processes were shaped by grappling with issues of home, identity, and what it means to be human in ways that developed an environmental consciousness. On a large scale, England’s expanding urban centers and changing patterns of rural land use were central to questions of nationalism, including what geographers and environmental historians identify as a back-to-the-land “pastoral impulse.”3 But even how to get out and see or appreciate the English countryside was a matter of change and process, as attested to by the proliferation of motor cars and cycles, which “rose from fewer than 8,500 in 1904 . . . to nearly 230,000 at the outbreak of the Great War,”4 and a swelling list of newly formed organizations responding to environmental issues, such as the Federation of Rambling Clubs in 1905 and The Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, dating from 1912.5 There were even questions about 254

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the processes one couldn’t see in a newly atomized world that was nonetheless busy with movement. On a smaller environmental scale, modern science radically reoriented the self to a world of hidden agency and power. Physicists like Albert Einstein who, in 1905, proved that light moved as discrete particles which could be either absorbed or emitted from atomic structures, propelled modernists to reconceptualize matter as more fluid and our world as less inert than previously imagined. Even as Woolf ridicules “materialists” for focusing on a superficial sense of physical reality, the traits she deems “spiritualist” express a dynamic awareness of animate matter. She suggests our very thoughts emanate from a sensorium of embodied interaction with the environment: “The mind receives a myriad of impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.”6 Modernism also explores “the dark places of psychology,”7 unveiled by Sigmund Freud, as well as animal consciousness and systems-theory ecology, popularized by the likes of Frederick Gamble and Arthur Tansley. These studies illuminated matrices of animal consciousness and shared habitats that would continue to become more intricately laced together. Additionally, the post-colonial awareness of oppression initiated painful questioning about the exploitation of humans in the name of environmental resources. An ecocritical reading of modernism clarifies how these visible and invisible environmental processes demanded a rejection of any ‘model’ in favor of a self always mediated by a host of external prompts – pinging, fusing, spinning and blasting us into an awareness of embodiment and flux which unseated anthropocentric certainty. Thus, by the early twentieth century, reality was no longer bounded by the horizon of Euclidean geometry nor neatly divided by the Cartesian separation of body and mind. Instead, reality was increasingly recognized as a set of processes that were beyond human or political control. As a result, perhaps even the kind of ‘nature writing’ used to express the nature of the self or the self in nature could no longer be objective, categorical, or merely visual. Judith Paltin redefines the modernist shift to what she terms “anti-realism” – a stance traditionally associated with aesthetic distancing from the physical world – by recasting it as an attempt to manifest the world’s actual instability. Older, pre-packaged ways of knowing the world were dismissed in favor of the destabilizing processes of flux offered by biology and physics. Paltin explains, “Modernist nature operates as an agile breaching force, exploding perceptual illusion and readerly comfort in a series of confrontational mimetic pulses.”8 Further, these aesthetic ruptures of expected meaning are not always celebratory; instead, they often trouble


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placating assurances of nature’s capacity to offer humanity rapturous transcendence or a companionable mirror for our own emotions. All the aforementioned shows that green modernism is replete with possibility; however, this chapter will focus on the complexity of two significant ecocritical issues in modern English fiction, both of which forefront the importance of developing an environmental consciousness and represent it as a process of inquisitive indeterminacy. The first section concerns large-scale processes. It explores how E.M. Forster’s revisions to the pastoral tradition reveal the difficulty of relinquishing nostalgic notions of rural romance, idealized peasants, and capitalist desires in exchange for alternative endings of wild doubt about human nature. The second section focuses on the representation of invisible processes, such as the minute encounters with matter depicted in Virginia Woolf’s modernist prose techniques. In particular, it illuminates how Woolf uses point of view and stream of consciousness to manifest a process of lived experience perpetually re-constituted by brushes with non-human agency that both confound and inspire.

Modern Pastoral Problems and Wild Alternatives While one of the goals of ecocritical modernism must be to embrace the environs of the metropolis, modernist novelists were also significantly engaged with the pastoral genre. Although analysis of a text’s pastoral elements may seem outdated, Terry Gifford has revitalized it, integrating a broader array of terminology to illuminate the pastoral’s more subtle variations, and resituating it within other contemporary ecocritical discourses: The post-pastoral is unlike terms such as ‘postmodernism,’ ‘postcolonial,’ or ‘posthuman.’ ‘Post-’ here does not mean ‘after,’ but ‘reaching beyond’ the limitations of pastoral while being recognizably in the pastoral tradition. . . The post-pastoral is really best used to describe works that successfully suggest a collapse of the human/nature divide while being aware of the problematic involved.9

Of course, as Gifford is quick to remind readers, the classic pastoral has always involved irony and complexity, just as war and industrialism are a prominent element in modernist pastorals. However, Raymond Williams highlights why the twentieth century is a fulcrum point for the re-evaluation of the pastoral and the prevalence of post-pastoral texts: Rural Britain was subsidiary, and knew that it was subsidiary from the late nineteenth century. But so much of the past of the country, its feelings

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and its literature, was involved with rural experience . . . that there is almost an inverse proportion, in the twentieth century, between the relative importance of the working rural economy and the cultural importance of rural ideas.10

Indeed, the age of rapid industrialization and war tinged some modernist novels with an apocalyptic fear of loss, a sense of desperation to preserve and cherish all that was bright and beautiful about rural England. As Alexandra Harris notes: “The sense of imminent ending made many artists determined to include everything: . . . and to enjoy as far as possible what the novelist Henry Green, surveying the goods in life’s ‘bargain basement,’ called the ‘last look round.’”11 E.M. Forster’s legacy has often been associated with just this kind of sentimental pastoral. His idealization of rural life is undoubtedly a repeated theme, locating England’s social decline in its detachment from nature. However, such novels, including Howards End (1910) and Maurice (written in 1914, although published posthumously in 1971), also feature a more conscious use of the anti-pastoral, or counter-pastoral. According to Gifford, anti-pastoral literature “expos[es] the distance between reality and the pastoral convention when that distance is so conspicuous as to undermine the ability of the convention to be escaped as such.”12 This theory of the pastoral grafts social realism to the classic pastoral, agitating dissonant themes. Forster’s anti-pastoral technique in Howards End and Maurice repositions environmental awareness in several ways. First, it insists on both a spiritual and a physical connection between environment, bodily health, and consumer practices in ways that resonate with material ecocriticism and ecomarxism. Secondly, it anticipates queer ecocriticism by using the association of male love with nature and innocence in the classic pastoral to amplify a twentieth-century critique of homophobia. Further, while Forster’s conclusions may appear to reinforce a classical pastoral happy ending, I claim they promote an anti-pastoral realization, subtly undermining the expected conventions of the pastoral genre, and challenging his readers to critique the pastoral fantasy rather than ‘buy’ into a false sense of ease. Finally, in A Passage to India (1924), all of these themes are combined with a complex disorientation of the imperial romance of the exotic green retreat, using the voice of India’s terrain to represent a violent rejection of colonial presence. The tension between the degradation of urban spaces and the renewal of natural spaces has long been recognized as a prominent theme in Howards End, but the health of the flesh is also a central environmental issue in the novel, particularly as it applies to Leonard Bast.13 Leonard Bast – a kind of


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anti-pastoral shepherd-figure – is a struggling London clerk, a “grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town.”14 The novel’s dubious heroines are the middle-class Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, who disastrously employ their romanticized ideals in an attempt to rescue Bast from the abyss of poverty. Instead, their efforts bring about circumstances that will cause his death, but not before Helen and Leonard sire the child who symbolizes the novel’s tenuous hope for future generations. Yet despite his importance as a progenitor for a better future, Bast’s own body is afflicted by urban poverty. It is important to note that Forster does not locate modern decline in a eugenic argument, but rather in a pointed condemnation of upper-class mobility. The privileged classes keep those who could have been productive rural farmers in the fetters of industrial labor, chained to hypocritical ideas of what it means to be ‘civilized’: A young man, colourless, toneless, who had already the mournful eyes above a drooping mustache that are so common in London . . . Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas.15

Ideas will not fortify the body. The fact that humans are animals is not only acknowledged in Forster’s fiction, but also praised rather than being shunned as bestial. Indeed, “the glory of the animal” must be recognized as a necessary aspect of the best kind of human. Forster’s mocking reference to the “tail” biological evolution has divested from the human body is cunningly refigured as a fashionable social appendage marking the abject decline of our “urban” species. The proverbial “monkey suit” is more appalling than any real component of our animal kinship with other species. Like Leonard – the shepherd denied his proper pastoral role – even food, itself, is deprived of its expected beauty and sustenance when it is too far removed from its organic origins: They began with a soup square, which Leonard had just dissolved in some hot water. It was followed by the tongue – a freckled cylinder of meat, with a little jelly at the top, and a great deal of yellow fat at the bottom – ending with another square dissolved in water (jelly: pineapple), which Leonard had prepared earlier in the day.16

The geometric shapes of the gelatinous molds suggest mechanical reproduction. The compact “square” and “cylinder” no longer resemble any organic matter, but are rather artificially flavored with exotic “pineapple”

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to lure one’s imagination to some tropical fantasy rather than the reality of the dismal food itself. The sensual activities of food preparation and the pleasure of eating have been replaced by artificial flavoring. The language is also devoid of sensory modifiers, taking on the shape of the gelatin’s cube in a condensed block: “(jelly: pineapple).” The quality of the food resists beauty, both rhetorically and physically. Instead the description hints at the urban consumerism that causes such a dismal product. As Stacey Alaimo reminds us in Bodily Natures, “Workers’ bodies are not only the sites of direct application of power, but permeable sites that are forever transformed by the substances and forces – asbestos, coal, dust, radiation – that permeate them.”17 By using Leonard as a thwarted peasant-figure of the pastoral tradition, Forster’s relationship with the pastoral tradition becomes more complex. Further the commingling of nature, body, and materiality of class highlights the ecomarxist potential of Forster’s pastoral which, as John Bellamy Foster might put it, “emphasizes the necessity of being particularly skeptical of assertions about the natural world when they conform to ruling class ideology.”18 Similarly, Margaret Schlegel’s eventual acquisition of Howards End, originally willed to her by the first Mrs Wilcox because of a shared appreciation of place rather than the laws of primogeniture, initially appears to signal a hopeful promise that society may learn to value the non-human environment. Margaret observes: “This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be movement, because it will rest on the earth.”19 One’s awareness of an identity that is anchored in a specific genius loci and nurtured by valuing land and organic life over human-centered industrial progress is posited as the salve to modernity’s ills. However, the movement from the London flat to Howards End is fraught with compromise. The circulation of commodities and their entanglement in the personal relationships of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes form the pivotal conflict of the novel. The dizzying array of property illustrates an industrial revaluation of nature and place, which marxist ecocritic John Bellamy Foster theorizes is the “catalyst for the unprecedented acceleration of changes in the atmosphere, the climate, the ocean, and the earth’s ecosystems.”20 Margaret acknowledges: “‘London’s creeping.’ She pointed over the meadow – over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust.”21 The looming threat of urban expansion is a reminder that England’s future is by no means secure and Forster’s agrarian resolution is neither tidy nor pat. Part of Forster’s strategy is to show his readers that a traditional pastoral resolution can only exist in the realm of fantasy


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and could never be realized in current English society without a larger shift in re-defining ‘progress’ and cultural practice, belying the escape of facile nostalgia. Modernist literature was also using the pastoral to naturalize a plurality of sexual desires. Queer ecocriticism theorizes this phenomenon. According to Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson: Rural spaces in particular have served . . . as places of freedom for male homoerotic encounters (famously, in Forster’s Maurice, which was not published until after his death). In addition because of the association of nature with ideas of innocence and authenticity, gay male writers have been able to use the pastoral literary conventions as a way of making an argument for the authenticity of homosexuality.22

Forster’s Maurice typifies this model, inverting the values normally associated with homosexuality at the turn of the century by incorporating into the romantic pastoral tradition what might otherwise be considered natural ‘deformities.’ Maurice Hill initially perceives nature with an unappreciative eye, wanting to see what is supposed to be aesthetically pleasing. Yet when he ponders the imperfections of nature, hoping to find one example of nature’s beauty fulfilled, he finds himself confronting the working-class gamekeeper Alec Scudder and his own homosexual desire: “On one spray every flower was lopsided, the next swarmed with caterpillars or bulged with galls. The indifference of nature! And her incompetence! He leant out of the window to see whether she couldn’t bring it off once, and stared straight into the bright brown eyes of a young man.”23 Maurice must reconfigure what he considers “natural” not only in how he defines “errors” in nature’s flowering plants, but also in the bloom of sexual love that Alec stirs within him. Moreover, the natural imagery is less symbolic of the traditional pastoral and tuned to a finer understanding of ecological operations which slyly suggests that what initially appears repulsive to social aesthetics may actually be quite natural. Lopsided flowers weighted with insects in symbiotic relation to the floral environment are part of a thriving ecosystem. It is not coincidental that when Maurice poses his apostrophe to nature, requesting a perfect specimen, nature responds with Alec. Likewise, the reader is invited to reconsider whether natural “imperfections,” be they caterpillars or supposedly deviant sexual desires, don’t all have a proper place in the overall health of the naturally abundant world. Now that he has met Alec, Maurice’s impulses to express love as an embodied act are aligned with a flight into nature’s own fecundity: “How the tangle of flowers and fruit wreathed his brain!”24 Forster

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remakes homosexual desire into something overflowing with organicity. Therefore, even those novels that have been dismissed as overly nostalgic modernist pastorals deserve a second ecocritical glance. Modernist experimentation with the pastoral also exposes how England’s industrial development depended on colonial oppression and control of natural resources to the detriment of both humans and the environment. A Passage to India has been thoughtfully critiqued for its failure to fully rid itself of problematic Western stereotypes, such as the way Aziz is characterized by the text as foolishly naive in contrast to the character of Fielding, who sometimes seems to endorse assumptions of English superiority. Yet Forster’s India also shows power dynamics operating on a vast scale surpassing human and nationalistic problems. As postcolonial ecocriticism reveals, the axis and scope of human and natural history aren’t always co-constitutive. Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley explain: “[postcolonial ecocriticism] must reckon with the ways ecology does not always work within the frames of human time and political interest. As such, our definition of postcolonial ecology reflects a complex epistemology that recuperates the alterity of both history and nature, without reducing either to the other.”25 As A Passage to India records a limited British perspective during an era of colonialism, it also positions the environment as an entity that both shares in that story and acts beyond it. Forster’s India disregards the boundaries of human mapmakers that audaciously conceive of land as inert and controlled by cultural divisions. Instead, Forster’s landscape is imbued with a tactile physicality. Heat and fatigue play a role at the Marabar caves, in the departure and death of Mrs Moore, the tense atmosphere of the trial, and the redemptive celebration of rain and fecundity in the final chapter. Moreover, the land is a nascent body “prostrate” with “fists and fingers . . . thrust up,” perhaps in a violent gesture of defiance against simple, superficial human attempts to see what is picturesque without comprehending larger patterns of meaning, or perhaps the embodiment of the force that reaches out in an effort to grip Adela as she tours the caves. One critic has suggested that Godbole’s association of the caves with Jainism admits the possibility that Adela harmed, or even enacted “a rape of the rock,”26 when she struck the cave wall, which then merited her own thorny punishment in accordance with the Jainist belief that “all material is eternal, conscious, and subject to metempsychosis.”27 Here, Jainist philosophy available to Forster and articulations of postcolonial ecocriticism within the new century overlap. Bonnie Roos and Alex Hunt emphasize the significance of this nexus: “The rights of reproduction and the fact


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of rape are other important aspects of the language of both postcolonialism and environmentalism.”28 The environmental body, the sexual body, and the postcolonial efforts to interpret how to read the interstices between violence to land and humans cannot be separated.

Folded Flesh and Vibrant Matter: The Modern Self Embedded in a Dynamic Environment Some of the signal techniques of modernism, or at least High Modernism, are stream-of-consciousness writing and various kinds of fragmentation – what Forster might identify as “pattern and rhythm”29 or what Woolf might term “some kind of whole made of shivering fragments.”30 The bulk of Forster’s publications precede Woolf’s most prolific decades. Thus, the shift from Forster’s structured anti-pastoral plots to Woolf’s experimental prose indicates the variety and transformation within green modernism.31 Yet despite these distinctions of style, their published reviews of each other’s work underscore a shared awareness of the significance of the environment in their fiction, as when Woolf acknowledges that the land seemed to be the most important element of A Passage to India.32 Likewise, Forster describes Woolf’s work in terms of a plant that refuses the confines of its “well-prepared garden bed” and surprisingly “pushes suckers up . . . even through the flagstones of the kitchen yard.”33 Woolf’s prose insists on the kinds of gaps and crevices that let life seep in. Fragmentation and ‘stream’ of thought inaugurate unique forms of environmental consciousness that express the uneasy relationship of humans newly aware of themselves within an embodied world, full of environmental prompts, palpable stimuli, and inter-related agencies. Merleau-Ponty’s ecophenomenology theorizes the primacy of our sensory contact with the world: “‘The world is not what I think, but what I live’ . . . and meaning is bodily attunement to that world.”34 In other words, the inner consciousness isn’t solipsistic or enclosed, but exists in relationship with the physical environment. Or as Karan Barad puts it, “[w]e do not obtain knowledge by standing outside of the world; we know because we are of the world.”35 Although the range of ecocritical attention to Woolf affirms that much of her oeuvre rewards ecocritical study, “Kew Gardens” (1919) and To the Lighthouse (1927) are two texts that more obviously forefront human relations with the environment. Further, they showcase how Woolf’s prose techniques subvert anthropocentricism in favor of constructing a creative dialectic between human thought and organic stimulus. The perspective of “Kew Gardens” is unexpectedly skewed as

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the action of human characters is presented from the point-of-view of a snail. This unlikely protagonist is attempting to resolve the conflict of how to make its way through an oval flower-bed. Between segments focusing on the snail, the reader is introduced to four sets of couples strolling past the snail’s garden plot. Edward Bishop has convincingly argued that the four couples represent middle, upper, and lower class; maturity, old age, and youth; as well as relations between husband and wife, male companions, female friends, and young lovers,36 emphasizing the way in which both the flora one finds at Kew Gardens and humanity itself is organized into classification systems. Postcolonial ecocritics reference Kew Gardens in asserting the significant link to the “language of taxonomy, discipline, and control” and cultural traditions of ranking organic and human species. In Postcolonial Ecologies, DeLoughrey and Handley theorize such spaces: “Just as the British Museum and Kew Gardens were constituted by the flora, fauna, and human knowledges extracted from the colonies, the discourse of natural history was articulated in terms of biotic nations, kingdoms, and colonists . . . contributing to biologically determinist discourses of race, gender, and nature.”37 Woolf’s rendering of Kew Royal Botanical Gardens as an abstraction of fused color, light, and water, with zooified representations of people and prominent non-human characters, directly subverts the usual cultural depictions of such a highly ordered, hierarchical place. Fractured language and miniature plots playfully trick logical conformity and traditional literary practice as the omniscient narrator only presents what goes on within the snail’s vicinity and human voices are reduced to bits and scraps of conversation. The reader enters the snail’s world with dramatic shifts in scale. Initially, the flowers are described as if the reader was herself walking past, admiring the summer blooms: “From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface.”38 The reader’s gaze is then drawn down deeper, beneath the petals, which are now appreciated from overhead: “The light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneath the surface, and again it moved on and spread its illumination in the vast green spaces beneath the dome of the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves.”39 Christina Alt notes how Woolf incorporates ethology’s awareness that “the significance of any creature is most fully realised when it is observed as a living thing within its natural surroundings.”40 Here, that approach is exemplified in the way the snail is embedded within a fully animate environment and operates as a


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moving, living creature, rather than an inert being. The literary application of this intense form of lived observation changes the perception of scale and creates a new consciousness of the lived, bodily sensorium. In Merleau-Ponty’s ecophenomenology, an attentiveness to perspective and the senses prompts embodied awareness: To learn to see colours is to acquire a certain style of seeing, a new use of one’s own body: it is to enrich and recast the body image. Whether a system of motor or perceptual powers, our body is not an object for an “I think”, it is a grouping of lived-through meanings . . .. the first visual data are integrated into a fresh sensory entity, our natural powers suddenly come together in a richer meaning.41

To put Woolf’s use of prose in Merleau-Ponty’s terms, she evokes an artistic aesthetic that brings together a “fresh sensory entity” of garden and a new “richer meaning” of a shared organic world. Her writing moves away from the “‘I think’” by encouraging the reader to “aquire a certain style of seeing” uniting images, light, and associations that require the reader to integrate “the first visual data into a fresh sensory entity.” The play of light, atmosphere, and matter is linked to the very basis of thought through Woolf’s suggestive comparison of verdant undergrowth and active, embodied brain. She describes the light as it traces patterns in “flesh” and “veins,” of succulent green tissue, that also resembles a circuited mind in its “branching thread of fibre beneath the surface.” The multiple references to the leaves that are “heart-shaped and tongue-shaped” with “throats” also coalesce organic image and human body. It is the variants of this interactive play of light, flower, scale, and sensory memory that becomes story. Or, as Iovino describes it, “Material ecocriticism takes matter as a text . . . a corporeal palimpsest in which stories are inscribed.”42 The fact that Woolf was representing such understandings in tandem with Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy or prior to new materialism’s theoretical arrival, is not as important for its chronological coup as it is for how it reminds us that environmental consciousness is always already part of us, and is carried forth through our continued efforts to make it culturally visible. As Carole-Bourne Taylor and Ariane Mildenberg observe: “Phenomenology gives back to the modernist artwork its dimension of experience” which Modernist authors then use to “reject all forms of false idealism to immerse themselves in the chaotic immanence of life.”43 Woolf’s work illustrates this productive chaotic immersion as her description of light moves upward again from the dappled caverns of the undergrowth: “Then the breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead and the colour was flashed into the air above, into the eyes of the men and women

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who walk in Kew Gardens in July.”44 The reader is shunted from an absorbed view of the undergrowth back to the perspective of the humans walking above the flowers, fostering a recognition of the depth and space of world we move within and the variety of lives that experience it from differing subjective planes. Thus, in one opening paragraph, Woolf destabilizes the reader’s sense of scale, suggesting that there is life worth recording not only from our own perspective, but also from the viewpoint of insects and snails, all interlaced within the world’s thick flesh. Although the shared names of Lily as a fondly remembered past love who refused a marriage proposal in “Kew Gardens” and Lily Briscoe, the single female painter in To the Lighthouse, are probably mere coincidence, Lily Briscoe’s creativity emanates from a similar logos of the world to that depicted in “Kew Gardens.” She finally completes her painting of Mrs Ramsay with the assistance of the ambient world of non-human matter: She began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, moving her brush hither and thither, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which dictated to her (she kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current.45

Lily is directly reacting to the surrounding environment. She is “looking at the hedge” which “dictated to her” the movements of her hand. The hedge itself has symbolic significance as an ecological contact zone harboring a variety of wildlife species, which was at risk during the modern era as more space was needed for industrialized farming,46 making hedges a lush example of the complicated nexus between human and non-human. Yet, Lily doesn’t create an image of the hedge on her canvas; rather, the hedge makes itself known to her so that she can be caught in the current of ambient life around her and learn how to express it. The outer world is not the product of her own conscious thought; instead, it is what inspires her thought and action. She gives expression to the latency that had been “nothing” she could translate, rendering it visible. Similarly, MerleauPonty uses Proust to describe how the “little phrase” of remembered music in Swann’s Way is “only ‘bare values substituted for the mysterious entity he had perceived, for the convenience of his understanding.’”47 What one produces, either intellectually or physically, is a visible register not of one’s own sole accomplishment, but of how the multiple forces of the ecophenomenological field filter “through” the instrument of our being.


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However, it would be an all too utopian vision to assume that these moments amount to a harmonious unity. Rather, it is the incompleteness, feelings of failure, frustration, and alienation that render these revelations about the glimpses of shared meaning their poignancy. The reader never knows if the snail in “Kew Gardens” gained his goal, and for Lily, the organic inspiration is “some” rhythm not quite known, and still requires a “precarious” immersion. Bourne-Taylor and Mildenberg remind us, “There is complacency neither in modernist aesthetics, nor in phenomenology. Celebration needs the accompaniment of interrogation.”48 Although Woolf’s use of nature has garnered deserved attention in modernist study, Woolf is by no means the only novelist whose work reflects these kinds of modernist environmental questions within stream of consciousness or whose experiments with formal hybridity attempt to graze the flesh of the world. As Bonnie Kime Scott notes, “These ‘moments of being,’ shared by Woolf, Proust, and Joyce, ground the young subject in a conceptual universe, starting with an erotic sense of union with a simple organic form.”49

Green Stories and Ambiguous Endings Just as ecocriticism can make productive interventions into the study of English modernism, the complex aesthetic responses to modernity can enhance ecocritical study. The problematized ‘Nature’ of modernist works helps ecocritical theory resist its own didactic tendencies to only favor literature which seems to offer a ‘solution.’ Instead, the modernist ecocritic must be attuned to the variety of tensions within a work – the fissures and fault lines of our struggle to engage with the non-human and participate as members of a shared community – doubts and fears that still trouble our environmental imagination today, exposing the hinge of our ethical conflicts with prioritizing non-human life. Notes 1 Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction” The Common Reader [1925], ed. Andrew McNeillie (New York: Harcourt, 1984), p. 146. 2 Matthew Stevens, Modernism: Origins and Overview (London: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 5–7. 3 Gordon E. Cherry and Alan Rogers, Rural Change and Planning: England and Wales in the Twentieth Century (London: E. & F.N. Spon, 1996), p. 29. 4 Ibid., p. 32. 5 Ibid., p. 31.

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6 Woolf, Modern Fiction, p. 150. 7 Ibid., p. 152. 8 Judith Paltin,“‘An Infected Carrier of the Past’: Modernist Nature as the Ground for Anti-Realism.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 20.4 (Autumn 2013), p. 779. 9 Terry Gifford,“Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral, and Post-Pastoral,” in Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment, ed. Louise Westling (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 26. 10 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 248. 11 Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2010), p. 11. 12 Terry Gifford, Pastoral, ed. John Drakakis. New Critical Idiom (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 128. 13 Portions of the following analysis of Forster’s work originally appeared in Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination, by Kelly Sultzbach (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), copyright © Cambridge University Press, 2016, reprinted with permission. 14 E.M. Forster, Howards End (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 120. 15 Ibid., p. 120. 16 Ibid., p. 56. 17 Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 30. 18 John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), p. 267. 19 Forster, Howards End, p. 355. 20 Foster et al., Ecological Rift, p. 35. 21 Forster, Howards End, p. 355. 22 Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, “Introduction: A Genealogy of Queer Ecologies,” in Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 23. 23 E.M. Forster, Maurice [1971] (New York: Norton, 1993), p. 179. 24 Ibid., p. 191. 25 Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley, eds, Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 4. 26 Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran, “E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India: What Really Happened in the Caves,” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 34.4 (Winter 1988), p. 602. 27 Ibid., p. 600. 28 Bonnie Roos and Alex Hunt, “Systems and Secrecy: Postcolonial Ecocriticism and Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome,” The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment, ed. Louise Westling (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 187.


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29 E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel [1927] (New York: Harcourt, 1964), p. 149. 30 Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice, ed. Michael E. Leaska (London: Pimlico, 2004), p. 393. 31 Portions of the following analysis of Woolf’s fiction originally appeared in Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination, by Kelly Sultzbach (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), copyright © Cambridge University Press, 2016, reprinted with permission. 32 Virginia Woolf, “The Novels of E.M. Forster,” in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (San Diego: Harcourt, 1970), p. 174. 33 E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (New York: Harcourt, 1951), p. 242. 34 Louise Westling, The Logos of the Living World: Merleau-Ponty, Animals, and Language (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), p. 32. 35 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 185. 36 Edward Bishop, “Pursuing ‘It’ Through ‘Kew Gardens,’” Studies in Short Fiction 19.3 (Summer 1982), p. 271. 37 DeLoughrey and Handley, Postcolonial Ecologies, pp. 11–12. 38 Virginia Woolf, “Kew Gardens,” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf (2nd edn), ed. Susan Dick (New York: Harcourt, 1989), p. 90. 39 Ibid. 40 Christina Alt, Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 147–48. 41 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 177. 42 Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann, “Theorizing Material Ecocriticism: A Diptych,” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.3 (Summer 2012), p. 451. 43 Carole Bourne-Taylor and Ariane Mildenberg, “Introduction: Phenomenology, Modernism and Beyond,” in Phenomenology, Modernism, and Beyond, vol. 10, Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, series ed. J.B. Bullen (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), pp. 15, 18–19. 44 Woolf, “Kew Gardens,” p. 95. 45 Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, ed. Mark Hussey (New York: Harcourt, 2005), p. 163. 46 Cherry and Rogers, Rural Change and Planning, pp. 141–42. 47 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis, ed. Claude Lefort (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 150. 48 Bourne-Taylor and Mildenburg, “Phenomenology,” p. 19. 49 Scott, Bonnie Kime, In the Hollow of the Wave: Virginia Woolf and the Modernist Uses of Nature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), p. 26.

chapter 17

Ecological Thought and Literature in Europe and Germany Hubert Zapf

The Influence of Anglo-American on European Ecocriticism The emergence and subsequent institutionalization of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities as a new academic field has been a development initiated and very much shaped by scholars from the Anglophone world, especially the USA. Meanwhile, ecocriticism has become an increasingly diversified and dynamically expanding area of study that is spreading through humanities and literature departments around the globe and is gaining attention as a critical corrective and source of potential alternatives to a primarily economic and technoscientific model of globalization. While scholars at British universities were among the first to join this “ecocritical insurgency”1 against the then prevalent epistemologies of poststructuralism, continental Europe in general and Germany in particular reacted to this development with some delay. Literature departments here did not begin to adopt ecocritical perspectives in their research and teaching before the twenty-first century. This initial hesitancy can partly be traced to differences in academic cultures. In the case of Germany, a country in which environmental concerns rank particularly high on the public agenda, the study of ecological issues was mainly left to non-literary disciplines such as environmental history, philosophy, or sociology, while literary studies were dominated by philological and cultural-constructivist approaches. The personal, realist, and normative tendencies of some directions of AngloAmerican ecocriticism seemed at odds with the descriptive, textual, and aesthetic preferences of German literary scholarship, which since the end of World War II had developed a deeply engrained skepticism about any essentialist notions of nature. These had not only, in racialized form, been disastrously misused by the Nazis, but also contradicted the epistemological reflexivity and aesthetic complexity associated both with literary texts and with the discipline of literary studies itself. 269


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It doesn’t come as a surprise therefore that it was mainly scholars of American Studies that introduced ecocriticism into literature departments in Germany. The first major ecocritical conference in 2004, which coincided with the foundation of the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture, and the Environment (EASLCE), was organized by Americanists Catrin Gersdorf and Sylvia Mayer and attended mostly by Americanist scholars from German-speaking countries and other parts of Europe. It broadly took stock of international ecocriticism, but also looked beyond merely emulating the Anglo-American model to what promised to constitute genuinely European contributions to the debate. One of these differences was marked in EASLCE’s name itself, where the addition of the term “culture” indicated the emphasis on the cultural and textual mediation of ecological issues as a distinctive feature of European compared to American ecocriticism. If this was, as Greg Garrard suggests, a “conscious declaration of independence” and an attempt at “overturning Anglo-American dominance,”2 it would on the other hand be misleading to suggest that a unified European ecocritical knowledge was forming at the time. In fact, some of the developments that shaped the much more diversified scene of ecocriticism in Europe today were already visible at that early stage. They point to a regional and national plurality of approaches that have helped to broaden the range and enrich the historical–cultural depth of the ecocritical paradigm, which has meanwhile become a fundamental new orientation of the humanities in Europe as well. The publication in 2015 of the first introduction to ecocriticism in German is a sign of this growing interest.3

The Diversity of European Ecocriticism If we look at ecocritical studies in Europe today, this double dynamics and mutually enriching coexistence between transatlantic and global networks of ecocritical dialogue on the one hand, and manifestations of regional, cultural, and national diversity on the other, is evident in the research foci of scholars and the topics of conferences and journal issues. For example, the journal of EASLCE, Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment, obviously overlaps in its program with that of ISLE, Green Letters, and others, featuring articles on transnationally shared concepts and concerns, while at the same time promoting a broad variety of specifically continental European ecocritical ideas and approaches: “Its pages are open to contributions on all literatures and cultures, but its special mission is to reflect the cultural, linguistic and natural richness

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and diversity of the European continent” (www.easlce.eu/publications/ ecozona/ accessed April 2, 2015). For this reason of ecocultural diversity, Ecozon@ accepts contributions in five languages. The fact that the vast majority of the essays are nevertheless submitted in English in my view indicates not so much Anglo-American dominance as a more general quandary: while local, cultural, and linguistic diversity constitutes a vital and irreducible basis of any ecological epistemology, which can never be adequately translated into a unified, commonly shared knowledge and scholarly discourse, the continuous attempt at such translation is inevitable because of the transnational import and global connectivity of all ecological thought. A brief, necessarily incomplete survey of important directions of ecocriticism in continental Europe, which I don’t have space to provide here, would have to include Italian ecocritical thought as represented, first and foremost, by Serenella Iovino, who fuses an ethically inspired eco-philosophical tradition with comparative studies of German and Italian literature and combines sociopolitical critique with a materialist approach that addresses characteristic Italian environmental problems such as the eco-mafia, toxic waste, and environmental mismanagement as critically reflected in textual and media cultures.4 With Serpil Oppermann, who brings her own expertise as an Americanist scholar and environmentally engaged citizen in Turkey to bear on her ecocritical work, Iovino has been instrumental in deepening the transatlantic ecocritical conversation aligning European traditions of thought with the new materialism in American humanities departments. Iovino and Oppermann coined the term “material ecocriticism” and provided its theoretical foundation as an interdisciplinary approach which, integrating science and cultural studies, pays attention not only to living ecosystems but to matter itself as an active, irreducible element in all cultural processes.5 Meanwhile, other scholars from Spain, Italy, France, Turkey and elsewhere are developing what is being called “Mediterranean ecocriticism,” examining the physical, geographical, historical, cultural, and textual conditions and mediations of human and nonhuman life in the transnationally shared boundary zone between water and land marked by the Mediterranean Sea.6 Another European contribution to international ecocriticism is the biosemiotic criticism largely originating from Scandinavia and the Baltic States (see Chapter 18 in this volume). Influenced by Jakob von Uexküll and Gregory Bateson among others, the combination of human with biological information processes has been an important step taken since


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the 1980s by semioticians such as Hungarian-American Thomas Sebeok and biologists such as Jesper Hoffmeyer and Claus Emmeche from Denmark, Thure von Uexküll from Germany, and Kalevi Kull and Timo Maran from Estonia.7 Again, local and regional practices are fused and transformed by cross-cultural influences, as illustrated in the adoption of a biosemiotic approach by Wendy Wheeler, who enriches biosemiotics by integrating it with the social-critical thought of British cultural materialist Raymond Williams and the cultural semiotics of the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. In her view, semiotic communication operates in similar ways on all stages of life as a transformative evolutionary force, from micro-level cells to the complex self-reflexive structures of literary communication as expressed, for example, in the workings of literary metaphors.8

The Rhizomic Genealogy of European Ecological Thought What these distinct but mutually intersecting developments show is that the emergence of modern ecocriticism has been a multilinear and transnational rather than a unilinear Anglo-American development. Instead of one single ecocritical narrative, the “rhizomic” approach proposed by DeLoughrey and Handley from a postcolonial perspective9 seems to be appropriate from a European perspective as well. This means that ecocritical thought has different locations, sources, and centers of origin and evolution, and has developed early on a network of dialogues between local origins and transnational influences. This is especially true when one looks at ecocriticism not only in terms of its recent labelling as an academic movement but considers the deeper roots and cross-cultural evolution of ecological thought more widely. In this more general, more inclusive sense, ecocriticism deals with the epistemic relation of potentially all human cultures to the natural world as reflected in their narratives, symbolic forms, and systems of thought, and reaches back before its scholarly institutionalization into modern and premodern cultural and literary history. In the case of continental Europe, one would first of all have to go back to classical and preclassical antiquity, where significant manifestations of proto-ecological thought have been pointed out, for example, in Greek and Roman nature philosophy or in the poetics of the four elements.10 The Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment also significantly contributed to this tradition well before the Romantic period (see Chapters 8–10 in this volume). Thus when Gillian Rudd points out

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discontinuities and continuities in ecological attitudes between medieval and modern sensibilities and appeals “to the common humanity of both premodern author and contemporary reader,”11 this can be applied to other historical contexts and periods.

The Influence of European Ecological Thought on Contemporary Ecocriticism If we turn from such overarching transhistorical frames to more specific formations of ecological thought in Europe, we see that not only do they reach back before the era of modern ecocriticism but they have shaped the ecocritical paradigm in more ways than is immediately apparent. An interesting case in point is French and Francophone ecocriticism. Up to very recently, the answer to the question whether there is a French ecocriticism was usually one of perplexity, followed by references to such isolated approaches as géocritique, géopoetique, or nascent forms of écocritique and écopoetique. These were somehow related but did not form a coherent field. Stephanie Posthumus and Rachel Bouvet are currently working to make these approaches more visible and put them on the map of contemporary ecocriticism, emphasizing their historical–cultural distinctness and acting on the premise that in spite of the global dimension of environmental problems, ecological thought evolves in different forms that are not easily transferable from one national culture or literature to another.12 In fact, when we look at contemporary international ecocriticism, we see that the writings of theorists such as Bruno Latour and Michel Serres have already become core reference points for some of the most recent developments in the field. Latour especially with his political ecology and actor-network theory is a key figure in material ecocriticism, the environmental humanities, and ecocritical science studies. This is also true of another strong influence from France, Deleuze and Guattari.13 Further back in intellectual history, another case in point for a transnational, rhizomic genealogy of ecocritical thought is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French scholar of Husserl and Heidegger, whose influence on contemporary ecocriticism is considerable. Thus it is no exaggeration to state that important strands of recent French philosophy have in effect become an intrinsic part of contemporary Anglo-American ecocriticism even before the emergence of an ‘official’ French ecocriticism – though only in translated and, according to Posthumus/Bouvet, not fully equivalent versions.14


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The Contribution of German Literature and Philosophy to Ecological Thought I would like to argue here that this is also true of German ecocritical thought. Focusing in on German contributions to ecological thought, I will look here at both the distinct features and cross-cultural interactions by which they are shaped. The Proto-Ecological Dimension of Literature from Fairy Tales to Romanticism As in the case of British literature, ecological themes and attitudes can be traced back in German literature to medieval romances, baroque nature poetry, and Enlightenment treatises on the proper balance between culture and nature. They are likewise present in premodern folk songs as collected by the Romantics, such as in Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano’s collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn, 1805–08), which in the early twentieth century would become a source of ecologically inspired musical compositions in Mahler’s song cycle of that title. A number of the fairy tales assembled by the Brothers Grimm (1812) are also examples of that close kinship and mutual metamorphosis of human and nonhuman, spiritual and material worlds, in which what Wheeler calls the “symbiogenetic” coevolution of culture and nature15 is inscribed into popular story-telling traditions. In these imaginary landscapes inhabited by speaking animals and allomorphic humans, the place of humans in the more-than-human world is defined as a fantastic border zone between civilization and wilderness, a place of dangerous and fascinating transgressions between norm and instinct, mind and body, self and other, consciousness and the unconscious. On a more general scale, the literature and nature philosophy of German Romanticism is being reassessed as an important crystallization of proto-ecological thought. Just as British Romanticism has been taken as the model for literary ecology, German Romanticism, or more broadly the period known as the Goethezeit between c. 1780 and 1830, is gaining scholarly attention as an era that anticipated important developments in modern ecological thought. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a key figure here as in other developments: in his intense interest in a cross-disciplinary form of knowledge combining literature and science; in his biomorphological concept of the metamorphosis of plants; in his philosophy of colors as both material and psycho-aesthetic phenomena; and in his

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literary works themselves, which can be read as different versions of negotiating mind–body and culture–nature relations. For example, the conflict in Faust between an egocentric will to knowledge and power and a deeper culture–nature connectivity, between civilizational hubris and an awareness of complex relationality, epitomizes ecologically significant issues of cultural evolution that are transmitted through the aesthetic structures of the play.16 German nature poetry is another important source of ecological awareness, prefigured in Goethe’s early poems, and flourishing in the poems of Claudius, Hölderlin, Novalis, Tieck, Brentano, or later, Eichendorff. According to the leading theoretical voice of German Romanticism, Friedrich Schlegel, “human artistic creation arises from, and remains indebted to, the ‘unconscious poesy’ of the earth.”17 Novalis especially is an illustrative case because he combines highly ecstatic spiritual nature worship with a scientific attitude, being both a poet-philosopher and a mining engineer to whom ‘mining’ had a concrete material meaning in the sense of work and geological study, as well as a poetic meaning in the sense of mining the unexplored depths of that “‘unconscious poesy’ of the earth.”18 As elsewhere, the pastoral mode and particularly the Romantic “neo-pastoral” (Raymond Williams) has been a typical genre of literary explorations of historically changing forms of culture–nature interdependence, especially in the face of the devastations caused by the industrial revolution, and is thus at least subliminally characterized by a social-critical agenda. This emphasis on imaginative and counterdiscursive functions of literature as a form of ecocultural knowledge seems to mark one significant difference from American environmental literature given the relative absence in European literatures of the particular genre, nonfictional nature writing, so prominent in the American tradition of literary environmentalism. Confluences between Literature and Science Different from what is often assumed, German Romanticism in its high phase did not oppose poetry to science but rather looked for new, more comprehensive forms of knowledge through their dynamic fusion. This idea was famously expressed in Schlegel’s concept of progressive Universalpoesie (progressive universal poesy), and had its philosophical counterpart in the nature philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling. Schelling opposed the rationalistic atomism of the sciences of his time as falsely “splitting up” phenomena into ever smaller parts in an illusionary


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obsession designed to get ever closer to ‘true’ reality. At the same time, he proposed a new holistic form of science by emphasizing interrelatedness rather than isolation, Wechselwirkung (interactivity) instead of Spaltung (splitting). Schelling’s influence on the British Romantics is well known, especially on Coleridge, whose concept of the secondary imagination as a fusion of opposite, otherwise separated forces owes a lot to Schelling. The ecological strand of the German philosophy of nature, originating in Kant and leading on to Fichte and Hegel, culminated in Schelling, to whom “nature was visible mind, mind invisible nature.”19 By his thinking in relational “potencies” rather than classificatory hierarchies, the Romantic resistance to inherited dualisms of mind vs body, reason vs the senses, gained philosophical status. The relationship between what C.P. Snow would later call the “two cultures” of literature and the sciences was much closer and more lively in the nineteenth century than is commonly perceived. What is little known, for example, is the importance of Schelling’s thought for the natural sciences. The discovery of electromagnetism was apparently influenced by Schelling’s idea of Wechselwirkung, of interactivity as the relational substance of the mind as well as of living matter – in this case of electricity and magnetism, which had been considered independent forces until then.20 Schelling also inspired the transdisciplinary thought of Alexander von Humboldt, whose seminal global exploration travelogues were scientific records as well as cultural, literary, and pictorial narratives. Humboldt’s massive work Kosmos, written on the basis of a collaborative exchange with a transnational network of scholars and assembling all the available cosmological, geographical, biological, and geological knowledge of the time, is oriented on Schelling’s notion of nature as a whole moved by internal living forces.21 Another major figure shaping ecological thought in the later nineteenth and into the twentieth century was Ernst Haeckel, who adopted Darwin’s evolutionary ideas and first coined the term “ecology.” Haeckel saw intrinsic analogies between forms of nature and forms of art, which he developed in his Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature), holding that “this formless substance [i.e. plasma] proceeds in many ways similar in its production of solid forms of nature as man in the production of art forms.”22 Though Haeckel’s version of Darwinism lent itself to ideologies of supremacy later misused by the Nazis, he was an influential figure both in biological ecology and its cultural and artistic transformations. Together with Goethe’s morphology and theory of colors, the mutual illumination of symmetries and emergent structures in nature and art, as pointedly

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formulated in Haeckel’s Die Natur als Künstlerin (Nature as Artist, 1916), inspired artistic developments such as the ornamental style of the Jugendstil (art nouveau), the expressionist fusions of man and environment in Franz Marc, the phantastic experimental art of Paul Klee, and, later in the twentieth century, the ecological architectural designs of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. German Ecocritical Theory and International Ecocriticism As in the case of French ecological thought, positions of German philosophy, critical theory, and aesthetics have become an intrinsic part of the international ecocritical debate since the later twentieth century. Phenomenology One important strand of influence is the phenomenological school founded by Edmund Husserl and developed further by Martin Heidegger, whose critique of instrumental technology and concept of poetic “dwelling” has been adopted by ecocritics such as Jonathan Bate, although Heidegger’s long-denied collaboration with the Nazi regime has led others to distance themselves.23 Nevertheless, phenomenological approaches that included the intersubjective “life-world” (Husserl) and the existential “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger) as conditions of philosophical thought have become a powerful direction in current ecocriticism. This culminates with Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, which turned phenomenology into an eco-phenomenology in which the body and “flesh of the world” gained epistemic status in the living existential interrelatedness between self and world. Merleau-Ponty’s ideas have been taken up not only by Gernot Böhme in his aesthetics of nature (see below) but have become immensely influential in ecofeminism, ecopsychology, and ecosemiotics.24 Frankfurt Critical Theory A further significant influence is the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, art represents a resistance of nature – however oblique – against the totalizing claims of instrumental reason. More explicitly, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory has been illuminated in its ecotheoretical potential, for example in Sabine Wilke’s and Kate Soper’s critical rehabilitation of Romantic nature poetics from the perspective of Adorno’s dialectic aesthetics of nature. In this light, Romantic poetry, and by extension imaginative literature in general, is not just a rhetorical vehicle of contemporary structures of power and discourse,


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but has the potential to transgress and break out of their totalizing pressures – both socially, in their resistance to modern consumer society, whose origins coincide with the rise of Romantic literature, and ecologically, in their resistance to the ideological dominance and discursive appropriation of other-than-human nature.25 Walter Benjamin, too, has been reconsidered as an urban ecologist and philosopher of waste in his analysis of modern consumer fetishism. This goes along with an awareness of the historical wastelands left by the discarded products of civilization.26 Urban landscapes are sites of isolation and commodification, but also of new experiences of self-enhancement in the paradoxical merging between self and collective, natural and urban environments that is epitomized by the figure of the flâneur. Benjamin circumscribes the task of such urban ecology in the oxymoronic trope of “botanizing on the asphalt,”27 which reverses the culture–nature binary underlying industrial-capitalist society and links the archaeology of social alienation with a fragmentary form of writing that recovers glimpses of a new cooperative relationship between culture and nature from the garbage of history. Ecological Extensions of Critical Theory: Gernot Böhme’s Aesthetics of Nature and Ulrich Beck’s World Risk Society Continuing the critical tradition of the Frankfurt School with a more explicitly ecological, though notably different, focus, two important, emerging directions of ecological thought are represented by Gernot Böhme and Ulrich Beck. Böhme is a cultural philosopher linking the capitalist critique of the Frankfurt School with a recuperation of aesthetics as an historically disempowered but potentially regenerative cultural praxis that helps to reinscribe the body into our interaction with the natural world.28 “Nature” to Böhme is an always culturally constructed, but nevertheless real nature, by which we, as living bodies, are as much shaped as we are continually reshaping it. An ecological society of the future is not possible by any “return” to a pre-social world but can only come into being through responsible transformation of nature by culture, in which a new aesthetic sense is an indispensable element. Böhme’s concept of “atmosphere” as an intermediary phenomenon between a material and psychological dimension belonging to neither subject or object alone has been taken up by ecocritics for theoretical explorations and textual interpretations.29 Beck is a sociologist who develops the critique of instrumental reason into a theory of risk linked to the process of modernization that threatens to move beyond the control of human agency. This is exemplified in the

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dangers of nuclear power, climate change, and other unintended consequences of the accelerating technoscientific progress that has shaped the most recent phase of “reflexive modernization.”30 With his concept of a “world risk society,” Beck has become a key reference for ecocritical positions that emphasize the global dimensions of the ecological crisis.31 Social systems theory such as Niklas Luhmann’s is more tied in its reception to a German context but has been pursued by international ecocritics such as Hannes Bergthaller.32 Luhmann argues that social systems follow similar autopoetic rules to biological systems, and emphasizes the sharp difference between system and environment rather than the interactions usually assumed in ecological thought. This leads him to radical constructivist, self-referential, and paradoxical conceptions of society, culture, and knowledge that complicate any straightforward environmental agency.33 Cultural Ecology Another direction of current ecocritical thought that has gained considerable attention in Germany and continental Europe but is also beginning to be discussed in the Anglophone world is cultural ecology.34 Again, this approach builds on a distinctly German intellectual tradition but is also rhizomically connected to cross-national confluences of ideas. Cultural ecology as a transdisciplinary approach is inspired by Gregory Bateson’s Ecology of Mind and Peter Finke’s notion of “cultural ecosystems.”35 In a dialogue between evolutionary biology, social systems theory, and linguistics, Finke points out that the characteristic environments of human beings are not just external but internal environments: the inner worlds and landscapes of the mind, the psyche, and the cultural imagination make up the habitats of humans as much as their external natural and material environments. Language as a cultural ecosystem is especially important as a shaping factor in the process of cultural evolution. Language represents a missing link between cultural and natural evolution, because it relates back to concrete biophysical forms of information and communication in the pre-cultural world of nature, but also transforms them into more abstract, symbolic systems of human interpretation and self-interpretation. Language thus decisively contributes to the emergence of internal worlds of consciousness and culture that are characteristic of cultural evolution. Language and other cultural sign systems, in turn, are the material and medium of art and literature, whose task is the constant critical examination, imaginative exploration, and creative self-renewal of these cultural sign systems.


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In this more specific sense, literature can itself be described as the symbolic medium of a particularly powerful form of cultural ecology.36 This means that literature is not only a preferred discursive site for representing and negotiating the culture–nature relationship but that in its aesthetic transformation of experience, it acts like an ecological force within the larger system of culture and cultural discourses. A cultural ecology of literature considers the evolution of aesthetic and imaginative forms of textuality as doubly coded – as a deep-rooted, transhistorical feature of human cultural evolution manifesting itself across different cultures and periods from archaic to modern civilizations; and as a historical-specific phenomenon, as the result of the functional differentiation and specialization of different kinds of writing, discourse, and cultural practice especially since the eighteenth century. In its emphasis on the distinctive ecological functions of literature and the aesthetic, cultural ecology links up with the post-Derridean revaluation of textual aesthetics and literary art as proposed, for example, in Derek Attridge’s Singularity of Literature.37 In particular, it builds on Wolfgang Iser’s literary anthropology, which describes literary history not in terms of a binary opposition between fiction and reality, but as a triadic relation between the Real, the Fictive, and the Imaginary, in which the Fictive is a cultural form mediating the institutionalized pressures of the Real with the anarchic and amorphous impulses of the Imaginary.38 This model is translated into the context of cultural ecology by extending Iser’s self-referential anthropological imaginary towards an ecological imaginary, which in literary texts represents a source of counterdiscursive scenarios to the predominant systems of civilizational order. On this basis, the approach of a cultural ecology of literature establishes a threefold model describing the ecological function of literature within the larger system of cultural discourses: as a cultural-critical metadiscourse, an imaginative counterdiscourse, and a reintegrative interdiscourse.39 This triadic functional model has proved productive both as a theoretical paradigm and as an approach to the interpretation of texts, not only in the field of American literature in which it was first applied but in various comparative and transnational contexts.40 It shapes the deeper transformative dynamics of literary texts even where they are not at first sight instances of environmental literature. We can illustrate this, briefly, via three major examples from different historical periods and literary styles: Goethe’s Faust, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Here, the triadic model of cultural ecology can be seen to operate in different ways in these three texts: the lifeless formalism of established

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knowledge (Faust), the biophobic repression exerted by patriarchal family structures (Metamorphosis), and the hypocritical norms of the adult world (Tin Drum) represent culture-critical metadiscourses exposing petrifications of the dominant cultural system; the pact with the devil and the alliance with magic (Faust), the protagonist’s metamorphosis into a human-size insect (Metamorphosis), and Oskar’s glass-shattering scream and the telekinetic sound of the tin drum (Tin Drum) form imaginative counter-discourses in which the culturally repressed becomes a phantasmatic force of monstrous transgressions; and the integration of the Faustian impulse towards ultimate knowledge with an ecofeminist song of the earth (Faust), the subversion of the anthropocentric order even as it seems to reassert itself (Metamorphosis), and the writing of Oskar’s memoirs in the insane asylum (Tin Drum) are different manifestations of a re-integrative interdiscourse which brings together, in conflictual yet potentially regenerative ways, what is culturally separated, revealing the conflict between biophobic and biophilic forces as a major source of literary creativity. Environmental Issues in Recent German Literature While environmental issues were already, therefore, subliminally present in a broad range of texts and genres in premodern, classical, and Romantic German literature, examples of environmental literature in a more explicit sense were rare in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Apart from novels such as Wilhelm Raabe’s Pfister’s Mühle (1883–84), a novel of environmental pollution questioning modernist concepts of progress, and dispersed narratives of natural disaster and catastrophe, environmentally engaged literature only comes to the fore in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For an overview of the history of German Umweltliteratur (environmental literature), surveys such as Goodbody’s Nature, Technology and Cultural Change are especially helpful.41 I can mention only a few recent examples here to indicate the range and thematic preferences of this corpus of environmental fiction: Günter Grass, Die Rättin (The Rat 1979), the dialogue of a nameless personal narrator with a rat, in which the rats have succeeded humans in a posthumanist scenario that will bring no evolutionary improvement; Monika Maron, Flugasche (Flight of Ashes, 1981), a social-critical novel about the airpolluting effects of the brown coal mines in Bitterfeld, East Germany; Christa Wolf, Störfall (Accident, 1987), an intensely personal novel about the ambiguities of modern technology and human survival against the background of the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl; Ilija Trojanow’s EisTau


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(Melting Ice, 2011), a novel about a passionate glaciologist turning ecoterrorist because of public indifference to the disappearing glaciers in the Alps and the thawing of the Arctic ice. As in the Anglophone world, climate-change novels, ecothrillers, and speculative fiction novels in the apocalyptic or utopian modes are becoming a rather popular genre. Among them, Frank Schätzing’s Der Schwarm (The Swarm, 2004) has probably been the internationally most successful example. By way of conclusion, I would like to focus on a by now almost classical text that is being reassessed within recent debates on the ‘Anthropocene’: Max Frisch’s Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (Man in the Holocene, 1979). This short collage-like narrative is set against a background of natural catastrophes, geological history, and human evolution and is told from the perspective of an old man, Herr Geiser, who suffers from increasing weakness of memory and early onset dementia. Cut off from the external world by an apocalyptic rainstorm and threatened landslide in his Swiss mountain house, Herr Geiser lives in the presence of a cat and a fire salamander, desperately trying to preserve not only his personal memory but all important human knowledge from all times in fragmentary notes and passages cut out from books that he glues to the walls. Partially paralyzed by a stroke, he feels himself slowly metamorphosing into an amphibian internally, while externally fading from the story and the world. His fate resembles the fate of mankind itself, which risks its own disappearance by the very success of its apparent mastery of nature in the geological age after the Holocene which has come to be called the Anthropocene. Frisch’s novel serves as just one example of a text which originally was not viewed as an environmental narrative so much as a semi-biographic study of an aging writer, but which is disclosing its larger cultural significance within the new ecocritical paradigm. This is true of German literature in general, where environmental issues in a more narrow sense are perhaps less obviously prominent but where the presence of a fundamental ecocultural dimension can be traced, as has been seen, in major literary works. I hope it has become clear in the preceding discussion that the German contribution to ecological theory and to ecological literature is both transnationally connected and yet distinct, with features that anticipate contemporary ecocultural debates. Among these are the close relation between literature and science in early, eco-semiotic forms of writing in German Romanticism; the ecological implications of aesthetic theory from Baumgarten through Hegel, Schelling, and Nietzsche to the Frankfurt School; and the transhistorical dimension of such an aesthetically founded ecological thought, which, while emerging from specific sociocultural

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conditions, remains aware of its deep historical roots in the archaic origins of culture as well as of its potential significance for always new futures and generations. It is this simultaneity of historical and transhistorical dimensions that the approach of cultural ecology aims to formulate in describing imaginative literature as a mode of “sustainable text.” Just like French or any other cultural-specific form of ecocriticism, German ecocriticism, and indeed German ecological literature, is not fully translatable into a universal ecocritical discourse, insofar as its internal distinctness and complexity is inextricably tied up with the medium of language. Nevertheless, such translation into a shared ecocritical code is as necessary to the future of international ecocriticism, and indeed a global ecological awareness, as is cultural diversity. Notes 1 Lawrence Buell, “The Ecocritical Insurgency,” New Literary History 30, 3 (1999), pp 699–712. 2 Greg Garrard, “Introduction,” in Garrard (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 4. 3 Gabriele Dürbeck and Urte Stobbe, Ecocriticism. Eine Einführung (Köln: UTB Böhlau, 2015). 4 Serenella Iovino, Ecocriticism and Italy (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). 5 Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (eds.), Material Ecocriticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014). 6 See Serenella Iovino, “Introduction: Mediterranean Ecocriticism, or, A Blueprint for Cultural Amphibians,” Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment, 4, 2 (2013), pp. 1–14; and Elena Past, “Mediterranean Ecocriticism: The Sea in the Middle,” in Hubert Zapf (ed.), Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2016), pp. 368–84. 7 Timo Maran, “Biosemiotic Criticism,” in Garrard (ed.), Oxford Handbook, pp. 260–75. 8 Wendy Wheeler, “The Biosemiotic Turn: Abduction, or, the Nature of Creative Reason in Nature and Culture,” in Axel Goodbody and Kate Rigby (eds.), Ecocritical Theory. New European Approaches (Charlottesville: Virginia University Press, 2011). 9 Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley (eds.), Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). 10 See Gernot Böhme and Hartmut Böhme, Feuer, Wasser, Erde, Luft: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Elemente (München: Beck, 1996). 11 See Garrard, “Introduction,” p. 5. 12 See Stephanie Posthumus, “Penser l’imagination environnementale française sous le signe de la différence,” Raison Publique 17 (2012), pp. 15–21; Rachel


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Bouvet and Myriam Marcil-Bergeron, “Pour une approche géopoétique du récit de voyage,” Arborescences: Revue d’études Française 3 (2013), pp. 4–23. 13 Bernd Herzogenrath, Deleuze, Guattari & Ecology (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). 14 Rachel Bouvet and Stephanie Posthumus, “Eco- and Geo-Approaches in French and Francophone Literary Studies,” in Zapf, Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, pp. 389–412. 15 Wendy Wheeler, The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006), pp. 132–39. 16 See Peter Matussek, Naturbild und Diskursgeschichte: “Faust” – Studie zur Rekonstruktion asthetischer Theorie (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1992); Axel Goodbody, Nature, Technology and Cultural Change in Twentieth Century German Literature: The Challenge of Ecocriticism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Catriona Sandilands, “Green Things in the Garbage: Ecocritical Gleaning in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades,” in Goodbody and Rigby, Ecocritical Theory, pp. 30–42. 17 Quoted in Kate Rigby, “Romanticism and Ecocriticism,” in Garrard, Oxford Handbook, p. 67. 18 Rigby, “Romanticism and Ecocriticism,” p. 67. 19 Ibid. 20 Frederick Gregory, “Episodes in Romantic Science: Oersted and the Discovery of Electromagnetism,” (2015), http://users.clas.ufl.edu/fgregory/oersted.htm. 21 Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos – Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (5 vols) (Stuttgart: Cotta, 1845–62). 22 Ernst Haeckel, Art Forms of Nature (Munich and New York: Prestel, 1998), p. 24. 23 See Garrard, “Introduction.” 24 Louise Westling, The Logos of the Living World: Merleau-Ponty, Animals, and Language (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013). 25 Kate Soper, “Passing Glories and Romantic Retrievals: Avant-garde Nostalgia and Hedonist Renewal,” in Goodbody and Rigby, Ecocritical Theory, pp. 17–29; Sabine Wilke, “The Sound of a Robin After a Rain Shower: Aesthetic Experiences of Nature in Dialectical Conceptions of Nature,” ISLE – Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 16 (2009), pp. 91–117. 26 Sandilands, “Green Things in the Garbage.” 27 See Catrin Gersdorf and Sylvia Mayer (eds.), Natur – Kultur – Text: Beiträge zu Ökologie und Literaturwissenschaft (Heidelberg: Winter, 2005), p. 40. 28 Gernot Böhme, “Aesthetics of Nature – A Philosophical Perspective,” in Zapf, Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, pp. 123–34. 29 See Kate Rigby, “Gernot Böhme’s Ecological Aesthetics of Atmosphere,” in Goodbody and Rigby, Ecocritical Theory, pp. 139–67; Kaspar H. Spinner, “Atmosphäre als ästhetischer Begriff,” in Günter Butzer and Hubert Zapf (eds.), Theorien der Literatur. Grundlagen und Perspektiven, vol. V (Tübingen: Francke, 2011), pp. 201–16.

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30 See Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge and Malden: Blackwell, 1999). 31 See Ursula Heise, Nach der Natur: Das Artensterben und die moderne Kultur (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2010). 32 See Hannes Bergthaller, “Paradox as Bedrock: Social Systems Theory and the Ungrounding of Literary Environmentalism in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire,” in Zapf, Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, pp. 105–22. 33 See Niklas Luhmann, Ecological Communication (Cambridge: Polity, 1989). 34 See Goodbody, Nature, Technology and Cultural Change; Timothy Clark, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Goodbody and Rigby, Ecocritical Theory. 35 Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (London: Paladin, 1973); Peter Finke, “Die Evolutionäre Kulturökologie: Hintergründe, Prinzipien und Perspektiven einer neuen Theorie der Kultur,”Anglia 124, 1 (2006), pp. 175–217. 36 Hubert Zapf, Literatur als kulturelle Ökologie: Zur kulturellen Funktion imaginativer Texte an Beispielen des amerikanischen Romans (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2002); and Hubert Zapf, Literature as Cultural Ecology: Sustainable Texts (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). 37 Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 2004). 38 Wolfgang Iser, The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993). 39 Zapf, Literatur als kulturelle Ökologie; Hubert Zapf (ed.), Kulturökologie und Literatur: Beiträge zu einem transdisziplinären Paradigma der Literaturwissenschaft (Heidelberg: Winter, 2008). 40 Reinhard Hennig, Umwelt-engagierte Literatur aus Island und Norwegen: Ein interdisziplinärer Beitrag zu den environmental humanities (Frankfurt: Lang, 2015). Timo Müller and Michael Sauter (eds.), Literature, Ecology, Ethics. Recent Trends in Ecocriticism (Heidelberg: Winter, 2012); Christopher Schliephake, Urban Ecologies. City Space, Material Agency, and Environmental Politics in Contemporary Culture (Lanham etc.: Lexington Books, 2014); Roman Bartosch, EnvironMentality. Ecocriticism and the Event of Postcolonial Fiction (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013). 41 See Goodbody, Nature, Technology and Cultural Change, esp. pp. 14–28.

chapter 18

From Birds and Trees to Texts: An Ecosemiotic Look at Estonian Nature Writing Timo Maran and Kadri Tüür

Introduction Estonia is a relatively small patch of land by the Baltic Sea, in the temperate climate zone where forest is the climax ecosystem – that is, if nature is left to itself, sooner or later the result will be dense coniferous forest. As in the rest of Northern Europe, the human impact on local landscapes has been moderate but persistent over the past millennium, resulting in a range of semi-natural communities, such as wooded meadows, alvars, coastal meadows, floodplain meadows, broad-leaved forests, etc. Semi-natural communities are developed and maintained in close co-operation between humans and domesticated animals for whom these areas serve as pasture and provide a source of fodder. There are also relatively wild areas, such as sea coasts, bogs, mires and old growth forests in Estonia that have experienced only very mild human impact over the centuries. These landscapes have predominantly been shaped by the forces of nature, but even here there is always also both a human and animal influence upon them. Time-wise, the tradition of Estonian-language nature writing can be traced back to the educational literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the early nineteenth century, reading material about natural wonders and phenomena would be published in calendars and periodicals on a regular basis. During the national awakening movement in the second half of that century, during which time Estonian civil society emerged, binding the nation together using common topics, motifs and rhetorical devices became increasingly important. Estonian soil and the local people’s creative connection with it by means of agricultural activities was emphasised in poetry, prose and instructional writing. As Estonia became an independent state in 1918, the sedentary country people would need ever more information about their homeland, its different parts, and valuable characteristics by means of the printed word that would 286

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provide knowledge about their native land and inspire love of the country. Nature writing played an indispensable part in this process. During the third decade of the twentieth century a wave of nature writing appeared that consisted of travelogues and hiking memoirs, as well as almanacs dedicated to introducing areas of interest to domestic tourism. It involved nature writing in its most characteristic forms, such as documentary prose, autobiographical essays, and travel stories. The core of Estonian nature writing from the 1920s and 1930s consists of nature observations with an emphasis on plants and birds. Estonian nature writing did not, however, evolve in an empty space. During the first decades of the twentieth century a substantial amount of high-quality nature writing was translated from Russian (Dmitri Kaigorodov, Valerian Lunkevich, Vitali Bianki), German (Carl Ewald, Herman Löns, Manfred Kyber, Hermann Wagner), Swedish (Selma Lagerlöf, Bengt Berg) and English (Ernest Seton-Thompson, Jack London). Educated Estonians of the time could read and speak both German (the language of the local nobility) and Russian (the official language of the czarist state) and thus influences from cultures based on these languages were presumably significantly stronger than actually reflected in the translations. A case in point is Alfred Edmund Brehm whose A Life of Animals was available in German and in Russian, but was never translated into Estonian. Regardless, a number of Estonian books of nature writing (by Karl August Hindrey, Johannes Käis, as well as illustrations in an Estonian translation of Kaigorodov) refer to Brehm as a source of substantial influence. World War II caused a rupture in Estonian culture, including Estonian nature writing, with the incorporation of Estonia into the USSR between 1940 and 1991. After the war, Estonian refugees in the West compiled books of landscape photography to commemorate their lost homeland. In Estonia, people were denied access to many previously significant areas of nature, such as the coast (including Vilsandi) that now constituted the westernmost border zone of the USSR, the bogs and forests (including Alutaguse), which became places of underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, and former holiday destinations that were turned into oil shale mines or grounds for military practice. Still, the pre-war tradition of Estonian nature writing continued when the collection Pictures and Sounds from the Nature of Homeland by Johannes Piiper, Professor of Zoology at the University of Tartu, originally published in 1935, was re-issued in 1948.1 Other authors who continued publishing nature writing and animal stories were Kustas Põldmaa, Eerik Kumari and Richard Roht.


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In 1957, the Nature Protection Act was passed in Estonia, pioneering the process for the whole USSR. As new nature protection areas were established, books describing places of natural beauty, and their natural and cultural history, regained their status. In the 1970s a new generation of nature essayists emerged that included Fred Jüssi and Edgar Kask. In the wake of the translation of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring by Ain Raitviir into Estonian in 1968, a new focus appeared in Estonian nature writing, a shift from local, small-scale protection of aesthetically pleasing objects to the perception of a looming global environmental crisis, and contemporary human impact on large ecosystems. The substantial core of the tradition of Estonian nature writing, however, remained bound to aesthetic natural objects and valued local ecosystems. Indeed, most critical reflections about the human impact on natural environments stemmed from such experiences of local nature. In Estonian nature writing, certain areas of the country appear to have been particularly represented in these texts. We have chosen two such areas as our examples: the island of Vilsandi, with the Vaika bird islets in its immediate vicinity, is the oldest bird protection area in the Baltic states and has been written about by authors such as Alma Toom, Franz Xaver Graf Zedtwitz, Fred Jüssi, and Tõnu Õnnepalu; Muraka Bog in the Alutaguse region, a remote piece of wilderness, has attracted hikers, writers and photographers for almost a century (key authors including Juhan Lepasaar, Edgar Kask, Fred Jüssi and Tiit Leito). These two case studies represent the natural diversity of Estonia and the texts, correspondingly, are diverse and bear the marks of the textual strategies and conventions of their times of creation. It is interesting to observe how different authors have been following one another’s footsteps – either in landscape or in textual practice. Such similarities and differences between the texts are caused by natural conditions as well as by cultural conventions. In the broad sense they also correspond to the historical distinction between coastal and inland rural cultures in Estonia. Both areas feature natural environments untouched by human agricultural activity, the closest to what we could call wilderness or pristine nature in Estonia.

Ecosemiotic Framework Our theoretical and methodological standpoint in the present discussion is the semiotics of the environment, or ecosemiotics. Semiotic research focuses on the mechanisms of meaning making, as it happens in communication and interpretation. Classic semiotic analysis concerns human

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cultural activities and artefacts, such as literature, film, art, advertising, etc. Ecosemiotics, however, focuses on sign relations or semiosis between cultural phenomena and the environment and analyses their types, hierarchy, outcomes and dynamics. This understanding implies that human semiotic activities should be considered as taking place among a multitude of sign processes and semiotic systems of other species, some partly accessible to us, some rather different from ours. Ecosemiotics as a research paradigm emerged in the early 1990s.2 Depending on the context and the research object, ecosemiotics makes use of the concepts of zoosemiotics and of biosemiotic criticism.3 The ecosemiotic approach is locally rooted, as it derives from the biosemiotics of Jakob von Uexküll and the cultural semiotics of Yuri Lotman – authors who both lived and worked in Estonia. Semiotics provides suitable tools for analysing cultural and natural diversity and the great number of border zones and boundaries that come together in the Estonian environment. In the following, we discuss central theoretical concepts which are subsequently applied to a semiotic study of examples of Estonian nature writing.

Texts and Culture are Locally Situated For an ecosemiotic approach the relationship between a text of nature writing and its object(s) of representation is never absolute or fixed, but depends on the knowledge of the reader and on the seasonal and temporal changes that occur in the environment and in animal behaviour. Cultural texts and artefacts attach themselves to various semiotic anchoring points in the local environment which have semiotic character and potential.4 In this respect, culture–nature relations always have a history and are locally contextualised. The locality of a text can lie in its references to specific climatic-, vegetation- or fauna-related features, but also in more subtle details, such as references to folklore, vernacular names of species and places, local inhabitants and their practices, that can often even be micro-regional. From the semiotic perspective, a written text and the environment are tied together in multiple ways: by representative, mimetic, motivational and complementary relations. Different types of meaning relations can be active at the same time, they can combine in complex ways and interact with one another. On the most basic level, the nature essay represents the environment in a certain culturally specific way and via the interpretation of a particular author. Nature writing can also be mimetic in the sense that the structure or the narrative of the text can repeat certain environmental


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or physical sequences. For instance, in an animal story the sequence of events can be determined by the biological life cycle or daily activities of the animal. At the same time the text and the environment can be in a complementary relationship so that the reader’s experience of the text and environment become actualised simultaneously in the reading process, supporting each other. In such a case, not all the meaning relations potentially present in the environment need to be represented in the text. The author will be able to presume that his/her readers are familiar with that environment’s common characteristics and properties. In the case of a complementary relation, interpretative loops emerge between the text and the environment; the text interpreted with reference to the environmental experience, the environment, in turn, interpreted on the basis of textual knowledge. The environment with its characteristics and potentials may even motivate the author – and the readers – to choose a specific type of textual representation. To explicate and explain these interconnections between nature writing and the environment, the model of nature-text has been proposed. In this model, ecosemiotic research is considered to have at least a double object: “in addition to the written text that speaks about nature and points to nature, it should also include the depicted part of the natural environment itself, which must be, for the relation to be functional, to at least some extent textual or at least textualizable.”5 In order to incorporate the environment into ecosemiotic analysis of literature, an elaborate model of the relations between the text and the environment is needed as a tool for analysis. The complexity of a literary work must also be taken into account: it is multi-layered, modelling the environmental relations of the particular author, in the contextual conditions of the particular culture and era, as well as particular literary conventions. The formal characteristics of nature writing – the literary and narrative strategies employed in the text – are often organised and shaped according to the particular environmental relationship it represents. Thus, the nature-text model asks, what kind of literary devices are there to convey what kind of human–environment relation (message) in the context of what kind of environment?

The Umwelt Perspective Taken into Account The ecosemiotic approach is deeply indebted to Umwelt theory, proposed in 1909 by Jakob von Uexküll, a Baltic-German biologist.6 Umwelt refers to the complex life-world consisting of an animal and the part of the

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environment it lives in as a mutually bound entity. Uexküll argues that those and only those parts of the environment to which an animal is meaningfully linked are present for it and are contained in its subjective universe or Umwelt. In regard to human cultural activities and artefacts, HungarianAmerican semiotician Thomas A. Sebeok has distinguished between zoosemiotic modelling and linguistic or verbal modelling.7 The background for his ideas about the notion of modelling can be found in the Tartu– Moscow School of Semiotics that offered a theory of modelling systems in the framework of cultural semiotics, with a distinction made between primary, language-based, and secondary, artistic, modelling.8 On the most general level, modelling can be described as a process of making sense of some processes or phenomena with the help of (internal or external) representations that are at least partly based on analogies.9 According to Sebeok, we possess two mutually sustaining modelling systems: the anthroposemiotic verbal one, which is unique to the human species, and the zoosemiotic nonverbal one, which is Umwelt-based and unites us with the world of other animals.10 Direct and spatial perceptions, tactile and olfactory sensations, as well as many occurrences of nonverbal communication belong to the sphere of nonverbal modelling. We propose that works of nature writing be considered as models of human–environment relationships. Combining Sebeok and Lotman’s ideas, three different layers of modelling can be suggested to appear in a work of nature writing: zoosemiotic modelling, linguistic modelling, and artistic modelling.11 In case of a literary work, the level of artistic modelling is of primary importance; however, as a rule elements of zoosemiotic and linguistic modelling are also present in literary works of nature writing, especially as its primary objects of representation are the mutual relations of humans with the environment and other species.

Texts and Their Reception Form an Intertextual Ecosystem An ecosemiotic understanding of the hierarchical diversity of sign processes as well as different types of modelling relations between an organism (including a human one) and the environment also encompasses human intellectual activities. A text of nature writing is a representational model of the meaning relations that a writer has perceived in the environment under specific conditions, determined by the time, location, and the biological and cultural abilities of the perceiver. Nature writing renders these perceptions using written verbal language, an exclusively human


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means of communication. Moreover, a literary text makes use of different poetic and rhetorical devices, such as metaphors and twists in the plot. Literary criticism itself can be regarded as one among many modelling practices by which humans make sense of their surroundings. Texts are bound together by means of intertextuality. Intertextuality can directly manifest itself in a set of texts sharing certain genre conventions – in the case of nature writing, these are often the requirements of nonfiction, such as being informed of natural history, stating the author’s ethical standpoint, or making references to literary forms such as pastoral or the jeremiad.12 Intertextuality on the level of verbal modelling includes quotations, references to the titles by other authors, and mentioning of their names in subsequent nature writing. Texts of nature writing can also be linked indirectly through references to the same locations, itineraries, seasons, species or particular natural phenomena. Intertextual references are not limited to written texts, but may embrace representations of nature that are based on visual, auditory or other sensory experiences.

Case Study: In the Western Estonian Archipelago Our first study area, Vilsandi, is Estonia’s westernmost inhabited island in the Baltic Sea, with a surface of about nine square kilometres. At the beginning of the twentieth century the island had approximately two hundred permanent inhabitants: there were thirty-two farmsteads, a small military unit and a lighthouse with its crew. At present, Vilsandi’s population consists of sixteen people. Bird protection has been practised there since 1906: the Vaika bird sanctuary was the first official nature protection site in the whole of czarist Russia. The first local enthusiast to protect the breeding islets of the waterfowl was Artur Toom, the then lighthouse keeper who later developed nature tourism on Vilsandi and the surrounding islets. Nature writing about Vilsandi emerged and reached its heyday during that period. World War II had disastrous results in Vilsandi: during the war, bird islets were vandalised and nests destroyed, Toom was deported to Siberia, and the islands declared a closed military zone. Nature protection was re-implemented in 1957, but at the time visiting Vilsandi was allowed for scientific purposes only. Ordinary people could ‘peek’ into the nature reserve only via nature writing. Currently, Vilsandi National Park embraces approximately 160 islets and rocky elevations in the coastal sea around Vilsandi where waterfowl and seals are breeding, and it has regained its reputation as a valued nature tourism destination, thus

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resulting in new nature writing. This relatively small and remote area is ‘covered’ with a remarkably dense layer of literary representations. Artur Toom, the initiator of bird protection in Vilsandi, was a great storyteller, relating to his visitors strongly anthropomorphic stories about the birds’ ‘family life,’ their faithlessness, and male seabirds’ general lack of fatherly instincts. He hardly wrote anything himself, but the book Vilsandi Linnuriik [Vilsandi Bird Kingdom] by his wife Alma Toom, published in Tartu in 1932, relies mostly on his stories, and promotes his position as “the Bird King.”13 In addition to rendering her husband’s stories, Alma Toom describes the looks and habits of the waterfowl nesting on Vaika islets through both an artistic lens and the eye of a naturalist. High-quality nature photographs by two German photographers, Ecke and Brandt, also contribute to the good overall impression. Toom’s book describes the birds, following the order of their arrival in spring: seagulls, sterns, mergansers, shelducks, oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus). Waterfowl belonging to the Anatidae family are introduced: eiders, tufted duck (Aythya fuligula), goosanders and mergansers. Coastal people’s vernacular beliefs and practices associated with waterfowl are likewise present in Toom’s accounts; for example, she mentions that the chicks of merganser and shelduck are able to form emotional bonds with humans, a claim further elaborated in August Mälk’s bird stories. She also mentions the widely known popular practice of collecting the eggs of waterfowl in springtime. The eggs of common eider (Somateria mollissima), goosander (Mergus merganser), red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) and common shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) have traditionally served as an addition to the diet of both the coastal people and their domestic animals. Toom’s approach is exemplary in its qualities of locality, situatedness and mimetic relations. Her book is narrated from a point of view that is markedly local, its spatial scope limited to the islets of the bird sanctuary. Structured by bird phenology, the book mimetically follows the migration and life cycles of the birds. An interesting counterpart to it, representing an outsider’s take on Vilsandi, is Vogelkinder der Waikariffe [Birdlings of Vaikas] by Franz Xaver Graf Zedtwitz, German photographer and nature writer, published in Berlin in 1933.14 Both authors pay attention to the same species, places and stories, and interpret these, drawing on the knowledge of one another’s work, observations and itineraries. An author of a piece of nature writing is at the same time a reader and commentator on his or her colleagues. The books by Toom and Zedtwitz are part, that is, of the same intertextual ecosystem.


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August Mälk and Johannes Piiper also contributed to this intertextually united group of writers with their pieces from the 1930s. Mälk, a writer native to the island of Saaremaa, published a book Lugusid lindudest [Bird Stories] in 1934.15 His waterfowl-breeding stories are based on actual observation in Vilsandi. Although he anthropomorphises his bird characters rather markedly, he nevertheless takes the peculiarities of the bird Umwelt into account even more than the previously discussed authors. For example, one of his stories is about an eider who dies in a fishing net while diving. A net would generally have no active meaning in an eider’s Umwelt; neither are underwater nets made for catching birds. An accidental encounter proves to have a fatal meaning, as the diving bird cannot find a way back out of the funnel-shaped net. Whereas Toom and Zedtwitz observe birds from a naturalist’s point of view, Mälk’s more empathetic approach enables him to better incorporate the perspective of bird Umwelten into his writing. Two further naturalists are Johannes Piiper, the grand old man of Estonian nature writing, with his collection Pilte ja hääli kodumaa loodusest [Pictures and Sounds from the Nature of Homeland] (1935),16 and Fred Jüssi, whose Kajakad kutsuvad [The Call of the Gulls] (1966) describes the main species of breeding birds in Vilsandi (gulls, merganser, oystercatcher, eider, songbirds).17 Jüssi discusses the actual work of nature protection, but also the possibilities of a commercial use of eiderdown, echoing thus the ideology of the Soviet state that nature must be of practical use to people. In Piiper’s case, motivationality is manifested by his pieces always bearing precise dates, time of day, and information about the route taken. The number of species mentioned in his texts is remarkably greater than in the case of other authors. In the manner of a thorough naturalist, he takes a small portion of the landscape and provides a micro-description: the plant species he notices growing, their colour and stage of vegetation; the insects and invertebrates that are visible and active; the birds heard and what their songs are like. As a rule, no ugly or shocking things, such as decaying bodies or spoiled landscapes, are mentioned, although he frequently points out that birds seem to feel disturbed by approaching humans, and that some chicks are trampled by the visitors because of the chicks’ immaculate disguise. Contextual information plays an important role in the most recent book in the long row of Vilsandi representations, Lõpetuse ingel [Angel of Conclusion] (2015) by Tõnu Õnnepalu.18 In many ways, this work is a counter-balance to the previous tradition of Vilsandi nature writing. The time frame is set around the autumn migration of birds, instead of

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the spring migration or the breeding season featured by earlier authors. This choice has its impact on the level of artistic modelling – the autumn migration suggests an ending, departure, decay, instead of the hopes and expectations of a breeding season, contributing to the author’s overall sentiment of concluding a certain time period in his life. It also facilitates linguistic modelling in rendering the bird sounds.19

In the North-East Estonian Woodlands The second case study of this chapter focuses on representations of the nature of north-east Estonia. Alutaguse, the region between the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea and the northern part of Lake Peipsi, is mostly covered by bogs and forests and is home to many large mammals such as wolves, bears and elks. Probably the area of Estonia least affected by humans, Alutaguse gives refuge to several endangered species, for example the flying squirrel (Pteromys volans) and the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). Until recently, there has been relatively little industrial agriculture and forestry in the Alutaguse region because of its inaccessible landscape of bogs and forests. At the same time, the geographical conditions have supported small farms, local communities and traditional activities such as hunting, bee-keeping, collecting cranberries and cloudberries. The history of remote single farms in the Alutaguse woods may be traced back several centuries. The present case study focuses on books by two authors who have written extensively about the Alutaguse region: Juhan Lepasaar and Edgar Kask.20 Both authors are self-educated writers: Juhan Lepasaar (b. 1921) was recruited into the German Army during World War II and lived in the forests as an illegal guerrilla fighter after the war. Due to this, his career choices were limited during the Soviet era and he worked as a truck driver for most of his life. Edgar Kask (b. 1930) worked in land improvement and environmental management until he became a freelance writer and photographer in the 1970s. For these men as well as for many other Estonian nature essayists, thinking and writing about forests was an intellectual escape route from the oppressiveness of the surrounding Soviet reality. The books of both authors have recognisably similar structures: they are extremely heterogeneous collections that include reflections about the Alutaguse landscapes, the various components, species, and places of these; stories of local people, their opinions and folklore; chapters dedicated to different wild animals and encounters with them; observations on phenological data and environmental change; recollections of personal


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experiences, poems and autobiographical information. Different storylines involving people, culture and nature run parallel in these books, the texts as a whole creating a meshwork out of the individual storylines.21 As such, the structure of the books represents an artistic modelling and marks a sensitive relation to local conditions. The authorial position manifested in such structures is characterised by the lack of binary oppositions in positioning humans and animals, nature and culture, the past and the future. For instance, both Lepasaar’s and Kask’s attitudes to signs of modernisation in Alutaguse are quite neutral: mostly they just describe building railroads, advancing the electricity grid, and land improvement as part of a social and cultural process.22 The perception is that the authors as well as their books are associated by intertextual ties to become part of a common ‘ecosystem.’ Kask and Lepasaar became connected by walking the same forest trails and being in the same environment. They know each other personally and their books include common motifs, for instance stories about the foresters’ family of Meurasaare. They even mention each other in their texts, Lepasaar describing, for example, his meeting with Kask: “We are sitting with Edgar on thick wooden stumps in front of his cabin on the edge of Muraka Bog. The sun is pleasantly hot on our backs ... We exchange only rare sentences. The unexpected heat makes us languid, thoughts are wandering on their own.”23 Both men become characters in each other’s writings, as the texts become meta-reflective, including references to the activities of nature photography and nature writing. References to tracks or traces are present in the titles of four of the books referred to above: On the Marsh Tracks, On the Forest Paths, The Road to Silence and A Journey to the Sun. The motif of a road is used in many chapter titles too and, indeed, is of central importance for the environmental experience in Alutaguse: “According to the popular jokes, even the dead could not be brought out of a faraway forest village where there were no roads in the summer; they were put on the poles laid across the beams in the threshing room to dry in the smoke and were brought to the parish cemetery to be buried there only with the winter roads.”24 The notion of the road suits the style of writing as well as the ideological undercurrents of the books. Roads and paths are related to the local tradition and memory – roads connect people; if roads are not used, the forest will claim them again. The books repeatedly mention the secret tracks in the bogs that local people have used as shortcuts and hideouts. A meeting point between a traveller and the environment, the road also brings about new experiences. For instance, the human track can cross the tracks of wolves, who have

An Ecosemiotic Look at Estonian Nature Writing


their own Umwelt, their ways of living and chasing prey, but who have also learned to use irrigation ditches for easier movement in the forests.25 One specific topic that is present in the books of both authors is the discussion of experiences related to getting lost in the forest. It is easy to get lost in vast forest areas, while there is little possibility of getting lost on the islets that constitute our other case study. In the experience of getting lost, a shift occurs in the relations between the human and the environment: the human loses his/her control over the environment and the forest gains the agency in directing his/her movement. Conscious, language-based modelling of the environment gives ground to more primordial, prelinguistic and zoosemiotic modelling. Lepasaar has written about his experience of losing his way in the forest: Go to the great woods of Alutaguse and look up as you walk, towards the tops of the trees branching out, leave the ground unnoticed, never pay attention to it. Minutes go by, the weather is windless and cloudy, the winter has shaped the trees uniform, so similar to one another, so alike in appearance. And henceforth, without you noticing, Alutaguse has caught you in its web.

He continues: Even some fear creeps into the chest as images of a vague danger are becoming stronger and the reality is receding. We wade through the snow for yet another kilometre or so, then I start feeling a cramp in my left leg from overexertion. I am stumbling along with difficulty now. No, I cannot remain in the forest, I have to go on. My hat and my fur coat are stiff from the cold and covered with frost like the trees of the forest, the only difference seems to be that the forest is standing still, while I, in my coat and hat, am trying to move on at all cost.26

Kask describes a similar situation when he suggests that a group of friends should take a shortcut in Muraka Bog. His instructions were not sufficiently accurate and the people ended up in danger of getting lost.27 Such stories foreground a deep connection between the people and the environment that can emerge only from a real and two-sided encounter with nature. The author is willing to denounce his position as a specialist with good knowledge of nature, he acknowledges his limitations and admits the possibility of making mistakes. Edgar Kask has given his essay about being lost the title Lolluse mõõdupuu [The Measure of Stupidity], indicating that human ignorance or recklessness is the main reason behind such experiences. The possibility of getting lost underlines the necessity of learning the signs of the environment and showing due respect to nature.


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Discussion and Conclusions Our theoretical standpoint in this paper is that nature writing works as a model of the specific environmental relationships of the particular culture and era. When analysing individual texts we can ask what kind of literary means are present to convey what kind of environmental experience in relation to what kind of environment. Both coastal and forest-bound local traditions of nature writing are connected by general common features, from cross-referring between different authors to the complex interplay between local environmental conditions, cultural history, and the characteristic features of nature writing as a modelling system. In the case of nature writing about Vilsandi, the generally common features are the structure and the time frame. The individual essays are each dedicated to one species, its habits and breeding success. The time frame is set around spring and summer, the breeding season of the migratory waterfowl, the only exception being Õnnepalu’s work where the author’s presence on the islet coincides with the autumn migration of birds. In the case of nature writing about the Alutaguse region by Kask and Lepasaar, the dominant feature appears to be the local diversity of the environmental experience and the meshworked connections between the Alutaguse wilderness and the people living there. By having an intense local experience, the author, his life, recollections and style of expression are turned into a medium and a bridge between the reader and the environment, understood as a meshwork of culture and diverse nature, memories of the past and potentials of the present. The authors’ personae are manifested in different stories, experiences and localities to the degree that the distinction between author, text and referent (i.e. the natural environment) appears to dissolve. In both cases, we can see that the texts are strongly bound to locality, local knowledge and popular practices. The relations between texts and environment are often motivational or complementary – aspects that require an additional effort from the reader who has to have some previous knowledge of the environment and its features (such as sounds), in order to fully understand the written text. We also detected instances of zoosemiotic modelling, as well as the general awareness of the writers that all species – humans included – have their own peculiar ways of perceiving and relating to their surroundings. In this way, pieces of nature writing become nature-texts, entities whose textual and natural components are virtually inseparable and mutually linked, like elements of an ecosystem.

An Ecosemiotic Look at Estonian Nature Writing


Notes 1 Johannes Piiper, Pilte ja hääli kodumaa loodusest: loodusesõbra muljeid maalt ja merelt [Pictures and Sounds from the Nature of Homeland] (Tartu: Noor-Eesti, 1935). 2 For a historical overview, key principles and applications of ecosemiotics, see Timo Maran and Kalevi Kull, “Ecosemiotics: Main Principles and Current Developments,” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 96, 1 (2014), pp. 41–50. 3 On zoosemiotics, see Timo Maran, “Dimensions of Zoosemiotics: Introduction,” Semiotica [Double Special Issue: “Dimensions of Zoosemiotics”] 198 (2014), pp. 1–10; Dario Martinelli, A Critical Companion to Zoosemiotics: People, Paths, Ideas [Biosemiotics 5] (Berlin: Springer, 2010); on biosemiotics criticism, see Timo Maran, “Biosemiotic Criticism: Modelling the Environment in Literature,” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 18, 3 (2014), pp. 297–311. 4 Timo Maran, “Semiotization of Matter. A Hybrid Zone between Biosemiotics and Material Ecocriticism,” in Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (eds.), Material Ecocriticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), pp. 141–54. 5 Timo Maran, “Towards an Integrated Methodology of Ecosemiotics: The Concept of Nature-Text,” Sign Systems Studies 35, 1/2 (2007), pp. 269–94, 280. 6 For English translations of Uexküll’s major works, see Jakob von Uexküll, “The Theory of Meaning,” Semiotica 42, 1 (1982), pp. 25–82; Jakob von Uexküll, “A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds,” Semiotica 89, 4 (1992), pp. 319–91. 7 See Thomas A. Sebeok, A Sign Is Just A Sign (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Thomas A. Sebeok, “‘Tell me, where is fancy bred?’ The Biosemiotic Self,” in Thomas A. Sebeok, Global Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), pp. 120–27. 8 See Juri M. Lotman, “Primary and Secondary Communication-Modeling Systems,” in D.P. Lucid (ed.), Soviet Semiotics: An Anthology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 95–98. 9 Yuri Mikailovich Lotman, “Тезисы к проблеме “Искусство в ряду моделирующих систем” [The Place of Art among other Modelling Systems],” Труды по знаковым системам [Sign Systems Studies] 3 (1967), pp. 130–45, 130. 10 For an analysis of human–dog interaction see, for example, Louise Westling, “The Zoosemiotics of Sheep Herding with Dogs,” in Kadri Tüür and Morten Tønnessen (eds.), The Semiotics of Animal Representations (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2014), pp. 33–52. 11 For application of these categories in analysis, see Maran, “Biosemiotic Criticism.” 12 See Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination. Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press, 1995).


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13 Alma Toom, Vilsandi linnuriik [Vilsandi Bird Kingdom] (Tartu: Loodus, 1932). 14 Franz Xaver Graf Zedtwitz, Vogelkinder der Waikariffe [Birdlings of Vaikas] (Berlin: Verlag Scherl, 1933). 15 August Mälk, Jutte lindudest [Bird Stories] (Tallinn: Eesti Õpetajate Liit, 1934). 16 Piiper, Pilte ja hääli kodumaa loodusest. 17 Fred Jüssi, Kajakad kutsuvad [The Call of the Gulls] (Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1966). 18 Tõnu Õnnepalu, Lõpetuse ingel. Märkmeid sügissaarelt [Angel of Conclusion. Notes from an Autumn Island] (Tallinn: Kultuurileht, 2015). 19 On the zoosemiotics of verbal modelling of bird sounds, see Kadri Tüür, “Bird Sounds in Nature Writing: Human Perspective on Animal Communication,” Sign Systems Studies 37, 3/4 (2009), pp. 226–55. 20 Juhan Lepasaar, Laaneteedel [On the Forest Roads] (Tallinn: Valgus, 1989); Juhan Lepasaar, Metsakandle keeltehelin [Sounds of Forest Zither] (Oonurme: J. Lepasaar, 2011); Juhan Lepasaar. Sooradadel [On the Marsh Tracks] (Tartu: Pärandkoosluste Kaitse Ühing, 2011); Edgar Kask, Tee Vaikusesse [Road to Silence] (Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1977); Edgar Kask, Teekond päikeseni [Journey to the Sun] (Tallinn: E. Kask, 2006). 21 Meshwork in Tim Ingold’s sense refers to multiple and interlaced patterns of movement and growth; see Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 75. 22 Kask, Teekond päikeseni, p. 117; Lepasaar, Laaneteedel, p. 22. 23 Lepasaar, Sooradadel, p. 66. 24 Lepasaar, Laaneteedel, p. 9. 25 Ibid., p. 78. 26 Ibid., p. 119. 27 Kask, Teekond päikeseni, p. 127.

chapter 19

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment Leo Mellor

Gently disintegrate me Said nothing at all. Is there still time to say Said I myself lying In a bower of bramble Into which I have fallen.1

These first lines from W.S. Graham’s poem “Enter a Cloud” are not only about what an environment is when observed – but also what it does to a poet, and to their acts of language. The opening matters as it pitches communication, along with a corporeal body, headlong into that most pastoral of sites – “a bower,” now not one of bliss but rather made scratchily realist. Any stable footing – as well as position to write from – is not to be taken for granted. The poem continues with a laconic tension between Romantic possibilities of self-in-nature, and the radical otherness of an environment – and its intractableness – to a poem: “an elongated / White anvil is sailing / Not wanting to be a symbol.” Graham’s fallen state matters as a starting point for what this chapter will attempt to trace: of particular importance is his linguistic play, his questioning of selfhood and his alert observations, together offering writing that might be strange enough to actually depict a real, non-idealised, environment. Despite its inclusion of placenames and foxgloves, named people and real weather, Graham’s poem closes with an unrooted voice of fragility and eclipse, in the repetition of its incantation: “Gently disintegrate me / Said nothing at all.” The readings which follow are informed by a belief: that a poetry of landforms and bioregions, of flora and fauna, of geological strata and arboreal topography, and of human interaction with all of the above, might well now have to be the zone of the most formal innovative and linguistically challenging contemporary writing. Such writing can be 301


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placed in a lineage; with lines of significance and influence branching from late-Modernist practices, notably questions of language and belonging typified in Graham, David Jones and Basil Bunting. Moreover recent Anglophone British poetry (the case is more complex for contemporary Gaelic and Welsh-language writing) that tries to encompass the environment as subject also owes much to an inheritance which stretches beyond the archipelagic bounds of nation. For writing in and of a landscape powerfully generative models come from American figures exemplified by Charles Olson and Lorine Niedecker, as well as those such as John Kinsella with his dual Australian and East Anglian emphases; and this is even before other art forms, notably sculpture and film, are taken into account. Furthermore a strand of contemporary British non-fiction investigating landscapes and locales – characterised as the “New Nature Writing” – has reinvigorated possibilities of description, as well as offering differing perspectives on the place of the observer. Yet a reflexivity about human selfhood while in the environment has perhaps a deeper history in poetry than in other art forms or prose, and poetry has a particular agility of applying pressure on language through rhyme, mise-en-page experimentation or etymological investigations. The legacy of the pastoral as a genre is still present, but now dialectically remade in a series of countervailing modes: the anti-pastoral, the counter-pastoral, the radical pastoral, the post-pastoral. This inheritance matters, especially as the complexly peopled nature of the pastoral has been one of its defining features, but the poets this chapter will consider are self-aware in noting not only the presence of the poet/observer/naturalist/swimmer/trespasser, but also the traces, residues and contaminants which human presence has left. This chapter will concern itself with the following poets: Colin Simms, Helen Macdonald, R.F. Langley, Peter Larkin, Alice Oswald, Rod Mengham and Thomas A. Clark.2 They make a heterogeneous and divergent list; they exemplify some very different traditions, as well as writing in differing modes about very different locales. But they each show how poetic precision brings an ethics of attention, one formed through details of observation or recollection; a process which then means the unsettling of selfhood and – simultaneously – the discovery of possibilities for representation. Various conceptual optics as subtitles are used in the chapter to frame, focus in on, and counterpoint the poets, and to thus place them temporally and physically. These headings stretch from actions in meeting the nonhuman – the encounter; some apparent specificities of environments – habitats; linguistic analogies for sensitivities and residues – traces; and, finally, the shaping of the mise-en-page field of transmission – perception.

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment


Encounters Colin Simms is a poet-naturalist; and one who, while his oeuvre is vast, has been concerned with specific species and their habitats – mainly birds-ofprey and the Mustelidae family: otters, weasels, martens. Committed to both a poetics of fieldwork and reportage, and – within a modernist tradition of inheritance from his friend Basil Bunting – a form that relies upon sound-patterning and translating the aural complexity of landscapes, Simms’s published poetry spans over forty-five years. It ranges in form from the dedicatory epistle “To their first lizard” in his field study Lives of British Lizards (1970), through to the recent collections, each of which brings together poems on a species or locale: Otters and Martens (2004), Gyrfalcon Poems (2007), Poems from Afghanistan (2013) and Hen Harrier Poems (2015). The poems themselves vary from interlocking sequences to the bricolaging of personal correspondence with scientific data. But central is the repeated question of what language might work for an encounter with non-human species. In “Lines” the desire to know a pine marten through a mappable grid position fails, but other – poetical – lines might work. For the meaning of encounter is unpicked as the desire to fix the encounter: for this is a survivor and he listens ‘with his heels’, his (invisible) sable eyes which say what we cannot quite see yet are given, if we are able to receive radio somehow, the gift of self of ‘isness’; which is his, not our business it is self; or all we see of it breath, footprints, scats, or nothing even ever misleading. We know nothing which way he went, he went3

This question of what Simms terms “isness,” the unalterable otherness of the creature engaged with, has become one of significant philosophical import in ecocriticism – for how far might poetry be able to articulate a language of limit, of the gap as itself a thing of beauty.4 Moreover Simms often tantalises readers through, initially, trying modes of “translation” for the gap that language cannot cross, such as in an unamed poem charting the observation of a harrier (dated and placed “Alston Moor, April 15th 2005”): “I stumble across, unable / to begin to translate / her passage across the horizon.”5 But translation runs out – and, instead, the


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most important term across Simms’s texts becomes “pattern.” It is both mode of thinking (of sense-making) – and a connection to the texture of rhyme and lexical choice; it is thus not a turning-away into the theorising of nature in language but rather – through language – trying to capture the experience through the layering of rhythms: in reiterations, neologisms and spaces. In “Loch Maree” the textures of visual perception and the compound terms of geologic solidity meet the dart and glide of the “otter pattern,” but then – like the otter – they vanish, with just a vocative memory of a “cry”: Lochside silverschist and disturbed-to-black-below distributed pattern-padded pewter-grade velvet-hollows grains added otter pattern wind off water levelling sibilant bevelling gritscreen bankscree whistle reminding you of distant widgeon whee-oo6

This is the placing of space as not only framing observable phenomena but also showing what could not be known, what has gone beneath a surface. Other paradigms of sense-making generated by mise-en-page difficulty are those which rely upon sound-patterning, and the intensification which its repeated rhymes bring – itself a homage to Bunting’s readings of the same Northumberland; but it is also a marker of his inheritances from other poets of landscapes. In “Snowy Owl for Laura” such tension, between two modes of patterning, that could be termed Olson-esque and Hopkinsian, becomes palpable across the work: one dominating visually and one aurally. Models of revisiting (a Simms motif), and thus re-reading, are therefore key in allowing the different forms of imaginatively reconstructing an encounter. The method relies both upon human senses of sight – the mise-en-page sprawl; but also sound – the alliterative knots and compound modifications, to offer differing versions of this incompleteness translated into human experience: Lift strength detachable

nothing stealth nothing else

as if snow carded itself For fold to hold barred-bold bird dismissible deal below white the world spins hardheard shuffling cards coils diamonds dull white cools clubs spades coals real-slack glow grow stars more starkly sparkle eyes between us swivel slowly slow presence here farmfence formless-force as yet combs muskeg beyond pure shawl an owl; so across space out of it! full of owl; so right northern light vane catseyes at home on the road at night blink (GA 21)

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment


The observations here, almost a shape-poem of an owl’s wing-beat, are an attempt to expand encounter into the temporal and spatial to preserve it: “full of owl,” even to the vocative invocation. But the end however brings a return to the earthbound; the visionary and fugitive owl flies out beyond the last human optic: the cat’s-eyes warning lenses, prosaically bound to a road. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (2014), a mediation of loss, falconry and literary predecessors, has reached an extensive readership, many of whom are likely to have been unaware of her poetic oeuvre. But her poetry, dating from Shaler’s Fish (2001), has also long pursued the emotions present in modes of attention, especially those of sight and identification. In the opening stanza of “Taxonomy” acts of recognition move across the senses; this is a poem about attentiveness. It matters not only what is observed but how an observation is constructed in language: through simile, association and sense-memory. A first line of abruptly punctuated staccato information, with the bird and its activity disclosed, then sways, through song (and thus human culture), into interpretative associations: Wren. Full song. No subsong. Call of alarm, spreketh & ought damage the eyes with its form, small body, tail pricked up and beak like a hair trailed through briars & at a distance scored with lime scent in the nose like scrapings from a goldsmith’s cuttle, rock alum & fair butter well-temped (GA 156)

Archaic but sensual the song forces a mode of classification – as given in the title – into one of wonder; distance (spatial, temporal) is re-made by the poet, even though the bird is common, familiar and so very small. But in Macdonald’s work it is not scale that brings strangeness, rather an attention to what observation does, a mode which can be traced to her earliest publications in the 1990s. One of Macdonald’s more recent poems is “Partridges” (2009). The title seems to designate with minimal simplicity: ground-nesting game birds, relatively common in East Anglia, unglamorous, here in plural. Yet it begins in medias res, and then consists of four stanzas – moving from fragmentary injunctions “It were all a joke” and “Never mind” – towards a moment of reflexivity. The possibility of observing the act of observation, of capturing the non-narratival strangeness and partiality of such an endeavour, remains only a supposition within the poem. This is a hope which is stretched out throughout the third stanza; and it becomes a faith in interpreting an encounter so as to give it lasting meaning: “Believing a


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skyline then particular was a way of moving / believing the blink after chat of whitened stones [. . .] Believing chaff drawn down the line of the road [. . .] Believing fondly.” But the relative helplessness of belief is then, in the final stanza, replaced with something rather different: a movement in both scale and vista, a falling-to-earth of sight into the stubborn materiality of a wintery ploughed field. The final lines, in counterpoint, then desire an impossible kind of conditionality – of control of species, of the weather for the encounter, of the uncanny carried in the air – as the fruits of such prolonged observations; before finally returning to the birds themselves, the facts at her feet: If I could plant plovers in the sky. Or shake a westerly with landrails down. And all its invented ghosts. And for all its clouds. They run along the lines as tiny soldiers all wintry & humane. (GA 164)

This falling-to-earth return to the small-scale movements of the birds is not a moment of explanation or small-scale moral truth; rather it is a new – ground-hugging – vista onto strangeness: through the unsettling simile the partridges carry with them both seasonality but also militarised potential, which is, itself, so strangely “humane” in the non-human. Another East Anglian poet who moved between literary forms is R.F. Langley (1938–2011), and the profound significance and influence of his poetry is still being calibrated. Langley’s work is in dialogue with Cambridge School experimentation, a mode of linguistically challenging poetry associated with poets – including Macdonald – in and around the University of Cambridge from the 1960s onwards, notably J.H. Prynne. Yet Langley returns repeatedly to descriptive detail of the quotidian; it is a phenomenology of small sensations and attentiveness to tiny creatures through the placing of an observant self in stillness: sitting under a tree in Suffolk again, with lights going through the leaves. Oh yes: standing under a tree for an hour and a half. One peculiar evening, that’s the biographical centre of it: I walked out of the village at dusk and, as is extremely unusual nowadays, I stood for an hour and a half by a track and no-one came anywhere near me. And it just occurred to me that I ought to stand without moving at all for that length of time and see what happened. Not even turning my head. A lot of rabbits came up and sat on my feet. And moths whipping about within inches of me. A feeling that you might get through to what was really there if you stripped off enough.

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment


I thought that was an interesting experience: to be alone and perfectly still. As soon as you move things take on meaning, don’t they? Because things become things that you’ve got to step round or walk over or something. They instantly become part of your map, as it were. Whereas if you stand absolutely still, then they might not be part of any map at all. You ‘see’ the place when you haven’t got any designs on it . . . coolly, as something independent.7

This mode of willed self-elision, analogous to that in Gary Snyder’s late poems, forms only part of Langley's attentiveness; another key portion is the use of optics and the overt foregrounding of their use in poetry – for example “Experiment with Hand Lens.” But from a place of quiet attention something rather more baroque can grow. In “Blues for Titania” (2003) the observation of insects seems to involve an anthropocentric dressing-up box, but it is one where colours and clothes become signals for the otherness (in time and space) of the creatures’ experiences, as well as the natural process of sloughing-off skins: The beetle runs into the future. He takes to his heels in an action so frantic its flicker seems to possess the slowness of deep water. He has been green. He will be so yet. His memory ripples emeralds. The wasp takes it easy. She unpicks her fabric of yellow and black, which slips from her fingers to land in the past, loop-holed, lacy, tossed off on the wing. The beetle is needled right through on one string.8

This might appear whimsical; but it is not. The rhymes, characteristically for Langley, are embedded into each line rather than giving neat closure at the end; a parallel unsettling mode of reading thus develops, for rhyme and sense, for two ways of seeing and hearing the same text. The resultant rhythmical weaving together of disparate things becomes a philosophical, as well as formal, point to the poetry. It also implies the tentativeness of any hold on experience, for what Langley does, especially in his later work, is hymn the contingent: “[l]ost moments swill round in / the shallows, until they can stick there and stack.” Then the possibility that such stillness, and also contingency, when seen clearly together, might be the fortuitous conditions for the aesthetic: Nothing along the road. But petals, maybe. Pink behind and white inside. Nothing but the coping of a bridge.9


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This is the opening of his poem, “To A Nightingale.” The apostrophe to this particular bird cannot help but partake in traditions: of lyricism, love and loss – and how such traditions have been rendered into literary form. But this poem begins as a contingent list from a position of stasis, the watcher on the bridge is moving from the kinds of “nothing” in the first three lines to a rather different kind of negation. Jeremy Noel-Tod has elegantly shown the unshowy workings of this poem, its Keatsian capacity to move between the negative capabilities of wonder, the un-irritable ability to cope with doubt; it is a process made concrete in the multiplicities of “coping” that the bridge’s stonework has to do.10 The view from this bridge of a whole field of vision is arrayed: insects crawl, the comma takes flight from punctuation mark to butterfly-name, and back again; then the ending adds wonder – and the negation of selfhood. The song when it comes both fills a longed-for aesthetic space but also, through the close aural attention and onomatopoeia, refuses to just be a romanticist aesthetic object, being instead – for a few seconds – air itself in motion, and the alliterative pleasures of close attention: one note, five times, louder each time, followed, after a fraught pause, by a soft cuckle of wet pebbles, which I could call a glottal rattle. I am empty, stopped at nothing, as I wait for this song to shoot.

If there is a selfhood after such an experience it is in the silence, but also the re-imagining of an environment where a nothing – the empty air waiting for the potentiality of the song – is something worth stopping at.

Habitats Any map of Britain shows a series of terrains immeasurably altered by human presence; from slash-and-burn agriculture, through the hunting to extinction of apex-predators, up to contemporary industrialised farming and the accretion of urban areas – themselves, of course, also a specific environment and one with certain literary potential. But contemporary woodlands, especially, are difficult for poetry. R.S. Thomas’s poem “Reservoirs” is most famous for its indictment of drowned valleys, but later the charge sheet lengthens: “There are the hills, / Too; gardens gone under the scum / Of the forests.” Trees such as Sitka Spruce were one of Thomas’s particular hatreds, and the twentieth-century landscapes of

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment


Britain, especially in Breckland, Wales, the Pennines and parts of Scotland, were changed utterly by monocultural pine afforestation. How might such blocks of blue-green plantations be spaces for poetry? The critic Sophie Seita recently wrote of how Peter Larkin’s poetry “resists us,” not through an activist poetic but rather via attentiveness to detail and process.11 Collectively Larkin’s work is not a mythopoeic bucolic greenwood, or a prelapsarian deification of ‘the forest.’ It is instead an exploration of arboreal zones for thinking, especially in relation to the radically unsettling differences in what life might mean for trees. Thus Larkin’s language, in its complications, is filled with an honesty about the effort needed to engage with otherness – and not reducible to either scientific data or literary tropes. This is not then a return to the wildwood – or to wild writing; indeed the first impression for anyone reading a Larkin poem is the ordered and blockily rectilinear nature of the text. Different poems add these units together to form greater wholes, as this extract, from his “Open Woods” sequence, shows: Plant capital attached to opening ground not by any access grown to account. How far should trees of it string habitats out of themselves by which they aren’t plantable? lichening the back of us grew to warding forward infective niche, pitched like a needle of undertakens remnant with acceleration Fading not to but off very green dark, a long leisure of accustomed shadeslipping to highest forest on behalf of. (GA67)

The questions here come from a variety of registers and lexical aspects not normally associated with the forest as poetic subject; but are also animated by the movement of forces and urges. Larkin’s compositional mode is reminiscent within a British tradition of the Anglo-Welsh modernist David Jones. They both rely upon extensive slabs or strata of text, multiple contexts, and a view of time (biological for Larkin, sacramental for Jones) outside any normally human-comprehended span. Moreover in Larkin, again analogous to Jones, the disorientation that such a form requires, and the recursively twisting sense-units within it, necessitate re-calibration: for to read Larkin is to understand a gap between sense-desiring poetics and ones which are predicated on the capacity of language to reawaken the strangeness in the familiar country of the nearby. In the introduction to Leaves of Field, Larkin wants a


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reader to “Think Forest”; and his ensnaring textual strategies are not about a transportation to alien space but much more akin to W.S. Graham’s injunction for a reader to: “Imagine a Forest. A real forest.”12 But now a “real forest” might be harder to imagine than a literary one, more contingent and also stranger. Seita’s critical work on Larkin usefully gives readers nodes of signification which allow the imperatives of this poetry – its belief in the power of thinking through woods. The terms Seita most usefully isolates as critical to an ongoing project, not just limited to one collection, are “gift,” “scarcity” and “horizon,” all become repeated loci for ethical investigations of what paying close attention to nuance and play of forces in the blocks (of text, of plantation forest) might result in. The productiveness of this form of attention is demonstrated in Larkin’s own texts but also in their generative potential for other writers, notably in Amy Cutler’s anthology of responses Were X A Tree (2015) which uses Larkin’s work to spur other writers and poets; the rhizomatic nature of the stanza blocks being most fertile when broken. Larkin’s most recent sequences have a perceptibly theological underpinning. “Praying // Firs \\ Attenuate” (2014) is a thirty-page-long highly shaped poem, with irregular blocks moving horizontally, enacting differing forms of call-and-response or flow.13 It uses an Alice Oswald quotation as epigraph – “think of ten quiet trees with their nerves in the air” (162) – before tracing what, or rather how, trees might “attenuate” acts of devotion, that is, the gradual entropic loss in intensity of any kind of flux through a medium. This sequence, opening with “firs in faith of angularity ingrained” (163), takes a performative language of prayer, tracking it through the density of woodland as it emerges in, and through, the growth of the trees: Prayer sighs up without notice abiding the slights encumbered in laddering the faults of beckoning but not rearing out of what is enchambered, chafed green of its silence a given stem mottled in seed but packed into its narrows the compression of prayer’s indisposition the green durance of a lull (171)

What sounds beyond such a lull? Larkin is attempting, in particular environments, to find a language which does not deny the aesthetic

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment


and moral complexity of what it tries to achieve; this is an attentiveness to radical, non-human otherness, or, as Larkin himself noted in an interview: “I feel very happy with the benign shadow of the Welsh praise tradition which feeds into my work via Hopkins and [David] Jones himself.”14 The conjunction of woodland and a praise-tradition also give coordinates for another mode of writing from the arboreal – that of Oswald herself. The legacy of Ted Hughes is engaged with and acknowledged more interestingly in Oswald than in any other contemporary poet, as the inheritance is a complex one, including a terse strain of bathos, a pantheism whose complexity can seem absurdist, and – vitally – an awareness of violence behind any transient tranquillity. Oswald’s responses can be tracked from her first book The Thing in the GapStone Stile (1996). This text, of short lyrics, was overtly shaped by Hughes’s influence – in both subjects chosen and poetic forms. Later poems are alive to such myth-making strangeness but go further, while retaining the fascination with fugue-states and the communion with a landscape. In “Ideogram for Green,” a moral truth is sought: “keeping that promise upon which sunlight takes its bearings.”15 Such writing offers the translation of verdant life-force into something avowedly non-linguistic: an ideogram (which then, of course, has to be described in a poem). Other poems show a near-Gaian religiosity, wrenched out of church and exalted through “Moon Hymn,” “Seabird”s Blessing” and a “Psalm to Sing in a Canoe” – but with the singing being both exhilaration and warning. This slide into the mystic, especially with Oswald’s more jagged apostrophes to the river, the moon and the intangible force of an unspecified “something,” makes for an abrupt lyricism that refutes anthropocentric balm, but remains confident in the workings of language to express such doubts. Oswald’s most significant work is Dart (2002), with a myriad of connections representable in “a sound map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea.”16 It is one of the most ambitious long poems of recent years, a form that had – until then – remained resolutely urban, a high-modernist weaving of voices. But in Dart the jumpiness of citybricolage underwent a stream-change: voices of those who worked in and beside the water – fishermen, poachers and harbour-pilots – were transformed by Oswald into movement-as-mosaic, the fluidity of literature as demi-cartography. Central, though, is a privileging of bodily


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experience: the post hoc narration of sensual experience, such as here in the “Swimmer” section: Then I jumped in a rush of gold to the head, through black and cold, red and cold, brown and warm, giving water the weight and size of myself in order to imagine it, water with my bones, water with my mouth and my understanding when my body was in some way a wave to swim in (22)

The admission of a gap, a lack, an aquatic sensation beyond language is noted here with the circumlocution “in some way”; but the next pages have a mise-en-page glee as the matter of being twisted in the river gives rise to language “spelling the shapes of letters with legs and arms” (23) the text being produced by those shapes – and their subsequent gloss: S SSS


Slooshing the Water open and MMM for it Meeting shut behind me (23)

Selfhood – the “I” – is added here to spell out the action the body is already making. One of those Oswald overtly thanks in her acknowledgements is the writer and environmentalist Roger Deakin, whose travelogue of swimming outdoors around Britain offers the model for why immersion changes all: “when you swim you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it . . . swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself.”17 Such shamanistic qualities in showing how a bodily language of the river might arise, and – later – how a poet might inhabit the language of those others who inhabit the river, brings any reading towards Oswald’s own mode. A column of side-text gives details of those she encounters: the waternymphs (11), “the King of the Oakwoods” (13) or even the dairy worker (29); but they are still all incorporated and mediated by a poetry where a controlling figure is shaping whatever they have said – or alluded to – into the form which becomes Oswald’s songline. Such action also forces a form of self-elision on the poet: “[a]ll voices should be read as the river’s mutterings” (v). And it is the river which, beneath all, has a body too – one which gives a myth of origins:

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment


And then I saw the river’s dream-self walk down to the ringmesh netting by the bridge to feel the edge of shingle brush the edge of sleep and float a world up like a cork out of its body’s liquid dark. (28)

Traces Debris, detritus, and flotsam: archaeological imperatives for recovery accord significance to the discarded. This insight holds true when poetry, too, is considered. Rod Mengham’s oeuvre of poems and poetic prose are potent engagements with the palimpsestic nature of human-altered landscape – or, especially for Mengham, the strata present in physicality and in language. His most recent work – ranging in locale from the hut-circles and spring-lines of Dartmoor in his Grimspound sequences to the littoral shore near Britain’s nuclear power plants – confirms the scope and ambition. Mengham is a scholar of the Mass-Observation movement in the 1930s, and there is a lineage from these surrealistic-inflected juxtapositions to what Mengham finds in borderlands (between nations, between the city and the country). Menace is a constant; in “Five Year Plan in Four Years,” a nightmarishly sped-up mode of apprehension finds a “zone” – pace the films of Andrei Tarkovsky or David Jones’s poems – where signs cannot be taken as wonders: The narrative begins with expulsion, the shunning of sympathizers, secret informers, a belief in connivance. A single police car in the sun, parked up with open door, the afternoon cigarette, the endless fields, creeping stubble fire . . . Further and further away from the houses along the forest paths as they get smaller and smaller, she finds orchids, ragged robin and death’s head mushrooms. The deep, muffled explosions become clearer, the dogs are raging.18

But London, too, can be a place of debris which – under pressure – can become revelatory in excess. “Icarus Alight” begins, counterintuitively, as an aquatic work, and one which tries to offer a solution, in both senses, for causal connections: He is a diver to the inky cold of the ocean floor, among blind crabs. Volcanic tapers flare briefly . . . The image reservoir begins to leak, its sides buckle and a stream of lost memories is released, patinating the shell-sand, touch and electroplating the barbels of stretchable deep-sea fish, tinsellating the legs and feathers of tightly packed barnacles. The memory particles attach to everything, like revolving crystals they collect on drowned machinery with its shuddering variants of systole and diastole that stir the oceans into far-off convulsions.19


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A corporeal index is here in clotted Thames-mud: “impelled to inhale information in its purest form, through bones in the ear, finger pads, and nerves in the tongue”; so Icarus is also, implicitly, ingesting some of the dreck from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend or Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as more recent mudlarking typified by psychogeographic obsessions with the Thames. The next sections encompass a wild chase through London’s lost rivers amid the flotsam, “gruel of toxins” and “hydraulic derangement” of flows through a palimpsestic city; flows which carry the loads of latecapitalism, from data-intercepts to fried chicken cartons. But there is ultimately hope, too, not merely detritus-alluvial-textual accretion. For the poem ends back in the littoral waters, “he limps off to scour the Essex coast for a suitable thicket of reeds,” and Icarus is reborn into “breakwater slime” and “crab debris.” Since 2000 Mengham has made a number of short films in collaboration with the photographer Marc Atkins. In Nothing Stranger (2009) a “barren coast” and crepuscular woodland is the terrain of Joseph Conrad in Britain. The film visually traces his life in gnomic motifs – and is also a re-imagining of “Amy Foster” (1901), Conrad’s short story of shipwreck and incomprehension. The juxtapositions here in Mengham’s work, of spoken text and image, offer an anti-synergy, one where doubt and incompleteness from both modes are magnified; a version of “strange words, like words in an unearthly language.”20 Even when legible signs do appear in the film-poem (Fig. 19.1) they drift loose of any referent and into pixelated static, keeping true to the opening line of the film: “there is nothing stranger than a signpost blown out to sea.”21 The wreckage which does prove constant enough for focus is rather to be found in the inarticulate forms of concrete, the surly resistance of the implacable emplacements. In Vacant History (2013) Langdon meadows above Dover are a site of reflection; but it is an intertextually verdant spot to pause, haunted by King Lear through to Matthew Arnold. While Mengham uses the blankness of constructions built onto or into the chalk (Fig. 19.2), the melancholia here is that which grows over the gun-platform debris – “comfrey, hawkweed, kidney vetch,” until “rubble was embedded in moss, moss was embedded in rubble.” This is not the conscription of a resurgent bucolic to erase history, rather it is the inescapability of what surfaces accrue – while above all the language still eddies on the plumes of culture: “riding the thermals of portmythology and homesickness by proxy.”22

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment

19.1. Nothing Stranger (2009), Marc Atkins and Rod Mengham. © Marc Atkins / marcatkins.com


Vacant History (2013), Marc Atkins and Rod Mengham. © Marc Atkins / marcatkins.com



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Perception Thomas A. Clark’s book-length sequence A Hundred Thousand Places (2009) is an account – in minimalistic and unpunctuated micro stanzas – of a walk along the sea-lochs and over the mountains of western Scotland. In doing so Clark arrives at an uncanny sense of wonder which is, at its most intense points, transformative: who is it in the pine wood neither you nor me sheltered the one who sought shelter dissolves23

This owes much to the concept of the sublime in both intent and its geographical setting, and moreover takes something from W.S. Graham’s wonder at self-elision: from the “slowly disintegrate me / said nothing at all” in “Enter a Cloud” which opened this chapter, to “The Beast in the Space” where even memory is erased: “I remember / I am not here.”24 Against such fragility and doubt the physical act of walking in Clark’s poetry gives a logic of encounter, of adjusting a focal length of significance down to the quotidian, and allowing pauses which become revelatory. In “By Kilbrannan Sound” a repetition-with-variation mode of incremental listing does not just force a reader into seeing (for they are all verbs of sight) a singular object as animate, it also makes the text into a mimetic block of the object itself, each line revealing another facet: the the the the

glare of a black stone gleam of a black stone glimmer of a black stone glint of a black stone25

Brooding presences as strangely productive have themselves a theological and aesthetic history in the Hebrides. In Creag Liath (2003) Clark offers a rationale for both method (the amalgam of locales which carries truth, the mode of watchful investigation which keeps a tight focus) and subject matter as dictated by encounter. But a history of the specific landscape/ seascape, especially its history of early insular Christianity and the peregrini monks, also gives rise to the method: “[t]he manner of the poem, and much of its content, is borrowed from the Celtic hermit poems . . . If

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment


isolation and poverty are necessary conditions of such literature, the typical impulse is to celebrate what is at hand.”26 Yet what the poem then does as celebration is to restate the tenuousness of perception, and the transience of what is being perceived: an “island persisting in itself / drawing the mist about it.”27 There is an ethics to making art from such recalcitrant landforms and nebulous transience; and such ethics (of value, of unadorned language) bring into relation poetry as printed with poetry as carved or cast, a legacy from Clark’s mentor Ian Hamilton Finlay. But the sculptural turn also comes in the transformation of apparent debris. In “Beinn Fuar” a cycle of death and decay produces – finer than plants – translucent epitaphs: the tide sifts through shell fragments and skulls on cliffs above the sea sheep carcasses rot rain-washed sun-bleached strewn across the tundra are bones more delicate than ling or tormentil28

Clark’s more recent work has continued to dwell on textures – of both what is encountered and how (in language) it is encountered. In Yellow and Blue (2014) the connective acts are visual, not aural: for this collection shows a wild landscape which continually reveals relational positioning, ragwort seemingly “responds” to yellow paint, and the minimalism of the stanzas does not preclude arcs of intensity, but ones which could only be completed by acts of perception – such as in this single lyric: flowering gorse bush leaning over towards the sea as if its growth were towards completion of yellow in blue29

The conjunction of doubt – “as if” – is doing much work here, giving a chiasmus which lets a reader back into a botanical scene and makes their work (of an apprehension projected into the future) vital. But in the complete sequence collected in Harriet Tarlo’s The Ground Aslant – “The Grey Fold” – Clark attempts to write of a texture in perception itself, not just in that which is perceived:


leo mellor lifting your eyes take the small voyage out to the horizon and back again [. . .] tenuous at first then tentative always hesitant reticent later [. . .] an astonishment prolonged as if it were raining stillness (GA 39, 43, 48)

This is a mode of adept attention within an environment, of wonder scaled down to fine ocular granularity with self-elision and caution. Such attending to attention itself, with the ethical demands made on poet and reader, offers a point of comparison with other poets covered in the chapter; from Colin Simms’s mise-en-page attempts to denote the “gap” in any encounter with otter or owl, through to Peter Larkin’s linguistic endeavours to render the otherness (of time and thought) that woodland invokes. These are complex and thorny places to write from – but they are also richly fruitful, successors to W.S. Graham’s “bower of bramble.” Such a diversity of poetry of and from British environments, which sees signification in multiple scales and registers, is tutelary: in how to look and how to read. Notes 1 W.S. Graham, New Collected Poems (London: Faber, 2004), pp. 216–19 (p. 216). 2 For another, but overlapping, range of contemporary poets writing of their environments, see Harriet Tarlo (ed.), The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Exeter: Shearsman, 2011). This extremely useful volume collects together sixteen significant contemporary poets. They are disparate but, in Tarlo’s words, an “ideological pushing of the boundaries is to be found integrated into the forms their poems inhabit”; moreover they are not – in her term – “eco-poets” but rather “concerned with the connection between the poet and the landscape . . . a located writing” (see pp. 8, 13). Further references are given in the body of the text as ‘GA.’ 3 Colin Simms, Otters and Martens (Exeter: Shearsman, 2004), p. 160.

Contemporary British Poetry and the Environment


4 For the practice of “becoming-animal,” see Eric Santner, On Creaturely Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). 5 Colin Simms, Hen Harrier Poems (Exeter: Shearsman, 2015), p. 121. 6 Simms, Otters and Martens, p. 17. 7 R.F. Langley, interview in Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan (eds.), Don't Start Me Talking: Interviews with Contemporary Poets (Cromer: Salt, 2007), pp. 237–57 (pp. 253–54). 8 R.F. Langley, Collected Poems, ed. Jeremy Noel-Tod (Manchester: Carcanet, 2015), pp. 99–102, (p. 99). 9 Ibid., pp. 153–54. 10 “Jeremy Noel-Tod remembers R.F. Langley,” Cambridge Literary Review II/5 (Summer 2011), pp. 71–78. 11 Sophie Seita, “The Ethics of Attention in Peter Larkin’s ‘Leaves of Field’,” http://cordite.org.au/scholarly/the-ethics-of-attention/. 12 Graham, New Poems, pp. 204–05. 13 Peter Larkin, Give Forest Its Next Portent (Bristol: Shearsman, 2014), pp. 161–93. 14 See http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2006/04/part-1.html. 15 Alice Oswald, Woods, etc (London: Faber, 2005), p. 26. 16 Alice Oswald, Dart (London: Faber, 2002), p. v. 17 Roger Deakin, Waterlog (London, 1999), pp. 3–4. 18 Rod Mengham, Chance of a Storm (Manchester: Carcanet, 2015), p. 18. 19 Ibid., pp. 31–33 (p. 31). 20 Marc Atkins and Rod Mengham, Still Moving (London: Veer Books, 2014), p. 47. This volume collects images and texts from all the films up to 2014. 21 Atkins and Mengham, Still Moving. 22 Ibid., p. 68 23 Thomas A. Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009), p. 60. 24 Graham, New Poems, p. 157. 25 Thomas A. Clark, Tormentil and Bleached Bones (Edinburgh: Polgon, 1993), p. 99. 26 Thomas A. Clark, Creag Liath (Cambridge: Poetical Histories no. 59, 2003), n.p. 27 Ibid. 28 Clark, Tormentil, p. 45. 29 Thomas A. Clark, Yellow and Blue (Manchester: Carcanet, 2014), p. 15.

chapter 20

Rescuing Nature from the Nation: Ecocritical (Un)Consciousness in Modern Chinese Culture Hangping Xu

China has since its market reforms in 1978 gone through the most rapid economic and social development that the world has ever witnessed. Economic development of such unprecedented scale and intensity, however, often comes at a high cost to our ecosystem. There is an inconvenient truth to the cliché that history repeats itself: China has been following in the footsteps of the advanced industrialized countries in that development comes before environmental protection. This developmentalist ethos, deep-rooted at the heart of Chinese modernity, can be traced back to the late nineteenth century when colonial capitalism entered China, with major imperialist powers such as Britain and France invading China with guns and opium. The dominant ideology of contemporary China remains one of developmentalism sponsored by the state. As this chapter will explain, the birth of the Chinese modern nation-state is predicated upon this developmentalist mandate of history. The Hegelian teleological rhetoric of History/Nation remains essentially unchallenged, especially as China is fervently embarking on a collective cause of national rejuvenation on the world stage. Yet the Chinese Communist Party-state has begun to place environmental protection on the national agenda in the context, for example, of its national energy security strategy. As of 2014, China has become a world leader in the infrastructure-building and technological innovations of renewable energy, especially the generation of wind power, solar power, and smart grid technologies. Still, environmental pollution continues to be a grave concern, as reports abound about the worsening quality of water, soil, and air. The argumentative premise of this chapter is thus that the unleashing of the dominant ideology of developmentalism best finds its imaginative and rhetorical resources in conceptual and historical interventions of literature and other modes of cultural narrative. In other words, not only is environmental protection an activist and state-initiated policy issue, but also it should be situated in the broad context of modern Chinese intellectual, 320

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literary, and cultural history; in this way, public consciousness can be changed towards humans and our relations with the natural world. As Karen Thornber has put it, “[s]tories have the capacity to awaken, reinforce, and redirect environmental concern and creative thinking about environmental futures.”1 These stories or cultural narratives about the environment – visual and print – should be recuperated, invented, imagined, told, and retold in a way that unsettles the developmentalist foundation of the national ideology and rescues nature from the nation. In so doing, we also do a great service to the field of modern Chinese literary and cultural studies; to rethink the relationship between the environment and modern Chinese literature leads to a rewriting of modern Chinese literary history, questioning the dominant epistemic paradigm of Chinese modernity and rereading modern Chinese texts. The Chinabased scholar of ecocriticism Wu Xiuming has critiqued the status quo of modern Chinese literary criticism, charging that the conceptual framework – what is Chinese modernity? – completely leaves out ecological thinking.2 By a timely recuperation of environmental concerns into modern Chinese literary history, Wu not only reconceptualizes the central question of modernity but also revises the existing episteme of history writing in general. This chapter aims to explore ecocritical perspectives in modern Chinese culture, first by offering a brief delineation of the establishment of developmentalism in the very birth of the Chinese modern nationstate. Our effort to rescue nature from the nation should begin from a critical interrogation of this nationalist linear historical narrative. In order to demonstrate how the debunking of nationalist hegemony sheds light on modern Chinese literature, we then move on to a critical reading of a canonical text from an ecocritical perspective. The text in question is Xiao Hong’s novel The Field of Life and Death (shengsichang, 1935);3 I suggest that it can be read as an intervention into the masculinist, aggressive, and ableist notion of the national subject, which is the sine qua non of nationalist linear history. Next, two cultural texts will be juxtaposed, namely, “Coal Smoke” (meiyan, 1933)4 and Under the Dome (qiongding zhi xia, 2015),5 both of which address the issue of air pollution in urban settings. The former text is a literary essay about coal smoke in the semi-colonial context back in the 1930s; the latter is a widely circulated documentary film about air pollution in contemporary China. A comparative study of the two texts helps illuminate the ways in which cultural interventions into environmental issues operate at these two different historical junctures.


hangping xu

Rescuing Nature from the Nation: How to Reimagine Time and Space The hegemonic project of Chinese modernization grew out of the epistemological and cosmological shift taking place at the turn of the twentieth century. European missionaries and Chinese intellectuals alike translated scientific discourses into Chinese. Yan Fu, for example, introduced theories of Social Darwinism and evolutionary theory. In semicolonial cities such as Shanghai, this epistemological shift was all the more culturally and institutionally pronounced. An illuminating case in point is the discourse of hygienic modernity. The Chinese word for hygiene is weisheng; though translated by Japanese, weisheng has Chinese etymological roots. In Chinese, it literally means “guarding life.” Weisheng, or otherwise yangsheng, represents the ancient Chinese cosmology centered upon the holistic circulation of qi, aiming for a balance between yin and yang. The import of scientific and medical discourses vis-à-vis imperialism, however, complicated the traditional weisheng, pushing both the elites and masses to rethink the tradition and absorb Western concepts of hygiene. In the late nineteenth century, John Fryer, a missionary based in China, translated a number of treaties and textbooks of hygiene. According to Ruth Rogaski’s historical account of hygienic modernity in semi-colonial Tianjin, weisheng served as an instrumental discourse for envisioning Chinese modernity; this vision involved transformations of society, state, and individual citizens.6 Both the elites and the state appropriated the meanings of health and disease into the rhetoric of Chinese deficiency, the so-called “Sick Man of Asia,” as part and parcel of their bigger awakening project. This deficiency rhetoric is a highly embodied one, which takes on the body as a site for writing modernity, sometimes in extremely racialized and eugenic terms. The body, under the signifier of weisheng, becomes the site where the Chinese state and colonizing forces administrated and disciplined the population. Andrew Jones uses “epistemological imperialism” to characterize the scientific shift in modern China, placing Chinese modernity in a colonial context.7 Adapted to social and cultural questions, the introduction of Darwin’s evolutionary theory to China “resulted in an intense and productive anxiety about their own historical agency as intellectuals entrusted with the task of building a modern nation.”8 In other words, “Evolutionary narrative became an indispensable means of representing the predicament of national development in a colonial world order.”9 This epistemic revolution in Chinese intellectual and literary history

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dating back to the late nineteenth century arguably led to a subsequent lack of ecocritical consciousness, a situation that did not change until China moved to the Reform era in the 1990s when the environmental crisis became too intensified to ignore in the wake of economic development. How, then, does this epistemic shift translate into Chinese literature? Jones detects a stock narrative form inherent in modern Chinese literary productions, which is derived from evolutionary thinking or “the vernacularization of evolutionary narrative.”10 A typical evolutionary narrative lends a sense of inevitability to the advent of this linear sense of history. We can use Mao Dun’s influential novella Spring Silkworms (chunchan, 1932) to better understand this evolutionary narrative. The story depicts the struggle of silkworm farmers from the outskirts of Shanghai with the industrial mode of production that was taking over the silk markets. The villagers are yet to make sense of the structural changes in the economy, but the agrarian mode of production is doomed. The story portrays the natural environment in the village in a way that anticipates ecological disaster: Far up the bend in the canal a boat whistle broke the silence. There was a silk filature over there too. [Old Tongbao] could see vaguely the neat lines of stones embedded as a reinforcement in the canal bank. A small oilburning river boat came puffing up pompously from beyond the silk filature, tugging three larger craft in its wake. Immediately the peaceful water was agitated with waves rolling towards the banks on both sides of the canal. A peasant, poling a tiny boat, hastened to shore and clutched a clump of reeds growing in the shallows. The waves tossed him and his little craft up and down like a seesaw. The peaceful green countryside was filled with the chugging of the boat engine and the stink of its exhaust.11

Our protagonist Old Tongbao is an old peasant, who inhabits the premodern mode of knowledge and production. The passage is focalized via his view into the canal, where another peasant poles his tiny boat. There is a tragic sense to the scene in that the story seems to suggest that the peasant in the Grand Canal riding the violent historical wave must forge ahead to reinvent himself as a modern farmer. Silk factories are being built along the canal; the boat engine as a modern signifier prefigures the pollution of the green countryside as well as the canal by “the stink of its exhaust.” Spring Silkworms can be read as an evolutionary allegory that serves the telos of the modern nation-state. But in the meantime it unsettles the modernist notion of development insofar as the story emphasizes the environmental cost as well as human consequences (e.g. the disintegrating cultural and moral life of the village).


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With the above analysis of the epistemic shift and its infiltration into culture and literature, we may conclude that to reconceptualize modern Chinese culture with an ecocritical intervention is thus to first problematize the evolutionary narrative deeply tethered to the birth of the modern nation-state. This reconceptualization of time (history) and space (nation) helps us reimagine ways of life and being beyond the developmentalist and consumerist frame of modernization and global capitalism. Prasenjit Duara has influentially offered historical interventions into the grand narrative of nationalism. Dura conceives this linear and progressive Enlightenment history as an imagined mode of experiencing time, which “involved totalization and closure.”12 By this temporality of totalization and closure, he means the teleological notion of history. China still embraces modernization theory as its governing ideology: the nation sticks together to modernize, striving for the communist future. Nationalism thus conceived renders a sense of purpose and mission to national subjects. Indeed, as Duara puts it, “the nationstate is the agency, the subject of History which will realize modernity.”13 Modernity, in the meantime, causes mass anxiety due to its drastic change and speed. The evolutionary narrative thus serves as a narrative device for linear history to overcome “the anxiety of temporal flux” because it “anchors the future to a measure of certainty.”14 But that the future is certain and bright is at best an illusion, because the developmentalist ethos of the nation blindfolds it to the fact that development comes at the cost of nature – and hence is unsustainable or even destructive. Therefore, to salvage nature from the nation is to problematize the developmentalist ethos of the nation, refusing to treat nature as mere means to the unsustainable agenda of developmentalism.

The Field of Life and Death: Disability, Animality, and the Nationalist Subject Xiao Hong’s The Field of Life and Death had been institutionally interpreted as a nationalist narrative until the 1990s, when feminists like Dai Jinhua and Lydia Liu activated the novel’s subversive feminist interventions into the grand narrative of nationalism. This section examines the novel, however, by looking at the striking intimacy between animals and villagers, especially Er Liban, who is a physically impaired protagonist; here we find that the crip figure dramatizes a kind of political and ontological subjectivity in the framework of vulnerability, finitude, care, and dependency, which problematizes the often

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masculinist and aggressive national subject. Er Liban’s disability dramatizes his bodiness, leading to what Louise Westling calls Merleau-Ponty’s “nondualistic, embodied description of subjectivity.”15 The novel was published, under the banner of nationalism, as part of the “Slave Series,” which assembled novels that thematized the national struggle against Japanese invasion. Set around 1931 in a Manchurian village, the novel is full of visceral and graphic depictions of women’s bodily experiences; it offers a panoramic view of rural life troubled by poverty, ignorance, class exploitation, imperialism, and the patriarchy. As the novel ends, the village undergoes an abrupt transition where the cyclical life is disrupted by Japanese invasion. Chapter 11, titled “The Wheel of Time Turns,” most briefly registers the advent of nationalist consciousness in the village: On snowy days a flag never before seen by the villagers was raised and began to flutter under the open sky. Silence reigned over the village. The only sound came from the temporary garrison on the hill. The villagers were wondering: What is happening now? Has the Chinese nation had a dynastic change?16

Triggered by the Japanese invasion, the awareness dawns that the village can no longer afford to go on living its self-contained, agrarian life when the nation is at a crisis moment. The national consciousness, to which the flag serves as a signifier, seems to hinge upon a new sense of time, which, according to Benedict Anderson, is a calendar or clock time.17 And the remaining six chapters, on the one hand, depict the way in which the nationalist discourse comes to the village and empowers rural men as nationalist subjects to fight against Japan. Yet female bodies are perpetually sexualized by both rural men and Japanese soldiers, as we see through extreme violence such as rape, birth-giving, and family abuse. The novel reduces rural woman to animalistic existence, thus pointing out a male and nationalistic identity grounded on an antagonistic view of feminized nature and earth and that this identity masks the violent bent of modern, male-centered, and nationalistic definitions of subjectivity. The novel depicts the animal world as one full of meaning and communication, gesturing towards Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “description of the man-animality intertwining.”18 The novel has no dominant female protagonist, but rather builds several major female characters. Chapter 3 titled “Old Horse Entering the Abattoir” depicts in great detail the moving scene where Mother Wang uses a twig to drive forward her “disabled and old” horse to the abattoir. On an autumn day, “an old


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horse and an old woman, with some old forsaken foliage, walked on.”19 Mother Wang runs into Er Liban: It was [Er Liban] coming towards them, looking like a tame monkey because of his long face and swaying body. “Say, it’s too early to be up,” he said. “Have you got business in town? Why drive the horse there instead of having it pull a carload of grain? . . . “It’s time,” [Mother Wang] said, her hands trembling. “Into the soup caldron it goes.” . . . Deeply saddened, [Er Liban] shuddered. But before long he turned and caught up with them. “It’s not right to send it to the soup caldron. It’s just nor right . . .” But what could he do? He was at loss for words. Limping forward, he patted the horse’s mane. It snorted in response, its eyes looking as if they were crying, all wet and glassy. Waves of pain stabbed Mother Wang’s heart. In a choked voice he said: “Forget it, this is how it has to be. If I don’t send it to the caldron, it’ll just starve to death.”20

The conversation between Er Liban and Mother Wang is heartbreaking and haunting. The novel frequently deploys animal metaphors to depict human characters, as we see when Er Liban’s disabled bodily features are said to resemble those of a chimpanzee. In other cases, female characters are compared to animals, suggestive of the fact that women are objectified and abused by the patriarchy. On the other hand, the animals have human features. Herein the horse is crying, as if he intuits that he is about to be slaughtered and that he and his owner Mother Wang are going to bid farewell. Later when Mother Wang leaves the horse behind in the abattoir after selling him for three dollars, the horse runs after her. Mother Wang goes back to give some soothing and gentle scratching to the horse, who falls asleep. Although animals like the horse are used as agricultural tools in the village, and their labor participates in the value system of the local economy, strong and intimate affective and emotional bonds are well established between animals and humans. Villagers have a sense of moral sentiment towards their animals. The rural world is full of meaning and signification; animals become participants in the semiotic system, a phenomenological and experiential web of meaning and signs. Now the charge of anthropomorphism might well be anticipated from some readers. As Timothy Morton has cogently argued in his The Ecological Thought, however, the accusation of anthropomorphism itself is anthropomorphic.21 Indeed, humans and other creatures mingle with each other and make connections, especially in a physically and emotionally viable manner. Er Liban is the most animal-loving character in the novel. As such, he is often depicted as excessively sentimental to the degree of being feminized. The beginning and the end of the novel both feature Er Liban with his beloved

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goat: the novel starts with the scene where Er Liban wobbles around the village looking for his missing goat, and ends where Er Liban, mobilized by the nationalist movement to fight against Japan, wobbles away from the village to join the army. All the capable men in the village have joined the army, many of whom showcase heroic and nationalist pride of their military involvement. Er Liban does not seem interested in joining; politically ‘backward,’ he retreats to his private life, taking care of his goat. For his devotion to the goat rather than to national politics, fellow male villagers tease him, for example, one day when he has nowhere to eat dinner. Perhaps out of social and peer pressure, Er Liban decides to leave the village, albeit grudgingly. As he takes leave, he looks back at his goat, pleading with Brother Zhao to take care of his animal in his absence. As Er Liban fades away wobbling with his impaired legs, the goat screams in the distance. This final scene is at once disturbing and heartwarming. On the one hand, Er Liban’s heroic future as a national subject is at best uncertain; the reader has concerns about his fate in the army. The army as the militaristic machinery of the nation-state can be construed as the quintessential place for the establishment of the ideology of ability (masculinity), upon which the myth of the nation is built and legitimized. Er Liban is the opposite of the ideal national subject, who is required to be completely loyal, able, and ready to sacrifice. On the other hand, his love of and attachment to animals enhance his image as a deeply sympathetic man; the farewell scene is no less moving than those in a romantic film. Throughout the novel, Er Liban, the man with physical disabilities, shares with women the marginalized position in the patriarchal world. Women are altogether excluded from becoming empowered national subjects; in other words, they are metaphorically disabled. But the irony is that their shared disabilities lead to their deeper humanity and their unmistakable embodiment, which, particularly in the case of women, refuses to, or rather becomes unable to, be sublimated into political agency. The novel unsettles and problematizes the founding ideology of the nation by establishing relations among disability, animality, and the female body. Lydia Liu sees the depictions of suffering and oppression, of people trapped in their perpetually sexualized bodies, as Xiao Hong’s attempt to relentlessly contest nationalist discourse, which is malecentric.22 The novel’s extensive, graphic, and even cinematic visualization of the female body in pain is difficult to be taken for symbolic consumption. This visceral quality makes it a novel of bodily shock: it shocks the reader’s body, at times provoking feelings of disgust. Yet this bodily


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aesthetics functions to emphasize the visceral and experiential barriers that rural women must overcome to achieve their political agency. The persistence of the body makes possible the novel’s aesthetics of ambivalence that refuses an abstract notion of radical agency around which many post-identity arguments are framed. It presents a phenomenological underpinning to Hannah Arendt’s utopian notion of radical action by pointing out the necessary social and cultural conditions for the emergence of national and political agency.23 The character Er Liban, too, shares this bodily aesthetics. In eugenic or hygienic (weisheng) terms widespread in early twentieth century, he fits into the pathologized national body, that is, the “Sick Man of Asia,” a body needing to be cured and strengthened. Yet the novel destabilizes or even delinks the reified relation between the perfect body and nationalistic political agency, further complicating the national ideology of ableism. In short, the masculinist, ableist, and disembodied notion of the national subject is relentlessly contested and challenged in the novel.

Breathing under the Dome: The Essay and Documentary Film Although The Field of Life and Death can be read as an ecocritical intervention into the hegemony of nationalist ideology, it does not consciously thematize ecological crisis. Little of Chinese literature before the 1990s in effect launches an ecological critique of Chinese modernity. Even in the context of pre-modern China, as Karen Thornber has eloquently argued, there is much ambiguity in ancient Chinese literature regarding the attitudes towards environmental crisis.24 One literary essay published in 1933 by Ye Lingfeng – “Coal Smoke” (meiyan) – can be regarded as an exception, however, and thus deserves our critical attention. When the nation had already fully embraced the developmentalist ethos by the 1930s, Ye’s essay was a rarity for its relentless critique of modernization and its ecological consequences. Specifically, the essay is about the grave issue of coal smoke pollution in metropolitan Shanghai. In a chatty tone, the essay begins with a daily observation that our customs have evolved in adjustment to environmental changes. As a custom originally initiated and only practiced in northern China, a host would have the guests wash their faces upon arrival because of the fierce winds, heavy dusts, and poor road conditions. But, as the essay goes on to explain: Nowadays in the South, especially Shanghai, the weapon of economic invasion has altered the poetic sense in the tranquil and bright air on the south of the Yangtze River, as a result of the material civilization that

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ushered into China with the high tides of the Pacific Ocean. Rising up to the sky are those dark monsters; the old custom of having guests wash their faces has traveled to the South.25

The essay registers a sense of environmental urgency, as it recounts the intersection of economic development, environmental alterations, and cultural adaptations. It invites the reader to make sense of the environmental crisis in the context of mundane life. Notice that the essay calls the chimneys that emit polluting smoke “dark monsters.” Next, it inserts a one-sentence paragraph explaining that the troublemaker is the coal smoke in Shanghai. To characterize the coal smoke as trouble-making (zuosui) is to personify it, as if the essayist urges the reader to imagine the environmental crisis as a battle to be fought. Then the essay takes on a humorous, almost absurdist, turn as it shifts readerly attention away from Shanghai to the context of modern Germany in the form of a fairy tale: A child, accompanied by an adult, travels around the world in a balloon when, one day, they come to the sky above Berlin, the industrial capital of Germany. As they fly on, they come to the outskirts of the city, where wide spreads of “trees” come to the boy’s view. The boy asks with bafflement and disbelief: why does a city as industrialized as Berlin still have untouched forests? Of course, as the adult explains, those are industrial chimneys, which appear like breathless forests when viewed from above. The embarrassment of the adult forms a contrast with the innocence of the boy, casting the latter as a trope for the future generation. The innocence (wisdom) of the child only amplifies the absurdity of modernization. The essay thus situates Shanghai’s coal smoke pollution in the transnational context of industrialization and global (colonial) capitalism. It immediately modifies the comparison of Berlin and Shanghai by adding that the latter is far less developed. Next, the essayist overwhelms the reader with minute and vivid details to illustrate that the deteriorating environment in Shanghai is not far from Berlin after all. It shifts to a different rhetorical mode by directly addressing the reader as “you”: If you take a stroll in the streets and return home to have a towel to wipe your nostrils, you will realize that Shanghai is not any better [than Berlin]. Then you sit at home: although you wipe diligently, have set up screen windows and shut the doors tightly, you will know that the new monsters have never stopped being active once you use your fingers to touch the table after a while.26

Again the essayist uses the metaphor of “monsters” to depict the almost apocalyptic future that the environmental pollution gestures towards.


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Then, with a sarcastic touch, it references the Christian and medical discourses to help the reader imagine the apocalyptic potentials of environmental crisis. Mocking the missionaries bringing the Message to China who believe in the omnipresence of God, the essay suggests that this “black God” now exists in the form of ubiquitous and yet invisible coal smoke; in the next paragraph the essay evokes eugenics, which was influential in the 1930s, suggesting that the “black God” has shortened people’s lifespans, especially in metropolitan areas. Constantly positioning Shanghai in a transnational context, the essay seems to urge that China should learn a lesson from the Western forerunners of modern civilization, although Ye’s sense of hopelessness in face of the unstoppable historical forces often resorts to rhetorical devices of irony or even sarcasm. The essay ends on a nostalgic and even melancholic note where it recounts an American news report about a Canadian coastal village. Vast and empty, the village has not a single factory chimney. The fact that this kind of small village was not even newsworthy a century ago and that the American media nowadays treats it as a sensational discovery, the essay suggests, well points out the radical changes that modernization has brought about. Ye states his fear that in another century this kind of village will be rare and become the object of profound nostalgia. In shifting the coordinates of space (China, Germany, Canada, the United States) and temporality (century as a basic unit), the essay situates China (Shanghai) at once on the world map and in the history of industrialization, offering an account of ecological disaster at once local and global, contemporary and historical. Next, the essay shifts to an emotional register in the concluding paragraph: “People like us who make our home in the suburban areas of Shanghai while living a busy life face daily these chimneys that surround the four sides of our houses. Since we enjoy no option of returning to the reclusive lifestyle of ancient hermits, I let out these helpless sighs in this essay.”27 Although the ending suggests a pessimistic view on the possibilities of individual agency in face of civilizational and historical changes, the essay is still a remarkable and rare gem in modern Chinese literary and cultural history. Focusing on the immediate context of Shanghai and addressing human civilization as an entirety, the essay might be read as the first ecocritical piece in modern China. Ye Lingfeng harbors deep suspicions about the promises that modernity holds and, more fundamentally, the linear sense of time behind the developmentalist ideology of the nation that Chinese intellectuals and the state had been reinforcing by the 1930s. When the nation was in deep crisis, confronting colonialism,

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Japanese invasion, and civil war, Chinese intellectuals and writers had internalized the developmentalist ideology in their striving for national salvation and rejuvenation, unquestioningly embracing the Hegelian sense of history without attending to ecological crisis. The dominant developmentalist and evolutionary narrative form, which Ye Lingfeng’s essay aims to undermine, nevertheless resulted from the Chinese intellectuals’ notion of historical agency as they took up the task of building a modern nation. Ye Lingfeng’s was a rare and dissenting voice. His essay, moreover, stands out for its eloquent rhetoric. Aristotle viewed rhetoric as the ability to discover in given circumstances the best means of persuasion. The means of persuasion – ethos, logos, and pathos – operate artfully in the piece, making the pollution of coal smoke in Shanghai a personally felt issue that has profound repercussions on an epic scale. If narrative fiction like The Field of Life and Death enables alternative imagination of the world (poesis as world-making), the genre of the essay can enact a rhetorical and critical forum, a vibrant public discourse, and a political culture, in which critical issues are debated and contested. Now, with the advent of social media, the essay form can be an even more effective rhetorical platform. Also, readily available visual tools have the capacity to transform the established means of persuasion. The most widely influential event for environmentalists in China in 2015 should be the dissemination of the documentary film Under the Dome by the former journalist Chai Jing. This film is almost the expanded and visualized version of Ye Lingfeng’s essay: first, the film, lasting close to two hours, is an investigation into coal smoke pollution in contemporary China. Although the essay was published in 1933 and the film released in 2015, air pollution in China remains a grave issue. Secondly, the film deploys similar aesthetic and rhetorical appeals. It individualizes the situations of a few major cities like Beijing and Shanghai while intercutting reports about the historical cases of London and Los Angeles – how they historically addressed the pollution of coal emission. In a similar way to the hot air balloon voyage of the fairy tale in Ye’s essay, the film uses images from NASA to situate China in a global schema, showing the level of pollution in China by coloring the images. The trope of the child is evoked throughout the film to suggest that human civilization bears a profound moral debt to future generations. In fact, Chai Jing declares at the beginning of the film that the personal incentive of the film comes from her pregnancy: her daughter was diagnosed with health issues even during her pregnancy due to air quality in Beijing. The little baby survived after a major operation. Chai Jing wanted to create a greener and cleaner world for her daughter and the


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future generations. She embarked on this independent documentary film. The film weaves together many elements such as reports, interviews, and visual clips. It even utilizes tools of the digital humanities such as graphics, visualization, and mapping to explain complex issues in an accessible manner. The film features Chai Jing talking to the audience in a TED Talk format, which renders a sense of aliveness, a kind of direct address to the audience within and outside the film. As Chai Jing explains in a very calm but occasionally emotional tone, the film shifts to other visual representations. Chai Jing is a household name in China because of her former position as a journalist and anchorwoman at the China Central Television Station (CCTV), the state-sponsored mouthpiece of China. Thanks to her influential status, she gets to interview many high-ranking officials, CEOs, and scientists. The film helps the Chinese public understand the roots and harms of air pollution. It is so thorough, comprehensive, and historical an investigation into the issue at stake that it simply compels or overwhelms the audience emotionally and intellectually. Towards the end of the film, the soundtrack is of church music, juxtaposed with a quick showcase of apocalyptic images. The voiceover leaves the audience with two powerful messages: first, it urges the state to deliver fundamental changes by initiating technological innovations, providing legal and administrative facilities, and, above all, launching a reevaluation of market logic. Second, it is a call to arms and actions, suggesting that the solution lies in every ordinary citizen who demands a sustainable world and participates in making it possible. Indeed, the film, free and available online, aims to reach the widest possible audience. Within three days of its release, it was viewed more than 150 million times on Tencent, which is one of the most popular online platforms in China. People tweeted and re-tweeted it; it was a national sensation. Even China’s environmental protection minister praised the film in public, comparing it with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring.

Conclusion: Cultural and Institutional Solutions to Environmental Crisis But soon enough the Chinese government banned Chai Jing’s film, perhaps fearing the scale of rally that it was able to mobilize. The government’s sudden fear stems from the sense of danger and threat in that the foundational legitimization of the state is, alas, developmentalism, which is at odds with the environment. The ultimate dilemma lies in the

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contradiction within modernization between the firmly established ideology of developmentalism and the increasing awareness of environmental pollution. Even so, the film arguably played a significant role in delivering cultural and institutional changes. The Chinese government, for example, has of late joined forty-one other nations to announce its “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution,” pledging a carbon intensity reduction target of 60–65 percent by 2030. It is safe to argue that Chai Jing’s film gave the government a much-needed nudge. The end of the film suggests that two things are needed for fundamental changes to take place in our ecological effort: the participation of the state and action from every citizen. The former is institutional and the latter cultural. The film’s message echoes the thesis of this chapter: institutional change becomes possible only when we begin to challenge the developmentalist ethos of Nation/History. Beginning with a historical account of the establishment of this ethos in the birth of the modern Chinese nation, this chapter shows how institutional and cultural forces should come together. And an analysis of Xiao Hong’s novel The Field of Life and Death, Ye Lingfeng’s essay “Coal Smoke,” and Chai Jing’s documentary film Under the Dome demonstrates the power of print and visual cultural narratives and rhetorics in undoing the developmentalist ideology and thus rescuing nature from the nation. Notes 1 Karen Thorber, Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and Eastern Asian Literatures (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012), p. 5. 2 Wu Xiuming, Modern Chinese Literary History and the Eco-field or zhongguo xiandangdai wenxueshi yu shengtaichang (Beijing: China Academy of Social Sciences Press, 2009). 3 Xiao Hong, The Field of Life and Death & Tales of Hulan River, trans. Howard Goldblatt (Boston: Cheng & Tsui Company, 2002). 4 See the essay from this link: www.xiexingcun.com/mingjiaxiejing/139.htm. 5 See the film from the YouTube link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v= xbK4KeD2ajI. 6 Ruth Rogaski, Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in TreatyPort China (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2004). 7 Andrew Jones, Developmental Fairy Tales: Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). 8 Ibid., p. 30. 9 Ibid., p. 9. 10 Ibid., p. 83.


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11 Mao Dun, “Spring Silkworms,” trans. Sidney Shapiro, in Modern Chinese Stories and Novellas: 1919–1949 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 146. 12 Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 17. 13 See ibid., p. 20. 14 See ibid., pp. 28–29. 15 Louise Westling, The Logos of the Living World: Merleau-Ponty, Animals, and Language (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), p. 7. 16 See Xiao, The Field of Life and Death, p. 61. 17 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revd edn (London and New York: Verso, 2006). 18 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 274. 19 See Xiao, The Field of Life and Death, p. 35. 20 See ibid., p. 27. 21 Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). 22 Lydia H. Liu, “The Female Body and Nationalist Discourse: The Field of Life and Death Revisited,” in Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices, ed. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1994). 23 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998). 24 See Thorber, Ecoambiguity. 25 See Ye, “Coal Smoke.” I translated from the Chinese essay available online. 26 See ibid. 27 See ibid.

chapter 21

Eating Life at a Contaminated Table: The Narrative Significance of Toxic Meals in Contemporary Japan Yuki Masami The issue of food and toxicity is nothing new. Since ancient times, particularly from the Industrial Revolution onward, people have been involved in the act of intentionally lacing food with toxic elements, such as copper for the sake of enhanced appearance, in order to increase sales and profit. However, food adulteration due to contamination of the physical environment itself seems to be a more recent problem. In Japan, one of the earliest social problems due to toxic food was the result of environmental pollution which occurred in Minamata, a regional city in southern Japan. In the early twentieth century Minamata invited a carbide company in, which eventually developed into the Chisso corporation, Japan’s most representative chemical company in the first half of the twentieth century. Since then, Minamata has been heavily dependent on the prosperity and successful operation of Chisso’s chemical plant. The plant discharged mercury-laden waste water directly into Minamata Bay from 1932 to 1968. The local marine ecosystem was thus contaminated, and due to the bioaccumulation of mercury in the food chain, people who lived mainly on locally caught fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables were poisoned, contracted neurological disorders, and have since been suffering what is known as Minamata disease. Common sense would suggest that eating marine product contaminated with mercury would endanger one’s health and eventually life. When a “strange disease” broke out in the 1950s in Minamata, exclusively in the fishing villages along Minamata Bay, company employees, government workers, school teachers in the city – in other words, salaried people – boycotted locally caught fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables. Those who continued eating them lived in the fishing villages, practicing what they had always done – getting what they ate from the nearby sea – even after they were told that the sea was dangerously contaminated. Again, following common sense, most of us would assume that the people in the villages had no choice but to eat what they caught because they were 335


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too poor to buy something safe. In fact, scholars made this very observation, as demonstrated in an article titled “Food Safety in Modern Japan” which associates Minamata fishers’ act of knowingly eating toxic food with their economic difficulties. The article states, “Lower-income residents were particularly vulnerable, as they were heavy consumers of local sea foods that they themselves harvested.”1 Associating Minamata disease with poverty has not been uncommon in ordinary and academic realms. Curiously, however, a radically different view of foodways, or the cultural and social practices regarding food and eating, in toxic environments has been noticeable in literature. A series of Japanese literary works in recent decades describe people’s act of eating local food while knowing it is likely to be toxic as a manifestation of their appreciation of the life of fish, animals, and the other beings that they eat. As I will discuss later, it is a literary gesture of resistance to the dominant standard of an industrial state which pays exclusive attention to economic values and neglects the life of people and nonhuman entities. At least since the 1960s, which corresponds to the dawn of Japan’s high economic growth, the peculiar orientation to life in literary representation of people’s knowingly eating locally harvested toxic food has been apparent. Beginning with Ishimure Michiko’s novel Kugai jōdo (Paradise in the Sea of Suffering: Our Minamata Disease) (1969/72), the attention to life-centered food practices in toxic environments has been evident in such works as the narratives of fisherman and Minamata disease victim Ogata Masato and the award-winning writer Katō Yukiko’s novella “Umibe gurashi” (Living by the Sea) (1981).2 More recent examples include Taguchi Randy’s Zōn nite (In the Zone) (2013) and Kimura Yūsuke’s Seichi Cs (Sanctuary Cs) (2014), works which are set in places contaminated by the nuclear meltdown of three of the six reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011. The above-mentioned writers and works acknowledge that people knowingly eating contaminated food obey a different standard from that which endorses a logic of food risks and safety. While there is no doubt about the importance of checking and assuring food safety for individual and public well-being, both in ordinary life and in literary practice,3 taking certain notions or discourses for granted involves some danger as well. What we call “food safety” should be critically examined because it represents a certain social power, intention, and value. For example, the notion of food safety involves binary differences between clean and dirty, pure and contaminated, and safe and dangerous. Those binary differences may, in turn, promote essentialist thinking, as literary critic Timothy

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Morton observes: “Excluding pollution is part of performing Nature as pristine, wild, immediate, and pure.”4 Such binary thinking may be so strong that the affirmation of safe food seems to involve the exclusion of contaminated food without asking or investigating why and how the food has been contaminated.5 Asking why pollution occurred in the first place and exploring what binary thinking has excluded, literary attention to toxic meals generates noise in the dominant discourse of food safety, thereby inviting speculation on our modern value system which tends to prioritize clean, safe foods. What do such literary cacophonies imply in this age of toxic environments in which the attention to food risks and safety is ever intensified? This chapter explores the narrative significance of toxic meals as an embodiment of the life-centered values of those who have intimate relationships with the environment, by examining literary environmentalism in Japan from the 1960s to the 2010s. I am investigating this time period partly because the 1960s marks the rise of environmental consciousness in Japan with a series of nationally known environmental pollution cases including mercury poisoning in Minamata, cadmium poisoning in Toyama, and air-pollution-induced asthma in Yokkaichi.6 Also, during that decade, Ishimure’s Kugai jōdo – Japan’s best-known environmentally themed literary work – was completed, a fact which suggests literary attention to foodways as a barometer of people’s intimacy with the environment became evident around that time. The 1960s is also worth paying attention to in terms of Japanese diet and food distribution systems, both of which have undergone major changes since then. This last point needs detailed explanation. Several noticeable changes have taken place in dietary habits in Japan since the 1960s. One such change is a sharp increase in the consumption of meat.7 In 1960, per capita meat supply was 3.5 kilograms per annum, which had doubled by 1965 and continued to increase to 12.2 kilograms in 1970, 22.1 in 1980, and 30.0 in 2013.8 Japan has been internationally known for its high consumption of fish and shellfish, which is more than three times the world average, but its per capita fish supply was recently overtaken by that of meat.9 The change in dietary habit is also represented in literary response to foodways; fish and shellfish is a major focal point in Ishimure’s and Ogata’s works on Minamata disease, which began to affect people in the 1950s and 60s, whereas cows have attracted attention in literary response to the nuclear disaster of March 2011. Interestingly, there is much less focus on pigs and chickens in contemporary Japanese literature, although beef is consumed in lesser quantities than pork or chicken.


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Perhaps it has something to do with beef’s symbolic meaning of modernity. In Japan, for social, cultural, and religious reasons, meat-eating had long been prohibited, and this taboo was broken as the country strove for modernization. In 1872, the emperor embarked on a campaign of eating beef for its association with Western civilization and enlightenment; since then, the act of eating beef has been “the symbol of Japan’s transformation into a modern nation.”10 Even though such a symbolic aura attached to the eating of beef is hard to notice in the twenty-first century, it may likely be deeply embedded in the Japanese cultural psyche. The shift in major protein from fish to meat over the period from the 1960s to the 2010s can be traced not only to a change in the Japanese public’s diet but also to the food distribution system, both of which suggest the same social and political intention. In the middle of the twentieth century, food – especially fresh agricultural produce and seafood – was distributed mainly within local areas due to a lack of a chilled storage and transportation system, or “cold chain.”11 In 1966, the Japanese government introduced a cold chain in order to promote a Western – northern European in particular – model of meat-oriented diet for the improvement of physique.12 This echoes the late nineteenth-century nationalistic promotion, which I mentioned earlier, of meat-eating to support a modern large, civilized body.13 The development of a cold chain made meat and meat product available in every corner of the nation. In addition to the nationalistic intention of promoting meat consumption, an increase in the energy supply has played a significant role in the expansion of the cold chain, which includes cold storage, refrigerators, and freezers in commercial and household settings. The household refrigerator diffusion rate, for instance, was 10.1 percent in 1960, increasing to 68.7 percent in 1965 and 92.5 percent in 1970; by 1980 almost all households had a refrigerator.14 As for retailers, in addition to the expansion of grocery stores, convenience stores have spread rapidly since the 1970s, a fact which indicates that the cold chain has became ubiquitous. Also, the creation of the cold chain was entirely dependent on the ‘energy revolution’ of 1962 in which coal was displaced by petroleum as the primary source of energy. Then, triggered by the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, Japan’s already launched nuclear energy industry accelerated its growth until the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011. Energy supply has been an important factor in Japan’s industrialization, which has had no small impact on the agriculture and food industry. Clearly, food practices are connected to energy supply. Taking the changes in dietary habit and distribution system into consideration, the period from the mid twentieth century to the 2010s can be

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divided into four periods in terms of foodway characteristics.15 Before 1960 (and going back as far as the seventeenth-century Edo period) was an era of ‘sound’ foodways, meaning that people’s diets were based on locally produced and locally consumed food and did not have much negative environmental impact. The next two decades after 1960 were an era of ‘gluttony,’ which overlapped Japan’s unprecedentedly high economic and industrial growth; such prosperity prompted people to pursue a modern convenient lifestyle of mass production and mass consumption. The period from around 1980 to 2000 was characterized by a collective ‘apathy’ towards food – people became less attentive to what they ate because of the abundance of ready meals and convenient processed foods. This leads into the era of a ‘collapse’ of food culture and practice (e.g. unconcerned attitudes to meals, weakened distinction between meals and snacks, etc.) at the turn of the century. The transformation of foodways from ‘sound’ to ‘gluttonous,’ then ‘apathetic,’ and on to ‘collapsing’ parallels the diffusion and intensification of a materialistic lifestyle based on the development of industrialization and resultant mass production and mass consumption. French philosopher and novelist Tristan Garcia describes such a modern life dominated by materialism as being contaminated with things which have been conceptually and practically tamed by humans. He writes, “Our time is perhaps the time of an epidemic of things. A kind of ‘thingly’ contamination of the present was brought about through the division of labour, the industrialization of production, the processing of information, the specialization of the knowledge of things, and above all the desubstantialisation of these things.”16 This statement suggests that the contamination of modern life is due to “desubstantialisation,” which can be translated as a reductionist attitude to things, an attitude which assumes that things either “solidify into substances” or “vanish into pure potentiality”17 while not being concerned about their intrinsic vitality or what Jane Bennett calls “thing-power.”18 A related observation is presented by German linguist Uwe Poerksen, who discusses the modern rise of “plastic words,” words that are “empty” with no specific meaning in the context they are used while being used to fit every circumstance.19 Referring to words such as “development,” “communication,” “information,” and “progress,” as examples of plastic words, Poerksen points out interrelations between the spread of those words and the development of industrialization, saying that plastic words are “the elemental building blocks of the industrial state.”20 It does not seem unreasonable to assume that the desubstantialization of words and things refer to the same


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phenomenon, that is, the empowerment of industrialization in which qualities of life are replaced by quantities and numbers as exemplified in data, statistics, commodity, and money.21 The same holds true of foodways. The more industrialized a food practice becomes, the more desubstantialized what we eat (things) and how we express (words) becomes. In addition, knowledge of food and eating has itself been desubstantialized, removed from experience. As food critic Michael Pollan observes in the opening of his The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), “As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may once have possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety. Somehow this most elemental of activities – figuring out what to eat – has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help.”22 Individual and communal experience-based knowledge is substituted by the rather abstract and conceptual “expert help” of academics. This is a byproduct of the industrialization of the system of food production, processing, distribution, and consumption. Using Pollan’s notion of a “food chain,” which refers to the entire process from food being grown to a meal on a table, industrial food chains are long and segmentalized, and do not necessarily require individual involvement or experience-based knowledge, whereas experience is imperative in a hunter-gatherer food chain. In the modern industrial food chain, food is always available on a store shelf – thanks to the development of the cold chain – and all you need to do is simply go to a store and buy what you want. Taking into consideration the parallel and interrelated tendencies of industrialization, materialism, and desubstantialization, the call for safe food does not look as “natural” as it seems to be. This is exactly what the literary works that I have mentioned earlier demonstrate in their representations of the act of eating locally harvested food in a toxic environment. Focusing on foodways based on a shorter food chain that resembles that of experienced hunters and gatherers, and juxtaposing it to that which is grounded in the much longer industrialized food chain, Ishimure’s and Ogata’s works on Minamata, Katō’s novella on an old lady living alone by an industrialized seashore, and Taguchi and Kimura’s stories on cattle ranches in Fukushima’s evacuation zone invite speculations on the physical and emotional distance between those who eat and what they eat. Among those works, Ishimure’s Kugai jōdo stands out for its literary sophistication and impact. In a subtle yet powerfully artistic manner, Kugai jōdo creates noises by making hands-on experience-based foodways

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intrude, cut in, and eventually complicate industrialized foodways. The novel covers a time period from the early twentieth century to 1968, during which a short, hunter-gatherer kind of food chain, which was more or less practiced in sound foodways, was weakened and industrial food chains became dominant. Against the radical change of food production, distribution, and consumption, Ishimure delineates the unchanging food practice of fishing people, which embodies their life-centered ethic. Ishimure does so in such a subtle way that the consistency of the fishing people’s – and Minamata disease victims’ – attitudes to food before and after the mercury pollution is neither explained nor discussed but embedded in an illustration of their meals. Compare the following passages depicting meals of the same fishing family before and after Minamata disease broke out, and it will be clear that what they eat barely changes. First, a fisher’s recollection of a meal on a boat at sea when he was young, that is, before the Minamata disease started to spread: . . . my wife’d wash the rice in the sea. No rice in the world is better than rice cooked in the beautiful water from the sea, you ever had any? Oh, it’s so good! It picks up a bit of the color of the sea, gets a bit dark. It gets some of the flavor of the sea too. While my wife cooked the rice, I’d prepare the fish. Out of the fish that I caught, I’d pick my favorite, scale it, and splash it in the water a bit to wash it off. . . . I’d scale ’em and gut ’em, wash the knife and cutting board in the water of the sides of the boat, but after that, you shouldn’t wash anything else. I’d take the flesh from the bones, and cut it into three big slices before cutting it into thinner slices, and then wouldn’t wash it. Even with the sea water, if you wash the meat after you cut it, it loses its flavor.23

Several pages earlier, Ishimure describes a meal of the same family in 1964 when the Minamata disease was rampant. The fisher and his wife are narrated as an old couple with three grandchildren including one who was born with Minamata disease, and their dinner at the small one-room “windowless house” with a single light bulb and a rotten wall mended with vinyl board is illustrated as follows:24 Grandmother put some tofu out on the table, which was set up in the traditional way with everyone sitting on the floor. The tofu was just about to crumble, and she cut it into pieces. Then she cut a giant heap of boiled octopus, and brought that too out. After that, she brought some pickled daikon radish that had a yellow color to it. Her two grandchildren each got down on one knee and started putting out small dishes for everyone.25

Those two passages illustrate meals of the same people in the same area (on or near the Shiranui Sea), yet readers’ response to each meal is likely


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to be different as Ishimure implies in the novel: the meal onboard the boat is perceived by city people as enjoyable, peaceful, and enviable, whereas the family dinner in a small dark house is likely to invite an association with poverty and misery.26 The family’s diet of an ample amount of fish and some rice has not changed much (the difference between fresh fish and boiled octopus might look significant, yet, since octopus is illustrated in the novel as an icon of a fisher’s kinship with the marine environment, the difference in types of locally caught fish is not worth attention). Considering the different time period in which each meal was set, what changed between the two meals is the dominant foodways of Japanese society, from the ‘sound’ one which shares some aspects of a hunter-gatherer food chain to the ‘gluttonous’ foodways of an industrial state. From the contrast between the fisher’s consistent foodways and the changing foodways of an industrial society come a gap, noise, or cacophony regarding human relationships with the environment. In this way, in Kugai jōdo, an experience-based ‘sound” foodway interferes with the modern values materialized in an industrial foodway, bringing to light what Garcia describes as “thingly contamination” in industrial and post-industrial societies. Moreover, Ishimure compares a difference in value with a difference in language; that is, the fishing people’s life is narrated in a local dialect whereas industrial society is described using the ‘standard’ Japanese of a modern state, a language which Ishimure often describes as devoid of meaning and substance, much like what Poerksen calls plastic words.27 Thus desubstantialization of an industrial, materialistic life is doubly emphasized in Kugai jōdo, albeit in an indirect, barely expository manner. The life-centered value as manifested in toxic meals is clearly explained in Ogata Masato’s narrative. Referring to the shared characteristics of his fellow Minamata disease sufferers, Ogata emphasizes their “faith in life”: [There are] three distinct characteristics of the Minamata disease incident. . . First of all, when news got out about ‘a strange disease’ and consumers stopped buying fish, the people of our fishing villages continued to eat the fish. Second, when a first child and then a second was born with Minamata disease, we gave birth to a third and a fourth child, raising them all with love and care . . . The third feature of the incident is that although we continued to be poisoned, crippled, and killed, in the tens of thousands, we never killed even a single person. All three of these features are related to life . . . We placed complete faith in life and received it with reverence and gratitude.28

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In Ogata’s narrative, the people’s knowingly eating locally caught toxic fish is represented as a manifestation of faith in life, which is contrasted to the Chisso corporation’s profit-oriented system. Similarly, Katō Yukiko’s “Living by the Sea” illustrates an old woman’s life-centered toxic meals on an industrialized coast, questioning modern standards of life, risk, and safety.29 The literary focus on faith in life shows a rather different feature in more recent works, especially those concerning radioactive contamination caused by the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. Taguchi Randy’s “Morumotto” (Guinea Pig), one of the four novellas included in her In the Zone, mainly illustrates two people: one is an old woman, who is similar to those who eat at their toxic table described in works of Ishimure, Ogata, and Katō; the other is a young woman who follows the old woman, learning her faith in life but nonetheless having a certain resistance to eating locally harvested contaminated food such as mushrooms.30 Because of this attention to a resistance to ingesting local food in a dangerously contaminated environment, Taguchi’s literary exploration of human relationships with the environment escapes romanticization and idealization of life-centered value. Especially after the nuclear meltdowns in March 2011, because of the far-ranging dispersion of contaminated air, water, and food grown in and related to contaminated areas, life is exposed to toxicity no matter how far one lives from the crippled nuclear plant. In a new reality of food and toxicity, an act of eating locally harvested toxic food may not work as a powerful vehicle of faith in life as it did in the works of Ishimure, Ogata, and Katō. Faith in life at a table in the twenty-first century perhaps requires a new literary approach. In her other novella, titled “Ushi no rakuen” (A Paradise of Cows), Taguchi explores a sense of reality, questions the binary thinking of good and evil regarding radioactivity (she sets side-by-side the radioactive contamination caused by the nuclear meltdowns and radioactive treatment of a protagonist’s cancer) and of meat-eating and vegetarianism. The novella ends with a scene in which a middle-aged man with cancer comes to an abandoned cattle ranch in Fukushima’s exclusion zone, seeing dead cows all over, and witnessing a spider – a symbol of life – working in the grassy field. Focusing on life in death, Taguchi contemplates the paradoxical reality of paradise in hell and of the non-binary, complex, and interrelated ways of life. The novella ends with the protagonist’s bursting desire to eat beef, an act which signifies his appreciation of life as real.31


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A sense of reality is the key concept in Kimura Yūsuke’s Sanctuary Cs, too. In this novel, those who eat contaminated food are not humans but cows, which were left behind at ranches when ranchers and their families were forced to evacuate due to a nuclear explosion at a power plant. One of the ranchers decides to come back to take care of his cows when the Japanese government orders radioactive-contaminated cows to be killed. Anger against the government’s inhumane treatment and questioning of the utilitarian attitude toward domestic animals based exclusively on economic value give form to his life-oriented ethic. Due to his severe financial situation, the rancher has no choice but to feed the cows with contaminated hay from other contaminated ranches that have been abandoned. The novel emphasizes the passion and zeal of the cows’ eating of hay and vegetable wastes, representing the force of life in the act of eating. Yet the popular notion of ‘we are what we eat’ is complicated, as in the other works that I have discussed, because what one eats is deadly contaminated. Kimura compares two opposing views of feeding cows with radioactivecontaminated, yet the only available, feed: one sees the feeding as helping the cows to live (as a simple fact, the cows will die if they have no feed to take), while the other suggests feeding with contaminated food is slowly killing them by contaminating their bodies. Kimura does not intend to explain what is right and what is wrong; instead, he represents the contaminated cattle ranch as a place where “contradiction is exposed as it is.”32 Literary attention to a convoluted sense of reality in contradiction is also expressed in the title, which unites seemingly opposing notions of “sanctuary” (which evokes pureness and safety) and “cesium (Cs)” (which refers to radioactive cesium or cesium 137 released during the nuclear meltdowns and therefore accompanies an image of danger), just as Ishimure’s Kugai jōdo, which means “Paradise in the Sea of Suffering,” combines the two contradictory worlds to create a matrix for a reality of paradox. In this new era of the Anthropocene, conceptual boundaries between natural and artificial, wild and domestic, and clean and contaminated seem to be rather blurred, yet the dominant attitude towards food is one which desires safe, clean food. But what exactly does ‘safe food’ mean? Is it food free from any chemical contamination or toxic process? Then why does society allow such chemical contamination in the first place? Is it food or our industrial value that is dangerously contaminated? Asking such questions, albeit inconspicuously, literary works which pay attention to – while not necessarily advocating – a faith in life as represented in toxic meals help expand and deepen critical speculation on a complex web of food, value systems, discourses, and life.

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Notes 1 Raymond A. Jussaume Jr, Shūji Hisano and Yoshimitsu Taniguchi, “Food Safety in Modern Japan,” Japanstudien 12 (2000), p. 218. 2 Ogata’s two books (published in Japanese in 1996 and 2001 respectively) are combined and translated into English under the title of Rowing the Eternal Sea: The Story of a Minamata Fisherman, adapted and translated by Karen Colligan-Taylor (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). 3 Silent Spring was an important source of inspiration for literary and social activism in support of the safe (often organic) food movement in Japan, which gained popularity with Ariyoshi Sawako’s Fukugō osen (Compound Pollution), a novel first serialized from 1974 to 1975 in Japan’s most widely read newspaper before being published in 1975. Compound Pollution played an important role in public education on environmental contamination and food safety, prompting an organic food movement in Japan. For ecocritical analyses of Compound Pollution, see Christine L. Marran, “The Domestic Turn in Ecocritical Writing: Ariyoshi Sawako’s Cumulative Pollution,” POETICA 80 (2013), pp. 81–98. 4 Timothy Morton, “Queer Ecology,” PMLA 125.2 (2010), p. 274. 5 An example of this is seen in the gap between the high degree of public concern about food safety and the insignificant change in foodways; as I discussed before, according to a survey regarding foodways after the triple disaster in March 2011, about 70 percent of 970 respondents to a survey showed their concern about food safety, whereas more than 60 percent of those respondents did nothing in response. See Yuki Masami, Foodscapes of Contemporary Women Writers: An Ecocritical Journey around the Hearth of Modernity, trans. Michael Berman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 2–3. 6 Largely because of recognition of such a major series of environmental problems, air and water pollution control laws were enacted in 1968 and 1970 respectively and the Environmental Agency was established in 1971. There is no doubt that what happened in the 1960s had quite an impact on Japan’s environmentalism which is usually thought to have begun in the 1970s. 7 By “meat” I refer to beef, pork, and chicken, the three major meats consumed in Japan. “Meat” in this chapter does not include fish. 8 I could not find reliable data regarding per capita meat consumption from 1960 to the 2010s; therefore, I am using per capita meat “supply” instead. As far as I calculated using data provided in the White Paper of 2010 published by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), since 1980 there is no major difference between per capita meat consumption and supply. This implies that per capita meat supply may work well enough to be equated with meat consumption.


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9 This does not mean that people eat meat instead of fish but that they eat an increasing amount of meat in addition to fish. According to statistics provided by MAFF, the transitions of an annual fish supply per capita in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000 are 27.8, 31.6, 34.8, 37.5, 37.2, and 29.4 (in kilograms) respectively, whereas those of meat are 3.5, 12.2, 22.1, 26.0, 28.7, and 29.0. Clearly meat consumption has increased rapidly, and in 2011 it surpassed that of fish. Again, as the numbers indicate, fish supply has not dropped noticeably: the statistics demonstrate a steady increase in the protein supply in Japan. 10 Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), p. 33. 11 The cold chain started to be developed on the recommendation of the Japanese government’s Science and Technology Agency’s Resource Committee which suggested Japanese consumption patterns should change from “low protein, high grain, root and other starch intake” to something like the northern European model of high protein consumption. See Shokuhin ryūtsū shisutemu kyōkai (Japan Institute of Food Distribution Systems) (ed.), Kōrudo chēn handobukku (Cold Chain Handbook) (Tokyo: Nikkan kōgyō shinbunsha, 1977), pp. 16–17. 12 Ibid., p. 22. 13 In promoting Western-style foodways for improvement of physique in the mid twentieth century, the Japanese government also encouraged new cooking methods such as frying with oil. In the meantime, the Westernization of dietary habits caused a sharp decrease in Japan’s calorie-based food-sufficiency rate, which has dropped from 79 percent in 1960 to 53 percent in 1980, 40 percent in 2000, and now in the twenty-first century a record low of 39 percent (Statistics Bureau, Japan in Figures, online). 14 Miyamoto Ken-ichi, Sengo nihon kōgaishiron (Postwar History of Environmental Pollution in Japan) (Tokyo: Iwanami, 2014), p. 107. 15 The following sketch of the four categories of foodways is based on Shimada Akio’s discussions in his essay titled “Shindo fuji no shisō” in the journal Kan 16 (2004), pp. 74–83. 16 Tristan Garcia, Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, trans. Mark Allan Ohm and Jon Cogburn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 1. 17 Ibid., p. 3. 18 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). Bennett defines “thing-power” as one which “gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience” (p. xvi). 19 Uwe Poerksen, Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language, trans. Jutta Mason and David Cayley (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), p. 23. 20 Ibid., p. 5.

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21 Refer to Jessica J. Mudry’s Measured Meals: Nutrition in America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009) for detailed analyses of a “numbered” reality of food. 22 Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006), p. 1. 23 Ishimure Michiko, Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease, translated with a new introduction and notes by Livia Monnet (Michigan Classics in Japanese Studies 25. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2003), pp. 206–07. For more stylistic and content closeness to the original Japanese, I use Michael Berman’s translation quoted in Yuki Masami, Foodscapes of Contemporary Japanese Women Writers: An Ecocritical Journey around the Hearth of Modernity, trans. Michael Berman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 35–36. 24 Ishimure, Paradise, p. 177. 25 Ibid., p. 202. For more stylistic and content closeness to the original Japanese, I use Michael Berman’s translation quoted in Yuki, Foodscapes, pp. 36–37. 26 Ishimure, Paradise, pp. 204–05. 27 Ishimure Michiko, interview, “ Mazu kotoba kara kowareta,” Folio A 5 (1999): pp. 128–30. For more detailed analyses on Ishimure’s use of different languages, see Yuki Masami, “The Danger of a Single Story: Ishimure Michiko’s Literary Approach to the Minamata Disease Incident,” in Ishimure Michiko’s Writing in Ecocritical Perspective: Between Sea and Sky, ed. Bruce Allen and Yuki Masami (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), pp. 41–56. 28 Ogata, Rowing the Eternal Sea, pp. 162–63. 29 Katō Yukiko, “Umibe gurashi,”1981, rpt in Shizen rentō (Tokyo: Michitani, 2008), pp. 27–60. For detailed discussions on this work, see Yuki’s Foodscapes, pp. 43–49. 30 Taguchi Randy, “Morumotto,” Zōn nite (Tokyo: Bungeishunju, 2013), pp. 175–235. 31 Taguchi Randy, “Ushi no rakuen,” Zōn nite (Tokyo: Bungeishunju, 2013), pp. 113–74. 32 Kimura Yūsuke, Seichi Cs (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 2014), p. 37.

chapter 22

Commodity Frontiers, Caribbean Natures, and the Aesthetics of Ecological Revolution in Trinidadian Literature Michael Niblett “Cocoa the reigning queen, sugar the ex-king, oil the future emperor.”1 This was how Eric Williams, in his memoir Inward Hunger, summarized the economic situation in Trinidad in 1911, the year of his birth. Williams would lead Trinidad to independence from British rule in 1962, but he was to struggle to overcome the island’s subordination to the volatile fortunes of its principal export commodities. His regal personifications of cocoa, sugar, and oil emphasize the power these commodities have wielded over Trinidadian (and more generally, Caribbean) social life. Indeed, such has been their influence that one might treat them (much as the anthropologist Fernando Ortiz did with sugar in his native Cuba) as “complex signifying systems, ‘visceral’ forces in the historical formation” of Trinidad, whose signs “permeate the entire body politic of producers and consumers.”2 In his memoir, Williams highlights the way this influence has extended to the spatial organization of the island, noting how the Port-of-Spain harbour rose to prominence as “the centre of gravity” for the cocoa estates, sugar plantations, and oil wells.3 Williams’s account is echoed in a bravura passage in Earl Lovelace’s novel Salt (1996), which moves from a description of the town of Cunaripo to the protagonist Alford George’s perceptions of his – and Trinidad’s – place in the world: The town . . . with a Scale House for weighing canes . . . and a Buying House where farmers from surrounding estates brought bags of polished cocoa beans and dried coffee to be weighed and exchanged for money and then to be shipped by rail to Port-of-Spain, the port where they all led, the train lines and the ribbons of roads, streaming through forests, along sea coasts, joining plantation to plantation, coconuts and cocoa and cane, until they reached the port from which ships sailed out to England, out into the world, the world, already to him more than a place, a mission, a Sacred Order that brought him into meaning, into Life.4

Here Lovelace captures the degree to which not only the economy, narrowly understood, but also landscapes, labour regimes, and psychic 348

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dispositions have been organized around the commodity frontiers that have dominated Trinidadian history. In this chapter, I explore how literary works have responded to the ecological transformations through which these commodity frontiers have developed. I do so from the perspective of ‘world-ecology.’ Pursuing a post-Cartesian reconstruction of the theories, methods, and narrative strategies of historical change, the world-ecology perspective posits history as always co-produced by humans alongside the rest of nature.5 On this view, historical systems (such as capitalism, feudalism, or the slave-based societies of antiquity) are to be understood as bundles of human and extrahuman relations and activities, woven together in such a way as to instantiate definite law-like patterns of wealth, nature, and power over long time and large space. The processes through which such historical systems develop (including, say, colonization, industrialization, or financialization) must likewise be grasped as not merely having consequences for the environment, but as ecological projects – as both producers and products of specific forms of life- and environment-making.6 In an important editorial column for PMLA in 2011, Patricia Yaeger asked what would happen if, instead of “divvying up literary works into hundred-year intervals (or elastic variants like the long eighteenth or twentieth century) or categories harnessing the history of ideas (Romanticism, Enlightenment),” we “sort texts according to the energy sources that made them possible?”7 Building on Yaeger’s intervention by yoking her emphasis on energy sources to the conceptual rubrics provided by the world-ecology perspective, my aim in this chapter is to interpret a selection of Trinidadian novels in relation to the commodity frontier movements that ‘made them possible.’ Commodity frontiers have been integral to the emergence and development of the capitalist world-system as world-ecology. Capitalism unfolds through successive ecological regimes that organize human and extra-human natures in such a way as to enable the production of surplusvalue. Labour practices and landscapes, class identities and climatic conditions, forests and financial instruments – all these and more are woven together to create definite historical configurations of nature in service to capital accumulation. Over time these configurations become exhausted and an “ecological revolution” is required to instantiate a new ecological regime capable of restoring profit rates.8 Commodity frontiers are often vital to the success of such revolutions. Advancing into un- or under-capitalized environments, these zones of production or extraction reorganize human and biophysical natures in such a way as to send vast


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reservoirs of what Jason Moore calls “cheap nature” (specifically, cheap food, energy, raw materials, and labour power) into the world-economy.9 By so doing, they help to drive down the system-wide costs of production and revive accumulation. Propelled by capitalism’s endless quest for profit, however, commodity frontiers tend to rapidly exhaust the socio-ecological conditions upon which their productivity depends, typically “within 50–75 years in any given region.”10 As Moore reminds us, these conditions are “not simply bio-physical”; scarcities emerge “through the intertwining of resistances from labouring classes, biophysical shifts, capital flows and market flux.”11 Once a particular frontier is exhausted, new sites must be found in order to secure fresh streams of nature’s bounty. The boom–bust logistics of these frontiers tend to be felt most severely in peripheral societies organized predominantly around the export of primary commodities. In the Caribbean this is compounded by the insularity and small size of many of the region’s states, which means that significant ecological changes often occur with a peculiar intensity. This is one reason why writing from the area seems especially sensitive to registering the forms of environment-making constitutive of capitalist (under)development. This connection between narrative-making and environment-making will be most visible, I want to suggest, during periods of transition between ecological regimes when the rise (or demise) of particular commodity frontiers thoroughly reconfigures human and biophysical natures. My general hypothesis is that such moments of ecological revolution will tend to disrupt generic conventions and call forth irrealist stylistic mannerisms, that is, forms of writing in which realism is absent or becomes warped in some way through the incorporation of elements of the fantastic, marvellous, or dreamlike.12 The whirlwind of change unleashed by commodity frontier booms (or busts) exerts pressure on existing narrative forms and tropes, which may struggle to articulate newly emergent structures of feeling. More specifically, the disaggregation of prevailing ecological unities, which had endowed the ontology of the present with a measure of stability, will tend to render realism problematic. For the latter “requires a conviction as to the massive weight and persistence of the present as such, and an aesthetic need to avoid recognition of deep structural social change.”13 By contrast, irrealist modalities such as surrealism, magic realism, or the Gothic might be better suited to expressing the feelings of strangeness and rupture engendered by the rapid reorganization of human and extra-human natures. To explore these ideas further, I want now to examine the literary registration of three significant periods of ecological revolution in Trinidad, each of which marks an important

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moment of change in the political ecologies of the island’s cocoa, sugar, and oil frontiers. The three periods I will concentrate on are the 1900s–20s, the 1970s, and the 2000s.

Modernization in Trinidad and the rise of Queen Cocoa In 1907, Stephen N. Cobham, a Trinidadian of African or mixed-race descent (Cobham’s biographical details are somewhat sketchy), published Rupert Gray, the story of a black middle-class professional who falls in love with the daughter of his white employer. Cobham’s novel appeared during a period of rapid modernization in Trinidad. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the island underwent “spectacular development . . . as a commercial outpost whose figures for imports and exports would have done much larger nations proud.”14 Alongside this “commercial over-development” there occurred the “rapid expansion of bank capital, the modernization of factory and field operations in sugar, and the capitalization of the cocoa industry.”15 Working as an accountant in a large import–export firm in Port-of-Spain, Cobham’s eponymous hero is very much immersed in this burgeoning commodity culture. Indeed, in its opening chapters the novel keenly registers the hustle and bustle of the modernizing cityscape: The Port-of-Spain Railway Station was the scene of hurrying and hustling. Cabs kept arriving in an endless procession. . . . Men with umbrellas and hand-bags crossing from the restaurant opposite hastily consulted their watches. The gong clanged everlastingly of each tram car as it circled past. . . . There out in the distance on the southernmost confines of the shipping, a great ocean liner rode at anchor . . . Already industrious Indian matrons – red-spittled Madrassees – armed with buckets, were boarding the united chariots ere their wheels grew cold. A watering cart followed in the wake of a heavy stone-crusher along the convex street, improving on the recipe Sir John McAdam gave to the world . . . Off yonder a stupendous crane wheels lazily for ever, its halfgreased mechanism creaking and groaning . . . Smart-looking youngsters busy themselves between Customs, or bank and counting house, with redmarked paper bags of money.16

I quote at length to emphasize the degree to which Rupert Gray presents Port-of-Spain as a modern, cosmopolitan hub of activity. Cobham “embeds his workers in an industrial landscape, signified by cranes, steamships and locomotives, all relatively recent symbols of a new industrial age at the time he was writing.”17 The repeated references to trains, tram-cars,


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and harried pedestrians underscore how life in the city has been transformed by the new velocities of modernity. But Rupert Gray did more than merely register Trinidad’s modernization; it played an active part in this process. Discussing the status of realism in peripheral societies, Fredric Jameson has observed that “the Third World is (traditionally) a modernizing place, and the imported form which is the novel is fully as much a component of modernization as the importation of automobiles.”18 Cobham’s novel, which borrows heavily from the generic conventions of Victorian melodrama and eighteenth-century European comic realism, offered a vehicle through which its author and the class he represented could attest Trinidad’s modern condition.19 However, Rupert Gray’s reliance on various imported formal models, which do not always fit comfortably with the local subject matter on which they are imposed, is indicative of how the process of modernization on the island was distorted by Trinidad’s economic dependency. This condition of underdevelopment, it could be argued, was also registered in the original layout of the novel. In her “Notes on Editorial Procedures” in the 2006 reissue of Rupert Gray, Lise Winer explains that the novel was [. . .] written in newspaper style: that is, with every sentence comprising a new paragraph. This gives the text the breathless pace of a fastbreaking news item but, in the longer fiction form, leaves the reader in a constant state of unfulfilled excitement rather than experiencing a more customary series of calms and climaxes. We have therefore glued sentences together into paragraphs in a manner that allows the reader to read with anticipation but not anxiety.20

The original format of the text might be grasped as the mediated expression of Trinidad’s extroverted, volatile economy. Just as the island was restricted in its ability to pursue any form of steady, autocentric accumulation by its colonial status, and was instead forced to rely on the fluctuating fortunes of its primary export commodities (which fostered only the development of underdevelopment), so the novel was a series of breathless movements that engendered in the reader a sense not of climax but of unfulfilled potential. With this in mind, I want to return to Cobham’s portrait of Port-ofSpain, locating it in the context of the relative fortunes of the three commodity frontiers Williams mentions in his summary of Trinidad’s economic situation in 1911: cocoa the reigning queen, sugar the ex-king, oil the future emperor. One of the causes of the intense economic activity

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described in Rupert Gray was a boom in the cocoa industry. Having floundered since the eighteenth century, rising demand on the world market and a series of reforms that opened up Crown lands to peasant farmers enabled the rapid expansion of Trinidad’s cocoa frontier in the period 1866–1920.21 Such was cocoa’s ascent that by the beginning of the twentieth century it had “overtaken sugar in value to become Trinidad’s leading export staple.”22 Not surprisingly, the import–export firm at which Rupert Gray works is dominated by the cocoa trade: as the novel notes, gone are the days “when sugar was king” (p. 27). Sugar’s dethronement had its roots in the late nineteenth century, when a slump in prices and increased competition from European beet sugar threw the industry into crisis. Cobham’s descriptions of the crowded Port-of-Spain streets not only register the economic frenzy brought on by Queen Cocoa’s prosperity; they also reflect the fallout from King Sugar’s decline, during which a reduction in agricultural wages and efforts to boost competiveness by rationalizing the plantation system propelled hundreds of rural labourers to the city.23 Beneath the surface of Cobham’s novel, then, resonate the shock waves of a seismic transformation in human and extra-human natures, involving the reorganization of landscapes and new forms of agricultural environment-making; the transformation of work regimes and bodily practices; and the emergence of new kinds of urban spaces (such as slums) tied to the social reproduction of the rising numbers of urban poor. The pressures this ecological revolution exerted on life in Trinidad are not directly represented in Rupert Gray. But the generic discontinuities of the text in its original incarnation – its mixture of novelistic discourse and the breathless rhythms of newspaper reportage – encode the felt experience of a society undergoing rapid and disruptive change. Exemplifying Moore’s suggestion that commodity frontiers typically follow a 50- to 75-year cycle, the cocoa boom that had begun in the 1860s would turn to bust in the decades immediately following the publication of Cobham’s novel. Sugar, meanwhile, despite its difficulties, continued to exert considerable influence over Trinidadian life. It was aided by the support it received from the colonial state, often at the expense of other industries, including cocoa.24 However, both King Sugar and Queen Cocoa were destined to be eclipsed by a new sovereign. Present only on the fringes of Cobham’s narrative, Emperor Oil would come to dominate Trinidad’s economy in the twentieth century.


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‘Capitalism Gone Mad’: The 1970s Oil Boom Trinidad’s oil industry dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the US company Merrimac drilled a successful oil-well at La Brea.25 However, it was not until the early twentieth century that the industry fully established itself. This was the era in which oil succeeded coal as the dominant energy source powering the world economy, its newly won hegemony inseparable from the development of the internal combustion engine and the rise of the automobile.26 This transition is intimated in Rupert Gray: the references in the opening pages to steamships and locomotives testify to the importance of coal; but the mention of a road being resurfaced with a form of macadam hints at the incipient emergence of a new ecological regime predicated on the radical reorganization of human and extrahuman natures around the energetics of oil. The effects of this new dependence on petroleum would become most apparent during the 1970s, when a spike in global oil prices precipitated an economic boom on the island. Wages shot up and new forms of conspicuous consumption emerged. Daniel Miller’s ethnographic fieldwork provides a snapshot of islanders’ responses to the topsy-turvy logic of this period: ‘In ’73 I felt it first, I got a raise in salary from $250 a month to nearly $475 a month.’ ‘People had money coming out of their ears. You would see people go into a store and buy 100tt whiskey and whatever top brands of everything. Everybody had on Gucci jeans, Calvin Klein, Reebok shoes.’ ‘We were even close to importing winter coats and so on because everything was being brought into Trinidad. You know things had gotten so out of hand I was ashamed.’27

In light of the emergent structures of feeling suggested by these responses, I would like to turn to a novel written in the early stages of the boom: V.S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas (1975). An imaginative reconstruction of the ‘Black Power Killings’ in Trinidad, Guerrillas might seem an unlikely work to consider here given that it contains no explicit references to oil. Oil is mentioned, however, in a companion essay by Naipaul exploring the real-life incidents on which the novel is based. Here Naipaul situates the ‘Black Power Killings’ in the context of the social fallout from Trinidad’s dependence on the petroleum industry, the revenues from which are “magically cycled” through the island, helping to sustain an otherwise unproductive economy.28 But while the consequences of such petro-led underdevelopment are evoked in forensic detail in Guerrillas, oil itself is absent. This, I think, has much to do with the “representational

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problem”29 posed by oil – a problem tied to the way its “necessity to our functioning social systems” has led to its becoming naturalized, inculcated into our perceptual schemas as a ‘given’ condition of existence.30 Precisely by grasping the way in which petroleum saturates the social logic of modernity, however, it becomes possible to identify how its absent presence can percolate through the narrative energetics and stylistic modalities of fiction. The Gothic mannerisms of Guerrillas provide one optic through which we might begin to discern the pressures exerted on the text by Trinidad’s oil boom and the ecological revolution with which it was enfolded. As I have already suggested, an irrealist register such as the Gothic would seem particularly well suited to expressing the feelings of dislocation and unfamiliarity engendered by the rapid reorganization of existing ecological unities. Indeed, the anxieties the Gothic form is conventionally said to mediate – anxieties around racial and class others, the feminine ‘monstrous’, and the power of extra-human nature – speak to the way ecological revolutions entail the suturing together of landscapes, bodies, and social identities in ‘strange’ new configurations.31 Guerrillas is beset by anxieties of precisely this sort, its use of various Gothic intertexts (including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights) serving as a vehicle for its disquiet over the landscape (presented throughout in ecophobic terms), the urban poor, and black and female bodies. Such disquiet could be seen to stem from the way these human and biophysical natures are being transformed by the new forms of life- and environment-making concomitant on the oil boom, such that they appear now (both to the novel’s middle-class protagonists and, possibly, to Naipaul himself) in new and unfamiliar guises. Despite not being represented explicitly, therefore, Trinidad’s oil frontier nonetheless haunts Naipaul’s novel, manifesting itself through that narrative turn to the Gothic. The oil frontier is there in an indirect way at the level of content also. Take these passages from the opening pages of the novel: After lunch Jane and Roche left their house on the Ridge to drive to Thrushcross Grange. They drove down to the hot city at the foot of the hills, and then across the city to the sea road . . . After the market, where refrigerated trailers were unloading; after the rubbish dump burning in the remnant of mangrove swamp . . .; after the new housing estates, rows of unpainted boxes of concrete and corrugated iron already returning to the shantytowns that had been knocked down for this development; . . . after this, the land cleared a little . . . Traffic was heavy in this area of factories. But the land still showed its recent pastoral history. Here and there, among the big sheds and the modern buildings . . ., were still fields, remnants of the big estates, together


michael niblett with remnants of the estate villages . . . Sometimes there was a single rusting car in a sunken field, as though, having run off the road, it had simply been abandoned; sometimes there were heaps of junked vehicles . . . [S]ometimes there were rows of red brick pillars . . . It was what remained of an industrial park, one of the failed projects of the earliest days of independence. Tax holidays had been offered to foreign investors; many had come for the holidays and had then moved on elsewhere.32

Oil is absent; yet it saturates every line of the text: for what we are presented with is a landscape and an account of that landscape thoroughly organized around the automobile and the infrastructure of petromodernity. Naipaul’s narrative is propelled and textured by the movement of Jane and Roche’s car through the city and the specific kinds of sensory experiences this engenders. Whereas Rupert Gray immersed us in the hustle and bustle of overcrowded pavements, Guerrillas presents us with a serialized view of the cityscape mediated throughout by the windows of the car. In this way, the text not only registers the way the demands of petrolic life have fundamentally reshaped environments and human sensoria; it also underscores the increasing reification of the lifeworld and the alienation of Jane and Roche (as well as, perhaps, Naipaul’s own sense of remove from a society he treats as an object to be dissected). We might compare the opening scenes from Guerrillas and Rupert Grey in another way, too. Cobham’s novel, it will be recalled, presented Port-ofSpain as a modern industrialized hub of productive activity. Some seventy years later and the same city is being depicted by Naipaul as already deindustrialized, its dilapidated landscapes scarred by the “remnants” of the sugar frontier and the effects of capital flight. Given the fundamental association of the automobile with the new technologies and velocities of (petro)modernity, Naipaul’s images of rusted, junked cars suggest the decay of Trinidad’s own dream of modernity, just as much as the reference to the failure of the island’s policy of encouraging foreign investment-led industrialization. The representation of the Port-of-Spain landscape as degraded and decayed can be seen to encode the political ecology of Trinidad’s oil frontier in two related ways. First, it seems to offer a proleptic vision of the way the 1970s oil boom would exacerbate the problems associated with the island’s dependence on petroleum exports. These included the corrosive effect of the oil industry on other sectors of the economy, the competiveness of which was reduced by the rise in real exchange rates caused by the oil windfall. Add to this the capital-intensive nature of the

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industry, which meant that it created relatively few jobs, and it becomes clear why Trinidad’s Central Statistical Office, in a report on the state of the economy in the very year Guerrillas was published, declared the island to be experiencing “growth without development.”33 The country was earning an excess of wealth in the form of oil rents and revenues, but at the cost of relative stagnation in its productive economy. Naipaul himself, as I have indicated, analysed this paradoxical dynamic in his essay on the ‘Black Power Killings’. In Guerrillas, however, it is manifested only through those evocations of the landscape as simultaneously overdeveloped and underdeveloped – crammed with infrastructure and signs of industry, yet unproductive and choked with waste. The second way in which this degraded landscape speaks to the political ecology of Trinidad’s oil frontier is connected to the place occupied by petroleum in state discourse around national identity. In the late 1960s and then with renewed vigour in the heady days of the 1970s boom, the Trinidadian government (led by Eric Williams) sought to orientate the island’s economy “not towards import-substituting industrialization (although this continued) but towards the state’s utilization of oil revenues to create large-scale resource intensive export industries.”34 And because “the oil boom happened to coincide with the discovery of huge natural gas reserves, the energy intensive export industries tended to be favoured.”35 The focal point of these new activities, which centred on fertilizers, chemicals, iron, and steel, was the Point Lisas industrial complex in the south of Trinidad. The government’s backing of the Point Lisas project had not only a narrowly economic motive; it was also part of an effort to “create a national identity in energy, another early manifestation of which was the State’s purchase of British Petroleum’s oil assets in 1969.”36 Speeches given by Williams in this period attest to the way oil and its use in energy-intensive industries was being mobilized as a trope in narratives of national identity. In his Prime Minister’s Independence Day Message in 1974, Williams, discussing the government’s recent purchase of Shell’s assets, declared: “Black was never more beautiful.”37 Four years earlier, Williams’s government had narrowly survived a Black Power-led uprising, motivated partly by discontent over foreign domination of the island’s economy. Williams’s play on the Black Power slogan in his speech makes of Trinidad’s leading commodity frontier a means by which to suture together the twin discourses of economic and cultural nationalism: oil becomes the face of the island, the sign of its progress and sovereignty. Accordingly, the images of junked cars and dilapidated factories in Guerrillas might


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be viewed as something of a riposte to Williams and as an indication that the promise of new forms of petro-led development would prove hollow.

Oil in the Blood: The Post-2000 Hydrocarbon Boom To some extent, Naipaul was not wrong. By the early 1980s, the oil boom had turned to bust. Despite the windfall gains of the previous decade, “unemployment in 1985 stood at 15 per cent of the labour force, with the huge investments at Point Lisas yielding less than 1 per cent of total employment.”38 Compared to that proffered by Naipaul, a far less cynical – if equally critical – account of Trinidad’s oil-driven development policies and the petroleum-soaked discourse of its politicians is to be found in Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie (2011). This novel not only takes aim at Williams’s policies and speeches from the 1970s, but also provides an astute commentary on the fallout from Trinidad’s most recent hydrocarbon boom, which has been fuelled both by high oil prices and newly discovered reserves of natural gas.39 Significantly, the response to the contemporary boom period is marked in the text by a dramatic shift in narrative gears, the return of a character from the dead signalling a switch to a more magical realist register. Rather than focus on Lovelace’s novel, however, I want to conclude with a brief analysis of Oonya Kempdoo’s All Decent Animals (2013), which speaks to the same conjuncture. Like Guerrillas, Kempadoo’s novel opens with a car journey through Port-of-Spain in which the pressures exerted by the ecological revolution associated with the latest boom make themselves felt in oblique fashion: Down the highway. Ata looks out at familiar gaudy shopping malls and incomplete housing schemes . . . On this island of oil, with its asphalt sun and pothole roads, the highways are packed with cars crawling like shiny lice . . . It’s midday and diesel-dark-skinned vendors comb through heat waves of glittering cars . . . The taxi man turns up the radio slightly to catch the latest news. A neutral voice offers, ‘Four victims were murdered in the country’s latest fatality . . .’ . . .They pass big Indo-Greco homes with icingcake concrete balustrades, lots of sliding doors, curly wrought iron, and designer ‘features’, all locked up; patches of farmlands, with Gramoxonedead grass borders. And plenty of billboards. White-teeth-smiling Miss World dressed in her airline uniform waves from hers. Bright multirace people gulp down Orchard juice . . . They bypass town and the ex-railway terminal, the Sea Lots shantytown stretching up to Laventille, and the La Basse dump that leaks human scavengers and corbeau vultures, heading over the hills.40

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Oil continues to shape not only the environments and human sensoria represented in this text, but the energetics of the narrative itself. Kempadoo’s cityscape, filtered through the medium of the moving car, suggests that many of the developmental tendencies registered in Naipaul’s novel are still operative. Amidst the paraphernalia of mass consumer culture cluttering the landscape, economic underdevelopment is all too evident. The remnants of the sugar frontier glimpsed in Guerrillas have now disappeared completely (albeit the text does make brief reference to “patches of farmlands,” themselves scarred by the use of the Gramoxone herbicide). The poverty and waste Naipaul highlighted are manifested here also. But the unevenness of the city has become starker: the “human scavengers” on the La Basse dump exist not far from those “Indo-Greco” upper middle-class homes, “locked up” in gated communities designed to keep at bay the spiralling violence reported on the radio. Such unevenness is further testament to the paradoxical dynamics of Trinidad’s exportoriented economy: as with the 1970s upturn, the latest boom has stimulated economic growth, especially in the liquid natural gas sector, where a series of large new infrastructure projects have been commissioned; yet this growth continues to go hand in hand with poverty, underemployment, and social violence.41 Kempadoo does make a number of explicit references to the changes unfolding on the island, including the emergence of new forms of land speculation and urban redevelopment. But what interests me here is the way the text registers this ecological revolution at the level of form and imagery, where elements of irrealism are again to be found. The novel’s prose has been described as fostering “an almost hallucinogenic atmosphere.”42 This is particularly evident in the latter stages of the narrative, during which the central character, Ata, finds herself haunted by a spirit (with which she apparently has sex). This spirit is identified as a Lagahoo, a shape-shifting creature that can assume animal form and feeds on blood. Tellingly, the Lagahoo is indirectly presented by the text as tied to the social logic of petromodernity: “The dingy rum belly of Port of Spain growls and grumbles, echoing the dark guts of the hills. Digesting the murders. Crude oil deep in the bones of the land” (p. 104). The land here is a Lagahoo-like beast with oil in its bones, the reference to its digestion of “the murders” establishing a connection to the wave of violent crime sweeping the island – itself a result in part of the unequal distribution of the country’s hydrocarbon wealth. The significance of this nexus of imagery becomes apparent at the end of the novel, when Ata’s lover, Pierre, disappears. It is not clear whether he


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has been murdered by intruders, drowned in the sea, or taken by the Lagahoo. Certainly there is a sense that it may well be the latter, or at least that even if Pierre has been drowned or murdered, these are forms of Lagahoo-related death insofar as the creature is associated with both the extra-human environment and the social violence on the island. Crucially, Pierre is French with British connections, making him in a certain sense representative of Trinidad’s colonial history, something emphasized when Ata begins mixing up her thoughts on the missing Pierre with extracts from Naipaul’s account of the bloody early years of the colony in The Loss of El Dorado. Pierre’s disappearance, then, could be seen as a form of retribution by the Lagahoo-as-landscape for the degradation it has suffered. Such an interpretation is underscored by Ata’s experiences. After sleeping with the bloodsucking Lagahoo she begins to bleed regularly from between her legs. At one point, she is awakened from a dream by the thought that “The raped and scarred earth drinks. Coupling a mouth to a breast” (244). Her being bled by the Lagahoo might thus be read as the Earth drinking back in the lifeblood – the energy and, especially, the oil – that has been sucked out of its bones by the imperialist plunder of the land. The Lagahoo-as-landscape thereby not only points to the way commodity frontiers have shaped the history of Trinidad, facilitating the exploitation of the unpaid work of extra-human nature in the interests of capital accumulation; the creature also stands as an emblem of resistance to such exploitation, the violent return of a repressed extra-human nature manifesting this resistance in the absence in the text of any form of social or political movement capable of doing so. With Kempadoo, therefore, we are back to something like the personification of ecological relations with which we began; only now we are confronted not by those monarchical commodities so integral to the development of the capitalist worldecology, but by an unbounded nature seeking recompense. Notes 1 Eric Williams, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister (London: André Deutsch, 1969), p. 13. 2 Keith A. Sandiford, The Cultural Politics of Sugar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 32. 3 Williams, Inward Hunger, p. 13. 4 Earl Lovelace, Salt (London: Faber & Faber, 1996), pp. 26–27. 5 See, e.g., Jason Moore, “From Object to Oikeios: Environment-Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology” (2013), www.jasonwmoore.com/uploads/; Sharae Deckard, “Calligraphy of the Wave,” Moving Worlds 14, 2 (2014), pp. 25–43;

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Michael Niblett, “World-Economy, World-Ecology, World Literature,” Green Letters 16, 1 (2012), pp. 15–30. 6 Jason Moore, “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times,” American Sociological Association 17, 1 (2011), pp. 108–47; and “The Capitalocene: Part I” (2014), www.jasonwmoore.com/uploads/. 7 Patricia Yaeger, “Editor’s Column,” PMLA 126, 2 (2011), p. 305. 8 See Jason Moore, “The End of Cheap Nature,” in C. Suter and C. ChaseDunn (eds.), Structures of the World Political Economy and the Future of Global Conflict and Cooperation (Berlin: LIT, 2014), pp. 285–314. 9 Moore, “The End of Cheap Nature.” 10 Jason Moore, “‘Amsterdam is Standing on Norway’ Part I,” Journal of Agrarian Change 10, 1 (2010), p. 39. 11 Moore, “‘Amsterdam is Standing on Norway.’” 12 On irrealism, see Michael Lowy, “The Current of Critical Irrealism,” in Matthew Beaumont (ed.), Adventures in Realism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 193–206. 13 Fredric Jameson, “A Note on Literary Realism in Conclusion,” in Beaumont, Adventures in Realism, p. 263. 14 James Millette, “The Wage Problem in Trinidad and Tobago, 1838–1938,” in Bridget Brereton and Kevin A. Yelvington (eds.), The Colonial Caribbean in Transition (Mona, Jamaica: UWI Press, 1999), p. 66. 15 Millette, “The Wage Problem,” p. 65. 16 Stephen N. Cobham, Rupert Grey, ed. Lise Winer (Mona, Jamaica: UWI Press, 2006), pp. 7, 18. 17 Lise Winer et al., “Introduction,” in Cobham, Rupert Grey, p. xlvii. 18 Fredric Jameson, “Antinomies of the Realism–Modernism Debate,” MLQ 73, 3 (2012), p. 476. 19 Cobham was an active member of a group of black and mixed-race professionals and intellectuals who were involved in arguing for greater autonomy for the colony and its capacity to sustain modern elected institutions. See Winer at al. “Introduction,” pp. xx–xxi. 20 Winer et al., “Introduction,” p. lv. 21 Bridget Brereton, A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783–1962 (London: Heinemann, 1981), p. 93. 22 Ibid., p. 91. 23 Millette, “The Wage Problem,” pp. 63–64. 24 Williams, Inward Hunger, p. 14. 25 Vernon C. Mulchansingh, “The Oil Industry in the Economy of Trinidad,” Caribbean Studies 11, 1 (1971), p. 74. 26 Bruce Podobnik, Global Energy Shifts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), p. 49. 27 Daniel Miller, Capitalism, An Ethnographic Approach (New York: Berg, 1997), p. 27. 28 V.S. Naipaul, “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad,” in Pankaj Mishra (ed.), The Writer and the World (London: Picador, 2003), p. 178.


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29 Stephanie LeMenager, “The Aesthetics of Petroleum, after Oil!” American Literary History 24, 1 (2012), p. 73. 30 Graeme MacDonald, “Research Note: The Resources of Fiction,” Reviews in Cultural Theory 4, 2 (2013), p. 4. 31 On the anxieties mediated by the Gothic, see, e.g., Ruth Bienstock Anolik and Douglas Howard, The Gothic Other (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004). 32 V.S. Naipaul, Guerrillas (London: Picador, 2002), pp. 1–3. 33 Quoted in Taimoon Stewart, “The Aftermath of 1970,” in Selwyn Ryan and Taimoon Stewart (eds.), The Black Power Revolution 1970: A Retrospective (Trinidad: ISER, 1995), p. 724. 34 Clive Thomas, The Poor and The Powerless (London: Latin America Bureau, 1988), p. 283. 35 Ibid. 36 Haydn Furlonge and Mark Kaiser, “Overview of Natural Gas Sector Developments,” International Journal of Energy Sector Management 4, 4 (2010), p. 539. 37 Eric Williams, “Prime Minister’s Independence Day Message,” in Paul Sutton (ed.), Forged from the Love of Liberty ([Port-of-Spain]: Longman Caribbean, 1981), p. 79. 38 Thomas, Poor and the Powerless, p. 293. 39 Delia Velculescu and Saqib Rizavi, “Trinidad and Tobago: The Energy Boom and Proposals for a Sustainable Fiscal Policy,” IMF Working Paper WP/05/197. 40 Oonya Kempadoo, All Decent Animals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), pp. 4–5. 41 Robin Wigglesworth, “Gas Riches Give Trinidad No Escape From Crime and Violence,” www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4c6ffb34-76cc-11e3-a253-00144feabdc0.html# axzz3bnaUvjgW. 42 Kirkus Review, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/oonya-kempadoo/alldecent-animals/.

chapter 23

Petro-Violence and the Act of Bearing Witness in Contemporary Nigerian Literature Byron Caminero-Santangelo

Few places in the world have been as damaged by petro-violence as Nigeria’s Niger Delta. A study in 2006 concluded that Africa’s largest wetland is “one of the world’s most severely petroleum impacted ecosystems and one of the 5 most petroleum-polluted environments in the world,”1 and a 2011 United Nations report estimated that addressing this environmental catastrophe would take thirty years and one billion dollars.2 Gas flaring and oil spills have poisoned the air, water, and land and resulted in the loss of traditional livelihoods, food sources, and potable water, as well as catastrophic health problems. Meanwhile, since the 1990s, socio-ecological devastation and state- and industry-sponsored terror have fueled “a gigantic reservoir of anger and dissent,”3 a sense of frustrated hopelessness, and a belief that non-violent protest is fruitless.4 The result has been an escalation of armed violence: rebel groups have proliferated and turned to kidnapping oil workers and sabotaging installations; criminal gangs and ethnic militias fight for control of the oil-bunkering trade and for protection money from oil companies; and the Nigerian military, despite the return to democratic rule in 2000, continues to terrorize the delta (often defending the interests of the oil industry).5 A significant legacy of literary/activist writing from Nigeria has borne witness to the horrors of petro-violence. Most famously, the writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa has been celebrated as a hero for bringing the world’s attention to environmental “slow violence” in the Niger Delta.6 Executed on trumped-up charges of murder in 1995 by the regime of the military despot Sani Abacha, Ken Saro-Wiwa became a martyr “invested with a mythic quality” whose story was turned into “a morality tale for the late twentieth century.”7 Yet, before and after Saro-Wiwa’s death many other Nigerian writers have also sought effective ways of drawing attention to the devastating socio-ecological transformation of the Niger Delta and challenging the rhetoric deployed by the Nigerian state and the oil industry. As Tanure Ojaide notes, Ogaga Ifowodo, Kaine Agary, Ebinyo Ogbowei, 363


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Ebi Yeibo, Isidore Okpewho, Ben Okri, Ahmed Yerima, Helon Habila, J.P Clark, Nnimmo Bassey, and Ojaide himself have all contributed to a “Niger Delta literature” characterized by a concern with “environmental justice” and a “spirit of resistance.” At the same time, a critical examination of this writing, especially when combined with close attention to recent developments in the delta, can draw attention to the continuing representational and imaginative limitations imposed by oil. In particular, it can point to the ways that the socioecological transformations wrought by petro-violence all too easily generate a gap between the inspiration for bearing witness, the belief that raising awareness will lead to action, and the potential impact of depicting and trying to understand conditions in the delta – for example, a sense that all the bases for meaningful action have been undermined.8 Writers such as Ifowodo, Ojaide, Agary, and Habila depict the destruction and complicity of “legal and political mechanisms,” of civil institutions, and of sociocultural frames of reference in ways that often suggest a profound sense of despair.9 Furthermore, in trying to represent the processes and impacts associated with oil, these authors can imply that even making sense of the situation, and acting in an informed way, is impossible. *** Many Nigerian authors identify Ken Saro-Wiwa’s writing as an inspiration and echo his accounts of the devastating socio-ecological transformation of the Niger Delta, his attribution of it to (neo)colonial relationships, and his challenge to the rhetoric deployed by the Nigerian petro-state and the oil industry.10 Saro-Wiwa emphasized how a close relationship between the Nigerian state and Shell-BP enabled the company to appropriate land for little or no compensation and to avoid regulation just as it had with the blessing of the British colonial government.11 As Nigeria became ever more reliant on oil revenues and as a corrupt system of political patronage based on oil money intensified, the industry was increasingly able to instrumentalize governmental institutions for its own purposes.12 In other words, in the kind of classic neocolonial setup described by Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, the oil industry and its associates in the Nigerian government maximized profits at the expense of Nigeria as a whole, and especially its ethnic minorities, enriching a small ruling elite who served as middlemen and enforcing the interests of foreign capital.13 If Shell claimed both to bring economic progress to the delta and to follow the strictest environmental guidelines,14 Saro-Wiwa foregrounded the damage done to

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the Niger Delta’s ecosystem and to the health and livelihoods of the Ogoni by the flaring of gas and oil spills, and the lack of any benefit to them from oil revenue (for example, “functional hospitals and schools . . . steady electricity, and even running water”15). In the process, he undermined what he called “shellspeak”16 – that is, the kind of development discourse that has “imperialized the wishes and worldviews” of the wealthy and powerful.17 Following in the footsteps of Saro-Wiwa, Ogaga Ifowodo depicts the invisible violence of uneven development using images of a monstrous modernity. His collection The Oil Lamp consists of five poems with scenes or situations initially described by a narrator and with staged dialogues between marginalized subaltern voices and the official scripts of military men and politicians.18 In one poem, a fire at Jese begins after old, corroded pipes break and people rush to collect the spilled “kerosene and petrol” (p. 6).19 In the blaze, the town and its people are incinerated. An official script attributes responsibility to a criminal and misguided resistance: “a dangerous band of youths sworn to sabotage / for redress of perceived wrongs, / had taken to breaching pipelines” (p. 16). Such accusations have been a long-standing PR strategy; the oil companies and government often claim that spills are primarily caused by sabotage and theft rather than by rusting and obsolete pipelines.20 Skewering this narrative, Ifowodo represents the disaster as primarily caused by an imperial process of oil extraction and distribution. The monstrousness of this process is evoked by the image of a “halogen-eyed Cyclops” that was used to light the now defunct oil installation in Jese (p. 4). A promise of electricity for the town was not kept; instead, “the electric Cyclops blinked, moved to another well in another place to guard a fresh promise of light” (p. 4). Without electricity or oil, the town suffered from a “fuel crunch,” which drove the scramble when the pipes broke open (p. 3), pipes taking oil “from rotting dugouts and thatched huts / to float ships and fly planes, / to feed factories and chain of ease / . . . to light house and street at break of night, / to make fortunes for faceless traders” (p. 5). In other words, disaster is brought by a vampire-like modernity stealing the wealth of the delta, leaving its people without the means to address their basic needs, and enabling “ease” and “fortunes” elsewhere. In his novel Oil on Water, Helon Habila uses a figure of a journalist to evoke a form of postcolonial witnessing that makes visible oft-occluded types and causes of violence and that disrupts the structures of perception enabling invisibility.21 Rufus, a young Nigerian reporter, seeks a British woman kidnapped by militants amidst the “oil wars.” As Rufus and Zaq,


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an aging alcoholic journalist, search for the militants and their captive, Isabella Floode, among the creeks and in the villages, they observe a dying landscape and an ecosystem that has gone silent. Environmental violence is closely bound with an unfolding social catastrophe, reflected by the deserted villages they visit. With “dwindling stocks of fish” and “the rising toxicity of the water” (p. 18), the people are forced to leave, communities break up, and they end up in vast urban slums where “unemployed youth” become “full of anger” and turn to crime or armed resistance (pp. 95–96). Manipulation and, when necessary, the use of force by the oil industry and the government are crucial components of this process. The companies buy off community leaders (p. 153), pay protection money to militant groups (p. 38), and are able to instrumentalize the legal system and the military to force resistant communities into acquiescence (pp. 42–44). In a central scene in the novel, Rufus challenges the (neo)colonial development discourse given voice by James Floode, the husband of Isabella and a petroleum engineer. Floode tells Rufus, “You people could easily become the Japan of Africa, the USA of Africa, but the corruption is incredible . . . Our pipelines vandalized daily, losing us millions . . . and millions for the country as well. The people don’t understand what they do to themselves . . .” (p. 103). This representation echoes the oil industry’s narrative suggesting that profitable development is undermined by a lack of restraint among “the people.” In response, Rufus makes visible what the industry’s rhetoric suppresses. He notes that the delta’s inhabitants are only trying to get “some benefit” from the pipelines which have “brought nothing but suffering to their lives, leaking into the rivers and wells, killing the fish and poisoning the farmlands” even as they are told “that the pipelines are there for their own good” (p. 104). Rufus’s description of Floode’s house serves as an elaboration on his rejoinder. Protected by “a tall, barbed-wire-topped wall” and “about half a dozen security men,” it is “one of the many colonial-style buildings on the Port Harcourt waterfront, where most of the wealthy expatriate oil workers lived” (p. 100) and includes all the perks necessary to maintain Floode’s sense of privilege and power: “his cocktail, his splitunit air-conditioning, his alluring maid, his BBC news” (p. 108). The scene as a whole suggests that such spaces of affluence in Nigeria and in the Global North more generally are part of a geography of injustice shaped by oil. ***

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Even as authors writing since Saro-Wiwa’s death continue to elaborate on his counter narratives of development and resistance, their efforts to account for the escalation of violence over the past two decades and its impact often lead to a tension between a drive to establish hope of political (and ecological) action stemming from the act of witnessing and the ways that what they witness unveils the extraordinary difficulty of addressing the situation and renders “unclear what action one could take, even if one wanted to.”22 These authors point to the ways that the havoc wrought by petro-violence, the instrumentalization and destruction of state and civic institutions, and the seemingly incomprehensible global geography of oil’s economic and political dynamics undermine the grounding for effective action and for hope. For example, they allude to the confusion and paralysis generated by the relationship between the global aspects of oil and its locally differentiated manifestations.23 It may be true that we must, as Stephanie LeMenager notes, develop stories about the “impacts of oil” in regional terms, “through specific places and histories,” and at the same time pay close attention to national and transnational processes that drive and shape those impacts.24 However, much recent Niger Delta literature suggests how very difficult it is to avoid being overwhelmed by such stories; they can all too easily lead to the abandonment of “thought to the inaction of what Slovoj Zizek has termed ‘cynical reason’: awareness without action, even in the face of disaster, since we cannot possibly act on something that exceeds our comprehension.”25 In Tanure Ojaide’s The Tale of the Harmattan, the speaker has come to realize that the underlying challenge in terms of reversing the catastrophe in the delta is not a particular regime, military dictatorship in general, or the internal dynamics of Nigeria, but economic “globalization,” which, like “a category-5 hurricane,” baffles efforts to anticipate its direction and “leaves litters in an insane trail.”26 The return to democracy in 2000 “demolished monuments of dictators . . . but still we bleed” (p. 19). In the poem “Transplants,” Ojaide uses imagery of monstrous transference to represent the global geography of uneven development resulting from a “new Stone Age” of primitive capitalist accumulation “with refilled slave ships refurbished as super-tankers . . . poaching inland as centuries ago” (p. 22). The eponymous metaphor figures the process by which the United States benefits from petro-driven modernity and still preserves its ecological riches by creating an environmental apocalypse elsewhere (like some huge portrait of Dorian Gray). In the delta, “the forest fell / foul to fires of oil blowouts and poaching raids,” and “the creeks [he] fished in without care” are “now clogged” (p. 39). Meanwhile in the United States the kind


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of natural beauty and biological diversity he associates with the forest landscape of his youth is preserved: “the pristine streams, the multiethnic population / of plants, costumed birds, and graceful game” (p. 39). Faced with dire ecological loss and deteriorating social conditions, the narrator wonders in the poem “At the Kaiama Bridge” whether the time for resistance is over. With the “flotillas of river spirits” retreating from “waters . . . turned to a poisonous brew,” and with the people turned into environmental refugees stuck “in diarrhea-infected camps,” he considers the possibility that those fighting for the survival of the delta have failed: “we have organised a resistance army, / declared sovereignty over our resources; / but have not pushed back the poachers” (pp. 33–34). The title of the poem refers to a town closely associated with a history of resistance, and Ojaide asks if the tradition associated with Kaiama is over: “Is revolution dead and must . . . rights of ownership and humanity” be surrendered? (p. 34). In the subsequent poems, the speaker catalogs the ecological “fortune” that has been lost – the rivers and lakes, the forests and farms (pp. 35–39). He eventually finds some hope in the Egbesu boys who fight for what Ojaide calls an “ecology of justice” that will counter the collusion between the Nigerian government and Big Oil.27 Resistance, armed with the spirit of (environmental) “justice . . . will always triumph in the prolonged battle,” despite all the forces arrayed against it: “Those who bring a running fight to the iguana / will lose their breath and withdraw before long” (p. 42). The proverb offers a promise of success in the long run through fortitude and patience, summing up the wisdom needed to overcome despair in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Yet, a tension still remains between that sense of hope and the despair evoked by a history of unabated petro-violence and stymied resistance. Despair also pervades most of the last two poems of Ifowodo’s The Oil Lamp. In “The Pipe Wars,” a “bureaucrat’s well-oiled tongue” gives voice to the petro-state’s positioning of the delta and its people as inferior and uncivilized and of the Nigerian government as the means to modernize the nation through distribution of oil revenue (p. 51). However, differing from earlier poems in the collection, the voice of official national discourse is not challenged by the voices of the oppressed from whose memories resistance can be reborn. Instead, the bureaucrat describes the turning of anger inward as communities fight among themselves for the crumbs left by the oil industry: “a scrapping for used pipes” becomes “a war for territory” and serves the state as a further “pretext” for violence (p. 54). In the final poem, consisting of “songs” begged by “the many scars that itch and

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wounds that bleed / far from the eyes of the world,” the narrator’s sense of despair deepens (p. 59). He sings of children needlessly dying because there are no clinics “in a hundred miles” and “no motorway” to get them to one quickly enough (p. 60). Meanwhile, “the oil staff estates” are “well-drained and paved and mosquito-proof” with “carpet-lawns” and “quiet order” (p. 62). One man, Soloman, shamed by the discrepancy between these “estates” and his “shack in the swamp” without electricity, is willing to separate himself from the community – go “solo” – in pursuit of petrodollars. He stands in for all those who have given up hope for a different world and are willing to instrumentalize themselves for the oil industry: “Good job, / fine house, sleek car and beautiful woman / are for Solo too. That’s your money, man! / And I’m going to live even if I die first” (p. 62). As the poem concludes, the narrator refuses to despair and to relinquish his “naked malice” toward those turning the delta into a “cesspool” (p. 63). He denies the bureaucrats and military men the “last word” by giving it to their “nemesis,” a young poet “now a sophomore at law, unaware / what paths to even sharper perception / the gods . . . prepare” (p. 63). In an earlier poem, “Ogoni,” this young poet is part of a group of “women, fishermen, farmers, / and jobless youth” who effectively challenge “Major Kitemo” (p. 38), a character based on Major Paul Okuntimo, who led a notorious army unit intended to subject the Ogoni to state authority through any means necessary.28 Trying to convince the Ogoni to give up their claims to the land and the oil beneath it, the major assumes the legitimacy of the nation-state and its “decrees and edicts” which have determined that the people do not own the land and its wealth (p. 40). However, his adversaries challenge that legitimacy. For example, a boy (the young poet) questions the grounding of the state in the will or interests of the people over whom it exercises control. He asks, “in whose name, and by whose powers, / were the laws you cite made?” (p. 41). Allegorically, Kitemo embodies the Nigerian petro-state constituted by empty signifiers of legal authority, and the Ogoni characters are the voice of a dissent struggling to turn that state’s discourse of criminality on its head. They point to a potential foundation for a different kind of nation, one grounded in the dialogic performance of the people and in identification with and protection of the land. At the same time, Ifowodo’s narrator does not articulate a clear grounding for resistance; instead, he offers the hope of new “paths” to “even sharper perception” stemming from acts of creativity and memory. “The shaping poet” envisions the petro-state as a sick body spewing its corruption, “the pus of the land,” down the “two valves” of the Niger


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“East and West of the putrid heart” into “our open veins” (p. 63). However, the people of the delta will not be overcome but find “footholds” and “stay afloat” through the memory of injustice–“the humus of hate and envy” (p. 63). This memory enables them to resist the stale rhetoric of the elites: “And when they rise to spit on our heads the rinse-water / of their morning mouths, I remember the dew, / the one thousand and one gone, and what will remain true” (p. 63). The young poet keeps alive the challenge to deadening official lies, memories of resistance and a sense of hope, but neither he nor Ifowodo himself gives concrete answers regarding whether and how those sentiments can be channeled in such a way as to counter the causes for despair that inform so much of The Oil Lamp. As the figure of ‘Soloman’ indicates, one source of despair for those concerned with petro-violence in the delta is the way that oil shapes consciousness and culture.29 The “fairy tale of oil,” in particular, can make addressing such violence seem like a task of Sisyphus.30 This narrative features oil wealth magically generating individual or communal progress, while simultaneously undermining other stories about the meaning of development and the means of survival. As Jennifer Wenzel argues, writers bearing witness to petro-violence often strive to make “visible the all-tooreal effects of petro-magic . . . a mode of violence that mystifies through the seduction of petro-promise.”31 Kaine Agary’s novel Yellow-Yellow suggests that all of Nigeria – its institutions and peoples – has been poisoned by oil and the fairy tale of petro-magic, even as it also emphasizes that this process is differentiated in terms of social and geographical positioning.32 For example, it points to the ways that oil extraction exacerbates gender inequality in the delta. As oil undermines traditional livelihoods in the protagonist’s home village, gender dynamics become ever more odious: “the men were even more oppressive than the women alive could remember” as they demand “a healthy meal” but ignore the ways that oil has made firewood and food so much more difficult to obtain (p. 40). The beginning of the novel highlights how oil has shaped this situation; the protagonist Zilayefa tells the story of a spill on her mother’s farm when “one of the crude oil pipes that ran through [her] village broke and spilled oil over several hectares of land” (p. 3). For the first time, the narrator witnesses oil’s material toxicity; she “watched as the thick liquid spread out, covering more land and drowning small animals in its path . . . Then there was the smell . . . so strong it made my head hurt and turned my stomach” (p. 4).When the community takes “the matter up with the oil company that owned the pipes,” the company claims “sabotage” was responsible and refuses to

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pay compensation: “And so it was that, in a single day, my mother lost her main source of subsistence” (p. 4). Most of the novel emphasizes the corrupting impact of petro-dollars in Nigeria, but it is only in her home village that she witnesses the destructive impact of the substance itself on people’s health and livelihoods. Faced with deteriorating conditions in the village, Zilayefa flees to the city of Port Harcourt. Her experiences there suggest that both the general notion of escape and the different options for it cannot be separated from the fairy tale of oil and the social dynamics that perpetuate petro-violence. College graduates dream of getting a job in the oil sector; female employees in the tourism industry dream about landing a man who works for the oil industry; and female entrepreneurs like Sisi, the woman who takes the protagonist under her wing in Port Harcourt, make their money by landing “contracts with oil companies”: “she supplied everything from toilet paper to pickup trucks for lease” (pp. 54–55). The examples of the few who are enriched reinforces the “fairy tale”; they seem to demonstrate that access to petro-dollars enables a glorious entry into the halcyon lifestyle of the elite, even though most of those who are effective at getting petro-dollars are already privileged. Meanwhile, their wealth is dependent on the perpetuation of the misery of the vast majority of the delta’s inhabitants – like Zilayefa’s mother. In addition, privilege and the pursuit of it undermine a concern with petro-violence and prevent identification with those who suffer; “their comfort numbed and inured them to the realities of the poverty and oppression around them. In a way, I was also removed from it all, sheltered by the comforts that living with Sisi provided” (p. 99). The narrator forgets “the coarseness of [her] mother’s hands, which worked tirelessly” and the ways in which “the friends [she] left behind struggle for every meal” (p. 177). In the long run, Agary suggests, the fairy tale of oil works in a mutually reinforcing way with the destruction or corruption of all institutions in Nigeria capable of combating or alleviating petro-violence, including the various components of the state (legislative, bureaucratic, legal, military, educational, etc.), non-governmental institutions, and supposedly oppositional organizations. The increasingly horrific trajectory of the sociopolitical situation in Nigeria through the 1990s constitutes the background for Zilayefa’s story and includes an intensification of authoritarian military rule; escalation of state-sponsored and communal violence; exacerbation of the discrepancy between the poverty of the vast majority of Nigerians and the wealth of the elite (and especially the military, represented by the character of ‘the Admiral’); and the silencing or corruption of political and


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journalistic opposition. Yellow-Yellow certainly foregrounds the responsibility of the alliance between the Nigerian state and the oil companies for these conditions, as well as how the global demand for oil prevents change: “as long as the world was still buying Nigeria’s oil, our head of state did not care from which international union we were suspended for human rights abuses” (p. 105). However, it also emphasizes the way that those claiming to fight and make the world aware of “how the oil companies had destroyed our Ni