On Nature Writing in a Filthy World

August 15, 2018 | 5 books mentioned 11 min read

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For the burgeoning fields of environmental humanities, it has long since become a commonplace notion that there isn’t really any such thing as “nature” or “wilderness”: both words used to connote real places—pristine and untouched places—but with the increasing knowledge that such a state of being likely never existed, the words come up empty. There are, however, new narratives: Through a case study of the global matsutake mushroom trade, anthropologist Anna Tsing shows compellingly in The Mushroom at the End of the World that the human-disrupted landscapes we find everywhere are worthy of study.

coverHow far do we have to look to find that in the stories we tell today? Not far at all. Lauren Groff’s collection of stories, Florida, seems to see every landscape it describes as contaminated—the wreckage of things wrought by both humans and non-humans. In “Dogs Go Wolf”—a survivalist tale of two sisters stranded on an island, abandoned and threatened by adults—more than monkeys, more than dogs, it is a menacing man from whom the sisters hide. “He moved toward the boat and kicked it once, twice, then the girls saw the rotten wood break apart, and a hundred frightened bugs ran out.”

Groff rarely allows herself the common narrative—what is termed “declensionist” in academic works, i.e., the conventional narrative trope of “human beings cause progressive degradation,” a trope that is, depending on your point of view, incorrect, selective, colonialist, racist, and/or anthropocentric. In one instance, she allows it smack-dab in “Snake Stories,” a story, arguably, about ambivalence itself:

In February, one day, I found myself sad to the bone. A man had been appointed to take care of the environment even though his only desire was to squash the environment like a cockroach. I was thinking about the world my children will inherit, the clouds of monarchs they won’t ever see, the underwater sound of the mouths of small fish chewing the living coral reefs that they will never hear.

But because this is an ambivalent story, this passage follows soon after the narrator asks her son, “Why, of all beautiful creatures on this planet of ours, do you keep writing about snakes?” He answers, “Becus I lik them and thy lik me.”

coverAlthough I myself am uncertain about the extent to which we ourselves are aware of how literature is changing with regard to nature, when you begin to see the ugliness, the ambivalence—the “contamination”—of nature in one place, you begin to see it everywhere. Carmen Maria Machado’s justly lauded collection Her Body and Other Parties, for instance, seems to me just as much a realist rebuke of the triteness of “nature” as a work of science fiction or fantasy. The tentative resident at an artist’s colony, for instance, finds the horrors of nature everywhere: She tests the railings on the deck of a cabin “to see if anything was rotting or came off in my hand like a leprous limb”; looking up in the bathtub, she finds a showerhead “dark and ringed with calcified lime, like the parasitic mouth of a lamprey”; when the discovery of a rabbit she had previously run over turns up outside her studio door, she observes that “its visible organs glistened like caramels, and it smelled like copper.” Kneeling to the rabbit’s carcass, she apologizes. “You deserve better than that,” she says.

What does it deserve? Where did this vein of what I can best call un-nature writing begin? When did the environmental historians and anthropologists begin to convene with novelists and storytellers to arrange this complicated vocabulary? More precisely—when did we begin to recognize the banality of “nature writing,” a legacy largely assumed, correctly to some degree, as that of the Romantics?

The answer, in short, is: We didn’t. The legacy of long, meandering, anthropocentric meditations on nature—be they through Wordsworth’s “tranquil restoration” by nature through springs, sycamores and sober pleasures in “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798,” or Coleridge’s hymn to “green vales and icy cliffs” in “Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni”—may actually be very much with us.

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When we think of “nature writing,” a common Romantic phrase that comes to mind is “sublime.” Sublime, too, is an unstable word. But unlike “wilderness,” which has switched from negative to positive connotations, the sublime is more capacious. When Edmund Burke wrote about the sublime, it was to refer to “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” One assumes that could apply equally to the experience of death as it would be to experiencing vertigo while bungee jumping in the redwood forests of Humboldt County, California.

Paradoxically, it is both a banality and a point of actual contestation to confront Romantic literature as the era of simply “nature writing.” The literary scholar Alan Bewell, who focuses particularly on British Romanticism, admits that one of the biggest problems he faces “in writing about or teaching British Romantic poetry to a mainly urban audience is to explain why most of these poets … spent so much time talking about landscapes and rural scenery, describing the seasons and the weather, and meditating on birds, flowers, mountains, rocks, and trees.”

Bewell would do better to start off with why the works of Romantics are so heavily contested in literary studies. Bewell himself represents a school that calls itself various names—as, frustratingly, many academic schools do—but ecocriticism should suffice. Broadly, the ecocritics argue that what the Romantics’ preoccupation with nature represented was a response to modernity, one that foreshadowed the biological, materialist understanding of “nature” that formed the basis of modern environmentalism. The Romantics in other words, were “proto-ecologists.”

Collapsing a whole academic school of thought is an act of heresy, so allow me to pause and insist that the ecocritics are obviously not a monolith, nor do they agree entirely on particular works. Still, writ large, ecocritics argue for some degree of coherence in the Romantic tradition. This is, in and of itself, controversial. The British literary critic Marilyn Butler, for instance, who lived long enough to see the beginnings of these tensions in the meeting of environmental and literary studies, was scathing on the attempts to slot things in neatly. Butler argued that the contemporary intellectual tradition saw “aesthetic discussions often [resting] upon the belief, also ultimately historical, that there is a single coherent Romantic movement. This belief is reflected in, say, the unquestioned coupling in a book or article of Coleridge and Shelley, or in the widely found inference that a work with Romantic traits has found something it ought to have found, that it is profounder and better than work characteristic of an earlier date.”

Ecocriticism developed as a counterpoint to “new historicism,” the literary theory that emerged in the mid-20th century and argued for examination of the cultural contexts of literature as a way to chart intellectual history. New historicism ascended along with postmodernism; the two are historically connected. The ecocritics are a response to these new historicists, academics for whom the ecocritics charge “nature” was merely a smokescreen behind which ideology, history and politics hid. According to Bewell’s characterization, the new historicists saw “nature” “as an obstacle to both the history that human beings make and the histories that they write, and since it places limits on human freedom, the task of most historicist criticism of Romantic literature has been to penetrate or dissolve nature so that the human agency that stands behind it can be recognized.”

It boggles the mind a bit that these two forms of literary theory do not find a common middle, but most often they haven’t. More than once, a new historicist has argued that there is no such thing as nature; in turn, ecocritics have objected strongly that that is a rebuke to materiality itself. But contemporary literature has certainly found a middle. In an essay entitled ”Not Your Grandfather’s Nature Writing” in the Fiction Writers Review, Andrea Nolan points to a spate of literary journals like Flyway, Ecotone, and Orion, which focus on the environment and distance themselves from “nature writing.” Indeed, she quotes the mission of Ecotone as being distinguished from “the hushed tones and clichés of much of so-called nature writing.” As far as I can discern, however, the most radical change in register for un-nature writing lies in complicated human/nonhuman juxtapositions. In Lauren Groff’s most recent story for The New Yorker, “Under the Wave,” an arresting little passage appears mid-story in what reads as a wild nightmare with a fluid sense of time:

Images accumulated. A woman in filthy panties limping down a road with a bone knuckling out of her arm. A mass of faceless people huddled around a fire. The gray vinyl of a bus seat, scored like aged skin, and the strange flat brown landscape passing dreamily by the window.

Filthy panties. Bone. People. Fire. Gray vinyl. Aged Skin. Flat brown landscape. These juxtapositions of the excruciatingly human with classically-descriptive words for nature that seem so new are made possible in a literary landscape that is realizing how incontestable it is that nature is inseparable from the human and the cultural. Thus far, literary theory has found this difficult to attain, especially for the work of the original “nature writers.” As postmodernists tend to dismiss materiality entirely, the ecocritics bristle from dismissing it even the slightest: Ceding any ground at all would be to dismiss the aesthetic and, crucially, ecological worth of the Romantics’ work.

Take, for instance, Coleridge in “France: An Ode”:

O ye loud Waves! And o ye Forests high!
And O ye clouds that far above me soared!
Thou rising sun! thou blue rejoicing Sky!
Yea, everything that is and will be free!

The ecocritic Karl Kroeber notes that “Coleridge can imagine the sky as joyous because he feels that freedom of individual being is to participate fulfilling in a dynamic unity of forces greater than himself but to which he can satisfyingly belong.” Granted, Coleridge’s invocation of forms of unity emphasize an interconnectedness with nature that can be termed “proto-ecological” because they emphasize both the aesthetic power and beauty of nature as well as the practical and social duties of man to the natural world. Further, it would be hard to argue that this view of nature does not represent some actual thing—the sky is, basically, blue; the forests, often, very high.

coverBut simultaneously, the ecocritics decry the commercialization of ”nature” based on the idea that human beings only leave alone those natures that they do not value. Could it not be, then, that the Romantics’ views led us here directly by romanticizing the pastoral and pristine and wild—by representing the nature that deserved to be valued? After all, for every complex representation of the environment through writers like Groff, Machado, and those who grace the pages of Flyway, Ecotone, and Orion, there are non-literary works that play right into the hands of problematic assumptions of nature. The Pulitzer Prize-winning work of science journalism The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, for instance, has been heralded as a major work charting the loss of species. At the same time, however, it has been criticized by environmental scholars for its focus on some species and not others, for its unquestioning assumption of “species” as the unit of analysis, and for assuming that some Platonic form of “nature” existed before industrial humans began destroying it.

And so even as the postmodernists have lost ground, problems remain. While ecocritics take their cue from environmental scholars about the need to examine environmental and natural themes in their work, the idea that “nature” itself might be a construct—many, many different constructs, in fact—remains largely unquestioned. It’s a reactionary impulse. As literary critic Dana Phillips has argued, even as the ecocritics bring back the idea that there is something material, biological, and empirical about the world (i.e., “nature” is not entirely a cultural construct), what that “something” is remains to be settled—not in ecology or humanistic inquiry, and definitely not in Romantic literature. For compare Coleridge to the Percy Bysshe Shelley in the third stanza of “Mont Blanc” personifying the mountain itself: ugliness (“rude, bare, and high”) and bleak destruction (“Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven”):

Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone,
And the wolf tracks her there – how hideously
Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven. Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply – all seems eternal now.

What Shelley did was strip away some of the sentimentality of nature writing. “Mont Blanc” is, after all, an expression of Shelley’s atheistic beliefs and his political reformist idea that without human imagination, all those silences would be vacuous (“Mont Blanc” is famously considered a rebuke to Wordsworth and Coleridge).

Whatever “Mont Blanc” is for the Romantics, it’s clearly not just a well-described mountain.

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In the Romantic works I’ve encountered, none poses as direct a challenge to the generalizability of the Romantic view on nature than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The fable has been seen, variously, as anti-modern, a cautionary tale about science and technology that echoes contemporary fears, as a nightmare about “nature” gone wild, and a plea for stewardship: that humans must care about nature so it does not go awry.

To see how different Mary Shelley was from her contemporaries, consider Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring,” which begins with Wordsworth glorifying Nature and decrying the state of Man:

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Despite Wordsworth’s “faith that ever flower / Enjoys the air it breathes,” there is also doubt:

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The doubt, of course, is less of a service to the representation of nature (“If such be Nature’s holy plan”) than to Wordsworth’s lament of “What man has made of man.” Even as Wordsworth trucks in pleasure and invokes doubt and uncertainty, his representation of nature is relatively benign. Autonomy is granted to “nature,” but it is a gentle and soothing sort of autonomy. It stands in contrast to Wordsworth’s helplessness about the state of man.

Needless to say, this is fundamentally different to the autonomy of nature that is presented in Frankenstein. The famous passage where Victor beholds his making:

For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

This grants Victor a terrifying hyper-autonomy. Where Shelley’s Frankenstein departs from Wordsworth is in the hyper-autonomy both of man and of nature when man is hubristic enough to wish to dominate it, which is why Frankenstein is thought so often as the anxious industrial precursor to living in the age of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, more than one literary critic has seen the current geological epoch of the Anthropocene as the modern-day Monster from Frankenstein.

There are problems with reading even Frankenstein as the “proto-ecological consciousness” of a Romantic writer. The most major is that it collapses “nature,” “science,” and “technology” as if they were all part of the same whole. There is considerable ambivalence in Frankenstein about this. It is, after all, the Monster who regards “nature” in a similar fashion to many of the Romantics:

Autumn passed thus. I saw, with surprise and grief, the leaves decay and fall, and nature again assuming the barren and bleak appearance it had worn when I first beheld the woods and the lovely moon. Yet I did not heed the bleakness of the weather; I was better fitted by my conformation for the endurance of cold than heat. But my chief delights were the sight of the flowers, the birds, and all the gay apparel of summer.

The obvious other problem with the “proto-ecological” Frankenstein is that it blurs too many lines. Not only does it transpose an eloquent man-beast who resents his birth, his maker, his countenance, and society—all qualities and emotions that many humans express and are known to have—onto the “nature” that faces us in the Anthropocene; it also casts Mary Shelley as the prescient seer of the Romantic movement, undercutting the prescience of other skeptics with less forceful work.

If Mary Shelley is the Romantic double of Lauren Groff and Carmen Maria Machado, it goes without saying that William Wordsworth has his, too. In an essay in n+1, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” environmental historian Jedediah Purdy skewers the anthropocentric conceits of contemporary works of nature-writing, works that bear an uncomfortable similarity to “Mont Blanc”:

For writers, this strange world — tamed to death, feral as a wild hog — has inspired a fascination with nonhuman action, agency, and consciousness. This is true in high academic culture, where literary scholars wax lyrical on the agency of storms and trees, political economists propose that capitalism be seen as both an ecological and a social form, and social theorists outline ethnographies and alliances across species. But as usual the academic trends are just the owl pellets of Minerva. Stronger evidence of a mood is the ambitious, often excellent, sometimes ridiculous writing, from essays and memoirs to popular science, that asks obsessively: What is looking back at us through other species’ eyes? Could we ever escape our own heads and know the viewpoint of a hawk? Is there such a thing as thinking like a mountain?

Like me, Purdy also finds ridiculous that this is all still called “nature writing” in an age where no one knows what “nature” is. But his broader point is key: Whatever this genre, it has made a comeback, just as more complicated works of un-nature sit beside them on shelves.

Tsing’s work has its doubles, and so does the ecocritic’s. It’s like the ecocritic sitting next to the new historicist: The battle lines are real but also bewildering. They probably tell us more about ourselves than about “nature,” but they may also be very captivating. Or if you prefer: distracting.

After all, as Purdy points out, it remains both “baffling and beautiful” that Thoreau once asked of his pond: “Walden, is it you?”

is a dual-degree graduate student in Biology and History at the University of Chicago. He is also an independent journalist, essayist, fiction writer, and the Reviews Editor at Barrelhouse. His work has appeared in Dissent, The Rumpus, The American Prospect, Salon, Aeon, Jacobin, and Chicago Review, among others.

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