by Beth McDermott
What is nature? How have our inherited attitudes toward nature shaped our relationship to it? Why do we have to reengage with what nature means, or consider how our stances toward the environment shape our writing? In The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment, Timothy Clark introduces us to questions surrounding literature about the environment, which he never ceases to remind us is increasingly threatened by our actions. His approach is inquiry, but he synthesizes two centuries of environmental thinking, beginning with Romanticism and ending with posthumanism, science studies and animal rights. This sweeping but simultaneously analytical approach helps us gain some ground in the intellectual movement called ecocritcism, which Clark describes as “a provocative misfit in literary and cultural debate” (4). In fact, Clark’s book is like ecocriticism: it’s ambitiously “meta-contextual, opening on issues that may involve perspectives or questions for which given cultural conceptions seem limited” (4).
Out of all the questions Clark raises, the one that I find most interesting is: what kind of environmental writing is most worth examining from an ecocritical perspective? One might immediately chalk this up to a critic’s taste. But the question of how to evaluate environmental writing is especially relevant as more writers are considering the physical environment in the context of environmental decline. We now have literary journals such as Camas, Ecotone or Terrain.org that exclusively publish place-based or environmental writing, or conferences like Bread Loaf Orion, where new environmental writers gather to learn from the established ones. But while environmental writing is, in many respects, like any writing that may or may not begin as a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, throughout Literature and the Environment, Clark distinguishes such writing from creative writing more broadly, or even what’s called “nature writing.”
According to Clark, the very word “nature” is problematically anachronistic, since it usually refers to the non-human world with acquired overtones of “the untouched, the pure, the sacral” (7). If that world no longer exists as such, then “nature writing” is no longer relevant, especially if it reduces non-human animals to “a set of mobile toys” (9). For Clark, a passage by Henry Williamson may be “fine writing,” but Williamson’s anthropocentric view of nature “implicates the reader only as a kind of detached connoisseur” (9). The attitude that humans are superior to other species, or that nature is unaffected by humans, can be perceived, according to Clark, in a writer’s refusal to be perceptually accurate or scientifically precise (8-10). Although some might say that factual accuracy matters more in nonfiction, which Clark points out has an “implicit contract on truth-telling” (38), Clark suggests that all environmental writing worth reading should be more than just aesthetically pleasing. Knowing, for example, what species of bee you’re looking at is a move toward being less anthropocentric and more biocentric.
Clark doesn’t stress that science has been important to creative writers for a long time now. I found myself wishing Clark had included close readings of poetry in this textbook; he does look at a poem by Gary Snyder in a chapter about bioregionalism, but I missed reading poems by twentieth century poets like Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop: they’d written scientifically informed poetry well before ecocriticism was coined. Does this mean poets like Moore and Bishop are environmental writers? These poets’ interest in types of knowledge characterized the kind of poetry they wrote. But I’m not sure that Bishop’s talent for description is a political stance so much as a profitable means to engage the inseparability of line and syntax in her poems.
In other words, regardless of what Bishop had empirically experienced, she realized somewhere along in her compositional process that “At the Fishhouses” thrived on long, winding, compound sentences jammed with prepositional phrases, similes and lists. No doubt she wanted the reader to experience this place: its salty air, rusted capstan, and codfish smell. Bishop’s reader can engage with the fishhouse’s environment by imagining what the “cold dark deep and absolutely clear” water feels like, or how the seal expresses his curiosity of the speaker, regarding her “as if it were against his better judgment.” What does it mean, especially for poetry or fiction writers, that we ascribe perceptual accuracy or scientific precision political import? Does this mean a writer is taking a stance, perhaps without knowing it? Or that a writer who hasn’t experienced the octopus’s touch he’s describing should be taken less seriously as an environmental writer?
Clark is right that the non-fiction essay “suits the often perplexingly interdisciplinary nature of environmental issues” (36). But he doesn’t spend enough time considering the role of the imagination in ecopoetry and environmental fiction outside of his chapters on “Romantic and anti-romantic.” With that said, these chapters are considerably useful, since they stress how important a background in British Romanticism and Transcendentalism is to understanding ecocriticism. Writers such as William Wordsworth and John Clare showed how “art and the poetic…can be offered as a therapeutic antidote to psychic alienation and division” (21). In a poem like “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” for example, Wordsworth’s speaker experiences nature as an antidote to loneliness and uses his imagination to restore an image in his mind’s eye: “And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.” And in Thoreau’s Walden, a retreat into nature is also the return to one’s “true nature,” since the wilderness lifts the burden of having to act as society dictates.
Fortunately, however, Clark also shows how post-human arguments have challenged romantic thinking by “refusing claims that there is some original human nature suppressed by the artificial, from which it must be retrieved” (66). This is the mode of Clark’s book, which says something about ecocriticism as a whole: where there is one perspective, there’ll be another. If the imagination is capable of restoring a “lost psychic or cultural wholeness” (16; emphasis original) that enlightenment thinking and the industrial revolution had suppressed, then what is the imagination capable of destroying? In other words, Clark’s application of the anti-romantic to the romantic reminds us that we tend to think dualistically. The imagination may not always be restorative, but it may profitably emphasize our inability to separate concepts into distinct categories: ourselves from others, nature from culture, rural from urban, art from science. Even a poet like Bishop anticipates contemporary ecopoets when her speaker in “At the Fishhouses” describes the scene without forgetting that she’s a part of it; she’s unable to survey it as if from a height or commanding position (which is one possible denotation of “to survey”). I think this is what Clark means when he emphasizes our need to approach literature in a more biocentric fashion—not to say that the individual experience isn’t important, but to acknowledge that we are all “part of a greater living identity” (2), and our engagement with literature can reflect that realization while bringing us pleasure at the same time.
Clark, Timothy. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.
Beth McDermott’s poetry and prose has recently appeared in Storm Cellar, Jet Fuel Review, American Book Review and the William Carlos Williams Review.