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L&E Lecture Series, Part II
Transcript of L&E Lecture Series, Part II
The Myth of Gilgamesh
A Forest's Journey by John Perlin
"The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" by Lynn White Jr.
Heraclites, Hesiod, & Theocritus
Essays by Albernethy & Heidegger
Introduction to Literature & the Environment
Beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the West’s earliest texts, this course surveys nearly 5000 thousand years of literature in order to explore the literary history of the relationship we have with our planet.
Conventional lecture presentations often employ a series of slides to sequentially move through material.
The difficulty with this approach, which is based on the metaphor of a slide projector, is that it is generally designed for a single broadcast to a group, rather than allowing for individual random access at a later date.
Intro to Literature & the Environment
Rachel Carson Conclusion
“If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.”
"Silent Spring" (and “biocides”)
Unlike Thoreau, Carson is not suggesting radical lifestyle changes:
Because Carson was aware that radical suggestions, such as calling for a complete ban on all pesticide use, would likely not be well received, she wisely drew attention to its widespread indiscriminate use, such as DDT being sprayed on millions of inhabited acres to kill gypsy months (158-59).
Consequently, Carson, unlike Thoreau, prompted direct and widespread action:
While Carson might seem too conservative to environmentalists in the mold of Thoreau (something she was rarely accused of in her time), her strategy nonetheless effected radical change very quickly. More than any other person, Carson was responsible for the EPA being created in 1970.
Thus, Carson has shaped modern environmental discourse more than Thoreau:
Carson has been so influential because both she unflinchingly looked at environmental devastation and proposed practical courses of action.
Carson primary objection was to DDT’s widespread use, and the notion that it was harmless to human beings.
"Silent Spring" and Ecology
Carson’s particular approach to environmental devastation centers on ecology:
“For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan, or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence. We poison the caddis flies in the stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. . . We spray our elms and following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm-robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life--or death--that scientists know as ecology.” (189)
In a powerful rhetorical move, Carson speaks about our own, personal, ecology:
“There is also an ecology of the world within our bodies. In this unseen world minute causes produce might effects…To discover the agent of disease and death depends on a patient piecing together of many seemingly distinct and unrelated facts.” (189)
Carson is in part responsible for popularizing the notion of “ecology":
While thinkers like Haeckel had been dealing with the concept of ecology since 1866, Carson helped make the public aware of the idea, as well as to shift focus to how ecological systems (“ecosystems”) can be disrupted.
Carson made clear that seemingly minor changes can disrupt an ecosystem:
While poisoning a single variety of insect may seem of little consequence, it initiates a series of events that can cause problems for surprisingly long periods, as biocides and other chemicals accumulate over time in the bodies of animals. An example of this today is mercury in salmon and other fish.
The difficulty with understanding ecosystems is that they are so complex:
Writing at roughly the same time as Carson, Edward Lorenz, one of the originators of chaos theory, argued that large-scale environmental systems (his examples involved weather) are so complex and chaotic that they will never effectively be modeled or predicted. Thus, according to Lorenz, even a single butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil will alter weather in the U.S.
Silent Spring was in part influential because it was exceptionally well promoted:
In addition to its regular publication, Silent Spring was serialized in its entirety in The New Yorker, serially excerpted in Audubon Magazine, and picked up by the enormously popular Book-of-the-Month Club.
The chemical industry attacked Silent Spring even before its publication:
Suspecting that Silent Spring would be a bombshell, the chemical company Velsicol threatened legal action against Silent Spring’s publisher, as well as The New Yorker and Audubon Magazine. These attacks continue today.
These chemical companies argued that their products did more good than harm:
Especially in the case of the developing world, where DDT was used to help suppress the spread of malaria, the chemical industry argued that the value of human lives far outweighed any environmental fallout.
Debate over the arguments of Silent Spring fiercely continue today:
In a 2005 essay, "The Harm That Pressure Groups Can Do," British politician Dick Taverne essentially compared Carson to Adolph Hitler:
“Carson didn't seem to take into account the vital role it [DDT] played in controlling the transmission of malaria by killing the mosquitoes that carry the parasite…It is the single most effective agent ever developed for saving human life…Rachel Carson is a warning to us all of the dangers of neglecting the evidence-based approach and the need to weight potential risk against benefit: it can be argued that the anti-DDT campaign she inspired was responsible for almost as many deaths as some of the worst dictators of the last century.”
Although Taverne was intentionally inflammatory, in 2007 Robert Gwadz, speaking for an agency of the U.S. Department of Health, noted that "The ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children.” This raises the age-old debate, which appears as early as the Myth of Gilgamesh, of how human interests should be weighed against the planet’s.
In some sense, Silent Spring is the work of a genius loci:
Silent Spring is in many ways the logical conclusion of the early modern suggestion (made by Jonson, Lanyer, and others) that human beings should protect the places that we inhabit from ourselves. Even more than Thoreau, Carson suggests that environmentalists are the new genius loci.
With Silent Spring our course has come full circle from the Myth of Gilgamesh:
Those individuals, like Gilgamesh, who would endanger and recklessly exploit the environment are no longer the heroes of our texts, but rather are cast as monstrous. Moreover, we readers are ourselves now encouraged to become genius loci, fighting off the ambitious “habit of killing” (SS 126).
With Gore the place protected is now the planet itself, not just a specific locale:
As environmental problems are no longer local, being spread globally by our oceans and atmosphere, a new type of protector is needed, one who acts locally in protecting place, which in turn has consequences that are global. Gore thus still echoes Lanyer, Thoreau, and other proto-environmentalists.
Environmentalists are now less likely to look to the past, but rather to the future:
Like Carson and Gore, environmentalists may be aware of our belief in a past locus amoenus, but they are less concerned with an imagined lost paradise, than with halting the planet’s degeneration at our hands--perhaps even bringing about significant regeneration, and with it a brighter future.
Finally, Silent Spring also addresses one of the opening questions of the course:
Why approach environmental issues from a literary perspective? Non-scientific writers are often well positioned to disseminate environmental information to a broad audience, as they may most clearly understand how the ideas that we have inherited historically emerged over time.
Intro to Literature & the Environment
Denham, Philips, & Milton
Milton’s "Paradise Lost" (1667,1674)
"Paradise Lost" is a reinscription of the opening three Books of Genesis:
Milton took the brief Genesis account of Adam and Eve in Eden and expanded into over 10,000 lines of poetry. More than just a retelling of the story, Milton provides radical (even heretical) interpretations of scripture, as he weighs in on the Trinity, free will, the nature of God (and of women), and a host of other topics, including issues of interest environmentally.
Milton’s Eden is a locus amoenus, even though Adam and Eve garden there:
As Genesis 3.17-19 made (essentially) georgic labor a punishment for original sin, in every account of Adam and Eve in Eden before Milton, the pair never did any work before the Fall. Milton, however, has them gardening in the Garden (see lines 625-34, and elsewhere).
Milton is thus, like Al Gore, a proponent of a Christian stewardship approach to the planet, which entrusts care of the earth to human beings.
In "Paradise Lost," Milton portrays Eve as the genius loci of Eden:
Milton’s Eve “nurses” the plants in her domain, sees to the bounty and beauty of Eden, protects the place from “nightly ills,” attends to Eden with morning “haste” (as she visits and keeps track of all the plants in her domain), and is as attentive to a spiritual realm as she is to the Earth.
Milton deconstructed the notion that Christianity was inherently dualistic:
Milton was a monist. He neither believed that human beings were split beings of spirit and flesh, nor that Earth and Heaven were fundamentally different. To Milton, there is but “one first matter” (Book V.472) of which everything in Heaven and Earth (with the exception of God) is composed.
Milton would erase the boundary between the physical and the metaphysical:
To Milton, this boundary is not inherent in Christianity, but rather is an ideology inherited from Greek and Roman thinkers, like Plato.
The debate between Donne and Milton continues; Is paradise lost?
In March of 2007 a number of prominent Christian activists, led by James C. Dobson (founder of Focus on the Family), called on the National Association of Evangelicals to dismiss an official who urged that global warming be taken seriously. To Dobson, the earth reached a “tipping point” 6000 years ago; it is now irretrievable decaying; paradise is lost.
Rejecting the notion that the earth is lost, other Christian activists, such as Al Gore, are calling for extraordinarily efforts to regenerate the planet.
In fact, the most famous lines of "Paradise Lost" parody dualistic thinking:
The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” (I.254-55). This is the boast of metaphysical philosophers, such a Milton’s contemporary René Descartes, voiced by Milton’s Satan.
By Book IV, Satan realizes what is for him a horrible truth: place matters:
“Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell” (IV.75). Milton scoffed at those thinkers who, like Satan (and Descartes), proclaimed that the mind can pull free of the body, the earth, indeed of the entire physical realm.
To Milton, you do not reside in your body, you are your body; you do not live in a place, you are the place:
Milton not only erased the boundary between mind and body, but between mind and place. In other words, “The mind is its place,” be it Hell, Earth, or Heaven. We, like Milton’s Eve, do not live in a place, we are that place.
Obviously, Milton interpreted the Judeo-Christian Bible differently than Donne:
While John Donne argued that “The world is but a carcass…Forget this world, and scarce think of it," Milton, eschewing both mind/body and physical/metaphysical dualism, argued for the possibility of a regenerative Christian era, here and now on earth. He was not alone in this belief.
Cooper’s Hill was one of the most popular English poems of the 17th century:
In part, the poem was so popular (it was reprinted literately dozens of times) because it allegorically dealt, in the form of an imagined stag hunt (lines 263f.), with the beheading of King Charles I (in 1649).
"Cooper’s Hill" is the first modern “loco-descriptive” poem in English:
As the name suggests, loco-descriptive (sometimes called “topographical”) poetry provides lush descriptions of specific locales. Loco-descriptive literature will become enormously popular in upcoming centuries. Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth, repeatedly praised "Cooper’s Hill".
Loco-descriptive poems come on the scene as “country-house” poems die out:
Because loco-descriptive literature is not moored to an estate (along with the patronage system), it is a more general-purpose form of nature writing.
In general terms, loco-descriptive literature is a form of pastoral:
Although loco-descriptive literature will sometimes eschew the conventions of pastoral poetry (such as the obligatory inclusion of shepherds & sheep), such literature nonetheless pastorally gestures toward an environment.
Interestingly, Cooper’s Hill gestures to a variety of environments:
The panoramic view from Cooper's Hill includes both urban and country locales: St. Paul’s cathedral, London, Windsor Castle, St. Anne’s Hill, a section of the Thames River, Windsor Forest, and a washland meadow.
Unlike Denham, future loco-descriptive poets will often turn away from the city:
Writing a century or more after Denham, Romantic poets (such as Wordsworth) will often completely ignore urban areas, as they instead look to, indeed fetishize, more pristine, rural locales.
The view from Cooper’s Hill, as it would have appeared to Denham:
Perhaps not surprisingly, loco-descriptive literature is often very descriptive:
In order to “capture” a locale between the boards of a book, from the early modern period onward writers will provide more vivid and increasingly longer descriptions of the environment, as their works become more and more representational.
Hence, nature poetry is becoming more representational and less gestural.
If one looks closely at classical, medieval, and early Renaissance pastoral literature, including “To Penshurst,” it becomes clear that the locales being described are hardly described at all, as these works do not extensively employ mimesis (a literary term, derived from Greek, for “representation”).
Instead, these works gesture to, rather than lavishly describe and represent (often to the owners of these places), familiar and nearby environments. This is a major difference between loco-descriptive poetry & earlier works.
If the reader can actually visit a locale, representation is less important:
In this sense, “To Penshurst” works like a nature guide; like a human guide walking beside us, making gestures at every turn: “Look, ‘the broad beech and the chestnut’” (12), “Look, ‘the purple pheasant with the speckled sides’” (28), “Look, ‘the painted partridge lies in every field’” (29), etc.
Descriptions, such as the pheasant being “purple,” are of course present in “To Penshurst,” but what is far more important is what is gestured to, which lies outside of the text. Consequently, such a work works best if it does not overly draw attention to itself or its own representational images.
Similarly, painters will increasingly try to create an environment on canvas:
Our word “landscape” first appeared around 1600 (when Shakespeare and Jonson were writing), as artists increasingly became interested in the environment, especially the “landscape,” and its successful representation.
If a nature guide walking beside us succumbed to the temptation of representation by lavishly describing a countryside, it would not only be superfluous, as the emergent scene itself was now present, it would risk being counterproductive by detracting from the environment itself.
Loco-descriptive poets attempt to effectively describe what may never be visited:
Hence, literature from the early modern period onward is going to become more representational and less gestural, as the imagined reader may not--and as far as the author is concerned, need not--ever visit the locale.
Loco-descriptive poets actually attempt to create an environment in their texts:
If not create, loco-descriptive poets at least hope to emulate an environment in their texts. Whether they succeed at this is, of course, debatable.
Jonson’s “Praises of a Country Life”
& Philips’ “A Country Life”
Jonson’s and Philip’s “country-life” poems are translations of Horace’s Epode II.
Horace was a contemporary of Virgil. His Epode II seemingly begins as a celebration of the simple country life, imagined as a literal golden age:
Happy the man who, far away from
business cares, like the pristine race of
mortals, works his ancestral acres with his
steers, from all money-lending free.
However, its ending reveals that this country ideal is con-structed in the city:
When the money-lender Alfius had uttered this,
on the very point of beginning the farmer's life,
he called in all his funds by the end of the month --
and next month seeks to put them out again!
Hence, Horace knows that the perfect country life is a constructed ideal.
Although Horace, like Ovid, echoes the story of the golden age, he is fully aware that his contemporary rural countryside was not a locus amoenus, and that this notion was culturally constructed--specifically from the vantage point of the city--which Horace takes great joy in parodying.
Jonson’s translation of Horace’s Epode II proves that he too understands this:
Jonson’s line-by-line translation also ends by noting that the poem, an improbable dream of a perfect rural life, has been uttered by a urban usuer.
Philips’ 1667 translation of Horace’s Epode II actually leaves off the ending:
Philips provides a highly stylized translation of Horace’s Epode II, which fails to reveal that the poem’s celebration of country life is a parody.
Philips’ “A Country Life”
Katherine Philips was the most popular woman writer in 17th-century England:
In part, Philips was able secure such acclaim by knowing just what--and what not--to say. As a woman writer, she carefully constructed herself as non-threatening, unlike contemporaries such as Margaret Cavendish. She also understood how attitudes toward the environment were changing.
Philips gave the reader what they wanted, unequivocal praise of country life:
While Horace, Jonson, and Philips (by way of her reading of Horace) knew that the portrayal of the contemporary countryside as a locus amoenus was a culturally constructed illusion, she also knew that, faced with increasing environmental devastation in London and elsewhere, her readers very much wanted to imagine life in the countryside as perfect.
Philips describes--in detail--life in the country as utterly perfect:
As Philips constructs them, “country folk” do not rule over anyone (line 15) nor envy their wealth (17), they do not eat animals (19), they (like Thoreau) live in a simple cottages (34), and they are in every way opposed to the city and the "State" (54). To include so much description, Philips adds over twenty lines of her own in translating Horace’s original text.
Philips is a harbinger of generations of poets that fetishize the environment:
After Philips, many English nature poets (such as Wordsworth) will not only celebrate life in the country, but actually move there themselves. In encouraging a literal move to the countryside, such poets ironically hastened its destruction. After celebrating England’s Lake District in verse, Wordsworth fought against tourism (and a rail line) to the area.
Loco-Descriptive Literature, cont'd.
Prior to the Renaissance, painters made little effort to accurately depict landscape.
Such as “Hunt of the Unicorn” (1500)...
...and “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter with a Donor” (1450)
Dutch painters, such as Pieter Bruegel, produced some of the first “landscapes."
Such as “The Harvesters,” 1565.
Poetic description will at times approach contemporary scientific writing:
As poets describe the environment more and more minutely, their writing will often seem like, and draw from, scientific writing. This will become especially apparent with writers like Thoreau (particularly in his later works), who considered himself as much a naturalist as a writer.
By 1640s and ‘50s, when Denham was writing Cooper’s Hill, the French artist Claude Lorrain was approaching near photographic fidelity to reality.
Note also that the human presence in these works is diminishing; increasingly the environment is taking over the scene, as anthropocentrism is being questioned.
As England becomes more human centered, anthropocentrism is questioned:
Nature poets questioned whether human beings should dominate the earth.
Denham brought to poetry what Lorrain (and others) did to painting: a desire to create a highly successful representation of an environment:
From the middle of the 17th century onward, poets will increasingly strive for “photographic” realism in their work through the primary tool that they have at their disposal: description. From this point onward, descriptions of the environment will both become more lavish and more precise.
Sir John Denham, 1642, 1654
Cooper’s Hill inaugurated the popular genre of the “hill poem.”
Including Windsor Castle
London would be far in the distance
The goal of these works was to accurately represent an environment on canvas.
Intro to Literature & the Environment
Donne, Lanyer, Jonson, and Shakespeare
"The world is but a carcass; thou art fed
By it, but as a worm, that carcass bred;
And why shouldst thou, poor worm, consider more,
When this world will grow better than before,
Than those thy fellow-worms do think upon
That carcass's last resurrection?
Forget this world, and scarce think of it so,
As of old clothes, cast off a year ago."
Lanyer was Shakespeare's contemporary; perhaps his “dark lady.”
Her writing reveals a very different person than Shakespeare's sonnets, as she is hardly a scripted seductress. Lanyer was a proto-feminist.
Lanyer was mistress of Henry Carey, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin.
Lanyer was England’s first professional woman writer; via patronage.
“Cookeham” was written for Lanyer’s patron, Margaret Clifford.
“Cookeham” describes a community of women (a homosocial group).
The “Description of Cookeham” is a so-called “country-house” poem.
Either “Cookeham” or “To Penshurst” was the 1st country-estate poem. (The country-estate genre died off with Upon Appleton House.)
“Cookeham” is part of the explosion of interest in pastoral in London.
Country-estate poems are mostly literal (rather than allegorical) pastoral.
Anthropocentrism is often opposed to ecocentrism, though it need not be.
“Cookeham” echoes Virgil’s Eclogue I, as the exiled speaker develops, and attempts to communicate, an environmental consciousness.
“Cookeham” is new in that women are the disenfranchised, exiled group. (The Cookeham estate was leased from the Crown by Clifford’s brother.)
Lanyer both uses the exile motif to dramatize a sense of loss, as well as to catch the moment when the landscape moves forward, as it withdraws:
“Placing [its] pleasures in your heart” (l. 154), Cookeham withdraws.
Cookeham is actually described as dying without human tending (l. 146).
Hence, Lanyer’s environmentalism is a form of (Christian) stewardship.
Shakespeare competed with Jonson (and Marlow) as a playwright.
In addition to plays, Jonson is most famous for court masques.
“To Penshurst” is in the pastoral mode and of the “country-house” genre.
As in “Cookeham,” the house is largely absent from “To Penshurst.”
Consequently, focus shifts from house to surroundings (environment).
“To Penshurst” is highly critical of early modern “prodigy” houses:
"Thou art not, Penshurst, build to envious show
Of touch or marble, nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern whereof tales are told,"
Prodigy houses could not be sustained by their surrounding resources.
Hence, Penshurst “joy’st in better marks . . . of air, / Of wood, of water.”
In fact, Penshurst would have been surrounded by an explosion of life.
Penshurst today (and Thoreau’s cabin at Walden pond)
The Penshurst house, as Jonson rightly noted, is lost in the environment.
"Walden" also attacks “prodigy” houses on environmental grounds:
Consequently, “To Penshurst” in some sense anticipates Walden; however, the house at Penshurst is far more opulent than Thoreau’s simple cabin. In short, Jonson hyperbolically portrays Penshurst as environmentally benign, while Thoreau’s cabin actually has minimal impact on the environment. One is an ideal; the other real.
This becomes obvious if we look at the two houses together...
Both Jonson and Thoreau would be critical of Nickelback’s song “Rockstar”:
“I want…a bathroom I can play baseball in.”
As is clear from “To Penshurst,” excessive (often capitalist) consumption was not only already an ideal in early modern England, writers like Jonson were critical of it-- notably on environmental grounds, as the planet itself was being consumed.
Again, this is not to say that Jonson was proposing particularly radical lifestyle changes (as did Thoreau) in response to the excessive consumption of the planet’s resources in his era, but the underlying thinking that gave birth to Thoreau’s Walden experiment nonetheless had an early modern emergence.
We know that Thoreau read “To Penshurst” and other country estate poems.
“To Penshurst” explores modern environmental consciousness:
While Virgil explored the emergence of environmental consciousness (by way of Meliboeus’ exile) in Eclogue I, in “To Penshurst” Jonson considers how such a consciousness emerges in response to the environment becoming endangered. This is a major difference.
“To Penshurst” gestures to both endangered and pristine environments:
Like traditional pastoral, “To Penshurst” would have us look to endangered and pristine environments. However, in its opening (“Thou art not, Penshurst…”) Jonson’s poem immediately directs us to the endangered landscape. Hence, “To Penshurst” is in some sense an example of anti- pastoral--not unlike Edward Burtynsky’s photographs.
As might a stone wall…
Penshurst, according to Jonson, gestures to its surrounding environment, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s house at Fallingwater, PA.
Hence, the house itself, and not just the poet and poem describing it, makes a pastoral gesture.
Penshurst makes a similar gesture to its pristine (at least as Jonson imagines them) surroundings.
Shakespeare’s "As You Like It"
The Forest of Arden from Shakespeare’s "As You Like It" was a real forest in Warwickshire England, which would likely have captured the imagination of his largely urban audience as something of a modern-day locus amoenus.
Well aware of the fact that his urban audience would likely have perceived the rural countryside as a locus amoenus, Shakespeare sets out in As You Like It to reveal that our perceptions of the environment are not only influenced by works of art like pastoral literature, but that these perceptions differ widely.
"As You Like It" was one of Shakespeare’s most mature attempts at pastoral:
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (from the early 1590s), which was Shakespeare’s first pastoral play, presents a simplified and idealized view of “pastoral” and life in the country, similar to much pastoral literature of the time.
In contrast, "As You Like It" presents pastoral life from a variety of perspectives:
Starting in Act II of the play, as members of Duke Senior's court—including the Duke himself—talk (or sing) about the Forest of Arden surrounding them, it becomes clear that they are all seeing the forest in very different ways…
"Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
'This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.'
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.
Happy is your grace,
That can translate the stubbornness of fortune
Into so quiet and so sweet a style."
"Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird's throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see No enemy
But winter and rough weather."
"The Second Anniversary", 1611
"Description of Cookeham" (1611)
“Cookeham” is both anthropomorphic and anthropocentric:
"Hills, vales, and woods, as if on bended knee
They had appeared, your honor to salute"
"To Penhurst" (published 1616)
Penshurst responds to Italian inspired architecture, i.e. Hampton Court
(Note the carefully cultivated landscape.)
(Again note the carefully quaffed landscape, and older wing.)
(1599 or 1600)
Duke Senior, Act II.v.1-8
Views of Pastoral in "As You Like It"
'Poor deer,' quoth he, 'thou makest a testament
As worldlings do, giving thy sum of more
To that which had too much:' then, being there alone,Left and abandon'd of his velvet friends,
''Tis right:' quoth he; 'thus misery doth part
The flux of company:' anon a careless herd,
Full of the pasture, jumps along by him
And never stays to greet him; 'Ay' quoth Jaques,’
Sweep on, you fat and greasy citizens;
'Tis just the fashion: wherefore do you look
Upon that poor and broken bankrupt there?
'Thus most invectively he pierceth through
The body of the country, city, court,
Yea, and of this our life, swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants and what's worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign'd and native dwelling-place.
Ay, now am I in Arden; the more fool I;
When I was at home, I was in a better place:
But travellers must be content
Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life, But in respect that it is a shepherd's life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well;
But in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life.
Now, in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; But in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious.
As is it a spare life, look you, it fits my humour well; But as there is no more plenty in it,
It goes much against my stomach.
Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?
Why, how now, Adam! no greater heart in thee?
Live a little; comfort a little; cheer thyself a little.
If this uncouth forest yield any thing savage,
I will either be food for it or bring it for food to thee.
Speak you so gently? Pardon me, I pray you:
I thought that all things had been savage here;
And therefore put I on the countenance
Of stern commandment. But whate'er you are
That in this desert inaccessible,
Under the shade of melancholy boughs,
Let gentleness my strong enforcement be:
In the which hope I blush, and hide my sword.
Fair sir, I pity her
And wish, for her sake more than for mine own,
My fortunes were more able to relieve her;
But I am shepherd to another man
And do not shear the fleeces that I graze:
My master is of churlish disposition
And little recks to find the way to heaven
By doing deeds of hospitality:
Besides, his cote, his flocks and bounds of feed
Are now on sale, and at our sheepcote now,
By reason of his absence, there is nothing
That you will feed on; but what is, come see.
And in my voice most welcome shall you be.
Duke Senior, Act II.i.1-20
"As You Like It" makes us aware that we all see the environment differently:
In "As You Like It", Shakespeare explores a range of different perspectives (subject positions) on the environment, from overly idealizing it, to see seeing the harsh realities of life in the county for the working class.
Intro to Literature & the Environment
Milton, Marvel, & Herbert (The end of the “Renaissance”)
Milton's "Paradise Lost"
In fact, Earth and Heaven are so similar that they could have one day merged:
In "Paradise Lost" Milton imagines that, if there had not been a Fall, Adam and Eve would have brought about an extraordinary cosmic event:
“And Earth be chang'd to Heav'n, and Heav'n to Earth” (VII.160).
Like Cooper’s Hill, Paradise Lost is highly descriptive of a locale, Eden:
A happy rural seat of various view:
Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm;
Others whose fruit, burnished with golden rind,
Hung amiable—Hesperian fables true.
If true, here only—and of delicious taste.
Betwixt them lawns, or level downs, and flocks
Gracing the tender herb, were interposed,
Or palmy hillock; or the flowery lap
Of some irriguous valley spread her store,
Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose.
Paradise Lost must be highly descriptive of the locale, as you cannot visit Eden:
Paradise Lost is an excellent example of the power of loco-descriptive literature, as it is wonderfully able to represent an environment (in this case Eden), which cannot be gestured to, as it does not exist.
Milton similarly lavishly describes Heaven and Hell in "Paradise Lost":
Because Milton is a monist, he imagines Heaven and Hell as not only made of the same basic matter as Earth, but as strikingly similar in appearance, as these three places are filled with plants, streams, mountains, and so forth.
"Upon Appleton House"
Generally speaking, "Upon Appleton House" was the last “country-house” poem:
Although in the early 18th century Alexander Pope would describe the countryside around his house in the poem "Windsor Forest," for the most part country-estate poems ended with Upon Appleton House in 1652.
Although a country-estate poem, "Upon Appleton House" is highly descriptive:
In its size alone (it is nearly 800 lines in length), Andrew Marvel’s great country-estate poem makes clear that description is now far more important than it was in Jonson’s “To Penshurst,” which was one sixth its length. Thus, country-estate poetry is transitioning into loco-descriptive literature.
Nonetheless, "Upon Appleton House" is also highly allegorical:
"Upon Appleton House" contains a tirade against the Catholic Church (Stanzas 12-35), actually insinuating that Catholic nuns are lesbians, as well as metaphorically weighing in on England’s Civil War (Stanzas 47-59)
"Upon Appleton House" expresses a number of perspectives on the environment:
For example, Marvell imagines his patron, General Thomas Fairfax, as overseeing his garden’s plants as a general would an army:
Marvel also draws attention to, and celebrates, Fairfax’s old-growth forest:
But I, retiring from the Flood,
Take Sanctuary in the Wood;
And, while it lasts, my self imbark
In this yet green, yet growing Ark;
Where the first Carpenter might best
Fit Timber for his Keel have Pressed.
And where all Creatures might have shares.
"Upon Appleton House" makes clear that environmental attitudes were in flux:
Although celebrating the near-military control of a highly cultivated garden, Marvel is also well aware of the merits of wilderness, both for human beings and other life--an attitude moving toward ecocentrism.
The “Mower against Gardens” expresses an uneasiness toward modification of the environment. This attitude will continue to grow in the next 350 years:
Like Marvell, George Herbert was anxious about the loss of indigenous plants:
More servants wait on Man,
Then he’l take notice of: in ev’ry path
He treads down that which doth befriend him,
When sicknesse makes him pale and wan.
Oh mightie love!
Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they
Finde their acquaintance there.
John Martin, “Raphael visits Eden” (1825)
John Marvel, 1652
When in the East the Morning Ray
Hangs out the Colours of the Day,
The Bee through these known Allies hums,
Beating the Dian with its Drumms.
Then Flow'rs their drowsie Eylids raise,
Their Silken Ensigns each displayes,
And dries its Pan yet dank with Dew,
And fills its Flask with Odours new.
These, as their Governour goes by,
In fragrant Vollyes they let fly.
Luxurious bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce;
And from the fields the flow’rs and plants allure,
Where nature was most plain and pure.
He first enclos’d within the garden’s square
A dead and standing pool of air;
And a more luscious earth for them did knead,
Which stupefied them while it fed.
The pink grew then as double as his mind;
The nutriment did change the kind.
With strange perfumes he did the roses taint,
And flow’rs themselves were taught to paint.
The tulip, white, did for complexion seek,
And learn’d to interline its cheek;
Its onion root they then so high did hold,
That one was for a meadow sold.
Another world was search’d, through oceans new,
To find the Marvel of Peru.
And yet these rarities might be allow’d,
To man, that sov’reign thing and proud;
Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
No plant now knew the stock from which it came,
He grafts upon the wild the tame;
That the uncertain and adult’rate fruit
Might put the palate in dispute.
George Herbert, 1633
Intro to Literature & the Environment
Background on Rachel Carson
Carson was a journalist, not a scientist:
Although Carson received an MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins in 1932, she worked as a writer for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries producing pamphlets and articles aimed at the general public. In 1952, after writing three award winning books on the ocean, she gave up her job with the Bureau.
Carson’s lack of a PhD and the fact that she was a woman haunted her career:
In an effort to discredit "Silent Spring", which became an enormously popular and influential book nearly overnight, the chemical industry personally attacked Carson by repeatedly questioning her scientific credentials, her use of facts, her credibility as a woman, and even her sexuality.
This personal campaign against Carson has continued into the 21st century:
In 2002, chemical industry spokesman Robert White-Stevens argued that, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” (Carson, incidentally, died of cancer in 1964.)
"Silent Spring" (1962) helped spawn the modern environmental movement:
As we know from our readings, human beings have been preoccupied with environmental issues for thousands of years; however, in the second half of the 20th century this became a widespread movement, especially in Santa Barbara after one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history in 1969.
In some sense, "Silent Spring" represents a profound paradigm shift:
While poets had (as we have seen) been somewhat skeptical of science for centuries, prior to Silent Spring the public generally embraced scientific “breakthroughs,” especially in the new chemistry. Carson, however, showed the dark, indeed disastrous, underside of such blind acceptance.
Consequently, Carson influenced a range of other environmental movements:
The grass-root protesting of the nuclear power industry in the 1970s, for example, owns much to the skepticism that Carson fostered. Similarly, Carson influenced the radical reevaluation of chemical additives to food products in the 1960s and ‘70s--and even today.
"Silent Spring" as Pastoral
Carson (and Gore) draws on the pastoral idea of the locus amoenus:
Whether or not them themselves believed that human beings once lived in a perfect relationship with the earth, both Carson and Gore exploit the fact that we, their readers, do. Both argue that paradise, now lost, can be regained if we heed their warnings and act responsibly toward the planet.
There was once a town in the heart of rural America where all life seemed to live at harmony with its surroundings…even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed” (opening to SS).
“Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change…Everywhere was a shadow of death…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” (2).
Al Gore similarly opens An Inconvenient Truth with the image of a locus amoenus, a wilderness stream, unspoiled and uncorrupted by human beings.
Carson and Gore employ anti-pastoral far more frequently than pastoral:
While Carson and Gore open with an appeal to our inherited belief in a pleasant pastoral past, both writers (like Edward Burtynsky) quickly set their focus on environmental devastation, which they hold without blinking.
Hence, Carson and Gore are radically different than Thoreau:
If there is a danger with Thoreau’s thinking, it is that we risk fetishizing and seeking out wilderness; in the process ignoring environmental devastation. Carson and Gore do not run away from such problems, they unflinchingly face them--and encourage us to do the same.
Carson and Gore are therefore of interest to a whole new wave of ecocritics:
First-wave environmental critics metaphorically followed Thoreau and similar romantics “into the wild.” Second-wave ecocritics, careful not to overly romanticize wilderness (as did many of their predecessors), are more likely to direct themselves to sites of environmental devastation and texts that do the same, such as Carson’s Silent Spring.
Carson as a Communicator
Carson’s great strength was her ability to communicate difficult ideas well:
Because of her decades of experience writing for the public, Carson was well positioned to explain, in simple and understandable terms, the complex scientific and cultural problems in the U.S. behind the use of pesticides. Carson disseminated the work of others; she did not do scientific research.
Consequently, Carson is similar to successful contemporary eco-journalists:
A 21st-century parallel to Carson would be eco-journalist Michael Pollan, whose background is in publishing, not science. Nonetheless, Pollan is extremely effective at communicating difficult environmental ideas. Al Gore is another example of a highly effective activist/communicator.
Carson at once romanticizes the environment and sees it an an object of study:
Unlike the Romantics, Carson does not just romanticize the environment (something she unabashedly does at times), but rather sees it like a cool, detached scientist would: as an object of inquiry. Later in his life Thoreau interestingly began moving in this direction in his personal journals.
In an effort to bolster her credibility (which sometimes backfired), Carson cultivated an image as scientist and naturalist.
Carson effectively employed inherited ideas, such as our notion of “natural.”:
Because we in the West, from at least as early as The Myth of Gilgamesh, have made a distinction between the “natural” and the “un-natural,” and began privileging the “natural” as early as Theocritus, Carson was able to turn public opinion against chemicals by casting them as “unnatural.”
Although her approach is at times scientific, Carson carefully avoids jargon:
Carson’s considerable experience in making difficult scientific concepts understandable, interesting, and jargon free was a key to making the above approach possible. Without its powerful, but accessible, scientific arguments and graphs, An Inconvenient Truth would not be effective.
Carson and Gore make clear the enormous power of rhetoric and language:
As we have seen throughout this term, effective writing, such as Virgil’s Eclogue I, Jonson’s “To Penshurst,” or Thoreau’s Walden, can profoundly shape ideas, and even help bring about an environmental consciousness. Carson and Gore bring such effective rhetoric to a mass market.
Thus Carson inherited, then popularized, the “natural/unnatural” dyad:
While other writers had propounded the distinction between the “natural / unnatural,” Carson was highly effective at doing so in the 20th century. In fact, Carson and others were so effective that we might get the impression that prior the 20th century everything was largely “natural.”
Silent Spring shifted environmental interest toward toxicity:
While human beings have been interested in issues like deforestation and urban growth for thousands of years, Carson made the public aware of an entirely new type of environmental problem, the widespread use of toxic chemicals, which is for the most part a 20th-century phenomenon.
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe around us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
Following Carson, many writers have made similar appeals to heart and head:
Gore, Pollan, and many other environmentalists have followed Carson’s formula in both Romantically tugging at our heartstrings to get us to care, and carefully laying out scientific arguments that make the situation understandable. Carson’s detractors attacked this rhetorical approach.
"Silent Spring" is filled with examples of Carson’s considerable rhetorical skill.
The best example may in fact be her title, “Silent Spring.”
Carson also astutely and effectively rejects loaded terms. These chemicals “should not be called ‘insecticides,’ but ‘biocides’” (SS 8), as they not only kill insects, but all forms of plant and animal life, including human beings.
When wanting to really tug at the heartstrings, Carson wisely lets other speak for her, such as a “housewife” who wrote “It is hard to explain to the children that the birds have been killed off…Is there anything being done? Can anything be done? Can I do anything?” (SS 103, emphasis by Carson)
Carson also cleverly underscores the dangers of insecticides by connecting them with with chemical weapons: “In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals developed in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man” (SS 16).
“As the habit of killing grows--the resort to ‘eradicating’ any creature that may annoy or inconvenience us” grows with it (SS 126).
“Who has made the decision that sets into motion these chains of poisoning, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond?” (127).
“As man proceeds toward his announced goal of the conquest of nature, he has written a depressing record of destruction, directed not only against the earth he inhabits but against the life that shares it with him” (85).
“The fact that every meal that we eat carries its load of chlorinated hydrocarbons is the inevitable consequences is the almost universal spraying or dusting of agricultural crops with these poisons” (180).
“Our line of defense against invading poisons or poisons from within is now weakened and crumbling” (192).
Carson cleverly kept her focus tightly on one particular problem:
Like Al Gore, Rachel Carson does not overwhelm her audience with the frightening range of environmental problems threatening us; rather, each focuses on one particular problem, which they carefully explore in detail.
Consequently, neither Carson nor Gore write about pollution in general:
For example, neither writer addresses industrial runoff into rivers and aquifers; or the release of chemicals, such as sulfur dioxide, into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (and its byproduct, acid rain); or solid-waste pollution in landfills; or the pollution of our oceans, and so forth.
Such a rhetorical approach necessarily ignores a range of important issues:
Following Carson’s rhetorical strategy, which was highly effective in motivating public action against “biocides,” Al Gore is keeping a laser-like focus in one issue, global warming. However, this is done at a great cost: ignoring other environmental problems of profound importance.
Intro to Literature & the Environment
"Walden" as Pastoral
Walden is thoroughly in the pastoral tradition:
Thoreau read both Theocritus and Virgil, and, like Katherine Philips and the Romantic poets, he unabashedly imagined the countryside as a pastoral locus amoenus. Like Wordsworth, Thoreau literally moved to the country.
Although acutely aware of urban problems, Thoreau turns away from them:
Like many Romantic poets, and unlike Edward Burtynsky, Thoreau turns away from contemporary environmental problems in search of a simpler life in the country. The danger here is that this move risks turning, even running, away from these problems. Millions of individuals have followed Thoreau into countryside; ironically in the process hastening its destruction.
Thus, overly romanticizing the countryside carries a twofold danger:
First, we risk ignoring--and doing something about--the environmental difficulties that come with human culture. Second, in running away from these issues, we may bring these problems to the areas we romanticize.
Thoreau as genius loci
Traditionally, genius loci figures protected the environment--from humans:
In The Myth of Gilgamesh, for example, Humbaba at least tried to protect the Cedar Forest from Gilgamesh’s dream of unbridled human exploitation.
In the early modern period, human beings are increasingly seen as genius loci:
Jonson argued that Robert Sidney protected the Penshurst estate; the speaker of “Cookeham” worried what would happen to the estate without its female protectors; Milton imagined Eve as the genius loci of Eden.
The narrator of Walden is clearly a genius loci; the protector of Walden Pond:
Although there are early modern precedents, Thoreau greatly expands the notion that a human being could be a genius loci, actually implying that his readers should themselves become protectors of places. As perhaps the first modern environmentalist, Thoreau is suggesting that environmentalists are the new genius loci. This inverts and challenges the traditional view.
"Walden" is part autobiography, part non-fiction, and part novel:
Like many novels, "Walden" is highly autobiographical, but changes many real-life details. For example, Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years; "Walden" compresses the experience into one. "Walden" also resembles non-fiction writing as some of its chapters are little more than essays.
"Walden" was not well received in its time; that would change 100 years later:
Thoreau had trouble publishing Walden; he put it through eight rewrites before 1854. Walden was rarely read in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, 100 years after its publication, Walden became enormously popular with (and helped inspire) the 1960’s “back-to-the-land movement.”
Beginning in the 1960s, a surprising number of individuals have tried to actually live Thoreau’s Walden lifestyle. Most recently this phenomena appeared in Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild (and the Sean Penn film that it inspired), based on the life, and death, of Chris McCandless.
Walden brings together many of the themes that we have covered this term:
With the possible exception of "The Description of Cooke Ham," Thoreau likely read every work to date on our syllabus. He is thoroughly aware of the Western tradition, its ideas, and its literary forms. Consequently, he is well positioned to understand, interpret, and push forward our literary past.
In addition to understanding the past, Thoreau anticipates the future:
As Walden contains a very modern perspective on the environment, in many respects Thoreau’s perspective is ours as well. Even if unknowingly, we have inherited many of our attitudes from Thoreau and his era. These ideas may predate him (as with Jonson), but Thoreau modernizes them.
Thus, Thoreau transitioned past thinking into our environmental present:
Thoreau’s thinking did not arise in a vacuum, but rather is the (perhaps inevitable) conclusion of centuries, if not millennia, of thinking
"Walden" as Loco-descriptive
Walden is highly descriptive of a locale: Walden Pond:
Like other loco-descriptive works that we have read, Walden foregrounds the locale from its title forward: “The Description of Cookehame,” “To Penshurst,” Coopers Hill, “Upon Appleton House,” & “Mont Blanc.”
Walden, however, takes the project far further, especially in the descriptions of Walden Pond itself. We have not encountered this level of description before:
“Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both. Viewed from a hilltop it reflects the color of the sky; but near at hand it is of a yellowish tint next the shore where you can see the sand, then a light green, which gradually deepens to a uniform dark green in the body of the pond. In some lights, viewed even from a hilltop, it is of a vivid green next the shore” (page 115--this is just one of the many, many descriptions of Walden Pond in the text).
Walden explores elements of description previously ignored, such as sounds"
“The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving” (77).
“Late in the evening I heard the distant rumbling of wagons over bridges--a sound heard farther than almost any other at night--the baying of dogs, and sometimes again the lowing of some disconsolate cow in a distant barn-yard” (82).
Thoreau repeatedly uses onomatopoeia to invoke the sound of sounds:
“When other birds are still, the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu. Their dismal scream is truly Ben Jonsonian” (81).
"Walden" as Critique of Consumerism
Walden contains a critique of consumerism in the spirit of Jonson and Denham:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” argued Thoreau (Walden, 4), because, as Denham had already realized 200 years before in Cooper’s Hill, “Their vast desires, but make their wants the more” (l. 32).
In fact, the opening “Economy” chapter of Walden follows Denham directly:
I see the City in a thicker cloud
Of business, then of smoake; where men like Ants
Toyle to prevent imaginarie wants;
Yet all in vaine.
(Cooper’s Hill, l. 28-31)
Thoreau takes Denham seriously; he derives a way of life from his observations.
Critiquing consumerism is not new with Walden, but it is carried to a new level:
What is new with Walden is that radical lifestyle changes are now being called for in response to rampant consumerism. Thoreau is not only critical of excessive consumption on environmental grounds; he has a plan to do something about it--and encourages us (his readers) to do the same.
Unlike Jonson and Denham, Thoreau’s approach sounds strikingly modern:
For example, Thoreau attacks the fashion industry, which even in the 1840s was centered in Paris: “The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same” (16).
Consequently, to Thoreau, clothing factories have less to do with seeing that “mankind may be well and honestly clad," than to ensuring "that the corporations may be enriched” (17).
Therefore, “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” (14)!
Thoreau’s critique of excessive consumption focuses on our literal dwellings:
In the spirit of the “modest” house celebrated in “To Penshurst,” Thoreau actually suggests that a box “six feet long by three wide…[with]…a few auger holes in it, to admit the air,” would be an adequate human shelter (18)
Although Thoreau’s suggestion may seem radical, Marvell had already made it:
Why should of all things Man unrul'dSuch unproportion'd dwellings build?The Beasts are by their Denns exprest:And Birds contrive an equal Nest;The low roof'd Tortoises do dwellIn cases fit of Tortoise-shell:No Creature loves an empty space;Their Bodies measure out their Place.But He, superfluously spread,Demands more room alive then dead.
(Upon Appleton House 9-18)
The view from Thoreau’s cabin, c. 1945
"Walden" as Ecocentric
“To Penshurst” and “The Description of Cookeham” were anthropocentric:
In Jonson’s and Lanyer’s poems, the environment is largely seen as centered on human inhabitants of the estate, which the plants and animals living there are imagined as willingly serving--and even happily dying for.
By contrast, in Walden the environment is not centered on the text’s speaker:
As Thoreau imagines it, Walden Pond and the wooded area surrounding it are by no means just there for the benefit of their sole human inhabitant; rather, as all life there is equally served, it is ecocentric or “biocentric,” centered on the “ecological” place; all the life in that environment.
Hence, Thoreau’s speaker is part of the life there, but not a privileged part:
The lifestyle that Thoreau advocates in Walden radically re-imagines the relationship that human beings have to the planet, as the environment, according to Thoreau, should no longer be centered on us.
The text of Walden is itself far more ecocentric than previous works:
Not only is Thoreau advocating an ecocentric ethic in Walden, the text is highly ecocentric, as descriptions so lavishly portray the environment that the human characters in the text, the visitors to speaker’s home, seem far less important. Walden is centered on the environment, not human beings.
In Walden, the environment itself, in the form of the pond, is almost a character:
The narrator of Walden comes close to speaking to the pond as if it were human and capable of understanding. “I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection [of God]; and I can almost say, Walden, is it you?” (126). To our speaker, Walden Pond is not unlike a close friend.
But does a human presence & perspective still dominate the scene in some sense?
Such as in Friedrich’s “Wanderer”?
Because it is so ecocentric, Walden is a milestone environmental text:
Arguably, no other text prior to Walden was as ecocentric. Few other writers ever imagined a physical place almost like a character in the text.
In the visually arts, Thoreau’s era also moved away from anthropocentrism:
In “Hunt of the Unicorn” (1500) humans beings dominated the scene.
In the 1650s, Claude Lorrain radically reduced the human presence.
In Thoreau’s era, human beings are tiny; in awe of the sublime scene, such as Dorè’s “Niagara” (1860), and Thomas Cole’s “The Fall of Kaaterskill” (1826).
Is Walden (the text) still dominated by a human presence and perspective?
Note that the word “I” appears over two dozen times in the opening four paragraphs of Walden, three of which it begins. As in Friedrich’s painting, the human presence, in this case in the form of the narrator, still looms large in the work, in spite of efforts to foreground the environment. Friedrich’s painting is a strikingly effective effort to make this fact clear.
This raises an obvious question: Is Walden ecocentric or anthropocentric?
While Walden is undeniably a milestone ecocentric text, it is also, at least in some sense, all about Thoreau. Indeed, it closely resembles his personal journals. Consequently, Walden is also, in a highly personal way, an anthropocentric text--a fact which destabilizes its expressed ecocentric perspective.
Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism
Is anthropocentricism in fact unavoidable for human beings?
Although early environmental critics were critical of anthropocentrism, as Walden makes clear, even a highly ecocentric perspective is shot through with human interests. Consequently, “pure” ecocentrism (altogether removing human beings from the scene) is not possible, even for Thoreau.
When too simplistic, ecocentrism can actually be dangerous:
Speaking from a radical ecocentric perspective, in 1990 a co-fonder of the environmental organization Earth First!, Dave Foreman, called human beings “a cancer on nature.” Critics responded that such a position was worrisome, as it was also held in Nazis Germany by individuals who began exterminating people in part because they were seen as such a “cancer.”
In the 21st century, ecocentrism is, for most of the planet, impossible:
Now that human beings directly control over 85% of the planet’s land mass, it is simply impossible to separate human interests from other life.
Thoreau as Monist
Like Milton, Thoreau propounds the environmental implications of monism:
“Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?” -- for the nobler plants are valued for the fruit they bear at last in the air and light, far from the ground, and are not treated like the humbler esculents” ("Walden", 9).
These lines echo Milton’s striking deconstruction of dualism in Paradise Lost: "So from the root / Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves / More aerie, last the bright consummate floure" (5.479-81).
Like Milton, Thoreau not only imagined human beings as an enmeshed amalgam of flesh and spirit, he saw this “spiritual flesh” as deeply rooted in the earth, like a plant. This deconstruction has profound implications as both thinkers would erase the divide between the physical & metaphysical.
Walden is strikingly direct about the body and its functions, such as eating:
Thoreau is thinking through an age-old question: what exactly constitutes the “good life.” His answer, involving everything from eating to worship, is what you might expect of such a thoroughgoing monist.
The narrator in Walden largely advocates vegetarianism:
“Like many of my contemporaries, I had rarely for many years used animal food . . . not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my imagination. The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience, but is an instinct” (139).
The narrator in Walden is a proponent of “eating locally”:
In 21st century America, the average fruit or vegetable travels 1500 miles before reaching our tables. The message in Walden is one of radical self reliance, borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which includes the growth and preparation of one’s own food, as well as the rejection of imported foodstuffs (see the “Higher Laws” chapter).
Two questions remain from Thoreau’s critique of excessive consumption:
Are his lifestyle prescriptions only valid in a rural or wilderness setting?
Must his prescriptions be taken to the extreme degree that he proposes?
Questions that remain from Thoreau’s environmental critique of modernity:
1. Are his lifestyle prescriptions only valid in a rural or wilderness setting? Could one live a “Walden” lifestyle in the inner city, for example? From the point of view of consumption of the planet’s resources, how would Thoreau’s Walden way of life be different in a city? A suburb?
2. Must his prescriptions be taken to the extreme degree that he proposes? Does Thoreau have anything to offer to individuals who are unwilling, perhaps unable, to make such a radical break with consumer society?
3. Is Thoreau’s highly Spartan lifestyle even possible for most people? Since he was unwilling--or unable--to sustain it for more than two years (assuming that he did at all, given his reliance on the town of Concord), could other individuals, much less families, duplicate it for a lifetime? Even if they could, should they do so on environmental grounds?
4. What do we make of the fact that SUV advertisements promise to literally take us to the sort of places about which Thoreau and the Romantic poets waxed poetically? Is there a danger here?
5. If adopted, would Thoreau’s prescriptions actually harm the environment? What would happen if millions of individuals did what he did? What would the effect be on the rural environments so inhabited? Is there a danger in this “pastoral” impulse?
6. With respect to Thoreau’s “pastoral impulse,” how does it compare to what we have been calling the anti-pastoral of artist Edward Burtynsky? Does one approach have environmental advantages over the other? Does Burtynsky’s approach avoid the above dangers that we have seen with overly romanticizing the countryside?
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
Intro to Literature & the Environment
Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley & Thoreau
Thoreau, "Walden" (1854)
Technically, Thoreau is not a Romantic poet, though he shares much with them:
Thoreau was part of the American Transcendentalist movement, founded by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, which also romanticized wilderness. In addition to British Romanticism, Transcendentalists were influenced by German philosophy, Eastern religion, and mysticism.
Like the Romantics, Thoreau made a religion of wilderness, of “Nature":
Our editor’s comment on the back of our edition of Walden is accurate: “For naturalist, essayist, and early environmentalist Henry David Thoreau, nature was a religion.” Like Wordsworth, Thoreau moved to the country to be closer to “God.” (“Nature” is now being capitalized, like “God.”)
Thoreau’s perspective on “Nature” must be understood as highly romanticized:
Because we have largely inherited Thoreau’s view of “Nature,” we cannot forget that this idea was culturally constructed--in part by Thoreau.
Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, became an icon of wilderness:
The Romantic poets, such as Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley, increasingly fetishized places that were untouched and wild (our word “wilderness” originally meant “wild-ness”). Mont Blanc, literally the “white mountain,” which was not climbed until 1786, was one of Europe’s most wild place.
To Shelley, wilderness was sublime; so extraordinary that it inspired awe:
Shelley wrote of this poem: “It was composed under the immediate impression of the deep and powerful feelings excited by the objects which it attempts to describe: and as an undisciplined Overflowing of the soul, rests its claim to approbation on an attempt to imitate the untamable wildness and inaccessible solemnity from which those feelings sprang.”
To Shelley, the environment (at least wilderness) is like a place of worship.
The Romantic poets transformed“nature.” No longer is it something to be feared or exploited, but instead appreciated, perhaps even worshiped:
In 21st-century America, we have fully inherited this view of wilderness.
Visually, the Romantic view of wilderness as sublime was perhaps best expressed in 1818, two years after “Mont Blanc,” by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich in his Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, “The wanderer above the sea of fog”
Mont Blanc, early in the 19th century and today
“Michael: A Pastoral Poem”
As its subtitle suggests, Wordsworth’s “Michael: [is] A Pastoral Poem”:
Firmly in the tradition of Virgil's Eclogue I, “Michael” tells the story of the loss a place, in this case a family farm. In the process, the poem both directs our attention to an endangered environment (hence it brings about an environmental consciousness), as well as names the reason for its loss.
Wordsworth unabashedly depicts a perfect locus amoenus in “Michael":
Like Katherine Philips, Wordsworth’s describes “a country life” that is free of any problems; however, it is seriously endangered from without.
While earlier pastoral imagined an urban danger, here we have a new threat:
It is not merely that cities (and there are now quite a few of them) threaten pastoral life, capitalist modernity, founded on the value of wealth alone, is now reaching far into what is imagined as untouched countryside, as the family farm is no longer economically viable.
“Michael” is a loco-descriptive poem in the tradition of “Cooper’s Hill”:
Wordsworth is encouraging us to walk right into the poem--and its environment.
"The Chimney Sweeper"
“The Chimney Sweeper” is one of a growing number of anti-pastoral poems:
While William Strode penned the first "Chimney-Sweeper’s Song" in 1635, by the time Blake produced his own version (1789), anxiety over London’s urbanization and the growth of technological modernity was widespread.
Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” works like Edward Burtynsky’s photographs:
Blake’s poem unabashedly looks straight at an environmental issue, as well as the cultural fallout that came along with it, in this case the exploitation of child labor. In this sense, Blake’s poem is a clear, and distinctly modern, predecessor to works like Burtynsky’s photographs.
Like Burtynsky, Blake appeals to the source of the problem--us, the audience:
"My father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep"
Blake wrote two chimney-sweeper poems; he illustrated both.
William Wordsworth, c. 1800
If from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Green-head Gill,
You will suppose that with an upright path
Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent
The pastoral Mountains front you, face to face.
But, courage! for beside that boisterous Brook
The mountains have all open'd out themselves,
And made a hidden valley of their own.
No habitation there is seen; but such
As journey thither find themselves alone
With a few sheep, with rocks and stones.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1816
Thus thou, Ravine of Arve-dark, deep Ravine-
Thou many-colored, many-voicéd vale,
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail
Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
Of lightning through the tempest.
Mont Blanc dwarfs English mountains, such as the Fairfield Horseshoe
Thoreau was born into a relatively wealthy background; he attended Harvard.
Although Thoreau enacted radical lifestyle changes by moving to Walden Pond, many working-class individuals at the time (especially those new to the U.S.) lived in similarly modest, and often far less desirable, conditions.
For example, Thoreau notes in Walden that his cabin was made from an older shanty purchased from an Irish laborer, James Collins, who lived there with his family of three: “I passed him and his family on the road. One large bundle held their all--bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens” (28).
Hence, even though Thoreau praises, and in fact lives in, a far more modest home than Ben Jonson extols in “To Penshurst,” it is important to realize that, as relatively wealthy, he was free of economic motivation. Walden is a bit of a how-to manual: how to live as if you are poor for those who are not.
While living at Walden Pond, Thoreau went into Concord nearly every day. His Walden experiment only lasted two years; he moved back to town.
Thoreau’s Walden experiment can be seen as making a similar prescription:
If adopted en masse, Thoreau’s lifestyle would end rampant consumerism.
Aside from Walden, Thoreau is also known as an early protestor of slavery.
In his famous essay on Civil Disobedience (1849), Thoreau helped develop the rationale for the modern passive resistance movement, which would be enormously influential on Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.
In "Walden," Thoreau notes that “I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle” (111)
Thoreau had in fact failed to pay taxes for six years. In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau argued against actively (i.e. violently) protesting slavery, instead he favored withdrawing all support for the enterprise. If a majority of individuals did the same, slavery, according to Thoreau, would end.
Walden Pond is located 20 miles from Boston, in what is still a rural locale.
The area around Walden Pond is not wilderness, in the sense that is has been extensively modified by human action:
The old-growth forest around the pond had been cut generations before Thoreau arrived there. In Walden, Thoreau mentions the rail line running through the area.
Together with its surrounding wood, Walden Pond is approximately the same size as the UCSB campus.
Walden is 1 mile from Concord MA.