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L&E Lecture Series, Part I

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Ken Hiltner

on 5 December 2018

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Transcript of L&E Lecture Series, Part I

1000 BCE
0 CE
1000 CE
2000 BCE
2600 BCE
18th C.
19th C.
20th C.
21st C.
North America
Epilogue to the Myth of Gilgamesh
Deforestation followed Western civilization out of Mesopotamia 5000 years ago to sweep through Europe and then into North and South America.

(John Perlin’s A Forest's Journey provides an excellent history of this phenomenon.)
Mass deforestation significantly contributes to global warming as trees (and in fact all plants) are highly efficient at carbon sequestration.
The good, and somewhat surprising, news is that for over a century now we have been experiencing reforestation in certain parts of the globe. New England, for example, has far more forests now than it did 100 years ago.
This largely began in the Renaissance, in part through reforestation practices introduced in places like France and England.
Intro to the Environmental Humanities
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh
He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions, from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision into the great mystery, the secret places, the primeval days before the Flood. He had journeyed to the edge of the world and made his way back, exhausted but whole. He had carved his trials on stone tablets, had restored the holy Eanna Temple and the massive wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal. See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine, approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar, temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty, walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city, inspect its mighty foundations, examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares. Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid. Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read how Gilgamesh suffered and accomplished all.
Uruk, Gilgamesh’s Capital City
After taking an imaginative walk around the city, which has nicely been laid out for us by our author(s), how would we describe Uruk?
Like many ancient cities, Uruk is surrounded by a wall (in this case the greatest so far in history) designed to protect it from other human beings and the environment, both of which are seen as a threat. The environment has been seen as a danger throughout human history.
With respect to the wall, “observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, / the gardens, [and] the orchards,” as the city is, even agriculturally, a modified, built environment--which is clearly boasted of here.
This distinction, between the country and the city, which was obviously in place 5000 years ago, is still a part of our cultural memory, as it very much shapes what we mean by “nature.”
This is a good example of how a modern concept, in this case what is understood as “natural,” first began to emerge long ago, in this case in a distinction between the country and the city, which has in part shaped our modern conception of what is “natural” & “unnatural.”
Interestingly, in the past 5000 years (and in this course we will see exactly when this happened; it is more recent than you might think) this binary structure has become largely inverted, as we now tend to privilege the “natural” (country) over the “unnatural” (city).
In the Myth of Gilgamesh, however, the city is clearly privileged:
Walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,
observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens,
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.
The Character Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh was likely an actual person, a Sumerian king, who lived 4600 years ago. Like other great epics, such as the Iliad, Odyssey, & Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh was spoken (sung) before it was written.
Outside of the Epic, we know very little about Gilgamesh, other than a few stone inscriptions.
How would we describe Gilgamesh as a king? Was he a good king? What, for example, was his attitude toward his people, especially women, at least early in the epic?
The city is his possession, he struts
through it, arrogant, his head raised high,
trampling its citizens like a wild bull.
He is king, he does what he wants,
takes the son from his father and crushes him
takes the girl from her mother and uses her
the warrior’s daughter; the young man’s bride,
he uses her, no one dares to oppose him. (72)
Note that part of the objection here is that the daughter and bride are the possessions of some other man.
The fact that Gilgamesh abuses power in general, and is moreover a rapist, is altogether ironic given that he is called “protector of the people” (71).
By the conclusion of the epic (which we did not read) the character Gilgamesh will in fact become a protector of the people.
As a consequence, Gilgamesh is especially interesting when compared to his double (doubling is a literary convention), Enkidu, who repeatedly seeks out and takes on the role of protector.
The Character Enkidu
Who is Enkidu?
In addition to being a wild man, Enkidu is a protector. In order of their appearance, who or what does Enkidu protect?
1. Animals: he “tears out / the traps” and “frees the animals” (76).
2. A Bride: “When Gilgamesh reached the marriage house / Enkidu was there. He stood like a boulder, / blocking the door” (89).
3. Gilgamesh:
a. “The elders turned to Enkidu and said / ‘We leave the king in your care. Protect him.’” (103).
b. He repeatedly “sprawled like a net across the doorway” to protect Gilgamesh (107 and elsewhere).
c. He protects Gilgamesh in the fight against Humbaba.
4. And, immediately after being fed by the shepherds…
Enkidu went out with sword and spear.
he chased off lions and wolves, all night
he guarded the flocks, he stayed awake
and guarded them while the shepherds slept. (86)
When Enkidu makes the transition from wild to human, he inverts the role of protector, now protecting human beings from animals rather than the other way around.
Gilgamesh is not the only double for Enkidu in the epic, which is especially interesting, when we consider that Enkidu is--and Gilgamesh should be--first and foremost a protector…
Earth Deities
Eco-feminists have long argued, with varying degrees of success, that a shift from female (often a trinity of maiden, matron, & crone, such as Persephone, Demeter, & Hecate) to male deities occurred sometime before the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed.
From a feminist perspective, the Epic of Gilgamesh reveals a shift from a matriarchal deity (the Cedar Forest is home to the temple of the goddess Ishtar) to a male one, Gilgamesh’s champion, the sun god Shamash.
Moreover, as in many early religions, it is a female deity, Aruru, that is (not surprisingly) given the power of creating life, as she fashions Enkidu, and presumably all other human beings, of clay. (This is an early version of the creation myth that will appear Genesis, though recast with a male deity.)
Even without the eco-feminist perspective, the Epic of Gilgamesh records a decisive moment in human history when earth deities were, in the metaphorical imagery of the epic, “defeated” by human beings with the aid of a metaphysical deity.
When human ambition (which Gilgamesh has in abundance) and needs became strong enough, earth deities, such as the genius loci characters, protecting the environment were cast out. In their place came metaphysical gods, such as the sun god Shamash, Gilgamesh’s champion.
Read in this sense, the Epic of Gilgamesh is truly an environmental epic; however, one that records how a desire to use the resources of the environment overcame an earlier religion based on the earth.
In short, this is the moment when human beings proclaimed that they were stronger than the environment--and the deities protecting it.
The Character Humbaba
Who is Humbaba?
Humbaba is the protector of the Cedar Forest, placed there to protect the forest by the great god Enlil.
In many ancient religions, certain features of the environment, such as rivers, mountains, and forests, had a “protector of place,” a genius loci, appointed to guard the place. Humbaba is such a genius loci.
Interestingly, a genius loci does not protect a place against animals or gods, but rather against human beings who would violate it, which assumes a binary between human beings and certain places.
Consequently, a genius loci is a conspicuous feature of religions that call for the worship of the earth, rather than the worship of a metaphysical god.
The Cedar Forest
“They cast huge weapons that ordinary men could never carry; axes that weighed two hundred pounds each, knives with cross guards.” (p. 17)
Note that the principal weapons that Gilgamesh and Enkidu carry into battle are not swords or spears, as one might expect, but axes.
While the trip to the Cedar Forest is described as a battle, literally (and historically we know that this actually happened) it is an expedition to cut the forest. Hence the need for axes.
Consequently, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of a how a genius loci protecting a place was defeated so that a great forest could be cut and exploited.
They took their axes and penetrated deeper into the forest, they went chopping down cedars, the wood chips flew, Gilgamesh chopped down the mighty trees, Enkidu hewed the trunks into timbers. Enkidu said… “We have chopped down the trees of the Cedar Forest, we have brought to earth the highest of the trees” (p. 32).
Throughout the epic Humbaba is repeatedly associated with the Cedar Forest. By the end, he is toppled like one of the cedars. Making clear that his defeat not only makes the cutting of the forest possible, but also that Humbaba is the forest’s double.
This is not the description of an epic battle, but rather of a logging operation, which sent the logs of the Cedar Forest “down the Euphrates” River to Uruk (p. 32). Gilgamesh cut the trees down, while Enkidu processed them on site, which was standard logging practice.
The heroes here are not just two men, but stand for the thousands of men who historically took part in the deforestation operation, which as Gilgamesh noted, brought wealth and fame to Uruk. This is not unlike George W. Bush’s planned expedition a few years ago to Alaska for oil…
In short, the battle is a metaphor for--and in some sense a cover story that conceals--deforestation.
“Gilgamesh…yelled, he lifted his massive axe, he swung it, it tore into Humbaba’s neck…and at the axe’s third stroke he toppled like a cedar and crashed to the ground” (p 31-32).
Incidentally, the epic makes clear that this was an old-growth forest; Enkidu, “We have chopped down the trees of the Cedar Forest, we have brought to earth the highest of the trees, the cedar whose top once pierced the sky” (p. 32).
Genius Loci Figures
From an environmental perspective, the belief in genius loci figures is profoundly important, as it reflects a belief in deities that very much belong to, and are part of, the earth, rather than some sort of metaphysical realm.
Because in religions of this type the earth and all its many features (rivers, mountains, forests, etc) are in fact sacred, they are protected from violation and exploitation by human beings.
Typically in these religions human beings could use the resources of the place, but only to a limited extent, after paying homage or tribute to the genius loci of the place.
As genius loci, Humbaba insured that the Cedar Forest was not destroyed.

(In fact, this was a real cedar forest, which is also referenced in the Bible, that remained intact until it was actually clear cut in Gilgamesh’s era.)
Genius Loci in Gilgamesh
What is provocative about the Epic of Gilgamesh is that the title character (who stands for the city of Uruk) attempts and succeeds at nothing short of sacrilege, at defacing a sacred site, a ancient forest place protected by a genius loci.
Even though Gilgamesh is a reformed rapist (as he understands by way of the genius loci Enkidu that he too must protect rather than violate his people) his forced entrance into the Cedar Forest clearly echoes rape.
In fact, even the language of the epic suggests forcible penetration: “Gripping their axes, their knives unsheathed, / they entered the Forest… They took their axes and penetrated / deeper into the forest” (p. 118, 128)
Introduction to the Environmental Humanities

Beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the West’s earliest texts, this course surveys nearly 5000 thousand years of Western thinking in order to explore the cultural history of the relationship we have with our planet.
Lecture Format

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.
Virgil’s Georgics
Virgil’s Georgics, which were written in 29 BCE shortly after his Eclogues, formally inaugurated georgic literature, though works such as Hesiod’s Works and Days clearly influenced Virgil and subsequent georgic literature. (Keep in mind that Virgil was a Roman writer while Hesiod was Greek.)
As in the creation myths from the Bible, Hesiod, and Ovid, Virgil also imagines a perfect time when human beings lived at peace with the planet, which spontaneously provided for all human needs: “Earth yielded all, of herself, more freely, when none begged her for her gifts” (Reader 101).
Consequently, Virgil’s Georgics is yet another text in our tradition that encourages us to believe that human beings once lived at peace with the earth.
Moreover, in Virgil’s innovative account, this brought about equitable, nearly socialist, relations between human beings as well, as in this time “no tillers subdued the land. Even to mark the field or divide it was unlawful. Men made gain for the common store” (ibid), rather than for personal gain & profit.
In Virgil’s Georgics, as in the Genesis account, “The great Father himself has willed that the path of husbandry should not be smooth, and he made [human] art awaken the fields” (Reader 101), rather than have the fields spontaneously bring forth on their own.
Books One (part of which we read) and Two are concerned with farm implements, such as plows, tillable crops of all sorts, and orchards. Book Three is related to animal husbandry, such as cattle.Book Four is about beekeeping.
Consequently, “Toil conquered the world, unrelenting toil” (Reader 102). Clearly, the relationship that human beings have to the earth is here viewed as adversarial. Even the farmers’ tools are seen as “the hardly rustics’ weapons [arma], without which the crops could neither be sown nor raised” (Ibid).
A conspicuous difference between Virgil’s Eclogues and his Georgics (which generally is echoed in the history of these two modes) is that the Eclogues offer no real advice on shepherdry, while the Georgics contain a variety of very practical suggestions regarding husbandry.
This fact underscores that Virgil imagined pastoral places as fanciful, while the actual georgic work of the countryside was seen as very real.
Because Virgil’s four Georgics are in a sense farming manuals, they contain a great deal of very practical advice:
While these books can, and certainly have historically been read allegorically, they are also meant to be read literally, as they very specifically explain how to make implements like plows (see the account in the Reader on page 103), as well as how to raise plants, animals, and bees.
Intro to the Environmental Humanities
Pastoral, conclusion & Georgic
Varro "On Agriculture"
Varro was a contemporary of Virgil. On Agriculture, which was written around 36 BCE, in fact influenced Virgil in the writing of the Georgics.
Varro, incidentally, was not the first Latin writer to take up the subject of agriculture. In fact, the oldest surviving work of connected Latin prose (the first Latin “book”), written by Marcus Porcius Cato circa 160 BCE, was also entitled On Agriculture (De Agri Cultura).
Both Cato and Varro simply take for granted that we live no longer live in a Golden Age. Because they would likely agree with Virgil’s sentiment that “Toil conquered the world, unrelenting toil” (Reader 102), they both set out a very detailed and complete plan of agricultural conquest.
Not only are Cato and Varro intent on conquering the earth, both of their projects are built upon the use of slave labor. Cato in particular provides detailed suggestions on when to cut back on food rations to slaves, as well as the proper age to sell slaves who have outlived their usefulness.
Georgic (overview)
Like pastoral, georgic can be a form of nature writing depicting life in the country. However, while pastoral generally depicts life in a locus amoenus characterized by otium (even if it is on the verge of being lost, as in Virgil’s Eclogue I ), georgic life is by contrast one of hard work and agriculture.
Consequently, the life depicted in georgic literature is in biblical terms postlapsarian, as human beings must actively work the land. (Recall that Adam learns in Genesis 3.17-19 that “cursed is the ground for thy sake…In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”)
Similarly, the life depicted in georgic literature is definitely not the Golden Age described by Hesiod and echoed by Ovid, but rather the Iron Age.
Consequently, whether appearing in literature or the visual arts, georgic landscapes will generally depict the land being worked by human beings. Perhaps not surprisingly then, the word “georgic,” which derives from two Greek words gia (earth) and ergon (work), literally means to “work the earth.”
Varro "On Agriculture"
Cato and Varro imagine plants, animals, and the earth as not unlike slaves. While this type of thinking is not new with Roman writers (we saw the beginning of it in the Myth of Gilgamesh), Cato and Varro systematically lay out a detailed plan to bring this about in the most efficient way possible.
In the process, Cato and Varro work out the details for what are in many respects the first factory farms. As is clear from the passage that we read from Varro, what chiefly matters here is efficient production and marketing-- in the example that we read, of birds raised for food. In short, these farms are run for one purpose, and one purpose alone, profit.
As with modern factories, for Varro the key to efficiency is economy of scale. For example, Varro steps well outside of the province of small family farms with dedicated buildings, peristeron, carefully designed to house as many as five thousand pigeons (Reader 110). In short, Varro outlines large, well financed factory farms made possible through the exploitation of slave labor.
Varro’s attitude toward non-human animals is especially striking. For example, in a passage from On Agriculture that we did not read, Varro notes that birds should be killed in a special building, a sequestrium, because if they realize that they will soon be killed, they become depressed and do not eat.
Consequently, in Varro there is clearly an awareness that birds are sentient and feeling, yet he unflinchingly ignores this fact as he relentlessly pursues profit, in this case by concealing their imminent deaths to fatten them up.
2) If we imagine ourselves fundamentally different than other life on the planet, which separate creation narratives for human beings and animals arguably encourage us to do (as obviously does the belief that we have complete dominion over all animals), then it opens up the possibility that we are permitted to do with their lives as we please.
Parallels here to 20th-century death camps for human beings are obvious. While the comparison to human beings of course breaks down quickly, the underlying mindset, namely, the ability to disassociate oneself from the feelings of others, is disturbingly similar, if not indeed a variation of the same.
Given that Varro realizes that pigeons are sentient and feeling, his further efforts to secure maximum profit from them is particularly striking, as birds “left in the nest, with legs broken…fatten more quickly than others” (112).
In Varro we see the profoundly disturbing consequences of various forms of thinking that we have already encountered this term:
1) If there is no prohibition against the exploitation of other forms of life, as there was in the Myth of Gilgamesh in the form of Humbaba who protected the Cedar Forest, then its mass exploitation becomes possible.
3) If this physical realm is largely insignificant, and with it soulless beings (as animals are imagined) that have no place in the metaphysical realm, then our treatment of the earth and its non-human life risks becoming inconsequential.
Virgil Eclogue I
In terms of our previous discussion, because Meliboeus is losing his farm, he makes clear, from his opening speech onward, that he is now profoundly aware of its value, which, if he is anything like Tityrus, may have entirely escaped him prior to the news of his exile. In short, Meliboeus has developed what we would call an environmental consciousness.
It is important to note that Meliboeus does not develop this environmental consciousness because the environment is changing around him (as it did for Rachel Carson), but because he is changing scenes. By way of this approach, Virgil’s Eclogue I provides a fascinating and enormously influential insight into how environmental consciousness emerges.
As the poem continues, Meliboeus politely but pointedly notes how Tityrus has neglected, in more ways than one, his own fields (36-39). In one of the most moving lines of the poem, Meliboeus suggests that “the very pines, Tityrus, / the very springs, the very orchards called out for you!” (38-39).
Thus, in a double sense Tityrus has not only ignored the maintenance of his fields, he is still ignoring the environment right before his eyes. In spite of all of Meliboeus’s efforts, Tityrus is not becoming conscious of his environment.
In one last attempt to facilitate the environment appearing for Tityrus as it has for him (in the language of the poem, to allow Tityrus “to hear it calling out to him”), Meliboeus launches into two protracted concluding speeches, both of which provide descriptions of the surrounding environment.
These efforts play out on two levels, literal and figurative, as Meliboeus draws attention to literal “willow blossoms” (54), while Tityrus speaks figuratively of Rome towering like a “cypress among wayfaring trees” (25).
In the first of these speeches, Meliboeus tries to draw Tityrus’s attention to various features of his environment, including “familiar streams . . . bees feeding on willow blossoms” (51-54), and a variety of birds. Each of these descriptions, such as these specifically being “willow blossoms” and “turtledoves” (57) underscore that these are real (literal and not allegorical) local plants and animals.
In a striking collision of the literal and allegorical, throughout the eclogue Tityrus responds to Meliboeus’s literal descriptions of the countryside, which Tityrus has been ignoring, by allegorically referencing the political situation, which Meliboeus has similarly been neglecting.
In other words, because his farm is now lost to him, Meliboeus has startlingly (even he is surprised) developed an acute awareness of it, an environmental consciousness. Consequently, Meliboeus wishes to make Tityrus conscious of it as well, by repeatedly drawing attention to it.
Tityrus, one the other hand, offers the political causes for its loss. Thus, Meliboeus finds Tityrus neglectful of his duty to the land, while Tityrus repeatedly makes clear that Meliboeus has neglected his political obligations.
Virgil Eclogue I
In the opening speech, the first of the two characters, Meliboeus, attempts to draw his friend Tityrus’s attention to the environment, with its “spreading beech . . . woodland Muse . . . sweet fields . . . [and] . . . woods,” now lost to him, as Meliboeus has been exiled from his farm (ll. 1-5, my translation).
Tityrus responds by drawing attention to the political situation (6-10), while remaining oblivious to Meliboeus’s attempt to foreground the environment.
Meliboeus continues by observing in some detail how something is wrong environmentally: “in the fields everywhere there is so much turmoil” (11-12).
Tityrus again ignores Meliboeus, and the fields, as he returns to a discussion of his patron, who is very likely Caesar Augustus, in Rome (19-25).
The key point here is that while Tityrus keeps returning to politics, Meliboeus is repeatedly directly referencing the environment, which Tityrus is ignoring. This striking and persistent opposition will continue throughout the eclogue.
From as early as Theocritus in the 3rd century BCE, poets and artists have imagined a perfect pastoral place (locus amoenus) as a way of drawing attention, as does Edward Burtynsky, to the fact that the contemporary state of the environment that they were inhabiting was anything but perfect.
Virgil, a Roman poet writing 200 years after Theocritus, took this project further as he considered how it is that we become aware of the environment as endangered in the first place, as well as the role of human action.
In his Eclogue I, Virgil explores the aforementioned notion that we are often not fully aware of our environment until it is lost. An example would again be the residents of Santa Barbara prior to the oil spill of 1969.
To understand how Virgil draws attention to the environment as endangered, it will be helpful to go through his Eclogue I on a line-by-line basis. (Incidentally, the word eclogue has nothing to do with “ecology,” but rather simply means “selections” in ancient Greek.)
Virgil’s Georgics & Varro On Agriculture (conclusion)
It hardly seems surprising that Varro’s On Agriculture and Virgil’s Georgics appeared in the same decade, as both writers repeatedly underscored that our relationship to the planet (and its non-human life) is essentially adversarial. In Virgil’s Georgics, as well as the Genesis account, this was decreed by God.
This adversarial relationship to the earth is at the heart of the georgic ethic that Virgil propounded. To Varro, it was justification for the large-scale exploitation of the earth's plants and animals solely for profit. While the underlying approach was pioneered by Cato, Varro took it to a new level.
Interestingly, although Virgil explored the dynamic by which individuals (like Meliboeus) gain an environmental consciousness, this did not cause him to recast the tradition that he inherited from Hesiod and others, which proposed that our relationship to the planet is essentially adversarial. Consequently, Virgil’s notion of environmental consciousness is very different than ours.
Virgil Ecloque I
As Virgil makes clear with these competing viewpoints, to focus on the figurative, metaphorical aspect of pastoral does not even reveal half of the situation: it is not enough to explore Meliboeus’s literal descriptions; rather, it is necessary is to understand how the political situation veiled in figurative language has profound, heart-wrenching consequences to the environment.
Consequently, any discussion of pastoral literature that does not explore how the figurative impacts the literal is simply incomplete, as it is necessary to understand how human actions (which are broadly political in Eclogue I) impact the environment. It is not enough to know that the environment was endangered by human action, we also need to know how this happened--so that we can keep it from happening again.
Because Virgil’s Eclogue I explores how consciousness of the environment emerges, it will be enormously influential in the history of pastoral. Many critics have claimed that all subsequent pastoral is a response to this eclogue.
Pastoral (Conclusion)
Pastoral is a complex mode of writing and form of art that has undergone seemingly countless transformations in the past 3000 years. It can be very literal (and hence a form of nature writing), allegorical (often commenting on political or ecclesiastical matters), or some combination of the two.
When pastoral explores the intersection of literal nature writing and allegory, it may (as in Virgil’s Eclogue I ) comment on how human actions can impact not just our relationship to the environment, but our very awareness of it.
Although Meliboeus changes scenes rather than having the scene change about him (which would have happened if his environment had become endangered), Virgil nonetheless explored how environmental consciousness emerges in a way that will be influential on generations of poets after him.
By the time of the Renaissance, poets like Ben Jonson will adapt Virgil’s approach to directly explore how we become conscious of the environment at the moment of its endangerment.
Unlike pastoral landscapes, which are populated by shepherds leisurely standing with their sheep,
While these two landscapes may seem very similar from our modern perspective, they are actually quite different.
In fact, from an environmental perspective, pastoral and georgic are in many respects opposite.
georgic landscapes depict farmers working the land.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1558
In this sense, Virgil’s Georgics are not unique, as other Roman writers, such as Marcus Terentius Varro, produced husbandry manuals.
Intro to the Environmental Humanities
Christianity and the Bible (eco-theology)
Genesis, revisited
In recent years scholars, such as Jeremy Cohen, have revisited Lynn White’s thesis to question whether pre-modern Jews and Christians actually believed that they could act in a mode of indifference to the planet. The subject is still very much being debated.
Cohen’s book, which is both carefully researched and compelling, is entitled "'Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It': The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text," which is a reference to Genesis 1:28.
The opening three chapters of the Judeo-Christian Bible are perhaps the most influential two pages ever written, as they provide the founding myth, and the basis today for a variety of ideologies (such as creationism), for somewhere between 1.5 and 2 billion human beings.
Moreover, these two pages have arguably shaped Western literature more than any other text, as they have been repeatedly referenced and interpreted.
In addition to having far-reaching environmental import, the first three chapters of Genesis have profoundly influenced how we think about women, gender, creation (and, more recently, evolution), evil (sin), sex (again sin), free will, human destiny, cosmology, labor, animal rights, our notion of deity, and much more.
Genesis is still clearly echoed in our post-Christian world, as it has also become incorporated into the thinking and beliefs of non-Christians in the West.
Starting with Lynn White Jr.’s very influential article in 1967 (which we read), ecocritics, environmental-ists, eco-theologians, and Christians themselves have given a great deal of thought to the environmental implications of the Judeo-Christian faith.
Because many environmentalists have interpreted Christianity as not being earth-friendly, in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s a variety of alternative spiritualities were considered and championed, such as Taoism, Shinto, Buddhism, and Native American and New-Age spiritualism.
This is not to say that Christianity cannot be interpreted as being earth-friendly. In fact, Al Gore, now a Nobel laureate environmentalist, is a devout Christian. Whether Christianity is earth-friendly or not largely comes down to a hermeneutic issue: the interpretation of the Bible, which we are under-taking.
Genesis, the text
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, “Let there be light: and there was light."
4. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
6. And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
7. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters…
Genesis, Chapter 1
"1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."
From the very beginning, the Bible postulates a metaphysical God, one who is apart from, superior to, and creator of the whole of creation. As he is metaphysical, the Judeo-Christian God is similar to Gilgamesh’s god Shamash.
Such a deity is radically different from an earth deity like a genius loci (such as Humbaba), who are intimately connected to, and in fact part of, the earth. The Judeo-Christian God is not part of the earth, but rather stands apart from it, and indeed is postulated as superior to the earth and all of his creation.
From this opening sentence of the Hebrew Bible onward, a rift arguably opens up between the physical and meta-physical in Judeo-Christian thought. As we shall repeatedly see this term with Plato and others, such a rift has profound environmental implications, as it privileges the metaphysical over the physical.
Genesis and the Environment
“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

Lynn White Jr. (p. 48 Reader)
According to White, historically Christianity did to all of the genius loci deities what Gilgamesh did to Humbaba: it killed them off, and with them the ancient prohibitions against exploiting the earth.
(Incidentally, although surprisingly short, Lynn White’s 1967 essay on the "The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” was enormously influential, causing scores of environmentalists, and Christians, to rethink Christianity.)
With the advent of Christianity, “the spirits in natural objects [genius loci], which formerly had protected nature from man, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.” Lynn White Jr. (p. 48 Reader)
Because Christians are championed by a powerful metaphysical God (as Gilgamesh was championed by Shamash), they can, according to White, act in a mood of indifference to the environment because “the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled” with the advent of Christianity.
For this reason, many environmentalists have carefully reconsidered systems of belief that retain earth deities, such as Native America spiritualism.
“The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.” Lynn White Jr. (p. 47 Reader)
White and many, many environmentalists that have followed him have seen this as profoundly important, in fact, have called it "the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture,” as it substituted a metaphysical God for physical, earth deities that protected the environment--from us.
To many of these environmentalists, this was the decisive moment in Western history when human beings changed for the worse our posture toward the environment.
Genesis, Chapter 1
'11. And God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.”'
Not only is the Judeo-Christian deity a metaphysical God superior to the earth, the earth is subordinate and obedient to God, as it does his will. All of the “natural” processes here on earth are ruled over by this metaphysical god.
Environmentalists have warned that such dualism is potentially very problematic, as in privileging the metaphysical it marginalizes the physical, and in so doing finds the environment potentially unimportant.
"26. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."
"28. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
Environmentalists have argued that these verses give human beings dominion over the entire planet, which is ours to do with as we please. In short, it postulates the whole earth, and all the life on it, as here for, and centered on, human beings.
“Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”

Lynn White Jr. (p. 47 Reader)
Anthropocentrism, which literally mean “human centered,” is a key concept for environmentalists, as such a worldview suggests that everything on earth (plants, animals, etc.) centers on us; is here just for our use. To White, no other religion comes close to being as anthropocentric as Christianity.
The opposite of anthropocentrism is “biocentrism,” the belief that no one form of life (such as human beings) is superior to any other. Because certain earth-centered religions are almost by definition biocentric, many environmentalists have championed them over Christianity.
Genesis, Chapter 2
"7. And God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."
In spite of the fact that Adam is here literally made out of the earth (in Hebrew 'adam means "made of clay”; 'adama is the word for “earth”), for nearly 2000 years Christian theologians have argued that human beings have a dual nature, half body and half soul, the later being the better.
This view, which is a form of metaphysical dualism (an important belief), associates the “real” human nature (the soul) with the metaphysical Judeo-Christian God and his realm (Heaven), while seeing the body, and in fact everything on earth, as potentially illusory, inferior, and even evil.
Disassociating human beings from their physical, earthy nature, which is seen as evil, is clearly problematic environmentally.
The implications of metaphysical dualism are profound:
If human beings are merely visitors here on earth, spirits suffering bondage in physical bodies--and on a physical planet--while  making their way back "home" to be with their God in a distinctly un-physical, un-earthy realm, then how much does the earth really matter, if at all?
Environmentalists have argued that such a belief encourages human beings to act like bad hotel guests, who care little about, and in fact sometimes trash, their rooms because they are leaving soon to return home. In this case, to return to their “true” home to be with God in Heaven in the next life.
Because in other systems of belief the earth is the true home of human beings, who are not imagined as having a dual nature at once physical and meta-physical, environmentalists have looked carefully at these religions.
Genesis, Chapter 3
'17. And unto Adam he said, “Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;”'
'18. “Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;”'
'19. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”'
Aside from being potentially misogynistic, these lines have profound environmental implications:
'17-19. “…cursed is the ground for thy sake…Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee…In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”'
Because of this and other passages, for nearly 2000 years Christian theologians have argued that the earth is in a state of irretrievable state of decay as a result of the biblical Fall. In this view, human beings can be saved, not the earth.
This is the punishment that Adam, and with him all of humanity, receives from God because of Original Sin. Consequently, after the Fall human beings have a new relationship to the earth, one that is essentially adversarial. Perhaps not surprisingly, environmentalists have found this disturbing.
The belief that the earth no longer cares for human beings, who now have to take, forcefully if necessary, everything that they need to survive, is worrisome
As we shall see, this is similar to Hesiod’s fall from the Golden Age to the Iron Age, and Virgils’ shift from the pastoral to the georgic way of life. In all three views, the entire earth was once a locus amoenus, a paradise, lost .
'17-19. “…cursed is the ground for thy sake…Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee…In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”'
As John Donne, a 17th-century English poet baldly put it, “The world is but a carcass. Forget this  world, and scarce think of it so, / As of old clothes, cast off a year ago."
Genesis, Chapter 2
"15. And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it."
In Hebrew "dress" is abad, "to work for another, serve another by labor," and "keep" is shamar, "to keep, guard, keep watch, protect, save life."
In contrast to Genesis 1:28, environmentalists have also looked at Genesis 2.15 favorably, as it suggests that human beings are actually genius loci entrusted to protect (shamar) the planet.
As these passages make clear, interpretation (hermeneutics) plays a major role in our understanding of this--and in fact any-- text.
Environmentalists, not surprisingly, have found this disturbing, as it suggests that the planet has no future other than decay. In other words, a environmental “tipping point” occurred 6000 years ago at the biblical Fall.
The debate over how to environmentally interpret the Jedeo-Christian Bible still very much continues today:
In March of 2007 a number of prominent Christian activists, led by James C. Dobson (founder of the organization Focus on the Family), called on the National Association of Evangelicals to dismiss an official who urged that climate change be taken seriously.
Many of these individuals felt their political agenda was being co-opted by those sympathetic to the pet cause of Al Gore and other liberals.  More deeply, however, to some Christians it raised (as it did to John Donne) the larger question of just how much this place, this planet, should matter.
This many well be one of the most important question facing us all today.
Genesis, Chapter 1
"28. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion… over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
In Hebrew “replenish” is male': "to make full or abundant, to fill."
“Subdue” is kabash: “to subdue, force, to tramp down.”
“Dominion” is radah: "to rule, dominate, tread down.” (In Latin, which is the language that the Bible has primarily been read in throughout its history, “dominion” is dominus: "lord, master”)
Environmental critics have noted that these words all suggest a disturbing posture toward the earth. (Male’ has been interpreted as worrisome because it encourages human beings to overpopulate the planet, which has negative environmental con-sequences.)
Environmental critics have also noted that this passage encourages human beings to overpopulate the planet. (Genesis 1:28 has in fact been used in Christian arguments against both birth control and abortion.)
"28. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
Environmentalists, such as Lynn White Jr., have argued that these lines are very clear on how we should relate to other animals, and in fact all life on earth: we are, according to this passage, lord and master of all life on the planet, which is here just to serve us. From an environmental viewpoint, this is worrisome.
Moreover, as Genesis 1:24-27 (and 2:7) recount very different creation stories for human beings and animals (unlike evolution), human beings are imagined as created differently from, and in fact are seen as superior to, all other life on earth. Environmentalists have found this view disturbing as well.
"28. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion… over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
Because many environmentalists have taken the position that our human population needs to stabilize for the health of the planet, Genesis 1:28 is often seen as problematic.
Intro to the Environmental Humanities
Greek Metaphysical Thinking (eco-philosophy)
Andy Goldsworthy
Many of Goldsworthy’s installations, such as the serpentine ice sculpture which opens the film,
draw attention to the fact that “nature” is temporal (i.e. endlessly emerging, decaying, and in flux).
Such installations makes little attempt at holding off temporal change; rather, they draw attention to and celebrate nature as endlessly changing. Had Goldsworthy wanted a sculpture that endured, he could have carved one of granite or marble.
Of course, when Goldsworthy photographs the installations (he principally makes his living off his beautiful books of photographs), he freezes in time the natural process to which he is drawing attention. Goldsworthy has sometimes been criticized for this, as it subverts his primary mission of gesturing to nature as endless process.
Another way of looking at this is to think of Goldsworthy’s installations as emulating nature, for example, something like a blossoming rose.
Like the rose, Goldsworthy’s ice sculpture emerges completely into being for just one shining moment, then it immediately falls away. Indeed, the perfect moment when the sunlight backlit the sculpture also signaled that it had begun to melt. Time is important here as the rose, like the sculpture, came into and out of being; was caught in the process of becoming.
Many of Goldsworthy’s installations reveal nature as short-lived:
Hesiod is environmentally significant because he recounts two creation myths, both of which parallel the Genesis story, as they suggest that the earth was once a perfect locus amoenus where human beings lived at peace with themselves and the planet.
In the second of his two stories, Hesiod suggests that there was once a “golden race of mortal men” that “had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly…they dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks” (Reader, p. 74).
(Note that they were “rich in flocks.” As we shall see with Theocritus next class, life in the perfect past was frequently portrayed as literally pastoral.)
As in the Genesis account, the break with the perfect past meant that human beings in Hesiod’s time (the “iron” age) could “never rest from labor and sorrow” (Reader 76). Clearly, even 2700 years ago when Hesiod was writing, the relationship that humans had with the earth was seen as far from perfect.
Prior to his account of the “golden race” (the Roman poet Ovid refers to their time as the “Golden Age”), Hesiod tells the story of the creation of Pandora, who, having both “a shameless mind and a deceitful nature” (Reader 72), metaphorically stands for all women.
As in the Genesis account, it is a woman who destroyed the perfect relationship that human beings had to the planet: before Pandora released evil into the world “the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness” (73).
Both of Hesiod’s stories, as well as the Genesis account, portray a perfect relationship with the earth, now lost. Surprisingly, as improbable as they sound, in some sense even today we buy into these myths when we imagine that there was once a time when human beings lived at peace with the planet.
What is Nature?
A Raymond Williams, an environmental critic, once remarked, what makes this question so difficult is that “nature” may well be the most complex word in the English language, as it has accumulated many, many meanings over time.
Moreover, what we mean today by “nature” has not only been influenced by the Latin word natura, from whence it is derived, but also by the ancient Greek phusis and the Old English kynde, our language’s homegrown word for nature.
For our environmental purposes, it is important to note that “nature” is often used somewhat synonymously with words like “environment,” “landscape,” and “wilderness” -- in particular, environments that are free of human habitation.
We can see this meaning of nature emerging even as early as the 'Myth of Gilgamesh', as what was outside the walls of Uruk was nature, while what was inside was human culture. This nature-culture dyad reappears again and again in Western thinking, especially in later Greek philosophical thinking.
When we use “nature” as synonymous with “environment” or “wilderness” we are for the most part conceiving of nature spatially, as a place, someplace that we can actually visit, like Yosemite.
The ancient Greeks did not generally conceive of nature (phusis) spatially; rather, they understood it temporally.
In order to understand how nature can be conceived of temporally, it will be helpful to consider the landscape installations of artist Andy Goldsworthy, the subject of the documentary 'Rivers and Tides'.
Our reason for doing so is to reclaim the ancient Greek notion of phusis, to re-think what we in the West originally meant by “nature,” in the hope of gaining a clearer understanding of what nature means to us today.
Andy Goldsworthy2
Even Goldsworthy’s installations that seem permanent, lack permanence.
As the film made clear, the Storm King Wall in Mountainville, New York was in part made of stones from crumbling walls that were laid by farmers just a century or two before. Left unattended, the Storm King Wall will soon be crumbling like it predecessors.
Incidentally, although Andy Goldsworthy was (and still is) an innovator in landscape installations that gesture to the impermanence of the environment, he is by no means the only artist to do so.
Patrick Dougherty, for example, had a major installation, entitled “Toad Hall,” at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden a few years ago that slowly decayed.
Dougherty has similar landscape installations all over the world.
Goldsworthy’s installations offer a provocative answer to our opening question. What is nature?
Nature is birth, growth, and passing away, the endless process of process whereby everything everywhere is ever coming into and out of being.
Of course, other artists, such as the makers of the pyramids and ancient Greek temples, understood the role of art differently, as they created works that defiantly attempted to stand firm against the endless process of nature. As time has proven, these works have generally failed to do so.
Heraclites’ Stream
Recall that to Heraclites a streaming stream was a near perfect metaphor for phusis, as the stream is constantly streaming through Time. Hence you can never step into the same stream twice, according to Heraclites; by the time you step into the stream the second time it has already streamed away.
Streams are additionally a apt metaphor for phusis as they change profoundly over longer periods of Time. The quietly streaming stream will at times stop streaming altogether and in some sense slip out of existence (during a drought), and at other times be barely recognizable as it becomes a torrent during a flood.
From the perspective of human beings living near and depending upon such a sporadically streaming stream, this can be an altogether frustrating situation, as the stream can never really be relied upon; in drought times it may not even exist, while during a flood it may become a life-threatening danger.
Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger, a twentieth-century German philosopher, was aware both that phusis originally signaled endless becoming (coming into being, as well as passing away) to Heraclites and other presocratic Greeks, and that Socrates and Plato had reversed, indeed deconstructed, this meaning.
To Heidegger, who in part made this deconstruction famous, it marked a turning point in Western thinking by inaugurating a "metaphysics of presence," which privileges constant presence, such as Plato's ideas, over the endless play of absence and presence that the Greeks named phusis.
Heidegger, somewhat surprisingly, argued that modern technology is the completion of metaphysics. In order to do so Heidegger considered a modern hydroelectric power plant being built on the Rhine River. To follow Heidegger here it will be helpful to return to Heraclites’ streaming stream.
The presocratic Greek philosopher Heraclites, who argued that it is “impossible to step twice into the same stream,” believed that all of nature was in fact like an endlessly streaming stream, wildly in flux, as everything everywhere is constantly shifting across time, no sooner coming into then going out of being.
An example would be a rose (or Goldsworthy’s ice sculpture), which comes into existence, blooms for little more than a moment, then passes away. Across the planet flowers are endlessly doing this, as is all life, including human beings. As Heraclites made clear, the Greek word phusis signaled this endless flux and becoming. Consequently, to Heraclites phusis was temporal, not spatial.
According to Heraclites and other presocratic thinkers, because nature (phusis, endless flux) is ever happening everywhere, it makes less sense to talk about it spatially than temporally. Andy Goldsworthy’s installations, though obviously located somewhere, are nonetheless efforts to reveal nature as becoming (both as emergence and as passing away).
In contrast to Heraclites who saw nature as becoming, Plato, writing just a generation or two later, radically redefined (indeed deconstructed and inverted the definition of) phusis to no longer signal the process by which everything emerges and passes away, but rather to reference what never passes away but endures permanently.
Because nothing in nature is permanent, it was necessary for Plato to make huge epistemological shift, a meta-physical shift…
Plato knew full well that the Greek phusis signaled flux, endless change, and becoming (and passing away). In fact, one of Plato’s teachers was the philosopher Cratylus, who was in turn Heraclites’ student.
However, Socrates and Plato argued that there must be something more than the ever-changing existence that we apprehend though sense experience.
Consequently, Socrates and Plato postulated a fixed and immutability realm of ideas free of change, which they called the the meta-physical realm--literally, the realm beyond nature (phusis), beyond change, where things forever and ever just are. Plato’s realm of ideas is a realm not of becoming, but of being.
Thus, in a move similar to metaphysical theology, Socrates and Plato imagined a metaphysical realm superior to the physical (phusis) earth. In fact, in a radical deconstruction of what was first signaled by phusis, Plato called the metaphysical realm the only true nature.
And, as we also saw in the film, even seemingly stable stone cairns are subject to collapse.
Goldsworthy’s concept of nature is similar to the one held by certain presocratic Greek philosophers, like Heraclites, who imagined nature like a stream.
(via Albernethy’s Introduction to Western Metaphysics)
Heidegger’s Dam
Heidegger argues the hydroelectric power plant built on the Rhine responds to the frustrating inconstancy of the streaming stream (river) as it is a massive dam intended to convert the river into a reservoir, which no longer sporadically streaming, is rather on call, ready for use at any time, constantly present.
Heidegger suggests that this is the “completion” of metaphysics because the builders of the dam have, in some sense, actually enacted and made real Plato’s ancient dream of an entity free of the ravages of Time and phusis.
Of course, the reservoir is not literally a metaphysical entity in the way that Plato’s ideas were imagined to be; nonetheless, it comes far closer to realizing the metaphysical ideal than the ever-changing river, which as Heraclites made clear, is itself an excellent metaphor for phusis understood temporally.
A parallel project would be if Andy Goldsworthy were to carve one of his serpentine ice sculpture out of marble in hopes of having it endure.
Heidegger argues that the quest for the “metaphysical” in our physical realm is one of the key features of technological modernity. Another example would be fossil fuels, which put an end to the frustration that human beings have had for thousands of years with the energy from the sun that we sporadically receive.
Examples would include office workers in “cubicles” waiting in reserve to answer a phone or process paperwork.
Seen in this way, the sun’s energy is like Heraclites’ stream. Sometimes it streams down in just the right amount to heat a properly designed house, sometimes it may be absent for a week or more during overcast weather, and still other times (such as summer) it can provide too much heat.
“Fossilized solar energy,” in the form of fossil fuels, are in some sense like the dammed stream (reservoir) in so far as they can be stockpiled and held in reserve; ready to be deployed, though a rather astonishing range of technology, at the click of a switch to bring heat into our homes, or turn night into day.
In this sense, our love of fossil fuels is metaphysical; a frustration with phusis.
Heidegger took this idea even further by arguing that not only are so-called “natural resources” being stockpiled and held in reserve for our use, but in a frightening twist of fate, human beings, now dubbed “human resources,” are also “standing in reserve” (what Heidegger called Bestand) waiting to be used.
Hannah Arendt, Heidegger’s student, agreed with him in many respects, but realized this has been happening for thousands, rather than hundreds of years.
Even as early as the Myth of Gilgamesh we see mention of bread and grain, which was the major technological innovation that made Gilgamesh’s culture possible, as human beings had a food, grain, which unlike fresh vegetables, could be stockpiled, held in reserve, for two or three years. To Arendt, all human cultures worthy of the name seek constant presence in their works.
Intro to the Environmental Humanities
What is Nature?
(ecocriticism, eco-theology, eco-philosophy)
and the Physical
The Metaphysical

Up here is that which is beyond the physical earth, change, and nature. The Judeo-Christian God, Heaven, and Platonic ideas exist up here.

”Nature” in the Greek sense of process, but also the realm of sense experience. Plants, animals, the earth, and everything physical are down here.
Metaphysical deities that exist beyond the earth.

Shamash from the Myth of Gilgamesh, the Judeo-Christian God (Jehovah).
Earth Gods, who are moored to the earth, as they are part of it.

Genius Loci figures (like Humbaba in the Myth of Gilgamesh). Ancient goddesses figures: Persephone / Demeter / Hecate.
Dualism in the West
With the additional understanding of physical-metaphysical dualism in terms of technological modernity provided by Heidegger, and augmented by Arendt, we can return to our our survey of dualism in the West.
The important, overarching idea here is that this dualism has existed in the West for well over 5000 years on a variety of registers, such as place, deity, time, etc. In most of these manifes-tations, the metaphysical is privileged at the cost of marginalizing the physical, phusis.
The turn toward the metaphysical is environmentally troubling, especially when we realize that preference for it is literally being enacted, on a massive scale, in our highly technological modernity.
The Physical and the Metaphysical
Fortified with this understanding of how the presocratic Greeks (like Andy Goldsworthy) understood nature as becoming, and how Plato radically suggested that true nature never changes and exists in a metaphysical realm, we can pull together what we have been saying so far this term about the relationship between the physical (the realm of phusis) and the metaphysical.
What follows will be a recap of meta-physical dualism on a variety of registers.
The Judeo-Christian Heaven and Plato’s realm of ideas are each imagined as the ultimate locus amoenus, the most pleasant of all places, even though as metaphysical, they are placeless places that exist nowhere in the physical realm.
After the Judeo-Christian Bible and Plato’s metaphysical philosophy, the earth is increasingly seen as an imperfect place (definitely not a locus amoenus).
This is a changeless realm of eternal life and pure being. Here things just are, and always will be as they are: immortal, perfect, unchanged. Example: the Judeo-Christian God & Heaven, & Platonic ideas like Justice, Beauty, etc.
This is Heraclites’ realm of gignomai (“becoming” or “emergence into being”): birth, life, death; the endless bringing-forth and passing away of phusis. Example: a rose blossoming, a stream streaming, a human life, etc.
Dualistic Human Beings
Up here is the realm of the soul (what later philosophers call the “mind”), which is the best part of a person, if not in fact the “true” human being.

The body will pass away, but the meta-physical soul lives eternally.

Metaphysical thinkers often privilege the soul and marginalize the body.
Down here is the realm of the body (to Christian theologians, the “flesh”), which is often seen as inferior by both Christians and Platonists alike.

Not only is the body seen as inferior, it is often believed to be a source of temptation (such as sexual temptation), sin, and evil.
Plato’s Divided Line
Up here is the “intelligible realm” where ideas are known by reason (nous).

The intelligible realm is to Plato true reality; the nature we sense is illusory. Interestingly, this realm is accessible to living human beings (unlike Heaven).
In this surprising approach, the sensory realm of earth and phusis, like Plato’s cave, is an illusionary appearance, a deception, an inferior copy. Thus Plato startlingly deconstructs reality, as the “real” world of nature, change, and life is found to be nothing more than an illusion, a cheap copy of a far better place.

What is nature?
True nature is meta-physical, the earth & phusis are an illusion.
Presence / Absence
Much of Western philosophy after Plato has been a quest for constant presence, that which is ever present temporally: Truth, Beauty, God, and so forth.

Idea, Plato; Substance, Aristotle; Subjectivity, Descartes; Absolute Spirit, Hegel; Will to Power, Nietzsche; Presence, Heidegger and Derrida
Phusis is the play of absence & presence, the endless temporal process of emergence and falling away. Sometimes a stream streams, sometimes it fails to stream (during a drought), and sometimes it floods with overabundance.

What is present is the present, which is a present that will soon be absent.

What is present (in this place, spatially) is the present (the now, temporally), which is a present (a gift of the moment) that will soon be absent.
Artifacts are how Gilgamesh sought immortality (by rebuilding Uruk).

Temples, cities, and many artifacts attempt (but ultimately fail) to resist phusis.

Examples: Pyramids; Sphinx (King Khafra); State buildings (U.S. Capitol); Corporate centers (World Trade Center); tombstones. Any-thing made by a culture that endures (tools, material culture, and so forth).
Japan’s Jingu Shrine, which is a series of wood structures, accepted as being in a state of constant decay, that has been rebuilt every twenty years since the seventh century, makes a striking contrast to the pyramids and Greek temples. In fact, any human work that (such as food, clothing, etc) does not endure.
A culture endures through its art perhaps more than its artifacts.

The Myth of Gilgamesh gave Gilgamesh immortality, not the Cedar Forest.

Because such art holds a image (an idea) across Time, it is representational.

Shakespeare Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?... So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this & this gives life to thee.”
Andy Goldsworthy’s landscape art.

As we shall see with Virgil, because such art is principally gestural, it gestures away from itself to the ever-changing realm of phusis.
As Plato realized, language (logos) is where a culture's ideas exist over Time.

True, languages change and even die, but they endure far more than human life. Moreover, even dead languages live on today. For example, Plato infused his word idea (eidos) with a meaning that lives on in our word “idea.”
Without language, how does a culture endure?

In part cultures endure through material culture (tools and artifacts); nonetheless, a shared language is arguably what binds a people together in the present and across generations more than anything else. Language lives and reproduces (is made new by artists constantly reinventing it) in literature.
Modern Technology
Modern technology is a quest for constant presence (Heidegger).Ex: Heidegger's Dam, which puts an end to the streaming stream (Heraclites' play of absence and presence), fossil fuels, and human beings (Bestand).

All of the above in some sense seek to be like Platonic ideas and the Christian God in so far as they attempt to make phusis endure across Time. They are all "conveniences" that convene the earth's re-sources.
Heraclites' streaming stream, which is a play of absence & presence.

Slow Food Movement (where we wait on the earth, not the other way around)

Heidegger, according to Hannah Arendt, is wrong, this does not begin in second half of 18th century.
Ancient Technology
Agriculture, such as stored grain, seeks constant presence.

Ancient temples, cities, and enduring artifacts of all sorts. Hannah Arendt argued that all truly human cultures worthy of the name have always sought constant presence in their material culture (artifacts and art).

In Genesis, this is a result of the Fall; no need for agriculture in Eden.
Pre-agricultural cultures. Arendt argued that cultures that do not seek constant presence through their artifacts and art are not truly human, but rather merely animal laborans. Nearly every locus amoenus (Eden, Golden Age) is imagined as having no need for constant presence, as the earth provides a supply of everything, constantly.
Are half up here...
and half down here...
Divided line analogy: reason (A) is to this intelligible realm of ideas (B) as…
mere opinion (doxa, C) is to the sensory, earthy realm (D).
Pastoral is not a literary genre (like a play, a novel, etc), but rather is a mode of writing that can inhabit many genres. Hence, there are pastoral plays (like Shakespeare’s "As You Like It"), pastoral elegies (Milton's “Lycidas”), and so forth. Even Thoreau’s "Walden" is in some sense a pastoral work.
Consequently, pastoral can take many, many forms. In fact, it need not be a work of literature at all, as there are pastoral paintings, and even pastoral music…
Come to me here from Crete, 
To this holy temple, where
Your lovely apple grove stands,
And your altars that flicker
With incense. 
And below the apple branches, cold
Clear water sounds, everything shadowed
By roses, and sleep that falls from
Bright shaking leaves. 
And a pasture for horses blossoms
With the flowers of spring, and breezes
Are flowing here like honey:
Come to me here.
Intro to the Environmental Humanities
Pastoral (ecocriticism)
Art and Literature
Perhaps not surprisingly, pastoral art frequently (in fact usually) depicts scenes that are literally pastoral: pastures filled with shepherds and sheep. What is surprising, however, is that pastoral literature may not principally be about shepherds, sheep, or the environment at all.
Like the word “nature,” pastoral literature has undergone many changes in the past 3000 years. While pastoral can literally be about the environment, it has often (starting at least as early as Virgil) been a veiled way of talking about something else. Such pastoral art is not literal, but rather allegorical.
As allegory, pastoral provides a relatively safe way of broaching political, ecclesiastical, and other sensitive issues. For example, one could write about shepherds experiencing hard times as a way of critiquing a government. If confronted, the author could deny everything, saying that it was simply a fanciful story about shepherds, not politics.
An example of pastoral literature as allegory would be Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, which was a Renaissance poem that critiqued both the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the Church of England, but at face value seemed little more than a pleasant pastoral story about shepherds.
In this sense, pastoral can mask subversive and dangerous political writing.
Pastoral, however, can also be a very literal form of nature writing. As we shall see with Virgil Eclogue I, the allegorical and literal aspects of pastoral literature sometimes intersect, as political actions can often have profound environmental implications.
Because pastoral art can take so many forms, and can both be and not be about the environment at the same time, it is wise not to make any initial assumptions about a pastoral work. In particular, do not assume that a text is an example of nature writing, which "The Shepheardes Calendar" for the most part is not, just because it is in the pastoral mode.
Pastoral as Nostalgic and Contemporary
Especially as a form of nature writing, one of the most conspicuous features of pastoral is that it is often highly nostalgic. In this sense, pastoral art often looks back to a “simpler time,” when human beings were imagined as having had a better, perhaps even perfect, relationship with the planet.
Consequently, like Eden from Genesis, as well as the Golden Age from Hesiod and Ovid, pastoral texts often posit a locus amoenus where human beings lived at peace with the planet. Thus, pastoral art also contributes to the myth that in our past there was once an environmentally perfect time.
However, while the locus amoenus may be in the past in pastoral art, it can also be imagined in the contemporary rural countryside. Thus, even as early as Theocritus in the 3rd century BCE we have an inversion of the city/country dyad that we first encountered in the "Myth of Gilgamesh", as what lies outside of the walls of the city, the country, is now what is preferred.
Because the contemporary countryside is imagined as a locus amoenus, it often will be invoked in pastoral art when the modern world is perceived as being in a particularly worrisome and turbulent state.
Asher Brown Durand’s “Pastoral Landscape,” painted 1861 on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, desperately attempts to portray a perfect place at a time when the nation was falling apart. What was really happening in the countryside, where human beings were forced into slavery, was hardly bucolic. Durand’s painting looks away from this turmoil to an imagined happier time and place.
As a form of nostalgia, the perfect place is often imagined both temporally and spatially, in the not-too-distant past, and in the not-too-distant countryside. As such, pastoral art can be utopian. It certainly can signal a break with reality.
From an environmental perspective
From an environmental perspective, what is ironic about the life depicted in pastoral literature is that, as Andy Goldsworthy noted in "Rivers and Tides", sheep are notorious for their ability to keep nearly any form of plant from growing to maturity, hence they are excellent at maintaining deforested areas.
Consequently, the pastoral life of shepherds is hardly an environmental ideal. Nonetheless, because such a life was frequently characterized by an abundance of leisure (otium), it nicely fit into the myth of the locus amoenus.
Because the absence of labor (otium) is a cornerstone of life in the pastoral locus amoenus (as it was in prelapsarian Eden and the Golden Age), shepherds are often, as they are in Theocritus, depicted as spending their days in pleasant pastimes such as singing matches and wooing shepherdesses.
Poets, often intrigued by this notion, frequently associated themselves with their shepherds, as their pastoral songs stand for the poet’s lyric poem.
“Pastoral is the view of the pasture from the living room window.”
As Thoreau correctly notes, pastoral was rarely written by actual shepherds. Rather, pastoral art is largely an urban form that, from the perspective of the city, depicts life in the countryside as leisurely and perfect, which, of course, was rarely if ever the case. A fact not lost on many pastoral artists.
If a pastoral work is written in response to a turmoil, the problem to which it responds may not be a political situation (such as the Civil War), but rather an environmental one. For example, when the environment is endangered through human action, we might imagine a pastoral place free of such danger.
Rachel Carson, for example, opens "Silent Spring" in an very pastoral way, imagining an idyllic rural countryside free of problems, in order to draw attention to it being threatened by the dangerous use of pesticides like DDT.
Environmental Consciousness
When pastoral literature draws attention to the countryside and to the environmental dangers threatening it, it may be that the writer has developed, and would like to pass on to the reader, an environmental consciousness.
Briefly, it is often the case that we are not fully aware of the environment into which we are born and find ourselves. Of course, the environment is always there, but as we preoccupy ourselves with the activities of our lives, we often pay little attention to it.
(Heidegger considered this phenomenon in detail.)
However, if something should happen to the environment, such as it being threatened, we become both more aware of it, and aware of it as endangered.
An example would be Santa Barbara in 1969, when one of the worst oil spills in US history threatened the coast. Prior to the spill residents of Santa Barbara were of course aware of their beaches, but because of the spill, they became aware of them more fully, and as endangered, which underscored their value. This helped foster an environmental consciousness in the US.
Like anyone else, artists and writers can develop an environmental consciousness in this manner. This, for example, is what happened to Rachel Carson; she became shockingly aware of the environment as endangered through her research into widespread pesticide use in the U.S.
This is especially ironic as these pastoral artists were drawing attention to pristine environments as striking contrasts to endangered ones. Perhaps not surprisingly, this pastoral project can take an inverted form but have the same effect; when the artist directly draws attention to endangered environments.
The challenged for the writer or artist, in this case Carson, is to facilitate the emergence of this environmental consciousness in the reader. In order to do so, the artist has to gesture to the environment, either the pristine one being threatened or the environment already damaged by human action, or both.
Traditionally, because pastoral was written by urban poets for an urban audience, these poets generally drew attention to the pristine countryside as a striking contrast to the environmental changes brought on by urban life. It is important to note that they may not have been aware that they were doing so.
The effect of such a maneuver was that the urban reader looked to the countryside, but in the process caught a glimpse of their own environment.
Ironically, because traditional pastoral art depicts pristine environments, critics have until recently assumed that these were accurate depictions of the environment at the time these artworks were produced. In part, scholars have been eager to do so because they accepted as fact that the earth was once a locus amoenus, little realizing that this notion was created by pastoral artists.
Such works are in some sense a type of anti-pastoral, which is somewhat misleading as these works often function like traditional pastoral art as they draw attention to both pristine and endangered landscapes. An example would be the work of artist Edward Burtynsky, the subject of the documentary "Manufactured Landscapes".
Edward Burtynsky
There is something familiar about Burtynsky’s landscapes, even if they seem somewhat alien to us...
Note how the river gives life to its surroundings, which would otherwise be dry and faded...
Although the order is reversed (in traditional pastoral the “natural” scene would have been gestured to first), which is why Burtynsky’s work may in some sense be described as anti-pastoral, his photographs nonetheless pastorally draw attention to both the endangered and the pristine landscapes.
Because the extent to which the environment is being endangered has increased dramatically in the past few hundred years, it is hardly surprising that threatened landscapes are now given precedence over pristine ones.
This is a real danger, as we could mistakenly assume, as have so many scholars, the the pleasant countryside depicted in pastoral literature is its only --or even its “true”--subject, ignoring that the work is in fact gesturing toward another environment (an urban or endangered one) that is in no way pastoral.
By showing us the endangered environment, Burtynsky avoids this danger. Nonetheless, traditional pastoral can similarly gesture to two environments.
Incidentally, many of Burtynsky’s images are meant as gestures.
...as they are meant to remind us of something we have seen, which they are in fact gesturing toward...
...while nothing living surrounds Burtynsky’s river. Even the trees in the background seem dead.
Giving endangered landscapes precedence over pristine ones is a particularly clever move,
as it avoids the danger that the pristine landscape will be mistakenly seen as the actual subject of the pastoral artwork.
Sappho, 7th century BCE, Greece
Henry David Thoreau
(Note how the pastoral score invokes the urban, and vice versa.)
The Early Modern Period
In England the period from 1500-1700 is referred to either as the “Renaissance” or the “early modern” period. Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, they in fact represent two very different views of the period.
According to Petrarch, an early Italian Renaissance writer, in the thousand years between the collapse of the Roman Empire and his own time, there was nothing but “darkness and gloom.” Hence to him these were the “dark ages.”
“Renaissance,” which means to be born (nascentia) again, defines the period as a revival of classical learning, which brought light to this darkness by reviving the arts and sciences of antiquity, specifically of the Greeks and Romans.
Scholars today tend to be wary of the term “dark ages,” as it deprecates the period of time between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. In fact, by imagining the time before them as dark and backward, thinkers like Petrarch were able to epistemologically construct them-selves and their culture by negatively characterizing other cultures that came before them.
During the “dark ages,” it was not technologically possible to create engineering masterpieces such as Rome’s Pantheon (125 AD).
Not only was there a Renaissance in technology, but the arts were also “reborn.” The middle ages rarely produced works equivalent to those of the classical world, such as the Greek statue of Hermes with the infant Dionysus.
During the “Renaissance,” the technology to create such structures was “reborn.” For example, the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, which was designed by Michelangelo, is nearly as wide as that of the Pantheon, and even taller.
Intro to the Environmental Humanities
Early modern English literature and the emergence of truly modern environmental issues, such as urban air pollution.
(environmental history)
England's Renaissance as the 'early modern' period
England’s Renaissance, which again occurred from roughly 1500-1700, is also often referred to as the “early modern” period. Unlike the phrase “dark ages,” which was coined in the 14th century, the term “early modern” is relatively recent. In fact, “early modern” is a characterization that can only be made from the vantage point of a later period, modernity.
In calling this period “early modern,” we define it not in terms of the past, as “Renaissance” does (as a rebirth of the past), but rather in terms of the future, the early beginning of what will become modernity, our modern world. In short, the Renaissance resembles the past; the early modern the future.
For example, the printing press, which arrived in England in 1476, was entirely new, as nothing remotely like it existed in antiquity. In the year 2000, Time magazine named the printing press as the most important innovation of the millennium because it helped bring about an entirely new future. The printing press is an excellent icon of the “early modern” period, which we characterize, from the name forward, as bringing about future modernity.
Not only was modernity presaged in technology during the early modern period, but also in various art forms.
Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-04), for example, was unlike any painting that had ever come before it.
London in the Early Modern Period
Environmentally, what was occurring in England from 1500-1700 was also in many respects unlike anything that had ever occurred on the planet before.
London, which was home to all of the early modern writers that we will be reading, has a strong claim on being, at least environmentally, the first truly modern city on the planet, as air pollution, acid rain, wetland loss, rampant consumerism, and similar issues became major problems from 1500-1700.
In part, this occurred because London experienced unprecedented population growth; by some estimates the population grew tenfold from 1500-1700. While throughout history other cities have grown quickly, London developed a host of what would become truly “modern” environmental problems early on. An example would be urban air pollution.
London's Air Pollution
Because as much as 94% of England had been deforested by the 13th century, the English had to increasingly look to other fuel sources. This was especially the case in cities, as their surroundings had been deforested long before.
As a result of this deforestation and the availability of cheap coal, known as “seacoal” (so called because it was shipped from the coast), many of London’s industries, such as brewers, as well as its citizens, began switching from wood use to coal as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
It was widely known, however, that seacoal not only created a great deal more smoke than wood, but that this smoke was particularly toxic. Consequently, in 1286 the first of many commissions was set up to study London’s air-pollution problem; the first laws against its indiscriminate burning came in 1307.
Keep in mind that this was centuries before London experienced its meteoric population growth from 1500-1700. Consequently, from as early as 1286 it was clear that London was poised to have a major air-pollution problem.
By the time Shakespeare was writing his plays (c. 1600), England was mining three to four times more coal than the rest of Europe combined, with most of it being burned in London. Hence, the scale of the problem was staggering.
Even at the time air pollution from seacoal was known to be responsible for the wholesale death of animals and fish (as acid rain deposited sulfur dioxide in waterways), the local extinction of entire species of plants, caustic erosion to buildings, as well as widespread respiratory disease among human beings.
By the time Milton was writing "Paradise Lost" (1667), widespread respiratory disease, caused by burning the highly sulfurous seacoal, was believed by the most celebrated statistician of the day to be second only to the Plague as the leading cause of human deaths in London. He was likely correct.
Although not coined until much later, the word “smog” enters the English language as a contraction specifically intended to describe the metrological condition whereby an amalgam of “smoke-fog” hung over London.
Literature and London's Air Pollution
Perhaps not surprisingly, London’s air-pollution problem began showing up in literature, though in very surprising ways. For example, medieval and early modern depictions of Hell, as a place filled with the same sort of sulfurous smoke that was engulfing London, owe much to the city's air-pollution problem.
In countries that were not burning highly sulfurous coal, such as Italy, there are few such depictions of Hell. Dante’s "Inferno", for example, contains none.
Moreover, even the choice of the word "brimstone" (brynstan, literally the "burning stone," coal) by the translators of the 1611 King James Bible for famous passages in Genesis and Revelation, was influenced by the translators' desire to make Hell seem as horrid as possible by describing it, like London, as choked with the sulfurous smoke of burning coal.
Furthermore, the depiction of Hell in Paradise Lost, as well as the mining operation that the devil's set up there, was directly influenced by London's air pollution, as was the protective hedge of trees circling Milton’s Eden.
Environment and London's Air Pollution
London’s air pollution is just one of many distinctly modern environmental problems that emerged in the “Renaissance.” Starting in the early modern period, toxic waste, acid rain, rampant consumerism, and a host of similar issues will add a whole new dimension to traditional pastoral art.
Now more than ever, individuals and artists alike will cast their sight away from the city to an imagined simpler life in the countryside, one still largely untouched by these modern environmental problems. Consequently, in the early modern period pastoral will become more important, and be deployed more frequently, than ever before.
As a result, pastoral’s ability to draw attention to the environment (both pristine and endangered environments), by communicating environmental consciousness, will repeatedly be drawn upon by artists and poets. This is especially the case with Ben Jonson and his pastoral poem “To Penshurst.”
London's Air Pollution (postscript)
London’s air-pollution problem continued to grow and to make its appearance in artworks for centuries. For example, Claude Monet’s “Houses of Parliament” impressionist series depicts London’s air pollution in the year 1900.
However, London’s worst bout with air pollution came in December of 1952, when over 4000 people died in one week from respiratory tract illness, with over twice that many dying shortly thereafter. This tragedy helped spawn the modern environmental movement, as well as a number of clean-air legislations, including Clean Air Act 1956-- 650 years after London’s first clean-air law.
However, Michelangelo’s David boldly, triumphantly declared that Renaissance artists had equaled, indeed perhaps surpassed, anything that had come before them.
The Garden of Earthly Delights is in many respects like 20th-century surrealist paintings, such as Salvador Dali’s The Lugubrious Game (1929).
Unlike Michelangelo’s David,
The Garden of Earthly Delights is more accurately characterized as an early modern than a Renaissance work.
Intro to the Environmental Humanities
"The Dream of the Rood"
Chaucer, "The Nun's Priest's Tale"
(eco-theology & ecocriticism)
A Transitional Text
"The Dream of the Rood" is a transitional text intended to transition “pagans” into Christians. It is able to do so by doubling (a technique that we saw in the Myth of Gilgamesh) the Rood and Jesus. In so doing, the Rood takes on some of Jesus’ qualities, and Jesus some of the Rood’s.
For example, Jesus is described in surprisingly heroic terms, as a “young Hero," a "Warrior,” a “Mighty King," "strong” with a “stout heart” (Reader 116). Moreover, he is active, climbing the cross and stripping himself. In being so portrayed, Jesus clearly takes on the characteristics prized by a warrior culture.
Conversely, the tree, a powerful deity of place, allows his own crucifixion like Jesus: “I might have felled all foes, but I stood fast.” Following Jesus’ example, “Nor did I dare harm any of them,” even while being crucified. Like Jesus, the Rood is incredibly powerful, yet allows himself to die for the sake of another (in this case Jesus, just as Jesus died for the faithful).
The doubling continues as the tree describes his own crucifixion like Jesus’: “They pierced me with dark nails, the wounds are seen on me, open gashes of hate…I was all drenched with blood” (from the wound in Jesus’ side).
Furthermore, the antagonists in the work are the common enemy to both of the doubles, the “Strong foes” who both “seized me [the rood] there, hewed me to the shape they wished to see,” as well as crucified Jesus.
This is not, of course, to say that Christianity must be at odds with, let alone eradicate, nature-centered religions. However, historically, as "The Dream of the Rood" attests, this has often happened. The challenged, and it is of course a hermeneutic one, is to interpret Christianity in an earth-friendly way.
By connecting, indeed, superposing a new deity (Jesus) upon an existing one (an earth deity), early Christians were able to assimilate the followers of an obviously “pagan” (firmly rooted in the earth, like a tree) religion.
Because this is a transitional text, once the “pagans” were assimilated into Christianity, “brought into the fold,” the features, especially those related to the worship of nature, of the earlier religions ultimately fell away.
What is especially clever about "The Dream of the Rood" is that it is actually able to incorporate the destruction of the earth deity--indeed, the destruction of the earth religion--into the narrative itself, as the tree’s defining bond with the earth is severed when it is cut in order to be fashioned into a rood (cross).
Of course, Jesus is also physically killed, but Christianity’s unique innovation is that he is reborn on a meta-physical register, which is impossible for the tree, a deity of a non-metaphysical religion. Hence, "The Dream of the Rood" symbolically enacts the triumph of one deity (and religion) over another, as well as the triumph of the metaphysical realm over the physical.
"The Dream of the Rood"
"The Dream of the Rood" is likely one of the oldest works of English literature. In its oldest form, it is inscribed on an 8th-century stone cross from northeast England known as the Ruthwell Cross.
In terms of chronology, the Ruthwell Cross appears roughly 800 years after Virgil, who came 700 years after Hesiod. These three represent Greek, Roman, and Anglo Saxon cultures.
The inscription on the Ruthwell Cross begins, “Krist wæs on Rodi. Hweþræ’ þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum.”(“Christ was on the Cross. Yet the brave came there from afar to their lord.”)
The expanded version of "The Dream of the Rood" that we read comes from a 10th-century text known as the Vercelli Book.
In old English, a röd (pronounced with a long “o”) is a pole, or a cross. This word continued in use for quite some time. For example, it appears hundreds of years later in Shakespeare’s "Hamlet": "No, by the rood, not so" (Act 3, Scene 4).
In "The Dream of the Rood", a religious mystic (a “dreamer”) has a vision in which the cross (“rood”) that Christ died upon speaks to him, explaining to the dreamer how it is that he, a tree, became the sacred cross. Hence the text has two separate speakers, a man and a tree.
It is immediately surprising that in the text we have an anthropomorphized and sentient tree that speaks. However, this is less surprising when we realize that the ancient Celts inhabiting England worshiped earth, sea, and sky, as well as particular features of the environment, such as streams, lakes, hills, and trees, especially oak trees.
In fact, the “Druids,” the Celtic priests, were given their name by Caesar during one of his campaigns, as he noticed that they worshiped trees. While in Latin druides simply means “sorcerer,” it derives from the Greek drus, which means “oak tree.” Hence, “Druid” literally means to worship oak trees.
Intro to "The Canterbury Tales"
"The Canterbury Tales" were written in the late 14th century in England by Geoffrey Chaucer, before the advent of the printing press.
Although still technically the “Middle Ages” in England (even though the Renaissance was well underway in Italy), Chaucer is writing 600 years after the Ruthwell Cross.
Even though Chaucer is in turn 600 years away from us, his language, Middle English, is close enough to our own that we can still read it today, albeit with some difficulty.
“The Nun's Priest's Tale” is an example of a “beast fable,” which used animals to tell allegorical stories. These often appeared in elaborately illustrated books.
The depiction of animals (and anything else, for that matter) as human-like is called anthropomorphism, meaning to take on human form or characteristics. "The Dream of the Rood" contains an anthropomorphic treatment of a tree.
"The Canterbury Tales"
"The Canterbury Tales", which is comprised of 24 separate tales, recounts the story of religious pilgrims (pilgrimages were enormously popular at the time) on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England.
After the “General Prologue,” most of the pilgrims, such as the “nun’s priest” (i.e. a priest traveling with a Prioress and nun), are further introduced in a prologue of their own. We did not read “The Nun's Priest's Prologue.”
In “The Nun's Priest's Tale,” which we did read, this priest tells a story, involving barnyard animals, that is meant to be read allegorically not literally, as it is for the most part not about animals at all, but instead human beings.
For example, the words associated with Chauntecleer and Pertelote, such as "asure," "paramour," "damoisele," & "debonaire" (119-20), are in fact meant as a critique of England’s aristocracy, who largely spoke French in court. All of these words are of French origin. With biting irony, Chaucer is here describing aristocrats like cocky roosters decked in plumage trying to be what they are not.
In recent decades, literary critics have carefully looked at how disenfranchised groups, such as women, appear in the literature that we have inherited. In addition to gender, this issue has been considered on the registers of class, race, religious conviction, nationality, sexual preference, and so forth.
Only recently, however, have critics looked to previously overlooked, yet exceptionally marginalized groups: non-human entities, such as animals.
If we look carefully at Varro’s "On Agriculture", for example, we can learn a great deal about how the ancient Romans conceived of their relationship to non-human life, and the rights, or lack thereof, to which they thought such life was entitled. Obviously, Varro literally acts violently toward non-human beings.
The question, however, is what posture toward non-human life (in this case again birds) is contained in “The Nun's Priest's Tale.” Certainly, life on the widow’s farm is far more pleasant than on Varro’s; however, does speaking for animals, and depicting them anthropomorphically, do them any sort of service?
"The Canterbury Tales"
Depicting the lives of animals anthropomorphically does not begin with Chaucer. Aesop's fables, for example, used animals to tell human stories to great success in 6th century Greece. The story of the country mouse and the town mouse is one of Aesop's. Although existing for thousands of years, animal fables became enormously popular in England during the middle ages.
When we use animals to tell human stories, which we have obviously been doing for quite some time, what do we learn about the animals? For example, do we learn anything about country mice from Aesop? The moral of that story, that life in the country is better than the city, is about human life, not animal.
Because anthropomorphized depictions of animals often tell us very little about the lives of animals, they may do little to make us sympathize with non-human life. For example, “The Nun's Priest's Tale” is far less effective at making us sympathetic to chickens than is Varro’s book on agriculture.
On the other hand, anthropomorphically depicting animals can to some extent elicit sympathy for them, as it does make non-human life seem more “human.”
Anthropomorphic depictions of animals are exceptionally common in our culture.
Note that Steamboat Willie stands like, acts like, dresses like, talks like, and is most ways more like a person than a mouse, which he hardly resembles.
The question is, and I want to leave it as a question, do anthropomorphic depictions of animals make us more sympathetic to them, for example to chickens by way of Chauntecleer and Pertelote, or does it cause us to cease to see them as animals at all; instead as something resembling human beings?
In "The Dream of the Rood", we have a collision of early Christian and “pagan” worlds. In fact, we have two deities superimposed on each other, a soon-to-be metaphysical deity (Jesus) on his way home to be with his father in heaven, and a “pagan” deity who has been uprooted from the earth to be hewn into a cross. Both man and tree have been forced into the shape of a cross.
Similarly, early Christians called these and other individuals that worshiped nature “pagan,” which derives from the Latin pagus and pangere, which is to stick something into the ground, to firmly fix it there. Hence, to certain Christians, who believed that their own souls transcended the earth, “pagans” were people literally rooted in, as well as bound to, the planet.
"The Dream of the Rood" is an important text to consider as it provides an early example of how Christianity encountered “pagan” religions, something that it repeatedly did throughout its history in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere.
"The Dream of the Rood"
From our (environmental) perspective, these works are interesting as they depict animals as not only sentient, but surprisingly human-like.
Intro to the Environmental Humanities
1. Why approach environmental issues from a literary perspective?
2. Why do we read and study literature at all?
Why do we read and study literature at all?
1. Diversion (which is often also why we watch television and films).
2. Pleasure (vicarious pleasure, hence novels often have a romantic element).
3. Education / Edification (hopefully we learn something when we read).
4. To understand human nature (in so far as human nature--and what we value, such as beauty--does not change over time. This is New Criticism):

This critical approach was once an enormously influential; widely used by critics up
Full transcript