For some time I have taught with an Ecocritical approach without knowing it. It took a recent TEDx talk by my colleague Maria Trafford (https://youtu.be/TFfK_yas8F8 ) to make me consider it as a concrete and explicit line to be developed in my teaching. In her talk, Maria suggests that English Teachers can save the planet. Maybe we can, one text at a time.
Certainly we are in a position to open minds to a much wider awareness of the planet and its future under our stewardship.
I don’t intend to try to boil down to a refined and detailed exploration per se in this article, but rather to offer suggestions of approach against a number of texts and authors read widely in schools -mostly post-16.
I am guided by these 4 foci posited by Lawrence Buell:
1:The non human environment is present not merely as a framing device, but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. These might be seen in texts such as Gatsby, Finn and anything around the pioneer-settler-exploiter in American Literature
2:The human interest is understood to be the only legitimate interest. This might be seen in texts such as Jerusalem in which this area is often sidelined by sexual predation and teenage morals
3:Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. This might be seen in texts such as Dystopias (various), , Romanticism- Blake/Wordsworth -nature as the ‘sublime’ against Nature as a tangible working model (Clare)
4: Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in a text. These might be seen in texts such as Finn, Grapes of Wrath, Heaney’s early poems
Lawrence Buell, 1995: The environmental imagination: Thoreau, nature writing and the foundation of American Culture, London, Princeton Press.
So rather than leading students in a Thunbergesque journey of rebellion, however enticing that possibility might seem, we may be laying the foundation of an ecocritical thought pattern which can then colour all their reading and their response to all areas of the curriculum.
Perhaps the first place to start is in the Wilderness. Immediately our minds turn in a number of directions around texts like Lear and Macbeth, where an eschatological response to the wilderness as a foreteller of a Doom catches not just the spirit of the times, but establishes the use of the Wilderness to specify a non-Christian and doomed world, requiring rescue. Where Lear is bleak in the extreme, Macbeth offers this. The scenes in Act 4 in which we read the heavy Christian imagery around King Edward and his role in sheltering Malcolm’s army make this clear. Students might then like to look beyond ‘forest’ as mere camouflage. There is a clear idea of reforestation and a return of Scotland to a pre-lapsarian state of grace in the image of the army of the Lord moving North protected by the branches of Burnham Forest. However the clearest Wilderness tropes may be found in the American Literature texts we teach at A – Level for OCR.
Thanks to the inclusion of Huckleberry Finn in the syllabus, the 1880-1940 timeframe needs to move 50 years earlier to the time in which Finn is set -the 1830s. This is most useful and allows us scope to explore an America rather more clearly in the more innocent Pioneer age than in the Industrial Revolution of what will become the Gilded Age.
Few students initially show understanding of the pure American Dream – the dream of the first settlers to live in God’s teaching and to establish, by hard work and adherence to the Bible a degree of self sufficiency which will allow them to thrive. Even by the 1880s, the introduction of the search for profit and wealth has begun to intrude: the development of the railways and the land grabs of the lands beyond the Mississippi with their consequent persecution of the native Americans, whose voice simply does not exist in the literature of much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the wholesale slaughter of the animals of the Great Plains -the eradication of the Buffalo – can be seen as part of an assault on the environment which underpins most of our discussions of other areas of these texts.
For Twain, regarding the loss of his childhood way of life on the Mississippi, this is something to be mourned an in Finn he provides an elegy for a lost way of life whilst attacking the society of the West and South West to highlight the decay of the Dream.
Part of the understanding of the Pioneer age was the manner of living in harmony with the land, rather than seeing the land as ready for usurpation for profit. Huck, in his manifestation as a 14 year old Picaro, is able to both present this state of Innocence and also to point the reader to the danger of what is to come if the greed of the current generation is not tempered. On the island and on the raft he and Jim exist in a pre-lapsarian state of innocence – they cohabit nature and by hunting or fishing take only what they need to survive. They are removed from the hypocrites who inhabit wider society and the message is clear: this blissful state is linked directly to the closeness to nature and in particular the mighty Mississippi which holds them in its care. It is when contact is made with society that the message of loss becomes clear: broken steam boats which hint at the possibility of human ingenuity overreaching itself as it seeks to conquer nature; the Grangerford home full of plaster fruit, mawkish paintings and vile cruelty and stubborness; the filthy streets of Bricksville and the lazy degenerates who inhabit them and the ever present rape of land and body inherent in the slave plantations which Jim is seeking to escape whilst being borne ever closer to them. The fruit is interesting suggesting as it does the replacement of the idea of nurture and farming with the manufacture of a false reality which offers no benefit whatsoever to the boy. IN Bricksville we see a clearer picture of nature destroyed. A town has grown up to service the individual pioneer groups heading West and needing to cross the natural barrier of the river. Instead of prosperity we find filthy, mud-filled streets and a lazy population who wold rather bet on the outcome of pig and dog fights than to engage in any form of the hard physical labour which characterised the original settlers and subsistence farmers. This is a society which can spawn the Duke and Dauphin, and it should be noted that in this new environment, i tis nature which has been degraded in order to produce a new order of takers, the forerunners of the great industry barons of the North East who will seize on the end of the Civil War to create the ultimate taming of the continent -the railway and the prairie farm.
We may not spend too much time when reading My Antonia, Cather’s tale of the strength of a Bohemian settler who holds her family together, focusing on the idea of taking from nature. The book is so full of feminist tropes and of the idea of the gradual effect of urbanisation as a lure away from the land, yet we might give pause. As the settlers pushed Westward, the prairie lands became open for development and were planted with the wheat crops which now dominate millions of acres of the Mid-West. Ken Burns, in his documentary about prohibition is clear about one reason for the vast alcohol problems facing society by the middle of the 19th century – grain from the prairies. In short, the original settlers, working with the land, grew apples and pears (yes, it is Eden) and made quantities of Cider each year after harvest. Strong alcoholic cider, no doubt, but still cider. The emergence of grain in the unimaginably vast quantities achieved by the prairie farms led to the development of the growth in production of hard liquor – Bourbon. It is not a huge leap, therefore to seeing the ‘taming’ of the available land in search for profit of having a direct impact on the social and moral model of society itself. This idea can then be picked up in a text like Gatsby as we can link Gatsby’s bootleg empire directly to the behaviour of those who tamed the landscape to create vast farms and in so doing removed the indigenous populations, wild flora and fauna which had been present since time immemorial. Behaviour has a wider unintended impact. Always. (And then there’s the gold rush… The ultimate example of violation of natural resources serving to degrade human morality over time).
That the wilderness may be the antithesis of an Eden – a pure natural land inhabited by people in a state of innocence might be a way to move to a look into the Pastoral – the Classical vision of nature, as opposed to the urban environment – which dates from the time of Theocritus (3rd Century BCE), via Virgil (1st Century ACE) who writes in his Eclogues of the sorrow felt witnessing deforestation of the hills of central Italy by the Roman industrial and military machine, through Shakespeare’s Arden to the forest of Flintock in Butterworth’s Jerusalem. The Pastoral has been widely discussed on this blog in its role as refuge, rebirth, re-education and so forth, but we need to make the implicit explicit in our discussions. When Jerusalem is taught, there are numerous strands to follow – this is one of the most sheerly exciting texts I have ever taught. For most students however, the narrative line around Johnny Byron, the missing teenager Phaedra, the illicit drug and alcohol fuelled ‘gatherings’ in the forest drive the tale. Fine, but over close focus on this area leads to a downplaying of the crux of the confrontation between Johnny and the forces of authority in the council -the forest.
At the heart of the play lies the eviction of Johnny, a squatter in the forest for over 20 years in an encampment strewn with the detritus of society but which is working with, rather against nature because the council wish to destroy the forest – one of the ancient symbols of England – in order to build houses. For profit of course. It should be no surprise that the actor and writer MacKenzie Crook, who played Ginger in the original production of the play is on record as acknowledging this play as a major stimulus for his wonderful Pastoral series The Detectorists. The crux is simple – if Man violates nature, the outcome is suffering on a major scale. In the series Lance having found some gold feels obliged to make an offering back to the Earth to reestablish his ‘good luck’. This sense of acknowledging an altogether older life force, one which predates human ‘ownership’ of the land is visible in Jerusalem in terms of the myths created by Johnny around the giant who built Stonehenge and the sense of vastness of his list of ancestors, including Norse figures of antiquity and the fabled giants Gog and Magog. In answer to Fawcett’s claim that the council own the forest, he posits the unanswerable question: ‘What the fuck is an English forest for?’ He answers this in the magical speech given in answer to Phaedra’s naive question about seeing elves. His forest is a place of ancient magic, a place of refuge, a place of sanctuary, a place in which humans are reduced to their base instincts – in which the link between human and animal is properly established.
Because forests are not about Innocence and religion can get in the way. German forests are places of terror throughout the folk tales of Grimm and other writers – nature should frighten us. But this can give a problem. For the Romantics nature led to the Sublime – the sense of awe and wonder inherent in the vastness of things as opposed to the individual. In the Prelude, Wordsworth can celebrate both his own escape from the urban prison to the natural freedom of the Lake District and well as trace the development of his awareness of the sublime whether by spinning on a frozen lake or stealing a boat and sailing into the middle of lake at midnight. This is a world in which the natural can be seen as leading puny humans into a better understanding of their place in a wide natural world. This seems different to the message of Classical Pastoral which seems not to be as ‘big’. Blake seems to straddle the two ideas in the poem Jerusalem – the green and pleasant land has been raped by the dark satanic mills, and even if God did walk in England – the Industrial revolution has seen him off for good ( or bad, as it were). A clear message akin to Twain’s that modernity has led to a Fall from a purer time.
So by placing nature at the front of our thoughts we can begin to have some fun. In The Merchant’s Tale May is plucked from the market place like a piece of fruit, suggesting a Fall. Januarie makes a locus amoenus for his depraved sexual activities. This Eden, complete with pair tree (the scrotal aspect of the fruit is stressed as we recognise the essential phallic symbolism) is the location of his cuckolding. Thus the apparently ‘good’ can be tainted simply by the presence of the Fallen Human. This sense of decay and construction of a false natural environment can be turned to prefigure the Grangerford’s similar lack of purity in a world of human-constructed nature.
The use of eco crit to look at Dystopia can be equally illuminating. It may seem odd to beign with Keats in this context, but the bleached and wrecked sedge around the lake in which the poem is placed: a dystopian image in which memorably ‘no birds sing’ a true vision of a Dystopian landscape which might find its place in The Road or other post-apocalyptic dystopias. Destroy nature – destroy humanity. Equally by recovering nature whether by re-wilding and simply re-entering nature (as a Paradise regained) the humans who are deprived of their essential humanity can begin to recover it, warts and all. We see this in Orwell and Zamyatin as the protagonists find some form of solace in escaping to Burnham Beeches (ah, the irony… Come friendly bombs…) or to the Green area beyond the limits of the urban environment. The ultimate betrayal of the link between nature and mankind is seen in surveillance being continued in these places – they should be places of sanctuary -too often they are not. We could suggest that in these mini-Edens the serpent is in place: a cruel controlling society. God, it seems, has sabotaged nature just as effectively as Big Brother.
All this leaves one more area to explore in this article. The 4th bullet in the list at the start of the article was related to the environment as a process rather than as a constant. I have stressed this in reading Death of a Naturalist this term. Heaney writes of a land which is in flux. A land in which heritage covers both careful husbandry of nature and also the effects of famine and the idea that land can be owned at all.
and many more…
In the ‘farming’ poems in the collection, the environment is pre-eminent. The landscape gives the farmer their livelihood and peat digging is a surgical exercise – nicking and cutting. A Flax Dam can be a source of inspiration for a young man, stinking as it is, but yet the young man, repulsed can turn his back on it and move to an urban environment – the type of environment in which people lose the ability to respond humanely or strive to impose unsuitable external rules on nature – townsfolk just do not understand the relationship between life and death in nature and the way in which ‘cruelty’ is actually necessity.
In the famine poems though, the critic needs to track the preeminence of the environment in relation to human interference. The potato famine was caused by a fungus which destroyed the tubers. Yet whilst in Ireland this lead to widespread death and suffering, and ultimately to the depopulation of the land. in other potato dependent societies such as Scotland, the level of suffering was not the same. The key is the level of Government control. Ireland had access to other sources of food. For the British Government, the need to maximise profit meant that the lives of their colonial subjects was held to be less valuable than profit. They owned the land, and, secure in a Christian narrative in which God has given Eden for Man to use and to profit from – being the top of the natural pyramid – they claimed ownership from London of land farmed in Ireland and denied the farmers the right to eat their grown produce as certainly as Slave Owners in the Southern USA denied their slaves any share in the bounty of the plantations. In other words, students need to begin to see the link between capitalism and control of nature. Once this is understood, then wider discussions of the link between nature and the texts which we read can begin to really take off.