"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Jonathan Bate, "The Song of the Earth," Lawrence Buell, "Writing for an Endangered World"

Sep 1, 2003

Whenever it enrolls enough students, I teach a course called “American Nature Writing” with the hope it will enhance my students’ pleasure in reading about nature. There are no class visits to New Jersey’s famous Great Swamp. Political action for the environment doesn’t help their grade. Simply put, I believe pleasure, literary pleasure, is crucial to environmental concern.

I took my first college literature course in a Jesuit seminary. I still resonate with the sense of wonder and joy that slowly dawned on me as our Jesuit teacher persuaded us of the importance of beauty and the autonomy of literature. I had expected the whole of our seminary education to be strictly subordinated to our future religious work. But apparently not literature, not beauty. They were good in themselves, whatever secondary effects they might work. It’s not, I think, blasphemous to say that the environment is as important to us today as religion, a matter of physical survival, as religion is a matter of spiritual survival.

In Lawrence Buell’s earlier The Environmental Imagination1, his priorities are clear: “I hope I do not need to spend many pages defending the reasonableness of the claim that ‘we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization.’” He is quoting Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance2 and he goes on to lay down a challenge to post-modern literary criticism. The nature writer may not indulge in the peekaboo ironies of pure fiction. Nature writing is fictive only in so far as all writing is. But nature writing is of no value unless it acknowledges and respects the actualities of the world it describes. None of us wants to read about a natural world the writer playfully makes up as he goes along. Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and many others, have taught us to expect their writings to contain exact information, real knowledge, sometimes even science. Without those qualities, why read them?

In Buell's current work, however, there is another challenge, one which remains unspoken. It is a challenge to the priority of the esthetic. Some nature writing is primarily rhetorical, an instrument in the campaign to preserve the environment, for instance, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But the question that Buell doesn’t raise is whether it is always or only rhetorical. Is there an environmental role for nature writing whose aim is primarily esthetic? Is there a role, in other words, for esthetic experience in the life of a dedicated environmentalist, as I was taught there was in the life of a dedicated priest? Take Thoreau’s Walden, for instance, as the paradigm example of nature writing. When people ask me what nature writing is, usually all I have to say is Walden, and they understand. It’s obvious that Thoreau wrote Walden in rhetorical high gear. He exhorted his readers to call into question their slavery to dullness. But the language of his exhortation is as multifaceted as a whole jewel case of diamonds. It often becomes -- as for instance, the passage about the ice coming out of the sand bank -- so fascinating and delightful in itself that the sheer exuberance of his language rivals the depth and scope of his meaning. The shape the sand takes, he tells us, resembles “the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens.” The words are technically exact, and yet they are deployed in an almost Homeric rhythm. Thoreau is enjoying himself. The passage from which these words are taken is a poetic high point in the chapter on “Spring,” a chapter which repeatedly explodes in linguistic fireworks. In reading Thoreau it is hard to distinguish the satisfaction we take in his insights from the joy we take in his mastery of language. Perry Miller, Harvard’s former great scholar of New England culture, wasn’t sure he liked this aspect of Thoreau3. Does the dedicated environmentalist like it? May he? May the dedicated environmentalist set aside, for the moment, his commitment to environmental action and allow himself to indulge in the simple pleasure of words about the world.

The difference I see between the two books under review is that Buell doesn’t confront this question and Jonathan Bate does. Buell’s book is encyclopedic rather than analytic. He touches on a vast amount of material, but threads no argument through it. He makes no distinction between literary texts and other texts. He reduces the meaning possibilities of a text to the political meaning it had at the time it was written. Yet it is the nature of literary texts to swell with potential meaning. Literary texts float free of their moment in time. They are carried along on the currents of culture embodying in a structure of words meanings that are both constant and endlessly open. This is why they continue to be read long after their own time and some texts will not. It is not clear to me that Buell has any interest in the literary qualities of the books he considers. They are simply books about the environment. Whether the experience of reading them is an esthetic experience, and whether that esthetic experience relates to saving the environment is a question that doesn’t come up.

Buell’s two-hundred and sixty-five pages of text are weighed down by seventy-four pages of notes. In terms of word count, they represent about thirty-five to forty percent of the total. The writing is irritating, characterized by an amazing freedom at coining neologisms: ethnic identitarian, Eliotic ennui, palatial (referring to place), conscienceful, declensionary vision, propertarian teleology (referring to property), civilizationalism, titanicism, vicarity (referring to vicarious), interspeciesism, and formulistically. This is so bad-mannered that after a while it begins to seem silly. The lack of a clear argument and the bad manners make it hard to read much of Buell at a sitting. Still, young professors of nature writing who want tenure will have to refer to him.

Jonathan Bate’s Song of the Earth is an altogether different matter, though it too covers a vast body of literary works. He calls his book an experiment in ecopoetics: Because Central Park is a ‘work of art’, it is a representation of the state of nature. But that does not make it unreal: it is a representation which we may experience, a re-creational space in which we can walk and breathe and play. In the remainder of this book, I want to consider the possibility that other works of art, mostly poems, may create for the mind the same kind of re-creational space that a park creates for the body. (64)

The ecopoetic experiment is to see what happens when we think of poems in this way.

It is important to notice where Bate starts. He does not start with the urgency of the environmental crisis. He starts with an analogy that explains how poetry works, sets up his experiment, and only then moves on to the crisis. The nature of the crisis becomes clear when he compares it with two other important social crises of our time, feminism and multi-culturalism. Women and people of color employed feminist and post-colonialist criticism to bring about a revolution in social values. But the environment, nature, unlike women and people of color, is not a subject and does not speak. The voice of the ecocritic speaks not on his or her own behalf, but on behalf of “the Other.” (72) The ecocritic is outside nature speaking on nature’s behalf, and yet the ecocritic is also a part of nature. Bates’s next move is, for me, the important one: He abandons ecocriticism for ecopoetics, moving from rhetoric to poetry, from defense of the environment to the evocation of nature. Bates makes his move by invoking the pastoral convention in which the poet withdraws in imagination from the rush of history and society to recreate the simplicity of life in nature. The poet does not criticize but makes a poem, and in doing so makes a dwelling place for human kind in nature–and not only human kind. Here is the esthetic dimension of environmentalism, the pleasure we take in the text, the imaginative evocation of nature by which it becomes our dwelling place. “There is no doubt that the pastoral theme is, in fact, the only poetic theme, that it is poetry itself,” he says, citing Paul de Man. (75) All poetry is the making of a dwelling place for man in nature.

At this point we see where the experiment is going. Bate has discovered the general hypothesis that will shape the rest of his evidence. He doesn’t, but I call it the pastoral hypothesis. Bate turns to Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” and tells us that “in order to read it livingly in the age of ecocide we must begin with the knowledge that have no choice but to live with the weather.” (102) In “Ode to Autumn,” “the self is dissolved into the ecosystem. . . . The human figures in the central stanza–winnower, reaper, gleaner and cider-presser–are not in process of ‘working over inorganic nature’ in the manner of Marxian man. They are suspended, immobile.” (107) “There is no sense of river, hill and sky as the opposite of house and garden.” (109) All of nature is our dwelling place. Going on to speak of the picturesque he makes the importance of the esthetic explicit: When we contract ourselves to respond sympathetically to an artwork, we are following the same logic as when we let ourselves go and inhale the fresh air of the park or the country. Even as it is a cry against the commodification and instrumentalization that characterize modernity, contemplation of the beauty of art and nature is a strong and necessary deed. (123)

He continues: “the earth may only be healed if the human mind becomes a mansion for all lovely forms instead of an engine-house for the invention of an ‘infinity of devices by which we might enjoy, without any effort, the fruits of the earth and all its commodities.” (151) But doesn’t the pastoral convention imply that “the bond with nature is forged in a retreat from social commitment, that it is a symptom of middle-class escapism”? (164) On the contrary, the project of pursuing the rights of man is a part, in poetry, of the project of pursuing the rights of nature: The universal rights of nature cannot effectively be declared in a systematic treatise; they can only be expressed by means of celebratory narrative. They require. . . a Romantic riot of sketches, fragments and tales–narratives of community, reminiscences of walking and working, vignettes of birds and their nests, animations of children and insects and grass.” (170)

The movement of Bate’s thought is by now, I hope, clear. Poetry dissolves the boundaries between the disconnected human mind and the natural world, dissolves the opposition between human interests and the “interests” of nature. The literature of national identity gives way, in poetry, to the literature of regions, locales, ecosystems. In literary discourse we understand not other persons and things, but, citing Paul Ricoeur, “the outline of a new way of being in the world.” (250) There are dangers: Translated into political system ecopoetics may become fascism, romantic neofeudalism, utopian socialism, or philosophical anarchism. (268) On the other hand, a sane ecopoetics seeks not to use literary texts, “but to meditate upon them, to thank them, to listen to them, albeit to ask questions of them.”

I have had to strip away the leafy branches of this rich book to reveal the trunk of its thought. I regret that. There is so much here of both philosophy and literature. Bate proceeds dialectically, complicating but enriching as he goes. But in the end what recommends his book is that he knows what poetry is. I like his concluding sentence. “If mortals dwell in that they save the earth and if poetry is the original admission of dwelling, then poetry is the place where we save the earth.”

*The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1995.

**Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 269.

***Consciousness in Concord: The Text of Thoreau's Hitherto "Lost Journal" (1840-1841) Together with Notes and Commentary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.

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