Barry MacSweeney’s 1997 collection The Book of Demons contains two poetic sequences, ‘Pearl’ and ‘The Book of Demons’. In the latter sequence, MacSweeney depicts an uncompromising destruction of the human subject by means of the alcoholic demons which were eventually to kill MacSweeney himself. Although in hell with the demons, MacSweeney is in heaven with ‘Pearl’, in a poetic exploration of the moorland romance he experiences with his first love. A dramatic contrast is thus established between the apparently urbanised world of demonic suffering (complete with the poet “drunken to the last, flung / to the lost in the final Labour council-run / public toilet on earth”) and the moorland world of Pearl (“Pearl in the Borage up to her waist. / Pearl in the wildmint. / Pearl in the wind-spilled water.”). In this essay Jarvis examines whether MacSweeney’s use of moorland landscape is merely a version of the postmodern nostalgia that Frederic Jameson outlines, or whether it crucially provides the image by which MacSweeney poetically figures nothing less than salvation itself.
Nature’s gendering as female and the perception of women as being closer to nature than men is exploited and resisted by Anya Gallaccio in her site-specific artworks such as Forest Floor, Keep off the Grass and Repens. Her use of plants as sculptural material questions their associations with femininity and the domestic, and can be historicized with the work of Land Artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Harriet Feuggenbaum and Dominique Mazeud. Utilising Kleinian theory and drawing on the ideas of Julia Kristeva, this essay argues that Gallaccio collapses artifice, representation and simulacra into the strange and sinister, upsetting assumptions about the cultural stereotypes of femininity and creating subtly anarchic feminist works
Addressing problems of humanism and hierarchy in Heidegger’s concept of dwelling, this essay will attempt to show how Merleau-Ponty, in dialogue Heidegger, restores humans to their place within the living world of Brute or Wild Being that transcends us. Rather than seeing humans as the only beings capable of Dasein, the only ones for whom Being comes into presence as Heidegger does, Merleau-Ponty asserts the plenitude of Being active within the whole flesh of the world. For him, ‘dwelling’ would be an intertwining within an historical unfolding congruent with biological evolution and the insights of modern physics. Creativity is then the unfolding, ever novel form of Being which includes earth and its denizens, as well as the cosmos. A post-humanist ecological ethics can be shaped from Heidegger’s ideas of the ‘saving grace’ possible in human caring, but adapted according to Merleau-Ponty’s perspective, to participate within the larger community of kindred beings in our biosphere, who also may be understood as having agency and sentience.
The last native wolves in Germany were shot in the middle of the nineteenth century. The untamed landscapes of the American Wild West are without equivalent in a densely populated country where nature has been shaped and reshaped by its human inhabitants over the centuries. Nevertheless, the wild, be it in the form of those mountains and forests which are still perceived as constituting a challenge or threat to civilisation, or of Gypsies eking out a nomadic existence on the fringe of society, has exercised a particular fascination in German culture. This essay focuses on Otto Alscher (1880-1944), the “hermit of Orsowa”, friend of Romanian gypsies, and hunter of bears and wolves in the Carpathian mountains. His novels and stories are examined for their political implications and situated in the context of shifting modern attitudes towards wild animals.
The natural world offers a series of examples by which, and through which, humankind may learn to appreciate God: this is a familiar literary topos in Langland, often neatly summed up in the phrase, ‘the world as a book’. Such a phrase, which carries implications of reading and interpretation, sets humans somehow apart from the volume we read. What is interesting is that although in one way the trope of world as book must rely on some degree of separation (how else is it possible to read?), it also fundamentally relies on inclusion and the question raised becomes precisely that of the relation of human to natural world; of reader to text. The analogy of reading is useful, because reading necessarily involves interpretation, understanding and, frequently, confusion, paradox, lack of resolution; all of which also arise in environmental or ecological discussion. In the middle ages, there was the added dimension of reading words being the province of the relatively few, whereas the book of nature was, in theory at least, open to all. How much is the apparently thoroughly literary topos of the Malvern Hills also informed by a personal reaction to a precise geography? And Langland has used the phrase “in a mirour that highte Middelerthe”. Are we to conclude that what we see in the world around us is necessarily dictated by what we ourselves are? Is it the case that all that we can see is, in effect, ourselves? However hard we resist, are we inevitably anthropocentric and narcissistic? This discussion explores Langland’s response to this problem, while recognising that he would not have articulated it in these terms.
Can environmental writing help break down the wall of human/nature dualism that has long separated western culture from the larger-than-human-world? Critical thought can help by tackling concepts like anthropomorphism and sentimentality whose main function is to delegitimate boundary breakdown between the human and non-human. But creative writing can also play an important part by making visible new possibilities for radically open and non-reductive ways to experience the world. Western philosophy, with its obsessive focus on human consciousness, has only with difficulty extended respect and consideration beyond the human to the human-like – animals and living things, excluding items like rivers or stones.
In western culture and philosophy, stones have not been given an honoured place, and mind is seen as the pinnacle of existence, a pinnacle our species and ours alone, has climbed. For we moderns, stones are insignificant and anonymous, often in our way, but sometimes useful for our projects when torn from their place and history, crushed to pave roads and paths. Stone is dead matter, a mere resource or pure enabler – its character uninteresting, expressive of nothing but meaningless coincidence. Yet even the smallest stone represents an amazing conjunction of earth forces whose complexity puts to shame the puny puzzlings of humankind. If stone is the skeleton of our planet, and the dirt its flesh, humanity is an insignificant piece of the biota, a microscopic flea in the jungle of flora and fauna that lives upon its body. The culture that refuses honour to stones refuses honour also to the great earth forces that have shaped and placed them. The eviction of spirit and honour from stones and from the earth is one of the greatest crimes of modernity.
This is an account of how we can see stones differently, as individuals, as makers of meaning, as prophets, teachers and tellers of tales, and of how Plumwood found all this and more in the Heartstone, an unusual stone with impressive powers of metaphor.
For Emerson and those nature writers who followed his lead, it is the belief in nature’s permanence and consistency which allows them to pursue the project of deriving ‘spiritual facts’ from ‘natural facts,’ making nature the normative ground on which to raise their critiques of modern society.
In her novel Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson unmoors this ‘House of Emerson,’ the intellectual heritage of American transcendentalism. In her representations of the natural world, the protagonist Ruth employs a typological language that reverberates strongly with that of Emerson and Thoreau. However, rather than using this language to gesture towards an originary moment of unmediated experience in which the individual mind is aligned with nature’s transcendent design, her version of typology becomes a means of coping with the loss of her dead mother. This essay examines Robinson’s paradoxical method of conjuring presence from absence – her metaphors become as transient as the lifestyle that she embraces at the end of the novel. It is a therapeutic effort to ‘make the world comprehensible and whole’ undertaken in full knowledge of its ultimate futility, ‘a blossom of need’, in Robinson’s diction.
Housekeeping can be read as appropriating and rewriting a tradition which, while professing to leave behind the merely human for a higher order of being, has frequently ended up using nature to empower the subject, to validate its sense of ownership and to naturalise conventional assumptions about gender and nation. It takes seriously the notion of nature’s radical otherness and develops a highly selfreflexive language dramatising the cognitive and ethical quandaries that it entails. Robinson sketches out a version of the sublime that does not subsume its moment of negativity in the sweep towards an affirmation of humankind’s special place in the scheme of things. She reminds her readers that leaving behind anthropocentrism – if it is possible – also means abandoning the oikos, the idea of nature as our home.