Posts in category "Ecocriticism"

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Some green thoughts in a green shade, finally

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The invitation to do this blog made me discover several things. One—I love blogging! Two—how great to discuss things with others in slow motion, with careful reading and quiet writing, from the comfort of my introverted indoor space. Kurt and Ash, Ron and Steve, and our readers and commenters, thank you all so much.

Another thing I learnt, as I struggled with blogging form: We owe it to non-humanities people to express our ideas in a way with which they can engage.

Ecological criticism is one mode in which we can do this, easily.

That doesn't mean dumbing down our arguments. It simply means being able to say them in a language that isn't an insider discourse. I very nearly said "jargon"—yikes!

I'm averse to "the jargon of authenticity." Ecocriticism is full of it. I want to make it safe to think ecology and think theory together, simultaneously.

I know what Kurt means. Yet, even though the right might use a “there is no nature” argument to support “drill, baby, drill,” we still owe it to people to tell them what we think is true. I don't think there is a nature. I don't think there ever was a nature. Capitalism didn't destroy it. You can't destroy something that doesn't exist. But capitalism certainly seems to be waging an unrelening war against lifeforms and the biosphere.

I believe we can explain this to people in a way that is as profound and disturbing as the best deconstruction, but in a way that non-scholars will get.

I also think we should be in the business of setting the scientific experimental agenda. Here's one for starters, with profound ecological consequences:

Is consciousness intentional?

You can read more about that one in The Ecological Thought when it comes out in 2009.

Who would like to start a web page where humanities scholars suggest experiments that don't automatically assume ideological things about reality?

The nature of the economy

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Luckily this is all going down in an election year.

We the people are figuring out that we, the people are—the people.

Not just little individuals in our cul de sacs with big old govt. intruding and doing it wrong, and/or protecting our nation (whatever that is). No: we are the nation.

We have the power. We hold the purse strings.

It's our choice what we want to see on Wall St. and it's our choice to pay, and how to pay.

"The economy" has suddenly ceased being this weird thing happening "over there" like a mountain range.

It's in your wallet. It's in your debts. It's in your bills. It's just like ecology without nature: when you realize everything is connected, nature withers away. “Ecology may be without nature. But it is not without us.” (Last sentence of Ecology without Nature.)

What a wonderful learning curve we're on! It feels good to be alive.

Blink Charlie! Blink! It'll moisten your eyes.

The Ambient President

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2001: 9/11 (Bush on holiday with dossier that says “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in Mainland USA”)

2003– Iraq (“Stuff happens”)

2005 Hurricane Katrina

2008 Wall Street implodes

Anyone see a pattern here?

Apres moi le deluge needs to be updated to “Simultaneously with moi, le deluge”—no?

Capitalism is reactive. The environmental crisis demands proactive attention (as does everything else on this list...).

Creationism in a New Key

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Richard Keynes—the British physiologist and a direct descendant of Charles Darwin—has recently noted that it was actually mockingbirds rather than the finches that led to Darwin’s earliest intuitions about the mutability of species. Darwin's ornithological notes first point out that Spanish sailors can tell you the precise island that any tortoise comes from based entirely on the shape and size of its saddle-shaped carapace ("galápago" in Spanish). Darwin then adds, of his own recently collected specimens of mockingbird, that each "kin" (species, type) is found "exclusively" on only one island. If each of these islands has a different tortoise, and each a different mockingbird, then these different species must have gotten here somehow. Since they could not have all traveled here via water, some creatures must have been "created" here. They must have taken shape here. They must have evolved. In the next sentence, Darwin drops the scientific bombshell that will send shock waves shuddering through the next two centuries. The facts that Darwin has recorded, he says, a few simple observations about tortoises and mockingbirds, might—here he almost pauses in his own syntax—"undermine the stability of Species." God did not make every type of creature in a fixed and unalterable way in seven days, or seven eons. The laws of nature have generated creatures since the beginning of life on earth, and those laws continue to make new creatures today. Creation is happening right now.

All plants and animals on the Galápagos Islands are aboriginal, native and indigenous. Even today many are still found nowhere else on earth. All of these creatures, however, "show a marked relationship" (Darwin's diction) with their distant relatives on the mainland. Darwin could not say "their genetic relatives" because genetics would have to wait half a century for Gregor Mendel to start breeding and cross-breeding his peapods in clay pots. But Charles Darwin soon understood, as his grandfather Erasmus’s poetic description of evolution had implied, that all the giant tortoises on Albemarle Island (later called Isabella) had a kinship with their much smaller relatives back in Guayaquil on the South American mainland. These might all be aboriginal creatures, but they were all also linked to similar species on each of these islands and, even more remarkably, to their mainland relatives. Darwin called the Galápagos archipelago "a little world within itself." The idea behind his metaphor suggests that our entire planet might also be small enough to be covered with creatures that are all, in complex ways, related. He was right, of course, and the truth about that set of relationships is precisely the truth that his "Origin of Species" would confirm in 1859, more than two decades after the Beagle voyage ended.

The Galápagos Islands on which Darwin landed in 1835 were not the desirable destination of today’s eco-tourists. Herman Melville, writing two decades after Darwin’s visit, called them "heaps of cinder" in an isolated expanse of ocean, more desolate than any spot on the planet. Darwin himself called them beautiful, but he was referring only to the symmetry of their volcanic craters, a geologist’s paradise. A page later he says that no landscape could be less inviting than one’s first sight of the Galápagos island then called Chatam, now called San Cristobal. We can draw directly on Darwin’s own diction to give the full effect of this first sight. The lava looks like waves, he says, broken by great cracks and fissures, the whole scene covered with sunburned and stunted scrub-wood. There are almost no signs of life. The surface is parched and dry. The atmosphere is sultry and close. You feel as though you are standing next to a burning stove. The bushes literally stink. Even this greatest of all specimen collectors found it hard to collect here. On that famous first day ashore he had collected only a few wretched little weeds that seemed as though they should have come from an arctic landscape, not from the sunny equator. The shrubs looked as leafless as in winter, but in fact their tiny leaves were fully out, and even their flowers were in bloom. He had to get magnifier-close before he could see this indistinct detail of natural history. The tiny flowerets and leaves were almost invisible, a good lesson for any nature watcher. Only after a season of heavy rain were these islands even partially green. The same is true today. Not a very likely tourist destination, perhaps, but then it is Darwin’s own writing that has changed all of that a century and a half later. Luxury ecotouristic yacht trip, anyone?


Outlandish Dwelling: “The Raven,” Part Last

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Returning from the flurry of the start of the semester, I want to consider the close of Coleridge’s “The Raven” (much as Tim has now brought to a close his wonderful readings of “The Rime”).  When we last left our bird, he’d returned to the oak—now “grown a tall oak tree”—and brought along with him a “She.”  The pair built themselves “a nest in the topmost bough, / And young ones they had, and were happy enow.”  But avian tragedy ensues in full, dramatic measure:

But soon came a Woodman in leathern guise,
His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes.
He’d an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke,
But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven’s own oak.
His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
And their mother did die of a broken heart.

Many a reader of Thoreau’s Walden will halt (“Pause, Dweller!”) at the text’s mention of the Woodman’s brow, pendulous “like a pent-house.” Coleridge may have adapted this simile of a slant-roofed forehead from Dryden’s description of “pent-house eye-brows” (King Arthur III.i.30).  But the relation to dwelling, in this context of a woodman cutting down a tree that will be transformed into a ship, suggests more than appearance.  The Woodman uncannily conveys lean-to houseness with him in his human bearing and attitudes: human ecology (conceptualized dwelling, houseness, the [un]heimlich) trumps and destroys an avian ecosystem and its dwellers.  The Woodman’s “guise” moreover suggests something less than authentic, as if he were playing a role as an actor or agent of transformative dwelling: my dwelling from yours.  So the poem’s vision of eco-nomy seems to go.  The Raven’s “own oak,” dwelt in but not of course “owned” in human terms of commerce and property rights, is “brought down,” and the young birds, unable yet to fly, are “killed” by the Woodman’s action.  This scene is obviously conveyed with a good deal of anthropomorphism.  Even the word “own” smacks of human possession.  And then there’s the sentimental mother raven’s death from “a broken heart.”  Pathetic fallacy, anyone?

Yet I can’t help but recall a memory from my youth.  Goose hunting one early morning on a reedy lake in Washington state (USA), I listened to a lone goose forlornly calling as he or she circled and circled round our boat.  My father and I both surmised that the bird was calling for its missing mate, who likely had been shot down by some other hunter.  Was that goose’s heart “broken”?  Who can say?  That it called and called, and that its vocalizations conveyed a sense of mournful loss—well, those were my burdensome impressions then (and, however sentimental and erroneous, no doubt later played a part in my becoming a vegetarian).  Emotional suffering is not the sole domain of humankind.

Now comes the transformation, perhaps along the lines of what Ashton Nichols heralds as “urbanature,” whereby nature is converted not into Hegelian-Emersonian culture but into that nature forged by human animals as another—“green” or not-so-green--portion of the world.  Beavers use trees to make dams; humans use them to build houses and ships (and poems):

The boughs from the trunk the woodman did sever;
And they floated it down on the course of the river.
They sawed it in planks, and its bark they did strip,
And with this tree and others they made a good ship.

Now for the ironic close, whereby human mastery is thwarted.  Poetic justice or just bad luck?  Or is this finale best read allegorically, for instance regarding late eighteenth-century British politics?  Certainly the poem (composed circa 1798) alludes to many a past shipwreck, and also eerily foreshadows, at least to my eyes, the wreck of John Wordsworth’s ship in 1805:

The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship would withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush’d in fast;
Round and round flew the Raven, and cawed to the blast.
He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls–
See! see! o’er the topmast the mad water rolls!

Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,

And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank’d him again and again for this treat:

They had taken his all, and REVENGE IT WAS SWEET

All the mariners drown in the shipwreck, and the ship itself vanishes beneath the waves.  With this disaster comes the poem’s anthropomorphic, almost surreal, zinger: the raven feels “right glad” and indeed grateful for this shipwreck--so much so that he repeatedly thanks a home-bound, dwelling-aimed “Death” on his pale cloud.  “They,” human landlubbers and mariners alike, “had taken his all,” his young ones and wife, and so “revenge” tasted “sweet.”  A bird feel (and taste) revenge? Surely this point is where the poem slips off the rails of all verisimilitude, if it ever rode them at all.  And of course all along the poem has operated as a fable with stock figures: “Woodman,” “Raven,” “Oak,” etc.  Yet if Coleridge and Wordsworth could elsewhere ponder emotional-neuronal connections and correspondences between humans and animals (notably birds) regarding joy or happiness, why not less appealing emotions, as well?  Who is to say that revenge has no animal analog or source?  Outlandish as this fable becomes in terms of the distraught Raven’s tracking of the oak’s journey and material transformation, and of the bird’s own grief and anger—outlandish as these things are, they give me pause.  For that out-land of distinction, of distance, is a “natural” separation we rely on very much: our difference from birds and all animals, even the most “intelligent” of animals.  There’s much here to ponder, “though inland far we be.”

Like Coleridge’s “Rime,” his “Raven” risks being too simply reduced to an eco-morality tale, where destructive human actions are justly decried.  The poem soon becomes a plea for habitat preservation--or to be destroyed at our peril. But of course the poem doesn’t make this moral so easy, anymore than does “The Rime.”  The bird does not quite exact his revenge (he doesn’t cause the storm), but he fully enjoys the ship’s and mariners’ destruction.  Morality play then becomes revenge play. Revenge seems to be a feeling that is outlandishly our own: a form of feeling policed and cathartically controlled since at least Homer’s Iliad.  Revenge is socially toxic, transforming men into beasts (of war), and it is thus also quintessentially “human.”  Along with grief and sex, the feeling of vengeance is one of the key driving forces behind art—at least behind ancient-heroic art.  In Coleridge’s forged fable vengeance is not like an animal emotion, it IS one.  The fable arguably views all emotions as natural, with the difference between animal and human a matter more of degree than kind, however much we may prefer to see it differently.  Our houses, our furniture and culture, come from other animals’ dwellings or dwelling places, as parts of a larger, global transformation not of nature into culture so much as of dwelling into dwelling, with a dash of the unheimlich, of an unhomely, uncanny sense of loss and lurking revenge, to discomfort us under our roofs and penthouse brows.  (More to come.)


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Quotation of the week from my man Thomas Merton.

This is apopros of Sarah Palin, Pentacostalism, and the prospect of another end times apocalypticist in control of the planet.

This is where the ecological rubber meets the road folks! Are you registered to vote yet?

Here is my favorite part of a favorite essay, called “The Moral Theology of the Devil”:

as might be expected, the moral theology of the devil grants an altogether unusual amount of importance to … the devil. Indeed one soon comes to find out that he is the very center of the whole system. That he is behind everything. That he is moving everybody in the world except ourselves. That he is out to get even with us. And that there is every chance of his doing so because, it now appears, his power is equal to that of God, or even perhaps superior to it …

In one word, the theology of the devil is purely and simply that the devil is god.

New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972), 90–7

The ecological thought—ecologocentric insert

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Hi again.

School starts soon (quarter system). I returned from the retreats. And I'm finishing an essay called “Ecologocentrism: Unworking Animals,” for SubStance.

All feeble excuses for my not yet posting my final thoughts on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

They're about the sheer “thereness” of existence, its density—what “world” subsumes and half erases. And its relation to intimacy.

I've been getting some excellent feedback on my first draft of The Ecological Thought.

The SubStance essay is a study of Solaris, the incredible science fiction story of a psychologist's encounter with a radically other mind.

It claims that just as Derrida argues that logocentrism underlies Western philosophy's attempt to ground meaning in an essential form, I hold that ecologocentrism underpins most environmentalist philosophy, preventing access to the full scope of interconnectedness.

Thinking, even environmentalist thinking, has set up “Nature” as a reified thing in the distance, “over there,” under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener, preferably in the mountains, in the wild.  This “Nature” accords with Walter Benjamin's proposition about the aura: it is a function of distance.  Benjamin uses an image from “Nature”—or from the picturesque?  But that is my and his point—to describe the aura: “We define the aura . . . as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close [the object] may be.  If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.”

Romantic Ecomorphism

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Global warming may be the first environmental crisis to affect all life on earth at the same time, in equally dramatic ways. The Romans apparently raised the level of airborne lead-and subsequently the lead level in soil and waterways-because of the amount of lead smelting they practiced. But before global warming, every earlier environmental crisis had an impact on relatively small groups of creatures or species in relatively small geographic areas. Think Love Canal or Three Mile Island. Think even of DDT or PCBs whose threats are widespread but whose Superfund sites are always relatively concentrated. As ecocatastrophic threats have increased in their ranges, so has our sense of our own links to the areas so affected. Out of an ever warmer world we will increasingly find new ways to recognize our dependence on other species and their dependence on us. We are all getting warmer together. The impact of increased global temperature on microorganisms-bacteria, fungi, and viruses-will be directly related to the impact of those same temperatures on humans.

The lure of ecomorphism, of our desire to describe ourselves and our world in ecological terms, is probably at the root of our culture's current preoccupation with aliens. The possibility of life on other planets-whether fossilized unicellular organisms trapped in rocks on Mars or humanoid "Grays," the alien beings that are encountered by so many insomniacs-is a function of our thinking about the ultimate ecosystem. Since the cosmos is our largest natural home, the rules of physics and of ecological balance must reach far beyond earthly limits. Indeed, science now reports that the apparent "laws" of nature actually alter once we cover great enough distances, travel fast enough, or alter our perspective form a binocular humanized vantage point. Those who worry about these matters now suspect that alien life will turn out to be either an invader from far beyond or the potential source of all life on earth. Some serious thinkers are now speculating about what we might call "cosmic ecology," about life as universal in the literal sense, life throughout the entire universe, terrestrial life itself as fundamentally extraterrestrial. Science fiction will become science fact if and when it turns out that earthly life was transplanted here by spores, or some other source, from outer space. Stay tuned, Trekkies.

Our greatest modern fears can be likewise linked to an ecocentrism born of anxiety. What has been so terrifying to recent generations about "the Bomb"-the atomic A-Bomb and the hydrogen H-Bomb-has been our fear that we might have the capacity to destroy ourselves and all life on earth, except perhaps cockroaches, horseshoe crabs, a few sharks, and the bacteria. But what would life have meant after we had destroyed it? Would the end of things make any difference? In a comparable image, if the planet was to be knocked out of its orbit by an asteroid tonight, what difference would that make beyond the difference it would make to humans? What does our life in nature mean? Finally, consider Steven J. Gould's claim that invisible organisms, such as bacteria and viruses, are actually the most successful of all life forms, since they are far more wide-ranging and extensive, in untold masses stretching miles upon miles toward the deep rocky center of the planet, than the total weight of all the mega-fauna. The total of all the life on our planet that is invisible to the human eye may far surpass the visible biotic mass, from every ant to every blue whale, every slime mold to every sequoia. If Gould is right, and he usually was, life on earth looks more like bacteria than it looks like human beings.

Our own era is not only afraid that aliens or nuclear bombs or bacteria will beat us in the end. We currently fear ecotastrophies of many kinds: ozone holes and global climate change, scourging influenzas and viral pandemics. Most likely of all these fears is a fear that is also a form of optimism: artificial life-not like Frankenstein's monstrous wretch-but rather intelligent computers, A.I. (artificial intelligence) in robots, androgynous androids dreaming of electric sheep. Computers will soon know more than we know. Silicone implants will soon supplant our memories and enhance our sex lives. Scariest of all of these scenarios is the most likely, since it is already underway: genetic manipulation of the heredity of peaches, drosophila, and pigs, not to mention genetic and reproductive manipulation of our mothers and fathers, the eggs and sperm and genes that make you into you and me into me. Nonhuman genes implanted into human fetuses, fecund fertility clinics, sperm banks and amniocentesis: in all such cases we see wild reproductive nature transformed in our bedrooms and bio-labs and cities, yet another version of urbanature.

We can now describe the important details of human biology in terms of our connection to dust mites and deer ticks, maggots and mushrooms, flowering trees and fiddlehead ferns, white-tailed deer and bowhead whales. Unlike those early Romantic naturalists-Erasmus Darwin, William Bartram, Gilbert White-we are now interested not only in the large visible creatures around us, mega-fauna, but in a wide panoply of nonhuman events: the sun-cycle and wind-cycle, the rain and gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, plant reproduction, animal population balance, the food supply, the big picture, the whole environmental enchilada. These wide-ranging concerns point toward another major paradigm shift in our new century, toward a new ethic that is not just about preserving wild spaces and wild places.

The new ethic needs to see skyscrapers, superhighways, jumbo-jets, and genetic research labs as parts of our "new" nature, no less natural because they were crafted by members of the human species. The skyscraper is made of sand (for glass), bauxite (for aluminum), and iron (for steel). The jet burns fossil-fuels or bio-fuels and flies on aerodynamic principles. Natural laws and natural materials allow us to create and to control every skyscraper and every jet, so how are the skyscraper and the jet unnatural? Our new nature will not be the mysterious nature that our ancestors once feared (wolves and thunder and winter) nor will it be the nature that the Romantics taught us to love (nightingales and daffodils and springtime). Out of ecomorphism comes another new idea, urbanature. As I have written elsewhere, urbanature is the essential version of all nature that keeps us closer to each other and closer to organic, as well as inorganic, matter.

Little fly

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Okay--I'm on this silent retreat and I shouldn't even be writing this, but what the hey.

So I'm sitting in the meditation hall today and this small house fly lands on my hand. It puts its little proboscis down onto me. I can feel it going a little into my flesh. Yuck. And ouch! So after a few seconds I wave it off.

Of course everything I've said about the neighbor comes flooding into my mind. Not to mention Ash's post on Blake's fly. And lo, my thoughtless hand has indeed brushed it away...

So luckily this fly doesn't take no for an answer and back it comes. Same procedure. Ouch! This time I just let her or him get on with it. Suck away, fly. I mean after all I'm in a Buddhist retreat for goodness' sakes.

So then this fly just rests on my hand for about ten minutes, washing her or his little head with those front legs. I frightened her or him off when I rubbed my nose with my other hand.

Just a little interspecies contact for you.

“Let it be”

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I'm posting a miniaturized critique of Heidegger on my other blog, Ecology without Nature. I also posted recently on wind farms, and solar power.

Meanwhile, there's a very groovy discussion of nostalgia going on on the comments page of a very recent post by Ron Broglio. Thank you Ron. Very valuable stuff.