Why is Ecology pushed to the Margins of Literary Criticism?

by ericaeller

People often push the importance of ecology for literary writers to the margins. While the field of Ecocriticism exists to study this particular intersection, I feel that certain writers warrant their ecological concern to play a more prominent role in the way critics write about them.

Margaret Atwood’s wikipedia entry describes her as a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist, with “environmental activist” conspicuously listed last. Her various roles are also listed as if her environmental concerns and her literary are discreet parts of her oeuvre, operating independently of one another. However, considering the thematic content of her recent works such as Oryx and Crake and Surfacing and the artistic projects she has developed, it is clear that ecological thought, as a philosophical world-view, motivates her writing in an essential way. Her legacy will be skewed in this regard, in that critics will continue to diminish the essential role that an awareness of nature plays in her literary praxis. The same is true for other authors.

An obvious example of an author whose work fundamentally derives from natural observations is Henry David Thoreau. His literary texts are clearly shaped in both form and content by the experience of living his solitary existence on Walden Pond. What is less known about his legacy as a thinker is that he made a substantial scientific contribution to our understanding of ecological succession. By observing the strange patterns of tree growth after clear cuts took place in which pine trees would grow up after oaks had been cleared, he developed a theory of tree succession in his text, The Succession of Forest Trees. This text gave farmers and later scientists important insights about how seed dispersal is dependent upon the interactions of other organisms such as squirrels who carried seeds. His scientific and literary approach both equally contributed to this breakthrough and this historical episode is being highlighted by theorists of the Nature of Science. However, this scientific contribution is overshadowed by his other literary work in which people often give undue emphasis to the humanistic elements rather than his environmental insights.

Vladimir Nabokov was another naturalist whose etymological insights as a butterfly collector led to a later proven theory of the evolution of blue butterflies. Furthermore, his vast amounts of time spent in nature contributed to his insights about aesthetic mimicry which play prominently throughout some of his most famous works such as Pale Fire. His engagement with nature played a crucial role in his literary production.

Many contemporary authors including Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Leguin, and Arundhati Roy have turned their full attention to using their literary influence as a platform for environmental activism. After Roy’s publication of the critically acclaimed novel, “God of the Small Things, she has written mostly nonfiction that has criticized the Indian government for militarization and the construction of large scale nuclear energy plant and dam. Her political activism essay writing is intrinsically connected to both social and environmental concerns which are both inseparable from the experience of the landless poor in India.

Likewise, Ursula K. Leguin has written essays that defend the central significance of ecology as a concern of the left and Margaret Atwood is also an active member of the Canadian Green Party and an honorary president of the Rare Bird Club division of BirdLife International.

Reading these author’s work alongside other ecologically inspired writers can reveal a cohesive set of literary interests based on natural history and its role in society. Such significance depends on their experiences and observations of the environment.

In most of these cases, environmental activism is fueled by the experience of spending valuable time observing the natural environment, which forms not only the subjective material of the writing, but also an underlying ecologically-aware worldview. Such a view may not be in direct opposition to other economic, political or religious world views, but it often supersedes those concerns. In a Guardian Interview, Margaret Atwood dramatically described the greater significance of natural constraints to those of human rights:

The trouble with politicians [at events like the Copenhagen summit of 2009] is that no one wants to go first, go skinny dipping and take the plunge. Oh, and then you have people arguing about fatuous things like the environment and human rights. Go three days without water and you don’t have any human right. Why? Because you’re dead. Physics and chemistry are things you just can’t negotiate with. These, these are the laws of the physical world.

Margaret Atwood seems to have developed an understanding that the inclusive framework of the natural world should be our primary plane of inquiry, whereas other systems have a tendency to ignore or distract from this already-existing system.

This privilege for ecology need not be antagonistic towards technology or a modern/futuristic society, as Ursula K. Le Guin’s futuristic novels reveal. Instead, she feels that technological advances that are compatible with natural phenomena are this that we, as humankind, should privilege. In her recent essay about Murray Bookchin, who is known for his famous essay, “Ecology and Revolution,” Le Guin describes his urban social and technological perspective the future of the political left, a contribution which surprised the journal editors who published it. I think this surprise derives from an inability to take authors’ environmentalist “side projects” seriously as an essential element of their work.

I don’t personally know much about Murray Bookchin’s ideas yet, but from this article in Jacobin, I learned that his work has had an influence in my current region of the world (Turkey) within the movement to free Kurdistan.

Overall, I believe the only way to fully honor these literary figures through criticism is by conceiving of their legacy as situated within a tradition that bridges natural history, ethics and literature.