Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Henry David Thoreau

Why is Ecology pushed to the Margins of Literary Criticism?

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.

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The Fleetingness of Perfection

agnes denes

Isomemtric Systems in Isotropic Space – Map Projection by Agnes Denes

The following is what I read at our first installment of the revived Hazel Reading Series last night, which is a series I organize. Like us on Facebook, here. I chose to read a creative essay I wrote that links disparate themes from a small assortment of texts. 

Agnes Denes was a land artist who in the 1970s planted a wheat field in Manhattan in New York to symbolize global inequity and also to produce a real crop of edible wheat. She was a woman who wrote constantly as part of her artistic process. This included ideas for artworks that she wrote down on scraps of paper and collected over time. While these scraps represent the seed to a much larger completed work, they nevertheless achieve their own kind of completion in miniature.

Take the following example:

Mayfly, 1970: Three one-minute films cover the twenty-four hour existence of a mayfly, the metamorphosis of a butterfly, and the conception, birth, life, and death of a human being.

Perhaps this scrap of an idea never came to fruition, but it could have. From what I can tell, Denés never abandoned any of her ideas. This is extraordinary! Throughout my life I have actively created and subsequently destroyed my art. I have both loved and hated my own work to the extent that almost nothing has escaped the threat of extinction.

Evolution Denes

There is also a minor strain of fruitful destruction in the writing of Denés in spite of her more overt desire for artistic perfection. When I read the beginning to her essay entitled “Mathematics in my work—perfection and beauty (1968-2005),” I was struck by it’s formalistic, and purist rhetorical position. In fact, I couldn’t take her seriously, considering the constant stream of miniature stories she produced in journals and scrapbooks, which constitute the underbelly of her public, mathematical, conceptual forms.She writes: “I used mathematics in my work to base my images on a non-erratic additional language, another dimension: malleable, unemotional and perfect.”  There is something stark and impenetrable about this adamant relationship to mathematics, especially her desire to cleanse art of emotion.  She goes on: “I can use it as canvas that I stretch and pull in any direction wrap around my concepts in a multitude of ways, yet they remain perfect in any form I give them.”

geometry denes

geometry, illustration, mathematics, network by Agnes Denes

There again, that tricky concept of perfection slides into her justification for art and it obliterates her fanciful notions of pulling, wrapping, and possibility. Finally, after describing the different ways math implies perfection, she qualifies what this means: “Perfection is not an end by itself; it is a moment of truth, a fresh breeze that quickly sinks into the fabric of reality.”

So in spite of all of the attention she gives to it, perfection is an ephemeral gift that we all experience from time to time but it is an exception to our everyday lives. When I read this, I was reminded of something written by Henry Thoreau that I had just read a few days earlier. It came from his unedited journal from January 6th 1858. He was forty years old, just four years prior to his death from tuberculosis and if you read this passage the way I do, you sequester the words God and man, which is to say that the way I read is not cleansed of emotion. He writes:

“I was feeling very cheap, nevertheless, reduced to make the most of dry dogwood berries. Very little evidence of God or man did I see just then, and life not as rich and inviting an enterprise as it should be, when my attention was caught by a snowflake on my coat sleeve.  It was one of those perfect, crystalline, star-shaped ones, six-rayed, like a flat wheel with six spokes, only the spokes were perfect little pine trees in shape, arranged around a central spangle. This little object, which with many of its fellows, rested unmelting on my coat, so perfect and beautiful, reminded me that nature had not lost her pristine vigor yet, and why should man lose heart?”

The odd thing about this passage is that Thoreau knows that the mesmerizing geometrical shape will melt to slush, but he still considers it a symbol for a kind of lasting perfection. What is it about mathematical perfection that makes some artists swoon? Perhaps it is a vision of the sublime, or the ineffable, or what William Walker Atkinson calls “Mental Fascination” in his 1902 book by that title. What he refers to by this title is the power to hypnotize.

He writes: “The word “Fascinate” springs from the Latin word “fascinare,” meaning to enchant; bewitch, charm by eyes or tongue; captivate, attract,” etc.” To this list, I would add: to charm by mathematics. Why else would two vastly different writers, refer to geometric forms as embodiments of perfection? Atkinson initially divides Mental Fascination into the category of Mental Fascination among the animals. To elucidate this idea, Atkinson recounts a story: “The professor’s attention was attracted by the sight of a number of birds, of a variety of species, who were flying forward and backward across the road, turning and wheeling in strange gyrations, and with noisy chirpings, seemingly centering over a particular point of the road. Upon examination the Professor found an enormous black-snake, partly coiled, and partly erect, showing an appearance of great animation, with his eyes flashing like a brilliant diamond.” While it seems that Atkinson is pointing out how the snake’s eyes have the shimmering quality of a diamond. I would add that coincidentally, their eyes also have an elliptical shape similar to the geometric shape of a diamond.

Later in Thoreau’s journal entry, he says something about the similarities and differences between snowflakes and dewdrops that relates to Atkinson’s concept of mental fascination. He writes:

“We think that the one mechanically coheres and that the other simply flows together and falls, but in truth they are the product of enthusiasm, the children of ecstasy, finished with the artist’s utmost skill.”

In other words, they have the power to mesmerize. This is how I think of Agnes Denes’ little artworks written on scraps of paper. They are like Thoreau’s snowflakes. For example, just imagine what kind of enthusiasm it took to write the following title to one of her conceptual ideas:

            Does an Ant get angry? Does a bee feel remorse?

This Denes artwork is basically a photography idea that involves comparing the unexpectedly whimsical survival responses of insects with the unexpectedly programmed responses of humans. On another scrap, she writes:

Giant Sequoia, 1972: A proposal for a film that examines the “thoughts” and experiences of a California redwood that has lived over one thousand years and grown to 300 feet with a trunk diameter of thirty some feet.

And just where has the mathematics disappeared to in this anthropomorphic dream? Here’s another one that fascinates me:

Rootless Trees, 1984: Trees with shallow roots are planted over dumps and landfills equipped with platforms to prevent contamination and leakage of pollutants.  The shallow, winding roots hold the new earth in place and create new ground wherever upgrading is required.

It’s possible that Denes’ writings are particularly inspiring to me because one day I myself had a Denes-esque snowflake of an idea that I jotted down and the stuffed into a box.

It had something to do with making urban space permeable for migratory animals. Reading Denes’ notebooks made me realize that this idea, itself, was a kind of completed piece of art both perfect and fleeting.

Mine would be called: Permeable Cities 

Create passageways between the private lawns, lots, and infrastructures of urban spaces to remove the visible trace of property lines with shrubs and plants and provide tunnels, structural add-ons, and built hovels to aid wildlife in finding safe passage through urban spaces.

About a year after I conceived this snowflake of an idea, I discovered that my thought had a near relative in the writings of George Monbiot who writes about a concept he calls re-wilding, which addresses the issue of our era of unprecedented extinction. He provides a psychological basis for re-wilding. He says that we modern humans suffer from boredom and that living in close proximity to wild animals will reconnect us with the primal fears, excitements and wonders that we used to know.

I grew up in Eastern Washington in a mountainous wooded region near Spokane. I would take walks on the land beyond our property line, but it was hard to tell where the dividing line stood because there were no fences. Deer, elk, wild turkey, moose, coyotes, owls, and all kinds of migratory birds thrived where we lived. I miss the unexpected visitors that came to our lawn. Once, I was on a hike on the way to a cliff where you could see out across the entire Spokane valley, and after I walked through a cluster of young pine trees that surrounded a marshy meadow, I noticed a coyote standing just about 10 paces from where I stood. Its ears and head perked up and it stared at me with an intense look of expectation. I remained as still as I could and saw a neon flash of red in the dry, gray brush at the coyote’s feet. It was the red blood of its meal, a fawn whose glistening black eyes remained open, though it was dead. I had intruded. I wondered if the coyote would try to attack me. When I shifted my weight, it caused the brush to make a sound. The coyote had enough of me and hung its head low and trotted away. A few days later, the entire body of the deer was gone as if it had never happened.

Atkinson implies it is not only the snakes’ ability to charm that fascinates its prey, but also that to watch a snake kill its prey fascinates us. For example, he writes, “Another case is related of a ground-squirrel, which was observed running to-and-fro between a creek and a large tree a few yards distant.  The squirrel’s fur was badly ruffled, and he exhibited fright and distress. Investigation disclosed the head and neck of a rattlesnake, protruding from the hole of the tree, and pointing directly at the squirrel. The poor squirrel at last gave up the fight, and yielding to the fascination, laid himself down with his head very close to the snake’s mouth.” The entire series of events is quite perplexing to Atkinson, and his passage is comparable to something that Agnes Denés wrote. She states: “I am just wondering why some dolphins attack their young – they are such intelligent and docile creatures.  Why porpoises keep throwing them violently out of the water with their snouts and keep doing that until they die.” I have nothing to say about these two quotes except that perhaps we feel some kind of complicity when we anthropomorphize animal behaviors and that some of their behavior is so shocking as a mirror that it sends us running to the emotionless safety of perfect mathematical shapes and patterns and lines and forms.

Atkinson, William Walker. Mental Fascination. Chicago: Fiduciary Press, 1907.

Denes, Agnes. The Human Argument: The Writings of Agnes Denes. Ed. by Klaus Ottmann. Putnam: Spring Publications, 2008.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Portable Thoreau. Ed. Carle Bode. New York: Viking Press, 1947.