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That Beauty Which Hath Terror In It: In Praise of Nature Writing
This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion of the waves – the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
– Walt Whitman, Miracles
Every creature points to God, none reveals Him.
– André Gide, The Fruits of the Earth
I. Failing to reach the peak of Mount Ktaadn, lost in the fog, soaked through and sun-dried, almost out of food, finally descending in defeat through the Burnt Lands, arrested in the flow of description, gazing out at ‘pure Nature … vast and drear and inhuman’, Henry David Thoreau is seized by rapture.
‘I stand in awe of my body,’ he exclaims in The Maine Woods,
this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one – that my body might – but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
Somehow that flayed encounter with the raw matter of being, and the ‘higher law’ to which it pointed in the multiracial creed of Transcendentalism, a non-parochial universalism, in which every atom of every being was touched with divinity, was political. As Laura Dassow Walls explains in her biography of Thoreau, ‘this insight proved absolutely transformative’. Slavery was ‘an abomination to be stopped at any cost’. The subjugation of women ‘must end’. Children ‘must never be punished as sinners nor trained as workers’.
Three years after his failed expedition, Thoreau published On Civil Disobedience. Eight years later, in 1854, he wrote in a thundering rage upon learning that the escaped slave Anthony Burns had been returned to the slavers by the Boston authorities, and militant abolitionists arrested following an attempted liberation: ‘My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.’ In 1859, he delivered his Plea for Captain John Brown, in defiance of the overwhelming preponderance of white opinion: the ‘government menials’, he was particularly pleased to note when reflecting on Brown’s violent delivery of human beings from bondage, ‘were afraid of him’. In nature, Thoreau had found not an escape from entanglement with the social world, not an alternative to political radicalism, but the ‘confirmation of our hopes’.
One space spreads through all creatures equally –
inner-world-space. Birds quietly flying go
flying through us.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
II. Thoreau’s record of his 1846 trek through Maine’s orogenous zones blazes with ambulatory excitement, even madness. The call of the wild, the days of hiking through dense forests of cedar, spruce and pine with vanishing trails, the perilous batteauing against the stream through vast rocky rivers, the minatory glide into dim lakes that swiftly conceal their exits to inexperienced travellers, the wading and climbing through further torrents toward a summit ‘like a short highway, where a demigod might be let down to take a turn or two in the afternoon’… only for the whole enterprise to fail, gloriously fail, and give way to a transcendent geophany, a world-revelation.
The strangeness of matter. The estrangement of the body. Such experiences are surprisingly common. Barbara Ehrenreich describes an encounter with a wild, living cosmos, which sounds like a Transcendentalist delirium. ‘The world flamed into life,’ she writes in Living With a Wild God. ‘There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it.’ The universe, a Heraclitean blaze. ‘Each particle,’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘a microcosm’ of God.
The body which, as Walt Whitman said, ‘balks account’. The sudden porosity of its boundaries: fiery atoms quietly flying through us. Here, thousands of miles from Selborne, is an ‘original relationship to the universe’ of the kind that Emerson sought. Not in Arcadia, but on the threshold of something terrible.
wild forest nature paths
over and over again
– Margaret Walker, Mississippi Spring
III. Amid the sad passions of the Anthropocene, with its corresponding deflation of desire, no one wants to be caught out in a naïve enthusiasm. We are sensibly wary of such ‘Thoreauvian pilgrimage’, as Lawrence Buell calls it. We are inoculated against what Kathryn Schultz calls Thoreau’s ‘cabin porn’: where the word ‘porn’ conveys both knowingness and disapproval. We are scornful of the ‘Lone Enraptured Male’ seeking ‘wild places’, as Kathleen Jamie cuttingly quipped about Robert Macfarlane. We are embarrassed by rapture. We know that there is no ‘pure Nature’, untouched. We find the rhetorical techniques of nature writing, what Timothy Morton calls ‘ecomimesis’, frequently clichéd and obvious.
We suspect that the hero’s journey into the wild is saturated with misanthropy and macho individualism, that it reeks of androcentrism and coloniality, that the wilderness aesthetic is loaded with the ideology of the frontier, that the romance of sublime, wide-open spaces is class-and-race gerrymandered (so pregnant with massacres and enclosures), that the sense of ‘discovery’ in such journeys manifests culturally-loaded ignorance, that making ‘nature’ the repository of the longing for transcendence is reactionary and nostalgic, that the spiritual replenishment sought in the nonhuman world is narcissistic and politically evasive, that the pantheistic vertigo of the spiritual traveller reduces to psychobabble, that nature writing is in some constitutive manner ‘white’, and that ‘nature’ itself has been captured, commodified and converted into a ‘white’ recreational pursuit.
Few are more attuned to the reactionary potential of nature writing than nature writers. The bird-watcher and novelist Richard Smyth warns of the genre’s ‘fascist roots’, from the Nazi Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, to Edward Abbey’s contempt for the ‘culturally-morally-genetically impoverished’ immigrants contaminating the North American landscape. Some of the most passionate laments for nature, and defences of wilderness, have come from the Right. Völkisch nationalism produced Ernst Moritz Arndt’s defence of the ‘rights of wilderness’ and the ‘single unity’ of all nature, more than a century before Bolivia’s Pachamama laws, as well as Ludwig Klages’ spitting contempt for the ‘man of “progress”’ announcing ‘his masterful presence by spreading death and the horror of death’ everywhere. Arndt’s unitarian cosmos specifically excluded Jews, while Klages’ indignation over the ‘lawless and savage slaughter’ by Europeans in North America was concerned, not about Indigenous people, but about the extermination of the buffalo. Even the mad dash for the mountain-top in search of wildness and the ecstatic dissolution of bodily boundaries may have a startling proximity to a version of fascist mysticism, as in Julius Evola’s celebration of mountaineering as a self-conquering, spiritual quest.
We are accustomed to a critique of nature writing that, for intelligent reasons, assumes the perspective of a wary, disgusted, pedantic spectator. This is the libidinal ecology of historical defeat. The ‘project of human history’, Dominic Pettman writes, seems to be irreversibly suspended, or ‘perhaps abandoned’. Given this, what is there to do but be on one’s guard against seduction? ‘Critique,’ as Peter Wirzbicki laments in his history of black and white Transcendentalism, has ‘replaced hope’. This is a bad place to get stuck.
For a man-machine toil-tired
May crave beauty too – though he’s hired.
– Claude McKay, Joy in the Woods
Everything is mankind.
– W E B Du Bois, Darkwater
IV. As to the ‘whiteness’ of nature writing, it is an artefact – not of the absence of black nature writing, even of bad black nature writing – but of the exclusions of a genre, dixit Rebecca Solnit, ‘barricaded with omissions to make it just another gated community’.
Not that the genre doesn’t include Eddy L Harris’ defiantly Thoreauvian solo pilgrimage down the Mississippi, Raja Shehadeh’s anti-colonial poetics of ‘sarha’, a ‘letting go’ that gives one ‘a drug-free high, Palestinian-style’, Jini Reddy’s attempt to re-enchant the earth beneath her feet, Zakiya McKenzie’s forest poetry, Anita Sethi’s anti-racist declaration of belonging in the Pennines, Langston Hughes’ lament for lost trees and ‘silver moons’, Du Bois’ spiritual descent into dark waters and ‘the entrails of the earth’, the stunning natural vistas in Richard Wright’s landscape portrait of twelve million black American lives, Sudesh Mishra’s hymn to Skye, Evelyn White’s trembling hesitation about the outdoors, the historical and poetic works of Dorset author Louisa Adjoa Parker, Alice Walker’s worshipful acknowledgment of flowers, landscape and the colour purple, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s ‘geological memoir’ of Devon, Albery Allson Whitman’s celebration of Seminole and Maroon resistance to the United States as a triumph of Nature over Mammon, and the nature poems of Ed Roberson, Camille T Dungy, Claude McKay, Rita Dove, and Jean Toomer. But the shelves of major bookshops, anthologies and nature writing prizes have only recently begun to notice.
The traditional exclusions of nature writing are a regional expression of a more general segregation built into how racial capitalism configures one’s metabolic relationship to the natural environment, how one’s class context situates one as ‘rural’ or ‘urban’, and how the caloric energy is extracted from one’s body, rendering one either ‘natural’ or ‘civilized’. It confers different sensibilities, different ambivalences. In Black Nature, Dungy observes that black nature writing ‘only conforms … in limited ways’ with what has been known in ‘the Western intellectual canon, spawned by the likes of Virgil and Theocritus and solidified by the Romantics and Transcendentalists’. Black authors ‘simply do not look at their environment from the same perspective of Anglo-American writers’.
The point feels slightly overstated, and not just because of the absolute lack of homogeneity in the ‘Western intellectual canon’ being described here: there are gulfs of social experience and artistic style between the Virgilian pastoral, the Renaissance neo-pastoral, eighteenth-century labourers’ poetry, and the Romantics and Transcendentalists. Black nature writing is as likely as its ‘Anglo-American’ counterpart to rhapsodise nostalgically, to mourn losses in nature, to find in it refuge, spiritual journey, ego-death and replenishment. The hallmark of the Romantic style, writes Raymond Williams in The Country and the City, is that the nature poet has become a ‘lonely observer who “passes”’, encountering nature as a ‘still life’. ‘People’, he writes, begin to say, ‘the city’ when they mean ‘capitalism or bureaucracy or centralised power.’ ‘Nature’, or the ‘country’ stands for ‘everything from independence to deprivation, and from the powers of an active imagination to a form of release from consciousness’. This social experience appeared earlier in England than elsewhere because of the precocious arrival of agrarian capitalism, and colonial plunder reducing the demand for domestic agricultural productivity. But it has generalised. And yet, there is in black nature writing a distinctive kind of ambivalence, the tonal imprint of the Du Boisian ‘double consciousness’.
In 12 Million Black Voices, Richard Wright’s landscape portrait of black life in the United States, the natural environment taunts its rural subjects with what it has to offer. ‘Our southern springs are filled with quiet noises and scenes of growth’, Wright begins, establishing the familiar rhythm and lyric of nature writing. ‘Apple buds laugh into blossom. Honeysuckles creep up the sides of houses. Sunflowers nod in the hot fields.’ But then, almost as soon as this thought is verbalised, there comes another to undercut it. ‘They,’ he writes, ‘have painted one picture: idyllic, romantic; but we live another; full of fear of the Lords of the Land, bowing and grinning when we meet white faces, toiling from sun to sun, living in unpainted wooden shacks that sit casually and insecurely upon the red clay’. ‘Landscapes can be deceptive’, John Berger writes, ‘Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents takes place.’ In English literature, as Raymond Williams put it, ‘a working country is hardly ever a landscape.’ But what other sort of landscape could there be for those who toil ‘from sun to sun’?
After the great surges of urbanisation in the twentieth century, it is now ‘as if’, said the captions to Ingrid Pollard’s ‘Pastoral Interludes’, ‘the black experience is only lived within an urban environment’. The ‘whitening’ of nature, from Homesteading to ‘white flight’ and exurbanism, begets a bitter, violent separation, and a brutal aesthetic impoverishment for those who are excluded. Environmental injustice leaves nine million people exposed to hazardous waste sites across the United States, write Lauret Savoy and Alison Deming in The Colors of Nature, half of them ‘people of colour’. ‘You got trees all dappled with sunlight and shit,’ G E Patterson writes in ‘The Natural World’:
I got trees too My trees stainless steel poles …
You got birds waking you up in the morning …
I got birds too …
My birds My birds killers.
Nature is further ‘whitened’ by the fear of rural racism, begetting a trembling ambivalence. Evelyn White describes a ‘fear’ of the natural environment, ‘like a heartbeat, always present, while at the same time intangible, elusive and difficult to define’. The ‘river’s roar’, she writes, ‘gave me a certain comfort’, but ‘I didn’t want to get closer. I was certain that if I ventured outside to admire a meadow or to feel the cool ripples in a stream, I’d be taunted, attacked, raped, maybe even murdered because of the colour of my skin’. Pollard describes ‘a feeling of unease, dread’, a ‘feeling I don’t belong.’ Walks ‘through the leafy glades’ are undertaken ‘with a baseball bat by my side’. Even Eddy L Harris begins his wilfully dangerous and wild journey down the Mississippi, in Mississippi Solo, with a friend cautioning him that he’ll be travelling ‘from where there ain’t no black folks to where they still don’t like us much. I might be a little concerned about that.’ This is the dread that rustles under the surface when Lucille Clifton strives to write of the trees waving their knotted branches, but finds ‘under that poem/always an other poem’.
The second sight of the doubly conscious, in the Du Boisian idiom, derives from racial injury and humiliation. Yet it is, not a disfigurement, but the motor of a transcendental striving: much as, perhaps, the double alienation of the working-class is what is supposed to constitute it as the ‘universal class’. Decades before Du Bois used the term ‘double consciousness’ in The Souls of Black Folk, it had been used by Emerson to describe the dilemma of a Transcendentalist continuously pulled between the ‘buzz and din’ of daily life, the social forces inhibiting self-development, and the ‘infinitude and paradise’ of transcendence. For Du Bois, the ‘African’ pole of the African-American psyche points to transcendence. According to Dickson Bruce, this opposition works as a deliberate figurative background in Du Bois’ deployment of ‘double consciousness’. In Darkwater, a memoir and spiritual prospectus for racial salvation, he seeks out infinitude and paradise in the natural world. He pleads for such a relationship to nature, not just as a refuge for those ‘scarred in the world’s battle and hurt by its hardness’, but as essential to the ‘utter joy of life’. There is the disgrace of the segregated railway car and the internal frontiers known as Jim Crow. There is also the ‘sunset and moonlight on Montego Bay in far Jamaica’. And ‘both things are true and both belong to this our world, and neither can be denied.’ The duplicity, the doubleness of the world, begets double-vision.
In passages redolent of Thoreau and Whitman, Du Bois describes his travels ‘over seven thousand mighty miles’ across the United States, culminating in a visit to the Grand Canyon. ‘It is awful,’ he writes, in ecstatic mood:
There can be nothing like it. It is the earth and sky gone stark and raving mad. The mountains up-twirled, disbodied and inverted, stand on their peaks and throw their bowels to the sky. Their earth is air; their ether blood-red rock engreened. You stand upon their roots and fall into their pinnacles, a mighty mile. … One throws a rock into the abyss. It gives back no sound. It falls on silence – the voice of its thunders cannot reach so far. It is not – it cannot be a mere, inert, unfeeling, brute fact – its grandeur is too serene – its beauty too divine! It is not red, and blue, and green, but, ah! the shadows and the shades of all the world, glad colorings touched with a hesitant spiritual delicacy. What does it mean – what does it mean? Tell me, black and boiling water! It is not real. It is but shadows. The shading of eternity.
That familiar sequence of events. A pilgrimage to somewhere manifestly made by a force vastly greater and older than humanity: deep time. Eternity, as Lauret Savoy writes of the same landscape almost a century later in Trace, suggested by ‘one frame of an endless geologic film’. Familiar outlines of world, self, up, down, in, out, disintegrating. Dread becoming awe. The pilgrim goes mad with questions.
Swimming and dreaming were becoming indistinguishable. I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new. I might learn about myself, too. In water, all possibilities seemed infinitely extended.
– Roger Deakin, Waterlog
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
– Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers
V. Nature writing, as ‘ecomimesis’, tries to convince us that we are in the thick of it. It strives to cultivate a planetary sensibility of being in the flow, aerial, ambulatory or natatory, the body merging and moving with its environment. We are to ‘take part in its existence’, as Keats partook of the life of a sparrow outside his window. The logic, as Timothy Morton acknowledges in his critique of nature writing, is that ‘if we could not merely figure out but actually experience the fact that we were embedded in our world, then we would be less likely to destroy it.’
Much depends on the kind of nature we ambiently experience. Nature is ordinary but, as Kate Soper has remarked, the ‘nature’ of poetic writing is generally not ‘the kind of thing we eat for breakfast’. The salmon that Thoreau and his comrades fried for breakfast next to Lake Ambejejus was not the nature that inspired him to rapture, any more than Kenneth Clark was inspired by the form of culture that appeared in The Racing Post. Both ‘Nature’ and ‘Culture’, in this sense, are for spectators. We visit, and contemplate, but do not participate. Yet this suggests that any nature worth writing about is always somewhere else.
Must nature writing, to achieve its world-defamiliarizing, transcendent effect, take us to Great Scenery – forests, islands, frozen seas, mountains, ocean floors, jungle canopies, river deltas, landscapes criss-crossed with hedgework forming rumpled parallelograms – made remote by the territorial matrix of the capitalist state? How can a planetary sensibility, if it is to inform practical life rather than providing a reliably commodified unplugging from it, survive on nothing more than second-hand awe? Worse than ineffectual, Morton suggests, such remote admiration for a capitalised ‘Nature’ ‘does for the environment what patriarchy does’ for women. As ‘a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration’, it is a catalyst of the Anthropocene. In other ways, the category of ‘Nature’ is implicated in a moral hierarchy of being, girding the violent codification of bodies as either natural (Stefanie Dunning notes the ‘stunning parallelism’ in the ‘treatment of both the natural world and Black people’) or unnatural (the Nazi idea of ‘Jewish unnatur’ has been taken up by ecofascists) and therefore as fungible, exploitable, disposable and murderable.
Nature writing has traditionally been sustained by what Jason W Moore calls the great ‘Cartesian Divide’ between nature and humans. Humans can ‘visit’ nature only if we are not of it. The ‘new nature writing’, however, has set out to unravel this conceptual artifice. Studies of the ‘wild’ are now palimpsests of historical, geological, philosophical, political and literary commentary, alongside natural observation. ‘Nature is not now, nor has ever been, a pure category,’ Robert Macfarlane writes in Landmarks. ‘We inhabit a post-pastoral terrain’. ‘The needs of the natural world,’ Richard Mabey writes in The Unofficial Countryside, ‘are more prosaic’ than the poetics of sublimity would suggest. ‘A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots.’ There are almost as many trees in London, Paul Wood reminds us, as there are people. The ecologist Anders Pape Møller finds vastly more birds living in small towns, alongside humans, than in the countryside. Hence, perhaps, the growing popularity of urban and liminal spaces, in Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ chronicle of the Edgelands, Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographies of the urban margins, and Cal Flynn’s exploration of disaster zones abandoned by human beings, and flourishing.
On the other side of the great divide, is culture. We have been given to believe that ‘culture’ belongs to humans while ‘nature’ belongs to everything else. It is not so. Animals of many kinds exhibit culture, symbolic life and even, in some cases, rudimentary forms of language. ‘All chimpanzees climb trees,’ Carl Safina writes in Becoming Wild, ‘that’s not cultural. Some chimpanzees crack nuts with hammer stones and anvils, but not every population that lives where there are nuts cracks them. It’s cultural.’ Sperm whales and elephants survive thanks to the accumulated environmental knowledge of elders: that is cultural. Chimpanzees have fashion trends, according to Primatologists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen: that, too, is cultural. Orca communities self-segregate for reasons that are entirely cultural. ‘Chaser the border collie has learned the names of more than a thousand toys and understands grammar,’ Eva Meijer writes in Animal Languages. ‘Dolphins living in the wild call one another by name. Prairie dogs have an extensive language for describing intruders … Elephants in captivity can speak in human words … The languages of whales, octopuses, bees and many birds have a grammar.’ All of which is culture. Or, to steal a Harawayan term of art, natureculture.
Is there anything left of ‘nature’? Must the category of nature keep ‘giving writers the slip’, as Morton suggests? Yes, and no. There can be no ‘after nature’, simply because, after all interminglings and hybridisms between the natural and social are accounted for, nature still exists, and is still distinct from the social. Historical materialists are substance monists: we do not think there is any kind of substance other than matter. Andreas Malm, however, insists that we must be ‘property pluralists’. There are hierarchies of matter: the matter of quarks and atoms, the matter of chemistry, of molecules and compounds, the cellular matter of biological life, and the material practices and rituals of social life. Each layer of matter has its own emergent qualities. For example, it is only when carbon and oxygen atoms combine to form a carbon dioxide molecule that they are capable of preventing infrared radiation from escaping the planet’s atmosphere, thus warming it up: the process known as ‘radiative forcing’. The social, similarly, is an emergent property of the natural. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will always warm the planet, but only a human society organised by capitalist industry is capable of ripping fossil sunlight out of the earth’s lithosphere and converting it into heat energy with carbon dioxide as an industrial byproduct in sufficient quantities to cause catastrophic global heating. The layers of matter are mixed in various ways, but they are still distinct because of their unique properties. As a special case of this ‘property pluralism’, where environmental destruction is concerned, Malm argues that we must be property dualists. It is at the interface between society and nature, and not that ‘between droplet and cloud’, or between carbon atom and carbon dioxide molecule, that the cataclysm is taking place: once again, duality in the world begets doubleness of consciousness. And it is that interface, among other things, that a planetary sensibility seeks to revolutionise.
We must and will get used to the chill, yea, to the cosmic chill, if need be.
– John Burroughs, Time and Change
VI. Script is on the side of annihilation. Writing is a special form of dead labour which prolongs the life of perception, memory, experience, calculation and desire. It is, in the vocabulary of evolutionary biologists, ‘cumulative culture’, a force-multiplier. Civilization, from the dynastic states of Egypt and Mesopotamia, to the digitally written systems of late capitalism, is unimaginable without this social learning. Homo sapiens is an evolutionary ingenue. We have nothing on what Heathcote Williams described as the ‘fifty-million-year-old sagas of continuous whale mind’. Homo scribens, however, is the apex predator on the planet. The abstractive properties of writing allow the matter of the world to be transformed into ‘a carefully patrolled domain of phantom entities’, as David Wengrow puts it.
Homo scribens is already complicit in the Anthropocene, the geological epoch of humanity in its capitalist phase. All social orders are written, from contract to constitution. The metabolic flow of a society depends on its being remembered and automated. No society, however, is as constituted by the violence of written abstractions as one dominated by the capitalist mode of production. The unprecedented accumulation of script under capitalism is harnessed to its accelerating metabolisation of fungible labour and fungible nature. The thaumaturgy of writing transforms surplus labour and cheap nature into tradeable titles to surplus value, a dance of phantom entities.
Popular nature writing, though morally armed against what Donald Worster calls the ‘Imperial’ tradition which inscribes nature with value for the purposes of extraction and domination, is often complicit in this. At its worst, as Joe Kennedy scoffs in The Authentocrats, it purveys a mass-produced, commodified ‘idea of wildness’ while quietly campaigning ‘for a patriotic traditionalism’. It is, moreover, unconsciously loaded with violent abstractions in which the energetic flux of matter has already been appropriated and codified as a property relation. To merely describe a ‘forest’, as Robert Macfarlane acknowledges in Landmarks, is to refer to the medieval act of enclosure through which woodlands were reserved as hunting grounds for royalty. A hedgerow is often a residue of the primitive accumulation of capital, ancient class violence, and property claims. Even where they have not been planted for enclosure, Oliver Rackham’s The History of the Countryside suggests, they have often grown around the fences ringing property thanks to birds ‘sitting and dropping seeds’.
In the tradition of nature writing, a decorous veil is frequently drawn over this social warfare. ‘Sidney’s Arcadia,’ Raymond Williams reminds us, ‘was written in a park which had been made by enclosing a whole village and evicting the tenants.’ Robert Herrick’s The Hock-Cart or Harvest Home enjoins the labouring tenants of the Earl of Westmoreland’s estate: ‘And, you must know, your Lord’s word’s true,/Feed him ye must, whose food fills you.’ The ‘labouring poets’ of the eighteenth century were Royal-approved bards of duty, deference and diligence. Stephen Duck, in The Thresher’s Labour, supplies polite society with a fatalistic ideological defence of the class system: ‘Let Poverty, or Want, be what it will,/It does proceed from God, therefore’s no ill’. At worst, the ecocentric disposition does not so much veil as make the case for such violence. Consider Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First. ‘I am an animal,’ he writes in Confessions of an Eco-Warrior.
The oceans of the Earth course through my veins, the winds of the sky fill my lungs, the very bedrock of the planet makes my bones. I am alive! … When a chain saw slices into the heartwood of a two-thousand-year-old Coast Redwood, it’s slicing into my guts. When a bulldozer rips through the Amazon rain forest, it’s ripping into my side.
And when famine tears through Ethiopia? ‘The best thing would be,’ he told an interviewer, ‘to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people just starve there.’
And yet, there is also this: Thoreau losing his mind in the mountains of Maine, Du Bois descending into the entrails, rapturous, each finding in this a value for life other than the value-form, adding it to our social intelligence. There are, in other words, the resistant properties of writing. The linguistic anthropologist Piers Kelly has described the emergence of several writing systems precisely through the efforts of populations resisting their oppression or extinction. Nature writing, styling matter, moulding experience at the interface, inflaming readers with biophilic joy, can undo some of the epistemological violence of capital which renders nature ‘cheap’ and exploitable. It can be counter-extinction. If we disparage this effort in the name of a critical procedure that is always on guard against seduction, we will have succumbed to a form of spiritual defeatism.
That beauty which, as Milton sings/Hath terror in it.
– William Wordsworth, The Prelude
The numberless goings on of life/inaudible as dreams.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frost at Midnight
VII. Birds are planetary. The Jurassic Coast is visited by puffins with homes in northern Scotland, skuas and terns flying south from the Arctic, kittiwakes returning from winter in the Atlantic, spoonbills from Mauritania and Senegal. There, in the summer months, life is composed of sea thrift, sea campion, sea kale, sea bindweed, bright red cinquefoil, red campion, mikoikoi, ribworth plantain, tree mallow, Spanish bluebell, hogweed, trailing bellflower, perennial cornflower, florist’s cineraria, bristly oxtongue, artichoke thistle, hoary stock, scot’s broom, gorse, beet, sow-thistle, lichen-gilded stones, Norway maples, limes, elderflowers, sycamores, earth slicks and quicksilver puddles, bowers, blooms, blossoms, branches, grass snakes, trickles of water gurgling under pileous hedges and shrubs, falling down plunging telluric crevasses into the sea, nettles, dock weed, goosegrass, the coiled counterforms of ammonites, petrified wood and pyrite trilobites: history on the scale of hundreds of millions, all thickly layered with vibrant detail like a Pollock painting.
Sap smells pungent in the sun. The dark drench-dried green weed sticks flat to the cool surface of chalky stone lathed and drilled by the tide and its sandy freight. From the shade, sunlight glimmers over the white ledge: a lime-light. The tide brings with it slick swarms of seaweed and macroalgae. The air smells of sea vapour, rich with the sex pheromones of seaweed, the aromatic chemicals produced by marine worms, and the fragrance of dead phytoplankton being devoured by bacteria. For this smell, there is the French word, ‘embrun’. On the pebble beach, sun-died kelp release a rich, salty death odour. A gust of gulls takes off, like shell-coloured leaves. Courteous predators, civil parasites picking off discarded flesh, confident among humans. They chuckle, kee-awe, and emit longer melancholy sounding moans, like banshee wails in miniature.
In these parts, the cliffs, notoriously subject to land slippage, reveal strata of an ancient sea-bed, studded with remnants of extinct creatures, picked and sold on seafront shops: petty fossil-capital. A slip of the land is an unintentional revelation. On the Jurassic Coast, the earth shows us some of what it has been up to. From the perspective of ‘deep time’, the land is an uncovered sea-bed while the sea is a slow flood. In past eons, this was an ocean. Later, it was reptile kingdom, land-locked, tropical. Much as the peaks of the Alps once lay under the sea of Tethys between the ancient continents of Gondwana and Laurasia, the rocky surface which was once the floor of a teeming marine life is now host to snow leopards, wolves, marmots, and golden eagles.
The world under pandemic emergency measures felt terribly old. Its convulsions of flooding, wildfire, mass extinction, ocean acidification, arctic fire, ice sheet melt, and now a zoonotic plague, were those of a dying planet. Here, on the well-trodden south-west coastal path, the planet was still thriving. It was not utopian, but it was easy to feel that it was. I, cheerfully enraptured, enjoyed in echo, as a second-hand emotion repeating itself, a duplication of a duplication, something I had felt upon reading John Muir, ‘discovering’ Glacier Bay in southeast Alaska, bounding up the mountain sides while his Stickeen guides slept, breathlessly sketching everything under what Coleridge would have called ‘the secret ministry of the moon’. And returning at dawn, ecstatic, his ‘mind glowing like the sun-beaten glaciers’, ‘too happy to sleep’. The world seemed young to that explorer.
Richard Seymour is an author, and a founding editor of Salvage. His most recent book is The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections on Ecosocialism & Barbarism. You can support his work by subscribing to his Patreon.
This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. Print subscriptions start with the next issue.