- Why a “Romantic” Natural History?
- Backgrounds: From Aristotle to Erasmus Darwin
- The Anxiety of Species: Toward a Romantic Natural History
- The Loves of Plants and Animals: Romantic Science and the Pleasures of Nature
- Additional Topics in Romantic Natural History
- Darwin’s Evolution: A New Gallery of Images
- A Romantic Natural History Timeline: 1750-1859
- Natural Historians
- Spencer F. Baird
- Henry David Thoreau
- Charles Darwin
- Louis Agassiz
- John D. Godman
- Adam Sedgwick
- Geoffray St. Hilaire
- William Smith
- Georges Cuvier
- Alexander von Humboldt
- Benjamin Rush
- Jean Lamarck
- William Paley
- Thomas Jefferson
- William Bartram
- Joseph Priestley
- Erasmus Darwin
- Oliver Goldsmith
- Gilbert White
- George-Louis Buffon
- Carolus Linnaeus
- Literary Figures
- Letitia Landon
- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
- John Keats
- John Clare
- Felicia Hemans
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Lord Byron
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- William Wordsworth
- Ann Radcliffe
- Robert Burns
- William Blake
- Charlotte Smith
- Anna Laetitia Barbauld
- William Cowper
- Thomas Warton
- Christopher Smart
- Thomas Gray
- Thomas Beddoes
- James Thomson
- Alfred Lord Tennyson
- Robert Browning
- John Dyer
- Temple of Nature (1803)
- Dorothy Wordsworth
- Geologist Poets
- Rhinos, Crocs and other Monsters
- Global Exploration
- Amphibious Thinking
- Poetry Lab with Dr. Frankenstein
- Galvani’s Electric Romanticism
- Frog Fish from Surinam
- Boundary between Plant and Animal
- Mimosa: The Sensitive Plant
- The Venus Fly Trap and the Great Chain of Being
- Humans as a species of Animal
- Monkeys, Men and Apes
- Jardine’s Natural History of Monkeys
- Human Monsters and Reproductive Mysteries
- Human Taxonomy
- Goldsmith’s History of Earth and Animated Nature
- Erasmus Darwin and the Frankenstein Mistake
- James King Davidson’s Journal
- Zoos as a 19th Century Spectacle
- Mammoths and Mastodons
- Fontana on the Venom of the Viper
- Celestial Bodies
- Coleridge on Plants and Animals
- Baird Report as Curator of Museum
- Artists & Illustrators
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
NEWS WATCH; Views of Nature Before Darwin Jumped Into the Debate
By SHELLY FREIERMAN
Published: September 21, 2000, Thursday
A Romantic Natural History, maintained by Dr. Ashton Nichols, a professor of English at Dickinson College, examines the way artists, writers and scientists viewed nature in the century before Charles Darwin published ”On the Origin of Species” in 1859 (www.dickinson .edu/nicholsa/Romnat/romnat1.htm).
That 100 years included the work of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of ”Frankenstein”; Carl Linnaeus, who devised the system for naming plants and animals; the fiery poet William Blake; John James Audubon, the nature illustrator; and the writer Henry David Thoreau. Visitors to the site, which features several papers by Dr. Nichols and a bibliography, can meander along a timeline that covers the years from 1750 to 1859.
The timeline offers wonderful juxtapositions, like the publication of Jane Austen’s ”Sense and Sensibility” and the ”New Idea of the Anatomy of the Brain,” a paper by Charles Bell, in 1811; and the 1832 posthumous publication of ”Faust, Part II,” by Goethe, followed by an 1834 entry noting the invention of the first computer, an ”analytical engine” by Charles Babbage. –SHELLY FREIERMAN
Reviews of the most recent book by Ashton Nichols:
Palgrave Macmillan cover blurbs:
“Nichols offers a provocative new approach to understanding the role of humankind in a post-natural, post-industrial world. Grounded in a perceptive reading of Romantic natural history, this book moves beyond the conventional nature-versus-culture dichotomy toward a more inclusive concept of ‘urbanatural roosting.’ Along the way, Nichols makes important contributions to our scholarly understanding of British Romantic poetry, American environmentalism, and the history of science.”–James C. McKusick, author of Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology
“Ambitious, learned, experimental, and thoroughly readable, Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism posits ‘urbanatural roosting’ as a vital twenty-first-century mode of ecological thinking. Perhaps this is what the Chinese might call the ‘tian ren he yi’ (the harmonious unity of the universe and man) of the new millennium. An inspired (and inspiring) book!”–Scott Slovic, editor of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment
“Part lyrical memoir, part literary and cultural history, part philosophical meditation, Nichols’ compelling new book is above all an eloquent, erudite, and impassioned manifesto for a new way of thinking, writing, and living more self-consciously, equitably, and sustainably on this earth. Stressing both the historicity of ‘wilderness’ and the naturality of the city, Nichols envisages the collaboration of scientific knowledge, urban design and the artistic imagination in the crafting of thriving ‘ecomorphic’ townscapes as part of a wider practice of sharing and caring for all of earth’s diverse, yet all more or less humanized places and spaces.”–Kate Rigby, Monash University and author of Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting (Ashton Nichols, $85, paper $28: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011): Both critically and artfully, Nichols explores how our conceptions of nature have derived from Enlightenment-era ideas (humans and nature are separate) and Romantic poetry (humans and nature are connected). Relying heavily on poetic examples, Nichols also envisions an “urbanatural” future in which we see ourselves as part of the earth, but without a sense of atavism or regression, and how our environments will shift accordingly.
The Wordsworth Circle
Ashton Nichols, Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting (Palgrave Macmillan 2011) xxiii + 230 $85.00
Alan Richardson, Boston College
“There is a way of beholding nature,” Diane Ackerman writes, “which is a form of prayer, a way of minding something with such clarity and aliveness that the rest of the world recedes. It quiets the bitter almonds of the limbic system, and gives the brain a small vacation.” The iridescent patch of nature writing that leads into these reflections comes in the middle of One Hundred Names for Love (2011), Ackerman’s trenchant and moving account of seeing her husband through a major stroke and guiding his recovery process. Readers of Ackerman will not be surprised by her poetic take on neuroscience, nor by the sensuality of her prose as she leaves the sickroom behind to “stroll awhile, empty my mind, and let it fill with the dew, quickening shadows, riot of pinks and purples low on the horizon, and then the silent gold fury of the sun” (96).
If there is a surprise, it’s that Ackerman’s brief and restorative idyll does not concern a quick daytrip to the woods or the marshlands, certainly not to any locale that could qualify as wilderness or even as backcountry, but takes place in a suburban yard. Ackerman does not need to “go” to nature—or at most, she only needs to saunter into her own back garden. According to Ashton Nichols, it is exactly right that the most Thoreauvian moment in Ackerman’s book should occur a few steps from her back door. More than that, Nichols would point out that Thoreau’s Walden cabin was itself sited only a mile and a half from the town center of Concord. We do not need to create a dichotomy between town and country, urban spaces and others labeled “nature,” in order to enjoy, appreciate, and preserve the latter. Indeed, for Nichols this dichotomizing habit readily becomes pernicious and self-defeating, engendering dualistic ideas and practices that prevent us from seeing the wildness next door to us, around us, and within us.
So ingrained has such dichotomized thinking become that it has infected the language we use, and Nichols recommends a new set of terms to help counter it, beginning with “urbanature” and its adjective, “urbanatural.” These recent coinages are adopted by Nichols partly, I suspect, for their very awkwardness—no matter how often they come up in his book, they never grow transparent but always provoke a cognitive frisson. Each time the reader is confronted both with the artificiality of any urban/nature split and with the difficulty of rethinking either term apart from its designated opponent. If nature is not the contrary of urban (and of culture, and artifice, and art), what is it then, and where does one find it?
The second question can be answered with one word: everywhere. One of the great strengths of Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting is the resourcefulness with which Nichols demonstrates the inextricable connections among nature and culture, human and animal, urbanity and what Thoreau called not wilderness but “wildness.” Within the walls of his own rustic cabin, The Roost, Nichols grows intimate with a succession of small creatures sharing, though uninvited, the same urbanatural econiche: spiders, beetles, and a memorable nest of paper-wasps ensconced in a light fixture, fated to hatch before their time. The environs of the cabin feature any number of wild species, both plant and animal, which Nichols, with the eyes and ears of a born naturalist, eagerly notices and sharply describes. Long-eared owls and fiddle-head ferns, salamanders and cicada-killers, quaking-aspen trees and pileated woodpeckers, and dozens of other local species help define the seasonal changes and quicken the natural setting of Nichols’ year of “roosting.” So do the writer’s memory stores, which include a bobcat indelibly glimpsed, at age ten, a short ways below the same rustic cabin; the literally thousands of hawks, eagles, and falcons observed during an epic long-weekend of bird-watching in Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain area; and, further afield, a pod of Pacific bottlenose dolphins intimately encountered on a trip to the Galápagos Islands.
Nichols also finds ways to connect with nature—or rather, to acknowledge his myriad interconnections with nature—in urban spaces. Falcons and red-tail hawks, he reminds us, nest in Manhattan skyscrapers, making flights across the rich urbanatural swathe of Central Park. Spending some weeks in Florence, Nichols finds cached in the Uffizi a trove of Romantic-era natural history relics, among them a stuffed orangutan, one of the first seen by Europeans. Zoos and natural history displays attest to the ubiquity of urbanature while also raising vexing issues regarding the human commodification of other species and the modern habit of claiming dominance over other animals by caging and labeling them.
Reversing this dominance relation, plenty of other species choose to colonize the human: there are at least ten times as many bacteria as cells in a given human body. So Nichols reminds us that we can never step away from “nature”—our very genetic code links us to “every other species, alive or dead, extant or extinct.” To those who would claim something uniquely human—say, a soul—over and above our animal inheritance, Nichols replies, in effect, no soul, nothing special.
How does all this relate to Romantic ecocriticism? In two very different ways. Following many other cultural historians, Nichols locates the emergence of an alienated vision of nature—as something apart from the human rather than inextricable from people and their artifacts—in the Romantic era he professionally studies and teaches. Moreover, even some of the most inspiring “green” Romantic studies—such as Jonathan Bate’s Song of the Earth—risks enshrining the very Romantic dualism that Nichols (following Tim Morton) would prefer to deconstruct. On the other hand, Romantic-era texts and icons of many kinds—poems, essays in natural history, novels, engraved plates, treatises on electricity and magnetism—simultaneously seek to affirm and explore the interconnectedness among humans, animals, and even plants. The trick is not to raise one tendency within Romantic writing (and, often, within a given single Romantic author) over the other but rather to notice both and underscore rather than downplay the contradictions. In this way, what Nichols broadly calls “Romantic Natural History” writing can serve at once a critical and an inspirational function for twenty-first century “green” thinking.
Not that Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism is primarily a work of cultural criticism or of literary theory, though it is both of those things. Cutting across generic as well as linguistic boundaries, Nichols weaves together academic and “personal” writing, memoir, intellectual history, ecological theory, literary criticism, and close observation of “urbanatural” species of many kinds. Nichols emulates some of the great nature writers of the past—Thoreau, Leopold, Abbey all leap to mind—in following a loose calendrical organization, beginning (as does Walden) in March and progressing through the natural year. This, of course, is a Romantic mode as well, adapted by writers as diverse as John Clare (The Shepherd’s Calendar) and John Aikin (The Natural History of the Year), adding a superstructural layer of resonance between Nichols’ book and the Romantic works he emulates and criticizes.
It may seem as though Nichols attempts to do too much in one book, yet it works, beautifully. One reason is the sheer tensile strength of several key strands—the cultural history is definitive, the asides on Romantic and contemporary science are brilliant, and the natural observation is frequently breathtaking. This is an inspiring book by a seasoned scholar, at once mature and adventurous, wide ranging and tightly focused on a crucially important theme: the pressing need to rethink what we now call nature in order not to destroy it.
BEYOND ROMANTIC ECOCRITICISM: TOWARD URBANATURAL ROOSTING
Nichols interweaves several types of sources and methodologies in this project: Romantic and Victorian poetry and prose, the history of science, ecocriticism, and personal memoir. In taking an ecocritical approach to Romanticism, Nichols aligns his work with Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth (2000); Kate Rigby’s Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (2004); and James McKusick’s Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology(2003). But besides conversing with these earlier studies, Nichols’ book features something unusual for a scholarly monograph: personal memoir — not just in the preface and afterword, which is more common — but interleaved in the chapters themselves, where–bit by bit–Nichols reconstructs a full year spent roosting in a rustic stone cabin and select urban spots. In both idea and text this interfusion (to use a Coleridgean coinage) levels the barriers between nature and culture, city and country, academic and personal. While Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful bookMountains of the Mind (2003) also alternates between an intellectual history and personal narrative, Nichols pushes even further by fusing these genres with a manifesto for environmental action.
At the heart of this book is a reevaluation of the concept of nature, a project that began, according to Nichols, “not with the environmental revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, but with a new definition of ‘Nature’ first offered by Romantic writers in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries” (xvi). In Romantic Natural Histories: William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin and Others (2004) and a fascinating website called Romantic Natural History, Nichols has already displayed his admirable command of the period’s literature and science. In this new, deeply interdisciplinary book, he examines conceptions of nature in the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley, Erasmus Darwin, Keats, and Tennyson; in the prose of Thoreau and Hardy; and in the science of wonder cabinets, natural history museums, and zoos.
Nichols finds a precedent for “urbanature” in the science and poetry of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, which both relied upon metaphors. In science and poetry alike, he shows, “the mind makes metaphors from the nonhuman (‘natural’) world as often as it does from human (‘urban’) world” at a time when “poetry (in fact all art) and natural philosophy (in fact all science) were more closely linked than they often seem today” (10). He reminds us that when Coleridge was asked why he attended so many lectures of human physiology in London, he replied, “I attend Davy’s lectures to increase my stock of metaphors.” For Nichols, “the poetic-scientist needs imagination buttressed by facts, or facts fired by imagination, to make new metaphors” (142). Nichols cites Stephen Hawking’s visualization of a black hole as a contemporary example of the poetic-scientist, and the double-helix shape of DNA arriving in a dream came to my mind as well.
Nichols examines the legacy of Romantic poetry through an ecocritical lens, exploring the ways in which the Romantics represent the natural world. Ultimately, however, he aims to go “beyond Romantic Ecocriticism” because “one element of Romanticism has contributed to the problems that urbanature seeks to resolve” — namely, a view that “nature is somehow opposed to urbanity, the wild is what the city gets rid of, human culture is the enemy of nature” (xxi). The goal of urbanature is to remove these harmful divisions:
A look at the legacy of Romantic natural history will move beyond the word “nature” as it has been employed since the Enlightenment — and beyond the nature versus culture split — toward the more inclusive idea of “urbanatural roosting.” Finally, I will argue that Romantic ecocriticism should now give way to a more socially aware version of environmentalism, one less tightly linked to narrowly Western ideas about the self, the “Other,” and the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Urbanatural roosting says that, if all humans are linked to each other and to their surroundings, then those same humans have clear obligations to each other and to the world they share. (xvii)
Moving beyond Romantic ecocriticism, Nichols seeks to dissolve entirely the opposition between “nature versus culture, the natural versus the artificial, man versus nature …one of the last great Western dualisms that needs to be bridged or dissolved” (203). For Nichols, these dualistic categories are “old lines of arbitrary separation” that prevent us from seeing both city and country as “locations equally worthy of human care and concern, all equally serving of the attention needed to sustain them” (200).
Despite their anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, the Romantics did succeed in envisioning a dynamic, vital force at work in both the human and natural worlds. In certain poems by Keats and Coleridge, Nichols posits that “one unified power causes all of these natural effects [of the wind, the bird, or the frost], but this power is nothing more than a series of physical processes contained in nature, what John Locke and others had called a ‘natural law’” (27). In Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” Nichols finds a similar merging of the human and natural in an “autumnal and naturalistic paradise” (124-5). But rather than finding transcendence in the poem, he writes: ”I want to forget about Shelley’s sentimentality (“As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need”) and set aside his characteristic overstatement (“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”) and think instead about precisely what he achieves in these justly famous lines of poetry. The wind here is not merely moving air; it represents the life force itself; the elan vital, the chi, a vital energy that pervades the universe” (125). For Nichols, this world is purely material: “the prophecy itself is nothing more complex that a simple truth of material nature: spring always follows winter…Shelley produces a resurrection poem without any link to the supernatural. He offers a promise of natural power and organic efficacy without any reference to a world beyond the physical world, beyond the world I can see and hear and feel outside my window every day….” (127). But can this naturalistic reading of the poem account for its wealth of secularized biblical imagery? For its references to prayer, the thorns of life, apocalyptic showers of black rain, fire, and hail, and most especially the prophetic stance in the concluding lines? These are, I think, spiritual and supernatural motifs that possibly engage a transcendent third category beyond nature and culture.
Nevertheless, abandoning this idea of the transcendent may be the very first step necessary for realizing “urbanature.” Nichols highlights the inherent cultural bias that shapes our conceptions of nature: “what we observe when we observe nature,” he writes, ”is not some Platonically pure nature in itself, but a nature that is always changing, always determined by specific circumstances, by my consciousness, and by precise conditions in each contextual instance” (188) . Our cultural context today is more variegated and includes a greater familiarity with atheistic, agnostic, and non-Christian spiritual traditions as well as wider gaps between science, literature and religion. Nichols is consistently forthright in his desire to refashion the term “nature” for our times. Towards the end of the book especially, the manifesto-like rhetoric gains strength: “Like ecocentrism, urbanatural roosting will not be so difficult. All it will require is that every one of us should think about, care about, and do something good about every place, every person, every creature, and everything that each of us can effect on planet earth” (206-7). Nichols calls for nothing less than a new ethic, an “ecoethic” that recognizes the intrinsic value of both animate and inanimate nature.
Nichols has a gift for writing about the history of science: the best chapters in this book elucidate emotional responses to science in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. He sees pleasure “as a concept that links Romantic poetry to Romantic science in significant ways. Pleasure located in the nonhuman world, and pleasure taken by humans in the natural world, are concepts that comingle in a whole range of Romantic metaphors and writings: anthropocentric, ecocentric, and otherwise” (88). Nichols salutes the galvanizing force of wonder in Romantic science, a topic also brilliantly explored by Richard Holmes in The Age of Wonder (2008). ”Zoos and other forms of live or dead animal displays,” writes, Nichols, ”– as I have already suggested in my reflections on natural history museums — emerged out of precisely the combination of scientific curiosity and fascination with spectacle …To see something new and amazing is often to learn something new, but the experience is also about being excited, titillated or amazed…(153). But he also charts darker terrain. For colonizing scientists, he notes, “it was ethically acceptable to cage other creatures, even human creatures, as long as the knowledge thus gained could be codified or organized as part of the great encyclopedic project” (154). He gauges too the sheer volume of death implicit in Darwinian natural selection and the horror of deep time, necessitated by new geological and fossil evidence, that demonstrated “how insignificant human life — and all of human civilization — seemed in the face of the timeline required for these incremental biological changes to occur” (61). These are riveting pages.
There is no question that Nichols has written a wondrous book, innovative in its merging of genres, richly veined with intellectual history, literary criticism, and a passionate vision for the future of environmentalism. I read it with great pleasure and wonder, and wrestled with the questions it presented for many days. Indeed, taken as a whole, the book resembles two metaphors Nichols draws from the history of science: Darwin’s famous “entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about” and all of its “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (16) and wonder cabinets, a subject dear to my heart. In both the entangled bank and the curiosity cabinet, a sense of wonder leads to a deeper engagement with nature. Nichols’ best nature writing — including chronicles of intense I-thou encounters with a bobcat and dolphins — also resonate with wonder. Perhaps cultivating this sense of wonder is the Romantics’ greatest legacy for modern environmentalism, one that could help heal the divisions that imperil our world today.
Samantha Harvey is an Assistant Professor of English at Boise State University
“ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and Environment”
18.3 (Summer 2011)
Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting. By Ashton Nichols. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 230 + xxiii pp. Cloth $85.00.
In one word, “urbanatural,” Nichols’ book strives to bridge the Romantic divide between nature and culture, the rural and the city, offering instead a vision of a single, integrated ecology that seamlessly blends human and non-human beings and systems. There is no separate “nature” for us to return to, or from which we have ever been apart. Instead even the most urban places are entirely constituted by and dependent on the natural world, just as the most remote wildernesses have now been thoroughly mapped, imaged, and impacted by human activity. Refusing to lament over the “end of nature,” however, Nichols argues hopefully that it is time to shift our attention from the imagined boundary between the human and the natural to the more useful distinction of whether we are “taking care” of places and “sharing” resources with other beings poorly or well (192).
As he breaks down the culture/ nature distinction, Nichols also crosses many boundaries of traditional scholarly writing, combining his own nature writing and personal narrative with ecocritical readings of Romantic poems; historical exploration of institutions such as zoos and natural history collections; and broad reflections on issues such as the necessity of death to natural life cycles or how shared susceptibilities to pain and pleasure demonstrate the evolutionary kinship of all living beings. The book holds these various topics and kinds of writing together through a seasonal almanac, organized around Nichols’ repeated return, each month of a yearly cycle, to “the Roost,” a family cabin at the crest of the “Blue Ridge Mountains, near the Virginia-West Virginia border” (5). Combining the scientific and the humanistic, the scholarly and the experiential, Nichols writes in a wonderfully consistent and engaging voice that both unifies the book and makes it an unusual pleasure to read.
At the heart of the book is a vision, at once intellectual, spiritual, and pragmatic, of humans as fundamentally part of the natural world, together with a belief that to establish an “ecoculture” we must embrace that belonging. Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism’s holistic vision of ecology as a single integrated system, combining the human and non-human alike, shares much in this respect with Timothy Morton’s recent writings, Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought. Nichols focuses, however, not so much on the problem of “nature” as a category as on human kinship within nature: a kinship which must ultimately define our meanings, our values, and our forms of life. To “roost” in this sense becomes a keyword for living sustainably in and from environment, without damaging that environment. Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism is in the end a deeply hopeful call, that if we can let go of the false distinction between nature and culture and embrace our urbanatural roosting, we can learn to live ecologically while finding all the “soul” we need in the material and biological world that constitutes us. –Scott Hess, Earlham College
NINETEENTH-CENTURY GENDER STUDIES
ISSUE 7.2 (SUMMER 2011)
Urban Nature or Urbanature? Those Ecocentric Romantics
Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting. Ashton Nichols. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. 230 pp.
Reviewed by Jesse Oak Taylor, University of Maryland
<1>“The time has come for a new idea and a new word to describe that idea.” So begins Ashton Nichols’s Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting. “The new word is ‘urbanature,’” and Nichols managed to assuage my immediate leeriness of yet another ecocritical neologism with the parenthetical statement that it “rhymes with ‘furniture’” (xiii). This connection (which also left me trying–and failing–to pronounce “furnitural”) is more than simply wordplay. On the contrary, Nichols’s argument asks us to consider all the various forms of artifice with which we have furnished modernity as the stuff of human adaptation, little different in essence from the larder of a well-stocked squirrel’s nest. To this end, Nichols’s book engages three distinct but related projects: the turn from “anthropocentrism” to “ecocentrism” (along with their counterparts anthropomorphism/ecomorphism); historicizing this idea in the writings of Romantic and Victorian poets and natural historians; and dramatizing an argument for the material implementation of “urbanatural roosting.”
<2>The book is organized by season, running through a year with each of its thirteen chapters corresponding to a month (beginning and ending with March). It incorporates memoir and narrative scholarship, in addition to historicized close readings of Romantic and Victorian authors, in an attempt to display urbanatural roosting as both an idea and a practice. Thus, Nichols’s meditations on the seasonal changes he witnesses from “The Roost”–his cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains–need to be understood as part of his evidence base, and thus need to be weighed as such, rather than anecdotes or rhetorical flourishes. I’ve taken this minor detour into method not only to clarify something that may be surprising to anyone unaccustomed to the technique, but also as a means of getting to the rhetorical stakes of Nichols’s argument vis-à-vis the broader field of ecocriticism.
<3>In “urbanature,” Nichols is advancing the idea that “nature” as that which is completely separate from humanity does not exist and never has. This represents a challenge to what Nichols dubs “Romantic ecocriticism,” in which the existence of such an independent, inviolate “nature” provides the central point of reference, restorative, stable, and sacred. Instead, Nichols’s “urbanature” attempts to capture the sense in which human beings must be understood on a continuum with the natural world, in which no firm divide between the “urban” and the “natural” exists. He articulates this thesis in terms of a turn to “ecomorphism,” cultivating metaphors (in both poetry and science) that recognize the fact that “humans are more like animals than animals are like humans” (40). Furthermore, Nichols’s key contribution is not so much this fact of breaking down the human/nature boundary in itself, but rather in situating its origins historically in the nineteenth century. The above quote, for instance, follows on a discussion of Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia(1797).
<4>Drawing on his extensive knowledge of Romantic natural history, as well as close readings of an array of nineteenth-century poets, novelists, and natural historians (both Darwins, both Shelleys, Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, Tennyson, Hardy) Nichols contends: “These authors, poets, and early scientists consistently claim that human beings are contiguous with the natural world rather than distinct from it” (22). As he explains further, “Ecocentrism […] emphasizes this need for humans to see themselves as determined by—while existing within—a world that lies beyond the boundary of the human body” (79). Again, he is making this point both about human beings (and being) in the world in general and about the way in which the Romantics (and Victorians) thought about it. Given the importance of the Romantic “I” (and eye), which so readily seems to position everything in relation to itself (i.e., anthropocentrism), this is a very important insight.
<5>Consider these lines from William Blake’s “The Fly” (1793), “Am not I/ A fly like thee?/ Or art not thou/ A man like me?” (ll. 4-8). The answer, one is inclined to think, is “no and no,” with any contention otherwise falling squarely within the realm of imaginative anthropomorphism. However, as Nichols points out, there are many parallels between a man’s life and a fly’s (eating, reproducing, dying) that can be noted without distorting the material realities of either. He offers compelling readings of Keats’s “To Autumn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” along similar lines. Furthermore, as he goes on to argue, “Such species boundary-crossing is not simply a poetic metaphor, however; in the twenty-first century it is a scientific reality” (81). This last element is crucial to the argument. Anthropocentrism is a poetic conceit. It is, in other words, imaginary. Ecocentrism, on the other hand, is literally, materially, true.
<6>As noted above, Nichols shows that it is not simply a “scientific reality” in the twenty-first century; it was already becoming one at the end of the eighteenth: “What was new by 1790 was the sense that these were not just rhetorical comparisons of behavior between human and animal realms; rather, such observationally supported comparisons reflected a deeper—and organic—unity of all living things. Ecomorphism was replacing anthropomorphism” (93). Urbanature, then, begins to appear not so much as a “new word” for a “new idea,” but rather as a new way of understanding what the Romantics and Victorians were actually talking about when they referred to “nature.” And in tracing it, Nichols offers a subtle, but significant new way of understanding many of the central debates in the nineteenth century, most notably around evolution, species, and extinction, and how they relate to pressing global concerns. It is this sense of intextricability between the human and the natural that Nichols tries to capture in the word “urbanature.”
<7>This brings me to a key distinction that I will admit it took me much of the book to fully understand: “urban,” for Nichols, doesn’t refer to the city, but rather all human artifice, such as the light bulb in his cabin. This last point is crucial because it helps to explain (if not entirely excuse) the fact that there is actually very little of what I would consider “urbanity”–which is to say, the city.
<8>In the preface, Nichols explains that his “emphasis on urbanature and roosting emerges out of my own contention that gentrification, postindustrial waste, environmental racism, and other forms of urban degradation can come about when land-use urban planners or environmentalists say that wild nature takes precedence over urban wastelands” (xxi). While I agree with such statements, I feel compelled to take him to task for the fact that they remain statements, largely unconnected to the real evidence base of the book. To be sure, he points out, “Many of the great ‘nature’ poems of the Romantic era were actually written in the suburbs, in the back gardens of great cities, or in the midst of the largest urban space on the planet at the time: London” (xviii). And he offers a compelling reading of Wordsworth’s “Upon Westminster Bridge” as “nature poem.” But overall, he seems more interested in uncovering the “urban” in the “natural” than vice versa.
<9>The absence of the city is most notable in the personal narrative sections, which (with one exception) take place at “The Roost” and consist of his close observation of wasps, grubs, birds, and trees. The one genuinely urban example shows him seeking out a grove of trees in Florence “near the spot where Shelley composed his West Wind poem” (127) –an instance of urbanity that is exceptional on a variety of levels. While Nichols mentions projects to reclaim derelict urban spaces in Detroit or the South Bronx, most of his invocations of the city seem generic examples chosen for rhetorical purposes, like “Montana/Manhattan,” rather than grounded in the actual lived experience revealed in most of his analysis.
<10>Indeed, one of the clearest evidence that Nichols doesn’t consider genuinely urban spaces conducive to “urbanature” is the fact that he retreats to “The Roost” to find it. This movement of Thoreauvian seclusion is crucial to “roosting” as both practice and critical stance. It dramatizes what seems to be Nichols’s real project, which consists more of pointing out that “Thoreau’s Walden Pond and [Annie] Dillard’s Tinker Creek are not as far from the urban world as they often seem” (170), than of elaborating a fully fledged ecological engagement with the city.
<11>Ultimately, Nichols’s points carry their greatest critical weight when placed within the ecocritical tradition he is asking us to move beyond. It is this context that the book’s insights and Nichols’s knowledge of his material truly shine. He gives us a new look at the most canonical authors of Romantic ecocriticism, from Thoreau and Wordsworth to Annie Dillard, and to one of its most cherished formal movements, the retreat to the woods. In the process, his wide-ranging knowledge of nineteenth-century natural history and the turn from “anthropomorphism” to “ecomorphism” produce readings of canonical works. For example, my favorite part of the book is an extended discussion of death in the nineteenth-century imagination. These readings have the elusive quality of appearing at once genuinely new and almost intuitively true. As if they, like urbanature, were always already there.
CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries
Humanities \ Language & Literature \ English & American
Nichols, Ashton. Beyond Romantic ecocriticism: toward urbanatural roosting. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 230p bibl index; ISBN 9780230102675, $85.00. Reviewed in 2011aug CHOICE.
With this lyrical, insightful book on urbanature (emphasis on the second syllable: ub-ban-ature), Nichols (Dickinson College) makes a significant contribution to the evolving field of eco-criticism and to the prestigious “Nineteenth-Century Major Lives and Letters” series. Nichols inches toward the interdisciplinary by including architecture, natural history, cultural studies, and evolutionary biology within the purview of literary studies. A Wordsworth and Thoreau scholar with a background in journalism, Nichols fuses studies in the Romantics with his own understanding of big ideas, for example, the “great chain of being,” evolution, and natural history. Structured as a nature-writing journal beginning in spring and ending in spring, this green response to modernism finds such progenitors as the ancient Egyptian god Anubis (wild and human) and Blake’s Romantic “tyger” no less a part of the human force than the lamb. Although Nichols claims the coinage “urbanatural roosting,” he gives credit to fellow eco-critics–including Kurt Fosso, who revised the word “animal,” and Timothy Morton, who excised the word “nature.” Combining literary, anecdotal, and philosophical perspectives, this invaluable book crossbreeds political, spiritual, scientific, and aesthetic elements within the outworn dichotomy of town and country. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates and above. – L. L. Johnson, Lewis & Clark College
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“An enjoyable read with engaging prose . . . Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism is an important contribution to contemporary discussions about the future of environmentalism and how we might face the environmental challenges of our world today.”
– Environmental Philosophy
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“In Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism, Ashton Nichols reveals himself not just as an ecocritical scholar but as a very effective nature writer.”
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39:3 (Summer 2012): 171-73
Michael Verderame University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In recent years ecological literary criticism has moved from the margins of the academy to become an increasingly mainstream mode of analysis, nowhere more so than in Romanticist circles. Early new historicist scholarship in the 1980s tended to view Romantic writing about nature as evading fields of social, economic, and political struggle. Beginning in the 1990s, Jonathan Bate, Karl Kroeber, Lawrence Buell, James McKusick, and others sought to reassert the primacy of nature in the Romantic enterprise and to retrieve Romantic environmental thought as a foundation for a new ecopolitics appropriate to the age of global warming.Yet Romantic ecocriticism risked becoming as rigid as the new historicist skepticism it displaced, giving us a version of the Romantics that largely echoes twenty-first-century eco- logical sensibilities, and so inviting a new wave of critical and revisionary accounts.The most prominent recent intervention in Romantic ecocriticism has been led by Timothy Morton, who in a pair of influential books—Ecology Without Nature (2007) and The Ecological Thought (2010)—challenged the basic assumptions of virtually all ecological thought, mainstream and radical, of the last two centuries. Morton argues that the concept of Nature is an aestheticized abstraction that feeds into anthropocentric fantasies of domination, and has done more ecological harm than good.
Ashton Nichols’s Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism enters this contested terrain with a call for an environmental criticism grounded in what he calls “urbanature.” Although Nichols’s book is less iconoclastic towards mainstream ecocriticism than Morton’s work, the two authors share a suspicion towards the concept of “Nature” as it has traditionally been applied.The conventional view of nature denotes wilderness; spaces are “natural” to the extent that they are uninhabited, or unaffected, by human beings, and correspondingly spaces that have been cultivated or transformed by human activity are “unnatural.” In accord with much recent ecocritical work, Nichols rejects this view of nature as something apart from and inherently imperiled by human civilization, and instead uses the term “urbanature” to articulate the “idea that human beings are never cut off from wild nature by human culture” (xv). Where Morton argues that ecocriticism needs to cast off the concept of nature altogether, Nichols argues for expanding our sense of nature to encompass human beings and the spaces we cultivate and develop. While Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism is certainly invested in these theoretical debates, it is less a polemical work than, in some ways, a reflective memoir, structured around Nichols’s own lyrical, essayistic observations and musings on his encounters with nature over the course of a year. It is divided into four principal sections of three chapters each, corresponding to the seasons and months of the year, and begins and ends with the coming of spring in March.The close attention to natural description and to the author’s situatedness in and around nature has become a familiar trope in ecocritical scholarship, as a sort of corrective to the tendency to divorce scholarship from embodied experience. In Nichols’s hands, though, this technique never feels clichéd. Rather, the more coloristic passages of natural writing flow seamlessly into his readings of literary texts and material history, echoing Wordsworth’s claim that our two great spiritual teachers are books and nature.
Like many works of ecocriticism, Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism is really two books in one: a descriptive cultural-historical study of the evolution of ideas about nature over the course of the nineteenth century, and a normative argument about what lessons these works offer in framing a social and political response to our current ecological crisis.The empirical component of Nichols’s thesis will likely prove convincing to even those readers who might resist his green flourishes and unapologetically neo-Romantic orientation. For Nichols, the key transformation in ecological consciousness over the nineteenth century was the replacement of a world-view that saw nature as static and separated from humans by an understanding of nature as dynamic and interconnected. The eighteenth and nineteenth century’s great revolutions in physics, chemistry, geology, and evolutionary biology both anticipated and helped to shape the conviction widely shared by Romantic writers that human consciousness and nonhuman nature are interactive and mutually constituting parts of a single system, as Nichols argues with convincing close readings of canonical Romantic poems. Nichols reads Blake’s “The Fly” as a “dream of contact across the species boundary” enabled by Romantic science’s understanding of the “literal links among creatures large and small” (81); he brings a new scientific precision to Shelley’s “The Cloud” and Keats’ “To Autumn”; and he demonstrates how Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge,” with its elegiac portrait of a dramatically beautiful urban vista, collapses the city-nature binary. The major Romantics emerge, in Nichols’s telling, as more nuanced and scientifically-minded theorists of “Nature” than we have sometimes been accustomed to think.
Ultimately, Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism is more than a conventional cultural-historical study: it aspires to change the way readers think and act as moral and political subjects in relation to the natural world. It is this radical ambition, belying the its seemingly modest scope, that will make the book valuable and interesting to readers who are neither nineteenth-century specialists, nor invested in debates in ecocritical theory. Nichols proposes that we “resituate advocacy of something nonhuman ‘for its own sake’ in order to include the human—the city, the suburb, the urban, urbanature—in all discussions of ways that this planet (and its finite space) should be cared for and shared by human beings in the future” (170). Privileging nonhuman spaces to the exclusion of the built environment, he implies, has the dangerous effect of suggesting that all “human” spaces are equally dangerous and, ultimately, equally irredeemable.
What would an “urbanatural roosting” such as Nichols proposes look like? The concept remains a bit vague, because it would require a revolution in thinking and everyday living to collapse the dominant country-city binary; but Nichols traces the outlines in responses to ecological (post-Katrina New Orleans) and economic (deindustrialized Rust Belt) trauma. Green renewal projects in these areas, he suggests, transport some of the traditional characteristics of rural life into urban and suburban spaces.To live urbannaturally is to live in a world where “new living spaces will emerge where gardens come down into city center from the suburbs, where every house with a yard turns part of that yard into a garden for vegetables and flowers” (190). Embracing an urbannatural ethic would require rejecting both anthropocentric fantasies of domination over the natural world and radical ecological primitivism, and instead underscoring the inextricability of “nature” and “culture.” I am not sure whether I would want to programatically endorse Nichols’s proposal wholesale, but Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism makes a valu- able contribution towards a progressive environmentalism that responds to the challenges of our contemporary moment.