Writing After Nature

by Kate Rigby

© all rights reserved

“Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artefact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion. Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves are more wonderful than any words about them.” (Mary Oliver) 

However the craft of nature writing might be conceived, there is a sense in which the nature writer is necessarily called to be a follower. Such writing, that is to say, necessarily follows nature: temporally, in that the natural world to which it refers is presumed to pre-exist the written text; normatively, in that this pre-existing natural world is implicitly valued more highly than the text which celebrates it; and mimetically, in that the text is expected to re-present this pre-existing and highly regarded natural world in some guise. Let me stress at the outset, that I am all for the kind of writing (which comes in a wide variety of literary and non-literary genres) that calls upon its readers to revalue more-than-human beings, places and histories. In defence of such writing, along with the more-than-human beings, places and histories to which it bids us turn our concern, I am nonetheless going to argue here that the relation between nature and writing, especially in the literary mode, might best be thought otherwise.1

While the ecologically oriented interest in nature writing is a relatively new phenomenon, it is worth recalling that the idea that writing, at least in those genres that we have come to class as literary, should follow nature is positively ancient. In Aristotle’s highly influential definition of mimesis, all art and craft, collectively termed techne, was said to “imitate” nature (physis), while simultaneously accomplishing “what phusis is incapable of effecting,” by creating something that does not develop and reproduce itself according to its own indwelling principle, but instead has a determinate form imposed upon it from outside by its human maker (1957, 173). The Aristotelian conception of mimesis, variously inflected, remained predominant in European culture at least up until the late eighteenth century, when it began to be more-or-less radically reformulated in the context of the Romantic movement, to which much contemporary thinking about art and nature remains indebted. This is a complex story, something of which I have endeavoured to tell elsewhere (2004a). Here, I will content myself with recalling just one moment in this historical narrative, by way of beginning to unfold some of the tricky issues that lurk beneath the surface of the beguiling conjunction of nature and writing.

In 1797, Friedrich Schiller famously declared that poets (Dichter, a term that then encompassed all creative writers) are, “by their very definition, the guardians of nature. Where they can no longer quite be so and have already felt within themselves the destructive influence of arbitrary and artificial forms or have had to struggle with them, then they will appear as the witnesses and avengers of nature. They will either be nature, or they will seek lost nature” (1985, 191). The former, Schiller dubs “naïve”: these are above all those ancient writers, whose work, in his analysis, manifested a certain concreteness and sensuous immediacy; the latter were those modern writers of sentiment, whose work tended rather towards imaginative freedom and reflective distance. Whereas ancient poets such as Homer paid little heed to the beauties of the natural world because their culture was still largely integrated into it, Schiller argued, later writers waxed increasingly lyrical about such things as stones, plants, pastoral and, latterly, wild landscapes, in proportion to the disappearance of nature and naturalness from human life. Nature, that is to say, becomes thematic in literature only when it becomes problematic in reality. The boundaries of the ‘modern’ proving extremely elastic in Schiller’s account, this was a phenomenon of which he sees traces in classical Greek times, but which he perceives as having become ever more pronounced in recent centuries.

At least with respect to the German scene, Schiller cannot be classed as a Romantic; but his literary theoretical writing was certainly taken up, and variously reinterpreted, by those who commonly are seen as such (most immediately, and mischievously, in Schiller’s view, by the early German Romantics who gathered in Jena in the late 1790s, including Friedrich von Hardenberg [‘Novalis’] and the brothers Schlegel). Schiller’s essay “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” has been also been recalled in recent years in the context of the ecocritical reconsideration of “the place of creative imagining and writing in the complex set of relationships between humankind and environment” (Bate 2000, 72-3; see also Garrard 2005, 44-5 and Rigby 2004a, 93-101). In doing so again here, my purpose is, in the first place, to sound a note of caution: not all talk of nature is necessarily good for the earth. In the conclusion of this article, I will return to Schiller in order to suggest how his reflections on the poet’s vocation might be read in a way that is more sympathetic to the project of what, for the moment, I will still term nature writing. What needs to be stressed to begin with, however, is that what looks like a defence of writing in the service of nature actually turns out to be an argument for the subordination of nature to art. As Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has observed, Schiller cunningly maps the opposition between the ‘naïve’ and the ‘sentimental’, both of which are ultimately found wanting, onto the historical sequence of ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ literature in order to propose a new style of writing, in which nature is neither naively embodied nor sentimentally yearned for, but aesthetically transformed (1989, 237). Rather than hankering nostalgically after the ‘naturalness’ that had been forfeited in the process of civilisation, he suggests, contemporary writers should set their sights on that which was yet to come: an idealised nature, drawn in conformity with the dictates of human reason and the premise of free will.

It appears that Schiller had been goaded into putting in a good word for nature in this essay by his friend Goethe, whom he acclaims as that paradoxical being, a modern genius: a natural talent, that is, whose work testifies to the modern malaise of nature lost (Rigby 2004a, 93). Schiller nonetheless makes it clear that in the interests of safeguarding human liberty, at least in potentia, poiesis must be accorded precedence over physis, for, as a true heir to the Enlightenment, he held freedom to be grounded in reason, which he assumed to be an exclusively human faculty: normatively speaking, writing thus comes before nature. At the same time, poiesis is in a sense to succeed physis. For the role of the poet in modern times, that is to say, under the regime of artifice, was not to seek vainly to effect a return to nature, but rather to subsume nature into his art. In this inaugural text of modern literary theory, composed at the dawn of the industrial era, literature is therefore construed as that mode of writing which begins precisely where nature ends, while nonetheless potentially anticipating the reconciliation of a liberated humanity with a reformed nature, premised upon the transformation of the actual into the ideal.

For all this talk of nature lost-an ancient topos recently revived by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and variously inflected by Schiller and his younger contemporaries in Britain and Germany (as well as by successive generations of romantics and neo-romantics there and elsewhere ever since)-the continued existence of nature ‘out there’, the earthly matrix of the living world, was never seriously in doubt around 1800. Lord Byron, enduring a bleak summer on Lake Geneva in the wake of the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia, might have been moved to imagine, in his grim poem “Darkness,” the possible demise of life on earth in the absence of the beneficent light of the sun (and, searingly, without the metaphysical consolation of a divinely orchestrated new beginning) (Bate 1996). In this poetic thought experiment, there is no suggestion that humans could have brought this catastrophe upon themselves, however, even though it has the effect of disclosing the moral darkness that dwells within them. Things look very different, though, once the possible cessation, or at least catastrophic reduction, of sunlight on a planetary scale appears neither as a supernatural intervention nor as a natural disaster, but as a consequence of human prowess in artful construction, in this case, of weapons of mass destruction. Since the end of the Cold War, the threat of ‘nuclear winter’ has receded from public concern (although, as the recent bout of sabre rattling between Iran and the US indicates, the possibility of nuclear devastation, if ‘only’ regionally rather than globally, remains undiminished). In the meantime, we have become conscious of a less spectacular wave of destruction sweeping across the planet as an unintended consequence of the revolutionary changes in human production, consumption and reproduction that got underway in Schiller’s day.

As the ‘natural philosophers’ of that time, notably F. W. J. Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel well appreciated, change, whether great or small, sudden or slow, is endemic to the natural world, which was already beginning to look more like a dynamic process of transformation than a static artefact crafted once and for all by a distant deity (Rigby 2004a, 24-45). Still, the incredibly complex and diverse matrix of life into which scientists now believe modern humans evolved some forty thousand years ago currently appears to be changing in ways that cannot but seem privative. Pollution, habit loss, global warming: none of this might spell the end of life on Earth; but the tidal wave of extinction that such anthropogenic factors is now engendering surely threatens the particular oikos, the planetary community of living beings into which humanity was born, and to which we owe our evolutionary emergence. Are we then in the midst of our own endgame? Certainly, Clov’s matter-of-fact assertion in Samuel Beckett’s play of that name, “There is no more nature” (1958, 16) no longer looks as ‘absurd’ as it did in the 1950s. If, as Bill McKibben has argued, nature is already at an end since there is no longer any corner of the globe that remains untouched by the effects of human technology, is it not altogether too late for ‘nature writing’? In times such as these, we must ask once more, what on earth are poets for?2

By some accounts, of course, it was ‘always already’ too late for nature writing, to the extent, that is, that ‘nature’ is itself arguably a product of writing. According to Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology, “the absolute present, Nature, that which words like ‘real mother’ name, have always already escaped, have never existed; […] what opens meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence” (1997, 159). Ecocritics are wont to recoil in horror from statements such as these. Coming hard on the heels of the infamous il n’y a pas de hors-texte (“there is no outside-text,” 158), Derrida’s rhetoric certainly sounds infuriatingly Idealist; that is, until we pay attention to the capitalisation of Nature (something that is more readily done, incidentally, if we are reading the written page, rather than listening to the spoken word). Far from denying the existence of a more-than-human material reality-the diverse realm of “stuff,” in Chris Cuomo’s felicitous phrase (1998, 29)-Derrida is actually problematising the ideations by means of which we name, and in so doing tame, constrain and lay claim to it, whether in the name of knowledge, power or (inevitably, perhaps) both. What has never existed ‘outside the text’ is not nature, but Nature: a metaphysical construct borne of a particular intertextual history and projected onto certain kinds of stuff in a variety of contexts, with a range of potentially very material effects.3

By this stage in Derrida’s discussion (again, infamously), ‘writing’ has come to name an aspect of human language in general, in that the structure of supplementarity that Rousseau attributes to writing in a restricted sense is shown to inhabit the spoken word as well: the phoneme no less than the grapheme is a sign that stands in for a referent which is thereby invoked precisely as absent, or at any rate, other than the sign itself. On one level, this is irrefutable. As Hegel observed in the Jena System Programme (1803/04), the biblical prerogative bestowed upon the mythical first man of imposing names of his own choosing on the rest of creation “annihilated” his Edenic earth others by substituting for the particularity of their embodied being something ideational that could henceforth exist, virtually, in their absence (1975: 288): a primary negation, which is ultimately affirmed by the Idealist philosopher as necessary to the progressive unfolding of the Spirit in history. While I would beg to differ from Hegel regarding the privilege that he accords the concept and the telos that he imparts to history (along with his assumption that speech is exclusively human), I would nonetheless like to join him, to some extent contra Derrida, in insisting that something new does come into play with the invention of writing, and especially perhaps alphabetical writing. Hegel, once again, puts a positive spin on this development. While he objects to the materiality of writing in general as an exteriorization of the Idea, and to alphabetical writing specifically as second degree exteriorization, since it consists of “signs of signs” (that is, arbitrary representations of the spoken word), he nonetheless applauds the alphabet as a means of “infinite education” or “cultivation” (unendliches Bildungsmittel): “because thus the mind, distancing itself from the concrete sense-perceptible, directs its attention on the more formal moment, the sonorous word and its abstract elements, and contributes essentially to the founding and purifying of the ground of interiority within the subject” (trans. cit. Derrida 1997, 25). It is precisely this tendency of alphabetic writing to direct consciousness away from the materiality of the more-than-human world around us towards the ideational world that the spoken word had (‘always already’) opened up within our minds, which today renders it the target of ecophilosophical critique, notably in the work of David Abram (1996). I will return to status of nature within alphabetic writing in due course. First, though, I would like to dwell for a moment on the historicity of writing in general.

Postdating the appearance of Homo sapiens (himself a notorious late-comer to the biotic community) by nearly 35,000 years, writing is a product of that epochal shift in humanity’s relationship with the earth that attended the creation of towns in the major agrarian civilisations of the ancient world, first appearing in Mesopotamia around 3,500 BCE, then around 3000 BCE in Egypt, 2,600 BCE in the Indus Valley, 1,600 BCE in China, and 500 BCE in Mesoamerica (Gaur 1987; Fischer 2001). Unlike speech, writing is not an anthropological constant: its creation was contingent upon a revolutionary (albeit extremely gradual) transformation in the means and relations of production, which was itself contingent upon the emergence in some parts of the world of climates, soils, and biotic communities that lent themselves to the development of agriculture. For farming is not an anthropological constant either, although it is certainly cast as such in some of the earliest surviving written creation narratives. The Sumerians, for example, ‘naturalised’ their own irrigation canals in the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates by construing them, along with the great rivers themselves, as the work of the gods. “So far were the Sumerians from imagining a preagricultural humankind,” observes Evan Eisenberg, “that they saw humankind itself as a crop” (1998, 83).

Created in the context of a whole new phase in the human domination of the earth through the domestication of plants and animals, the cultivation of the soil, and the construction of cities set apart from the surrounding countryside, writing also came to bear witness, however obliquely, to the environmentally destructive potential of the civilization that brought it into being. In the Sumerian tablets that lie behind the later Akkadian and Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2000 BCE), the hero, ably assisted by his once wild soul mate Enkidu, seeks to defy death by making a name for himself as a legendary logger. Crossing seven mountains, which were evidently already denuded, he found the trees that he was after in “The Land of the Living,” only to lose his friend as a consequence of slaying the genius loci of the forest, the demon Huwawa (Pritchard 1969, 47-50).4 In the surviving version of the epic, there is no indication that Gilgamesh draws any ethical consequences from this with regard to his treatment of the earth. Recognising the futility of his quest for immortality, he responds by returning to the city and building its walls yet higher: the logs, meanwhile, continue to float down the river “like the bodies of the dead” (Harrison 1992, 18).

The deforestation that is recalled in this inaugural work of written literature was integral to Sumerian civilisation, as to every civilisation since, and it comprised but one of the major ecological impacts of the agricultural revolution. More immediately worrisome for the ancient Mesopotamians (as for present day Australians) was the salinisation of their once fruitful fields as a result of irrigation, a problem that seems to have begun to bite at precisely the time that the oldest surviving clay tablets were inscribed with cuneiform script. Analysis of the marks left by the grain stored in Sumerian pots indicates that from about 3,500 BCE, the proportion of wheat to barley, a more salt-tolerant crop, begins to decline steadily, such that by 1700 BCE, wheat has disappeared entirely (Eisenberg 1998, 124). Over the millennia, Eisenberg speculates, salinisation might also have been a major factor in the gradual shift of power and population upriver: from Sumer to Akkad to Babylon to Nineveh. In his reading, a faint suspicion “that their greatest triumph, irrigation, was bringing about their greatest disaster, salinization” (121) can be traced in another Sumerian poem, “Enki and Ninhursag,” which turns upon a conflict between the tricksterish water deity and the awesome earth mother, as well as in the “Atrahasis,” which recounts how the gods punished humans for making too much of a racket by causing the salty sea below to rise up through the earth: “During the nights the fields turned white. The broad plain brought forth salt crystals, so that no plant came forth, no grain sprouted” (Pritchard 1969, 104-6).

Within the world of cuneiform inscription, then, the integral space of the oikos is ruptured through the constitution of discrete zones and orders of being, sundering the wild from the cultivated and the countryside from the town. The separation of the truly human and his works from other-than-human spaces and entities is already implicit here. However, an abstract concept of ‘nature’, at least as it has been articulated in the Western tradition, whether as cosmic whole, indwelling principle, moral guide, virgin territory, or antithesis of culture, to name but some of the major usages of this infamously slippery term, only emerges within the world of fully alphabetical writing, beginning with classical Greek (Glacken 1967; Soper 1995; Coates 1998). Let me stress here that I do not want to imply a causal connection between alphabeticisation and abstraction: after all, the use of a pictographic-ideographic script did not prevent the Chinese from developing a concept of nature, at least along the lines of the first two meanings given above, as is already evident in early Confucian and Taoist texts from the sixth century BCE (Marshall 1994, 9-23). It is nonetheless striking that the “theorisation of a strictly intelligible realm of pure Ideas resting entirely outside of the sensible world,” according to David Abram (1996, 197), finds its earliest articulation within the entirely arbitrary sign system of classical Greek. Even if this connection is purely contingent, rather than causal, as Abram controversially assumes, what it surely discloses is that Nature, as Derrida insists, does indeed follow writing: as an ideation, it is the creation of a long history of textual inscription, the precise contours of which have shifted and diversified in association with changing regimes of domination, both within human society, and between humanity and the earth.

Granted. But what of nature? The significance that the deconstructionist philosopher attributes to the grammatological genesis of Nature, the spin that he puts on it, and the implications that most literary theorists have tended to draw from it, clearly pertains to a different agenda from that of the ecocritic. From an ecocritical perspective, it is equally important to emphasise the secondariness of writing, not only temporally but also normatively, in relation to the vastly longer and more complex history of the unfolding of life on earth. This is, moreover, a history of the emergence of a myriad of interconnecting systems of communication, without which there would be no humanly produced texts, whether written or oral, at all.  As Judith Wright reminds us in “Scribbly-Gum,” there is a ‘writing’ far more ancient than that of human words:

The gum-tree stands by the spring.
I peeled its splitting bark
and found the written track
of a life I could not read.
(Wright 2003, 131)

While the markings on the Scribbly Gum can only be thought of as writing in a highly figurative or extended sense, namely with reference to the phenomenon of the trace, systems of coded information transfer abound in the natural world. We are ourselves ‘written’ into being (through evolution, ecology, and genetics, for example, as well as through the more parochial codes of human culture) whether or not we become writers in turn. “The human process actualises semiotic processes that it did not make and that it did not shape,” avers Robert S. Corrington: “Our cultural codes, no matter how sophisticated and multi-valued, are what they are by riding on the back of this self-recording nature” (1994, ix). It is, as Laurence Coupe puts it, to defend this nature that Green Studies “debates ‘Nature'” (2000, 5).

Yet can we speak of nature without thereby also invoking Nature? Does this term not carry altogether too much Western metaphysical baggage to serve us well in a contemporary context? Heidegger, in his day, already thought so. The philosopher of being and dwelling disavowed ‘nature’, not because he had no time for the other-than-human (although his hierarchy of beings was notoriously anthropocentric), but rather in order to safeguard the autopoiesis, or self-unfolding and self-revealing, of the manifold phenomena of earth and sky, by liberating them from earlier metaphysical constructs, whether as an artefact of divine manufacture, as in the dominant Judeao-Christian concept of creation; a set of knowable laws of cause and effect, as in scientific positivism; or, under the regime of modern technology, as mere ‘standing reserve’, passively awaiting extraction, manipulation and commodification. It is, among other things, Heidegger’s disavowal that stands behind Derrida’s deconstruction, although the urbane French philosopher suspected the forest-dwelling Swabian sage of succumbing to metaphysics anew in his very attempt to escape it. Meanwhile, however, there is reason to suspect, as Val Plumwood does, that “the deep contemporary […] scepticism about the term ‘nature’ may play some role in the contemporary indifference to the destruction and decline of the natural world around us” (2001, 3). In my own experience, this nature-scepticism has certainly rendered it difficult to champion the more-than-human in the academic arena of literary and cultural studies in the wake of the (post)structuralist ‘linguistic turn’. In Plumwood’s view, we cannot afford to do away with ‘nature’ at this juncture: rather than puritanically evicting this loaded term from our lexicon, we should, she argues, endeavour to deploy it otherwise. This is, I believe, a crucially important undertaking: without doubt, non-dualistic and anti-colonial talk of nature can be strategically valuable in defending the agency and interests of the other-than-human. But we must bear in mind that we are never entirely in control of the meanings attributed to the words we use, however guardedly, and some of the cultural connotations that ‘nature’ carries in its wake are arguably part and parcel of the eco-social crisis in which we find ourselves today.

In recent years, various attempts have been made to find alternatives to ‘nature’ within ecologically oriented literary and cultural studies. Lawrence Buell, for example, prefers the term ‘environment’, as better approximating “the hybridity of the subject at issue-all ‘environments’ in practice involving fusions of ‘natural’ and ‘constructed’ elements,” as well as reflecting the broadening of ecocritical concern to encompass urban and/or toxified landscapes, rather than the more wild and/or pastoral places favoured by early ecocriticism (Buell 2005, viii). This seems to me a sound move, although this term too is problematic, in that it presupposes a topology of centre and surroundings that implicitly prioritises human agency and interests. In this respect, Ernst Haeckel’s coinage seems preferable, the concept of ‘ecology’ implying an endeavour to understand the multiple interrelationships between living entities in the ‘whole household’ of the earth in its varied regions in a manner that does not centralise Homo sapiens. In practice, however, as Donald Worster (1994) has demonstrated, the pursuit of ecological understanding has always been ambivalent in its orientation and ends, historically manifesting both ‘arcadian’ and ‘imperial’ tendencies. Some cultural ecologists have been drawn to Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘culture-nature’ in order to foreground the ‘hybrid’ quality of the world inhabited by ‘(post)modern’ and ‘non-modern’ peoples alike (Latour 1993). I have myself deployed this terminology (2004a, 117), although, as Erica Cudworth has recently observed, the trouble here is that it does not allow sufficiently for non-hybrid causality. While the impact and evaluation of tidalwaves and earthquakes, for example, might well be socially and culturally co-constructed, such phenomena can hardly be said to be hybrid in genesis. Similarly, the “migratory patterns of deer, whales and birds may be disrupted by human endeavor, but a disruption of pattern and process and hybridity are different things” (Cudworth 2005, 53). In addition, it should be noted that the very concept of ‘hybridity’ presupposes a distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ that emerges, as we have seen, in a particular ecosocial context, and is thus far from universally applicable. The indigenous Australian notion of ‘country’, by contrast, implies a rather different way of understanding the relationship between humans and others living together in the context of what Deborah Rose has rendered delightfully as a “nourishing terrain” (1996). I have endeavoured to translate something of this Indigenous sense of place into the post-Heideggerian concept of ecopoiesis that I have adopted and adapted from Jonathan Bate with reference to the literary ‘languaging’ of dwelling (Bate 2000, 75-6; Rigby 2004b).5 Here, too, however, there are potential pitfalls: at the very least, any notion of place-based belonging needs to be rigorously rethought in the face of the increasingly urban, itinerant and global context of human existence.

Whether we call it nature writing, environmental literature, ecopoetics or something else entirely, the question that remains to be addressed here is that of the relationship between such writing and the more-than-human others, places and histories towards which it bids us turn. To what extent, that is, can such writing be understood to be ‘after nature’ in the further sense of rendering a true likeness of that which it represents? As Lawrence Buell has observed in his recent reflections on the “question of mimesis,” the aspiration to veracity, often coupled with a preference for realism, as is evident in much early ecocriticism has drawn considerable fire from constructionist quarters (2005, 30-32). Recalling that those marks on the page are mere ‘signs of signs’, conventionalised substitutes for spoken words, arbitrary signifiers with virtual signifieds, invoking a world of ideas that predetermines our perception of the material world beyond the page, must we not conclude that in this regard too, nature comes after writing? To some extent, the constructionist case can be understood positively as shielding us from the epistemological hubris of assuming that things-in-themselves (to recall the Kantian origins of this argument) can be rendered transparent to human knowledge, their essential being captured in the net of merely human words. However, if the multiple signifying systems of other-than-human entities are not thereby to be rendered mute, and their potentially resistant agency denied, we must also acknowledge at the very least that our constructions are never entirely free, but always also “constrained” (Hayles 1995) by a more-than-human material reality that precedes and exceeds whatever we might make of it. It is in the interests of safeguarding precisely that precedence and excess that I have argued elsewhere for an ‘ecopoetics of negativity’, emphasising the inevitable failure of the written word to restore to presence that to which it refers us (2004b). “Language never replicates extratextual landscapes,” as Buell so pithily puts it, “but it can be bent toward or away from them” (2005, 33).

Recalling Wright’s Scribbly Gum, we might then venture that earth and sky have their own stories to tell, and it is to those that some writers call us to attend. Rather than thinking of this primarily as a matter of mimesis, however, I suggest that such writing be considered, more broadly, as embodying a literary practice of response: as such, we can truly say that writing comes second, following on from the other’s call, while becoming in turn the locus of a new call, to and upon the reader.6 Called forth by particular more-than-human others, places and histories, our words are nonetheless cast into, and framed by, a human communicative context, necessarily responding also to the words of others of our own kind, whether written or spoken. The particular mode of written response will therefore vary in accordance with a range of cultural, social, situational and generic contingencies. This too is exemplified by Buell in his discussion of “environmentality across the genre spectrum” (2005, 44-61). In some genres, mimesis of one kind or another will surely be involved in the articulation of the response: I am certainly very taken by Mark Tredinnick’s suggestion that the musical dimension of lyrical language (in prose writing, no less than poetry) can in some sense render, or at least be attuned to, the music of a place (2005). Here too it is important to qualify my earlier comments on naming as a potential strategy of domination that obliterates particularity. For naming can also be crucial in the recognition of diversity and disclosure of interconnections. While words can certainly be deployed in the service of control, when we surrender the assumption that to name is to know we might find, as Kevin Hart writes in “The River,” “That every word said well is praise” (2002, 153).

Lest we are to fall prey to an idolatry of the text, however, it is also important to acknowledge, as Jean-Louis Chrétien (2004) would graciously have us do, the inevitable inadequacy of each and every response, however framed. For it is only in its glorious falling short that the text bids us to ‘lift our eye from the page’ (Bonnefoy 1990), calling us forth into an embodied engagement with more-than-human others, places and histories, while also encouraging us to join in the symphonic chorus of other responses, past, present and yet to come.

In our own space-time of ecological imperilment, I believe that there is an additional call on the writer of more-than-human beings, places and histories. Writing, as we have seen, was born of ecosocial rupture. Today, however, perhaps more than ever before, it might also be turned towards what, in the Jewish tradition, has been termed tikkun olam: ‘repair of the world’. Although the antiquity of this phrase reminds us that we are by no means the first generation to experience their world as ‘broken’, the global character of the present threat to the flourishing of more-than-human life on earth would appear to be unprecedented, at least since Homo sapiens appeared on the scene. Moreover, in reinterpreting tikkun as extending to our relations with our other-than-human earth others, we should not overlook that to which it is more conventionally conceived as calling us: namely, to the healing and transformation of human social relations (and, thereby also, at least for the faithful, our relations with G-d). Here it is important to recall the extent to which the devastation of the earth is intertwined with the oppression, exploitation and marginalisation of subordinate humans. As Michael Bennett has argued, therefore, environmental literature and criticism must needs respond not only to the sublime alterity of the “black hole’ of a weasel’s eye,” but also to “the just-closed eyes of a child of the ghetto killed by lead-poisoning from ingesting the peeling paint in his/her immediate environment” (1998, 53). It is within this horizon of understanding that I would like to return in conclusion to the Schiller essay with which I began. Reading it against the grain, we might recast his call for a new kind of (possibly post-modern) literature, beyond the opposition of naïve naturalism and sentimental yearning, as envisaging a mode of writing that, in responding to the social and ecological brokenness of our world, however inadequately, might conjoin concern with the flourishing of all life, human and otherwise, with respect for the claims of human justice and freedom.


1. Many thanks to Kevin Hart and my two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article, and also to Rose Lucas for sharing with me the inestimable gift of Mary Oliver’s essays and verse. All remaining oversights and errors are my own entirely.

2. “What are Poets For?” is the title of an essay by Heidegger (1971), alluding to a poem entitled “Bread and Wine” by another of Schiller’s younger contemporaries, Friedrich Hölderlin, and of the Heideggerian last chapter of Bate’s monograph, The Song of the Earth (2004).

3. For a helpful explanation of Derrida’s philosophical materialism, see Cheah.1996.

4. On the eco-cultural significance of the Gilgamesh story, see Harrison 1992, 14-18; Westling 1996, 18-23; and Eisenberg 1998, 111-21.

5. See also Scigaj 1999 for a version of ecopoetics that leans more on Merleau-Ponty than Heidegger.

6. Although my understanding of the call is phenomenological in orientation, Freya Mathews (2003, 2005) makes a plausible case for a ‘panpsychic’ understanding of the way in which we might be addressed by material entities, whether ‘natural’ or ‘artifactual’.


Kate Rigby (FAHA) is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University and President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (Australia-New Zealand). Her most recent book is Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (University of Virginia Press, 2004).



Abram, David. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books.

Aristotle. 1957. The Physics. Trans. Francis M. Cornfield. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bate, Jonathan. 1991. Romantic Ecology. Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. London: Routledge.

—— 1996. “Living with the Weather.” In Green Romanticism, ed. J. Bate. Special issue of Studies in Romanticism 55, no. 3: 431-48.

—— 2000. The Song of the Earth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Beckett, Samuel. 1958. Endgame. London: Faber & Faber.

Bennett, Michael. 1998. “Urban Nature: Teaching Tinker Creek by the East River,” ISLE 5 (Winter 1998), 49-59.

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