John Linstrom: "Seeking a Center for Ecopoetics"



A discomforting contradiction quickly crops up in the efforts of any nature writer who begins to consider the difference between nature and culture—it seems that writing, as a cultural act, could very easily be dismissed as superfluous to natural life.  Particularly with the evolution of ecocriticism as a major field of literary study, we are reminded that no experience, no subject, no external object or pure thought, can be communicated with true immediacy.  Language is, at best, mediating.  So, if an ecocentric sense of primacy is granted to nonhuman nature or even to the sensually mediated experience of it, it would be best for us all to give up books for long walks in the woods.  We could possibly attempt to give up on Jean Baudrillard’s non-referential map, that reality marked by detached signifiers, and get back to the territory, to the reality signified, but not through such an irrepressibly cultural and sign-dependent institution as language.[1]

     Similarly, the concept of nature as a focalizing device could very easily be dismissed as superfluous to human culture.  No amount of natural study will bring humans into a position of true nonhuman understanding—as a linguistic species we are intrinsically separate from an unspeaking and untranslatable universe.  Why bother to attempt communication with this utterly nonhuman otherness when there is work to do and life to live in society?  Recent scholarship provocatively asserts that “nature” is an entirely human construction anyway, so in that sense to attempt to place primacy of value in “nature” would seem to be simply another angle from which to approach a humanistic ethics.[2]  Anthropocentrism rules—perhaps it must.

     Ecocentrism as a concept has been emerging within ecocritical literary discourse as a confusing amalgam of conflicting values.  Anthropocentrism seems straight-forward enough from a humanistic approach, but what kind of center is “eco"?  Who are the ecopoets, if it is possible to distinguish them, and were they possible before the evolution of contemporary environmentalist dialogue?  Most pressingly for current writers, where does the human fit within ecocentrism, if at all?  Should the ecopoet observe an aesthetic of self-effacement, erasing her “brushstrokes” to highlight the landscape beyond the page and thus assert nonhuman primacy, or an aesthetic of unchecked artistic manipulation, admitting the inherent violence of representation against the thing represented and reveling in that admittance, celebrating the mess of paint in spite of its inadequacy?  There is value in both of these perspectives, but, if they cannot be reconciled, the ecopoet is left displaced and paralyzed.

     Theoretical study of the human place within the larger planetary ecology has also taken hold within less literary ecological studies, as exemplified in the collaborative effort Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature.  William Cronon, who edited the book and provided its introduction and first chapter, cites two major insights which would influence much of the work done for that project.  The first is the evolution, over the past sixty years, of an understanding that “the natural world is far more dynamic, far more changeable, and far more entangled with human history” than is typically acknowledged in popular culture (24).  Before the 1950s, climax theory was the accepted model within ecological studies, and it continues to haunt popular myths about ecosystems.  Frederic Clements and other leaders in climax theory believed that undisturbed ecosystems would naturally reach a level of diversity that becomes self-perpetuating and stable.  If this is true, then pristine wilderness represents a natural stability and interspecies harmony which human presence threatens, and much popular environmentalism today strives to reclaim and preserve ecosystems which have suffered from human presence and presumably were once more stable for our absence (Cronon 24-25).  It is clear within the current scientific community, however, that ecosystems are marked by constant change and evolution, not by stable and unchanging niches and flow charts.  For that matter, humans have been manipulating the environment wherever they’ve been for as long as we have record of their presence, persistently active players in their ecosystems.  The popular move among environmentalists to appeal to nonhuman nature as the “objective measure against which human uses of nature should be judged,” therefore, reverts to that Clementsian ideal of environments as climaxing, human-less organisms with a given peak state of health and diversity.  This denies not only the truth of humans’ own ecological presence but also the integrity of the very dynamic, changing ecosystems which environmentalists seek to honor (24-25).

     The fact that such climax mythology is false and that human influence in ecosystems is actually “natural” lends itself to the second and more controversial premise of Uncommon Ground, that “‘nature’ is not nearly so natural as it seems,” but rather “it is a profoundly human construction” (25).  As humans, we have created a system through which we distinguish between the human and nonhuman worlds and grant certain moral and aesthetic values to each sphere separately, yet we may be the only organisms to do so.  There is a real world apart from human existence, but it seems that we cannot talk about it outside of the complicated network of assumptions and values which are inherent not only in our culture but in our system of language.  This leads Cronon to his guiding question: "What happens to environmental politics, environmental ethics, and environmentalism in general once we acknowledge the deeply troubling truth that we can never know at first hand the world ‘out there’—the ‘nature’ we seek to understand and protect—but instead must always encounter that world through the lens of our own ideas and imaginings?" (25)

     And more pointedly, “Can our concern for the environment survive our realization that its authority flows as much from human values as anything in nature that might ground those values?” (26)  Within the realm of literature, we then ask, can ecopoetic writing survive the realization that no text can present anything but a linguistically filtered version of a culturally and individually filtered perception of nature?  Or are we adrift and lost in Baudrillard’s map, forever and utterly disconnected from any territorial referent?  If ecopoetics are structurally cultural, implying anthropocentrism, and simultaneously require an ecocentric focus, and if ecocentric awareness exists in opposition to anthropocentrism, it may be that ecopoetic writing is impossible.

     Robert Kern believes that it is both impossible and necessary.  In his treatment of the ecocentric perspective, Kern utilizes Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” as his central text in defining the ecopoet’s task.  Literally part of the nonhuman landscape, the subject of Stevens’s poem embodies the impossible perspective for which the ecopoet, Kern asserts, ought to strive. 


     One must have a mind of winter

     To regard the frost and the boughs

     Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;


     And have been cold a long time

     To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

     The spruces rough in the distant glitter


     Of the January sun; and not to think

     Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

     In the sound of a few leaves,


     Which is the sound of the land

     Full of the same wind

     That is blowing in the same bare place


     For the listener, who listens in the snow,

     And, nothing himself, beholds

     Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

          (quoted in Kern 426-27)


     The poem’s speaker recognizes that his is not “a mind of winter” like the snow man’s, that when he observes the landscape around him he perceives “misery in the sound of the wind.”  The snow man, however, “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” what Kern describes as “what we can only imagine to be an apprehension of the world unmediated by language, culture, or imagination itself” (427).  He proceeds to describe the way that such apprehension is unthinkable “except through the agency of words and imagination,” so that the apprehension itself distances the individual from whatever she is supposedly apprehending (427).  We cannot behold like the snow man; we are too far from the “nothing” that he represents.

     Yet Kern sees the impossible task of the ecopoet, “to speak the silence of the place” (he borrows Jonathon Bate’s phrase), as a necessary and natural human endeavor, and important in its own right (428, 429).  The strange mediated distancing which language enacts between the reader and the represented reality, when done well, leaves the reader at least aware of an ecocentric perspective and an autonomy not his own.  From the perspective of environmental concern, that awareness is necessary before one can be expected to respect the autonomy of nonhuman nature in reality.  Poetry, therefore, carries the potential to train the disciplined observer to see, “if not nothing that is not there . . . then at least much that is” (428). 

     That may be considered the proactive effect of language in this model.  Yet there is a stronger undercurrent running through Kern’s thinking that is embodied in “the nothing that is,” which “is precisely what we, in our humanity, strive to compensate for, or overcome” (428).  Ecocentrism in this way not only unmoors the humanist self’s center and locates it in the nonhuman, but it places a primacy of value in that vast Other, so that the human feels the need to compensate for her subjectivity, her lack of the “nothing that is” and only shady perception of the “nothing that is not there.”  It is not there, we say, at least not within the realm of the human experience—and then we go looking for it, jealous of the snow man’s ease while simultaneously committed to the task of further observation, study, human mediation.  Our “inevitable anthropocentrism” makes the task impossible, and renders humans incompetent and continually compensating.  Stevens’s speaker, in Kern’s reading, does not accomplish his task because he can never fully compensate for his human shortcoming.  He can only call attention to the impossible struggle in a way which, at best, may convince the reader to go and struggle likewise.

     In some respects, Kern is recognizing the element of human construction in observable nature in a way which resonates with Cronon’s argument.  Cronon wants to know “[w]hat happens to . . . environmentalism in general once we acknowledge . . . that we can never know at first hand the world ‘out there’” (25).  Kern answers by stating that, despite Cronon’s realization that we cannot escape “the lens of our own ideas and imaginings” no matter what we do (25), humans must keep trying while continuously admitting defeat.  This argument seems to appeal to Cronon’s variety of contemporary environmentalist concern insofar as it places the human in an appropriately humbled position—we are forced to admit our own inadequacy in a universe which we cannot simply read, and which seems to make no effort to translate itself for us.  The notion that humans are responsible for the continuation or decline of nature, the myth of mastery, falls away—ecosystems change, species become extinct, and someday Homo sapiens will pass away too.  The ideal human place in nature is relocated from a position of gracious master to that of humble servant.

     Yet there is danger here.  Two major problems arise from Kern’s model.  The first resonates with Cronon’s more pointed question, “Can our concern for the environment survive our realization that its authority flows as much from human values as anything in nature?” (26) Perhaps it can.  Christian theology certainly provides precedence for the humble servant model of life, as do many other rich mythologies.  It may be that the proper counter to contemporary overconsumption and arrogant human disconnection and species-ism is a revival of such literatures of humility and frugality and a charge for writers to take up such themes.  This has been argued persuasively by many ecocritics, and there is an increasingly apparent need for the establishment of ecocritical concepts of representation and place as criteria of high value in canonization efforts, especially given the current ecological climate and the state of human/nonhuman relations.  Ultimately, however, it is hard to say whether or not postmodern consumerist secularism is a force adequately susceptible to the transformative potential of such literary efforts.

     Yet a second problem appears to be irreconcilable within Kern’s ecocentrism; namely, his division of anthropocentrism from ecocentrism.  He flirts with weakening the division a bit, acknowledging that the two do not “constitute a binary opposition, and that they are [not] unavoidably at odds with each other,” but that “we perhaps do do best, ethically and environmentally, when we move from one outlook to the other,” that is, from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism (443).  Writing must slide back and forth, but Kern would have us grant primacy to the latter over the former.  Considering the volume of ecological liquidation which humans have to feel guilty about, this is an understandable and even noble reaction.  However, it ultimately perpetuates the rift between the human and the nonhuman, between culture and nature.  It does not acknowledge that culture ought to be encompassed by a realistic understanding of “nature,” rather than stand separate.  Kern does not put the anthro and the eco at odds, and he does allow them to exist side by side, but he continues to insist on their exclusivity.  Thus, humans exist as collaborators with nature, but they do not exist as a part of the natural system.

     It is of particular interest that Kern’s work, rather than focus on nonfiction prose (as Lawrence Buell does in his extensive ecocritical work, The Environmental Imagination, which is a major resource for Kern), primarily concerns himself with poetry, a genre particularly marked for its dependence on linguistic artifice in its presentation.  He allows for the conscious implementation of poetic artifice in ecocentric poetry, of course—“The Snow Man” is a perfect example—but the purpose of such artifice is to warp the reader away from the page and towards the natural reality represented.  In this context, “primacy of nature” could be reworded as “primacy of the signified.”  In Kern’s reading, Stevens does not celebrate artifice, but is left struggling with the inadequacy of it.  The best a poet can do is to celebrate the signified reality to which no signifier can do justice, and which is therefore damaged in the very act of its celebration.  This is not mediation denial, but it is mediation on the periphery which can only point inward to the nonhuman eco-center.  That center, the theory goes, is then left to stand on its own—the poet relinquishes control over it and lets it stand outside of the writing, preferring to simply point.  The signifier serves the signified.  But can there be room within ecopoetics not only to accept the fact of mediation but to revel in it?

     Bonnie Costello thinks so, and in so doing she seems to undermine the whole concept of ecopoetics.  Even as natural beauty is apparently diminished at the mercy of human hands, she argues, the best poets continue to celebrate the persistent vitality of both human creation and nonhuman processes as they struggle against each other.  She contests the “aesthetics of relinquishment” that she labels “Thoreauvian” and that Kern espouses and contrasts it with what she sees as an “Emersonian superfluity”—she also describes these contrasting positions, respectively, as an “ethics of restraint” versus an “ethos of extravagance” (Costello 569)—and argues for the latter.[3]  “Superfluity, for Emerson and Poirier,” she writes, “is central to the principle of change in nature and culture; indeed, artificial life is not so much derived from natural life as it is an expression of it” (569).  Like today’s ecologists, Costello moves beyond climax theory to a more variable and evolutionary understanding of nature, and in the process finds that the “artificial life” of literature more truthfully arises naturally than it is derived by humans from nature.

     She does not, then, engage in the struggle of Stevens’s snowman but takes almost the opposite stance, arguing that the physical world can as easily and truly be characterized in terms of “superfluency” as of superfluity.  Taking cues from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” Costello asserts that, for poets of superfluity, nature is best identified with that “something that doesn’t love a wall,” that not only “wants it down” but knocks it down.  It is “a force rather than a space, more verb . . . than noun” (577).  It asserts itself everywhere and where least expected, breaking through whatever mental fences or walls humans place around nonphysical concepts.  Along that line, one might conclude that to relinquish cultural trappings would actually be unnatural, working against nature’s attempts at integration and abundance.  Yet, like Kern, she also admits that “[t]his ‘something’ is not a knowable, therefore not a nameable essence or common ground” (577).  She also notes that Frost never uses the word “nature” in “Mending Wall,” which should cue readers not to take that interpretation for granted—the something that doesn’t love a wall is as much a part of the human speaker in the poem as of the destructive winter frost (and she calls attention to the pun on the author’s own name, intimating that the destructive force is both natural—frost—and cultural—Frost).  “The erasure of human boundaries to uncover some primal, undivided space to which we might ‘return’ or ‘retreat’ is not an attainable or desirable goal.  Instead boundaries with holes in them, permeable walls, give us the sense of the wild” (578).  Although she has read Buell, the term “ecocentrism” does not appear in her argument.  She acknowledges humans’ inability to escape an anthropocentric perspective, and as such does not consider such a perspective unnatural.  The poets which concern her, to whom she refers as “poets of superfluity,” seek meaning in their relationships with all parts of nature, trusting that out of those relationships meaning will force itself forward, up from between the cracks in the sidewalk.  The walls we humans construct to separate ourselves from the nonhuman universe are permeable, after all.  It is not quite true that they are wholly artificial, so we should not deny them but rather should remember that they allow passage.  The human need not escape her humanity to see through the wall, or even to cross through one of its breaks.  We are not snowmen, nor, as Costello would assert, should we want to be. 

     The challenge for poets of superfluity—she identifies modernists Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Amy Clampitt, and A. R. Ammons—is not to communicate that which is impossible to express but to celebrate what is too often construed to be “a diminished thing.”[4]  Here again she takes issue with ecocritics like Kern for reinforcing what she feels is a belittling view of nature commonly toted by environmentalists.  For Costello, it seems that restraint is observed at odds with celebration.  Poets of superfluity, rather than mourning a lost state of nature and valuing what is lost over what is present (remembering a former state which must have been sustainable—climax theory—and seeking the restoration of that state), begin with the present and are more characterized by a true “love” for the environment as it is here and now.  “Here the role of poetry is not to forward an environmental agenda but to encourage this love abstraction has for its source and object, a love that inevitably has some violence in it but that may nevertheless, in other arenas of human purpose, lead to acts that materially support the wildness and abundance of what is loved” (575).  Through “superfluous” abstraction, such poets exalt in the violence language inflicts on nonhuman nature’s autonomy, much as nonhuman nature exalts in breaking down cultural walls and springing through the cracks in the sidewalk.  Moreover, this violence is natural partly because the nonhuman reacts with as much excess—a simple winter frost knocks down walls, and our best attempts to pervade nature and understand it by paving trails through forests always result in the retaliation of plants breaking the even surface and streams washing it out.  This sort of competition is not unique to the human species—this is anything but the reductive “humans against nature”—but it is what characterizes every natural relationship and keeps those relationships in constant flux.  If humans are to be “natural,” then, they must assert their unique niche by embracing the abstraction inherent in language rather than shy away from it; they must fill in the silence of the ecocenter with human noise and communication, with art, rather than leave that silence by itself and uncomfortably point to it.

     The discussion represented here has thus far been conspicuously silent with regard to the foundational text to which both Kern and Costello are responding, and to which indeed all works of ecocriticism today seem to respond—Lawrence Buell’s study of The Environmental Imagination.  It is Buell’s theory of relinquishment which Kern supports and Costello criticizes, but Costello’s criticism is particularly intriguing because, at first glance, it seems ill-founded.  By the conclusion of his lengthy discussion of relinquishment in environmental literature, Buell offers a disclaimer which is crucial to his position, stating that for none of the writers he examines “did the relinquishment mean eradication of ego . . . [but rather] suspension of ego to the point of feeling the environment to be at least as worthy of attention as oneself and of experiencing oneself as situated among many interacting presences” (178).  One backs away from the ecocenter, then, to let it stand on its own, but only to the extent that it is allowed as much value as the self.  He assumes a position less extreme than either Kern or Costello, but the self’s superfluous imposition seems more a necessary evil than something inherently valuable.  This seems to be either a weak claim for relinquishment or an admittance to the impossibility of wholly defending ecocentric relinquishment over anthropocentric superfluity. 

     The scientific claims behind his theory, however, are anything but weak.  He takes his cues from “sociobiology, which would imagine selfness as genetically constrained by species being,” from “evolutionary biology, which would imagine Homo sapiens as a plastic category,” and from “ecology, which would question the very ‘notion of separate, skin-encapsulated beings’” (156).  In the last case, he quotes Neil Evernden’s The Natural Alien, which particularly fascinates him.  In another passage quoted in Buell, Evernden describes the life of the mitochondria in human cells—structures that replicate independently, move from cell to cell, and operate based on RNA dissimilar to that of whatever cell they happen to be in.  As Evernden puts it, “We cannot exist without them, and yet they may not strictly be ‘us’” (quoted in Buell 157).  Are we, therefore, “separate, skin-encapsulated beings,” or colonies of beings operating together?  If the latter is true, then it would be hard to dispute the claim that the entire planetary ecology is effectively one organism.  Evernden takes it a step further, asking, “Is there even a boundary between you and the non-living world, or will the atoms of this page be part of you tomorrow?  In short, how can you make any sense of the concept of man as a discreet entity?” (quoted in Buell 157)  On the one hand, this seems to lend itself easily to an aesthetic of relinquishment.  The breakdown of human individualism into a more fluid existence within the biotic community, or even within the material universe, calls for “a vision of self-relinquishment . . . so sweeping that it is hard to imagine more than fitfully what a mental life rigorously conducted with that awareness as its guiding principle might look like” (Buell 157).  To live each day aware of the interdependence of one’s existence with the existences of every other creature and thing, to effectually give up on drawing material distinctions at all, is an impossible task that nevertheless seems important, much in keeping with Kern’s theory of speaking the silence.  It is in fact an inherent trait of language to draw distinctions, so the kind of awareness to which Buell alludes is a linguistic as well as an imaginative impossibility, stemming in part from the language systems to which humans (and especially writers) are bound.

     Yet this ecological awareness also resonates with Costello’s vision of nature as “a fluent actuality through which we know and alter our frames” (570).  With the mitochondrion example, Evernden exposes the truth that the wall between human and nonhuman is constructed and porous at best, and that it is a line constantly crossed.  The fact that what we take to be nonhuman is constantly crossing to the human side of the line and vice versa ought to leave humans in the position to be as “fluent” as any other entity to communicate reality.  Physically, the space occupied by human bodies is an area of constant material exchange and interaction.  Ecologically, human life cannot be separated from nonhuman life—it is in fact not only dependent on the nonhuman, but blends into the nonhuman in ways which would confound attempts to define any kind of faultless wall between the two.  We are aware of “frames” designating different organisms or species (or perhaps we are aware of a need to put frames around things), but they are frames only known in relation to others, and we must continuously alter our own frames as we come to better understand our position in the great mix of things.  The frames are adjustable, the walls are permeable, and it is a fiction to believe that humans can seek self-understanding without the influences of a billion “outside” forces which, we discover, are as much a part of the self and “inside” as they are other and apart.  So why accept the frames shown us—why not push the limits of those frames, or invent new ones?  Why not embrace superfluous framing, knowing that the amount of reality that a frame will illuminate will always be limited anyway?  Why privilege the snow man’s position, if the atoms of the snow man might easily be a part of the poet tomorrow? 

     For Cronon, the change required for a truer understanding of the human place in nature is one from wilderness to wildness.  Wilderness represents the ideal for environmentalists stuck in the climax theory model, that by removing human interference from an ecosystem it is possible to recover an existence of greater integrity and naturalness than one could find in the city.  There is something profound about wilderness, he admits, in its ability to force a sense of wonder, of awe or humility in the face of something greater than the merely human: “Wilderness gets us into trouble only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit” (88).  Historically, this is exactly how wilderness has been conceived.[5]  The Wilderness Act was not written with any concern for urban shrubbery or pigeons, but with the intent of setting aside vast tracks of “roadless wilderness” where humans would be forbidden from any kind of structural development.  People can visit wilderness lands, but relatively few do because it can be a lot of work.  At the same time that we are thus physically distanced from “nature,” we imagine that our true home is in the wilderness and not involved in the day-to-day urban lives we really lead.  As Cronon puts it, “By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit” (81).  This seems to represent the epitome of the false human/nature dichotomy put into practice, and it works against Cronon’s goal of “discovering what an ethical, sustainable, and honorable human place in nature might actually look like” (81).

     Cronon does not advocate for the abolishment of roadless wilderness, however, and other scholars have argued more directly for the need for a land ethic in American federal lands management which embraces wilderness in a way that does not diminish the need for human presence in it.[6]  He does argue for a renewed perception of wildness, which he distinguishes as fundamentally different from wilderness in its insistent pervasiveness in all things.  Wildness is everywhere, but it is easily taken for granted or seldom perceived.  Studies like Evernden’s point to the reality that humans are fundamentally as wild as wolves—the example Cronon gives is that of the California redwood versus the domestic tree in the garden.  The value of the former for us may be its ability to open our eyes to the wildness we had forgotten in the latter (88-89).  If humans are going to understand their place in nature, they must learn to embrace “the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral, and the wild each has its proper place” (89).  Ultimately, Cronon argues, we need to learn to take each of those traditionally distinct landscapes and find a way to integrate them all into an understanding of “home,” “the place where we finally make our living,” “the place for which we take responsibility” (89). 

     In literary theory, this calls for a middle ground between Kern and Costello, between relinquishment of self from nonhuman nature and superfluity of self in nonhuman nature.  At the same time that any good ecopoetics earnestly seeking to represent nature must recognize the superfluity of human imagination in and against nature and must constantly push the envelope by exploding false walls between human and nonhuman, it must also take into account the role that humans possess as a species uniquely able to empathize with other species and in a unique position of influence over the habitability of the planet.  That is, we have a unique responsibility.  The typical life form may not be aware of individuality in the partially false way that humans conceive of it, but one may also safely say that the typical life form is not aware of the pervasive interconnectedness of life of which humans are increasingly aware.  Therefore, to value ecocentrism over anthropocentrism is to deny the human place in nature, but to value anthropocentrism over ecocentrism is to deny the basic level of ecological awareness which is also part of being human.  The two perspectives, like relinquishment and superfluity, must not be mutually exclusive. 

     The danger in asserting human responsibility is that it so easily leads to the kind of human-as-savior-or-destroyer mentality that pervades pop environmentalism.  Regarding the California redwood and the domestic tree in the yard, Cronon concludes that “both in a practical sense now depend on our management and care.  We are responsible for both, even though we can claim credit for neither” (89).  He might have put more emphasis on that final clause, but he returns to the idea later on the same page: “To think ourselves capable of causing the ‘end of nature’ is an act of great hubris, for it means forgetting the wildness that dwells everywhere within and around us” (89).  With all the modern ecological disasters that can point to humans as their source—climate change, mass extinction, urban sprawl, desertification, and lately the massively destructive oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico—to deny the dependence of other species on human intervention for survival would be an act of arrogance tantamount to the hubris Cronon describes.  Yet the opposite is also abundantly true, and this is often forgotten; the fate of humanity is just as dependent on the rest of nature.  We now know that the Earth has undergone many ice ages before, and life has survived.  It is conceivable that an ice age might wipe out humans as well as much of the planet’s nonhuman life, but as in ice ages past, we can expect the small and hardy creatures, at least the various bacteria, to live on.  And if some greater force manages to eliminate all life from the planet, the stones will survive, and if the planet is blown to smithereens, the cosmos will not lose a single atom.  Yet here we are.  Our presence in this fragile dependence alone should humble the hubris out of us.

     If we can start with the humbling realization of connectedness and interdependence as a reality to celebrate, embrace, and hold onto, it will be possible to move forward with a sense of responsibility that is not romantic or arrogant but truly realistic.  One might call it natural.  For a writer to hold both of these assertions in healthy, realistic paradox—celebration of superfluity and relinquishment born from responsibility—is not simply to forward a political agenda but to better represent the actual place of the human in nature.  The issue is one of representation, but the consequences are ecological, ethical, and global.  With the question of ecocriticism, the betterment of the art once again coincides with the betterment of human life—and now nonhuman life as well.

[1] See Baudrillard, Selected Writings (2001), 169-187.  For a clearly expressed response to Baudrillard’s dystopian account from an ecocritical perspective, see Buell’s in EI 111-114.

[2] See particularly Olwig, Kenneth R., “Reinventing Common Nature: Yosemite and Mount Rushmore—A Meandering Tale of a Double Nature” and Hayles, N. Katherine, “Simulated Nature and Natural Simulations: Rethinking the Relation between the Beholder and the World,” both in the collection Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by William Cronon and discussed below.  Cronon’s own writing in that collection, specifically addressed below, also explores the invented nature of “nature” as concept.

[3] The aesthetics of relinquishment refers to the concept forwarded by Buell in The Environmental Imagination (1995), 143-180, which is here discussed throughout, and the ethos of extravagance from Richard Poirier’s work, Poetry and Pragmatism (1992), 37-85.

[4] This phrase and the title of Costello’s essay, “‘What to Make of a Diminished Thing’: Modern Nature and Poetic Response,” are lifted from the end of another of Frost’s poems, “The Oven-Bird,” which she also treats in her analysis.

[5] Cronon tracks the historical evolution of the ideology of wilderness in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in Uncommon Ground, 69-90.

[6] For a particularly insightful and accessible study, see Joseph Sax, Mountains without Handrails (1980).  He goes so far as to argue that federal lands, and particularly preservation on federal lands, ought to be defended on purely anthropocentric grounds.  “The preservationist is not an elitist who wants to exclude others,” or who wants to exclude humans generally, we might add; “he is a moralist who wants to convert them. . . .  He is, in fact, a prophet for a kind of secular religion” (14-15).  Sax is also interested in the concept of wildness, and takes Thoreau’s famous statement—“In wildness is the preservation of the world”—and applies that wildness to humans (see especially 44-46).  Only if humans can remember their own wildness (through interacting with nonhuman wildness/wilderness) can we hope for a socialized valuation of preservation.



John Linstrom is currently writing, studying, and teaching at Iowa State University, where he serves as nonfiction editor for Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment.