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Review Landscape Nature And The Body Politic

Review: Landscape, Nature, And The Body Politic, The Politics Of Nature, Romanticism And The Materiality Of Nature And In Nature’s Name Essay, Research Paper

Review: Landscape, Nature, And The Body Politic, The Politics Of Nature, Romanticism And The Materiality Of Nature And In Nature’s Name Essay, Research Paper

book reviewsWe revere it, we destroy it, we deconstruct it… PD Smith gets to grips with the natural world in books from Kenneth Olwig, Nicholas Roe, Onnon Oerlemans and Barbara T GatesBest wear a good thick skirtLandscape, Nature, and the Body Politic: From Britain’s Renaissance to America’s New Worldby Kenneth Olwig352pp, WisconsinThe Politics of Nature: William Wordsworth and Some Contemporariesby Nicholas Roe228pp, MacmillanRomanticism and the Materiality of Natureby Onno Oerlemans253pp, TorontoIn Nature’s Name: An Anthology of Women’s Writing and Illustration, 1780-1930ed Barbara T Gates699pp, Chicago Nature is a slippery word. What do we mean by it? The OED lists 15 different definitions. Perhaps scientists have the answer; after all, their journal is called Nature. Or is science part of the problem? How natural is a human ear growing on the back of a lab mouse? There are no simple answers, but there are clues in many different disciplines.Geographer Kenneth Olwig explores the social and political origins of “landscape”. One of the first uses of the word occurs in The Masque of Blackness (1605), written by Ben Jonson and designed by architect Inigo Jones. Performed for James I, the self-proclaimed King of Great Britain, this masque used landscape to legitimise the Stuart dynasty by forging the “image of the British nation-state as a body politic in a body geographic”. Jonson and Jones created a new political “mindscape” from a theatrical landscape.The rediscovery of Inigo Jones’s “scenic vision of Britain as landscape” at the beginning of the 18th century transformed the English countryside. After the revolution of 1688, the Whig gentry who dominated Parliament wanted to make their mark on the countryside. In the landscaped gardens of their country seats, nature became a theatrical space moulded by a surveyor and an architect.These landscapes did not grow out of “culture and custom”. Ancient villages were demolished to create an artificial Arcadia in England. Olwig argues that they were politically motivated landscapes (”Whigscapes”) designed to naturalise the power of the country’s new rulers.In an interesting twist, he shows how the idea of the English landscape garden was transplanted into America. Inspired by Thoreau’s idea that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World”, Frederik Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, campaigned for a national park at Yosemite in the 1860s.It was a “scientific fact”, Olmsted wrote, that looking at nature was “favorable to the health and vigor of men”. Dire consequences resulted from too little nature: “softening of the brain, paralysis, palsy, monomania, or insanity”. Olmsted had been impressed by England’s landscape gardens and, according to Olwig, they provided the model for what he calls the “emparking” of America.As in Britain, the indigenous cultural landscape was uprooted – the native Yosemite Indians (”savages” to Olmsted) were evicted from their land to create this “natural” park that came to symbolise national unity.It is hard work cutting a path through the dense undergrowth of Olwig’s academic prose. But his meticulous uncovering of the origins of landscape has important implications: it exposes the phoney link between nature and nation and undermines naive blood-and-soil rhetoric. Even something as apparently “natural” as landscape can turn out to be rooted in the mind of man.Nicholas Roe’s subject, in The Politics of Nature, is the crucial role played by nature in the politics of poetry at the end of the 18th century. For Tom Paine, the revolutions in America and France were a new beginning, “a renovation of the natural order of things”. From nature, Paine and his fellow radicals took the ideas of freedom, equality and a sense that men were “kindred”.In this new, expanded edition, Roe makes a convincing case for the close relationship between revolutionary science and politics in Romanticism. Wordsworth’s “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” has a scientific resonance for Roe: “The poetry of Romantic transcendence was dependent upon and articulated the materialist principles of contemporary scientific and medical debate.”Post-structuralism and new historicism have solved the problem of nature by deconstructing it: Wordsworth scholar Alan Liu says “there is no nature”. For Onno Oerlemans, in Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature, this position represents an impoverishment of nature. Yes, nature comes to us laden with ideas, but its essential materiality remains.German Romantics, such as Novalis, claimed that “inward goes the mysterious path”. But for Oerlemans, the work of writers such as William Wordsworth and Gilbert White testify to Romanticism’s “sheer appetite for the infinite physical presence of the world”. His perceptive readings of the Romantics uncover a keen sense of nature’s materiality, but also reveals a nature that is “strange and unknowable”, irredeemably “other”. To describe this experience, Oerlemans borrows an apt phrase from Keats – the “material sublime”.Our fascination with nature is, as Thoreau wrote, “a need to witness our own limits transgressed”. It is an existential moment, an encounter with something larger than ourselves, humbling in its complexity and strangeness. For Oerlemans, the animal poetry of John Clare, the travel writing of Dorothy Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s critique of classificatory science are all part of the material sublime. Their work reminds us “that there is more to know and see than can be known or seen by one person, one perspective, one set of categories”.This superbly subtle exploration of the Romantic response to nature is a work of “green criticism.” Oerlemans sees Romanticism as a forerunner of environmentalism, which he argues is deeply confused: it “includes desires to get closer to nature, to preserve it, to leave it alone, to clean it up, and to pass on stewardship of it to the next generations”.The idea that “we can and should be able to come to a complete and comfortable understanding of nature” is a fallacy, says Oerlemans. We must realise that “the natural world exists not simply for our survival or pleasure”. The self-reflexive literary moment, in which the materiality of nature is celebrated but also acknowledged as profoundly other, offers the basis for a new relationship with nature.Barbara T Gates’s excellent anthology, In Nature’s Name, builds on her earlier study, Kindred Nature (1998), gathering together work by British women writers and illustrators from the 19th century. In a period dominated by “great men” of science such as Darwin, Gates offers “new insights into women’s role in redefining nature, nature study, and nature writing”. Victorian and Edwardian women became powerful “advocates for vulnerable animals and landscapes”. Gates cites the work of Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust for Historic Sites and Natural Scenery, and the feminist journalist Frances Power Cobbe, who started the Victoria Street Society in 1870 to combat vivisection.In the century of biology and evolution, male scientists suppressed the voices of women in the name of nature, claiming they were intellectually inferior. Beatrix Potter suffered from this scientific stereotyping. An expert mycologist, Potter was prevented from reading a scientific paper on the germination of the Agaricinea fungus to the prestigious Linnean Society in the 1890s, merely because she was a woman.Victorian and Edwardian women “could be a venturesome lot”. The botanical illustrator Marianne North travelled the world and has a gallery of over 800 exquisite works at Kew Gardens. Mary Kingsley (niece of Charles) collected species of fish in Africa for the Natural History Museum. The first woman to climb Mount Cameroon, she recommended wearing a “good thick skirt” in case, like her, you fell into a spiked big-game trap.As well as these “foot soldiers in the march toward biological knowledge”, Gates includes travel writers such as Isabella Bird, author of 11 globe-trotting books. “There never was anybody who had adventures so well as Miss Bird,” enthused the Spectator. Her 1879 book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, describes her ascent of Long’s Peak as a liberating experience of “glorious sublimity” and “unspeakable awfulness”.Gates gives us a rich panorama of women’s views of science and nature, creating a valuable re-source for cultural historians and the general reader alike. Some, like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, have stood the test of time. Others, like Alice Dew-Smith’s anthropomorphic account of the demise of a spider (”his death cast a gloom over the day, so that I thought of little else”) are perhaps best forgotten. Mary Webb’s deeply felt writing is well represented, and rightly so. Her reverence for nature captures perfectly the essence of Gates’s anthology, which is a testament to the complexity and intimacy of our relationship with the natural world.Are we closer to understanding nature? Society moulds nature in its own image, says Olwig. Roe suggests nature is the spur to revolutionary change. And for Oerlemans, though we are moved by nature, we remain strangers in a strange land.Each has a piece of the answer. In the end, nature is a subtle amalgam of matter and metaphor, of science and society. Mary Webb was right to say that there will always be “the unknown quantity, the guarded secret” in nature. But still we believe “that there is some deep meaning in it all, if we could only find it”.· PD Smith is the author of Metaphor & Materiality, a study of science in German literature

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