Ecocriticism: The Intersection of Literature and the Environment
This article provides a (very) brief overview of a literary studies field known broadly as 'ecocriticism.' Other terms that tend to be fairly synonymous with ecocriticism are 'environmental criticism' and 'green studies.' Addressing this topic in a two-page article is difficult at best, and cannot avoid compromising the complexities and subtleties of the issues at hand. With that in mind, I have included a recommended list of introductory resources at the end for those who are interested in delving deeper.
Ecocriticism, defined broadly as "the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment,"1 is an emerging literary studies field that began burgeoning in earnest in the late 1980s and early '90s. During this time, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) was founded, as was its journal, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE). When The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology was published in 1996, seminal works by scholars who had been writing almost unaware of each other were brought together for the first time in one collection.
The term 'ecocriticism' first appears2 in William Rueckert's 1978 essay "Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism," in which he uses ecological principles as a model for thinking about how literature functions. He looks, for example, at poems as containing renewable stored energy that is released when the poem is read, taught in a classroom, etc. This stored energy, which derives from the imagination of the poet (who serves as a sun of sorts), is not simply used once but over and over, particularly in the case of constantly read classics. He speculates that perhaps the imagination is the energy flow upon which the human community depends.3
Rueckert's original usage of the term 'ecocriticism' is narrower than what the term has come to embrace. What constitutes ecocritical work is intentionally broad and open-ended inasmuch as ecocriticism quite literally takes the entire world as its subject. An ecocritical project might examine the following:
- The role of nature in a poem
- The function of 'place' in a novel
- Land metaphors as gendered
- The idea of the garden
- The rhetoric of environmental policies
- The language of tourist materials
A SAMPLE ECOCRITICAL READING
To see ecocriticism in the practicum, let's take a brief look at the 1914 poem "Oread" by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle):
Whirl up, sea-
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.4
In Greek mythology, an oread is a mountain nymph, but what relationship does the oread have to the poem? Is she the narrator? The addressee? H.D. collapses traditional lyric conventions and whirls together narrator/ addressee, subject/object, nymph/nature into a tenuous interconnectedness that is at once refracted and organic. A nymph - as a spirit of nature embodied in the form of a youthful, beautiful girl - is a figure somewhere between human and nature, and the poem enhances this liminality by blurring these divisions.
This poem is most often discussed in relation to Imagism, a movement based on the poems of H.D. and promulgated by Ezra Pound. In Pound's essay "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste," he defines an 'Image' as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."5 This definition shifts the significance of an 'image' to the internalized response it solicits; and yet, while this poem solicits the kind of 'complex' Pound describes, there is a palpable insistence upon the primacy of the things themselves, and specifically upon the role of nature - and by extension natural imagery - to induce this 'complex.'
Whether on the part of the oread, the author, or something in between, there is a call for some type of green reclamation. Five imperatives ("whirl," "whirl," "splash," "hurl," and "cover") summon a fairly violent, erotically charged, and biblically resonant flood. In this new kind of poetry, H.D. also fashions a new classical aesthetic rooted in nature.
ECOCRITICISM AS ACTIVISM
There tends to be an activist component to ecocriticism. In her introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader, Cheryll Glotfelty says:
[...] most ecocritical work shares a common motivation: the troubling awareness that we have reached the age of environmental limits, a time when the consequences of human actions are damaging the planet's basic life support systems[...] Our temperaments and talents have deposited us in literature departments, but, as environmental problems compound, work as usual seems unconscionably frivolous. If we're not part of the solution, we're part of the problem.6
Through ecocriticism, scholars are able to integrate an environmental aspect into their work, thereby cultivating an awareness of environmental issues and asserting their significance. In his book The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Lawrence Buell included this element in his definition of ecocriticism, stating that ecocriticism is "conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmentalist praxis."7 However, requiring this as part of what defines ecocriticism has been a point of contention.
1 Glotfelty, Cheryll. "Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis." The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996. xxviii.
2 Ibid, xx.
3 Rueckert, William. "Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism." The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996. 105-123.
4 Doolittle, Hilda. Collected Poems, 1912-1944. Ed. Louis L. Martz. New York: New Directions, 1983. 55.
5 Pound, Ezra. "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste." Poetry
March 1913. Web.
6 Glotfelty, Cheryll. "Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis." The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996. xx-xxi.
7 Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996. 430.
There is an increasing number of books available on ecocriticism. Several that provide good introductions and a variety of essays include: