This week, I’ve been (re)reading two books that ostensibly speak to fairly distinct audiences: Man and the Natural World by Keith Thomas and Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. Together, though, they shed powerful light on the different ways humans have construed nature and their relationship to it over the course of some five hundred years. These works also suggest that, despite the transformations the concept of nature has undergone in Western culture, it’s still a concept that tends to operate as a mechanism for maintaining particular “orders of things.”
First published in 1983, Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500–1800 remains an invaluable resource for scholars of early modern English culture. As Thomas and others have observed, the premise that man enjoyed ascendancy within the natural world was often cited to reinforce a commensurate social order in England. Thomas, however, both details historical events and customs and draws from the literature of the period to illustrate how the developing discipline of natural history, the lived experiences humans shared with non-human animals, the expanding scope of moral philosophy, and the growth of urban landscapes placed increasing pressure on the assumption that humankind – or, rather, mankind – held rightful dominion over the rest of nature.
Thomas’s monograph is especially fascinating insofar as it offers concrete, convincing evidence for two points. 1) Early moderns didn’t cleave human culture and nature into separate ontological categories; in many instances, they deemed what was humanly cultivated as nature at its best. And 2) early moderns thought of wilderness not as unadulterated nature; instead, they often regarded wilderness as “degenerate nature” – or, even, “unnatural.” As urban populations and landscapes increased in the 1800s, however, perceptions of the cultivated and the wild shifted significantly.
In Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (2011), Emma Marris discusses nature as it’s engaged today. Currently, many view “pristine” wilderness as nature at its purest. Nature is also frequently demarcated in complementary opposition to human culture. Writing principally for those interested in environmental literature, policy, and conservation, Marris considers the limitations and consequences of upholding this particular schematic of nature. The belief that the most authentic incarnation of nature is wilderness untouched by human hands, Marris remarks, only emerged relatively recently. (Thomas, of course, would agree.) She contends this perception of nature stems from historically contingent ideas and values. Various projects designed to conserve pristine wilderness aim to recreate either a prehuman or a pre-European “baseline” – i.e., a specific moment in the past treated as nature’s “ideal” state. Yet a project’s baseline does less to reflect the past than to reveal what those invested in the project value – how they want the world to look.
Simultaneously, a project’s baseline may reveal how those invested in the project understand human society. For instance, one might argue (Marris doesn’t take her argument this far) that pre-European baselines insinuate that people without European ancestry and technology are somehow slightly less than human; “native” hands do not seem to possess the same awful power to contaminate nature. Those who embrace pre-European baselines risk reinforcing such habits of thought.
Emphasizing the extent to which historically contingent ideas and values – as opposed to some magisterial, metaphysical truth about nature – motivate conservation projects, Marris urges her readers to consider “a new way of seeing nature” as well as new goals for conserving it. Endeavors to restore pristine wilderness, she notes, are inherently paradoxical precisely because they require human intervention. I find Marris’s argument compelling. I’d add that if the concept of nature can so readily reinforce order – intellectual, environmental, or social – it’s worth pausing to consider whose interests the concept would best serve in any given alternative form.
–Sarah Linwick, Early Modern Conversions Graduate Student Fellow, English language and literature; 5/26/15