Literature and Climate — Part I

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Aerial photo of the Isle de Jean Charles (source: Oxford American)

In the first of a two-part series to mark last week’s global climate strike and the U.N. Emergency Climate Summit in New York, K-State English department faculty and alumni explore literature’s engagement with the natural world. Through quotations and short, reflective essays, we reflect on how literature can help us understand humanity’s historic relationship with the environment and the current climate emergency, perhaps even offering a roadmap to sustainable future — should we choose that path.


 

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Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.

Sometimes we just simply have to find a way. The moment we decide to fulfill something, we can do anything. And I’m sure that the moment we start behaving as if we were in an emergency, we can avoid climate catastrophe. Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We must start today. We have no more excuses.

We children are not sacrificing our education and our childhood for you to tell us what you consider is politically possible in the society that you have created. We have not taken to the streets for you to take selfies with us, and tell us that you really admire what we are doing.

We children are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you toput your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.

 Greta Thunberg, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019), pp. 67-68. Submitted by Philip Nel, University Distinguished Professor.


 

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Anonymous, The Owl and the Nightingale (13th Century)

 My favorite example of literature about the environment is The Owl and the Nightingale, a thirteenth-century poem that records a vicious dispute between two birds. Its careful attention to avian habits has been described as exhibiting “the precision of Audubons,” but it also resonates with cutting-edge posthumanism. Nature is at issue from the very beginning when the Nightingale instigates the disagreement by calling the Owl “Vnwiȝt.” Rarely attested, “unwiht” adds the negative prefix “un-” to the Old English “wiht,” meaning “a creature or being.” Is the Nightingale accusing her antagonist of being non-living (i.e., dead), of being non-human (i.e., animal), of being non-natural (i.e., monstrous)? This question is not easily answered and challenges us to interrogate assumptions about what distinguishes natural from unnatural and to resist speciesism.

 Wendy Matlock, Associate Professor


 

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Title page for a collection of Anne Bradstreet’s poetry

For Anne Bradstreet, nature was a gentle, playful muse. She took to “pathless paths” when her mind was too inundated with everyday concerns to find the words for her poetry. In nature, away from her children and neighbors, she found moments of clarity and wonder. One of her poems, “Contemplations,” recounts such a communion with the Massachusetts woods. The poem catalogs a host of natural pleasures: an unexpected bird song, a fish rising to the river’s surface “to tast the air,” and the dalliance between the October sun and the changing leaves. Bradstreet delights in “the merry grasshopper” and the “black clad cricket,” fellow artists, who likewise turn to nature to compose their songs. In all and each of these encounters, she feels herself pulled into a different realm—one that operates according to its own rules and proceeds at its own pace. In this world outside her own, Bradstreet finds her voice and her meter; in it, she finds transcendence.

While Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” exudes a certain reverence and awareness of nature, now over three centuries later, we should read it with a sense of what is gained and what is lost with its transmission. The poem is rooted in a European settler-colonialist worldview in which nature and culture are two separate entities. In Bradstreet’s hands, the divide might seem reverential rather than nefarious, but in the hands of unworthy stewards extended out over decades and centuries, it becomes the source of ecological destruction. Nature, in this worldview, is a site to be conquered and exploited for the benefit of culture.

Bradstreet’s relationship to nature, while familiar to us, was new to the woods in which she wandered. Before the Puritan colonists bombastically laid claim to the area only a few decades before, these “pathless paths” were the seasonal hunting and fishing grounds of the Pennacook, who called the place Cochichewick, “the place of the great cascades.” Though there are few extant records and stories from the Pennacook—a consequence of the calamitous violence of settler colonialism—the placename speaks to a worldview worth renewing. Cochichewick demonstrates an interplay between nature and culture, signifying that a place is best known to people by recognizing and speaking its ecological value. In this moment of extreme climate change, let us center indigenous perspectives and decolonize our approach to our place in the environment.

 Christy Pottroff (BA ’09, MA ’11), Assistant Professor, Merrimack College


 

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William Wordsworth at 28 by William Shuter

For me to claim that “The Child is Father of the Man,” the most famous line from William Wordsworth’s lyric poem, “My Heart Leaps Up” (1802), resonates beyond its own historical moment and geographical locale would be, in most circumstances, superfluous, particularly if said claim is deployed to argue for Wordsworth’s continuing influence on western culture. The line appears, variously modified, in the Beach Boy’s 1971 hit, Surf’s Up, Michael Jackson’s poem Dancing the Dream (1992), and can be found on the opening page of Cormac McCarthy’s brutal anti-western novel Blood Meridan (1985). What I do want to claim, though, is that with a gender-neutralizing tweak, the less metrically consonant “The Child is the parent of the adult,” seems applicable to our current historical moment, specifically the response by millions of children around the world to climate change.

Witnessing teenage climate activists like Greta Thunburg and Jamie Margolin calmly and rationally challenge Congress to listen to climate scientists and then to see and hear children from all corners of the globe demonstrating with an impressive unity of conviction and passion for the health of the future of our planet, was to be reminded of the Wordsworthian child from “My Heart Leaps Up.” Like much of Wordsworth’s post-1800 poetry, “My Heart Leaps Up” is a self-reflective mediation on the power of nature to elicit a profound, almost overwhelming emotional response that reverberates across time for the poet. Here is the nine-line poem in all its splendor:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety (1802)

For many, the seemingly paradoxical line: “The Child is father to the Man,” articulates a conceit found in many of Wordsworth’s poems: the child’s emotional responses to the beauty and sublimity of nature are purer and thus far stronger than the adult’s emotional responses. The child, awash in the pastoral bliss of innocence, apprehends nature as if for the first time whereas the adult’s apprehension of nature has been enervated by the bustling world of experience. The Wordsworthian child has the emotional authority (and lest we forget, for Romantics feelings are a species of truth, or as Keats puts it “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”) to teach the adult. As the events over the last couple of weeks have demonstrated, it is humanity’s children who are reminding adults about the critical importance of taking action to mitigate climate change, for they not only have the greatest stake in the planet’s future, but also, in a Wordsworthian sense, the deepest emotional connection with nature.

Mark Crosby, Associate Professor

 

 

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