November 10, 2006

Jonathan Bate on ‘Poetry and Biodiversity’

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Jonathan Bate

At the beginning of the essay, Bate quotes Edward O. Wilson, who describes an ‘ultimate irony of organic evolution’ being the fact that ‘in the instant of achieving self-understanding through the mind of man, life has doomed its most beautiful creations’. In the late twentieth century, Bate notes that man is unique in being aware of evolution and having the ability to alter its course. Human beings have moved from understanding nature to setting themselves apart from nature to actively reshaping nature. Because human beings understand the idea of ecosystems, they also have the ability to destroy them.

Biologists have moved from studying species to environments in order to understand biodiversity and the opportunistic species that maintain systems, the so-called keystone species. Returning to Wilson and his study, The Diversity of Life , Bate outlines Wilson’s argument as focussing on the beauty and necessity of biodiversity. From studies like these, there emerges the idea of the bioregion in which common ecosystems are bound together, and Bate wonders whether we could think bioregionally?

One way forward might be simply to try to understand a place: ‘Wilson yokes the scientific to the aesthetic and recognizes that poets are also there to help us understand the place, to come to know the earth’ (55). Bate turns now to Heidegger’s essay, ‘What are Poets For?’, noting his attack on technology and his demand for dwelling in the land. Bate notes that the term ‘dwelling’, is used in later Heidegger works to describe an authentic form of being ‘set against […] the false ontologies of Cartesian dualism and subjective idealism’ (55). Heidegger demands being ‘open to being’ including ‘a presencing not a representation, a from of being not a mapping’ (55).

In thinking about dwelling, Bate turns to notions of home and eh writes: ‘A home is a house in which one does not live but dwells’ (56). Bate now analyses Edward Thomas’ poem ‘Home’: In the poem, Bate sees that ‘humans who dwell take only from their own bioregion; they know that if they uproot, they must also plant’ (58).

So the poetic is divided in two ecological senses according to Bate, ‘as it is either (both?) a language ( logos ) that restores us to our home ( oikos ) or (and?) a melancholy recognizing that our only home ( oikos ) is a language ( logos )’ (59).

Yet there are problems with ‘deep’ Green thinking and Heidegger’s ‘dwelling’ , such as its alliance with fascism via Social Darwinism and other darker facets of ecological thought. In response to such doubts, Bate wonders if there could be other systems for dwelling?

One path could be Burkean conservatism and its focus on the inheritance of the past. Btae links the birdsong and returning labourers in ‘Home’ to this way of thinking. In both cases, true wisdom is a wise passiveness and openness to being. However, unlike Heidegger, Burke moves from the order of nature to the ideal order of the state. Bate believes that Burke is right to take his cues from the pattern of nature, but that he comes to the wrong conclusions. Communities survive and organisms survive, but ownership does not come into dwelling. For the poet, home should have an imaginative not a legal interest. It was Burke’s opposite number, Rousseau, who noted that modern civilisation occurred when human beings ceased to live in the economy of nature.

How would nature dictate a constitutional system? Are nature and the nation state compatible? Bate notes that literary study often works within national boundaries, yet modernism was a movement in poetry that revolved around notions of the cosmopolitan. Capitalism may have had more of an influence on the ‘free floating modernist’ than we realise according to Bate (63). Bate wonders whether Bunting is excluded from the modernist canon precisely because he is a bioregional poet and he refers to Bunting’s poem, ‘Briggflats’. (You can access the poem at Literature Online if you sign in with your Athens password here: ). Bate compares the imagery of Anglo-Celtic metalwork to poetic art and to the ‘weaving of the material universe’ (64). Like Wilson, Bunting celebrates diversity, but he is not so interested in ‘scientific description’ (64). Rather, he is dwelling and listening ‘to hear the music of the shuttle’ (64).

Locked in the prison house of language, dwelling in the logos not the oikos , we know only the text not the land. Unless, that is, we could come to understand that every piece of land is itself a text with its own syntax and signifying potential. Or one should say: come to understand once again, as our ancestors did . For the idea that the earth itself is a text is a very old one.

Finally, Bate turns to the great ecological poet, Les Murray, whose antipodean voice making incursions into the English canon imposes the notion of biodiversity. Bate refers to ‘Holiday Song Cycle’ which expresses amazement and wonder at the mosquito. For Bate, Murray combines ‘biological accuracy with a joyfulness that glories in all creation’ (67). Murray is a creator and a re-creator who, like the aborigines, prefers to keep the land the way it was and is.

In ‘Thinking About Aboriginal Land Rights, I Visit the Farm I Will Not Inherit’, Murray makes notions of property unravel by the native grass and pollination on the wind. The poet is disinherited by nature but this leads to a deeper understanding of and kinship with nature, a relation that belonged to his ancestors. Bate writes: ‘He becomes the farm’s dreaming’ (68).

The poem sings it back to life until at dusk he returns it to the earth. Whether the dreaming will emerge again thousands of years in the future will depend on whether the bush is humming with undersound or silent with extinction. The task of the poet, I suggest is to show the next few generations that they have the power to determine which it will be. (69)

Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism, and Literature. Ed. by Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammell. London and New York: Zed Books, 1998. 53-70.

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