Prophets of Nature: Wordsworth's Environmental Second Selves

By Hinkel, Howard | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Prophets of Nature: Wordsworth's Environmental Second Selves

Hinkel, Howard, Wordsworth Circle

In Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500 to 1800, Keith Thomas, provides the background to Wordsworth's contribution to the "tradition of environmental consciousness," that writers, such as Jonathan Bate, in Romantic Ecology recognize he inherited and shaped, ultimately influencing contemporary environmental thinking. Briefly', Thomas argued that British environmental consciousness evolved over three hundred years from the desire and capacity to explore and exploit nature to the human recognition of an affinity and interdependence with it. The intensification of an environmental consciousness gained impetus from opposition to those who perceive nature as either wild and threatening, in need of being tamed, or as merely a bountiful repository of goods for human consumption. Thomas' conclusion effectively invites Wordsworth and his ecological second selves to bring more momentum to the evolutionary, process. Acknowledging that "the early modern period had thus generated feelings which would make it increasingly hard for men to come to terms with the uncompromising methods by which the dominance of their species had been secured" (302), Thomas claims that the issue of dominance "cannot be completely evaded and it can be relied upon to recur" (303).

In Wordsworth's poetry the issue of dominance is modified and modulated by his interest in the interdependence of the human and the natural. His awareness of the intricacy and intimacy of the natural and the human is his legacy to subsequent generations of nature writers who collectively may be considered Wordsworth's ecological second selves. I have chosen to consider the American writer and farmer, Wendell Berry, as one who has inherited, not so much Wordsworth's particular experience of Nature, but his prophetic and inspiring voice as one who will speak for Nature's interests. Berry is appropriate for several reasons. He has read both widely and deeply in British and American literature, including the Romantics. He has also published more than thirty books of essays, fiction, and poetry, all concerned with the relation of human beings to the land and the need for strong rural communities, unified by their vital local economies and by their awareness of their histories, passed along from generation to generation through stories.

Berry, too, works in a prophetic role. Edward Abbey, himself a relentless advocate for the land, called Berry "our contemporary Isaiah." A prophet of nature must speak for the land and, while so doing, must often assume a position at odds with contemporary tastes, political movements, and social structures. Berry and Wordsworth shared that position. Seeking to inspire an understanding of the natural world, they covered considerable and significant common ground: 1) a commitment to the importance of a particular place; 2) a respect for the lives and values of rural people, their personal involvement in the land and their fierce desire for independence; 3) an abiding sense of the importance of community, and the conviction that through community the land receives the love and work necessary for its survival; and 4) a poetics based on the power of unadorned language, a language really used by or certainly accessible to those who live on or by means of the land.

In "The Work of Local Culture" from What Are People For? Berry finds in an old battered galvanized bucket a metaphor for what is sacred and vital about nature and its processes. The bucket itself is notable for several reasons, primarily that it endured fifty years or more, hanging on the same fence post on a Kentucky family farm. But what is remarkable about the bucket is, in Berry's words, "what is going on" in it. As the seasons pass, the bucket collects leaves, moisture, seeds and nuts dropped by birds and squirrels, droppings from various birds and insects, all of which constitute "the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth" (153). …

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