Category Archives: Times Higher Education Reviews

Back to the Garden

James H. S. McGregor, Back to the Garden: Nature and the Mediterranean World from Prehistory to the Present (Yale University Press, 2015)

Times Higher Education

12 March 2015

Though James McGregor doesn’t mention her, it’s obviously Joni Mitchell who has provided him with his title. It’s hard to forget the haunting refrain from her most famous song, “Woodstock” (1970): “We are stardust, we are golden, / And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Mitchell’s is a mythic imagination, evident also in her song from the same year, “Big Yellow Taxi”: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

We might say that those of us who are concerned about the state of the planet will inevitably express our concern in terms of myth. We will adopt a narrative form of understanding which is broadly equivalent to the Biblical story of the Fall. If we believe that something has gone wrong in our relationship with the Earth, we will necessarily have a notion of the moment when the error began: when we left the garden.

An obvious event to point to would be the large-scale industrialisation that took place in the nineteenth century. However, many green historians and activists have been known to adopt a much vaster timescale, and some have pointed to the Neolithic revolution that took place in the millennium before the common era. The argument goes that, prior to that event, homo sapiens had lived lightly on the Earth, following the lore of the land and taking only what was necessary from it. It was, then, the move from a hunter-gathering way of life to an agricultural way of life that was decisive. Thereafter, the Earth was regarded as a body of resources to be not only cultivated but also managed and exploited.

It is this influential model of history that James McGregor McGregor, a scholar of comparative literature, sets out to challenge in a fascinating work, full of audacious insights. Back to the Garden is not an engagement with the mythic imagination as such – though it does refer at some length to Genesis, to Homer and Hesiod, and to Lucretius. What it offers us is thorough historical scholarship, skilfully deployed in support of his thesis that it was precisely through agriculture that human beings learnt to live in harmony with the Earth.

Charting the legacy of farming in the Mediterranean world over three millennia, he refers back constantly to the “consensus” he calls “first nature”. This term might at first seem misleading, suggesting the state which existed prior to human intervention. But McGregor defends his usage by repeatedly emphasising the balance between human and non-human life which was effected by the respectful cultivation of the land, and which should remain our primary concern.

What, then, went wrong? McGregor leaves us in no doubt of the disastrous changes wrought by modern agribusiness: changes that have been aggravated by the overdevelopment of towns and villages catering for mass tourism. So he acknowledges a kind of Fall, but sees it as gradual – indeed, still ongoing. As for paradise, he would say that our best model of culture is “agri-culture”, and it is by restoring its balance that we will redeem ourselves and repair the Earth. To lament a lost wilderness, thought to precede it, can only distract us from this project.

Back to the Garden is an ambitious, challenging book that should prove indispensable to students of history, literature, ecology … and yes, myth.




Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (Hamish Hamilon, 2015)

Times Higher Education

26 February 2015

These days, I often find myself quoting my favourite line from the repertoire of The Smiths: “Nature is a language – can’t you read?” What their lyricist Morrissey offers here is a way out of what I call “the semiotic fallacy”: the bizarrely widespread assumption that, because human words give human shape and significance to the non-human world, the latter is otherwise inarticulate.

We could never accuse Robert Macfarlane of committing that error. Over the past decade or so he has produced a series of books that really does help us “read” the natural world. Now, in Landmarks, he gives himself scope to be extensively explicit about the way that human language can complement an already vocal landscape.

His method is to explore chapter by chapter the terminology that evokes specific environments: “Flatlands”, “Uplands”, “Woodlands”, and so forth. Nearly all chapters offer a personal anecdote about a visit to a particular area, usually in the company of a nature writer he admires, or else with that writer’s book in hand.

I believe that the official term for this approach is “narrative scholarship”, but that hardly does justice to Macfarlane’s beautifully crafted reflections on the experience of establishing and enjoying contact with the earth, with another human being, and with one’s own language. Nor does it convey the accumulative impact of the “glossaries” – modest-sounding but mind-expanding – which accompany each chapter. Together they comprise a wondrous “word-hoard”.

As he explains, the whole book is informed by “the same questions concerning the mutual relations of place, language and spirit – how we landmark, and how we are landmarked”. To give a sense of what he’s about, we might ponder some of those terms he himself singles out. There is, for example, the intriguing word “smeuse”, which is a Sussex dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”. Again, it’s hard to resist such variant English terms for “icicle” as “aquabob” (Kent), “clinkerbell” and “daggler” (Wessex). Reflecting on them, I kept thinking of Keats: “The poetry of earth is never dead.”

There may be some readers, of course, who dismiss all this as mere whimsy. But they should ponder the disturbing detail that Macfarlane includes in his opening chapter concerning the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, in which there has been a “culling” of words concerning nature: for example, ”acorn”, “cowslip”, “kingfisher” and “willow”. At the same time, such new terms as “blog”, “chatroom” and “celebrity” have been added. As Macfarlane ruefully remarks: “For blackberry read BlackBerry.”

Thus the impoverishment of our vocabulary goes hand in hand with our alienation from the earth. Thinking of Keats again, this language really is “dead”, and deadening too: it is, as Macfarlane suggests, a sure sign of a state of “disenchantment”. In his final chapter, he proposes that we rediscover the idiom he calls “Childish”, deriving as it does from that sense of wonder and innocent enjoyment in contact with nature which children have traditionally known but are now increasingly denied.

Looking back over Macfarlane’s writing career, it occurs to me that for him etymology and ecology have always been inseparable. Now, with Landmarks, the potential of the English language to counter what he calls the “desecration” of nature and to promote its “re-enchantment” is richly demonstrated.



Happier People, Healthier Planet

Teresa Belton, Happier People, Healthier Planet: How Putting Wellbeing First Would Help Sustain Life on Earth (Silverwood, 2014)

Times Higher Education

6 November 2014

As someone who has always considered that famous phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”, to be dangerous nonsense, I came to this book with low expectations. Surely human beings’ insistence on seeking pleasure has been a disastrous enterprise, running counter to the needs of the planet? Not that simple, says Teresa Belton: translate “happiness” as “well-being”, and we begin to see how a concern for the condition of humanity can complement a concern for the condition of non-human nature.

Overall, she offers four basic requirements for sustaining life on Earth: countering “the culture of consumption”, with its attendant waste; making it our business to understand climate change, and recognising what we need to do to prevent further damage; systematically addressing the challenge of “ ill-being”, which she sees as built into our current way of life; and a restructuring of economics in the light of ecology, so that it attends to the real requirements of our earthly “household”.

It is hard to fault the thoroughness of her analysis – evident, for example, in her outline of what being a “Happily Modest Consumer” would actually involve. Moreover, this is not just a matter of speculation: Belton bases much of her exposition on the actual experience of several individuals from differing classes and backgrounds whom she interviewed for this book. Thus we are encouraged to seriously engage with the implications of changing one’s way of life. These interviewees, identified only by their first names, all have interesting and instructive stories to tell. The common wisdom they have acquired might be summarised by Wordsworth’s famous phrase, “plain living and high thinking”.

At the same time, as one reads one becomes aware that Happier People Healthier Planet is informed by a wealth of theory, and does not just rely on reportage. Indeed, Belton reminds us early on how important to her has been the example set by John Ruskin, by E. F. Schumacher and by Hermann Daly. I liked in particular the way she spelt out the importance of Daly’s “steady-state economics”, dedicated to the goal of achieving “a more modest ecological impact in a happier society under the full control of its citizens”.

However, Belton’s stress on modest expectations does not blind her to the importance of fostering creativity, play and a capacity for wonder in children and adults alike. How else would we be able to empathise with the green world that sustains us? Action in itself is not the full answer. Belton discourses at some length upon the spiritual dimension of ecology, which might inform our activism, reminding us of the necessity of guiding our “doing” by a sense of “being”.

My only reservation about this excellent handbook of ecologically responsible living is that Belton does not dwell long enough on the problem of overpopulation. According to a recent authoritative report, half of the world’s wildlife has been lost in the last forty years. It is surely no coincidence that in the same period the number of human beings on the Earth has doubled. If we “do the math”, we might conclude that the greenest thing anyone can do is not to have children. But putting that argument aside, I would strongly recommend this book to all those who want to ensure that they benefit the world which they are privileged to inhabit.


BOOK OF THE WEEK: A Philosophy of Walking

Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking (Verso, 2014)

Times Higher Education

10 April 2014

This short, simple and profound book was originally published in France in 2008, under the title Marcher, Une Philosophie. While reading John Howe’s fine translation, I kept pausing to consider how such a work would have fared had it first appeared in English and been subject to the scrutiny of the ‘Research Excellence Framework’. The initial feedback from the internal assessor might run as follows.

Not sure that this book is quite the thing. Remember, we’re looking for issues around innovation and impact.

Re innovation: most of your time is spent summarising the ideas of writers whom we all know already (eg, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Nietzsche) rather than coming up with a brand new,, game-changing angle on your topic, going forward.

Re impact: while it is no doubt true that we should all walk to the university / railway station / shops whenever we can, and while it is undoubtedly good for us to get out into the countryside for a hike, it must be said that to simply celebrate the act of walking doesn’t suggest much in the way of relevance. Other contributors are offering work on drug addiction, racism, pornography, Islamophobia, etc.

Perhaps the problem is the topic itself. You are obviously seeking to remind your readers how important it is to experience the natural world first-hand. This is always worth saying, but if nature is your topic then you ought to be thinking in more cutting-edge terms. I hear that, in this area, the smart money is on “post- ecology”.

The problem, of course, lies with the REF and not with the book. Just as Tony Blair’s adviser Alistair Campbell once said “We don’t do God”, so the REF does not “do” wisdom. That’s an old-fashioned word, perhaps; and, in the best sense, this is an old-fashioned book. It sets out its case slowly; it draws on a wealth of ideas; it reminds you of things you had forgotten and it makes you see the world anew. It does not use jargon; it does not make a fuss about what it is saying; it does not address fashionable “issues”.

I’d like here to indicate just ten of the many insights that I gained from A Philosophy of Walking, roughly in the order in which I came across them in the book. Of course, I anticipate the objection that some of these, particularly the general observations, are so obvious as not to need saying. Be that as it may, my point is that they are so important that they can’t be restated too often.

1. Walking is “child’s play”: you just have to put one foot in front of another. Unlike sport, it should not involve technique, training or competition. People who make a palaver out of going for a walk are missing the point.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote his best work after abandoning university teaching and dedicating himself, not just to an itinerant life, but specifically to a non-sedentary life. He realised that the kind of thinking that happens when we walk is superior to that which occurs when we shut ourselves off in our studies.

3. Normally, we treat “outside” as simply an in-between state, as we move busily from A to B, from one inside to another. As such, it is merely “some space that takes some time”. The true walker, however, inhabits the landscape, and dwells within it for the duration of his or her journey.

4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would not have formulated his model of “the natural man”, untainted by useless education and stiflingly polite society, had he not experienced what it was to be the solitary, walking man for himself.

5. Henry David Thoreau still has much to say about how walking helps us understand “reality” and to engage in “resistance”. What is real is that which is eternally new, and that which holds good: it is what keeps the walker putting one foot in front of another. As such, it makes him understand the need to resist the false claims of the given society (in Thoreau’s case, this meant opposing the poll tax, slavery and all other unnecessary restrictions on freedom).

6. Walking is an engagement with gravity: a perpetual rising and sinking down of the foot, testing itself against the earth. It offers a model of deep balance, by contrast with the shallow sense of “connection” available to the person hunched over his or her computer.

7. The monotony of a walk is quite distinct from the boredom of sedentary existence. With the latter, we frantically seek distraction; with the former, we come to relish each moment. Here Thoreau is again relevant: “As if one could kill time without injuring eternity…”

8. Walking can be a revolutionary act. When Mahatma Gandhi led marches against imperial oppression in India, he aligned the act of walking with slowness, simplicity, poverty and humility: an alignment which allowed the “truth-force” (satyagraha) of the march to emerge, thus making possible the emancipation of millions of people.

9. Poetry may be all the better for being pedestrian. As Gros reminds us, Wordsworth composed his lines while walking. His poetry is “infused with a walking rhythm, steady, monotonous, unshowy. It soothes without wearying, like the murmur or waves on a beach.”

10. The basis of walking is repetition, which has sacred force. It underlies prayer and meditation, which serve to harmonise breath, body and earth. “The echoing chants, [like] the ebb and flow of waves, recall the alternating movement of walking legs: not to shatter but to make the world’s presence palpable and to keep time with it.” After all, psalms are “the scanned realization of faith in the body’s movement”.

Gros’s book obviously harks back to Thoreau’s classic essay “Walking” (1862), but for me it also has affinities with Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012), in which the act of walking is informed by the act of reading, and vice-versa. One particular pleasure for me was to see the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder being given their due, as exemplars of the “rucksack revolution” advocated in the former’s fine novel The Dharma Bums. There, Kerouac has his Snyder-based character Japhy Ryder enthuse about reviving the wisdom of “the Zen lunacy bard of old desert paths” – there being a whole worldview implicit in that phrase.

There’s that word again: “wisdom”. Far be it from me to discount scholarly sophistication, but sometimes we have to acknowledge the gift to be simple. Despite his prolixity, John Ruskin had it: “There is no wealth but life.” Come to think of it, that great saying is not a bad way of distilling the wisdom of The Philosophy of Walking, a work that will be read and re-read long after the REF has been forgotten.


Invisible Nature

Kenneth Worthy, Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment (Prometheus, 2013)

Times Higher Education

14 November 2013

I’m typing this review on a computer. Though I’ll make a point of not printing a copy in order not to waste paper, the very book I’m reviewing prevents me congratulating myself. For even as I undertake this exercise, I may well be contributing to the horrific contamination of whole areas of Asia, where so much of the recycling of electronics is carried out. In other words, even for those of us who regard ourselves as ecologically responsible, nature is increasingly “invisible” to us. We simply don’t see the consequences of our actions. Indeed, we are suffering from a radical “dissociation” from the earth.

In answer to the question I’m begging here: yes, I do consider the publication of Worthy’s book is more than justified, despite the inevitable environmental impact of its composition, production and distribution. It looks to me as though it’s going to be indispensable.

It may go without saying that we need to develop a more informed respect for the natural world but I’ve read very few books that give such a thoroughgoing case for ecological awakening. Invisible Nature not only draws attention to what we have overlooked but also spells out the terms of our dissociation. In other words, Worthy is substantiating and extending Gregory Bateson’s indictment of “the Western epistemological error”: the delusion that “mind” is the unique possession of humankind, and that nature consists of so much alien matter, to be manipulated as we see fit.

About three-quarters of the book consists of a useful, thorough and persuasive account of the history of disconnection via dualism, from Plato through Descartes to the present. In a sense it’s an all-too-familiar tale, but I for one have seldom come across the whole story of how we came to be so hopelessly severed from the sources of life – the very life without which our finest intellectual achievements would never have been possible – told with such detail and such eloquence.

In particular, I’m delighted to see the work of the late (and sadly missed) ecological philosopher Val Plumwood being invoked. She it was who spelt out the pernicious effect of dualism: how it has informed an oppressively hierarchical worldview, with culture being privileged over nature, male over female, reason over nature, rationality over animality, spirit over matter.

Mention of the word “spirit” does remind me, however, that if I have one quibble about Invisible Nature, it is that I would have liked to see a little more attention paid to the religious dimension of our current crisis. After all, as Patrick Curry has reminded us, “dissociation” is also “disenchantment”. Worthy might perhaps have pondered further the implications of Plumwood’s case for a “materialist spirituality”, which avoids the damagingly transcendental model of orthodox religion, bringing the sacred very much down to earth. There again, even the most comprehensive book cannot include everything a reviewer might want!

Worthy clinches his argument in the closing chapters with some specific and sensible guidance as to how to order a human community while causing the least possible harm to nature. That is, he provides the blueprint for an “associating ethics” which might counter our dissociation. This section offers an impressive culmination to the book, ensuring that all the theory covered is given practical force.

As I say, this seems to me a necessary book. I keep going back to it, and whenever I do I recall the advice, offered in another context by T. S. Eliot: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”


Fluid New York

May Joseph, Fluid New York: Cosmopolitan Urbanism and the Green Imagination (Duke University Press, 2013)

Times Higher Education

1 August 2013

As I was reading May Joseph’s book, I kept stopping to check the latest news from the city of Istanbul, hoping that the violent suppression of the peaceful protest there had ceased. I was struck by the fact that the protesters had been initially prompted by the proposed “development” of Gezi Park: that is, its destruction and consequent replacement with a shopping mall. Turning back from the news reports about Turkey, I relished reading Joseph’s vivid accounts of the various communal campaigns conducted by New Yorkers against the wanton destruction of those green spaces which had been a source of pleasure, solace and inspiration to citizens for many decades. She demonstrates that environmental challenges bring people together, no matter how disparate and apparently divided the population of a large city may seem to be.

Beyond specific campaigns, though, there is the larger question which is central to this book: how can one be responsibly metropolitan while maintaining cosmopolitan awareness? New York is, of course, the classic case, since it is the most densely populated metropolis in the United States, while being the urban area that is most open-ended culturally – having grown in stature precisely as a consequence of encouraging large-scale immigration in order to make possible its financial and cultural success. She explores the vital tension which defines the New Yorker, namely that between the local and the global.

Joseph’s subject being ecology, she makes a good case for a way of living that is simultaneously metropolitan and cosmopolitan in a rather different manner than has been habitual. She wants the city to be a focus of sustainable living which is respectful of the world’s dwindling resources, in a spirit of cooperation and restraint. People have to learn to live side by side with others in a spirit of ecological humility, seeking ever-new ways of making connection with one another and with their environment. Obviously, Joseph cannot leave out of her argument the major terrorist assault of 2001, now known simply as “9/11”, to which the initial, understandable reaction of New Yorkers was the antithesis of green cosmopolitanism. Her persuasive case is that the traumatic event might lead – and in some instances, is leading – to a rethinking of urban space, of the imperative of reconstruction, and of the ecological dimension of hospitality.

That is one meaning of what a “fluid” urbanism would involve, and it applies to each and every city. The other meaning relates to New York’s distinctive geography: it is a coastal city; it is a city of islands; it is a city of which over a third consists of water. Joseph refers continually to its “archipelago ecology”. This context is, of course, especially important in the light of Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York in October 2012, which she sees as having a parallel impact to that of 9/11 – global warming offering the challenge this time. Citizens have to take forward the lesson of their experience of the storm, which saw a remarkable flowering of communal responsibility and neighbourly concern. Let them “green” the waterside areas, not only by making them resilient to flood but also by making them places where it seems appropriate to live, to gather, to relax and to appreciate the natural world.

I like this book most when its author extrapolates from her own experience as a New Yorker; I like it least when it lapses into abstraction (there’s too much “palimpsestic mapping of global cultural vernaculars” for me). All told, though, it speaks powerfully to a critical moment in urban ecology.



Melissa Lane, Eco-Republic: Ancient Thinking for a Green Age
(Peter Lang,  2011)

Times Higher Education

1 December 2011

No sooner had I reviewed for this publication William Ophuls’ Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, which asks us to rethink our relationship with the most famous Greek philosopher from an environmental perspective, than Melissa Lane’s Eco-Republic came along. Interestingly, she manages to make the same request with scarcely any echo of Ophuls’ argument. This is due not only to the comprehensiveness of Plato’s thought, but also to Lane’s capacity for original insight.

While mindful of the declared elitism of the Republic, she believes that its general thrust can serve as a useful corrective to modern liberal democracy, which has long since abandoned the ideal of civic responsibility in favour of a market that functions by the artificial creation and satisfaction of the individual consumer’s desires. Plato offers an alternative ideal: the concurrence of social harmony and individual virtue, of “city” and “soul”. A properly functioning constitution, or “republic”, would not simply be a chaos of competing greeds; it would be a model of balance, mutual cooperation and sustainability.

Sustainability is a term that might seem anachronistic in a thesis that reminds us of what we can learn from a political programme addressing the demands of the ancient Athenian state. But Lane is thoroughly convincing in her closely argued progression from the idea of civic integration to that of natural equilibrium. A sustainable society is a stable society; a stable society is possible only if it is also ecologically sustainable.

The trouble is that we have been plunged into a condition of inertia; and the task is to move from here to a capacity for initiative. But how can we get beyond a sense of negligibility and helplessness in order to take responsibility for our actions? The answer is imagination: we need to refigure our relationship with the wider world.

In effect, Lane is addressing the whole topic of mythology. It is one on which she offers some passing thoughts, although not quite enough. She rightly insists that it is the psychosocial dimension of human endeavour that matters as much as the technical-legal dimension. We need to be moved as individuals to change the way we act, not rely on politicians and advisers to sort things out. In short, we need to challenge the norm that holds us in thrall. This is a reasonable enough argument, but the pedant in me complains that this kind of insight might best be supported by a more thorough enquiry into the relationship between myth, society and ecology.

However, it is not difficult to forgive an author who neglects to expound a proper theory of myth if she can make me see for the first time what a powerful vision is contained in the episode in the Republic that we usually refer to as “Plato’s Cave”. You will remember the scene: the prisoners in the cave see only the shadows of objects cast by a fire, and are ignorant of the existence of the sunlit outer world. Lane’s brief exposition is a model of clarity and cogency: “By positing that the citizens are trapped and unable to move, the Cave models their inability to escape the limited, artificial horizon of the existing city, lit by the distorting light of a man-made fire than by the limpid and natural light of the Sun.” In such statements, we see how mythic imagination, political philosophy and ecological awareness might conjoin, and any minor doubts about this or that aspect of Lane’s case for Plato’s relevance are dispelled.

Plato’s Revenge

William Ophuls,  Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology
(MIT Press, 2011)

Times Higher Education

3 November 2011

I find it difficult to think about Plato and ecology without recalling Val Plumwood’s remarkable 1993 book, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. For me the chapter entitled “Plato and the philosophy of death” remains the most challenging critique of a philosopher’s legacy that I’ve ever read. Plato’s dualism, we are told, issued in a “logic of colonisation” that sanctioned an oppressive hierarchy. By privileging spirit above matter, soul above body, reason above nature, Plato and his followers effectively denied the very life of the Earth.

While not engaging directly with Plumwood’s argument, William Ophuls clearly thinks that Plato has been generally misunderstood. According to him, the philosopher was much closer to shamanism than to rationalism; he had a mystical view of nature, and his concern was consistently for the harmony of the whole. Where Plato’s critics see a remorseless dialectic, we should rather respond to the imaginative, exploratory and dialogical form of his writings.

In this light, it is a shame about Ophuls’ chosen title, Plato’s Revenge. While this is clearly meant to translate as “Plato Proved Right”, the word “revenge” unintentionally conjures up the aggressive impact addressed by Plumwood. Again, the title puts inappropriate emphasis on a single thinker, whereas Ophuls wants to align Platonism with Taoism, Stoicism and Native American religion. In fact, what he successfully demonstrates is that we have got ourselves into our current environmental mess by ignoring traditional wisdom generally, not just Plato.

Perhaps a phrase such as “The Way Lost and Found”, although less dramatic, might be preferable as a title? That at least would convey the positive and persuasive case Ophuls is making. The best kind of society, he proposes, is one in which individuals are in direct contact with ecological reality, and so respect the necessary limits to their freedom, finding true liberty in observing “natural law”. In order to do this they need to “live more simply and naturally in small face-to-face communities rooted in the land”. At the same time, there is “no return to the primal innocence of the state of nature”. So what is required is “a way of life that is materially and institutionally simple but culturally and spiritually rich”, Ophuls says.

Reading such statements, we might be reminded of Leopold Kohr, who argued that it is “bigness” (big business, big government, big growth) that is the problem. He doesn’t feature here, but perhaps he doesn’t need to. After all, Ophuls has Rousseau, Jefferson and Thoreau to remind him of what might be involved in a truly ecological politics. He does a good job of demonstrating how their preoccupations are more relevant than ever: for instance, the need to facilitate “participation” and discourage “profusion”.

But there’s no way of ending this review without coming back to Plato. By way of support, I’d like to point out that the idea of a “Platonic ecology” is not so far-fetched. It was hinted at by Gregory Bateson 40 years ago, on the basis that “mind” is present in nature, as “the pattern which connects”. In that sense, he could suggest that Platonic “form” is more real than the “things” of philosophical materialism. Bateson, however, features only very briefly in Ophuls’ book, and the ideas just indicated don’t receive due attention: an opportunity lost, perhaps.

That said, I would strongly recommend Plato’s Revenge as a clear and compelling polemic that deserves to be read alongside Bateson’s 1972 work Steps to an Ecology of Mind … and yes, alongside Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Beyond the debate about Plato, all three have something important to say about the fate of our planet.


BOOK OF THE WEEK: This Luminous Coast

Jules Pretty, This Luminous Coast (Full Circle Editions, 2011)

Times Higher Education

14 April 2011

More than a century ago, the poet Edward Thomas began producing a series of books celebrating the countryside, the most famous being The Heart of England, The South Country and The Icknield Way. However, he soon became disenchanted with the vogue for rural prose that he had unwittingly encouraged. True, he felt able to single out for praise an early work by George Sturt, an author who would in due course make his name with Change in the Village. But Thomas’ commendation of Sturt relied on contrasting the latter’s “intimacy” and “simplicity” with the sanctimonious posturing of most of Sturt’s peers, whose language Thomas saw as excessively “didactic” and “oracular”. As to Thomas’ own concern, he wanted to learn, by exploring a locality, what might be involved in becoming “a citizen of the Earth” – his own telling phrase from A Literary Pilgrim in England.

Nature writing is currently enjoying a revival in England, thanks to Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane and others. Of course, the land has been drastically altered since Thomas’ day; but that only means that the dual sense of belonging and responsibility that he sought is needed more than ever. He would surely seek out those writings that register what is happening – without becoming either didactic or oracular, of course. He would surely approve of this handsome, austerely illustrated book by Jules Pretty.

A biologist by training and now an environmentalist, Pretty is the author of two indispensable works of theory, Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature (2002) and The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and our Place in It (2007). In the latter, he argues that “green places are good places” and that it is only through reaffirming our bond with the natural world that we will retain our humanity. Without abandoning this general principle, Pretty has now produced a much more particular kind of work – a personal account of a year spent walking along the edge of the East Anglian “bulge”, taking in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

He begins This Luminous Coast by telling us: “This is a coast which is about to be lost. Not yet, but it will happen soon.” However, his book is not just a documentation of coastal erosion: it is a series of images of coastal nature and coastal culture; it is also a celebration of lives lived, both human and non-human, with birds, badgers, foxes and seals featuring as often as workmen, farmers, wildlife reserve managers and tourists.

It is a difficult book to categorise: part travel guide, part memoir, part meditation, part elegy. Although it is occasioned by a sense of urgency, it never preaches; nor does the author claim any privileged knowledge, despite the wealth of information that he discreetly imparts. It doesn’t demand our response, or even insist that we follow up the author’s findings. However, if we let it do its work, we will be subtly changed.

His avowed aim in setting out on his journey is to “walk the whole coast and its communities and ecologies, and learn what I could about the specificities of place”. This sets the tone, concerned but calm; we are not being offered an ecological jeremiad. That said, he does not hesitate to refer to constructions such as the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge as “monsters”, demonic characters in a myth that seems to lack a hero to challenge them.

But he avoids being sweepingly negative about change, always being prepared to differentiate between degrees of despoliation. Refusing to sneer at those scattered, basic dwellings with names such as “Shangri-la” and “The Haven” that were erected on the seaside plotlands of Essex in the mid-20th century, he laments the replacement of that clumsy approximation of a rural idyll by an arid landscape of sprawling housing estates and huge supermarkets. But it is enough for him simply to say so, then move on. This is an extensive journey, after all.

In undertaking it, he does not travel as a stranger. He teaches at the University of Essex; his family’s roots are in Suffolk and Norfolk; his own childhood home, which he visits towards the end of his trek, was in Blundeston, Norfolk. Past and present are continually overlapping.

In this respect, Pretty’s book is representative of a development in nature writing known as psychogeography. Uniting soul and land in one term, this discipline involves what Marina Warner calls “memory maps”. To paraphrase crudely, it seeks to demonstrate that a sense of place is also a sense of the past.

This approach is beautifully illustrated by Pretty’s account of his visit to the Norfolk farm owned by 98-year-old Eric Wortley. The farmer reports that the previous day he sat face to face with a robin, when it briefly flew into his kitchen and perched on a chair. This event prompts a recollection of his boyhood, duly recorded by the author: “If a robin came into the house, his mother would say, ‘Tha’ll be a death in the family.'” Past and present meet in an ostensibly trivial moment, allowing for further observations and insights. Eric and his two sons, who work with him, “are men of the land, perhaps a dying breed, and are in no way worldly. Their world is here, in this Fenland field, the bright-green leaves scattered over the ground, the roots of the beet crusted with inky soil.” It is this proximity to the land, we infer, that informs the farmer’s equanimity in the face of mortality: “Remembering that robin, he remarks: ‘You come in a year, and I won’t be ‘ere.'”

Pretty’s account of that visit has the intimacy and simplicity that Thomas praised in Sturt. These qualities come through, too, in his parting reflections: “The land, shaped, drained, hunted and farmed, sown and cropped, is better than when he started. It is also chock full of memories and a century of stories. It is firmly imprinted. And haunted.”

His own prose is haunted, not only by his family’s past, but also by the work of predecessors. Most notable is W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which is both a record of a walking tour of East Anglia and a meditation on the nature of time. This Luminous Coast inevitably echoes Sebald’s text, but it gives equal weight to the time of nature – which may always be relied on to put human beings in their place.

Certainly, we are repeatedly invited to see a given experience in the longest possible perspective. When Pretty hears a nightingale, no sooner has he pondered the meaning of its Roman and Saxon names than he’s speculating about the longstanding relationship of bird, flower and habitat. For instance: “Bluebells and nightingales don’t get on. The one needs open mature woodland; the other thick scrub.” Nor is that in itself enough. The author reminds us that the proliferation of plants depends on spring following winter in proper sequence – which now increasingly is not the case: “The old weather patterns seem disturbed. We might have to get used to this.”

We might also have to get used to this kind of book; but if it can help each of us become Thomas’ “citizen of the Earth” in these unpropitious times, that’s all to the good.


The Ecological Thought

Timothy Morton,  The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010)

Times Higher Education

26 August 2010

About 15 years ago, the poet Gary Snyder published an article titled “Is Nature Real?”. In it he made a heartfelt complaint: “I’m getting grumpy about the slippery arguments being put forth by high-paid intellectuals trying to knock nature and knock the people who value nature and still come out smelling smart and progressive.” He had in mind those literary theorists and philosophers who, having discovered the joys of deconstruction, think they are being ever so clever in declaring nature to be nothing more than a cultural construct.

As a Zen Buddhist, Snyder is fully aware that the standard human experience of nature is riddled with illusion. But in all his writings, he has always insisted that it would be absurd to infer that there is no such thing as nature; Zen, after all, involves learning to live at one with it.

It might be said that post-structuralist thinking attempts something similar to the Buddhist exposure of illusion, but it falls far short of it when it merely results in a high-handed denial of the more-than-human world (here I use David Abrams’ phrasing). I am afraid to say that this is what seems to happen in the course of Timothy Morton’s new book, The Ecological Thought. Let me say that I do appreciate what Morton is attempting to do: that is, correct our unthinking attitudes to nature – or Nature, as he calls it – to make us think more carefully about the way we reify, consume or idealise it. But alas, the effect is far more deconstructive than reconstructive: “In the name of ecology, we must scrutinize Nature with all the suspicion a modern person can muster. Let the buyer beware.”

Morton’s case for a natureless ecology is not aided by the fact that he has such difficulty in defining it. “Ecology has to do with love, loss, despair and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis … It has to do with reading and writing … It has to do with sexuality.” That is from the introduction, but after nearly 80 pages we are none the wiser: “The ecological thought is about people – it is people.” Nor does it get much clearer by the final page, I’m afraid.

If we can trace a thesis, it is that, as far as nature is concerned, we should move from a Romantic-style piety towards a postmodern scepticism. In other words, we must abandon our loyalty to our local place and embrace the wider sphere of global space. It is perplexing, however, that Morton should invoke Buddhism to convey this sense of space: he shows no knowledge of Snyder’s well-informed Buddhist ecology, but seems to rely on the odd insight gleaned from a fortnight’s holiday in Tibet.

Philosophically, in fact, he is much closer to Marxism than to Buddhism. Hence his agitprop denunciation of ecological thinkers such as Arne Naess and James Lovelock: “Deep ecology, which sees humans as a viral blip in the big Gaian picture, is nothing other than laissez-faire capitalism in a neofascist ideological form.”

If such pronouncements make one wince, at least Morton’s political leanings mean that he feels obliged to address the ideas of the most important reinterpreter of Marxist theory of the 20th century, namely Theodor Adorno. But again, it is worrying that Morton seeks to draw on that philosopher’s specific insights while discounting the central importance he gave to the concept of nature. It was Adorno who insisted that “domination over nature is paid for with the naturalisation of social domination” (to use Simon Jarvis’ succinct summary). And it was Adorno who memorably declared: “Art is not nature, but wants to redeem what nature promises.”

There is an interesting book to be written about Adorno’s importance for ecological thought, but it would not be one dedicated to the idea that you can have ecology without nature. While I am sure that many readers will benefit from the challenge of reading Morton, I hope they then go back to Adorno. If they also go back to Snyder, they might benefit even more.