21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Re-Approaching Urban Nature

Astrid Bracke

 

 

 The city […] stands at the point where nature and artifice meet. A city is a congestion of animals whose biological history is enclosed within its boundaries, and yet every conscious and rational act on the part of these creatures helps to shape the city’s eventual character.

(Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques)

 

‘What exactly was new about the new nature writing in Granta’s 2008 collection titled The New Nature Writing? One answer would be “not much”’ (Stenning and Gifford, 1). Like Anna Stenning and Terry Gifford, critics and readers – including Jonathan Watts, Richard Mabey and Sharon Blackie – have questioned the novelty of what has come to be known as new nature writing: the works of authors such as Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie and Tim Dee, largely published after 2000. Yet whether these works can indeed be analyzed with the same ecocritical tools used to study ‘old’ nature writing is rarely asked at all.

In the following article I will argue that new nature writing should not – cannot – be business as usual for ecocriticism, and that approaching it as such masks a fundamental disconnect between ecocriticism and contemporary natural circumstances, particularly the humanized and urbanized landscapes that much new nature writing explores. For it to meet the challenge of such spaces requires a shift in ecocriticism from its predominant focus on Romantic ideas of nature, to an awareness of different, equally valuable, natures – including those in the city and other humanized environments. Specifically, I will draw on urban studies to make some suggestions towards such an interdisciplinary theory, and critique contemporary ecocriticism alongside new nature writings, in particular The New English Landscape (Orton and Worpole, 2013).

 

Shoreditch

Not business as usual: the new nature writing needs to engage with urbanized and humanized landscapes and learn from urban studies

[Image by Simon & His Camera under a CC BY-ND license]

 

Ecocriticism has been impatient of non-traditional landscapes such as cities and other explicitly humanized spaces. Despite its second wave – which in theory is said to include more attention to urbanized environments – in practice ecocriticism continues to interpret urban nature primarily as an echo, or remnant of real and ideal nature. [1] A good example is Lee Rozelle’s attempt to ecocritically approach urban nature, which leads him to conclude that ‘[t]he terms urban and ecology, when placed together, seem a most dangerous oxymoron; to make such easy semantic fusions, however intriguing the academic result, leaves the door open for the referent – voiceless nature – to become critically restricted’ (109, emphasis in original). Despite a number of proposals made over the past decade, an ecocriticism that focuses on the possibilities – rather than perceived limitations – of urban natures is still lacking.[2]

Contemporary ecocriticism, then, seems ill-equipped to productively engage with the contemporary natural landscapes that characterize much Western nature experience. The need for a new language or vocabulary suitable to twenty-first-century landscapes is undiminished, however, as Jason Orton and Ken Worpole also suggest. Working together to chart the new English landscape in photographs and texts, they identify a ‘crisis of representation and exposition in landscape aesthetics’ (10) which makes the interpretation and re-evaluation of contemporary landscapes, ‘especially those which resist traditional categories of taste’, vital (12). A similar need for engaging differently with contemporary landscapes is expressed in Edgelands (Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, 2011), and by Esther Woolfson in Field Notes from a Hidden City (2013), among others. All of these authors are driven by the belief that only if these landscapes can be named, can they truly be seen, experienced and perhaps even celebrated.

The majority of the vocabulary which we use to describe and analyze nonhuman natural environments remains firmly rooted in Romantic and Victorian views of nature.[3] This impasse, as well as the complexity of contemporary natural landscapes, requires an interdisciplinary approach that can work towards a terminology more attuned to the complexities and ambiguities of twenty-first-century human-nature relationships. Urban studies provides exciting possibilities in this respect: a multidisciplinary field drawing on geography, sociology, psychology and related subjects, it explores the socio-economic and political dimensions of our engagements with nature in the city.[4] Significantly, urban scholars argue that cities do not destroy nature but rather are simply a stage or phase in the development of a landscape: ‘urbanization is not merely a linear distancing of human life from nature, but rather a process by which new and more complex relationships of society and nature are created. All natural relations now seem to be produced inside the reach of social activity’ (Keil: 729, emphasis in original). However, as Roger Keil is quick to note, this does not mean that nature is completely subsumed by the social. Rather, nature and society intra-act, to use Karen Barad’s concept of ‘relata-within-phenomena’ emerging through intra- rather than inter-action (815). In respect to culture and nature, then, ‘[c]ities do not obliterate nature, they transform it, producing a characteristically urban natural environment’ (Spirn 1985: 42).

 

Tintern Abbey

Overcoming an idealized view of nature: Romanticist and Victorian images of the natural continue to dominate ecocriticism

[Image by Jonathan Camp under a CC BY-SA license]

 

Extending ecocriticism through urban studies results in a fundamental shift: whereas much ecocriticism and environmentalism remain premised on the image of an ideal nature – even if that has become unattainable – urban studies allows for a full and unprejudiced engagement with urban and humanized nature by focusing on the possibilities and engagements these spaces offer.[5] Engagement is a key term here: in focusing on the ways in which nature is narrated, ecocriticism has too often taken the position of observer, leaving out the problematic matter of human involvement with the natural environment.[6] Urban studies, on the other hand, emphasizes engagement with nature as a foundational aspect of urban nature – to put it differently, in urban studies, nature is defined through human experience and engagement, rather than through its absence.

In The New English Landscape, Orton and Worpole document what they term ‘unassimilated landscapes’ – edgelands, effectively – as an example of the re-inscription of the landscape that they believe is underway. This re-inscription entails more attention to the human traces in landscapes since modern nature, they hold, is an assembly of human settlement, ecology, history and aesthetics (77).[7] At first sight The New English Landscape indeed presents a wholly different landscape aesthetic from that which is dominant in representations of England: the rolling, green hills and fields with copses are replaced by the wet, muddy, tidal landscape of East Anglia, in which sewage pipes run across little streams, and pylons stand next to trees. Yet seen through the lens of an ecocriticism extended through urban studies The New English Landscape is not quite as radical. In fact, rather than depicting something new, the photographs and texts included in the volume – though evocative and often beautiful – return to the Romantic landscape aesthetics Orton and Worpole set out to replace. Moreover, the type of landscape they hold to be ‘English’ is problematic in relation to issues of (economic, political and cultural) power, as well as class.

Though focusing on the new English landscape, the volume centres entirely on East Anglia, which, Orton and Worpole propose, has come to embody the typically English landscape (13). The power of southern England that their choice illustrates extends beyond economics and politics to include culture and even perceptions of nature. Hence, the predominance of authors based in East Anglia among new nature writers suggests that the ways in which we narrate and perceive contemporary English landscapes is closely tied to southern England.[8] Existing landscape aesthetics, then, are premised on what urban political ecologists call ‘the spatial manifestation’ of the different social, economic, political and cultural processes that shape environmental experience (Whitehead, 1352).

 

East Anglia 2

The power of southern England: East Anglia has come to dominate British landscape writing and landscape aesthetics

[Image by Gerry Balding under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

 

Nonetheless Orton and Worpole argue that East Anglia has not become synonymous with the English landscape because of its proximity to London, but because it is so easy to reach: ‘[t]oday the romance of the remote is no longer part of landscape aesthetic’ (13). Given the popularity of books and series about Britain’s remoter areas and edges – see the BBC series Coast and Hebrides, as well as books by Adam Nicolson, Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie and others – this seems unlikely. In fact, the way in which The New English Landscape supposedly illustrates the nearby rather than the remote is paradoxical: although perhaps geographically ‘nearby’ – again affirming the power of London and Southern England – none of the photographed landscapes look nearby. Instead, they are uniformly devoid of humans, and as such appear every bit as remote as regions further away from London.[9] Surprisingly, this is a deliberate choice: the absence of people, Orton and Worpole suggest, plays ‘a shaping role in how we experience the modern world and the modern landscape’ (29). But what kind of landscape is this, in which we – people – are absent? How modern is a landscape in which the absence of humans, isolation and depopulation is the new aesthetics?

In fact, The New English Landscape is hardly unique in proposing a contemporary landscape aesthetics characterized by emptiness: as Macfarlane has noted in a review of Edgelands, the spaces celebrated by Farley and Symmons Roberts are ‘evacuated’ of humans, and ‘when inhabitants of this ‘loved and lived-in’ landscape do appear centre-stage, they are left faceless, nameless and allegorical’. Of course, this also goes for Macfarlane's The Wild Places (2007) and, in fact, for the majority of new nature writing. With perhaps the exception of Jamie's writings, which are interspersed with domestic responsibilities and a keen eye for the ways in which humans engage with the nonhuman natural world, new nature writing is eerily empty.

In echoing ‘old’ nature writing in this respect, new nature writing has yet to discover a truly contemporary landscape aesthetics. Though striking, the photographs in The New English Landscape – the abandoned greenhouses and muddy seascapes – are just variations on thoroughly Romantic images: the ruins, the sublime. Instead, twenty-first-century realities require us to develop a language and an aesthetic attuned to the uniqueness of humanized landscapes, as landscapes in themselves, rather than echoes, remnants or ‘absences’. An interdisciplinary approach, drawing on urban studies, can help us achieve this discourse, and facilitate a more productive critique of our environments – even those traditionally deemed problematic. After all, as the urban scholar Anne Spirn suggests, ‘seeing nature in the city is only a matter of perception’ (1984, 29).

 

 

CITATION: Astrid Bracke, "Re-Approaching Urban Nature," Alluvium, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2014): n. pag. Web. 24 September 2013 http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v3.1.02.

 

Dr Astrid Bracke is Lecturer in English Literature at Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Amsterdam. She works primarily on ecocriticism and contemporary literature with a special interest in the challenges that non-traditional natural spaces such as cities pose to ecocriticism and contemporary imaginations of nature in general.

 

 

Notes:

[1] See Lawrence Buell’s discussion of second wave ecocriticism, which has taken the field in a more ‘sociocentric direction’ (Future 138); as well as John Tallmadge’s The Cincinnati Arch (2004) in which he describes urban nature as embodying ‘absence’ (111). 

[2] As the lack of ecocritical articles on urbanized or humanized environments shows, attempts at developing a more ‘urban’ ecocriticism have yet to succeed (see, particularly, Michael Bennett on social ecocriticism and Ashton Nichols on ‘urbanature’). 

[3] It is precisely this situation which has inspired the ecocritic Timothy Morton to call for an ‘ecology without Nature’, believing that the concept of Nature – with a capital n – prevents true engagement with the nonhuman environment. Similar attempts underlie Simon Estok’s proposal for ‘ecophobia’, and ecocriticism’s recent engagement with dirt and garbage (Sullivan; Bragard).

[4] See Bartlett; Heynen, Kaika and Swyngedouw; Keil; Spirn ‘Urban Nature and Human Design’ for useful introductions to the field.

[5] I explore the extent to which ‘ideal’ nature underlies even the most critical ecocriticism in more detail in ‘Wastelands, Shrubs and Parks: Ecocriticism and the Challenge of the Urban’, in which I also argue for a negative aesthetics of nature to counter idealized and privileged perspectives. 

[6] A well-known example of such discourse is William Cronon’s ‘wilderness paradox’, which holds true for most, if not all, Romantic conceptions of nature: nature – like wilderness – is only nature when we are not part of it. 

[7] As such, The New English Landscape echoes not only Edgelands but also Richard Mabey’s 1973 The Unofficial Countryside

[8] Robert Macfarlane, Mark Cocker, Richard Mabey and the late Roger Deakin are, or were, based in East Anglia.

[9] There are two exceptions: of the twenty photographs included in the book, people are visible in two – tiny blobs in high-vis gear operating cranes and tractors.

 

Works Cited:

Barad, Karen. ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28.3 (2003): 801-831. Print. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/345321

Bartlett, Peggy F. (ed.) Urban Place. Reconnecting with the Natural World (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005).

Bennett, Michael. ‘From Wide Open Spaces to Metropolitan Places.’ Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 8.1 (2001): 31-52. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1093/isle/8.1.31

Blackie, Sharon. ‘Beyond nature writing: why the term has outlived its usefulness’. Earthlines Review 8 July 2013. Web. (accessed 12 January 2014): http://earthlinesmagazine.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/beyond-nature-writing-why-the-term-has-outlived-its-usefulness/

Bracke, Astrid. ‘Wastelands, Shrubs and Parks: Ecocriticism and the Challenge of the Urban’. Frame 26.2 (2013): 7-22. (Available online: https://www.academia.edu/5345388/Wastelands_Shrubs_and_Parks_Ecocriticism_and_the_Challenge_of_the_Urban).

Bragard, Véronique. ‘Introduction: Languages of Waste: Matter and Form in our Garb-Age’. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Literature and Environment 20.3 (2013): 459-463. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/isle/ist059

Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism (Malden MA: Blackwell, 2005).

Cronon, William. ‘The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’ in William Cronon (ed.) Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), pp. 69-90.

Estok, Simon. ‘Theorizing in a Space of Ambivalent Openness: Ecocriticism and Ecophobia.’ Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 16.2 (2009): 203-25. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/isle/isp010

Farley, Paul, and Michael Symmons Roberts. Edgelands (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011).

Green Letters 17.1 (2013). Special issue on New Nature Writing. Eds. Anna Stenning and Terry Gifford.

Heynen, Nik, Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw, eds. In the Nature of Cities. Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).

Jamie, Kathleen. Findings (London: Sort of Books, 2005).

Jamie, Kathleen. Sightlines (London: Sort of Books, 2012).

Keil, Roger. ‘Progress Report. Urban Political Ecology’. Urban Geography 24.8 (2003): 723-738. http://dx.doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.26.7.640

Mabey, Richard. The Unofficial Countryside [1973] (Toller Fratrum: Little Toller Books, 2010).

Mabey, Richard. ‘In defence of nature writing’. The Guardian 18 July 2013. Web. (accessed 12 January 2014): http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/18/richard-mabey-defence-nature-writing

Macfarlane, Robert. The Wild Places (London: Penguin, 2007).

Macfarlane, Robert. ‘Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – review’. The Guardian 19 February 2011. Web. (accessed 12 January 2014): http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/19/edgelands-farley-symmons-roberts-review

Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Nicolson, Adam. Sea Room (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001).

Nichols, Ashton. ‘Thoreau and Urbanature: from Walden to Ecocriticism’. Neohelicon 36 (2009): 347-354. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11059-009-0005-5

Orton, Jason and Ken Worpole. The New English Landscape (London: Field Station, 2013).

Spirn, Anne. The Granite Garden. Urban Nature and Human Design (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

Spirn, Anne. ‘Urban Nature and Human Design: Renewing the Great Tradition.’ Journal of Planning Education and Research 5.39 (1985): 39-51. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0739456X8500500106

Stenning, Anna and Terry Gifford. ‘Introduction’. Green Letters 17.1 (2013): 1-4. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14688417.2012.750839

Sullivan, Heather I. ‘Dirt Theory and Material Ecocriticism’. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.3 (2012): 515-531. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/isle/iss067

Rozelle, Lee. ‘Ecocritical City: Modernist Reactions to Urban Environments in Miss Lonelyhearts and Paterson’. Twentieth-Century Literature 48.1 (2002): 100-115. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0042098013480965

Tallmadge, John. The Cincinnati Arch: Learning from Nature in the City (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004).

Watts, Jonathan. ‘The New Nature Writing: Defining a Genre’. SoundingEast. 5 November 2012. Web. (accessed 12 January 2014): http://sounding-east.blogspot.nl/2012/11/the-new-nature-writing-defining-genre.html

Whitehead, Mark. ‘Neoliberal Urban Environmentalism and the Adaptive City: Towards a Critical Urban Theory and Climate Change’. Urban Studies 50.7 (2013): 1348 – 1367. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0042098013480965

Woolfson, Esther. Field Notes from a Hidden City (London: Granta, 2013).

 

 

Please feel free to comment on this article.

3 comments

  1. Astrid Bracke's essay on contemporary landscape writing raised some
    interesting questions, and as one of the writers mentioned I'd like to
    continue the discussion.  What for me was most important about The New
    English Landscape, which featured prominently in her review, was that it was
    a collaboration between a photographer, Jason Orton, and myself, in which
    text and photography enjoyed equal status. Such collaborations remain rare,
    but in our view they help create a more open-ended, dialogical approach to
    landscape aesthetics.

    Secondly, it was an excursion into social history rather than nature
    writing, with each section anchored in some significant 20th century social
    trauma: the decanting and suburbanisation of working class East End of
    London; the establishment of various utopian land colonies away from the
    metropolitan slums; the militarisation of the East Anglian landscape during
    the Second World War; the catastrophe of the 1953 floods (even more
    disastrous in the Netherlands); and finally the contemporary battle over the
    'public memory' of the post-industrial eastern edgelands as private capital
    erases the past through aggressive development.

    Thus the photograph of an abandoned greenhouse, which Bracke describes as
    being a thoroughly Romantic image, can also be read as the last trace
    element of a late 19th century socialist land colony, the story of which is
    being evoked again as a new generation turns 'back to the land', giving the
    image a renewed prophetic power.

    Friendly greetings,

    Ken Worpole

    http://thenewenglishlandscape.wordpress.com/

  2. Astrid (if I may): I hope you will have a look at my new web portal:

    http://blogs.dickinson.edu/urbanaturalroosting/

    and also my book, Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting. See: http://www.nbol-19.org/view_doc.php?index=146 and also http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Romantic-Ecocriticism-Urbanatural-Nineteenth-Century/dp/1137033991

    in which I work to explore precisely the connections you are exploring in this essay. Cheers, A.N.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Editorial: Critical Environments | Alluvium - […] relations and the material world are considered in various forms and contexts. In ‘Reapproaching Urban Nature', Astrid Bracke questions…
  2. This Happening World (8) | Sense of Planet - […] Alluvium is a special issue on “Critical Environments“, including Astrid Bracke “Re-Approaching Urban Nature“, Matthew Griffiths “Changing the Climate…
  3. Finding the Wild Nearby in New British Nature Writing | Astrid Bracke - […] “Remote from what? London? But what was London?” As I discussed in an article in Alluvium, much new nature…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.