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).
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.  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.
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. 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. 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).
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. 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. 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). 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. 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).
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. 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.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Image-ASTRID.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]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.[/author_info] [/author]
 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).
 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’).
 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).
 See Bartlett; Heynen, Kaika and Swyngedouw; Keil; Spirn ‘Urban Nature and Human Design’ for useful introductions to the field.
 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.
 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.
 As such, The New English Landscape echoes not only Edgelands but also Richard Mabey’s 1973 The Unofficial Countryside.
 Robert Macfarlane, Mark Cocker, Richard Mabey and the late Roger Deakin are, or were, based in East Anglia.
 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.
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