Study Guide

Ecocriticism Critics

  • Henry David Thoreau

    I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

    Is this guy just some weird loner? Or perhaps a nature mystic? That whole "sucking the marrow out of life" bit sounds kind of gross. But also kind of awesome, are we right?

    In this excerpt from Walden, Thoreau's arguing that when humans have grocery stores and restaurants to provide them with quick eats, easy shelter, and everyday routines that involve commutes, crying kids, and other trappings of modern life, they're not really living. Why? Because some of life's greatest joys lie in nature, in fending for yourself, and in enjoying simple pleasures.

    Civilization is rife with social and economic injustice, overconsumption, and the exploitation of others. And all of these ills corrupt the human soul, Thoreau thought. He wanted us to get back to the bare necessities. The simple bare necessities, you know?

    When Ecocriticism hit the scene, many scholars applied Thoreau's concept of reducing life to "its lowest terms" to reducing great books' form and content to their essential qualities. Where are the essential facts of life hidden in our stories? In the language of our literature?

    But wait, you say. Eating and breathing and walking and sleeping are just boring, regular-human stuff. Where's the excitement and the art in that? Well, consider this example of how the bare necessities mold our cultural and emotional lives: the way cultures eat tell us a ton about what those cultures values, what their technologies are like, and so on.

    What conclusions do you draw about a character who drinks English tea in her home? What about a character who goes out to eat a Texas barbecue buffet? Would those two characters get along? A lot of big meanings can hide in little things, Shmoopers.

  • John Muir

    But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God's first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.

    So extravagant is Nature, with her choicest treasures, spending plant beauty as she spends sunshine, pouring it forth into land and sea, garden and desert. And so the beauty of lilies falls on angels and men, bears and squirrels, wolves and sheep, birds and bees, but as far as I have seen, man alone, and the animals he tames, destroy these gardens.

    Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the main event: uppercase-N Nature is about to duke it out with lowercase-m man. As you might imagine, lowly man, with his tiny toenails and little stone tools, ain't got nothin' on Nature, with her giant mountains and great rivers and all.

    As the capitalization of the word suggests, Nature is God to John Muir. Every day, he attends his church of the wilderness. And as one of those little, lowercase-m men, he bows down to Nature and "her choicest treasures."

    To Muir, Cities are dirty. And urban-dwelling men and women are not much above rodents, because their lifestyles shape their values. So he implores us all to get out of Dodge and come worship in the cathedrals of Nature. This kind of thinking was what preceded the newer, New Materialist scholarship; now, most ecocritics believe urban centers to be as wild as National Parks, and National Parks to be as "impure" as cities.

    As time moves forward, the still-young Ecocriticism movement grows and diversifies.

  • Aldo Leopold

    This extension of ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a process in ecological evolution. Its sequences may be described in ecological as well as philosophical terms. An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing. The thing has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation. The ecologists call these symbioses. Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced, in part, by cooperative mechanisms with an ethical intent.

    Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.

    Leopold takes the capital N outta Nature; unlike Muir, he sees the need for a more egalitarian relationship between humans and their environment. Nobody is to be worshipped. There is no need for a church service—just a good therapy session to heal the abusive relationship between "modern man" and the great outdoors.

    The ethic this dude's unpacking in the passage is what he calls a land ethic. This ethic asks us to strive for the "limitation of the freedom of action in the struggle for existence." What he's suggesting is that people must limit those actions that harm others. Except he doesn't just mean other people.

    He also believes that the land has its own inalienable rights. And when people put their own needs ahead of the land's basic survival, that's unethical.

    Ecocritics have applied Leopold's work to understanding the relationships between humans and nature as akin to relationships between to people. For example: it's a pretty safe bet Captain Ahab treated some people just as insanely as he treated the great whale. Think of the amount of counseling needed for a breakthrough in that relationship. Eek.

  • Rachel Carson

    Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?

    Pollution's bad for our bodies, surburbia's bad for our souls, and the lack of quiet in city centers might just drive us all crazy. Not a lot of translation needed here. But what does this have to do with reading literature? (Carson is, after all, one of today's true ecocritics.)

    "Eco" comes from the Greek oikos, which means house or home. So, how a writer depicts a character's home, and how a character reacts to that home environment, is a type of creative ecology.

    Like, consider these questions: How and why is the home environment polluted in To Kill A Mockingbird? What are the characters looking for in this book? How does the home environment affect the characters and the language they each use?

    Here's another great example: Homer's The Odyssey is all about the search for a home. Plots shift and change when home-places are destroyed or poisoned. When you think about it, the destruction of beautiful landscapes, the death of loved ones from illnesses born in dirty rivers and sewer systems—these are the main plot points of some of the greatest novels of all time.

    Clearly, in the wake of the destruction of our physical environments, we find emotional drama. Charles Dickens may not have had so much to write about without the horrific conditions of Victorian London (many of Carson's "homes in insipid surroundings" could be found there).

    Carson gets down to the nitty-gritty details of just how we poison ourselves, in ways both literal and metaphoric. And if we look closely enough, we find that this is quite the universal literary theme.

  • Lawrence Buell

    Historically, artistic representations of the natural environment have served as agents of both provocation and compartmentalization, calling us to think ecocentrically but often conspiring with the readerly temptation to cordon off scenery into pretty ghettoes. We honor their achievements best when we recognize them as prophetic but intermittent efforts to rise above the cultural limitations that threaten to becloud them. Their achievements are mirrors of both cultural promise and of cultural failure.

    If, as environmental philosophers contend, western metaphysics and ethics need revision before we can address today's environmental problems then environmental crisis involves a crisis of the imagination the amelioration of which depends upon finding better ways of imagining nature and humanity's relationship to it. To that end, it behooves us to look searchingly to the most searching works of environmental reflection that the world's most technological power has produced; for in these we may expect to find disclosed (not always with full self-consciousness of course) both the pathologies that bedevil society at large and some of the alternative paths it might consider.

    Here, we've got another quote from an awesome (though a bit opaque) primary text written by an Ecocritic: Mr. Lawrence Buell. And this quote offers us a cautionary tale.

    It tells us: Dear readers of literature, you're being tempted. But don't give in. Don't analyze the environment in literature as just window dressing, as just an aesthetic pleasure that's beyond the reaches of our daily, technology-driven experiences.

    Instead, Buell wants us to think of nature as a major player in literature. So, for example, consider the way our thinking about animal-human interactions might be changed by doing a close reading of Moby-Dick. In this book, Melville exposed something about human nature that many find troubling.

    He showed us that humans don't treat other creatures very well. Sometimes, we get kind of obsessed and crazy about annihilating other animals. And, by raising awareness about this fact through fiction, Melville's book likely contributed to the subsequent ban on whaling.

    And after doing all that fancy schmancy literary analysis, it's clear that Buell wants us to refocus on eco-activism. He wants us to consider just how that rift between humans and nature happened, and how we can stop being so nature-sick.

  • Vandana Shiva

    And while men in power redefine religion in fundamentalist terms and in support of market fundamentalism, women in diverse cultures mobilize their faith, their spirituality, their power to protect the earth and life on earth.

    Men in power, apparently, are the root of all evil. Haha, but seriously. Shiva is not kidding about the destructive nature of "market fundamentalism," which is a fancy-pants term for the belief that free market economies can solve all of the world's social and ecological ills.

    Everything will just work out, right? Wrong, says Shiva.

    When capitalism runs unchecked, the earth pays a heavy premium. Consider: strip mining, deforestation, athletic shoe-making practices, diamond cutting, and our never-ending search for oil. Phewf.

    Here's a question: doesn't the whole "men are into capitalism, and women are into Mother Earth" bit sound a little sexist? On the surface, maybe. But we think she's actually trying to fight sexism here, Shmoopers; she's known as an ecofeminist. Allow us to explain.

    Shiva is not trying to define men's and women's differential jobs in the green movement. In this passage, she's implying that our culture has shaped men to believe capitalism is tops, and competition will make us all winners—specifically because capitalism most benefits white, straight men in our sexist, racist, heterosexist culture.

    And because women often lose out in the current market system, they tend to (just as a generalization, not as a hard-and-fast rule) think more seriously about its consequences—on our lives and on our planet. What Shiva is arguing for, then, is for both men and women to share in the burdens and the joys of caring for the environment.

    For her, ecofeminism is about getting as many voices as possible to join global conversations about nature conservation.

    Now, what does all this Ecofeminism business have to do with reading literature? We've said it before, and we'll say it again: most great tales of outdoor adventures are told from a masculine point-of-view. Girls aren't driving the tractors that uproot the rabbits in Watership Down. It's not impossible, but it's difficult to imagine a woman going after Moby-Dick like Captain Ahab.

    In order to send you on your merry Shmooping way, we've developed a few big questions to guide you as you apply ecofeminist principles to new texts: 

    • How do the female characters vs. the male characters interact with the environment in the text? Are there any female characters who seem to change people's perceptions of their shared environments?
    • Much of our environment and our modern physical spaces are designed and run by men. How do these masculinist, "natural" and "unnatural" spaces seem to mold the behaviors of women in the text? Do the female characters challenge the ecological roles they've been given? If so, how?

    Some people are fond of saying, "Behind every great man is a great woman." Which is kind of sexist. So we prefer Shiva's version: Behind every great woman (and man) is a greener world.

    You go, girl.

  • Serpil Oppermann

    Their [the material ecocritics] radical thesis is that in the age of environmental uncertainty, the natural and the cultural can no longer be thought of as dichotomous categories. Rather we need to theorize them together and analyze them together, and analyze their complex relationships in terms of their indivisibility and their mutual effect on one another.

    Ah, another primary theoretical text. Serpy, you really know how to make our hearts sing. Anywho, this newfangled Material Ecocriticism movement can be a bit tricky to understand, so we'll unpack this quote using three simple formulas and a made-up novel narrative.

    Here goes: say you're in line at the grocery store, and you decide to pick up the latest installment of Broseph McBroerson's frat house murder mystery series, Blood and Kegs Phi Delt. And in your free time, you decide to do a character analysis of the protagonist—the president of that chapter of the fraternity, Chip, and his mother, Mary.

    Get those ecocritical brains a-turning, and let's begin.

    Formula 1: Nature + Culture = Character

    So, in Blood and Kegs, we have: (Twenty-one-year-old dude) + (beer, frat house, flip flops, sports enthusiasm, beautiful girlfriend) = the Phi Delt prez, Chip.

    We know that our example's a bit stereotypical, and probably mildly offensive, but it's just an example. And we like making you laugh. Our point is this: the material ecocritic believes that to analyze any literary character, we must analyze both the nature of that character (a twenty-one-year-old human male), and the culture of that character (what he does in his natural habitat, such as beer ponging it up in his flippy floppies).

    Formula 2: Nature – Culture ≠ Character

    Importantly, when you take a character out of his prototypical cultural environment, he's not the same character anymore. If you wrest Chip out of Phi Delt, rob him of his beer keg and frat brothers and football and girlfriend, and stick him in his grandma's house on Easter Sunday, you'll likely see a much different guy emerge.

    A material ecocritic says Chip's not the same Chip in this new environment. The culture of Easter Sunday at Grandma's interacts with the nature of his twenty-one-year-old male body to create a different outcome. Like, we're guessing Chip's actually quite a polite, upstanding dude when he interacts with his family… even if he enjoys the occasional keg stand back at his frat house.

    Formula 3: Nature + Culture ≠ Character

    Likewise, picking Chip's middle-aged mother out of her house and plopping her into Phi Delt won't turn her into Chip. Her nature won't respond to the culture of the frat house in the same way as that twenty-one-year-old man's body, so she cannot be considered a frat guy.

    And maybe her nature will change the culture of the frat house itself—and when the brothers wake up the next morning, they realize their beloved fraternity has been turned into a bed-and-breakfast. A bed-and-breakfast where murders happen.

    And Now, A Moment of Serious Clarity

    Okay, so. Why is Material Ecocriticism important to lit crit? The message here is: don't judge a book by its cover. Because change the cover, and you change the book. A character isn't a character until you see him say and do things in a specific environment.

    This movement also wants us to consider how the physical states of our authors affected the way they wrote. Herman Melville (can you tell we like Moby-Dick?) was a sailor. He wrote while he was at sea. And if you think about it, all those violent storms and seasickness would probably make most people produce some pretty wild prose.