Although largely disregarded since the humanistic turn of ecocriticism at the beginning of the 21st century, nature writing has continued to play an important role in nurturing trans-Pacific, and transnational, literary environmentalism. Euro-American traditions dominate this literary genre, but it nevertheless involves cross-cultural traffic of ideas and thoughts. Its trans-Pacific presence, mostly through American influences on works in Japan, demonstrates in three ways how American nature writing has been cultivating Japanese literary soil and has in turn been nurtured by it, albeit less conspicuously. First, Henry David Thoreau’s influence on Japanese literary environmentalism, especially his philosophy of plain living and high thinking, helped engender a tradition of nature writing in Japan that began with Nozawa Hajime—often called the “Japanese Thoreau”—and has been developed by those who followed, including Ashizawa Kazuhiro and Takada Hiroshi. Second, interactions between pastoralism and a new mode of environmental awareness show that the seemingly American notion of “wild awareness” and the Japanese concept of aware have materialized as a new environmental sensitivity in Japan and in the United States, respectively, reflecting cross-cultural nurturing of environmental ideas, thoughts, and practices. Finally, there has been a subtle yet radical impact of American counterculture on Japanese nature writing, exemplified by Nashiki Kaho’s literary hybridity, based on her integration of the traditional with the radical.
Southern poetry embraces dichotomous elements: it contains poems lauding the Confederacy, and also poems deeply critical and mournful of the racist violence, oppression, and racist terrorism that characterize the region’s history. Yet a common thread runs through Southern poetry—attention to the land, the rural South as a character in its own right, and with that attention to the land a quality of haunting and being haunted by the history of the South: the violence of colonization, enslavement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow. Twentieth-century poet Etheridge Knight, born in Mississippi, lyrically describes the earth of Mississippi merging with the graves of his ancestors, calling him home to a place where, as a black man, he is not safe. Nineteenth-century poet Sidney Lanier, born in Georgia and, like Knight, a man who had experienced imprisonment, shapes in his poetry a mythical country where trees and rivers and indigenous crops become forces superseding the human; but Lanier, a soldier for the Confederacy, does not mention enslavement in his poetry. In Southern poetry, this blind spot—the white Southern poet who does not see or reflect upon the racist violence of enslavement, Jim Crow, lynching—is often submerged into a poetry melancholic and obsessed with unnamable violence and loss, even as African American poets of the South often name this loss in terms of personal memory. Myth—of the aristocratic, agrarian South—in white Southern poetry, and memory—of personal risk and suffering—in African American Southern poetry, can be understood together as a common pull to write the land, albeit from different perspectives.
Pastoral refers to any representation of the countryside or life in the countryside that emphasizes its beautiful and pleasurable aspects. Although the term has come to be used broadly to describe paintings, novels, and popular media, it originated and developed in the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome. Poems about shepherds and cowherds, also called bucolic, first appeared in the Idylls of Theocritus (3rd century bce), and these inspired the Roman poet Virgil to write a set of poems called the Eclogues (c. 42–37 bce). Virgil’s ten poems have been immensely influential. Indeed, pastoral’s long and relatively unbroken European history can be traced to the ongoing popularity of the Eclogues. These poems helped establish the defining elements of the mode: shepherds, who spend much of their time in song and dialogue; the topics of love, loss, and singing itself; a leisurely life; and a natural landscape of endless summer. In the Middle Ages, when Virgil’s eclogues were still read but rarely directly imitated, an explicitly Christian version of pastoral developed; this version was based in the shepherds of the Bible, both the literal shepherds who witnessed Jesus’ birth and the figurative shepherds referred to by Jesus or mentioned in the Psalms. In this biblical or ecclesiastical pastoral, authors used shepherds to discuss priestly duties and the state of the church more generally. Pastoral flourished in the Renaissance, when poets brought together Virgilian and Christian traditions, along with topical concerns about court politics and rural controversies, such as enclosure, to invent a new kind of poetry. During and after the Romantic period, pastoral lost its distinctly shepherdly focus and merged with a broader category of nature writing. As one of several possible approaches to nature, pastoral was reduced to its idealizing and nostalgic qualities, and it was often contrasted with more realistic or scientific representations. From the perspective of the longue durée, pastoral is a capacious category that includes many different attitudes toward rural people and rural life, even the realism of labor and exile. Despite this variety, pastoral is recognizable for the feelings it hopes to generate in its readers about rural life: the delight that the senses take in nature, the sadness at the loss of people and places, and the intense crushes of adolescence.
Todd Andrew Borlik
As the environmental humanities have gained traction, its practitioners have ventured beyond a predictable canon of modern nature writers and Romantic poets into earlier eras to better fathom the origins of our ecological predicament. It has become abundantly clear that the Renaissance (c. 1340–1660), often reframed as the early modern era (c. 1500–1800), marks a pivotal epoch in the history of the earth. Spurred by the rediscovery of classical learning to rival the grandeur of Ancient Rome and by Columbus’s plundering of the West Indies, European powers studied and exploited the environment with unprecedented zeal, while investing in resource extraction, overseas colonization, and technoscience. These developments left an indelible imprint on both the planet and the period’s literature. In tandem with the invention of landscape by Renaissance painters, writers in the generations between Francesco Petrarch and John Milton sought new ways—while reviving and adapting ancient ones—to capture the beauty, fragility, and animacy of the natural world. In the works of poets such as Torquato Tasso, Michael Drayton, and Mary Wroth, trees can bleed, rivers speak, and nightingales transform into violated maidens. As such conceits suggest, the prevailing views of nature can seem quaint or anthropomorphic by post-Enlightenment standards. Yet Renaissance literature has proven, in part because it enables us to interrogate those standards, surprisingly responsive to ecocritical concerns. Bringing these concerns to bear on the era has revealed startling new facets of familiar texts, thrown more limelight on undersung authors, unsettled complacent assumptions in environmental history, and greatly enriched eco-theory. Nature has always been a site of ideological contestation, but the historical distance afforded by the Renaissance can bring this into shimmering focus. If the label “early modern” underscores the era’s continuity with the present and its foreshadowing of ecological issues and sensibilities, the somewhat old-fashioned label Renaissance reminds us to keep sight of its alterity and to view its literature as an archive of radically different attitudes, epistemologies, and material practices that might help us to better understand and combat environmental problems. The urgency of the climate crisis makes it imperative to trace or insinuate parallels between then and now, but newcomers to the field would also be well advised to acquaint themselves with the contours of early modern cultural and environmental history so as to undertake ecocritical interpretations responsibly without peddling anachronisms or reductive caricatures. Early modern worldviews can be both familiar and alien, and its literature can jolt us into a greater awareness of these tensions. It is, for instance, ironic yet strangely apt that the same Francis Bacon reviled as an architect of the Anthropocene was one of the first to denounce the anthropocentric prejudice of the human sensorium and mind. Bacon also feared that language and an excessive reverence for the received knowledge of the past might warp our understanding of nature. Four centuries later, his words provide a cautionary reminder that we should not approach Renaissance literature as a repository of timeless, universal truths. Rather, insofar as studying Renaissance literature enables us to see beyond the shibboleths of our own culture and historical moment, it offers valuable cognitive training that might help us recognize and overcome species bias.
Sarah D. Wald
Agriculture is a significant yet understudied theme in Asian American literature. Representations of farming in Asian American literature often respond to and engage with agriculture’s important role in Asian American history. As farmers and as farm laborers, Asian Americans have been pivotal to US agriculture, and this agricultural experience was foundational to the formation of Asian American communities in the period prior to World War II. Additionally, literary representations of agriculture in Asian American literature navigate racialized traditions of American pastoral and Jeffersonian agrarianism. They have often done so in ways that highlight the systems of racial and economic exploitation at work in US society and position US agribusiness in relationship to US colonialism and neo-colonialism. Consequently, Asian American literature’s representations of farming can expose the assumptions around race, property, and citizenship at work in the agrarianism of the 21st-century US alternative food movement. The writings of Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto, and David Mas Masumoto provide case studies of these trends.
Ecocriticism describes and confronts the socially uneven encounters and entanglements of earthly living. As a political mode of literary and cultural analysis, it aims to understand and intervene in the destruction and diminishment of living worlds. A core premise is that environmental crises have social, cultural, affective, imaginative, and material dimensions. Although ranging in its critical engagements across historical periods, cultural texts, and cultural formations, ecocriticism focuses on the aesthetic modes, social meanings, contexts, genealogies, and counterpoints of cultural practices that contribute to ecological ruination and resilience. These include myths about frontiers, progress, and human mastery over animality and nature; capitalist modes of valuing, devaluing, and radically transforming lifeworlds; and biopolitical and racialized inequalities in health, risk, development, and disposability. Ecocriticism also involves broad theoretical engagement with discursive formations and semiotic significations, including the interrogation of crisis frameworks and apocalyptic representations, considering their histories, scales, and temporalities, while also asking how any particular socioecological arrangement comes to count as a matter of concern, for whom, and in which contexts. The concept of nature is a long-standing theoretical topic in ecocriticism. While nature may seem, rather straightforwardly, to be the domain environmentalism seeks to protect, it is a concept on which hinge crucial and contested claims about ontology (the nature of something, such as assertions about human nature as an inherent, often determining set of shared qualities) and epistemology (how we know what is real, such as the scientific practices through which credible assertions can be made that the planetary climate is changing), claims whose modern authority has rested on positioning nature as a domain outside culture. While structuralist and poststructuralist theorists have destabilized the binary opposition of nature to culture, the political and epistemological imperative to engage with nature as simultaneously material and semiotic has spawned an array of theoretical developments, from Donna Haraway’s cyborg figure and other “natureculture” assemblages to new materialisms. Meanwhile, nature circulates as a commodity form and spectacle animating digital, film, and television screens as well as many other consumer products and experiences. Cultural studies approaches to ecocriticism raise questions about the relationships of visual, narrative, and sound representations to economic power, media technologies, and the material and social ecologies through which they are produced and which they form and transform.