Later in the chapter Gerrard tackles the challenge ecocriticism sees in constructionism, a perspective prevalent in cultural analysis during the past quarter century. He notes that “The challenge for ecocritics is to keep one eye on the ways in which ‘nature’ is always in some ways culturally constructed, and the other on the fact that nature really exists” (10). In what ways can nature, typically considered the ‘opposite’ of culture, be “culturally constructed”? As ever, an example or two would be useful.
Nature as it exists outside my window, at this very moment in time is not always characterized honestly or accurately when described in literature. In the beginning of the article, when Rachel carson was decsceubed as writing a “pastoral” history of the American setting in her book, it’s not possible that the author actually knew what the natural setting was. Instead, she was creating an idyllic scene to punctuate her point that pollution is the sickness spreading and ruining our country in real time. Carson used a made-up nature to punctuate what actual nature was like, both creating a fantasy and using that fantasy to break down the ideals of nature.
I think this is a really great point, one that allows us to see our biases and preconceived ideas about nature and examine them for what they are. For example, and I know this is one the author uses, but I’ve always thought this was an instructive case in point, but we look at weeds and invasive species as bad things, but the idea of a “weed” is completely cultural, as nature does not assign value to, and has no preference for or against, any one particular plant above or below any other. As for invasive species, this, too, is a culturally constructed idea, in that the negative value we usually look at them with is only our own preference that things in nature should go on being the way they always have been. In reality, nature is never the way it has been; it is constantly changing, and the balance between one species and another, whether plant or animal, is always in flux. One might argue that human intervention has caused species from one continent to be present where they may otherwise never have been. And while this is true, nature does things like that as well. Continents fragment and drift apart, and collide together, allowing the spread of species from one part of the earth to the other. This is why we have camels in the Middle East (they evolved in North America), and why we have so few marsupials and monotremes anywhere but Australia. The way we categorize these things as negative, or as purely human-caused, is a cultural conception; and yet these things actually do happen, and dandelions do exist in lawns whether they’re wanted or not. Weeds and invasive species are just as much a part of nature as anything else, and effect everything else in it. So human ideas (the subjective) about nature affect the way we see, understand, and view it, but those views, whether correct or biased, are about actual things (the objective) that exist and interact with one another and do exist in a complicated but very real (eco)system.
Nature, like culture, is a constantly evolving force that rejects regularity. Any consistency nature has “rapidly gives way to catastrophic destruction” as it shifts based on the culture which is the cause of such maneuvering (page 1). The culture of those analyzing ecocentric literature greatly affects the way in which it is analyzed. For example, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment began its ecocriticism with a focus on natural literature in reference to “Romantic poetry, wilderness narrative and nature writing”, however they have more recently shifted to be influenced by popular culture and the mediums associated with the modern age (page 5). The perception of what makes up nature and natural writing changes in response to those analyzing it, taking on their views and directions in its ever changing definition.
Just as Garrard gives us the example of the biology of male versus female being different from the socially established construct of gender on page 10, the idyllic nature (that which we perceive nature to be) and the reality of nature are not always in accordance with one another. While one might think of nature today as being spacious, clean, and nurturing, but this is not always the case. The concept of “Mother Nature” is also an idea that has conceived by society. The “true nature” of nature is that it can be both harsh and nourishing, both hostile and serene. The Fireside and Romantic poet of the 19th century were guilty of portraying this idealistic notion of nature.
The idea that nature can be culturally constructed comes as a shock, but I believe Gerrard has a point here and it is well laid out in his use of the example of ‘four-wheel trucks’. Especially in the American south I believe this is something we need to think about when exploring our idea of nature as it is often contaminated with the man-made ideas of hunting, John Deere trucks, and other such sentiments (it is also interesting to note here that all of these ‘man-made’ ideas of nature are also masculine as opposed to the traditionally feminine personification of nature). Another point that Gerrard makes that I would like to expand on is that the antithesis of the question posed which is that the idea of ‘cultural constructs’ is natural since it comes from us humans who are from nature. If we follow this logic then we may come to the conclusion that pollution itself is natural, since it is a product of humans who are a part of nature at their basic form. What must be explored then, is when does something become so entrenched in construction that it breaks from nature and is this even possible? For instance, I believe humans have so distanced themselves from their original form both physically and intellectually that they may no longer be considered ‘natural’.
As explained above, the challenge for ecocritics lies in differentiating between what part of literature concerning nature bears truth on an existential, factual level and what parts are influenced by the culture of that writer. Gerrard uses a helpful example of the cultural assumption that some plants are “weeds” while nature as a force does not share the same values as people concerning the plants or their desirability. Just the same, the moon is and always will be a part of the natural world as we know it, however the romanticization of such moon by countless writers over centuries is not based on fact but on cultural perception. While Gerrard makes an interesting point, an even more interesting aspect of ecocriticism is the supposition that humans and all effects of the human race go against nature. While, of course, we should be conscious of our consumer based habits that breed pollution and other negative effects on nature, the claim that we are the only beings on the earth that take advantage of it isn’t completely true.
Of course nature is socially constructed! Isn’t everything? Language itself is something we have developed simply to make sense of the chaos that is life. Shouldn’t it follow that nature, too, is a concept that we have developed as a way to sort through the confusing and often frightening world that surrounds us? Particularly in today’s climate, where so much discussion revolves around climate change and the damage we have inflicted upon the planet, the rhetoric surrounding nature often “employs pastoral and apocalyptic rhetoric,” just as Carson did, as a way to call the public to action (Gerrard 6). We as a society tend to romanticize nature; to call back to what we perceive has been lost, to regain the wilderness and nostalgia of the old days, when the reality is that these ideas are mostly fabricated.
What a question–there are seemingly infinite ways nature can be culturally constructed. Firstly, and I know this is a bit of a cop-out, our entire realities can be argued to be constructed. Our experiences are all rooted in our own perception of said experiences; simultaneously, as social creatures we are inseperable from our cultural context of time and space. Thus, any experience of nature will Always be a construct of some kind. Most interesting to me, however, is a historical kind of construct. As some have already pointed out, the Romantics had their own construction of nature as idyllic–particularly in contrast to the Industrial Revolution and the harsh, bleak environment it produced. The Dark Romantics, or those authors contributing to “Gothic” literature, had a different idea of nature. For them, Nature was dark and menacing; the wilderness in The Scarlet Letter inevitably comes to mind. Fast forward to today and I can only turn to Mary Oliver, whose poetry (despite my bias) is renowned for her themes of nature and the natural world. Oliver, like the Romantics before her, places nature on a pedestal of sorts, musing on its inspirational, authentic qualities by contrast to our fast-paced and technologically obsessed world. Like the Romantics responding to the horrors of the Industrial Age, I can’t help but think that our culture is responding to the digital age in a similar way–returning to nature as a source of purity, authenticity, and, hopefully, meaning.