'this is no eden': eden, the environment and thomas hardy
artwork by Mahalia Curtis-Lundberg
When reflecting on the theme of Eden, it is difficult to resist drawing the link between the Biblical creation myth and our current ecological plight. The looming climate crisis feels as though it could be a modern-day retelling of the Fall of Adam and Eve: immense suffering and the loss of a natural paradise, caused by human carelessness; the fate of humanity threatened existentially by its own flaws.
There are, of course, some fundamental differences. Climate change is not the moral punishment for an individual choice made by two people; it is the natural result of the collective behaviour of humans over many decades (specifically, many would argue, within a capitalist economic model). Adam and Eve’s curiosity, their desire for knowledge, seems far more innocent than the disturbing sense of greed and entitlement that exists in parts of today’s society, which views the natural world as a resource to be exploited at its disposal, for consumption and for profit.
Also, our ‘punishment’ is not banishment from the garden but, perhaps more cruelly, the degradation of the garden itself, a process which has already started. This will not just make it potentially uninhabitable for humans, but numerous other species, many of which are currently close to extinction, particularly in areas affected by deforestation and rising sea levels.
The fact that humans are not the only species affected by our activities on the planet relates to another important distinction between our present understanding of the natural environment and its depiction in the Bible. Humans do not have an inherent ‘dominion’ over the natural world; we are neither above nor separate from nature but are essentially part of it, embedded within it, as with all other life forms. Most of us now accept Darwin’s theory of Evolution, that humans were not specially created in a day, but I think there still persists an anthropocentric tendency to view human life as somehow the end-point, the pinnacle, of evolution. This implicitly reinforces the idea of evolution as a pre-determined narrative, as well the notion that we humans are innately distinct from nature, leading us to see it as a vague, external entity. In my view, the construction of nature as a thing separate from us, which may have stemmed in part from the Creation Story, has played a significant role in the excessive exploitation of our environment.
The anthropologist Tim Ingold explores the way we have historically opposed humanity and nature, and argues that we need to resist this dichotomy. “Human beings”, he writes, “do not dwell on the other side of a boundary between society and nature but in the same world that is inhabited by creatures of all kinds […] social life has always been part and parcel of ecological life, if indeed the two can be sensibly distinguished at all”. It is important that we recognise our place within nature, as dependent dwellers of it, in order to preserve it and prevent its damage.
I think the idea of humans being intertwined with the natural landscape can also be seen reflected in much of the work of the Victorian poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy. For example, we could look at one of his last poems, ‘An Unkindly May’, as an exploration of how humans dwell in, and are part of, nature:
A shepherd stands by a gate in a white smock-frock:
He holds the gate ajar, intently counting his flock.
The sour spring wind is blurting boisterous-wise,
And bears on it dirty clouds across the skies;
Plantation timbers creak like rusty cranes,
And pigeons and rooks, dishevelled by late rains,
Are like gaunt vultures, sodden and unkempt,
And song-birds do not end what they attempt:
The buds have tried to open, but quite failing
Have pinched themselves together in their quailing.
The sun frowns whitely in eye-trying flaps
Through passing cloud-holes, mimicking audible taps.
‘Nature, you're not commendable to-day!’
I think. ‘Better to-morrow!’ she seems to say.
That shepherd still stands in that white smock-frock,
Unnoting all things save the counting his flock.
Although he uses the classic pastoral figure of the shepherd, Hardy resists romanticising the landscape as a rural idyll in this poem. The bleak imagery of ‘dirty clouds’ and ‘plantation timbers [that] creak like rusty cranes’ tells us that he is aware of the harmful human impact on the environment, but even without the implicit presence of industrialisation, the ‘sour spring wind’ and ‘late rains’ suggest the harshness already imbued in the natural world: this is no Eden. The ‘dishevelled’ birds, ‘quailing’ buds, and even the sun are described in terms of struggle, conveying a Darwinian vision. Hardy’s use of anthropomorphism evokes our sympathy, as well as implying the human affinity with nature and the interconnectedness of all living beings. The speaker’s address to the personified ‘Nature’, to which she only ‘seems’ to respond, could thus be read as ironic, consciously revealing the bluntness of the Man/Nature dichotomy. By contrast, the image of the shepherd, which encloses the poem in the first and final couplet, depicts human life as a part of the natural landscape.
For me, ‘An Unkindly May’ articulates something important about the environment and our position within it. It may seem a stretch to connect Hardy’s poem with the complex, specific set of problems facing us in the 21st Century, but, as we address our ecological crisis, I think it is necessary to consider some of the deep-rooted assumptions about nature and humanity that have led us to this point. The story of Eden upholds the idea of an essential distinction between humans and other life forms on Earth, and this notion remains implicitly dominant in Western thought. We need to challenge it fundamentally and to recognise that there is no real divide between humans and the natural world.