Women and early modern ecologies

“In this book I am retelling, as best I can, some of the old ecological stories; they are well worth remembering as we tell our new stories and begin to theorize the potential and power of narrative to intervene in politics and culture.”

Sylvia Bowerbank’s Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England (2005) is en example of ecological feminism. This is a particular kind of ecocriticism concerned with the question “how to theorize the difficult interconnections between women, nature, and language, and how to manifest in our daily lives a just and appropriate politics of nature”(2). Bowerbank realizes that this is a risky combination. When women speak for nature, do they not rehearse the stereotypes that associate women with nature, men with culture? Her book is therefore not a straightforward celebration of women’s writing about nature, but examines early modern women’s ideas about nature from a critical distance.

The book contains a rich store of ecological stories and intelligent analyses. I was intrigued by the chapter “Nature as Trickster: The Philosophical Laughter of Margaret Cavendish” (pp. 52-79), especially by the section that discusses Cavendish’s relation and reactions to seventeenth-century science.

The early modern period is pivotal in ecocriticism, since it is retrospectively seen as the time in which the medieval paradigm of nature was overthrown by the paradigm of modern science. Robert Boyle, for example, in his A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (1685-86) debunked the idea of nature as a wise, independent being requiring respect and restraint. Instead, Boyle tried to establish a competing concept of nature as governed by a providential system of laws, the secrets of which could be discovered by humanity.

In her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666, 1668), Cavendish laughs at the pretensions of Baconian scientists.

I do not understand, first, what they mean by our power over Natural causes and effects … for Man is but a small part, and his powers are but particular actions of Nature, and therefore he cannot have a supream and absolute power. (67)

For Cavendish, to understand nature truly requires taking pleasure in her amazing agency. “Stimulating nature’s sly and strange generosity, [her poems are] swarming with odd ideas and fresh questions. According to Cavendish, new knowledge is more likely to be discovered by bold imagining than by repeatable experiments,” Bowerbank writes (69). While natural philosophers set rational man apart from nature, Cavendish rehabilitated the very idea of resemblances, correspondences and connections in nature (an idea that Gabriel Egan also rehabilitates from Tillyard in his Green Shakespeare).

The separation of man from nature permitted scientists to suspend moral judgement in their dealings with nature. Bowerbank describes contemporary reactions to Robert Boyle’s experiments involving small animals and a vacuum pump (see illustration), and shows how purely empirical observation was mingled with empathy — often gendered feminine — with the animal.

Bowerbank offers one of Cavendish’s observations of butterflies as a counter experiment to empirical research. Whereas the experiments conducted, among others, by Boyle interfere dramatically (and often deadly) in animal life, Cavendish found a cocoon and simply left it on her windowsill.

One morning I spi’d two Butter-flies playing about it; which knowing the window had been close shut all the while, and finding the Insect all empty, and only like a bare shell or skin, I supposed had been bred out of it; […] And it is observable, that two Butterflies were produced out of one shell, which I supposed to be male and female. But this latter I will not certainly affirm, for I could not discern them with my eyes, except I had had some microscope, but a thousand to one I might have been also deceived by it: and had I opened this Insect, or shell, at first; it might perhaps have given those Butterflies an untimely death, or rather hinder’d their production. This is all I have observed of Butterflies. (71)

Cavendish does not desire to cut open the cocoon or observe the butterflies under a microscope, because the new knowledge that she would gain by so doing would interfere in the lives of the butterflies themselves. As Bowerbank puts it, Cavendish’s “style of natural philosophy is to ridicule such efforts and to imitate [in her texts] the wily ways of nature, in her shifts, her doublings, her tricks and contradictions” (73).

Bowerbank does not merely contrast Cavendish’s view of nature to the empirical view that survived into our time. She is also critical of her work, and is sometimes less pleased with Cavendish’s notion of  natural life. She signals that it lacks reflection on the consequences of using up nature’s bounty as (an aristocratic) consumer. When, in The Convent of Pleasure, nature’s gifts are figured as luxury goods such as Turkish rugs and perfume (“Wee’l Cloth our selves with softest Silk | And Linnen fine as white as milk,” I.ii), Bowerbank asks critically: Is this Cavendish’s notion of natural life? “It is assumed that the pleasures, reserved for happy ladies, will be within nature’s capacity to deliver.” This trust in nature’s bounty, from a modern perspective, is perhaps naive. Cavendish, although critical of empirical science, just did not think to ask how nature should be preserved and shared evenly.

I was sad to learn that Sylvia Bowerbank died of cancer in August 2005, a year after this book was published. Her analyses of these ‘old ecological stories’ live on, as critical and inspiring food for thought for the ecological movement.

Links:

Green Shakespeare

I often use Gabriel Egan’s online database of early modern drama, and today I noticed that not only has the layout of the site changed, it also brings news of Gabriel Egan’s new book, Green Shakespeare.

After Jonathan Bate’s two influential works Romantic Ecology (1991) and The Song of the Earth (2000), ecocriticism has now reached Shakespeare Studies. Amazon reports that the book contains

an analysis of themes such as nature and human society; food and biological nature; the supernatural and the weather; and a bold argument for a contemporary ‘EcoShakespeare’, taking into account the environmental and political implications of globalization and intellectual property laws.

I cannot wait to read the book. What does ecocriticism do with Shakespeare? Or what did Shakespeare do with ecopolitics? Should we draw lessons from the abolition of the commons, or from life in the forest of Arden in As You Like It? Does Prospero’s storm tell us anything about human manipulations of the weather, or Lear’s storm about human inability to manipulate the weather? I am not being cynical, believe you me, I’m curious. Anyone out there who has read the book already?

Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism was published by Routledge in April 2006.