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Ecomorphism and Ecoromanticism

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Ecomorphism is the antithesis of anthropomorphism. Instead of seeing myself at the center of my world, I can now see my human activity—and yours—in terms of our connectedness to nonhuman life. For centuries the poets have said, “that mourning dove is singing a song as sad as I am sad” or “that cloud looks as happy the way I am happy as it skitters across the sky.” Now we need to reconsider both the tenor and the vehicle of such anthropomorphic metaphors. The vehicle is the subject—humans—from which the characteristic (sadness or happiness) is taken. The tenor is the natural subject (bird or cloud) to which the human characteristic is given. Poets and other imaginative creators should now consider reversing this metaphoric order in the interest of ecocentrism. No longer should we just imagine ants as resembling humans. We now need to point out that humans often act like ants, or birds, or even clouds. A bird does not build a house the way I build a house, but I can roost just the way a bird roosts: ecomorphism.

This difference between anthropomorphism and ecomorphism is subtle but significant. Science has revealed to us that ant-colonies are like human communities, but equally important is the idea that human colonies are like ant colonies. Both are adaptive responses to specific social conditions. Likewise, butterflies do not use mimicry and thereby make themselves disguised the way humans use disguises. Humans use forms mimicry, derived from mimicry in butterflies and other “lower” creatures, to accomplish similar goals. Humans gather and store food the way squirrels do, not vice versa. Humans seek mates like the rest of sexually-selecting nature does. We are more like them than they are like us.

If it ever made sense to describe the nonhuman world as human, it no longer makes sense to talk about the “melancholy mourning dove” or the “anxious anteater”. It now makes much more practical and poetic sense to describe ourselves in relation to the rest of nature than it does to humanize the nonhuman. If we want to keep thinking of ourselves as special—as superior to ants, and wasps, and birds—that is fine, but we should also recognize that we derive directly from, and are thus always linked to, the rest of wild nature. They came first. We arose out of them in the first place. We were not self-generated. Our humanity is deeply intertwined with and invested in all of the creatures that predate us on the evolutionary scale. Our own special status—when it exists—derives directly from our self-interest, nothing more, nothing less, but so does a chimpanzee’s special status.

Ecomorphism sees human activity as dependent upon—and interdependent with—all ecological interactions on earth. At the same time, human activity plays an increasingly important role in all ecological systems. Human fires pump countless tons of airborne waste products into an ecosystem that has always produced its own “destructive” elements: volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. Now, however, the three-pound blob of our human brain is always the self-conscious definer of the problem. Destruction only makes sense from a human point of view. No dinosaur worried about rapid climate change on the planet. No trilobite was troubled by alterations in ocean temperature. Even from our human perspective, the flood that brings death and destruction to the Nile or the Mississippi deltas also brings moisture, and nutrients, and life.

Our brain not only creates the sense of what we have to fear; it also reconnects us to the wider world around us. Ecomorphism emphasizes this need to see ourselves as determined by—while existing within—a world that lies beyond the illusory border of our bodies. The complex fact of consciousness is the condition that allows us to appreciate this central truth about our surroundings. We are a part of every environment we inhabit. There is no absolute separation between a world outside (nature) and a world inside (the mind). Our own self-consciousness—as writers from Shelley and Keats to Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry have reminded us—can give way to forms of unselfconsciousness that allow for fleeting unification between individuals and the wider world. Mystics from every cultural tradition have also known this truth. Such unselfconsciousness may best be described as environmental ambience. Ambience describes the unification of every element in a set of natural circumstances with the conscious mind that perceives those surroundings. In an ambient unity of self and surroundings lies one hope for an ecocentric ecology. As Tim Morton—one of the architects of ecoambience—puts the problem, “Ecology may [now] be without nature. But it is not without us” (205).

In recent years, ecocritics have described the progression from several millennia of Judeo-Christian thinking about the dominion of humans over animals, through Romantic empathy in the writings of authors like Blake, Shelley and Keats, toward our current willingness to emphasize our dependence on, not our dominion over, our natural surroundings. This development began in Genesis 1:28, when “God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Once God told us to subdue the earth, and offered us dominion over creation, humans had to decide how to use their new powers. They often misused them. The history of this misuse is recorded in centuries of environmental degradation, culminating in the ravages of twentieth-century industrialization, and in untold suffering of sentient beings, from captive creatures to more widespread animal cruelty.

Progress toward a new view began with an emphasis on pristine nature and natural law during the Enlightenment and the centuries since. This new view can be seen in gendered terms. Monotheistic and patriarchal dominion gave way, by the late eighteenth century, to mostly masculine articulations of Romantic empathy toward animals. Locke and Rousseau, among others, described a pristine natural state out of which we had all emerged. Keats and Shelley praised the birds and the beasts. In the twentieth-century, Romantic empathy merges with environmentalism, from Rachel Carson’s silent spring to Al Gore’s inconvenient truth. This modern ecoempathy has also evolved into what Carol Gilligan calls an “ethic of care.” But an ethic of caring also needs an ethic of sharing. We need to share both the world we did not create—which we call “nature”—and the world we have created—which we call “culture.” The two worlds are really one. From men with dominion, we have become humans who need to recognize our interdependence. From the illusion of arbitrary control we have moved toward an emphasis on symbiosis. In the process, we have reached our current desire to see the biosphere as a continuum of all life and all living process. From Jaweh’s monotheological rod of control, we have made our way through Keats’s anthropomorphic nightingale toward modern versions of ecocentrism and ecofeminism. The romanticist Nandita Batra has described this history as a long—often painful—progression from dominion to empathy to symbiosis (ISLE 3:2 Fall 1996). We might now want to call this sequence progress.

Blake’s point-of-view in his lyric “The Fly,” to choose just one example of ecoromanticism, puts us into an ecomorphic mindset by forcing us to ask, to what—or to whom—might I appear to be a fly?

Little Fly
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me? (ll. 1-8)

Such a dream of contact across the species line is not only the basis of all anthropomorphic thinking but also of all ecomorphism. A fly might be like you or me and, if he is, what might that say about us? Species boundary-crossing is not simply a metaphor; it is a scientific reality in the modern world. All species are connected. They can be metaphorically linked or literally linked. We have hinted at these metaphoric links since Aesop said that the ant was industrious, the fox was sly, and the tortoise patient. Now we know that there are literal links. We share genetic material with chimpanzee and crustaceans. We can transplant animal organs into humans. We can insert human genes into other species. We derive from and depend upon other species in countless ways. Ecoromanticism reminds of us these links from Blake's fly and Burns's mouse to Shelley's skylark and Mary Shelley's monster.

--Ashton Nichols

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1 Comment

For a discussion of “The Fly”

For a discussion of “The Fly” as ecological poem see chapter 3 of my Ecology without Nature.

What of the Cartesian undercurrent (“If thought is life and strength and breath, / And the want of thought is death”)?

My fly-ness would then appear to be predicated on the dreaded Cartesian dualism (cue spooky organ music).