Women, nature and history: combining my interests

When I came across a description of Sylvia Bowerbanks’ Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England, as a book combining women’s and ecological history, I had to lay hands on it. Which isn’t to say I didn’t have my doubts: would this be one of those books that seeks to imprint, wholly inappropriately, modern thoughts and approaches into history? But I needn’t have worried, for this is an impeccable well though-out, academic book, that examines its characters in the terms of their own time, while applying understanding and research of the following centuries.

Bowerbanks begins by explaining that she wants to go back into history to seek the origins of the apparent modern links between women and nature. If, as Ynestra King claimed in “The Eco-Feminist Imperative”, women are “the repository of a sensibility” that can save the planet, where does this begin, what does it go back to?

Of course in early modern times the talk was not of “environment”, but “nature”.

“In theory, woman remained the subordinate mediatrix between man and nature and yet, even this degraded placement afforded her compensatory powers. Insofar as woman was ‘man’ on the one hand, she could potentially lay claim to agency in the modern project to civilise nature. Insofar as she was ‘nature’, she could lay claim to a special capacity to speak for nature – especially as men began to pride themselves on their increasing detachment from nature. Furthermore, insofar as woman was both ‘nature’ and ‘man’, she could critique the modern project of mastery, even as she reached towards a distinctive knowledge of nature, based on the radicalized concept of compassion that might be termed the beginning of an ecological sensibility.” (p4-5)

Bowerbanks begins with Mary Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomeries Urania (1621), walking to the famed Penshurst (immortalised by Ben Jonson’s economium, which has the estate as a haven of balance of the human and natural orders. Yet, she explains, this was no such haven for the young Mary, who as a girl was whipped around England and the Continent, which marks Wroth’s work, which has “an extistential homelessness, together with a longing for a lost past”. (P.30) This nostalgia, Bowerbanks suggests, develops as a tool for early capitalism/consumer culture – the grieving for a lost green world can encourage the purchase of attempts to recover it.

And for Wroth, nature herself participates in this grieving, a labour mostly performed for Wroth by women, becomes at one with it. e.g. Liana lies “her head on the roote of a weeping willow, which dropped downe her teares into the Christalline streames…Shee lay betweene the body of that sad tree, and the river which passed close by it, running as if in haste to carry their sorroes from them” (p.34)

This was published in the same year as Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, but Urania is profoundly modern – a symptom of malaise and scepticism, whereas for Burton it was medieval, rooted in sin.

For while Wroth often seems to wallow in the disappearing pleasures of the aristocratic hunt, the absolute powers granted to her class by the forest laws, which were gradually being eroded, she’s also, Bowerbanks finds, questioning, critical: “evokes an environment — so abundant, so various, so yielding and so flattering to a noble woman’s charms — she does so to expose the grim realities of rape, abuse, violence and alienation that, in every grove, threaten woman’s safety and well-being.”(p. 50)

For Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, recently recovered as a serious, original 17th-century thinker from the ridicule of centuries, there’s also this sense of loss, but also a clear desire to modernise, to reinvent, in line with the “male science” of the time from which she was firmly rebuffed. One of her interests was Sherwood Forest, which together with similar stretches of previous royal land by the Civil War was being steadily and indiscriminately used up. The great oaks of Welbeck Park were the particular focus.

Yet she was no nostalgist. In one poem in Poems and Fancies (1653), “A Dialogue between an Oake, and a Man cutting him downe”, the 100-year-old tree seeks to extend its span to its natural length by pointing out all of the benefits it can bring: shade, a sleeping place, swishing leaves, boughs for singing birds and shelter from rain and storms. The man responds that it could become part of a great ship, travelling the world, or of a stately house, to be enlightened by music, plays and culture. The oak is allowed to stand, but the man has the last words, saying that human ciriosity and progress are the highest form of nature. Overall, although she sometimes allows nature – in say the form of a hunted hare or hunted stag, to speak for itself, from the persepective of the victims, but overall, Bowerbanks says, she isn’t sentimental “they develop a politics of nature, calculated to reinvent Great Nature as a volatile force, while conserving certain beneficial past features for future generations.” (p.62)
She could be a very fine observer in the tradition of natural philosophy of her time, careful not to go beyond what the evidence would support, as when in Antwerp she found a cocoon and placed it on a windowsill:

One morning I spi’d two Butter-flies playing about it… finding the Insect all empty, and only like a bare shell or skin, I supposed had been bred out of it; for the shell was not only hollow and thin, but so brittle as it straight fell to pieces, and did somewhat resemble the skin of a Snake when it is cast; 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 some Microscope, but a thousand to one I might have been deceived by it; and had I opened thius Insect, or shell, at first; it might perhaps have given those Butterflies an untimely death, or rather hinder’d their production.” (p.71)

But as the end of that quote suggests, she was sceptical of the male scientists of the time, and their conclusions, suspecting that Nature had far greater powers and complexities than they had been able to discern. “as houds springs out upon a following sent, and with open mouth makes a loud cry; so men when they make any new discoverys, divulges it with their voyces or noyses of the tongue and pen”. Her Nature is a trickster, playful and laughing at the pomposity and hopes of men.

This conflict between “female” compassion and male “hard” science, would continue in the following centuries. For Joseph Priestley, who discovered what would come to be called oxygen, the death of a mouse, indeed many thousands of mice, in his experiments, was not worthy of emotion or even special note. But he was chastised by Anna Laetitia Barbauld in “The Mouse’s Petition” (1773), who allows his subject to speak for itself, begging that the experimenter’s liberal principles be extended to it:

“If e’er thy breast with freedom glow’d,
And spurn’d a tyrant’s claim,
Lest not thy strong force
A free-born mouse retain…
The well taught philosophic mind
To all compassion gives:
Casts round the world an equal eye,
And feels for all that lives.”

(p. 136-7)

For those women less wealthy and careless of convention, Bowerbanks frames the late 17th and early 18th century as a time when when seek to craft their own natures, and the environment about them – a perfect household and community being, for the local chateliene, evidence of the perfect soul. So Frances Seymour, Sountess of Hertford and later Countess of Somerset, wrote to her friend the Countess of Pomfret, “parodying but nonetheless adhering to” the model of the wife:

Sometimes, beside the crystal stream,
We meditate some serious theme
With Clark, God’s attributes we explore;
And, taught by him, admire them more…
Often, from thoughts sublime as these
I sink at once – and make a cheese;
Or see my various poultry fed,
And treat my swans with scraps of bread.” (p.88)

Yet of course women frequently had little control over their environments. In her Occasional Meditations, Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick, records in “Upon the Cutting Down of Wilderness”, how she tried to preserve an area left to grow wild for 20 years, in which she had “almost daily taken delight in”, yet her husband ordered it chopped down. The pain has deeper roots, recalling another loss, “the Death of my onely Son whom I had also seen the first growth of his childhood, and the flourishing of to my speakable satisfaction for almost 21 years”. (p. 95)

Elizabeth Talbot, friend of Elizabeth Carter and author of the immensely successful Reflections on the Seven Days of the Week (1770), was, Bowerbank suggests, the “first Superwoman”, struggling to fit a busy life into the time available while keeping her grace and temper at all times, in the difficult position of being an ancilliary to a great man, Edward Secker, eventually Archbishop of Canterbury, to whom she was an unofficial person secretary. But she’s concerned with more than the household: “It seems to me, as if to contribute, each in our inferior Way, to the Order and Beauty of the Universe, was at once the noblest, and justest Motive, and highest Reward of Goodness.”

Bowerbanks finds in the Philadelphian Jane Lead a precursor of Rudolf Bahro, who argued that to fight the capitalist model it was necessary to build model communities based on the Benedictine model of the commune. They operated on a strict code of voluntary simolicity, repudiating wealth, limiting consumption and repressing sensuality. Theis was not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the whole of creation.

As science increasingly professionalised in the 18th-century, there was one place left in it for women – that of early education in nature, which was supposed to refine the human nature of their charges, instilling compassion and pastoral understanding (which later education would clearly, at least in cases of the boys, try to beat out of them, for the cut-throat world of early capitalism). In Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories, girls go out for a morning walk with their mother, and invariably find that bad boys are torturing animals. Typically, one morning a boy carries off a bird’s nest with chicks, ignoring the anguished cries of the mother bird. Money, however, solves the problem, and one of the girls buys it off him, restoring it to its proper place. Mrs Mason says that although animals are called dumb, they can speak of their feelings by looks and gestures.” (p. 148)

Following Margaret Cavendish’s attachment to place, the poet Anna Seward was focused on local environments and their improvement. In her biography of Erasmus Darwin, she not only criticaly assessed his efforts, but set out her own philosophy. She praised his creation of a beautiful rus in urbe out of a stretch of briars and knot-grass, and laments that it was later destroyed by a new owner making a circular coach road.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, Bowerbanks finds in the radical Wollstonecraft a deep and savage desire to check the excesses of capitalism. This she finds in Wollstonecraft’s savage attack on the society of Christiana, the capital of Norway in A Short Residence. Even approaching the city she sees on formerly beautiful mountain destroyed by the waste from alum exraction, leaving it red and strewn with rubbish. Yet she also rejects the nostalgic worship of wild forests of her time, seeing them merely the privileged domain of the aristocracy: “Why are the huge forests still allowed to stretch out with idle pomp and all the indolence of Eastern grandeur? … Why might not the industrious peasant be allowed to steal a farm from the heath?” But the impact must be, to her mind, harmonious, wise husbandry. Burning off roots and weeds sometimes results in the destruction of good land: “The country despoiled of beauty and riches, and left to mourn for the ages.” (pp. 211-2)

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