I’ve noticed lately that people rely on the term “pastoral” more often than they used to when they talk about nature writing. The long pastoral tradition in European literature, for instance, is now commonly seen as a garden plot of writerly attentiveness to the natural world that burst into bloom with the rustic lyricism of John Clare and the meditative prose of Thoreau and Muir, Mary Austin and Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry and the rest. This is an attractive notion, and perhaps it’s true. But to me it looks like wishful thinking—a quixotic misreading of early poetry in the interests of conferring a pedigree on literary habits that never needed one in the first place.

In other words, we’ve always had nature writing, just as we’ve always had writing about love, or war, or death. Gorgeous passages in Homer’s Odyssey describe the Mediterranean Sea at dawn, and George Herbert’s poem “The Flower” offers a stunning evocation of the life-cycle of a common perennial, even though it’s primary purpose is to encourage Christian devotion. Nature writing is often accidental, secondary, a by-product of other more pressing concerns. Yet its no less valuable for that. And by the same token, considerations of the natural world embedded in pastoral are frequently stilted and conventional, displaying little in the way of authentic observation. Take the opening stanzas of Christopher Marlowe’s famous lyric, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a bird serenading a waterfall. And even if I had, I don’t suppose I would have been able to make out a melodic line. Marlowe’s poem is pastoral in the classic fashion—“pastor,” after all, means “shepherd” in Latin—but it doesn’t give us “nature writing” in any meaningful sense, and neither do hundreds of other pastoral works produced in early modern Europe.

Even Shakespeare, in As You Like It, offers precious little to work with in terms of convincing natural description. It’s true that the exiled Duke praises the Forest of Arden, but he does so in language that draws attention not to what the forest is, but to what it isn’t:

Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with the cold, I smile, and say
“This is no flattery. These are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.”

In short, this is a moralized forest, a setting where the Duke finds “tongues in trees” and “sermons in stones,” but it’s not a place he cherishes for its inherent beauty or for any sense of the de facto value of natural creation. Generally speaking, Shakespearean pastoral depicts the rural world as a refuge from ambition, decadence, duplicity, and greed. It’s still a fallen realm; it just hasn’t fallen as far as the city and the court. In effect, such pastoral involves social critique through negative implication.

Indeed, this is precisely how Renaissance literary theorists understood the genre. Sir Philip Sidney, for instance, wrote that through “tales of wolves and sheep” pastoral poetry could “show the misery of people under hard lords or ravening soldiers,” and George Puttenham added that the motivation for pastoral lay not in the exploration of rustic life “but under the veil of homely persons, to insinuate and glance at greater matters.” Both these writers, of course, lived in a world without newspapers, television, film, cell phones, iPods, or the Internet—a world where poetry did far more cultural work than it does today. It’s hardly surprising that they saw pastoral as a vehicle for social commentary. Even as late as the 1940s, Kenneth Burke could argue that literature was “equipment for living”: a fundamental tool-kit for analyzing political questions and contemplating human existence. But that understanding has largely vanished today. A magnificent pastoral elegy such as John Milton’s “Lycidas”—which uses the death of a young clergyman to launch an attack on the corruption of the English Church—is virtually incomprehensible to modern undergraduates until they’ve received a crash course in the social utility of literary forms.

So what would modern pastoral look like? I think we often see it in popular songwriting; country music is full of sentimental pastoral, and you can find traces as well in the lyrics of singers from Robert Johnson and Mose Allison to Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. Discovering that “they paved Paradise,” after all, isn’t so far removed from recalling the stark words of Death: “Et in Arcadia Ego” (I too dwell in Arcadia). There’s always a snake in the garden—except perhaps in John Denver—and the snake is often more interesting than the flowers.

Let’s suppose that a recently-divorced Wall Street banker abandons his seven-figure salary in Manhattan and moves to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, leasing fifty wooded acres and an old farmhouse with the idea of producing maple syrup. At first he’s intoxicated with his dream. He scorns the country-club mentality he formerly held, relishing a newfound recognition of the ultimate sterility of money, power, and influence. But after enduring a six-month New England winter and finding that long hours of manual labor can be mind-numbing as well as bone-crushing, he begins to revise his views. It dawns on him, moreover, that his social horizons have vastly contracted: The locals don’t golf or read The Sporting News, his landlord is verbally challenged, the farmer down the road seems furtively malevolent, and the nearest sushi bar is forty miles away. Going back to New York isn’t an option, at least not now. His teenage daughter has fallen out with her mother and decided to move in with dad until she finishes high school. And she’s bringing her horses—a pair of thoroughbred geldings currently boarded at a posh stable on Long Island. What to do?

Such a scenario might propel the early chapters of a modern pastoral novel, opening a range of social terrain for exploration and analysis. As with classical and Renaissance forebears, this fiction would be set in the country, and it would be narrated from a position of partial alienation: Its speaker would inhabit an ostensibly bucolic realm, but he would not be of that realm. And this, in turn, would give the author considerable traction in pursuing whatever lines of cultural investigation might seem appropriate. Perhaps there would be a bit of nature writing along the way. But it’s unlikely that the book would be primarily concerned with an accurate and sensitive account of the natural phenomena encountered by our erstwhile banker. Nor would we desire such a thing. Nature writing, like cod liver oil and comparative theology, is best administered in small doses.

Good writers have always known this. Because the spectrum of possible attitudes induced by serious nature writing is relatively narrow—and because reverence and awe can quickly degenerate into pseudo-spirituality and maudlin enthusiasm—writers like Shakespeare and Montaigne keep their passages of natural description within sharp limits, usually interlacing them with other thematic and narrative concerns. In “Venus and Adonis,” for instance, it’s only when Adonis’s stallion discovers a wild mare that Shakespeare turns to verbal portraiture. He ends up offering one of the more vivid depictions of any horse in English literature:

His ears up-pricked, his braided hanging mane
Upon his compassed crest now stands on end;
His nostrils drink the air, and forth again,
As from a furnace, vapors doth he send.
His eye, which scornfully glisters like fire,
Shows his hot courage and his high desire.

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs, and passing strong;
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide—
Look what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.

Sometime he scuds far off, and there he stares;
Anon he starts at stirring of a feather.
To bid the wind abase he now prepares,
And whe’er he run or fly they know not whether.
For through his mane and tail the high wind sings,
Fanning the hairs, who wave like feathered wings.

Not bad for a casual effort.

As for Montaigne, though he’s fascinated with the question of what constitutes “nature” and “natural” behavior, he seldom engages in extended description of the natural world. Probably his most interesting meditation occurs in the essay “Of Cruelty,” just after he tells us that, unlike most of his contemporaries, he doesn’t enjoy hunting. The custom of killing animals for pleasure, he says, leads him to doubt Biblical assertions of human dominion over the earth and all its life-forms:

I am led to abase our presumption and to lay aside that imaginary kingship over other creatures which is attributed to us. There is a kind of respect and duty in humanity that links us not merely with animals, but even with trees and plants; between them and us is a kind of intercourse and a degree of mutual obligation.

Written in France in the 1570s, these words articulate an outlook unheard of in its time—an astoundingly forward-looking perspective that conveys an eerie sense of prescience in light of today’s imperatives toward environmental responsibility. One might almost think of it as an early expression of ecological thought, a delineation of basic presuppositions undergirding modern views about sustainability and the need for humans to diminish their “global footprint.”

Montaigne lived in the French countryside, very much in an agrarian setting, and he would have understood the realities of rural life more thoroughly than most authors of his day. Perhaps this explains why he never participated in the literary tradition of pastoral: It must have seemed exceptionally artificial for a writer with his particular background and temperament. Nonetheless, he gave us one of the most remarkable early accounts of human interconnectedness with the natural world. And as a consequence we’re reminded that, despite the many versions and virtues of pastoral, nature writing must look elsewhere for its deepest, most nourishing roots.


Web exclusive

Gallery: Erratic Boulders – Boulders scattered around Waterville Plateau in north central Washington. (Photography by Zach Mazur ’06)

On the web

Nature Twice: A Poetry Exhibit in the Conner Museum of Natural History (Aug. 24, 2010, WSU News Service)

Will Hamlin teaches literature at WSU. He is currently writing a book titled Montaigne’s English Journey.