Written by Sydney Stewart
One glance at any reputable news source, and the grim reality of climate change and environmental destruction is clear: the earth changes day after day largely as a result of human actions, and soon the environment won’t be hospitable, or even recognizable.
Obviously, this is a problem.
Massive amounts of literature acknowledges the beauty of the natural world, with poets and authors from the Romantic era to modern times utilizing nature as a mirror with which to view themselves and the world around them. The environment becomes the physical reference point from which authors can delve into introspection or connect to memories. Yet, only using nature as a mirror or point of introspection ignores the worth of the environment in favor of applying human value to nature.
One of the most recognizable periods of environmental appreciation comes from the Romantic era, making it a strong starting point with which to view works that interact with the environment. Most poetry of this time period exalts the environment because it produces an introspective effect within the writers.
One poem in particular that exemplifies this concept is “Tintern Abbey,” composed by William Wordsworth and published in 1798. Wordsworth is fixated with the natural beauty of the Wye river and Tintern Abbey, using the physical world around him as a means to reflect on how he has changed since his last visit five years ago. Though the landscape has remained the same, Wordsworth himself has changed.
Wordsworth’s idea of nature is one of simplicity and beauty. As this is one of Wordsworth’s earlier pieces, he isn’t yet responding to the environmental decline brought about by the industrial revolution, so his interaction with the environment must be contextualized outside of this future destruction. Wordsworth acknowledges the beauty around him, but, more importantly, he laments how he has changed and how his memories of this land affect him. The depiction of nature begins to reflect the mood of Wordsworth’s introspection, as he sits beneath a “dark sycamore” with “thoughts of deep seclusion.” Nature, specifically the Wye and Tintern Abbey, acts as a jumping point from which Wordsworth can grow the seedlings of his internal thoughts.
Though Wordsworth considers himself “a lover of the meadows and the woods,” it is because he uses nature as a mirror through which he can view himself, as well as hear “the still, sad music of humanity.” Thus, Wordsworth’s humanity interjects itself into the inherent value of the natural world, warping its worth with that of human value. While Wordsworth’s piece offers a particularly salient example, this phenomenon can be seen in numerous other writers of the Romantic era, such as Blake and Keates.
Past the Romantics, nature continues to act as a mirror through which a writer can view themselves, though this reflection is often in response to potential environmental destruction. In Goodbye to a River, the narrator and author, John Graves, revisits the Brazos river in 1957 upon hearing of plans for a series of dams to be built that would potentially alter the path of the Brazos and the landscape surrounding it. While Wordsworth wistfully observes nature and reminisces about his own previous trips without threat of the site disappearing, Graves faces the very real loss of the setting of his childhood memories in the destruction of the Brazos. In this piece, Graves’ concern extends past the loss of the physical setting of his childhood memories to the lifestyle change for all who live on the Brazos.
Graves fills Goodbye to a River with his own memories, the history of the Brazos, and with stories of the people he meets there. Graves isn’t only looking at the Brazos as a means through which he can reflect on himself, as he also records the memories of others who have lived on the river. He recalls stories of the Native American tribes that lived in the area and the cabins that once housed people dependent on the Brazos, and speaks with other countrymen and women who live by the river and hears their stories. While both Wordsworth and Graves reminisce about their respective rivers, Graves is motivated to write Goodbye to a River and journey down the Brazos because there is a real threat of loss of the environment, as well as those who depend on it.
Though Graves does use the environment as a tangible bridge with which to connect to the intangible realm of memories, he also writes about this in order to save it, and those who depend on it. In fact, Graves was so successful in detailing the beauty and importance of the Brazos, that Goodbye to a River was actually believed to have been integral in preventing the construction of many of the proposed dams¹. In this case, using nature as a tool to reflect oneself actually had a tangible, positive result on the environment, though strictly for its nostalgic worth to the author.
The audience can recognize the potential for change and can act, rather than grimly accepting the fate of the planet.
Now, when we look to the modern perspective, the environment isn’t so much used as a mirror for self-reflection, but rather as a dire warning of impending climate change. Authors are no longer reliving memories or saying a fond farewell, but anticipating the very worst of outcomes. There is a recent trend of modern authors opting for “cli-fi” – fiction that details severe environmental consequences – in attempts to demonstrate that we could see these destitute environments in the not-so-distant future. Often, this genre concerns itself with the harrowing results of climate change, which provides either a bleak backdrop for the story or a challenge for a character to overcome (think of the inhospitable and seemingly endless winters of A Song of Ice and Fire, or the dying Earth in Interstellar). As the audience, we see these worst-case scenarios placed in a far-away and imaginary land or at some point in the distant future, instead of the reality of climate change right at our doorstep.
By placing these environmental disasters in these remote locations, authors are better able to inspire hope in the audience for the issue at hand – the environmental tragedy within the screen or pages of a book hasn’t occurred quite yet, so there’s still time to prevent it. The audience can recognize the potential for change and can act, rather than grimly accepting the fate of the planet. Since the environment is steadily declining to the point of being almost inhospitable, authors invert the self-reflective nature of the environment developed by writers in the Romantic era and beyond to a warning directed at the audience that climate change is steadily approaching, and that something must be done.
When authors use the environment as a method of self-reflection, or as a mirror to reflect upon themselves, they ignore the environment itself. While Wordsworth is a “lover of the meadows and the woods,” his love for the environment stems from the internal knowledge he gains upon viewing it. Though Graves writes to (ultimately) save the Brazos, he does so because the environment is an anchor for his childhood memories, meaning that the worth of the Brazos isn’t in the environmental value of the area, but in its contributions to the lives of humans. In other words, nature becomes worth saving because humans use it as an opportunity to self-reflect or gain wisdom or grow their knowledge. Humanity appreciates nature for what its purpose seems to be – a mirror through which we can view ourselves – which is an ultimately selfish perspective towards the environment. While people may then be motivated to save the planet, the motivation for doing so isn’t based on the innate value of nature, but because of what humanity gains from it.
This selfish act ultimately produces a problematic perspective on nature: nature is only worth saving because it is useful to humanity, not because it has its own inherent worth. In modern times, this perspective raises the question of why we’re even fighting for the planet that we’re killing. Is the planet only worth saving because it has a physical and introspective use for us, or because it has value entirely on its own?
“Texas Classic: John Graves Says ‘Goodbye to a River’.” Dallas News. September 20, 2014.