Virgin’s Tears

David Craig

  • Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times by Peter Coates
    Polity, 246 pp, £45.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 7456 1655 0

What exactly is ‘nature’, this book makes us ask. When are we really in touch with it? How much of it is left for us to be in touch with? I felt in touch with it myself one afternoon, three miles from my home, when I started to climb a scaur of limestone that formed the jamb of a narrow cave. At my feet I noticed a kestrel, a young one, crouching motionless on the grass with wisps of down still clinging to its head. I looked for its parents and saw them perched on two outcrops eighty yards away, as still as their fledgling, pointing at me as intently as compass needles. True, the turf which I shared with the young bird had been bitten close by sheep. But the rock and the hawks were nature untransformed by humanity. So were the two wild billy-goats that I saw one morning on Jura in the Inner Hebrides. On a beach of shingle ramped up by the Atlantic they charged each other, clashed foreheads with a bony thump, backed off and charged again, while the nanny waited nearby, a seemingly dispassionate spectator.

Peter Coates’s study of the evolving meanings of ‘nature’, in Europe and North America, is preoccupied with the human tendency to invade nature, altering, exploiting and ‘reinventing’ it. He culls a telling image from the Guardian for 9 August 1996: ‘At Pebble Beach, California, a wind-contorted cypress clings to a rocky spit. This tree’s symbolic value is so great that a sign reads: “Lone Cypress is a trademark of quality and the corporate logo of the Pebble Beach Company. As such, the use of the tree’s image is regulated by law. It may not be photographed or reproduced for any commercial purpose.” ’ This dismaying parable epitomises Coates’s chief contention, that nature itself is something we rarely encounter now. What we pass through, and plough or chop down, and photograph or paint or write about, is almost nowhere the stuff that either issued from the hand of God or grew out of what Darwin called the ‘self-developing energies’ of the cosmos.

Many of his examples are valid. Most of the moors were not, before people arrived, tracts of bents and heather and bog-cotton: they were jungles of broad-leaved trees and conifers. Valley bottoms in the American sierras were not necessarily, before the whites arrived, a tangle of woods and undergrowth: they were a mixture of copse and meadow managed by the tribes who lived there. The point should not be overstated, however: reading Coates on Yosemite, for example, you would think that it was no longer wild at all but had been, as he puts it, ‘created by Euro-American incursion and reconceptualisation’. In fact, Yosemite, and the Tuolumne meadows to the east, are mainly wild to this day. The 3000-foot steel-white wall and brow of El Capitan; the great scooped cranium of Tissa’ack (Half Dome); the planetary granite scalps of the Tuolumne domes; the pulsing, shimmering cataracts of Bridal Veil and Virgin’s Tears; the monumental columns of the sequoias and redwoods: these have not been shaped, and barely even modified, by human hands.

If Peter Coates’s book had grown more out of fieldwork and less out of searching the Internet for books and articles accessed under ‘Nature’, it wouldn’t only be more refreshing to read, it would also be truer in its focus. His argument most often becomes threadbare when he has drawn only on ‘sources’ – not the wellsprings of rivers, but some book or other. In a chapter called ‘The World beyond Europe’ he puzzles over the lack of a sense in 19th-century Canada of wild nature as a national symbol, which it was in Fenimore Cooper’s America, and suggests that this was because the Canadians were ‘content to maintain cultural bonds ... keeping faith with British notions of nature’. His grounds? Three books from university presses (two American and one Canadian) in which literary critics speculate about ‘Canadianness’. From these and one novel Coates derives the view that nature is ‘indifferent and silent in Canadian literature’. When I was in Manitoba nine years ago, scholars in Winnipeg were arguing vigorously that the journals and other descriptive writings of explorers such as David Thompson, Simon Fraser and Alexander MacKenzie were the first contributions to Canadian literature, and these works teem with a sense of the forests and prairies, lakes and rivers as the inexhaustible new land in which settlers had to strive to make themselves at home.

All this is not to say that Coates never refers back from ‘Nature’ to nature. His strength lies in his method of weighing up someone’s case or view – often a Green one or, in earlier parlance, a Pastoral, primitivist or Romantic one – by testing it against what was happening on the ground. If we are possessed by an inspiring vision of Britain and America as one green weave of virgin forest until the arrival of the Normans here and the white colonists across the water, Coates brings us rigorously back to reality by citing evidence to show that half of England was no longer wildwood at the start of the Iron Age. By 7500 BC, Mesolithic hunters were burning forest to allow meadows to flourish in which their quarry could herd and browse. By 3500 BC, Neolithic people were clearing large areas to make room for their sacred stone circles – and the estimated numbers of their settlements, fields and tracks are constantly being raised. Coates faults the doyen of landscape historians, W.G. Hoskins, for writing in 1955 that ‘vast areas’ of England survived ‘in their natural state, awaiting the sound of a human voice’.

Coates goes too far in the opposite direction. A little later in the passage he quotes, Hoskins says that ‘especially in the far west and north, there still remained millions of acres of stony moorland ... where the eagle and the raven circled undisturbed.’ Part of his evidence is place names that include the component earn, arn or yarn, meaning ‘eagle’. Golden eagles had nested for uncounted generations near Honiton in Devon, for example, and in Littondale north of Skipton, although these birds now embody for us a wilderness remote from towns, such as the Cairngorms or Rhum in the Hebrides. Hoskins never argues that Britain before the Normans was virgin land. One of his examples is the eastern marshes of Essex, where he freely allows that there was settlement by the Anglo-Saxons as early as the fifth century – which didn’t preclude there being wide tracts of moorland in the area eight hundred years later.

If Coates had adopted a more descriptive, first-hand approach, rather than a source-bound and analytical one, he might have seen that it is possible for a country to be well-settled in a scattered way while still being remarkably green and natural in comparison with the heavily worked, tarred and concreted land surface we occupy today. In African Laughter Doris Lessing presents a poignant picture of the Southern Rhodesian bush as it was in the Twenties and Thirties compared with the Zimbabwe countryside today. The population has shot up, a far greater acreage is farmed. The wild animals have gone:

The bush was nearly silent. Once, the dawn chorus hurt our ears. Lying in our blankets under the trees on the sandveld of the Marandellas, or in the house on the farm in Banket, the shrilling, clamouring, exulting of the birds as the sun appeared was so loud the ears seemed to curl up and complain ... But by the Eighties the dawn chorus had become a feeble thing. Once, everywhere, moving through the bush, you saw duiker, bush buck, wild pig, wild cats, porcupines, anteaters; koodoo stood on the antheaps turning their proud horns to examine you before bounding off; eland went about in groups, like cattle. Being in the bush was to be with animals, one of them.

Of course this terrain was sprinkled with native villages and colonial farms – not unlike England in Roman times – but it retained sufficient features of nature for people to feel refreshed by immersion in the non-human world.

Coates cuts down to size the vision, entertained by many, of America before the whites as virgin land ranged over by small bands of noble savages. He shows that it has been easy to ‘canonise’ the Native Americans as all-wise and ‘natural’ in their use of the grasslands, the forests and the rivers and their population of bison, caribou and salmon. He points out that Aztec cultivation had so exhausted the soil that their culture may have been near collapse before the Conquistadors arrived. In what are now Alberta and Nebraska the method of driving buffalo over cliffs was a hideous squandering of wildlife, not a respectful management of it: little more than I per cent of the kill was used. It even turns out that the Biblical authority accorded to Chief Seattle’s speech of 1854, with its motto ‘the earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth,’ is dubious because these words actually came from a white interpreter of ‘considerable literary skill’ called Henry Smith.

Coates has not proved that the famous words were not at least the gist of the speech in question, however; nor has he proved that America before the white invasion was totally unable to offer incomers the look and feel and smell of the unspoiled wild. The supreme imaging of this experience occurs towards the close of The Great Gatsby: ‘Gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for the Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world ... for a transitory, enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent.’ I knew that this had still been possible long after the landfall mentioned by Fitzgerald when a priest on Cape Breton Island told me about the arrival of his great-great-grandfather Beaton and his family early in the 19th century. They had rowed in a dory from Prince Edward Island with all their belongings:

And they slept under the boat, turned the dory over and slept under it. And when they woke in the morning, there was a little rivulet on the beach, and they started a fire, just underneath the high tall trees, so she looked up at them and she said: ‘Finlay, we’re free. This is our country.’ Went to the river and somehow or other – it was teeming with fish – caught some fish. They had fried fish for breakfast and whatever else they had in the boat. They were free.

Again it is a question of detail and emphasis. Of course Cape Breton was already being lived in and made use of by French farmers, the Meegumaage Indians and so on, of course the place was not untouched nature. But the small populations before the Industrial Revolution used far less of the Earth and its resources, left more of the pines and redwoods unfelled, more of the salmon in the rivers and the whales and king-crabs in the seas. People could still entertain a vision of nature as a glorious green possibility because to so much of it there had been little or no change.

In spite of his bracing scepticism, Coates concludes: ‘We need a god and nature is a good god, perhaps the only good god.’ The view that the non-human world is inherently fine, positive, a good thing, grew up with the waning of the medieval view of it as a place of terrors and ravenous forces. Human nature, according to a mindset prevalent in the Green movement of the last three decades, is fraught with killing tendencies – destructiveness, aggression, greed – whereas nature is a horn of plenty pouring out its flood of healthful species onto our Earth. This sunny and simplistic vision has taken some of its severest knocks from those who have looked most deeply into the stuff of life.

‘When two races of men meet,’ Darwin wrote in his notebook in 1838, ‘they act precisely like two species of animals – they fight, eat each other, bring diseases to each other &c’; and in his journal for 1839: ‘It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war of organic beings going on in the peaceful woods & smiling fields.’ Richard Dawkins wrote in River out of Eden that ‘the total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites.’ It is indeed hard to be level here, and it is true that nature is full of panic, pain and failure, and that there is no paradise where the lion lies down with the lamb or where viruses do not thrive at our expense. On the other hand, a great number of Thomson’s gazelles browse contentedly on the Serengeti after the rains have refreshed the grassland, for all those who are struck down by cheetahs. Thousands of swifts arrive wheeling and shrilling above our settlements each year, for all those who die in the duststorms of the Sahel. Millions of babies grow up well-loved and decently nourished, for all those who are stillborn. We should neither demonise nature nor worship it; we should come as close to it as possible when we describe it and think about it, since we are inseparably part of it and because now at last we know its history and its in most structures.