Being Human Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism

Green Letters

‘Being Human’ – the name borrowed from a BBC supernatural comedy-drama series – is the title of this virtual issue of Green Letters. Looking through past issues of the journal, a number of themes suggested themselves. Some inevitably reflect the beginnings of ecological literary criticism in deep ecology and the nature writing tradition: Romanticism; animals; landscape; gardens; or, possibly, a ‘green Shakespeare’. Others were quirkier themes that might have denoted the explosion of ecocriticism into all types of conceivable (and less conceivable) cultural, literary, or geographical areas. One could have grouped articles into categories such as ‘monsters’, ‘machines’, ‘Japan’, or ‘rock music’. This issue, however, has been designed to capture both those things: the enduring foundations of ecocriticism, and a sense of adventure and exploration.

The matter of ‘being human’ asks fundamental questions about human ecology – surely, now, the central concern of ecological cultural or literary studies? These include questions about the relation of humans to animals and landscapes, and to a Romantic tradition which arguably marked the beginning of a serious, sustained, ecologically-minded humanism. On the other hand, the theme allows ample opportunity to explore the vast number of new areas that social, humanist ecology can, and has, opened up. Hence, this virtual ‘issue’ has been designed to highlight both the long-term engagement that Green Letters has had with this theme, in its various guises – humanism, animism, posthumanism etc – and the broad-ranging, creative, provocative variety of the articles we have published. They also demonstrate the long-term engagement of the journal with literary criticism, political and historical analysis, and philosophy.

The two opening (contrasting) essays both come from issue two of the journal, published back in 2000, the year Green Letters was founded. Jo Rawlinson’s ‘A Question of Human Nature’ takes Jenni Diski’s novel Rainforest and studies the blurred boundaries between human and nonhuman nature in a narrative constructed around mental illness and a seemingly sentient rainforest. Martin Ryle’s short ‘think piece’ ‘Place, Time and Eco-Criticism’ considers the ways in which ‘human capacities and sensibilities’ have been transformed, like the land, by two centuries of material production, industry, and capitalism, a process we’d understand further, he argues, by re-reading the ‘classic texts’ of literary realism or naturalism. We then include two complementary pieces from a much later issue (number 13) on ‘Ecophenomenology and Practices of the Sacred’. Here, David Abram’s beautifully written ‘Becoming Animal’, which regrets but seeks to rectify the fact that ‘we hold ourselves apart from the world in order to subdue its wildness’, is counterposed with Sean Kane’s ‘Humanus’, a part defence of the best traditions of humanism which he sees as ‘open’ to nonhuman (and non-rationalist) voices: ‘When the animals start talking to us again, when we once again join our thinking to the personalities of wetlands, estuaries and oceans, we are going to need humanists aplenty’.

The remaining essays are a testimony to the long history and varied forms of discussion about humans, the nonhuman world and ecology in Green Letters. They cover palaeontology, religious devotion, biogenetics, and zombies! Amy Staniforth explores how East Africa, long mythologized as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’, has played a central role in inculcating western notions of evolution, human history, and humanity’s place within nature. Alexander Moss’ essay on the thirteenth-century devotional text Ancrene Wisse looks at how emerging practices around the cultivation of the self, and an emphasis on the rationality of the human soul, represented, in microcosm, the imminent ‘mastery’ of nature claimed by Christianity and Science alike. Taking all this to its logical (and ludicrous) conclusion, a piece by Helena Feder examines the questions that military and biogenetic technology pose –via a discussion of gardens, wilderness, and Shakespeare – in terms of categorising the human alongside the nonhuman. Lastly, we come a full postcolonial circle (another now prominent ecocritical theme) with Kerstin Oloff’s essay on ‘‘Greening’ the Zombie’. Offering some striking parallels with Staniforth’s study of the narratives built up around the 1959 recovery of the Zinjanthropus boisei skull, Oloff argues that while in Hollywood the figure of the zombie has been deracinated from its original (Haitian) context, and ‘emptied of its spiritual dimension’, in Caribbean literature it remains a powerful symbol of humans’ alienation from the environment.

Yet Oloff’s point that in an iconic film such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the zombies emerge from a ‘man-made ecological disaster’, reinforces the intention behind this virtual issue: which is to argue that we need to attend to all kinds of images of the human in order to seek to understand how we, as a species, construct our place in the world. In so doing, we also reshape that world itself, for better or for worse. 

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