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Ecology Without Nature, Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics

August 20, 2008

By McIntosh, Robert P

Ecology Without Nature, Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Morton, Timothy. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007. An alternative title for this volume could be “Ecology Without Ecology?” and the author asserts that “nature will have to wither away in an ecological state of human society.” Morton describes his book as “considering art above all else,” but that it is about “an ecology to come.” He provides a collection of terms with the Eco prefix: Ecocriticism, Ecocritique, Ecodidactism, Ecofeminism, Ecologocentrism, Ecomimesis, Eco-phenomenology, Ecopsychology, Ecorhapsodic and Ecosophy, none familiar in the ecological literature. Definition of each of these is beyond the scope of this review and, perhaps, the comprehension of its readers. Ecocriticism, which is cited more often than any of the other Eco terms, is described as too enmeshed in the ideology that churns out stereotypical ideas of nature to be of any use. Morton prefers Ecocritique which does not think that it is paradoxical to say, in the name of ecology itself: Down with nature!

Ecomimesis turns out to be nature writing and for clarification is described as a mixture of excursus and exemplum. Fortunately, Morton teaches a class in ecological language as he introduces other terms, for example ambience, defined as “to make strange the idea of environment,” and not cited in the index.

Since Morton’s book, he says, is about art above all else it would be effrontery for a retired ecologist to review it in its entirety. However, given its title and limited references to recognizable ecologists and ecology, in a professional sense, I proffer a review of its comments on recognizable ecologists or their work. Morton writes, We should all be reading Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari instead of Aldo Leopold. He compares the kitsch of an Aldo Leopold’s writing ajournai (an almanac) to convey nature in a suitable (non)aesthetic form, to “a minimalist painter who puts an empty frame in an art gallery.” Leopold’s famous “A Sand County Almanac”, he writes “tries to escape the pull of the literary in much the same way as avant guard art tries to escape the conventional aesthetic”. In contrast, Morton provides memorable sentences in locating “nature as sandwiched between terms such as God and Nature?”, adding “Nature appears to be both lettuce and mayonnaise”.

Morton distinguishes ‘ecocritics’ from ‘post-structuralists’ because, he writes, “If ecocritics prefer Aldo Leopold’s almanac style, complete with cute illustrations, post-structuralists tend to go for the latest compilation album by an ambient techno DJ”.

Ecocritique also asserts that “Leopold and The Orb are really two sides of the same coin”. (The Orb is an unidentified music group).

A second ecologist, briefly mentioned by Morton, is Arthur Tansley who, along with Roy Clapham, is credited with coining the word “ecosystem.” Clapham and his use of ecosystem are not identified and my own ecological sources do not offer any reference to him. However, the one sentence reference to Tansley gives very short shrift to one of the major founders of British ecology. Morton similarly dismisses E.O. Wilson who, apart from extended contributions to insect ecology, wrote several major books about philosophy of biology. Morton succinctly analyzes Wilson’s contribution, ‘For E.O. Wilson the humanities and social sciences stack neatly on top of biology, chemistry and physics’. This uncommunicative description bears the citation to Wilson’s most encompassing book “Consilience: The Unity of Language” which rates no comment by this teacher of classes in ecological language.

Morton goes beyond one sentence to five sentences of equivocal comment about ecologist Gary Polis’ idea of mesocosm which he allows may be a beneficial scientific concept. However, he ends equivocally, “The mesocosm swallows everything. Phenomena become equally meaningful, and thus meaningless, like a 1:1 map of reality.” (Ernst Haeckel is given credit in parentheses for coining the work ecology.)

Morton’s book is an extended consideration of literary references to environment that are often interesting and perceptive. It is hard to go wrong with Wordsworth, Keats, Thoreau, Austen among numerous other writers who make salient comments about aspects of environment. In the context of his extended discussion of the literary Morton makes frequent use of the word ecology, which does not appear in his index, and adds new terms such as ecotopia (to be able to see the future), which is not cited in his index or in either of my dictionaries.

Although Morton uses Ecology in the title of his book and frequently in the text he comments on ecological science only once. “Ecological science…has transformed the environment into a gigantic library, a palimpsest of texts waiting to be read. The old metaphor of the book of nature has returned, without an index”. And certainly is unread by Timothy Morton.

ROBERT P. McINTOSH, Ecologist, Emeritus Professor of Biology, University of Notre Dame

Copyright American Midland Naturalist Jul 2008

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