- Chaos and Cosmos: Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Centuryby Heidi C. M. Scott
In Chaos and Cosmos: Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Century, Heidi C. M. Scott attempts a great deal. In a style that is often a pleasure to read, especially when she discusses the literary texts, the author discusses how nineteenth-century literary narratives anticipate the postmodern view of chaotic nature that emerges in ecological science of the late twentieth century. Scott proposes that nineteenth-century literature and its readings or representations of physical nature often predate current scientific environmental studies concerning such urgent issues as global warming. Scott is intent on demonstrating how literary ecocritics should be interested in claiming "realist nature" as an object of investigation (7).
In Part 1, starting with the premise that the British nineteenth century provides a unique nexus of cultural, historical, and disciplinary crossings, Scott considers Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne(1789), Mary Shelley's The Last Man(1826), Richard Jeffries's After London(1885), and H. G. Wells's The Time Machine(1895) in the context of natural history disasters, scientific developments, industrial growth and pollution, climate change, and various other environmental stresses, such as the eruption of Mount Tamora or the food shortages caused by the volcanic action of Krakatoa, the growth of industry, and the spread of diseases such as cholera. Throughout she suggests that these texts anticipate the concerns of contemporary environmental science.
In Part 2, she attempts to demonstrate that poets, such as John Keats, conceived of the idea of the microcosm as an orientation point between the writer and the natural world before scientists adopted the microcosmic sphere as an experimental and cognitive strategy for understanding the natural world. In this argument, Keats's lyrics are microcosmic models that will be eventually taken up (not, of course, literally) by those studying the environment in the twentieth century.
In the first part of this study, Scott concentrates upon the idea of chaos or disturbance (I often found myself wishing she did not interchange or couple the two words, for "disturbance," at least in my mind, is not as dire as the idea of chaos) and how White, Shelley, Jefferies, and Wells recognize and record the chaotic dynamic of nature in their texts. Her reading of White is particularly engaging. She believes that these "chaotic narratives" are part of the literary imaginary that predates later ecological theories, including population ecology, succession dynamics, disturbance mosaics, and climate change (4). Scott argues that although eighteenth- and nineteenth-century geologists had discovered cataclysmic patterns, their discoveries were slow to be adopted into theories of the [End Page 337]ongoing state of nature. She writes: "From an ecological standpoint, these literary texts written by White, Shelley, Jefferies, and Wells are precocious because they appraise catastrophic events in natural history and weave them into the fabric of futurity" (23). She discusses how White's speculation on the down-stream effects of aberrant weather and volcanic eruptions looks ahead to the ways in which climate scientists now use data from eruptions to predict climate anomalies, how Shelley's awareness of colonial epidemiology and global warming foreshadows the ways in which the United States' Center for Disease Control monitors patterns of disease, and how Jefferies's awareness of the toxic legacy of industrial London predates contemporary environmental agencies' practice of calculating the pervasiveness and persistence of industrial and agricultural chemicals. And she explores the ways in which Wells's sense of industrial agriculture anticipates scientific theories of the modern industrial state of nature.
In the second half of the book, Scott demonstrates how Romantic literature imagined the ecological microcosm before science adopted the microcosmic sphere as an experimental strategy. She argues that one needs the play of free imagination before a formal effective scientific model comes into being. These literary texts offer early examples for generating scientific data. Scott suggests that Romantic...