- Dickinson in the Anthropocene
To what extent can we read Emily Dickinson as a poet of the Anthropocene? Or to rephrase using the language of this special issue, is the Anthropocene—our contemporary geological era, marked by humanity's fateful emergence as a climatological force—among Dickinson's environments?
The answer partly depends on how one periodizes the Anthropocene. The scientific body responsible for determining such matters, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, has offered several alternatives. The most elastic model traces the era—that is, the age of our geological contemporaneity—back to the advent of agriculture and its accompanying deforestation, suggesting that the past eight thousand years of human civilization, from ancient Mesopotamia onward, have directly led to the anthropogenic changes now discernible in the Earth's soil, oceans, and atmosphere. Another alternative, proposed by Paul Crutzen, one of the scientists who coined the term "Anthropocene," views the turn of the nineteenth century as the rupture point. According to this model, the "end of nature"—to use Bill McKibben's apt phrase—commenced with the Industrial Revolution and developed through the massive restructuring of human society caused by the [End Page 201] extraction and use of fossil fuels.1 Other geologists have posited an even more recent transition, regarding the Anthropocene as coextensive with the dawn of the nuclear age in the mid-twentieth century, when traces of radioactive detonation, as well as marked upticks in CO2 production, become evident in the fossil record.2
The problems posed by the Anthropocene's historical slipperiness are compounded by the term's origins. Regardless of when the Anthropocene begins—whether it is a definitive product of fossil fuel capitalism or coterminous with human settlement itself—it is a retrospective category. To call an era, or a text, Anthropocenic is inescapably to foist the present upon the past. Because it is an anachronistic framework, the Anthropocene risks obscuring the ways in which people previously lived in, conceived of, and represented nature; indeed, one could reasonably argue that the term performs a kind of epistemic violence, insofar as it erases the situated practices and knowledges that are indispensable for any literary or cultural historian. Nonetheless, both these issues—the term's amorphousness and anachronism—are put into stark relief by the transformations to biological life that are unfolding before our eyes. Among the Anthropocene's chief effects, as both a material condition and periodic term, is the way that it dissolves—like the arctic's melting ice—the historical boundaries that previously endowed literary studies with a sense of stability. It is increasingly difficult to maintain the sharp distinctions between, say, antebellum and postbellum literature, or pre- and post-WWII culture, when everything around us, from the acidification of the oceans to the mass extinction of animal life, creates a far more continuous narrative of human history. As Dipesh Chakrabarty has observed, climate change throws the very "exercise of historical understanding" into a state of "deep contradiction" by blurring the distinction between human history and natural history. Or in the words of Julia Adney [End Page 202] Thomas, "the altered earth is so vast and unfamiliar an artifact that cultural critics cannot yet see clearly what is so evidently before their eyes."3
As we adjust our eyes, we must return to Dickinson and take another look at her numerous engagements with the natural world. Dickinson's poems are already, or at least anticipatively, Anthropocenic in several interlocking respects. Written on the edge of the Industrial Revolution, they provide us with an early glimpse of our contemporary climate, particularly if one conceives of her manuscripts, in all of their multiform materiality, as forms of "vibrant matter."4 Her poems also tend to locate and abstract natural scenes, imparting a sense of elusive rootedness that prefigures twenty-first-century reckonings with our estrangement from the once-familiar earth. But I would like to suggest that this crosscurrent between Dickinson's environment and our own is most evident in two strands of her poetry that reconsider nature's untranslatability: her depictions of nature's epistemological foreignness, and her representations of the Civil War's ecological upheaval. Across these poems Dickinson cultivates...