"In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oh Boy. Oh disembodied eyeball. Oh particle of God. Where does one begin? I've had a few go-rounds, in this blog, on 'Romanticism' and 'Man and Nature'. In considerations of this last dyad, no one does it better than Raymond Williams (Cosmic Wordplay). But first, I should back up and explain the latest set of circumstances that have led me, once again, into this morass.

Last Saturday we attended, with a couple of friends, a performance by Hugh Lupton and Helen Chadwick at The Getty Villa Theater. Their piece, Hymns to Aphrodite, was work-shopped during a two week residence to which Hugh and Helen had been invited, arranged to coincide with the Getty exhibition of Aphrodite and the Gods of Love that had originated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Hugh told us tales of the Goddess, primarily sourced from Ovid's Metamorphoses, while Helen backed him up, a cappella, with songs of a lucid and haunting tonality. All well and good.

Hugh is an old friend of our Ojai chum Nicki, who first worked with him while he was nurturing his piece on the Odyssey at the Bath Literature Festival, in 2000. A few weekends ago, Lorrie drove Hugh and Helen up from the Getty to spend a couple of days in Ojai with Nicki and Will. Hugh is a professional story teller but a couple of years ago he published his first novel, The Ballad of John Clare, which tells the story of a year in the life of the young poet.

Clare is the working class antidote to that surfeit of mostly upper crust twits who form the backbone of England's Romance poets (Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley). As such, he better fits a modern sensibility and his work is now scoured for its evidence of a proto-green sensibility. His relevance to our current environmental angst is why, perhaps, Lupton chose to novelize a year of his life. Clare's status as an agricultural laborer put him on the wrong side of Britain's eighteenth century enclosure movement which converted common lands to private ownership - a massive transference of agricultural wealth from peasant to squire. The newly impoverished under class became fodder for England's dark satanic mills and the face of Britain's countryside was transformed - the sky, as Clare documents it, was falling. He writes,

“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease”

As we now understand it, t'was but a step along the road towards industrialized farming.

Got me thinking: romantics are, by definition, lovers of the past, of the old ways. But Clare's rural lament has the noble imprimatur of a worker-on-the-land. 'They', the sinister forces of mercantilism, not only messed with the aesthetics of his beloved countryside, but also his livelihood. Wordsworth et al float above it all and their engagement is spiritual rather than material. So Clare, by his involvement in the land as an economic as well as a visual construct expands our ecological understanding. He elaborated the natural world beyond the limits of the customary poetic imagination, which saw it as an aesthetic system serving as God's subaltern. Em - transparent eyeball - erson represents the nadir of such narrow posturing.

And so I have begun. Off to the races. Raymond Williams in his essay, Ideas of Nature in Materialism and Culture, Verso, London, 1980, cuts to the chase. We do not, he suggests, have a static view of Nature: it is an evolving conception shaped by history, culture and, Lord help us, consciousness. The first issue he sees is this: is mankind in or out? Are we inherent in Nature or is it a thing apart? The fact that the word 'nature' also indicates a single essence or principle around which a multiplicity of things might be mentally organized is, Williams argues, indicative of a change of consciousness: from a pagan world of multiple spirits embodying various aspects of the natural world to a singular 'nature' ministering to a singular, monotheistic god.

But the critical question remains: does Nature include Man? In the medieval conception, Man was definitely included as part of the terrestrial hierarchy - unique only in that she was the one creature to which a relationship to god might be vouchsafed. But Nature, by the seventeenth century, was seen as separate from humans so that it could be studied, scientifically, as a thing apart. At the height of this scientific analysis and an 'improving' of the natural world, in the nineteenth century, there emerged another meaning: a Nature that was fundamentally unknowable, divorced from mankind, inimical to her material nurture - a place of alienation and spiritual power, the Wilderness.

In a more general sense, Nature was seen as 'out there', separate both from humanity and the 'smoke and spoil' which signaled those areas where its resources were harvested. At the same time, Wilderness is seen as a place of healing and solace (Cue: Emerson and his pals), while down the road, sometimes quite literally, it is being eviscerated for its mineral wealth. As the exploitation of Nature continued on a vast scale, the people who extracted the most wealth from it were often those who returned, at the weekends, to their estates and country houses in 'unspoilt' Nature. Wilderness became a place of retreat both from the jungle of the City, the wastelands of industrialized mineral extraction (and later, industrialized farming).

This separation between humankind and Nature continues to be a characteristic of our predominantly urban and post-industrial society. But Williams notes that this false division between the two abstractions belies the extent to which our fates are intertwined, the irrevocable mixing of our labor with the earth, and the enmeshment of our forces with its forces. Out of these interactions we have made both a 'human nature' and an altered natural order: we have forged societies. But, Williams warns, if we alienate the living processes of which we are a part, we end by alienating ourselves. He concludes by calling for the coming together of the disciplines of Economics and Ecology in recognition of their fateful entwinement.

Back in the day, when the world was new made, the gods and the goddesses sorted everything out. Through his inspired storytelling, Hugh Lupton is bringing their mythologies back to life. His vision is adamantine: "Everything I enjoyed reading led me to the belief that all nature is supernatural, and that there’s something unseen that charges the visible world". How close is that to suggesting that our fate, ultimately and forever, is directed by other mythic actors and we are but bit players in their cosmic imaginings? Meanwhile, in this prosaic world, Raymond Williams elucidates for us the fevered philosophies of our kind, rationalizing, forever rationalizing, our tantalizingly irrational existence.