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Culture on nature

THE OXFORD BOOK OF NATURE WRITING·Edited by Richard Mabey· Oxford University Press, Oxford · 1995

By Rajeswari Raina
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- That nature writing is seri ous business, representing a delicate combination of art and science, imagination and accurate information, empa thy and deliber ate detachment, is evident from the book. The history of nature writing, as the editor introduces it, is in more ways than one a history of humanity, "part of the quest for the essential characteristics and boundaries of being human."

The book traces the chronological evo lution of human obser- vations and ideas on nature. The fables and exaggerations that marked the dark ages before the renaissance were followed by inspired observations committed to understanding the divine works of god. This phase of nature writing was one in which humans remained the enchanted observers and gave commentaries on the works of "the wise author of nature". The meticulous observations of this period led to a definite reconfiguration of power, bringing the Church "firmly on the side of scientific advance". What Anton van Leeuwenhoek, William Derham and Gilbert White accomplished for scientific detail and inquiry was ardently matched by the romantic tradition that followed.

The chapter on the romantics speaks of the shameless eurocentrism manifest in nature writing during the post-economic botany phase which plundered the wondrous bounty of the South. This was gradually replaced by refreshing concepts of the Earth as an organic whole and the oneness of being. Paralleling this is the celebration of weeds, of the commonplace and untamed in nature, the rediscovery of Darwinism.

The new naturalists and modern philosophical biologists celebrate not just the otherness of nature but express concern and shock at the insidious human intervention which nature is subjected to. Evident in some of the awe-inspiring yet minute details of the natural world is its vulnerability. There is a self effacing 'fascination and humbleness', be it in the experience shared with the moonflower or the fall of the peregrine. These new naturalists tell us in their own romantic tradition of the beautifully live earth. The last chapter aptly titled 'fellow creatures' marks a heightened human awareness of the indivisibility of our world into human and natural territories, one using or exploiting the other almost condescendingly. It speaks of the oneness both ecological and ethical that humans feel, with respect to their fellow beings. This is perhaps the rightful culmination of a process long begun.

What is painful about the book is that it is English translations of works in other European languages that remind us of the richness of the nature and culture of other societies. Had it been, for instance, an Afro-Asian book on nature writing, would it narrate a similar history?

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