Nature lore

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Nature lore

Nature lore

The literature of empire frequently features the escapism found in the outdoors and in natural phenomena, a convention demonstrated by the pastoral settings in the Rubdiydt of Omar Khagyam (ca. 1130) and idyllic scenes set among Bohemian peasants in Rainer Maria Rilke's Offerings to the Lares (1895), on the Russian steppes in poems by BORIS PASTERNAK, and in rural Norway in the domestic novels of SIGRID UNDSET. To his earth prayer “Those Who Are Dead Are Never Gone” (1985), the Senegalese poet BIRAGO DIOP asserts that death reunites all beings with nature—trees, water, rocks, even fire. His verse affirms the soul in a world that snatches life from the powerless. A yearning for oneness with nature underlies the Japanese poet Yamanoue no Okura's “Hinkyu mondo” (“Dialogue on Poverty,” ca. 733). Envying the freedom of animals, a suffering peasant mourns that he lacks the mobility of a bird to fly away to a less dismal milieu than Nara-era Japan. In contrast to the stationary life of hunger and distress, a German Gypsy poem, “Jolly Is the Gypsy's Life” (ca. 1900) states that the itinerant Rom pay no tax to the Kaiser and live under clan rule amid the forest green. The two perspectives on submission to constraints illustrate the difference between a peasant mentality and the open-road point of view of the nomadic Gypsy.

Rural settings suit the feigned naivete of FABLE in the Mesopotamian “The Tamarisk and the Palm” (ca. 2300 B.C.) and in AESOP'S beast story “The Frogs and Hares,” a mirror image of human terror under threat. In David's Hebrew PSALMS (ca. 900 B.C.), the freshness and liberation of the pasture offers rest and spiritual repose, as in this affirmation of divine safekeeping: “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; / Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me” (Psalms 139:9-10). In 2 Samuel 12:1-7, the bucolic background of the Judaean priest Nathan's fable “The Rich Man and the Poor Man's Lamb” (ca. 950 B.C.) is a prelude to an accusation against King David for murder and adultery; within the serenity of a pastoral culture lies a subtextual comment on a monarch endowed with a harem of wives and concubines. The moral is obvious: A ruler blessed with his pick of women should justify to his subjects his desire for Bathsheba, the widow of Uriah the Hittite, whose death David engineered. The seduction illustrates empire at its worst in the story of a king's greed.

For chroniclers of warfare, nature often symbolizes refuge. In “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (1815), the British poet Lord Byron creates irony out of nature images that forestall a siege in 701 B.C. He pictures Sennacherib's Assyrian force descending on a Hebrew encampment at Galilee in late evening like a wolf targeting passive sheep. By morning, destruction ends with a return of God's beneficence, which quells the Gentile army before it can attack the Jews. The iconic “Angel of Death” intercedes against the Baal worshipers' might, which “melted like snow in the glance of the Lord” (Byron 1826, 589), a light image that accords God omnipotence over Babylonian empire builders. In 450 B.C., the Greek historian HERODOTUS reprised Sennacherib's losses in prose with an improbable explanation, the onslaught of field mice that chew the Assyrian bowstrings and eat the leather thongs of their shields before the army can carry its pillaging farther south into Egypt. The chronicler's fable implies an allencompassing power of nature that the overconfident tend to minimize as inconsequential.

In Retreat from Dominion

The literature of empire also describes nature as an antidote to human disappointment and sorrow. The Chinese poet Li Bo summons faith in the resilience of nature in “Gazing into Antiquity at Su Terrace” and “Gazing into Antiquity in Yueh” (ca. 742). Both poems tell of looking at ruined imperial palaces and contemplating their gradual absorption into the landscape. Li Bo's contrast of the fallen timbers with the patient earth emphasizes the planet's permanence as an abode that mocks the temporary structures erected by sovereigns.

In VIRGIL'S AENEID (17 B.c.), the epic HERO Aeneas takes to the sea with faith in the PROPHECY that a new land lies waiting for the defeated Trojans. Escaping from Troy, the refugees sail west to reestablish domestic peace and piety in new homes and temples. In book 8, Aeneas locates a white sow suckling 30 piglets, a “marvelous portent” of fecundity and a prophecy of the tributary states that would feed off the empire (Virgil 1961, 172). A miracle reveals divine blessing—the Tiber River “did … reign / His thrusting stream and the water was silent-still” (212), giving Aeneas's rowers an easy approach to the site of the future city of Rome.

Writing a decade after Augustus transformed a troubled republic into the Roman Empire, Virgil acknowledges the prerequisite of conquest of the indigenous Latins before Rome could take shape. By accepting the need to subdue a settled people and take their land, Virgil uses verse to defend the virulence of Roman colonizing. Under Aeneas's leadership, the Trojans begin seizing and carving out an empire that will eventually surround the Mediterranean Sea and move into three continents.

Subsequent authors took their cue from Virgil and other early defenders of imperialism. The shift toward rationalizing militarism in later literature of empire reduced nature to a mere backdrop, the proportion allotted in the Scandic epic Beowulf (A.D. 800), FiRDAWSi's Iranian epic The Book of Kings (ca. 1010), and CRUSADER LORE. As conquest grew more destructive, writers took issue with the Virgilian glorification of conquest and alerted readers to the fragility of the planet and to a growing perception of nature as finite. Ecosensitive works such as JOHN HERSEY'S Hiroshima (1946), Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice (1950), YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO'S “Babi Yar” (1961), and AMY TAN'S The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) pictured soil, water, and air as victims on a par with human casualties of war.

Canadian Conservationism

Since its discovery by Europeans, the Western Hemisphere has produced literature that acknowledges both its pristine beauty and the role of native animism in preserving the land. One of the oddities of Canadian FRONTIER LITERATURE, the works of Grey Owl or Wa-sha-quon-asin (He who walks by night), reflects on the ravages of colonizers bent on personal enrichment in a new frontier. He introduced the reading public to a sanctuary that his publisher, Lovat Dickson, described as “a cool, quiet place, where men and animals lived in love and trust together” (Dickson 1973, 14). A mystic wanderer wearing moccasins and snowshoes who traveled by canoe over Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan, Grey Owl gained a reputation as a Byronic HERO, a storyteller who claimed ApacheScots ancestry and revered Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's American epic Song of Hiawatha (1855), a preface to the Christianizing of the Great Lakes Objibwa by French Jesuits. During World War I, Grey Owl enlisted and served in France with the Black Watch in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In 1935, he overtaxed war-damaged lungs and a shrapnel wound to the foot by lecturing across England. At Buckingham Palace in 1937, he informed King George VI of the danger that overtrapping, blood sports, and industrialization posed to the Canadian wilderness. At the author's death in 1938 at age 49, his publisher revealed that Grey Owl was a false Indian persona adopted by Archibald Stansfeld “Archie” Belaney of Hastings, England, who in 1906 had emigrated to Canada, where he had assumed his Native identity.

Grey Owl treasured natural grandeur. He established his authority as a naturalist for the Canadian Parks Branch and his literary reputation with STORYTELLING of Cree, Mohawk, Ojibwa, and Saulteau animal tales. Conservationists extolled his children's book Sajo and the Beaver People (1935) and his AUTOBIOGRAPHY Pilgrims of the Wild (1934). For the sake of the environment, after the annihilation of the beaver and buffalo to the south, his vituperative first book, The Men of the Last Frontier (1931), attacked hunters from the United States who ventured north to find pristine landscapes and ample fish and game. He denounced interlopers as “get- rich-quick vandals” and demonized humankind as “the only profane thing, an ogre lurking to destroy” (Grey Owl 1931, 150, 142).

The author's 27 essays on naturalism in Tales of an Empty Cabin (1936) promoted laws and national preserves protecting Canada's resources and wildlife. He thundered at amateurs, “Man should enter the woods, not with any conquistador obsession or mighty hunter complex, neither in a spirit of braggadocio, but rather with the awe and not a little of the veneration of one who steps within the portals of some vast and ancient artifice of wondrous architecture” (Grey Owl 1936, vii). In a retort to bumbling campers, his essay “Rivermen” ridicules “kitchen-garden woodsmen” and “carpet knights” (152); “The Mission of Hiawatha” canonizes the “Man the Beasts Loved,” a woodsman who becomes “a very Messiah of the Wilderness” (71), a St. Francis surrounded by birds and small animals. In 1999, Pierce Brosnan played the would-be Ojibwa in a biopic, Grey Owl, which dramatizes the author's one-man effort to prevent further destruction of the Canadian landscape.


Byron, George Gordon Byron, Lord. The Works of Lord Byron, Complete in One Volume. Frankfurt: H. L. Broenner, 1826.

Dickson, Lovat. Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl. New York: Atheneum, 1973.

Grey Owl. The Men of the Last Frontier. Toronto: Macmillan, 1931.

----- . Tales of an Empty Cabin. Toronto: Macmillan, 1936.

Margalit, Gilad. Germany and Its Gypsies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

Scott, Jamie S., and Paul Simpson-Housley. Mapping the Sacred: Religion, Geography and Postcolonial Literatures. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Patric Dickinson. New York: Mentor, 1961.