Human Nature: Pastoral in the Anthropocene

Deborah Lilley


With the proposition that we are now living in the Anthropocene – the geological epoch defined by human activities and their effects – the conditions of the pastoral are placed under unprecedented threat, and at the same time, they can be seen to be given new significance. The Economist suggested in 2011 that the term ‘means treating humans not as insignificant observers of the natural world but as central to its workings.’ This statement both confirms the intrinsic position of humans within the world and acknowledges the scope and influence of human action. What’s also needed here, though, is a sense of the necessary responsibility and vulnerability that comes with such an understanding. Human action may be ‘central’ to the ‘workings’ of the natural world in the sense that our actions are affecting its operations, but humans are also subject to those operations and although the causes of those changes may be within our control, their effects may not be. This kind of integrated understanding of the human and the natural, or the non-human, unmasks the contrasts upon which the pastoral depends and unsettles the terms of the relationship between the human and the natural that it depicts, but also provides the opportunity to read and write the pastoral with this unmasking in mind.


Rethinking "Mother Nature": unmasking contrasts between the human and the non-human upon which the pastoral depends [Image by ihave3kids under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]


The continued relevance of the pastoral was dismissed in the 1970s due to its distance from reality. The pastoral world was called a ‘false vision’ by John Barrell and John Bull, suggesting that on account of the absence of a discernible distinction between the urban and the rural in experiential terms, the contrasts that the form ‘demanded were now almost devoid of any meaning’ (Barrell and Bull 4, 432). Raymond Williams’s survey of pastoral in The Country and the City included the ecological implications of the political, economic and cultural obfuscations of the mode. Williams pointed towards the ‘interrelations’ between the country and the city overlooked by the terms of the pastoral contrast and the inaction implicit in the pastoral technique of responding to the concerns of the present by looking backwards towards an idyllic past or forwards towards a utopian future (Williams 297).

However, the terms of these criticisms have come under fresh scrutiny in the context of ecological concerns. The contrasts between the country and the city and between the past and present are reinscribed in new ways, and imbued with new uncertainty, as the relationship between the human and the natural is understood as an interrelationship and the potential and scale of its connections and its consequences are opened up to consideration.

Despite this, the anthropocentric version of nature, the idealised version of the past and the ensuing versions of the relationship between the human and the non-human associated with the pastoral tradition can be understood to be misleading or even obsolete in the context of ecological crisis. The relationship between pastoral and environmental criticism has been uneasy. Critics such as Lawrence Buell and Glen Love have sought to address these challenges in order to take advantage of the critical potential afforded by the pastoral and its counter-pastoral inversion, by redirecting its focus towards a more ecocentric view of the world, and informing its treatment of nature with scientific knowledge. The terms of the pastoral and counter-pastoral are upset by alternative conceptions of the interaction between the human and the natural. The impediment of ecological uncertainty blocks the execution of the pastoral impulse. Yet by navigating this effect by inverting the emphasis of the pastoral connectivity between the human and the natural or supplementing the background by which it is informed, the task of confronting that impediment, or indeed that impulse, is avoided. The remedies that Buell and Love suggest risk perpetuating the problems of pastoral previously highlighted.


A new uncertainty?: ecological concerns are informing new ways of understanding the interrelationship between the human and the natural [Image by Joan Vt Garcia under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]


In these approaches to dismissing or reclaiming the pastoral, its authenticity or verifiability is in question. The critical tension between what is being represented and its representation is challenged by the understanding of the distance between them, and the value of what Terry Gifford has termed the pastoral’s ‘oppositional potential’, its capability to ‘imaginatively construct an alternative vision’ (Gifford 36), is set against the escapist connotations of its version of reality. To recover the reflective and interpretive qualities of the pastoral, other means of negotiating the contemporary challenges to its principles are needed.

Contemporary writers and critics are re-imagining the ‘oppositional’ tensions of the pastoral by looking beyond the limits of pastoral and counter-pastoral. Taking account of the criticisms of these modes of representation offers new opportunities for the relationship between the human and the non-human to be explored. In so doing, the pastoral itself is subject to reconfiguration into forms through which its writers are able to reflect, and reflect upon, the insights associated with the proposition of the Anthropocene, and the ways in which those insights may be interpreted. In this way, the critical capability of the form can be extended towards the tensions within and beyond the pastoral in terms of the interrelationship between the human and the natural, the influence of the former upon the latter, the mutual scope of that influence and its known and unknown effects, and the responsibility that comes along with this understanding.


Jim Crace's fiction unsettles the framework of pastoral [Images used under fair dealings provisions]


These approaches to the conventions of pastoral appear in different forms and to different ends, linked by the ways that the framework of pastoral is unsettled by the effects of working through and reflecting upon conceptions of the meanings and manifestations of the human and the natural, the urban and the rural, and the relationships between the past, the present and the future. For instance, John Burnside’s 2008 novel Glister explores the possibilities of pastoral in a polluted landscape, where neither a pastoral backwards look nor a retreat into nature can avoid the traces of pollution, yet the counter-pastoral understanding of the situation is resisted by the characters’ self-reflective affinity with their environment. In the recent nature essays by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their collection Edgelands (2011) and Kathleen Jamie in Findings (2005), the expectations and the outcomes of pastoral and counter-pastoral experiences are disrupted when they are relocated outside of conventional definitions of pastoral places and the definitions of those places themselves are queried. 

The fiction of Jim Crace demonstrates the kind of atypical approach to pastoral that I am getting at here. In an interview in 2000, Crace has commented that: ‘the urban/rural quandary is always relevant. It’s always contemporary.’ In several of his novels, the pastoral impulse is played out in unexpected and sometimes ostensibly un-pastoral situations. Arcadia (1992) explores the conceptions of and the connections between the country and the city, from the market which marks the transition from one to the other to its transposition into a shopping mall conceived to represent the ideal combination of the two. In Being Dead (1999), multiple narrative strands and timescales are intertwined in an elegiac mediation upon the transition between life and death where the connections between two doctors of zoology to nature, and the meanings of nature, are readdressed in the context of death. In The Pesthouse (2007), a dystopic future America is the backdrop against which stereotypes of the past and the future are juxtaposed and the relations between the human and the non-human are reflected upon in a landscape where only the remnants of technology remain and are feared. In these novels, neither the pastoral nor the counter-pastoral is accepted at face value, but rather form parts of a reflexive discourse upon the interrelationship between the human and the natural.


The emergence of neo-pastoral writing returns us to questions of the interrelationship between the urban and the rural [Image by Jessie Owen under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]


Both Terry Gifford and Martin Ryle have responded critically to contemporary examples of the pastoral, suggesting respectively that a ‘post-pastoral’ or ‘neo-pastoral’ mode of writing can be seen to be emerging. Gifford’s proposition takes the form of a checklist including the ‘awareness of nature as culture and culture as nature’ and a sense of ‘awe’ and ‘humility’ towards the natural world (Gifford 162-5). Taking an alternative approach, Ryle emphasises the ‘eco-didactic’ possibilities of a ‘self-reflective mode of writing’ that is able to ‘intervene in current culture and politics’ (Ryle 16). My own reading of the features and effects of contemporary pastoral shares with Gifford’s an emphasis on the importance of the representation of the simultaneously distinct and interconnected definitions of the human and the natural, though not necessarily in adherence to the formulation set out in his criteria for such representations. As Ryle has suggested, the stipulations themselves can have a limiting effect, and I would add that they are not necessarily applicable to the complex and diverse forms that contemporary pastoral is taking. A common feature or effect of these forms is the critical capacity of the mode, as Ryle points out, but the didactic manner that he envisages is not always in evidence, or indeed required for the illuminatory effects of the tensive reconfigurations of pastoral to occur. As the examples I’ve suggested here show, this kind of pastoral writing can be found across genres and working towards different effects and outcomes, linked by a common awareness of extra-pastoral factors and a sense of introspection or self-consciousness.


Does pastoralism have a future beyond nostalgic arcadian representations? [Image by David Hoffman under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]


In his 1992 essay, ‘Does Pastoralism Have a Future?’, Leo Marx speculated that ‘the wholly new conception of the precariousness of our relations with nature is bound to bring forth new versions of pastoral’ (Marx 1992: 222). In the twenty years that have followed, pastoral writing and criticism addressed towards and influenced by ecological concerns have proliferated. Though the end of the pastoral has been proposed numerous times, the afterlives of the form that have consistently followed have belied such propositions. Rather than points of closure, the transitions in direction and perspective that have been taken to signify these breaks may be better understood as hinges upon which the features of the mode are realigned towards contemporary concerns. In contemporary versions of the pastoral, the conditions and the consequences of the Anthropocene are beginning to be imagined, and the forms that they are taking signify the challenge that it represents.


CITATION: Deborah Lilley, "Human Nature: Pastoral in the Anthropocene," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 4 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 September 2012,


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Deborah Lilley is a final year PhD Candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London working in the field of contemporary literature and theory. Deborah co-convenes the Literary and Critical Theory Seminar series at the Institute of English Studies, University of London and is a member of the Editorial Board for Royal Holloway's new ejournal Exegesis. [/author_info] [/author]



Works Cited:

Barrell, John and John Bull. (eds.) The Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse (London: Penguin, 1974).

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1995).

Burnside, John. Glister (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008).

Crace, Jim. Arcadia. (London: Picador, 1992).

–. Being Dead. (London: Viking, 1999).

–. The Pesthouse. (London: Picador, 2007).

Farley, Paul and Michael Symmons Roberts. Edgelands (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011).

Gifford, Terry. Pastoral, (London & New York: Routledge, 1999).

Jamie, Kathleen. Findings (London: Sort Of Books, 2005).

Love, Glen A. ‘Revaluing Nature: Towards an Ecological Criticism’ in Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm, (eds.) The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. (Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 1996), pp 225-240.

Marx, Leo. ‘Does Pastoralism Have a Future?’ in John Dixon Hunt (ed.), The Pastoral Landscape, (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1992), pp 109-225.

Ryle, Martin. ‘Neo-pastoral Eco-didactics: Ali Smith’s The Accidental.’ Green Letters 10, (2009): 8-18.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).



Please feel free to comment on this article.

2 Replies to “Human Nature: Pastoral in the Anthropocene”

  1. Deborah – Thanks for this. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was interesting that you ended with Leo Marx, whose classic American Studies text The Machine in the Garden I know very well. I wonder what you feel about the role of writing itself (and the book) as technologies that mediate between the landscape (the pastoral) and the human. Leo Marx, of course, is interested in American Romanticism, which imagines the act of writing (Thoreau's Walden, Emerson's Nature) as the point of connection between man and nature. How might new media (wireless internet, Kindles) work in this way? I am wondering because it used to be the case that in order to publish people had to be near urban centres that had access to the necessary resources. Now there has been a liberation from that city versus country model because people can be anywhere (even out in "nature") and still be connected to the city. Might the "neo-pastoral" be related to this? Not a well phrased question, sorry. I can clarify if you like…  

  2. Thank you for the introduction to this genre.  I am a retired psychiatrist, who, after a 40 year medical practice, has determined that most mental health problems can best be understood as a direct result of a mismatch between our Palaeolithic Neurophysiology and the contemporary "built world".  My website actually features a collection of Upper Palaeolithic Europen (German and French) Artifacts, some of which were apparently collected by an American soldier, and noteable Native American Artifact Collector, during WWII in England and Europe.  The earliest well-made sculptural art works by modern man (woman?) in Europe were carved soft stone and ivory "Venus Figurines".  There are 8 featured on the website, which were discovered recently in the dispersed Native American Artifact Collections of two recently deceased collectors.  They are indicative of a pastoral, naturalistic lifeway that I have attempted to elaborate in an upcoming article in the March Issue of the e-journal POPULAR ARCHAEOLOGY and further elaborate in a second edition of the catalog of the collection on the wesite.  The "experts" have dismissed the collection as "just too perfect", even though 3 female statuettes and a mammoth ivory spear throwing handle discovered in a railway cut c.1900 near Berlin, Germany, in a colluvial or, if you prefer the earlier term, "alluvial", site are well documented in an American collection in 1916.  The reverine matrix still clings to the objects.  The matrix contains Fe, Mn, Sn, Ca and O, consistent with their alluvial origin.  These Gravettian Hunter-gatherers may not have been strictly "pastoralists" but they lived a very different lifeway 30-25kyBP in Ice Age Europe than we do today and they did not need psychiatrists.  Women held high status, as indicated by their representation in art.  Check out the website, if your curiosity has been piqued.  We must find ways to restore those early consilient lifeways, if we are to survive as a species.  Keep up your interest.  Celebrate the feminine in nature.  Hope you finished your PhD and are on your professional and personal, pastoral journey.

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