Tree

Thomas Hardy – The First Ecocritical Author?

Blurring of tree with the human, park with bench created with box hedging
Box-hedged park bench in Parco Martiri della Libertà, Bellagio, Italy.

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, a Professor of English at the University of California discusses the work of Thomas Hardy from an ecological realism viewpoint in her article – ‘Dendrography and Ecological Realism’. Writing during the Victorian Period, Hardy witnessed first-hand the advent of the Industrial Revolution and its effect on the traditional rural way of life and the English countryside. In his novel Under the Greenwood Tree of 1872, the tree is more than just an element in the narrative. It also acts as symbol and aids in the creation of narrative devices in the book.

Miller’s line of enquiry explores how Hardy treats eco-representation and tries to free himself of human mediation of the environment. She formally defines this as a strategy of dendrography, that is, using the scale, time frame and perspective of trees. This strategy involves episodes of misrepresentation, mistaken identities and visibility issues. Hardy also emphasizes the sense of hearing in an attempt to overcome mediation through the use of onomatopoeia. Human characters are not individualized and become tree-like while trees are described in human terms. The apple tree in particular is used to symbolise the integration of both species.

The result of this particular form of eco-representation is that the scale of human life and culture is transformed and takes on the longer timescale of trees and forests.

Victorian painting Forest scene with children and pigs
Painting inspired by Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree by Lionel Percey Smythe (1840 – 1918) The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Miller uses the trope of the footpath to provide examples. Usually footpaths represent the human entering and becoming part of the arboreal world, Hardy subverts this trope by elevating the perspective above the human.

‘[he] sloped up a hill and entered a hazel copse by a hole like a rabbit’s burrow. In he plunged, vanished among the bushes, and in a short time there was no sign of his existence upon earth save an occasional rustling of boughs and snapping of twigs in divers points of Grey’s Wood’

Under the greenwood tree by thomas hardy, – p. 128.

This subversion is exactly what academics have called for as a way to approach the overwhelming concept of global climate change. Miller cites Timothy Clarke who proposes that this imaginary leap centres around concepts of scale. Modern national cultures have short time frames which are defined by historical periodization. Enviromental policy needs the long-term perspective, decoupled from human history. It requires moving to the totality of planetary history. Miller sees dendrography as a means of providing a mental construct for this shift.


References:

Clark, Timothy (2015) Ecocriticism on the Edge:The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept, Bloomsbury Academic. 

Hardy, Thomas (2013) Under the Greenwood Tree;Or, The Mellstock Quire: A Rural Painting of the Dutch School.  Oxford:Oxford UP, p. 128.

Miller, Elizabeth Carolyn (2016) ‘Dendrography and Ecological Realism’, Victorian Studies, Volume 58, Number 4, Summer 2016, pp.696-718, Indiana University Press.