Many ecocritics ponder the divisions and intersections of the nature/culture divide, and situate critical attention on forging a strong union between the human and nonhuman world. These critics view nature and culture from an overly “culturized” sensibility that refrains from asking what happens when that nebulous boundary between nature and culture violently splits apart? I have a long-standing fascination with conceptions of nature that upset common cultural experiences of nature, and I’m interested in human experience at the boundaries of culture where self-narratives that speak to us of this world as our home begin to break down.
I’m reminded of Northrope Frye in Words with Power (1990). Frye asks a series of questions concerning the nature of nature:
what does Wordsworth’s gentle goddess who never betrayed the heart that loved her have to do with Tennyson’s nature red in tooth and claw, with its ferocious and predatory struggle for survival? Even more, what does she have to do with the narrators in the Marquis de Sade, who after some particularly nauseating orgy of cruelty and violence, appeal with equal confidence to nature to justify their pleasure in such things? Are there two natures, and if so are they separable? (246)
Is nature a culturally sublime artifact, there for us to canoe around, Muir to contemplate, or perhaps a host of American Transcendentalists to draw upon at their leisure most idyllically in homemade huts 3 miles from town (a convenient location that still allows for the comforts of a mother’s home cooking and laundry service)? Or is nature a violently inherent sense of human mastery in a universe framed by individual human narratives?
Consider: Val Plumwood, an environmentalist and philosopher, who went on a solitary canoe trip in Kakadu National Park, Australia and was assured that crocodiles do not attack canoes; her advisors were wrong. A crocodile mercilessly attacks her, not twice, but three times dragging her down the same muddy bank back into a swampy death roll. She recalls “in a flash, I glimpsed the world for the first time “from the outside,” as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death” (“Being Prey”). The “outside” Plumwood describes comes from the near-death knowledge of an alien, incomprehensible world in which the narrative of the self ends and is conjoined to an experience of a radically altered and alien experience of nature.
I intend to look at Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England” as evoking the central issue of how culture and nature both intersect and dissolve in the mind of a persona whose sense of self has been both shaped and threatened by a solitary experience in nature. I intend to do a close reading of the poem through the Darwinian ecocritical theory of E.O Wilson’s “biophilia” and Konrad Lorenz’s Darwinian rational for locating the human psyche in its physical world. Through the investigations I will examine Bishop’s notions of travel, experience, observation/perception, and home in relation to “Crusoe,” explore the “outside” perspectives of Crusoe’s cultural experiences, and how one constructs a “home” in such an environment. I will consider both Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” as they relate to the poem and Frye’s question concerning “two natures”. If Wordsworth expresses a cultural wish about the nature of nature, Bishop’s “Crusoe“ serves as an imaginative example that exposes the real experience from Plumwood’s “outside”.