During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, forests and woodlands played an instrumental role in the formation of individual and national identities in England. Although environmentalism as we know it did not yet exist, persistent fears of timber shortages led to a larger anxiety about the status of forests. Vast human-made changes in England’s wooded landscape wrought havoc not only on natural ecosystems, but also forced reconceptualizations of individual identities. My doctoral work will situate the forest within the material history of early modern England: how its forests were exploited, managed, or devastated within the period. My reading encompasses early modern woodland treatises and forest law. I then focus my inquiry upon a more elusive phenomenon: the roles that forests play in the cultural imagination of the Renaissance (Theis 2009, Harrison 1992). My research questions are oriented around an intricate speculation of how the English people interacted with woodland spaces and how the forest helped people define themselves and the world in a period ranging from 1550 to 1700 in England.

My work is primarily a literary study that draws upon new developments in the emerging fields of environmental history and ecologically inflected phenomenology (Richards 2003, Berleant 2005, Abram 1992). These disciplines are concerned with the construction of environmental problems and prompt reassessment of existing models of nature so as to form an ecological literary criticism. For phenomenologists, nature has value and roots in an experience of nature, and eco-phenomenology is set apart from other theoretical methods by its unique capacity to bring expression, rather than silence, into how nature is conceptualized and informs cultural identity. I approach this work by bringing the forest to the foreground and practicing an emerging hermeneutics of nature that supports the inseparability of humans from their environment. As befits the main preoccupations of literary scholars there are many interpretations of meaning that are mapped onto literary landscapes. These kinds of readings create a culturized space as the human meaning-maker and physical environment are set in juxtaposition. The “real” reality of the physical landscape recedes from view, cloaked as it is in the “perceived” reality enshrined in any number of allusions, metaphors or emblems.

My thesis seeks to enter an emerging cross-discipline inquiry where many Canadian scholars (Bowerbank 2005, Nardizzi 2012, Relke 1995) interrogate the process of naturalist abstraction. My work aspires to extend this descent from the imaginary heights of abstract reason so as to resituate literary forests in an active engagement in the environment.

I first contextualize the forest by reading early modern forestry texts, such as Maplet’s Green Forest (1567) and Manwood’s A Treatise of the Lawes of the Forest (1665). I will ask how people in the period perceive, react to and experience these green spaces. Forest law and aristocratic land use and misuse restrict the forest, and yet it is reshaped in the social imaginary as a space where boundaries and classes are dismantled. This chapter will investigate re-authoring the discursive forest, which breaks down the barriers that delimit the forest from human interaction. The personification of the herbals, in works like Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum, projects the human into the botanical, and further erodes the divide between humans and the natural world.

Chapter two of my thesis will move from the theatre of plants to exploring three theatrical forests in Shakespeare’s plays: Macbeth, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Birnam Wood “moves against” Macbeth, raising questions crucial to my work, about the consequences of human beings’ impositions upon and domination of nature. Arden Forest in As You Like It is a forest of language where the subversive practice of carving in trees opens up considerations about the implications of human culture as inscribed upon the material body of a tree. The forest’s material and figurative qualities are a force of nature that I will argue is in constant dialogue with human culture. I then move to a more “metamorphic” examination of relations within the forest. Drawing upon both the Acteon and Daphne myths in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I propose that when human beings become animate aspects of nature, as Acteon becomes a stag after viewing the goddess of the woods or Daphne becomes a laurel tree so as to escape Apollo, a de-anthromophorization occurs and distinctions between humans and non-humans collapse. Within the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I will argue that distinctions and supposed boundaries collapse, as the transient boundary between humans and non-humans are revealed as deceptive, illusory, and reversible.

Chapter three will be informed by the complex inner geography of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Milton’s A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, as both feature a predominantly forest landscape. My readings investigate the extent to which the rational mind finds no familiar external structures to answer its need to order and interpret its woodland environment. As such, the forests provide multifarious encounters with mythic beings interacting with states of mind. I will attempt to draw out the imaginative capacity necessary to understand the meaning of a forest landscape within various contexts through each poet’s perceptual engagement with the forest. I will open my fourth chapter with a poet who makes himself discursively a part of nature in Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House to my Lord Fairfax. I suggest that the poet experiences identification with the birds and trees of the landscape that involves his own metamorphosis. I then move to a close reading of the poem as it expresses a phenomenal consciousness. The poet’s body form and nature intermingle as his real “being” merges with the forest. These magical aspects correspond with a further exploration of England’s natural druidic roots. As the poet melts in and out of the landscape he asks to be fully incorporated with woodbine and vines as spiritual and natural imagery stress the world’s material fluidity, and the relativity of human perception.

The final chapter of my thesis will contrast the distinctions between scientific and sacred aspects of trees. In the area of natural philosophy I will investigate the forest in John Evelyn’s Sylva, a work that acknowledges a debt to Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum. Bacon’s work offers its readers an exercise that begins with trees and proceeds to map out the terrain of natural history. Knowledge in Bacon’s forest begins with sense experience, examines causes, and ends with axioms of early empiricism. Evelyn’s historical account continues in the tradition Ovid, Shakespeare and Spenser incorporating anecdotes, myth, folklore and remarks on extraordinary trees that find authority in both classical and biblical sources. Both the oak tree in Aemilia Lanyer’s “The Description of Cooke-ham” and the arboreal Eden in Milton’s Paradise Lost provide my work with responsive sacred havens. I suggest that science and myth cross-pollinate confirming that both poetry and science “believe that out of those shady groves some Deity or magic must emerge” (Sylva 1670). After Eve eats the fruit of Eden’s sacred tree she replaces patriarchal sovereignty and creative substance with a feminized tree. I would like to investigate this further in Evelyn’s discussion of an arboreal Eden filled with “mysterious and sacramental trees” which humans touch with their hands to evoke the deity. I argue that entering the groves of Evelyn, Milton and Lanyer places one in touch with the sacred, which in turn provides a powerful agency for those in touch with sacred trees.

Considering poetry and natural philosophy offers my work a complex “polymorphous” view of nature and culture as perceived through both sense and scientific experience as I question what it means to combine the material with spiritual. By grappling with the language of early modern texts, my research rethinks the relation between nature and the human as far more fluid than contemporary usage permits. In bringing together the imagined forests of the period, a vein of ecological concern emerges and illustrates the way language expresses thought and integrates the human capacity to identify itself with the natural world.