Romantic Ecology: Fairy Tale or Serious Thing?

If you’re like me, you can’t resist a good fairy tale. I’ve been hooked on the new CBS series, “Grimm,” based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. One of the theories in analysis of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen is that the characters in fairy tales represent problems in nature that humans must face. Sometimes a fairy tale depicts a “lost Eden,” a lost paradise, but in more cases, a fairy tale presents an environmental problem and the characters symbolize various solutions. Often the hero of the fairy tale makes a choice based on something equivalent to “best professional judgment” and the morals to the story deal with making the “right choice.” Many of Andersen and Grimm fairy tales were set in a natural environment—a marsh—as in “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” the woods, a riverbank, even—in the case of Thumbelina, upon the water lily pads in a stream. This has been called “nature romanticism,” or “Romantic Ecology.” 

            Thumbelina – a wetland fairy tale

Far out in the stream grew a number of water-lilies, with broad green leaves, which seemed to float on the top of the water. The largest of these leaves appeared farther off than the rest, and the old toad swam out to it with the walnut-shell, in which little Thumbelina lay still asleep. The tiny little creature woke very early in the morning, and began to cry bitterly when she found where she was, for she could see nothing but water on every side of the large green leaf, and no way of reaching the land. Meanwhile the old toad was very busy under the marsh, decking her room with rushes and wild yellow flowers, to make it look pretty for her new daughter-in-law. Then she swam out with her ugly son to the leaf on which she had placed poor little Thumbelina. The old toad bowed low to her in the water, and said, “Here is my son, he will be your husband, and you will live happily in the marsh by the stream.” For the full fairy tale, click here.

Readers may recognize the imagery associated with “romantic ecology” in fairy tales like Andersen’s “Thumbelina.” This romanticism is present in some classic poetry and other literature, too. Romantic ecology is a phrase first coined by Jonathan Bates in his book, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (1991) but the term is later used by a number of environmental writers. Romantic ecology in literature is believed to have shaped environmental consciousness and action, influencing readers of poetry and literature—spanning a wide spectrum of people with varied beliefs and values—and appealing to their sense of the natural world. For some, the idea of a “paradise lost,” a beloved homeland or wild place, which has since been developed for urban or suburban use, is most persuasive. For others, it’s simply the beauty of nature—a romanticized version, seeing the naturalenvironment through rose-colored lenses, as depicted in love poems or nature writing from the era of The Romantics that inspires readers to fall in love with the environmental cause. I must admit I fell under their spell, long ago as a teen-ager. My high school classmates weren’t assigned to read The Romantics—but a favorite aunt encouraged me to read Wordsworth and Blake, for starters, and I’m sure that their words affected my budding interest in ecology. I carried thick biology books along with slim volumes of poetry as if they were a combined discipline.

But is it just a fairy tale, or does “romantic ecology” give roots to something more important? The writings of early American “nature writers” persuaded us to shift our perception of the environment—in essence, to care about it. In the early part of the 20thcentury, critics of the Nature-Study Movement wrestled with whether it was a romanticized version of ecology, or if it should be taken seriously. Given the success of that movement, and how The Romantics are required reading for any student of environmental studies in colleges today, it is clear that “Romantic Ecology” is beyond the blush of fairy tales. It’s gotten serious.

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