Denouncing the Anthropocene: how do Edward Abbey and Thomas Hardy confront humanity through pastoral interrogations in The Monkey Wrench Gang and The Woodlanders?

Edward Abbey and Thomas Hardy, writing almost 100 years apart, both see continuous mechanisation of agricultural processes and industrialisation as anti-pastoral and ultimately destructive to nature. Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) has been described as an ‘uncompromising defence of America’s wilderness,’ as a small band of environmentalists sabotage various building projects across rural south-west North America. Abbey’s diverse group of rebels may be described as modern-day pastoralists. Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887), is the pastoral narrative of the residents of the fictional Little Hintock, their tension-filled interactions with each other, and their symbolic interactions with the countryside that surrounds them. This essay will apply pastoral theories, ecological criticism, and Freudian thought to examine how Abbey and Hardy articulate their sometimes deliberately provocative views. It will suggest that rather than merely writing a defence of nature, their work may be read as an unapologetic pastoral assault against the destruction that the global Anthropocene brings in its wake, representing a sometimes emotionally driven and nostalgic worldview.

Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz define the Anthropocene as, ‘the impoverishment and artificializing of Earth’s living tissue,’ and, ‘a fall from Eden […] the end of nature through despoliation’. They posit that humanity has become the hegemonic power in the ecological hierarchy, and this leads ultimately to an epoch of extinction for the Earth’s resources. The Anthropocene marks an era where a deep sense of loss is characterised by the exploitation of the transcendent, rich, pastoral beauty of the land for the profit and gain of large industrial companies, and where every aspect of nature is now financially valued and exploited by mankind because of the omnipotence of globalised capitalism. Arguably, this process began at the turn of the nineteenth century as the industrial revolution began to increase exploitation of the natural environment exponentially. In these texts, Abbey and Hardy express a barely disguised disdain for the human-centred epochs of industrial progress at crucial points in the Anthropocene, and this essay is concerned with the ways in which pastoral concepts pervade their work.

The pastoral as a literary form is characterised as, ‘a long tradition which began in poetry, developed into drama and more recently […] recognised in novels,’ and it is derived from, ‘early Greek and Roman poems about life in the country, and about the life of the shepherd in particular.’ However, David James and Philip Tew state: ‘That Arcadian images of rustic settings and encounters are often characterised in geographically abstract, romanticised terms has compromised a more sensitive understanding of the pastoral tradition as it intersects with phases of literary innovation.’ They show that the pastoral form is often loaded with more nuance and depth and carries with it many diverse significations about culture and society. Pastoralism ‘self-reflexively dramatises those contested and contentious intersections of rural and urban zones […] its ostensible setting […] the volatility with which regional landscapes are drawn across time into cultural proximity.’ This reading reflects the physical and psychological conflicts that the characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang and The Woodlanders enact. On one level, they face conflicts around the urbanised mechanical industries encroaching the physical, natural landscape. On a much deeper level there are psychological ideas around mankind deliberately returning to a more primitive state of pastoral existence and rejecting the modern encroachment of technologisation. It is a nostalgic form and Freud writes in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis that the feeling of attaching ourselves to the land that is unspoiled by modernity is part of a ‘chronic yearning to enjoy “freedom from the grip of the external world,’’’ so the pastoral form allows a replicated sense of escape from the complexities of the capitalist technologies of the metropole. It is technology that binds the Anthropocene together as a hegemonic structure looming over and threatening the pastoral ideal of a more harmonious life with nature. Hardy and Abbey both reach out nostalgically to the Ovidian ideas of ‘The Golden Age’ where: ‘The earth was equally free and at rest, untouched by the | hoe, | unscathed by the ploughshare, supplying all needs from | its natural resources,’ and where mankind and nature are symbiotically joined in pastoral existence. However, with the constant burgeoning of mass technological culture, the pastoral ideas are often interpreted as a ‘false ideology’ because the form can be viewed as artificial as it exists only as an art form and has no practical usage in contemporary life. Leo Marx refers to the pastoral ideals as ‘infantile, wish-fulfilment dreams, a diffuse nostalgia, and a naïve, anarchic primitivism’, because traditional pastoral traits are often ambiguous or allegorical. Living off the natural landscape and being surrounded by nature may sound idyllic but in reality, would be extremely problematic and a pastoral reading can render that linear gap irrelevant in terms of the common ideology Hardy and Abbey wish to express.

Hardy and Abbey both manipulate the pastoral form to explore the expanding Anthropocene and the tensions it creates with regards to the ecological environment. The proximity of the two texts is enshrined through their use of the ambiguity of the pastoral form and its allegorical qualities to express a common ideology: a severe critique of the ongoing threat of the Anthropocene and a nostalgic longing for a better if not always achievable past.

The central figures in The Woodlanders are all signifiers of the different states of the Anthropocene. Set in the ‘partly real, partly dream-country’, of Little Hintock, the area is reminiscent of the idealised pastoral surroundings that Hardy experienced himself and is celebrated through the character of Giles Winterbourne. Giles has ‘the qualities he had learned to admire in his own father […] there are hints throughout the book of nostalgic yearnings towards simpler days and ways […] identified in his imagination.’ Hardy creates a rural village atmosphere where the population is slowly being demarcated into ‘workfolk’, who are the traditional family villagers who have lived in the area all of their lives and live naturally from the resources of the land, and the ‘townspeople’, who are inevitably now invading the pastoral space from the cities. These ‘townspeople’ are the signifiers of the Anthropocene as they often behave in morally corrupt ways throughout the novel. Giles, a symbol of the magnificent but fragile surroundings, is very much a central pastoral figure and solidifies Hardy’s ideology around ‘character and environment’. Giles is intrinsically intertwined with nature:

He had a marvellous power of making trees grow. Although he would seem to shovel in the earth quite carelessly there was a sort of sympathy between himself and the fir, oak, or beech that he was operating on […] Winterbourne’s fingers were endowed with a gentle conjuror’s touch in spreading the roots of each little tree, resulting in a sort of caress under which the delicate fibres all laid themselves out in their proper directions for growth.

He is a powerful representation of the traditional view of mankind living the Ovidian poetic lifestyle; he is also morally upstanding throughout the narrative and a showcase of pastoral power. Giles represents the Marxian view that ‘man is part of nature.’ In true pastoral fashion, the respect that Giles shows nature is reciprocated in kind, and he is always well-treated in return by his natural surroundings. Jonathan Bate states that Giles knows ‘the language of the wood, ‘the tongue of the trees and fruits and flowers themselves’’, and he is inextricably linked to Little Hintock’s history as he has never travelled to any further locations beyond the local area. His rootedness in the pastoral landscape also means that Giles’ knowledge of the developing world is limited, so he is unaware of the full consequences of the Anthropocenic industrial revolution emerging around him. He signifies the theory that the people who are still close to the land, in an almost romanticised view, are good, noble and decent. They have not been corrupted by the industrial world which brings with it the threat of nature’s destruction. In the text, Hardy ‘frequently figures the landscape as a human body’, but that body is slowly being attacked by roads and the railway which ‘has brought national and potentially international forms of commerce which have no need to respect geographical particularity.’ By anthropomorphising the land, Hardy brings the reader closer to it, evincing a certain sympathetic reaction towards it by rendering the landscape human rather than wild or malevolent.

The tensions between the pastoral and the Anthropocene begin to grow with the arrival into the village of Grace Melbury. Grace was originally set to marry Giles after she returned from being educated at a finishing school but refuses, thus breaking his heart. Hardy depicts her experience of the world beyond the village as a corrupting one and she now cares little for the village surroundings:

[…] the fact at present was merely this, that where he was seeing John-apples and farm-buildings she was beholding a much contrasting scene: a broad lawn in the fashionable suburb of a fast city […] bounding girls, gracefully clad in artistic arrangements of blue, brown, red, and white, were playing at games, with laughter and chat […] the notes of piano and harp trembling in the air.

Here there is a clear contrast with Giles’ characterisation, as Grace cannot appreciate her roots in the countryside. The naturalistic environment simply reminds her of a modern, urban existence which she has experienced and now yearns for. The memories that Giles alludes to during this passage are now gone, replaced by the technological advances represented by modern architecture, fashion and music. Bate states: ‘For the old woodlanders, there is no division between human intercourse and local environment. The presence of memory means that countryside is inhabited rather than viewed aesthetically.’ Hardy sees her modern cultivation as a negative prospect: ‘she had fallen from the good old Hintock ways.’ Her engagement with the Anthropocene is depicted as a fall, reminiscent of the Biblical Edenic fall of mankind after Eve eats from the tree of knowledge. Hardy shows how Grace has eaten from the tree of knowledge, in this case the Anthropocene, and has also fallen, so she is no longer the morally pure character she was before her departure, her engagement with the land is broken just as she will break her engagement to Giles.

Grace cancels her wedding to Giles because she falls in love with Dr Fitzpiers. In complete contrast to Giles, Fitzpiers represents the urbanised, educated, modern man. When Fitzpiers first encounters Grace, he uses a spyglass to observe her through the trees. His use of modern technology here illustrates his disregard for nature. He will marry Grace but then have an affair with Mrs Charmond who is the rich local estate owner who also has no regard also for the local inhabitants. Fitzpiers believes that ‘Everything is nothing’ and ‘there’s only me and not me in the world’, and this worldview works in complete opposition to the pastoral ideal of living intrinsically with nature. He captures the postmodern tension-filled moment of the Anthropocene that Hardy expresses: as humanity moves away from pastoral ideas it loses a sense of self as the technological cloud looms over and grows to surround mankind. Fitzpiers behaves in morally corrupt and criminal ways, and he sees himself as a transcendentalist who lives above and beyond the natural environment. Fitzpiers is an example of what theorist Jose Ortega called the Naturmensch who are ‘rising up in the midst of a civilised world.’ Ortega claims:

The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not: he does not see the civilisation of the world around him, but he uses it as though it were a natural force […] In the depths of his soul he is unaware of the artificial, almost incredible, character of civilisation […] The actual mass-man is, in fact, a primitive who has slipped through the wings on to the age-old stage of civilisation. There is continual talk today of the fabulous progress of technical knowledge; but I see no signs in this talk […] of its future.

Fitzpiers is a Naturmensch, corrupted by technology and so-called progress in the Anthropocene but unwilling to see how corrupt he has become as a result of his scant regard for nature or humanity. For Fitzpiers, the concept of the pastoral is devoid of any value, and he represents a myopic anthropocentric view of humanity’s relationship with nature. Hardy expresses Fitzpiers’ world view and the anthropocentric outlook as being morally corrupt, and lacking in genuine intellectual refinement; not valuing what is pure, unprocessed and natural.

Hardy’s pessimistic outlook continues in relation to the inevitable demise of nature: ‘The leaf was deformed, the curve crippled, the taper was interrupted; the lichen ate the vigour of the stalk, and the ivy slowly strangled to death the promising sapling. They dived amid beeches under which nothing grew’, and, ‘They halted beneath a half-dead oak, hollow, and disfigured with white tumours, its roots spreading out like claws grasping the ground […] The vale was wrapped in a dim atmosphere of unnaturalness, and the east was like a livid curtain.’ This visceral imagery suggests the slow death of the natural surroundings. Hardy uses an unsettling and graphic expression to deliberately personify the landscape to engender further sympathy from the reader. The Ovidian pastoral poetics of The Golden Age have been symbolically replaced in the novel with a reminder that the environment is dying, and rather than living in harmony with the natural landscape, mankind is now ravaging it slowly through the insistent and unstoppable expansion of the Anthropocene. The pastoral ideal in Hardy’s world is being slowly destroyed through the ignorance of mankind and a meaningless march towards industrialisation. Little Hintock is a ‘microcosm’ that is, ‘battered by the rudeness of urban life’. Hardy’s The Woodlanders is part of a literary movement which found: ‘the disturbance of symbolic natural spaces for the sake of economic progress […] a source of outrage, and whipped up some of the first waves of organised environmentalism in England.’ Hardy’s nineteenth century expression of outrage at the destruction of an idyllic way of life in the countryside still exemplifies the cultural anxieties of the time, but also serves as an effective and relevant link to twentieth century expressions of distaste and unease about the rising tide of the Anthropocene.

Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang was written in 1975 and shares the same pastoral concerns that Hardy does, where one of the principal differences between the two authors is that Abbey is even more graphic in his depiction of the destruction of the environment. The protagonists in the text represent a broad spectrum of society: George Hayduke, a Vietnam military veteran, ‘Seldom Seen’ Smith, a polygamist Mormon, Dr. ‘Doc’ Sarvis and his young female assistant Bonnie Abbzug. This is a diverse group of characters who all feel the nostalgia for the pastoral lands of the American south-west and use a form of eco-terrorism to try and halt the effects of the Anthropocene. Unlike Hardy’s obviously ‘moral’ and ‘corrupt’ categories of characters, Abbey’s characters originate from an array of versatile backgrounds and show the universal anxiety that the Anthropocene creates, as well as highlighting a nuanced and sometimes problematic relationship with nature. The characters are, or have been, relatively successful but are, for various reasons dissatisfied with life in 1970s America, as mechanised industry and the growth of globalised capitalism is destroying the ecological structures of the vast landscape of the south-west. These protagonists are manifestly frustrated with the expansion of corporate business and they see varying degrees of vandalism, sabotage, and eventually violence as a route to halting the destruction of the natural environment by the expanding Anthropocene.

The reader can see how Abbey links back to more traditional pastoral ideas as the characters are first introduced, but also shows the visceral anger they feel when the environment is under threat:

[…] he had been remembering only to find it no longer what he remembered, no longer the clear and classical desert, the pellucid sky he roamed in dreams […] The open desert was being scraped bare of all vegetation, all life, by giant D-9 bulldozers […] This in the home of free creatures: horned toads, desert rats, Gila monsters and coyotes. Even the sky, that dome of delirious blue which he once thought was out of reach, was becoming a dump for the gaseous garbage.

This is when the reader first encounters Hayduke and Abbey uses Hayduke’s thoughts to establish a clear agenda. The gentleness of the pastoral elements of ‘open desert’ and ‘free creatures’ is juxtaposed with images of ‘D-9 bulldozers’ and ‘gaseous garbage’. There is a direct attack on the Anthropocene and the idea of business and capitalism invading the ecological sphere. Hayduke is nostalgic for the land he used to love, and later, ‘he drove on and on, northeast toward the high country, the good country, God’s country, Hayduke’s country, by God. And it better stay that way,’ Hayduke feels that the land is holy and sacred and he has a religious connection to it. This idea is reminiscent of both the pastoral Ovidian ‘Golden Age’ whereby the land is untouched and humanity exists harmoniously intertwined with it, but also the biblical Garden of Eden which is corrupted by humanity as mankind seeks progress. The desert is being desecrated just as Eden is shattered by the Anthropocene.

Abbey was a keen environmentalist and would regularly tour the mid to Southwestern states of America, writing: ‘I am here not only to evade for a while the clamour and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us.’ He sees ideas of humanity and nature being interwoven as vital to human sustainability, and he has a similar outlook as Hardy’s Giles Winterbourne. David Gessner describes Abbey’s passionate defence of nature in the face of a seemingly unstoppable but insidious industrial force:

The other obstacle is getting people to really believe that this is a land in crisis […] we wonder: how can this giant really be threatened by us, the few and the puny? It can because this giant – and the animals and plants that live on it – is already involved in a daily precarious daily fight for survival.

Abbey’s belief that ‘Nature and nation are closely intertwined’, means it is up to the people, ‘the few and the puny’, not connected with business and corporate expansionism to stand up to ‘this giant’. This David and Goliath reference is another example of the emotional rhetoric that is prevalent in his work. Hayduke and the other protagonists in the text fully embrace a Freudian retreat, rejecting civilisation for a regressive existence. It is in that regressive state that a more beautiful pastoral existence may be experienced.

In contrast to a peaceful existence however, the methods Abbey’s characters use are violent and dangerous due to their seething anger at the relentless march of technology: ‘Look at them, rolling along on their rubber tires in their two-ton entropy cars polluting the air we breathe, raping the earth.’ Here, Doc’s scorn is aimed at the American people buying into ideas of car ownership expansion as money and technology grows, despite ‘raping’ the earth. While the gang’s use of motor vehicles throughout clearly problematises this criticism, the theme of the molestation of the earth is evident throughout: ‘Hayduke and Smith […] drove on, sunward, downward, riverward, upwind, into the red-rocked rimrock country of the Colorado River, heart of the heart of the American West […] Instead of a river he looked down on a motionless body of murky green effluent, dead, stagnant, dull, a scum of oil on the surface.’ Abbey repeats the technique that Hardy employs, personifying nature, thus creating a dark sense of human destruction on the land. It gives the impression in Abbey’s text that nature is innocent and its ‘motionless body’ is being ‘raped’ and having its heart stopped figuratively by humanity.

The paradox that both texts present is that they both try to form a nostalgic idealised view of humanity’s relationship with nature through the pastoral form, but idealisation of a ‘Golden’ age past is not realistic and the pastoral is often interpreted as lacking authenticity. It is very much through a romanticised pastoralist lens that Abbey and Hardy both write but the ideas surrounding humanity being symbiotically entwined with nature are quite problematic. Abbey and Hardy both relate to the poetry of Ovid and adapt it to use as a protest in their writing but ultimately, Hardy’s Giles Winterbourne dies in The Woodlanders whilst the other corrupt characters live on. Abbey’s characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang are sometimes comic in the way they are presented which makes them more identifiable as human flawed and complicated characters.

While Hardy and Abbey convey similar concerns about the encroaching and expansionist demands of the Anthropocene on the pastoral ideal of nature, their approach differs greatly. Hardy employs the tropes of ‘good’ or ‘moral’ characters to direct the reader to concur that's man’s exploitation of the natural environment is a morally questionable endeavour. Abbey, while being no less evangelical in his mission to convert the reader, uses more varied characters to explore the ethics of balancing a pastoral endeavour against the loss of human life. They may both be accused of naivety or the kind of ‘anarchic primitivism’ which Leo Marx refers to, but the methods they utilise stem from and form a pastoral tradition which evolves from Ovid through Milton and Spenser, and relies on the central conceit that the natural environment deserves an elevated status, and that the anthropocenic epoch ignores this at its peril.      


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Tim Moffatt