The Romantic poets and climate change

NatureIn the unlikely event that I was ever quizzed about it, I would describe myself as someone genuinely interested in nature. By nature I mean not essence or the inherent character of something but all that green and brown and blue stuff out there. Trees, paddocks, earth, sky and clouds. The animal, bird and marine life that gets on with things between earth and sky. And the winds, storms, heat and cold that sweep over it all.

From the time I first heard of it, I loved the idea of 'natura naturans' — 'nature naturing', nature doing its thing. This concept, popularised by the 17th century metaphysician, Spinoza, allows us to contemplate nature as a discrete system going about its business regardless of us and taking account of us only when forced to — like when we blow it up, cut it down, kill bits of it off, poison it etc.

The Romantic poets reckoned that there was a spirit within the natural world that you could connect with — something 'more deeply infused', as Wordsworth called it.

But Darwinism messed that up and Matthew Arnold, gazing at 'the mute turf we tread ... The strange-scrawled rocks, the lonely sky' decided if these had a voice they would say they were simply enduring, not rejoicing. Romanticism was done for; nature simply natured, regardless, so if nature was God, God was dead.

But even those of us who find comfort of whatever kind in nature can sometimes get too much of it. In the first fingers of pre-dawn light a week or so ago, I saw that the kangaroos were back, about six of them, each with an anxious, fussing joey. Around the same time, the ducks appeared leading a squadron of ducklings up from the dam to the garden mulch their parents had told them about.

In the same week, a large fox stared insolently at me when I came upon it in the scrub. A long Eastern Brown snake oiled its way into the curvaceous native grasses that the Higher Power of our domestic hierarchy had lovingly raised and planted. A rabbit irritably abandoned the lettuces when I inconveniently arrived to pick one. Crows expertly snipped, shelled and ate the broad beans, though not anywhere near as fast as we did. Magpies strutted and quarrelled with their querulous young wherever they chose to, including on the back doorstep. And flocks of exquisite yellow-beaked, grey-blue birds crowded into a wonderful, flowering native bush and protested wildly at any threatened incursion.

When you add much blooming, leafing, sprouting and fruiting this amounts to a fair bit of naturing.

But as if that wasn't enough, in the early gloom of another morning recently, investigating an odd looking bulky shape — a kind of deeper darkness among the still shadowy shrubs and saplings — I found myself being eyed by a large deer. Standard efforts to shift him, like loud profanity and violent arm-waving, produced only grunts and a testy stamping of hooves, before a closer approach sent the intruder off naturing elsewhere.

Living in a city does not necessarily mean being cut off from nature if you don't want to be. There are private gardens, potted plants, blackbirds and doves on light poles, city squares and their flowerbeds and drought-struggling lawns, parks and the Botanic Gardens. But is it possible, in city or country, to ignore the natural world in the same magisterial way that it ignores us?

Well, yes. In fact it's easy to imagine people who simply shut all this out, whose world is full, for example, of politics and policies, or stock markets and their vagaries, or poker machines and their inane tinkling orchestration of false promises. Someone who achieves this kind of exclusion of the natural world — one of our leading politicians, say — would be a ready-made climate change sceptic. In fact, beyond scepticism, because you need to be aware of something to be sceptical about it.

A person unaware of and cut off from nature, with a profound lack of interest in it, will be taken by surprise when nature, in its immutable and fathomless way, embarks on one of its punitive cycles. It might be a cyclone, a bushfire, a tsunami — or everything getting ineluctably hotter, drier and less predictable. If you weren't paying attention, if you were making a virtue of not paying attention, nature would pop up and grab you by the throat.

Who knows what price you might pay? You might even — horror of horrors! — lose an election.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and, most recently, The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG.



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