I would give you some of the specifics, but unfortunately I have been realizing lately that I am a historical illiterate. Virtually everything I know about the human past has been picked up from historical novels, movies, or asides in books about other things. I haven’t read a work of pure history in a long time, and it’s only recently – as I realized that modern industrial civilization is just as susceptible to collapse as the ones that have come before it – that I began to feel the weight of my ignorance.
Which brings us to Man and the Natural World by the British historian Keith Thomas. I found it for a dollar at an outdoor book market and was attracted to the title. Thomas describes changing attitudes to the natural world in early modern Britain, a time period that he sets at approximately 1500-1800. A great many things happened in the relationship between Britons and their natural environment during this period: enclosures of common land, increasing urbanization, the birth of scientific taxonomy, early attempts at conservation, and many others. I read a few pages, saw that Thomas was an engaging writer, and decided to take a first step towards dispelling my massive ignorance of the human past.
Man and the Natural World, as a study of attitudes, contains references to an extraordinary variety of sources, everything from poetry to pamphlets to popular sermons to the log books of merchants and aristocrats. Thomas realizes that to convince people that a certain belief was actually widely held, he must accumulate a fair amount of evidence, and the book often consists of fascinating lists of information. Here is an example from the chapter on botanical nomenclature:
Anyone who wants evidence of the way in which polite sensibilities have changed with the centuries need only consider the briskly anatomical nature of this now suppressed terminology, for in the seventeenth-century countryside there grew black maidenhair, naked ladies, pissabed (or shitabed), mares fart and priest’s ballocks. In the herb garden could be found horse pistle and prick madam; while in the orchard the open arse (or medlar) was a popular fruit. Even the black beetle was twitch-ballock and the long-tailed titmouse bum-towel. Many of today’s more fanciful flower names—lords and ladies, for example—are deliberate inventions of the nineteenth century, designed to obliterate some unacceptable indecency of the past…
If this passage bores you, don’t bother with Man and the Natural World. If you are delighted and a little sad that the pissabed is now called a dandelion, this book will give you endless pleasure. My favorite country-name for a plant was ‘welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk,’ now commonly known, apparently, as the houseleek, and still associated with virility in some quarters.
Man and the Natural World is more than a wonderful assemblage; Thomas’s arguments slowly emerge out of these progressions of lists, and his points are complicated and sometimes disturbing. For example, one might simply long for earlier times when local people knew plants and their functions. As Thomas demonstrates, though, these names only existed for plants with some obvious human utility, and placed man’s needs at the center of their world (pissabed describes the diuretic quality of the plant’s roots, whereas the more modern word dandelion apparently comes from the ‘lion’s tooth’ shape of the leaves themselves.) Early naturalists who came to rural people to help identify plants soon reached the limits of their knowledge; rural curiosity did not extend to even common plants that had no known human function, so the naturalists had to go around naming and classifying these plants themselves.
‘By eroding the old vocabulary, with its rich symbolic overtones,’ Thomas writes, ‘the naturalists had completed their onslaught on the long established notion that nature was responsive to human affairs.’ This may seem like a simple impoverishment, but it also led to the modern attitude, which I am certainly in sympathy with, that parts of the natural world deserve to be left alone whether people can get anything out of them or not.
Another fascinating chapter is on the human attitude towards animals. Thomas shows how urbanization and the keeping of pets led to a sentimental attitude towards animals (he has a list of animal names over time, showing how they got progressively closer to human ones) which then led, often, to the revulsion of city-dwellers towards country people who made a living off these animals. And the country people were, indeed, enormously cruel. Some of the old means of producing tastier meat, including nailing live ducks to a floor by their webs, are as brutal as anything one can find in a modern industrial plant, albeit on a smaller scale.
So which attitude is ‘correct’ — that of the practical countryman, or the city sentimentalist who refuses to give up the meat and services which these animals provide, but instead, like Gilbert White, simply plants a screen of trees to protect himself from the sight of the slaughterhouse? And to what extent is vegetarianism – which is my personal choice – even possible without the global supply lines that provide people in cold climates with a continuous supply of varied food?
These questions arise constantly while reading this book, because Thomas convincingly shows how most modern environmental attitudes actually arose out an increasing estrangement from nature, which then produced a longing for the world that was being destroyed, often without a concomitant willingness to give up the fruits of that destruction.
…by the end of the eighteenth century, a growing number of people had come to find man’s ascendancy over nature increasingly abhorrent to their moral and aesthetic sensibilities. This was the human dilemma: how to reconcile the physical requirements of civilization with the new feelings and values which that same civilization had generated…The growth of towns had led to a new longing for the countryside. The progress of cultivation had fostered a taste for weeds, mountains and unsubdued nature. The new-found security from wild animals had generated in increasing concern to protect birds and preserve wild creatures in their natural state. Economic independence of animal power and urban isolation from animal farming had nourished emotional attitudes which were hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with the exploitation of animals by which most people lived.
Obviously, none of these contradictions have gone away. It is generally comfortable city-dwellers that call for environmental protection, are quite convinced about climate change, and then take flights across the country to enjoy the scenery of their favorite national park, all while depending on massive quantities of resources to maintain every aspect of their lifestyle.
And yet some of the attitudes that such people have developed, even tinged with hypocrisy and a lack of practical knowledge, seem to have enduring value: a respect for nature outside its utility to man, compassion for the lives and suffering of animals, and an aesthetic feeling for wild as well as managed nature. As D. H. Lawrence once wrote, the road that modern man has been struggling along has been filled with waste and mistakes, and we may end up going back to where we came from, but it has also been a real journey; there has been some development along with the destruction. When we begin to return to a pre-industrial pattern of life – I am starting to suspect this will happen forcibly with the end of cheap oil, and probably entail a great deal of suffering – hopefully there are some lessons that can be saved from the path that we have been on. We also have lots of things to re-learn from past societies, and books like Thomas’s (his other classic work about the same early modern period is called Religion and the Decline of Magic) can help illuminate the road that led to the modern world, which we may soon be walking back down.