First FaculTea of the Year
People often have used the creative arts to make sense of the natural world. But none waxed on the subject quite like the British Romantics, who drew clear divisions between nature and the artificial, deeming all things “natural” as beautiful and good.
This view fascinates B. Ashton Nichols, a professor of English, Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies, expert on the works of Thoreau and former biology major whose love of literature is matched by a lifelong interest in the sciences. In his critically acclaimed book, Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting, he brings a fresh, interdisciplinary perspective to the Romantic-naturalist conversation. The conversation sprang to life on Oct. 5, when Nichols kicked off the 2011-12 FaculTea series with a brief explanation of his work.
Speaking to students, colleagues and community members, Nichols outlined the ways in which scientists, artists, writers, architects, spiritualists, philosophers and cultural historians approach the natural sciences and asserted that humans are part of, rather than separate from, nature. [Story continues below.]
“The one mistake many Romantic naturalists have made is in romanticizing nature,” he said, adding that the very idea of wilderness, as it is commonly understood, is a myth. “The time has come for a new idea and a new word to describe it.”
That word is “urbanature”—a blend of nature and urban life that, Nichols said, suggests that animate and inanimate things are “linked in a complex web of interdependent relatedness.” Following this logic, a child in the inner city who flips over a rock to see what lives underneath connects with nature in a valid way, and gardens springing up in blighted areas of Detroit are as authentically “natural” as the great Rocky Mountains.
After the presentation, Molly Orell ’15 said that Nichols’ words offered much food for thought. “This has driven me to think more critically about what is natural and what is not,” explained Orell, who is currently enrolled in a natural-science class at Dickinson. “I think he is brilliant.”
The FaculTea series promotes learning and collaboration across disciplines by allowing professors to share their latest research in an informal, social setting. All members of the campus and local communities are invited to attend.
By MaryAlice Bitts Jackson
Photos by Carl Socolow ’77