Cover image for Chaos and Cosmos: Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Century By Heidi C. M. Scott

Chaos and Cosmos

Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Century

Heidi C. M. Scott


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224 pages
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Chaos and Cosmos

Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Century

Heidi C. M. Scott

“Heidi Scott’s book belongs to the ‘new wave’ of ecocriticismscientifically literate and fully engaged with the urgent issues of environmental deterioration, global warming, and sustainability. She connects the new scientific zeitgeist of complexity and chaos with the poetics of ecology, showing how, intriguingly, the poets got there first. More importantly, the sciences and humanities share a single vision here, as they must if the planet is to be saved.”


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In Chaos and Cosmos, Heidi Scott integrates literary readings with contemporary ecological methods to investigate two essential and contrasting paradigms of nature that scientific ecology continues to debate: chaos and balance. Ecological literature of the Romantic and Victorian eras uses environmental chaos and the figure of the balanced microcosm as tropes essential to understanding natural patterns, and these eras were the first to reflect upon the ecological degradations of the Industrial Revolution. Chaos and Cosmos contends that the seed of imagination that would enable a scientist to study a lake as a microcosmic world at the formal, empirical level was sown by Romantic and Victorian poets who consciously drew a sphere around their perceptions in order to make sense of spots of time and place amid the globalizing modern world.

This study’s interest goes beyond likening literary tropes to scientific aesthetics; it aims to theorize the interdisciplinary history of the concepts that underlie our scientific understanding of modern nature. Paradigmatic ecological ideas such as ecosystems, succession dynamics, punctuated equilibrium, and climate change are shown to have a literary foundation that preceded their status as theories in science. This book represents an elevation of the prospects of ecocriticism toward fully developed interdisciplinary potentials of literary ecology.

“Heidi Scott’s book belongs to the ‘new wave’ of ecocriticismscientifically literate and fully engaged with the urgent issues of environmental deterioration, global warming, and sustainability. She connects the new scientific zeitgeist of complexity and chaos with the poetics of ecology, showing how, intriguingly, the poets got there first. More importantly, the sciences and humanities share a single vision here, as they must if the planet is to be saved.”
“This expansive, well-written, and provocative study employs key ecological tropes to generate important new insights into the environmental valence of Romantic and Victorian literature. Heidi Scott’s close examination of narratives of apocalypse and toxicity is especially powerful, as is her connection of an emergent nineteenth-century ecology to current ecological paradigms, including chaotic change, disturbance ecology, and natural systems theory. Profoundly interdisciplinary in bridging the natural sciences, the humanities, and the cultural discourses of ecology, Chaos and Cosmos is a genuinely significant contribution to current scholarship in ecocriticism.”
“Heidi Scott's book deserves to be an instant classic of ecocritical analysis. Written in clear, often memorably vivid prose, Chaos and Cosmos is at once uniquely informed by scientific ecology and deeply satisfying as a work of literary criticism.”
“Scott offers a deeply compelling illustration of what a genuinely interdisciplinary critical attempt can look like, and she does so with boldness, warmth, and a profound knowledge of both cultures she addresses.”
“The range of the book is wide and ambitious. A reader interested in the long nineteenth century as well as contemporary ecological matters should read this book.”
“A thoughtful addition to an ecocritical idiom characterized by shuttling between current concerns and past resources.”

Heidi C. M. Scott is Assistant Professor of English at Florida International University.



Introduction: Beyond the Dichotomy

Part 1 Chaos

Romantic Chaos: Natural Patterns Disturbed

Victorian Chaos: Industrial Disruptions

Today’s Science Nonfiction

Part 2 Microcosm

Romantic Microcosms: Brain Worlds

Victorian Microcosms: Domestic Systems

Today’s Scientific Modeling

Part 3 Keats and Ecology: A Case Study

The Literary Empiricist

Hyperion: The Chaos of Tartarus

Microcosmic Odes


Works Consulted


Beyond the Dichotomy

Two Portraits of Nature

Ecological theories offer ideological portraits of nature. As portraiture can disclose an individual’s origins, talents, deeds, powers, and disposition, not just his or her physical appearance, various portraits of nature can be fantastically contradictory. The classic ecological paradigm of nature favored well into the twentieth century depicts a character that is fundamentally balanced, nurturing, and intelligible, with a face that changes only gradually. More recently, postmodern ecology depicts nature as inherently chaotic, stochastic, and subject to catastrophic change: a character with an unstable personality.

Imagine these two distinct aesthetic cohorts, one temperate and one tempestuous, on display at an exhibit. The first wall holds representations of nature as an old-growth forest, a fanning coral reef, an entangled riverbank. Subject to simple natural laws, its delicate balance emerges from biodiversity, and its changes are gradual and tend to articulate favorable adaptations. The nature of the balance paradigm is readily degraded by human impacts, and our life sciences investigate ways to tinker with imbalance to restore an original ideal, or climax, state. Balanced nature is also the landscape of human stewardship and dominion, hearkening back to Eden.

The second wall presents portraits of an atoll drowned by a hurricane surge, the fluorescent cascade of a lava flow, a plume of oil and gas rising from a pipe on the sea floor. Predictable only through probabilistic calculus, changes are rapid, nonteleological, and subject to the impact of chance events. These portraits of chaotic nature are sensational and awe-inspiring. They partake of the aesthetics of the sublime by making the observer feel small and powerless. Ironically, these sublime forces of change that make humans feel small within the shadow of rioting nature are, in postmodern ecology, now projecting our own activities onto the canvas. Homo sapiens have gone from being the observers of sublime chaos in nature to being co-authors of it. “Natural disaster” and “act of God” will never have that simple sense of passive innocence they had before the Industrial Revolution and consequential climate change. Even though we know that climate is not the same as weather, a shift in consciousness in the twenty-first century makes every flood, drought, hurricane, extinction, famine, disease, and invasive species potentially traceable to our balance sheet. The paradigms of classic balanced nature and postmodern chaotic nature are two ways of portraying an immensely diverse and complex natural world. Ecological paradigms are never strictly objective; they are colored by the cultural conditions of their emergence.

Within the past half century, ecological science has critiqued the balance paradigm as a misleading, quasi-mystical construct that forces economic and mechanical models on the obscure dynamics of ecological interconnection. A major trend in ecology today identifies at least three important departures from this classic paradigm, in effect navigating between models of balance and cataclysm. These ideas are not universally accepted by ecologists, but they have become mainstream theories of natural patterns.

The first finding is that ecological communities are shaped by chaotic and random forces. Population dynamics and species distribution must be understood through stochastic processes that make changes in environments difficult to predict. Landscapes are thought to be composed predominantly of species mosaics wrought by chaos and chance rather than communities united by synergy and mutualism.

Second, evolution is not only based on adaptation but, at least as significantly, reacts to environmental contingency. Extinctions and rapid shifts in morphology can be explained more effectively through a rubric of catastrophe and random drift than through the gradual and intelligible articulation of superior adaptations over deep time. Extinction tends not to be the result of interspecies competition, with the superior form winning out, as Darwin claimed. Instead, most extinction is due to random environmental disturbances on many scales, from regional ripples to global cataclysms. As a consequence, adaptation is itself radically contingent upon circumstances, and most evolution takes place only after disturbance. This theory of evolution by punctuated equilibrium is a revision of Darwinian gradualism in the era of chaos ecology.

Finally, human impacts are the most important factor in ecological disturbance as we move into the twenty-first century. The interscalar impacts in our era include greenhouse gas emissions, habitat appropriation, deforestation, chemical changes in oceans and fresh water, intense harvesting of fisheries, and industrial agriculture driven by petrochemicals. Ecology’s most pressing questions come from the exigencies of human impacts on the biosphere; these impacts are superadded to the scientific proposal that the background character of nature is itself chaotic. Chaos ecology revolutionizes classical views of a balanced natural world that have dictated scientific perceptions since at least the Enlightenment. For better and worse, it is the new creative principle in ecology, and its roots reach down into Romantic-era soil. This study explores literary expressions of ecological chaos starting in the Romantic period. It claims that nineteenth-century literary narratives played a seminal role in sketching out the postmodern view of chaotic nature that would emerge in ecological science of the late twentieth century.

The microcosm, another scientific concept with Romantic precedents, works in this study as the counterpoint to chaos ecology. Microcosm is an empiricist’s tool for modeling ecological processes that often relies upon the ideal of a balanced nature. The physical and theoretical constructs available in microcosms helped ecology become an experimental science in the twentieth century, moving past the methods, based upon observation and cataloguing, of earlier natural historians. Microcosm experiments propose that ecologists can build, maintain, and manipulate small systems in order to shed light on the complex dynamics of nature in larger, real-life scales. Ecological microcosms are domesticated, simplified ecosystems: mechanistic models that serve as proxies for natural environments. They are particularly useful in the study of disturbance because they can be used to model pollution, extinction, and other stress gradients that ecologists would not want or be able to manipulate in real environments.

Still, microcosms are ideal constructs that assume that there are discrete environments in nature, such as ecosystems with closed communities, rather than a continuum of greater and lesser similarity of form that ranges across the globe. The circumscription of discrete small worlds is itself a conceptual convenience that is imperfectly reflected in the biosphere. By experimenting with species composition and with chemical and energetic balances in the model, ecologists hope to discover what causes underlie disturbance and degradation in larger environments that had once been stable. These two figures of thought, chaos and the microcosm, have a theoretical role in the debate over nature’s character as chaotic, balanced, or some combination of the two, as well as an applied basis in the actual methods of experimental ecology.

I propose that the seed of imagination that would enable a scientist to study a lake as a microcosm at the formal, empirical level was sown by poets of the nineteenth century who consciously drew a sphere around small-scale nature in order to make sense of spots of time and place amid the increasingly chaotic, global, industrial modern world. This book interrogates the literary origins of the two tropes, and how they have been transcribed into the sciences of nature. It proposes that innovative nineteenth-century narratives of ecological disturbance foresaw chaos ecology at a time when gradualism and balance were paradigms of natural history. It also proposes that nineteenth-century poets helped scientists conceive of ways to simplify nature in microcosm without dismembering its complex structures. Scientific reductionism tends toward atomies and dismantled systems, but the microcosm attempts to reduce organic systems without dissecting them. Microcosm experiments are akin to a particular kind of poetic lyrical holism, in both image and prosody. These two tropes, the chaotic narrative and the microcosm model, effectively align disparate portraits of nature in nineteenth-century literature, and bring the nascent ecological sciences into a dialogue with literary prophecy. They make ecological theory interdisciplinary in the distinct arenas of narrative (natural history) and the structured complex poetic image (empirical design).

From this study of literature and ecological science, we may draw the conclusion that the imagination at play in literature provides an alternative, perhaps richer, form of modeling ecological change, especially the nonlinear change seen in chaos ecology. Although the various forms of scientific modeling are essential to predicting how impacted systems will change, the constraints of artificial and reductive design can also cause problems when the models stand in for natural systems and become the major focus of the science. Perhaps literary microcosms represent a more organic form of conceiving ecological systems that is valuable to theories of natural dynamics currently dominated by the scientific model. Because literary models are dedicated neither to reducing complex systems to their barest minimum, nor to abstracting them to accommodate millions of variables, they may remain expansive and fluid, they may preserve historical memories of ecosystems, and, by their articulate poetic form, they may compel readers to attend, comprehend, and care for the actual natural space they contain in prosody and imagery.

Chaos and Cosmos raises the stakes on ecocriticism’s claim that literature generates essential knowledge about nature complementary to our scientific views. I contend that literature in the early decades of industrialism achieved a unique narrative perspective on the transformation of landscapes, and that poets began to model natural systems as empirical entities contained within the natural parameters of prosody. This perspective is continuous with scientific ecological methods generated over the course of the twentieth century. Ecocritical perspectives often oppose literary thought (and its catalysts, inspiration and imagination) to scientific method (design and repetition); this outworn creed ignores the affinities of investigation based on intimate knowledge of ecosystems. Both writers and ecologists are close readers of natural systems, and both use imagination to rework cryptic natural processes into coherent theories that elucidate patterns—even chaotic patterns.

Moreover, the British nineteenth century provided a unique nexus of cultural, historical, and disciplinary crossings that allow us to look back on a cohort of writers not only as poets sympathetic to natural forms, but as investigators of a changing landscape. For example, Dorothy Wordsworth is at once a poet, diarist, natural historian, and social ecologist during a time of war and revolution. In addition to being an empiricist, Charles Darwin is a storyteller who crafted the most important narrative of the nineteenth century out of a wealth of disparate case studies. Richard Jefferies’s immersive writing on the rural nature of Wiltshire was colored by his mid-nineteenth-century context, which imposed industrial transformation and the despoilment of the British countryside on his otherwise idyllic close readings.

Environmentalist ideals are often woven in with ecological paradigms, but this book is focused on the ways in which we know nature (ecological epistemology) more than on the ways in which we ought to act within it (environmental ethics). Of course, literature of the environment is laced with ethical convictions, and scientific ecology inevitably is, too, so this division between epistemology and ethics is permeable. Ecologically minded people are not only scientists but are also nature writers, dumpster divers, environmental justice advocates, urban gardeners, and annotators of almanacs. We are people living within acculturated nature—which includes wilderness areas, farms, suburbs, exurbs, and cities. Nonetheless, there is an important distinction between “ecologist”—one who studies the interactions between organisms and their environment—and “environmentalist,” one who advocates an ethics-based set of human behaviors within nature. Chaos and Cosmos circles around literary and scientific ecologists.

Ecocriticism often wrangles with its own limits of authority, questioning whether literary critics are in a position to comment on scientific epistemology outside the conventional bounds of metaphor, trope, rhetoric, theory, and history. Greg Garrard’s influential primer on the field recognizes ecocriticism’s close relationship with the science of ecology, but his stance is one of subordination when it comes to elucidating “problems in ecology”: “Ecocritics remain suspicious of the idea of science as wholly objective and value-free, but they are in the unusual position as cultural critics of having to defer, in the last analysis, to a scientific understanding of the world” (10). Certainly, the general point Garrard is making is valid: ecocritics are in the tricky position of supporting scientific findings (like climate change) while maintaining a strategic distance that allows for critical perspectives on inherent subjectivity and gender, sex, race, and species biases in the practice of science. Literary studies, even those based on ecology, have a reputation for being antiscientific: a dangerous rap that we must openly disavow. One of the challenges to ecocriticism that Garrard outlines is that the field needs to “develop constructive relations between the humanities and the environmental sciences” (178). In particular, ecocritics need to address the inconsistency between literary pastoral or Gaia-inspired views of nature in harmonious balance and postmodern ecology’s view of nature as inherently dynamic and unpredictable (178). I propose that ecocriticism can do better than play the role of duplicitous sibling to ecological science. Ecocriticism can theorize how the scientific understanding of nature has literary origins. Literature begat methods of narrative and modeling in ecological science via seamy collaborations with philosophy, natural history, and the established natural sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology. When this interdisciplinary argument is accepted, literature is promoted to progenitor of our scientific understanding of the natural world. As an ancestor, literature shares responsibility for the very biases that humanities scholars hasten to expose in their analyses of science.

In recent years ecocritics have followed many intriguing links between nature and literature that go beyond the classic vision of first, or primary, Nature—the austere wilderness ideal of nature “out there,” which Kate Soper has also called “metaphysical nature” (155–56). Replacing the mythos of the wilderness is the contemporary vision of second nature—an environment entangled with human uses, which in our time involves disturbance, degradation, and chaotic change. Primary Nature is a proper noun—a construct of the entirely extrahuman. It is a wilderness that no longer exists. Second nature is the set of environments that we actually dwell in, cultivate, enrich, and despoil—what Soper has dubbed “lay nature.” Between metaphysical Nature and lay nature is the material system that is the natural sciences’ object of study, what Soper calls “realist nature.” Literary ecocritics in particular should be interested in claiming this realist nature as an object of investigation for literature as well as the sciences.

Ecocritics cut their teeth on metaphysical Nature in the latter part of the twentieth century, with special concentration on German, British, and American Romanticism. In the past decade or so, lay nature has succeeded as the most important locus for the attention of ecocriticism, especially as the field has turned toward lived-in environments built around postcolonial, socioeconomic, queer, and industrial-era revisions of pure Nature. Even ecocritics with British Romantic concentrations, such as Jonathan Bate, Alan Bewell, Timothy Morton, and James McKusick, have in recent years written extensively on disturbed environments rather than pristine ones. Bate’s Song of the Earth is the shiniest green among the four, but his book includes an important reading of disturbance surrounding the 1815 Tambora eruption extending to Keats in 1819 (104–5). Bewell’s book on colonial disease transmission has important implications for the spread of ecological calamity in a global economy. Morton’s adoption of “dark ecology” expounds on the obsolescence of Gaia and harmony in preference for a mournful intimacy with ecological sickness. The work of these four ecocritics (as well as many others working in American and non-Western literatures) highlights the kinship between environmental literature and close reading, historical concurrence, and literary theory. James McKusick’s Green Writing is an important contribution to transatlantic Romantic theory that details the ways in which American nature writers inherited the ideas of their British forerunners. McKusick comes the closest to my interest in the dual characterization of nature as balanced and chaotic, and, like Jonathan Bate, he occasionally uses scientific discourse to elucidate literary texts. For example, he asks the reader to imagine Romantic literary society as an ecosystem, “a vibrant community in which competition and synergy, exchange of ideas and flow of information, predators and prey, hosts and parasites, all coexist in the turbulent vortex of a shared environment” (18). The analogy of societies as ecosystems seeking synergy and troubled by chaos is a mainstay of human ecology. However, these literary studies do not pursue a specific claim about the literary origins of ecological science. As a fully interdisciplinary study, Chaos and Cosmos pays more attention to ecological studies than is conventional in literary criticism, and conducts more readings of novels and poems than any scientific work would do. It traces the ancestry of ecological science to find lurking literary forebears.

Poems and novels can elucidate the material processes, species relationships, and tempo of change ongoing in the physical world. We generally expect science to conduct this investigative work. Instead, I would argue that literature provides insightful systemic readings of physical nature that often predate scientific attention. The aim of this book is to establish how literature was involved in formal explorations of realist nature before scientific ecology existed. The nineteenth century of industrialism and colonialism undid the capitalization of Nature as an austere proper noun. This semantic change to “nature” demonstrates how some literature of this period challenged the classical paradigm of economic balance before ecological science had its methods in place. These two essential literary tropes, chaos and the microcosm, have evolved over the past two centuries into theories and methods in ecology.

Around 1887, near the end of his short life, the British writer and naturalist Richard Jefferies penned a precocious observation on the tension between the paradigms of balance and chaos, which he called “The Absence of Design in Nature”:

When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty, and hope there is in a divine chaos—not chaos in the sense of disorder or confusion but simply the absence of order—than there is in a universe made by pattern. This draught-board universe my mind had laid out: this machine-made world and piece of mechanism; what a petty, despicable, microcosmos I had substituted for the reality. Logically, that which has a design or a purpose has a limit. The very idea of a design or a purpose has since grown repulsive to me, on account of its littleness. I do not venture, for a moment, even to attempt to supply a reason to take the place of the exploded plan. I simply deliberately deny, or, rather, I have now advanced to that stage that to my own mind even the admission of the subject to discussion is impossible. I look at the sunshine and feel that there is no contracted order: there is divine chaos, and, in it, limitless hope and possibilities. (Old House at Coate 163)

This passage, vehement and celebratory, lays out the organizing principle of the present study. Jefferies’s divine chaos recovers hope from Victorian angst by substituting the sublime splendor of infinite creativity for a preordained mechanistic cosmos. To be designed or purposeful, as he calls the “microcosmos,” is to be static, inorganic, regulated. Critiquing at once the religious conviction of divine Providence and the Enlightenment predilection to see nature as a grand machine, Jefferies asserts that the “absence of order” is a larger, liberating view of an organic natural world. Machines for industrial tasks are what humans sketch out on their drawing boards, but, by analogy, to reduce the earth to a “piece of mechanism” is to leech away the lifeblood of the vital, chaotic cosmos. Microcosms that model ecological processes occur in both literature and science. They serve to reduce the complexity of open natural systems to simplified, intelligible model systems. What is often sacrificed is the creativity, the serendipity, the breaking down of borders and limits enabled by the paradigm of a chance-driven and design-free nature.

In art theory, randomness has taken on positive connotations of serendipity, complexity, and unscripted authenticity. Akiko Busch describes the serendipity of craft, where artists cannot totally control the chaos of the wheel and the glaze colors that emerge from the kiln, and woodworkers seek out the unique grains and shapes that weather and climate impose on their medium. The reconciliation of randomness, of chaos, with design and control is an essential source of artistic creativity (75). Environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy crafts his pieces within the happenstance conditions of open settings, so that unpredictably changing winds, stream flows, light, and temperature play an essential role in the formation and dissolution of his work; he welcomes the chanciness of art al fresco. The poet Gary Snyder has written on the chaotic reciprocity between nature and language. Complexity in evolved wild systems, Snyder writes, “eludes the descriptive attempts of the rational mind. ‘Wild’ alludes to a process of self-organization that generates systems and organisms, all of which are within the constraints of—and constitute components of—larger systems that are again wild, such as major ecosystems or the water cycle in the biosphere. Wildness can be said to be the essential nature of nature. [. . .] So language does not impose order on a chaotic universe, but reflects its own wildness back” (174). Jefferies, Busch, Goldsworthy, and Snyder all celebrate randomness for its capacity to rupture the comfortable quotidian, one of art’s signal intents. They prefer portraits of nature in chaotic dress, where our human dominion within the elements may at any moment be challenged or overthrown, and where the pastoral idyll falls away to reveal a creative unknown. Postmodern nature introduces art and design theory to the chaotic muse. It is the radical denouncement of Ecclesiastes 1:9: “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.”

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