Gilbert White and everyday ecology


I feel very fondly for this article since it was finally something that draw on my personal feeling for ecological observation and rhythm. I wrote it whilst pregnant and my (and my daughter’s) growing body exerted its influence on how it developed. I was completely absorbed by the eighteenth-century natural historian Gilbert White and his extensive journals of nature observations of (mainly) his garden and environs in Selborne, Hampshire and was intrigued by how this modelled a kind of profound commitment to seeing, feeling, and archiving the non-human world. I used the Marxist theorist Henri LeFebvre’s idea of ‘rhythmanalysis’ to think about how the body is engaged in rhythm that is critically observant, and represents both a manifestation of and a crucial resistance to capital commodification. I connected White in this way to the slightly later protesting journalist and ‘ranter’, William Cobbett — seeing the two men converge in the tree that they both used their bodies to measure. This is an essay that attempts to understand everyday habits as deeply ecological.

The research for this was funded by a small grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which I used to visit archives of eighteenth-century weather observations at the Meteorological Office library in Exeter, and in various places in London, and to see more of White’s archive in Hampshire.

Rhian Williams, ‘ Gilbert White’s eighteenth-century nature journals as “Everyday ecology”.Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, 24(3), pp. 432-456

** Gilbert White’s diaries are kept at the British Library and have restricted access. This is an image of his brother Henry’s estate/farm ledger, also at the BL. Mss British Library ADD MS 43816

Wordsworth and eco-poetics

This was an invited contribution to a special issue of this journal edited by Emma Mason and including essays by really famous scholars (and then me…yikes) taking really innovative and surprising angles on Wordsworth. Asked to consider Wordsworth’s relationship with eco-poetics, I was compelled to think about the flooding in 2009 of the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth, and of Wordsworth’s house and garden there. The curator of the museum had spoken at the time of how the garden was engulfed when the River Derwent broke its banks and that the river water brought with it piles of detritus from the nearby town’s flooded shops. This prompted me to think about those material totems of commerce and of craft, and of how they invoked the histories of commerce and craft that Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads record through emotional response and ravaged communities. From here I found myself tracing the moments of fear, ambivalence and violence in Wordsworth’s engagement with the natural world, and the impact of class and occupation on one’s ability to be ‘in rhythm’ with the non-human. It works towards a reading of ‘Nutting’ where I tried to engage the feeling of stone and moss that he evokes so movingly in that poem, before the economics of land capital intervenes and distorts. Now I recognise that Jane Bennet’s notion of ‘vibrant matter’ and entanglements would have helped here, but I used Tim Morton and Emma gave me the wonderful recommendation of Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, which has remained with me ever since: I feel again and again that Stewart’s book is the book of our times; so perceptive, and so beautifully written.

Rhian Williams, ‘ Wordsworth and eco-poetics’.Questione Romantica, 3(2) (2014), pp. 31-46