Scotland and Environmental Aesthetics The Tony McManus Lecture 18 February, 2023 Cairns Craig
Scotland and Environmental Aesthetics
The Tony McManus Lecture 18 February, 2023
First, I want to pay tribute to the work of Tony McManus in helping us understand both the meaning and the implications of Kenneth White’s neologism ‘geopoetics’, which some of you have been fulfilling in practice today as you walked round Arthur’s Seat. McManus’s The Radical Field was published in 2007 but is still one of the best introductions to the intellectual sources and the poetic ambitions of Kenneth White’s writings. McManus, however, begins with a kind of apology for the structure of his book, which opens with a biographical account of White’s family, his education, the reasons for his departure from Britain in 1968 and his becoming, at least for a time, a writer in France and in French if not a French writer (even though he did take up French citizenship). White himself quotes from Blaise Cendrars a passage which he says he kept pinned up above his writing table in France:
My situation is very special and it will be difficult to live it out to the full. I’m free, I’m independent. I belong to no country, no nation, no social group. I love the whole world and at the same time I despise it. (‘Letter from the Pyrenees, The Collected Works of Kenneth White Edinburgh University Press 2021 Vol 2, 515).
Being on the outside of the structures which, in the modern world, define our place, our identity and our culture, might, as McManus suggests, make White’s place of origin irrelevant to his current place in the world, whether in the world of French literature or in terms of the implications of ‘geopoetics’ more generally, but this is by no means the case. Not for nothing was White’s first collection of essays to be published in English titled On Scottish Ground (included in Collected Works, vol. 2). If geopoetics is about our relation to the earth in its totality and if White sees himself as an ‘intellectual nomad’ travelling through and beyond many cultures, his thought is nonetheless rooted in Scottish ground and it is some of the Scottish grounds of White’s work that I want to explore in this lecture.
When White was working out the implications of what he had decided to call ‘geopoetics,’ he started from the assumption that ‘at the centre of every live culture there is a poetics, and that the most necessary poetics comes from contact with the earth, following out world lines’ (‘Scotland. Intelligence and Culture’. Vol. 2, 83). Connecting ‘poetics’, a term usually reserved for the specific formal properties of poetry, to ‘contact with earth’ was a move that might seem to recuperate the idea of poetry as the discovery of meaning in the natural world that we get, say, in Wordsworth and other nineteenth-century Romantic poets, but White makes it clear that this is not what he would mean by any poetics of the natural world, which
is all too often the expression of a socialized person looking out of the window of a country house and admiring the scenery. It’s the voice of the mind integrated into the land. It’s not the verse of poets, it’s the poetics of the universe. (‘A Highland Reconnaissance’, Vol. 2, 195).
The issue of how we respond to ‘the poetics of the universe’ rather than just ‘nature poetry’, requires that we see poetics as deeper than simply a generalisation about how poetry is written. Poetics is an underlying structure in the world itself that poetry tries to reveal – and anything that claims to be poetry and does not produce such a revelation is simply ‘verse’, not an engagement with and expression of the uni-verse. It is this universalism which, to McManus, seemed to make White’s Scottish background of only marginal relevance to an understanding of geopoetics, and yet McManus was only following White’s lead in starting with his background in Ayrshire and Glasgow, for there is no more autobiographical writer than Kenneth White, not merely in the sense that he has now actually written an autobiography ‒ published in France as Entre Deux Mondes/Between Two Worlds (2021) ‒ but because he insistently foregrounds what appears to be his personal history in all of his writings, from the essays which often take off from some memory of his boyhood reading to what he calls ‘way books’, which are existentially focused on the travel experiences of someone very like Kenneth White, a nomadic wanderer who is continually searching out new landscapes and what he calls the ‘mindscapes’ they make possible.
White, however, has also spent much time and many words in locating his own work within specifically Scottish traditions, as in his essay on Burns’s ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, which White reads as
an eighteenth-century remake of Thomas the Rhymer and which contains obvious shamanist elements: the visit to the dead, the passing of the bridge which means the move from one mode of being to another . . . (‘A Shaman Dancing on a Glacier’, Vol. 2, 39)
Burns, in other words, is tapping into the kind of archaic potential that White believes himself to have recovered through his childhood reading about Labrador and other northern territories ‒the potential that he later discovered, through the work of Mircea Eliade, to belong to shamanism:
This became more explicit with Nansen’s Eskimo Life: ‘It is poor, this land of the Eskimo, it has neither timber nor gold, it is naked, lonely – but how beautiful!’. I was particularly interested in the chapter on religious ideas, my introduction to the comparative history of religions. It was here I first heard of angekok, shamans, of tôrnat (spirits) and of tôrnârssuk (master of the spirits). ‘When Christianity was introduced among the Eskimo, the tôrnârssuk was changed into a devil.’ I began to feel a certain sympathy for all poor devils. I even began practising a kind of home-made shamanism. (‘The Archaic Context’, Vol. 2, 22)
‘Tam o’ Shanter’ is a degraded version of an ancient, pre-Christian religious system, something every true poet will rediscover in himself:
There is the real ‘will to power’ of the artist – nothing to do with any kind of domination. Every authentic artist, every authentic poet is ‘religious’ in this sense. What may seem, from an exclusively social point of view, egotistic monomania, or narcissistic obsession, is in fact a super-personal desire to take life to its maximal power. (‘Meditation in Winter’, Vol. 2, 529)
Equally, however, White argues that Burns is influenced by Rousseau ‒ Burns himself translated his name into French as ‘Robert Ruisseau’, ‘ruisseau’ being a small stream or burn ‒ and is therefore part of a tradition of Scottish Europeanism of which White is the modern variant:
I see myself as continuing a line that starts with those travelling monks of the Western isles who left their islands around the sixth and seventh centuries to move all over Europe, founding monasteries, schools, libraries – and writing books galore. The line passes through John Scot Erigena (the man who made intellectual light his leitmotiv), who spent most of his ninth century working life in France, and moves from there up to Duns Scot (with his idea of haecceitas, the keen perception of things), working in France and Germany in the early fourteenth century. (‘Renewing Local Perspectives’, Vol. 2, 355)
And in that essay White even places himself in a specifically Ayrshire tradition that includes not only Burns but James Boswell and John Galt. White is constantly in search of ‘precursors’ who confirm that ‘geopoetics’ is not a personal ‘egotistic monomania, or narcissistic obsession’ but is itself rooted in the very nature celebrated by the world’s poetic traditions, and, therefore in White’s Scottish precursors. In twentieth-century Scottish writing for instance, White discovers that he has a precursor not only in Hugh MacDiarmid (who figures as a central example of L’Esprit Nomade/The Nomadic Spirit in the untranslated book of that title) but in MacDiamid’s fellow nationalist of the Scottish Renaissance movement, Neil Gunn, whose Highland River (1937) has as its protagonist a scientist and seeker after ancient wisdom coincidentally called Kenn, who discovers what Gunn elsewhere was to call ‘the atom of delight’, (Neil M Gunn The Atom of Delight, London: Faber, 1956) the momentary elevation of the mind to a higher plane of understanding:
And knowing this, he would like to stop the thickening of his mind, to hunt back into that lost land [. . .]. It was intensely real and Kenn had a feeling that if he could recapture this he would recapture not merely the old primordial goodness of life but its moments of absolute ecstasy, an ecstasy so different from what is ordinarily associated with the word that its eye, if it had one, would be wild and cold and watchful as the eye of the gull on the cliff -top. (‘The Relationship of Community to Cosmos’, Vol. 2, 378).
White finds in Highland River
not only the motivation of my own early work, but its leitmotivs. It was full of cold images, in particular that of the gull, and was based on a triple notion of primordial contact, ecstatic experience and the search for a logic, a language to make it all last. (‘The Archaic Context’, Vol. 2, 17)
Far from having turned his back on Scotland by going to France, White presents himself as being able to recover the true line ‒ the ‘roots’ and ‘radicals’ (‘Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath’, Vol. 2, 388) ‒ of Scottish intellectual traditions that have been obscured by the psycho-social consequences of the industrial revolution and Scotland’s involvement in the British Empire. Among Scottish writers and thinkers from philosophers of the middle ages such as Duns Scotus to more recent theorists such as Patrick Geddes and D’Arcy Thomson, White finds a distinctively Scottish line of ‘precursors’ to geopoetics, as though the nature of country itself provokes a ‘cosmological’ perspective on the earth..
During the same time when White was striving towards a new poetics in the 1960s and 1970s, a Scottish philosopher, Ronald W. Hepburn, professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh ‒ whom I doubt White has read ‒ was mounting a similar challenge to traditional aesthetics. Aesthetics, Hepburn argued, as the philosophical exploration of our experiences of beauty, had become in the modern era entirely engaged with how we respond to humanly constructed works of art and had ceased to have anything to say about the natural world, which had been a primary focus of aesthetic thought throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (The Reach of the Aesthetic: Collected Essays on Art and Nature, Aldershot: Ashgrove, 2001) Hepburn tried to develop an ‘environmental aesthetics’ which would recognise how different our aesthetic experiences of being in the natural world were from our experiences of responding to two dimensional ‒ or even, in the case of sculpture and architecture, three dimensional – aesthetic objects. To be surrounded by the object of one’s aesthetic experience, to respond to its changes as one climbs a hill or walks through a forest, is very different from examining a painting in a gallery. Philosophical aesthetics, Hepburn argued, had come to be dominated by ‘gallery art’‒ similar, perhaps, to White’s version of nature as viewed from a country house window ‒ rather than the natural world, and Hepburn’s essays from the 1960s are regularly identified as the beginning of what has come to be described as ‘environmental aesthetics’, the study of how and, indeed, why we respond to the natural world in terms of its beauty rather than in terms of its utility.
The term ‘aesthetics’ was coined in 1735 by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, but one of the earliest philosophical treatises seeking to explain our appreciation of ‘beauty’ had been published a decade earlier by Irish-born Scottish philosopher Francis Hutchison in his Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. The difference between such eighteenth-century philosophies and modern aesthetic theories, Hepburn suggested, was that modern theorists were concerned with art as an intentional object, as something intended to communicate to other human beings, whereas no such intention could now be ascribed to the natural world. For eighteenth century theorists such as Hutcheson, the world had been created by God specifically as a location for humanity so that the world itself was expressive of God’s intentions. God had endowed humanity with a ‘sense’ of beauty – Hutcheson takes responsiveness to beauty to be an inner sense equivalent to the other senses by which we experience the world – precisely in order that we could appreciate His creation. Since ‘the divine goodness’, Hutcheson suggests,
has constituted our sense of beauty as it is at present, the same goodness might have determined the Great Architect to adorn this stupendous theatre in a manner agreeable to the spectators, and that part which is exposed to the observation of men so as to be pleasant to them, especially if we suppose that He designed to discover himself to them as wise and good, as well as powerful . . . (Philosophical Writings, ed. R.S.Downie, London: J.M. Dent, 44)
Even if one did not accept Nietzsche’s dictum that God is dead, our widening understanding of the scale of the universe, not to mention the workings of Darwinian evolution, has made the image of the universe as a ‘theatre’ in which human beings are the ‘spectators’ a much less appropriate metaphor for the natural world as we now conceive it. Hutcheson’s influence through the eighteenth century, however, was to make aesthetic theory a principal element in Scottish philosophy, from David Hume’s famous discussion ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ (1757) to such works as Archibald Alison’s Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790).
Hutcheson identified three elements which could give rise to the experience of beauty:
- First, he sought an objective criterion in a mathematically based analysis: things were beautiful insofar as they exhibited what he described as ‘uniformity amidst diversity’ and things were more beautiful the more they could exhibit the maximum of uniformity combined with an equal degree of diversity
- Second, he explored how we perceived beauty in cases where an object is ‘an imitation of some original’ (Section VI, 23), so that a painting of something ugly can be beautiful not because of its subject matter but through the quality of the imitation.
- Third, he attributed the differences in people’s taste in their experience of beauty as being affected by John Locke’s notion of the ‘association of ideas’: thus the inner sense which recognises beauty and is almost the same throughout a culture – or, indeed, throughout humanity – may be deflected by purely personal combinations of ideas: ‘We know how agreeable a very wild country may be to any person who has spent the cheerful days of his youth in it, and how disagreeable very beautiful places may be if they were the scenes of his misery’ (Section VI, 37). This assumes that there is a common and shared sense of what counts as beautiful that it can be corrupted by purely personal associations.
All of these were to be taken up by later theorists but the first of these propositions is seriously threatened by the third, since even where we can describe ‘unity amidst diversity’ we will never be certain that the perception of these as ‘beautiful’ has not been influenced by personal associations that intervene between the object and our perception of it. This third strand in Hutcheson’s analysis was, however, to transform the understanding of the beauties of nature in succeeding generations, for, it was argued, ‘nature’ became aesthetically interesting the more it was imbued with shared cultural associations. What had once been unacceptably ugly as, for instance, in a ‘very wild country’ – recall that the English poet Thomas Gray had to pull down the blinds in his carriage when he visited Edinburgh because Arthur’s Seat was so wild and ugly – was, in the course of the eighteenth century, to become increasingly accepted as ‘beautiful’, particularly when it was imbued with literary associations. Thus Archibald Alison argues that ‘our’ response to natural beauty is actually enlivened by the study of classical literature, the consequence being that ‘beauty’ cannot be perceived by the uneducated, who will see only the ‘utility’ of a landscape rather than its beauty. The Scottish Highlands, for instance, were transformed from what was considered a barren and ugly desert by the influence of James Macpherson’s Ossianic Poems, first published in 1760. We can see this process at work, for example, in Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, published only a few months before Smollett’s death in 1771. Smollett’s novel charts the experiences of a group of Welsh travellers who discover the delights of the Highlands through linking it with their experience of Macpherson’s poetry:
We have had princely sport in hunting the stag on these mountains ‒ these are the lonely hills of Morven, where Fingal and his heroes enjoyed the same pastime; I feel an enthusiastic pleasure when I survey the brown heath that Ossian wont to tread; and hear the wind whistle through the bending grass ‒ When I enter our landlord’s hall, I look for the suspended harp of that divine bard, and listen in hopes of hearing the aerial sound of his respected spirit ‒ The poems of Ossian are in every mouth . . . (Angus Ross ed., Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Penguin: Basingstoke, 1985: 1771, 277)
The literary presentation of Scotland gave travellers associations by means of which they could experience it as beautiful, a beauty which had been previously invisible. The same was to happen as a result of Scott’s presentation of Loch Katrine in ‘The Lady of the Lake’ (1810) and Loch Lomond as the central location of his novel Rob Roy (1817). As Francis Jeffrey was to note in the Edinburgh Review in a response to the second edition of Alison’s Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, Alison’s account forced us,
to reject, as intrinsically absurd and incredible, the supposition, that material objects, which obviously do not hurt or delight the body, should yet excite, by their mere physical qualities, the very powerful emotions which are sometimes excited by the spectacle of beauty’ (Contributions to the Edinburgh Review, Vol. I, 1853, 32).
As an example, Jeffrey contrasted an English country scene ‒ ‘green meadows with grazing and ruminating cattle ‒ canals or navigable rivers ‒ well fended, well cultivated fields ‒ neat, clean, scattered cottages . . .’ ‒ with a Scottish Highland scene:
Here, we shall have lofty mountains, and rocky and lonely recesses, ‒ tufted woods hung over precipices, ‒ lakes intersected with castled promontories ‒ ample solitudes and unploughed and untrodden valleys, ‒ nameless and gigantic ruins, ‒and mountains repeating the scream of the eagle and the roar of the cataract. This, too, is beautiful . . . Yet lonely as it is, it is to the recollection of man and the suggestion of human feelings that its beauty is also owing . . . It is sympathy with the present or the past, or the imaginary inhabitants of such a region, that alone gives it either interest or beauty; and the delight of those who behold it, will always be found in exact proportion to the force of their imaginations, and the warmth of their social affections. (Ibid., 37)
Beauty is not in the natural world but in the memories which it calls up in the mind of the observer. Through such subjectivist notions of ‘beauty’ and ‘sublimity’ poems like Macpherson’s were to transform the ways in which people across Europe responded to apparently wild environments. Those environments were, quite literally, haunted by a distant and heroic pagan past which offered an exciting challenge ‒ as in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which actually translates portions of Macpherson’s poems ‒ to the values of modern, bourgeois, Christian society. The natural world is transformed by the memories which we bring to it and the associations it generates in us.
It may seem like a jump from eighteenth-century Scottish aesthetics to Kenneth White but his work is often a direct descendant of such theories; for instance, here is his own personal memory of the memories inscribed in a Scottish name:
Dumbarton Road. I knew my Glasgow, because when I wasn’t reading books, I was hoofing through its streets, but I also knew I was just next door to an even older place, Alclyd, ‘the rock on the Clyde’, which the Gaels of the North had called Dumbarton, ‘the fortress of the Brythons’ and which Macpherson’s Ossian, read in Fairlie (my little Ayrshire village), called ‘the halls of Balclutha’. (‘Minds in Movement’, Vol. 2, 482).
Even though White thinks that Macpherson’s Ossian ‘got lost in a vapory kind of romanticism’ (‘A Highland Reconnaissance’, Vol. 2, 194), he acknowledges nonetheless that ‘there really was a strong impulse there’ (ibid.), which then leads him to recount how he discovered in a French museum the painting ‘The Dream of Ossian/Le Songe d’Ossian), by the French painter Ingres, which shows the heroes of Napoleon’s armies being greeted to the afterlife by the ancient Celtic bard. The accidental discovery of this French painting connects a personal memory to a more general cultural memory that enhances the significance of the Ossianic legends, and connects the adult French citizen Kenneth White to the White who was a student in Glasgow and to the boy who grew up in Fairlie. The associations accumulate, for behind that Romantic Ossianism is the figure of Finn, central, White argues, to Celtic legend, so that to get back to an original Scotland one has to go ‘Back to Finn . . . [in] a wide-ranging reconnaissance as well as a new grounding’ (‘A Shaman Dancing on a Glacier’, Vol. 2, 40), but it is a Finn who is linked in a very specific set of associations directly to White himself: as a child, White tells us,
my grandmother Cameron would point over to the outline of the Arran mountains and ask me if I saw the warrior. This was of course a local application of the legend more highly concentrated in the valley of Glencoe where on every summit one of the Fianna is asleep, the wind on the peaks being their breathing. (‘A Highland Reconnaissance’, Vol. 2, 192)
‘Finn’s own name, it turns out, according to White, means “the white one”’ (‘A Highland Reconnaissance’, Vol. 2, 194), and that link connects White himself to the depth of the Celtic past so that his individual personal memory and Scotland’s cultural memory fuse in a single chain of interlinked associations. Hutcheson and Alison would have recognised in White’s description of the importance of Finn a version of their own accounts of how beauty is produced out of an as an accumulative associational process.
Many of White’s essays take off from such personal memories, ones inspired by White’s reading and his travel experiences, so that the ‘poetics’ of geopoetics are often ‒ perhaps always ‒ the product of and an exploration into associative memory. Thus White’s ‘way books’ are structured not just as travels in space but as the collection and recollection of significant moments in his own past and in the past of the places he visits. In The Winds of Vancouver, for instance, White’s journey north from Vancouver recapitulates the journeys of the early environmentalist John Muir, both his travel from Scotland to North America and then his travels from California – where he was campaigning to save the beauties of the Sierras from destruction – to Alaska, where he was exploring glaciers. White’s journey is a like a physical train of associations, bringing to mind each stage of Muir’s ‘wilderness journeys’, such that Muir is not only a memory-enhancing association in the landscape through which White travels, but an associate in the search to uncover the universe as “an infinite storm of beauty” (Winds of Vancouver, 46).
Muir’s own response to the natural was in part inspired by his reading of the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (another precursor of geopoetics according to White), and Emerson visited and then corresponded with the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. In one of his letters, Emerson recalled his first meeting with Carlyle in Craigenputtock in 1834, when he was given a tour of what ‘Carlyle calls his environment’, a word Carlyle had introduced into the English language to suggest a dialectical relationship between humanity and its surroundings. Modern ‘environmentalism’ is, at least lexically, rooted in Scottish ground, and Carlyle would go on to use ‘environment’ as a way of capturing the relationship between the modern industrial system and the natural world which it was transforming. It is that relationship which continues to drive ‘environmental aesthetics’ today, whether in an effort to protect the natural world (as in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962) or in the effort to improve the ways in which human environments are constructed (as in Patrick Geddes’ and Lewis Mumford’s writing on the nature of the city and its relationship with the region in which it is situated). There has recently been a strong push to find objective criteria for our sense of these relationships ‒ as in the work of Allen Carlson, Nature and Landscape: An Introduction to Environmental Aesthetics (2009) ‒ but the subjectivist, associationist account of beauty, under a variety of more modern names such as ‘connectionsim’, has continued to shape aesthetic and poetic theory down to our own times.
There was, however, another eighteenth-century Scottish poet, a contemporary of Francis Hutcheson’s, who was to have just as much of an impact on the perception of the natural world as Macpherson, and that was James Thomson, whose poem ‘Winter’ was published within a year of the publication of Hutcheson’s Inquiry (in 1726) but which had, by 1730, become part of Thomson’s sequence The Seasons, a poem which is foundational to the new genre of ‘nature poetry’ that was to reach its climax in the romantic movement in the early nineteenth century. What is striking about Thomson’s version of the natural world is that it does not follow the classical forms of pastoral – with its focus on idealised poet-shepherds – or the pattern of Virgil’s Georgics, with its presentation of the events of the farming year. Thomson had been brought up in the Scottish borders and might have been an exact fit for Hutcheson’s notion of how a young poet might respond ‘to a very wild country . . . who has spent the cheerful days of his youth in it’:
Wide o’er the brim, with many a torrent swelled,
And the mixed ruin of its banks o’erspread,
At last the roused-up river pours along:
Resistless, roaring, dreadful, down it comes
From the rude mountain and the mossy wild,
Tumbling through rocks abrupt, and sounding far;
Then o’er the sanded valley floating spreads,
Calm, sluggish, silent; till again, constrained
Between two meeting hills, it bursts a way
Where rocks and woods o’er hang the turbid stream;
These, gathering triple force, rapid and deep,
It boils, and wheels, and foams, and thunders through. (ll. 94–105)
This is a celebration not of an environment which offers itself to human productivity, such as is presented by pastoral or the gardens and tended estates which had dominated traditional conceptions of landscape beauty, but a celebration of ‘Nature’ as an untameable power:
Nature! Great Parent! Whose unceasing hand
Rolls round the Seasons of the changeful year,
How mighty, how majestic are thy works!
With what a pleasing dread they swell the soul,
That sees astonished, and astonished sings! (ll. 106-110)
The ‘pleasing dread’ produced by the overwhelming power of Nature was the aesthetic experience that required the extension of the ‘beautiful’ into the then newly defined category of the ‘sublime’, in which fear and dread (as Edmund Burke was to argue in 1757 in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful) are mixed with astonishment and delight.
In its empirical detail, however, Thomson’s poem draws on the scientific methods that had been promoted by the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660 on the restoration of Charles II ‒ a Stewart, of course ‒ to the monarchies of England, Scotland and Ireland. Charles’s support for the establishment of the Royal Society was galvanized by Sir Robert Moray, a Scot who had been with the Stewarts in exile during the Cromwellian period, and the Royal Society was imbued with the ambitions of Newtonian physics, Newton being President of the Society from 1703 to 1727, the very year of Thomson’s first publication. Thomson’s poem celebrates the power of nature through empirical observation designed, like Newton’s account of gravity, to reveal the order behind the seeming chaos – ‘unity amidst diversity’ – of our immediate experience. We can take pleasure in the apparently chaotic processes of the natural world – like the stream which ‘Resistless, roaring, dreadful, down it comes/ From the rude mountain and the mossy wild’ –because we know it is part of a greater harmony overseen by a beneficent God:
‘Tis come, the glorious morn! the second birth
Of heaven and earth! awakening Nature hears
The new-creating word, and starts to life
In every heightened form . . . (‘Winter’, ll. 1041‒6)
Philosophically this may be part of the Cartesian-Newtonian perspective which White presents as having ‘coincided with the rise of the “modern world” out of the Middle Ages’ (‘A Wave and Wind Philosophy’, Vol. 2, 593), and which is the antithesis of his own conception of ‘chaosmos’, by which he means ‘the notion of order in disorder, disorder in order’ (‘Elements of a New Cartography’, Vol. 2, 605). But Thomson, like White, believes that poetry has to include, not exclude, a knowledge of the sciences and a cartographic awareness of the world beyond the human, so that his poem aspires to be ‘cosmological’ in White’s sense, meaning ‘something like “harmonic whole” in Greek’ (‘A Fundamental Project’, Vol. 2, 341). Here, for instance, is Thomson’s description of a world of the kind that John Muir was in search of in Alaska:
Thence winding eastward to the Tartar’s coast,
She sweeps the howling margin of the main;
Where, undissolving from the first of time,
Snows swell on snows amazing to the sky;
And icy mountains high on mountains piled
Seem to the shivering sailor from afar,
Shapeless and white, an atmosphere of clouds.
Projected huge and horrid o’er the surge,
Alps frown on Alps; or, rushing hideous down,
As if old Chaos was again returned,
Wide-rend the deep and shake the solid pole. (‘Winter’, ll. 902-912)
Like Muir’s Travels in Alaska and White’s The Winds of Vancouver, Thomson’s poem is, in parts, a ‘nomadic report’ from a world unconquered, perhaps unconquerable, by humanity: it is a world of travellers, explorers and nomads in constant motion. As Jack Lindsay has put it, ‘Nature’ in Thomson
ceases to be a static pattern, of which the parts are separately described, and is realized as something in ceaseless movement and change, with violent clashes and overriding harmonies. This inner movement of nature involves continual contrasts and collisions of opposites. (quoted Leonard G. Wilson, Charles Lyell: The Years to 1841: The revolution in geology, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972, 28).
Thomson’s poem not only inspired writers and artists – the above quote is from Lindsay’s study of J.M.W.Turner, his life and work (London, 1966) – but was also an inspiration to scientists such as Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology (1830) ‒ because it so conclusively argues the case for the vulcanism of James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1795) ‒ is often taken as the point at which geology becomes established as a science. ‘Geo’ may simply imply the ‘earth’ ‒ in the future, White suggests, ‘everyone will inhabit a part of the earth-world, “earth-world” being the ultimate concept’ (‘The Scot Abroad’, Vol. 2, 101) ‒ but the ‘geo’ of geology is, in Hutton and in Lyell, a particularly Scottish discovery and in its Scottishness a part of Kenneth White’s intellectual inheritance. For instance, White begins his book Écosse: le pays derrière les noms (2001) by quoting from Marcel Bertrand, professor of the school of mining in Paris in the 1890s, who wrote that ‘la chaîne calédonienne est une des plus ancienne, sinon la plus ancienne, que nous puissions reconstituter. On se trouve là en face de mouvements qui date de début des tempes primaires’ (the Caledonian chain is one of the most ancient, if not the most ancient, which we can identify. One finds oneself there confronting movements which date from primary times’) (20). Scotland as one of the oldest and most ‘original’ sites of the earth as we now know it, goes back to White’s own earliest memories of Arran (which he could see from his family home) and alongside his grandmother’s tales of Finn he rapidly encountered its geological significance:
When I was a youngster in Ayrshire, I’d be often on Arran, which sums up a lot of Scotland. It was there, just beyond Lochranza, among strata of schist and sandstone, that James Hutton, away back in the eighteenth century, worked out one of the most interesting aspects of his theory of the earth: unconformity. (‘The Re-mapping of Scotland’, Vol. 2, 657)
Indeed, it is Hutton who is presented as the ultimate source of White’s geopoetics in both its literary style and its engagement with the earth:
It was an early knowledge of Hutton’s work that set me looking with a sharper eye and a more open mind along the shores of North Ayrshire and around the island of Arran. It was on the basis of Hutton’s tectonics, concerned with the open structure of strata and the introduction into these open structures of all kinds of heterogeneous matter, this collocation of matter being later subjected to dislocation, fracturisation, all sorts of transference and translation, that I gradually derived a style of writing, let’s say, employing the kind of linguistic shift I love, a textonics. From Hutton’s investigation into ‘the unknown region, that place of power and energy which we want to explore’, I derived the notion of an exploratory, out-feeling poetics concerned with an undefined region or dimension, in a terrestrial context unencumbered by mythology, religion or metaphysics. Hutton’s ‘theory of the earth’ I see as the bottom line of the Scottish Enlightenment, and I consider Hutton, along with Hume, the one cleaning the mind-works, the other getting at earth-knowledge, as the principal Scottish precursors of geopoetics. I speak there of two aspects, the earth-thing and the mind-thing, but in geopoetics they come together. (‘What is World Writing’, Vol. 2, 627-8)
Hutton had explored the island of Arran in 1787, in search of further proofs of the theory he had presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in his paper on the ‘Theory of the Earth: or an investigation of the laws observable in composition, dissolution and restoration of land upon the globe’ (Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinb. 1 (1788), 209‒304). Hutton’s visit was followed by many others among the early geologists, both Scottish — Robert Jameson published an account of the island’s geology in 1798 and John Macculloch in 1819 – and European, such as von Dechen and Oyenhausen, whose account of their explorations appeared in 1829. Charles Lyell himself went in 1836 to search for further evidence of his ‘metamorphic’ theory (Wilson, Charles Lyell, 431) to add to the fifth edition of his Principles of Geology (1837). As Leonard G. Wilson puts it,
Arran is a remarkably beautiful island of green hills lying in the mouth of the firth of Clyde, seemingly remote from the industrial life of Scotland and still undisturbed by it. The geology of Arran was of particular interest to Lyell because Arran embodied an extraordinary broad range of the geology of Scotland in one place, especially of granite and trap rocks intruded among disturbed and altered stratified rocks . . . In fact, all the formations of Arran, including even the granite, were intersected by trap dikes indicating that volcanic activity had occurred extensively in the island after its principal geological features had been established. (Wilson, Charles Lyell, 430)
Arran and Scotland were as fundamental to early geological science as they are to White’s geopoetics.
Why, though, apart from the nature of its landscape, were Scots so prominent in the development of the science of geology and, in the case of John Muir, in early environmentalism? Since many early geologists were, like Hugh Miller, whose book The Old Red Sandstone (1858) did much to popularise geologizing, we might attribute it to the influence John Knox and Scotland’s parish education system, which made Scots, and especially lower-class Scots, more literate than their equivalents elsewhere in Europe. Geology was a science to which anyone could contribute, since it needed no specialised equipment to simply search out interesting rocks on foreshores or on raised beaches. And after Louis Agassiz’s analysis of how Swiss landscapes were the product of glaciers that had once been much extensive than they now are, it was easy for the amateur geologist to trace the effects of glaciation on the Scottish landscape. But behind the Knoxian emphasis on teaching people to read was a more profound component to Calvinist theology. A few quotations from Muir’s work may give us some direction: here is his description of Mount Hoffman, a place apparently bereft of natural beauty:
How boundless the day seems as we revel in these stormbeaten sky gardens amid so vast a congregation of onlooking mountains. Strange and admirable it is that the more savage and chilly and storm-chafed the mountains, the finer the glow on their faces and the finer the plants they bear. The myriads of flowers tingeing the mountain top do not seem to have grown out of the dry, rough gravel of disintegration, but rather appear as visitors, a cloud of witnesses to Nature’s love in what we in our timid ignorance and unbelief call howling desert. The surface of the ground, so dull and forbidding at first sight, besides being rich in plants, shines and sparkles with crystals . . . The radiance in some places is so great as to be fairly dazzling, keen lance rays of every colour flashing, sparkling in glorious abundance, joining the plants in their fine, brave beauty work ‒ every crystal, every flower a window, opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator. (My First Summer in the Sierra, Wilderness Journeys, Edinburgh: Canongate, 1996, 88)
For Muir, the ‘hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself (My First Summer in the Sierra, 84). Untouched nature provides us with a direct access to a ‘Godful wilderness’ (ibid. 139). Muir, like his American admirer, Ralph Waldo Emerson – Muir took Emerson on a guided tour of Yosemite when Emerson visited California in 1871 – was from a strongly Calvinist background, and despite the opprobrium heaped on Calvinism in the twentieth century for what White describes as its ‘aesthetic malnutrition and moral rigor mortis’ (‘The Scot Abroad’, Vol. 2, 97), there was a strand to Calvinism which directed its adherents attention to the natural world:
The final goal of the blessed life, moreover, rests in the knowledge of God (cf. John 17:3). Lest anyone, then, be excluded from access to happiness, he not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. Indeed, his essence is incomprehensible; hence, his divineness far escapes all human perception. But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory . . . wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. (Hugh T. Ker (ed.), Calvin’s Institutes: A New Compend, Louisville 1989, 24)
Calvinism is famous for its insistence on the reading of the Bible as God’s book, but the natural world was also God’s book and, as Marjory Hope Nicholson argued in Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959), Calvinism was crucial to a change of perception from the earlier view of mountains as symptoms of a fallen world to one in which they offered divine revelation. If Calvinist-educated Scots believed that the truth of Christianity came from reading and studying the Bible, the natural world was God’s other bible, to be studied for the signs of divine creativity. Despite the fact that Hutton proposed a theory of the earth in which the earth itself was being continually worn away and then replenished by the sediment that had accumulated in the depths of the sea, so that in the famous final words of his Theory ‘we find no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end’, Hutton continued to insist that
The globe of this earth is evidently made for man. He alone, of all the beings which have life upon this body, enjoys the whole and every part; he alone is capable of knowing the nature of this world, which he thus possesses in virtue of his proper right; and he alone can make the knowledge of this system a source of pleasure, and the means of happiness. (Broadie ed., The Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh, 1997, 779).
Specifically Scottish religious traditions thus not only underpinned the emergence of the science of geology, but resulted in those geologists finding ways of not challenging Christian orthodoxy. Charles Lyell had calculated, for instance, that the pace of erosion of Niagara Falls meant that it had retreated many miles over the ten thousand years since its original formation. It was a view denounced by a Scottish clergyman as a ‘stab at the Christian religion’, since it implied that the Falls existed before the creation of the world: ‘It is on grounds such as these that the most learned and voluminous among English geologists disputes the Mosaic history of the Creation and Deluge, a strong proof that even men of argument on other subjects often reason in the most childish and ridiculous manner, and on grounds totally false, when they undertake to deny the truth of the Holy Scriptures’ (quoted Hugh Miller, The Testimony of the Rocks, 1842, 416). Hugh Miller dismissed such ‘anti-geologists’ not only as ignorant of science but as equally ignorant of the religion they claimed to defend. Miller presented his own reconciliation between science and religion by reading the geological record as a series of individual acts of creation of which the creation of Man was only the most recent and most important. Miller took the long tradition of reading the Old Testament as a prefiguration of the events of the New Testament – the events of the Old being ‘types’ of the events of the New – and applied it to the geological record. Thus each geological period was a distant prefiguration of the creation of mankind: ‘the Palaeozoic, Secondary and Tertiary dispensations of creation were charged, like the patriarchal and Mosaic dispensations of grace with the “shadows of better things to come.” The advent of Man was the great event prefigured during the old geological ages which in turn prophesied the advent of that Divine Man “who hath abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light”.’ Geology and Revelation are parts of ‘one sublime scheme’ in which are combined ‘the geologic and the Patriarchal, the Mosaic and the Christian ages, and all together with that new heavens and new earth, the last of many creations, in which there shall be “no more death nor curse”’ (The Testimony of the Rocks, 416). In effect, a symbolic way of reading the Bible became the presiding metaphor for the reading of the geological record.
Such combinations of apparently contradictory worldviews are indicative of how different geology was from those sciences which could demonstrate their truths by practical experiment or by building a better steam engine. Although Lyell’s ‘uniformitarianism’ – the assumption that the same geological forces are at work in the contemporary world as were at work in the past – suggested we could find present evidence for past processes, no observer could be consistently present for long enough to actually witness the transformation of deposits of shells into rock or sedimentary rock into granite. Geology was a science of the imagination as much as of empirical observation. To illustrate the difficulty, Lyell asks his readers to envisage how much better placed than ourselves would be ‘an amphibious being, who should possess our faculties’, and who ‘would still more easily arrive at sound theoretical opinions in geology, since he might behold, on the one hand, the decomposition of rocks in the atmosphere, and the transportation of matter by running water; and, on the other, examine the deposition of sediment in the sea, and the imbedding of animal remains in new strata’. The reader, Lyell acknowledges, ‘may, perhaps, smile at the bare suggestion of such an idea’ but he goes on to adumbrate the advantage to the collection of geological evidence that would accrue to such a ‘gnome’ or ‘dusky melancholy sprite’ (Lyell, Principles of Geology, 1835, 119). Geology is a work of the imagination as much as the outcome of scientific observation and measurement: it is a science, therefore, which necessarily invokes the imaginative potential of a poetics. And it was a science which produced a new version of the ‘sublime’, what we might describe as ‘the geological sublime’: the fear and dread in mountain landscapes which Burke thought generated a sense of the sublime is replicated on a grand scale by the geological insignificance of human beings whose environment cannot be measured in human terms – the ridge down which the Canongate runs in Edinburgh was formed more than 350 million years ago in a location and a climate very different from the one which we now inhabit. An evolutionary time that dwarfs even the physical immensities of our current world – compared to Scotland’s mountains, the Alps are mere fledglings – induces an awareness of a power that is overwhelming to humanity: ‘that power’, as Burke put it, makes ‘some sort of approach to infinity’ and ‘derives all its sublimity from the terror with which it is generally accompanied’ (Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford University Press, ed. Paul Guyer, 52–53). Hutton’s declaration at the end of the Theory of the Earth, that we live in only one of a sequence of very different worlds is an absolute challenge to traditional cosmologies, which like the Christian one are founded on the certainty of a beginning and the expectation of an end, and it is to the elaboration of such open and unfinished cosmological thinking that White’s geopoetics is dedicated.
From this perspective the environmental issues which face our own civilisation may seem both irrelevant and insignificant, but in the timescale of individual human lives, and the pleasures and fulfilments which those lives can hope for, environmental degradation, let alone the threats of catastrophic global warming, represent a serious threat to humanity’s traditional values, not to mention its long-term survival. However, we cannot enjoy places of natural beauty nor argue for the value of their retention, if we do not have a basis for agreeing what counts as beautiful or sublime and why the beautiful and the sublime should be valued and protected. This, since Hepburn’s first interventions on the aesthetic value of nature, has made ‘environmental aesthetics’ such an important aspect of contemporary philosophical debate, not just because of the principles involved but because those principles will be used to guide action, not just in relation to the natural world as ‘wild’ but in relation to our urban environment as well. ‘Environmental aesthetics’ is not only the study of the value of the natural world but the study of its degradation by human beings. Indeed, urban degradation is often the initial context for White’s travels in his ‘way books’ as he goes in search of ‘primary times’ still inscribed on the landscape. How do we allow the ‘natural world’ to survive, never mind thrive, when humanity has come to dominate so much of the planet? If we take action to protect the natural world, we are caught in a double bind because we are turning it into a piece of art, a human construction, rather than allowing it to evolve separately from ourselves. John Muir, for instance, wanted to keep native American-Indians and farmers out of Yosemite even if, in the case of Native Americans they had been there time out of mind, because their activities degraded and defaced the wilderness of ‘God’s first temples’. Contemporary debates often circulate around whether ‘preserving’ wilderness is only possible by, in effect, imposing human values and human categories on it: Muir’s Yosemite becomes a visitor’s postcard of wilderness rather than real environment developing according to its own dynamic. This divide in contemporary philosophical debate replicates some of the key elements in eighteenth Scottish aesthetics, thus the associationists are now represented by the ‘emotivists’, who similarly believe that aesthetic experience is largely subjective and that we should judge those experiences not by whether they are true or false but by whether they are appropriate and shareable or whether they are arbitrary and eccentric. On the other side are the ‘cognitivists’ who believe that aesthetic responses need to be universalizable truths – the equivalent of eighteenth century classicism which assumed that the ultimate ends of aesthetics had already been found by the Greeks – and, therefore, need to be based on such universal and scientific structures rather than on mere personal opinion. The objectivists don’t accept that you can have an aesthetic perception of the natural world if you don’t understand its geology, ecology and its participation in and support for particular ecosystems. It is through knowledge, not feeling, that beauty can be fully experienced.
White’s response to such debates would be, I think, that geopoetics transcends any opposition between the subjective and the objective because it is a practice as well as a theory and the practice is continually opening the way to new experiences both of the landscape and of the mindscape which it provokes, but also the physical engagement which it demands or invites:
Geopoetics breaks familiarity, and recognizes a strangeness. Beginning with the lie of the land, remaining close to the elements, it opens up space, and it works out a new mindscape. Its basis is a new sense of land in an enlarged mind. (‘North Atlantic Investigations’, Vol. 2,
Geopoetics involves geological and other kinds of knowledge, but knowledge of change and process rather than of stable categories: its understanding leads to the enlargement of the mind that grasps that extension of time and space. So White emphasises that Scotland is not an identity or a place but a flow:
The gneiss of North-West Scotland stretches over into Canada – the Caledonian chain joins to the west of the Appalachian. This part of Scotland is, at depth, a part of the old Laurentian continent that has changed its latitude over the last billion years. Tectonically drifting, it began near the South Pole, moved from there to the Equator, and then further north. The Solway Firth is where the great ocean of Iapetus disappeared and where two ancient continents joined. As to the Giant’s Causeway, it’s the result of a volcanic eruption connected with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. (‘North Atlantic Investigations’, Vol. 2, 182–183)
The mind that can experience reality as ‘flow’ will cease to be trapped in the present moment and in its immediate place. And Scotland, as a place in which geology and the history of the discovery of geological time is combined with the anthropological deep time of Celtic myth, and the study of such myth in works like J.G.Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890–1922), is both the beginning and, one might say the end, in the sense of the fulfilment, of geopoetics.
Tony McManus had no need to apologise for starting his study of White’s work with White’s original Scottish location and its cultural inheritances, and with the landscape and the mindscape it makes possible, for geopoetics is rooted in Scottish history and Scottish ground.