As a sometime researcher in conservation and rural community, especially history, I delight in coming across older texts with ideas that underpin our thinking now.
So it is with Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), an American local color writer, novelist, and author of short stories, perhaps her best genre. Judging from her writing, as a child, she must have been quite observant as she traveled across rural Maine with her father, a doctor.
Her nature writings are tinged with the romanticism, in the best sense of the word, of her New England roots that dated back to the mid-1700s. They are saturated with details of the life and people and land of the southern Maine coast and tidewater in a time of depopulation of people and reestablishment of nature.
Jewett was a nature lover and a student of human characters, usually women. Her views of nature synthesized ideas in ways that demand attention today.
In Country By-Ways—one of her earlier works, first published in 1881 as a book of short stories and essays—she takes an “An October Ride,” a philosophical ramble on the rural landscape heading away from the ocean, at that time largely abandoned by the early pioneers who had worked their farms, abandoned them, and moved on to the West.
Here comes the joy of discovery:
The relationship of untamed nature to what is tamed and cultivated is a very curious and subtle thing to me; I do not know if every one feels it so intensely…. I wonder what I am: there is a strange self-consciousness, but I am only a part of one great existence which is called nature. The life in me is a bit of all life, and where I am happiest is where I find that which is next of kin to me, in friends, or trees, or hills, or seas, or beside a flower, when I turn back more than once to look into its face.
… We grow spiritually, until we grasp some new great truth of God; but it was always true, and waited for us until we came. What is there new and strange in the world except ourselves! Our thoughts are our own; God gives our life to us moment by moment, but He gives it to be our own. (p. 100-101)
The passage is an expression of “deep ecology” mixed with theology, a disputed approach to environmental thought nowadays because of the way it situates human life as a part of the global environment, on par with the other creatures. Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess coined the term “deep ecology” in 1973, almost 90 years after Jewett defined it from a natural, theological, and feminist perspective.
Jewett, whose impact on American literature directly influenced authors such as Willa Cather (O Pioneers!—dedicated to Jewett) was part of a group of 19th-century writers who linked environment with the human place in nature. Their feminist perspective is too often downplayed in male-dominated histories of conservation and community writings.
The delight in Jewett’s writing about people, places, and the land comes from her understanding of how all of it is interconnected, by living, by working the land, by dying, life processes that have gone on for eons.
… There cannot be such a thing as life that is lost. The tree falls and decays, in the dampness of the woods, and is part of the earth under foot, but another tree is growing out of it; perhaps it is part of its own life that is springing again from the part of it that died. God must always be putting again to some use the life that is withdrawn; it must live, because it is Life. (p. 102)
Jewett’s perspective, to which we might now add the adjective “ecofeminist,” is a waypoint in the courses of nature writing and environmental thinking. She suggests the need to recognize a humble approach to life on Earth. Humans can and do change the landscape, but should do so with the knowledge of our dependence on nature and the need to treat the gift of our Earth with respect and even awe.
Jewett’s message resonates today, now more than ever, a call to understand who we are and what we need to do with our lives on the planet.
Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of a recently released fantasy book, Memories of Santa Claus, as well as Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.