Am I Appreciating Nature 'Correctly'? The Significance of Not Having a Clear Research Direction

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Before I took a two-year ecology course, I felt like the world in which I belonged, was the human one. If I were to imagine my life as a play, then the setting would be a city, a village, or any human community. However, through consistent preoccupation with the non-human environment, I started feeling like the setting of this play is the entirety of nature; it is a setting most of which I do not even know. I started observing nature, going on hikes and watching the sunset every evening, traveling to Greek islands and exploring nature. Moving past the initial aesthetic appreciation of the landscape, with a romantic outlook on its beauty, I started feeling like my senses and my mind do not suffice to get closer to nature and I questioned the extent to which I could understand it. It seemed like proximity to the non-human world was not achieved through a romantic observation of natural beauty, through the appreciation of the symbolisms that I could find in nature, or the scientific knowledge of ecosystems and natural processes that I had gained. I had limited conceptual access into anything non-human, since my human cognition would entrap me within human concerns any time I viewed nature, thus wondering how I would get closer to the natural environment, how I would surpass the boundaries of my perception.

 

I stepped into my research thinking I would gain profound insight into these questions by studying closely how local Greek island inhabitants and sailors used to perceive the sea, and how authors like Andreas Karkavitsas and Alexandros Papadiamantis portray the natural environment, especially the sea, in Modern Greek prose literature of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. I was excited to comprehend and promote the profound respect that these communities feel about non-human nature, and their unique relationship to the biotic communities where they live. However, my research project ended up providing much more significant insight into these initial questions that instigated my research primarily through the difficulties I faced during the process: the lack of direction in my research, or, to put it more accurately, they difficulty in defining the scope of my project. Conducting my research has been like aiming to a moving target. Once I started diving into the literary works that I had in mind for my research project, many paths started to unfold. Andreas Karkavitsas’ and Alexandros Papadiamantis’ work provide fertile ground for discussion about th portrayal of environmental justice, the contrast between human relationships with the terrestrial environment contrary to the marine environment, the unique way in which sailors and local island inhabitants perceive the sea as an entity with which they interact, as well as the perception of the sea in gendered terms, all being areas of literary interest that have been largely unexplored for the works of the authors I am studying.

 

Apart from the various directions that the texts pointed me at, there were multiple theoretical frameworks that I considered applying in my analysis of these texts, which also required extensive research. Such frameworks included ecocritical theories and thinkers, like Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino, two core thinkers in material ecocriticism, and Timothy Clark, in his wider take on ecocriticism and his criticism of material ecocriticism, aesthetic philosophy, particularly the various cognitive and non-cognitive views of aesthetic appreciation of nature, especially A. Berleant’s theory of appreciating nature through immersing oneself within the environment, thus breaking down the subject-object dualism/division, my exploration of the notion of anthropocentrism as viewed through philosophy and how it has historically permeated the Western culture, the theory of object-oriented ontology, which helped me develop my thought, albeit it has several points which I am not on a par with, as well as Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s theory of disenchantment, namely the idea through the Enlightenment and the strong cognitive, logical and scientific outlook on nature it promoted, people started finding nature fully intelligible and lacking any meaning, thus creating the sense that we can understand, predict and dominate it, and causing ‘disenchantment’, and we need to re-enchant nature so as to develop a different, more respectful and meaningful form towards nature. Another field that opened up shortly after I started looking more closely into secondary literary criticism on the authors I had chosen is the history of Greek literature, of which I had only a rough idea, the relationship of Greeks with nature, as explored through ethnographic studies like that of Dimitrios Theodossopoulos, and driving forces that have shaped this relationship and the Modern Greek culture overall, such as the divide between the East and the West, as Greece was strongly influenced by both.

 

The combination of historical, philosophical and anthropological considerations, along with the necessity of a deep understanding of the entirety of Karkavitsas’ and Papadiamantis’ works, the times they were living in and the stimuli to which they were possibly exposed, led to large, dense and difficult academic material which I had to select and synthesize. This prompted me to build resilience against the stress of uncertainty about where my research was headed, given the vastness of the possible theoretical frameworks I could use and the different paths that each of these opened, as well as the stress of managing and synthesizing academic material greater in density and quantity than what I was accustomed to in my previous academic work. However, this diversity of approaches towards nature also provided empirically an answer to the question that I had grappled with for years: how to get closer to nature and whether I am appreciating it ‘correctly’. By ‘correctly’ I do not mean a normative framework to appreciate a natural landscape, but, rather, an effective way of getting close to the non-human environment and its systems, and developing a genuine respect for it so that we deconstruct the anthropocentric sense of superiority that has allowed the Western culture to justify invasive practices towards the non-human nature.

 

Although I felt lost during the intake and synthesis of so much complex information, it is precisely in the wide range of modes of appreciation and outlooks on nature which I encountered during my research that enriched my relationship to the non-human world: a humility and sense of respect lied in the variety of lenses I could apply to nature, that allowed me to get a little bit closer to it through their combination. Karkavitsas’ work Tales from the Prow reinforced this appreciation through a variety of views and frameworks: each short story in the collection shows a unique outlook on the sea, voiced by a specific character, and each short story complements another or even sometimes contradicts another short story. This collection of short stories seems to create an image of the sea that is like a puzzle, where each short story is a piece of the puzzle, but none of which are sufficient to express the essence of the sea, what the sea really is. But it is in this synthesis of perceptions of the sea where proximity with the sea and acquaintance with it lies. This project has shown me a form of appreciation of nature that is defined by the varied nature of perception, as if it’s a puzzle where we are putting the pieces together by combining various takes on nature, but leaving empty the central piece of the puzzle, what the natural element actually is - its ‘essence’ -, as something possibly conceptually inaccessible.

Related Reading: 

 Primary Texts:

Karkavitsas, Andreas, Λόγια της Πλώρης. Athens: Estia, 2006.

Papadiamantis, Alexandros, The Murderes. Translated by Peter Levi. New York: NYRB Classics, 2010.

Karkavitsas, Andreas, Ταξιδιωτικά. Athens: Nefeli Publications, 1998.

Papadiamantis, Alexandros, Μικρά Άπαντα. Edited by Giorgos Sanidas. Athens: Pigi Publications, 2020

 Karkavitsas, Andreas, Καρκαβίτσα Άπαντα: Δεύτερος Τόμος. Edited by G. Valetas. Athens: Publications of Christos Giovanis, 1973

Secondary Literature on These Texts:

Sideridou-Thomopoulou, Niki. Το Έργο και η Ζωή του Αντρέα Καρκαβίτσα. Athens: Academy of Athens Award, 1959

Politi, Tzina, Συνομιλώντας με τα Κείμενα. Athens: Agra Publications, 1996

Ecocriticism:

 Serenella, Iovino. Material Ecocriticism . Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.

 Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter (a John Hope Franklin Center Book). Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.

 Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Anthropocentrism:

 Gary Steiner. Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents: The Moral Status of Animals in the History of Western Philosophy (Kindle Location 153). Kindle Edition.

Aesthetics Introduction

Carlson, Allen, "Environmental Aesthetics" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by N. Zalta. Winter 2020 Edition, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/environmental-aesthetics/

 Berleant, Arnold. The Aesthetics of the Environment. Temple University Press, 2010, Kind Edition.

 Disenchantment:

 Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Ed. G.S. Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott. California: Stanford University Press, 2002

Adorno, W. Theodor, Negative Dialectics. Trans. by E. B. Ashton. New York: Bloomsburry, 2007

Huhn, Thomas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Bernstein, J. M, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001

 

Sketch of the Prow of a Ship
Book Cover from Tales from the Prow : Beautiful sketch of a ship's prow (my picture)

Eirini Vryza

Student (English and Philosophy), University of St Andrews

Hi! I am Eirini Vryza (I often go by Irene). I am a student at the University of St Andrews, and I study English and Philosophy! I am particularly interested in ecocriticism as a critical approach to literature, and I love logic and philosophy of language in philosophy. I have also been quite impressed with object-oriented ontology, and I'd say that although my focus is primarily logic and philosophy of language, one of my favorite philosophers is Peter Singer! In my research project I will be looking at local narratives about nature and how anthropocentrism can be excluded from our collective narratives towards nature by exploring modern Greek literature (prose) and using object-oriented ontology, material ecocriticism and blue humanities as theoretical frameworks. 

I am very engaged in effective altruism, particularly in the areas of animal welfare and climate change, and I am also part of the amazing organization that is in St Andrews and many other university called One For The World, which promotes effective giving for global health and extreme poverty. 

Comments

Go to the profile of Robyn Adams
5 months ago

Um wow!! This is unbelievably well written and so interesting. I love the idea that the 'essence' of nature is something incomprehensible. Means we never get to stop exploring :)