Nineteenth-century poet John Clare wove together “descriptions of the environment and accounts of human life,” making no distinction between human and natural history.  The anthropologists Richard D.G. Irvine and Mina Gorji argue that this makes him in some ways a poet of our current age, the Anthropocene.

The concept of the Anthropocene is still new and much-debated, but in essence, it means the present geological era, and is named for the “prominent role of humans in driving geological, atmospheric and geomorphological changes,” as Irvine and Gorji succinctly put it. To them, this necessarily calls for a re-visioning of the past. How did we get here? Where did the road to the present start? Is there any turning back? In approaching these questions, they call for merging the humanities with economics and biology and think the poet John Clare (1793-1864) is an excellent precedent.

As a species, we have become geological agents transforming the planet. As individuals, we contribute to cumulative effects that will have ramifications long after our own lives. Irvine and Gorji write, “These processes cannot be understood on a purely human level; in understanding humans as geological agents, we need to locate anthropogenic activity not only in social terms but as part of a wider system of relations with a physical and biological environment.

John Clare was, as it says on his tomb, a “peasant poet.” He was best known in his own time for his collection Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). Poor, hard-working, probably stunted by malnutrition, and acutely conscious of the transformations going on in his beloved corner of England, Clare is now recognized as the best of the English laborer poets. Tragically, he spent the last twenty years of his life in an insane asylum. His writings, many unpublished during his lifetime, saw a resurgence of interest in the late twentieth century, when he became recognized for his important place in social history.

Irvine and Gorji have another reason for re-reading him. They note his intuitive sense of time beyond human lifespans. Not particularly well-educated, Clare nonetheless learned to see the signs of ancient and Roman relics in the landscape. He also noted the decline of species in his own lifetime in the context of the radical transformation of the English countryside through enclosures.

He drew connections between the reduction of insect life and the corresponding diminishment of the birds and mammals further up the food chain, essentially foretelling the dire environmental state we see today.

Irvine and Gorji argue that Clare’s “challenges to our dominant sense of value” about the long-term effects of private property “may help us to think beyond anthropocentricism and to re-evaluate assumptions of economic progress.” Clare, they suggest, “has a particular pertinence in trying to approach contemporary environmental issues as we begin to confront our place in geological history.”

As John Locke argued in favor of private property, and England’s enclosure laws privatized land into the hands of the few, Clare recognized an inherent value in land unconnected to human use. In this he predates Aldo Leopold’s land ethic by more than a century. Against the “progressive” ethos of “improving” land for private profit, Clare recognized how ecologically important habitat like wetlands were. He mourned the moles being hung (yes, hung) by farmers as pests, noting their vital role in turning the earth, and, coincidently, churning up ancient Roman artifacts.

In addition to standing up for the moles, Clare had a fondness for weeds, which are, after all, just plants that aren’t wanted in a particular place. They appear to lack a use value, but that concept is anthropocentric. Irvine and Gorji value these alternatives to anthropomorphism. They conclude, “from an non-anthropocentric perspective, looking at our actions with the recognition that we are geological agents, we might be startled to learn that we are the weeds.”



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The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 31, No. 1 (SPRING 2013), pp. 119-132
Berghahn Books