DURING A TYPICALLY SURREAL PASSAGE of arms in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty remarks loftily to Alice: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” This accidental observation on the mutability of categories could be applied to almost any literary genre, including nature writing. In each case the critic is forced to set a boundary depending upon the problem under discussion. The difficulty of defining nature writing becomes especially acute in the Indian context, where examples of it are few and far between. The most serviceable analogy might be with literary fiction, for, like it, nature writing is marked by inherent complexity of language, thought and structure. It’s this that sets it apart from the much broader category of books about nature, whose essence is didactic and whose sole purpose is to inform.
Modern nature writing stems from a profound sense of disquiet at the destruction of the natural world. In the United States, this anxiety became visible during the second half of the nineteenth century—privately at first, in the journals of an obscure writer and lecturer named Henry David Thoreau. It found public expression once the Civil War ended in 1865, and railroads thrust westwards, pulling farmers, cattle ranchers, and businessmen out to make a quick buck in their wake. The ravaging of the American West inspired a nascent conservationist ethic, whose representatives were, for the most part, ordinary citizens. The writings of John Muir—farmer, sheepherder, inventor and naturalist—were to play a key role in the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890. In nineteenth-century Britain, a small but significant sector of the landed gentry developed an enthusiastic interest in natural history just as the Industrial Revolution was reshaping the countryside and schemes of agricultural improvement were ascendant.
More relevant for our purposes is the period after the Second World War. The post-war economic boom in western Europe and the United States rippled outward to affect the global economy. Agricultural intensification went hand in hand with the mass use of fertilisers and pesticides—more and more in newer and newer combinations—until they saturated the environment, with dramatic effects upon previously common species. The steady concentration of organochlorine pesticides up the food chain precipitated an astonishing decline in peregrine populations across the western world. Small animals and birds ate food contaminated with pesticides, which passed into their bodies. The birds of prey who ate them accumulated these toxins in even greater concentrations. One of their chief effects was to make the shells of eggs laid by poisoned peregrines much thinner. These eggs failed—fewer and fewer fledglings hatched successfully. By the 1960s, the peregrine was thought to be dying out in Britain. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a marine biologist abandoned her discipline to describe the graveyard the American countryside was becoming—Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, first serialised in the New Yorker, touched off a fierce debate on the overuse of pesticides.
Much of what we recognise as nature writing dates from this period, when the destruction of the natural world seemed unprecedented in its scale and thoroughness. No sooner was one problem fixed than others became visible—organochlorine pesticides were banned, the peregrine recovered, but neither intensification nor chemical use abated. Other kinds of birds are threatened now, along with a much greater proportion of insects, including bees (key pollinators of food crops worldwide).
In India, acreage under crops expanded significantly during the nineteenth century, with a concomitant decrease in forests, woods and grasslands, but this affected only the lives and livelihoods of social groups at the margins of society. It came to worry colonial policymakers, however, for reasons both commercial and environmental. Their solution was to take forests into state ownership, restricting access to them, especially for the poor. The first wave of nature writing in India—by colonial bureaucrats and civil servants—is marked by effervescence rather than anxiety. This began to change by the 1930s and 1940s, as the economy diversified and industrial activity increased sharply.
The modernisation of the Indian economy after 1947 ratcheted up pressure on the natural world. In scale, it probably equalled and may well have exceeded the most intense periods of colonial exploitation. Dams, mines, infrastructure projects and industrial concessions reshaped the countryside. Meanwhile, natural-history research stagnated and agencies such as the Botanical Survey of India and the Forest Research Institute decayed rapidly. The Nehruvian state starved the field of resources and expertise; the Forest Department strove to exclude researchers from overseas and largely succeeded. The American zoologist George Schaller managed to write a pioneering study of large mammals in Kanha National Park in 1967, but it forms an exception, not the rule. In the absence of state funding, insularity masquerading as nationalism set back knowledge of Indian ecosystems for two generations.
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Shashank Kela is the author of a novel, The Other Man, and A Rogue and Peasant Slave, a book of history.