The Pastoral Modes in Ruskin Bond’s The Book of Nature
Ecocriticism[i] is a body of knowledge in its own right and/ or the ecological approach to the study of literary text. One of the contributions of scholarship in contemporary ecocriticism has been to question the ethics in the representation of pastoral landscapes and its relationship to the environmental crises at the different stages of ecological strata and geographical spaces. The prospect of literature and criticism as an instrument to negotiate the problems of environmental crisis has been through representation of a powerful landscape which can absorb the consequences of cultural and technological adversities as devised by men as a conscious and unconscious mode of defacing the pastoral landscapes.
The Greek poet Theocritus (316-260 BC) first introduced the genre of pastoral writing through his work Idylls. Traditionally, the idea of pastoral was assigned to a writing based on the life of the shepherds grazing sheep in the pastureland. The idea of sheep is centralised entity in the formation of the concept of pastoral. Bryan Loughrey in the introduction to The Mode of Pastoral (1984) defines ‘pastoral’ as a ‘contested term’, which cannot be contained in a single universal idea (Loughrey 8). Pastoral can be applied to different varieties of writings or in different senses: the pastoral of childhood (or retreat into childhood) by Peter Marinelli; urban pastoral (where no sheep is in sight) by Marshall Berman (Loughrey 130, Gifford 4). The forerunner of ecocriticism Leo Marx (1964) and Raymond Williams (1973) attempted to redefine pastoral ideal in the sense of evolution of culture grounded on the foundation of space and time of human cultural history. Leo Marx takes a turn from traditional shepherd dominated pastoral by replacing the shepherd with technology as a theme of discussion. However, Raymond Williams defines pastoral as rooted in the history of human culture of material exploitation of the countryside resource.
Terry Gifford has advocated three usages of pastoral and anti-thesis of pastoral in his work, The Pastoral (1999). The first usage of pastoral is that of traditional one where a person escapes from the hectic or monotonous life of city to a countryside. Second, that pastoral may be used to refer to a poem or a piece of writing which celebrates a pastoral landscape in the urban or suburban landscape. Third, pastoral may be used in a ‘pejorative’ sense, as a mode of protest against the felling of trees in the proximity of highly developed or industrialised place. However, the concept of ‘pastoral’ has been criticised as an inadequate project which has failed to address the concerns of the environmental crises. In this context, Lawrence Buell states:
Insofar as some form of pastoralism is part of the conceptual apparatus of all persons with western educations interested in leading more nature-sensitive lives, it is to be expected that pastoralism will be part of the unavoidable ground-condition of most of those who read this book. Even if, as is clear, pastoralism interposes some major stumbling blocks in the way of developing a mature environmental aesthetics, it cannot but play a major role in that endeavour. (32)
Keeping these issues in mind, this study proposes to investigate various modes of pastoral in Ruskin Bond’s (b 1934) The Book of Nature (2004). It is a collection of his best writings on his relationship with the natural world, and portrays the serene beauty of small town in the foothills of the Himalayan range to the walls of cities and small towns—where his attachment towards the place grew stronger. Bond is neither a botanist nor zoologist, but the knowledge of the locale flora and fauna makes him an ardent nature enthusiast with a pen to juggle his experience in the empty space of the text. Bond is conscious about the language of the text as he is writing for the young audience. Moreover, Bond admits that he ‘enjoys the writing associated with nature’ as his stories are ‘not a book of natural world, rather a record of my (his) relationship with the natural world, which has sustained and inspired me (him) over the years’ (2). He further admits that he was greatly influenced by the works of Thoreau, Richard Jefferies and H E Bates. These nature writers, especially Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Edward Abbey, John Elder and Gary Synder have been able to motivate economists, ecologists, sociologists and policy makers to contemplate and act on the issue of protecting the aesthetic and material wealth of virgin forest. The works of Bond are comparable to western nature writers’ portrayal of wilderness, not only as an important or dominant theme, but also in portraying a strong concern for the degradation of natural landscape in the region while showing the possibility of building relationships with nature. Bond employs the childhood reminiscence of natural scenic hills of Dehradun and Mussoorie almost invariably for the discursive landscape in his works, which reflects his ardent faith in the healing powers of nature. Moreover, in the introduction to The Book of Nature, Bond reflects on the importance of early relationship with nature; how a painful experience of bee sting made him aware of the nature, and how the literature that was widely available to him had formed perceptions of deep ecological relationship with nature. In this context Plato in the Republic Book II states:
The beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing: for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken (qtd in Diaches 2003: 11).
Further, Bond also represents the concern for the unethical actions of men towards nature in his writings, reflecting on the eroding relationship between human and nonhuman.
The representation of pastoral in The Book of Nature is multilayered which varies from traditional pastoral to urban pastoral and pastoral of deep ecology. His collections of essays, folk stories and records of biodiversity of the Himalayan foothill are his reminiscence of experiences and emotional bonds to a place. So, Buell considers writings on emotional relationship with the place and nature as built by ‘scrolling backward in memory’ (68). In this context, Bond states:
Living in the hills, or near the great forests, or near the sea, does of course make it easier to engage with the natural world. As a boy and then as a young man, a sense of adventure often took me down unknown roads, to experiences that were often memorable (60)
His encounters with a new event become fragments of memory which is transformed into records in the form of The Book of Nature. His meticulous assessment of each tree, shrub and wild flower growing on the foothills of Himalayan range is the reflection of the influences of western nature writers. Bond’s would refer to the rare books like Natural History or Sterndale’s Indian Mammalia (1884) to classify or identify the genres of the animals, insects or birds which he encounters. Whenever, he comes across the plants which he was not able to identify, he would try to refer to the scientific books; but if he could not find the species, he would then name them himself. Himalayan forests are one of the biodiversity hotspot regions in the world with large subtropical pine forest and large number of leopards, Asian elephants and tigers, popularised by British writers like Rudyard Kipling and Jim Corbett in the early twentieth century. However, Bond’s method of classifying of plants is remnant of western classification system. However, in The Book of Nature a touch of emotional bonding with nature and its treasure becomes important aspects of retreat for his old age. Buell’s concept of place-attachment[ii] seems to illuminate continuously in his work. First, in the collection of ‘The Grand Father’s Zoo,’ Bond recalls several incidences which strongly affect his adjustment to the places outside Dehradun and Mussourie. The first chapter of the book reflects his attachment towards the place locating his identity and the second represents his adjustment to a new place far away from the place of his childhood.
The philosophy of pastoral may also apply to a place of retreat from the monotonous life of the city. This place may or may not be a stretch of tranquil grassland or scenic natural hills. Pastoral may also exist inside the walls of the city where even a small space can be spacious enough to accommodate the beauty of nature. Pastoral is a human-centric project of delivering men from the mental sicknesses of modernity. Pastoral is unconsciously a project of material exploitation of the countryside and the settlers. However, this form of exploitation is not violent in nature but the problems that accompany an escapee are automatically transferred to the countryside. In the ‘Civilised Wilderness’, Bond’s engagement with pastoral is reflected in his desire for natural landscape in the midst of the concrete jungle of Delhi and other places he has visited or stayed for a very long period. His desire for the green landscape compels him to search for an alternate escape route from the concrete jungle of the civilization. In this context, Bond states:
In an attempt to escape the city life that constantly oppressed me, I would walk across the main road and into the fields, finding old wells, irrigation channels, camels and buffaloes, and sighting birds and small creatures that no longer dwelt in the city. In an odd way, it was my reaction to city life that led to my taking a greater interest in the natural world. Up to that time, I had taken it all for granted (39)
Further, he recollects the reminiscence of his friends and relatives, whose love for the natural landscape and their persistence to experience pastoral landscape in small rocky and unimaginable spaces. Referring to this, Bond says that his friend, ‘Cyril’s rooms were surrounded by a long veranda that allowed in so much sunlight and air, resulting in such a profusion of leaf and flowers’ (35). Cyril as a man of flesh and blood negotiates the deficiency of fertile soil and space by adopting a unique method of growing climbing ivy and begonias on the veranda to compensate for scarcity of fertile space and to fulfil his desire to have a pastoral space.
In The Book of Nature, Bond’s relationship with nature weaves an intricate web of deep ecology. The concept of ‘deep ecology’ was first postulated by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss in 1973. The basic tenets of deep ecology are to seek a non-violent mutual development of both human and non-human entities:
The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have a value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes. (qtd in Garrard 21)
Deep ecology, in a narrow sense, is a relationship of man to nature not as dependent beneficiary but as a member of the family. Næss observes that the objective of deep ecology is to have a mutual understanding between human and nonhuman, contributing towards a harmonious survival of life on the Earth. As such, ethics of deep ecology as a project can be represented through the literary text. However, deep ecology has been a concept of dispute and it has been severely criticised as a western project of wilderness and as an attempt to subjugate the least developed and less developed nations by the advanced western countries. In The Book of Nature, Bond seems to have successfully employed the concept of deep ecology. In the collection of ‘Grandfather’s Zoo’ Bond portrays a fascinating glimpse of deep ecology through the relationship between animals—both big and small—which is an indirect but eloquent reminder of our obligation towards being a ‘more gentle with birds and animals, to acknowledge their rights on the earth’ and more importantly to ‘respect them’. The individual attentions given to each of his grandfather’s wild pets and the act of naming them as Henry, Harold, Caesar, Toto and so on, engages the holistic recognition of values inherent in the nonhuman entities. Referring to this, he narrates the incident of mongoose and the cobra. The simulation of habitat would have reduced the inherent abilities of mongoose to fight against the swift and venomous strikes of cobra:
He (grandfather) had encouraged it to live in the garden, to keep away the snakes, and fed it regularly with scraps from the kitchen. He had never tried taming it, because a wild mongoose was more useful than a domesticated one. (8)
Further, Ruskin Bond’s Grandfather believes in equitable treatment of the innocent creatures, with ‘a feathery delicacy’. Moreover, Bond writes that ‘Grandfather’s zoo is a little world in itself, ostensibly more civilised than the one outside, for here a number of grandfather’s pets like tortoise, squirrel, rabbit, monkey, goat, white rat, donkey, tadpoles and others, live very sociably together!’ Holistic or shared connection between human and nonhuman entities becomes a major aspect in Bond’s record of his childhood. Referring to this Bond states:
A bush, on the other hand, may have been in the ground a long time—thirty or forty years or more—while continuing to remain a bush, man-sized and approachable....can be on intimate terms with it, know its qualities—leaf, bud flower, and fruit—and also its inhabitants, be they insects, birds, small mammals, or reptiles...that bushes are ideal for binding the earth together and preventing erosion...are just as important as trees. Every monsoon I witness landslides all about me but I know the hillside just above my cottage is well-knit, knotted and netted, by bilberry and raspberry, wild jasmine, dog-rose and bramble, and other shrubs, vines and creepers (42).
These paragraphs assign an intrinsic value to the nonhuman entities, especially to the elements which have no economic value. By assigning intrinsic value, Bond transfers the ethics from economically valued plants to the small plants and shrubs, which are otherwise considered as a menace and wild weeds. Assignment of ethics involves a moral acceptance on the part of the person assigning the value, recognising not its material value but the holistic need of a universe. Further, deep ecology can be also seen in the chapter titled ‘The Guardians of My Conscience’:
The trees stand watch over my day-to-day life. They are the guardians of my conscience. I have no one else to answer to, so I live and work under the generous but highly principled supervision of the trees—especially the deodars, who stand on guard, unbending, on the slope above the cottage. The oak and maples are a little more tolerant, they have had to put up with a great deal, their branches continually lopped for fuel and fodder. ‘What would they think?’ I ask myself on many an occasion. ‘What would they like me to do?’ And I do what I think they would approve of most! (121)
Bond’s reflection on the principle of ecology that everything in the life cycle is connected with everything else—from microbes to man is evident in almost all the chapters in The Book of Nature.
In the collections of ‘Into the Wild’, ‘The Winged Ones’, and ‘Big Cat Tales’ Bond narrates his encounters with the rarest of animals in places where they are least likely to be found. Bond narrates the story of his encounters with leopard in Mussoorie and blames himself. He dedicates most of his writings to this magnificent cat, a symbol of majesty, padding down the lanes of Mussoorie after dark and the wise old tiger who outwits humans to survive and dominate his territory. ‘Big-Cat Tales’ successfully interweaves an intricate web of diminishing landscape, fear and deep ecology. Bond begins the tale by sketching the pristine landscape of the Himalayan foothill forests along the Ganges River. These virgin forests were host to large numbers of species of flora and fauna with no commercial activities before the rapid growth of population began to slowly erode the forest cover which had sustained large species of animals and plants for centuries. Moreover, the imperial ambition of the British Empire had created a demand for warships and railway tracks for conquest and transportation of natural wealth from India to England. However, Bond cites a common example of deforestation which can occur anywhere. Referring to this Bond writes:
At first the villagers were glad because they felt their buffaloes were safe. Then the men began to feel that something had gone out of their lives, out of the life of the forest; they began to feel that the forest was no longer a forest. It had been shrinking year by year, but as long as the tiger had been there and the villagers had heard it roar at night, they had known that they were still secure from the intruders and newcomers who came to fell the trees and eat up the land and let the flood waters into the village. But, now that the tiger had gone, it was as though a protector had gone, leaving the forest open and vulnerable, easily destroyable. And, once the forest was destroyed, they too would be in a danger. (243-244)
The principle of the mutual recognition for the right to live and sustain the living ground was a means of preserving the forest. The old tiger act as a balancing agent, thereby protecting the forests through the element of fear. However, anthropocentric will to dominate nature becomes a major component in devising a vicious circle of anthropogenic[iii] traps for the old tiger. Subsequently, the metaphorical death of the old tiger triggered the motion of destruction of the forest. This loss of the forest is not just symbolic, but also the loss of rights to the forest and its services itself. The lost of subsistence of survival for human and nonhuman, whether domesticated or wild.
Contrast with the work of the pastoral which provides an escape route for the people of the city by portraying a serene picture of nature, persuading men to return to the lap of nature. The concept of ‘anti-pastoral’ exposes the illusions of pastoral by misleading people from the reality (Gifford 1999; Coupe 2000). Therefore, anti-pastoral reminds men of the supremacy of nature through various destructive forces. The Book of Nature begins by constructing a serene picture of nature having a positive effect upon readers to the extent that nature seems to become the final answer to the negative effects of the civilisation. However, the tranquil beginning turns into records of natural calamities that had changed the whole landscape of geography and humanity. Referring to this, Bond states:
Earthquake, tidal waves, hurricane, flood, blizzard, all come to remind us that we are not, after all, the masters of the universe. We might trample upon our natural heritage, and do our best to destroy it, but the forces of nature are greater than man’s. Nature will always have the last word. (248)
The chapter titled, ‘Nature’s Fury’, engages nature’s binary oppositions. The element of fear creates the effect of catharsis in the psyche of an individual through nature’s violence, which is universal to all, human and nonhuman. For instance, Bond cites the earthquake of Assam in 1897 , which took a huge toll of human life and which was a reminder to people about the dangers they face. Bond’s portrayal of nature’s fury is subtle, as he writes for young readers. However, Bond is able to coordinate between pastoral and anti-pastoral through the deep ecological relationship between his experience and the narration.
Bond’s pastoral or desire to escape arises from his nostalgic childhood for the landscape of Dehradun and Mussoorie. His attachment to the grand pinewood foresst of the Himalayan foothills draws him out of the concrete wilderness of the city which is covered with multicoloured covers and lacks in green pastoral covers. Bond retreats to a childhood or to the pastoral of childhood to motivate himself to write his pastoral experiences for urban audiences as an adult. However, random and rapidly changing landscape has taken a toll of the pastoral landscape which he had enjoyed as a child and a young man. This loss of childhood pastoral landscape dislocates his belongingness to the place he was born, psychologically depriving him from experiencing pastoral landscape. Therefore, The Book of Nature, by transforming Bond’s personal record into a dreamscape[iv], becomes a site of alternative pastoral space.
[i] William Rueckert first coined the term “ecocriticism” in 1978 in his seminal essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism”. However,
[ii] Buell postulated that there is a temporal dimension of place-attachment which affects the person’s ability to confirm to new environment other than the place of birth.
[iii] Problems generated by human activities
[iv] Dreamscape was coined by Sylvia Plath in her poem “The Ghost’s Leavetaking” (1958). This term is used to refer to the imagined location in which unconscious imagination takes place. However, in this discussion dreamscape becomes a space of retreat from the material landscape to the landscape of the memory.
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