Most anthologies of natural history writing begin with the Romantic Period, as if nothing of consequence was thought or written about the natural world before then. Recent scholarship in environmental history, however, has called that assumption into question. Classicist and scholar Robert M. Torrance has assembled the first comprehensive anthology of natural history writing, ranging from the works of the ancient world through those of Enlightenment Europe. The richness and diversity of Torrance’s selections—many in original translations—should demonstrate that contemporary culture’s alienation from nature is not shared by all the cultures of antiquity but is a consequence of modern technology and of the particular cultural evolution of the West.
As Torrance writes in his preface, Encompassing Nature had its genesis fifteen years ago as an anthology of readings for a course at the University of California at Davis entitled “Man and the Natural World.” Torrance went on to help found the “Nature and Culture” program at U.C.-Davis and to write The Spiritual Quest (1994). Afterward, he returned to his work of compiling a “wide-ranging sourcebook of materials” about nature from the Western and non-Western worlds. Torrance’s selections include poetry and prose of every imaginable variety: creation myths, cosmologies, tribal myths, children’s stories, sacred scriptures, philosophical and scientific treatises. Encompassing Nature is not a book to be read from cover to cover, but it is a rich reference source to consult for its comprehensive collection of the environmental wisdom of the premodern world. It is carefully edited, with extensive notes and introductions to each selection.
As Torrance demonstrates through his selections, virtually every great culture of antiquity enjoyed a sustaining relationship with nature. Sacred groves, streams, springs, rocks, mountains, and gardens were all revered for religious, aesthetic, and practical reasons. Without a mechanized technology, there was no drive to dominate, control, or destroy the natural world. Nature was a force to be respected, the Sacred Other, a seamless web of life in which humans found their place. The modern sickness of separation from nature is not yet evident. Restraint, care, and usufruct were universally practiced for practical and spiritual reasons. Throughout a wide range of climates and habitats, humans survived without overwhelming other forms of life. Ancient peoples understood the capacity of their lands to produce the basic needs of life. Priests, shamans, or elders placated the local gods to ensure that the hunt and harvest would be sufficient to sustain the village. They knew the capacities of their local environment and took pleasure in the subtle changes of climate and season.
Creation myths and cosmologies bound ancient peoples to a greater sense of being. There was no sense of humans as a special creation, set apart from the rest of the living world, nor of the world itself as existing solely for human exploitation. On the contrary, an animistic sensibility generated an overall kinship and respect for life. Ancient civilizations provided time and leisure for arts, reflection, and contemplation, not the mindless, frenzied, destructive mechanical recreation of modern consumer culture. Poets, sages, mystics, hermits, and saints drew upon nature for inspiration. A reverence for nature has not been the recent discovery of the Romantics and their followers but has always been part of the human sensibility, especially for the ancient cultures that lived much closer to nature than modern artificial technology permits.
One of the chief pleasures of Encompassing Nature is discovering unknown treasures of nature writing in the non-Western cultures, especially those of the Orient. Torrance includes selections from ancient Indian culture—the Hymns of the Vedas, the teachings of Jainism, the Bhagavad Gita, and Sanskrit court poetry. His selections of Chinese and Japanese writing are particularly extensive, and there the reader may sample from a rich tradition of nature poetry and prose reaching back to the Chou Dynasty and the Yellow Emperor. Even when it becomes stylized, Chinese and Japanese nature poetry seems more precise and evocative than that of the Western pastoral tradition, with its silly and sentimental nymphs and satyrs, shepherds and shepherdesses. The iconographic focus on the precise image, with the use of empty space as contrast, evokes a spirituality and a sense of the sacred too often absent in the West. Chinese landscape painting and poetry evolved as closely related forms of aesthetic expression and, in turn, deeply influenced Japanese modes of expression. Perhaps the...