Ecology, inheritance, legacy: birds and temporality in the 1960s and the contemporary literary imagination
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/07/2022
Saunders, Hetty Louise Anne
This thesis examines the interface of literature and birdlife as a means to interrogate the relationship between literary inheritance and ecological legacy. Perhaps more than any other animal, birds have a strong literary lineage. Their use in literature often draws on their associations with ritual and ways of relating to the past; yet birds also are figures of augury and future-telling. Metonymically linked to what we conceptualize as “nature” and “environment”—and since the middle of the twentieth century, increasingly understood to be at risk from anthropogenically-driven decline or extinction—birds, too, have become potent symbols for ecological mourning. This thesis shows that, as literary emblems and real animals, birds are entangled in temporally-bound questions of history, representation, authenticity, authority, inheritance, futurity, endangerment, absence, mourning, timings, and ways of telling time—subjects that are inextricable from those at the heart of ecological crisis. Bringing together prose writing and poetry from either end of the modern ecological movement, coincident both with the onset of the Anthropocene and its emergence as a key vector of contemporary ecological awareness, I examine and trace the literal, literary, and figurative “flight ways” of birds from literature of two periods roughly half a century apart. In order to demonstrate most effectively the development of approaches across these two periods, this thesis is structured chronologically in two parts. Part one examines texts from the 1960s, the beginning of the modern eco-movement. Chapter one explores the literary inheritances in Rachel Carson’s avian case studies of Silent Spring (1962), reading the text as anticonsolatory and anticipatory ecological elegy. Chapter two demonstrates the ways in which Basil Bunting’s poems ‘A thrush in the syringa sings’ (1965) and Briggflatts (1966) interrogate the anthropocentric inheritances of a lyric tradition of voicing songbirds. Chapter three discusses the role of the spectral and acts of haunting in J. A. Baker’s work of lyric prose, The Peregrine (1967). Part two turns its gaze to twenty-first-century writing partially influenced by the works above and considers the ways in which birds continue to figure centrally in contemporary literature of the environment. Chapters four and five demonstrate contemporary responses to the challenges of Anthropocene avian encounter: these texts not only address inherited conventions but are self-consciously attuned to their own complicity in and anxiety about literature’s (ecologically) authentic, redemptive or recuperative capacities. Chapter four dissects the strange migrations at work in the encounters between humans and endangered birds in Kathleen Jamie’s prose collection, Findings (2005), and chapter five examines Elisabeth Bletsoe’s ‘Birds of the Sherborne Missal’ (2008), a poetic sequence in which, I argue, ambivalence towards lyric and avian textual inheritances functions to engage in an attenuated ecomimesis. In recent years, animal studies and ecocriticism have begun to look to birds in literature. My thesis offers a valuable contribution to these emerging debates around multi-species representation by revealing the ways in which birds function across both periods as vehicles for addressing multi-species relations. It shows that the ubiquity of birds in what we consider broadly as “nature writing” as a literary-historical category belies their role in subverting, inverting, and unsettling inherited categories of both environment and literary- generic form. Through their birds, these texts question inherited modes of relating to, reading, and writing “nature”, and engage with the ethics of aesthetic response and ecological legacy.