Human Interactions with the Environment from Ancient Times to Early Romantic:  Nature and the Stereotype of the Oriental


Paper Delivered at the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on the Indian Ocean, July 2002 with a Few Updates

Josephine A. McQuail

Tennessee Technological University


In Far from Paradise, John Seymour underscores what we already know:  “Hunter gatherers are neither stupid nor mentally undeveloped.  To the chagrin of some, like the author of the current popular series involving an interrogating gorilla, Ishmael and My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, some hunter gatherers began planting and tending plants.  Though the Romantics are known for their love of wild nature, the reverence that earlier ages had for the tended land died hard.  In the context of Byron’s poem The Giaour, the Garden of Eden has been lost, but the garden is tended.  On the other hand, Quinn presents agricultural cultivation as the beginning of the downfall of humanity.


Some researchers believe that agriculture first started in river valleys, where stable settlements developed on the bases of hillsides; others that hillsides with regular rainfall was the most suitable environment.  Archeological evidence suggests that agriculture started in a variety of places more or less simultaneously around the end of the lst Ice Age, around 9000 B.C.  Professor Watson’s book on Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World notes, though, that others says of desert or near desert conditions that it was “natural that agriculture should have been invented in such regions, since the soil can be tilled with little effort and, if irrigated, can be very productive” (nt. 5 p. 210).


We have already discussed the fact that civilization first arose in the so-called fertile crescent between the Tiger and the Euphrates rivers, and later the Nile

I.G. Simmons’ map of the origins and distribution of agricultural terracing from 9000-5000 years ago shows the dissemination of terracing taking place across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and southeast Africa. 


Agriculture has been said to go hand in hand with civilization.  The environmental impact of the Sumerians in the southern part of the fertile crescent, the first civilization, resulted from agricultural and urban development.  The growth of cities could not have happened without a sophisticated system of food production which had 4 requirements


1)      a supply of fertilizers (primarily silt)

2)       a predictable flow of irrigation water for crops (which required complex engineering and an administration system)

3)      adequate storage for harvested crops

4)       agricultural planning:  for the Sumerians this included an elaborate calendar


Some facts:






·         The greatest impact of early agricultural settlement was on hillside forests.  The open oak forests of the “fertile crescent” were deforested, leading to erosion and flooding


Nile agriculture thrived on its silt-based method whereas Mesopotamian did not. 

The deforestation of the upland regions of Mesopotamia (the Armenian highlands) made siltation great enough to shift the shoreline of the Persian Gulf 130 mi. 


The excavation of the Sumerian city of Ur (and there is a room on the 3rd floor of the Penn Museum of Archeology an Anthropology devoted to this area) shows that around 2.500 B.C. there was an environmental disaster, the inundation of Ur, which was the first, or one of the first human forged environmental disasters (as Prof. Watson said, this suggests Noah’s flood).  This flood indicated humanity’s power to affect the environment on a large scale. 


As Greece colonized Metaponto and the Mediterranean Hesiod wrote Works and Days in which he contrasted good farming methods:


Famine and blight do not beset the just,

Who till their well-worked fields and feast.  The earth

Supports them lavishly; and on the hills

The oak bears acorns for them at the top

And honey-bees below; their worldly sheep

Bear heavy fleeces, and their wives bear sons

Just like their fathers.  Since they always thrive,

They have no need to go on ships, because

The plenty-bringing land gives them her fruit.


With bad:


But there are some who till the fields of pride

And work at evil deeds’ Zeus marks them out,

And often, all the city suffers for

Their wicked schemes, and on these men, from heaven

The son of Kronos sends great punishments,

Both plague and famine, and the people die.


Plato in Critias written 2,400 years ago comments on the impact of deforestation and farming on Attica are sobering:


All other lands were surpassed by ours in goodness of soil, so that it was actually able at that period to support a large host which was exempt from the labors of husbandry.  And of its goodness a strong proof is this:  what is now left of our soil rivals any other in being all-productive and abundant in crops and rich in pasturage for all kinds of cattle; and at that period, in addition to their fine quality, it produced these things in vast quantity . . . And, just as happens in small islands, what now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left.  But at that epoch the country was unimpaired, and for its mountains it had high arable hills, and in place of the swamps as they are now called, it contained plains full of rich soil; and it had much forest-land in its mountains, of which there are visible signs even to this day; for there are some mountains which now have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees no very long time ago, and the rafters from those felled there to roof the largest buildings are still sound.  And besides, there were many lofty trees of cultivated species; and it produced boundless pasturage for flocks.  Moreover, it was enriched by the yearly rains from Zeus, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil it had was deep, and therein it received the water, storing it up in the retentive loamy soil; and by drawing it off into the hollows from the heights the water that was there absorbed, it provided all the various districts with abundant supplies of spring water and streams, whereof the shrines which still remain even now, at the spots where the fountains formerly existed, are signs which testify that our present description of the land is true.


Such, then, was the natural condition of the rest of the country, and it was ornamented as you would expect from the genuine husbandmen who made husbandry their sole task, and who were also men of great taste and of native talent, and possessed of most excellent land and a great abundance of water, and also, above the land, a climate of most happily tempered seasons.


Human civilization is basically synonymous with the conquest of nature, but it is possible to work in harmony with nature rather than against it in agricultural methods.


According to the last chapter of Prof. Watson’s book, “Ch. 25, “Agriculture in Retreat,” other things which had an impact on agriculture in the area of the Indian Ocean specifically were induced from social conditions: including


the invasion of the Saljuqs, Crusadors . . . Mongols, Turks and Conquistadores over the years  ruined agricultural works, destroyed permanent crops and closed down trade routes.   These conquerors came from regions where less intensive use was made of soil so they were not sympathetic to cultivation.  Christian invaders did the same.  In the 15th century B.C. in Spain, Sicily and the Latin kingdoms of the East, people fled, leaving large tracts of agricultural desert.  Also, the discovery of the New World ruined sugar production of both the Christian and Muslim Mediterranean and elsewhere.


            In 18th century England, cultivated, landscaped nature was favored, as evidenced by the famous Thames couplet from Sir John Denham’s poem Cooper’s Hill:


O that I could flow like thee and make thy stream

My great example as it is my theme: 

Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull

Strong without rage, without o’erflowing, full.


In contrast, the British Romantics, at the end of the 18th century until nearly the mid-19th century, reacting against the Industrial Revolution, preferred wild, uncultivated nature. However, Byron, who has been associated recently more with 18th century standards than Romantic (though he certainly was a Romantic figure in life, as Marilyn Butler notes in “Byron and the Empire in the East,” 63), states a preference for cultivated nature, as the following lines from “The Giaour” reveal:


Strange – that where nature lov’d to trace,

As if for Gods, a dwelling place,

And every charm and grace hath mixed

Within the paradise she fixed—

There man, enamour’d of distress,

Should mar it into wilderness,

And trample, brute-like, o’er each flower

That tasks not one laborious hour;

Nor claims the culture of his hand

To bloom along the fairly land,

But springs at to preclude his care,

And sweetly woos him—but to spare!

Strange—that where all is peace beside

There passion riots in her pride,

And lust and repine wildly reign,

To darken o’er the fair domain,

It is as though the fiends previl’d

Against the seraphs they assail’d,

And fixed, on heavenly thrones, should swell

The freed inheritors of hell—

So soft the scene, so form’d for joy,

So curst the tyrants that destroy! (ll. 46-67)


Here, “wilderness” is a pejorative term, which Byron (given his intense dislike of Wordsworth’s whole oeuvre) no doubt meant seriously, and the same kind of attitude toward wilderness is revealed in, for instance, Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown,” wherein the forest, the wilderness, provides “devilish Indians” and witches refuge.


Perhaps less well know than the stereotypical idea of Nature is the Romantic fascination with the Oriental. The Oriental craze in English literature started with translations of the Thousand and One Nights or the Arabian Nights (the first French translation being available 1704)..  18th century writers like Francis Sheridan and Romantics like William Godwin wrote Oriental tales or novels.   Most of the best poetry of Byron and Shelley is set between Greece and the Hindu Kush (the overland route to British India from the Ottoman empire).  Byron never traveled to what we consider the far east, but Albania and Greece, which he visited were then essentially borders of the Orient.. 


The well-known painting of Byron in Albanian dress (see collection of images in a separate module) shows his fascination with the Oriental.  Byron’s poem The Giaour is just one Oriental poem of several including parts of Childe Harold, Don Juan,  The Bride of Abydos, and the Corsair.  Byron championed the cause of Greek freedom while, like Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein implicitly denouncing Eastern cultures that oppress and subjugate women.  In many ways Byron treats the Orient as Edward Said says in Orientalism western writers do, as an “other” on which is projected underlying anxieties about the home culture.  However, more than many other writers he draws on his authentic experience and sympathy with the East (at least Greece) and at least gives us both sides of the dialogue.




            In his book The Venture of Islam, Marshall Hodgson makes some interesting parallels between the birth of agriculture and the birth of the Industrial Revolution.  Hodson postulates that the very success of the agricultural revolution in Islamic culture “may have impeded its advance beyond it” (204),  But with this difference in the two cultures came the kinds of prejudices about Orientals that perhaps remain today (204).  As with the agricultural revolution, the great changes of the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the many seemingly small inventions and discoveries that preceded them.


            However, Europeans forgot how slowly their “sophisticated” knowledge was accumulated through a prolonged industrialization process when the came into contact with other peoples.  “Eurocentrism” and their closed set of values caused them to ignore the real achievements of other cultures.  Both Hodson and Adas (32) note that Eastern disciplines such as Yoga or other meditations which are so popular today were not valued by Europeans.  Adas summarizes these narrow, judgmental categories:


So much was new and strange in the overseas lands they visited in the early stages of expansion that Europeans often simply overlooked tools and methods of cultivation.  Overall impressions of the material culture of a given society counted for a good deal more.  Cities and housing, public works and armies, and the way the inhabitants dressed and some of the products they offered in trade had a greater impact on European attitudes than their distinctive techniques of construction, the killing power of the weapons with which they fought their wars,, and the quality of the looms on which they weaved their textiles. . . . many travelers identified specific areas in which they believed the ‘Europeans to be markedly superior to the overseas peoples they contacted.  In combination with general estimates of the level of a given society’s material culture, technological achievement did much to determine the extent to which its people were esteemed or held in contempt.  It also had considerable bearing on the levels allotted to different peoples in hypothetical hierarchies of human development which were beginning to form in the European imagination.  Machines were not yet the preferred measure of human worth, but their quality and complexity had begun to be associated with cultural advancement and creative potential. (33)


Recommended novels having to do with these subjects, which I think would be a great way to introduce students, in English and anthropology as well as history to the kinds of things we’ve been talking about so far are Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, popular today among college environmentalists, which has been followed by My Ishmael, a sequel (listed under didactic novels and Gorillas in the library of Congress subject headings.)   He divides Hunter/Gatherers into the category of Givers; and Takers are those that have bought into social constructions Quinn claims (through the Gorilla Ishmael,) that humans need to go back to hunter/gatherer values in order to heal the wounds we have inflicted on our world.