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An Ecocritical Interpretation of African Appreciation of Landscape and Landsc(r)ape: A Review of Literatures
Ejiogu, Nnadube Jonathan
B.A. (English), University of Lagos
The ruination done to our vegetative landscape is gaining ascendancy with the passing of each day. Even though there lies a truth in the justification that such culture is a consequence of development and evolution, what it points to is the imminent death of mankind. Man and its landscape seem to operate in a symbiotic fashion, so that, what affects one impinge on the other. Several 'eco'scholars have theorised that not only that man is a product of his environment but that the 'landscraping' (my term for vegetative manhandling) of his landscape is capable of culminating into 'manscraping' (my term for the extinction of man). Literature, tasked with the duty of mirroring the society, is bound to the bane of bringing to bare such unwholesome practice through the trope of ecocriticism. Although this discursive inquest must have had its root in Science and Western literature but it can be found unassailable within the literary topography of African literature; hence, an African interpretation to a Western theory, eco-criticism. The cardinal onus here then is to beam our spotlight on the growing problem of nonchalance and contempt towards a vegetative landscape through the lens of African literature while at a superficial level, the idea here is to project the truism that Africa cannot be dismissed as not embracing eco-criticism as some scholars believe, rather, they hold what ecocriticism stand for in high esteem. Using the concept of generationalisation of African writers, this paper has been able to show the landscape and environmental thematic concern of African literary texts aimed at salvaging the landscape from the endemic problem of landscraping. In this vein, Chinua Achebe suffices as a first generation writer with his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart as a quantitative material. Niyi Osundare becomes the representative character for the second generation writers with his collection of poems titled The Eye of The Earth. For the contemporary writers, Helon Habila and Kaine Agary and their texts, Oil on Water and Yellow Yellow respectively, become necessary tools. Essentially, this paper carried out more of reviews than analysis. The justification of this approach is informed by the working objective of the paper.
Keywords: Landscape, Landscrape, African Literature, Eco-criticism, Environment
Long before the literary scholar, William Ruekert, coined the term 'ecocriticism' to represent the idea of eco-consciousness and rekindle the ideal of eco-culture, the need to desist from treating our landscape with a sense of wantonness holds sway in the Hybriac divine narrative or what can pass as 'Edenic narrative'. According to the narration, Adam and Eve, the first human creations, were created to live in a beautiful vegetative landscape known as 'Garden of Eden'. They were given the liberty to explore and enjoy this environment with the condition of not eating of a particular tree at the centre of the garden else they would die. What this invariably interprets is that Adam and Eve's creator finds it as a point of necessity to pre-inform his creation of the danger in the manhandling of what contributes in constituting a whole landscape. Ever since such negligence, man has become mortal as well as remaining consistent in his landscraping occupation: he tills the ground, fell trees, engage in bush burning, releases carbon monoxide uncharitable amongst several other landscape crimes. Many centuries after, critics and creative writers have continued to lament over this debilitating, unrepentant and cruel disposition of man by using eco-criticism tools.
In "Eco-criticism, Eco-theory and Teaching of Literature", Noushad asserts that "eco-criticism and eco-theory explore the relationship that exists between beings and the natural environment" (66). He further maintains that, "an eco-critical reading of literary texts usually examines the manners in which human beings and the natural environment interact, influence, and counter each other. He concludes that "Eco-theoretical and eco-critical readings of literary texts tend to focus on how pollution and environmental destruction is examined and considered in literary texts, as well as how humans are depicted as interacting with their natural dwellings... and the earth as a whole (66). Vathana Fenn in her essay in Journal of English Language and Literature approaches the discourse of Eco-criticism from its urgent contemporary relevance. Fenn reasons that "the concern for ecology and the threat that the continuous misuse of our environment poses on humanity have only recently caught the attention of the writers. It is this sense of concern and its refection in literature that have given rise to a new branch of literary theory, namely Ecocriticism" (115). For William Rueckert who in 1978 coined the term "ecocriticism" in his essay titled "Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism" observes that ecocriticism entails "application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature" (20). What Rueckert's observation means for Robert Kern can be recollected in the remark in his essay titled "Ecocriticism: what is it good for?". Here, the critic posits that "what ecocriticism calls for... is a fundamental shift from one context of reading to another - more specifically, a movement from the human to the environmental, or at least from the exclusively human to the biocentric or ecocentric (Branch and Slovic 267; emphasis mine).
With considerable haste, Fenn situates the essence of eco-criticism to literary milieu by uttering these words: "Ecocriticism is a necessary part of literary scholarship because literature cannot separate characters from nature and that [that] they domesticate either destructively or productively" (119). She insists that:
[Our landscape] has always proved to be stronger than human. It has often shown its power by controlling manpower through natural calamities like famine, drought, flood, earthquake etc. Human's life and [his landscape] are so interlinked that it is not possible for human beings to separate themselves from its influence. Therefore they have no choice but to accept both it's bounty and adversity. This can be said to be reciprocal as [it] too is a recipient of human's action. Our irresponsible actions cause irreparable damages to [the landscape] (118).
Perhaps, the foregoing submission of Fenn inspires her earlier comment as she attempts to harmonise character and setting as mirrored in literature. Sone agrees that this problem has informed literary writings. In his paper titled, "Swazi Oral Literature, Eco-culture and Environmental Apocalypse", Enongene Sone renders that "this global interest in the study of literature and the environment has been motivated by the environmental crisis facing the world today" (39). If Sone's rendition is anything to go by in terms of the "global" portraiture he procures for the problem, even with the knowledge that eco-criticism itself started as an Anglo-American literary discourse, the question then is how does such finds relevance in Africa? Or what is the African interpretation to this "global" issue as earmarked in literature? Indisputable, Africa is the resource material for this paper but it assumes an imagined context within which this paper proceeds. Africa is a vast field, almost impossible to deal within the framework of this paper. Thus, this paper shall be limited to the Nigerian literary oeuvre as a representation for Africa.
Although, there are arguments and counterarguments as to the acceptance of ecocriticism in Africa. For instance, while Santangelo and Myers believe that "there has been little Eco-critical literary writings from Africa" and that rather than environmental issues, "African writers are concerned with primarily addressing political and social issues" (Environment at the Margins: Literary and Environmental Studies in Africa 7). On the obverse, Sone argues that "contrary to what Western ecocritics hold, [landscape] in traditional African consciousness is not 'other'. Rather, it is apprehended by the people as an object of veneration rather than of aesthetic appreciation (42). From Sone's argument one can begin to see that literature texts which would have been discredited for not pursuing mainstream ecocritic issues are actually Africa's way of expressing ecocentrism.
Indeed, African writers have consciously depicted the bizarre onslaught and landscraping occupation of our landscape. They have often used their texts as veritable tools in questioning the moral correctness of such selfish act. From the early writers to the contemporary counterpart, there have been an obvious and consistent frowning at such contempt for our landscape. This is clearly showed in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (both writers representing the first generation writers); Niyi Osundare's Eye of the Earth (representing the second generation writers); Helon Habila's Oil on Water and Kaine Agary's Yellow Yellow (both writers representing the contemporary writers). Given this schema, one can argue that following the tapestry of history, the essentials of eco-criticism have also been one of the cardinal foci of African literature. A renowned Post-Colonial critic, Franz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth captures that "for a colonized people [as Africa,] the most essential value... is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and above all, dignity" (34). Without doubt, what Fanon did, in some respect, is to interpret Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Just as Sone mentions in his text (captured above), there is a spiritual relationship between the African people and their landscape. Hence, the reason why it is held in deep reverence. In Achebe's Things Fall Apart, this spiritual existential reality is aggressively portrayed. Gitanjali Gogoi in IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science (IOSR - JHSS) analyses that:
Things Fall Apart, portrays this spiritual relation between the Igbos and their natural world, a relation that went beyond the visible physical correspondence... Achebe portrays nature as another character in the novel... He presents nature as a living entity which acts along with the human character in the novel, not just keeping it in the background. He presents [the landscape] as a living entity which acts along with the human characters. That the idea of exploiting nature for their own benefit is unimaginable for the Igbos is apparent in their physical activities and mental thinking which are shaped by the surrounding environment. Achebe shows how the Igbos' agricultural life, religious beliefs, festivals, their ideas about the world and human life are intertwined with nature (2).
Achebe's text explains that the landscape is so reverend to the extent that there are strict rules that governs the conduct of planting and harvesting. It is assumed that anyone that comes in conflict with such regulation does not do so against constituted authority only but against a higher spiritual being - the landscape. This is evident in the way Okonkwo, despite his social weight, is reprimanded for desecrating the 'Peace Law' which is to precede the planting season. This Peace Law does not just entail that during that week everyone is supposed to be at peace with his/her neighbour but that man should also be at peace with the landscape, in that, they are not required to work on their farm. Even during this planting event proper, required regard is paid to Ani, the earth goddess and the source of all fertility. Ani is considered to be not just a goddess but an ancestor known as mother earth and to serve a self-serving purpose, this paper can pass 'her' off as 'Mother Landscape'. In other words, the Landscape is given the image of a higher being and of course, treated as one. Gogoi confirms that:
The respect that the Igbos hold for their ancestors was another evidence of their great love for the land. Their ancestors were the very part of the land... the dead members of the community became a part of the land... [the landscape] was thus appropriatedby the Igbos to include both the living and the non-living members of the community. The land did not belong to the present generation only, the ancestors and the future generations too shared the land (2-3).
In the same breath, Christopher Anyokwu seems to paint in beautiful colours, Gogoi's observation but through Niyi Osundare's poem - "For the One who Departed". In his paper titled "The Essentials of Niyi Osundare's Poetry" in Transnational Literature, Anyokwu deftly asseverate that "the poet threnodises the death of his father, using the flora and the sylvan denizens of tropical Africa as tropes of transition, transience, mortality and memory". This renowned literary scholar that have consistently analysed, in varying degrees, the poetry of Osundare goes further to submit that:
The poem, which is a classic instance of Pastoral elegy recalls John Milton's Lycidas' and it is instructive that both works are used by their authors to meditate on larger existential or cosmic issues such as love, death, ageing, change, transition. In a sense... Osundare also explores in his poetry the paradoxical world view embodied by nature and dramatised through the plenty-drought continuum in nature. Painful as death is, it is a seed for new life, a fresh beginning and birth itself intimates the waiting sea (8).
Gravitating back to Gogoi's primal sympathy, the critic establishes that the Igbos hold their landscape as some divine character. He presents that the "Trees, rivers, hill, cave and different other components of the environment hold divine powers. Ani was the goddess of earth and fertility, Amadiora, the god of thunder, Ufiojioku, the god of harvest, Anyanwu was the sun god" (3).
Perhaps, it is this divine essence of the landscape that functions as the mobilising impetus for Osundare as he constructs his poem. This is evident in the poem titled "The Rock Rose to Meet Me". Anyokwu asserts that, "Osundare's environmentalism turns largely on the overarching centrality of [landscape] to the mechanics and logistics of his verse-making" (Transnational Literature 7). In the poem, Osundare idolise the rock Olosunta. Doki Jeff in his paper, "The Eye of the Earth: Niyi Osundare as a Poet of Nature", delineates that "Osundare celebrates the rocks of Olosunta because they are both an aspect of physical nature and they have a mystic dimension in Ikere Cosmology". The scholar emphasise that "by celebrating the rocks of his native home, Osundare is emphasizing the permanent and solid forms of nature which are lasting monuments of time and place" (70). Osundare himself, in the Preface of The Eye of The Earth regarded the rock with the appellation of a reverend entity. He admits that:
'The Rock Rose to Meet Me' is a homecoming of a kind, a journey back (and forth) into a receding past which still has a right to live. The rocks celebrated in this section... Occupy a central place in the cosmic consciousness of Ikere people; they are worshipped and frequently appeased with rare gifts, thunderous drumming and dancing (The Eye of The Earth 'Preface' xiii).
This only explains how the African landscape seems to have much influence on the African people both at a physical and metaphysical level. Osundare also criticises Africans for straying away from the initial agrarian practice that characterises their reverence for their landscape. In "Ours to Plough, not to Plunder", Osundare rebukes Africans for their fast growing inhumanity to their landscape. The poem metaphorises the earth and admonishes that one should not take advantage of it neither should it only be regarded in terms of its 'use value' only. He stresses that moderation is required in our exploration of landscape's resources and that earth should be treated with the highest form of propriety. Osundare ends this particular poem the way he starts it. The refrain he employs is a style that suggests the reinforcement of his thesis. He daresay, "earth is // ours to work not to waste// ours to man not to maim// the earth is ours to plough not to plunder". However, with the growing problem of undue over exploration and exploitation, contemporary African writers such Helon Habila and Kaine Agary have fashioned their texts, Oil on Water and Yellow Yellow respectively, to accommodate this menace meted on the African landscape.
In both texts, the contemporary writers make effort to show man's contribution in the destruction of the earth; constantly buoyed by his selfish capitalist mien. Without doubt, the textual experience of the fictions demonstrate man's disregard for what combines to form the landscape and as a result, raise certain questions about man's significant role in environmental ruination and the dire need for survival on the earth. Feghabo in his thesis titled "Alienation and Ecoactivism in Selected Works on Niger Delta Crisis" witnesses that "the environmental crisis in the Niger Delta has provoked into existence writings which thematic focus is on ecological degradation... [thus,] what constitutes the corpus of recent writing on the NigerDelta are the environmentalism and revolutionary aesthetics in the works. This recent writing is a body of writing that identifies with the struggle of the people of the Nigerian Delta to salvage both their environment and themselves from destruction" (15). The immediate encounter of Yellow Yellow provides a basis to allay any doubt on the devaluation and ruination of the textual landscape. Through the eponymous character, Laye, Agary narrates:
The day my mother's farmland was overrun by crude oil was the day her dream from me started to wither, but she carried on watering it with hope. The black oil spilled that day swallowed my mother's crops and unravelled the threads that held together her fantasies for me. She was able to find new farmland in another village, but it was not the same... a single day, my mother lost her main source of sustenance. However, I think she had lost that land a long time ago, because each season yielded less than the season before. Not unlike the way she and others in the village had gradually lost, year after year, the creatures of the river to oil spills, acid rain, gas flares, and who knows what else, according to the voice on the radio ( Agary 10 & 4).
Helon Habila's in his Oil on Water seems to corroborate the narrative of Agary when he notes that:
The next village was almost a replica of the last: the same empty squat dwellings, the same ripe and flagrant stench, the barrenness, the oil slick and the same indefinable sadness in the air... The patch of grass growing by the water was suffocated by the film of oil, each blade covered with blotches like liver spots on a smoker's hand (Habila 10).
In the texts by both Agary and Habila, one would agree that the coordinating theme seems to be the 'landscraping' of the landscape. The text unveils that the activities of over-exploration come with attendant social problem of environmental degradation. Candidly, what Agary and Habila have been able to do through their texts is to mirror the bizarre visage of the Niger Delta landscape of Nigeria in Africa. Eteng in The Nigerian State, Oil Exploration and Community Interest: Issues and Perspectives acknowledges that "oil exploration and exploitation has over the last four decades impacted disastrously on the socio-physical environment of the Niger Delta oil bearing communities, massively threatening the subsistent peasant economy and environment and hence the entire livelihood and basic survival of the people". Ikelegbe's research notes that the debasing and tears evoking contempt and manhandling of the landscape. He points out that "between 1976 and 1996, about 2,369,471 barrels of oil were spilled. Out of this quantity, about 1,820,044 barrels of oil were never recovered - meaning that this quantity was absorbed by the soil that consequently became infertile for agricultural activities (109). The high point both in fiction as seen in Oil on Water and Yellow Yellow; and fact, as seen through the papers of critics such as Eteng and Ikelegbe is none other but a picturesque of the consistent harm assaulting the African landscape which through their fictions and researches, attempt to expose and correct.
The ruination done to our vegetative landscape is gaining ascendancy with the passing of each day. Even though there lies a truism in the justification that such culture is a consequence of development and evolution, what it points to is the imminent death of mankind. This problem is not just a Western problem but a global one, one that is tackled within the peculiar frames of different societies. Through the review of African literature, not only have we validated the notion that Africa encourages the discourse of ecocriticism as disputed by some but that the progression of time have shaped the logistics in which the discourse is approached. There have been sufficient proof here to show that even though there are remarkable disparities between Western and African views of the subject of eco-criticism, Africa does not dismiss the idea and importance of it. Her literature bears witness of the constant effort by writers and critics in protecting the African landscape.
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- Nnadube Ejiogu (Author), 2020, An Ecocritical Interpretation of African Appreciation of Landscape and Landsc(r)ape, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/514301