Response to Peter Coates’ Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times Chapters 1-5

Dr. Krygier warned us all that this book might not be an enjoyable read because it is academic, rather than polemic or literary, and because of its broad, unfocused style. I thought this was somewhat true. However, it was more enjoyable to read and more centered on themes than I expected. It was also a chronological and critical examination of historical change in attitudes that did not overestimate assumed ideas. Like Bruckner, Coates challenges the nature/humanity boundary and, through historical examples, he supports the idea that there never was a true age of ecological innocence in any time or place in the world; pollution, clearcutting, overcrowding and the slaughter to extinction of certain species of animals happened in Ancient times as well, particularly the near eastern agrarian civilizations. He also consistently maintains the theme that “wilderness” was a place of amusement for upper class people, a source of inspiration for artists and some priests, and a dangerous place good for exploiting raw materials for the rest of the people. It is impressive that he can do this with such a broad topic. In the introduction, he uses a quote from CS Lewis that really shows the social construction of nature: “If ants had a language they no doubt would call their ant hill an artifact and describe the brick wall in its neighborhood as a natural object.”

One thing that really intrigued me about this book were Coates’ examination of historical realities that are not commonly discussed. For instance, he points out that the Scottish moors, often thought of as an untameable wilderness, were actually created by human destruction of the forest there. Also, he looks at the sacred groves that ancient Greeks kept, which he argues were analogous to our national parks, to an extent. Most interesting, however, were the extensive trials that medieval people gave to animals who had “committed crimes.” The things that Bruckner predicted would happen if radical animal rights activists got their way already happened in the Middle Ages! This idea is mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice when Gratiano compares the Jewish moneylender Shylock to a wolf that hangs for human slaughter.

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