Sentience…is the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively. In modern Western philosophy, sentience is the ability to experience sensations (known in philosophy of mind as “qualia”). In Eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things that requires respect and care.
—Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2020)
RESPECT. CARE. Dark Nature.
Threatening woods. Horrific bogs. Enraged typhoons. Restless moors. Haunted gardens. Gothic forms of nature are indeed numerous and disturbing….
Gothic nature is usually not of a sunny or affectionate disposition. In fact, it is often a nature which can inspire fear, horror, sometimes even loathing. If you have experienced terror at an advancing storm, deep aversion to a bat or spider, or abject fear as a flashlight gives out—then you’ve had what might be called an “ecogothic moment.” Fear-filled experiences of nature (ecophobias) are very much a part of being human. They are perhaps just as commonplace as biophilias: our deep loves for nature. While nature can awe, heal and give us a sense of grounding in the world, it can also terrify and unsettle us.
“Why do we fear what we fear? What role do such fears play in the day-to-day choices we make in our social, political and personal lives? What consequences does ecophobia have for the way we treat the environments we live in?” — Tom J. Hillard
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green airs and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.” — Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Gothic nature challenges conceptions of nature as a mere backdrop to human action. It is more of an entity. A manifestation. A presence. A landscape filled with sentient beings, human and nonhuman. Thus, to paraphrase gothic novelist Angela Carter, Gothic nature can deliberately provoke “unease” in the reader.
“This antagonism, in which humans sometimes view nature as opponent, can be expressed toward natural physical geographies (mountains, windswept plains), animals (snakes, spiders, bears), extreme meteorological events (Shakespearean tempests, hurricanes in New Orleans, typhoons), bodily processes and products (microbes, bodily odors, menstruation, defecation), and biotic land-, air-, and seascapes….The ecophobic condition exists on a spectrum and can embody fear, contempt, indifference, or lack of mindfulness (or some combination of these) toward the natural environment.” — Simon Estok, The Ecophobia Hypothesis
Is there a place for thinking about fear of nature? Shouldn’t we be focusing on the positive stuff?
Absolutely—but facing the more fearful aspects of our relationships with nature, author Simon Estok suggests, is just as important. Ignoring or repressing our experiences of nature-fear leaves us open to manipulation of these fears. Unless we come to grips with our aversions, our “repressed” fears are likely to be directed in certain ways. Our fears, for example, can be taken advantage of by certain economic agendas, especially those which promote Nature as an opponent or something to be controlled. These uses of fear, Estok argues, are driving us into deeper ecological destruction and devastation. In coming to understand the role of terror and aversion in our attitudes toward the natural world, can we make different choices for the future?
“There have been times when I have walked toward the water, out into the blackness. It is so dark that I cannot tell where the water begins and the land ends. And my heart is always thumping wildly. It feels as if I am being swallowed alive by something enormous and terrifying. I know that if I give in to my fear, I can turn back and run away to safety, and yet I go on, refusing my fear. Then, when I am there at the edge, with the water almost at my feet and the vastness of the sky making me feel smaller and yet smaller, and the Bay unseen and waiting in front of me—I know to stop. I come to rest just past the moment where my fear might prevent me from taking another step. And then I feel truly in the company of the stones who have only true fear.”—Hilary Scharper, Perdita
© Hilary Scharper
Tom J. Hillard. “Deep into That Darkness Peering”: An Essay on Gothic Nature. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 16.4, Autumn 2009:694.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1853.
Simon C. Estok. “Introduction.” The Ecophobia Hypothesis, Routledge, 2018:1.
Andrew Smith and William Hughes. “Introduction: Defining the ecoGothic.” In Ecogothic. Andrew Smith and William Hughes, eds. Manchester University Press, 2013.