Webinar Transcript: “The Dark Pastoral”

with Prof. Heather I. Sullivan


Full Transcript and Responses to Webinar

“The Dark Pastoral”

EASCLE Webinar with Prof. Heather I. Sullivan

May 21, 2015





Introduction, definition: trope in the Anthropocene

As a trope, the “dark pastoral” engages the controversy in ecocriticism and environmentalism about which cultural forms are most productive for re-imagining the human and non-human interactions in the Anthropocene during what appears to be the Earth’s sixth major extinction. Like other new forms of the pastoral such as Terry Gifford’s post-pastoral, the necropastoral in recent poetry, David Farrier’s toxic pastoral, Greg Garrard’s radical pastoral, the queer or gay pastoral, and the urban pastoral, the dark pastoral engages the traditional idyllic form’s possible alternative to our current petro-cultural consumer societies while attempting to avoid both sentimentalized views of static nature and also the naturalization of existing power structures. The dark pastoral documents along with material ecocriticism how we are always in “nature”—as in the creative and vibrant activities of matter—whether in the built environment or elsewhere. This is, however, the “new nature” of the Anthropocene, that is, a world in which every part of the planet’s surface contains traces, whether microscopic or massively structural, of anthropogenic activity. The seemingly bucolic agricultural or even wild spaces on Earth have also been re-shaped by industrial processes and the impact of burning fossil fuels. In our world economy fueled by oil, coal, and gas, the dark pastoral builds on material ecocriticism’s discussion of agentic and semiotic matter, and on Timothy Morton’s concept of “dark ecology.” The dark pastoral thus addresses the green biospheric “mesh” dripping with oil together with the long-term cultural insights and provocative tensions of the pastoral’s 2-millenia long traditions described in Ken Hiltner’s 2011 What Else is Pastoral: Renaissance Literature and the Environment? and Gifford’s Pastoral. In short, the dark pastoral highlights the double movement inherent in most all pastoral forms: in its often idealized green landscapes, the pastoral’s documentation of natural species and country life simultaneously portrays a looming sense of the seemingly distant city, crowds, politics, and power. The dark pastoral emerges from these tensions in the environmental humanities and our cultural practices and makes overt the material connections.

Moreover, the dark pastoral exemplifies an effort to maintain the emphasis on literary contributions while working in material ecocriticism, and it reflects environmentalist and ecocritical connection to a deep love for the green, the blue, other species, the other-than or more-than human, an awe, reverence, respect, and nostalgia—to deny these impulses in even the most skeptical ecocritic is to delude ourselves of our base. We need green as much as the darkness if we are to continue.

I: Pastoral advantages; disadvantages, advantages as double-movement containing tensions/polarity

– Context: Gifford and Buell

– Critique: Garrard, Phillips

– Alternate forms: post-p, necropastoral, toxic p, queer pastoral, radical pastoral

– Ken Hiltner and Renaissance pastoral delineating and yet cloaking pollution

According to Gifford and Lawrence Buell, the pastoral functions culturally as an alternative to the urban technological practices of modern and postmodern fossil-fueled capitalism. Terry Gifford argues compellingly for the continued value of the pastoral as a long-term literary and cultural form whose tensions and inherent contradictions are a rich source of environmental thinking, broadly conceived.  My emphasis of the double movement of the pastoral builds directly on these “knowing paradoxes,” as Gifford describes them in an essay on the “Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral, and Post-Pastoral.”

The recognition of Arcadia invokes the knowing paradoxes of the classical pastoral—nature and place as a literary construct, the poetic rhetoric of herdsmen, retreat in order to return, the apparent idealization that might reveal truths, fictions that examine realism, the guise of simplicity that is a vehicle for complexity (Gifford, 19.)

As Gifford notes, the pastoral contains within it—always already—the seeds of the postmodern instability, slipperiness, and paradoxes of textuality and the problems of “representionalism.” “But significantly for environmental literary criticism, a postmodern usage of pastoral is possible precisely because of the instabilities, tensions, and paradoxes embedded from the beginning in the simultaneous realism and artifice of the discourses of Arcadia—real place and cultural construct” (G. 19).

Buell begins his Environmental Imagination with the pastoral, “for ‘pastoral’ has become almost synonymous with the idea of (re)turn to a less urbanized, more ‘natural’ state of existence. Indeed, this entire book, in focusing on art’s capacity to image and remythify the natural environment, is itself a kind of pastoral project” (31). Buell notes that the pastoral has both “activated green consciousness” and “euphemized land appropriation” and can direct us toward or abstract away from the “realm of physical nature.” As Buell states regarding the two-thousand year history of the pastoral: “The challenge this legacy poses for the ecocritical interpreter is to appreciate how compromised the pastoralizing vision thereby can become without losing sight of its constructive power” (32).

Indeed, the pastoral also brings a dark history of the landed aristocracy vying for more power, as well as colonial and imperial exploitation and genocide of people and places both locally and globally with the corresponding extremes of social injustices. As Hiltner writes of the Renaissance pastoral imagining distant green places to which Europeans eagerly traveled with colonial aspirations and imperialistic designs: “such literature not only encouraged appreciation of environments imagined as pristine, but also the mass exploitation of these newly emerging environs. Consequently, these colonized countrysides appeared not as valuable and worth saving, but as ripe for exploitation” (Hiltner14). Hence, the dark pastoral’s “darkness” reflects the trope’s inherent “double movements” such as an apparent neglect of unjust political and economic power structures that nevertheless simultaneously contain the potential to critique such structures, even if by deceptively erasing them.

Gifford and the pastoral’s productive potential in terms of its inherent tensions:

So the pastoral can be a mode of political critique of present society, or it can be a dramatic form of unresolved dialogue about the tensions in that society, or it can be a retreat from politics into an apparently aesthetic landscape that is devoid of conflict and tension. It is this very versatility of the pastoral to both contain and appear to evade tensions and contradictions—between country and city, art and nature, the human and the non-human, our social and our inner selves, our masculine and feminine selves—that made the form so durable and so fascinating (Gifford, 11).

David Farrier insightfully includes the comic pastoral, thereby expanding Gifford’s more earnest post-pastoral efforts at accommodating ecofeminism and queer theory yet maintaining an association with awe and thus the sublime. In Farrier’s “toxic pastoral,” the sublime is degraded and made comedic, “presenting an engagement with and celebration of the ambivalence in human interactions with the more-than-human world. Toxic pastoral foregrounds the ‘impure’ and symbiotic rather than the ‘pure’, separated (albeit mutually-reinforcing) civic and rural spaces of conventional pastoral” (Farrier, 2014, 4).  The toxic pastoral derives from Buell’s famous “toxic discourse,” thus insisting upon the “interdependence of ecocentric and anthropocentric values,” yet Farrier abandons Buell’s “self-conscious localism” and instead “evokes toxicity as a trope” with comedic reversals of green aesthetics and authentic “natural” revelry such as alcoholic excesses in the garden (Farrier, 4).

II: Double movements of the dark pastoral

– Reveal and conceal; Gifford’s retreat and return

– Move from idyllic to damaged, lost idyll or, conversely, move like Atwood, from post-apocalyptic to pastoral (MaddAddam trilogy) Goethe’s Hermann & Dorothea, Werther, Dirty Traffic: H&D; Judenbuche; Pausewang; Trojanow.

– Hiltner and “gesturing”

The pastoral itself contains already a complexity of gestures moving both towards and away from the rural spaces into the urban and out again, the “retreat and return” described by Gifford. Within the pastoral one almost always discovers doubled vectoring rather than unidirectional escapes. The pastoral traditionally does what it seems not to do; it presents a view of the urban when writing of green fields and fluffy sheep; it documents the desire for a pure landscape of resources to be taken and conquered that maps out colonial aggressions and ecological imperialism while seemingly rhyming about local lakes.

Hiltner rejects the need in “nature writing” and the pastoral for mimetic representation, arguing instead that “some Renaissance poets and artists” largely avoid(…) mimesis and representation. As we shall see repeatedly throughout this book, when confronted with an environment wildly in flux, these artists sometimes turn away from representation and its challenges, choosing instead to gesture to what lies outside of the work. Consequently, Renaissance nature writing, which is frequently in the pastoral mode, often works best when it neither mimics nor represents anything (Hiltner, 5).

GESTURING towards/away instead of seeking full-out mimetic representation!

I posit here the two different directions of the dark pastoral: the celebratory idyll camouflaging power struggles impinging ever threatening to emerge—which I call the “surface green”—and the post-apocalyptic toxic landscape sprouting dangerous tendrils—which I call the “post-green”.


III: Dark Pastoral via Material Ecocriticism and the issue of Representionalism

– Storied and active matter, agencies, distributed

– Timothy Morton’s “dark ecology”

 – Hiltner and the flux: to represent or to gesture towards

THE DARK PASTORAL as doubled gesture: 

– Like Gifford and Buell: dark pastoral in texts in the Anthropocene reflecting “new nature,” climate change, fossil fuels, pollution, urban nature, non-human species, homo faber

– But also like Morton, a more ontological situation: what is; WE ARE THE DARK PASTORAL; this is not just about what objects we study, but also what perspectives we have, and where we are.

Material Ecocriticism

Morton’s 2012 The Ecological Thought inspires this pastoral darkness with his “dark ecology” that writes from within the world, neither transcendent nor underground:

The form of dark ecology is that of noir film. The noir narrator begins investigating a supposedly external situation, from a supposedly neutral point of view, only to discover that she or he is implicated in it. The point of view of the narrator herself becomes stained with desire. There is no metaposition from which we can make ecological pronouncements (Morton, 2010, 17).

Dark ecology, in Morton’s words, is ironic, implicated, and complicit in the “mesh”; it includes in its study “all kinds of art forms as ecological, not just ones that are about lions and mountains, not just journal writing and sublimity” (Morton, 2010, 17).  Above all, Morton declares dark ecology as already here, as a means of coping with a catastrophe that has already occurred. Dark ecology offers a perspective from within the ongoing environmental crisis, as does also the dark pastoral. Why, then, do we need the dark pastoral when dark ecology already covers so much ground, sweeping, as it does, into a scale-imploding view that eliminates inside/outside and center/edge, opening the “environment” all the way into the atmosphere, and beyond into cosmic delineations such “Earth’s gravitational field” or “Earth’s magnetic field” (Morton, 2010, 10)? Why bring into the beautiful, all-inclusive mesh of “the ecological thought” the dark pastoral as a seemingly narrow, more mundane and literary-based trope tainted by history and now darkened since the beginning of the Anthropocene by the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels, and corporate capitalism? Precisely because Morton’s inclusion of all scales and scopes potentially flattens the ecological into a morass of everything—or nothing, or many things—which leaves us, whether we ecocritics want to admit it or not, without a solid ground for our pleasurable green hopes which still predominate in much of environmental thinking. Instead of joining Morton’s leap out of “nature” expressed in his Ecology without Nature, the dark pastoral admits a kind of ongoing fervor inherent in most green thinking, a pleasure in the powerful and sentimental experiences of both nature in the field and nature in the books, as Dana Phillips so elegantly insists we distinguish in The Truth of Ecology.

CONCLUSION: Hiltner and the flux: to represent or to gesture towards

THE DARK PASTORAL as doubled gesture: 

Like Gifford and Buell: dark pastoral in texts in the Anthropocene reflecting “new nature,” climate change, fossil fuels, pollution, urban nature, non-human species, homo faber

But also like Morton, a more ontological situation: what is; WE ARE THE DARK PASTORAL; this is not just about what objects we study, but also what perspectives we have, and where we are.


  1. What forms of pastoral are possible in the Anthropocene? Is it still a viable alternative to current cultural practices with its inherent critiques of power structures or have the terms changed too radically since the Industrial Revolution?
  2. I suggest the dark pastoral as a trope specifically for the Anthropocene, one that includes all kinds of landscapes and textual forms; consider the possible examples and whether the dark pastoral simply extends traditional pastoral critiques or if it might rather re-shape our ecological frame to include human beings in the material mesh.
  3. What position might be most productive for responding to global climate change and all the implications of the Anthropocene when entering into the ecocritical debate between, on the one side, Gifford’s “three kinds of pastoral” (traditional, any documentation of the countryside, and the derogatory) and Lawrence Buell’s assertion that environmentalism is inevitably pastoral, and on the other side, Greg Garrard’s, Ursula Heise’s and Dana Phillips’ critiques of the pastoral?
  4. What are the specific characteristics of the post-pastoral, urban, toxic, radical, and dark pastoral; where do they overlap? Is the proliferation of pastorals helpful or primarily versions of the same trajectory?
  5. How does rethinking the pastoral also involve questioning definitions of nature, ecology, the urban, and the human-non-human interactions?
  6. What insights to we gain by using material ecocriticism’s to reflect on the seemingly artificial and stylized forms of more traditionally pastoral texts? What happens when we explore non-traditional forms through the trope of the darkly material pastoral?
  7. Ken Hiltner notes that although pastoral literature of the Renaissance may appear to be primarily political critique instead of grappling with environmental issues, that is, the pastoral is often viewed as “a mode of veiled writing that conceals biting critiques of contemporary politics behind pleasant tales of shepherds and their flocks. If there is an essential opposition in Renaissance pastoral, in this view it is not between rural countryside and city, but rather between country and court, with the former serving as foil to reveal corruption at the latter. Focusing on politics, this approach unabashedly marginalizes the role of the environment.”  Yet he claims that “early modern England was indeed in the throes of what can only be described as a “modern” environmental crisis, which engendered a number of contemporary debates, some of which address issues of environmental justice that informed (and were informed by) both canonical and noncanonical literature of the period.” We will consider this frame and seek to understand how older texts might also proffer insights for our current ecological circumstances.


  1. Heather I. Sullivan, “Dirty Traffic and the Dark Pastoral in the Anthropocene: Narrating Refugees, Radiation, Deforestation, and Melting Ice,” Literatur für Leser 14.2 (2014): 83-97.
  2. Heather I. Sullivan, “Nature and the “Dark Pastoral” in Goethe’s Werther” 2015  “Nature and the ‘Dark Pastoral’ in Goethe’s Werther,” forthcoming in Goethe Yearbook 22 (2015): 115-132.
  3. Terry Gifford, Pastoral. London, Routledge, 2010. (Chapter 1: “Three Kinds of Pastoral,” and Chapter 6: “The Post-Pastoral.”)
  4. Greg Garrard, “Pastoral” (chapter 3 of) Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2012.
  5. David Farrier, “Toxic Pastoral: Comic Failure and Ironic Nostalgia in Contemporary British Environmental Theater.” Journal of Ecocriticism 6.2 (2014): 1-15.
  6. Ken Hiltner, “Introduction.” What Else is Pastoral: Renaissance Literature and the Environment. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2011.




Yvonne Kaisinger

The webinar on the dark pastoral was an excellent platform to learn and discuss this new trope. First, we looked at the advantages and disadvaantages of using the genre of the pastoral in general in ecocriticism. After a discussion of the double movement of the pastoral that referred to Terry Gifford’s analysis, we looked at a connection between dark pastoral and material ecocriticism and its representation. This discussion was embedded in an overview of other forms of pastoral: radical pastoral, post-pastoral, toxic pastoral, and necropastoral.

Unlike pastoral literature, dark pastoral is not a given set of texts but rather a trope and can thus be used as a lens through which to approach and read literature inside and outside the pastoral canon. While the traditional pastoral form was prone to sentimentalize nature, the dark pastoral aims to avoid this pitfall while also resisting the naturalization of existing power structures. Still, the dark pastoral also acknowledges that it is impossible to completely exclude sentimentality when talking about the natural world or changes to it by emphasizing existing tensions and paradoxes. At the same time, by reading texts through the dark pastoral lens, we can include texts that are about an unbalanced and chaotic nature.

The dark pastoral furthermore acknowledges history and its implications which makes it a valuable lens through which to read postcolonial texts. It is thus more inclusive than the traditional pastoral which is an absolute necessity to achieve a broader perspective and vision in this time of global environmental crisis. Simultaneously, the dark pastoral also moves beyond the broad genre of literature and can be used as an ontological perspective.

Concerning the question whether the pastoral form is possible in the Anthropocene, we found that it is indeed necessary because of the element of hope it contains. These utopian elements can often be helpful, especially in retrospect. Since the pastoral is not going anywhere, we should acknowledge its advantages and functions to use it as a tool to read tensions and contradictions in texts that expand the material mesh of what they include to the nonhuman, petroleum-based materials, etc.

The webinar and the discussion we had was very thought-provoking and has already helped me in my teaching of the pastoral as well as in thinking through postcolonial literature in a different way for my dissertation project.


Kylie Crane

My motivation behind attending Heather’s Webinar was based, firstly, on engaging with her idea of the “Dark Pastoral”, and, secondly, also to gain insight into her ideas on “dirty traffic”.

The questions I brought to the readings and to our discussion included: How does Dark Pastoral inform and engage with the pastoral as a productive interpretative framework, particularly given the plethora of pastorals (Postpastoral, Necropastoral, Radical Pastoral, Urban Pastoral, Toxic Pastoral)? How does the picturesque give way to muddy / blurry / polluted / toxic / globalised wastelands of apocalyptic tint of today’s troubled nature? And what of pastoral’s troubled history of exclusion? How can we invoke the pastoral in the face of these troubles?

Two hours of lively and engaged discussion elicited the following theses (not a conclusive list, and obviously pertaining to my own interest and queries)… Pastoral’s double movement, its paradoxical position as urban responses to a nature all-too-readily understood as elsewhere. This movement is conceptual as well as practiced: As Heather reminded us, quotidian perceptions of engagement with nature are often performed with a movement to elsewhere (e.g. going hiking), and it is these kind of practices that often give rise to environmental sensibilities. Accordingly, the movement inherent in the trope forms a productive heuristic for exploring a number of tensions, particularly the rural gesturing towards the urban (as well as vice versa, obviously), the apocalypse as it entails the utopian, the pretense of isolation, and the idealisation of the ‘green’. Heather’s ‘dark’ tints the surface green, smudging the idyllic connotations of this trope that invokes arcadia; at the same time, it insists on movement, on a back and forth rather than stability, again entailed in the double movement of pastoral, and integral to ‘dirty traffic’.

In our discussion, “dirty” emerged as a notion that again enacts a double movement. On the one hand, it pushes towards nature as materiality, biology, sexuality, excretes, reaching beyond the ‘clean’ to embrace the dirtiness of the ‘dirty joke’: A bodily, perhaps embodied, dirty. On the other hand, the ‘dirty’ alludes to pollution, to the Anthropocene, and to toxicity. Heather’s explication of the idea, together with the questions and statements by the other members of the Webinar, foregrounded issues of time, acceleration, impossible longevity, as well as genre ideas of pastoral (obviously), and also post-apocalyptic scenarios as pastoral.

Revisiting my notes from the Webinar, two scribbled ideas seem particularly pertinent: “increased speed <-> impossible longevity” and “finality of extinction – but troubled relationship to extinction”. Timescales, manifest in spaces and practices alike, would form the basis of the questions that emerge from after the session.

I would like to thank Heather and the other members of the Webinar for a productive, engaged, and highly interesting discussion.

Kylie Crane

Juniorprofessor for Anglophone Studies

University of Mainz (Germersheim) in Germany


Kylie Cost

Many thanks for organizing the webinar with Professor Sullivan, which was both illuminating and exciting. While her articles on the dark pastoral are well written with many details and examples, speaking with her helped to clarify the complexities of the topic even more and explore the possibilities for future investigations. Our discussion about her choice in nomenclature (dark vs. post) was especially helpful, along with her sincere insistence that scholars in ecocriticism cannot forget or deny the enjoyment and appreciation for Nature that drew so many into the field in the first place.

I came to the webinar mainly with questions regarding the temporal dimensions of the dark pastoral. The traditional pastoral always included some temporal aspect, be it nostalgia or a return to the “primitive” nature and way of life, which accompanied the movement from urban to rural spaces, but how does time figure into the dark pastoral? In response to this question, Professor Sullivan noted that temporal elements of the pastoral include something akin to a post-nostalgia that emerges in the face of the Anthropocene; a perpetual longing for a (perceived) past pristine relationship with nature, one that humans know with more certainty than ever will never exist. Moreover, the dark pastoral breaks down linear notions of time, especially the idea of a never-ending forward progression. It seems to me that aspects of time in the dark pastoral is an area still open for much interpretation and that it must be considered with equal weight to the physical or spatial dimensions. Specifically, do new temporalities emerge in the dark pastoral? And if so, what form do they take? These questions must also be combined with others connected to the study of literature. How can the reader identify new or multiple temporalities in the dark pastoral? What are the possibilities for temporalities? Can these representations also go beyond mimesis?

Thank you Professor Sullivan and EASCLE for a great webinar! 

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