Reading nature: John Ruskin, environment, and the ecological Impulse

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


This chapter, part of an important new collection, examines the degree to which Ruskin participated in the emergence of nineteenth-century ecology and anticipated many of the leading features of modern ecology. Examining examples from the 1840s and 1850s of John Ruskin’s extraordinarily acute nature-reading this chapter underline his insistence that observers pay close attention to nature; that the environment represents a precious resource; and that environmental engagement offers opportunities for self-improvement, and collapses the distance between observer and observed by revealing what they share. While his nature-reading techniques were profoundly indebted to scriptural hermeneutics, his insistence on close scrutiny led him to discern the systematic connections of nature and to reach for explanations of environment that bore distinctive ecological markers. Acknowledging, scrutinising, and embracing an environment made up of endless connections and characterised by infinite variety led him to query the place of humanity within this newly-conceived realm. By turn, it led him at times to challenge (but ultimately never to reject or overturn) those hierarchical, anthropocentric readings of nature that he inherited from Evangelicalism. Like ecology, Ruskin’s approach to nature was complex, multiple, and in a state of productive tension. Having explored Ruskin’s nature-reading methods, and the ways this led him to think of nature as a helpful system, the chapter examines the manner in which he directed this towards nature conservancy. Ruskin’s activities in the 1870s are significant not merely as indicators of his environmentalist credentials but also for the manner in which they deployed the nature reading processes established early in his career. Uniquely gifted in reading the signs of healthy environment, Ruskin was also unusually sensitive in discerning environmental breakdown, partly because of his attentiveness to nature and partly because, as a religious thinker, the stakes could not have been higher. Focusing closely on his observations of moments in which the various “bodies” of nature begin to lose their ecological order, I will demonstrate that Ruskin’s environmental consciousness was informed both by Evangelical hermeneutics and materialist science. Committed to the preservation of divine nature, and to the salvational possibilities of environmental stewardship, Ruskin’s vision of nature-as-system also carried unmistakeable ecological markers.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVictorian Writers and the Environment
Subtitle of host publicationEcocritical Perspectives
EditorsLaurence W. Mazzeno, Ronald D. Morrison
Place of PublicationNew York
ISBN (Print)978-1472454706
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017

Publication series

NameAmong the Victorians and Modernists


  • John Ruskin
  • ecocrisis
  • ecology
  • environment


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