The origins of Erewhon

January 12, 2020

The notion of “now-here” and the signs of an inspiring natural world

A non-word is stamped on this column every Sunday: the word Erehwon. One that I did not choose, yet it is a label that was deemed appropriate by the editorial team. So what does it mean? And how might it relate to these written pieces?

In 1872, one Samuel Butler, an English author, wrote a novel entitled Erewhon or Over the Range set in an imaginary country, that was based on his experiences on a sheep farm in New Zealand. The word Erewhon was meant by Butler to be nowhere read backwards. Later commentators have suggested that: “Erewhon is not only a disguised no-where but a rearranged now-here.”

The point of departure is this notion of “now-here” and leads to the thinking that all around us are the signs of an inspiring natural world. It is this notion that links to the columns that appear weekly: a personal invitation to connect, understand and be inspired by being outside and in the natural world.

In the now and in the here, no matter which city, village, desert, mountain or sea we may be located, nature is around us, working its intricate and often beautiful transformation at every moment. The mind’s eye of an ecologist is trained to see the interconnections of gecko and mosquito, bee and fruit, owl and mouse, trees and mushrooms, birds and nectar and endless other inter-relations.

Nothing in nature appears isolated or independent of another to an ecologist, including humans and nature. This training in science is but a garnish to a faculty that is inherent to our human condition. Once activated, the desire to observe nature gives us endless appreciation and the joy of participation through our five senses. It seems to make us complete.

This year, while working on a climate change assignment in Kenya, I stole away from my professional team on a Sunday to visit the house of Karen Blixen, whose nature writing was the stuff of my girlhood readings. Our English team leader’s friendly comment stays with me as an insightful acknowledgement: “yes, you must go and visit the abode of your larger, extended family who shaped you”. His comment gently foregrounds the influence that a series of nature-loving writers have had in shaping my world.

While Karen Blixen’s writings on Africa, where she lived after leaving her native Denmark, were made famous through the film Out of Africa in the 1980s, other members of my notional, nature-loving family are less famous and less relevant to life in Pakistan.

Gavin Maxwell was a writer whose account of life on a distant, Scottish Hebrides island, living with an otter adopted during a visit to Iraq’s Marsh Arabs, created conservation movements for otters and the Hebrides. His book entitled Ring of Bright Water is about his life in a lonely cottage, the animals that live with him, his immediate neighbours and a landscape of rock and sea.

Among other nature writers who either remained silent about their exact location or renamed their locations, Maxwell broaches the topic of ‘Erewhon’ in the following way. “In writing about my home, I have not given to the house its true name. This is from no desire to create a mystery – indeed it will be easy enough for the curious to discover where I live – but because identification in print would seem in some sense a sacrifice, a betrayal... for these places are symbols…of freedom from the close confines of human relationships, and an escape into the forgotten world of childhood.”

In linking nature as a symbol of freedom and childhood, I feel that Gavin Maxwell speaks for me as might an uncle; so much better than I could express myself. And I suspect for many of the regular readers of these columns too.

He continues, “I am convinced that man [here read ‘woman’] has suffered in his [her] separation from the soil and from the other living creatures of the world”. To me, this separation is the root cause of the great crisis of our times, namely climate change.

While the individuals mentioned above belong to eras and civilisations other than my own, the re-connection to the natural world that they invoke has become compelling in our times for us. The climate crisis is now an accepted reality affecting Pakistan, a country that is among the top ten most climate-vulnerable places on earth. Here in our different walks of life, we wonder how we might salvage our unbalanced world.

Climate change is technically called a ‘wicked problem’ in my field of work. A problem so complex and interconnected with other problems such as industrial hyper-growth, poverty, conflict and gender injustice, that it is overwhelming. But hidden inside this tangle is a golden opportunity, as my climate-minded clan of colleagues points out. That opportunity is the joy of connecting to nature, understanding and eventually respecting its limits – a simple, personal act for change that is available to everyone. All this is in the ‘Erewhon’, or the now-here, where subtle changes in natural systems are threatening to walk softly into our world and alter it to our great peril.

Star cluster. Photo by S.Paukin

The writer is a   Lahore-based ecologist

Inspiring natural world: The origins of Erewhon