This work aims to offer a critical reading of an African ecology poem (eco-poem), using Ecocriticism and Marxist theory. The research uses Niyi Osundare’s eco-poetry collection, The Eye of the Earth, as a focal point. Hence, this work aims to portray how Osundare has used authorial ideology in his collection to advocate the dismantling of oppressive acts against nature and how these poems are reflections of the real societal situations in Nigeria.
Ecology, in its simplest form, describes the relationship between man and nature.
It has to do with how man interacts with the flora and fauna around him (Ehrenfeld 3). It appears that man had a relatively friendly relationship with nature in the preliterate times. This is because it is not uncommon to find people farming the land. Over the years, things have changed; by his higher knowledge, man has found a way to make living better and less stressful. One of his ways of making life easier to live is man’s invention of machines and his creation of industries for production purposes.
Part of the attention given to ecology is the rise of a relatively new field of study called Ecocriticism. Cheryll Glotfelty, an American eco-critic and nature lover, defines ecocriticism simply as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (4). Glotfelty, identifying the different aspects of ecological criticism inquiries, notes that ‘human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it,” however, not many writers have taken the advocate for nature seriously in their writings, until a few decades ago (4).
Glotfelty opines that “race, class, and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress” (7). Kate Rigby, a German eco-critic, voiced this same opinion when he said: ‘it was not until the end of the twentieth century that the study of literature and the environment was finally recognized as a subject on the rise’” (109). Hence, in the 21st century, many writers rose to the consciousness of their environment and its discourse became prominent in their writings.
Nigerian writers are not left out in the literary movement for the plight of nature and the environment. Owing to the degradation experienced as a result of uncontrolled activities of oil multinationals in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, which has led to environmental pollution, writers from this area tend to sometimes write about the need to preserve the environment. Prominent among them is Tanure Ojaide, a nineteenth-century eco-poet, who wrote Daydream of Ants and Other Poems. However, Niyi Osundare, who is an aged writer and able to capture Nigerian nature both before and after colonialism in his poems, will be used as the focus of this paper. Born in 1947, Niyi Osundare is a Nigerian writer from Ekiti state who is now a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. His poetry combines concepts and traditions of the Yoruba culture with Marxist approaches. He uses mythological concepts to underline his struggle against social injustice and inhumanity. His first work on ecology published in 2014 and titled The Eye of the Earth, decries the deplorable state of nature and the environment caused by globalization and industrialization. This eco-collection contains five poems, and it has been chosen because it captures the Nigerian environment both before and after industrialization, a transition Osundare himself was a witness to. This collection will be analyzed from a Marxist perspective.
According to Themba Shija, a Nigerian-based politician and writer, “Marxism as a philosophy is materialist in orientation” (98). This is because human society can be divided into two groups: the majority, who are the laborers, and the few privileged. This inequality in human societies, therefore, leads to class struggle; the lower class always rises against the upper class. The upper class in any society are those who hold the political, military, and economic powers, hence, they do everything to suppress uprisings from the lower class. Shija further opines that the upper class uses these powers to “convince everyone else that such arrangement is reasonable, natural and just” (101). As it does this, it propagates an ideology in which it seeks the allegiance and consent of those in the lower class who are needed for the production of goods and services for society. Furthermore, Terry Eagleton, a British literary theorist, and critic, notes that “the ideologue-artist, for instance, uses his art against bourgeois domination and advocates the dismantling of oppressive social forces” (12). Marxists, therefore, advocate for human emancipation from forms of exploitation, domination, and alienation that interfere with full, free human development. Osundare has been able to achieve this in his poetry collection, The Eye of the Earth. Drawing from Ecocriticism theorists like Gloflety, and Marxist theorists like Eagleton, and Shija, this work will analyze how Osundare critiques the bourgeoisie for the hazardous effects of their industrialization on the environment.
The collection starts with “Forest Echoes,” which is an attempt by the author to reminisce on his growing-up days spent mostly in a natural environment. The first few lines of the poem are used to depict the poet’s longings and desires. This desire is one of nature and the freshness that comes with it:
A green desire, perfumed memories
A leafy longing lures my wanderer feet
To this forest of a thousand wonders (3)
The poet is mesmerized by his obsession with nature, so much so that his feet convey him to the forest; not just a forest, however, but “a forest of a thousand wonders” (3). This shows the beauty and endowment that forests and nature at large possess. The forest brings back a lot of memories to the poet, perhaps because of the myriads of mineral and natural resources the forest boasts of. The affinity of the poet to the forest can be explained by his background which we are let into in the preface of the collection, written by the poet himself. The first line says: “Farmer-born, peasant-bred, I encountered dawn in the enchanted corridors of the forest” (1). It is this kind of great and pleasurable experience that the poet tries to reincarnate in “Forest Echoes.”
Osundare goes further to recount the forest before its degradation. He remembers “a landscape, echoes of an Eden long departed, when the rain forest was terrifyingly green” (15). What he sees now in the place of the primal lushness of green are merely remnants of this vegetation, the consequence being that the earth, no longer self-sustaining as before, can “no longer maintain fertility to feed her children” (132). In other words, “Forest Echoes,” just like its title suggests, is the poet’s way of bringing back to memory his days in the forest and that life was better then. This is why the poet devotes a whole stanza to describing the peculiarity of the forest. The poet’s fascination with forest life soon comes to an end when he introduces us to the activities of those he calls “mirrored monsters” (6). These can be likened to the capitalists in the society, who according to Marx and Engels are the few minorities who control the wealth of the society, at the expense of suffering workers, who are the majority (qt. in Eagleton 14). The hallmark of capitalism is industrialization and for the industries to move on, life nature has to suffer for it.
In “Forest Echoes,” the poet speaks of ‘a forest of a million trees, /forest of milling trees /wounded, though, by time’s ax / and the greedy edges of agbegilodo’s matchet” (5). The agbegilodos means those who fall forest trees, and it represents the bourgeoise capitalists and the businessmen of the society who are more concerned about the profitability of the business than the safety of mankind. Commenting on the agbegilodos, Joyce Agofure, a Nigerian poet and lecturer, refers to them as “the political elites and multinational corporations on Nigerian’s physical environment in their obsession for industrialization and profit’ (55). While the ideal recommendation of agricultural and forestry experts is that a tree is planted to replace another which is being fallen, these agbegilodos are only interested in falling ‘forest of a million trees.” The poet goes ahead to add “a forest of milling trees” (5). The use of the word ‘milling’ is a deliberate one on the part of the poet to drive home the point that these trees are being used for economic purposes. The milling machine is used for grinding and so what the poet is suggesting here is that the trees are eventually processed into forms desired by their owners. For example, ground-up wood is used to make papers for magazines, newspapers, candy wrappers, and cereal boxes. These trees are processed into these forms without the capitalists feeling a need to plant another to replace them.
While the poet dedicates this poem to appreciating some of the ‘thousand wonders’ of the forest- iroko, ayunre, Logano, chameleon, pa tango, and many more, Osundare also establishes how the earliest stages of industrialization act as a forerunner for the gloom to come from it. This is seen in his description of how ayunre yields to the presence of the cutlass and how iroko, the one who wears “the crown of the forest,” ends up wearing the crown of the roof and ayunre plays “the clown of the fireplace” (6). It, therefore, leaves one no choice but to agree with Shija who opines that ‘the spread of globalization has been so comprehensive and its effect is being felt in the remote human communities and natural areas” (Shija 91). Osundare in “Forest Echoes,” while admiring the old nature also critiques the capitalists who have ruined the serene nature.
In the next poem, “The Rocks Rose to Meet Me,” the poet goes ahead to celebrate nature and the good tidings that come with it. In this case, the rock, a habitat for god and gold in the Ikere Ekiti state of Nigeria. The Olosunta rock, for instance, is a huge rock worshipped annually during the Olosunta festival in Ikere Ekiti. This rock is not just worshipped, it also harbors gold, hence “his belly still battleground for god and gold’ (8). The poet, therefore, makes a plea to the rock, hoping and asking that “the gold let us dig” (8). Now, knowing the people of his country, the poet quickly adds that the gold will not just be depleted for “the gilded craniums of hollow chieftains,” but will be greatly maximized for the good of all (9). Being Marxist-oriented, the poet believes that the resources of the state be evenly distributed among the people of a community. Hence, ‘with the gold let us turn hovels into havens/paupers into people (not princes) / so hamlets may hear / the tidings of towns / so the world may point a hand / of equal fingers’ (9). This shows us that the poet is against a stratified society like Eagleton and other Marxist theorists, which is why the poet emphasizes that paupers should be people, not princes. Unlike the agbegilodos in “Forest Echoes,” who have chosen to take advantage and destruction of natural resources for economic purposes, “The Rocks Rose to Meet Me” can be understood as nature’s way of making provisions for the needs of man.
The poet further lets us into what things were before the monster called industrialization and globalization. “Harvest call,” which is the third poem, is about celebration. Apart from the suggestive title, the description of the drumbeat to follow also attests to this; “to be chanted to lively bata music” (11). The occasion for celebration is that of the harvest of yams because this season is “where yam wore crown / in the reign of swollen roots / amid a retinue of vines and royal leave” (11). The words above help us understand the status of yam to the native people. The poet uses this poem to describe the importance of yam, both as a viable food; “a dough of contention smooths down / the rugged anger of hunger,” and an economic good; “the marketplace became a mob / of instant suitors” (11). Despite the glory and usefulness that comes with yam, the king of foods, the latter part of the poem is used to lament the disappearance or better still, extinction of these different yam species. The poet asks, in a tone of lamentation; “where are they gone: / arose, geregede, still, papal / which beckon lustily to the reaping basket” (12). Although the poem ends in a rhetorical tone, the answers to these questions are not far from us. These species of yams no longer exist because of globalization, no one goes to the farm anymore, which is why our earth is so warm but our hearts so cold. According to Shija, industrialization and globalization come with the promise of better jobs and better living conditions (Shija 111). This makes people, including Africans whose primary mode of survival is farming, leave this in pursuit of “a better living condition.” Osundare is calling out to everyone to go back and embrace the gift of nature, which is the ability to plant and yield good food.
It appears as though the poet is building up a case all along, in the poem “They Too are the Earth,” the poet is comparing the downtrodden, the oppressed, and to borrow Franz Fanon’s words, “the wretched of the earth” with the earth (105). This comparison is justified on the basis that just as the earth is suffering from exploitative activities of men, so are certain men suffering from other men. The poet says that “the swansongs of beggars sprawled out / in brimming gutters” are also the earth (14). He says “they are the earth / under snakeskin shoes and Mercedes tires” (14). The “snakeskin shoes and Mercedes tires” are metaphors for the rich and well-to-do in society. These are the employers of labor, and as Eagleton opines, this class of people enriches themselves at the expense of their workers (Eagleton 95) and nature. The poet raises a tone of concern in the last stanza of the poem. He wonders if these “enemies of the earth” and those “who fritter the forest and harry the hills” are really of this earth (16). Perhaps the poet is calling the attention of industrialists to their foolishness. This is evident in the last two lines of the poem: ‘who live that the earth may die / Are they?’ (16). The point here is that if these people are really of this earth, they should know better than to harm the earth.
Having encouraged the need to go back to farming and tending the earth, in “Ours to Plough Not to Plunder,” which is the last poem, the poet explores what can be described as obstinate and revolutionary earth. Thus, this marks the climax of a Marxist belief; that a revolution is bound to happen in any situation of oppression (Eagleton 14). In this case, the oppressed earth, despite that “a lake is killed by the arsenic urine / from the bladder of profit factories,” “and norand neither should it affect other natural elements. This view and more are what the likes of Osundare and other eco poets preach in their poems. However, apart from an ecocritical reading of Osundare’s The Eye of the Earth, the work also considers how the oppression of nature is an offshoot of industrialization and capitalism. This capitalism is what Marx and Engels believe to be the cause of a stratified society and so advocate for a classless society through the Marxist ideology. It is this same classless society, lacking oppression and domination that Osundare advocates for both nature and man.