Back to nature, experts and empire

I have long been intrigued by the idea of “going back to nature”. Why “nature”? Why “go back”? It’s not that I don’t see the appeal of the simple life, but for a cultural historian the ideas of “nature” and “return” are so rich with significance.

I was therefore really pleased to see a recent post by Lukas Rieppel  taking a more historical perspective. Rieppel starts by introducing the current fad for the paleo-diet but then shifts to focus on Joseph Knowles as a way to place the diet in a long tradition of an aversion to modernity.

In 1913 Knowles (allegedly) went into the woods in Maine discarding all the trappings of modern life – including his clothes. For two months he subsisted on berries and whatever he could hunt with the tools he had made (although some reports say he spent the time in a log cabin drinking beer).

Rieppel notes that Knowles was part of a much wider movement described by Roderick Nash as a “wilderness cult” and, in turn, places this within a much wider historical setting:

It is no surprise that the wilderness cult took off when it did. At a time in which America was becoming increasingly urban, industrial, and ethnically diverse, many worried that rather than heading for increasing prosperity, the country was inevitably on the decline. Thus, it seemed natural to harken back to a simpler and more authentic past, one in which people’s communion with nature left them healthier in body, mind, and soul.

However, the wilderness cult was not just a U.S. phenomenon. My own research found a similar back to nature ideal expressed in British magazines of the period. Moreover, to understand the British context we need to understand the seemingly contradictory mix of a desire to return to nature with a demand for greater technical efficiency and more professional expertise.

We should, perhaps, first note the more general idealisation of the countryside – though in doing so also note that it was often “city folk” who had the rustic vision. The idealisation of the countryside was not, and never had been, an expression of a genuine desire to live in the country. It did not, for example, stop the migration into towns.

Significantly, the desire to return to what were seen as the simplicities of rural life was almost always expressed by those who were comparatively well off and did not have to face the hardships of agricultural labourers, or the back‑breaking toil of farm work (see Horn). It was to be from the urban middle class and suburbia that the rank and file of the animal protectionists were recruited, and the greatest profits made from rural literature. The spread of suburbia blurred the distinctions between town and country, and it was here, in this land of neat lawns and trimmed hedges, that we can see the concrete realisation of the rural myth, in the rustification of the urban environment

However, there was an extra facet to the middle class idealisation of the countryside, especially after the turn of the century. Nature was to be a source of virility, toughness, savagery – qualities which helped define fitness in quasi‑Darwinian terms.

The restlessness for the countryside, therefore was not only for the picturesque, but for the energetic, for camping, hiking, rambling, mountaineering. In Cassell’s Magazine of 1908 we find the Jack London story of “The Nature Man”, the epitome of the back to nature devotee. Crawling from his death bed into the Oregon brush he is revived by the sunshine. He watches the birds and squirrels, envies their health, their spirits, their happy care‑free existence, and concludes that `they lived naturally, while he lived most unnaturally; therefore, if he intended to live, he must return to Nature.” His approach was as extreme as it was simple, stripping off his clothes, running on all fours, eating fruits and nuts, and building a nest of leaves and grass. By 1913, fiction became fact. Joseph Knowles went primitive in the woods in Maine, and emerged as a national hero.

In Britain the wilderness ethic would find expression in the nature essays of W.H. Hudson, the popularity of camping, the Boy Scout Movement, and the portrayal of nature in animal biographies. It was in Pearson’s Magazine, that the idea of wilderness was most in evidence. Of all the magazines that I studies it was in Pearson’s Magazine that I found the greatest interest in natural history, the most animal biographies (often written by American authors or given American settings), and panegyrics to the virtues of wild nature.

The case for returning to nature was presented in 1905 by Marcus Woodward in his article on Nature‑Cure institutes:

“Back to nature” is a good little phrase. Apt and concise it stands for a great deal, and so it has won popularity. It represents a movement that has only succeeded in getting under weigh during the last few years, though it has been the dream of thinkers through all the ages since man first turned aside from Nature’s paths. For in this movement, in the simple idea of a return to Nature ‑ an end of artificiality, and the beginning again of a rational mode of life ‑ lies the most promising of all signs for the future welfare of our race.

Under the proprietorship of Arthur Pearson, lover of all things American, it may not be surprising that Pearson’s Magazine appeared particularly susceptible to American influences and ideas, but here we see how such ideas could also be part of Pearson’s English context as well. For the belief in a return to nature that is to be found in the magazine, and Pearson’s own close association with Baden Powell and the Boy Scout Movement, originated not only in the American wilderness, but in Pearson’s involvement in and espousal of social imperialism.

Whatever the depth of popular feeling for Empire, the Boer War dealt a severe blow to the imperial ego. Historians have written of the trauma which the war inflicted on British self‑confidence, and of the war giving a fatal jolt to national complacency. No longer was the Empire a source simply of pride and pleasure. Latent doubts and feelings of insecurity were brought to the surface by the exposure of Britain’s military deficiencies, and the appalling physical fitness of army volunteers served only to confirm that Britain was at the heart of an empire in decline.

“Over civilisation”, it was argued, was destroying the moral fibre of the nation, sapping its virility when it was most needed. A physically and morally degenerate Britain, it was feared, would be no match for the growing economic and military power of America, Germany and Japan. Parallels with the decadence of ancient Rome were as clear as they were alarming.

To stop the rot Britain had to be made into a truly imperial nation, fit (in every sense of the word) to run the world’s largest empire. The closing of the imperial frontier thus created the introspective context for the ideology of national efficiency. Demanding new governmental machinery and more technical education, and expressing an elitist preference for professional experts, the efficiency movement embodied the new industrial ethic of science, technology and the corporate society.

It was not a homogeneous political ideology, but a convenient label for a complex of beliefs, assumptions and demands (see Searle). In practice it meant a programme of social reform and training to improve the physique, discipline and organisation of the nation, and could encompass Tariff Reform, Compulsory Military Service, the Boy Scout Movement and Eugenics.

At all political levels attempts were made to show the interdependence of imperialism and social reform in order to create a consensus around a single national purpose. By setting itself above party politics it sought to by‑pass the old traditional routes to power and to open the way for “experts”. Its social base was a frustrated and marginalised middle strata of small shopkeepers, civil servants, the “new middle classes”, and status hungry intellectuals.

 Much of this is edited extracts from Media Science before the Great War


5 thoughts on “Back to nature, experts and empire

  1. There was a very similar phenomenon in Germany starting in the middle of the 19th century now collectively known as the Lebensreform (life reform) movement. There was no central philosophy or organisation but various movements shared a common back to nature concept. These included a naturopathy movement, a nudist movement, a nutritional reform movement combining both thoughts on organic nutrition and vegetarianism, clothing reform, land communes and educational reform.

    The whole thing was motivated by criticism of industrialisation and urbanization.

  2. Interesting. I didn’t know that. So much for British Boy Scouts with their toggles. After the Boer War the government set up the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration but I guess it didn’t have much impact in improving the quality of the “race”. Although the early welfare reforms of the Liberal government post-1906 were also (in part) designed for racial improvement.

  3. Really interesting post! And I certainly agree — the trend you describe was certainly not confined to the United States (or even, as a commenter points out, the Anglophone world). It is interesting to note that, as you say, many people in England worried about their nation’s decline relative to the United States. How, ironic, then, that Americans, would already be so anxious about their own degeneration & decline.

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