Cooper, Coleridge, and Re-Imagining a Native Cosmology

Alfred Kentigern Siewers (Bucknell University

Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 114-120).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

The American writer James Fenimore Cooper’s notion of “gifts” in the context of the natural world in his Leatherstocking Tales, and the contemporary English Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge’s figure of the “polar spirit” of the sea in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, both suggest a common project regarding nature: Developing a native cosmology for the earth that is nonetheless articulated in Christian terms, and in resistance to colonialism and modernization during the first half of the nineteenth century. In this they both prefigured the American Pragmatist Charles Peirce’s radical notion of nature’s laws as situated in God, developed later in the nineteenth century in Peirce’s foundational writings on environmental semiotics. Pierce, often regarded as the founder of American Pragmatism, and godfather of today’s emerging fields of biosemiotics and ecosemiotics, argued that nature’s laws were potentialities that come into being and evolve, and yet ambiguously can be at once both divine and in creation. In doing so he unexpectedly echoed writings of the early medieval Irish philosopher, John Scottus Eriugena, an important influence on Coleridge’s theory of imagination. Eriugena and Peirce both viewed natural laws as in a sense theophanies, or manifestations from God, which constitute both the origins and purpose of creatures in God. 1 Peirce wrote that the universe is perfused with signs, 2 while Coleridge’s theory of imagination echoed similar ideas of Eriugena’s that “the world [is] an indirect disclosure of God as theophany,” in which “self-disclosure of Being is ... a profoundly religious revelation,” to quote the Coleridgian Douglas Hedley. 3 Cooper expresses fundamentally the same sense of nature in his Leatherstocking Tales, for reasons that we will now explore.

Notably, all these philosophers and writers, intersecting in echoes or influences during the Romantic era of the early nineteenth century, shared influences from hybridities of indigenous philosophies and non-Scholastic Christian traditions (the former including Native American and early Insular traditions). Both Coleridge and Cooper were concerned with questions of how to experience a native relation to place in a colonizing era in Western history. I propose to trace in two brief examples how their writings both tease out this type of imaginative native cosmology, while being influenced themselves by philosophies of nature with significant strands of influence from native cultures. In returning at the end to Peirce’s work, I’ll try to suggest how we might think about a kind of Anglo-American “native” ecopoetics, based on these two writers and on cross-cultural influences from non-colonial native and early Christian traditions. That combination of influences in my view helped to shape a common sense of creatures living in the divine, which influenced the roots of the conservation and environmental movements in America. Translated into current secular discourse, this legacy best can be understood in terms of ecosemiotics, which focuses on the symbolic meaning of nature as communication. This legacy still bases an important counter-cultural approach to nature in the West, while highlighting an under-utilized resource for ecological restoration efforts today.

In all this I rely on a rubric provided in a fascinating book by Scott Pratt of the University of Oregon, Native Pragmatism, which argues that Algonquin Indian worldviews in the Eastern United States influenced the development of American philosophy through Ben Franklin and others in two ways. 4 These included the concept of wunnégin, involving a welcoming of various perspectives in a relational context for experiencing reality, and a “logic of place,” in which an ethos for life arrives from one’s situated experience. I’ll argue that those two nodes constitute a practice of nature paralleled by early forms of desert Christianity and early Irish Christianity, specifically apophatic asceticism. This seeks to engage the uncreated energies of God in nature relationally. while approaching the essence of God and creatures as unknowable, in a practice of nature opening a sense of Paradise on earth in one’s situated place. It emerged in a different anti-colonialist context, namely in the resistance of desert monasticism to imperial Roman and state religion, and in the condition of early Ireland as a borderland on the edge of the collapsed Western Empire. From thence came the influence of Eriugena on Coleridge, as the latter adapted German Romantic philosophy to his Christian personal Trinitarianism, in resisting industrial capitalism. Pratt unfortunately dismisses Cooper wrongly, I think, as a colonialist writer not affected by native influences. A more careful reading of Cooper’s view of nature and the influence of native thinking on him suggests otherwise.

Now, Coleridge was an older contemporary whom Cooper visited in England. Both were classified as ultimately conservative opponents of modernization, although arguably not conservative in the way we commonly understand that term in American politics today. Both wrote works now included in the corpus of significant texts of ecocriticism: In Coleridge’s case The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, one of his most important poems and one to which he returned later in life; and likewise in Cooper’s case the Leatherstocking Tales, in particular The Pioneers and, I would add, The Deerslayer, the first and last written in the series, which both focus on the headwaters of the Susquehanna, where Cooper lived. Coleridge himself also was concerned with the Susquehanna Valley, albeit at a distance. He wrote and advocated with his friend Thomas Southey about plans for a utopian Pantisocracy project along the Susquehanna. In this he was inspired by his then-philosophical mentor Joseph Priestley, who had moved to the Confluence of the Susquehanna, roughly the midpoint between Cooper’s family seat at the headwaters and the Chesapeake Bay, under the influence of a dream of creating a quasi-utopian community of English intellectuals along the banks of the North Branch of the Susquehanna in the 1790s. Coleridge ultimately distanced himself from Priestley’s revolutionary Unitarian materialism and found a refuge not on the Susquehanna but in a mystical Christian Trinitarianism, as reflected also in his revisions of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He related his theology of nature to his two-tiered systems of reason and imagination, in which authentic imagination was on a spectrum with the divine, termed substantive reason. In this he was in part adapting the non-Scholastic patristic cosmology of the logoi of the Logos, or theophanies, which Eriugena had adapted in his own Hiberno-Latin writing milieu, with its analogous Insular traditions of the Celtic Otherworld and later green worlds of English literature.

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, first written with help from William Wordsworth at the start of Coleridge’s own turn in worldviews in the early 1800s, and re-edited until 1834, the poet describes a polar spirit of the sea that embodies his theory of true imagination as a spectrum emanating from the divine. He distinguishes this Polar Spirit or daemon from the demonic, describing such spirits in terms of intermediaries between humans and the divine, associated with landscape or in this case seascape. Coleridge in footnotes to the 1817 version of the poem describes his polar spirit as “one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels, concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted. They are very numerous, and there is no climate or element without one or more.” 5 The Mariner overhears “invisible inhabitants of the element” describing the polar spirit thus:

The spirit who bideth by himself in the land of mist and snow,

He loved the bird that loved the man,

Who shot him with his bow. (ll. 202-205)

The spirit imparts a physical experience to the Ancient Mariner of the cost of living without environmental empathy, which evokes the physiological emphasis in Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime, in the relation of the otherworldly sublime to experiences of the natural world. Burke wrote in part from his own anti-colonialist Irish cultural background, in contrast to the more idealistic Kantian sublime. His emphasis on physiological effects, dynamically involving both repulsion and attraction, situated corporeally in an awareness of one’s own limitations as an individual, parallels Pratt’s description of Algonquin Indian emphases on relationality and logic of place as anti-colonialist, and, also, one might add, resistance to transcendental ideological grids.

In any case, the Mariner’s repentant response draws angelic help for him, as well as the final curative spiritual therapy of a hermit in the woods, when he returns home to England. He returns to a harbor near woods reminiscent of the place in Somerset, in the countryside around Watchet near what is now Exmoor National Park, where Coleridge supposedly originally conceived the poem, a landscape associated with the native Welsh saint, St. Decuman. The hermit in the woods in Somerset in the poem of course also evokes analogies in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, where after the end of the Grail quest the Arthurian realm ends with knights penitentially seeking refuge among hermits in the woods of Somerset near Glastonbury, after the grand project of Camelot had failed. The woods also evoke the “green world” theme of English literature, reflected in the forests of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales as a retreat from advancing European domination. The hermitage in the ending of the Mariner’s tale also parallels partly Natty Bumppo’s retreat amid the remnants of woods around Lake Glimmerglass in The Pioneers.

Coleridge in his footnotes cites both the Byzantine Psellus and Josephus (a Jewish historian associated by Greek Christians with the origins of Christianity) as sources for the figure of the polar spirit. Both had associations with efforts to relate biblical traditions to those of Hellenistic philosophy, paralleling the similar project (supposedly stretching back to the origins of the Church) by Eriugena’s main sources Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor. Coleridge’s mention of Psellus and Josephus (whose writings do not seem to back up the poet’s gloss) thus evokes a symbolic overlap between the polar spirit as poetic image, and the energy doctrine of Eastern Mediterranean Christian apophatic theology which influenced Eriugena in combination with native Irish cultural backgrounds. Of Eriugena, Coleridge wrote, “he expressly defines. ... Creation to be manifestation — the Epiphany of Philosophers ... .” 6 His energy doctrine (related to the spectrum of primordial causes and theophanies he described) involved a sense of our potential participation in the divine energies in nature, while the divine essence, and indeed the essence of Creation, lie unknown. This cosmology engaged well with indigenous traditions in early Ireland and in Slavic lands in the Middle Ages, while today engaging both structuralist and poststructuralist approaches to literature in environmental contexts, linking Derrida’s apophatic tendencies with the focus on process rather than essence in environmental phenomenology.

Indeed, the polar spirit’s movements and effects in the poem also are reminiscent of Native American traditions of manitou and inua as the spirits of all beings associated with the overall Creator, such as the great Manitou, which parallels the Greek Christian cosmology of the logoi of the Logos behind Eriugena’s philosophy of nature. Logos of course has a range of translations including word, discourse, purpose, reason, speech, harmony and story, which in his cosmology and that of his sources Maximus and Dionyius took on personal and dialogic aspects. The parallel to Native American cosmology, whether direct or not, suggests the anti-colonial project apparent in Coleridge’s poem as a whole, a project different in its skepticism of utopian ideology from Coleridge’s youthful desire to build an ideal European society on the banks of the Susquehanna taken from Indian nations. Experience of the polar spirit on the sea leads directly, in very physically embodied ways in an environmental context, to a culminating ethos identifying prayer with personal and experiential love for all creatures, rather than abstracting and objectifying them.

Cooper’s corpus shared with Coleridge’s poem of course a focus on the sea in many works, often directly in relation to Cooper’s own sea experiences, but also symbolically in the Leatherstocking Tales, especially in The Pathfinder, whose opening section involves a prolonged reference to the old-growth Eastern woodlands of America as a kind of sea. The “green world” of English literature had emerged from a Celtic Otherworld with sea associations. This interchange of imagery of sea and green woods reflects the archipelagic origins of the trans-Atlantic tradition of an overlay of spiritual and physical realms, in which neither water nor land clearly stands as primary reality.

Cooper’s Deerslayer, published in 1841, includes a scene at the headwaters of the Susquehanna in which Natty Bumppo, the deerslayer, is described as contemplating the beauties of the break in the Eastern Woodlands at Lake Glimmerglass or Lake Otsego, where the water and the sky seem to reflect the forest into each other. There “he felt a portion of that soothing of the spirit which is a common attendant of a scene so thoroughly pervaded by the holy calm of nature,” Cooper writes. 7 Here the sublime is related to a specific place and experience of it, and is not transcendental primarily. Natty and his foil, Hurry Harry March, then argue about the nature of the place and the cultures that overlap it. In their discussion, Deerslayer identifies a full realization of human personhood with a logic of place when, in response to Harry’s brief diatribe against “redskins,” Natty replies, “I look upon him as the most of a man, who acts nearest the right, Hurry. But this is a glorious spot, and my eyes never aweary looking at it.” As they continue talking, Natty also reveals his aversion to the disturbing of nature with a name in the way that European Americans do it in their mapping. Harry has engaged in giving it his own private name of Glimmerglass with his friends, in private resistance to any attempted official naming. “I’m glad it has no name,” Deerslayer says, “or, at least, no pale face name, for their christenings always fortel waste and destruction.” Harry notes that different Indian peoples have different names for the lake. Deerslayer says that hunters and trappers are likely to call it by something reasonable and resembling. That’s when Harry tells him of the name Glimmerglass, so given because of its reciprocal reflection of sky and water as a kind of archipelagic opening or poetic clearing in the sea of the primordial forest. In the discussion that follows, though, we are told that “Hurry Harry thought more of the beauties of Judith Hutter, than of those of the Glimmerglass, and its accompanying scenery,” unlike the intrepid Natty.

Deerslayer questions why Mr. Hutter is in his words burrowing or fortifying in seclusion on the lake: “To my eye it is such a solitude as one might open his whole soul in, and fear no one to disarrange his thoughts or his worship.” Harry tries to disabuse him of these sensibilities by speaking of the evils of the Indians roaming the area. The narrator warns that while Deerslayer’s ingenuousness guards against sophistry, he is not totally free of prejudice. But, in arguing with Harry’s notion of racial hierarchies, Natty reminds Harry that “God made all three” races, white, black and red, described by his companion. “God made us all,” Natty argues, “in the main, much the same in feelin’s; though I’ll not deny that he gave each race its gifts”.

I do not pretend that all that white men do is properly Christianized and according to the lights given them; for then they would be what they ought to be, which we know they are not; but I will maintain that tradition, and use, and colour, and laws, make such a difference in races as to amount to gifts ... . When the colony’s laws, or even the king’s laws, run ag’n the laws of God, they get to be onlawful, and ought not to be obeyed. I hold to a white man’s respecting white laws, so long as they do not cross the track of a law comin’ from a higher authority, and for a red man to obey his own red-skin usages, under the same privilege. 8

The narrative of place at the source of the Susquehanna, from Natty’s experience of the headwaters in Chapter 2 to this discussion of gifts in Chapter 3 of The Deerslayer, elides place and names and gifts and laws, shaping an awareness of the multiplicity of deep experience of landscape, which ultimately in turn shapes the place in a kind of theophanic spectrum, spanning the divine and the experience of human beings in Creation. Only through openness of the soul to that multiplicity and its theophanic origin and purpose does a human find realization in personhood — akin to self-realization in deep ecology, but also implying today’s project of erasing boundaries of natural and artificial, in what Timothy Morton calls dark ecology. Different overlapping names and laws as metaphors both emanate from and merge into the ultimate metonym of the river and lake, across different dimensions of time, evoking in Cooper’s cycle a sense of the landscape as being in God. The place’s meaning, in relation to a sense of experiential human identity both constituted of and heading towards gifts from God, nonetheless related to a sense of place in the divine, changing and adapting to that latter experience. All this occurs in the context of a Creation that is a place of worship ultimately in the divine, involving (we are told) the holy calm of nature soothing the spirit, offering such as one might open his whole soul in, in which to fear no one able to disarrange one’s thoughts or worship. We see connections in all this both to apophatic theology and to Pratt’s “native” anti-colonialism.

Natty’s discussion of the gifts of different races, while critiquing Hurry’s assertion of racial hierarchy, comes shortly after the narrator has warned us that Natty has his prejudices too. The whole discussion comes right after the description of the transformative power of nature at the headwaters, with its melding and reciprocal mirroring of river, lake, sea, sky and forest. Natty’s discussion of how the laws identified with gifts are superseded or fulfilled in the divine laws culminates in his later comment, “different gifts, but only one nature.” 9 In this I would argue we see how Natty’s notion of gifts, which he describes as a combination of tradition, use, culture and laws, parallels the notion of cultural semiospheres developed by the mid-twentieth-century Baltic semiotician Juri Lotman. 10 Lotman, following on von Uexhull’s work, described how organisms and species have their own Umwelt or meaningful environment, in which they engage in making meaning. But a semiosphere could be thought of as a larger bubble of such bubbles of meanings so to speak. Thus, too, I would add, a semiosphere associated with a particular eco-region could be called an eco-semiosphere, which removes a central focus from human concerns and places them in a larger context of meaningful environment including the non-human. So Natty’s sense of gifts depend both on place and ultimately the divine, in which they meld into nature at large, in a path that nonetheless involves the personal, the particular, and the place-based. Thus throughout The Leatherstocking Tales, Natty as hero, is, as he observes at times, a meld of gifts from both Indian and Euroamerican cultures, amid the influence of the ancient forest. Such gifts can also be thought of as environmental emanations in which we grow, which we can reflect and engage in dialogue and personify and grow beyond, depending on our engagement or not with the natural world, as if in a sea of divinity or in larger contexts typed as ecological.

In this sense of gifts as overlapping and morphing emanations related to larger contexts of nature, Natty’s personification of them in a cultural and environmental exchange parallels the polar spirit in Coleridge’s poem. The latter as a spirit of the seascape evokes an empathy with other beings and larger contexts from the ancient mariner. This ultimately seems to be the point of gifts in the context of the forest in The Leatherstocking Tales as well. Of course the two works have their differences. When Natty shoots an eagle carelessly, no spirit of the forest takes revenge, but his sense of his gifts arguably shapes his remorse, for which he finds solace in the forest and perhaps penance in his captivity with the Mingoes. We hear his regret at the wasteful shooting of passenger pigeons in The Pioneers. He, together with his close Indian friends, also themselves become the sacrificial albatrosses of Cooper’s cycle as they all vanish with the forest.

But why the common denominator between Cooper and Coleridge, in the former’s sense of gifts and in the latter’s polar spirit, in their sense of nature as emanation of growth that is nonetheless in the divine? I would suggest again certain parallels in the influence of indigenous cultures on each. In the case of Coleridge, it was partly the influence of the Irish Eriugena and other non-Scholastic Christian writers of the past, moving him from Unitarian back to Trinitarian theology, as a reaction against his identification of radical Enlightenment thinking with impersonal colonial domination. Eriugena’s philosophy, in presenting creatures swimming in a divine sea, as I have argued elsewhere, shows forth an integration of indigenous Irish and Christian ideas of nature detailed in Terry Eagleton’s thesis of a personally cosmic Irish sense of the sublime articulated by the early philosopher. 11 The “green world” motif in English literature, which heavily influenced Romantic British literature, including Coleridge and Walter Scott and in America Cooper, derived from medieval notions of a natural supernatural, which traces back to formative influence of Irish and derivative Welsh poetic and storytelling traditions on Middle English literature, as it sought to develop an indigenous voice for England. The reflection of woods and sky in water at Lake Glimmerglass similarly resonates with divinity in which we as readers swim.

The notion of a natural supernatural landscape, an overlay landscape of the spiritual entwined with the physical, resists an impersonal colonialism or utopianism, because it does not involve the imposition of a transcendental grid on the earth as world. Rather, the natural supernatural landscape becomes an active mediator, a kind of remembrance for information as living energy, between the “earth” of nature as mystery and the “world” of human culture, symbolizing analogy that is embodied personally and dialogic between time and eternity, and thus more than an abstract analogy. This is what we see in these texts both in Cooper’s forest and Coleridge’s archipelago. Experience of the overlay landscape in relation to Lake Otsego or the coasts of the English West Country becomes a kind of iconography also embodying notions of ecosemiotics, a field that examines how the biosemiotic definition of life as meaningful communication reflects itself in human imagination vis-à-vis the mysterious earth. As Coleridge put it in the ending to his poem, later a hymn,

He prayeth best who lovest best

All things both great and small;

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.

In the case of Cooper, indigenous influences helped shape his writing and life. His reliance on the Moravian Christian John Heckewelder’s detailed accounts of cultural exchange between American Indians in the Northeast and Moravian Christians in the eighteenth century is chief of these. The Moravians, a movement that had emerged early in the late Middle Ages from a cultural zone overlapping with the Christian east, shared a Trinitarian view similar to Eriugena, which emphasized a perichoresis of the Trinity that the Greek and Syriac church fathers articulated with the desert fathers, in terms of apophatic essence combined with a sense of nature as sparkling theophanies. The essences of those theophanies were uncreated as energies of God. Thus these uncreated energies of God, these logoi or harmonies, were both the essences of creatures and their redemption, or in other words the divine sea in which creatures move. This was also expressed in the asceticism of the Macarian homilies, which influenced Moravian Christianity as well. Such intermingling of theology and praxis in cosmology was also expressed in part in Quaker doctrines of the Holy Spirit and of the inner light, in Cooper’s background mixed with the liturgical and iconographic forms of his later Episcopalianism, in an evolving milieu similar in some respects to Coleridge’s trajectory of faith.

But alongside such influences for Cooper, in the detailed writings of Heckewelder that reflected the spiritual project of Moravian journaling explored in the work of my Bucknell colleague Katherine Faull, lay his own project of establishing an ethos or logos of place at the headwaters of the Susquehanna. Pratt suggests how American Indian notions of what might be termed a kind of open emphasis on relationality, and on logic of place, influenced American Pragmatism, which originated in Peirce’s work. But Cooper, through his encounter with Heckewelder’s writings, and his own engagement with place earlier, was even closer to that influence. The figure of Chingachgook stands for a similar type of multicultural experience of landscape to that in early Irish Christian stories, which reflect upon native traditions of Otherworld landscapes in actual geography. Those in turn formed the basis for later green-world literature of overlay landscapes, such as The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Malory’s Le Morte, The Faerie Queene and A Midsummer Nights Dream, and their adaptations in Romanticism. Coleridge then took the supernatural side of Romanticism and ran with it all the way back to a Trinitarian Christianity, which nonetheless involved a sense of creatures being in the divine, as symbolized by the liminal figures of the polar spirit, the angels, the hermit, and ultimately the ancient mariner himself.

Metonymy as a sequence of metaphoric encounters forms landscape in which the experience of place is more than the sum of its parts. In this sense we can compare Cooper’s lake in the forest with Coleridge’s archipelago, focusing ultimately on a Somerset harbor country — really Coleridge’s sea, but as it is experienced in relation to both the ship and to the return to the woods at the end of Coleridge’s poem, framed by the sea and the desire for a non-colonialist home. Genesis speaks of the Spirit moving upon the waters, and in Syriac, as also commented on by early Christian Greek writings, this could be interpreted as the Spirit hovering on or nurturing, or in effect brooding over as in hatching as it were, life from the waters. In that early metonymic sense of spirit, in which the Greek pneuma meant at once breath, wind and spirit, we experience in reading Cooper the spirit moving upon or brooding over the forest, as in Coleridge’s work the spirit in the sea moves the mariner terribly to an empathy or profound agape.

The woods and village of the mariner’s return are a figure for Coleridge’s native Somerset, but also for another old Celtic region associated with his writing, the Lake District and its pattern of integrated communities of water and land. The Leatherstocking Tales again focus on the Susquehanna headwaters in particular around Lake Otsego, although ranging to the Great Lakes and prairies in the far west, much like Coleridge’s Xanadu in the faraway East, all part of a nonetheless geographically reachable natural supernatural overlay landscape. The national park in the Lake District, entwined with the poetry of both Wordsworth and Coleridge, and preservation of the Lake Otsego area in the Glimmerglass National Historic District, testify in part to the environmental orbit of their writings.

To close, the two principles of indigenous philosophy that Scott Pratt attributes to the influence of Algonquin Indian worldviews on American philosophy were an emphasis on relationality and on the logic of place. In comparing key writings of Coleridge and Cooper with environmental associations, we can see these principles defined more broadly as expressing a personal dialogue with the other, including the natural world. They also can be associated with the hybridizing of indigenous cultures, apophatic theology, and a situated asceticism, such as that of desert Christianity or early medieval Ireland. Each of those two nodes of principles can be divided in effect into a textual or inner orientation, and its expression in an external practice of landscape or nature. Thus relational apophaticism can involve a cultural practice of nature as an overlay landscape, entwining spiritual and physical dimensions, and a textual dimension of metonymic symbolism, or physically grounded metaphor. The logic of place can involve a cultural practice of plexity of time, an experience of different time dimensions (including perspectives of the non-human) as real in our experience of landscape, along with an inner textual orientation toward an ethos of in-dwelling, or narratives of place that shape an emphasis on ethics coming from groundedness and situatedness, the original meaning of ethos as habitat. Examples from both the Coleridge and the Cooper texts abound and overlap these categories: The overlay landscape of Cooper’s sea of forest and Coleridge’s archipelago, including the more historically settled and “native” English West Country in its ending; the metonymy of Lake Glimmerglass and the albatross; the plexity of time of the “ancient” mariner and Natty the endangered ancient frontiersman, together with the primordial forest and the polar spirit; and the ethos of in-dwelling in Natty’s sense of gifts opening up into nature, as well as in the cosmic empathy underlined in Coleridge’s poem.

Interestingly, these categories can relate to Martin Heidegger’s metaphor of the fourfold as experience of place, or shaping space into place, along with the ecosemiotic notion of the four aspects of a nature-text, as developed by the semiotician Timo Maran. 12 In Heidegger’s fourfold of place, earth (environment), sky (sign), mortals (time-plexity) and immortals (ethos of in-dwelling) merge in a kind of real symbolism of place or environment, as event rather than object. In Maran’s fourfold nature-text, the contexts of environment (earth), text (sky), the reader (mortals) and author (immortals) merge to shape the experience of text as landscape. 13 In short, all these schema suggest experience of text as landscape itself, as an experience of place. And these aspects can be resolved also into Peirce’s foundational ecosemiotic triad of text, environment and relational meaning, when Peirce’s third element of meaning opens into plexity of time and ethos of in-dwelling. The latter (together with overlay landscape) provides the opening for experience of creatures and creation as in the divine, in the sense shared by Cooper, Coleridge and Peirce.

Following this ecosemiotic schema, the environment is the forest or the Atlantic archipelago of the West Country; the metonymic symbolism includes the albatross and the forest; the plexity of time includes the ancientness of the mariner and of Natty Bumppo as a kind of proto-John Muir/Rip Van Winkle, along with the primordiality of the polar spirit and Lake Glimmerglass and the forest themselves. Finally the aspect of an ethos of in-dwelling manifests itself in the empathy toward the logic of place of native cultures in the Leatherstocking Tales, and toward other creatures of the sea and countryside in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

This schema provides a brief diagram of the shared process of writing a native cosmology as attempted by both Coleridge and Cooper. The one rejected colonial and utopian approaches on the metropolitan periphery of Empire, the other did the same in a rapidly developing border of a newly emerging American imperium. Both offered ultimately counter-cultural Christian views that resisted the industrializing West and its totalizing ideologies.


1 Eriugena’s theophanic philosophy of nature also parallels in certain unexpected respects the postmodern “ecoosophy” or “geophilosophy” of Deleuze and Guattari, two late-twentieth century European writers influenced by the early twentieth-century Baltic scientist Jakob von Uexhull, whose biosemiotics in turn overlapped with Peirce’s work.

2 Charles S. Peirce, “The Basis of Pragmaticism in the Normative Sciences,” in The Essential Peirce, Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2 (1893-1913), The Peirce Edition project (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998), 360-397, at 394.

3 Douglas Hedley, Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion: Aids to Reflection and the Mirror of the Spirit (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 196, note 6.

4 Scott L. Pratt, Native Pragmatism: Rethinking the Roots of American Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

5 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” 1834, in The Complete Poems ed. William Keach (London: Penguin, 1997) 171.

6 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in a letter to Robert Southey dated June 29, 1803, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 2 1801-1806, ed. Karl Leslie Griggs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 506. Scholarship discussing Coleridge’s over-riding appreciation for Eriugena’s Christian cosmology (mixed with later apprehension at the potential for it to be misinterpreted as pantheism) includes Thomas McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), especially Chapter 4, and Mary Anne Perkins, Coleridge’s Philosophy: The Logos as Unifying Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), who connects Coleridge’s anthropology and Trinitarianism to Eriugena (218-20 and 152 respectively), and thus relating Coleridge’s unfinished “Logosophia” project as a whole to the philosophy of nature of the early Irish philosopher.

7 James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer, in The Leatherstocking Tales, ed. Blake Nevius, The Library of America (New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1985) 524-25.

8 Ibid., 528-29.

9 Ibid., 921.

10 Juri Lotman, “On the Semiosphere,” trans. Wilma Clark. Sign System Studies 33.1 (2005): 205-229.

11 Alfred K. Siewers, Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

12 Martin Heidegger, “The Thing,” in Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 163-80, and “Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking,” in Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, trans. J.M. Anderson and E.H. Freund (New York: Harper, 1966) 58-90.

13 Timo Maran, “Towards an Integrated Methodology of Ecosemiotics: The Concept of Nature-Text,” Sign Systems Studies 35 (2007): 269-94.