Maxwell Sater, “Hardy's Trees: Ecology and the Question of Knowledge in The Woodlanders” (pp. 92–115)
This essay attends to one of the stranger episodes in Thomas Hardy’s fiction: the inexplicably linked deaths of John South and the elm tree outside his house. I argue that this subplot is of central importance to The Woodlanders (1887) and to Hardy’s ecological thinking more generally. Hardy posits an episode that resists narrative accommodation: simply, it does not make sense. Its senselessness, I contend, indexes a broader discomfort with, and rejection of, what Stanley Cavell would call relations of knowing as the foundation of ecology. By reading The Woodlanders alongside Cavell, I suggest that Hardy develops an ecological mode of relation dependent neither on knowledge of nor on continuity with nonhuman worlds but, rather, on a negotiation of the epistemological and ontological limits inhering between, in this instance, humans and trees. For Hardy, humane ecological relations are possible in spite of those limits; in fact, seeking to transcend them, as the elm tree plot parodically demonstrates, can be counterproductive.