• Géraldine Vogel

(Dis)ordered Nature in Margaret Atwood’s Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer

In his 1890 lecture on Sanity and Insanity, Charles Mercier defined madness as “a disorder in the process of adjustment of the organism to his environment – a disorder not subject to correction. The faulty adaptation of an organism to environment […].”[1] In this light, the poem Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1968[2] offers an example of the broken relationship between man and his environment and may provide an answer to the extent of nature’s impact on the human psyche.

I. (Dis)order creeping in

The poem illustrates the conflict between man, a pioneer who stands alone, and his attempts to order and organize nature to his standards. The more he attempts to control the brutal, wild, harsh, and unconquerable lands, the more he becomes obsessed, to the point of reaching madness. Finding an order to the universe is meant to give purpose to the pioneer’s existence as he states: “I am not random”. Nonetheless, nature erodes what he has fought to shape and build, progressively destroying the pioneer’s individual mark. If the settler cannot settle, assert himself and legitimize his place in the world, he is but “a point on a sheet of green paper”. If he cannot rival the overwhelming size of the universe, he cannot build the foundations of civilization. His role as a pioneer, which is to open and pave the way for others to follow, is thus questioned.

The pioneer, being the first of his kind to experience the new land, is faced with what he doesn’t know and therefore with what remains “unnamed”. What has not yet been identified, mapped, or studied may inspire fear in the beholder as he is drawn away from his comfort zone, away from the stability and the security provided by the “civilized” world he used to know. In constructing a new world within an already existing one, the settler is “in vain” trying to establish the same familiar constancy: a somewhere “in the middle of nowhere”. Yet, how can he feel secure if he believes the environment he wishes to live in rejects his order?

II. (Dis)order from the inside out

Perhaps it is the settler’s posture that may be questioned. “The absence of adjustment in life is another definition of insanity” claims Godwin Orovwiroro.[3] Seeing oneself as the center of the world abolishes a possible dialogue and straightforward communication between the pioneer and nature. It underlines the man’s failure to adjust to his environment and creates an opposition that also states the superiority of one over the other. Sandy Woodward wrote: “A total absence of self-doubt is the first sign of insanity”,[5] so perhaps madness comes from the pioneer’s behavior and incapacity, or rather refusal, to adapt to the natural elements surrounding him. Indeed, he is described as “obstinate”, domineering in the way he “stands”, “proclaims”, and “imposes” his order upon what he perceives as being disordered, the way he “resists” and finds “disgust” in the “things” that surround him. Isolation ensues as he builds walls to protect himself against the elements rather than constructing bridges to establish communication. Building “fences” threatens, disallows, and denies a necessary unity between three perspectives in the creative process: it obstructs the harmony between nature, the settler, and the beholder (the poet and the reader).

What if the pioneer were to listen intently to nature’s language and adapt to this environment instead of “imposing” himself upon it?

III. The (mis)understanding

The source of the disorder seems to lie in miscommunication or misunderstanding. The poem depicts man’s inability or unwillingness to understand the laws of nature in his desire to domesticate or tame it. The poet writes: “Things/refused to name themselves; refused/to let him name them.” This lack of empathy or knowledge creates confusion, which the poem may either sustain or abolish. The enjambments break with the structure of the poem, alluding to words of opposite meanings (“unenclosed” can be read “enclosed”, the term “boat” can become “boat-house”). Nature “responds in aphorisms”, general truths held in figures of speech that the settler cannot begin to interpret because he doesn’t allow nature to express itself in the way he wishes to organize his world. To him, the forest remains “unanswering” because it doesn’t provide the settler with the answers he expects. In this case, the poem acts as a natural decomposition of the pioneer’s imperious order.

As the pioneer comes to grips with the environment, so too does the poet, attempting to set in language an idea or a reality that may sometimes be difficult to grasp, let alone transcribe. Putting nature into words is like exploring new lands: it is a daunting task. The rhythm, the mathematics of the poem, may provide a reassuring pattern that serves as an attempt to overcome the inadequacies of language and poetry to name or tame nature. But what is (dis)ordered? Nature or man’s psyche?

The poem seems to mirror the (dis)organization, the (in)sanity of nature the poet-pioneer has chosen to respect and reproduce. Nature would then transpire through the poem: it is not “an absence of order” but “an ordered absence” because nature’s organization escapes the settler’s – not the poet’s – comprehension. The poet holds the pen through which nature expresses itself directly, creating a bridge between the pioneer (the man, the poet, and the reader) and his environment, showing the settler that if nature is not listened to and respected it can remain forever mysterious and unknown.

In Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer, the relationship between man and nature may not be envisaged as a power struggle but as a learning process on how to adapt to one’s environment and live harmoniously with nature. The poem, the “sheet of green paper”, the “green vision”, is the place where man and nature can meet in mutual understanding.


[1] Mercier, Charles. “Sanity and Insanity” in The Contemporary Science Series, Edited by Havelock Ellis, W. Scott, London, 1890, p. 106.

[2] Atwood, Margaret. “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer” in The Animals in That Country, Little Brown and Company, New York, USA, 1968.

[3] https://leadmastersblog.com/author/godwin/

[4] Woodward, Sandy. One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Battle Group Commander, Harper Press, London, 2012, p. 36.