Thursday, 11 June 2009

A Half Open Door: Nature Writing and Environmental Cringe

[published in Island #53, Summer 1992 - the piece that started me on the nature writing path]

There is a startling passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that could have been written in any particular place, but I find it hard to imagine it being written by an Australian.

The mating rites of mantises are well known: a chemical produced in the head of the male insect says, in effect, “No, don’t go near her, you fool, she’ll eat you alive.” At the same time a chemical in the abdomen says, “Yes, by all means, now and forever yes.”

While the male is making up what passes for his mind, the female tips the balance in her favor by eating his head. He mounts her. Fabre describes the mating, which sometimes lasts six hours, as follows: “The male, absorbed in the performance of his vital function, holds the female in a tight embrace. But the wretch has no head; he has no neck; he has hardly a body. The other with her muzzle turned over her shoulder continues very placidly to gnaw what remains of the gentle swain. And, all the time, that masculine stump, holding on firmly, goes on with the business!”

A less confronting, more plainly American piece is Edward Hoagland’s The Tugman’s Passage.

A tree swallow darts high with a feather, drops it deliberately, then swoops to catch it again. A woodchuck is raising a family in her summer depot the same den that she hibernated in; that’s back in the woods, headquarters for a skunk family now. Once when the woodchuck sat up close to his tent, as brindled-brown and husky-torsoed as a grizzly bear, he thought he might be camping in Alaska – except that, at the same time, a catbird overhead was mimicking the song of the Southern bird that the catbird, too, may have heard in Georgia last winter.

What Hoagland shows in his unexceptional way is he is perfectly at ease in describing the creatures that live around his Vermont home. He writes expecting the smile of recognition or shared experience which is the bond between reader and writer (which may be a grimace in Annie Dillard’s case). This is not something we might expect in Australian writing. Such intimate observations are absent from most of our writing.

We have a strong tradition of bush literature, even though it is execrated from time to time. But this focuses on the Big Country – Australia wide, brown and large. We lack a tradition of intimate “nature writing” akin to the rich tradition among the English, beginning perhaps with Gilbert White’s A Natural History of Selborne, and continuing through the likes of Richard Jefferies up to the present. Even provincial newspapers in Britain have a nature diarist of one sort or another. This tradition unashamedly loves the countryside and its inhabitants. What’s more, it writes for a public that knows – or at least wants to know – something about it.

In the United States the tradition is younger, if no less passionate. Thoreau is the patron saint. The Sierra Club and Audobon Society are among the evangelists. A latter day disciple, Stephen Graham, wrote in The Gentle Art of Tramping:

As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountains stream, the great door, that does not look like a door opens.

In Australia, “the great door” is only half-open. We’ve barely begun to integrate the Australian environment into our writing. Geoffrey Dutton, in Snow on the Saltbush calls this our “environmental cringe”, pointing to the hostility many writers have to non-urban Australia. ……. Their message has been one of intense guilt over the despoiled Australian environment (and) hostility against the bush tradition……Australians raped the country and massacred the ancient, indigenous population. The hostility has seemed to extend even to nature itself, as something undeniably large but irrelevant, except in the political confrontations of conservation campaigns.

The same sense of hostility to nature comes through in our mythology. In Intruders in the Bush: The Australian Quest for Identity, sociologist John Carroll argues that our great myth is the uncaring vastness of nature in Australia.

Drought, bushfire, blasting heat, hurricane, and the sheer monumental vastness of nature, of oceans, cliffs, deserts, mountains, and the sky itself-much larger and brighter than in Europe-will always make man feel a nobody on this continent. This is our greatest asset in an age in which man has the vanity of believing that he can do anything, that nothing in nature can check him, that his technology and his medicine will protect him from any threat. Australians are lucky that in spite of their fearlessness of God, they
must submit to a nature with many of the implacable and punitive powers of their lost divinity.

This antagonistic and Eurocentric view of Australian nature (which not surprisingly sits uneasily with Aboriginal mythology) is reflected in much white European-Australian literature, where it is hard to find a protagonistic view of nature. Instead much of our literature describes an almost gothic hostility between ourselves and nature, such as Marcus Clark’s demonising of Van Diemen’s Land in For the Term of His Natural Life. A similar brooding sense of hostility can also be found in recent works like Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark.

Whether the horror of the bush is intrinsic or extrinsic is never quite resolved, but it is hard to escape the feeling that we are not at home in our own homeland. The central character in Rodney Hall’s The Second Bridegroom is unusual precisely because he alone of the whites in the story does not feel an alien in Australia. Instead, he begins to share the bond which his Aboriginal guardians have with the land. Similarly Mary O’Halloran in Tom Collins’ classic Such is Life is exceptional in being a “child of the wilderness, a dryad among her kindred trees”, and therefore knowing the names of all the trees and “the dwelling-place of every loved companion”.

So why is it that so few Australian novels celebrate the Australian environment in an unselfconscious way? Consider D H Lawrence and Mollie Skinner’s response to Western Australia in The Boy in the Bush.

It was spring in Western Australia, and a wonder of delicate blueness, of frail, unearthly beauty. The earth was full of weird flowers, star-shaped, needle-pointed, fringed, scarlet, white, blue – a whole world of strange flowers. Like being in a new Paradise from which man had not been cast out.

Had Mollie Skinner written this alone, would it have been accepted as widely as it was? Perhaps environmental and cultural cringe share the same bed.

In Britain there is also a rich vein of nature fantasy that is absent in Australia. The most recent examples have tried to go beyond the animals-dressed-as-people variety popular in tales like The Wind in the Willows. Richard Adams’ Watership Down, an early and influential modern example, was based in part on the scientific study of rabbits and rabbit behaviour. It did not altogether escape anthropomorphic tendencies, but at least Fiver, Hazel and Co were not dressed up in waistcoats and smoking pipes. What Adams did for rabbits, others in Britain have since tried to do for moles, badgers, eagles, weasels, frogs and hedgehogs. The bookshelves of wildlife naturalists have been plundered as never before.

Regardless of the literary merit of this outpouring of ethologically correct fables, they show an interest in getting the precise details of the natural world right. Their commercial success indicates that they have tapped the broad conservation concerns of many readers, including their love of “nature” and their disquiet over the disappearance of habitats and species. You would think that Australia, which has seen the extinction of more than twenty native animals species since white settlement, and has over half of its total mammal population of 256 species on the vulnerable list, might have a similar market to tap. However there is very little Australian fiction which takes seriously the observed behaviour of our own wildlife. We have no kangaroo quest to Watership Down; no echidna equivalent of Duncton Wood. While a few children’s stories such as Leslie Rees’s Shy the Platypus take care to get some details right, the general run of Australian nature fiction is happier mythologising the bush and its creatures, as in Blinky Bill or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

Magazines such as Australian Geographic and Geo, or more specialists nature journals like Wildlife Australia or Australian Natural History, may appear to be safe-houses for the kind of nature writing I’m discussing. But while they contain some fine writing about Australia, most of it doesn’t amount to what I would define as “nature writing”. Australian Geographic sometimes comes close, though its format favours the spectacular and the graphic, after the style of the National Geographic. Picture prevails over word. What I am looking for is writing that has no need of pictures; writing that doesn’t stand or fall by academic whim.

Another potential haven is the conservation movement. At times though, this movement gives every appearance of being dominated by professional lobbyists who, perhaps unwittingly, push celebratory nature writing to the periphery. Some of the best – and worst – finds itself lost at the beginning of wilderness calendars and coffee-table books; word again subject to image: the door half-closed. To “sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach” doesn’t have the publicity impact of chaining yourself to trees or tractors.

There is an irony in this. By concentrating on the Big Issues the conservation movement risks neglecting the very thing it is fighting for – like a crusading social reformer whose own children run barefoot. Does it celebrate the Australian environment in all its daily humility, as well as its spectacular grandeur?

For surely nature writing is celebration. Even when, as with an Annie Dillard, it is aghast at what it observes, it is still able to maintain a sense of wonder, as this recollection of Bishop Burgmann’s bush childhood in An Australian Education shows.

One sat quietly at the foot of a tree, resting against the butt. To move at all was to move as though a baby were near which must not be awakened. At such times the bush is fastening its spell upon you. You breathe slowly. Time stops. Then a cricket is sure to break the silence. He can never keep quiet for long. One becomes conscious of bees in the blossoms above. A bird flits past, but one remains still. It is a pity that the moment must pass, but the babe is awakening. It may be Pan; it is the spirit of the bush; and it lives in the insects, the birds, the animals, as well as in the trees. A black magpie flies overhead with his raucous cry. He is an unruly bird, and doesn’t care whom he awakens. A snake may glide past, but he does it quietly.

Presently the babe is full awake and all the dwellers in the bush loose their tongues. Bellbirds, whipbirds, and all sorts of birds enjoy their songs, and as they make high festival the lyrebird can mimic them all. Nature must be taken as a whole. It speaks through its birds, it lives in its animals; man may only join in on Nature’s own terms. He can site He can sit and listen and let his fancy run free. He will grow more reverent as his sensitiveness to the presence grows. He will feel privileged to have been admitted into the audience of Nature’s moods. Birds and animals may even come to feel that he to some extent also belongs to their exclusive world.

It is foolish for man to think of Nature as below him. If he lives in the bush long enough he will find that reverence is the only worthy attitude. But the bush will take its won time to do the work. It will not speak to a man in a hurry. Its message is worth waiting for. Only the soul that is stilled in its presence can hear the music of its song.



To Burgmann, opening the door is a spiritual labour, and in the fifty years since he wrote few have followed his lead. In that half-century the microscope and magnifying glass have been superseded by the cathode-ray tube and the silicon chip; and awe and wonder have been replaced by mere amusement. By sticking to the myth of the vastness and implacability of nature in Australia, we hasten the retreat into the artificial urban world. Thereafter nature is either malignly ignored, or its downfall is actively plotted. Gilbert White offered a far more sanguine approach to the vastness of nature when he wrote at the time of the First Fleet that “every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer”.

One Australian write who stands out is Eric Rolls. His superb Celebration of the Senses was unusual in the Australian literary context that the blurb writers and publicists fumbled for ways to describe it. Rolls comfortably included observations of wildlife alongside ribald recollections of army service.

We wake to bird calls. In army training camps the first notes of reveille jerked us out of sleep at 6a.m. Tent flaps lifted, cranky soldiers cursed the bugler. “Bow your guts out your bastard!”. “Jam the fuckin’ thing down his throat!” “Stick it up your arse and play retreat!”. During the war in Papua New Guinea, when I woke a signaller to take the next night watch, I stood off and nudged him with a long stick. The Japanese were very close……..all of us were on edge. Bend over a man and wake him suddenly and he would come up ready to kill.

……In the country……I waken gladly to bird calls. All through the night in brief wakings one hears birds. When nesting the male Willy Wagtail maintains his territory day and night. “Sweet pretty little creature” he calls…..Sometimes one wakes to strange cackling laughter. A Spotted Nightjar that did not catch enough insects at dusk is on the wing again, hawking….. Each season has its own
alarm. In winter the cling clang of Pied Currawongs wakes us us fittingly after the sun is well up and the frost has begun to melt…..In autumn when the sunflowers are ripe, two thousand galahs awaken us. They come in rolling pink and grey clouds as noisy as thunder….. In spring so many birds wake us we have to concentrate to recognise them all. The White-winged Triller makes long rolls of two notes. The Rufous Whistler makes a few musical calls, then cracks like a whip, a good alarm. The little Striated Pardalote beats out its two notes
astonishingly loudly.

More recently Rolls was commissioned by the Sydney Sun-Herald to write regular pieces under the title The Cumberdeen Diaries This too is very good nature writing, but one writer doesn’t make a tradition. The 1990 anthology Gone Bush edited by Roger McDonald does take seriously the diversity and complexity of both nature and literary style in Australia, with writers as different as Elizabeth Jolley and Frank Moorhouse, Les Murray and Helen Garner, Barney Roberts and Bruce Pascoe all contributing stylish pieces. There are also widely different Aboriginal perspectives from Jack Davis and Mudrooroo Nargin; but it is Geoffrey Dutton who wryly shrugs off his environmental cringe in a wonderful evocation of Kangaroo Island.

Here in the bush around the house by the sea the blue wren hops across the emerald moss of an early winter like a chip of summer sky, and the scarlet robin lies flatly, wings extended, in the bird bath, fluffing out his chest, so much more fiery than that of his cousins in the Northern Hemisphere.

We need more writing of this kind. Frankly, most Australians remain woefully ignorant about the web of life around them and better educated about the badger than the bilby. I have a vivid picture of the utter astonishment of a South Australian visitor to Tasmania’s Southwest as an eastern quoll nonchalantly snuffles by in search of food. The woman’s face is a mixture of wonderment and mystification. What is this beautiful creature? She not only has no name for it, she has never imagined that such creatures existed.
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