Monday, 4 January 2010

Nature Writing: A Personal Primer

[Photo: winter scene, Walls of Jerusalem National Park]


[Some reflections on why nature writing is important to me. Originally published in ISLAND in 2005. Short extracts have appeared here before.]

It was about 20 years ago that, as a would-be writer somewhat obsessed with the natural world, I attended some readings in Hobart by the great Australian writer Eric Rolls. I had read his wonderful “Celebration of the Senses”, and for me it ranked alongside Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” as a seminal contemporary book about nature. Moreover it was about Australian nature. So at the end of Eric’s reading I asked him where in Australia a nature writer might hope to be published. He laughed and said “nowhere”. If I recall correctly he may have added something about first disguising your nature writing as something else!

Unable to take “nowhere” for an answer, I began searching for recent examples of Australian nature writing in the hope that I might find some long-lost market for what I was hoping to write. Even minor provincial newspapers in the UK have regular nature columns, and in North America there is a thriving market for contemporary nature writing. Why wouldn’t there be a tradition, albeit somewhat hidden, within Australian literature?

My initial investigation pretty much confirmed what Eric had told me. That research was turned into an essay called “A Half Open Door”, submitted with a mixture of optimism and naivety to Cassandra Pybus, then editor of Island. I will always be grateful to Cassandra for taking a punt on that green piece of writing, helping to tidy it up and publish it – ironically alongside Eric Rolls – in Island #53, Summer 1992.

Part of my naivety in writing that essay was that I thought other people might read it; other people might take it on board, and that other people’s attitudes towards the literary depiction of Australian nature might somehow change. Instead I’ve realised that the essay has become something of a job description for me: in short if I wanted to see these changes take place, then I’d have to look for practical ways of lifting the profile of nature writing in Australia.

This realisation was slow in dawning. So it wasn’t until 2000 that I packed my environmental cringe in my bags and headed off to England, Ireland, Scotland and the USA to study the roots of nature writing in those places (assisted by a grant from Arts Tasmania). I discovered many interesting things on that trip. But what most intrigued me in the current context, was that there appeared to be no international nature writing prize for unpublished writing anywhere in the world. So the Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize, which has recently been awarded for the second time, is one of the concrete results of that trip.

Behind the prize is the desire not only to lift the profile of Australian nature writing, but also to position Tasmania as the natural hub for such environmental literature within Australia. We are one of the few places on earth that still has the chance to excel when it comes to intact environments. But that may not remain the case unless our concern for the environment is expressed in our literature as much as in other ways.

Run every second year since 2003, the prize has so far attracted around 350 participants. They’ve come from all states of Australia and several overseas countries. And they’ve been characterised by high levels of both skill and passion, as you will see from the examples that follow. [extracts not included here - see ISLAND magazine for examples.]

* * *

But before turning to those writers, I want to explore a little of what nature writing strives to do. One of its other names – place writing – gives us a clue here. It is a style of writing that wants to take special note of place; to celebrate the particular.

Kentucky writer Wendell Berry is one such celebrator of place. In Life is a Miracle he observes that the life of each place “is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never repeated.” As a result he sees “that life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving.” (Life is a Miracle, Counterpoint, 2000, p. 45) Robert Macfarlane, Cambridge academic and writer, concurs. “It is harder to dispose of anything, or to act selfishly towards it, once one has paid attention to its details.” (“Only Connect” in The Guardian, March 26, 2005). Conversely a place that is unnoticed, unloved, is an orphan: who will care for it, who will keep it from harm?

But lest we see place as merely supine and passive in the face of humans, the concept of belonging to place is also important here. Aboriginal and Celtic traditions, among others, have a strong sense of this. In Aboriginal lore the land owns its people, while the old Gaelic word duchthas encapsulates the concept of people belonging to the land. Similarly in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the land belongs not to the people, but to God.

The task for the place writer then is to find ways to both sense and express the particularity and unique importance of place. But how? Perhaps if travel broadens the mind, then staying at home deepens the soul. The soul that really watches and listens to a place can begin to discover the hiddenness of what is all around. This uncovering can start, perhaps must start, with simple questions in our own backyards. Embarrassingly elementary gaps in our knowledge may need dealing with. In recent years I have had to ask such basic questions as: Where do possums go in the day time? Which bird call was that? What time of the year will my banksia bloom? And I find myself repeating some of the same questions year after year, until it finally takes root within me that, for instance, the spring blush of new leaf tips is golden on bluegums, but ruddy on stringybarks. Or that juvenile muttonbirds take their first flight in early May, sometimes crash-landing in perilous places – like our doghouse – in the process.

Perhaps this need to take the time to observe makes nature writing the “slow food” of literature. Its gratification is not instant, and the mastery of it isn’t the work of a few hours. As Robert Macfarlane has put it “landscape cannot, on the whole, be mocked up; cannot be dreamed into descriptive being.” (“Only Connect” in The Guardian, March 26, 2005)

A childhood obsession with silk worms helped me to realise that all our senses are vital to this enterprise. As much as I might have been sated and stained by its glorious fruit, it was the shape, colour and texture of mulberry leaves that is forever imprinted on my memory. Our neighbour Mrs Thompson would turn a blind eye to leaf thieves as we surreptitiously sought the best leaves as food for our silk worms. I swear I could detect the gratefulness of the grubs when fresh fodder was placed in their box. And today I could still pick out the vivid, pleated and rumpled green leaves in any police line-up of leaf look-alikes.

Such visual, seasonal particularity may be the legacy of our hunter-gatherer past. But it can also be a good way for us to re-learn how to treasure the places we call home. Being able to recognise things that belong together – a visual sense of what fits – is one way of safeguarding the integrity of place.

But if our soul can be deepened by the particular sights of our home place, it can also be stretched by particular sounds. I didn’t realise how large a part aural memory played in my sense of place until jolted by unfamiliar sounds in strange places.

I am on the north coast of NSW a few springs ago. I am sleeping in a strange room. The hour is early. Not being a morning person, it is not my custom to bound from bed for a dawn abseil or a bracing surf. So to me it is half past bloody five when the cacophony of birds starts.

A rainbird winds its meteorological interrogative ever higher; turtledoves answer several dozen more times than seems absolutely necessary. “Is that so?”, overlapping one another (“Is that so?”) in their enthusiasm (“Is that so?”) to make their point (“Is that so?”) A baby magpie asks a different question over and over . . . and over, with the same nagging upward inflection. I wonder how such a raucous aural ugly duckling could ever become that sweetest of carollers.

And a bird that I don’t recognise has me thinking of my own hungry little boy. Actually he’s not little any more. He’s 21 and taller than me, and often wiser. But still sometimes we call Stuart “Choo”. And I hear this bird – above “Is that so?” – gently calling “Choo” singly, repeatedly, transporting my soul back over Bass Strait to home.

* * *

In my dreams I might have hitched a ride home with the muttonbirds which fly past this coast every spring. For them Bass Strait is merely the home strait in a marathon annual flight from the Arctic. Over the Strait, down the white sanded east coast, and around the imposing doleritic chunk of Tasman Island. Then, as easy as you like, into Storm Bay and up the Derwent estuary. The dominating mass of Mt Wellington, bolt upright above the forested valleys bordering the river, would have told me I was near to home. And here the muttonbirds, little interested in mountains, would have bade me farewell.

Ah the rock of home. Silent but speaking volumes; an igneous ode in dolerite, reminding me that the sense of touch is also vital to the sense of place. Fluted Cape and the Organ Pipes might be named for dolerite features, but this earth material depends less on the music of language than on its rugged good looks.

But what is it really like? What kind of neighbour does it make? To the walker and climber it is friendly and reliable. Feet and hands find it answers their needs with a sureness that can be comforting, at least on casual acquaintance. Our dog might have told a different story after a long day on the Western Tiers. His regular habit of covering the ground three times – out, back to check, out again – combined poorly with the shark-skin roughness of the rock. Towards the end of the day the pads of his paws were abraided so badly that they bled, and he limped wretchedly. Even so he would neither slow his pace nor alter his rule. We finally had to pick him up and carry him the last kilometre back to the car.

So I should have learned. Yet many years later I found myself learning afresh the lessons of dolerite on a high level traverse of Mt Massif and Falling Mountain. The navigational difficulties presented by its enormous boulders forced us to clamber up, over, around and down countless dolerite faces. As I slid face, feet and fingers down my umpteenth rock wall, pressed hard against it by my heavy pack, I gained the kind of intimate acquaintance with this rock that had me feeling like a failed rock-whisperer. If only I could have commanded the rocks to throw themselves into the sea, I might not have ended the walk with raw and bleeding fingertips. Or perhaps I could have worn gloves!

Still such close and painful acquaintance can have its compensations. Who, for instance, could fail to be impressed by the ubiquity of lichen on dolerite? The rock’s often finely pitted surface, its native acidity, the clean air of its favoured haunts all help it to contrive myriad niches for lichen.

And who could remain unmoved by the lichen’s amazing variety of colours and textures? What from a few metres away appears a flat grey turns, on closer inspection, into a symphony of subtle tones. There are unnamed shades of grey, green, black, red, orange, yellow, brown and white.

And that is just the clothes the dolerite wears. Let your walking boot dislodge a small boulder and you may literally scratch the surface of this impressive rock. Beneath its surface – providing you and your companions survive to inspect it – you will see a hidden masterpiece in grey and blue, with accents supplied by the sparkling faces of crystals coming to the light for the first time in perhaps 150 million years. If you also detect the flinty whiff of freshly concussed rock, you may be thankful that bleeding fingertips is the worst you have.

So wherever I may journey, I will always return to these places. I will grip again this rock of home; see again the spring blush on the stringybarks; hear again the whipping flute-call of Jo Wittee. Because these are the things that grip me, that enfold me, that join with the people I love and who love me, in making a home place for my life on earth. And in expressing wonder in the face of these things, perhaps I am agreeing with Wendell Berry that this life is absolutely worth having, and these places are absolutely worth saving.
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