Written by John
This was written in response to an editor asking why I don’t call my work ‘nature writing’. For an earlier instance of the same topic in a different context, and as poem (written in 2005), see here.
Why does ‘the land’ have to give something back to the writer? Why do we need to imagine, manufacture or ‘experience’ some kind of bridge between self and ‘wild’ to give purpose to writing the land?
I have recently been reading (in a variety of places) essays that in one way or another map the self onto ‘nature,’ or even more disturbingly, so centralise the self that nature is mapped onto (self) identity.
This disease of Western subjectivity, this defence of the natural world because it has so much to give us, grant us, return to us, reward us, or affirm us, is the final sliver of aesthetics that would guarantee the hobbling and dilution of any poetic resistance to the killing of the land itself.
As writers (rightfully) struggle with how they might place themselves in ‘place’, within ‘nature’, they so often settle for a self-portrait backgrounded by pseudo-scientific fact and tidbits of ontology. Illustrating with ‘scenes’ and asides from personal experience (‘I encountered a creature, a plant, a rocky outcrop, and had an epiphany’), they dress nature up to give a sense of the authentic. This creates an authority by convincing us that these feelings are feelings we too could have, or should have. We are ‘there’, we are them. This is vicarious, real, and often steeped in pseudo-mysticism. It’s the act of writing and the attention to self it brings, rather than the place itself, we are interacting with.
That’s fine, but so often it pretends to be more than this. Or maybe it’s wish-fulfilment – an earnest belief that a conduit of sensing has been created, that moral turpitude will be dispersed by engaging with what, on occasion, almost elevates itself to holy text. We are granted a royal ‘we’ when the writer is more often talking of ‘I’, and that ‘we’ is always exclusionary. We – the readers (inevitably being non-indigenous – why? why shouldn’t we be the imagined ‘other’? – and lacking a traditional totemic relationship with that place) – will learn by vicarious participation with the writer of the piece, how to respect the land and share in its mystical-giving qualities.
If only we’d learn how to sense properly, be sensitive to animals and plants and the spiritual vibes deposited by those who have known the land ancestrally for thousands of years.
This is at best appropriation, and can verge on racism. Yes, of course one should respect and learn from indigenous peoples if one is of a ‘migrant’ cultural heritage (or even if forced to locate to a particular place due to transportation, wars, famine, political or personal exile, family relocation — I am referring to modes of non-indigenous arrival in all their complexities). But it is hypocrisy to use indigenous knowledge, to co-opt it, as a way of affirming one’s own connection to the place that one has directly or indirectly helped oust them from anyway. This is not to say that one can’t or shouldn’t refer to indigenous knowledges, that they won’t necessarily become a positive part of a non-indigenous discourse, but rather that so often it’s a veneer of connection and respect hijacked to validate one’s own presence and disturbance of land.
I am reminded of nature-lovers who build a house on the edge of a rare wetland, or ‘virgin’ forest, or among fragile dune ecologies, and state they are guardians of that endangered nature. I could accept this if the house was already there and someone moved in to convert that ‘edge’ into more of the primary ecology of the place, but so often it’s not the case. The nature they hug against is annexed into their spiritual and material needs, their affirmation of a unity with the endangered. In doing so they value-add their own corporeality.
I see this as what we might call ‘belonging angst’, the desire to suggest to outsiders and themselves that they are compensating for their presence. A bit like those soon-forgotten carbon offset programmes. Tree-planting isn’t something that occupies many plane-travellers’ minds. It’s all about rights of access when access would reasonably be denied (because of fragility of an eco-system, for example). It’s all about land, and who controls it. In the western genre film The Violent Men, the doc says to the Glenn Ford character at the beginning, that the Anchor ranch owners are ‘land eaters’. Indeed. As are the small farmers the cattle baron is trying to drive away. It’s not just the big that do the damage. Exploitation has many degrees.
I should state clearly now that this is not contesting the ‘I’, that old lyrically challenged chestnut, as the ‘I’ is always hidden away there by varying degrees of separation. Nor is it a contestation with writing the self when experiencing the world around us; rather it is the use of the super-validated self as authority, as reliable configurer of empathetic experience.
However, I should state that I believe the ‘I’ should always be under pressure: under pressure in what constitutes the self, and under pressure in how it operates as messenger and witness. I certainly don’t trust reading my own ‘I’ in an essay or a poem, thought I trust myself and believe I have tried to speak with all honesty. As soon as ‘I’ become ‘I’, I doubt and assume doubt is part of the reading or listening process. Poetry, and writing in general, should be about witness and resistance. It should critique the position one’s own subjectivity comes out of, and why one’s own voice is problematic. The yearning ‘I’ isn’t enough. Delicacy and tact aren’t enough.
Returning to the issue of validating presence-in-place in nature writing (by non-indigenous writers): surely to co-opt indigenous beliefs and knowledge purely to enhance one’s own connection to the factor beyond this disenfranchisement is delusion or corruption? And associating indigenous cultures purely with nature because they might not traditionally have built permanent towns or cities (though what constitutes permanence is challengeable), is another version of ‘noble savagery’.
So often the artiste guided through country by an indigenous elder is entirely insensitive to what’s being made ‘available’ and what’s not. They write it up later believing that their interpretation of what’s been said is the right one. It’s their own subjectivity they express, not actually understanding the purpose behind the process in the first place. It becomes ‘excursion’. It ends in glib comments like, ‘We can learn from...’ when all that’s being learned is how to augment one’s personal mysticism, one’s colonising expression of unity with stolen land. It’s not a case of the original owners and the new owners — there is no ownership, only theft. Like the Australian Jindyworobaks openly defending their ‘annexing’ of indigenous culture, in their attempt to get closer to their land, this neo-Jindyworobakism in Australia should face up to itself and accept that it is doing the same thing.
All the issues and factors above, I see as components of ‘nature writing’ propaganda – the affirmation of the self within a given ecology (while clandestinely separating the self from that ecology through affirming and qualifying personal subjectivity), claiming that if the community at large could only listen with equal sensitivity, nature would benefit. At the centre of this is the ‘exchange’ – human and nature (everything else not human-made) in dialogue with each other, even in spiritual communication. A give and take that’s really just a take-away fast-food version of nature.
The destruction of habitat will only stop when people give up on the idea of getting something back. I was appalled by a recent essay whose author spoke of walking through a dieback area and along closed trails, and lamenting the state of things. Stay out. Don’t go there! Stop looking and lamenting and enjoying. Recognise your own scopophilia, your own fetishisation of the damage. It becomes like an act of confession followed by an act of contrition (and I’m not Catholic or any other religion: it’s just the closest analogy I can make).
I love jarrah forests but won’t walk through them anymore, because of the risk of spreading dieback. To respect nature, you don’t have to experience it. Sometimes you need to leave it alone: not just one socio-ethno-cultural group, but all. Death is death. Stay out! Leave alone. It’s not the same world; different approaches need to be applied. Respect is not getting pleasure back. It’s always bemused me that people follow a God because they expect something back in return. I’ll worship you if you grant me a place in heaven. Garbage. Surely faith is expecting no reward. Doing something because you know it’s right.
Damaged land is abundant – go out and repair it. Bushland that’s ‘intact’ – preserve it, but not so you can feel good. Animals? Let them come and go as they please, not as you please. Spare them and me the mystical indulgence that makes a faux pantheism where the centre is the self, not ‘nature’.
When writing the land I find a huge tension between the desire to express what I think I understand of the place – in essence, to describe – and the knowledge that my presence anywhere is so often destructive. This destruction is built into so many human interactions with place – on a micro level there’s no perfect balance, anywhere, anytime. On a macro level, certainly some cultures have ‘managed’ place better. Nyungar people here in south-western Australia did less damage and conserved with more efficiency than the colonists that followed. But even so, on a micro level, some individuals inevitably did and do their damage as well. Denying that is buying into the ‘nature writing’ binary.
Poems for me are disturbed and even damaging. They are about resistance, and induce troubling self-criticism. When they fail in this and become a gloss of ‘experiencing nature’, they are joining the big lie, the big watching-it-diminish while comforting ourselves that we are aware and conserving. The poem – or any piece of writing – should surely be an expression of crisis: a crisis of description, of where the self sits in the propagandising of place, of how one deals with what might seem the deepest affirming of connection with place (I love Jam Tree Gully, I love the forests, I love the desert and so on) – but in the knowledge that even the act of observation, and certainly the acts of occupation and habitation, are yet more nails in the coffin.
The writing itself, and the act of writing, should be under constant scrutiny. Even communal and collaborative ‘nature writing’ becomes a smokescreen for those individual expectations and subjectivities, for a mutual sense of usage that will give pleasure and affirm that one is meeting one’s ‘responsibilities’, that one can ease the guilt back a little by ‘respecting’.
Inevitably, rather than ranting or screaming resistance, that nature writer asks us questions: about our complicity, about searching our souls, about asking ourselves whether we’re doing enough. Maybe? Maybe not? If you’d only commune with nature, you’d see the beauty, the ‘joy of creation’. Or, the necessity of ‘conservation’ because the science of loss adds up to our loss in the end. Either way, the nature writer offers a mediation, a negotiation with subjectivity and fact, or subjectivity and a mystical affirmation. It angers me. Stop the damage. Stop abusing animals. Stop placing SELF at the centre of nature by pretending to look on from the sidelines. Stop using the hawk hanging in the air, or the kangaroo watching in the distance, as a mirror or a bloody crystal ball.
It’s none of these things. The writer communing with nature can so often mean the death of nature. The writer’s joy becomes its misery. I am not interested in reading of the beauty of encounter, the journey of the human soul. The act of writing long ago left ‘nature’. The ‘For Sale’ sign went up and we all, to some degree, bought into it as readers. Then we sold again. We can watch the sale of nature on flat-screen televisions. We can fly to conferences to object to the destruction of habitat, to the contribution of others to global warming! None of this sustains, even within the parlance of nature-writing propaganda and hypocrisy. It doesn’t have to be like this. Write in resistance to this usage of nature that feeds the self, that feeds community desire for an interactive self.
For me, writing of ‘nature’, especially in poetry, should be about the carnage to which its production necessarily contributes. Such awareness surely helps us use the poem as a means of resistance, a non-violent confrontation with the limitations of self in dealing with the crisis so many of us have constituted? Non-violent but refusing to participate quietly! Pivotal though, whatever one writes, is to reduce the hypocrisies of one’s own occupation of land where the writing is done. ‘Nature writing’ so often seems a projection of how we might really live, but this is deceptive: it is a construction, an aesthetic representation designed to please an audience (even one from whom the author is hoping for a change of opinion, empathy for preserving a threatened environment — all ecologies are threatened, not just those of ‘beauty’), and the writing self. It soothes, or only shocks a little — too little.