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Posts tagged ‘Nature Writing’

The End of Nature and Post-Naturalism: Fiction and the Anthropocene

One of the most interesting things about watching a novel go into the world is discovering what other people think it’s about. Sometimes that can be illuminating, sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s always fascinating, not least because the book people seem to read is never quite the book you thought you were writing.

In Clade’s case this process was complicated by the fact a lot of people didn’t seem to know quite how to categorise it. For my part I tended to say it was science fiction, simply because that’s easy and relatively uncontroversial. A number of reviewers, especially in literary outlets, called it dystopian, which it isn’t, or not quite, while a couple of reviewers with an interest in science fiction described it a slow apocalypse or breakdown novel, which I suspect it is, at least in one sense. Others have called it cli fi, or climate fiction, a term that has some utility as a marketing category but seems to occlude more than it reveals when deployed as a critical tool; elsewhere some people have called it Anthropocene fiction.

Interestingly though, several reviewers registered the inadequacies of the terminology, and went on to ask about how exactly we should be describing the growing number of books engaged directly or indirectly with climate change and environmental transformation.

The most substantial of these discussions was in Niall Harrison’s characteristically thoughtful and perceptive review at Strange Horizons, a review that ended with what he described as “a coda about categories”. Noting first that Clade was only one of a number of recent novels “that to varying degrees explore the personal and social effects of environmental crisis”, he went on to note that while many such novels are “kinds of science fiction … there is a sound political logic for discussing them as a group unto themselves”.

Like others, Harrison thinks it’s possible to distinguish such novels from other kinds of science fiction because “climate change is already happening, which means it is in a different class of speculation and social relevance to, say, a pandemic: writing about it is a question of degree and perspective, not whether or not it will happen at all, and the degrees and perspectives that writers choose can be usefully compared” (a point Dan Bloom has also made). But he also – rightly – points out that acknowledging this distinction then demands we recognise the existence of novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which are engaged with these questions but are not science fiction in any meaningful sense.

Like me Harrison is unconvinced of the utility of the notion of “cli fi” in this context (as I have also done he notes its troubling tendency to elide the long history of environmental science fiction), and similarly sceptical of trying to group such books together as dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories, even though many books in this area deploy tropes and strategies associated with these traditions, before acknowledging that while he doesn’t have a solution to the question he believes it deserves further attention, if only because “this is a vital literary area, and … we need to get better at describing and discussing it”.

For what it’s worth I agree with Harrison that this is an area in which our conventional terminology fails us, and that none of the options on offer seem to be able to make sense of the work that is being produced, its relationship to traditional genre categories like science fiction (and indeed non-fictional and essayistic forms such as nature writing), or the various strategies it deploys to open up the realist novel in ways that let it embrace and engage with environmental questions.

That’s partly because of the sheer diversity of such books, and their tendency to elide traditional genre boundaries: certainly there’s almost no meaningful family resemblance between a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, the affinities between the two means they can (and should) be usefully discussed together.

At one level this diversity reflects the many and complex ways in which writers and artists are engaging with these questions, and more deeply their ongoing attempts to map out an imaginative language with which to make sense of what’s happening to our world (and indeed ourselves) in the 21st century, a point I’ve made elsewhere in the context of what might be best described as the new nature writing. Certainly it’s not accidental so many writers fall back on stories about lost parents and missing children when they seek to articulate their feelings about climate change, devices that capture something of the rupture and grief which suffuses the contemporary condition (something that has prompted the writer M. John Harrison to talk about “loss lit”, and which is also present in articles like this, or this). Nor is it a coincidence that so many of these books employ fractured structures, and borrow devices from science fiction and elsewhere to talk about time and deep time (I suspect all the lost parents and children are another way of getting at these questions as well), or that questions of landscape, and our solastalgic sense of loss about its erasure intrude over and over again (in an excellent piece earlier this year Robert MacFarlane made a similar point about the rise of the eerie in contemporary British culture).

More importantly though, this diversity suggests why thinking of these books in terms of genres or categories is to miss the wood for the trees. Because these books aren’t a genre, they’re expressions of the deeper and more pervasive transformation of the world and ourselves we have taken to calling the Anthropocene in exactly the same way novels like Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses reflected and embodied the transformative effects of modernity upon our culture and our selves. As Mckenzie Wark quipped on Facebook earlier this year, all fiction is anthropocene fiction, some of it just doesn’t realise it yet.

To my mind the benefits of thinking about the question in this way are considerable. Not only does it allow us to step away from fruitless arguments about generic definition, but it allows us to see climate change as simply one (if still a very considerable) part of a larger process of transformation, one that embraces, amongst other things, genetic engineering, virtuality, over-population, species loss, habitat destruction and the broader disruption of natural and social systems by environmental change and capitalism.

And, perhaps more deeply, it recognises that we inhabit a world in which we ourselves are being altered, not just by technology and social transformation, but by the shifting terms of our engagement with what we would once have called the natural world. If one wanted to define when this change became apparent perhaps you might point to the floods and fires that tore through Australia over the summer of 2010/11, or the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or the droughts in the Middle East in 2008, or any one of the flooding events or hurricanes or droughts or heatwaves that have struck countries around the world in recent years, but perhaps the really significant moment was earlier this year, when average CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere passed 400ppm for the first time since the Pliocene. As Virginia Woolf might have put it, on or about March 2015, human character changed.

What we call the literary expressions of this condition is an open question. The obvious choice is Anthropocene fiction, although I’m resistant to that term, both because like cli fi it suggests a set of generic boundaries, instead of emphasising the degree to which this transformation leaches into everything, and because it emphasises human agency when, to my mind at least, what many of the books and stories we wish to discuss are attempting to find ways to talk about the non-human in fictional terms (I also think it’s worth making the point that while the idea of the Anthropocene is usually assumed to embrace the effect upon the natural world by human activity, but it also – and importantly – embraces a different and more interstitial kind of ecological awareness, one that recognises the presence of wildness and the natural world within the fabric of the human world).

Yet still, given that this idea of the transformation of the natural world, and of the end of a particular idea of nature is central, I wonder whether it mightn’t be simplest to begin to speak of the post-natural, or post-naturalism, and to begin to think of it not as a fad or a fashion or a genre, but as a tangible condition, something shaped and defined by the transformation of the natural world by human agency that is going on around us, and which helps determine the nature of the way we see the world, the questions we ask, and perhaps most importantly, the stories we tell.



The Book of the Ocean

As I mentioned a while back, one of the projects I’ve been working on for a while now is an anthology of writing about the ocean for Penguin. It’s been a fascinating process, both because it’s given me a chance to revisit a number of books that have meant a great deal to me over the years and because it’s forced me to acquaint myself with many more I didn’t know, or only knew by reputation.

As the imbroglio over the Macquarie/PEN Anthology demonstrates, assembling anthologies is a perilous business. The bigger the subject, the more people have invested in it, the more likely you are to come in for a bucketing for mistaken emphases and omissions. And since the literature of the ocean is one of those subjects which is both vast and weighed down by its history it’s one that offers plenty of pitfalls.

As a result I decided early on that I had no desire to be either definitive or exhaustive. Instead my intention has been to assemble a relatively personal collection, which draws together a selection of writing I love. As someone whose life has been spent on the shores of the Southern and Pacific Oceans I also decided I wanted to put together a collection that spoke to and about that experience, rather than concentrating on the exploration of the northern seas that has traditionally preoccupied collections of this sort. In practice that’s meant letting go of a number of things I wanted to use, but it’s also helped give the collection a shape and cohesiveness it might not otherwise have had.

All of which brings me to the point of this post. The book’s now largely done, but I’ve still got space for a few more pieces, so I thought I might call upon all of you out there for suggestions. Is there anything you can think of that absolutely, definitely should be in a book of this sort? Or do you have ideas for things I might have overlooked? Because if you do I’d love to hear them.

A few caveats. I’m not looking for unpublished work or submissions. And while it doesn’t have to be Australian I’m very keen for a couple more pieces by Australians. Likewise, given the fact most of the pieces I’ve got so far are by men, I’m very interested in suggestions about work by women which might be suitable. And in the interests of preserving my sanity I’ve also limited the collection to writing in English, so no Jules Verne or Bachelard.

And please don’t assume I’m only after prose. Although the collection is predominantly prose it contains poetry, so suggestions for poems (especially Australian poems!) about the ocean are very welcome. Likewise I’m relaxed about whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, though since this is a book aimed at the general reader I’m not after academic writing, or monographs (which has, much to my regret, precluded a couple of idols of mine like Greg Dening I was hoping to include). What matters is that it feels urgent, and necessary, and – though obviously this isn’t something any of you are able to gauge – that it fit with what’s already in place.

I’ll look forward to your ideas.

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Arctic Dreams

800px-Polar_bears_near_north_poleA while back I did one of those pieces for a newspaper about the books that changed me. Articles of that sort are always slightly weird exercises, as much about selling a version of yourself via your choices as really addressing the question, and I have to confess I don’t remember exactly what books I chose on the day in question (though it’s a fair bet Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion would have been on my list, since the experience of reading it was the thing that set me on the path to becoming a novelist). But I do know that if there’s one book that genuinely has a claim on having changed me, it’s Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, a book which completely altered the way I thought about a whole series of questions about the environment and the way we understand it and our place in it.

Anyway – I wrote the following piece in 2001 for The Australian’s Review of Books, the forerunner to today’s Australian Literary Review, and I recently stumbled on a copy of it on my hard drive while I was working on a review I’ve got in the next issue of Australian Book Review. But what’s frightening about it is that the concerns it expresses were urgent then, eight years ago, yet we don’t seem to have moved any further towards addressing them.

Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams begins and ends with the same curious act of respect. A kind of bow, performed before the world he has encountered in the travels through the Arctic. “I took to bowing on these evening walks,” he writes. “I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, towards the birds and the evidence of life in their nests – because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down over the land like breath, like breathing.”

Much later this gesture is repeated, this time on the tip of St Lawrence Island, but in its later incarnation the gesture has moved closer to a kind of stillness, a loss of the self into the land and its rhythms:

“Glaucous gulls fly over. In the shore lead are phalaropes, with their twiglike legs. In the distance I see flocks of oldsquaw against the sky, and a few cormorants. A patch of shadow that could be several thousand crested auklets – too far away to know. Out there are whales – I have seen six or eight grey whales as I have walked this evening. And the ice, pale as the dove-coloured sky.”

The lyric beauty of Lopez’s writing helps transform this simple gesture into a literary artefact of great power and resonance. In his words we glimpse a world that trembles with life, and apprehend, within its detail an otherness we might not otherwise see, a kind of presence which the land embodies, ancient, complete unto itself.

Lopez is first and foremost a visual writer, possessed of a poet’s eye, and his account of the Arctic is anchored in his observation of its terrain, its light, and the animals that inhabit it. Yet it is observation rendered so as to make each moment transcend its detail. Whether it is golden plovers abandoning “their nests in hysterical ploys, artfully feigning a broken wing to distract . . . from the woven grass cups that couched their pale, darkly speckled eggs,” eggs which “glowed with a soft, pure light, like the window light in a Vermeer”, or “herds of belukha whale glid[ing] in silent shoals beneath transparent sheets of young ice”, his writing seeks out the moments when the land reveals itself, where the whole can be glimpsed in the part.

To see in such a way is to contain politics within aesthetics, to transform epiphany into manifesto. It is to suggest a way of seeing that is simultaneously a way of being, as if by seeing clearly we might find connection, and for a moment at least, glimpse the land as something which exists independently of us, possessed of its own meaning. It is, as Lopez puts it, “to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.”

“You know the land knows you are there.” A notion both simple and strange. Yet this sense of knowing and being known, of seeing and being seen is a way of allowing the imagination to begin conceiving of our relationship with nature as a dialogue, and of nature itself, whether embodied in an owl or the movement of light across the tundra, alive in its own right, “an animal that contains all other animals”, and not something given to us to do with as we desire. This is not science, but in its desire to understand nature, complementary to science, a poetics perhaps, able to contain both the scientific and the moral. Witness Lopez’s description of the intricacy of the polar bear’s physiology and behaviour:

“The interplay here among rest, exertion and nutrition that carries them comfortably through life is something that cannot be broken down into pieces. Like the skater’s long, graceful arc, it is a statement about life, the full exercise of which is beautiful.”

This transformation of aesthetics into politics is central to the tradition of nature writing Lopez is a part of. Ever since Thoreau walked his mile and a half to Walden Pond, writing about nature has been a political act, the expression and the embodiment of a homespun radicalism of peculiarly mystical bent. To see differently, to extend the reach of our imagination through contemplation into other ways of being is to be able to transcend our self, and by moving outside ourselves be granted a new perspective upon our place in the scheme of things. It is to sense the smallness of human history against the story of the planet, and to be made aware of our own impermanence.

There might seem something almost trivial in this appeal to imaginative contemplation given the scale of the environmental catastrophe that surrounds us. The biologist Edward O. Wilson argues that the “maximally optimistic conclusion” is that some 27,000 species become extinct each year, or 74 each day, 3 each hour. Similar estimates put the loss of biodiversity in the next century at somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent, that is to say, one quarter to one half of all species gone forever through human agency within the next 100 years. Given that we have catalogued only the tiniest proportion of this diversity, the vast bulk of these species will vanish unrecorded and unlamented, lost forever.

But it is precisely through the exercise of the imagination that we become able to see the world in such a way as to make sense of this loss, and to understand the cost to ourselves of the failure of imagination that has allowed it to happen. By attending to detail, by learning to see things as they are, we learn to dissolve our selves into the landscape, to become inhabitants of a shared world which exists in its own right, apart from our use of it, one to which we owe a silent respect, and an allegiance.

First published in The Australian’s Review of Books, © James Bradley

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Ngã Uruora (or The Groves of Life)

Geoff Park

Geoff Park

I was deeply saddened last week to learn of the death of the New Zealand ecologist and writer, Geoff Park.

I didn’t know Park, who died on 17 March as a result of a brain tumour, but I did know his work, most particularly his marvellous 1995 book, Ngã Uruora (The Groves of Life): Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape, a book I first read after it was pressed on me by Ross Gibson, whose own quietly urgent words about the necessity of coming to understand the landscape we inhabit Park quotes in the book’s introduction.

It’s often difficult to escape the moment, to take the sort of long view which allows one to tell which books and ideas will shape the way we think in years to come, but I think there’s little doubt that Ngã Uruora is one of those books. For while its exploration of the environmental history of New Zealand is ostensibly a small, even parochial subject, it is a book which, in its capaciousness and breadth of vision opens up a new way of understanding the environment, and the deeply complex nature of our relationship to it.

Sadly there doesn’t seem to be any sort of formal obituary to Geoff Park online, but I thought it might be fitting to reproduce a few words which seem to me to capture exactly the quality of attention and generosity which make Ngã Uruora such an important book:

“When you become involved with the landscape . . . it becomes much more than a view. Even to draw a carp, Chinese masters warn, it is not enough to know what the animal looks like, and to understand its anatomy and physiology. It is also necessary to consider the reed which the carp brushes up against each morning, the oblong stone behind which it conceals itself, and the rippling of the water when it comes to the surface. These elements should in no way be constituted as the carp’s environment. They belong to the carp itself. In other words the brush should sketch a life, since a life – like the landscape – is constituted by the traces left behind and imprints silently borne.”

Vale, Geoff Park, go well: you’ll be missed.

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