Writing Ourselves Out of Nature

Some of my all-time favourite books were written by twenty-somethings. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) by Jeanette Winterson (b. 1959) and The Beach (1996) by Alex Garland (b. 1970) are just two of them. Other notable works by twenty-somethings include Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). But as a lover of great writing by anyone, I don’t see why youth deserves more hype (or funding). Sometimes writers look back on shallow early work in embarrassment, citing youth as an excuse, and fair enough.

The NSW Writers’ Centre’s June/July issue of Newswrite is dedicated mostly to gen Yers. And, according to the editorial, ‘There is little doubt that the writers represented here are going have [sic] a part to play in shaping the future of Australian literature…’ Of the ‘three names that are only going to become more familiar as time passes’, Rebecca Giggs denotes one of the more ambitious thinkers. From the youthful guest editor: ‘Rebecca contributes an extraordinary and timely essay about nature writing post climate change, and she suggests that writers can no longer afford to shy away from a wider cultural discussion.’ Uh-huh.

My online search for ‘High Watermark’ [sic] drew a blank, so I’ll have to settle for quoting Giggs out of context. Her essay opens with the topic of tropical cyclone Yasi, from which she segues into discussing ‘[erosion of] the boundary between the real weather and its counterfeit’. So far, so good; while sceptical politicians waste time bickering, Giggs doesn’t beat around the bush: ‘In an environment that accords with cyclical patterns that are at least partially of our design, where even the elemental composites are unpredictable, what is the role of the nature writer?’

No need to rack my brains for examples for more than a couple of paragraphs: Giggs cites, among others, Thoreau, Annie Dillard and Darwin. I think first of Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson. Giggs explains: ‘A literary life, as I understood it then, drew inspiration from solitude, self-reliance and a decisive immersion in nature. … In an age of systemic climate change, I no longer believe in this model of artistic fulfilment.’ Though I’d regard her ‘model’ as a necessity for some temperaments and a valid option for others of us at certain stages, Giggs hasn’t lost me yet. I can relate to disenchantment; ‘systemic climate change’ concerned some of us before Giggs outgrew nappies. What’s new since she came of age is the mainstream cultural conversation, which has raised mass awareness (if not fostered individual contemplation).

Giggs, though, isn’t advising localism (‘change in your backyard’, mere practicality) but something altogether more abstract: ‘a kind of thinking that engages in connectivity – an acknowledgement of the weirdness of the local environment now, and our role in that weirdness.’ In recent years, overt mutations in my local environment include the wild proliferation of noise- and light-emitting devices, pets and their effects (e.g. stray balls and baggies of doggy do), and other stuff that removes and/or distracts humans from what they’re walking or jogging through. Aside from growing ranks of rats, feral cats, and personal training troops, little else appears much changed: the music of birds, frogs, crickets, wind and waves; the rhythms of the Earth’s spin and tilt below the confused seasons on its face. We still travel with predictable regularity around the Sun – what’s sped up is our rate of breeding, manufacture, consumption and waste production.

‘“Withdrawing to nature” is made defunct by climate change,’ continues Giggs, ‘which besets even the wildest places with the trace of the human. Such retreats are fundamentally unhelpful in an age in which acknowledging the uneasy “nextness” of nature (indeed the ecological inwardness of the inorganic too) is of critical importance.’ At the risk of sounding ridiculous to a culture addicted to Facebook and Twitter, I’d argue that withdrawing from nature is even less helpful. But Giggs lets this culture off the hook by assuring us that nature isn’t exactly, well, nature anymore: semantic sleight of hand that seems indicative of a retreat not to wilderness (that would be naïve) but to orderly academia. Of critical importance to whom? To one’s peer reviewers? If I rate a personal code of ethics over faux-leftist literary trends, to what should I turn my (apparently passé) aesthetic attention? The evocative cries of yellow-tailed black cockatoos which visit this coast more often and in bigger flocks than they used to? Or the discourse of academics, who leave me uneasy with words like ‘nextness’ (not least because the word, which Giggs’ quotes mark as borrowed, can be variously interpreted: ‘next’ as in, say, ‘nearest’, or as in ‘second’?)? As for ‘the ecological inwardness of the inorganic’, this phrase is as good an example as any of linguistic bat guano.

The idea that ‘withdrawing to nature’ means finding a place that’s ‘untouched and exacting’ strikes me as no more puritanical than Giggs’ current thinking, i.e., ‘Creativity, like science, needs to be something everyone “does,” on one level or another.’ The latter, vague as it is, sounds to me like a dictate to which rising levels of mental illness and addictions, not to mention stupidity, present formidable resistance. Take my neighbours, who still can’t discern (or don’t care) which bits of their waste are recyclable – unless, by ‘everyone’, Giggs means all of us with a stake in nature writing.

So, setting aside Giggs’ ‘untouched’ definition, how can ‘withdrawing to nature’ be made defunct by climate change, if such withdrawal is, like creativity, relative? Withdrawal to some place needn’t depend on physical relocation, as can be seen from, e.g., meditation, drug-induced altered states, autism, dreams and schizophrenia. If nature-intensive retreats are ‘fundamentally unhelpful’ (a view which could be construed as judgemental), to whom is Giggs’ essay helpful? Does it inspire readers to tune in, to listen, to the beleaguered environment? How does it help those of us who are grieving ongoing extinction of myriad species, itself a mirror for dwindling cultural diversification that masquerades as increasing choice (superficial though that is, mainlined via devices which are for many now second nature, courtesy of global corporations)?

Giggs concludes: ‘In the age of systemic climate change, it is a misconception to believe that one can act on the world without being acted on: nature writing needs to evolve to look at how new communities form in anticipation of the deepening unknowability of the world, and of ourselves.’ This is an example of the kind of academic writing that reminds me more than anything of new-age discourse in its looseness. New Agers, too, can tend toward prescription, abstraction, exclusion and ultimate obscurity. At least traditional nature writing relies on specifics of observation – that alone ought to ensure its relevance to future generations.

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