Australian Ecopoetics Past, Present, Future: What Do the Plants Say?

By | 1 December 2014

‘And I came to a bloke all alone like a kurrajong tree.
And I said to him: “Mate – I don’t need to know your name –
Let me camp in your shade, let me sleep, till the sun goes down.”’
– Randolph Stow, ‘The Land’s Meaning’ (1969)1

Like the country’s arid interior, contemporary Australian ecopoetics is vast and robust. The expressions of Australian ecopoetry are as varied as the antipodean landscape itself, underscoring the intricate connections between language and ecology in this part of the world. The Mediterranean climate of Western Australia’s southwest corner, the Red Centre of Uluru, the tropical rainforests of Queensland, the temperate Tasmanian old-growth forests and the alpine reaches of the Victorian High Country signify this: rather than a contiguous desert or a terra nullius (as some readers both inside and outside of Australia may still believe), the Australian environment is a mosaic of biota, climates, topographies and regions.

And, moreover, each region brandishes a distinctive ecopoetic history in which writers have grappled with radically unfamiliar (to their eyes) plants, animals, fungi and landforms through poetic exertion. Comparably wide-ranging, Australian modes are miniaturist, formalist, experimentalist, dystopianist and activist as well as Modernist, Taoist, Romanticist and Transcendentalist. Contemporary styles range from intimate meditations on nature as a dynamic phenomenon to the broadly-sweeping gestalts of the landscape poetry tradition. If I had to say it in one word, plurality defines Australian environmental poetry today. There are poets with ecopolitical motivations, some with spiritual sensibilities for nature and others for whom local landscapes germinate, as a matter of course, in their work as writers (and not necessarily as ‘nature writers’ or ‘ecopoets’) – as witnesses to what the country is and what it can flower into.

In what follows, I will be guided by my own green biases and botanical proclivities. To foot-slog a swathe through the intricate ground of Australian ecopoetics, I will don chlorophyll-streaked glasses – will listen closely to what the plants say2.

It’s springtime in Western Australia, and I’m trying to hear the plants. If ever they should talk, I trust it will be this afternoon. Eager to bend my ear, I’ve followed a procession of cars to what seems like a clandestine spot in the bushland fringes of the Perth suburb, Joondalup. I’m looking for a new way of looking at (and listening to) Australian flora – different to the Latin-name-and-chemical-makeup-please approach. The sun breaches the gumleaf carousel overhead. Years ago, in America, I went to a lecture on communicating with plants. We each listened closely to a corn kernel, but I could only hear the pulse in my neck and my own unchoreographed borborygmi. Years later, I would find this same dark yellow and nearly fossilised kernel in the strangest spots: the ashtray of my car, the bottom of a suitcase, the dark hollow of a shoe in the morning. Now I wander in what I expect will be an effusive bush, listening for a vegetal sign that summons. I’m willing to wait (at least until the end of the New Age workshop) – but I feel untutored. What will the call sound like? How will I know? How much will my imagination and interpretation need to play a role?

Seeking a familiar face (as if desperately awkward at a party), I squat lotus-style near a Mangles (or Red and Green) Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos manglesii) – an easy conversant I hope, the floral emblem of Western Australia since 1960. Endemic to the southwest of the state, this flower is one of the first to erupt out of the sodden spring earth – a harbinger of spring, and simply a very attractive bloom, its architecture perfectly adapted to pollination by probing bird beaks. As I go poodling around, skirting other spinally-erect meditators, its chlorophyll-glistens, its young-as-lettuce leaflets are coming up – blood-red splotches suffusing a photosynthetic vibrancy. This gregarious sprite of the bush duff.

The poet and conchologist William Hart-Smith (1911–1990), who lived in Western Australia in the late 1960s, memorialised the iconic red and green flower in this short, imaginative verse:

A Kangaroo Paw
by the roadside

with scarlet trousers

is thumbing a lift
with a vivid green thumb.3

Hart-Smith captures the perceptual signature of the plant: the scarlet-to-green juxtaposition. His playful personification of the kangaroo paw ‘thumbing a lift’ is as compact as a haiku or a roadside plaque. The jocular femme flower spoke to him – although gesturally, not verbally. Interspecies communication, indeed, seems to have happened between Hart-Smith (or at least between his car) and the blossom. Presumably these ‘conversations’ still take place (especially for some New Age excursionists). Dangerous anthropomorphism? Pathetic pathetic fallacy? Can ecocritical over-thinking taint the pure delight of the poetic well? Is hearing plants speak to us a matter of our own belief or disbelief? And how might poetry become a medium for hearing – an interface between the ‘speaking’ us and the ‘unspoken’ Other?

Attention to the things of nature blends our utterances, images and metaphors with the language(s) of things themselves. The twenty-first entry in Australian poet Robert Gray’s work ‘Illusions’ puts faith in things (immediacy) over representations (meditation). He asserts the fallacy of believing ‘that it is not actual things we perceive, in their minute differences, uniqueness, and subtlety, and with such spontaneity and surprise, but representations of them only. (That this distinction can mean something)’.4 I too trust in the blurring of the distinction. Hart-Smith did. He seemed ticklishly surprised by the kangaroo paw. Yet others throughout Australian history have been less surprised – that is, more befuddled by the differences and more invested in the distinction.

For early colonial observers, antipodean species inverted the conventions of nature recorded elsewhere on the globe. Trees that shed bark in summer. Large marsupials that hop. Monotremes, like the platypus, that lay eggs. Seasons the diametric opposite of those in the northern hemisphere. In 1793, the British botanist James Edward Smith opined that naturalists ‘can scarcely meet with any certain fixed points from whence to draw [ … ] analogies’. He proclaimed the plant life of the New World ‘total strangers, with other configurations, other economy, and other qualities’.5 With similar sentiment, in 1825 the judge and poet Barron Field lamented the absence of the four seasons in Australia as well as the tried-and-true natural pillars of poetic inspiration, decreeing peevishly, ‘I can therefore hold no fellowship with Australian foliage, but will cleave to the British oak through all the bareness of winter.’6

Poets and other observers would continue to wrestle with the strangeness of the colonial landscape, attempting to breed familiarity through linguistic flourishes. Examples of catachresis are common: Swan River mahogany (not even close to a mahogany, but a eucalypt species endemic to WA), sheoak (no cousin to Field’s British oak, but rather a casuarina), hoop pine (not a pine relative at all) and grasstree (lumped initially into the lily family, but, as it turns out, neither a grass nor a lily, and rarely growing as large as a tree). Concomitant to these intrusions of language were introductions of biota: rabbits, foxes, camels, bees, cane toads, creeping lantana, cape daisies – and the list grows.

What does this all have to do with contemporary Australian ecopoetics? I suggest that the postcolonial context today brings about two impetuses in poetry. The first is the engendering of language that resists the residues of colonial-era predeterminations and attends now to the things of the Australian environment as they are, rather than how we think they should be (or indeed have been). This forges a new groundwork of ecopoetics – ‘points from whence to draw analogies’ – material anchors for language, through the fusion of commitment to ecoregionalism, study of Indigenous environmental knowledges, competence with natural science, interest in the human senses and appreciation of the dynamism of flora and fauna – beings and places – ‘down-under’. The second is the engendering of an ecological ethics through poetry that brings attention to the compromised situation of non-human species and the habitats we share with them in an era of exponentially hastening environmental change.7

Known for her involvement in the campaign to protect the Great Barrier Reef and Fraser Island in Queensland, Judith Wright listened reverentially to plants. Her orchid writings make use of their scientific names – often historically-telling, poetic in their own right and mellifluous to the lips. Consider ‘Sun-Orchid’:

Sun-orchid, Thelymitra,
what a blue of blues you’ve chosen
to remind this sullen season
that still the sky is there.8

The taxonomic name Thelymitra for the sun-orchid genus was devised by naturalists on James Cook’s second Pacific voyage to Australia (1772–1775). The term stems from thely for ‘woman’ and mitra for ‘mitre hat’, in reference to the intricate configuration of its reproductive structures. The poem is a direct address to an orchid – the use of the second person singular – with an emphasis, in the ensuing stanza, on the orchid’s multi-sensorial milieu, and specifically the intimate linkage between human memory and olfaction ‘when a eucalyptine vapour/ dreams up in windless air’. Religious inflection comes through in the metaphors ‘wrapped up in your Mary-blue’, ‘blessed from your creation’ and ‘a gold like revelation’. Another notable example of Wright’s botanical poetry is ‘Phaius Orchid’:

Out of the brackish sand
see the phaius orchid build
her intricate moonlight tower
that rusts away in flower.9

Wright’s rendering recognises agency in things, in which the orchid actively ‘builds’ and ‘weaves’. The sightless orchid, or ‘blind being’, is also a metabolic creature, transforming ‘sand’s poverty, water’s sour,/ the white and black of the hour’ into an image of natural beauty witnessed by the curious poet – an image neither aestheticised as an object of art nor rationalised as an object of science. The poet and the plant make contact between categories in a liminal space of unknowing knowingness. Wright attunes to the poietic temporality of the botanical world, in which the retreat of ‘the gift as soon as made’ is part of an ancient cycle weaving time, life and death. In short, she is thinking with plants.

According to the philosopher Michael Marder, plant-thinking comes in these forms: (a) the ‘thinking’ that is specific to plants or ‘thinking without the head’ (what plant scientist Anthony Trewavas cleverly calls ‘mindless mastery’); (b) human thinking about plants, evident, for example, in poetry such as Wright’s; (c) the moderation of human thinking by plant-thinking, through attunement to such phenomena as plant time, also a theme in Wright’s botanical work; and (d) the ongoing and long-term interconnections between plant-based human thinking and plant beingness.10 The implications of plant-thinking for ecopoetics, in my view, are far-reaching.

There appear rarely
the improvised strange contraptions 
of the trees –  
they are like crazy antennae
                Robert Gray (1993), ‘The West’11

A litmus test for the evolution of Australian ecopoetics is the plant (as well as the fungus – and possibly the rock and the soil). The ‘sessile lifestyles’ of flora demand an attitude of being with even the craziest, the most laconic and miniscule botanical non-humans – those regarded by many through the ages as ‘passive objects, the mute, immobile furniture of our world’.12 Extending sensorially to plants through poetry is a gently radical act. It can reconfigure Romanticist notions of ‘landscape aesthetics’ and Enlightenment notions of ‘natural science’ dominating the Western ecopoetic canon at least since Wordsworth. Unless you are walking through the sublime karri forests of the southwest of WA, the ancient beech rainforests of Queensland or underneath the hulking Huon pines of Tasmania, the ‘strange contraptions’ of Australian flora are – for the most part – unassuming at a distance, especially flowers and leaves. Long bouts of heat and drought, solar and wind exposure, nutrient-deprived soils, and grazing by herbivores have caused the majority of plant species to miniaturise. A postcolonial ecopoetics of plants is about paying attention – and learning how to listen, a process whereby the botanical becomes a lens for the literary, rather than vice versa. In a mimetic sense, the shapes of plants – rhizomatic and arboreal, lateral and horizontal, ecological and modular, cyclical and poietic – impart form and flow to poetry, and underpin a kind of ongoing reflexivity between landscape and language in a place. This is especially evident in the Aboriginal Australian traditions of ‘singing’ country – briefly discussed later in this article – which involve human language to encourage fecundity in nature during certain seasonal phases.

  1. Randolph Stow, ‘The Land’s Meaning’, in The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, edited by John Kinsella (London: Penguin, 2009), p. 248, ll. 30–32.
  2. The question of plant language is the subject of a forthcoming collection The Language of Plants (2015), edited by Patricia Vieira, Monica Gagliano and John Ryan.
  3. William Hart-Smith, ‘Kangaroo Paw’ in ‘Twenty-four Poems by W. Hart-Smith’, selected, edited and introduced by Andrew Lansdown, Artlook, Vol. 5, No. 7 (July 1979).
  4. Robert Gray, Certain Things (Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1993), p. 66, ll. 29 – 32.
  5. James Edward Smith, A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland (London: J. Sowerby, 1793), pp. 9–10.
  6. Barron Field, Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales (London: John Murray, 1825), p. 424.
  7. Will Steffen, Andrew Burbidge, Lesley Hughes, Roger Kitching, David Lindenmayer, Warren Musgrave, Mark Stafford Smith and Patricia Werner, Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change (Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing, 2009).
  8. Judith Wright, Collected Poems, 1942–1985 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994), p. 414, ll. 1–4.
  9. Judith Wright, Collected Poems, 1942–1985 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994), pp. 88 – 89, ll. 1–4.
  10. Michael Marder, ‘What is Plant-Thinking?,’ Klesis – Revue Philosophique, No. 25 (2013): pp. 124–143.
  11. Robert Gray, Certain Things (Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1993), p. 26, ll. 21–24.
  12. Michael Pollan, ‘The Intelligent Plant: Scientists Debate a New Way of Understanding Flora,’ The New Yorker (23 & 30 December 2013): pp. 92–105.
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