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

By | 1 December 2014

Thinking about my innocent bush séance in Joondalup, why should the outwardly benign notion of hearing nature’s voice be considered fallacious or dangerous? The example of casuarina (sheoak or swamp oak, mentioned earlier) is revealing. For nineteenth-century poet Charles Harpur, the voice of casuarina was mute yet sorrowful, lowly yet preternatural:

Up in its dusk boughs out tressing
Like the hair of a giant’s head,
Mournful things beyond our guessing
Day and night are utterèd.

Even when the waveless air
May only stir the lightest leaf,
A lowly Voice keeps mourning there
Wordless oracles of grief.1

In Harpur’s poem, the oak’s ‘voice’ is not of internal provenance to the plant, but is rather generated mechanically by the external movement of the wind through its ‘boughs, dark intermassing’. Here, Harpur recapitulates Marcus Clarke’s infamous and long-lingering assessment of the Australian bush as ‘weird melancholy’ (1876).2 Western Australian settler Janet Millett did a little better than Harpur and Clarke, observing on her way to York ‘a few weird shea-oaks destitute of leaves, between whose fine countless twigs, doing duty for foliage, the air sighs in passing with the sound as of a distant railway train’ (1872).3 All three colonial-era writers concur on the ‘weirdness’ of the plant, but somehow Millett’s sigh resonates in a less prejudiced and more nuanced way than Harpur’s moan, at least to my ear. To her credit, Millett’s observations of the sheoak’s ‘foliage’ are, still, ecologically accurate. But think of the plant subject: the lowly casuarina! Addressed historically by another’s name; accused consistently of creepiness and black magic; attributed wrongly as a origin of settler depression in the bush. Whose voice(s) are we hearing anyway? Nature’s? That of our forebears? Our own? I suggest that part of the challenge of contemporary ecopoetics is to hear nature anew, to learn to listen and write in a different way – one which decouples the very concept of ‘voice’ from human-based definitions, one which appreciates the diverse sensory expressions of ‘language’ and agency in the natural world without succumbing to age-old biases. Therein lies the art of environmental writing today.

With these ideals in mind, my poem ‘Sheoak Reverie’ aims to vindicate the casuarina. Still, there’s so much work to be done on this Australian plant and others:

lore hunts us down the same,
Nantosuelta lurking on the plain
feminine oak or the settlers’ bane;

tiny teeth are your verdure
neither as leaves nor as needles 
but as cladodes, unlike the pine.4

The interpenetration of words and things (rather than the imposition of the former on the latter) is one of the concerns of contemporary ecopoetics. Indeed, many Aboriginal Australian Dreaming stories present a view of land as a living fabric comprising language and all that exists. Aboriginal country is often sung into existence – each of its cyclical changes inspirited by poetry and song. For example, the Narangga people of South Australia sing the ripening of wild peaches or quandongs: ‘Wild peaches hanging in the trees, the sun will burn you (to the colour of fire), we will gather you (for food)’.5 Another way to think about this interrelationship between language and landscape is through the concept of poiesis. We know that the root of the word ‘poetry’ is poiesis for ‘making’ or ‘producing’. For environmental philosopher Warwick Mules, poiesis ‘identifies the being of things in their becoming other: in their creative, shaped and connected possibilities’.6 Mules goes on to describe a relation of ‘co-becoming other’ between a creative work and a living being.7 This echoes Gray’s questioning of the hard-and-fast distinction between things and their representations. Other scholars use the term ‘sensory poiesis’ as the potential to ‘enact, rather than merely represent, the immediate, embodied experience of nonhuman nature’.8

Of all Australian poets, Les Murray’s work most effectively triangulates poiesis, language and environment. For instance, ‘Flowering Eucalypt in Autumn’ (2007) ripples with movement and life, at a time of year when a tree becomes an ecosystem unto itself:

That slim creek out of the sky
the dried-blood western gum tree
is all stir in its high reaches:

its strung haze-blue foliage is dancing
points down in breezy mobs, swapping
pace and place in an all-over sway.9

Murray accomplishes a rare sense of ecological dynamism through his linguistic twists and turns. The poem’s internal zing mirrors that of the flowering eucalypt: a co-becoming other. The active participle (‘dancing’, ‘swapping’, ‘crisping’) riffs off of poietic phrasing (‘all-over sway’, ‘night-creaking’ and ‘fig-squirting’), sustaining the scene’s procession – far from fixed and far from purely visual. The result is a language of sensuousness and specificity that matches that of the plant, the season, the moment. The emergence of the gum flower is:

as a spray in its own turned vase,
a taut starburst, honeyed model
of the tree’s fragrance crisping in your head.10

Taste, touch, smell – the intimate, the bodily, the autocentric. The limbic, the primordial, the mnemonic – the most exacting and most difficult to devise language for. The senses (and the struggle to bring them to language) mark contemporary ecopoetics. While visually evocative of Australian plants, Murray’s poetry is haptic, olfactory, gustatory. WA poet Andrew Lansdown also handles the non-visual exceptionally well. In ‘A Few Weeks Later I Returned To Find’ (1979) it is a certain grasstree that consumes him:

it was a powerful, honey-thick
nectar. The odour was a heavy
sweetness. I wiped the pollen from my nose.11

Like Murray’s flowering eucalypt, Lansdown’s grasstree is not just part of a habitat: it is a habitat, continuously shifting before his senses.

my life, I imagined, must be a hymn 
to the optic nerve. 
Other senses, you have proven, 
will have all they deserve.  
          Robert Gray (1993), ‘In Thin Air’12

Besides an openness to the minutiae of experience, contemporary Australian ecopoetics evolves through the regional sensibilities of poets, exemplified by John Kinsella’s work in the Wheatbelt of WA. As a localised call-and-response, hearing the voice of plants entails dwelling physically in their places, dwelling sensuously alongside them. In ‘Habitat’, from his collection Armour (2011), we find a shift within the poem from speculative abstraction (‘grave clarity’, ‘a meal of distance’, ‘authorial silence’) to the shock of sensory immediacy in the bush:

                                       But that’s okay,
I say so myself, slipping over in mud
and cutting my arms, face, on scrub.13

The crystallisation is an ecoregionalist poetics of place (‘a miniscule patch’), plants (‘trees’), the elements (‘water’, ‘sun’) and the audible (‘sing out’):

too wide where water runs, gone, quick as the sun.
Here, a miniscule patch you sing out from.14

Whereas the title ‘Habitat’ is a generic (like the cognate terms ‘ecosystem’, ‘landscape’ or ‘environment’), Kinsella’s ‘Resurrection Plants at Nookaminnie Rock’ is botanically particular and place-specific. Nookaminnie: a rock outcrop near Quairading in the Wheatbelt of WA. Resurrection plant: a pincushion lily (Borya spp.) capable of enduring prolonged dehydration. In the thick of the poem’s contemplation of death, life, birth and rebirth emerges an ethics of plants based on regional ecological knowledge and the recognition of the limits of embodied encounter:

                           Step carefully around these
wreaths hooked into granite sheen, holdalls
for a soil-less ecology, a carpet you know
would say so much more if your boots
were off and skin touched life brought

Record-hot summers. Record-low rainfall. Record-few wetlands. Record-sprawling housing estates. Much of the history of Australian environmental poetry has concerned the process of ‘coming-to-terms’ – the formation of cultural identities in relation to the character of the biota here. But wild plants and other species are becoming intellectual spectres rather than tactile presences and forms, as a consequence of climate disturbance, megapolisation, plant disease, species displacement and natural attrition. Nowadays bush melancholy takes a shape Harpur and Clarke wouldn’t recognise. The philosopher Glenn Albrecht terms this contemporary form of environmental despair ‘solastalgia’ or the feeling of homesickness while one is still at home – as the place where one lives rapidly changes and deteriorates, and as the species one has affection for, including kangaroo paws, orchids, eucalypts and resurrection plants, become less common.16 And I don’t think we can write quickly enough to keep pace with the juggernaut of natural systems decline. If we follow the idea of ecopoiesis as ‘co-becoming other’, then the loss of plants is the loss of poetry, in Australia and elsewhere. All I can do is to keep listening and singing out from my own ‘miniscule patch’, learning to hear what the plants say.

  1. Charles Harpur, Charles Harpur: Book One, Three Colonial Poets, edited by Adrian Mitchell (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1973), p. 53, ll. 5–12.
  2. Marcus Clarke, ‘Preface to Adam Lindsay Gordon’s ‘Sea Spray and Smoke Drift’, in The Penguin Book of 19th Century Australian Literature, edited by Michael Ackland (Ringwood: Penguin, 1993), pp. 43–46.
  3. Janet Millett, An Australian Parsonage or, the Settler and the Savage in Western Australia (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1980)
  4. John Ryan, Two With Nature, with botanical illustrations by Ellen Hickman (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2012), p. 17.
  5. Cited in Philip Clarke, Aboriginal People and Their Plants (Dural Delivery Centre: Rosenberg Publishing, 2007), p. 24.
  6. Warwick Mules, With Nature: Nature Philosophy as Poetics through Schelling, Heidegger, Benjamin and Nancy (Bristol: Intellect Press, 2014), p. 22.
  7. Ibid., p. 22.
  8. Scott Knickerbocker, Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), p. 17.
  9. Les Murray, Selected Poems (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2007), p. 65, ll. 1–6
  10. Ibid., p. 66, ll. 19–21.
  11. Andrew Lansdown, Homecoming (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1979), p. 8, ll. 21–23.
  12. Robert Gray, Certain Things (Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1993), p. 20, ll. 73 – 76.
  13. John Kinsella, Armour (London: Picador, 2011), p. 9, ll. 11–13.
  14. Ibid., p. 9, ll. 16–18.
  15. Ibid., p. 53, ll. 14–19.
  16. Glenn Albrecht, ‘”Solastalgia”: A New Concept in Health and Identity,’ PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, no. 3 (2005), pp. 41–55.
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