Natural Selection: Ecological Postcolonialism as Bearing on Place

1 February 2016

For my son, Aidan, on his graduation with a PhD in biomolecular ecology.

Australian poetry reminds us that we cannot encounter the natural world except by cultural means. As Tom Griffiths writes, the idea of the natural world as a ‘cultural landscape acknowledges that an area is often the product of an intense interaction between nature and various phases of human habitation, and that natural places are not, as some ecological viewpoints suggest, destined to exist as climax communities or systems untouched by human hands’ (1996, p 277). This argument highlights that the idea of wilderness is not only a cultural artifact but also anti-historical and Eurocentric. This is because there is no ‘timeless wilderness’; in a country such as Australia that has such a long history of Aboriginal occupancy as well as a history of European land use, all the continent’s ecosystems are in some senses ‘human-made’. This acknowledgement reminds us that our experience with these environments is concerned with the intimate relationship between the human and the non-human, between the social and the ecological. It also reminds us that nature is an expression of our political, literary and scientific understanding and that we experience it not merely to rhapsodise but to see with a scientific eye sensitive to the custodianship and knowledge of First Nations.

Judith Wright is one poet who has thought about what it might mean to write a nature poetry that is informed by the biological sciences and by a sense of postcolonial environmentalism. In 1956 she wrote that the ‘most important difficulty facing Australian poets has been the lack of any living link with the country itself’ (p 2) and in 1965 she added that ‘before one’s country can become an accepted background against which the poet’s imagination can move unhindered, it must first be observed, understood, described, and as it were absorbed. The writer must be at peace with the landscape before he can turn to its human figures. But in Australian writing the landscape has, it almost seems, its own life, hostile to its human inhabitants’ (1965, p xi). Peter Porter has described this feeling well in his poem, ‘Sydney Cove, 1788’ (2010, pp 45-46). Porter writes that ‘where all is novel’ ‘Come // Genocide or Jesus we can’t work this land’. He goes on to describe how ‘The sun has framed it for our moralists / To dry the bones of forgers in the sand. // We wake in the oven of its cloudless sky’.

There is no need, here, to re-examine the traditional litany of colonial complaints about the harshness of the Australian landscape as much has already been written about this problem (see for example Rutherford 1984, pp 9-17; Stow 1984, pp 22-24; Webby, 2000, pp 50-51; Conrad 2003, pp 41-46, 99-101 & 132-136 and Frost 2004, pp 53-66). Judith Wright has also detailed the problems it caused for colonial writers (1975, pp 49-58). But these problems of ‘first observing, understanding, describing and absorbing’ the landscape are not ones that preoccupy the contemporary writer. Today creative artists benefit from the invaluable work of the scientific community and the popular science media such as the ABC’s Natural History Unit that was formed in 1973 and incorporated into Documentaries in 2007. Judith Wright often wrote of this need to reintegrate the arts with the sciences, especially the living sciences (1975, pp ix-xi, 196-202, 248-256). Many other Australian poets and academics have also argued for this (see for example Guthrie 1993, pp 17-20 and Bennett 1998, pp 14-19). As Jason Cowley, the editor of the British literary journal Granta has written, the best nature writers ‘do not simply want to walk into the wild, to rhapsodise and commune; they aspire to see with a scientific eye and write with literary effect’ (2008, p 9).

Charles Birch is another distinguished and prize-winning Australian philosopher, writer and scientist who has thought about this need to integrate the sciences and creative arts. He has defined ecology as the branch of biology that studies the connections between things: the interrelationships between organisms in their environment. Birch has observed that his scientific perspective and experience has ‘increased both his sense of wonder and mystery for biology and the riddle of life’ (1999, p xiv). He has also written that ‘life is a struggle against enormous odds … and that change, not stability, is the rule’ (1999, p 92). The work of scientists, like Charles Birch, makes it possible for us to become ‘nature and place literate: informed about local specifics on both ecological-biotic and socio-political levels and informed about history (social history and environmental history)’ (Snyder 1995, p 171). For a nature writer these insights provide much to think about on the relationship between ecology and creativity, on how one area of human endeavour can enrich another. Birch highlights the significance of the connections that we make in our observations, experiences and perspectives; he encourages us to value a sense of wonder and mystery and to see change as the natural state of play. He emphasises that we must be multidisciplinary in the way that we write and think about the natural world for ‘science finds its facts from the study of the objective aspects of nature, but science can find no individual enjoyment in nature, no aim in nature, no creativity in nature … this is because science deals with only half the evidence provided by human experience’ (Birch 2008, pp 124-125). From the second half of the twentieth century numerous Australian poets have explored the natural world as a source of imagery to illustrate their creativity, and hence to consider some of the relationships between ecology and creativity in their verse.

Gary Catalano is one contemporary poet, for example, who has written of the creative connections between the human and non-human world in this way. He writes in the prose poem ‘Sentence’ (1988, p 57):

To compose a sentence which has never been written before is much like crossing a mountain stream by leaping from stone to stone: as the torrent foams beneath you and beckons you down into its engulfing void, you need to possess not only a pair of nimble feet (clad, if possible, in rubber-soled shoes) but also a firm belief in the wisdom of stones.

The tone in Catalano’s clever use of humour and simile reveals his admiration for the natural world and for the challenge of creativity and clear expression. For many others, it is in wild birds that imagery can be found to explore creativity. For Amy Witting in ‘Flight’ (1991, p 75) ‘flying is the most laborious of all methods of progress’ but in the flight of hummingbirds, hawks, currawongs and fairy martens she sees the triumphant spirit of the ‘bloodied feet of the dancer, the poet’s long / waking.’ William Hart-Smith also explores the creative use of language and communication in his short imagist piece ‘Lake Monger’ (1985, p 76):

On Lake Monger a black swan
makes of its neck an interrogation mark
punctuating a sentence of ducks.

While in ‘Bird Sanctuary’ (1995, p 3) Vivian Smith writes that it is in coming down to a ‘tideless bay’ that you can find:

these water-birds moving
in an area of meaning
wings folded from flight - 

or that swans on water glance
and settle into meaning
as thoughts and poems
on the edge of silence.

Rosemary Dobson in ‘Dry River’ (1991, pp 115-116) faces away from the bay and towards the ‘burden of the Dry River’ where the:

Strange illusion that such a creek-bed
May seem to brim and shine at dew-fall,
Or ripple with shadow, or sound like water
With the cool, clear notes of the bell-birds’ making.
Mirages deceive: I wait with longing
A flood of poems, a rain of rhyme.

And Judith Wright in ‘Lyrebirds’ (1994, p 176) laments that:

I’ll never go.
I’ll never see the lyrebirds - 
the few, the shy, the fabulous,
the dying poets.

Wright concludes her poem with:

No, I have never gone.
Some things ought to be left secret, alone;
some things - birds like walking fables - 
ought to inhabit nowhere but the reverence of the heart.

David Brooks also sees in lyrebirds a mystery, an image to explore language and the way we make meaning. The fragmentary structure of Brooks’ poem, ‘The Lyrebird’ (2005, p 60), is achieved by his punctuation and line division and seems to echo the way we construct meaning in language. In his poem Brooks writes that driving by ‘early / on the way to a meeting in Bateman’s’ he glimpses a lyrebird enter the bush and ‘become dry branch, scrub- / shadow.’ Brooks’ poem concludes:

writing this down
I wonder what part of the self it is
hides amongst language

- looking at
these words, this
trying to find where I entered.

A little more naively, Andrew Lansdown celebrates in the imagist ‘Birds of Light’ (2004, p 66), a moment of ecstatic union:

Exquisite, these birds of light
on the lake’s smooth surface.

Ibises, herons, spoonbills - 
each joined by spindly legs

to a three dimensional replica
rising into the radiant air.

In these poems, which locate in the non-human world the imagery needed to explore human creativity, there is a careful attention to the connections that we make in our observations. In the way that they suggest wonder and respect there is a subtle sense of nature and place literacy (for example in the way that they name bird life). This is the beginning of a poetics informed by the science of ecology. Judith Wright played a pioneering role in this and she also showed how nature poetry could be part of the postcolonial project; poets such as John Kinsella and Laurie Duggan have made major contributions to this work begun by Judith Wright. In these poets we witness the development of a poetics of ecological post-colonialism.

The University of New England academic, Shirley Walker, describes Judith Wright’s attitude towards nature as ‘one of reverence for life; a reverence which will treat both nature and ourselves in the consciousness of nature as one interacting miracle’ (1991, p 86). Wright’s reverence for nature is certainly present in her fascination with bird life. ‘Egrets’ (1994, p 114) is just one example of what Judith Wright can achieve in the hymn of praise to the natural world. The poem describes how ‘Once as I travelled through a quiet evening / I saw a pool, jet-black and mirror-still’. The pool is lined with ‘slender paperbarks’ and in its water are ‘thirty egrets wading’. This poem concludes so memorably with:

Once in a lifetime, lovely past believing,
your lucky eyes may light on such a pool.
As though for many years I had been waiting,
I watched in silence, till my heart was full
of clear dark water, and white trees unmoving,
and, whiter yet, those thirty egrets wading.

Shirley Walker describes the effect of such poems, in the way that they locate in the natural world their imagery for praise and exploration of human concerns, as:

Australian nature provides [Wright] with potent new images – the coral atoll, the wattle-tree, the flame-tree, the conch-shell – for the specifically feminine concerns of fertility and generation, both physical and imaginative. In later poems the lake, the camp beside Split Rock, and even a tadpole or pebbles taken from a creek provide her with potent images for her more complex philosophical lyrics. (1991, p 15)

In the natural world, Judith Wright finds her imagery to explore birth and death and the struggle in between to achieve intimacy. She writes of the change of seasons, of drought and the mystery of life forms so different from the human. So the poem ‘Memory’ (1994, p 423) opens with:

Yesterday wrapped me in wool; today drought’s 
     changeable weather
Sends me down the path to swim in the river.

Three Decembers back, you camped here; your stone hearth
Fills with twigs and strips peeled from the candlebark.

Where you left your tent, the foursquare patch is unhealed.
The roots of the kangaroo-grass have never sprouted again.

Once at the riverbank, however, ‘dead cassinias crackle. / Wombat-holes are deserted in the dry beds of creeks’. Even the ‘frogs aren’t speaking. / Their swamps are dry. In the eggs a memory lasts’. The poem is a wonderful evocation of drought and absence: the physical decline in place caused by drought and the withdrawal of intimacy caused by separation. The poem looks forward to the return of ‘wet years’ when the return of love, like rainfall, will be more than ‘memory’ in ‘the eggs’, but for now ‘only two dragonflies dance on the narrowed water’.

In ‘Seasonal Flocking’ (1994, pp 405-406), Wright describes all the wild birds that ‘come out of the mountains / and the snowcloud shadows’ to flock in her gardens at the end of autumn. There are rosellas, coloured like ‘berry-bright fruits, the young ones / brocaded with juvenile green’; black cockatoos with ‘tails fanned to show yellow panes’; ‘uncounted magpies and currawongs’; and ‘sharp-edged welcome-swallows’. The poem ends, memorably, with a reflection on old age and an appeal for intimacy and memory:

Frost soon, and the last warmth passes.
Seed-stems rot on wet grasses.

At the end of autumn
I too - I want you near me,
All you who’ve gone, who scatter
Into far places or are hidden under
Summer-forgotten gravestones.

In her poetry, Wright often confronts the issue of mortality and seeks to locate in the natural world an emblem for hope, energy and inspiration. In ‘The Wattle-Tree’ (1994, p 142) she describes how:

Then upward from the earth
                         and from the water,
then inward from the air
                         and the cascading light
poured gold, till the tree trembled with its flood.

Now from the world’s four elements I make
                         my immortality; it shapes within the bud.
Yes, now I bud, and now at last I break
into the truth I had no voice to speak:
into a million images of the Sun, my God.

In its tone, ‘The Wattle-Tree’ recalls the ecstatic praise of the Monaro Plains by David Campbell as Wright celebrates: ‘the tree knows four truths – / earth, water, air, and the fire of the sun.’ The poem appears to be a naive spontaneous expression of wonder: ‘Oh, that I knew that word’. But gradually we begin to see that the poem is doing something else as well. In its careful use of imagery, rhythm and rhyme the poem develops its subject as not only the wattle tree; the tree becomes a symbol for Wright’s preoccupations with a search for human significance and with beginnings in the context of a meditation on mortality. Vivian Smith refers to these as ‘a cluster of poems of biological vision…on the evolutionary cycle, where Wright tries to press back to an awareness of the origin of time and consciousness itself’ (Smith 1981, p 396). Along with such poems as ‘Cycads’ (1994, p 39), ‘The Ancestors’ (1994, p 111) and ‘Birds’ (1994 p 86), Wright celebrates Australia’s native plants and birds – their evolutionary niche and interconnections – in order to explore her human concerns; in doing this she achieves what James Bradley highlights when he says that ‘it is by learning to see things as they are, that we learn to dissolve ourselves into landscapes, to become inhabitants of a shared world’ (2001, p 12).

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