Natural Selection: Ecological Postcolonialism as Bearing on Place

By | 1 February 2016

So the presence of science, and an awareness of the connections between non-human and human creativity, can be subtly located in the poem’s imagery, giving an initial observation a richer context and understanding. It is this ambition for expressing a greater environmental awareness and sensitivity that I have in mind in my poem ‘Habitation’, a poem that is dedicated to my scientist-son as he undertakes fieldwork:

Remaindered to the rocky, steeper edges
of farms, rainforests are a strangler fig’s
host, slipping through our fingers,

even as you trudge waist-deep through barbed
cycads and vine thickets, past giant stinging trees
and Moreton Bay figs with lianas wreathing canopies,
like carpet pythons, festooning the way.

A green catbird forages ahead, yowling
from a tangle of vines. It’s mating
season and the males are grandstanding
across the rainforest airwaves.

You break in on a stand of ironwood and turpentine
and all that ancient furrowed towering worship
of the sun is crowned with epiphytic orchids, mosses and ferns.
This site of upswept fallen paradise is also abundant,

if like a cancer, with mistletoe, packed
with sugars, carbs and nesting sites leeched
from their hosts’ sap – a commonwealth, 
a commonwealth disturbed.

‘Habitation’ explores the role played by mistletoe, a native aerial parasite, as a significant indicator of landscape health. In balance mistletoe provides nesting sites and encourages tree hollow formation; it also grows nutritious fruit and leaves all year round. When abundant, however, mistletoe may indicate a decline in an ecosystem of native consumers such as sugar gliders, possums and butterfly larvae so often caused by land clearance. When over-abundant, because it is a parasite, mistletoe contributes to dieback in tree hosts and to the degradation of ecosystems. My poem echoes Judith Wright in the way that it locates its imagery in an ecopoetics informed by ecological science. It is an attempt to fulfill the challenge that the Australian academic of place, John Cameron, so convincingly argues for as being essential to the best environmental writing:

[This is writing that] comes out of long experience of place; it informs the reader about the flora and fauna species and their surprising interrelationships; it provokes the reader to question received wisdom about the history of the bush; to wonder about how human beings and animals can possibly cohabit; it inspires the reader to pay closer attention to his or her own place. (2004, p 35)

So the best writing about the natural world is place-based and it informs, provokes and inspires: it compels the reader to consider the social justice and ecological implications of their lives; to connect with their environment by feeling wonder, but also respect and care.

‘Gilly-wattler’ is another of my poems that illustrates this approach to the natural world. This is a short lyric that engages with the place – or evolutionary niche – of the gilly-wattler or barkingbird. This bird is also known as the Red Wattlebird because of its red fleshy neck-wattles. Gilly-wattlers are one of Australia’s largest honeyeaters and as such they play a vital role in the pollination of many Australian plants throughout southern Australia. This bird is far better known, however, for its harsh voice that is often described as sounding like a throat clearing cough or alarming ‘chock’. In Australian poetry the gilly-wattler is often written of in a way that highlights only this hacking voice. Andrew Lansdown, for example, in ‘Choka’ writes:

A wattlebird in
a white gum clucks twice. So ug-
ly! It has nothing
going for it, that bird. Shape
and stance and sound, all
match. Watch. There it goes again.
Bracing on the branch
it throws its head back, beak a-
gape, and gags on its own song. (1993, p 20)

It seems very limiting, and anthropocentric, to reduce this remarkable animal to the noise it makes, especially given its significant role in the pollination of plants. To write that this bird has ‘nothing / going for it’ is an astounding way for a contemporary person to respond to a native animal living successfully in its environment. Ecological science tells such a rich story of the role of vocalization and of the interconnections and processes between animals and plants coexisting in an ecosystem. These insights can only enrich the way that we respond to the behavior of the animals that we encounter. The poem that I write is a small imagist piece, with modest ambitions, but it is an attempt to honour a native bird and what ecological science understands about it. So here is ‘Gilly-wattler’:

  from throats
  and clefts of syrup
  dusted gold coloured
with tongues and combs of honey

Poetry need not be an uninformed response to nature. It can become a dialogue, even if subtle, between poet, nature and the evolving ideas of science.

The Sydney-based poet and academic, John Bennett, has also thought about what it means for a poet to aspire to see with a scientific eye and write with literary effect. Bennett agues that the poet must write about nature and landscape through the prism offered by the science of ecology (1998, p 14) but for Bennett this is not possible in the lyric because the shorter form does not allow room for all the details. Bennett wants a ‘poetics of epic dimensions […] purposive poetry of muscle and ambition which tackles history, both natural and human’ (1998, p 15). For Bennett only the epic poem is long enough to deal with all the material: historical, philosophical, and scientific; to position the environment as the ‘background and foreground for an investigation into all the scientific and historical layers through which landscape and nature are available to be experienced and understood’ (1998, pp 15-16). A very good example of the sort of poetry that Bennett argues for is Laurie Duggan’s book-length documentary eco-poem, The Ash Range (1987), which I will examine towards the end of this essay. Another model for the sort of poetry that Bennett calls for is John Kinsella’s The Vision of Error: A Sextet of Activist Poems (2013).

In his poetic rollercoaster through The Vision of Error Kinsella writes with careful attention to the ecological detail, and in moments of great lyrical imagism, as he evokes the world of the Western Australian wheatbelt and coastline as ecologies of intense – but damaged – beauty:

the header comb strikes quartz and sparks and fire
runs through wheat like Crete where fire has left
earth bare so it is here, bare of scrub. (p 43)

While later we are told that:

… we are turning this place into the sands
of Egypt. The canon is a crown of death – 
seventy-foot high York gums
rustling like dragonflies

over the waters
of the swimming

leaves too dead to write on… (p 62)

But for Kinsella the cost of ‘the Big Australian eating / his country out of house and home’ (p 31) is not only environmental but also psychological – ‘SOLVENCY IS MUTE’ (p 30) – where:

What cruelty in a place of shrines tossed
over, like boulders toppled from the arena,

monumentally heavy and impossible to make
upright again, spiritual icebergs leisurists
wrecked themselves on without knowing
they’d sprung a leak, dragged us to the bottom. (pp 29-30)

The costs of collusion are degrading to our environments, our relationships, and our inner lives: we are all made ‘bullies’ and ‘collaborating wankers’ ‘watching seven-year-olds / that beat up ‘our’ seven-year-old, eye of parents, / repressed in their freedoms’ (p 10). So:

show your weapons, count calibres.
Adults don’t kill children, says
the seven-year-old. Not ownership
but pastoral care amidst sheep
bred for flesh not wool: meaty meat. (p 85)

In degrading our country we degrade ourselves. Kinsella confronts with so much beauty the ugliness we do to our environment, each other, and to ourselves by our abuse of power. And he also acknowledges, like Judith Wright before him, the consequences of his family’s environmental and proprietorial decisions.

In The Vision Kinsella records how his ‘family / crossed the oceans – freely – to be in the vicinity’ and how quickly they were ‘among the jarrah, the clearings; / his [grand]father’s team scouring and planting / pine trees’ (pp 55-56). But Kinsella’s poetry of dwelling is as informed by postcolonialism as by ecopoetics. Kinsella tells us that ‘some people remember “the old people” and the names / of goanna and parrot, trees’ and that ‘the other law troubles’ while:

In the dry bed of the South Mortlock River
    we see through red-green eyes
            the white trail of the farmer;
    downriver, a bright flash
            of the serpent’s tail – 
    serpent escaping salt’s
            ghosting of water,
    embouchure split harsh
            through hakea. (p 73)

In these beautifully descriptive and fragmented lines Kinsella evokes the various layers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous land settlement; seeing within the current water management practices of farming communities a human induced salination – a palimpsest of ‘white’ over the Indigenous knowledge of rebirth and seasonal rain encapsulated in stories of the Rainbow Serpent. In Australian poetry there have been few more beautifully lyrical acknowledgments of Country.

So Kinsella certainly fulfills Bennett’s challenge to write a ‘poetics of epic dimensions […] that tackles history, both natural and human’ (1998, p 15). But as good as Duggan and Kinsella’s epic poems are, they do not discount the complimentary value of shorter forms. So why does Bennett argue that this is the only way of writing about the natural world? In highlighting the strengths of one approach is it necessary to censor others?

John Kinsella, Caroline Caddy and Dennis Haskell have all written nature poetry, in its shorter lyrical forms, that is equally informed by science and by a determination to interrogate what it might mean to dwell on this earth with greater care. The environmental problem of soil salinity is one challenge that has attracted all of their attention. As Kinsella has written:

Salt occurs a lot in my poetry. Its negative side is obvious, but more subtle is its beauty – a crystalline kingdom of apparent nothingness, it becomes a stage for a theatre of absurdity, a different kind of poetic language. I write loss and destruction, lovingly (Kinsella 2007, p 3)

In his suite, ‘Finches’ (2003, pp 5-6), Kinsella writes:

Salt Paddocks

Down below the dam
there is nothing but salt,
a slow encroachment.

Fighting back, my cousins
have surrounded it
with a ring of trees

At its centre
lives a colony of finches,
buried in tamarisks.

Salinity, a problem so often caused by a changing of the water table due to land clearing and irrigation, is one of the most serious environmental problems facing rural Australia, see for example The Unique Continent: An Introductory Reader In Australian Environmental Studies edited by Jeremy Smith (1992, pp 141-162 & 195-203). So there is a terrible irony in the response to this siege, this ‘slow encroachment’, by the farming cousins who have ‘surrounded it / with a ring of trees’.

Kinsella concludes his suite with:

Finch Death

The dead finch lies on salt,
tight-winged and stretched.

The others shimmer
loosely in heat

the salt’s white mystery
coveting tin cans, skull of sheep.

Slowly, death rides this hot glacier
further and further away.

The imagery, in the first stanza, describing the way the dead finch is laid out is almost ritualistic, a ‘shimmering’ in the desert heat; a terrible emblem of the struggle with death. But here that struggle is as inevitably doomed to failure as an attempt to control a glacier. ‘Death [salinity] rides this hot glacier / further and further away.’

Partly this struggle with ‘death’ and decline is to turn ever more marginal country – in terms of its agricultural productive potential – into cleared farming land. So Caroline Caddy writes in ‘Great Southern’ (2010, pp 10-11):

Driving between Lake Grace and Lake King
            the land takes on the light or darkness of its sky
                                                                        so quickly          so easily
marginal country
            parts of it had to be named ‘lake’ so the rest could be
                                                                        ploughed and harvested.

So dispiriting is it to rural communities, where whole areas are experiencing declining rainfall and the problems of long-term salinity due to unnecessary land clearing, that Caddy finds herself relating in ‘Lake George’ (2010, pp 12-13) how:

I hear myself explaining
            how some are salt and some are fresh
                                                                        but all are shallow
and it sounds as if I’m excusing them.
I feel it foremost in your mind
                                                as it was in mine when I first saw them
wind edged with foam and salt
stilled each evening
            spreading their margins a little
                                                to accommodate whole sunsets.

Caddy’s scattering of her lines across the page echoes so cleverly the way clouds in this region of South-Western Western Australia, where she lives, so often ‘do nothing / but move slowly at the edge of the land’ (2010, p 56) and where people struggle ‘through blistering days dusty nights’ (2010, p 10) with encroaching salinity ‘on the long reflective straights / where life is thinly spread’ (2010, p 11).

This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: