Planting Roots: A Survey of Introductions to Ecopoetry and Ecocriticism

1 December 2013

To add to this decentering, Australian ecocriticsm reframes what texts, and in turn, what landscapes can be considered ecocritically. The authors make the assertion that ‘ecocriticism has tended to focus on North American writing, in particular the writing of the United States, and more particularly on a fairly limited range of texts produced in the last century and a half’ (10). This is one of my concerns with both The Ecopoetry Anthology and to a lesser degree the Bryson collection: the limitation to American texts, without consideration (on the part of The Ecopoetry Anthology) that this is a limitation. There seems an echo here of the ideas of American exceptionalism, or as Cranston and Zeller put it ‘the idea of a boundless nature was tied up with the idea of American exceptionalism, that America was a land specially blessed and destined for greatness; it was a key part of a national myth and encouraged nature writing’ (18). The natural context of Australia is different; it is, at least in the early years of settlement, referential, with the landscape of Australia positioned against England, and in more recent years America. This relativistic outlook is contained in the The Littoral Zone: Australian Contexts and their Writers, which begins by justifying Australia’s role in ecocriticsm in relation to America, and by including both scholars from Australia and America. We see an echo of this throughout the essays contained in the text: the Bush Balladeers of the 19th and early 20th century are said to be influenced by the British Romantics and the contemporary Australian poets have their roots traced back to Williams and Stevens. So while American ecopoetry is portrayed in the Ecopoetry Anthology and Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction as having its antecedents in other American poetry, Australian poetry is traced back beyond the geographical confines of the nation.

There is also, throughout the criticism of The Littoral Zone and the work it assesses, consistent reference to the Indigenous heritage of Australia, in a way that is not present in any of the American eco-texts reviewed (with the exception of the Quentenbach and Hogan chapters of Bryson’s anthology). This is immediately apparent in the introduction to the three texts considered: Bryson does not mention indigeneity, nor do Fisher-Worth and Street; Hass mentions in passing ‘the 10,000 years of Native American experience with the land and their expulsions from it by a combination of European diseases and wars.’ Meanwhile Cranston and Zeller propose it as one of the most important areas of their text and Australian literary studies: ‘the issue of indigeneity is important in ecocriticism, and a number of chapters touch on the issue of Australia’s indigenous peoples, of white constructions (Australian and American) of Aboriginal peoples, and how they figure in place-based writing’ (22). The other most obvious example of this particularly Australian approach is in the prefacing of the word Australian with ‘white’, ‘colonial’, or ‘settler’ throughout the entire text, something which does not occur to the word American.

Both for the foreignness of the natural environment to the settler Australians and the reaction to the presence of Indigenous peoples, nature has never been simple, never been belletristic. In settler Australia, even the nationalising propaganda of the ‘bush myth that eventually developed … usually depicted nature as something to be endured or battled against rather than celebrated, its value being mainly of the economic variety’ (18). It is apparent that Australian literary approaches to the environment would have something to add to the global conversation on ecopoetics, never having been able to treat nature neutrally or as something which functions for humans. Something which became apparent when comparing Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction and The Littoral Zone, is that many of the essays in ECI focus on ecopoetics of inarticulacy, where in The Littoral Zone Cranston and Zeller emphasise that Australian writers have always been limited in their ability to articulate the natural world they found themselves in. In his essay on the deserts of Australia, Bennet suggests that this is a function of English not having the words to describe Australia.

This essential difference in the relationship to the land of Australian settler and American settler societies is evident in the different structures of the American and Australian anthologies. As I have noted, the alphabetical ordering of the contemporary section of The Ecopoetry Anthology seems more arbitrary and artificial than the chronological ordering of the historical section. The Littoral Zone is unique out of the texts reviewed in this essay in that it allows the land to structure the writing, where the chapters are arranged geographically, looking at a different part of the landscape of Australia, from the coastal plain of Western Australia to limestone plains of Queensland. This shifts the primacy from the writer, or even the literature, to the land itself. The ideal in this approach is to perceive a reciprocal relationship between the land and the literature. Hughe D’Aeth’s chapter on the wheatbelt of Western Australia exemplifies how the shifts in farming practices altered Australian poetry, and how this occurred in part from a necessity to endorse wheat farming. It would be interesting, and I think useful, to reconstruct The Ecopoetry Anthology from this perspective, grouping the texts by geography or the combination of geography and chronology.

Yet the breadth of The Ecopoetry Anthology offers something that The Littoral Zone lacks: a consideration of urban spaces as ecologies. As much as The Littoral Zone is aware of the prevailing bush myth in Australian society and literature, the geographical spaces it addresses are the remote and rural (with the exception of the chapter addressing the West Australian beaches). Australian ecocritism must be wary of neglecting the same locales which it acknowledges have always been overlooked. Hass, in his introductory essay, notes Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities as showing a way that cities can function very much as ecosystems (lviii). He also notes that a lot of great American poetry has been urban, something which is not considered in The Littoral Zone. Yet, it has not gone unnoticed in Australian literary studies. In the introduction to the Australian section of the ecopoetics journal, Michael Farrel states of the Australian poetry he has curated that the ‘construction of the everyday is largely an urban one … issues like the drought became national when they affect people in cities’ (13).

Conclusion

What has become apparent to me in the composition of this brief survey is that extending boundaries, whether they be definitional, national, or content-based, allows for the deepening of our understanding of ecopoetics – which is precisely what ecopoetics asks us to do, to look beyond our understandings of ourselves as discrete human organisms. The least convincing parts of these texts are the ones that limit the terms of inquiry either consciously or unconsciously. In Bryson’s anthology, some of the essays dealing solely with individual poetics seem to reinforce anthropocentrism, while the Ecopoetry Anthology creates a false eco-system according to arbitrary national boundaries, and The Littoral Zone does not attend to urban spaces. What the model of ecology offers us is a way to consider both how we relate individually as poets to our idiosyncratic ecosystems, but also a way to zoom out – to look at ourselves in concert with other disciplines, with other cultures, other nations, to zoom out far enough that we are no longer the centre of the picture. Each of these texts offers us a small way forward in achieving this, but like any ecosystem, it is only when we consider them in concert that we see their strengths and weaknesses.

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Caitlin Maling

About Caitlin Maling


Caitlin Maling is a Western Australian poet whose first collection Conversations I've Never Had was released in 2015 and shortlisted in the Dame Mary Gilmore Award and the Western Australian Premier's Awards. A follow-up collection, Border Crossing is due out in February 2017.

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