KR: You have written a couple of very successful books about good prose writing, clear writing, grammatically correct writing. What is the link between your prose works of this kind and your nature writing?
MT: Now here's the thing. Country that's wild – I learned this in Gary Snyder, but it's a thing Indigenous people in Australia knew long before he did – isn't anarchic. It's very orderly; in fact its wildness lies in the fact that its intelligence, its organising system, its pattern of complex interrelationships, is more or less intact. Writing wants to be wild in that sense, and native to its speaker. But if it's any good it won't be anarchic; it will have to be orderly at a deep level; or it will collapse. The nature writer tries to fathom the deep structures and the musics of the world – including but not limited to the human. The writer makes paragraphs, as though they were country, and she makes them sound and beautiful by attending to the deep structures and musicality of her sentences.
Grammar is the mathematics of meaning. Places have maths; we call them ecologies. Sentences and the lines and stanzas and paragraphs we make with them: these have maths, too. By making the most elegant equations, you make the most sense and you make it, if you want to, most beautifully.
KR: I'm noticing nature writing all over the place at the moment, although that could just be Cordite colonising my reading patterns this month. If I'm right though – if there is a burgeoning interest in eco-centred writing – is this indicative of a shift in the collective psyche?
MT: I hope you're right that nature writing's time has come – though I'm not sure. And I hope you're right about the shift to a collective green unconscious (or consciousness) that may underlie it. It's past time for both. Green, they tell us, is the new black. Art, especially poems, can seem so fragile and ineffable at a time like this. And like Auden, I don't really believe poems are for anything. In fact, the more you try to make them protest or preach, the less like poems they become. And the less powerful.
When I wrote The Land's Wild Music, which in its first life was my doctoral work, I suggested that prose (but lyric prose, not just any prose) might be better than poetry at capturing country and speaking on behalf of the more-than-merely human world. It was an idea that the poet and philosopher Martin Harrison first put to me. Paragraphs, in their relative disorder, their lack of architecture, more closely resemble country (forest, paddock, savannah, woodland, sea) than stanzas do. Poems are more artifactual than prose. They are more intensely fabricated. It's a pretty enough idea, but I don't think I believe in it now.
All the same, as Indigenous artistic practice shows us, art can serve and conserve country; it can articulate and divine the land; it can explore and characterise it; it can help to save it from us, and us from ignorance of country.
KR: The majority of recent literary theory renders the world we come into contact with as socially or linguistically contrived. However, British philosopher Kate Soper's famous retort to that was: 'It isn't language which has a hole in its ozone layer.' Does eco-criticism allow any theoretical room for a conceptualisation of the world as a social or linguistic construct?
MT: I'm with Kate Soper. I have a feeling we'll still be doubting the reality of global warming and questioning our culpability for it, and we'll still be, in the academy, socially constructing the environment, when the city is up to its knees in the harbour. Theory isn't going to get us out of this. But theory has helped writers and readers question old verities, to unseat the absoluteness of any kind of truth. And that's a good thing. Theory in literature has overstated the dominion of the human mind, and it has downgraded the autonomy of the world beyond the human. It has convinced us that nature is beyond the grasp of our sentences; that only the human can speak in a text. There are many schools of ecocriticism, and though I've written in the field, I belong to none of them; but all of them try to put nature, the world beyond the human, back into the discussion of how literature works and what it's for.
Joseph Carroll (Evolution and Literary Theory) has argued that literature remains, no matter how else we want to characterise it, an evolutionary adaptation of the human species. It is a thing we've learned to write and read – each of us and all of us – as a means of understanding and outsmarting the world we find ourselves in. With it we remake ourselves to adapt to the world, and because of it we re-imagine and to some extent remake the environments we find ourselves in to make them more habitable. That's an argument I find attractive. Compelling, if large. And like the eco-psychological angle, in which ecocentric writing is interpreted as a practice of environmental awareness, it keeps the human in the game; it presumes the role of literature in mediating the human relationship with the more-than-merely human.
KR: The Blue Plateau opens with a fascinating image of the self composed both of pieces and of the spaces left in the wake of pieces that have fallen away: 'I am a landscape of loss,' you write. 'Most of me is the memory of where else, and who else, and with whom, I have been and no longer am.' Do you think this could stand as an allegory for the Australian landscape, too?
MT: It's not meant to stand as anything but itself. But it could. Most Australian landscapes are heavily eroded, and most are also encrypted with stories of dispossession, of coming and going and of exile. Erosion is often the real narrative. Now that you mention it, since so many Australian landscapes are very old and worn, and so many have been so rapidly reduced by human pastoral activity, 'landscapes of loss' could be a way of thinking of many of them.
KR: The Association for the Study of Literature & Environment-ANZ (ASLE-ANZ) is itself a fairly recent phenomenon. Can you say something about your work with ASLE-ANZ?
MT: The original ASLE started in the US in the early 1990s and its mission was broadly to promote ecocriticism and the objectives of ecocriticism, especially, but not exclusively, as an approach to literature; it also aimed to encourage the study of the natural within literature and the study of environmentally engaged literature. With the support of other writers and scholars like Peter Hay, John Cameron, Val Plumwood, Eric Rolls and Deborah Bird-Rose, Kate Rigby and I set up an Australian and New Zealand branch in late 2003. Kate became the first president; I have been Australian vice-president; Charles Dawson has served as the New Zealand vice-president. Our mission has been the same as ASLE-US, except that we have wanted to promote ecocriticism and ecologically astute literature with a particularly antipodean accent. Our membership has grown steadily since then. Compared to ALSE-US, we've attracted more scholars from beyond English faculties – scientific ecologists, anthropologists, cultural theorists, environmental historians, literate scientists, geographers and so on. And we've attracted not only writers with an interest in places and the state of the planet, but other artists as well.
Kate Rigby has just stepped down after a fabulously successful term as our first president. I, too, am stepping down. C. A. Cranston and Deborah Bird are about to take our places. And we're contemplating a name change to reflect our reach beyond literature. Membership gets you newsletters, tip-offs about prizes and jobs, and it gets you the fellowship, if you want it, of ecologically minded artists and thinkers. Check our site and join up. If pastoral is the new black, if nature is the new cause, and if ecology is the new worldview, then ALSE-ANZ is where all that is at.
KR: You must have canvassed the field reading towards your PhD on nature writing. What are the non-fiction works that most captured your imagination? Where could readers begin with the genre?
MT: My thesis looked at some of my favourite contemporary North American nature writers: Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams and James Galvin. Galvin's The Meadow is, I think, my favourite book of all. And it is the least like what most people probably imagine nature writing to be. It's a kind of hip Western pastoral. To start off, I'd recommend that and Lopez's Arctic Dreams, Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, and Williams's Refuge. I think Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It is a piece of nature writing, too, and one of the great books. You could do worse than that. Other great nature writers: Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson, Mary Austin, Gavan Maxwell, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Beston, Richard Nelson, Annie Dillard. In Australian letters, try Eric Rolls's A Million Wild Acres, Tom Griffiths' Slicing the Silence, Patrice Newell's The River. I think of Karen Blixen's Out of Africa as a piece of nature writing, wild and cultured pastoral. Readers could also check out my anthology of US and Australian nature writing, A Place on Earth (UNSW: 2003).