Whispers of Living

Or: Whose Voice in Nature Writing?

When a writer – fiction, non-fiction, prose or poetry – identifies closely with a place or event in the natural world, a number of possibilities are open to them, from distant observer to intimate dialogue. They are often trying to reach into the dearest freshness deep down things, as Hopkins has it.

Sometimes there are attempts to understand and even to communicate. Bob Gilbert’s programme about Susurration is a joy: like Fiona Stafford‘s magisterial exploration of the Long, Long Life of Trees, it gives an account of the relationship between humans and plants, and looks at how listening to trees gives insights into their lives. Between them, they produce a vision of woodland that helps answer some of the deep ecological questions about reading a landscape, and prompt me to think especially about the imperilled landscapes as we face global warming, the threat of extinction…

The traveller or writer on landscape is “The I that is the Eye:” observer and commentator. Think of the vivid writing and passion of George Monbiot in Feral:

The squall passed suddenly and the sun slashed through the sky, almost violent, its intensity somwhow heightened by the coldness of my skin, as if, frozen hard, I could no longer absorb the concussion of light.

George Monbiot, Feral

or the poignant, almost despairing reflections of Peter Feinnes:

And I am wondering, do beavers foul their own nests? Do they knock down their own houses, obliterate their woods, poison their own land? And if they don’t, what does that say about us? Put it this way: if you live in a place, are you more likely to cherish it? How close to somewhere do you have to live before you feel inclined to look after it?

Peter Feinnes, Oak and Ask and Thorn

Looking at fiction, the Man in Garner’s Boneland faces similar deaths, cultural and at a species level, with his woman and child dead, as he explains:

No one is left to hold. No child to teach. I am alone. After me, no one will give my flesh to the sky, take my bones to the nooks of the dead. The sun will not come back. The Stone Spirit will not send eagles. The world will end.

Alan Garner: Boneland.

I was starting to think about Alan Garner – never far from my mind, and the header to this blog reminds me whenever I log on – because of a challenge to identify stories in which landscape is the narrator, which brought me straight back to Garner and the sentient landscape. And if Garner, then I am already departing from the original challenge, by thinking Boneland and Thursbitch. In neither is the landscape – and even defining that would take a while – the narrator, but it is a slow and not-quite-visible agent. And therefore capable of siding with one or another action? Or working so slowly but the glacial power that our lives are shaped by its inexorability.

First person narrator. In poetry it has a long tradition, from Riddles to out and out personification. Whitman questions the soft-falling shower and imagines it answering him in The Voice of the Rain (very apt for today, a wet Monday morning). Cruelly (and comically) satirised by Geoffrey Willans, Tennyson’s The Brook was however the first that came to my mind: here the poem and its parody get a mention from Alison Flood on reciting poetry by heart, with its repeating lines

For men may come and men may go, 
But I go on for ever. 

Except that “forever” is a long time, even for Ents, Tolkein’s spokesmen [sic] for the natural world, whose wrath against Saruman’s ecocide is such a turning-point in the Lord of the Rings. Lewis, too, uses the tree as symbol of nature: in The Last Battle the death of the dryad is the atrocity that starts the action. The warning of industrialised destruction in Lord of the Rings and Narnia has a voice – but still not quite the narrator I was seeking. While Jane Carroll (I have discussed this aspect of her work here) sees the ruin as a place with a past and a present – but also a future – I think I am beginning to have to see that future extending certainly beyond me, but also beyond humanity.

Whispers of living, echoes of warning,

Phantoms of laughter on the edges of morning.

Stephen Schwartz, Leonard Bernstein Mass

{An aside: I find I had completely misremembered The Ruin, that very odd old English lament for a culture the invading tribes had themselves destroyed, in that I had it placed as a first-person lament when actually it is closer to the Lamentations of Jeremiah:

Beorht wæron burgræced….

Crungon walo wide..

Bright were the halls….

Slaughter spread wide….

I wonder whether this misremembering was because of my need to think of the Ruin as a particularly affective piece of writing.}

It seems to me – and I know Jane Carroll is thinking about this herself at the moment – that I need to distinguish between various tangles of nature writing. So here are my first thoughts: five strands.

  • Aetiological storytelling;
  • Writing in which place is key to the development of plot or argument;
  • Brilliant and affective writing about place;
  • Story in which “landscape” (or, in a kind of metonymy, a creature in the landscape) tells its story;
  • Story in which “landscape” is personified.

Examples of the first three (yes, they move around between them, and are in any case contestable) might be:

At this point I almost want to compile an anthology: I hope my avoiding links to bookselling sites &c will allow anyone reading this to follow more reflective writing.

But I am still left with these last two. Have I just been shuffling round, trying to avoid them?

Well, the final one does have me stumped. The Overstory comes close, with the interactions between trees and humans having at once abstract and a biochemical connections – but even here it is the humans who are the principal focus. In the same way, in The Secret Garden, the locked and rediscovered garden calls (in the person of the robin) to Mary, and she – and Colin – are transformed by its reawakening, but the humans remain centre-stage. In Prince Caspian, the awakening forces of nature likewise interact with the humans and respond to the divine grace of Aslan, but while they are agents, they are none of them protagonists. So (apart from the examples below) I draw a blank.

The penultimate category was suggested to me by re-reading Rob Cowen’s account of an eye-to-eye meeting with a deer, in which he imagines himself into the deer, standing for every hunted deer of the past and as a commentator on the world in which it lives:

I feel my heart quicken, thump, and prepare for flight. Snorting to clear wet nostrils, I stand and breathe, pulling air into my lungs to determine direction, but I find only the clean, safe scents of the forest again. Things are restored.

Rob Cowen “DNA” in Common Ground

In writing for (and maybe with) children, first person narration can occur in similar ways: I am the Seed (the trailer here is lovely) has the narration in a particular tree-seed, but not every poem in this marvellous collection does the same, and this is not the landscape as a broader concept, rather a single tree standing for a landscape. Powerful writing – but short and focussed, not sustained. Perhaps Tennyson’s Brook and Whitman’s Rain succeed because the movement of water is itself a quick thing for the eye to focus on; immediately dynamic, not of massive, tectonic slowness?

*

Why do I keep coming back to extinction? At a simple, personal level it’s because I feel my mortality keenly in these days of pandemic. But in the Lit Crit I see it in so much of the material I have thought of as “brilliant and affective writing about place:” the fragility of the human presence in the walnut forests in Deakin’s Wildwood; the postscript to Macfarlane’s Landmarks; the trees making connections and spurring the humans to action in The Overstory. These are not written as a message from nature in its own words, but words explicitly by good human writers acting as advocates, reading the signs of the times and warning us as surely as Old Testament prophets.

Because the voice of the landscape is unimaginably distant and immanent, all at once. Is it merely a personification, a trick of perception, of how we see this connection or that rock shape, some sort of pareidolia to help us discern a place, a role, a meaning? Is it a different tack on the same pathway that gave us Sky Gods, talking/spirit animals, Green Knights?

I started out with the intention of finding fiction in which the landscape is in some way a character – I’ll keep it as vague as that. I don’t think I managed it. However I seem to have ended up thinking about some kind of End Times for the Anthropocene. I am conscious that some of the predictions about the end of Homo sapiens might mean that “nature” (however we define it) will outlast us, those oak trees that are weeds in odd corners may be here when there are no humans to admire or curse them. What value then, does our pareidolia/anthropomorphism have, if any? It seems a little pathetic: we cannot own the post-human in any way other than by “being good ancestors” and if these tricks of the light spur us on to that, then so be it.

2 thoughts on “Whispers of Living

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