A Place on Earth: Nature writing in Australia
An edited version of this article appeared in Good Reading magazine, 2004
From Thoreau’s Walden to Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, writers everywhere have always been in love with the land. But in a new anthology of essays, A Place on Earth, editor Mark Tredinnick doesn’t shy away from a grand ambition: to kickstart a new genre - an Australian “literature of place”.
Use the term “nature writing” in Australia, says Blue Mountains author Mark Tredinnick, and you’re generally met with a puzzled expression. Booksellers, for example, are confused about where to put a book of essays about nature – in the travel section, perhaps? Or history? Whereas in North America, Tredinnick claims, the tradition of the poetic, personal essay about place is a long and solid one. Beginning with Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and poet Emily Dickinson, and practised now in the writings of Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Peter Matthiessen and many others like them, the nature essay, or ‘place writing’, is as established a genre in the US and Canada as crime fiction.
This difference in literature between two countries of arguably similar scales and settlement histories, is what drew Tredinnick to compile A Place on Earth – and, he hopes, to give more than a gentle nudge to the rise of the genre in this country.
The book is a collection of 26 personal – and often highly poetic - essays, each about a particular natural geography close to the writer’s heart. This is not to say the human is ignored; the opposite is true. While the essays always focus on the natural ecology of a place, they are also always about something else, something deeply human: a son’s grief for his father in Scott Russell Saunders’ piece Buckeye, for example; blindness, in Barbara Blackman’s exploration of navigating places without sight; feelings of trespass and ownership in Patrice Newell’s account of a map-reading orienteering competition on her farm. Peter Hay’s The Red Steer at Rat Bay is as much a sorrowful account of falling out with a neighbour over fuel reduction, and of his own confusion, as it is about the land at issue. First published decades ago, Charmian Clift’s The Centre explores, through a trip to Alice Springs, her own shame at the Aboriginal dispossession evident in the locals’ aimless drunkenness. (“I want to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Apologise. Absolve myself.”)
All the essays are by either Australian or North American writers, a deliberate choice by Tredinnick, whose idea for the collection arose from a nature writers’ symposium he attended at Harvard University in 2000.
“North America has been home, since Thoreau, to a rich literature dedicated to bringing places – landscapes and the people and other beings who inhabit them – to a second life in the imagination of readers,” he writes in the book’s introduction. And seems true that many of the American pieces in the anthology seem to possess more of an assurance, a confidence in their literary home, than those of some Australian writers.
Tredinnick attributes the lack of an Australian tradition of this kind to many factors, which he explores in the introduction. One is that while Australia has always had a prolific poetry focused on the land and particular places, it has not, until very recently, embraced the personal, poetic essay – which he sees as the natural home of place writing.
But not all the Australians in the collection share Tredinnick’s opinions on the way this writing should be described, and where it fits into the literary canon. IN fact, some seem to have no view of it at all – they are interested in the content, not the context, of what they do.
Eric Rolls, whose piece My Places is a gentle meditation of how different birds connect him psychically to the different places he’s lived (“Birds define my places,” he says), disagrees that the essay is king in nature writing. He describes himself as “a poet and a writer of imaginative prose about whatever demands to be written”.
“It is imperative to write what one knows best, so six of my 20 books deal with nature since I was in close touch with the soil and everything connected with it during 45 years as a farmer.
“An essay is more accessible to the majority than poetry but I see no other reason why an essay should be considered the most suitable form for writing about place. Fiction, provided it is not didactic (that ruins any story), might be more suitable,” he says.
Patrice Newell, author of The Olive Grove and more recently The River, is skeptical about the nomenclature.
“I’m simply a story teller. I tell stories about our family, our farm, the flora and fauna, our river, our olive grove. Every day is full of stories. There’s a lot of talk about ‘place’ but every place, is a place. A tram is a place as crowded with memories as with passengers. I’m troubled that ‘place’ is becoming a descriptive term for somewhere in the natural world. It can be too precious.”
Tasmanian author poet and essayist Pete Hay says he’s “happy to be called a place writer”, but bristles at the term ‘nature writing.’
“I think it is a ghettoising term; one used by literary gatekeepers to box writers and writing as ‘minor’; as resident outside of the mainstream within which all literary swimmers who ‘count’ are to be found.”
But he does agree on the natural fit of the essay with this subject matter, whatever it’s called.
“To tell the truth, I became interested in this kind of writing when I realised I did not have a credible fictional voice. But now I’m passionate about it. I love the capacity the essay gives me for mixing ideas and personal stories, for being allusive and suggestive and even light and fluffy – for flying with possibility – but without having to conclusively prove; or to close off options; or to be prescriptive.”
Hay agrees, too, that an Australian tradition of nature writing has been lacking to date - but adds some clarifying points.
“I agree it has been largely absent – and I can’t account for it. Poetry is an exception of course; there are oodles of nature and place poets, from Kendall to Wright and beyond. But there has been no tradition of the essay as literature in Australia, period. Another reason is that Australian fictionalists have always unselfconsciously written of the natural world. To say there’s no tradition of place/nature writing in Australia is not to say that we have neglected the natural world in our writing- it is only to say that there is no literary genre specifically devoted to these themes as there is in North America.”
Essay as activism
Until I read this collection, I admit the term ‘nature writing’ set off in me a suspicion that I was about to be lectured on environmental degradation. Happily, almost none of the pieces gave me that feeling as I read, even though the writers are clearly deeply concerned about these issues. But is eco-activism a part of the tradition? And if so, how do these writers avoid the sanctimony of the kind of enviro-bore we’ve all encountered at dinner parties?Tredinnick believes there is a definite connection between creating a literature of place, and creating a practical sympathy for the land.
“We will live right with each other and the wider world when we uncentre ourselves a little from the merely human, the merely social realm,” he says. “We will live well and find the humility and consolation necessary to treat other humans and non-humans well when we let our places school us in dignified relationships, in larger orders of time and significance.”
Peter Hay sounds as though he wants to agree. But, he says, “I think we should avoid inflated claims about the life- and history-changing capacities of writing. As a form of activism it is comparatively minor and inconsequential … So I don’t write about the natural world because it is politically important to do so – I really do so merely to bear witness, which is an essentially sorrowful undertaking, and politically passive. But somewhere deep within there’s a voice that urges this function upon me as important.”
Eric Rolls says simply that “Things will change because of literature because good writing will give it emotional understanding as well as intellectual understanding.”
Patrice Newell does believe writing can have a practical effect. “When you tell your stories, you encourage action and involvement. When I write, I want to get away from my desk and back into it. And I hope to have the same effect on some of my readers.”
Nearly all the writers are adamant, however, that preaching has no place in this literature. Newell says it’s best avoided by “telling stories simply, honestly, in unadorned prose”. Rolls concurs: all writers, including those of nature literature, must remember “that telling a good story should be the only object of writing. The only subject people want to read is, ‘look what I’ve found’.”
Finger-wagging, says Hay, is “a trap for the unwary player. You avoid it by being aware of it.” But then he adds: “Then again, there are occasions when you would deliberately not avoid it; it’s sometimes appropriate.”
Tredinnick sees the writers’ restraint and literary skill as the key here – they avoid lecturing because they share the instinct of every good poet or novelist to show, rather than tell.
“The writers in this collection have a lyric sensibility; it would be completely naff to any of them to find themselves going too far into a finger-waving, ‘we-must-avoid-this’ mode. Clearly there’s an earnestness behind their work, a kind of grief just held in check. But it’s the holding in check that counts,” he says.
In talking with writers about this literature – and in reading the pieces, which often have a meditative, contemplative tone - I have been struck by the transcendent quality of the language they use. Which leads me to wonder if there is some kind of spirituality inherent in this work.
Tredinnick doesn’t believe the work is overtly spiritual, which he would see as falling into the New Age grab-bag of religious fashion. But he concedes there’s something deep and somewhat elusive at work in this literature.
“If there is [a spirituality], it would mean something like transcending the merely personal, the merely human, the merely temporal. All nature writers would share the fundamental and rather old-fashioned view that what’s chiefly real is more than merely human. That we’re part of something bigger, and we may never get a handle on anything that it is, but we’re here to witness it.”
© Charlotte Wood, 2004