Monday musings on Australian literature: Nature writing in Australia
Blogger Michelle (Adventures in Biography) posted last week on a presentation by literary agent, Mary Cunnane, at the HARDCOPY writers’ workshop she attended here in Canberra. Answering a question about narrative non-fiction, Cunnane apparently said “I do wonder, for example, why there isn’t more really good nature writing in Australia”. Quite coincidentally, last week another blogger, Stefanie (So Many Books), asked her readers for recommendations for “good nature books”. Both these posts got me thinking about nature writing in Australia. We have such varied landscapes not to mention interesting flora and fauna, that you would think examples of nature writing would roll off our tongues – but it doesn’t seem to.
What is “nature writing”?
Let’s start with Wikipedia which offers a definition, albeit an unsourced one. Nature writing, it says, “is nonfiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment”. I must admit that when I think of “nature writing” my mind immediately leaps to the strong tradition from Stefanie’s home, the USA, with non-fiction authors like Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, John Muir ( “A wind-storm in the forests”) and Mary Austin (“The scavengers” and “The land”). These writers focus very closely on landscape and the nature within it.
Cunnane, as far as I know, didn’t elaborate her understanding of “nature writing”, but Stefanie did, taking a broad view:
It might be a science-y book on moss or a sociology/psychology/philosophy kind of book on coping with climate change or a travel through the jungle/desert/forest/arctic sort of book or it could be about a cabin on a pond and planting beans and watching ants or about a garden or a farm … Something to take my mind outdoors while my body is stuck indoors.
Looking a little further … Last year, I wrote a Monday Musings about Australia’s relatively new Nature Writing Prize. This essay prize has been described as being about “relationship and interaction with some aspect of the Australian landscape” or for writing that “demonstrates a deep appreciation of Australia’s magnificent landscapes”. The sponsor, the Nature Conservancy, calls it the genre of “writing of place”. “Place” seems to me to be a little broader than nature, but presumably the entrants know what the prize is looking for.
Briefly researching this topic, I came across an article Charlotte Wood wrote in 2004 on an anthology edited by Mark Tredinnick and titled A place on earth: An anthology of nature writing From North America and Australia. Tredinnick, Wood says, wanted to kickstart a new genre, “an Australian ‘literature of place'”! There’s that word “place” again. Wood discusses form and content, starting with the idea that the essay is a natural fit “with this subject matter”. But, not all writers in the anthology agree. Eric Rolls sees no reason why the “essay should be considered the most suitable form for writing about place”, and Patrice Newell, whose farm-memoir The olive grove I read before blogging, says “I’m simply a story-teller. I tell stories about our family, our farm, the flora and fauna, our river, our olive grove”. She refers to the issue of place saying:
There’s a lot of talk about ‘place’ but every place is a place. A tram is a place as crowded with memories as passengers. I’m troubled that ‘place’ is becoming a descriptive term for somewhere in the natural world. It can be too precious.
I’m with Newell. Conceptually, place can include nature, but I don’t think it’s useful as a synonym.
All of this confirms for me that “nature writing” is a rather broad church: it can be fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, but its focus must be nature and the environment.
Nature writing in Australia
Wood, in her article cited above, quotes essayist Peter Hay as agreeing that an Australian tradition of nature writing has been lacking, though he says that poetry is an exception. He’s right. Many of the early ballads focused closely on the interaction of humans with nature, and then there are those poets he names, like Henry Kendall and Judith Wright. He also says that “Australian fictionalists [a new word for me!] have always unselfconsciously written of the natural world”. In other words, he says, we haven’t “neglected the natural world in our writing”, we just don’t have a “literary genre specifically devoted to these themes as there is in North America”.
And so, while the names of Australian nature writers don’t jump immediately into my head, as they do when I think of the USA, it doesn’t take long for some to float to the surface. How about the two Tims – Flannery and Winton – for example? Tim Flannery’s books on palaeontology and climate – such as The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, and The weather makers: The history and future impact of climate change – are obvious. In much of Tim Winton’s fiction, the environment is almost a character itself. Breath, The turning and Dirt Music are three examples, but landscape is critical to most of his books. Winton has written non-fiction about the environment too, including Land’s edge and Down to earth. Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus is an obvious contender with its specific focus on gum trees.
What about those “farm books” which explore human interaction with the landscape? Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s rules for scientific living and Mateship with birds (my review), Andrew McGahan’s White earth, Gillian Mears’ Foals’ bread (my review), Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review) and Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (my review) are all good examples.
And then, of course, there’s the relationship of indigenous Australians with the land, or country. Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review) and Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review) jump immediately to mind, but much indigenous literature encompasses relationship with and responsibility for country.
Wood’s article raises another aspect of nature writing – “eco-activism”. She feared, she said, that this would be the main thrust of the anthology – but it wasn’t so. However, Tredinnick does admit there’s a connection between “creating a literature of place and creating a practical sympathy for the land”. Some writers are conscious of this connection, while others aren’t, but the contributors to the anthology agreed that such writing is not about “preaching”, but about “showing”, about creating the “sympathy” Tredinnick talks about. Anna Krein’s investigative, analytical Into the woods (my review) about the forestry conflict in Tasmania and her quarterly essay about our relationship with animals, Us and them: On the importance of animals (my review), are conscious exemplars of this aspect: they actively grapple with ecological/enviromental issues.
I’ve barely introduced the subject, but it has confirmed for me that while Australia may not have an easily definable tradition of “nature writing”, nature and landscape are integral to our literature, across forms and genres. So, let’s end with the opening of one of Judith Wright’s most famous poems:
South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
(from Judith Wright’s “South of my days” at PoemHunter)
What does nature writing mean to you? And, does it interest you?