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When The Clay Has You

The common raven (Corvus corax). Photo: Jon Sullivan

I’m a local now. That’s what they tell me, now that I have someone in the ground. I watched my husband, my father, my brother, and my uncle, brace their feet at the grassy edge of the hole as they lowered my mother’s shrouded body in, straps under her neck, her waist, her knees; a corpse in a snug muslin bag, strewn with roses: the human-animal shape of her clear. She wobbled until she hit bottom, until the clay had her. We sent more roses in after her. Scattered soil on the petals, slowly at first. And then we picked up spades and shovelled it in. And now the same curve of earth that holds my home, holds her. When I sit at my desk to write, she is under the same ground that is beneath my feet. When I lie down in my bed at night, there are no human others between me and her, just forest and grass and rock and sky.

It was a beautiful thing she did. Unconventional. She was a theatre director, and her insistence on a shroud rather than a coffin was her last piece of theatrical expression. She believed we live in a death-denying society; she wanted her dead body recognised for what it was, not hidden away. She believed we are rank in our human wastage and selfishness; she gave herself back to the earth.

And I agreed with her. Agree with her. Wholeheartedly. I applaud her.

And yet, the horror.

We humans like to think we’re special. Coffins are a great symbol. We don’t want to be touched by the earth. We don’t want to be corrupted by its creatures, by the breakdown of our own material cells when we come in contact with it in death. We want to stay special, even in the very moment when it is proved to us that we are not, that we are so of this earth that we will rot with it and come apart and our matter be used again and again, like everything else, by everything else.

Val Plumwood found herself surprised by the depth of this, when, in 1985, already lobbying hard against anthropocentric thinking in her philosophical work, she was attacked by a crocodile – an experience detailed in her essay ‘Being Prey’. She found herself clamped between jaws, being rolled in the water, a new narrative understanding of herself, herself, as prey, and thinking with incredulity, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being. I am more than just food!’

By the time my mother died, I had already written a doctoral thesis detailing how human literature was solipsistic in its employment of the nonhuman world as setting, metaphor, and backdrop. I had smugly drawn metaphors myself, satirising our white literary canon as a grand old theatre with a stage devoted solely to repeated tellings of the Great Human Story: the theatre metaphor natural to me, given my mother’s influence.

In my metaphor, the nonhuman parts of our world stand like painted scenery in our fictions, thin backdrop or signposts or metaphors for the hero’s quest: a mountain, something to be conquered; a river, to be crossed; a bird, our own grounded aspirations; clouds are forbidding; forests conceal; a blue-fabric ocean is ceaseless in its movement and endless in its bounty. My trump card was this question from ecocritic Cheryl Glotfelty: ‘How do our metaphors of the land influence the way we treat it?’ As answer I cited our fracked mountains, poisoned rivers, extinct birds, acidic clouds, felled forests, empty oceans. I contended, and still contend, that, as anthropocentrism is the driver of the greatest catastrophes we face, when we write, whatever we write, it is a question we need to seriously consider. Because it is not merely academic. Anthopocentrism is a cultural problem with material effects.

And I thought I had cracked it. I thought I had changed my own thinking enough to write ecocentrically, enough to adequately decentre the human in my fiction. I had written a novel, my young adult novel As Stars Fall, that opened with the point of view of a bird. The novel disrupted human subjectivities. It worked to re-embed the people in their environment. I was proud of it. I was an expert in ecofiction now, I thought. I had something to say.

And then my mother got buried in her shroud, the first dead human I had ever seen, and the night-time horrors shook me. My mother’s body, open to the ground around her, dissipating, corrupting, being fed upon, distributed among the soil creatures like spoils.

Like Val Plumwood, some deep part of me refused to believe such a complex human could be reduced to meat, to something so useable. To something edible. How could this happen to my mother, was the gasp that sucked me out of shallow sleep.

Separate to the grief some deep self-serving part of me still thought humans were special. Some deep part was shocked that real, total, biological death happens to us too. Some part of me was failing to think ecocentrically.

Fracked mountains, poisoned rivers, extinct birds, acidic clouds, felled forests, empty oceans. Pitting ourselves against them all, in stories, and in life.

This is not the world I want to write for my children.

The curlew was waiting for her mate. Her hunger was growing. She smelled the air. She fluffed her feathers over the delicate eggs that lay on the ground beneath her, growing life from her warmth. Shifting her position, she smelled the air again.

So opens my young adult novel As Stars Fall. Here are the opening lines of Sonya Hartnett’s young adult novel Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf:

The animal woke before dawn. Its body was curled tight against the frost that spiked the foot of the mountain and, except for the deep eyes that blinked and closed, and blinked again, the creature made no move, as if the cold had frozen it through.

In both of these beginnings, there is a sleight-of-hand. Although it may seem so, at no time is an internal point of view made explicit. I was certainly aware at the time of writing it of a particular trickiness, of only giving us access to the bird’s impressions, its sensations, all things which would be able to be sensed and perceived only through its physicality, without ever ascribing the attribution, ‘she thinks.’

The animal almost-point-of-view does not last. Turn the page of either Hartnett’s novel or my own and the first central ‘human actant’ strides onto the page.

Is this failure?

European philosophy has consistently occupied itself with the question of human specialness … It was not enough to demonstrate that human beings were unique, for each species is evidently unique in its way; rather, it was necessary to show that the human form was uniquely unique, that our noble gifts set us definitively apart from, and above, the rest of the animate world …

David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous.

Reason is ours alone, we have thought. Reason, language, science, technology, art: these things make us uniquely unique.

Except that they don’t. We know they don’t. We know that meerkats have language, corvids are natural scientists, and countless species have an aesthetic sense and the urge to perform. The idea of our unique uniqueness is merely a symptom of what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls the ‘tyranny of the discontinuous mind’. We have trouble with spectrums. We enjoy categories. We divide life into species, we place ourselves at the top, or even outside the system entirely.

Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the mastery of nature, written after her crocodile attack, articulates how western culture constructs this human identity outside nature by that very discourse of reason of which we are so fond. Christopher Manes writes that in order to think ecocentrically we must ‘dismantle a particular historical use of reason that has produced a certain kind of human subject that only speaks soliloquies in a world of non-rational silences.’

My husband is a scientist, with training in evolutionary biology. I have studied environmental science. I am a fan of reason. I believe that reason has given us wonderful ‘ways in’ to a potential new ecocentric human ontology: what science reveals can short-circuit the model we’ve learned – or established – of cascading binaries of hyper-separation, between God and ‘man’, between ‘human’ and ‘nature’. There are no dualisms in evolutionary biology. No hierarchies. There is only branch and web – ‘the mesh’, as object-oriented ecological philosopher Timothy Morton calls it. But Manes is right. So far, this has provided no joy in the ecopoetic project. We have slapped the methods of reason over the top of our creativity rather than using the fruits of reason as stepping-off points.

David Abrams – ecologist, anthropologist, philosopher, shamanistic magician and ecophenomenologist – believes that our relationship with our texts has become a stand-in for our early, and now largely defunct, animism, as the articulate subject that was once experienced in nature has shifted to the written word. It is language that we chose to be the great demarcator of our specialness after our God-born genesis had been undermined by Darwin. And to keep us special, language had to become an exclusively human property. That is a big concern because, as anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr writes of shamanistic cultures, ‘People do not exploit a nature that speaks to them’.

Texts, then, have a great responsibility to that which they have disenfranchised.

As a writer, I have a great responsibility to that which I have disenfranchised.

But there is a problem.

The ‘ecofictive problem’.

Work has been done to decentre the human in nonfiction nature-writing – this has been the locus of most ecocritical work – but attempts to translate this into fiction have regularly hit critical walls. The difficulty, as Kate Rigby puts it, is that ‘the centrality of the human actant, however contingent, contextualized, and decentered she might be in herself, is a necessary condition for there to be such a thing as literature, as commonly understood.’

I discussed this with a writer friend who then dropped the most wonderful utterance.

‘Vegetables have no drama,’ she said.

I laughed. And then I stopped, because she was right. Or at least seemed so.

And then I thought. Perhaps vegetables have plenty of drama – perhaps we just don’t know enough about their lives, their communications.

So I went and watched David Attenborough’s Life of Plants.

Drama. So much drama. Competition for light. Roots battling for soil and water. A single vine attacking a Goliath of a tree. A fight to the death. In slow-motion.

But how could I write that? I couldn’t see a way. Or at least a way that worked.

When I was an undergraduate, a creative writing tutor took me to task for anthropomorphising guinea pigs in a story. She got really mad about it. I actually hadn’t given any insight into the mammals but I must have skirted too close for her comfort.

We experienced a clash of ideology. She was insisting on a philosophy of writing which hung on the grand tradition of reason and stuck to the task of writing the human and the human’s objects. James Bradley writes:

Around the world, fiction writers are shaking themselves free of old assumptions about subject matter and form in an attempt to find new forms, new strategies and new vocabularies capable of giving shape to the world in which we find ourselves.

I don’t believe my tutor was especially aware of her aims, she was simply responding to her idea of what worked and what didn’t. But this aesthetic literary sense has origins somewhere. And origins can be problematic.

Ursula le Guin has things to say about our classical structures in her 1986 essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Applying Elizabeth Fisher’s Carrier Bag Theory of Human Evolution to fiction, le Guin writes:

The mammoth hunters spectacularly occupy the cave wall and the mind, but what we actually did to stay alive and fat was gather seeds, roots, sprouts, shoots, leaves, nuts, berries, fruits and grains, adding bugs and mollusks and netting or snaring birds, fish, rats, rabbits and other tuskless small fry to up the protein.

When she writes, ‘It is hard to tell a really gripping tale of how I wrested a wild-oat seed from its husk,’ I am reminded of my friend commenting that vegetables have no drama. Le Guin compares wresting that wild oat to the tale of the hunting of the woolly mammoth, with peril and death and blood spouting everywhere in ‘crimson torrents’ and a heroic ‘I’ who shoots an unerring arrow ‘straight through eye to brain.’

‘That story not only has Action,’ she writes, ‘it has a Hero.’

This story she talks about becomes ‘the killer story’. The story of the first tool, the long hard thing to bash with, or shoot with, or stab with. The ‘killer story’ takes hold, and everyone else is pressed into service.

So the Hero has decreed through his mouthpieces the Lawgivers, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead)’.

Only, she points out, paleoanthropologists now know that a spear or a hammer or an arrow wasn’t the first human tool. The first human tool was likely a receptacle, a pouch, a bowl. A carrier bag.

Le Guin then gives us a fundamentally different conception of literature, her own conception of what ‘works’:

The novel is a fundamentally unheroic kind of story … I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.

This is writer as storyteller and shaman.

There is an arresting section in David Abram’s Becoming Animal. A two-tiered trick. It appears like real magic, and as such, it is unbelievable. But then, as Abram explains the ‘trick’, you find the truth of a human’s actual ability to ‘shape-shift’. Abram, spending time in the high Himalayas, sees his teacher guide, a jhankri – an animistic shaman – named Sonam, metamorphose into a raven and back into a man.

As I rounded the bend, I finally saw the raven [previously heard], poised atop a boulder jutting out over the gorge to the left of the trail; as I watched, it hopped twice to angle itself toward me, its eyes blinking like camera shutters as it cocked its head. It uttered another more subdued ‘squaaark’ and then hopped down onto the trail … there was something all wrong about the way the raven landed on the dirt—its shape was contorted somehow, and the landing much too loud, until I realized that I was looking at Sonam, and not a raven at all.

Abram doesn’t ask us to believe in anything supernatural: straight away, in the very next chapter, he lays out a rational explanation for the occurrence, or rather a relational one. He explains that his own perceptions were rendered receptive to the mistaken identity by the dusk, by the narrowness of the mountain path, the particular shape of the scene which allowed a truncation of perspective so that Sonam was far away enough to be the right size but appearing close up.

Sonam has spent his life noticing the ravens. Deeply noticing. Paying such attention, devoting his attention; sending his attention inside the raven. He had practiced ‘holding himself in the various postures of that bird, had practiced Raven’s ways of walking, of moving its head, of spreading its feathered limbs … To move as another’. By the dusk, the narrow path, the perspective, and the fact that through deep noticing Sonam was able to ‘move as another’, Abram’s perception was altered.

This is not a rational explanation: yes, it explains, but it does not replace or negate the truth of the experience. A bird was a human and a human was a bird. It is not rational, it is relational. This is a phenomenological explanation.

Writing ecocentric fiction should not be an experiment in rationality. To ‘move as another’ is not an act of reason. It is not rooted in classical logic. It does not say ‘I am this and therefore I cannot be that.’

It doesn’t go thok! from here to there.

Writing ecocentric fiction is relational. Like ecology, like phenomenology. Like a medicine bundle. Like a carrier bag.

I often read two books at once. I’ll have one nonfiction book on the go and I’ll also immerse myself in a work of a fiction. And sometimes I find that reading one book which explicitly tells me things and another which keeps its meaning implicit can generate lines of thinking which may not otherwise evolve.

I recently read Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying: a very detailed and specific ‘how-to’ about arranging the objects in one’s home. On the surface it is a self-help book, a decluttering manual on how to create maximum order and simplicity: what to throw out, what to keep and where and how, how to roll your socks, what not to buy. Kondo is practically a character in her own manual: her direct first-person voice is idiosyncratic and particular; her own personal history of tidying documented for our edification.

At the same time I was reading Franz Kafka’s story ‘The Burrow’, an animal point-of-view story also written in first-person direct address. The exact species is never identified, but the animal is subterranean, and its burrow is its pride and joy, a near-perfect dwelling of its own creation. But the ‘near-perfectness’ becomes the animal’s obsession, the specificity of each element becomes the subject of the animal’s fastidious attention until the creature is driven near mad by its own way of trying to ‘be’. Switching back and forth between Kondo and Kafka became an odd experience, with each creature obsessing about the manner of their dwelling. I came to feel that Kafka’s creature and Kondo were one and the same.

The classical, rational reading of Kafka’s story would be that it is a fable about humans, with the animal as a stand-in. As most fable-styled literature does, this attracts a particular kind of critique within the discussion of ecocentrism. Eliot Schrefer articulates it thus:

This idea that animals are interesting in as much as they are people still has a prominent place in our culture. Most of the children’s picture books that we see now have animals as their main figures, but those animals are not really acting as the animals themselves; they are wearing human clothing, they are speaking English, they have human drives and desires.

But I think this is too easy. Kafka is a writer who not only perpetually puts animals in the centre, even if they can be read in human-like ways, he is always disrupting the human point-of-view, always dragging humans into animal terrains and forms. The strong sense I came away with from my double-reading was not that Kafka’s animal wasn’t a real animal, but a reminder that Kondo, and all other humans who live in a dwelling of some sort – all of us – are animals.

In this light, ‘The Burrow’, even if it is a metaphor, works because of what is the same, not because of what is different; it works because of what Kafka has noticed about burrowing animals, deeply noticed: their care of their homes, his empathy for their self-care, designing their burrows with maximum concern for their own safety and sustenance: that they are like us. Any other interpretation is suffering a case of the dualisms – a case of denied dependency, of total othering.

For me this becomes a question about all metaphors between humans and animals, humans and plants, humans and land and sea. Metaphors rely on two parallel lines, running along in space, different but able to be likened. They compare two unrelated things in order to create new meaning. They rely on the discontinuous mind, on continuous disconnection. But parallels are not an especially natural form, temporary at best. Trace most parallels back far enough and the lines bend towards each other, towards a singularity of origin.

And this is now part of my thinking about children’s literature, where animals have often been decried for behaving like furry humans. ‘Not really acting as the animals themselves,’ as Schrefer says. Sonya Hartnett’s Forest, Patricia Wrightson’s The Nargun and the Stars, Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, C.S.Lewis’s Narnia series, Milne’s Winnie the Pooh; Graham’s The Wind in the Willows; Back Beauty, Paddington Bear, Charlotte’s Web, The Jungle Book, endless fairytales: these would all fall foul of his charge. But why are there so many of them? Why are more-than-human characters so appealing to children?

Would The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe have worked if Narnia was just a land with an evil dictator and human residents? If Mr Tumnus the Faun was simply a man? If Mr and Mrs Beaver were just kindly farmfolk?  It is exciting to children to read of a place with such biodiversity, with such a diversity of voices, such varied ways of being and looking and acting – such different strengths and weaknesses. It is easy to overlook these things if we simply dismiss the books as one big metaphor with humans wearing animal masks. But if we take it as more-than-metaphor, then the world opens up. If it is more-than-metaphor when animal characters speak, it is a magnification of the fact that yes, nonhumans communicate too.

All of this makes writing young adult fiction a dynamic playing field for experiments in ecocentrism, where the permitted zone of more-than-human voices that we find in children’s literature seeps into a more adult form. Here we find books like Kate Constable’s Crow Country, Sonya Hartnett’s Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf and Thursday’s Child, Le Guin’s Earthsea Quintet, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. Birds who speak; the perspective of an extinct mammal who persists in its landscape; a boy who burrows; animistic mysticism; humans with an essential physiological animal element; marine-human hybrids.

Schrefer is encouraging us to keep animals in view against the chronic destructive backgrounding we subject them to in our systems – it is an important political action. But if this is as far as we go in fiction it is like trying to row upstream without first getting out of the strongest current. It doesn’t do anything for the way we consider ourselves. It doesn’t address self-perception.

Climate change demands we alter our self-perception. Climate change unequivocally asserts the human-animal’s ecological embeddedness in every nation on earth. It is waking fiction up. The parallel is dissolving. Fiction is widening the lens, re-embedding humans in their world, and the interaction is becoming patently, tangibly, clamouringly more-than-metaphor.

Laid out and immobilized on the flat surface, our words tend to forget that they are sustained by this windswept earth; they begin to imagine that their primary task is to provide a representation of the world (as though they were outside of, and not really a part of, this world). – David Abram, Becoming Animal.

My fudged animal almost-point-of-view, human actants still striding about on centre-stage: Is this failure?

Reading the openings of Hartnett’s book and my book, I find my reading self, if not my writing self, making the assumption that the animal perceptions listed there are gathered together by an internal animal subjectivity, a subjectivity which I am reading and feeling – one in which I am participating. Even though I know it hasn’t been written that way.

And in this I see a kind of proof: that we human animals are wired to be receptive and empathetic to the experience of other individuals – human and more-than-human. And that, actually, it doesn’t take much: once we are given license we easily assume a whole and true existence in a more-than-human other. Deeply we absorb this other existence as part of our reading selves, just as we would any human character. We relate. As Abram writes in his opening lines of The Spell of the Sensuous:

Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils—all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness. This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and tumbling streams—these breathing shapes are our family, the beings with whom we are engaged, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate.

Subjectivity is permeable. I can dilute my human self and the more-than-human can travel across the membrane of my watery subjectivity.

Metaphors are more-than. I can spread my awareness along the spectrum of forms and become homeopathic in my distillation of any one thing.

My body is permeable. I can feel, see, taste, hear and smell.

My mother’s body is permeable. That sloping arc of clay and shale and shattered mudstone that holds her in her death, gives life to ironbarks and yellow boxes and chocolate-lilies and orchids and echidnas and scorpions and treecreepers.

I can perceive. I can relate. I can notice like a shaman.

I can unwrap my bundle of windswept words.

I can pick up my pen.

References

Abram, D 1997, The spell of the sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world, Vintage Books, New York.
— 2011, Becoming animal, Vintage Books, New York.
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—2009, The year of the flood: a novel, Doubleday, New York.
—2013, MaddAddam, Virago, London.
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— 2000, Thursday’s child, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria.
— 2001, Forest, Viking, Camberwell.
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— 2005, Metamorphosis and other stories, Vintage books, London.
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—1996, ‘Being Prey’, Terra Nova 1, pp. 32-44
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