Returning to the Problem of Writing

In an attempt to uncover all the drivers that construct a society that is inherently anti-ecological Jones, in this chapter of his doctoral thesis, Walking for food: regaining permapoesis, turns the lens onto writing itself and offers up a provocation: Does writing erode ecological intelligence? We know or believe writing constructs civil intelligence, that is intelligence required for growing cities and other anthropocentric environments, but does it aid or hinder the development of ecological society? The chapter takes the form of a letter written to writer and environmentalist Maya Ward. Maya's reply can be read as part of Jones' full thesis, available through the UWS library and online databases.

 

Keywords: writing – ecology – society – civility – Indigenous – Lionel Fogarty – Maya Ward – William Buckley – Alan Garner

It is our fall from a simplicity and fullness of life directly experienced, from the sensuous moment of knowing, which leaves a gap that the symbolic can never bridge. This is what is always being covered over by layers of cultural consolations, civilized detouring that never recovers lost wholeness. In a very deep sense, only what is repressed is symbolized, because only what is repressed needs to be symbolized. The magnitude of symbolization testifies to how much has been repressed; buried, but possibly still recoverable (Zerzan 2002: 4).

Dear Maya,

This letter is prompted by your book, The comfort of water: a river pilgrimage, a complex account of your 21-day walk along the Yarra from mouth to source with three friends and a seemingly endless cohort of supporters (Ward 2011). You set off at Williamstown and make your way through the noise and fanfare of the city, the suburbs, then into quieter territory, country that isn’t as heavily trodden or written upon. Gradually it unfolds that your walk is a kind of initiation back into life, life not dominated by symbols and machines.

Your book has prompted many questions about environment and home place, dispossession and estrangement, but none more immediate to me than the place of writing in society and its role in mediating life. I want to share with you some critical thought I have about writing, thought that attempts to consider what might be at the root of ecological estrangement and, by extension, a dominant ideology that ratifies pollution and other forms of suffering. Of course, even before we have written them down words can be powerful things. They can enact love and tenderness and they can fuel heartbreak and war. Stephen Collis (2008) in his volume of poems titled The commons problematises, as you do in The comfort of water, enclosing English common land, stopping the collective use of it by privatisation’s burgeoning fences:

as words not
woods will make
fences… (Collis 2008: 13)

Whereas words spoken can arrive first as political weaponry, words on paper—authorised and made concrete by the surveyor and governor’s quill—more than make the territory, at least according to private property relations. Writing Lot 42 over common or indigenous land is unmistakably an act of civil (by which I mean veiled or at arm’s length) violence. Civil violence really begins with the fence and reaches its pinnacle today in drone warfare. We know what writing is good for; it is essentially all we hear if we hear anything at all about literacy, such is its common place. Writing is for politics and for individual self-expression. But I would also argue writing is a curse, it ratifies the symbolic in a very powerful way; it is a thing that comes between things, like a fence. Writing always seems to be storing something while transporting it from one place to another, and in this way it is an obvious extension of the modes of agriculture. Perhaps the best writing can be is a stile that gives access from one place to another, to make the fence permeable. But the stile is not the land, it is a metaphor; the stile is a technic, and only required because the land has been fenced off.

Since I first read her book Words to be looked at, I have thought often of Liz Kotz’s description of words:

By their nature, words are both here—concretely and physically present on the page, or in the moment of utterance—and yet also elsewhere—referring to, evoking, or metaphorically conjuring up sets of ideas, objects, or experiences that are somewhere else (2007: 3)

I think the description is accurate but it doesn’t problematise writing’s natural ability to mediate and separate. To read, the eye becomes the favoured sense and yet the eye is the most distancing of senses. My pre-literate five-month-old son, Blackwood, puts everything into his hands and mouth. Everything, for now, is touched and tasted into existence. The failure to recognise our adult selves as mediated by words is systemic. Bruno Latour (1993) argues that we know more about peoples of place, ‘them’ (through anthropology), than ourselves, ‘us’, and because of this ‘[o]ur intellectual life is out of kilter’ (5). It is asymmetrical. By ‘us’ Latour means those who have fallen under the spells of ‘Greek mathematics, Italian physics, German chemistry, American nuclear engineering or Belgian thermodynamics’ (1993: 98). In other words, fallen under the spells of symbolic life. In a material sense each individual letter or numeral scribed or printed in a text constitutes a sea of representations on the page or across the screen that favours the eye and its distancing sensibilities. In widening the disciplines of western thought to include the social sciences, Latour believes ‘all have their privileged vantage point, provided that they remain separate’ (5). Even though it may be said that there has been some effort to address this divide over the past twenty years, estrangement remains emphatic and mediated life only aggregates. In his essay 'The failure of symbolic thought' (2002) John Zerzan writes, ‘we live within symbols to a greater degree than we do within our bodily selves or directly with each other’ (2002: 2).

I wonder whether our colossal failure as a society to love the human and more-than-human worlds of the world is because a direct, unmediated love of land and place barely exists. Such lovelessness is expressed in an absent outrage for the brutality, illness and suffering that symbolic, technical life has brought to country. A love of symbols exists—coats of arms, flags, teams, brands, a postcard of a sunset—but a love of country doesn’t really exist at all. Symbolic love transpires as symbolic nationalism through the mediums of art, tourist brochure, film, object, photography, war and writing. According to symbolic culture the land doesn’t really feed and nurture us, corporations and stock images do, therefore what is there to love about the land? The land is dirty, dangerous and hostile. It stings and bites and burns and floods and strikes and punctures and irritates and poisons. It is better witnessed therefore through mediums we can access from a chair, as an image. An image of love is a loving of something that is monosensical (mainly of the eye), and I think this goes some way to explaining our intransigence to ecological crisis and how this lovelessness—this love for symbols, for phantasms—also transforms into psychological crisis. We are never home.

So what leads us to writing, to representation, to mediating the worlds of the world in printed symbols? What does it really mean to be someone who writes environment, place, ecology—the watery, earthly, creaturely—someone who writes it down for examination and enquiry by others? The two of us are reasonably practical people—gardeners, permaculturalists, people who love to feel soil in our hands and pull out and taste its fruits, people who walk, and people who have been involved in forest campaigns and other forms of direct grassroots activism for many years. Writing is something in which we increasingly have immersed our lives. We are marginal voices, but with writing we have voice and the means to be heard. Capitalism, an invention of civility, constructed a pronounced class division between those who produce labour and those who exploit it; between those who have voice and those who are voiceless. Such class lines today are evidently more blurred, yet despite our marginal politics we are privileged by virtue of our civil accoutrements—formal education, literacy, our productions for being heard—more so than our economic and exploitative means.

Something else occurs when we are literate. We are not only reading and writing from the position of the stile, but the more we inhabit it the more we are forgetting or disappearing the land and its intimates. Socrates was concerned, or so goes the handed-down myth, that writing made lazy thinkers. When we’re on the stile we do not inhabit earth, we do not observe and interact closely with the land. We instead become reliant on abstract messaging (from other stiles) to inform us about it. From the vantage of the stile the sensory loss is startling, but art and literature normalise this loss by making their subjects refer only to other stiles. As writers, we are desensitised by the abstraction of writing even when we are conscious to include all the senses like your friend David Abram (2010) does so well. The more intimate senses—smell, taste, touch—are disappeared through such mediums as writing. A thing that is supposed to preserve sense and thought may, I think, act against such preservation. Writing preserves something, for a time, as a physical archive, but what does such archiving, such historicising really do to the writer and, more importantly, to the reader? Writing asks the reader to be in indirect time and place. To know, perhaps, before knowing.

I think you’d agree that oral voicing, story telling, is quite different to writing, and that oral societies are significantly more ecologically functional because story and thing, story and land, are made and remade in the present and in place, passed on from generation to generation and therefore not stable or fixed, but adaptable to change and ecological flux. It is not by accident that oral societies are fenceless societies. Western culture is still so heavily involved in the colonial project of contempt for such people and such being. It is however today more subtle than in the past; the mockery forms as self-praise for our technological achievements and our individual complexities. Indigenous peoples must fold into the west’s symbolic order or be left to self-destroy or titillate as cultural spectacle. Even as the west’s neurosis worsens, choking on its symbols and pollutions, it holds that living simply and directly in relation with more-than-human communities is romantic foolishness. Animism in the west is long dead, although we have occasionally seen traces of it since William Blake’s 'The fly' (1794); since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But animals today are spectacles, resources, symbols, fetishised pets and wildlife, and things to be studied. They are rarely kin or self, eaten and made into.

The abiding fear that those enamoured with symbolic culture hold is that a new dark age will appear if we turn our backs on symbolic life; by lessening our symbols and associated technics we will become more creaturely, books will turn to dust, machines will rust and glitch and crash, and order will be lost. But will this really be the case? Would the lessening of symbols and technics destroy politics? We have never seen such disinterest in politics and yet symbols and technology envelope our lives in an unprecedented way. Why can’t we ask instead, what intelligence have we forfeited in order to be such complex, abstract, non-collective, discursive, technocratised and destructive beings? My friend Alison Pouliot took a group of high school students into a nearby forest to show them the importance of fungi there. She asked them a question about the forest and they all immediately looked down to their iPads and started to research the question.

A question you may be asking me now is why am I writing all this down? The simple answer is that once educated on the stile it is difficult to get off it, and writers don’t usually attack their tools to such an extent they stop using them. Yes, writing is voice and the means to be heard. I’m not ready to give up politics just yet, but I am interested in understanding all the parts behind ecological crisis and society’s intransigence concerning it. In his 1982 poem, ‘Ecology’, Lionel Fogarty, a Yoogum and Kudjela man, begins by listing all the earthly forms that he is: ‘I am a frilled necked lizard … king brown taipan … pelicans … roots, nuts … dugong, kangaroo, cockatoo and grasshopper … termite, better still butterflies are my beetles … goannas’ (2008: 91). The poem reads as though he is taking us on a walk into the places where life with kin is performed. He aims to be heard, to have voice through writing, but he also wants the symbolic tools of the invader to work against the symbolic imperatives of the invader, as we’ll see more clearly shortly. About half way through the poem he stops, turns and pronounces:

I am death
             Harmless.

Here is where writing stands on the back of my neck, becomes bodily; here my comprehension of death is amplified through the printing of four words on a page. Words become a sensation and they are felt not just seen and heard. In all his cross-speciesness, in all the killing that has to take place there, Fogarty is saying harm is not possible. He is tempting us to consider death in an ‘ABORIGINAL’ sense, which he declares is harmless because it is of land in both intent and law—‘our systems woven from an eco-system’. Fogarty understands harm to comprise human activities that work outside of or against ecological functioning, those that are mechanised, symbolic and essentially loveless. It is not that Aboriginal cultures are without symbols, or indeed technology, rather that these things don’t dominate to such an extent that they mask violence, falsify love and estrange people from land. Fogarty ends his poem, our walk together through his country, with a plea:

so don’t send us to pollution
       we are just trying to picture
             this life without frustration.

‘Ecology’ is a poem written for 1982 and continues to be a poem that so well encapsulates the present—don’t send us to pollution. I first encountered Lionel Fogarty in Melbourne at a poetry symposium held at the State Library of Victoria. The only words I recall from those few days, where hundreds of poets and scholars assembled and read papers, came from Lionel looking up awkwardly, angrily from the opulent podium and shouting: ‘You, you academics! You make an industry out of our suffering’. My regard for Fogarty, the brief conversation we had where he asked if he could stay if ever he came by our way, his unease in such white halls of civic power, his anger and his poetry all touched me greatly so as later when I read ‘I am death / harmless’, the words were already infused with an intimacy, a knowing, a skin on skin holding.

In The comfort of water, Maya, it seems you have wanted to address Fogarty’s plea—don’t send us to pollution—in its fullest wisdom by walking us there. You take us on a slow river pilgrimage, make us aware of what that time and space might be, to do the most ecological of acts—to walk in the world’s worlds, to be in ecological speed and among the ecological communities (weedy and Indigenous) that the Yarra supports. In trying to picture a time when this was not the way life was performed, you ask us to ‘[i]magine the land as it was then. No shopping centres, sushi bars, car washes, morgues, pubs, flats, temples, terraces, take-aways, cafés, churches. No eight hours of televised sport every day of summer, no BBC historical dramas, no “reality” shows or surreal SBS offerings. No internet or Google Earth™. No overseas trips. No overseas even imaginable! And no books on anything. No books’ (2011: 92). Even as a writer clouded by my practice and past education prejudices, I believe I understand the significance of ‘no books’. The dilemma about being a writer is that we probably know more than most what is lost when we immerse ourselves in books and writing. Yet the subject of this separation is rarely spoken about, which seems to prove Latour’s point about not knowing ourselves and how Zerzan’s critique of symbolic thought is almost completely silenced. But plenty of writers have addressed this subject indirectly. Colin Thiele (1963) romanticises ‘no books’ in his novella Storm boy. Thiele is another writer who attempts to describe the basis of an ecological education (No books! No screens!) as taught by his character ‘Fingerbone Bill, the Aboriginal’, to the naturalising child, Storm Boy:

Fingerbone knew more about things than anyone Storm Boy had ever known. He could point out fish in the water and birds in the sky… He knew all the signs of the wind and weather in the clouds and sea. And he could read all the strange writing on the sandhills and beaches—the scribbly stories made by beetles and mice and bandicoots and ant-eaters and crabs and birds’ toes and mysterious sliding bellies in the night. Before long Storm Boy had learnt enough to fill a hundred books (1963: 14).

Storm boy, an exposé of four main characters (two men, a boy and a pelican) living what could be identified as harmless, energy intelligent, materially poor lives, ends with an intercession of harmful, wasteful death. Shooters, who kill for sport, kill Storm Boy’s closest friend Mr Percival, the pelican. In the story Thiele insinuates the ethical distinction between harmful death—the accountable killing of animals by animals (including humans) for food, and harmful death—the killing of animals (by humans) for sport, for fun, for cruelty. I had long since forgotten Storm Boy’s response to Mr Percival’s unnecessary death; a death that could only be manufactured from within a culture that was severely unwell. The opportunity arises and Storm Boy opts for boarding school in the far away city. I have just read this book to my son Zephyr who, like I once did, has struggled with the imperatives of formal schooling and is now home educated. Storm Boy’s love for the creaturely and watery, himself, his kin and for his home place dies in his painful witnessing of harmful, wasteful death and he makes the decision to go to boarding school, to learn to read and write. This decision enacts a suicide of a kind, and he is remade in the other place, in symbolic culture, where harm and its pollutants are normalised in the name of civilisation, of the city, for middle class imperatives.

You express forgetting in your book, Maya, in a way that I understand it too when you express white loss and how it transfers as harm against others: ‘We have been made by our history; enclosures, colonisation, the scientific revolution. In the process of gathering up land, cultures, knowledge, much has been forgotten’ (2011: 92). No one being on the planet, Latour’s ‘them’ or ‘us’, is now unaffected by such forgetting, such disappearing of accountability, of home place. The dispossessions, the fences, the industries of the past 300 years and more are all part of the aggregating story of climate change. Lovelessness cannot go on without becoming wholly destructive. No doubt reading Storm Boy as a child helped locate my own grief, my own loss, when school—the intensification of symbolic culture—began to dominate the intimate, bodily life I had established along the Mittagong Creek in New South Wales. But it was reading and writing that were very much part of the loss of such sensory intimacy. Romantic books like Storm boy seek to console our loss, our estrangement and dispossession, but they often have the adverse affect of cementing loss and disabling repair, keeping us in romantic time and place as hopeful subjects unable to exercise our judgements pragmatically and work towards the composting of symbols and lovelessness.

The story of William Buckley has long been close to me, and thank you for recommending Alan Garner’s Strandloper (1996), yet another book based on the remarkable life of this sole 19th century European reversing the trend of dominance in another’s land, albeit through necessity not ethico-moral choice. It is profound but not chance that the novel begins with Buckley being taught to write in his native county Cheshire, from where Strandloper’s author hails. Garner’s story of the Cheshire proletariat being taught to write is encased with political intent. As the vicious landowner Stanley has the practically illiterate and land dispossessed Buckley cuffed for the spurious claim of treason (as evidenced by pen-marked paper), Stanley snarls, ‘[t]his darkness must end … They shall not write’ (Garner 1996: 55). Buckley is shackled and sent to New Holland, ripped from kin and community, his lover at the alter and his trees, the great oak forests that begged his intimacy, immediacy and stewardship.

Since European invasion great suffering and loss have aggregated in Aboriginal story telling. Wurundjeri elder, William Barak’s, only published public letter to the authorities is a desperate plea that precedes Fogarty’s by one hundred years:

… we have heard that there is going to be very strict rules on the station [Coranderrk] and more rules will be to[o] much for us, it seems we are all going to be treated like slaves… (qtd. in Heiss & Minter 2008: 15)

Barak learns to write and as a result of this technology has been given a voice in the new world. This is similar to what Noongar woman Bessie Cameron writes nearly four years later, regarding how her people have been reported in the media, of no longer being seen as ‘very lazy and useless’ (qtd. in Heiss & Minter 2008: 17). Rather, Barak is noted as being industrious, modern, playing by the rules enframed by the invaders. Even so it does Barak and his people little good, as the tragedy of Coranderrk attests. Buckley could have well known Barak’s people; both belonged to tribes that have been described as ‘Kulin’ nation and both share Bunjil, the eagle, as their principle totem. Barak would have been a small child by the time Buckley was known as Murrangurk, the one who came back from the dead. They may have even shared the same camps from time to time. Alan Garner once again fictionalises the power and problem of writing through an unhappy exchange that Murrangurk and Nullumboin, a respected shaman of the tribe, share together. Nullumboin finds Murrangurk, pining for his beloved Cheshire Het (Esther), scratching her shortened name in the sand. He asks Buckley what it is he is doing, to which Buckley replies he is making words:

‘Show me his big name.’
Murrangurk scratched ‘Bunjil’.
‘That is “Bunjil”?’
‘Yes.’
Nullumboin shouted and rubbed out the mark with his foot.
‘Is it still there?’
‘No,’ said Murrangurk.
‘But you could cut it in another place, and it could stay? In wood or rock?’
‘Yes. It is how to make words.’ (Garner 1996: 139)

As the conversation continues Nullumboin becomes increasingly distraught. In the county of Cheshire Buckley’s learning to write was supposed to be an act of empowerment, of equality. But in this country the idea was akin to disaster. Nullumboin cries out in disgust and horror:

Then all will see without knowledge, without teaching, without dying into life! Weak men will sing! Boys will have eagles! All shall be mad! (Garner 1996: 140)

This is an extraordinary perception of literacy. Garner understands acutely what is at stake here; what Nullumboin fears so incredibly—the undermining of his ecological community through the foregrounding of symbolic life. When Buckley walked into Batman’s camp at St Leonards on the Bellarine Peninsula, the fully nativised Murrangurk had long since lost his Cheshire tongue. It took some work for English to return to him. Only Buckley and the original inhabitants can really know what this strange language is capable of, first voiced and then cloned in print. It is akin to asbestos and it spreads out fast and furiously. It is noise and the land begins to hum with an industry that has only aggregated. You write in your book, Maya, that you ‘haven’t heard a world quiet enough to hear the voices of the stars’, but you like me sense the cosmic music and know it to be possible (2011: 92). Your pilgrimage, your walk to reappear a semblance of such quiet, begins with William Barak:

Knowing the story of Barak changed our journey. It seemed that if any mode of travel could do some small justice to his memory, then a pilgrimage was the way to do it. To travel with the sacred in mind meant walking mindfully, with sincerity, clarity and commitment. These qualities we would need if we hoped to walk in his footsteps. I rang my friend Ian Hunter, a Wurundjeri elder and Barak’s great-great-grand-nephew, to invite him to our launch. He said he’d try to get there. In case he didn’t he wanted me to know that the Yarra is a Songline (37).

It is the song or songs of the river that you sense as you walk the Birrarung, and which cause you to question your own:

What are our songs, our stories? Do they come from science, whose method  of driven curiosity has, in the best of minds, borne children of awe and wonder? (175)

Song not word makes call not fence.

Your identification with and recollection of Indigenous people’s stories appears as a mountainous lament for intelligences lost that I too have felt so intensely since I was a child. As a car driver I have also sensed this loss. Books and cars travel us fast and far but what countries have we truly walked upon? We have learned the masterly tools of civilisation, and accepted them as normative—mined, privatised, celebritised, globalised and consumed for individual use, as instantaneous power, so that ‘weak men will sing … all will be mad’. In many of the writers I have already mentioned, Fogarty, Zerzan, Collis, Barak, Latour, Thiele and yourself Maya, such desire for writing to be anything but harmful is of course well apparent. And of course indigenous writers, and thank you for recommending Martín Prechtel’s Long life, honey in the heart (1999), are more than keenly attentive to the relational—social, ecological, cosmic—as you attest:

I read the stories that indigenous people the world over have tried to share with the colonising cultures. When I walked the river these were the stories that made the most sense. Now these are the stories that best explain what I felt. For indigenous people know, I think, that the real world is not a metaphor (323).

It can be said that many Indigenous writers are incredibly good at understanding ecological estrangement; often the culmination of those who have a foot in two camps—one planted within the ecological collectives of their kin and their ancestry, and one schooled in civil individualism, in order to be heard by the coloniser. But there are other ways than writing to hear Indigenous thought, ways that require slower burning relationships. Deborah Bird Rose (1992, 2011) tells us that her Aboriginal teachers from the Victoria River region in the Northern Territory perform their philosophy, they do not write it down. This performance is spoken out or sung while sitting on the very country that is their unambiguous wealth and their immediate educator. Song here is relational and generative, deeply sensed, not to be extracted within the strictures of clock time and industry’s imperatives. In stark contrast to performing thought in ecological time and space is writing at a desk, above the ground, air-conditioned and alone. Writing can express the senses, express the sensible, but it cannot be sensible itself. When a story is told or sung, when it is performed, the body gestures, the whole body’s intelligence tells the story. Writing and reading sedate, the body stoops and lounges and falls into disuse.

Is not literature still following its original distancing precept, the word of God to man? And if so, is it then not only a thing of agriculture but monotheism and monotheism’s architecture—cities: estrangement from land, production of pollutants, reliance on distant, refrigerated and unaccountable resources as though coming from heaven or some other place? Literature seems to me the embodiment of the city, of civility, and thus the embodiment of ecological estrangement. Its benefits can be identified only within the contexts and imperatives of civility, of the polis. I’m not sure these imperatives apply to envisaging future ecological communities and how we might address the woes of capitalism and its pollution ideology. Literature’s distancing nature renders it far too narrow to be ecologically inclusive. How then are we to have voice? How then do we teach our children, the little ones who currently meet elephants and monkeys, kangaroos and trees as symbols printed in books, objects that are themselves made from polluting materials normalised for the sake of globalised civility and the market?

A few nights ago, nearing the completion of this letter, I had a dream about the Yarra. It went roughly like this: I was walking with a group of people along the riverbank, somewhere in the city although a place I didn’t recognise. For one reason or another, perhaps I was leaning over looking in, I ended up falling through a timber railed barricade, a fence of a kind, into the river. The timbers were rotten. On resurfacing I quickly understood just how filthy the Yarra was and immediately was keen to get out. Then in my thrashing attempt to get to the water’s edge I somehow ensnared an enormous fish and dragged it up out of the water with me. My first thought was food and I set about unbuckling my knife just as I met the fish’s rather longing, humanoid eyes. I don’t know whether it was foremost the sadness we exchanged as beings, the river’s pollution or just the impracticality of carrying around a large dead fish until my cohort and I could find a place to cook and eat him. But with some friendly help I instead relaunched this lovely creature back into the muck and he slid away. I’ve never been that interested in analysing dreams; I’ve tended to enjoy waking and leaving the sub-conscious to itself. So I will spare the both of us, and our fellow readers, the tedium of my unpacking it, work that probably in part has been done already through the course of writing this letter; don’t send us to pollution.

I hope I haven’t been too foolish here.

 

Works cited: 

Collis, S 2008 The commons, Vancouver: Talonbooks

Fogerty, L 2008 ‘Ecology’ in A Heiss and P Minter (eds) Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, Sydney: Allen & Unwin: 91

Garner, A 1996 Strandloper, London: Harvill Press                                   

Heiss, A and Minter, P (eds) 2008 Macquarie PEN anthology of Aboriginal literature, Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Kotz, L 2007 Words to be looked at: language in 1960s art, Massachusetts: The MIT Press

Latour, B 1993 We have never been modern, C Porter (trans) Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Thiele, C 1963 Storm boy, Adelaide: Rigby

Ward, M 2011 The comfort of water: a river pilgrimage, Yarraville: Transit Lounge Publishing

Zerzan, J 2002 Running on emptiness: the pathology of civilisation, Los Angeles: Feral House