Gatherings Home Page Ice Home Page Join the Mailing List Contact the Editor Archives

After attending Watermark International Nature Writers’ Muster 7-11 Oct 2003

by Ian Johnstone

1. Some questions

* How can we live in harmony with nature? – that is, live fully, and not just a sustainable spartan existence, but without the nature-destroying consequences of our western ways.

* How can we substantially and lastingly reduce our impact on the unspoilt natural world?

* Are we discovering new species faster than we are causing their extinctions, or vice versa?

* Can we learn, as a species, to live on this finitely hospitable globe without ruining it?

* How can we learn to live closer to nature, and appreciate it, and care for it genuinely and respectfully, and stop taking from it relentlessly without allowing it, and helping it, to restore itself?

* Can we treat nature the way, ideally, we should treat our own individual bodies?

* Will we ever understand that the human species is capable of acting against its own best interests, just as individuals sometimes do, and also that we can and must compensate for this perverseness in the way we treat nature?

* Have we, as a species, got what it will take to stop and reverse our habitual destruction of ecosystems and habitats and our casual and mindless causing of extinctions and global warming? On the one hand we can’t stop wars, but on the other hand we have visited the moon, made amazing advances in information and communication technology and in medicine and, ironically, in warfare.

* Can we humble ourselves enough to curtail our greed and appetite for non-renewable resources, fossil fuels etc.?

* Are we capable of being self-restrained, disciplined, stoic, even ascetic, enough to ensure future generations are not deprived of the unspoilt natural places which we enjoy?

* Can we see our lovely planet for what it really is, without all of us having to go to the moon to do so?

* Can we stop the world from going the way of Easter Island?

* Can nature writing help to alert us to the earth’s limited carrying capacity for consumption-greedy human beings?

* How can nature writing help in achieving a spurt of growth in awareness to these ends?

* How, in summary, are we to live responsibly? (As Richard Nelson put it at the Muster).

These are some of the questions explicitly and implicitly raised at the Muster. The answers we get clearly depend on the questions we ask, and our answers determine what we do. It is therefore vital to ask the best questions, and to provide the best answers. Love and curiosity drive and sustain progress, as the water cycle does living things.

2. The Muster

It was a great pioneering conference, and there are plans to hold another at the same place in two years’ time. It began at Camden Head Pilot Station, in the boathouse, and then moved to Kendall Community Hall, better able to accommodate the 120 or so attendees. Should we call them an “enterprise” or an “inspiration” of nature writers?

Kendall is named after Henry Kendall, 1839-1882, Australia’s leading 19th century nature poet. He was born at Ulladulla near Milton, and died from phthisis (tuberculosis) at age 43. When he lived at Camden Haven he wrote most of the poems in his collection “Songs from the Mountains” (1880), with the dedication “To a Mountain” (which is North Brother named by Captain James Cook in 1770) including these lines: -

Round thy lordly capes the sea
Rolls on with a superb indifference
For Ever; in thy deep green gracious glens
The silver fountains sing for ever.

He is, of course, best known for his “Bell Birds” (in “Leaves from Australian Forests” 1869), which concludes: -

So I might keep in the city and alleys
The beauty and strength of the deep mountain valleys;
Charming to slumber the pain of my losses
With glimpses of creeks and a vision of mosses.

In the five days we had 69 talks, six readings, two book launches, an after-dinner speech, the Kendall Oration by Herb Wharton and Laurie Kutchins’ “Quilt”, being her summary of the essence of the Muster. There were 31 speakers and 17 of them spoke three times or more. The programme provided some details of 27 of the speakers. We were supplied with a “reading list of books by Watermark Writers” – 25 writers and 120 books, including 19 by Eric Rolls, the patron of the Muster, and 16 by Les Murray.

All the speakers were interesting, but some shared more of their own genuine personal experiences than others. I thought a few times of these lines of verse: -

They talk and move about me as a show
Where all are adequate and none sincere,
And everything correct and nothing clear,
Studiously cloaking what is hid below.
Yet do I know that underneath there lies
A separate soul, a striving pulsing heart,
A spark of the eternal fires, a part
Of God Himself, that looks with mortal eyes.
(J.L. Crommelin Brown “Dies Heroica - War Poems 1914-1918” (1918) p19)

3. Some Themes

For me, two themes emerged.

One was the desire most have for a feeling of belonging to a place, and gradually and eventually to enlarge this to a feeling of unity with all of nature and of feeling fully at home on our earth even though we have worn some of the shine off it. Herb Wharton spoke sincerely about returning on his death to become part again of the earth from which he came; ashes to ashes and dust to dust, as Christians say.

This theme, of being at one with a place, was accompanied by an awareness and appreciation of nature’s inexhaustible variety. There should really be one word for the notion of unity with diversity. The word university has been taken, so perhaps integriversity may do to connote the desire we have to integrate diversity and to find an underlying simplicity in multifarious and protean variety.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote of the “duality in natural history – richness in particularities and potential union in underlying explanation” (“The Panda’s Thumb; More Reflections in Natural History” 1980).

Eric Rolls’ opening words at the Muster were in praise of variety. He said: -

A writer’s life is a marvel of the unexpected. The senses are heightened and words drop on you. A planned life is an accountant’s life. I’ve never been afraid to do something new.

Richard Nelson quoted H.D. Thoreau, writing of his home town, Concord Mass. USA: -

“Think of the consummate folly of going away from here.” Nelse concluded that we celebrate places by knowing them and advocating their well-being.

Bill Lines, in just that way, celebrated the Bibbulmun Track, from Perth to Walpole in the south-west of Western Australia, in his beaut book “A Long Walk in the Australian Bush” (1998). He said that nature writers shouldn’t repackage fashion. In other words they should respond authentically and directly to nature’s endless novelty.

Nicolette Stasko quoted Aldo Leopold: - “You cannot save what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not know”.

Diana Hawken (NZ) read us one of her poems which referred to taming a place by giving it names. That is a first step to getting to know it.

Some words, however, get in the way of ideas. There are two big splits in our thinking which both help and obstruct our understanding – mind and body, and human and nature. Both these contrasts, divisions or distinctions are sometimes convenient, but sometimes block fresh ways of seeing. The body and mind are one, and so are humans and nature, but our ways of talking keep them apart like two male dogs on each side of a fence. Both distinctions can get in the way of the essential unity and wholeness of things. We seem to need these two pairs the way we need two arms, legs, eyes and ears, and the way we need polarities, extremes and paradoxes. But in the end, they congest and impede our understanding of how things really are. They are both more like the socially convenient week than the inescapably necessary night and day.

One of the many consequences of our unremitting use of the mind/body distinction is that we keep underestimating the importance of mental things because they are out of sight. The mind motivates, decides, inspires, feels, responds, directs and controls (or fails to do these things). R.W. Emerson observed that “Nothing is secure but the energizing spirit”. We need ideas and laughter to keep us fit for a full life. We need our daily intake of healthy ideas and help if we suffer from a Laughter Deficit Syndrome, as a friend put it. Ostracism can be more cruel than deprivation of physical mobility, and so on.

One of the many consequences of the human/nature distinction is that we don’t realize sufficiently well that when we damage nature in a substantial way we are indirectly injuring ourselves and limiting enjoyment opportunities for our descendants.

We see in part, as St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and are part of what we see. Nature writing has a role to play in reminding us of the wholeness of an individual person, mind and body, and the ultimate unity of humans and nature.

Two other distinctions which we make for convenience, but forget to mend for sound understanding, are reason and emotion, and the sciences and the arts – C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”.

The other theme was that there are many ways available to us to relate to and respond to nature, which lead on to our being environmentally responsible, and enable us to have a feeling of belonging to a place. For example: -

* We had many poems read to us - by Connie Chatfield, Peter Grant, Robert Gray, Peter Hay, Mary Jenkins, Laurie Kutchins (USA), Les Murray, Nonie Sharp, Nicolette Stasko and Herb Wharton.

* We had some history from Lenore Coltheart, Tom Griffiths and Geoff Park (NZ).

* We had some natural history from Richard Nelson (USA), Eric Rolls, Herb Wharton and others. Eric’s description of goannas courting, with the male licking the female all over, was fascinating, and later Nick Drayson told us male goannas have two penises!

* We had some nature essays - lyrical from Mark Tredinnick, and didactic from Bill Lines.

* We had some philosophy, spirituality and conservation rhetoric (in the good sense) from many speakers including John Cameron, Nick Drayson, Martin Flanagan, Peter Grant, Peter Hay, Anita Heiss, Paul Kingsnorth (UK), Ken Noda (Japan), Kate Rigby and Scott Slovic (USA).

* We had some literary fiction from Beverley Farmer.

* There were photos and paintings on the walls of the hall, together with quotes from many of the speakers.

* We had sixteen choral items arranged in the form of the water cycle from Camden Haven “Coral” Society. Connie Chatfield of the Kamillaroi people cast a spell with her clap sticks – their haunting, ancient sound whispered to us the atmosphere of the aboriginal Dreamtime. Jennie Kerr sang us her own song “I was raised on this mountain”. All these reminded me that music can reach and stir feelings which words cannot.

* We had the excitement of tales of outdoor adventuring from Eric Rolls and Richard Nelson and others. Richard Nelson said “I like to live and write with the fullest, intense, visceral experiences, using my whole body as an instrument”. He read from his “The Island Within” - “I’m utterly, perfectly, ecstatically in the wave’s path. I’ve never been kissed so vehemently”.

* We had rain on the roof at the boathouse, and a hail storm at Kendall. Nicolette Stasko handed round oysters for us to smell and feel. Auntie Beryl Cunningham had emu, eagle, crow and turkey feathers. We had a lovely walk through Kattang Nature Reserve with Amanda Smith from National Parks in Port Macquarie, and from a lookout in the reserve saw two humpback whales spouting. Others went for a guided walk along the sea’s edge.

Clearly there are many different things we can do to transcend the mundane and achieve a feeling of unity. John Buchan described the ideal in this way:

To give the charm of novelty to the things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasury, but one for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes that see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand. (“The Novel and the Fairy Tale” 1931 p4- 5)

4. Some new words

I learnt “praxis” which, like practice, means learning from doing rather than from theory.

Bill Lines’ marvellous essay “Money” in his “Open Air - Essays” (2001) made me think we need a new word “economorphic” to describe that form of chronic narrow thinking which sees the whole world in terms of money, and as able to be priced and bought and

sold, in our supposedly sacred free market economy – even things like endangered species, biological diversity and national parks! Then I got to thinking of some other limited ways of seeing which affect our perceptions of reality, and fall short of manias because they are so common and accepted:

* pragmatomorphic –everything has to serve a useful purpose or it is worthless.

* egomorphic – everything, including nature and other people, really exist only to the extent that they satisfy or stimulate me – my eyes glaze if you try to tell me something which doesn’t affect me personally.

I also think we need one word to describe that desirable state of dynamic productivity to which we all aspire and which is so much more than mere busyness. We are all busy; some are distinctly productive, and some are not. Someone observed that if you want something creative done, you must ask someone who is underemployed. Lewis Mumford exhorted us to simplify our lives, and then observed :

Simplicity itself is not the aim of this effort: no, the purpose is to use simplicity to promote spontaneity and freedom, so that we may do justice to life’s new occasions and singular moments (“The Conduct of Life” 1952 p273).

The word we need would enable us to ask others in a kindly way, not “Are you busy?”, but “Are you so personally organized that you habitually make time both for your treasured personal projects, and life’s singular moments?” Perhaps “prusy”, to rhyme with busy, but to incorporate the idea of purposeful, not totally distracting, busyness.

continued from left column...

5. Some new ideas

New ideas often arrive indirectly in the fancy dress of a metaphor, or a comparison, or analogy. Metaphors are a sort of three dimensional imagery, now done so well on computer screens. Metaphors add a new dimension to our thinking. For example :

* Scott Slovic “Values are always being renovated”. So we should be constantly revising attitudes the way we’d like our homes to be made over on a regular basis. Scott quoted Diane Ackerman “How sense-luscious the world is” (“A Natural History of the Senses” 1991 Introduction). Scott also said that Richard Nelson’s hunting dogs “extend Nelse’s senses”. Scott also quoted the US Senator “I’m sorry Mr Williams, there’s something about your voice I cannot hear” as an illustration of unsympathetic listening.

* Mark Tredinnick said “Green pulls life from the sky” and “We haven’t yet got a literature of our country and of place”.

* Richard Nelson said “Magpies are shaped out of wind”. He also said “I feel like a molecule hitching a ride on a meteor” and “When I came to Australia six years ago I was walking through my own dreamtime as I’d imagined it for so long”. He also shared with us the Koyukon saying “Gratitude kindles the heat of life”. This, surely, should stick in all our minds forever.

* Herb Wharton – “Captain Cook looked as if he was trying to play the didgeroo with his eye”. “People look without seeing in the Australian desert; its emptiness is more of the mind”. “Computers have a bloody good memory, but no brains”. “Emus swim as fast as ducks”.

* Patrice Newell – “A lot of those great books - there’s not a recipe in them” – after referring to her dilemma about including recipes in her book “The Olive Grove”.

* Laurie Kutchins (USA) – “Poetry is really lyric prose”.

* Geoff Park quoted Aldo Leopold who referred to “a durable scale of values” (“A Sand County Almanac”). In other words, a sound ordering of what is important actually helps us to survive.

* Mehreen Faruqi quoted the ancient Persian poet Rumi “Out beyond the ideas of right and wrong there is a field. I will meet you there.” There’s some nutrition for a thoughtful person!

* Reference was made to the “pathetic fallacy”. John Ruskin (1819-1901) coined this phrase for the figure of speech which attributes human feelings to the non-human world. Sadly, he stigmatized a helpful poetic device. Later I read:

To speak of the “pathetic fallacy” as a mere device in Romantic poetry is a gross underestimation of its importance. The extension of sympathy outwards into the natural world and deeper into man’s mind brought new revelation of the complex ties between man and nature, a general enriching of the pattern in which they both figure. The “pathetic fallacy” is, after all, no more and no less than a poetic way of uttering the belief that “everything that lives is holy” (C. Day Lewis “The Poetic Image” 1947 p62)

* Peter Grant, who promotes national parks in Tasmania, has a degree in theology, and he quoted Revelations 3, 15-16: “I know that you are not hot or cold, but lukewarm. I throw you out of my mouth”. Jimmy Porter, in John Osborne’s play “Look Back in Anger”, would have loved this sharp rejection of insipidity. Reference was made to the “Laodicean fallacy” which is indifference to religion. The origin of this idea is in the Bible, Revelations 3, 14-18.

6. Richard Nelson

There is nothing lukewarm, feeble or banal about Richard Nelson. He read us four pages (p272-5) about deer stalking in Alaska from his wonderful “The Island Within” (Vintage Books 1991) which won the US Burroughs Nature Writing prize. I wonder if others found this as fascinating, absorbing and thrilling as I did. Some wit observed that R.W. Emerson knew how best to live, but H.D. Thoreau actually did it. Nelse, I think, both knows and does it. Unostentatiously he lives in such a way as to make himself the best person he can be in every way and shows us all how we could be doing the same. Most of us settle for trying to be a model parent or whatever, but Nelse puts all his energy into being an all-round exemplary human being. His story of his close encounter with a doe is masterfully crafted. It not only has suspense – will he shoot the doe or not? – but also it is a powerful example of how we too can attain a dynamic unity with wildness if we practise opening ourselves to fresh new experiences. We must learn to leave behind our blasé half-alertness and lukewarm, insipid uninvolvement. In our too-human dominated habitat, we are habitually passive because we are too easily contented to be entertained and distracted. Nelse’s manly vigour, enterprise and resourcefulness prepare him for peak experiences like his encounter with the doe.

He wove his feelings and his observations into a tapestry of unity, with careful seeing, genuine feeling, and clear and exact articulation. He gradually tightened the tension, and heightened the interest, crescendoing in the gratifying outcome of mercy – not shooting the prey, and allowing empathy with the deer to triumph.

I felt there was a strong message in the story that we could, with effort, suppress our practical predatory nature to achieve a connectedness with nature. Can we respond to nature’s exciting moments as intensely and ecstatically as we do with intimate encounters with a sexual partner? Epiphanies with nature are possible. We can achieve a higher destiny by discarding our blasé reserve, and return to true and full responsiveness. We can engage directly and abandon our superficialities and habitual detachment. We can build our own humanity over the top of our cold, reasoning, scientific objectivity so in a sort of descant we can relate intuitively, emotionally, and subjectively as a child does. Sometimes we need to become like William Blake’s little lamb – exploring and enjoying with intellect-free innocence, accepting and open to experience.

Nelse didn’t make a meal of the doe, but ended up providing us with a much longer lasting feast of feelings and thoughts, by relating so effectively his profound experience of intimacy with nature. Later I read these two observations in “The Island Within”:

Yet questions have begun to grow inside me. While I savored the freedom and sensual pleasure of these wild places, I’ve also wished for a clearer sense of how I fit in here, a better understanding of my relationship to the environment that contains me, to nature in general, and to the earth as a whole. Perhaps, if any answers are possible, they will only come through being here, devoting myself to this place, and waiting for the kind of knowledge that comes more through the body than through the mind.(p93-4)
Knowledge gained this way is somehow richer, more exciting and meaningful than the vicarious, almost symbolic knowledge that comes through books or films or word-of-mouth. Again I’m reminded of the way Native American people like the Koyukon and Eskimos emphasize direct experience as the most vital and important kind of learning.” (p113)

He set me thinking about how curious it is that we allow and accept that animals have uncanny senses which we don’t have – dogs with special hearing and smell, kookaburras and ants sensing and signalling coming rain etc.– but we can’t accept that indigenous people have a special sense of place and relationship with particular pieces of land, and their own way of experiencing them. Nelse clearly gained a vast amount of practical wisdom through living with the Koyukon. He learnt how to live closer to nature by his long association with people who depend for their very survival on harvesting their own immediate habitat and who reciprocate with respect for it. Nelse wrote in his Preface “Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received” (xii)

I am left wondering how people living in western societies will ever genuinely appreciate the wisdom of indigenous people until we experience the same challenges which they did to acquire that wisdom. Australian aborigines had the skills to survive in virtually all parts of Australia for about 40,000 years, which is 200 times longer than our white settlement of a mere 200 years. Surely they deserve more of our understanding and recognition for their skills and their relationship with natural Australia which they developed over that vast period of time. They can find tracks in the desert and locate sources of food and water where few white settlers can. The respect that informs their dreamtime stories deserves our respect. So does their spiritual life.

I am also left wondering how people living in western societies can ever return to feelings of gratitude to nature for its bounty, while few experience at first hand where and when the harvest comes from.

Later I read this comment by Barry Lopez, considering how we might achieve “a new relationship with the natural world, one that is not condescending, manipulative, and purely utilitarian”: -

We need to seek an introduction to the reservoirs of intelligence that native cultures have preserved in both oral tradition and in their personal experience with the land, the highly complex detail of a way of life not yet torn entirely from the fabric of nature. (“The Passing Wisdom of Birds” in “Crossing Open Ground” 1989 p202-3)

Barry Lopez then goes on to mention Richard Nelson’s “Make Prayers to the Raven” as one of the few books effectively communicating how to care for nature and depend on it for survival, and the deeply satisfying feelings this brings.

I wonder whether, when humans have extensive periods without any real contact with unspoilt natural places, they become like animals in zoos deprived of their natural habitat – either excessively servile, passive and conventional, or savage, aggressive and even violent. Do people in cities tend to these extremes more than those who live in the country?

7. Conclusion

I returned home keen to record some of what I gained from the Muster, in addition to the new friends and pleasant memories, including some swims at Laurieton War Memorial pool each morning – an unusual 33 and a third metre pool, in water of 20 degrees Celsius with my son and long-term companion Michael. On the Friday night, in the bar at Kew Royal Hotel, Mike and I “oi-oied” the Wallabies to a 24-8 win over Argentina in the first game of the World Cup Rugby Competition.

Sharing enthusiasms is rewarding and I found myself doing this with Martin Flanagan, Peter Grant, Peter Hay, Anne Heinrich, Paul Kingsnorth, Bill Lines, Richard Nelson, Scott Slovic, Haydn Washington and others.

I ended up thinking that we learn best indirectly. We pick up attitudes to nature and enjoyment of it incidentally to finding out about it, and that surely is the main role of nature writing, to persuade us subliminally to be better citizens of nature. Paul Kingsnorth quoted the English poet Philip Larkin “Most things are never meant”. This drops down to the proposition that most outcomes of events are unexpected and perhaps this is because most things are learnt from our peripheral attention. Eric Rolls referred to the “remarkable power of the arts”. Richard Nelson quoted H.D. Thoreau:

I have a commonplace-book for facts and another for poetry, but I find it difficult always to preserve the vague distinction which I had in mind, for the most interesting and most beautiful facts are so much the more poetry and that is their success. They are translated from earth to heaven. I see that if my facts were sufficiently vital and significant – perhaps transmuted more into the substance of the human mind – I should need but one book of poetry to contain them all. (Journal 18 Feb 1852 when he was aged 34).

So poetry and nature merge and are one, for Thoreau, as life and literature merge for people who appreciate literature.

Paul Fussell wrote:

I have focused on places and situations where literary tradition and real life notably transect, and in doing so I have tried to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favor by conferring forms upon life. (“The Great War and Modern Memory” 1975 Preface p.ix)

I recalled Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” which he put in this way:

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts…The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land….In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it…Land- use ethics are still governed wholly by economic self-interest just as social ethics were a century ago….Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.” (“A Sand County Almanac” 1949 Sierra Club/Ballantine edition p239ff).

Nature writing can help with this expansion of our social conscience to embrace nature. Conscience and conscientiousness are at the core of good nature writing. Later I found a good brief description of nature writing by the American Joseph Wood Krutch:

Science is knowledge about natural phenomena while the proper subject of nature writing is an account of the writer’s experience with the natural world….The modern nature writer….agrees that pure science must be unemotional and objective, but he doubts that even the scientist, much less the nonprofessional, can realize full human potentials if he is without wonder, or love, or a sense of beauty; if he never looks at the nature of which he is a part except with the cold eye of an outsider. (“The Best Nature Writing of Joseph Wood Krutch” 1970 Introduction pxiii)

With Richard Nelson’s observation about gratitude kindling the heat of life still in my mind, I read William Kittredge:

The agenda I propose is simple enough. We must relearn the arts of generosity. We cannot, in any long run, survive by bucking against natural forces, and it is our moral duty to defend all life. It is time to give something back to the systems of order that have supported us: care and tenderness. As we work on behalf of one another and the world, we begin to experience the solace of reinhabiting our emotional skins. Generosity is the endless project. (“The Nature of Generosity” 2000 p276).

I think Nelse acquired this knowledge long ago and from his own experiences of life, and we should all try to do the same.

Scott Slovic launched “A Place on Earth – an Anthology of Nature Writing from Australia and North America” edited by Mark Tredinnick and published in Australia by Uni. of NSW Press and in USA, Canada and Europe by Uni of Nebraska Press. It has 26 essays plus Mark’s introduction – twelve by Australian writers and fourteen by North Americans. Nine of the contributors were at the Muster – John Cameron, Tom Griffiths, Pete Hay, Laurie Kutchins, Bill Lines, Richard Nelson, Patrice Newell, Eric Rolls and Mark Tredinnick.

At the Muster an Australian branch of the American Association for Literature of the Environment (ASLE) was formed. Mark Tredinnick, Kate Rigby and Charles Dawson (NZ) accepted the task of nursing this newborn baby. Australian nature writing has a long way to go to reach the maturity of our friends in USA, but at last we are taking the task seriously.

Ian M. Johnstone is a retired lawyer and long-term member of the National Parks Association of NSW, and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Back to Top of Page