THOUGHTS ON NATURE WRITING
After attending Watermark International Nature Writers’
Muster 7-11 Oct 2003
* 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
* 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
* 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.
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
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)
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
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.
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.
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
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
* 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 :
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”
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.