A Celebration and Lament for Nature

The waves stoop
with the shoulders of sea eagles, and the gull-white feathers burst.
And you notice how the wind-paths, beyond the breakers, run out
across the waters
sinuously and spreading like the arms
of the open eucalypts.

Robert Gray, ‘Home Run’

Celebrating Nature. That is what brought us together at Camden Haven for Watermark’s founding International Nature Writers’ Muster. Its central theme is Water, especially nature writing about water, about the natural world and its defence.

Camden Haven and water go together. The Pilot Station at the Head near Laurieton on the north coast of New South Wales overlooking Pilot and Washhouse Beaches protected ships and sailors over some eighty-five years from 1890. Magnificent coasts, inlets, lagoons and other waterways today suggest a healthy marine environment and an ongoing coastal bush regeneration and coastcare program. Wild fish and tamed oysters abound. It was people of this area with a many-sided concern for nature and their place who dreamed up Watermark 2003 and made it happen.
For five days and six nights nature writers — poets, novelists, essayists — from near and abroad gathered to talk, to listen, to exchange ideas, to encourage the writing of environmental literature, and to spend a little time getting to know people and place at Camden Haven and at the nearby home town of the poet Henry Kendall that bears his name.

There were tributes to and acknowledgements of the place we were at. Like the winding tributaries of a river we made journeys through the landscape, telling stories of ‘places that matter’, of indigenous people knowing and living the land and the water, reflecting upon changes in the cultural meaning of water, on the role of literature, women’s knowledge, writing for young people. Herb Wharton, poet, essayist and renowned stockman who grew up at Cunnamulla, Queensland, delivered the Henry Kendall memorial oration. His deep sense of the longevity of human history and civilisation gave strength to the discussion of our own times.

Nature writing has a history of some 150 years; its beginnings owe a special debt to the writings of Henry Thoreau. He celebrates wildness as the epitome of all that is good. Like Wordsworth whose study was ‘out of doors’ he glories in the landscape. In Walking, written not long before his death in 1862, he praises wildness — ‘in Wildness is the preservation of the world’. Glorying in its wildest manifestation — in the darkest wood one finds ‘the marrow of Nature’ — he obdures what his contemporaries saw as simply modifications of Nature for humans’ benefit. He wrote:

Man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses, the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape and make it more tame and cheap.

In his Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing, environmental literary writer Scott Slovic observes how Thoreau’s praise of the wild is a search for otherness, a refuge from the self, a release of the spirit. Thoreau’s sensibility is pre-ecological; he is necessarily unaware that that deformation and cheapening of the landscape he abhors is but the first instance of a terrible tragedy that has come to confront us today.

The home place of Watermark’s patron, environmentalist Eric Rolls was a felicitous choice. Its goodwill was bountiful: a time to reflect upon the beautiful and the terrible places in Aboriginal history; its settler stories; the poets and writers it drew; the gifts of its grown things — kiwi fruit, oysters; its choir; its art; the fears and hopes.

North Brother mountain — one of three mountains shaped alike looking down on Camden Haven — has kindly aspects. That’s how Eric Rolls found it one evening years ago when he and Elaine happened upon Camden Haven and made it their home. It has different appearances: it may show individual trees, but ‘on other days the mountain is a grey blur … It can be blue, grey, green, splotched with arcs of light and shadow’. The Aboriginal people of this area, the Birpai, Nagamba and Bunya people, call it Dooragan, their protector. It is one of the ‘three brothers’ named by James Cook.

The language of the lyric and the lyrical were pervasive at Watermark. The lyric in history is meant to be sung; in the perfect lyric the keynote is rhythm or metric form, to which the words must adapt themselves. In Shelley’s great odes — ‘Westwind’ and ‘Liberty’ — the form reminds us of the sounds of the organ and his lyrics are resonant with the song-writers of ancient Greece. Today, lyric poetry in a broad sense is the expression by the poet of his or her own feelings. This offers a broad band of meaning.

Its voice to touch the heart is a power to expand and deepen feeling as it gathers meaning. At Watermark, poet Robert Gray explained how images may gather feeling like a time machine until you come to understand their meaning. An outstanding poet of landscapes that nourish him, he has a special capacity to build, layer upon layer, ‘leaf by leaf’ images that call out intense feeling: ‘… on either side there is a forest of paperbarks in a swamp or reed-bed’, lying among them ‘… is a creek/with many tendrils, like a root’. These images I have plucked from his exquisitely foliated poem ‘Home Run’; an epigraph to this essay its closing lines are like the final chords of a symphony.

Within a shared sensibility there lay perceptible difference at Watermark 2003. Questions rose half-formed but somehow urgent. Can the lyrical be more than a poetic genre? May expanding feeling prelude a sense of disquiet? May such a sense reach out ‘to show possibility’ in the words of environmental thinker, essayist and poet, Peter Hay. May changing hearts and minds be part of the artistic and literary endeavour? This is a language that spoke to me then, resounding as I glance back.

Visible but largely latent at Watermark was a sense of different experiences, backgrounds and above all, mode of engagement with place and Nature. That the lyrical can be something more than simply a poetic genre is given remarkable and powerful expression in much of the environmental writing in the Spring 2003 edition of the Tasmanian-based literary publication Island. Serendipitously, this issue ‘both celebrating the natural world and cautioning against its misuse’ coincided with the first Watermark Nature Writers’ Muster. Both celebrate nature writing and each claims its undervaluing in Australia compared with say, North America. But this is changing here, it seems. Published in Island is a small selection of more than a hundred entries in the inaugural Wildcare Tasmanian Nature Writing Prize. There one finds an interweaving of lyrical writing with accounts of the defence of Tasmania’s forests and rivers. Interwoven too is a memory of tragedy — the deaths of two wilderness photographers who believed that ‘if people could see the beauty of Australia’s wild places, they may be moved to save them’.

Environmentalist Kate Crowley relates the epic saga of the saving of the Franklin River in ‘A Peoples Rebellion in a Distant Forest’. She tells of moments of plot and counterplot in a drama unfolding: of 1976 when Bob Brown and a colleague, canoeing down the Franklin, come round a bend in the river to find that work has already begun secretly on the dam project; of the end of 1981 betrayal of popular opinion by the Tasmanian government; of blockade plans being laid in secret. December 1981 evokes strong memories too of another epic saga’s earliest beginnings — Mabo. At that moment we are finding very safe places to hide two precious Murray Island court records before the Queensland defendant gets wind of the coming challenge. Heady days in North and South.

There are passages in Island that speak from the depths of people’s souls, souls tempered in an often excruciatingly painful struggle to save a river, to save Tasmania. Rarely does one find such passionate expression of the lyrical as something more than a poetic genre than in some of the writing around the Tasmanian artists’ exhibition, Future Perfect, held last April. Artists, a senator and others made an appeal at the artists’ festival seeking redemption for past wrongs. Writer Richard Flanagan’s appreciation of his fellow artists is a lucid example of the lyrical at its height. He speaks of his fellow artists who divined ‘that through their work they might help to remake Tasmania in the raiment of dreams’. He is admiring their vision, their determination, their guts. And he draws on a well of feeling that has deepened in the years of struggle to save a river. The dream is visionary yet born out of often bitter struggle. And Richard does not mince words about ‘our tawdry parliament’ or ‘our largely craven media’ or those artists who choose to side with the politics of their paymaster.

His feelings about Tasmania’s future — people joined together by goodwill — are bound up with the dreams of the last thirty years: ‘the beginning of a time when our stories and our images, unbeholden to anything other than the cosmos of our souls, will reinvent this island’. As in Wordsworth’s or Shakespeare’s sonnets, this is surely ‘a cry from the heart’. Richard has a lyrical way of saying things he feels deeply about our engagement with the land. Arising out of feeling it is semi-inarticulate, more accessible to poetry than prose. What he says expresses a relation to the land, to place, to the future that our culture suppresses.

This is a visionary moment and his lyric is a paean of praise and thanksgiving for those ‘extraordinary fresh forces, seething and bursting to break out’ of the imprisonment still encircling them within Tasmania. We are speaking of an extraordinary power, a unique beauty, a power at last finding a voice to say passionate things that narrow-minded governments have refused to hear. Like all visions, it is ‘an opening up, as the heavens are opened up by a rainbow when the rain stops falling’: Elizabeth Costello’s words in J.M. Coetzee’s novel resound here. In the hands of persons inspired by a sense of possibility, these visions, these rainbows, may take on the character of religious illumination. Amanda Lohrey recently wrote something like this about the Greens.

Among the Romantic poets especially, there is a symmetry, a one-to-one between the natural and their inner world. The two may even be experienced as fused. Or the objects of nature may even become part of an inner life. Coleridge found himself seeking ‘a symbolical language for something within me that forever and already exists, [rather] than observing anything new’. Our age is one of such peril that we are challenged to draw on something within us — whatever spiritual forces we have — or sacrifice those yet to come. Fortunately there are more and more people with the understanding and the resources to take up this challenge. For the two photographers of the wild rivers country — the Gordon and the Franklin — it was the awareness that this was a vanishing world that drove them on. Kate Crowley writes of Olegas Truchanas, who died in an attempt to photograph this country:

His dream was of a Tasmania where man and nature were one, ‘a shining beacon in a dull, uniform, largely artificial world’.

Above all, for me, Richard Flanagan’s passionate and impassioned words opening the Future Perfect artists’ exhibition are brilliant testimony to the power of inspired lyricism, an unfailing attachment to a place and a buoyancy of spirit in the face of mean-minded powers. From where do such attachments, such power come? Not simply from immediacy: the desire to save a river or a forest. In introducing an essay by Amanda Lohrey on the green movement, literary critic Peter Craven points to the deep well of spiritual forces within our culture:

If the Greens speak with moral authority then there are some old winds of the spirit blowing in the back of them.

It is said that if you feel strongly about a place you’ll feel impelled to defend it; it’s also true that once you do so, it will change you. Somewhere in that truth one may discover why Tasmanians are so deeply immersed in environmental issues. The depth of their experience in saving a particular river is reinforced by the intensity of the struggle over it. And that degree of feeling over a natural thing may in turn deepen their access to their make-up more generally.

In a land as horrific in its tormenting of the convicts, as genocidal as settlers were towards the indigenous population, there lies the sense of the power of redemption in trying to come to terms with these pasts. Is this what the artists meant in ‘seeking redemption for past wrongs?’

Are people who have struggled to defend places of beauty and strength helping to shape a path across an old abyss of ignorance about Australia’s first peoples? Richard Flanagan depicts Aborigines as people who lived with and by the music of their souls as well as their bodies: ‘Their souls spoke the poetry of their native streams’.

A half century is short in human history, long for woman or man. Through a veil I look back to the majesty of the world of south-west Tasmania seen from the height of Frenchman’s Cap. Vast river, winding pass, towering cliffs. Part of a ‘terrible beauty’ without hint of an oncoming path of sacrifice.

Amid the disturbing and often brutal disregard of nature — the deathly consequences of illegal tree logging in Indonesia or Colombia — the threads of association among people who revere and defend nature may form quickly. People who came to Watermark unknown to one another found kindred spirits. Reciprocal strengths are palpable. North American poet Laurie Kutchins had perceived these threads and woven them together as a tapestry of ideas about nature, its endangerment and of reasons for hope. ‘Quilting’ she called it, a high point of our brief association.

And then, soon after, the unexpected happened. A cloud hung over parched Kendall in the early morning. Just sitting there. And then this dark grey ‘nursling of the sky’ melted, but loudly, and rain came sheeting down. Noisily. As a body we stood on the verandah of Kendall Hall and watched the rivulets and streams gathering power. Environmental literary writer Kate Rigby had spoken of how certain kinds of writing recall us to the natural world as it discloses itself. She spoke of things that shake us as lyrical nature writing frequently does: but moving along a path of thanks, praise and wonder, revelation may open us to something beyond our grasp. I thought of the struggle to save a river that changed people; of how lyrical nature writing may open up possibility; of ‘old winds of the spirit’ blowing hard against oncoming silent springs. And I ask the question, ‘For Nature: Celebration or Lament?’


Nonie Sharp is an editor with Arena Publications. Her latest book is Saltwater People: The Waves of Memory (Allen & Unwin, 2003)

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