Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Poetics of Country

The Poetics of Country: why looking after the land makes us whole

address to the Upper Campaspe Landcare Network

16 October 2016

Yesterday I read with sadness, almost despair, an article that didn’t make the headlines. Something many people might think fairly minor. On a navigation beacon in the Georges River in New South Wales a pair of ospreys had made their nest of sticks – quite rare for them to nest so far south. On Friday there had been a small article in the local paper celebrating this new nest. Over three days from then, jet skiers deliberately targeted the ospreys. They repeatedly sped close to the nest, sending up rooster tails of water that, over days, knocked the nest to pieces. All this was photographed. Each day the exhausted osprey pair frantically tried to rebuild, able to carry only smaller and smaller sticks, but the jet skis returned, until the birds gave up, their chicks lost.

There is something generationally sad about this. We have so much. We are possibly the richest people in history. And yet there are those among us who obtain amusement from this activity. Police are investigating and there may be a prosecution, but should we not see this as a sign that our culture needs healing?

You already care enough about country to work for it, and even to make the sacrifice of coming out in the evening to hear it talked about. Each one of you might have more knowledge to offer about our land than I can offer. I know Sandy has worked for years to protect the owls in the Trentham forest.

What you do in caring for our land is important for many reasons:

It heals the earth in a way that will hand on to posterity this legacy.

It preserves something beautiful.

It aids with conserving and purifying water.

It reduces the risk of fire.

It preserves our wild birds and animals, and natural ecosystems - maintaining the web of life of which we are a part and on which we depend.

These are all good reasons for doing land care. But sometimes it’s worth asking: do we get anything from this?

After all, often there is little financial benefit to us from these activities.

Tonight I don’t want to talk about the environmental problems we face, or discuss political solutions. You will probably already know a good deal about both.

But I thought this might be an occasion to think about what our relationship with nature gives us as individuals and as a culture.

We could spend our short time this evening discussing great Australian art works responding to nature – Eugene von Guerard, Louis Buvelot, the Heidelberg school, Russell Drysdale, Clifton Pugh, Fred Williams, Lloyd Rees, John Olsen - to say nothing of our Indigenous art tradition that celebrates the land.

We could look at our great tradition of wilderness photography – we have an exponent here.

Or film.

Or even music – I was privileged to attend the premiere a few months ago of Hugh Crosthwaite’s wonderful piano concerto ‘Mountain Ash’.

All of these responses have much to teach us about the natural world and our place in it, and about the richness it can bring to our lives and our community.

But tonight I want to look very briefly at poetry, and consider our Australian poetry of place in an international context.

Poems are not going to change the world, perhaps. But as the great US poet William Carlos Williams (who was also a family doctor) put it in his poem Asphodel, that Greeny Flower:

It is difficult
to get news from poems
                        yet men die miserably every day
                                    for lack
of what is found there.

When you are struggling through bureaucracy to get some support, or in gumboots trying to clear weeds from a creekbank, or getting your hands dirty planting trees, you might sometimes wonder whether all this is worth it.

First of all, what is the alternative?

The sorrow of losing nature is something any sensitive person will be alive to.

In 1879, Baron von Mueller, the naturalist and great explorer of Victoria, with a very 19th century view of the natural world, wrote:

On a feeling and sensitive mind a demolished forest impresses unmingled sadness, whereas its primeval grandeur must inspire anyone with immeasurable delight who is susceptible to the beauties of nature… let us regard the forests as a gift, entrusted to any of us only for transient care to be surrendered to posterity as an unimpaired property, increased in riches and augmented with blessings, to pass on as a sacred patrimony from generation to generation.

That same year, in Britain, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote these words:


Felled 1879
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve and hew –
Hack and rack the growing green!

Nature also produces deep inspiration.

Listen to the way Patrick White writes of the relationship between people and nature. His profound novel, The Tree of Man, is about a good man, and follows him through his life. The novel is in the dense prose that White uses – really extended poetry. At the end of the novel the good man, Stan Parker, dies, and these words are written
In the end there are the trees. These still stand in a gully on a piece of poor land that nobody wants to use. There is an ugly mass of scrub full of whips and open secrets. But there are the trees, quite a number of them that have survived the axe, smooth ones, a sculpture of trees. On still mornings after frost these stand streaming with light and moisture, the white and the ashen, and some the colour of flesh.
[Then Patrick White describes the man’s grandson coming down to the trees on the day of the funeral. And the boy thinks of the poem he will write. And the poem is beautiful. And the boy is, perhaps, Patrick White himself, who has all this time been writing of his own grandfather. He concludes:]
So that in the end there were the trees. The boy walking through them with his head drooping as he increased in stature. Putting out green shoots of thought. So that, in the end, there was no end.
Being in touch with nature is a way of being in touch with ourselves.

There are many spiritual traditions which reflect this truth.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Lord God fashioned mankind from the dust of the Earth. In many ancient cultures, the Earth is given the embodiment of a mother. These are profound insights into who we are as human beings: the Earth is part of who we are, and the connection is something from which we cannot escape without doing violence to ourselves.

Mother Earth: we could not conceive of owning our mother. It is only because of a distorted relationship with the Earth that we have legal structures permitting ownership of land. 

To do violence to one’s mother is an ethical offence – and hence, for most of human existence, doing violence to the Earth Mother has been seen this way. But today doing violence to the Earth is just good business.

In Ecuador and Bolivia, drawing on the indigenous concept of mother nature, or Pachamama, the law now recognises the rights of nature, and allows anyone to approach the courts on behalf of natural ecosystems. Other countries are preparing to follow these examples.

All too often, we do not see the Earth as our Mother, but as some fantastic cyber babe - ours to exploit without any real relationship. Just as a distorted relationship with our parents can hold us back all our lives, so a wrong relationship with nature is likely to distort and cramp our existence.

In 1900, in California, an anthropologist transcribed and translated the prayer of a Yokuts Shaman:

My words are tied in one
With the great mountains
With the great rocks
With the great trees
In one with my body
And my heart

Being connected to the earth is a profound source of inspiration and refreshment. Some of us obtain this from gardening, or bushwalking – or working for Landcare.

The natural world can help us connect with something deep and good inside ourselves.

When we spend time in nature, we ground ourselves.

The word humility has the same origin as our word humus – ‘grounded’, ‘of the earth’.

It’s not a bad thing to be grounded.

In the north west of the United States, there are extensive conifer forests. For the indigenous peoples of this area, before the advent of roads, rail and lumbermen, knowing how to relate to this vast wild place was a matter of life and death.

Listen to David Wagoner’s poem, which is the advice of an indigenous elder to a young initiate about what to do when lost in the forest:

Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Being in touch with the natural world is a good way of being very real with ourselves. As Henry David Thoreau put it, in describing his decision to make his home in the woods at Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Spending time in the natural world, relating to country, is a way of completing ourselves.

There is, of course, a long tradition of finding inspiration from nature, from the Bible, to the great Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Keats – through the transcendentalist poets of the US – Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson – to say nothing of Rumi and Hafiz from the Persian traditions, and the Indian, Chinese and Japanese traditions.

Here in Australia, we do have indigenous poetic traditions of land – including in the Songlines - and we have some access to them in the striking musicality of Indigenous place names:
Wandiligong. Murrumbidgee. Patchewollock. Maribyrnong. Kooyong. Yarrawonga. Corryong. Gannawarra.
I thought I should read one of my own poems, and here it is.


here it is forbidden to go
even for the boldest
here where firm ground is hard to find
under rotted logs and tangled green
threatening unwary feet
here where tree ferns funnel runnels to the rushing river
and fresh leaves and old mingle scent of mint and eucalypt
while lyre birds squeal in warning at approaching tread
here where each leaf and frond festoons with dripping water
where wind passes high above
and signs of fire’s blackening seem so old and cold that in this rainsoaked world they challenge all effort of imagination
here where the river’s waters whiten over round rocks
and long logs lodge to bridge its span
here where none go
deep where no news penetrates
with neither road nor path nor radio nor hearth
the secret font of our water’s wellspring
which we know only from its issue
drinking deep and rinsing pure
beyond the cold that aches any who dare touch
here where we are afraid to look
tremble to see
where eyes cast down at approach
where each step nearer grows heavier
here where we would not go
in the stillness
from which all things move outwards
all nourishment arises
here where only those who wait and watch may find a way

I started by talking about what jet skiers had done to a nesting pair of ospreys in New South Wales. I want to return to the theme of birds.

The great Australian poet of place today is the Sydney poet Mark Tredinnick. There are several of his  poems that might warrant reading this evening, and I had considerable and enjoyable trouble choosing, but I want to offer two poems, both about kingfishers,

Catching Fire; or, The Art of Sitting

As Kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame
—Gerard Manley Hopkins

Mid-afternoon, I look up from my desk to see
A kingfisher alight in the water poplar.

For ten blue minutes she sits wrapped in
Her sacerdotal self, murder on her mind,

And I watch her steal her own silent show, doing
Nothing, immaculately, among the silver leaves.

Until, as if my eyes had pinned her, the instant
They drop, she flies: the stillest bird

In Christendom reaches escape velocity faster
Than I can find a pen. And I’d like to learn

To sit so still and to disappear so well, my body
Become a famished thought, my mind become a world.

When in 2011 Mark Tredinnick won the world's most prestigious poetry prize for a single poem - the Montreal Poetry Prize - his poem 'The Kingfisher' was also short-listed:

The Kingfisher

And so each bird throws the idea of herself
                        ahead of herself, up the river
A line of spiritual thought without a sinker
And flies after it. As if the actual could ever hope to reel the ideal in. But so it is
That awareness of the azure kingfisher – a dark electricity, a plump
Trim elegance of intent – reaches you on the riverbank
                        that last warm Sunday of the fall, split seconds
Before the bird; so that when she passes you at light speed, her name
                                    is already a bright blue phrase on your tongue, is already
the unresolved cadence of your second self.

The land and the web of life it supports is important in itself, and important to who we are. I want to finish with a poem some of you may know. Mary Oliver is one of the most prominent US poets today, and much of her poetry concerns our relationship with nature. This is one of her best known poems, and it is in keeping with our theme of birds:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.