Clever Plants

On the evening when the Federal Elections results showed a clear winner for the Coalition I have to admit I went to bed in tears. I got up the next morning in a rage and joined Extinction Rebellion, vowing to get arrested in necessary. How else to cope with three more years of pignoramuses in power; how else to deal with this disaster for the environment, for refugees, for the poor, for our sanity?

In search of solace I buried my head in books and recalled a review I was asked to write for Matthew Hall’s book Plants as Persons way back in 2011. It was one of the first publications on plant intelligence and I remember writing at the end of the review, “This is a book I wish I had written.” Since then, not only has the idea of plants as intelligent, ‘thinking’ beings become almost commonplace but the notion that we humans would benefit from becoming more ‘plantlike’ in our thinking has gathered force. Could I discover some modicum of hope hiding in the foliage in the garden?

Unknown-9

What might it mean to think like a plant? Can we possibly know what and how a plant thinks? It seems easier to imagine how a cat or elephant or even a spider thinks, even though we may be accused of anthropomorphism. But a plant? What, I wonder might my Daphne be thinking today as it struggles to open buds in the bitter wind and squally rain. Is it quietly cursing the weather as much as I am?

Unknown-2

On warm sunny days it’s so much easier to imagine a plant’s state of mind as it lifts its leaves or flowers aloft and seems to stretch out to welcome the bees.

Unknown-3

There are few activities more pleasurable than sitting watching a peaceful plant embedded in the soil, quietly drinking up water and opening itself to the elements. Even though it is not mobile it is dynamic, connected and always changing and adapting in relation to the world in which it grows. Not a bad way to be, I think. Perhaps our politicians could be persuaded to contemplate plants.

Fat chance!

Still, it’s worth exploring how our world might look if we were able to think the way a plant develops. Have ideas that could grow, transform themselves and even die away. First, we would have to ask the plants: What do you have to teach me? I imagine putting this question to my favorite Grevillea and hearing it reply, that the essential qualities of life are unfolding, growing, transforming, creating; all of which are enlivening.

Unknown-4

This is not the sort of growth our government talks about. The capitalist, free-market kind of growth is unlimited and supposedly the key to a ‘healthy’ economy. Nowhere in the garden or in the bush does unlimited growth appear and if it did it certainly wouldn’t be healthy. Rather, there is limited growth embedded in a context, regulated by death and decay. This is a healthy life process. It is these animate processes that should be our teachers. We need these qualities of the living world to become part of a thinking process informed by the characteristics exhibited by life itself. Unfortunately, our government sees nature as a resource to be used, supposedly for human benefit. Carolyn Merchant in The Death of Nature summarizes this process:

“The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature – the most far-reaching effect of the Scientific Revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external, rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical world order has associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism” (1983, p.193).

So here we are apparently living within a ‘natural’ world that has no ‘inside’ as it were, no volition, no intelligence, no selfhood. No wonder we have ended up in a culture of separation and isolation. Yet, there is a wealth of evidence that plants do not exist in isolation. The plant’s life unfolds as it grows out into, and connects, with the world in such as way that the world supports its development.

How can we humans develop a more living relation to the world? Goethe suggests that, “if we want to behold nature in a living way, we must follow her example and become as mobile and malleable as nature herself” (2002, p. 56).

First, for all those skeptics who pooh-pooh the idea of plant sentience, there is ample evidence of sensation, signaling, intelligence and even brains in plants. As far back as 1824 Henri Dutrochet proposed the idea that the growth responses of plants to light was a behavioral responseand not simply a mechanical movement. Further experimentation proved this and laid the groundwork for Charles Darwin’s investigation into the tropic movement of plants. In his Power of Movement in Plants (1880) Darwin describes plant movement and the capacity of plants to sense and choose. He attributed brain-like characteristics to the plant’s root-tip, writing, “ It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle … acts like the brain of one of the lower animals (1880, p. 573). Matthew Hall describes how “Darwin recognized the possibility that plants could receive impressions of the environment. Although he was not aware how, it was clear that plants were able to communicate with the environment, and the sensory parts had the means to communicate this information on the state of the environment to other parts of the plant” (2011, p.140).

We now know a great deal more about how plants function. Touch is the most well-known sense in plants and with their extreme sensitivity to touch plants are able “to explore, with an animal-like curiosity, their environment in a continual search for water and solutes” (2006, p. vi). Their phototropic response to light also shows they are able to perceive light and work out whether they are likely to be shaded by other plants in the future. This information enables them to make decisions about future branching and flowering behavior.

In 2002 Anthony Trewavas proposed that plants possessed intelligence, defined as the possession of “Adaptively variable behavior within the lifetime of the individual.” Trewavas describes how the growth and development of plant organs is “adaptively variable”: it changes according to environment conditions in order to maximize fitness. This ability to alter the phenotype is, by definition, intelligent. Perception, awareness and active assessment are elements in the behavioral repertoire of plants, directed at increasing their well-being by acquiring resources and maximizing reproduction. By adjusting to environmental changes, plants show they are capable of basic decision making, problem solving and reasoning.

Studies in what is now known as plant neurobiology suggest, “that plants may actually have thousands of brain-like entities that are involved in the emergence of intelligent behavior. These entities are a type of tissue known as meristems. Current theories suggest that the meristematic tissue, located at the tips of roots and shoots, combined with the vascular strands capable of complex molecular and electrical signaling, may well comprise the plant equivalent of the nervous/neuronal system” (Hall, 2011, p.147).

There is much, much more to this research that I could summarize but I’m more interested in thinking about the possibilities that open up for us if we can only find the humility to learn from the plant world that for so long we have denigrated as passive, immobile and lacking in mental capacity. In Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of vegetal Life, Michael Marder compiles a list of attributes that he refers to as offshoots of plant thinking, some of which I’ll attempt to summarize. They all have implications for gardening that I will explore in a later post.

Ethically, we can no longer treat vegetal life as a mere object as it is also an agent, one deserving of respect.  Marder writes: “vegetal life enlivens plants, as well as, in different ways, animals and human beings; the common life at its barest, is in equal measure an end-in-itself and a source of vitality for-us. An offense against vegetal life harms both the plants we destroy and something of the vegetal being in us” (p.182). From this perspective the accelerated rate of land clearing that is occurring in Australia under our present government, something that is supposed to benefit us, is in fact diminishing us and will ultimately hasten our self-inflicted destruction.

Unknown-5

We now know that trees live in connected communities, a network of relations. Peter Wohlleben describes in The Hidden Life of Trees, how trees nurture and talk to each other. Tree parents live together with their offspring, communicate with them, support them as they grow, and share nutrients with those that are sick and struggling. No apparent class divisions, no heroes, no victims. Instead, a conversation which, although we seem hell-bent on denying it, we are part of.

Unknown-6

And of course, there are many more species of plants, all of which are an inherent part vegetal life and when it comes to the commodification of crops under the capitalist agro-scientific complex, once again we see plants exploited, their life-span and growth confined within the temporality of capital. Marder argues that an ethics of eating requires “a complete and concerted decommodification of vegetal life, a refusal to regulate the human relation to plants on the basis of commodity-economic logic.” In other words, we need to eat locally grown, organic plants whose lives have been respected. We need to refuse the use of genetically modified seeds that do not yield renewable crops and view all pesticides as the poisons that they are.

Unknown-8

My own concerns, not raised specifically by Marder, are to do with how to respect vegetal life in the flower garden. What might this mean for the traditional herbaceous border, for mixed shrubberies and bedding plants, clipped hedges and topiary, not to mention the multi-national nursery business. I shall attempt some plant-like thinking on this conundrum for my next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Life Among Trees

“In the country it was as if every tree said to me ‘Holy! Holy!’ Who can ever express the ecstasy of the woods?” (Ludwig van Beethoven).

Late last year I joined the newly formed Wild Mountain Collective and have since become the convener of an annual series of seminars. The first was titled ‘Celebrating Trees’ and featured environmental artist Janet Laurence speaking on her commissioned work in the MCA Gallery and Louise Fowler-Smith talking about sacred Trees in India. Both speakers clearly felt a great affinity with trees and saw them as in some sense sacred.

IMG_1264I was reminded of my own introduction to the notion of sacred trees and groves when reading Ursula le Guin’s EarthSea Trilogymany years ago when I was living in County Meath in Ireland. My cottage was close to a collection of Neolithic passage tombs and the atmosphere of ancient human activity immersed in nature was palpable. My fascination with sacred groves in fantasy fiction and the surrounding sense of mythic antiquity led to my becoming a frequent visitor to the Balrath Woods with their massive old beech trees.

Unknown-2

Although the Beech tree is not native to Ireland it is connected to Ogma, the Celtic warrior god who is credited with inventing the Ogham alphabet, known as the tree alphabet and in general beech trees are symbols of study and knowledge, books and learning. From an etymological perspective there is a strong connection between ‘beech’ and ‘book’ in many European languages. Gilford’s The Wisdom of the Trees, for example, states that ‘boc’ was the word for beech in Old English and later became ‘book.’ German uses ‘buche’ for beech, which later became ‘buch’ (book) and buchstabe is the word for alphabet. Likewise, collections of early manuscripts also have aboreal origins as ‘codex’ is a later spelling of the Latin ‘caudex,’ meaning the trunk of a tree.

Unknown-3

I travelled round the country visiting many sites of Ogham stones, which date from around the fourth century AD. They were in use for about 500 years and many of the letters are linked to old Irish names for certain trees. Each Ogham symbol has a name, for example, the letter ‘b’ is called beithe– ‘birch,’ and the letter ‘c’ is called coll– ‘hazel.’

Unknown-4

 

Unknown-5

All this enhanced my fascination with both trees and writing that had its genesis in my childhood in New Zealand where bedtime stories often included Maori myths with their reverence for Tane, the lord of the forest who brought this world into being by separating earth and sky. He had his roots in the earth and his head in the heavens. He fashioned the first humans, adorned the heavens and brought the baskets of knowledge, wisdom and understanding down from the sky to human beings. All trees in the forest are seen as mimicking the god Tane, as the tree holds the sky aloft, bringing light into the world. As a child I was enchanted by this notion of trees holding up the sky but the removal of a giant Rimu tree, amid much angry protesting, at the end of our street to provide space for more housing constantly erupted in my nightmares.

Unknown-6

Although there is no Maori equivalent of Ogham, each of the biggest and oldest Kauri trees are given personal names. One, called Tane Muhutahas a trunk like a lighthouse and was already 400 years old when the Maori first arrived from Polynesia. Colin Tudge writes in The Secret Life of Treesthat, “many a redwood still standing tall in California was ancient by the time Columbus first made Europe aware that the Americas existed. Yet the redwoods are striplings compared to some of California’s pines, which germinated at about the time that human beings invented writing and so are as old as all of written history. These trees out on their parched hills were already impressively old when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, or indeed when Abraham was born. So it is that some living trees have seen the rise and fall of entire civilizations” (p.2).

Unknown-7

Trees matter in the world. Not just iconic trees, ancient trees with names, huge trees that are a tourist attraction, but all trees. And writing matters too. Nowadays it would seem we would prefer to relegate trees to the odd splash of greenery among shopping malls or confine them to areas where it is impossible to farm. Why I endlessly ask myself do so many of us in industrialized countries find trees anathema and it there an unacknowledged disdain also for nature writing: writing that calls us into life amid the trees.

Years later studying for a PhD I read Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, Forests. The Shadow of Civilization in which he writes of our paradoxical attitude of reverence and hostility towards forests, of how we somehow see them as opposed to civilization. He quotes Giambattista Vico, an Italian theorist of the eighteenth century who offers an imaginative insight into this psychic split with his story of the first men, brutal giants, living in dense forests that shielded them from the sky. When they experienced their first thunderstorm they “were frightened and astonished by the great effect whose cause they did not know, and raised their eyes and became aware of the sky.”

Because they saw nothing, or at least nothing definite, they pictured the sky to themselves as a huge, animated body: a body not seen but imagined as there beyond the treetops. Harrison writes of how, “this act of picturing an image within the mind marks, for Vico, the first humanizing event in prehistory. The giants produce an image in the empty space of their minds – a space as empty and abysmal as the sky itself. In this manner the first human idea was born, that of Jove, father of the world, hurling the lightning bolt from his abode in the sky. In the guise of Jupiter and Zeus, this deity will later reign supreme among the gods of antiquity.”

In Vico’s story enlightenment began at the moment when it was possible to see beyond the treetops, and so the opposition of forest and civilization began. The forests came first, before the human world with its cities and civilization and it was the forests that hid god from the people. Vico’s crucial insight was that the dread and fear of forests in western civilization derives from the fact that, at least since Greek and Roman times, we have been a civilization of sky-worshippers, children of a celestial father and only by creating clearings in the forest could we establish a world.

How very different the many Indigenous and pre-Christian relationships with trees are in comparison. The dualism that pervades western understanding of life is absent and the pernicious need to destroy trees while at the same time cultivating a nostalgic and sentimental attitude towards special trees to remind us of what we have lost is not in evidence.

In European culture the word ‘savage’ was derived from silva meaning a wood and the progress of humankind was considered to be from the forest to the field. However, in the pre-Christian era forests were also considered to be the site of miracles and the source of great spiritual awakening. The forest itself was seen as a primitive church and the first temples were forest groves although subsequently replaced by built structures. Such sacred groves were imbued with powers beyond those of humans. They were home to spirits that could take or give life. Druids, known as those with tree knowledge, used trees as places of gathering for worship. They valued the trees and even planted trees to form groves in which they could worship. For their most sacred places they chose the deepest parts of woodlands and either planted trees or used existing groves as places of worship.

Centuries later William Blake praised the Bards, the first order of Druids, who understood trees as doors to the spirit world.

O hear the voice of the Bard

Who present past and future sees

Whose ears have heard the holy Word

That walked among the ancient trees.

How, then, might we turn this destructiveness around and return to a viable sense of trees as sacred? It is possible? Janet Laurence and Louise Fowler-Smith both approach trees through visual images but, taking the Beech tree as my cue, I would like to explore language and specifically writing as offering another small step in the right direction. Apart from the Beech, there are many varied examples of direct connections between trees and writing. In the Old World of Mesopotamia, for example, an ancient Egyptian cosmology has a central axis of the universe which is a gigantic tree with the Sun God perching in its branches. As in Nordic and Celtic cosmology, the Egyptian Tree of Life is closely linked with the alphabet and writing.

Fred Hageneder in The Heritage of Trees describes how the temple of Ramses II in Thebes “shows the god of scripture, Djahuti (Thoth), and the goddess Seshat inscribing the king’s name on the leaves of the sacred Persea tree … It was the tree itself that gave the knowledge of writing” (p.50). Hageneder details a multitude of examples of how the vocabulary of both ancient Germanic languages and Icelandic all suggested that social concepts of growth and communication were strongly associated with the woods. “Perhaps,” he writes, “the most astonishing link of all is the origin of the simple but profound words withand without – vid (Icelandic), ved(Danish) and wad(Swedish) – in the same root. The Icelandic vid-oetanmeans ‘without’ – literally ‘outside the forest.’ Inside the forest the human being could be visited (vitja) by wisdom (vitra) or witness (vitna) a revelation or vision (vitran) that completely changed his or her consciousness (vita; Anglo-Saxon witan). Under trees people could mature into a true leader (viti), a prophet (vitki) a wizard or witch (vitta), or a sage (vitringr)” (p.125).

There are far too many of these linguistic links to detail here but I’m also reminded of Buddha finding the ‘ultimate and unconditioned truth’ under the Bodhi Tree, the Tree of Enlightenment. Early Buddhism apparently did not depict the Buddha in human form. All that was shown was the tree, with the vacant space at its foot where Buddha should be seen. Buddha was at one with the universe and could therefore be represented best by the Cosmic Tree itself. Furthermore, the earliest Buddhist texts call the Bodhi tree – and not the Buddha – the Great Awakener.

So these are a few of the alternative ways of being, ways that hint at a different sort of wisdom and knowledge to that of western Enlightenment with its need to destroy trees in order to establish civilization. Early non-western literature also explored such ideas. The most famous is the epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest work of literature, composed about four to five thousand years ago. In this story Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, the guardian of the forest and then proceeds to indiscriminately fell the great cedar trees. The very beginnings of literature therefore recognized the symbolic significance of trees and the consequences of humankind’s destructive impulses against nature.

Last year I was on holiday in Japan and one kilometer from the site where the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima there is a tree that miraculously survived the bombing when everything around it was destroyed. It still survives and continues to grow. I took heart that a tree could withstand one of the worst acts that humankind has inflicted on the earth.

IMG_1200

Around the world trees continue to survive although sadly not in the abundance necessary for the health of the planet. In Australia we thoughtlessly destroy old growth forests for timber or clear-fell vast areas for agriculture. Regenerative agriculture offers a glimmer of hope by planting trees to capture carbon from the atmosphere and allow their deep-rooted systems to recycle nutrients from the soil. Some farmers diversify by incorporating fruit and nut trees while others provide trees as sanctuaries for depleted wildlife such as birds and insects. These trees also prevent erosion, keep waterways and the air clean.

Fortunately western literature also has its alternative writings that claim trees as sacred, forests and woods as places where wisdom may be gained or a change in consciousness experienced. This ‘regenerative’ writing disputes the notion that trees exist solely ‘for the good of humanity,’ that their wellbeing is important but only if it serves humankind. It is not writing in which an active knower examines a passive object. A tree for a regenerative writer is something to be encountered and addressed directly, as a fellow being in all its immediacy; an object of empathy, not simply of manipulation. It involves a reasoned reflection about humans and their place on the earth as well as acknowledging mystery. Our use of trees can never be heedless. They lead their own lives and have their own agenda. Much of the point about writing about trees is communication. In recognizing the tree as part of a community of discourse, we are hopefully shaping acts and attitudes; we are generating a manner of writing that is true to the task of sustainable dwelling at peace for humans and the earth alike.

The poet Alice Oswald captures the overlap of trees and writing in her poem:

If you bend a branch until it’s

Horizontal, the sap will slow to a

Stopping point: a comma or colon,

Made of leaves grown into one

Another and over one another and

Hardened. Out of this pause comes a

Flower which unfolds in spirals,

As if the leaf form, unable to keep to

Its lines, has begun to pivot.

IMG_0912

Edible Garden Festival

The first edible garden festival in the blue mountains, organized by Susanne Rix, is open to the public this weekend, the 3rd and 4th of March. Over thirty edible gardens, including school gardens, community gardens, and several commercial gardens as well as many private gardens are available for viewing. Unfortunately I had to withdraw my garden due to a family funeral so I’ve decided to write some essays featuring aspects of edible gardens including photos taken in my garden and some of other gardens in the festival. Below is a photo of a henhouse in a Blackheath garden.

My own garden is designed with several factors in mind. First, (but not in order of importance) I am a plant person and can become obsessed with acquiring a wide range of rare and unusual ornamental perennials. There is, fortunately a limit to the number of plants that can be squeezed into the existing flowerbeds, especially given the restrictions of climate and the need for drought resistant plants.

 

view of one section of my garden

Second, no garden as far as I am concerned is complete without vegetables, fruit trees, soft fruit and hens. Although aesthetics are of prime importance any garden worth its salt must, in my opinion, do more than nod to self-sufficiency.

my pumpkin patch
delicious mandarins

Third, I am deeply committed to creating a space that provides habitat for as many species as possible. With this in mind my plans for the garden include a range of insect hotels, nesting boxes, and possum boxes. At present it features several birdbaths, bee baths, designed habitat for skinks and blue tongue lizards and a wide range of insect and bird attracting plants. My aim is to craft all these features to also act as interesting and stimulating garden art.

Hence, my chicken run was designed, not simply to accommodate my chooks as commodiously as possible but to also provide space for art and design work. I am consequently looking forward to seeing other chook runs in the mountains where backyard hens are common. Of course the Internet abounds with images of fancy ‘chook palaces’ and ‘chook mahals’ but it is local creativity that interests me along with the opportunity to meet up with like-minded gardeners.

lizard home

The practical aspects of having hens obviously include eating beautiful, fresh, organic eggs as well as creating a sustainable system of feeding scraps to the hens, using the manure for liquid plant feed or adding it to the compost system. Hens are also wonderful pest eradicators, delighting in a lunch of caterpillars, grubs and snails. The less practical, but equally important aspect is the emotional enrichment the chickens bring to my life. Each one has a unique personality:

Black-eyed Susie, the Australorp loves to be picked up and stroked. She is also exceptionally nosey and has to watch everything I do.

Black-eyed Susie

Hyacinth, a beautiful Brahma with feathered feet is top hen but motherly and placid. Bluebell the Araucana is raucous and full of importance.

Hyacinth and chicks with Bluebell in the background

The two little silver laced Wyandottes, Snowdrop and Blossom are very young and yet to reveal their individuality. Each day as I watch them dust bathing, pecking and scratching they teach me that life is not meant to be lived in a rush. Above all they make me laugh.

blossom and snowdrop

My hen house and run is octagonal, built to be fox and snake proof and includes fruit trees in the run to provide shade in the summer and protect the fruit from ever-hungry parrots.

view of henhouse

It was built three and a half years ago when my partner and I bought the property and replaced a section of the previous owner’s vegetable garden. This meant it could be erected without removing established plants although the downside was losing an area of fertile soil.

beginning the building process

The design required a great many complicated measurements. The central section has an octagonal house with two nesting boxes and art deco mosaic patterns on the outside.

section of mosaic

A larger octagonal area above the house and extending beyond it is covered with clear roofing material to provide shelter from rain. It is surrounded by a narrow decorative green roof planted with sedums. I plan to rain-proof more of the roof area as in heavy downpours there isn’t sufficient dry areas. This is the only part of the design that didn’t work out completely satisfactorily. Although surprisingly the wire mesh roof proved to be snow-proof when we had a heavy fall two years ago. The snow sat on the roof all morning creating an eerie semi-darkness in the run and the chooks seemed unable to decide whether it was day or night.

henhouse in the snow

At the moment I have five hens, all heritage breeds and plan to extend this small flock later this year. I am a big fan of heritage hens for many reasons, although exactly what heritage means is up for debate as chickens have been domesticated for approximately 8,000 – 10,000 years. Annie Potts writes that:

As early as 1500 BC depictions of chickens emerge in Egyptian hieroglyphic art. … Fourth-century Greek records state that Egyptians had mastered poultry husbandry and had been practising artificial incubation of chicks for many years.

She also notes that early remains of chickens have been found in sub-Saharan Africa, while in the eighteenth century Captain Cook noticed chickens on the Easter Islands, New Caledonia and elsewhere in the Pacific. In South America the Araucana chicken may be the result of interbreeding between native grouse and early unrecorded visitors to the Americas. The Araucana, however, is unique among chicken breeds for its blue eggs.

araucana eggs

The range of heritage hens available today, however, is the result of selective mating of breeds during the Victorian era when breeding and showing animals, including poultry, became a national pastime in the UK. By the start of the 20th century scores of new breeds had been created, quickly followed by publications, which listed the ideal physical and temperamental characteristics of recognized breeds.

Sadly, chickens have since been reduced to the most manipulated beings on the planet. This is what rampant capitalism does to the voiceless. Before World War I chickens were kept for eggs with meat obtained from home slaughtered young cockerels. Eating chicken meat was far from an everyday occurrence. As soon as FKC and McDonalds became part of daily life in Australia 500 million broiler chickens have been killed each year while 11 million battery hens produce 93% of the nation’s eggs. Instead of a natural lifespan of around 12 years, a typical farmed chick today lives for about 6 weeks, never having experienced sunshine, rain or grass. Layers, likewise, live indoors, subjected to artificial lighting in cramped cages, unable to preen, scratch or even turn around.

There has been a vast number of articles published on the inhumane treatment of hens subjected to industrialised practices but for detailed information I recommend Annie Potts’ book Chicken, published in the Reaktion animal series in 2012. It was when I became aware of the shocking treatment of battery hens that I decided to acquire some backyard chickens. My first chooks were Isa Browns rescued from a battery farm. Unfortunately Isa Browns are so highly genetically modified for constant egg laying that after about three years they develop massive tumors and die. I decided I could no longer keep Isa Browns as I felt I would be supporting the breeding of these poor creatures. And so began my love affair with heritage breeds, including discovering they are inclined to go broody and get cranky, decide to moult just when you are hoping for extra eggs. In other words they are delightfully themselves and refuse to be subjected to human demands.

There is no doubt that having decided to be part of the more or less fashionable suburban chicken movement I was propelled into a whole new world of experience. On one level it was a declaration of independence – however small – from the food conglomerates that treat animals as commodities. It was also a political statement in support of a more just and sustainable society. Having backyard chooks speaks to a larger movement toward increased responsibility for ourselves, our communities, the land and other species. As Clea Danaan writes:

… we are overturning the illusion that we are separate beings who can do whatever we want. Raising chickens is a vote for a more compassionate, nature-based economy. It is an education in interconnection, responsibility and compassion.

It has been an inspiring day today wandering through the edible gardens of the Blue Mountains and seeing so many happy and healthy chickens, ducks and geese, such an array of imaginatively created hen houses and runs. Long may it last.

Duck in Katoomba Garden

And I have come home inspired to start work on a large insect hotel which will also double as a decorative front wall of my garden shed. This will feature in my next post.

Post-wild Gardening

 

Winter in the Blue Mountains this year has been remarkably mild; a little chilly in the mornings followed by clear sunny skies. Perfect gardening weather I think as I busy myself uprooting seedling blackberries and other undesirables. And yet at the back of my mind there’s a lurking anxiety which, combined with my memory of extreme high temperatures in the summer, inevitably raises the spectre of climate change and all that it implies for gardens, biodiversity, our very existence.

As soon as a plant inexplicably dies or another fails to flourish, in fact whenever anything out of the ordinary occurs, an imaginary headline screaming “climate change” flashes into my mind. Needless to say I’ve read endless articles in an effort to keep pace with climate change data. Many refer to the “long emergency;” to what is known as a “wicked problem.” Gardening problems are of course merely the tip of this melting iceberg in which interrelated effects including global phenomena such as biodiversity and geophysical impacts, population increase and migration, urbanization, disparities in wealth appear to have no panacea within the capitalist machine.

These wide-ranging issues may seem to reduce my elephant in the garden to insignificance but there’s no escaping the fact that these days it is impossible to garden without experiencing intense anxiety and uncertainty about the future. I am hardly the only gardener to feel at a loss, powerless to effect any meaningful change.

So I am rather surprised when, in the midst of brooding about the future and the fears this engenders, the notion of generosity comes to my mind. This strikes me as incongruous until I remind myself that generosity is at the heart of all life. It is, perhaps, stating the obvious to say that everything animate on our planet comes into being needing to receive from another or others in order to survive. Receiving nutrients be it soil and moisture for a plant or milk from a mother is inseparable from the act of giving. This integrated movement of giving/receiving is, we might say, a primary impulse of life and we lose something of our humanity when our generosity is curtailed.

On a broader scale I ask myself what will happen to us when more and more people become displaced by climate change. Already our government refuses to allow many in genuine need to be welcomed into our land so that we are denied our primary impulse to give sustenance to others in distress. And what of those who are displaced? Those who have suffered unimaginable losses and are then confronted with rejection; who are deprived of a promising new life and whose opportunity to be grateful can only wither within them. How do any of us find solace in such a world?

Inevitably I find myself gravitating back to plants in an effort to escape from the seemingly inescapable. Plants and gardening are my panacea that I like to imagine exist outside the capitalist machine. Gardening is where I attempt to find a modicum of agency. Plants are emissaries of life and delight. They work with, rather than against, the powerful flux of life – regardless of their origin, of whether they are native or exotic, cultivated or weeds. Nevertheless, it is true I have been known to wage war on weeds, to uproot in a frenzy those exotic escapees listed as invasive, as dangerous to the long-term ‘purity’ of the native bush.

 

It is only recently that I have begun to question the need for that solid dividing wall between undesirable exotic plants and weeds and carefully chosen garden species. And I have scrupulously avoided comparing this practice to that of refusing entry to foreigners who arrive uninvited on our shores.

Of course, I’m aware that drawing comparisons between human migrants and alien plant species is probably not very smart. There has been a long contentious history concerning such analogies. Hard-line nativists or restoration purists have been accused of xenophobia, linked to a Nazi blood-and-soil ideology or ethnic cleansing. The American garden designer Jensen, for example wrote:

“To be true to yourself, I mean true to your native landscape is a very fundamental issue – it is to be or not to be. In the garden you give assent to one idea and outside its boundary to another. Strange things, grotesque things … will creep in and the purity of thoughts in garden making suffers. Freaks are freaks and often bastards – who wants a bastard in the garden, the out of doors shrine of your home?”

However, despite the many disadvantages, I’m intent on exploring this analogy because I believe that climate change necessitates raking through the diverse possibilities of metaphors of human, plant and animal movement: primarily I’m fascinated by the ways in which gardening can stimulate psychic movement, how the admittedly limited freedom of movement and agency I find in gardening and writing about gardening works to offset the curtailment of movement and suppression of agency in other areas of my life; how the activity of giving and receiving moves writing from the page to be received by the land, where gardens become poems written in the elements and in living matter. Where the movement of plants, their global wanderings resist bioregional control, where humans might expand their horizons, collaborate with these global wanderings and adopt the perspective of wild, opportunistic plants. Where the borders around gardens are no longer fixed.

To find new, possibly gentler, more creative and generous ways of living and acting in an imperiled world requires that we alter our perception of what constitutes a garden. Simon Pugh, for example, describes a garden as offering “an image of nature that has been internalised to protect against fear of the ‘outside’ a possible source of panic and fear.” For him, “the garden represents fear as much as it represents control of that fear.” In contrast, I find myself increasingly drawn to the idea of a garden where cultivation does not equal control but instead experimental mixtures of the wild and the artificial, the human and non-human. As a place where, instead of fear, the force and efficacy of growth and generosity opens up a space to critically revisit different practices and their implications.

Such a generous gardening practice was alluded to by Val Plumwood who described gardening as “adaptive,” as a complex project in which the garden negotiates with or comes to terms with its environment. In adaptive gardening there is a dialogical relationship with surrounding elements both of natural and cultural heritage, including the past. This accurately reflects the gardening practice in some of the famous Blue Mountains gardens in Mount Wilson, which contrary to popular belief, sought from the time they were established to create a synthesis of the global and local. It has become commonplace to interpret these gardens as stemming from a colonial disdain for Australian flora. The attitudes of the first resident gardeners were, however, more complex. Although without doubt well-to-do and colonial in attitude, rather than slavishly recreating English gardens of the time they planted a wide diversity of cool climate plants while being equally fascinated by the natural history of the area and collecting indigenous plants and corresponding with experts in Sydney.

This resulted in the 1920s in a complete survey of the vegetation conducted by Sydney University – the first ecological study undertaken in Australia. Ultimately these gardeners’ passion for natural history led to the early conservation of much of the vegetation in reserves long before the creation of the national parks or the granting of world heritage status.

In the 20th century some of these gardens were bought by botanists who scoured the world for rare and spectacular plants as well as raising hybrids and variants of their own. These gardeners, then, rather than recreating a narrowly nostalgic replica of the English garden epitomized the blending of local and global.

A present-day example is Merry Garth which features a wide selection of plants from the European Alps, the Rocky Mountains and natives of Spain, Portugal, New Zealand and Japan. This planting blends with indigenous flora – tall tree ferns, most over 200 years old and in the lower section indigenous remnant rainforest species including giant Banksia integrifolia blend into the bush.

It is, of course, easy to romanticize these gardens, to see them as typifying some high point in Blue Mountains gardening from which the dictates of climate change make decline the only option. It is true that they are examples of a more conservative understanding of the garden, where the gardener must constantly battle against the gathering chaos on the other side of the fence. It is also true that the more the climate changes, the less adapted these gardens will be to current conditions. If fire and water regimes fundamentally change trying to maintain them will be difficult, if not impossible.

However, I prefer not to describe these gardens as on the cusp of decline but to imagine them as a stepping off point for developing gardens in which uncertainty and anxiety gives way to meaningful action, action that not only enhances our humanity but reduces the impact of our rapacious human-centered activities. Such gardens would be understood as generous not only towards exotic plants but would also include modifying our attitude towards those despised species known as weeds.

For me the first step in coming to terms with the notion of an open and generous garden is not simply to understand a garden as a miniature version of global climate problems but to reverse this metaphor and examine how the positive and negative aspects of large-scale processes and big-picture global patterns might transform dwelling in a garden into a new poetics in which fundamental boundaries begin to come undone or be traversed.

With this in mind I want to argue that caring for a garden demands an alternative grammar, a counter-text which, like the subaltern writing of postcolonial resistance and diaspora refuses preservation, the fusion to roots, yet also refuses displacement without an investigation or counter-practice. My focus is on what might constitute this counter-practice, in terms of our stance towards both plant and human life.

Proponents of re-wilding, such as Emma Marris and French gardener Gilles Clement provide versions of this sort of counter-practice through an examination of the long-term results of movement among plant species. Emma Marris in her book The Rambunctious Garden describes the unruly entanglement of weedy species that follow in our wake. She writes of how:

“we are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.”

Marris argues that because nature is ever-changing, on the scale of Earth’s history these rambunctious gardens are as legitimate as any other manifestation of nature. We should, she says, embrace our creations not shun them as monsters.

I admit, at first reading I’m appalled. I think of numerous agricultural or forestry creations that have proved to be truly monstrous in their effect on climate change, biodiversity and human communities. I think of David Quammen writing of the unavoidable prospect of a planet of weeds which he describes as a “crummier place, a lonelier and uglier place, and a particularly wretched place for the two billion people comprising Alan Durning’s absolute poor.” Although my ideal is a generous garden I have perversely spent a lifetime regarding a garden as an oasis, a peaceful enclave protected from unwanted weeds, undesirable invasive species. So, how can I learn to embrace this monstrous world of our making? Is it possible let alone desirable to resist it?

Marris is neither especially concerned with economically and socially disadvantaged people nor with private gardens. Her concern is with advocating human intervention, arguing that in “different places, in different chunks, we should manage nature for different ends – for historical restoration, for species preservation, for self-willed wildness, for ecosystem services, for food and fiber and fish and flame trees and frogs.”

I find Marris most persuasive, where she proposes one solution that applies to all her different goals: to preserve open land, to protect it from development even if it is a so-called ‘trash ecosystem’. Marris asks us to renounce nostalgia and celebrate a biological order that evolves over vast periods of time. She writes, “this conscious and responsible and joyful co-habitation is the future of our planet, our vibrant, thriving, rambunctious garden.”

However, I find it is Gilles Clement whose celebration of an evolving world that is moving from a mosaic of cultural and biological monads, closed in on themselves, to one of multiple interconnections that opens up for me a space for generous gardening. Clement includes the global movement of people at the same time as he critiques the human urge to control nature. He calls for a new way of conceptualizing nature that asks us to re-envision what he calls the “third landscape,” the space where nature is left to its own unsanctioned processes. He sees these areas as a place of refuge for diversity, a genetic reservoir for the planet, in which the movement and agency of plants is beyond human control.

Clement does not see this move from local to global as part of the globalising logic of reducing difference and standardizing solutions. Rather he views globalisation from the perspective of generosity towards the diversity of beings and practices that challenge human notions of order and permanence.

He moves between writing – novels, essays, papers – and making interventions in landscape, seeking a type of love, of giving and receiving in our world that points towards a poetics of interstices, crossing boundaries and engaging with inventive and exuberant life.

In his writing on the third landscape he brings into focus agency beyond the human, critiquing a fusion to roots and investigating the displacement of human control. He offers a vision of counter-practice which critiques a style of human politics and legislation that imposes obstacles to the free biological movements of plants, to the freedom of people to give and receive.

Here are some sections from his In Praise of Vagabonds:

“Plants travel. Especially grasses. They move about as quietly as the wind. We can’t do much about the wind.

Were we to harvest clouds we would be astonished to find a weightless seed mixed in the loess, a fertile dust. Unpredictable landscapes take shape in the sky.

Chance organizes the details, exploits all possible vectors for the distribution of species. Everything is conducive to travel, from marine currents to shoe soles. Travel essentially belongs to animals. Nature charters berry-eating birds, gardening ants, calm subversive sheep, whose wool holds field upon field of seed. And the human – an animal shaken by incessant movements, free trader of diversity.

Evolution benefits from all this, not society. The slightest management problem runs up against provisional timetables … possibilities emerge at every moment. How can we manage the landscape and manage its expenses if it is transformed at the whim of hurricanes? What technocratic grid could we apply to the overflow of nature, to its violence?

In the face of winds and birds, the question of what to regulate remains. Innovative nature sends the legislator back to his documents, in search of reassuring language.

And if we were to ensure against life? Such a project – security at all costs – finds unlikely company among the ecological radicals, the keepers of nostalgia. Nothing should change, our past depends on it say the ones; nothing should change, diversity depends on it, say the others. Everyone rails against the vagabonds.

Discourse goes further. As a politics, it brings minds together around the necessity of eradicating species that come from elsewhere. What will we become if strangers take our ground? We speak of survival. …

To begin with, we oppose life-forms that have no business here … Eliminate first; we’ll look into it afterward. … We prepare a lawsuit, establish a protocol for action; we wage war.”

Clement’s writing on the third landscape provides a glimpse of how uncultivated areas might be celebrated in writing; of how such writing might critique regulations on the movement of people as well as plants. However, he is also a gardener and as a gardener he speaks and writes of the questions that unite the garden and the landscape. He calls for the borders between garden and non-garden to vanish into the “Planetary Garden.” Instead of being limited to a small space that we attempt to control, “the garden is placed within the limits of the biosphere. This is the new enclosure,” in which global mixing is essential to evolutionary process, including that of the human.

The Planetary Garden, clearly closely resembles Marris’ rambunctious garden about which I have had such misgivings. When I ask myself whether I am capable of altering my gardening practice to be more in harmony with the ideas proposed by Marris and Clement I find there is little in their visions

to allay my anxiety, the underlying dis-ease I feel when gardening. Albrecht refers to this as eco-anxiety, as “the generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse.”

The core of my conflicted feelings stems I believe from Marris’ and Clement’s enthusiasm which has allowed them to jump across a psychological barrier without pausing to consider that climate change is as much a psychic phenomenon as it is a concern over biodiversity and geophysics. Before we can celebrate life in the rambunctious or planetary garden we need to find a passage through despair and melancholy. We need to learn how to read loss as a source of future possibility. We need to accept the weedy aliens lurking in our psyches as having an equal right to dwell within us.

It is such acceptance without resignation or denial that Bill Plotkin describes in “Rewilding Psychology.” He argues that “a mature ecotherapy does not attempt to decrease our anxiety, outrage, fear, grief, or despair in response to the ongoing industrial destruction of the biosphere; rather, it helps us more fully experience these feelings so that we can revitalize ourselves emotionally and, in so doing, enable our greatest contributions to a cultural renaissance.”

So, how exactly do we “work through” a wicked problem that includes not only eco-anxiety but also what has become known as solastalgia. Solastalgia is defined as that sense of distress people experience when valued natural environments are negatively transformed. It is the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where we reside and love is under assault. Solastalgia is not about looking back to some imagined golden age, nor is it about moving, finding another home; it is about the dislocation and distress experienced when a loved place is destroyed.

I believe solastalgia can equally be applied to anticipating with dread changes that are yet to happen. So how might we develop a counter-flow of theory and action that replaces a sense of powerlessness with agency and empowerment, enabling a joyful kinship with ‘impure’ gardens that are part-controlled, part-trash ecosystems? And on the broader front how can we extend our generosity to those whose have been displaced from their beloved homes and left adrift, confronted wherever they turn by barriers and blockades?

Once again I find myself drawn back to the individual response. The only solution I have been able to find is a personal one: to recognise and accept my own tiny sphere of influence; of the need to creatively change my practice in gardening and writing, believing, hoping, that relatively small changes can advance the possibility that alternative forms of gardening and writing can become sites for political change, change that will be kindly disposed to those in need.

Without doubt both global and local political and climatic changes have left me grappling with ways to bring my garden experiences into language.

When I try to envisage Australian rambunctious garden writing or writing of the third landscape it seems essential that it encompass rather than discard our particular heritage in which writers have struggled with Indigenous dispossession as well as imported concepts of Romanticism and the pastoral.

Also it is only when we become capable of setting aside our fears and anxieties about change that a generous attitude can enter, bringing with it the realisation that movement does not necessarily bring chaos. Clement, for example, describes how the new breed of gardener would tend a garden. S/he “… keeps an attentive eye on the wanderings of the plants and animals and that enter into the garden.” This allows “everything present in the garden to play an equal role in producing a dense and richly overlapping whole.” The arrival of a new “weed” in the garden might be met with interest and observation – how will this plant interact with others? Does it provide food for insects? How does it affect the overall appearance and experiential qualities of the garden? This does not imply a free-for-all chaos. If a plant proves to have overly “invasive” propensities it can be limited through well-timed interventions. What it does imply is the search for ethical stability rather than a yearning for the past.

These new concepts in garden design take movement and plant agency into consideration. The naturalistic planting movement of Piet Oudolf, in particular, has become a significant global influence. Throughout Europe, urban areas have been planted in parallel with third landscapes to provide city habitats. These small gardens on traffic islands and streetscapes include perennials that self-seed and constantly regenerate themselves. Seed heads are left over the winter to provide food for birds. Oudolf’s work might be thought of as a counter-practice that adapts to aspects of the rambunctious garden yet resists the demise of the garden as such.

The high plant density in an Oudolf garden is a fundamental major break with the past. Density approaching that found in natural plant communities is far more resilient than traditional garden planting with spaces between plants. Plant communities are chosen for their hardiness as well as their aesthetic appeal and suitability for local growing conditions. The high level of diversity and openness to dynamic change that biodiversity needs is taken into account, thereby creating a plant community aimed at creating a convergence of ecology and design.

Such gardens combine the traditional gardener’s passion for unusual herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs but place them in combinations with both exotic and native grasses. By allowing plants to spread and self-seed notions of order and permanence are challenged. These gardens draw strength from the movement of vibrant plant growth, collaborating with the agency of global wanderings, celebrating an ethos of interconnectedness. I have come to believe this is what gardening is about – giving and receiving to cultivate a terrain of hope where we can live with other species and aid them in their inventiveness. Likewise, we can celebrate human communities that are diverse and open to dynamic change; communities in which generosity flourishes.

As Gilles Clement writes:

“the future lies not in any precise place. It lies between. Between the apparently fixed points marking our path. The landscape under construction will always host more vagabonds than permanently secured beings. Mobile beings, in our image, vagabonds invent solutions for existence.

They accompany us.

Let us join them.”

Without doubt climate change has altered how gardens are designed and how they are “policed”; it has given rise to much anxiety and terrible fear of species losses, human displacement and hunger. But in my daily examinations of how fragile or endangered plants might be suffering in my garden or how many exotic “weeds” have crossed the fence; in my daily perusing of the news headlines of how many people are desperately escaping across borders from life-threatening situations I constantly bring to mind Raine Maria Rilke who wrote, “perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that needs our love.”

 

 

Eco-Poetry in the Garden

photo-2

The poet/gardener Alice Oswald writes: “I don’t know anything lovelier than those free shocks of sound happening against the backsound of your heart … spadescrapes, birdsong, gravel, rain on polythene, macks moving, … seeds kept in paper, potatoes coming out of boxes, high small leaves or large head-height leaves being shaken, frost on grass … also when you look up, … the landscape as a physical score, … – weather, daylight, woods, all long unstable rhythms and dissonance. When I’m writing a poem, the first thing I hear is its shape somewhere among all that noise” (Oswald, 2000, p. 35).

photo-3

Garden noise for Oswald is a catalyst for creating a poem and it is the way she evokes a garden saturated by sound that specifically interests me. Listening while working in the garden, Oswald says, is a way of opening a poem out to what lies bodily beyond it. While the eye takes in surfaces, the ear tells us about volume and depth – like tapping a water tank to find how full it is. Listening in such a way, she says, creates poetry in which language is open, porous, allowing what we don’t know to pass through it. It opens a space within human language that reveals the mystery of otherness.

An ecopoetic practice such as Oswald’s disrupts the purity of human speech, and returns it to an enlivened wholeness. For example, she claims that the sound and motion of raking garden leaves puts humans in close contact with otherness. A rake is “a rhythmical but predictable instrument that connects earth to our hands.” Through this kind of close contact you can, she writes, “ hear right into the non-human world, it’s as if you and the trees had found a meeting point in the sound of the rake” (Oswald, 2005, p. xi).

Oswald is unusual in that the sounds she mentions are a combination of noises created by human activity along with the sound of wind, rain, leaves and birds. It is this mix of ambient sounds that are a major influence on her thought and poetry writing.

Traditionally gardens have been associated with visual pleasure but after reading Oswald I have been experimenting with combining sight and sounds to open up a space that allows us to apprehend otherness, that puts our minds into imaginative flight beyond the confines of the garden and lets us sense the depth and breadth of life beyond the human.

Like Oswald, I think of a garden not simply as a humanly cultivated space, but as a layered field of poetics involving “groundwork,” it is a place to think about thinking; to enact and embody our physical relationship with the world. It is also a soundscape within which poetry can either be created or encountered in written form, offering us a route to explore multiple layers of otherness and stimulate us to respond sensitively to nature in general.

The notion of reading poems placed in a garden while working in it or wandering through it as a visitor is derived from garden practices that extend
from the Renaissance through to the eighteenth century. These gardens, known as poetic or emblematic gardens, contained complex iconographical programs that visitors could ‘read’ as they strolled through the grounds. They were often laid out as a circuit so that the visitor walked along a path, which in many ways resembled seeing successive pages of what were known as emblem books – books that combined images, mottoes and inscriptions drawn primarily from classical literature. The educated reader seeing a particular phrase or image would know its traditional meaning and associations.

Variations on this tradition have been revived in some twenty-first century gardens such as Little Sparta in Scotland, created by the poet/gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay. Finlay was particularly attracted to inscriptions, a traditional aspect of gardens – the words on sundials are an obvious example. Part of the appeal of inscriptions has always been that they were a means of bringing the outside world into the garden through the simple expedient of alluding to it.

Fragments in a Finlay garden – quotations out of context, solitary words, are like icebergs, just the tips of a world that we cannot see but must assume to be there, fractions of a larger and mysterious world under the surface.

photo-4

For example, Finlay’s many ‘WAVES’ in whatever language function in this way, as scraps of a larger ocean, as tokens of the sea that is absent yet almost obsessively remembered and associated for Finlay with the sacred.photo-3

My interest in using ecopoetry although similar has a somewhat different emphasis. Ecopoems can be defined as “provide[ing] models of altered perception that promote environmental awareness and active agency” (Scigaj, in Lynch & Naramore Maher, 2012, p.128). They “signal a conscious re-engagement with a world that is familiar and strange, full of animals and plants that we must answer to, and which we need to address again, more carefully, to define the questions that will help us to renegotiate ways of living in an uncertain future of biodiversity loss, climate change and the consequences of disposability” (Borthwick, 2012, p. xvi).

Ecopoetry in a garden is not necessarily didactic like the eighteenth century emblematic garden but provides visual fragments as imaginative stimulation, an entry into the depth of otherness that Oswald writes of.

photo-2

Wandering through a garden, working in a garden, aware of sound, and encountering a poem creates a pause, a moment of thought in which we become aware of the sounds and rhythms of the poetic fragment placed within the background of garden sounds.

This search for an ecopoetics in which garden others break through and alter our consciousness closely resembles poet Martin Harrison’s comment, “That we must listen to what is other than human and how it is speaking to us and that the act of attention between self and the environment is intertwined and interdependent and completely mutual” (Harrison, 2013, p. 11).

The following few photographs illustrate some initial experiments in creating eco-poetic emblems in my garden.

photo-5

My aim in choosing poetry and including it in a concrete form in the garden has been to articulate and constantly re-experience ecological issues and deepen my apprehension of the mystery of otherness. Working in the garden I find myself implicated in the ground’s world, thought and earth passing through each other. For visitors walking through the garden these poetic fragments hopefully stimulate thoughts of “a way of being toward the world and toward the self that are not separable” (Elvery, 2013, np)

The first is a fragment from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “On a Raised Beach.”

We must reconcile ourselves to the stones
Not the stones to us.

photo-8

We are immediately faced with a sense of geological time, of how short human existence has been on this planet in comparison to great rock formations or even the humblest pebble and of how, as he writes, “what happens to us is irrelevant to the world’s geology. But what happens to the world’s geology is not irrelevant to us.” Inevitably I find it leads me to consider how I continue to see myself as a self-contained subject imagining I control the garden.

For me, therefore, this fragment of MacDiarmid’s poem placed in the garden articulates the fundamental problem of ecological thought: that of fallaciously thinking we exist outside the world of nature. Yet it also draws attention to how language can set us outside nature. In its entirety “On a Raised Beach” highlights the essential paradox of ecopoetics: that language is both a barrier and a conduit to our experience of the natural world. It asks what poetry is actually capable of representing – in a way defining the limits of ecopoetics.

As a contrast, the quote from Goethe, “All is Leaf” moves us into the realm of animate things. Like McDiarmid, Goethe is dealing with large-scale ideas, of becoming aware of form – his leaf is an idea that is realized in all manifestations of a plant: seed, foliage and flowers are all different forms of the ‘leaf’ idea.photo-6
The plant is nothing but leaf, so inseparably united with the seed to be, that the one cannot be thought of without the other – leading me to contemplate how humans cannot be thought of outside their origin and end in nature.

 

 

Moya Cannon’s poem “Eros” brings human love into the equation.photo-7

The deep and tender earth assails us with dreams, breaks us, nourishes us, as we tug apart its own black crust.

Cannon comments that, “Nothing perhaps, causes the everyday to fall away, or transfigures the ordinary, like the encounter with Eros. This, one of the most earthed of all our human experiences, binding like birth and death, … opens us to some sense of limitlessness in ourselves …”(Cannon, 1995, pp.1-3). It evokes our creative and destructive drives and our need for hope, which Emily Dickinson describes as “the thing with feathers.” Her deceptively simple metaphor captures the fragility of our aspirations. For her hope is a soft songbird that “perches in the soul,” a metaphor for the more-than-human within the human. Hope as a songbird is neither tame nor in captivity, but merely perching so if it does fly away, it may return. By having the hope-bird never ask for crumbs and implying that the speaker supplies them out of love, Dickinson demonstrates her belief that the tiniest amount freely given can keep hope alive. This exchange of loving generosity between the human and bird provides an antidote to a sense of hopelessness about a world where the more-than-human are invariably deprived of “crumbs.”photo

References:
Borthwick, David. Introduction, Entanglements: New Ecopoetry, edited by David Knowles & Sharon Blackie, Isle of Lewis, Two Ravens Press, 2006.
Cannon, Moya. Editorial, The Poetry Review Ireland, No. 47, Autumn-Winter, 1995, pp.1-3.
Elvery, Ann. Editorial, Plumwood Mountain, Vol. 1, Issue 1013.
Harrison, Martin. The Act of Writing and the Act of Attention, TEXT, Vol. 17, No. 2 (October) 2013.
Lynch, Tom & Susan Naramore Maher (eds). Artifacts and Illuminations: Critical Essays on Loren Eiseley, University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Oswald, Alice. The Universe in time of rain makes the world alive with noise, A Green Thought in a Green Shade, Milton Keyes, The Poetry Society, 2000.
_______________. Introduction, The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems for the Planet, London, Faber and Faber, 2005.

National Tree Day

IMG_0930

It’s National Tree Day on 29th July and sadly after days of wild winds the sound of chain saws dealing with fallen trees is a background constant. So time to think of planting some more and I have a few in mind. A group of Silver Birches at the side of the house – a special variety, Jack Monty, bred in Victoria that are resistant to borer, and near the shed at the bottom of the garden a Pink Dogwood and Judas Tree.

IMG_0925
I had planned an essay on trees but time has got away from me so instead I’m posting a few of my favourite pieces of writing on trees. There’s many more I could include but for the moment I’ll stick with four. The first is a poem by my late dear friend and Kangaloon colleague Martin Harrison (www.kangaloon.org) called simply “Plum Trees.”

Unknown-5

What the plum trees were doing
was loading galaxies of flowers
like the night sky’s sprawling fire
in the middle of daylight.

Space turned into bloom and fruit.
Soil rose into juice and scent.
Electric, shaken, utterly still,
unpruned wands thirsted for Spring.

Like gluttons, the trees sucked everywhere
from hidden water, seemingly nowhere –
that was the ground inside the dark
as we walked day earth, dead grass.

Unreasonably, not beyond forgetting,
it’s that year’s dry light which falls away
as if plum trees flare in unfenced shadow, momentary as thought, or as a trace of thought.

And with Martin in mind my second piece is quoted from Anne Whiston Spirn’s book The Language of Landscape published by Yale University Press in 1998.

Unknown-4

“The wide path up the Hill of Remembrance in Stockholm’s Forest Cemetery is steep at first – climbing eased by low stone steps, deep stone-dust treads, landings every dozen steps; then the slope tapers, steps pass between trees through an open gateway atop the hill, ending just inside low walls. At the beginning of the ascent, steps are set into the hillside, so the slopes enfold the climber; at the end frames of trees and wall enclose. Form and material shape the experience of path and refuge; all modify processes of movement and grieving, in agreement with the meaning its author intended: ‘To give form to a sorrow that cannot be told,’ and experience of difficulty, comforted.”

And now a short piece that opens the chapter “Growth” in David Suzuki and Wayne Grady’s Tree: A Biography, published by Allen and Unwin in 2004.

It has been sixteen years since the fire. The burn is no longer a black hole in the forest but a swath of fresh greenery, lower than the unburned portions but obviously returned to vitality. The smell of charcoal has long left the air. After an exceptionally wet spring, with more than 150 centimetres (60 inches) of rain, the summer has been hot and dry with vigorous forest growth. It is early fall now, and the stream is invisible from the ridge, although there is a sense of it – a line of glossy green – flowing among the dark trunks and writhing roots of the forest floor. The forest is still quiet, but it is not the silence of death, as after a fire, but rather the stillness of rest, of waiting.

IMG_0945

There are so many extracts I could quote from Roger McDonald’s beautiful book The Tree in Changing Light but the book happened to fall open at page 125 so here is a short paragraph.

“A tree grew from a rocky crevice. Out of the torn earth’s mouth came the old cry of praise. So whatever the tree was, counted. Whatever the bird was, was perfect in the bird. Poets were born with a stone in their hands, staring and listening until they died still holding it, leaving their words escaping it.”

Feathered Hope

Unknown-3I’m off to France where I’m attending a conference in Perpignan on ecopoetics with themes of hope and enchantment. So thoughts on enchantment were in my mind this morning as I had a last wander round the garden before heading for the train. The birds were clearly delighted the rain was passed and were in full voice. How could I not be enchanted by these birds that insist on a world that sings, that insist on being heard? Their song lifts my spirits, giving me a sense of a world in which human and more-than-human species might flourish together. They offer an escape from all that seems impossible by allowing me to imagine possibilities that are not escapist. Jane Bennett writes that it is these enchanting possibilities that, “augment the motivational energy needed to move selves from the endorsement of ethical principles to the actual practice of ethical behaviors.”[1]

However, I also recognize that enchantment is not necessarily a single, unadulterated sensation but as Michael Taussig has argued also exists “in its negative form as desecration.”[2]

So with the conference in mind I want to explore how literary birds have been used to represent our human emotional range from enchantment to disenchantment or desecration; how their different stories function in the space between hope and action; how those that enchant us might act as a catalyst to augment our ethical behavior and how negative representations might alert us to unethical behaviour. And most importantly, how these birds might represent an emotional position beyond the dualism of enchantment and desecration.

From earliest times birds have captivated us. We have looked to them as oracles. We have been inspired by their flight that promised us freedom and escape from our human condition. But the recognition that we cannot fly unaided also reveals our limitations. Our aspiration to defy gravity, to escape our human condition is brought down to earth by the reality of our wingless state.

Hope, as the thing with feathers, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, cannot then be anything but a complex emotion, one that is not necessarily wholly positive. We dream of flying while also having to confront the limitations of our agency. There is an element of uncertainty, even frustration within hope both about a positive outcome and about our efficacy in bringing it about. In other words there is within hope a wish and a goal, as well as fear.

Historically feathered hopefulness in western literature has tended to divide this desire and fear into expressions of flight and fall and was first portrayed as resulting in unethical conduct in the myth of Icarus. I’ll go back to this later because I believe that it is in moving away from this dualism and folding flight and fall together as well as considering low-flying or flightless birds that we can find representations of hope and ethical action.

images-4

But first, because the myth of Icarus is an important precursor to grasping how feathered hope might either inspire ethical environmental action or deny it I want to look at it in some detail before moving on to consider Bruegel’s painting The Fall of Icarus, poems by Dickinson and the seventh century poet Alcman. Finally I want to mention Ovid’s story of Alcyone and Ceyx to explore ways in which the emotionally fraught scenario of flight and fall as a metaphor for hope and despair, enchantment and disenchantment may be reconfigured as an ecopoetic of feathered hope, one that transforms rather than deforms.

Ovid’s rendering of the myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus in his Metamorphoses represents Daedalus as an artist-scientist whose disregard for the morals of his time, leave him open to the dangers of overreaching. Ovid places Icarus’s death within a much larger narrative of family relations and interactions with the more-than-human. This larger narrative is relevant to understanding the link between hope and its subsequent positive or negative action.

Ovid presents Daedalus as a renowned inventor who is unable to tolerate challenges to his ability. When his nephew and apprentice Perdix proves to be equally talented Daedalus attempts to murder him by throwing him down the steps of Minerva’s temple.[3] Minerva, however, rescues Perdix by transforming him into a partridge. Daedalus flees to Crete with Icarus, where he works for King Minos and Queen Pasiphae. There he builds a wooden cow for the queen to hide in so she can consummate her passion for a white bull. When the queen becomes pregnant and gives birth to the minotaur, half-man and half-bull, Daedalus builds a labyrinth in which the minotaur is imprisoned. Later, after further betrayals by Daedalus King Minos imprisons Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth.

Unknown-5

What is significant is that each episode in this story is triggered by an interaction with the more-than-human. Where the action is performed by a god or goddess the outcome is positive, a transformation into a different life-form – Perdix survives as a partridge. Where the action is inspired by ‘unnatural’ human passions, such as Pasiphae’s mating with a bull, the result is monstrous. The first ‘unnatural’ event is Daedalus’s murder of his nephew and the end result is the imprisonment of both Daedalus and Icarus. The myth presents us with the idea of a world that contains deities or natural, more-than-human forces whose actions are transformative while the human actions result in deformation.

images-1

Daedalus realises that escaping from the labyrinth by air is the only possibility. By lining up and tying together the feathers of birds of prey ranging in size from the smallest to the largest, binding them with wax and curving them into a replica of a bird’s wing he performs an extraordinary act of creative mimesis. When he attaches the wings to himself and his son Ovid comments that Daedalus has committed himself to unknown arts, thereby changing the laws of nature.

Daedalus, however, is not transformed into a bird; he and Icarus merely simulate birds in flight. When these wings are attached, father and son fly off over the sea, apparently free at last. Icarus flies ever upward in his desire for the immensity and freedom of the sky. Inevitably the sun melts the wax holding the feathers together and Icarus, suspended briefly between life and death, between dream and delusion, plunges downward to his death.

Ovid’s account of the myth focuses on what occurs when humans attempt to appropriate the space and skills of the gods. Rearranging the natural order is a ‘fatal art’ that ends in despair. To Ovid, Daedalus’s crime is clear: he transgresses the limits of human agency and ability and pays an exceptional price in the death of his son.

And that other more-than-human group in this myth, the actual birds are silent actors. They neither sing nor, having been deprived of their feathers, can they fly. Daedalus’ crime has stripped them of their ability to enchant. The myth does not recount the suffering inflicted on the countless birds whose feathers are needed to create wings for the father and son. Daedalus, in fact, preys upon the more-than-human to achieve his own ends.

Falling, in Ovid’s telling of this story results from hoping for transformation without considering the possibility of reciprocity and co-operation with the more-than-human. It is the result of an inability to be enchanted by otherness. It is a form of disenchantment or desecration that results in deformation.

Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Fall of Icarus comments on the myth by departing as Perez Zagorin writes, ‘in significant ways from the established sixteenth century attitude that man occupied the central position in a clearly defined and well-ordered natural world, and hence in the universe.’[4]

Unknown-6

In his painting, Bruegel juxtaposes Icarus’s useless feathers floating on the sea with the efficient wind-filled sails of the ships that pass safely by, their sailors engrossed in their world of busy commerce. He asks us to contemplate what it means to be human when faced with disaster. Should we keep our eyes on our own business as the sailors do? Carry on regardless as Bruegel’s ploughman does?

Despite the flailing legs, all appears to be in order. There is, as far as the other figures pictured in this scene are concerned, peace in the natural and human world. Yet Bruegel portrayed this apparently ordered and peaceful world presided over by a setting sun. Why I want to know is the sun setting when the wax holding Icarus’s wings together was presumably melted by the heat of the midday sun?

Bruegel’s sun setting on a world, an ordinary, everyday landscape where those who are apparently secure and unthreatened are indifferent to the small tragedies taking place holds out to us the need for stories that unite those who suffer and those who perpetuate suffering; those who fly and those who fall; the need to recognise the role of the everyday and the suffering that occurs – for human and more-than-human – unnoticed within it. These are the interactions that are crucial for life. Without them enchantment withers and hope can turn to despair.

Today the unusual heat of a setting sun speaks to us of a moment in time poised between our technological glories and the imminent extinction of many species, if not ourselves. Sometimes it is the smallest thing that topples us, like Icarus, into the realization that we are human, vulnerable, close to drowning, as when we ask ourselves, is it possible to imagine a world without birds, without their activities of seed dispersal, natural pollination and pest control? Without their songs?

A world without feathers, Emily Dickinson might say, is a world without hope, a world in which ‘the most insidious kind of extinction – the extinction of interactions’[5] has come to pass.

Jed Deppman argues that ‘many of Dickinson’s poems can be read as resourceful, even desperate attempts to supply imagery for the thoughts and experiences that most defy the imagination.’[6] He also questions whether these attempts are constructed through the opposition of hope and despair. Likewise, Richard Brantley, rather than interpreting Dickinson through contrary emotions, believes ‘her recurring pessimism contains a seed of her perennial resilience’ and that her ‘signature lyric of “sumptuous Destitution -” epitomizes her hope as well as her despair, and intimates the interpenetration, or coalescence, of these, and of such other paired stances as sorrow and joy.’[7] It is Dickinson’s bird poems that introduce us to representations of birds that constantly break down the dualisms of flight and fall, hope and despair. Rather than simplifying hope into a single emotional unit, they symbolize a folding together of aspiration and dejection thereby freeing up a space for hope in which enchantment can augment the power to act.

On a general level, Dickinson’s poetry moves through minor victories and defeats, moments of despair balanced by moments of inspiration, a lifetime of ascending and falling, setting out to fly again and again. Her writing offers more than mere consolation. While there can be no unbridled optimism for an ecologically enlightened future, her writing calls us to aspire to effect change, it holds out a promise, a tenuous hope balanced between earth and sky – a bird perched in the soul.

Here’s her poem Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feather

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

Dickinson’s deceptively simple metaphor ‘hope is the thing with feathers’ captures the aspiration and fragility of realistic expectations, as well as dreams of wish-fulfilment and overreaching. Her hope as a soft songbird that ‘perches in the soul’ is a metaphor of the more-than-human inhabiting the human.[8] Although it is resilient ‘in the chillest land and ‘on the strangest sea’ this bird merely perches, being neither captive nor tame. The possibility remains, however, that if it does fly away, it may return. By having the hope-bird never ask for crumbs and implying that the speaker supplies them out of love, Dickinson demonstrates her belief that the tiniest amount freely given can keep hope alive. This exchange of loving generosity between the human and bird in Dickinson’s poem holds out the hope, no matter how insecure, that such an exchange between human and more-than-human may provide an antidote to the sense of hopelessness experienced by those ‘abashed’ in a world where the more-than-human are invariably deprived of ‘crumbs’.

The hope bird is not identified in the poem but Jane Donahue Eberwin states that one of Dickinson’s favourite birds was the wren. Eberwin remarks that ‘It seems to have been the tiny creature’s force and courage that delighted the poet, its capacity to challenge the heavens and its melodious song …’[9] In contrast, Dickinson describes the lark[10] as ignoring unattainable – or even challenging – alternatives in order to gain stability and comfort. By creating these two differing arenas of successful flight and repudiation of flight Dickinson avoids the fraught scenario of unsuccessful flight, or falling. Her lark’s apparent lack of desire to ‘challenge the heavens’ is not necessarily framed within a sense of loss. It is, simply, another option, neither superior nor inferior to flight. By these means Dickinson also establishes hope as a paradoxical combination of vulnerability and power perched precariously within the human. This crease or fold within the psyche negates any clear-cut opposition between flight and fall and its association with hubris and punishment.[11]

Hope she implies can also be found among the birds that hover, flutter, or skim the surface.

In his story of Icarus and Daedalus Ovid writes of Perdix who was transformed into a partridge. Although he fell, Perdix through divine wisdom became a bird and retained his human intelligence. He kept a low profile and did not fly too high. Ever mindful of the ‘middle way’ Perdix the partridge nestles in hedgerows, avoiding high places and lofty flights. Can low-flying birds also enchant us, tell us stories of hope; what poetry can be found in the swift and delicate, almost touching, dipping and lifting flight of fluttering birds?

Alcman, a poet of the late seventh century BC, claims to have created poetry by listening ‘to the cry of partridges, a cry literally endowed with a tongue … He learned to sing by attending to that tongued cry, which he then “arranged” into human rhythms.’[12]

In his “Halcyon Song”, Alcman creates a regular rhythm like the motion of waves and the winging of birds and in “Night Song”, he describes the peaceful sleep of long-winged birds. These rhythms are not those of the bird of prey, hovering and possessively scanning the earth below. Rather they resemble the poetry that Seamus Heaney speaks of as ‘emanating from the ground …[13] where ‘the physical terrain itself is the “nesting ground” of the imagination, which, like a womb, nurtures and gives birth to the artistic expression.’[14]

Unknown-9

(In a similar fashion) in Book XI of his Metamorphoses Ovid tells the story of the transformation of a human couple into kingfishers. A newly wed couple, Alcyone and Ceyx are separated by Ceyx’s decision to embark, against his wife’s wishes, on a sea journey to consult an oracle. When he drowns in a storm and Alcyone discovers his body on the shore, she leaps onto a nearby jetty intending to cast herself into the sea and drown. Instead she is transformed and, ‘with her new-grown wings did beat the air as tho; and on the waves, a wretched bird, she whisked to and fro.’[15] When she reaches her husband’s body she takes him in her wings and kisses him with her beak and through the pity of the gods he too is transformed into a kingfisher.

The flight of the individual, in this story arises from desperate grief rather than boundless desire, while the flight of the couple, or species, results from a love that lasts beyond death. In contrast to the flight of Daedalus, the father and inventor, Ovid offers the flight of a wife who through love nourishes and restores her husband to life. It is not lust for achievement but love that transfigures the couple into bird-humans rather than a human with artificially attached wings. As kingfishers they mate and build a nest that floats on the sea. Aeolus forbids the winds to blow during this time and the bird’s descendants are thereby provided with a tranquil sea during the nesting season. This is the intimate poetry of life, not death in a flurry of glory. The appearance of the kingfisher signals hope. Its flight leaves a trace between air and sea, a living creature and a poem.

Can we then hope that from the sea of Icarus’s shattered dreams, feather-light words may float on the page as ecopoetry, fragile yet buoyant with promise in our age of environmental hubris? Freud’s understanding of falling as both fear and wish includes the idea of falling as a wish for transformation.

Icarus’s fall as a wish for transformation or rebirth is suggested in Susan Steward’s poem ‘The Survival of Icarus’ which suggests the possibility that Icarus may have wished not only to fly but to discover through falling an identification with Dickinson’s powerful Nature that defies human mastery. It offers us the small but evocative and powerful hope of words that make a difference.

My father saw the feathers on the waves and grieved

And hadn’t heard the voice within the wind

That blew the wax back into form the way

The cold dawn shapes a candle’s foam.

I had heard that voice before

In some far time beyond this place

And I think of it now as a living net,

Though I do not know how it spans our world

Or if it sings from its strings or its spaces.[16]

All this may seem to have little to do with gardening but if we fail to love and care for birds in the garden we become like Daedalus – unable to feel for others, to be enchanted by others and our hopes for the future of gardens will be compromised.

[1] Jane Bennett, p.xi.

[2] Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labour of the Negative, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 13.

[3] The myth of Daedalus and Icarus is part of the Minoan cycles of myths in which the Roman goddess Minerva is known as Athena. Ovid, however, uses the name Minerva throughout his story of Daedalus and Icarus in book VIII of the Metamorphoses.

[4] Perez Zagorin, Looking for Pieter Bruegel, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 64, No. 1 January 2003, pp.73-96.

[5] Gary Paul Nabhan, Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture and Story, Washington DC., Counterpoint, 1997, p. 259.

[6] Jed Deppman, Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson, The Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 2004, pp. 84-103.

[7] Richard E. Brantley, Dickinson’s Signature Conundrum, The Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 2007, pp.27-52.

[8] I use the term ‘more-than-human’ in the sense employed by David Abram in his The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World.

[9] Jane Donahue Eberwein, Dickinson: Strategies of Limitations, Minnesota, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, p. 11-12.

[10] Dickinson was referring to the American lark not the English skylark.

[11] See for example,

[12] Winged Words, p. 79.

[13] Seamus Heaney, Feeling into Words, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, Faber, London, 1980, p. 45.

[14] Seamus Heaney, Mossbawn, Preoccupations, p. 19.

[15] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XI, lines 845-846.

[16] Susan Steward, The Survival of Icarus, Columbarium, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2003.