Thursday, 19 June 2008

Nature and Imagination

Thursday Morning

If in previous posts I've been writing about something incomplete, I realise now, I can write about something whole. It's a tribute to the organisers of the writers salon, that both the themes of the 3-sessions, and the chosen speakers, have created an arc, both of argument and narrative. From "nation" to "panic" to "imagination", I feel that we've been steadily humanising, if not nature, but the relationship we have with nature. Gwyneth Lewis lead today's session, as equally nuanced as the presentations we'd had on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, she'd made some adjustments to her original speech in response to the arguments, the questions, and the controversies. She talked about the two types of writing we'd been talking about this week, "nature writing" and "creative writing" and that partly she wanted to see how these can be brought together, writers becoming advocates for the natural world, with, certainly in the case of a poet, them becoming "natural historians" of language (my quotes.) It's a wonderful phrase, since if our arguments earlier in the week had sometimes been hard to paraphrase, surely that was a question of language as much as anything else? She elaborated, with an example. Out looking for cranes with the nature writers, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, they'd drawn a blank, cranes apparently not liking to be seen out early on a Tuesday evening, with rain threatening. That is the nature writer's difficulty, transcribing an uncertainty - a creative writer (and the nature writer, the good one, becomes that as well) - has to know what the language will do under all atmospheric conditions. In talking about language, Lewis, is talking from a position of complexity - the role of the Welsh language, its relationship both to English and to nature/landscape - that requires both a sense of metaphor and a literal understanding of what words mean. When the Welsh poet Taliesin says "I was born in the region of the summer stars" it is both metaphor and literal truth. To illustrate further, she read John Clare's "Transcription of a Nightingale's Song", a co-authorship if you like, between Clare and the nightingale.

Chee chew chee chew chee
chew—cheer cheer cheer
chew chew chew chee
—up cheer up cheer up
tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug begins. Perhaps, felt Lewis, we need to think of our own role, in nature, how our own bodies - the relationship to them - our frailties, and particularly our illnesses are our most intimate understandings of "nature". Becoming, somehow "naturalists of ourselves" and using this example to more better understand our relationship with and to wider nature.

This opening piece gave us a kind of synthesis of the week; not just the salon but the other events - even the visit to the fen - and seemed to loosen up the discussion, taking it away from what the writer can hardly affect (climate change) and therefore must be in anxiety about, to what the writer can do - to create a bridge between words/language and the natural world (including ourselves) that they describe. Adam Thorpe appropriately asked that we still had to "define" nature - and this seemed only right, but also difficult. That ecologists don't use the word loosely, as its too later. "To return a wood to its natural state" - is this an idea of past nature - or rather a future nature, different in many ways. Those of us who'd been to the fen turned to the recollection that some of the fen had been ploughed and some hadn't and that one act had made an indelible difference to the habitat. Nature, even in a small way, can be damaged or changed, in a way that makes it "unnatural." Given that "nature" was a problematic word in itself, then the term "human nature" - that ancient discourse between "reason" and "our nature" was given added bouyancy. In this context, literature is not "knowledge" and how it contributes to knowledge is perhaps an unecessary - and unhelpful - burden on the writer. Given the scope of panic that we'd identified earlier in the week, from Gretel Ehrlich's description of the inuit's deteriorating landscape, to Geoff Dyer's recollection of the holy Indian city of Varanasi, and its massive contradictions of the spiritual and earthy, Lewis talked about appreciating the "sparrow in the garden." In other words, no longer searching out the exotic nature, but valueing the everyday - that may not be there much longer.

But we'd had a sense - all week - that despite our individualism, and our differing viewpoints, experiences and priorities, we somehow should be taking a "stand." The despair - if you like - was partly because of how little power we had to change things. Literature rarely does, and when it does, it is accidental, perhaps banal. The European sparrow was introduced to America, we were reminded, by a group of American Shakespeare lovers bringing over every bird mentioned in Shakespeare. A single reference in Henry IV, got the sparrow its passage, and it was a highly successful import, so much that it's now virtually plague like. Be careful, writers, for what you wish for.

In summing up - synthesising - the week's sessions there was an opportunity to remember the persistent issues; the role of metaphor, when describing nature; valuing the subsistence lives that have been chosen by the inuit and others as a model for how one lives with the planet; how we see nature through the prism of the story, through the human response to it; the difficulties of a political response to impending crisis - but the importance of at least being aware of it; and finally, I think, the author's right, in their work, to join together in front of their readers, to state, firmly, and without embarassment, this is my work, and in it, "I am I."

I realise that none of these posts can be more than a snapshot of a detailed, nuanced skein of arguments. I think if we'd have stayed discussing climate change again today - the fallout perhaps of monday night's orginal debate - we'd have been lost to an insoluble argument. Yet writers are at their best, I think, when they can mix together the strains of science, history, nature, and, yes, creativity into some coherent whole. There was some sense of writing being always a study in "uncertainty", yet I think this is self-effacement. As Gretel Ehrlich pointed out, in explaining her interest in the inuit peoples, writers have to choose subjects that mean something to them. Therein lies the value. There is both the political statement, and the philosophical argument. Human:Nature - the use of the colon had perhaps set up a conflict, a dichotomy; I'd like to think that a different punctuation mark might now be appropriate.

I think we've all felt privileged to be involved in such an interesting discussion this week, me especially - I've felt that I've learnt alot, from unusual sources, and in different ways, that will probably take quite a while to surface. In blogging about the salon, I've tried not to betray any confidences of the room, whilst at the same time giving a flavour of the arguments that have been developed, and the presentations - all five of them excellent and thought provoking - that led our discussions. Any misrepresentations are mine alone - and each piece can only give a taste of the salons themselves, which were conducted in a spirit of honesty, collaboration, and frequently, though this is the hardest thing to replay outside the room, with humour.

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