Kennedy Warne notes for talk at Waitakere Writers, 8 October 2016 “Conversation with Landscape – Writing the Land”
Everything I say will be about moving away from objectification and moving towards subjective engagement. Moving away from transaction and moving towards relationship.
“The land was ours before we were the land’s” . . . From Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright”:
The Gift Outright
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years Before we were her people.
She was ours In Massachusetts, in Virginia, But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright (The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward, But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
Can we be “the land’s” – is that kind of relationship possible? Can land have the attributes of personhood? Two recent developments in New Zealand suggest so: under legislation the Whanganui River and Te Urewera forest are consider to be persons. Is Te Urewera a person? Is the Whanganui River a person? If so, what do these realities demand of a writer writing about place?
Hone Tuwhare wrote about in “Not by wind ravaged” – In your huge compassion embrace / those who know no feeling other / than greed.” Tuwhare was writing about the land, but land and people are interchangeable in the Maori world. Whenua means land and whenua means placenta. Can there be any more emphatic signal that land and people are one? Tuwhare puts his finger on how you become people of the land. In the land’s embrace, you learn to repudiate greed. What is greed? A desire to be continually accumulating. In the embrace of the world the desire is to be continually spent, absorbed, consumed. Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au – I am the river and the river is me -- the starting point is identification. The end point is connection.
The great task of environmental writing is to bring forth a richer sense of where we actually live, of how deeply intertwined we are and must be with the Earth.
Patricia Grace has a beautiful short story called “Fishing,” about a girl who spends what she knows will be the last good day of summer casting a line from the rocks. As the sun sets she puts her line away because there is something else she has to do—“because how could you be really sure of coming there again next summer? Any why should you come if you didn’t let the place know you? It wasn’t enough just to hold the end of a line. The mothers were right about needing to go beyond the shore.” Here is what the girl does to let the place know her: She walked out into the half-tide and let herself gradually into the water. She squatted for a while with her skirt floating up about her, then she pushed forward and down, pulling herself along the stony sea bed for as long as her breath lasted. When she came to the larger rocks where the weed grew thickly, she stood and pushed her way through. Once in the clear water again she lay on her back, letting herself go the way the water moved her. It was a familiar place, and she knew she could lie there like that quite safely. She lay there for a long time watching the sky redden as the sun went down.
It is a tender moment of affection and attachment—of cherishing the ocean for what it is, not what it gives.
The idea of a conversation with place would have struck me as silly a decade ago. Further back in my life, it would have been borderline idolatrous. Now it seems natural, desirable, essential. As gravity presses our feet to earth, earth reaches up, evocative and expressive. Air wraps itself around us. Sky anoints our head. We walk in the space between gods—Maori have always known this, calling the poles of the spiritual magnetic field Rangi and Papa. It was our ancestor, Tane, who created the envelope of dwelling. We have blindfolded ourselves from that reality, but now the blindfolds are being loosened. As Kafka wrote: “Life’s splendour forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.”
Concerning connection to place, Australian ecophilosopher Freya Mathews writes: This love of place is not like other loves, of people or animals, artefacts, activities, causes. A loved being or thing or idea is held by us, held in our arms, in our imagination; our love casts a glow around it. But a loved place holds us, even if it exists only in memory; it causes everything within it, including ourselves, to glow. A loved place is not encompassed by our love; we are encompassed, loved, breathed into life, by it.
There is little recognition or articulation of this kind of relation between self and world in modern Western thought—little attention to categories that express the way the world makes room for us as opposed to the way we act on it, impose ourselves upon it. But many of us sense this accommodation, sense that we are indeed received, and feel a huge but nameless emotion in response. When we witness a place in which the world has made room for us overlaid with cement and tarmac, banded in steel, so that every last breath—the breath it imparted to us—is pressed from it, we feel a nameless pain. Being nameless, we have no option but to treat it as of little consequence, never suspecting how we ourselves are diminished by the violent termination of these holdings, these impartings, that are, in fact, foundational to our being.
Poet Gary Snyder puts it this way: “The universe is interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, mutually embracing.” People often describe good descriptive writing as “evocative,” from the word “evoke,” to bring to mind.
I think that before we can evoke we must learn to invoke – “to call on a spirit as a witness, or for inspiration.” To invoke is to acknowledge, and it is not just respectful and appropriate, but essential to acknowledge land. For many people, a connection to place is absent – often by happenstance, sometimes by choice. Zymunt Bauman on why we need to be rooted in our locality: “The fact that the world’s tyrants are ex-territorial explains the extent of their overseeing power. They operate in cyberspace and they lodge in guarded condominiums. They have no knowledge of the surrounding earth. Furthermore, they dismiss such knowledge as superficial, not profound. Only extracted resources count. They cannot listen to the earth. On the ground they are blind. In the local they are lost.”
Compare this blindness and insensitivity to the feeling expressed by Thomas Merton, listening to rain:
The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the wood with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer. I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen. —Thomas Merton “Rain and the Rhinoceros” in Raids on The Unspeakable
I tried to convey something of the personhood of land and the relationship of people and land when I wrote about Kiribati for National Geographic. Here is how my original draft of that story—which I set in the future—began:
It was the time of day she loved best: itingaaro, the dawn twilight, when the island was still waking up and the roosters were vying to out-crow each other and the angel terns were twittering their love-talk in the breadfruit trees. It was the hour when people drifted sleepily into the lagoon to wash, splashing water on their faces and then tightening their sarongs and diving under. She sat on an old pandanus mat and rolled wisps of coconut fibre on a slab of coral rock with the palm of her hand. Eighteen months ago, she had buried coconut husks in the lagoon, marking the place with a rock. A thousand tides had done their work of curing and softening the fibres, and now she twisted them into string she would sell for a dollar a yard. Working in snatches between her other chores, she could make 20 yards in a day. She glanced at the sea. The tide was full and stretched across the lagoon like the skin of a pregnant woman. “Aue, marawa,” she sighed. “What are you doing to us?”
Marawa, tarawa, karawa — sea, land, and sky. These three formed the complete world of her people, their sacred trinity. But the trinity was out of balance now. Mother Ocean wasn’t the heart of providence her people had always known. She was showing them a different face, a threatening face of rising tides and battering waves. All her life she had lived with this new reality of marawa rising. Born a child of the new millennium, she had grown up in the time of bibitakin kanoan boong — “change in weather over many days,” the term her government had coined for climate change. She had grown up with the fear and uncertainty of those words. How could she not feel afraid, when, in the eyes of the world, countries like hers were destined to drown? She couldn’t count the number of times she had heard phrases like “disappearing island nations” and “canaries in the coal mine” — though she herself had never seen either a canary or a coal mine. Atolls like hers, scattered across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, were said to be “paradises lost.” Her own leaders had called Kiribati “among the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” and predicted that the capital, Tarawa, would be uninhabitable by mid-century.
Well, now it was mid-century. And here she was, 50 years old, sitting outside her shanty hut on the shore of Tarawa lagoon, making coconut sennit the way her grandmother had made it, and her grandmother before her, all the way back to the first settlers of these atolls who splashed ashore thousands of years ago. Her parents had named her Caroline after an uninhabited Kiribati atoll that was said to be the first island in the world to see the sun of the new millennium. But she hadn’t wanted the name of an I-Matang, an outsider, so she took her grandmother’s name, Terita. Nor did she define herself in I-Matang terms as a sinking islander. She was a descendant of navigators, the inheritor of a proud island tradition, a daughter of the Pacific. Her paradise, thank God, was not yet lost.