The solace or the end – The End of Nature (1989)

I like the idea that I can use my blog for wondering aloud and ordering my thoughts. I have just come in the door from a walk and fixed in my mind is the image of a great, old gum tree, standing proudly from a backyard and reaching for the sky; as I was passing, the sinking sun illuminated its western aspect with brilliant light. I stood and watched, and the weight of the city and a day indoors dissolved in that golden light.

Bill McKibben in The End of Nature writes of how humans tend to seek solace in nature, away from the worries of a western world existence. In nature, our worries – financial, existential, emotional and so on – take on a different perspective. Although I stood looking at that gum tree with the houses of the suburb stretching away from me in all directions, I was comforted by the strength of the tree and by the light that came in from afar to reach it, illuminating the texture of the bark.

Walking back along the street towards home I stopped and looked at the fruit forming on the cherry trees that not long ago were dripping white blossoms on the footpath. The fruit on the tree was smooth-skinned and perfect. Below it on the path lay its squashed siblings, trampled underfoot and split. I thought of the big gum tree reaching for the sky, leaning a little to the north and dropping its blossoms each year. I thought of how the cycles of life and the evolution of gum trees and cherry trees are changed and directed utterly by our presence in the landscape.

Bill’s words were still on my mind, and I found myself imagining a world where living organisms exist entirely under the constraints of human actions. I questioned the conclusion that I came to just a few days ago – that nature, twenty one years after the book was wrote, is not dead. At that moment on the street on my way home, I was suddenly aware of how strongly I sought the solace provided by the sunlight on that gum tree, and yet how lonely that tree was in the suburbs and how dependent on the whims of people not to cut it down if it got in the way. I finally understood what Bill meant. Monoculture, manicured gardens, bushland invaded by exotics, genetically modified crops – the list of human adaptations to plant life is endless, and once nature is directed by us humans to this extent, then the idea of nature is itself slowly dying. Once it is gone, there is no going back.

The other beginning – and The Sea Around Us (1951)

Originally written 27 November.

Last week I finished reading The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson. This week I’m reading The End of Nature by Bill McKibben. Both are outdated, published in 1951 and 1989 respectively. In terms of the facts, it matters. In terms of how these works make me feel, time makes no difference.

The Sea Around Us is a beautiful piece of writing, though perhaps it could be considered old-fashioned in style. I write about the ocean all the time and so I am susceptible to reading about it. But Rachel Carson’s writing is unique. I open it now and instantly I can imagine the richness and fullness of the ocean, in terms of the images that Rachel creates. I can see the currents curving around the edge of continents, the seabed rising abruptly into the Atlantic ridge, the weather systems of Australia’s eastern seaboard responding to the air over the Pacific.

Rachel wrote about geological time – long time spans where mountains are built and eroded, where islands come and go. Bill McKibben on the other hand stressed that not everything takes a long time to change: he was writing about the global climate change. In 1989 what he wrote would have been periphery to most people’s concerns. Today it occupies politics around the world. So much has changed.

And yet not everything has changed. Bill argues that nature is dead, because no place on earth is unaffected by humans, as a result of the changes to the atmosphere that our societies have caused. But I don’t think he’s right. I think we’ll cling on to a sense of nature, and maybe we’ll change our understanding of it in order to keep up with a world that is changing. Nature will – or has – become something that clings on to its ‘naturalness’ in the face of human impacts reaching everywhere. But it’s still there. It holds on, like a tree growing crooked on a windy cliff, or a lonely tuft of grass sprouting half way up a sheer cliff. It will be changed by what we do, but it will not die, not as long as this planet continues its slow revolution around the sun.

For me, as I begin to experiment with new forms of writing, The Sea Around Us plays on my mind. It is an example of so much that is important to me: the ocean, the land, the environment, and of course good writing. It is imbued, by its existence and its context, with the politics of environment and of the place of women in society. It is written with passion, creativity and scientific accuracy; it reminds me that the humanities and the sciences belong together, not in opposition as many thinkers would lead us to believe. Bound in the 59 year old cover of this book is a story about the earth. It is majestic and humbling, and full of a sense of wonder. I hope that I never forget it.