Photo by Jess Alice/Writers SA
Writer and 2022 Vitalstatistix Artist in Residence Jennifer Mills delivered a closing address to the Living Landscapes writers festival on 9th April at Hart’s Mill. Speaking on the subject of ‘Writing for Tomorrow,’ Mills invited writers and artists to ask deep questions about landscape, history, temporality and accountability as we think and tell stories with nature.
It’s an honour to be on Kaurna land, in a place called Yerta Bulti, this area on and around the Port River. I always seem to meet people here who have been drawn back to this place – returning sailors, dock workers, migrants, artists. I am often being drawn back here myself.
This semi-domesticated, semi-preserved, haphazardly commodified and redeveloped place is built around an estuary, on tidal mangrove flats. Mangroves are an important nursery for many aquatic species, fish and shellfish, which are in turn a food source for birds, animals and people. Kaurna people used the tides and estuaries to their advantage, cleverly trapping fish in the creeks and channels; I’m told there are still remnants of Kaurna fish traps around the coast. Workers here have found shell middens while digging foundations for new developments, evidence of the abundance of nourishment this place has provided for many years. Evidence of the endurance of history.
This was one of the first places white settlers landed in our state. There were refugees, migrants, exiles, speculators; some seeking freedom from oppression in Europe, others looking for someone to oppress. They called this place Port Misery. They didn’t like it much. Colonel Light described the new harbour here as ‘more extensive, safe and beautiful than we could ever have hoped for,’ but he didn’t have to camp in the mud.
When settlers made that harbour in 1837 they cut a channel and began to move the water, to transform the landscape, slowly and unevenly. What you see around you today is not a plan. It’s an unfinished process, a series of impulses moving, sometimes in opposing directions.
It’s a place that has had its ups and downs, its industrial highs and lows. Boom and bust cycles wash in and out. Labour movements grow strong and fade and grow strong again. Tides of people come and go. I think writers and artists are attracted to places like this, places where there’s an exchange between land and water, a liminality. Between countries and languages and cultures too. Port cities never really belong to where they are. Ports are always open to the world, breathing it in and out.
Maybe the presence of arts organisations and creative spaces here isn’t an economic phenomenon or a political one, but something to do with the will of this place. It invites incubation, like my current habitat at Vitalstatistix. Yerta Bulti is a nursery for ideas and creativity, just as it’s long been a nursery for fish.
When critics write about the landscape in a text, they usually write in terms of setting. They ask why an author has chosen to set their story in a particular place, as though stories can be picked up and put down anywhere. They seem to think that in the relationship between writer and landscape the writer has all the power. I find this a little absurd.
How you write about landscape depends on where you are from and how you’ve learned to inhabit it; what your relationship is to the country around you. It depends on the place itself. My mother is a painter; she taught me to pay close attention to nature. Look, she said, over and over. Listen. We’re always already in a relationship with place. Landscape moves through us.
Also, I’m new here. And for many of us from settler and migrant backgrounds, that relationship with place remains freighted with unfinished business. Unceded sovereignty, murder, silence. We write against that national silence, that amnesia, or else we write for it.
Why am I talking about the past when I’m supposed to be talking about the future? James Baldwin teaches us: ‘History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.’
We do pretend otherwise. Tony Birch has called attention to the relationship between denial of the ongoing effects of colonisation and denial of the climate crisis. He asks:
‘How does the nation move from a state of colonial anxiety that refuses genuine recognition and engagement to a concept of locating ‘Indigenous theories, methodologies, and methods at the centre, not the periphery’ of our society? While such a shift could ultimately produce ‘an ecological philosophy of mutual benefit’, getting there will be a serious challenge. This political and cultural mind-shift would appear seismic, perhaps beyond realistic expectations…’
There is a double denialism in the Australian psyche. When you feel history’s weight pushing up behind you, and the future’s challenges rising up ahead, it’s easy to experience this as a kind of paralysis.
Maybe we can’t have a cosy domestic relationship with this land, reduce it to what Evelyn Araluen calls ‘the unfair green of organised countryside.’ It is more powerful than we are. On the one side, we have attempted domination, expansion and extraction, wholesale destruction of this country. On the other, fires, floods, dramatic storms, what feels like the country pushing back.
There’s something about the shore, about places where bodies of water and land meet, that makes me question the notion of linear time. Estuarine places are anti-border. Land and water are never quite separate. They’re in exchange, like our breath and everything else’s.
In her poem ‘Littoral,’ Gwen Harwood wrote of walking another coastline,
‘through time where past and future come
to the fine edge of clarity:
a world I never can remake,
a world still to be made.’
The past and the future are pressing against us.
As writers, we have to engage with the material. To think about the effect we’re trying for, our impact on the world. But when we wade out into the murkier waters of why we do this thing we do, I find it isn’t really about the material at all. Patrick White put it this way:
‘I feel that in my own life anything I have done of possible worth has happened in spite of my gross, worldly self. I have been no more than the vessel used to convey ideas above my intellectual capacities… I see it as evidence of the part the supernatural plays…’
(Patrick White Speaks, Vintage 1990)
I know the feeling. I’m not so sure about that word supernatural, though.
Nature writing has long expressed a desire for transcendence, an awareness of nature as the source. Thoreau wrote in his Journals that nature is full of genius: ‘it’s the marriage of the soul with nature that makes the intellect fruitful, and gives birth to the imagination.’ In the Masnavi, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi tells us to listen to the song of the reed flute expressing its sorrow at being separated from the earth. To live is to long for a return to the source. That song, that breath, becomes the voice of the poet.
The Tao Te Ching puts it this way:
‘Humans follow the laws of Earth
Earth follows the laws of Heaven
Heaven follows the laws of Tao
Tao follows the laws of nature.’
(translated by Derek Lin)
So I don’t think of this spiritual power as supernatural, but as natural, part of the relationship between us and the earth, the relationship everything has with everything else, the exchange inherent in all ecosystems. We’re not set apart from nature. It travels though us like a river.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:
‘We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity: plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying. Water knows this, clouds know this. Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth.’
You note she is using what she calls ‘the grammar of animacy’: language that acknowledges the agency and subjectivity of water, clouds, soil and rocks. Hannah Kent spoke earlier about the importance of landscapes with agency in her own writing. In English, we are taught this is just a literary device: personification, or the pathetic fallacy. It’s frowned upon, expressing the personhood of a tree or a stone.
But Muteshekau Shipu, the Magpie river in Quebec, is legally a person, thanks to the Innu community. In Ecuador, the rights of nature were enshrined in the constitution in 2008. Bolivia, Mexico, and Colombia have similar laws. There are campaigns in New Zealand, India, Bangladesh, Australia, and the EU. Language is power. Of course how we write about nature matters.
Fossil fuel subsidies are increasing in this country, now equivalent to a staggering $22,000 a minute. We are opening new coal and gas facilities while the IPCC says we urgently need to shut down the ones we already have. Australia’s political culture seems to be caught in a vision of nature as something separate, something we can control or from which we extract resources, something we might look after, piecemeal, but that we’re under no obligation to. This destruction isn’t accidental, a by-product of extraction. The destruction is the colonial project. The destruction is the point.
They might not say it, but our leaders want to sever our relationship with nature. To break the relationships of First Nations people, and working class people, and artists, with nature. They are afraid of what those relationships, those connections, that kinship, might teach us.
The written word can be a kind of fence. A text can be an act of enclosure, of definition, of constraint and control. The insect pin through the hollow thorax, the preservation of time. The controlled archive of a culture of domination, a capitalist division of land, a linearity. Rational.
A text can also be a hole in that fence. Every way out happens first in the imagination: past what we think we know about where we are. Beyond realistic expectations.
I think all writing hovers somewhere between that urge to define and hold the moment, and the urge to find an exit and break away.
I’ve been distracted the last month or so by the floods, especially in Lismore and the mid-north coast of NSW, Bundjalung country. I’ve been trying to write about the future and the climate emergency, while checking in with friends up there, trying to help where I can. Sending books to Lismore library, donating to the amazing mutual aid project run by the Koori Mail. The climate emergency isn’t in the future. It’s here.
Writing feels incredibly slow and useless when faced with that reality. With war. My friends describe sweeping human waste out of their homes and workplaces. Peoples houses destroyed by the second one-in-100-year flood in a month. Folks who lost their homes in the fires of 2019 are still waiting for assistance. The climate emergency is here, and people are dying from it.
Writing is slow, but at the same time, we desperately need to change the dominant narrative. For years, climate scientists have been crying out for help from artists and writers. We need more and better stories. Philosopher Judith Butler writes: ‘We are at this moment ethically obliged and incited to think beyond what are treated as the realistic limits of the possible.’
Art doesn’t always have to have a political agenda, but art is always political in nature; language, image, story, are all expressions of power as well as meaning. Politics itself is mostly story. If culture wasn’t powerful, governments wouldn’t be trying so hard to starve it of oxygen.
We’re facing a crisis of accountability. The state can argue in court that it has no duty of care to young people, no obligation to protect them from the harms of the climate emergency, and it can win – but that doesn’t make it true. What stories do is give an account. They can hold those in power to account. All stories are about accountability in some way, about the search for justice.
I keep coming back to the problem of time. This moment of dyschronia we live in, as our past catches up with us and the future falls apart before we can reach it, where the present can feel intensely compressed. We live and breathe between amnesia and catastrophe.
Don’t let yourself be paralysed by that. Let yourself think slowly in spite of it. Maybe our relationship with work and time needs to change as much as our relationship with nature does. We need to act quickly, urgently, but we also need to act with a much deeper temporality in mind.
What might it mean to write for tomorrow and yesterday, ten years’ time and ten years ago, ten generations before and beyond you, ten thousand years? Can we alter our concept of narrative time to embrace more versions of story, to involve and encounter ourselves in other lives, other futures, the human and non-human, folded in upon our own? Or are we trapped by settler culture’s linearity, its need for growth and development and control?
So we return to the movement of tides. Yerta Bulti: I’m told that in the Kaurna language it means a place of sleep or death. An in-between country. A place that is neither and both land and sea, between the waking, reasoned mind and that other mind you’re hoping will show up when you’re writing. Between the cadastral map of the hundred of Port Adelaide and the old songs of place that you might catch if you could only turn your ear at the wind.
By 1838 the newspapers were reporting that it was ‘generally conceded that a blunder had been committed in fixing the Port of Adelaide here.’ We are all walking around in the mess of old decisions. But at the same time, there’s so much possibility. So much work to do.
A world I never can remake. A world still to be made. Gwen Harwood’s poem goes on like an incantation:
‘I must suffer, and change, and question all,
wrestle with thought and word, and bind
my speech to the earth’s own laws to win
the heart’s true life at last.’
What does she mean, to bind our speech to the earth’s own laws?
Are you putting up a fence, or making a hole in it?
No artist can ever know their own impact. I am both delighted and dismayed by this every day of my life. A book isn’t a mark of success or failure in the same earthly way as a nice house or money or letters after your name. It’s a gift with no known recipient, an act of faith in a shifting pattern of reciprocity.
Earlier today, Ali Cobby Eckermann spoke about what she saw as her cultural duty to the landscape. Imagine if everyone thought and felt that way. You can hear that possibility in the language, sometimes: we pay attention, like a debt. It is an obligation.
Alexis Wright put it this way: ‘Think what the earth needs. What makes a good ancestor?’
That’s where we might start to make a future.