Nature & Me
(First published in The Scottish Poetry Library Journal 2013)
I’m writing this outside.
Not just for the metaphor, you understand, but for the joy and the company. For the birdsong (currawong and crimson parrot and magpie lark and bluewren and blackbird and wagtail, and we’re only just scratching the lyrical surface) and the swill of late spring sunlight and cloud shadow across the paddocks down the back and the cut grass at my feet and the rose beds at my back; and I’m here to breathe in what water poplars want to breathe out. I’ve carried my self and my laptop out of my cowshed to sit at the trestle table that used to be the cowshed door; I’ve come outside to write about nature and me (and already, you see, I’ve started).
My writing and my solitude can always do with as much help as we can get. And the morning is the kind of help I find I need. I am much more myself—I sound more like myself, too—when I remember the wider world and put myself back in it.
You’ll be worried about the rain, perhaps. So was I for a while: Where there are cloud shadows, there tend to be clouds, and where there are clouds… But this is November, and this is southeastern Australia, and El Nino has swum back home across the Pacific for Christmas, so I think we’re good for an hour or two. There may be clouds, but there won’t be rain. Not for a month or two. Just all this slender, tender, lonely, scleropyll light.
To be sure, the wind is just a little too strong, when it gusts from the southeast as it’s doing now, to call this arrangement truly comfortable. But comfort isn’t what it’s for. Energy is what it’s for—and fidelity to a moment and to an intelligence, to a geography, larger and older than mine alone.
Somewhere in his journals, or maybe it’s in Walden—I’m outside, so I can’t check (another good reason for writing outside)—Henry David Thoreau carries his writing desk out into the Massachusetts weather to work. He wanted not just to write about nature, but in it. With it, even. Among the rest of who he felt he was. And so do I. We are not finished at the skin. The best of me is the rest of me: where I am—and where I was before that, and with whom.
One of the elders, American poet Charles Wright, a man whose work has been influential on my own (though you mustn’t blame him for it; he had no choice in the matter), writes near the end of the long poem “Disjecta Membra” that closes his 1997 collection Black Zodiac:
I think of landscape incessantly,
mountains and rivers, lost lakes
Where sunsets festoon and override,
The scald of summer wheat fields, light-licked and poppy-
And so do I. Different landscapes, most of them, to his, and not all the time. I think of children and women and men, too. (Women, especially.) The bodies and the minds of things. Music, words, phrases, morals, stories, justice, love, loss. Global warming. Violence and tenderness. Kingfishers. Poetry and pottery and botany and pleasure and pain. And so does he.
Wright once defined his subjects as “Landscape, language, and the question of god.” I’m with him there, too. As long as by “god”, you understand me not to mean merely my grandfather’s Methodist god, nor the Catholic god they pray to at my children’s school, nor for that matter any of the pretty Hindu deities that lounge about my cowshed, as if they owned the place. “I don’t believe in the gods; but they seem to believe in me”, I wrote in a recent poem. And that’s how it feels. Something more like the Beloved is what I would mean by the metaphor “god”: the rest of who we feel we are, the other wiser truer half; that which is godly (unprecedented, implacable, wild, one-off) in each of us and in the world; the divine organizing principle in everything; the music that turns all this on, and by which sometimes we remember to run; the love the world seems to bear for us, if only we could convince ourselves to be worthy of it often enough.
But most of all, I believe in landscape. I believe in the world, and I want my work to serve it and be worthy of it, if it can.
Somewhere I wrote, “We are given the world; we give it back in poetry.” And I believe that still. I know so few other ways to live worthily and within my means on this earth, and to give thanks.
In another poem in Black Zodiac, Wright asks
Is this the life we long for,
to be at ease in the natural world.
“Well, yes, I think so”, he answers, and so would I.
To be at home on the earth and comfortable in our skins, the way the trees are, and the ridges and the kangaroos and the clouds (if they had skins): is this not part of everyone’s aspiration for themselves and their children? In the life I long for (and now and then know), in the life I wish for those I love, one’s mind is in one’s body again, one’s body is in the world, the world is one’s freedom, one’s lover, one’s home for the duration.
And, though I walk and run and ride horses and kick soccer balls and hit cricket balls about and sit outside and read and think, and though I teach and borrow and rant and occasionally hang some washing on a line, though I sometimes work to save a place or see some justice done, it is when I make poems that I am most nearly at ease with the natural world, the everything else I’m not. Especially when I make poems with landscape in them—which is most of the time—but even when I don’t. I seem unable not to remember the earth—the form of things, the voices of birds, the colour of rain, the bend of river, the extinction of species, the tipping points, the oceans of plastic—even when I try. I write a love song, no trees in sight, they call me a nature poet; I cry out in grief, I write a sonnet for my skipping child, they call me a poet of place. No one likes a label. But I’ll wear this one. Nature’s the story, I keep saying, and we’re in it; Live your life in place, not time, I wrote (in “Eclogues”), so I guess I asked for it.
I make “the landscape…flame and sing”, Sinéad Morrissey said with my “Margaret River Sestets” in mind. In my poem “Walking Underwater”, which won the Montreal Prize last year, Andrew Motion wrote “ancient themes (especially the theme of our human relationship with landscape) are re-cast and re-kindled.” If this is what I do, this torching and rekindling, it happens very largely by accident, and so much the better: the world has colonised my words; nature has colonised my human nature, at least for the time a stanza takes.