Catherine Bush

Ecological Unravelling

Panel Talk, March 28, 2017, Innis College, University of Toronto

First of all I wish to state that you can’t tell writers what to write or any artist what art to create: that way lies propaganda.

And yet art and writing exist in conversation with other art and can play a role in shifting culture. At least I’d like to believe they can.

One central question for me at this time is: how do we return people’s attention to what sustains biological life? Even our cellphones begin as metals dug by someone out of the ground. The electricity that we depend on to wire us to the web of digital information and each other depends for its creation on natural sources, whether uranium, in the case of nuclear power, or water or wind. Yet we tend to think of such things as phones or electricity simply as objects or energy to be grasped and used: we prize them for their utility and stop our thoughts there. We have been deeply seduced by material comfort and digital attachment. Our lives have become structurally shaped by these seductions. And in so doing we lift ourselves out of the web of living connection.

No one is swayed by haranguing to change the way they think or feel or take in the world. And premonitions of disaster simply make most people turn away. Even other writers. I share this response from a fellow writer, who has written fiction that touches on contemporary ecological dangers and wrote to me thus when I told him about my current climate-change-themed novel set on Fogo Island: “I found it hard to write about current ecological challenges because it’s so depressing and changes so quickly. Fogo may be gone by the time your book is published, know what I mean?”

Since we can’t actually know the future, our projections of it are based on the familiar past, on the consolation of continuity. Even capitalist/industrialist notions of progress are based on what we already know. We really cannot bear too much discontinuity. Perhaps it will take a real and unimaginable disaster to truly alter our way of life. But I’m not interested in writing a literature of disaster. I want to attempt to imagine something else.

I’m the child of immigrants from the UK. I grew up in Toronto, raised by parents who loved the natural world. I’ve been thinking about the ways in which immigration as well as urbanization helps de-nature us, uprooting us from the places where our ancestors once experienced rootedness. Even in the UK, my people were mobile on my father’s side, working class, displaced by job searches and fundamentally by the Industrial Revolution. Globalized travel, a great way to rip through any reasonable individual carbon budget, has replaced the long-term relationship to one place. We can’t get our own indigeneity back. And so, without the advantages of deep roots, how do we find new, deep ways of connecting to the “more-than-human” world, to steal ecologist David Abram’s phrase, which I believe is one of the essential tasks of our time and one that writers may play a role in. How collectively can we deepen our sense of where we are?

Writing is a way of paying attention. Here I think it’s useful to stop and consider what paying attention actually means. Because there are different kinds of attention. And these are deeply shaped by our neurobiology. While the relationship between our two brain hemispheres is complex and our attention moves back and forth between them, each hemisphere approaches attention very differently. To simplify: the left objectifies, perceives material as inert, grasps, considers utility, and believes what it sees to be all that is. For instance, if someone has a right-hemispheric stroke and is left with only left-hemispheric function, they perceive only the right side of the body and insist that nothing else exists. Right hemispheric attention perceives relationships, connections, life, music, metaphor. I’m deeply indebted to the work of Iain McGilchrist and his book The Master and His Emissary when I say that in carbon-driven, industrial/capitalist culture, left-hemispheric attention has been allowed to dominate and alter our brains to a dangerous degree if we value our long-term survival as a species and the health of the planet as a home for biological life. Did our brains change and then produce the rationalist Descartes, who insists that animals are automatons, and James Watt, who invented the steam engine, or the other way around?

Writing fiction may be one way of shifting our attention. Maybe one day it will seem as strange to read stories that pay attention only to human activity as it now looks odd to watch movies in which everyone smokes.

Why is it, I find myself wondering, that as a culture we are preoccupied with narratives of encounters with intelligent aliens from outer space and not with the alien intelligences that live among us? In other words, why do we fix on Martians and not parrots, as Ted Chiang’s short story The Great Silence asks us? Martians don’t interfere with a concurrent narrative of human exceptionalism and mastery-oriented exploration the way a deep encounter with parrot intelligence might. The implications of acknowledging other sentiences in our midst may be both figuratively and literally too dis-comforting.

In my own fiction, I am attempting to shift the balance of elements and give narrative space to the rest of the living world to which we are biologically connected: animal, vegetable, mineral, atmospheric. A human story remains the primary narrative focus but I have tried to set it within a web of other presences. The characters themselves, in different ways, access or come to access this expanded awareness. Even weather, say, or landscape, isn’t just backdrop or there to be symbolic but as a connected presence with acknowledged agency. Danger may lurk at the edges of the narrative but wonder and simply paying attention is foregrounded.

We need to approach the natural world with tenderness, which is an ongoing form of attention. Terror is one way of making the world inert, the deepest kind of othering. How can we truly acknowledge, let alone address, climate change, when we can’t even take in the particulars of climate: the specificities of cloud, air currents, the layerings of the atmosphere?

I’m not claiming to be doing anything truly radical. That is to say, there are plenty of other writers out there doing this too, but we need as a culture to acknowledge the necessity of this kind of re-seeing, as essential as the cultural work of making space for diverse racial, ethnic, and gendered voices. Paying attention to the natural world and our interconnectedness to it may be an aspect of indigenous writing, and I honour all the indigenous writers for whom this is so, but I don’t think it is appropriative to be attempting to write out of that interconnectedness when you have lost an indigenous relationship to place.

I’d like to call your attention to Hill, the first novel of French writer Jean Giono, just reissued in English for the first time since it was published in 1929. Giono had deep roots in the French countryside that he wrote about and so a kind of European indigeneity. He was also convinced of the natural world’s sentience, a belief that deeply informs his fiction. In the work of contemporary English poet Alice Oswald, consciousness roves between humans and the natural world, making them interpenetrated presences. There are many other examples. Look out for the short prose narratives of Anishnabe storyteller Leanne Simpson in Islands of Decolonial Love or her new collection Accidents of Being Lost. In ecologist Rachel Carson’s lyrical nonfiction about the sea, from the mid-20th century, what perhaps impresses me most is how her profound awareness of geological time informs her depiction of oceanic life.

This fragile world is not helped by our anxiety any more than it is aided by our fear or the shame and guilt and other displacements that we lay overtop of this. To commit to the project of approaching the biological web with tenderness is not a sentimental endeavour. It is an act of ongoing relational noticing: of imagining what might be noticing us back. The scope of the project is vast but it is also utterly particular. It requires that we alter our brains but our brains are plastic and respond to change. We just need to keep practicing.

“Fairy tales are almost always the stories of the powerless, of youngest sons, abandoned children, orphans.... Fairy tales are children's stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one.”

— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby