Saturday, 8 June 2019

No 85 - JULIA MARTIN: Our own literary eco-activist

Julia Martin, it appears, is preoccupied with the notion of home. She has recently published her memoir The Blackridge House (Jonathan Ball), adding to what is now a substantial body of excellent literary work that I think deserves an overview.

Much of that work centres on relations between literature and ecology, and also pioneers a characteristic form of essay which intricately blends personal experience, ecological awareness and historical depth. The Blackridge House departs from this a little: as for many of us, the decline of a beloved parent provokes a foray into one’s earliest memories and ancestries. Julia goes in search of the Pietermaritzburg house her mother once lived in; it proves unusually hard to find. In the course of the detective work, Julia relates the slow horror of her mother’s decline into senility; the historic adventures of her grandfather and father in the Boer and Second World Wars; and the meetings with lovely strangers who helped her in her quest, from neighbours to archivists. If the conversations with her mother seem a little repetitive, that’s in the nature of senility’s short-term memory loss; it is almost too close to the bone to bear.

I think I first encountered Julia’s writing in the form of a 1994 journal article rather winningly titled “New, with Added Ecology? Hippos, Forests and. Environmental Literacy” (featuring the famously ill-fated migrant hippo, Huberta).  As I was just feeling my way into some conjunction of my own two main preoccupations – literature and wilderness – Julia had already pioneered South Africa’s still embryonic engagement with so-called ecocriticism – the reading of literature with an eye on ecology. Ecocriticism was already developing into a minor industry in the US, UK and Australia; in South Africa Julia was, I believe, the first to teach environmental concerns within an English department – the University of the Western Cape, in her case. (Since then, a number of her colleagues have weighed in on this vital strand of literary study, including Wendy Woodward, especially with her book The Animal Gaze Wits UP, 2008); Fiona Moolla, who edited Natures of Africa (Wits UP, 2016); and most recently Duncan Brown with his book Wilder Lives: Humans and our environments (UKZN Press, 2019).

Julia’s concept of “environmental literacy” is central to her 1999 PhD thesis, a scintillating piece of work entitled The Jewelled Net. Unusually for a literature thesis, it is illustrated, includes different kinds of text and approach, and charmingly welds academic theorisation with the highly personal (how her pregnancy affected her thought, for example). The title image refers to an Indian legend that in the heaven of Indra is a “network of jewels connected in every dimension, each node a jewel reflecting every other node” – a neat metaphor for ecological interconnectedness. By “environmental literacy” she meant a conjunction between an environmental awareness or ‘situatedness’ – another manifestation of the idea of home –  and developing students as critical and creative writers and readers. The thesis included chapters on Buddhism as an ecological philosophy; on William Blake (ever one of my favourite poets, gaining more attention of late for something resembling an ecological consciousness), and on America’s primary eco-poet, Gary Snyder.

As often happens, a PhD proves not an end-point but a beginning, ramifying into further explorations. In Julia’s case an initial correspondence with Snyder developed into a deep and mutually fruitful friendship over thirty-odd years. They wrote to each other voluminously, and Julia visited Snyder at his California home. They shared their concerns for planetary ecological health, for poetry as a craft and vehicle (Julia also teaches creative writing at UWC), and for Buddhism as a way of seeing the world. One result of the friendship has been another book, Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism and living in places (Trinity University Press, 2014), which includes transcripts of some of their conversations and extracts from the correspondence. The interviews can feel scrappy, and Snyder seems to me often, rather than to answer the question, to offer some sort of enigmatic, slippery, Buddha-like oracular mantra which might or might not be wise – or just portentously evasive. I find more satisfying the more considered and chunky excerpts from the correspondence, where Snyder comes closer to the earthy coherence of his best-known prose work, The Practice of the Wild (1990). Nobody Home is an intriguing volume, and it reflects poorly on South Africa’s environmental literacy that no local publisher could be persuaded to print it.

As does Duncan Brown in Wilder Lives, I like Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, and find myself agreeing with a great deal of its thinking and demeanour; but I am oddly less enamoured of his poetry. I remember finding (almost unheard of in South Africa) several whole shelves of poetry in a bookshop in Bloomington, Indiana, and lifting down a volume by Snyder. I read several poems – and found them a little glib and obvious, if compatible enough. The shelves being alphabetically organised, next to him happened to be the collected poems of Anne Sexton, another American poet with whom I had had very slender acquaintance – and I was instantly excited by the sizzling, unruly energy of her language and imagery. It seemed to me that Sexton enacted the inner wildness that Snyder espoused better than did Snyder himself. A matter of taste, to be sure.

The Jewelled Net opens with a Prologue entitled “The Smell of Home”, which begins: “There is a sense in which the longing for home, like other longings, is insatiable”. The prologue is a characteristic Julia-Martin  ‘thought-essay’ – a ruminative quiltwork, part philosophising, part personal travelogue, part historical research – which was worked up to form one of three essays published by Carapace in 2002, a slim volume entitled Writing Home. The other two comprise a memoir of her racialised yet companionable South African childhood; and a fascinating exploration of a journey to Taiwan, where a feeling of displacement in so different a culture sharpened her sense of what ‘home’ means.

Julia continued to refine her distinctive variant of what she calls “creative non-fiction” in numerous journal articles, many about teaching practice and none of which, as far as I can see, obey formal academic norms. They revel in such refreshing titles as “The Path Which Goes Beyond: Danger on Peaks Responds to Suffering”, “Gangsters, thatched roofs and cheese boys in an undergraduate classroom”, and “The Temple and the Trees”. Julia’s summary of the latter exemplifies something of her incisive yet humane approach to senses of place:

This essay uses the genre of creative nonfiction to reflect on a visit to Göbekli Tepe in South- East Turkey. I tell a story about travelling from Cape Town to Sanliurfa that situates this pivotal site (and its excavation) in relation both to imperial history and to contemporary eco-social priorities in the region. What connection might there be between the T-shaped limestone pillars on Belly Mountain and the Hagia Sophia, or an Ottoman mausoleum, or the question of food security in the Fertile Crescent, or the war in Syria, or the protest in Gezi Park that became a national uprising? I argue that whether or not one is a genetic descendant of the people who made that complex of beautiful structures, every living being on the planet is now an inheritor of the relations of power it appears to manifest and the symbolic culture it embodies. Like any archaeological excavation, the site tells at least as much about the present moment as it does about the past. Travelling to visit it in mid-Winter, I encountered both the impact of powerful elites, and a trace of that liveliness which ineradicably continues to resist and elude it.

Julia extends the “creative nonfiction” mode in what remains my favourite of her books, A Millimetre of Dust: Visiting ancestral sites (Kwela, 2008). This is a more unified account of a visit, family in tow, to the regions around Kimberley and Kuruman, the diamond fields and big holes; the astonishing fields of worked Stone-Age tools and residues that cover acres of countryside, a stone-tool factory for centuries, if not millennia; and the early hominid remains at Wonderwerk Cave. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book is dedicated to Gary Snyder, and bears a Snyder epigraph: “So the question I have been asking myself is: who says ‘humans’? What sucks our lineage into form? It is surely the ‘mountains and rivers without end’ – the whole of this earth on which we find ourselves more or less competently at home.”  There’s the notion of home again; in this book travel challenges and refines that sense of belonging, but also expands it to include distant places and ancient peoples alike. A Millimetre of Dust is especially rich with history and experienced textures. At the same time, it is in itself family history, relating the responses to their adventures of her husband, jeweller Mike Cope, and their children Sophie and Sky, whose presence is a delightful undertow throughout Julia’s work as they grow, from in the womb in The Jewelled Net to young adulthood in The Blackridge House.

So we return to this most recent publication which, for all its highly personal content, its inevitable centring on what could be a stifling white middle-class suburban existence, is both expansively humane and densely aware of our entangled history. (Among many jewel-like moments in The Blackridge House is the family’s experience of the release of Nelson Mandela.) Julia Martin’s writing is, in my estimation, amongst the most beautiful, grounded and important being produced in South Africa today.


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