Sunday, 27 December 2020

No 112 - America's ecological fictions


Joe Biden may have a hard time reversing the slew of legislative sleights-of-hand through which Donald Trump’s administration has wilfully attacked America’s environmental health. These dozens of regulations range from easing restrictions on emissions and fracking, on oil exploration in wilderness areas and Native American reservations, on use of once-banned pesticides, and on ‘development’ on wetlands and offshore shoals. Not to mention making it easier to hunt endangered species.

It’s not just myopic Trumpians, of course. I listened in dismay recently to an oil executive blandly promoting exploration for fossil fuels adjacent to the Okavanga Delta, smoothly reassuring his interviewer that there would be no ecological impact. The record of oil companies in honouring these promises is criminally dismal. There would be no fracking, he said. Another report in Africa Geographic, however, makes it clear that fracking in one of the planet’s most unique wild environments is being contemplated. And nary a quiver of recognition – or admission – by the said smooth exec that the fossil-fuel process essentially involves extracting one form of poison from the ground, processing it and burning it to produce a whole barrage of spinoff poisons. Those poisons circulate through our waterways and wind currents into our very bladders and lungs. Never mind the slippery generalities of ‘climate change’: continuing to pump these toxins into the environment at the rate of millions of tonnes a year, when we know how bad they are, is the very definition of insanity. And every one of us, yours truly included, who uses a vehicle or a computer or a light bulb is a helpless-feeling but complicit beneficiary of this madness.

 It has been known for a long time. None other than Charles Dickens, 150 years ago, found Pittsburgh so polluted by coal-based manufacturing that he called it “Hell with the lid on.”  Pittsburgh is pleasantly clean today, which is encouraging. Still, the blatant lies of the coal-oil-gas industrialists and the government lackeys who subsidise them continue. The tide is turning, but with desperate slowness, as so-called ‘activists’ wade like crude-oil-coated penguins through the sludge of moneyed interests and the sheer inertia of a global civilisation indivisible from fossil fuel products. But even in high-tech SUV-addicted America, the signs are that Trump et al will eventually find themselves on the wrong side of history. California is a step ahead on curbing emissions; Massachusetts has just legislated that poison-warning stickers be placed on all fuel pumps; cities are greening in open defiance of Republican stupidity. There is no longer a cure, only mitigation, but fantastic inventions that can help are proliferating.

Dickens was one who recognised how Americans were wedded to the mythology of the open Western frontier, as many still seem to be, as if the resources of the continent are still infinite, and as if those with the chutzpah and the riches to exploit them have a virtually divine right to do so without restraint or conscience. (Tim Flannery titles his readable environmental history of the United States The Eternal Frontier.) The frontier notion has become delusory, of course, as certain American artists have recognised. The juggernaut of America’s extraordinary urban-industrial development also ironically hosts the world’s most robust and beautiful tradition of ecological writing. The names are legendary, ringing their elegiac warnings: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, through to current luminaries like Bill McKibben, Terry Tempest Williams, and Barry Lopez. (Lopez, sadly, died just this week.) 

All those are non-fiction essayists. American novelists too, however, have regularly expressed an ‘environmental’ sensibility: one can hardly contemplate the soil and water disaster that is the Midwest today without thinking of John Steinbeck’s prescient The Grapes of Wrath. This is ever more the case as the global crisis deepens. Many current writers have projected grim imagined futures of techno-nightmare, desertification, or flood: to highlight just one instance, Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about a future New York, besieged by rain, ice and rising sea levels. Sci-fi and speculative fiction apart, there are also many more ‘social-realist’ novels which treat of all sorts of current environmental issues. Those I outline below (I’ll get there eventually) are just those few that happen to have fallen into my lap, in no particular order. 

It has been suggested that the myth of the great western frontier stimulated the similarly epic scale of some American fiction, novels of the bulk and scope of John dos Passos’ U.S.A. or Tom Wolfe’s Time and the River. They certainly still keep producing them. My personal favourite has to be Don de Lillo’s massive Underworld (1997). In form it’s a deliberate undermining of the linear discovery epic in which a great hero of the stature of Davy Crockett launches into the wilderness. Underworld is instead a multiply intertwined collage of stories, not all of which end up anywhere. The bulk of the characters are involved in waste disposal, ranging from the trash pyramids of New York’s infamous Fresh Kills landfill to surplus food tossed into the back alley of an undistinguished restaurant. It depicts a country virtually drowning in its own garbage, from nuclear waste to a stray baseball (in some estimates nearly a fifth of American workers are employed in cleaning up, burying or exporting the nation’s junk). Sounds unpromising, but it’s superbly written, if anything even better than his justly celebrated White Noise, which also centred on an environmental hazard, the “airborne toxic event” resulting from a road tanker exploding. 

Annie Proulx published her first novel, The Shipping News, at the age of 56,and hasn’t looked back. She’s a tough, gritty writer – the very antithesis of a homely Jane Austen or even the rangy Jane Smiley – with a penchant for bumping her characters off in inventive ways. She has developed a strong environmental thread, not least in her multi-generational epic, Barkskins (2016). ‘Barkskins’ is slang for foresters: before coal and oil, there was wood, and the novel chronicles the fortunes and misfortunes of the English and French (later Canadian) woodcutters who established Euro-American civilisation by way of obliterating the continent’s great forests and most of their native denizens, human and animal alike. What seemed to seventeenth-century colonists as literally endless, proved all too finite before the invasion of axes and blades, then steam-driven sawmills and ultimately irresistible chainsaws and bulldozers. Those heroic ‘pioneers’ are here painted as ordinary, often rapacious and embittered misfits, later as unsentimental profiteers, loving and suffering and fighting and dying. The thing about families is they proliferate, and in trying to keep up with its own genealogical spread the novel arguably unravels in the end – but so do those unvarnished myths of divinely-inspired and entitled Western civilisation. 

What that civilisation ends up as is complexly portrayed in just two opening pages of Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole (2002). The Texan prairies are dotted with oil wells and grain elevators, the fields underlaid by networks of pipes and cables, “a region of immeasurable natural complexity that some believed abused beyond saving”. Proulx is far too canny a writer to simplistically beat the ‘environmentalist’ drum, but this novel shows just how intensive pig-farming in the Texas panhandle is undergirded by ecological damage.  The novel is funnier and more focussed than Barkskins, as its somewhat hapless central character, the ironically-named Bob Dollar, scouts for new lands his rich employer-company can buy up for pig-farms. He is regaled with stories about the region’s history, its entangled families, its loves and competitions and strengths and innovations and myopias. We are reminded, in short, that what we count now as ecologically criminal was built up over centuries by complicated humans mostly just doing what they saw as immediately advantageous, even good. Except, clearly now, the venal and remote big corporations, who apparently care not a whit about the toxic spill of pork-factories into local communities. 

Reminiscent of Barkskins in its genealogical scope and in its wilderness settings is Peter Matthiesson’s epic Shadow Country (2008). Mathiessen’s ecological credentials are well-established by his numerous non-fiction books, including The Birds of Heaven, on the world’s cranes, and the justly acclaimed The Snow Leopard. This chunky fictional epic, set in Florida’s coastal Everglades, is a thorough rewrite and combination of three separate earlier novels, starting with Killing Mister Watson. This obviously focussed on how and why said Mister Watson got killed, and so isn’t explicitly ecological in thrust. However, the environment of Shadow Country’s hardscrabble, marginalised swamp dwellers so dominates their lives that depicting the mutual impacts of place and people is unavoidable. Among other things, some residents make a living trading in egret feathers and alligator skins for the European fashion markets. Matthiessen chronicles the many distressing ways in which even the inaccessible Everglades are transformed by development and commerce.  (I’m not sure about the egrets, but the alligators were all but eradicated before protective legislation kicked in. Now they are as common as poodles, and occasionally eat one.)

So much for the grubby realities of the ‘pioneers’. The contemporary environmentalist scene – essentially a desperate squabbling over the remnants of two centuries of rapine and over-exploitation – is just not a Manichaean struggle between predators and protectors. Factions amongst environmentalists also contend over how best to address the crisis, a situation treated in two novels I know about. One is T C Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done (2011). In the earlier days of his wonderful novel Water Music and collections of startling short stories, this most vivid, versatile and sardonic of American novelists styled himself T. Correghessan Boyle, but must have tired of people puzzling over the pronunciation. When the Killing’s Done is set largely on a group of small islands off the coast of California, which have been overrun by foreign rats and pigs, which in turn are decimating indigenous bird populations. (This is precisely the problem on the South Atlantic’s Gough Island, itself a microcosm of the global problem of ‘invasive species’, mostly transported by humans across oceans and continents, with mostly devastating consequences – what historian Alfred Crosby termed Ecological Imperialism.) Boyle shows himself well-versed in ‘invasion biology’, as he pitilessly unpacks a tussle between a government biologist, Anna Takesue, trying to eliminate the rats, and an anarchistic animal-rights activist, Dave LaJoy, who thinks rats have as great a right to life as anyone, no matter where they come from. Neither character is particularly savoury (I’m not sure Boyle is capable of creating a really likeable character), but they and their respective if overlapping segments of society are revealed and understood in intimate and persuasive detail. Not least amongst LaJoy’s gripes are the pervasive habits of meat-eating, which in his view are both a rights violation and an ecological disaster. He reads a pamphlet citing German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity”. You could/should say the same of mountains, rivers and forests (as Equador has done). One suspects most of these novelists would at heart agree. 

Japanese-American Ruth Ozeki’s best-known novel, My Year of Meat, echoes the eco-dietary concern in both Proulx and Boyle. Another work, however, treats another intra-activist conflict of sorts. In All Over Creation (2013), a bunch of over-exuberant eco-activists, who are especially keen to confront genetic modification of crops, descend on a Midwest potato-farmer. He and his Japanese wife develop a wide range of organically-grown seeds, mostly varieties muscled out of the markets by big-agrobusiness monocultures, and they take him for an unlikely, and reluctant, guru. The insensitive, aggrandising domination of the big corporations looms large again here. Ozeki is wonderfully gifted, and often laugh-out-loud funny, while never losing sight of the seriousness and complexities of the issues. 

None of these writers fall into the trap of clumsy didacticism, even when the very subject of their works reveals their concern, if not open sympathies. One who perhaps sails closest to the edge of that trap is Barbara Kingsolver; perhaps she can’t quite escape her training as a biologist, most evident in her lovely essay collections such as Pigs from Heaven and High Tide in Tucson. Still, despite a touch of didacticism, her novel Flight Behaviour (2012) is an excellent story, centred on the decline of monarch butterflies. These magnificent fire-coloured creatures traditionally migrate in their millions annually between northern California and Mexico, but their health has been severely compromised by all the problems we’ve touched on: primarily the destruction of forest cover and crucial food sources by logging, wildfires, pesticides and conversion of land to agriculture, overwhelmingly for the meat industries, not to mention temperature changes that manifest ‘climate change’. The monarch’s decline, like so many other ‘canaries-in-the-mine’ warnings, have for way too long been ignored. 

Just this narrow selection of fictions of ecological sensitivity would seem to indicate that awareness is growing; likewise there are many films, and even humdrum American police-procedurals, which are taking ecological crimes and dilemmas as their subject-matter. We are floundering in a toxic tide of our own making, but I guess as long as people are writing and talking about it, despair can be staved off, and workable, more compassionate and equitable strategies of survival can be developed. What's really intriguing is how such fictions tell much deeper truths than the fictions propagated by the oil money-dependent government. 


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Saturday, 28 November 2020

No 111 - "Rock Water Life": Lesley Green's new book


An article in a recent issue
of the Eastern Province Herald (26 November) notes a worrying algal bloom in Algoa Bay. The oxygen-guzzling algae are stimulated by the spewing of untreated sewage into the Swartkops estuary from upriver townships – a long-standing and persistent problem as damaging to ocean ecosystems as it is to human health. It’s also an issue entangling natural dynamics, the unresolved inequalities of apartheid-style urban planning, and current misgovernance.

Cape Town’s equivalent, the notorious “red tide”, is one of several environmental themes explored in Lesley Green’s excellent new book, Rock, Water, Life (Wits University Press). Lesley Green, an anthropologist, directs the Environmental Humanities programme at UCT, and most of her points of focus concern her home region. Her case studies exemplify the aim of the programme: that is, broadly, to get the environmental sciences and the humanities (especially sociology, politics and anthropology) talking to each other. This drive towards “interdisciplinarity”, often talked up, is less than easy to achieve in practice. The so-called “hard sciences”, which tout their objectivity as somehow standing above and outside individual perceptions and social or political biases, are notoriously insular and specialised, barely talking to one another, let alone to psychologists or poets.

This isn’t confined to the sciences. A recent article in The Economist (14 November, p.67) quotes Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Solow’s disdainful dismissal of critics: “When they want economics to be broader and more interdisciplinary, they seem to mean that they want it to give up its standards of rigour, precision and reliance on systematic observation interpreted by theory, and to go over to some looser kind of discourse.”  That word looser conceals the discipline’s reluctance to account for, and engage with, the actual messiness of human life. Many scientists and economists have laudably tried to find ways to communicate their ideas to “the masses”, but frequently flounder, impelling them back into their disciplinary bunkers. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the current chaos concerning face-masks. As this same article notes, epidemiologists were wholly unprepared for the politicisation of this apparently straightforward anti-Covid measure. “Follow the science!” is the clarion call – but clearly large, distrustful portions of the population are unwilling to do so. Any attempted policy which fails to acknowledge the resistance and understand the reasons behind it, is bound to fall short. In any event, “the science” is seldom singular or seamless: the progress of scientific research towards consensus is itself congenitally messy, contested, and provisional.

A mixture of respect for good science, a cool scepticism, humane empathy, and exemplary self-awareness, energise Lesley Green’s studies. She begins with the charmingly personal: as she cycles, drives and kayaks around Cape Town, she keenly observes the everyday signs of how its geology, water sources, animal denizens, and ocean currents have been historically corralled, modified and polluted by burgeoning humanity. In a series of absorbing, densely researched but readable chapters, she explores the original Khoekhoen people’s relations with the mountain from which they were eradicated like vermin; the so-called “baboon problem” on the same ground, with its clash of scientific, fence-them-off views as opposed to other let’s-be-neighbours strategies; the attack on “Western science” by the #FeesMustFall movement on the UCT campus; debates about fracking in the Karoo; and the clash of community fishing, policing, and poaching off the littorals.

These apparently disparate issues are underpinned by a fundamental concern for the health of the environment, and also by Green’s insistence on asking awkward questions. Failures to resolve these and related flashpoints are partly due to an inability or unwillingness to ask the right or searching questions. Ask in a different way, Green suggests, you’re likely to come up with different answers. Hence in every chapter the reader is confronted with a welter of questions – questions at once dislocating, cogent and exciting. These are the scene-setting challenges from her introduction:


How to be more present to expunged pasts? How to imagine what others have felt in these places in other times, in other disciplines, as other species, as the earth itself? What is it to be present at the massive ecological destruction of our times, amid the pressing sense of the failure of “scientific nature” to find a voice in South African political life that can speak to voices other than those of “whiteliness” ...: the expert, the judge, the martyr? How to feel and think, and hold onto relationships that matter in a time of neoliberalism where all relations that matter in “the economy” have been translated into dollar terms for “the market”, while the rest have become invisible?


Such a capacity to be present, to probe and to innovate in itself makes Rock Water Life an immensely important book, not so much for answers to specific problems as for the boundary-testing mindset of inquiry. Green is humble enough not to pretend to have answers to all her own questions (though she does end with some challenging recommendations). Nor is she blindly idealistic. But she is able to give at least one achieved, practical example, in respect of the problem of “over-fishing” off Cape Town’s coasts. This has been bedevilled by an insuperable gap between scientists’ focus on ecological systems and measureable catch sizes, versus fishing communities’ deeply-held cultural mores. The pre-eminence of “the science” in policy decisions resulted in strongly resented quotas, the exacerbation of “poaching”, the criminalisation of the wrong people, and increasing inadequacy of policing. This unfortunate situation has been markedly improved by a single innovative intervention: the supply of a custom-designed smartphone app to all fishing-boat captains. The app records boats’ positions and fish catch information in detail, which helps find fish, reduces and identifies genuine poaching, makes policing easier, and feeds scientists with data at a density they could not achieve on their own. The fishermen have become “citizen scientists” in a community-affirming way which bridges divides dating back, in crucial aspects, to colonial times. In a sense, a new language has been forged by which different communities, radically divided by economic class, race, and/or apartheid-designed geographical distribution, can at least in some respects fruitfully communicate.

All the divides revealed in Green’s chapters – between “decolonial” students and established academics, between gas companies and Karoo residents, between ethologists and baboon-lovers – require some such innovative leap towards a new basis for communicating and problem-solving. Above all – and this is Green’s overarching point – “science” cannot pretend to be loftily divorced from the history and society in which it is embedded, and public policy cannot be single-mindedly dictated by its comfortingly clean adherence to “objective evidence”. That smacks to many residents of just another exclusionary tranche of colonial imposition: much “environmentalism” has become “part of the era of expulsions, and of extractions driven by expulsions, and of the struggles against extinction in spaces of extraction”. Green is by no means anti-science, only anti-“scientism”. She puts it pithily: the book is about “navigating a path that welcomes and celebrates scientific enquiry, scientific achievements, and integrative thinking, and questions scientific reductionism and transcendence, and associated forms of environmental authoritarianism”. Just as fences don’t deter baboons, and even rock does not ultimately sequester poisonous chemicals, science can’t cordon itself from the complex, messy, sometimes un-measureable interflows of physical materiality and human cultural perceptions and ethics.

Green’s subtitle is Ecology and humanities for a decolonial South Africa. Though she is clearly in favour of “decolon(ial)isation” in some form, she is not uncritical of, for example, the loud and simplistic denunciation of Western science by some #FeesMustFall spokespersons. The term “decolonial”, and what it might look like, is of course itself hotly contested, and ultimately needs further unpacking than Green allows here. So, too, do two other terms that are foundational to Green’s approach: neoliberalism and feminism. Though her case studies arguably show neoliberal tenets (primarily the monetisation of natural resources, horribly dubbed “ecological services”, and the consequent reduction of both human and non-human denizens to faceless counters in a global game of big-business financing and collusive governance) and/or patriarchy in action, another book might be needed to solidify those also complex realms.

Her final recommendations are procedural, a matter of mindset. To blithely collapse her subtlety and wide theoretical reading into paraphrases of her subtitles, they are these: resituate scientific authority; disassemble the nature/society divide; depose the neoliberal gods of Reason; move from a relation of mastery to a relation of presence; rethink space and time in terms of flow and movement.

These kinds of thoughts have often been proposed before, pre-eminently by feminist ecocritics, also by poets (“flow” was one of Cape Town poet Sydney Clouts’s central terms). But Green contextualises and applies them to South African realities with trenchant detail. Of course, I’d also like to see the socio-political and anthropological aspects of the “humanities”, so expertly applied here, extended even further to the performers and the writers. So much of what Green explores is manifestly amplified by story-telling amongst participants, by poetic declamations, by imaginative new relations, by songs, by lying, by theatrical public performances. These, too, affect and pervade our relations with the natural world, from which we are indivisible. Much comes back to language and languaging. Green writes:


Finding a language in which to think and speak about “nature”, “green”, and “environment”, outside of the already written and the already said, is like riding a bicycle through the bush instead of taking the road ... you navigate the slow stuff, hoping that there might be a different insight, [and where] there are no auto-completes for words or thoughts.


That’s almost lyrical, and I hazard that the poets should be further consulted for new ways! As the Swedish master-poet Tomas Tranströmer echoes:


            The language marches in step with the executioners.

            Therefore we must get a new language.

              (“Night Duty”)


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Saturday, 24 October 2020

No 110 - In memoriam Stephen Gray

Stephen Gray
, eminent South African man of letters and general provocateur, has died aged 78, after a massive stroke. An acerbic, neat, slightly campy, sometimes catty reviewer and commentator, he was a serial innovator in literary affairs, expressing himself variously as novelist, poet, biographer, editor and anthologist. An irreverent maverick: despite teaching at Rand Afrikaans University until 1992 he was always picking away at the walls of formal academe, and not always appreciated for it. Though an assiduous researcher, he was, you might say, as much an interventionist as a scholar. Interesting for us Grahamstonians, he was educated at St Andrews, later Cambridge University and Iowa.

A recent ‘Modern Toss’ cartoon depicts one aged hippy visiting another, and proclaiming: “Hi, you don’t know me but I wrote a review slagging off one of your albums about 40 years ago? I just wanted you to know I stand by every word of it.”  It must be nearly 30 years ago when, as a novice academic way too full of himself, I wrote a review of Stephen’s volume of poems, Apollo Cafe. (The title poem, an affectionate and detailed portrait of a typical Seffrican corner shop, would be subsequently often anthologised.)  I don’t know if I would stand by every word of my review now, but I wasn’t very complimentary. Maybe three years later Stephen and I finally met, and he expostulated, “You just didn’t get it, did you? Some of those poems are fucking beautiful.”  Worse, it was the only review he’d had. Twenty years later he was still reminding me of my youthful misdemeanour.  His poetry still doesn’t blow my socks off, actually, but along with his icy wit he could display a lovely kind of domestic fondness, as in a poem I discovered just recently, “The herb garden”:


My mother before she died insisted

I should have a herb garden

Something in her English soul

Amid rough South Africans

Called for the tenderness of mint

The old scent of lavender and sage


Today after the long heart-stopping drought

My mother’s bed of lost spices

Has so flourished I have cut it back

And the mint is in the crevices of fingers

The sage under my very nails

And I remember her every gesture.


My review notwithstanding, on another level Stephen remained friendly; we had sporadic contact over mutual interests. He remained wedded to good old snail-mail, and a couple of times he sent me inconsequential postcards in his signature tiny, dapper, non-cursive script.

One of the really annoying things about him was that wherever I turned, there he was ahead of me! As I got into my PhD on literary representations of Shaka, I discovered that his early article “Shaka as a literary theme” had already broached much that I was independently turning up. At least he also supplied me with some primary material: he had already written a series of poems, The Assassination of Shaka, to accompany vivid woodcut prints by Cecil Skotnes. Even more usefully, he edited and published the Shakan-period memoirs of Charles Rawden Maclean, more commonly remembered as John Ross. This was a vital and startling counterweight to the established but mendacious and nasty portrayals of Shaka by Isaacs and Fynn.  Moreover, Stephen then novelised Maclean’s experiences in John Ross: the true story (1987) which I rate a very deft little novel indeed.  Stephen was already wittily working over the fuzzy boundary between fiction and history that I was belatedly trying to theorise. I discovered the manuscripts for the novel in an archive, and was astonished by the meticulously organised work-methods, with the day on which he worked on sections written neatly in the margins, sometimes down to the hour. And at least in this instance, he evidently worked just about every day. (I’d also like to write a Shakan novel, but I’m still mulling over it...)

 Then I turned to ecological matters and elephant studies, thinking I was doing something terribly innovative in treating travelogues and hunting accounts as species of literature, only to find that Stephen Gray had already done it in his Southern African Literature: An introduction (1979) – the published version of his PhD. It is still the most readable and conceptually interesting history of our region’s literature. He was ahead of the pack in writing in depth about the Adamastor trope, about Saartjie Baartman and about emergent apartheid-era black poetry. Subsequent surveys may be more comprehensive, but in comparison they are rather conventional stodge, and mostly just extend the ways in which Stephen punctured membranes between nations and classes, races and genders. The same can be said of his edition of The Penguin Book of Southern African Verse (1989), which embodied his genius for finding the hitherto marginalised or convention-challenging gem.

 If Stephen wasn’t especially highly regarded for his own poetry and fiction, he was yet an assiduous compiler and anthologist of both poetry and short stories. He was an early, if not unique, champion of  and acknowledged expert on Herman Charles Bosman’s stories. And even as a new field of Pacific, or Southern Ocean literary-historical studies was being broached by Isabel Hofmeyr and others – a belated sibling to the well-established Atlantic Studies –  he was compiling poetry from the French-speaking Mascarenes, resulting in a delightful collection of little-known poetry titled Invitation to a Voyage (2008). By way of these and many, many other contributions, he will leave a rich, multi-layered and pioneering legacy matched by few in our corner of the literary world.

 The last time I heard from Stephen Gray was after I published my elephant book, and he called to say he had bumped into the environmental historian Jane Carruthers at some do or other, and was delighted to find that I had quoted both of them – on the same page. The sort of quirky thing he liked.


Wednesday, 14 October 2020

No 109 - Stephen Watson and the death of Nature


I never got to meet Stephen Watson
(1954-2011), Cape Town poet, creative-writing teacher at UCT, and critic.  He was evidently deeply admired, his early death deeply mourned. One of his students, the novelist Imraan Coovadia, wrote in an obituary that as a teacher Watson was “almost unfailingly courteous, engaged, unexpected in the direction of his thoughts, generous in his intelligence, and insistent only on his humane temperament. He cared to be a human being before a poet, and to be a poet before a professor.”  He could nevertheless be controversial in his literary criticism, even – as one reader put it – “tetchy”.

 These are qualities evident at times in his Selected Essays (1997).  In a long, rich but entangled review of that volume, Jean-Philippe Wade judged that Watson could be both pretentious and naive, and was desperately locked in self-contradictory philosophical tussles about the relationship between aesthetics and politics, between beauty and activism.  An aspect which Wade touched on only briefly – though it seems to me central to the issue – was Watson’s conception of the natural world. No one else has made much of this either, as far as I know, apart from a brilliant essay by Hedley Twidle. and one on Watson’s Romanticism by Dirk Klopper. Yet “the presence of the earth” – the title of Watson’s best-known volume – pervades his extensive output of poetry. Indeed, that output is ripe for a more thorough and comprehensive reassessment.

 I was initially interested in Watson’s poetic versions, in the collection Return of the Moon (1991), of /Xam Bushman testimonies drawn from the famous Bleek-Lloyd Archive. I was intrigued by the efforts of several poets, including Jack Cope, Antjie Krog and Alan James, to ‘poeticize’ those records, and by the depictions of the natural world. As for Watson’s original poetry, I find it often beautiful, though rather languid for my taste. Typically, long lines loop back and forth through overlapping repetitions and sometimes misty pronouncements. It’s also typically more than a little embittered, even nihilistic. In a curiously diffident review of In This City, an explicitly Cape Town-centred collection, Peter Wilhelm professes a twitchy reluctance to label the poetry “bleak”, as if the beloved poet might feel insulted. In fact, there’s no escaping it.

It was also in relation to ‘Nature’ that I tackled Watson’s 1986 essay on Sydney Clouts, while working up my own study of that slightly earlier Cape Town poet. Watson – going through an early phase of leftist political advocacy that he later modified – accused Clouts of being a self-absorbed displaced Romantic shielding himself from the harsh political realities of apartheid. This was an accusation often levelled at Eurocentric bourgeois poets, not without reason, though I argued that Watson, for all his intelligence, sensitivity and vast reading, had got this one all wrong.

 Watson’s critique of Clouts was all the more mystifying since his own poetry, as well as his later A Writer’s Diary (1997), seemed to express some strong similarities. Over many years, Watson would head out of town to sequester himself in the Cedarberg, north of Cape Town.  He celebrated the experience of desert solitudes, walking endlessly in those spectacularly scoured massifs and closely observing the natural world around him – much as Clouts did around Table Mountain. Like Clouts, he lamented the marginalisation of the natural by the urban and the commercial, and found in the hills the closest to spirituality he could manage in a tawdry, polluted, politically violent and secularised world. But there seemed to be a near-despairing, obsessively analytical, even cynical streak in Watson that couldn’t settle on any easy escapism. Take this stanza from the poem “Cedars”:

             That skyline of fired cedars, abstract against the light

that inks their splints against the dusk’s abstracted skin –

how many times, dead-eyed, they’ve suffered it at this hour:

the sky a tissue drained, leached for the star-pouring dark,

the skyline at a standstill, its sag formalized in black,

these cedars freezing in the horizon’s inch of formalin –

while feeling their flesh freeze over, grow abstract as bark,

their gaze weighted by the earth, weighted by a wordlessness.

Listen to the accumulation of words of stuck-ness and enervation: fired, splints, dead-eyed, suffered, drained, leached, standstill, sag, freezing, formalin, weighted. Though there are hints of beauty, and hints of life in personifying the trees, they are overwhelmed by the poet’s feeling of being “abstracted”, “abstract”, anaesthetised and weighed down by his own inarticulacy. It’s a grim way of seeing one’s relation to poetry and the world – and an ironically wordy manner of asserting either the trees’ or one’s own “wordlessness”.

 I’ve quoted the version published in the magazine Upstream in 1985. When it reappeared in his Selected Poems, The Other City, fifteen years later, it was re-titled “Nature morte” – nature dead – and he has recognised the unconvincing bathos of personifying the cedars: now it is he who suffers, his flesh freezing, his gaze that is weighted. A more honest version, but still in the third person, still a bit removed from the confessional “I”. 

 “Nature morte” was included in a justly admired clutch of poems named “A Kromrivier Sequence”. Kromrivier is the sector of the Cedarberg that Watson most frequented, and the locale for a 1996 series of ruminations published in A Writer’s Diary. If there was something a bit portentous in publishing one’s “selected essays” at the age of only 45 – he was still a “young fogey”, in Wade’s phrase – so there is too in airing one’s somewhat oracular diary observations on sundry subjects. That said (we academics are often prone to such parading), there is much in A Writer’s Diary to provoke and intrigue. I’ll select just some pronouncements concerning ‘Nature’ (the scare quotes are obligatory these days, alerting us to the human-constructed quality of the notion of a ‘Nature’ somehow separate from ourselves).

 “[A] retreat to the natural world is also a return”, Watson writes on 9 May 1996. A return to what? A pre-industrial way of life? That would usually be labelled “pastoral”, common enough in mediaeval and Romantic periods, but much more fraught, if not impossible, in the globalised post-colony. Still, as Watson notes, 

the idea of pastoral has persisted, however attenuated or ironically inflected, if only because it is based on a constellation of human needs that can never be eradicated from the psyche ... At its best, pastoral is in fact a critique, even a form of rebellion against the human condition as such (74).

 As such? Meaning ... an existential condition? Certainly pastoral can be wielded more narrowly – more politically – as a critique of poisonous modern industrial urbanisation and chemical-dependent farming. Among other English Romantics, Wordsworth enacted exactly such objections two centuries ago at the onset of the Industrial Revolution by glorifying the Lake District, its wild natures and its organic farming. This is an ever more urgent ideal: James Rebanks is re-instating it in practice today, as he relates in The Shepherd’s Life (2019). The Cedarberg is a far less salubrious environment than Rebanks’ green Lake District, as Watson depicts it:


In the Cedarberg, at this time of year, the bush and grasses stick to the valley floor like salt and hair to a side of raw meat, curing it, darkening it. There is no soil to soften the earth. Here it is all sand, littered shale, ironstone, gravel pits ... cauterised by sun. (69)

 Yet there are also “oases”: a lone oak tree; a sheep fold; a water furrow.  “In such landscapes one of the more elemental human dramas is writ large, vividly. One discerns the actual drama whereby culture is wrested from nature.”  It’s not a matter of human culture escaping from, or civilising itself out of nature; rather: “Almost nothing seems so authentic as that which still carries in itself some traces of the non-human realm from which it has been wrested” (77). So Watson’s search seems in part for whatever it is that might count as “authentic” and elemental, and he was attracted to this bony, scratchy landscape to find it.

 Implicit here is the feeling that Watson – and many of us – have lost touch with such elementals, whether one is an impoverished township-dweller or a pampered, bookish bourgeois. Not an uncommon thought, though Watson seems compelled to view it through multiple lenses of irony and self-doubt. The ultimate consequence of such divorce and distraction from the primordial realities of life-in-an-environment is a comprehensive trashing of the planet by industrialised commerce. Even in the Cedarberg, the effects of global warming and desertification were – 25 years ago – so evident that Watson considered the cedars themselves to be imperilled. He asks: “Why should this knowledge distress me so? It is hardly news. Yet no matter how often it comes to mind, I am left distraught, as if I’d just heard it for the first time”.

 I can so identify with that.  Indeed, we need a new term for “environmental or ecological grief”. Watson goes on:

 For millennia it is the earth that has been the beginning and end of humanity’s faith. Reverence for the earth and the fruitfulness (i.e. essential goodness) of the earth is religion, at least in its beginnings.

           Any violation of the planet thus introduces a profound disturbance into the very heart of that to which humanity has always turned in order to confirm its faith and verify its most essential hope. To eliminate a species or overrun one more area of wilderness is to jeopardise the very possibility of hope itself. This is why we are inclined to experience any injury to the environment as a form of metaphysical mutilation as well. The destruction of the natural world, eroding as it does that capacity for hope that defines humanity, also undermines the very concept of humanity itself. (103)

 Again, hardly innovative thoughts, but ever worth hammering home. Oil-rich moguls, rightwing politicians, and crime-lord traffickers in pangolins are unlikely to include themselves in that “we”, though; and too many millions do not or cannot in practice give a shit about such an idealised “humanity”. Yet for Watson, for all his drift towards the cerebral, the problem was not abstract: it was daily evident in what he saw in his native Cape Town, its appalling underbelly of physical detritus and consequent damage to human inhabitants. This informs poem after poem, exemplified by “After Reading The End of Nature”. (The End of Nature is a prophetic book by activist Bill McKibben, who is also still shouting the odds 30 years on, to little visible effect even as his prognostications prove grimly correct). The poem lingers over the effects of a welcome advent of rain after a dry spell (written long before last year’s water crisis), how it washes at the complex, compacted “filth” in the city’s gutters. Sure, it refills the aquifers and dams:

             But to know what’s known by now: that even if a rain should

fall, its lines self-cleansing, drawn through their own downpour,

this earth, its air machined and re-machined, can only grow

more heat-choked, orphaned in its sack of poisoned gases;

to know that this year, or the next, will only issue in

more heat, more pollution – and more pollution in that heat;

to know that time itself can only bring a rain acidified,

falling without the wateriness of water when it’s pure,

without that absolution that is in water, only when it’s pure...

 Can anything be clearer now: that we need civilisations and technologies that are “self-cleansing”. Anything short of that – as both poets and scientists constantly insist – is ultimately grief and suicide in a toxic stew of our own creation.




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Friday, 25 September 2020

No 108 - The dark surrealism of Phyllis Haring's poetry


Haring and (?) husband [MyHeritage]
No doubt there are thousands of minor poets who flare briefly in the darkness and are gone – some of them perhaps deservedly so. Every so often you find a worthy whose ember is barely alive, but you have a chance to blow a little life back in.

I just rediscovered a little volume called A Taste of Salt, by one Phyllis Haring. In a life that lasted nearly a century (1919-2016), she published just 50 poems, 22 of them in A Taste of Salt. But what poems! She is dark, death-obsessed, fractured – but also unflinching, musical, a startling surrealist. She drew on dreams and myths and fairy-story motifs, carrying on fragmentary conversations which are both overheard voices around her and aspects of her own psyche.

Haring was born and died in Johannesburg, and lived there most of her life, except for a brief period in London in the 1950s. As she described it in a letter to Jack Cope, who edited A Taste of Salt, she was a tearaway youth, a “love-addict”, who “married too young, divorced too soon – wanted 6 children and had one.” That one, a son, died young, spinning her into depression and therapy, not for the first time. Yet for decades she also ran a swimming school.

There’s a slippery relationship between the poetic techniques of Surrealism and psychic disturbance. Surrealism – think of paintings by Max Ernst or Salvador Dali – challenged the norms of realism, logic, coherence itself, trying to represent the unfathomable leaps and juxtapositions of dream-thought. Early Surrealists like founder André Breton espoused a kind of automatic writing, writing by pure instinct, with almost religious fervour. Dissenters like Georges Bataille were tougher, materialist, even excremental. The established narratives of religion, politics and nation went out the window. Life had no direction, no goal, no predictable outcome, quite possibly no discernible meaning at all. In short, if you are bordering on mad or just rebellious, Surrealism is ideal.

Phyllis Haring tackled her own disturbances, mostly indirectly through scenes that hint at underlying narratives or parable-like promise, but end with no didactic wisdom. In one unpublished poem, “Found Lunatic”, she represented mental trouble more directly:

             Now that the room

Is mysteriously full of flowers

And your hands are colder by far

Than last winter’s winter,

You don’t need to pretend any longer.

You can get up and go out.

... I’ll just stay quietly here

And try to collect myself.


... I must have been walking worriedly

Towards that sudden second all my life,

Watching myself in shop-windows, admiring myself ...




... And I remember childhood,

The long lane at evening, acorns popping underfoot,

Swimming in summer and small boys in trees.

At seventeen there was no-one to talk to ...



And now that the room is so mysterious

This policeman won’t believe a word I say –

You tell him, darling.

 A cacophony of voices, heading nowhere. Mostly she depicts ordinary life as superficial and programmed, false, mere performance in the shadow of inevitable death. In the 1970s she explained to Cope: 

I now love and admire animals & birds more than people, children more than adults, am still anti-fascist, and am also anti women’s lib. For me the natural world is far more important than the political or religious, or anything, since it encloses us all. If I have a faith at all, it must be more or less the same faith a tree has, & wish I had the same acceptance of the ills of the world. When it is time to die, I will console myself with the thought that in any case in my life time there is no understanding, pity or love between people and things. So, call me a crank!

 Surreal and dark features were evident already in Haring’s very first formally published poem, “The tunnel”. 

Life, and the passage of time,

The days and the nights converging,

And the long tunnel of time. Tell me,

Where are you going, what waits there?

Who dies in the dark there, who dies?

There’s nothing in it for us at all,

Unless you can say to me, “I am going

Here and there, to do this and that,

And I have an appointment with my lover!”




Like this, with only the scream of wires

And the personal idea of a station somewhere,

The silence presses too hard on the head

And heart, and some of us are quietly

Sick on the side. It’s not necessary;

We’re all here, look around, say something!

For God’s sake lift your hat!

See how it feels, getting together,

Getting the low-down on what it all means.

And stop pushing.

 Here is the deceptive simplicity, the unflinching questioning, the mushy hysterics of not-quite-inner voices in conversational drama. Society’s trivial gestures, endured rather than enjoyed, performed rather than valued, hint at a terrible emptiness behind – the pressure of silence. The governing existential questions are repeated in another early poem  titled “Who”. The final stanza is shockingly bold: 

What am I but only a particular

Particle of dust, of nothing but blood and bone

Beseeching, searching, wandering forever

Along the delicate snail’s trail your spirit leaves

In passages and doorways, in halls and auditoriums,

And in books and theatre programmes, in love

With whomever has lips to meet one. ... You stare

Solemnly with the eyes of anyone, you speak to me

With the voice of strangers, calling me onward. ...

To what end? What destination? What new death? 

 As with other poems, the second-person addressee may or may not be an actual or notional outsider, may be a reflection of herself – or both. Is it mere wandering, or a search? If so, for what? Repeatedly, it appears to be for a god whose “name and address” she does not know, for a resurrection, or just for an affirmation that she “too, could be holy”. All putative goals prove elusive or delusory. Even “reality” appears almost mystically friable, if not threatening. As she puts it in “Iscariot”: 

But my hands clasp the heavy shadow

Of a faint reality, in the huger shadow of the world –

Therefore I send myself along regretful avenues,

Towards houses with secretive numbers, relentlessly [...]

 A surreal search for “tantalising fruit” again ends in a question, as if from an already-emptied afterlife: “Will the flown soul/ Return from distant orchards to inhabit me?”  In the poem “The Search”, a narrative is more evident: the speaker is searching for a brother “among markets/ And harbours, among old men and sailors”. I am reminded of Khalil Gibran, with his gently sonorous Biblical prosody, a setting simple as that of a mediaeval allegory, and a figure of a lost pilgrim. But this pilgrimage, if it is that, has already begun unpromisingly: 

The earth asks, and receives rain, the benediction

Of rain and of sun, and the population of seeds.

But the worm inhabits the earth, and multiplies itself

And makes merry in the blind earth above which

The birds suspend themselves, aware of the end. 

People live on, “with talking/ And laughter, surrounded by dogs and by children”, but they are subject to forces far greater than themselves, and the poem, circling back to the imagery of its opening, turns apocalyptic: 

[...] the earth presses upward against their feet

So that they remain upright: but elsewhere

The earth opens and engulfs a city, and perhaps

My brother is hastening towards that city.


– While I, as I lie on my comfortable bed, as the blood

Courses through my hands and my feet, as the blood

Courses over streets and over flagstones, up to the doors

Of houses and cathedrals, over the altars

Of the new religions, over the world, I thrust my thought

Deep into the earth, watching the worm with my mind’s eye:

The worm which devours itself with the beak of a dead bird.

 This is highly self-conscious myth-making by a ‘self’ querying itself through its own imaginings. Is the search really for a way of living in the world which does not feel (as depicted in the poem “Poker-face”) as trivial and depersonalised as being dealt out like cards at a cheap game – or, worse, dealing oneself out like cards? It may be that any authentic being-in-the-world is a fantasy; so she projects it in the poem of that title: 

There are times when the skin,

Where it joins down the middle of my back,

Splits open and lets me out –

And I move quietly among you,

Touching the colour of your eyes

And holding your voice in my hands

Like the light notes of piano

Or the soft sounds chrysanthemums make

When being beheaded in gardens. (“Fantasy”)

 The speaker tries to compensate for that macabre note by encouraging her faceless hearers, “Don’t be afraid”; but as in many poems these ‘conversations’, one suspects, are between aspects of herself; behind this slightly disturbing, insect-like escape from her own “bag of bones” lie opposing fears both of being socially present and of being alone.

 Beneath the surface of apparent fantasy, common emotional truths spark. As R D Laing famously suggested, this “schizoid” quality inhabits all of us, as we balance private self-conceptions with acceptable social masks. In Haring’s case, though, this state of internal fracture can appear positively self-destructive – nowhere more so than in “Attack”, which reads in full: 

I’ll set my anger loose upon you

Like a warm, red beast

To beat your head in

With its hoofs of music;

To gore your breast repeatedly

With sharp, distracted horns

Hidden in honey,

As for a sacrifice. 

That’s an extraordinarily compact poem, its animal-human conjunction redolent of Greek myth. It is ambivalent about the nature of this sacrifice, if it is one. The language is tensed between “warm” and “sharp”, “set” and “distracted”, the double entendre of “beat”, the grotesque deception of “Hidden in honey”. Yet these antitheses are held together by a robust and careful musicality: the internal echoes of “loose” and “hoofs”, of “beast”, “beat” and “breast”, of “gored [...] horns/ Hidden in honey”. It is a fundamentally mysterious yet forbiddingly powerful drama.

 The poems often express such feelings of entrapment (I hesitate to say ‘Haring’, because I don’t think you can unproblematically ‘psychoanalyze’ a writer through their poems; they are fictions, after all, no more so than in this work). No feeling of entrapment is more unsettling than the recognition that, as the cliché would have it, we are born to die. Extinction is implicit in the seed, and therefore haunts even the fruit that is relished in the living interim. The ambivalence is encapsulated in one surreal poem’s very title, “The sun imprisoned”, which reads in full: 

The sun,

Imprisoned in the profound, close house of the apple,

Astringently contained in quinces, caught

For a season in the polished shell of a walnut,

The sun has gone away for Christmas.

Here’s the moon, and carnivals of crossed stars,

All heaven is festooned everywhere with brave lights

   But the dark leans over everything.

The dark ...

And yet, behold the god returning,

The sun enormously an orange in his hand. 

“Astringently contained in quinces, caught [...]”: such a great line! The governing antithesis is ironically counterpointed by the assonance-alliteration of astringently and quinces. The word caught at the end of the line is carefully balanced with Imprisoned at the beginning of the previous line, as well as half-rhyming with walnut in the next. Haring can be as gifted as Yeats in this kind of control, even as emotion spills into broken lines with the advent of “the dark”. Fruitful day returns, powerful as a god, but it is already devilled by darkness. 

So many poems cry out for quotation, but I’ll stop with one of her most-anthologised. In “Foetus”, the poet imagines herself in the space of the womb – an inland sea, as it were, where “bones form themselves quietly,/ Turned on a lathe of tide,” and in which a “disconsolate” and “opaque dreaming” prevails: 

There is slime everywhere,

There are fishes, and powerful anemones,

And an army of snails softly advancing ...


Spread themselves on my face and on my neck, like fungi,

And my skin crawls, my hands clutch and clasp

The warm temperature of the water.


My head leans on the water, sad as a bell,

Surrounded with silence, with heaviness ...

Therefore my arms cross my heart

And with humility I hope to die. 

Phyllis Haring was indeed humble, publishing nothing in the last two decades of her life, dropped from anthologies of South African poetry and never reprinted. But in my view her voice is an unusually powerful and individual one, strangely beautiful in its very gloominess – well worth re-reading.


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