We sat on the deck of my then home in Annandale at dusk with a glass of wine, tossing around ideas about writing and ecology amid the raucous din of cicadas. A storm was brewing, lightning flickering along the horizon. You mention again your sense that over the past 25 years or so the land has been retreating from us, saying its goodbyes, and how we often fail to acknowledge the irrevocable losses we, and other species, endure day-by-day.
I feel a familiar surge of panic, that childhood terror in which all that I hold dear is receding into the distance, and talk of how, even now, I garden to draw the plant world close to me, protecting myself from the anguish of loved ones waving a final goodbye.
There’s a lull in the cicada chorus and we hear the thunder rumbling, the drone of distant traffic and surrounding us the fragrance of orange blossom, the comforting rustle and shadow-play of leaves, the sleepy murmur of my hens preparing to roost.
How to write well from this place of deceptive shelter, indeed how to write at all, how to acknowledge the interrelatedness of all life forms, the ways in which writing spreads out beyond the page without centre or edge, a fragile, impermanent entity. Is this sense of the land withdrawing from us inevitably matched by some withdrawal within ourselves, some loss to writing? For we too are fragile and dependent, coexisting, sharing our DNA with numerous others, even these noisy cicadas that are part of us as we are part of them. Must loss of complexity within ecosystems be matched by a diminishment in our imaginations, I wonder?
You speak of the need for attention, of listening, attempting to feel and respond to the touch of meanings around us. And so, slowly day-by-day, since that conversation I’ve been trying to recognise meaning in the cicada songs, to catch the emergence of tiny fragrances on the wind, respond to the touch of leaves, the texture of paper.
That’s how, for me, the real question has become: how might we think about thinking and feeling without “I think”, “I feel”, dominating. It seems to me that now, more than ever, when we humans have wantonly found the means and justification to run amok, we need to reassess the process of thinking and imagining, investigate new ways to grapple with the apparent ontological distance between the human and our so-called “others” which have until recently been largely relegated to the sidelines of human attention. What might it mean for human and more-than-human alike if we were to become attentive to the space in which the earth and human psyche fold together and call each other into existence?
But where to begin? How, in this time of ecological degradation, to recover an identity of mind and world – in the ontological sense of their “belonging together”, how to move beyond object-knowledge in the Cartesian sense and attain an expressivity in writing that remains dynamically aware that the earth is its ground, point of origin and meaning?
One of the writer’s tasks must be to reclaim the self, to restore the ecological interior world as both a capacity to feel and an ability to discuss that capacity in all its complexity and subtlety. But, as you wrote after that evening, now more than ever, it is crucial to “listen to what is other than human and how it is speaking to us … that the act of attention between self and environment is intertwined and interdependent and completely mutual” (Harrison 2013, 11).
To secure a consciousness that is no longer conceived of as an internal realm of meaning, but the life-world that surrounds and sustains us, we need, Robert Romanyshyn argues, to imagine the psychological as “neither a thing nor a thought, neither empirical fact nor mental reality, but a way of seeing which opens up a world that matters and must be understood” (Romanyshyn 2003, 200). We then become engaged in a process of realising nascent possibilities for seeing the world anew. This is not to say, however, that the life-world of mind and nature will give itself over to us all at once, will ever become fully transparent to us. We are faced with having to recognise the obscurity of others as inherent to the process of a human coming-to-consciousness, a consciousness that at the same time can only be called into being by the other. Yet it is only through this reciprocal disclosure / concealment that we become, as Brent Dean Robbins writes, “ethically responsive to our obligations to the observed”. He continues, “When we allow ourselves to be claimed by phenomena, we open ourselves to feel our relational obligation to them. In other words, we become morally engaged with them.” (Robbins 2005, 113-26).
Those strident cicadas still linger in my mind; their thrumming interrupts my dreams at unexpected moments. I try to imagine new ways to live harmoniously with them, to be open to their lives and maintain a sustained attentiveness. Learn to explore ways of positioning my writing outside the discursive self, of developing a literary form in which it is not only humans who speak. Learning, as Robert Bly wrote, to follow “tiny impulses through the meadow of language” (Bly 1993, 135-36).
It requires, I believe, a reassessment of lyric writing with its emphasis on first-person narration. From Aristotle’s Poetics, through to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and Wordworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, lyric has been proclaimed as not merely an expression of personal impulses and experiences but as representative of universal human attributes. This is achieved through the “I” in the writing addressing a “you” where the “you” is almost always another human. Lyric writing from this perspective is a sort of conversation and like all good conversations it stimulates and enriches us, but today we need more inclusive conversations, conversations that touch not only on the depths of the human and the human relationship to the universe but that listen to those others with whom we share and partake of the mystery of living.
I remember how when we moved inside to escape the darkness and the storm sweeping in, the cicadas all drew breath simultaneously and in that second of silence the thunder smashed overhead. You laughingly quoted your poem “Bronzewings with Lightning”: “the cicadas start up again their wave-banks of sound, like one enormous drawn-out breath, one after the other lapping, overlapping, linking, one with another. And right in the middle of the aquamarine sky-clearing which the rain burst had made, a one-off final reminder: overhead, a last thud, a last clatter tumbling out of empty, clarified blueness as if someone larking around, laughing, inside a timber house knocks a chair over on to the wooden floor with a cracking sound we can hear from outside. Yes, like a grenade exploding, a single thunder burst smacks the sky.”
I realise in a flash, yet again, how you wrested poetry from the simplest things in life, creating those deeply felt translucent moments at the same time as you engaged conceptually with how we perceive and understand the world. Of your awareness of how fine gradations of perception can change our experience of landscape – and indeed of poetry itself – and of how despite this deepened awareness there remain spaces of separation.
It was dark by the time I arrived home from your funeral and as always, in times of distress I turned for solace to the Classics. It was too early in the season for cicadas to be singing but serendipitously I unearthed Plato’s Phaedrus and read of Socrates and Phaedrus strolling outside the city, engaged in a passionate discussion about love, rhetoric and conversation. Socrates comments on the cicadas’ serenade in the trees overhead. The cicadas, while singing and conversing among themselves are also listening to us, he insists. We must keep up a lively discussion so they will grant us a reward. Intrigued, Phaedrus asks what he meant.
Socrates answers with a story of how cicadas were once humans who lived before the time of the Muses. When the Muses came into the world some of these people were so enchanted by music that they sang and sang forgetting their bodily selves, forgetting to eat and drink and consequently they died. So the Muses transformed these humans into cicadas, into a life of endless singing without bodily needs. Listening to their siren song with a lazy mind, Socrates informs Phaedrus, can rob you of your ability to think. But if the cicadas hear us conversing on the theme of love they will report favourably to the Muses and we may be rewarded with the gift of original song, the song that leads the soul home to beauty.
Of course there’s a punch line to the story. The catch for these cicadas was that they were reduced to mere messengers who conveyed to the Muses how humans created poetry and philosophy, while they themselves were unable to do so. Today we might interpret Socrates as warning us against writing that focuses on the human, that implies human exceptionalism and ignores our entangled intimacy with strange others. That believes the cicadas’ song is meaningless noise rather than a complex array of clicks and chirps that communicate levels of desire.
Sitting at my desk in late October, attempting to write while looking out on my new garden in the Blue Mountains I recall this story as I watch the progress of today’s host of newly emerged cicadas. Overnight thousands have struggled out of dank caverns underground, discarded their shells and spread wings like negligees, intent on sex and singing and certain death. Having waited for years, it seems there is no time to reconsider, no time for caution.
I watch them climb and climb in the trees getting as close as possible to the sun in the hope, I imagine, that it will remove the memory of groping underground for years. They cluster in groups, to soar in brief astonished glory as if the thought of having been singular in the dark for so long is unbearable.
I wonder about Socrates’ cicadas. Did they remember being human; did they remember dying or were they so caught up in singing they were oblivious of their own death? With no recollection of their human life, no sense of having been consumed by darkness they would be as empty of memories as the shells these living cicadas have so thoughtlessly abandoned.
But perhaps their transformation wasn’t an instant leap from one life into another; perhaps it was a slow mutation, a matter of modulation, transposing human song into a cicada chorus. Singing in an attempt to rediscover kinship, to fold themselves back into the sensuous spell of their human memories, to reject the withered days and reconnect with the tenderness of their original genesis.
For cicadas resemble us in many ways. We share the mystery of intimate beginnings and, much like the cicada nymphs, as infants spend our time drinking and sleeping. Tied by umbilical cords to tree roots, wrapped in a protective layer of soil, their forms like ours are molded by the liquid coursing through them. How can we say where one body ends and another begins? They attach their mouths to tree roots, fashioning a tiny sluice gate through which sap flows. Their bodies create a miniature floodplain, a diversion in the flow of sap from root to foliage. The pressure that draws water and nutrients up towards the leaves is strong enough that the nymphs hardly need to exert themselves. They just hang on while rich nutrients flow through them and are excreted as honeydew into the soil. The sap of life flows through the floodplain of their dreaming bodies forming a conduit from root to earth, sweetening the soil.
Who knows what calls them to climb towards the light? Who knows what inspires them to seek out the sun-dried air? I like to think their song is an escape from the sting of loneliness and disintegration, that if we listen attentively we will realise that their thrumming creates a kind of refuge filled with safety and splendour, that they are archaic storytellers who know much and remember so well that they can perfectly articulate this old, mysterious, wondrous world.
I’ve been keeping an eye on a solitary cicada chirping tentatively in the cherry tree outside the window but in the short time when I went to make a cup of tea it has vanished. Has it, I wonder, fallen prey to a wasp known as Exeius lateritus that I’ve been reading about with mixed feelings – trying yet again to come to terms with the many difficult aspects of entangled lives? The female wasp I’ve learnt searches out a particular cicada singing in the tree. She stings it until it is paralyzed but not killed. Then she carries the cicada to a burrow where she will lay her eggs on it. When the wasp larvae hatch they will gradually devour the cicada, keeping it alive as long as possible.
For a brief moment this cicada flew like a dream into the soft, sweet wind then left the forgetful world behind. Was returning to the earth your last wild leap of love? Now deprived of the company of other cicadas, buried in darkness, do you perhaps imagine yourself repeating your earlier life, succumbing to a trance in which you are dismantled bit by bit to become dust. Or perhaps you too have a story to tell in which somewhere deep enough to be cool and moist new life is waiting for a moment in the sun to sing its heart out. A life that acknowledges there is more beauty than our songs can express, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honour them is to do great harm. A life that understands Socrates’ belief that if we stay within our proper human limits there is still the hope that we may be rewarded with a world that shines with transfiguration.
Bly, Robert, ed. The Darkness Around us is Deep: Selected Poems of William Stafford. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.
Harrison, Martin. “The Act of Writing and the Act of Attention”. TEXT, Special Edition 20, Writing Creates Ecology, Ecology Creates Writing (October, 2013), http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue20/Harrison.pdf (accessed 15 September 2015)
Romanyshyn, Robert. Technology as Symptom and Dream. London: Taylor and Francis, 2003.
Robbins, Brent Dean. “New Organs of Perception: Goethean Science as a Cultural Therapeutics,” Janus Head 8, 1 (2005): 113-26.
I am an independent scholar writing on ecopoetics, literature and ecology, and gardening. I first met Martin in 1999 when I was tutoring at University of Technology Sydney. Later he supervised me when I undertook a second PhD. We were also founding members of the Kangaloon creative ecologies group and presented at conferences together, read at literary events, and enjoyed many meals and glasses of wine and discussion together.