Val Plumwood, The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon. Canberra: ANU Epress, 2012. ISBN:9781922144164 (print); 9781922144171 (online)
Val Plumwood (1939–2008) is a highly original and important postcolonial, ecocritical and feminist scholar, and activist. She writes with great clarity, heightening the drama of her philosophical investigations in wonderfully evocative descriptions of walking, camping and canoeing through places of astounding natural beauty. This attractive book, published by ANU E Press in electronic and print form, might have been more ambitious in collecting together more of Val Plumwood’s published papers but what we have in this volume is a fine introduction.
The book opens with three chapters recounting the author’s Northern Territory canoe and bushwalking expedition to the point where the East Alligator River surges out of the Stone Country of the Arnhem Land Plateau. This experience inspires such rich descriptions of place as:
The energy of that struggle [between the power of earth and sky], amorous perhaps as well as abrasive, between the sandstone sheet and the hot, hyperactive atmosphere, has ground the great stone plateau into strange, maze-like ruins, ever-new disclosures of the infinite variety of the earth narrative that is weathered stone. (9)
It also leads Plumwood to reflect on the value of such “wild” experiences when they are slowed down to a low-impact respectful sauntering:
The intense, intimate and physical bond of knowledge with the earth to be gained by walking opens up a form of conversation with the earth’s great body … through such a journey you come to encounter nature in many forms and in the active rather than the passive voice, and to know the land in the mode of a lover, as a wonderfully elaborated, beloved and communicating body. (31)
In experiencing this sense of place, however, Plumwood is also acutely conscious of the prior ownership and rights of the Traditional Owners. This leads to a sensitive ear for Binitj Language: Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent, whose “power over water cycles is majestic and creative” (9); for the seasons such as Yegge; and for bush tucker and medicines such as waagi or freshwater prawns. And Plumwood laments the colonial approach in so much of the Northern Territory’s mapping and place naming, seeing in these monological practices a “treatment of place itself as a vacuum of mind and meaning, to be filled through the power … of the colonial office” (27). For Plumwood this “deeply colonized naming practice disfigures too much of the Australian map” and it is “precisely such cultural practices we have to take on if we Australians are ever to truly belong culturally to this land” (27). Plumwood rightly argues that Indigenous people see place as “country” not “wilderness”: “For them all the earth is sacred and there is no necessary split between use and respect” (31).
The respectful and safe practice of outdoor education in northern Australia requires a very different risk analysis to that elsewhere, as Plumwood soon discovers during her ill-advised trip when she has a nearly fatal encounter with an estuarine crocodile. This experience leads Plumwood to a philosophical investigation into what it means for humans to be preyed upon, to the knowledge that consumption is a prerequisite for life and to a realization of just how damaging the human / nature dualism is in western culture. As Plumwood writes: “It is not a minor or inessential feature of our human existence that we are food: juicy, nourishing bodies” (10). The fact that we deny this is evidenced in the elimination from our lives of any animal that is disagreeable, inconvenient or dangerous to us despite the enormous ecological cost that this so often entails. This dominant human-centred ideology is also evidenced in our funerary practices that “set us apart from the animals and the rest of nature, made, unlike them, in the image of God” (14). The Indigenous animist concept of self and death is far more successful in breaking this ideology by understanding that life and death are about circulation; death is recycling. Plumwood argues that we are in desperate need of stories that confront this artificial human / nature dualism and reintegrate us with ecological literacy. Only then can we begin to “re-envisage ourselves as ecologically embodied beings akin to, rather than superior to, other animals” (16).
In the final four chapters of The Eye of the Crocodile Plumwood continues to deconstruct the prevailing human / nature dualism by developing the ideas of what it means to see humans as animals and all as part of nature, ecologically embodied. She writes a loving eulogy for a semi-domesticated wombat that came to her from the wildlife rescue service and that she shared her life with for a period of some thirteen years. She gives a profound reading of the film, Babe, contrasting the philosophical theories of ontological veganism and ecological animalism, highlighting the savagery of intensive factory farms and slaughterhouses as well as critiquing the various senses of anthropomorphism. The many ideas that Plumwood considers in this collection of essays reach their fullest development in the book’s final two chapters and especially in the essay titled, “Animals and ecology: Towards a better integration”. This is a very significant postcolonial critique of what Plumwood describes as “ontological veganism”.
Plumwood defines ontological veganism as a philosophical theory that sets human and non-human life forms apart. Because veganism insists that neither humans or animals should ever be seen as edible it confirms the treatment of humans as “outside nature” and therefore reinforces the old human / nature dualism. In the West Australian wheat belt, she also shows how the ecological costs associated with grain production are so high that eating a native low-impact grazing animal like a kangaroo can often carry a much lower animal and ecological impact than eating vegetarian grains.
But Plumwood also criticizes veganism for its cultural insensitivity to Indigenous cultures and for its highly ethnocentric stance that privileges urban Western contexts over all others. In developing this analysis Plumwood is critical of the North American philosopher Carol Adams as a leading exponent of these ideas. For Plumwood, Adams’ feminist-vegetarian ideas are undermined by a false gendered dualism that holds that in Indigenous societies women forage and gather plant material while men hunt and kill animals. As Plumwood shows this is not true; Indigenous women also hunt and kill many small and medium sized animals. But in all or most Indigenous societies food (animal and plant) is also kin. Plumwood shows how this tension is dealt with mythically, ritually and ceremonially.
Plumwood rejects ontological veganism (at least partly because it fails to acknowledge different cultures) preferring what she describes as ecological animalism, a system of ideas that situates human and animal life within an ethically and ecologically conceived universe. For Plumwood this philosophy would argue for a reduction in first world meat-eating and an ending to all factory farming because we need to disrupt the dominant human / nature dualism by resituating humans in ecological terms and reconceiving non-humans in ethical and cultural terms. For Plumwood ecological animalism and veganism both oppose the idea that humans and non-humans should be ontologised reductively as meat but only ecological animalism can combine the rejection of commoditisation with the framework of ecology and cultural diversity.
The Eye of the Crocodile is a wonderful read fusing so successfully a politically engaged autobiography with philosophical argument. As Plumwood shows: “Many thinking people have come to believe that there is something profoundly wrong in commodity culture’s relationship to living things” (77). The way out of this problem, argues Plumwood, is a desperate need for stories that confront the artificial human / nature dualism and reintegrate us with ecological literacy. Only then can we begin to “re-envisage ourselves as ecologically embodied beings akin to, rather than superior to, other animals” (16).
Phillip Hall is an essayist and poet working as an editor with Verity La’s “Emerging Indigenous Writers’ Project”. In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates, and responds to, Indigenous Culture in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria.