WRITING NATURE IN THE ACTIVE VOICE
This piece of creative writing is a tribute to ecophilosopher Val Plumwood, whose estate I visited in March 2018, in the company of fellow multispecies ethnographers Eben Kirksey, Zoe Coombe, Cameron MacLean, and Elizabeth Lara. The piece attempts to put into practice what Plumwood calls “writing nature in the active voice,” and which she describes as:
“a project of re-animating the world, and remaking ourselves as well, so as to become multiply enriched but consequently constrained members of an ecological community. Opportunities for re-animating matter include making room for seeing much of what has been presented as meaningless accident actually as creative non-human agency. In re-animating, we become open to hearing sound as voice, seeing movement as action, adaptation as intelligence and dialogue, coincidence and chaos as the creativity of matter. The difference here is intentionality, the ability to use an intentional vocabulary. Above all, it is permission to depict nature in the active voice, the domain of agency.”
Plumwood, Val. 2009. “Nature in the Active Voice,” Australian Humanities Review 46, 125 – 126.
First, I look for a place to sit. The inviting, mossy rock, perhaps? Or the sinewy fallen fern trunk? I wonder where I will cause the least disturbance to my surrounds. I look for a place (not) of one’s own in the forest. Soon, these thoughts are replaced by others – do I make any difference to them? The rock? The moss? The ferns? The leeches? Finally, the moss rock draws me to its downy surface. As I sit down, my eyes are drawn to the sky above. I smile. Lulled by the river’s liquid lullaby, I feel myself become affectively enlisted by this place. I will look around, but first I will look up. Leaves and branches break the sky into shards of light and hues and texture along their filigreed contours. Transparency and translucence flirt with shade and shadow. The wind, too, joins in the frolic of leaf and light.
A glue-like fragrance suffuses the air. The plumwoods are perspiring. Their sweet-pungent breath wafts across the forest, mingling with the water gurgling, the insects buzzing, the birds whistling, the hummus sweating. Smells and sounds interlace with the furriness of lichens, the hardness of rocks, the softness of rotting branches, the sharp bite of the cold meandering stream. “Stinkwood,” they called us. The only stench around is my perfume. Eau d’Issey. It obstructs the living odyssey of storied selves and species around me.
The sun’s rays caress the forest, and surfaces glimmer and fade in its moving path of light. One by one, the forest reveals its colors. The cool green of the budding fern in circinate vernation. The wet browns of mangled branches. The sudden flash of red of a scrambling spider. The ivory-white of the Plumwood petal. Some surfaces give in, while others don’t. The rock in its satiny garments of moss, crowned with their delicate tiaras of water droplets. The river, speckled with water-gliders and floating leaves. Again, the light lures me to the changing textures of the forest. Cracks and fissures in the furrowed limbs of trees reveal themselves. The playful rays cast dents and grooves in the rocks into haut-relief. A spider web-of-life shimmers in unexpected suddenness. Patches of lichen embracing rock and root pulsate in green and brown. The light foregrounds other colors as it travels. The bright neon pink plastic ribbon laced around the branch in front glares at me. This pinkness intrudes, somehow. And yet I need it to find my way back. It is here because I am here.
Plantlives reach up, always higher, always further. Lovers of the sun, they rise in slow, imperceptible growth-as-movement. Some compete in their ascents, while others find anchorage in the living limbs of others. Empty patches where sunlight falls lie waiting to be found, filled, and rendered fertile. At the same time, plantlife descends. A network of tentacular roots proliferate below. Not deep, but deep enough. Leaves waltz down capriciously, their fall interrupted by a protruding branch or spiderweb. Plantlife is also hanging, suspended life. Moist lichen dangles from the branches. Fern fronds droop to the ground. Leaves find themselves caught among other vegetal limbs. Particular matter hovers in mid-air, or on the surface of the water. Hanging out in the forest, I become aware of all manner of hangings. Each organism toys with suspension, movement, and stasis in its growth and movement.
The forest is a world of limbs. Gnarled, sinewy, splitting, rejoining, interweaving limbs. Vegetal and insect limbs spread and search for light, water, and sustenance, while human limbs search for words. And then there is the porous, formless limb that is the body of water (oh, so truly) before me.
The forest is a scattering of life dispersed across elements, parts, life, and death. Vegetal lives and after-lives abound in mutual sustenance and fertile decay. The pulse of the forest makes me aware of my own breathing. I imagine the inhalations and exhalations of the vegetation and creatures around, above, and below me. A dispersed breath. The forest perspires sweet dew. Wetness rises from rotting vegetation. Invisible rhythms and growths animate this invisible gaseous ecology.
The stream multiplies its textures as it meanders down the creek. Placid in some parts, then stagnant, then gushing, it offers reflections of things hidden from sight. The translucent veils of moss hanging from branches above, for instance. I begin to look for patterns – in the structure of fern leaves, the direction in which trees have fallen, the pebbles that do or don’t get wet from the flowing stream. I see regularity but not without creativity or unconscious intentionality. Other-than-human mindfulness endows the forest with fleshy meaning as a realm teeming and teaming with life. Here, ontological choreography and improvisation go hand in hand.
A shower of Plumwood petals falls from the canopy, reminding me of the loving embrace of Plumwood and fern that Val described as a “marriage.” The petals celebrate this interspecies union, like confetti at a wedding. The embracing trees hold within them the promise of shared growth. At the same time, they remind me of compromise – of the interspecies negotiations, collaborations, and competitions required in relations of reciprocal capture. Their tightly interlaced limbs speak of entanglements and estrangements, capture and captivity.
Plants, insects, lichens, and elements shape themselves to their living environment. At the same time, they make themselves into environments for others. Hollowed out bark funnels water, water sustains yabbies and algae. Rocks invite ferns and moss to proliferate, trees provide safe shelter for birds. Possums and people makes themselves nourishing hosts for inquisitive leeches. Niches abound in the space of the forest – if I stay here long enough, one will be found for me too.
Survival – etymologically, it means “to outlive another; to live at the expense of another.” To sur-vive. Yet this space I am in speaks less of sur-vival than of co-vival. Might that not be a better way to think about living and letting live?
A spider continues to build its web over the flowing water. It has chosen the busiest part of the flow. Every few seconds, the precarious web is jolted by splashing droplets, shaken back and forth. But the spider continues to build, and build, and build. I wonder why – why build your home here, when life could be so much easier a few meters downstream, or upstream? I wonder. But why is too big and unhelpful a question. The how of the forest is already a world saturated with unknowns to me. Scribbling away, I notice the scribbles of an other on the leaves lying at my feet. The marks left behind by the voracious mandibles of many a busy caterpillar resemble a trail, a map of some unknown realm, leading to some unknown destination.
The forest is a world of memories. Vegetal witnesses of the past, form a community of growths, dismembered and re-membered over time.
As I write, I notice the shadow of a small spider cast across the page. Its legs scurry back and forth, up and down. I move my hand, it scuttles along. Where is it? How far? How close? I watch its moving shadow, its minuscule shape, the size of the scribbles along the page. I could be holding you. The spider hovers – backgrounded by an ink blotch on my finger. Write me. Write me in the active voice. My little companion in the shadow moves across the words on the paper. It is making an environment of me as it builds its web, itself a web of parts and processes, a prey and predator. I wonder – why do I revel in your company in this place, yet resent you in my home? I resist the urge to name you. I want to be curious about you, but all I have is your shadow. I want to slow down and care about this encounter. And then, suddenly, you are gone.
My attention shifts to the paper you made your presence known to me through. Its substance is the substance of trees long-since pulped and processed – vegetal relatives of the plants growing in abundance in this giving environment. The lines running across their bleached and smoothed flesh are straight like nothing else around me. I think of the history of logging that has made this space what it is today. The business of commodifying nature brings me to think about other kinds of busyness happening around me. The spider building its iridescent web. The ants crawling in the hummus. The water enfolding leaves and twigs, carrying them forward in its meandering travels downstream. The flowers gliding in the air – all embedded within the planetary busyness of moving orbs.
How does one write nature in the active voice without letting the script over-write/ride the alterity of other-than-human life? Should we describe, or de-scribe? How do we come to understand life through its living inscriptions on rock and water and bark? In this interspecies deciphering, how do we weave description with de-cryption?
A Plumwood petal settles on the wet soil. It will continue. All of this. It will continue and continue to change. As I get up to leave, I feel the urge to walk the opposite direction and follow the river that drops off below me. I want to stay in the wisdom of this place – unfathomable. I say thank you and goodbye. I am not sure to whom, or if I am heard. And maybe that does not matter. It will continue. And with you all, I know I was never alone.