As part of my exploration into writing about place I talked to Pete Hay, known a ‘a trailblazer in the research and scholarship of environmental politics and policy in Australia and the founding convenor of the Ecopolitics Association of Australasia’, to get his views on this multi-faceted subject. Amid the din of Saturday morning breakfasters and boisterous children in a Battery Point coffee shop I recorded our conversation…
LR: I’ve been interested in the concept of writing about place. It seems that lately there is so much emphasis on this subject from many different quarters. As this is an area that you have so much experience of and expertise in, I’d like to get your thoughts on some aspects of the subject.
PH: ‘Place’ is very much the artistic and intellectual flavour of the month. I actually enjoyed it more when only a few of us around the world were even discussing it.
LR: A sort of elite society?
PH: I liked it a lot better when I thought I was out there in the wilderness plying my lonely trade, to mix a couple of metaphors, and now everyone’s discovered it and I don’t like it.
LR: You don’t like it? – so you wouldn’t think much of me creating a blog on writing about place, then?
PH: No-no, It is good. It’s good. It’s an idea whose time has come. It was always going to. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of need —it’s obviously not a first order of need, but it’s a second order need, I think. We have to come from somewhere. And as places are threatened with the obliteration that the global economy visits upon us, then what used to be latent, that is, that people are unselfconsciously embedded in place, is now not unselfconscious. Because place and homeness are now under sustained threat. And so it’s come to the front of the brain for people.
It was always going to happen. People were always going to discover place and an attachment to it. As Jeff Malpas notes, there are people who resist the place discourse. Well, that’s fine. But it’s not something that you can just take up and put down, anyway. We don’t have a choice. We are constructed by the places within which we live and move. We take our very identity from place. Of course, that can be a negative identity. Like all those Tasmanian kids – I was one of them once – who just had to piss off because they thought this the armpit of the universe. What was worthwhile, and where it was worth being, was always somewhere else.
But we learn to talk in a certain way, we learn to think in a certain way, in accordance with the background environment in which we move. And so we can’t be unplaced. We can be displaced in the sense that we feel out of whack with the place that we’re in, but we can’t be unplaced. It’s the background condition from which we take our self-understandings. And so when people talk about place as if it’s an add-on extra I think they are simply missing the utterly pivotal role that place plays in the construction of a unique identity, both an individual identity and a social identity.
LR: So when people say: this piece of writing has a strong sense of place, or this is writing about place, what do you think they are actually talking about?
PH: I think that what they are saying is this person has foregrounded place in their writing. Though, to take what I’ve just said to its logical extreme, all writing is place writing.
LR: Yes, that’s what I would have thought.
PH: You can make a choice to write about a fantasy world – a non-world, or virtual world – in which case you are probably making an implicit comment about the unengaging nature of the of the place in which you actually live. But writing that has a strong sense of place is writing where the writer explicitly foregrounds a grounded sensibility. It’s not something latent, it’s not something that just suffuses whatever they write whether they’re aware of it or not. The writer deliberately and self-consciously writes place into the narrative. The place becomes a character, up front.
But you can still have someone who’s never heard of the place discourse and they can produce writing with a strong sense of place, though without realising that that is what they are doing.
LR: So it goes across all genres? Even something like detective fiction?
PH: Absolutely. Detective fiction almost has to. I love detective fiction, though I do try to ration how much of it I read. Because detective fiction follows a strict formula, to badge your own particular detective fiction in a specific way there’s really only two ways you can go. One is to create a gob-smacker of a central character. Even then you are a bit hamstrung, because convention requires that the character, even if it’s a woman, be hard-bitten and cynical, and aspects of their life have to be a complete wreck.
LR: A noir effect?
PH: Yes, that goes with the genre. And the only other way to give your crime fiction an edge is to make a major plus out of the action’s locale. That ‘s why the crime fiction that has captured the global imagination right now is Scandinavian.
LR: Do you think that’s because of the popularity of the girl stories?
PH: Well, Larsson was such an international hit – and his work is just saturated with place. I can’t be too prescriptive here because I’ve actually only read the first of the Larsson trilogy, but I’ve read other Swedish crime fiction, and I’ve read Icelandic and Danish crime fiction. And place is a powerful, shaping presence in all this writing.
LR: So what about environmental writing? You see a lot of terms like ‘nature writing’, environmental writing’, ‘eco poetry’, ‘eco criticism’. These all seem to hang off ‘writing about place’. How do you see them relating to each other?
PH: You can have place-based writing that is thoroughly anti-environmental. There’s been a tendency to conflate place and nature writing, and Lopez may be responsible for this because he uses the terms ‘place’ and ‘nature’ as interchangeable. In his essay, ‘A Literature of Place’ he explicitly says that. But I think that you can have powerful place literature which thoroughly rejects any sort of environmentalist ethic at all.
LR: Such as writing set in the slums of New York, for example?
PH: Yes. Of course, the natural world intrudes into all landscapes, just as the cultural world intrudes into all natural landscapes. Many people want to get rid of the terms ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, but I think they are necessary as ideal types, and I certainly use them. But there’s no such thing as nature untouched by culture and there’s no such thing as culture untouched by nature. So you can imagine a landscape, an urban landscape, say, in which nature is thoroughly degraded though never entirely expunged, but you might want to write in a way that valorises that landscape. That would be place-informed writing, but it would implicitly cock a snook at environmental writing.
I wrote an essay in Vandemonian Essays about Queenstown. Queenstown has probably the most potent sense of place of anywhere in the whole of Tasmania, and its sense of place is constructed against an environmental ethic. So if you wanted to write Queenstown within a sense of place framework, you would presumably be writing anti-environmentalist writing. But it would be saturated with a sense of place.
So – I must qualify this – in practice all of these terms do sort of loosely hang together because a person with an interest in place is likely to be a person with an environmentalist consciousness. The terms do occupy more or less the same literary territory, and the people who are interested in one are likely to be interested in the other. But the point I’m trying to make is that there’s no necessary connection. They are conceptually distinct, and it is possible to have a place-based literature that is thoroughly non-, or even anti-environmentalist, or non-, or even anti- nature.
LR: What do you think is driving that current ‘flavour of the month’ interest in environmental writing?
PH: It is the biological impoverishment that is the main hallmark of the times in which we live. I forget the figure. I quote it in Main Currents. But something like one species every hour vanishes off the face of the planet. This is the sixth great age of extinction, and the major difference from its predecessors is that we know this, and we know why it is so. We could take the requisite action to stop it, but we choose not to. We know the cause of species extinction, and we know that the problem is us. It’s that simple fact: the most salient fact of the times in which we live is the biological impoverishment of the planet. That is the reason why ‘place and ‘nature’ are the literary flavours of the month.
And, again because they are conceptually distinct, whilst I personally regret that place has become flavour of the month, I’m intellectually pleased that it has. Selfishly I wish it hadn’t. But I’d never say that about literary preoccupations with nature and environmental problems. I think that’s fantastic – well and truly overdue and needed.
I’ll go further. Much ‘urban’ literature shuns the natural world. There’s a strong tendency within that ragbag of perspectives we loosely refer to as post-modernism to be hostile to environmentalism. On the basis that reality is a construction of the mind – so you can’t make claims that the world is under threat, that nature is under threat, because such claims are ‘essentialist’ and we have no right to make them. Now I think the notion that ‘reality’ exists only in the eye of the beholder is utter horseshit. I take the view that the postmodernist paradigm pretty much poisoned the humanities through the 80s and 90s. It is now, I’m pleased to say, in retreat. But it has worked to undermine the legitimate projects of nature writing and other forms of environmentally-focused writing.
LR: So it was almost a pejorative during that time, wasn’t it?
PH: Yes, but it didn’t so much work against the place discourse because ‘place’ was always thought to be personal and subjective. It wasn’t a term that bore the same sort of essentialist baggage that terms like ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ did.
LR: Do you think that in the North American tradition of nature writing that there was a lull, and it’s since resurged – or do you think that it’s been a continuing focus of their literature?
PH: I think it has been a continuing focus. There was a certain novelty value to the explosion of nature writing in the 80s. The novelty value vanished but I don’t think the concern vanished. Again, one of the things I get cynical about – pissed off and angry about – is that there are lots of people in the media and on the right of politics who say environmentalism has had its day, and is on the way out. Bullshit. When people say that, what they are actually doing is denying the reality of environmental crisis. The background assumption is that environmental crisis only exists in the cultural realm. And now, because the cultural commentariat has moved on to something else, there can be no environmental crisis. But there is an environmental crisis and extinctions are ongoing, and as long as this is so people are going to be concerned about them. Environmentalism will only have had its day when there is, out there in the real world of real living process, no environmental crisis.
Look – take the public opinion poll findings on which these sorts of claims are based. What they show is that there’s usually around 80 percent, give or take five percent or thereabouts, who are concerned about environmental degradation. And usually 80 percent, plus or minus 5 percent, are concerned about the state of the economy. Then these things are portrayed as existing in a zero-sum relationship – and that is clearly ludicrous. So when the economy goes to 85 per cent and the environment drops back to 75 per cent the media ideologues will say, Oh well look, environmentalism is dead. Finished. People are only concerned about their hip pocket. More bullshit. It’s just a shift in emphasis, and these shifts at the margins do happen, according to whatever’s blowing about on the economic winds. Whether we’ve got a credit squeeze. Or there’s been a crisis in the banks or something. But it’s of no lasting import – it’s just a minor shift in relativities that quickly corrects again. Concern for the environment is here to stay and will be here to stay until we stop wiping species out.
LR: And start having more equilibrium in our lives …
PH: That’s right. We need to be stop saying that we can do whatever we like to the fabric within which we live our lives. The idea that we can make over landscapes and we can pour crap into the rivers and we’ll all be okay because we’re the wonder species and we adjust – well that’s the way of thinking that needs to go.
LR: So you’d say that writing about place has quite a strong political dimension to it?
PH: Ah – It’s essentially political. Richard Flanagan now rejects the place discourse because he thinks it’s conservative. It was once. It was all about protecting the situational goods of the rich. And the idiot right, the Nazis, for example, turned place into some grotesque fetish. German Volk and German Place. But times have changed. Place has become a radical notion, progressive and empowering, because it conduces to a shift in the locus of political action down to the scale where people can regain control over their own lives. It’s what the left should be on about. Marxists have traditionally looked sceptically at the idea of place because it used to be associated with that old to the manor born sensibility. But those old rigidities can loosen up now, and they should. At a time in which people feel so disempowered, with the site of political power seemingly so unattainable, so out of reach, ‘place’ can become a powerful notion to be mobilised in the name of democratic empowerment. Where is political power located? It’s not in the state parliament. It’s not in the local council. It’s off in the boardrooms of NewYork and London and Bei Jing, and nothing we do seems able to reach it. But the place discourse gives people a capacity to regain some control over their lives, and the left should embrace it. It is potently energising. People switch onto it. What ‘liberation’ means to me is to achieve real access to the sites of decision-making that determine how my life is going to be lived. Now, I can’t do anything about people building nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, but I can do a hell of a lot about insisting that no one, no matter how powerful, no matter how much capital they control in New York or London or Tokyo or Bei Jing or even Sydney, is going to come here and impose upon me a way of living that offends my senses of value, scale and aesthetics and that impoverishes the natural world. And at this level, if we do it right, we can construct a potent discourse of resistance, and we can win back control over the meanings and futures of the places in which we collectively live.
PH: Precisely. Local people taking on big capital and using the emotional power of place to win.
LR: One of the things I find interesting is how much the conversation about place is being concentrated in the universities. There seem to be a lot of universities with courses on writing about place and environmental writing and literature of place and nature writing etc using particular texts like Theroux, Annie Dillard and Relph, for example. Are they coralling the discussion into the academic realm?
PH: There are philosophers like Ed Casey and our own Jeff Malpas who are constructing conceptually complex place theories within the academic realm. Some geographers, too. But place resists theorising beyond a certain level because place attachment is visceral and emotional and places are subjectively and socially constructed. So theoretical elaboration only takes you so far. At the end of the day place relationships are built by people living in a defined geographical terrain and the sensse they make of those social, environmental and economic relationships. And at that level it becomes the proper stuff of creative writing – and other modes of creative expression, of course –that are not exactly non-cerebral but are a-theoretical. They don’t need theory. So while it’s true that place has largely become flavour of the month because academics have discovered it, I think it would exist as a potent social and psychological impulse in the absence of theoretical elucidation. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing that academics have taken to place in such a big way because it’s so important and so timely. And there’s always bleed. The fact that academics start talking about something in high falutin language puts a lot of people off, but because academics go on morning radio and because they write stuff for the opinion pages of newspapers and the quasi-popular intellectual press, things like The Monthly, these sorts of ideas bleed into the normal population anyway.
LR: Do you think the academics are playing catch up or are they actually driving the interest in this as an area of concern?
PH: I probably wouldn’t conceptualise it like that, but I think a concern for the fate of place at a local level felt by ordinary people who are faced with the obliteration of place in accordance with the imperatives of external capital – or internal capital in some instances – that’s prior, I think: that’s what triggers a place consciousness.
In a sense, I think academics have seen what’s happening and said, well we must make some sense of this. But I think the emotional impulse to defend place is primary. People will act on that account whether or not a single word is written by any academic on the matter. And of course, academics also live in the community, in place, so it is a distinction that can be too stark, I think. But if I have to literally answer the question – probably there is a bit of catch up. That’s the nature of academic life anyway. An academic observes what’s happening in the world and tries to make sense of it. But what’s happening in the world is prior to making sense of it.
LR: The Wildcare Nature Writing Prize that you co founded with Peter Grant and David Owen calls for ‘literary prose whose major inspiration and subject matter is the natural world, not necessarily excluding its significance for humans and/or their interactions with it.’ Can you expand on that description of what kinds of writing meet the criteria for the prize?
PH: Poetry is not eligible, whilst fiction and non fiction both are. This is not how I’d prefer it. I’d rather it was just non-fiction. In fact, when I was judging it (I’ll get into trouble here) I had a bias towards non-fiction because it seems to me that the essay is the natural home of the nature writer. Along with poetry.
And fiction has generic needs that tell against it in this context. You can write fiction that contains identical concerns to those of prose nature writing, but it has to play second fiddle to the requirements of story and characterisation. If you want to write nature as more than an adjunct to something else then you write an essay.
When Warren Boyles set up his 40 Degrees South Tasmanian story competition – I judged that the first year as well – my prejudice was powerfully for fiction over non fiction. Because the word ‘story’ was there and when I see story I think fiction, not essay. Whenever anyone says I read Vandemonian Essays and some of those stories are really good – or bad – I say they aren’t stories, they’re essays. Essays are really like poems. Essays have stories in them, but stories aren’t the purpose. You’re trying to make a point in an essay – to say something about something – but it’s a personal thing, not an objectivised assessment of whatever you’re writing about, so the essay is still a literary genre.
LR: You’re quoted as saying say there’s no significant nature writing tradition in Australia. Could you expand on that?
PH: The poets have always been nature writers. But among writers in other genres, those with an overt concern for nature have been fairly thin on the ground. So much so that when you get someone who does it very well, like Eric Rolls, you get a giant in the field who constructs a tradition. Insofar as there is a nature writing tradition in Australia, and there are a lot more people writing unselfconsciously as nature writers now, it’s Rollsian I think. I should also say that I personally hate the term. ‘Nature writer’ is a ghetto term as far as I’m concerned, and I’d prefer not to use it, but it does seem to be entrenched, and I can’t think of anything better anyway, so, reluctantly, I continue to use it. Anyway – the Rollsian tradition of nature writing. Eric Rolls wrote the natural world in a distinct way—he did not write in a lyrical mode. He was a farmer, a user of nature, and his eye was a practical one. So he established what I think is a quite different tradition of nature writing from the one that exists in the US, which is lyrical and romantic. I remember talking to a nature writer who lives in the north west of the US, a really nice bloke, and he said to me ‘I don’t know science, I just write love.’ That’s a far cry from Eric Rolls who wrote nature unsentimentally – out of a deep practical understanding of how humans interact with the natural world. From him we get a non-lyrical, much more practical tradition of nature writing, one that concerns itself with bushfires and drought and floods. It looks at the harshness of the environment, not the wonderful, beautiful stuff that the Americans write about. And I think it’s appropriate.
LR: Who else would you say is writing in the Eric Rolls tradition in Australia?
PH: Well what I can say is that, having judged the Wildcare Nature Writing Prize for a couple of years, I know that every time it takes place a very, very large number of entries will be about bushfires.
LR: The last Watermark winner was a story about Cyclone Larry.
PH: That’s right. ‘Not pretty’ nature features very highly. But there are people who admire the North American tradition and are trying to get that sort of tradition going her. Mark Tredinnick most obviously. The people Mark references and writes about are North Americans like Barry Lopez and Richard Nelson. And his own writing is firmly within that tradition.
LR: Mark says he’s trying to kick-start that kind of tradition here in Australia. How do you think it will fit?
PH: I don’t think it fits, not really, but I’m glad that people are writing in that mode. I don’t really believe in literary traditions anyway. It’s good that some writers want to embrace the North American way of writing the natural world. But I would be disappointed if it became the dominant tradition rather than Eric Rolls’ way.
Dr Pete Hay, poet and essayist, has recently retired from University of Tasmania where he was Reader in Geography and Environmental Studies and Co-ordinator of Environmental Studies. His main research interests lie in the following areas: place and the nature of place attachment; the nature of islandness and environmental and economic stresses upon small islands; and problems in the creation of viable democratic citizenship in a globalising world.