Writing, Nature and Presence

Recently I attended the inaugural Eleanor Dark lecture which formally closed the Blue Mountains program of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The lecture, held at the grand old Carrington Hotel, was given by Delia Falconer.

Falconer is known for her novels including The Service of Clouds which I’ve referred to previously as one of the books that is intricately linked to the fictional world of the Blue Mountains. Falconer’s book on Sydney as part of the series of books on the Australian capital cities was also wonderfully evocative of place, history and atmosphere. And so it was with interest that I attended this lecture which had as its focus the themes of writing, nature and presence.

It was fitting that Falconer was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture as she had written part of The Service of Clouds whilst in residence at Varuna, the National Writers House bequeathed by the Dark family. Falconer spoke of her time there with fondness, of coming across Eleanor Dark’s gardening journal which illustrated her exacting practical mind, and the joy that Dark took in the local eccentricity of Katoomba life along with the magnificent landscape.

Falconer noted that part of the motivation behind Dark’s landmark trilogy The Timeless Land was distaste at the mindless celebrations around the sesquicentenary of European settlement. Dark’s response was to carefully research and write a fictional account of the early years of the colony from the viewpoint of the colonisers and the Aboriginals; this may be seen as clunky from our current perspective but it was revolutionary at the time. The natural world featured strongly in these books, and Falconer quoted someone as saying that Dark’s work gave the reader a sense of sunlight and the scent of boronia. It can be seen as a precursor to Australian nature writing.

From this foundation, the lecture moved to the challenges of writing in a world marked by the loss of abundance in nature. A simple example was given of driving at night through the countryside – or anywhere outside the suburban sprawl – when the windscreen would soon be choked up with moths and the like. Or the movement en masse of Sydney fruit bats over the city skyline at night. Both examples, which were commonplace, are now relatively rare. Some writers in this field maintain that we are going through the sixth great extinction, a time of rapid loss of species that is unprecedented.

I was interested by the idea that we are indirectly impacted by the kind of animals and plants that surround us, yet it is hard to know what you haven’t seen. This in turn could lead to environmental generational amnesia, where elements of the natural world are entirely lost or become so rare as to no longer be on the human peripheral. There is now a term for the psychological distress caused by such significant environmental shifts – solastalgia.

But what can writers do in such a period of change and uncertainty? Falconer urged writers to tell the story. Use autobiography to look back and understand what has changed. Make it uncomfortable. And think ahead to the future.

[Photo: view from Govett’s Leap lookout, Blackheath]