Feature Articles / Writing the Future: a thinning forest

I write nature. Or, more correctly, it writes me. My creativity stems from my connection to landscape and my relationship with the natural world. It is source and subject – who I am, how I write, and how I live my life.

Inga Simpson Writing the future Writing NSW March essay

I write nature. Or, more correctly, it writes me. My creativity stems from my connection to landscape and my relationship with the natural world. It is source and subject – who I am, how I write, and how I live my life. Of course, I am nature, too, part of a series of interconnected ecosystems. More and more, my desire to write is matched by my need to be immersed in nature, to retreat from the human world and its impacts on those ecosystems. The dizzying rate of change and loss often leaves me overwhelmed.

But I can’t sit by and do nothing; we could still turn this ship around. All my writing is ecological now; there isn’t really any other conversation. As a storyteller, it’s my job to imagine future possibilities. But how? Do I write eco-horror, a world even worse than the one we are rushing towards, to try to prevent it? Or an alternative, fantasy future, something better to aim for? Or nature-porn, an escape from the realities of the world we are wrecking, to inspire wonder? But wonder doesn’t really cut it anymore. It doesn’t seem to lead to action. So should I settle for a lament, a record of the way the world used to look, my testament for the archives?

Researching the future, the facts and figures of dwindling forests and disappearing creatures, is hard going. My job is to distil information and ideas into story, to shape a narrative. But having absorbed so much, from the best scientists, the best writers, is it my role to inform or to entertain? Is it possible to do both? And how do I find that uplifting note that publishers and readers say they need? How can I offer hope, when my own words are failing me?

I don’t blame anyone for looking away, for reading to escape. I do it, too. The last twenty years of my life is a narrative of retreat, to wild places, where I can be immersed in nature and not think about all that is going and gone. But how can I write with any authenticity if I’m not saying it straight, if I’m afraid of a reader (or publisher) saying, ‘Isn’t it a bit bleak?’

If I bend to this, dull it down, opt for fantasy rather than reality – if I let you off the hook – then aren’t I complicit in the same cartesian, colonial, capitalist, neo-liberal, anthropocentric thinking that has brought us to this tipping point?
When we imagine the world coming to an end, we tend to think of a sudden event, but it is more likely to happen gradually. It is already happening. At the current rate, half of earth’s species will be extinct by 2100. We like to think of the Australian bush as vast and resilient, but Australia has the highest rate of extinction for mammals. Our continent also has the highest number of unique plants and animals in the world. For me, that is a great gift and privilege – and also a terrible responsibility.

It isn’t just about crossing species off lists. The ‘great thinning’ is a term referring to the loss of diversity, not only through extinction but drastic reductions in species numbers. As we face more and more unprecedented natural disasters, even species currently in abundance are vulnerable. The three billion creatures killed or displaced during Black Summer, for example, pushed many species to the brink and left many others locally vulnerable. While alarming in itself, a sign of a planet in rapid decline, any loss of abundance has ramifications for humans. As ecosystems collapse, so will our food, oxygen and water supplies.

Other losses are less tangible. As American science writer Ed Yong puts it, ‘With every creature that vanishes, we lose a way of interpreting the world,’ like books disappearing from nature’s library, or words from the dictionary. Human language, imagery, memory, dreams, story and song are all rooted in the natural world. When we lose other species, we, too, are diminished.

My lexicon is already on the wane. It is partly ageing: the thinning, shrinking and slowing of my brain, the drying up of pathways. It is harder to recall information, to access the full extent of my vocabulary. There are obstructions, like accumulating cloud masses, the emotional toll of the losses I have witnessed, and those I know I will witness yet. My memories of the year either side of Black Summer, for example, are hazy. And then there is the thinning of language falling into disuse, fading from memory. Not just nouns (like Paradise Parrot, Desert Bandicoot, Toolache Wallaby, Thylacine, Regent Honeyeater, Rockwarbler) but my verbs, those doing words, and my precious adjectives, to describe the particular details of particular places. To lose species is to lose specificity.

Most precious of all is my imagery – those intuitive word-pictures conveying so much more than the literal, crucial in moments of porosity between me and the more-than-human world. Images allow room for emotions, room for all our senses, room for that mind-body knowing, room for the unknown – and room for the reader. To think like a forest, anthropologist Eduardo Kohn says, is to think in images. But the forests are falling, burning, thinning and shrinking all around us.

As the landscapes I know and love change and the plants, trees, birds and animals in them disappear, I, too, am changed. All too soon, it is difficult to recall the details of how things were, to see through the fog of loss and nostalgia. Without the language of landscape, without specificity and imagery, I am left ungrounded, unsituated, my word-hoard spent.

Species is a derivative of the Latin specere: ‘to look at, to see, behold’ (from the Proto-Indo-European root spek: ‘to observe’). In Latin, species was originally ‘a sight, look, view; outward appearance, shape, or form’, with many extended meanings including: a spectacle, an idea or notion, a semblance; manner, display, beauty, a likeness or statue, reputation, and honour. In legal and logic language, species acquired the meaning ‘a special case, especially ‘a class included under a higher class; a kind; a sort; a number of individuals having common characteristics peculiar to them’. In their Latin Dictionary, Charlton Lewis and Charles Short suggest this meaning includes the notion of ‘the particular thing among many to which the looks are turned’.

In English, species was used from the 1560s on to refer to a distinct class of something based on common characteristics. The specific scientific use, referring to groups of living things distinguishable from all others by their inherited characteristics, came in around 1600. (The term endangered species appeared in 1964.) Losing species is then, a kind of unseeing, a lack of recognition, not just a loss of the particular, but a dimming of wonder.
Descartes reasoned that other animals lacked the capacity of language, separating us from the more-than-human world. Cartesian logic also saw our minds as separate from our bodies. Many knew intuitively that this was untrue, and now science proves it. The vagus nerve, which arises from the brainstem at the base of the skull, connects the brain to almost every organ in our body. It is the link between thinking and feeling, the ‘mind-body connection’. There are so many binaries to unpack, conventions, tables, hierarchies and other derangements to dismantle, so many modes of thinking based on human-exceptionalism. This is the work of the creative writer, to apply our imagination.

All creatures have language. I only have to listen to the seven species of bird sounding the alarm when a goanna arrives on the property. Most of the time, we are just not listening, or too unsensing to comprehend what is being said. Not only are our bodies and minds connected, we are connected to all other beings. We share fifty per cent of our DNA with trees, ninety-eight per cent with gorillas. Intelligence, agency, consciousness, emotions, language are not exclusive to humans. Nor are we in control of the elements, or the workings of the earth. We are not essential for much of the running of this planet, actually, just the ruining of it. The best thing that could happen for all the other species – who, unlike us, have been able to communicate with each other and work in cooperation for eons – would be the extinction of a single species: us. And with us, the extinction of words.

Human creativity is abundance, a raucous rainforest of story, imagery and meaning. And writing, contrary to what we would like to believe, is not personal genius, merely the ability to tap into something larger than ourselves, allowing the wild wind of nature to blow through us. Call it the unconscious or the subconscious, if you like, but imagination and story originate in the earth, a mind-body awareness shaped by our local terrain and the other creatures we share it with. With every species we lose, we lose part of ourselves. Perhaps this is what haunts us, echoing the brevity of our lives and the inevitability of our own extinction.

When I write the future, I wish I could paint a pretty picture. I wish I could write that it didn’t happen on my watch, rather than that we watched it happen. Whatever I write, for as long as I write, I’ll write stories – and I’ll write them wild. I hope they stay true.

Dr Inga Simpson is a novelist and nature writer. Her latest novel, Willowman (Hachette, 2022), about the art of cricket batmaking, was longlisted for the 2023 Indie Book Award for Fiction. Her previous novel, The Last Woman in the World (Hachette, 2021) was shortlisted for the Margaret and Colin Roderick Literary Award and the 2022 Indie Book Award for Fiction.


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