Three weeks into my life after Woolf, I have gotten my writing vehicle into third gear. I've been mostly appliquing, reading philosophy and poetics, revising some stories and a handful of poems to send out--pretending that I'm a real writer--but the plan this week is to do research.
The most suggestive reading I have done is Levinas's Totality and Infinity. A Jewish philosopher who spent much of World War II as a prisoner of war and who lost close family to the Holocaust, Levinas focuses not simply on being-in-the-world attentively and purposefully, but on being-in-the-world ethically. Totality occurs during war, when the State claims the individual's allegiance, labour, and life in behalf of the State's survival. In complete contrast, we approach infinity with our desire to understand the "Other," a desire that in practical and metaphorical terms is prompted by the face (as both our experience of curiosity about the stranger walking down the street toward us, and as phenomena or concept). I want to use Levinas' ideas to consider our relationship with nature. Climate change threatens the world as we know it and even threatens our existence here, and I think that one step we must take--all of us who feel we have to change our ways of living--is to understand more of the natural world that is at risk. We need an ethical relationship with nature like Levinas' idea of the ethical relationship with the Other. Nature as Other wasn't a stretch, but the idea of the face brought me up short in a useful way: what is nature's 'face'? Is it the birds at my feeder right now? Storms? Flowers? Oceans? Air? Plants? Animals?
Or trees? I realized that I wanted to do something about the parts of trees we don't notice: about their bark and trunks, about the form of their branches--so different from species to species, but also so different from one tree to another. So one of my major research projects for this week has been to read David Suzuki's and Wayne Grady's marvelous book, Tree: A Life Story. They have chosen as their tree a four-hundred-year-old Douglas-fir, but in the process they have explored the way knowledge about nature has developed and the way a single Douglas-fir is attached to its complex eco-system.
An example will show what they mean. Plants need nitrogen, but finding enough in the soil is difficult. It turns out that there is nitrogen in oceans that is brought back into the forests by spawning salmon who are eaten by bears--600 or 700 hundred salmon a year. Bears like to eat privately, so they bring their "catch" back into the forest, and only eat the parts they really like, brains and bellies, leaving the rest for beetles and slugs. Bears bring the ocean's nitrogen to the soil through the salmon, through their scat, through the carcasses that are eaten and digested by insects that are in turn eaten by birds who also... You get the picture. The rings of a tree record the years when the salmon run was unusually plentiful.
The way trees are interconnected underground to one another, or to the mycorrizal funghi underneath or to the insects and birdlife in its ecosystem, is simply astounding. Trees use their hormones to warn one another about infestations. Their intertwining roots take nourishment from the larger trees to feed the small ones growing up on the forest floor, in part because of the many ways that growing together benefits them. While in the West we spend a lot of our time and ego proving how autonomous we are, nature spontaneously makes the most of its interconnections. Perhaps I have found nature's "face" in these interconnections, but if I have, I have no idea how to express it.
Of course, reading Tree has spawned a long list of other books I need to read, everything from Virgil's Georgics, to John Fowles' The Tree, to Emerson's Nature, to almost anything by Gary Snyder or Don MacKay, to Guy de La Brosse, who created Paris's Jardin des Plantes in the sixteenth century. The point of all this reading is an imaginative immersion, observing other writers' content, form, perspective, thoughts, experience, until I am so suffused with this that I can no longer be self-conscious about it--until it becomes hopeless to be self-conscious any longer. That's when I'll discover what I want to do with nature and Levinas's idea of the face.
Because on Monday, July 4 I'm going to shift into fourth gear and start working on my novel, Soul Weather, I'm also reading the notebook I have kept since 2011. This process is comforting, terrifying, and intimidating in about equal measure. On one hand, I can see how much I've already thought about this book; on the other translating one's thoughts about character, ideas about theme, plot, and motif into a novel anyone wants to read is another task altogether. I also realize how much research I need to do there.
My characters are a group of young university students renting a house together, so I need to understand their disciplines--all of which relate more or less closely to the questions I'm asking about how we are at home in our historic moment, our relationships, our futures, our skins, the planet. My main character, Lee, has just graduated with her MFA in ceramics. When I was in my early exploratory days, I learned as much as I could about pottery, and even took a couple of classes to see what it felt like to try to make something out of mud on a potter's wheel. I'm a terrible potter, but I know what it feels like to have something slippery and wet grow up under my hands--though everything I threw was always higher or wider on one side. I have the seeds of Lee's character growing in my mind-garden, and understand how her work with ceramics interconnects with a couple of the novel's questions. But I have a young man, a Ph.D. student, who is studying animal languages: I've got a lot to learn there, though I've found a special issue of Current Opinion in Neurobiology (2014) devoted to the latest research on animals and language. Another of my major characters it anorexic. I'm not sure I have the right to write about anorexia--just like I don't think I have the right to describe what it is like to be an Indigenous person, but I'll read and talk to people and I'll give it my most sympathetic imaginative attempt. She is doing her honours degree in history, with her paper about Simone Weil. More reading and discovering.
Too often, creative writing teachers tell their students to write about what they know. It is perhaps more useful to take the advice of John Gardiner, who taught at the Iowa Writing Workshop, and write what you like to read. This is true partly because if we write what we like to read, we might at least have some of the generic conventions ready to hand. This is also true for two other reasons: none of us knows enough about the human condition or the world--though some people are more observant and more curious than others. "Write what you know" suggests that creative work simply consists of telling people in one way or another what you know. Interesting work is different in two ways. Having to do research keeps us humble, digging more deeply into what we understand about the world and the human condition; this humility is more likely to help us dig beyond what we know. Second, much of the best work it isn't based on what any of us knows, but on what we are curious about or have questions about.
But even so, recalling what we know--in my case, what I've learned from 66 years of a fairly observant life--is sometimes daunting. Most writers need rituals that mine our memories. Mine is walking. So on Monday I started what will be a long series of walks. I began by walking down back lanes from Athol to Elphinstone, and pondered the secret places in cities, the back routes only the residents and dog walkers and the people on bicycles who recycle our parties for us know about. Turning toward the Seniors' Centre, I saw two women talking who at a distance were dead ringers for two of my aunts, and that started a cascade of memories of childhood, particularly at my uncle's farm where I chewed mint leaves and ate carrots plucked right out of the ground and merely wiped off on my uncle's khakis. In one's lifetime, one has to eat one's peck of dirt, after all. Smells. I picked up newly-mown grass, which is just next door to alfalfa, both resonant, comforting summery smells that sound down the corridors of memory.
On my way back, I took a sandy path closer to the creek, at one point hearing plupplupplupplup, only to see about six ducklings hitting the water with their mother--reminding me that nature is often frightened of humans--with good reason. I saw a pair of dogs that looked like the little foxes Bill and I saw on a countryside ride years ago--and how much delight we took in those drives, how they were closed in while opening out as we made conversation in the car and feasted our eyes on the world beyond. At the edge of the creek, there is a little building housing a pump, I suspect, whose steps reminded me of several cottages and a neighbour's small playhouse I spent time in as a child. She had a wondrous garden. The playhouse and cottage memories going to take me some time to unspool. Then the bridge over the creek reminded me of the bridges I've walked and driven across--the Mackinac as a child, the covered bridges of Michigan I drove over with my first husband, the bridges over the Charles River in Boston, some of which always confused us and spit us out in the wrong place. As I walked, I also realized I was seeing--and not seeing--the interconnections of nature, and remembered a childhood ritual that has probably imprinted me.
My father grew up near Newago's Croton Dam, and every spring we could go up to the dam, and then turn off onto a nondescript dirt road. Dad would simply decide to park where there was a space to get out of other cars' way, and then we would take off through the forest. We'd pick trilliums and cowslips and bloodroot on our way. (Now I am deeply ashamed of all the trillium I killed.) Using markers I could never make out, my father always fetched up on the Croton River near an eagle's nest. We'd sit on some dead logs and have our picnic while the eagles became more agitated and flew in tight circles over their huge nest, making cries that puzzled us in their feebleness. In some twenty-first century way, this seems disrespectful and even harmful, but we were celebrating nature's continuity, syncing nature's renewal with our own. Awe and intimacy combined in one gesture. Perhaps with this memory I have fetched up in the spot on the river where creativity happens: in awe and intimacy.