The line you wrote in ‘The Invisible Extinctions’ about how we all think that there is an abundance of wilderness, of wildness, of wild animals out there – an endless supply to visit one day – but in actual fact, there is an emptiness ... it haunts me. Climate change hasn’t kept me awake but extinction does. Which is why I want to start this letter to you in what Edward O Wilson called the Ermocene – the Age of Loneliness.
We’re writing about writing animals, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years, but I’ve been stubbornly writing about their presence. Has this been a way for me to try to somehow counteract what is really happening out there? Am I trying to write wilderness back into existence? Are you writing about non-human absence?
Yours, with an intense beginning!
Tempting as it is to tell you what you’ve been up to for the past five years, I’m going to resist! I think what I have been trying to do is to stop people’s eyes from gliding past the absence. The immense gap between what people imagine the world of wild animals is like, and what it’s really like, is the thing that has been galvanising my efforts. I was most shocked to read a French study that showed people vastly overestimate how many tigers, elephants, polar bears, gorillas and other charismatic wild animals are left, primarily because they see so many images of these creatures – on clothes, as toys, in advertisements and nature documentaries. Seeing them every day makes us assume they are doing well, even though in many cases, the way we see these animals (in car ads, as part of disposable fashion etc) is part of the reason the real animals are dying out. I suppose what I hope to do is not necessarily to stop these unnoticed deaths, but just to have them be noticed. That we acknowledge the killing that’s going on around us, caused by us.
Laura, can you tell me what it is about extinction that makes it even more compelling (if that’s the right word) for you than climate change?
When I read your work and this email, I can’t help but think about how brave you are to look at extinction head on. Because I just find it so awful. And I sit around thinking about animals all day. If it’s my ‘job’ (job! ha ha!) to think about human non-human animal connection and disconnection, what about all the people who don’t have to? Why would they think about something so devastating as extinction when they could just use a keep cup, have a meat-free Monday and sustainable palm oil Tuesday and feel like they’re saving the world?
I think this taps into one of the reasons that people don’t engage with extinction in the same way as climate change, and also starts to answer your question. In slowing climate change, I see some hope. Even though I have absolutely no faith in our government, I see that people are doing some very positive things to try to counteract the devastation. I also see that many humans will survive climate change, no matter how bad it gets. With extinction it’s ... well, it’s extinction. Once a species is gone it is never coming back. It is final. It is the end. The horror of what we have done in terms of extinction is what keeps me awake. Of course, extinction is one aspect of climate change, but it is also (as you say) a result of mass consumerism, iconography, cultural practice and attitudes towards animals as beings in existence for our consumption, entertainment, experimentation and companionship.
Having said all of this, I am putting on my brave sunglasses. After writing animals into existence in short stories and a novel, I want to start writing about absence and extinction, largely because I don’t think I can write animals anymore without writing this. I’m starting with poems (Not a poet! But anyway ... ) because I think the form allows access to devastating moments. How do you write animals, Jane? Do you find that a particular form allows you to say what you want to say? Are you working on/thinking on anything at the moment around this?
The novel I am working on at the moment addresses exactly none of these issues. When I finished writing ‘From the Wreck’ – which, while it may not look like it, is mostly about humans’ attitude that all other creatures are expendable – I started work on a new novel called ‘The History of Extinction in Bohemia’. Good name, right? It was an absurdly ambitious project in five parts: historical fiction about the ‘invention’ of extinction; fabulism about WWII and exiles in Mexico; contemporary fiction about Eastern European communism and exiles in Canberra; non-fiction about the extinction of animal species; and a far-future section on terraforming and extinction of offplanet species. I thought the non-fiction part might be poetry. I wrote about 25,000 words and I was so miserable I had to stop. The non-fiction section turned into a non-poetic essay in ‘Meanjin’. The rest is abandoned – forever or for now, I don’t know. Instead I’m writing a novel about witches and fascists, which is a lot more fun. So much for bravery. I just couldn’t think about those ideas all day every day anymore.
But as to my previous attempts writing animals, and the death of animals, with ‘From the Wreck’ what I wanted to write was the pain of losing everybody close to you, of trying to find somewhere safe, of constantly being flung into inhospitable environments. I wanted to write what it might be like to be a creature seeing its home and its companions destroyed. For me, the best way to do that was a first-person, ‘non-human’ kind of voice. Obviously I have no idea how octopuses (the closest earth analogue to the creature in ‘From the Wreck’) feel or think, but I did read a lot about them, and I tried to create a voice that might approximate it, while still being comprehensible by human readers. It was a weird experience. And I guess it ended up as much poetry (or maybe nonsense) as prose.
When I’ve written non-fiction about this stuff, the best I can manage is a kind of wry despair. I have a lot of affection for animals. I can’t manage an objective scientific voice. But I also know I’m as much at fault as the next person, so a voice of lyric grief seems a bit self-serving; I’m no angel.
On that matter of writing in the voice of an animal, am I right in thinking you’ve been doing some research on this? What have you discovered? How can we do this without it being a terrible joke?
I wrote an 80,000 word novel draft about communicating animals and showed my readers who said ‘but where are the communicating animals?’ In my horror of anthropomorphisation, I had rendered the animals silent. Maybe I needed to do that to get over myself. I think for me it’s about looking at works by others who have attempted to portray animals as animals – like Alexis Wright’s ‘The Swan Book’, Eva Hornung’s ‘Dog Boy’, Marien Engel’s ‘Bear’ – and working out ways that I might do that in my own narrative. For me it’s about saying, yes, animals can be metaphors (and so can objects, landscapes and human characters) but they can also represent animals. A dog can be a dog in a text, it doesn’t have to be a metaphor for childhood and it doesn’t have to die to get a point across. And perhaps from that, a voice might emerge that isn’t ‘poetic’ or ‘wise’ or ‘stuttering’ or ‘prophetic’ or ‘innocent’ but one that might surprise us by speaking from a place that isn’t centred around the human. All I’m trying to do is to imagine myself into a place where humans aren’t the centre of the universe.
Having animals ‘speaking’ like humans isn’t, for me, as much of a problem as making the human characters the only thing that matter. The number of animal-centred novels that come out where the publisher has written on the back cover blurb ‘This story reveals what it really means to be human’! It makes me chuck such a tanty in a book shop!
Your term ‘writing from wry despair’ is what we’re doing, isn’t it? Your story about the (hopefully not completely) abandoned or paused extinction project captivates me. It also makes me laugh because I have been thinking of writing along the same lines and your cautionary tale makes me wonder if my YA sci-fi trilogy would be a better option. But is there a way to write from wry despair without burning out? Is burning out part of the necessary process when addressing these ideas? Part of me loves being savaged by my own writing. But my body tells a different story – ones that is chronically ill and wearing down, partly from these sorts of words. How does one go on?
There is so much in what you say that I just want to copy, paste and write YES, THAT!!! under. ‘A dog can be a dog in a text, it doesn’t have to be a metaphor for childhood’: YES, THAT!!! For a creature to just be the creature itself, not a reflection of us: an impossible task, but one worth doing – I think – if we’re to let go of our self-importance just for a minute. There are so many humans in books. And, like you, ‘all I’m trying to do is to imagine myself into a place where humans aren’t the centre of the universe’.
Why do that? Today we have news – no surprise – that is a reminder of why we bother. The United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has released a report which says (and I’m just going to go ahead and quote Jonathan Watts at ‘The Guardian’ here):
‘ ... the human footprint is so large it leaves little space for anything else. Three-quarters of all land has been turned into farm fields, covered by concrete, swallowed up by dam reservoirs or otherwise significantly altered.
Two-thirds of the marine environment has also been changed by fish farms, shipping routes, subsea mines and other projects. Three-quarters of rivers and lakes are used for crop or livestock cultivation. As a result, more than 500,000 species have insufficient habitats for long-term survival. Many are on course to disappear within decades.’
How do we solve a problem like that? For starters, we could stop thinking that the only thing that matters is us. We could try to imagine other creatures have feelings, thoughts and rights. When we make decisions we could consider their needs, and maybe even give those desperate needs as much weight as our fleeting desires.
How does one go on? For me it’s either sit by and watch everything beautiful crumble, or do the only, tiny thing I can do, which is write about it. I think I’d feel even worse if I did the first. Because writing is something, right? Right? But also, y’know: eat well, get some sleep, stand up and stretch, talk to kind people, go out among the trees a bit (unless it’s too cold or hot, then stay inside and read a nice book).
I suppose when you write, and when your writing is published, you discover other people care about animals too. And you remind them you care, and they’re not alone, and between us we can change things ... I think I’m out of questions. Is there something else you’d like to talk about? Perhaps feeling a bit exhausted today ...
I just can’t read that extinction report. I mean, I will, but even the basic details throw me into utter queasy despair.
In your email, though, the idea of watching ‘everything beautiful crumble, or do[ing] the only, tiny thing I can do, which is write about it’ there is a light. I see it as the lure-light on an angler fish in the very dark deep – a light made up of glowing bacteria. I was reminded today, by a bug specialist, that many of the specks of dust and grit that we see are actually bugs, mites, bacteria. Disconcerting but also great company. In the lonely looming void that the extinction report draws attention to, it is useful to remember that we are made up of and surrounded by animals and, of course, that we are (super predator) animals ourselves.
As human animals, we are wrapped up in language. Crawled all over by letters, numbers and words. I’ve been reading a lot of theory around JM Coetzee’s work – so much discussion on his style and interpretations of his meaning and analysis after analysis – but what I get predominantly from reading his fiction, especially around animals, is a call to action through relentless questioning. Coetzee uses language to ask questions. I have loved our correspondence, Jane, for the asking of questions. Because if you’re asking questions, in life, love, art, belief, politics, then perhaps you’re engaging in a discussion with someone – yourself, another, the world. If you’re asking questions, you’re not alone. And if the subject you’re asking questions of doesn’t respond? Questions the idea of response. Are we the only thing that matters? No, of course not, resoundingly no! What happens when we write that? Let’s see ...
Next week, when we meet for tea, we’ll see each other’s real faces for the first time! I look forward to sitting with a hot drink, just you and me and a billion bugs.
‘Disconcerting but also great company’ is my favourite part of this whole exchange.
About Jane Rawson
Jane Rawson is the author of novels ‘From the Wreck’ and ‘A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists’, a novella, ‘Formaldehyde’, and the non-fiction book ‘The Handbook: surviving & living with climate change’.
About Laura Jean McKay
Laura Jean McKay writes about humans and other animals. Her novel, ‘The Animals in That Country’, is out with Scribe in 2020. She is also the author of the short story collection Holiday in ‘Cambodia’. Her work appears in ‘Best Australian Stories’, ‘The North American Review’ and ‘The Saturday Paper’. Laura has a PhD from the University of Melbourne and she is currently the ‘animal expert’ presenter on ABC’s ‘Animal Sound Safari’.