“There are people who think that things that happen in fiction do not really happen. These people are wrong.” ~ Neil Gaiman
I had one of those aha moments last week about my writing, the kind that make me feel really dumb for not having clicked earlier. The epiphany was triggered by this article by Paul Kingsnorth, asking why fiction so rarely extends imagination beyond the human realm. We would have to set aside the modern story of a mechanical nature in which only humans have consciousness. Instead, consider that the nonhuman world is as alive and aware as we are, which has been the understanding for most of human history.
There’s a lot being said these days about the importance of hearing from previously marginalized voices. And we are blessed with an abundance of writers meeting this challenge from all directions, people like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mark Haddon, Roxane Gay, Ta Nehisi Coates, Charlotte Wood, and Yaa Gyasi, among others. The living world is the ultimate marginalized voice, you might say. After all, the modern view of human exception and superiority has given us mountaintop removal coal mining, factory farming, fracking, genetic engineering, clearing rainforests to graze cattle, and on and on. No wonder we are awash in dystopian fiction.
As the Rilke poem goes, I’ve been circling this for a while, possibly all my life. I’ve written short nonfiction pieces about encounters with a mountain stream, a poplar tree, a forest in a spring rain. I’ve even thought about how I might bring this point of view into my fiction. I seem to expect it from other writers, why not myself? This review of Adam Johnson’s much lauded story collection, Fortune Smiles, raises the question. I understood his stories to be a new sort of imaginative hybrid for the 21st century, so I was primed to read some nature POV. I was disappointed.
You’d think fiction would be an ideal form for such explorations, but for some reason I’ve been holding back. I think I was guarding against the inevitable label of “fantasy,” which readers could then dismiss or ignore or continue to marginalize as not relevant, not a part of them. It feels very important to me that this non-human consciousness be taken seriously. Because it is real.
Thank goodness we have writers like Neil Gaiman to remind us that fiction is as real as it gets.
I want to draw an important distinction here. Advertising that pretends to speak in the voice of nature, even a well-meaning campaign like this one by Conservation International, is not what I’m talking about. The celebrities in their slickly produced videos are speaking as and for nature, but marred by the same petty ego games and shaming that infect our human relationships. No. It’s along the lines of how tired people of color are of Hollywood roles as the spunky sidekick/best friend. This is no place for preconceptions and stereotypes. The first step is to listen with an open mind and heart.
Last spring, I wrote a piece about grief opening a doorway between worlds, enabling the suspension of rational mind that leads to surprising encounters with nonhuman beings. Encounters that engage the imagination and senses in a renewal of relationships long overlooked. Here is an excerpt from that piece, which I’m hoping will appear in a journal later this year:
I was left estranged and homeless by my middle-class American, suburban, pop-culture-saturated upbringing. I am the prodigal daughter of a vast family that carries on without me, even as it is profoundly affected by my actions. In my fiftieth year of life, I began my homecoming. . . .
There is no place for language here. This is a state of raw emotion. Of feeling from the heart. There is no need of language to describe, name, or categorize. Words don’t stand up to pure experience. Though I hold my dying father’s hand, I cannot experience what he is experiencing. I can’t go where his soul is going. And yet, I am there, always, in that pure life energy.
I fall with no motive, and more slowly than you assume. I give myself freely. I nourish. The tiny cups of lichen catch me. I bathe the forest in sound, a symphony of drops striking surfaces. No hurry. No ambition.
Things are always becoming something else. One thing leads to the next. The rain will move on. You will move on. You will become something else. Nothing is ever finished.
One of many paradoxes in attempting to give voice to the living world is this problem of language. My encounters in the forest or on the water are worldless. They involve going to a place, being still for long stretches and listening. Or observing. Or touching or tasting or smelling. And feeling into the sensation of being heard, of being seen, touched, tasted, or smelled in return. These experiences go straight into my body through my heart.
Another dilemma is the utter presumptuousness of it. Who says nature needs to be rendered in human voice? My inner skeptic wants to know how it helps anything to converse with an oak tree. What impact will listening to a garrulous mountain stream have on the PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere?
The answer is this: we are the storytellers. We not only make meaning, we create reality by the stories we tell. I am with Kingsnorth; there is room for stories that dare to go beyond the human-centric gaze.
In my limited experiences so far, these encounters are both connection and welcome, a blessing on my return after so long an absence. And an invitation to share the gifts of belonging and kinship with the rest of the human community.