Forest floor with moss

Writing the environment: Encounters, transformation, and perspectives in multispecies storytelling

6 October 2021
In this collaborative piece a geographer, an anthropologist and a historian unspool reflections on and excerpts of writing from the recent SEI Writing the Environment workshop.

By Hannah Della Bosca, SEI Doctoral Fellow and PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology and Social Policy; Sophie Chao, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Department of History and the Charles Perkins Centre; and James Dunk, Research Fellow in the Department of History.

We live in an age of planetary unravelling, where industrial processes have undermined the conditions of life at a global scale. Faced with the unspeakable violence wrought on the more-than-human world through ongoing extraction and extinction, we often find ourselves at a loss for words.

And yet, wording worlds is vital to forging otherwise futures, reaching with language towards the limits of our consciousness. But how can we word worlds in ways that begin to encompass non-human perspectives, multiple scales, and the granularity of crises both lived and wit(h)nessed? These are some of the many concerns that were discussed during SEI’s Writing the Environment, an interdisciplinary workshop aimed at opening up and exploring the ways in which we as scholars craft more-than-human narratives.

Below, a geographer, an anthropologist, and a historian share the writing prompts offered during the workshop, and their personal responses to them.

How does it feel to physically experience ​​climate change events? 

What does a climate encounter feel like, to the eye, to the limbs, to the nose and mouth, to the ear? What does it feel like in the body, as an experience? The detail of lived experience and the narrative power of story-telling loosens up academic logic and invites new avenues of communication through connection with our own stories.

My hiking boot sinks into ash, the feeling so novel and soft even as my whole foot disappears and I find myself calf deep in a barren clearing of deceptive ground. I sink and eventually find resistance enough to raise my other leg and repeat the whole process.

I am being led by a local environment group through what once was a wet, spongy, verdant swamp along Newnes Plateau on the western edge of the Blue Mountains. It now resembles a parched and crumbling quicksand moonscape. What has happened here?

Like many big changes, the answer lies dispensed through time and cumulative actions – a recipe of sorts. First, take a thriving upland swamp, teeming with food, lives, homes, and lifeways. Insert a longwall coal mine beneath it. You are likely to find that the sandstone foundations of the swamp crack like an egg on a skillet from the pressure of the new cavity. Wait for the water to drain through the swamp and into the mine shaft below. Know that this crack is the new and permanent waterway. Watch as the spongy, wet swamp becomes drier, a little more parched and brittle. Watch as a sustaining bowl becomes an empty sieve.

Next, wait again. Wait until the air is hot and still, and the surrounding sclerophyll bushland vibrates with the sound of cicada song. Wait for the fire, smell it as it burns through the scrub. You won’t have to wait too long. Ignore your terror and the smoke burning your eyes, and watch as the fire looks to where that unapproachable wet sponge land has long lain, and sees a new avenue of introduction. Dryness. Watch the fire embrace the swamp vegetation and watch as that vegetation surrenders. Not just some, but all. Watch as the peat foundation, always so protected by its soggy blanket, meets fire for the first time. Watch the peat not only surrender, but riotously participate in its own burning. A match lit in heaven – the peat foundations of the swamp burn and burn and burn and burn until there is nothing left but dust and scorched earth.

The bushfire front passes, and time passes, and policies pass. The rain comes again and the bushland sprouts anew, verdant green shoots on black. You breathe out. Phew. But the swamp – can it still be called that? – the swamp is gone. What took millions of years to accumulate is gone, in a day.

My feet sink into the not-swamp, and I trudge onward, one foot at a time. 


What might a metamorphosis from human to plant feel like?

Metamorphosis is a process of perpetual change, transformation, and motion. It refuses stasis – either of form, identity, or perspective. In Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, metamorphosis was often a transspecies event – one alternately desired, punitive, or accidental. Taking a leaf from these ancient writs, we might harness metamorphosis to push against anthropocentric epistemologies and ontologies and instead attempt, humbly and tentatively, to perceive the world through the bodies and behaviors of other-than-human beings. Such a practice can generate new forms of interspecies empathy – even as we remain conscious of the lure and limits of anthropomorphisation. Try writing like a human turning plant, for instance. Embrace the limits of knowability as you shift from structured thinking to decentralized being. Feel the strange liberation or fear that might accompany the shedding of human skin and the sheathing of vegetal bark. Later, perhaps, write as an other Other. A microbe, or fungus, or fire. You may return to your skin otherwise.

It begins at my fingertips. A tingle, or sense of elongation – not directional or definitive, but tentative and searching. Tingle turned tendril, and a swelling at the core – where flesh and fluid mix in new and alien ways. Veins, bone, and muscle become strangely porous – solids flowing, liquids hardening. Sap is forming.

I realize I can breathe light. More than this – I can eat it. This is not an eating of the digestive, masticating kind. This is an eating that is not limited to the mouth (if I still have one) or senses only through the taste and texture and smell. This is a full-bodied ingestion of something intangible yet nourishing. It enters my every pore and flows out again – light turned colour turned vitality.

I bend. Ever so slightly. Leaning towards the light that I can eat. My fingers-turned-tendril are moist and reaching – some upward, others, downward, sinking into the soil that is cool and fresh and feeding. The soil holds me and grows me. It is boundless and shapeless – and yet it shapes me.

Little things that are green and fleshy are sprouting. One here – another there. So small and delicate they startle me. I recognize my veins in the little things that are green and fleshy. I have no centre of being, yet I feel centred. Droplets roll down my skin-turned-bark, into my blood-turned-sap, out of my feet-turned-root. I see through my pores without eyes, and breath through my leaves without mouth.

I lean into this new way of being that is always already becoming.

How can we recognise the stories and perspectives of more-than-human beings?

The long preoccupation with the human in Western thought has come at great cost to other worlds. To write through and beyond the preoccupation – and to write past the human – feels forced, the words seeming to describe the limits of my understanding and empathy. But at least, perhaps, they fail in the right direction, pressing beyond these structures of language and thought to imagine ways to other worlds.

From the compost heap, the small portion of the 127m2 we rent from the world given over to other kinds of life, mushrooms grow. I do not know their name or lineage, what risk or reward they pose. And they do not know me apart from the nutrients I leave at the top of the pile, which they might just as well receive from my body breaking-down, or from the plants which will take possession of this terrace after tenants and landlords are gone, and the animals that will come, eating, excreting, and finally also deconstructed by the intimate relations of life – relations which escape me, but which I will not escape, and which I think do not escape the mushrooms. These relations mediate between planetary history and the life which grows on through the darkness.

The mushrooms have broken out through a gate forced open by a root system which claims part of the wilderness of carrot fibre, avocado cores, and filter papers, and the cockroaches, worms, and others I have no names for. Outside, they strain against the wire mesh which, though it has curled into an advanced defensive manoeuvre, has not impeded the rattus norvegicus who finds here one or two good meals a day.

But the wire does impede the mushrooms. As my hold on this place and that of others like me fails, the mushrooms will find more room and more to grasp and digest than timber and brick and the refuse of human lives. Find food and space and peace. The mushrooms already assert their rights to each in the contours of their flesh straining against the wire and lustrous in the gills they keep to themselves beneath weathered hides, the stools that beat away the sun. Their bodies are their stories, their stories their bodies – a formal purity and an admirable habitation of the present, an insistent life which will metabolise memories of our systems and sensibilities long after this moment of wire, bricks and plastic boxes.

This blogpost draws from writing exercises held during the SEI workshop “Writing the Environment,” led by novelist and literary critic James Bradley, Professor of Classics and Ancient History Julia Kindt, and SEI Acting Director and Professor of Sociology and Social Policy Danielle Celermajer.

Hannah Della Bosca is a Phd candidate in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy and a Research Assistant at the Sydney Environment Institute. Hannah has a background in Legal Geography around environmental decision making, generational coal mining communities and energy transitions, and protected upland swamps. She has previously contributed to research on community resilience and responses to disruption, and continues to work on projects related to environmental and social justice, and violence.

Hannah’s PhD research project is titled For Colony and Empire: The Lifeways and Lifeworlds of Ants as Paradox and Paradigm of Terrestrial Resilience. Shifting the lens onto non-human resilience research subjects, the intention of this work is to position the ant as a provocateur in re-imagining and re-storying the terrestrial narrative of colony and domination that characterises the Anthropocene. It draws together biological and biosocial research on ant species with diverse narratives of ant-human encounters in order to explore the boundaries of identity and theory in day-to-day life. The goal is to challenge or extend theories and ideals of justice as they relate to and are applied as solutions in an age of disruption, attending closely to difference, nuance, and messy but vital realities on a shared planet.

Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Department of History, University of Sydney, and rising Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. Her anthropological and interdisciplinary research investigates the intersections of Indigeneity, ecology, capitalism, health, and justice in the Pacific. Sophie previously worked for the Indigenous rights organization Forest Peoples Programme in the United Kingdom and Indonesia and has published over thirty works on human rights and the palm oil sector in Southeast Asia. Her book, In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua, received the Duke University Press Scholars of Color First Book Award in 2021 and is forthcoming with Duke University Press in 2022.

James Dunk is a Research Fellow in the Department of History. Trained as a historian, his current research focus is the way the physical environment has figured in mental health and psychology. He works with scholars in psychology, medicine and public health to understand how ideas of health are becoming more ecological. His bookBedlam at Botany Bay, won the Australian History Prize at the New South Wales Premier’s History Awards in 2020. His articles have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine and a range of historical journals. He writes essays and reviews for Griffith Review and Australian Book Review.

Header image by Alin Andersen, via UnSplash