A small group of us met at Barbara’s house to think about how we wanted the Wild Mountains Collective Book/Writers Club and its associated blog, to evolve as a forum where we could discuss ideas with one another and explore the rich literature that touches on the themes that are informing the Wild Mountain Collective. Here you see Todd McMillan, Barbara Lepani and Loraine Shannon in front, with Barbara Hasslacher and Domini Stuart behind. We had apologies from Inge Riebe, Damian Castaldi and Ian Brown, all held up by one thing and another. We have agreed to continue meeting at Barbara’s place on the last Sunday of every month from 3pm.
After much lively discussion, exploring what we wanted out of this book club, and the limitations we had found in others, we have settled on the idea of one member leading the discussion based on a book of their choice for that month. The ‘book’ can be fiction or non fiction; and can be either a published book or a pdf article circulated via email. We will then post the highlights of our discussion that emerged. In this way, over time, we will be sharing with everyone our journey into some of the books that have had a big impact on each of us. They might be recently published, or provocateurs from the past. We have even considered that we could add films and documentaries to our menu, courtesy of the online streaming world.
Next month 30 September, Todd will lead the discussion on George Turner’s scifi classic, The Sea and the Summer, set in an imagined 2042, which is frighteningly becoming likely in the not too distant future. George Turner was an Australian writer, based in Melbourne. The Sea and the Summer has been celebrated internationally, variously termed the first and greatest novel of what has become a literary sub-genre—yet Turner has almost been forgotten in Australia.
As we increasingly take stock of where the narrative of limitless material progress through global techno-capitalism has brought us two decades into the 21st century, the voices of creative writers and thinkers are enabling us to explore through fiction, non-fiction and film, what the science is telling us. The Sea and the Summer foreshadows the famous line in the Game of Thrones—’Winter is coming’.
Not all and every spire of the Old City lay beneath the bay. The melting of the Antarctic ice cap had been checked as the polluted atmosphere rebalanced its elements and the blanket of global heat dissipated; the fullest rise of the ocean level had been forestalled though not soon enough to avert disaster to the coastal cities of the planet.
Meanwhile on Sunday, we settled into a discussion based on Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture for a New Earth (UQP 2017). However, as my friend Patience Hook, who joined us on Sunday has said, what is remarkable about this book is that it is about so much more than agriculture—it is the description of his own journey of redemption, as a farmer in the imported European tradition of extractive-industrialised agriculture which has wreaked havoc on the fragile soils and ecosystems of the Australian landscapes. Meanwhile Aboriginal people had been living here continuously for at least 60,000 years through major climatic changes, right back to the time of the giant marsupials. Their understanding of the landscape was ignored. Their knowledge, seen through the lens of European assumptions of racial and technological superiority, consigned them to the dustbin of evolutionary failure. Charles Massey concludes:
One thing stands out clearly from the destructive and tragic events of the post-1788 invasion: the face, substance and functioning landscapes of Australia were radically changed. Indeed, in many places the ancient nature-writing was largely erased. Stamped in its place over vast swathes was a hugely altered land of simplified monoscapes and biota, of destruction and functional degradation.
I loved the way Charles Massey made his book a personal story, recalling his own childhood running barefoot on the property his family have held for five generations. Where he had learned about the animals and birds around him, collected butterflies and other creatures, leant to track wallabies and kangaroos and to ‘flush secretive nightjars from peppermint gum hollows’. And yet, he comes to realise that it was a country he did not fully understand, like the other farmers of Australia who now confront a long drought, a future of increasing vulnerability to drought and scarcity of water not only in the rainfall but in the rivers, creeks and aquifers of the land. Yet this is where the special Envoy for Drought Assistance and Recovery in the new Morrison Government, is the very man who sacrificed the Murray-Darling Basin plan to the vested interests of the mostly US Agribusiness cotton farmers, who are making their fortunes from that most thirsty of crops known to man.
Unlike Turner, the creative seer, who talks to us from an imagined future, Massey tries to remain optimistic about the future survival of Earth and humanity, calling for us to abandon ‘mechanistic-extractive mind’ to one he calls ‘organic-renewing mind’ that can underpin a regenerative form of farming and pastoralism. Pulling back from the more global vision that informs Turner’s work, Massey looks to the farm where he, and his group of ‘regenerative farmers’ are showing how to live on the land as humans embedded in nature, not above it—of humans who have regained the sense of the sacred in their relationship to ‘country’. They seek to be more like the Aboriginal people who have cared for this land for millennia—where we can learn from them what it means to ‘care for country’ as more than an economic resource for wealth creation. Australia is a vast land, but it is a fragile eco-system, an ancient land of thin topsoils and a vast arid interior. No amount of climate change denialism and clinging to digging up coal as our economic saviour for ‘cheap electricity’, the mantra of the new Morrison Government with Angus Taylor as its energy champion, can change this as we head into the turbulent times of the Anthropocene.
As Massey’s book is about agriculture and pastoralism, this also led us into a discussion about the future of meat-eating. Domini Stuart, who is a vegan, led our discussion, challenging us to look into both the impact of pastoralism on global warming through the methane effect, and the whole complex world of the industrial production of meat through factory farming. In this we are forced to examine the systematic cruelty visited on pigs and chickens in particular. We talked about the difference between a pre-industrial world, where people had to actually kill their animals (up close), often treating this as a sacred rite—versus a world of industrial abattoirs and packaged meat in the supermarket. Finally Loraine reminded us that we humans are animals within nature, not separate from and above nature. That when we look at nature and ecosystems we see the cycle of life and death, of killing and being eaten. And even when we are vegans we are still within the domain of our impact on insects and what we are now discovering through the hidden language of trees (Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, 2017), that plants too are alive with their own forms of sentience and communication. Life is as magical as the world revealed in the literature of children, which we have abandoned for the ‘real’ world of adults.
As one of my favourite Tibetan Buddhist masters, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, says, coming from his pre-industrial Tibetan world into the modern world radically transformed by technology, we have all become ‘prisoners of the real’ trapped in a prosaic bed of objectification—echoing Karl Marx’s warning that unchecked capitalism would commodify everything in its path, and the truculent critique of institutional communism, the existentialist thinker of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse (author of Eros and Civilisation and One Dimensional Man), warned us of the dangers of reification—a world of ‘things’ frozen in time and space. For others, like Carolyn Merchant and Val Plumwood, this same trend marked ‘the death of nature’.