On Landscapes and Specific Lives

To mark the launch of the new Dark Mountain online publication, novelist Gregory Norminton has invited a handful of authors to contribute essays on the subject of 'rewilding the novel'. The latest post of the series is Winnie Li's essay on travel, tourism and the act of writing in an age of ecological crisis.
is the author of the novel Dark Chapter, which won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2017. Taiwanese-American and raised in New Jersey, she has written for travel guides, produced feature films, programmed for film festivals, and developed eco-tourism projects.

I’m writing this near the island of Coron, in the Palawan region of the Philippines. It’s an area often billed as a backpackers’ paradise, a corner of the world blessed with tropical beaches, stunning scenery, and cheap prices. And indeed, this afternoon, myself and four other backpackers passed an enticing inlet of turquoise-green water, carved among towering limestone cliffs which rose vertical from the ocean. We asked our boat captain to stop for a few minutes and jumped into the sea, dipping below the surface with our snorkel-masks to glimpse a coral reef and a few brightly coloured, skittering fish.

We only stayed for a few minutes, awed by the beauty of this isolated spot, which the tour operators had decided to call ‘Sunset Lagoon’. I’m sure the indigenous people living sparsely amidst the steep slopes of Coron Island must have their own name for it.

Travelling to places like this — remote countries awash with natural beauty — always puts me in a conflicted state of mind, however much I enjoy the crystalline waters and impossible sunsets. I’m aware that my very presence in this place contributes to its environmental degradation. Yet poor communities are obviously thrilled to see the influx of money pouring in from tourists. Who are we, having been born by sheer happenstance into richer countries, to judge how poorer folk earn their livelihood? Are their choices any different from the ones we would make, if we were in their situation?

It is precisely this conflicted state of human existence — embedded within geographies both sociopolitical and natural — which the novel is ideally suited to explore. As a traveller, I move through far-flung countries and regions, observing human lives vastly different from mine. As a writer, I wonder which form of writing will best do justice to what I am witnessing. I adore the essay form, I admire the purity of poetry, but only the novel has the breadth to render an individual human life in a specific social location, the choices she or he makes, and the complexities that arise from those choices. For me, fiction alone can bring these conflicts to life emotionally through characters, in turn awakening the reader’s empathy for our fellow human beings in a given situation — or even for other living beings outside the realm of the human.

I have a guilt-ridden confession to make. This afternoon, when I spied Sunset Lagoon, it was me who suggested to my fellow backpackers that we anchor there for a few minutes. Snorkeling through those waters, I saw that anchor dropped by our boat captain, wedged in the coral reef. And then I noticed all the dead and dying coral below me, the result surely of countless boats which had anchored there before. A reef eroded, year on year, by unwitting pleasure-seekers like ourselves.

Perhaps that represents the central conflict of protagonists in many novels. What is more important to us: our self-interests or our responsibility to the world around us? Ultimately, that is the measure of our characters (both real-life and fictional). And if we think about it, it is easy to develop serious guilt about our existence in the environment. Take, for example, the work of a novelist, which is of course embedded in the material world of our lives.

Novelists do not have the most eco-friendly of professions. Sure, since we often work from home, we may not have a heavy carbon footprint through regular commuting. But our entire livelihood depends on the successful sale of multiple units of printed paper, hundreds of pages in each unit, and the more successful we are, the more paper will be used to print our work. To feed our imaginations, we also read other writers’ books — and since e-books don’t allow me to ‘engage with the text’ in the same way, I inevitably buy hard copies for my own enjoyment, consuming more paper. (I would borrow more books from my local libraries, but the government keeps shutting them down.)

By living as an ex-pat abroad, I inevitably accrue more bad environmental karma. Not only do I take long-haul flights from London to visit places like the Philippines, I also fly a few times a year to visit my friends and family in America. If I didn’t travel by airplane I’d never see my family, who live several time zones away. Perhaps I should have stayed in the US, never moving past a certain radius from my hometown. And likewise, my parents shouldn’t have emigrated from Taiwan in the first place, and all humans should remain in our ‘native lands’, no matter how war-ridden or unsafe or economically depressed these places are. Because yes, carbon footprints. (In fact, why bother travelling to see relatives for Christmas? Just send them presents through Amazon and do everything over Skype.)

The conundrum of living an ecologically responsible life runs up against our desire for connection and belonging, our individual hopes and ambitions. This kind of conundrum is something the novel can explore, giving us the chance to connect with characters living very different lives from our own, to reflect on how we ourselves might respond in those situations, to question which of those two impulses drives us.

What, then, does it mean to ‘rewild’ the novel? If rewilding encompasses an awareness of our origins and our impact, then it is important to realise that these are unique for every human being. Here is where I will turn, inevitably, to questions about gender and race and social location.  

Growing up in northeast America, in a town where strip malls and suburban tracts alternated with second-growth forest, I adored the writing of Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey. Too often when we read about the relationship between ourselves and the natural world, it is written from a white male perspective, the world-view which also happens to dominate most other Western intellectual thought; what is seen as ‘the canon.’ But a great deal of the rest of humanity also enjoys nature: women, people of colour. Only these different demographic perspectives are rarely seen in nature writing.

When I hike in Europe, I am usually the only person of colour on the trails. I will never belong in this landscape. I’m always just a visitor. This has been my experience my entire life as a child of immigrants — a perpetual sense of displacement

As a woman, my experience of nature – and the way I am perceived in relation to it – is fundamentally different from that of a man. Plainly speaking, there is a certain time of the month when I wouldn’t go camping or swimming in the ocean. When I’m out hiking, I’m often told, ‘It’s rare to see a woman hill-walking on her own.’ (Would they say the same thing about a man?) And as women hikers, we are unfortunately more vulnerable to being attacked by fellow humans when alone in the outdoors (which happened to me, ten years ago, and a long time passed before I had the confidence to be in nature again). My relationship to nature is different, because of these specificities.

And again, as a person of colour, my experience of a Western landscape will be divergent. When I hike in Europe, enthralled by my surroundings, I am usually the only person of colour on the trails. I become very conscious of ‘sticking out’ when I have lunch in a country pub, being perceived as ‘other’ because of my physical appearance. Ultimately I am aware that, as much as I enjoy the beauty of the hills and valleys I’m passing through, as much as I learn the local history and ecology, I will never belong in this landscape. I’m always just a visitor. In fact, this has been my experience my entire life as a child of immigrants — a perpetual sense of displacement, of not belonging, wherever I go. On one hand, this has made it easy for me to travel to distant places, settle in new cities, absorb and appreciate new cultures. But that ease exists because I never feel truly at home anywhere. There is never really a landscape that I can call my native land.  

This kind of internal conflict would ideally underpin the characters in our novels, rooted in a specificity of race, class, gender, geography, but transformed through our writing to be universally understandable. And the ideal novel would encompass a sense of rewilding which is not just the purview of a white man, but would ask: what does rewilding mean for other people, too?

Rewilding implies a return to a more primordial state of nature — a wish for the great open spaces to be wild again, landscapes to revert to how they were before the onset of capitalism and the modern era. But this also includes the onset of colonialism — for European powers not to have claimed parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas, for the Industrial Revolution not to have taken place, and along with it, the 20th century and all the technological evils it brought to this earth. The reliance on fossil fuels, the influx of air travel, the rise of big agriculture and multinationals, the razing of rainforests. And yet, it is only in the 20th century where women’s rights and civil rights were recognised, where different cultures across continents were really able to meet and migrate, and start to consider each other as equals. And if I were to imagine my own life 200 years ago when the planet was a bit wilder, as a woman of Taiwanese origin, I would inevitably have been uneducated and impoverished, married young, borne many children, and reduced to a life of domestic servitude. I never would have been able to travel the world, snorkel in the South Pacific, hike in the Alps, or write novels.

When we talk about rewilding, it is impossible to extricate the processes which led to the degradation of our planet from the advances which have enabled the self-actualisation of more individuals today. I can appreciate nature and write about it: these are probably luxuries my female ancestors never enjoyed.

But all that is the past, a history we can regret for the impact it has had on the planet and on countless individual lives. As for the present and the future, it remains for us writers to imagine a rewilding where the environment can regain some of its previous health, without losing the advances made in human and animal rights. What would that ecotopia look like? How can we mend our environment while still maintaining the potential for self-actualisation which is enjoyed by so many in, at least, the developed world? Or are these two processes in opposition to each other?

Again, it comes down to individual self-interest vs. our responsibility to the world around us — the challenge to all civil societies, or civil planets. Does the ability to pursue our individual will necessitate the destruction of the environment?

So many novelists write of ecological dystopias— Margaret Atwood comes to mind with The Handmaid’s Tale, pitting her female protagonist’s will against a dystopian patriarchy in an era where ecological ruin has curtailed human fertility. And yes, so many of these post-apocalyptic landscapes involve women as sex slaves (Mad Max, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) that it gets tiresome. But I want us to imagine what a rewilded utopia would look like. A society where technology and nature can exist in balance, where the impulse towards power and abuse is negated by an understanding of equality and empathy, an awareness of our consequences on each other and the environment. What might that kind of future hold? And what human narratives can we envision taking place in the present, in order to prevent that apocalypse from happening?

If we can imagine it in fiction, then perhaps we can take the steps towards re-establishing that vision in our everyday lives. And perhaps then, we wouldn’t feel the need to travel halfway around the world on a long-haul flight to a tropical inlet, in order to witness nature at its most pristine and awe-inspiring.

But for now, these fleeting visits have their impact. There is something about the short-lived nature of travel which humbles us. Which makes us realise what all humans should come to realise, immigrants and ‘natives’ alike: that no landscape truly belongs to us. We are all just visitors, tourists passing through a place which will never be ours, which will go on existing in some condition, pristine or degraded, long after our individual journey ends.

Image: by Theglennpalacio [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Our ‘Rewilding the Novel’ series continues next week with an essay by Paul Kingsnorth. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 13

The Spring 2018 issue is a collection of essays, fiction, poetry and artwork about what it means to be human.
Read more
  1. I read this after reading ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ by Lynn White, Jr., an article included in “The Shadow Within”, a book edited by Cherry, Conley and Hirsch, published in 1973 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Along with this if we read “Belonging to the Universe” , a conversation between Fritjof Capra, Br.David Steindl-Rast and Thomas Mstus, it appears people know how the present commenced and reached this stage. They seem to be perplexed as to how to make a paradigm shift ! Would rewilding help? May be; and worth the try than keeping quiet or contemplating.


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