Writing Nature in the Active Voice

We inhabit an epoch of planetary unraveling marked by industrial capitalist processes that are undermining conditions of life at a global scale. Many of us find ourselves at a loss for words when faced with the unspeakable violence wrought by large-scale, extractive human activity on more-than-human communities of life–including those among us who are trained in the arts of narrative craft and storytelling.

And yet, finding other ways to word the world is vital if we are to forge alternative futures, grounded in an acknowledgement of the consequential agency of the myriad plants, animals, elements, and ecosystems whom humans become-with. 

As an environmental anthropologist and environmental humanities scholar, I have long grappled with the question of how to story more-than-human worlds and their constitutive processes of extraction, extinction, and emergence.[1] In this effort, I have found profound inspiration in the works of feminist theorists and Indigenous scholars who invite us to engage sensorially, affectively, and cognitively with other-than-humans in order to better recognize their multiplicity, relationality, and vulnerability.[2] The late Val Plumwood, for instance, was an Australian ecofeminist who played a significant role in the development of radical ecosophy—a philosophical approach that examines humankind’s entanglements with the environment and that centers the importance of harmony and equilibrium within interspecies relations. 

I was lucky, back in March 2018, to have had the chance to visit Plumwood’s home in rural New South Wales. 

The experimental and reflexive piece below seeks to put into practice what Plumwood calls “writing nature in the active voice.” To write nature in the active voice is, as Plumwood notes: 

“a project of re-animating the world, and remaking ourselves as well, so as to become multiply enriched but consequently constrained members of an ecological community […] Above all, it is permission to depict nature in the active voice, the domain of agency.”[3]

One morning, during my visit to the Plumwood estate, I journeyed to the forest surrounding Plumwood’s home with my pen and notebook in hand. First, I looked for a place to sit. The inviting, mossy rock, perhaps? Or the sinewy fallen fern trunk? I wondered where I would cause the least disturbance to my surroundings. I looked for a place (not) of one’s own in the forest. Soon, these thoughts were replaced by others—do I make any difference to the rocks? The moss? The ferns? The leeches? The wind?

Finally, the moss rock drew me to its downy surface. As I sat down, my eyes were drawn to the sky above. Lulled by the river’s liquid lullaby, I felt myself becoming affectively enlisted by this place. Following multispecies scholar Anna Tsing’s injunction, I attempted to “look around, not ahead.”[4] I noticed the leaves and branches that were breaking the sky into shards of light and hues and texture along their filigreed contours. Transparency and translucency flirted with shade and shadow. The wind partook in the frolic of leaf and light.

​A glue-like fragrance suffused the air. The plumwood trees were perspiring. Their sweet-pungent breath wafted across the forest, mingling with the water gurgling, the insects buzzing, the birds whistling, the hummus sweating. There was something spiritual about that forest sensorium that conjured what Hawai’ian scholar Manulani Aluli-Meyer describes as a way of knowing that is not purely conceptual or detached from the world, but rather rooted in place, lived, and experienced.[5] Attuning to this sensorium, Aluli-Meyer notes, means learning to listen (ho’olono in Hawai’ian) to the spiritual and material relationships that animate more-than-human worlds. In the forest where I was sitting, smells and sounds interlaced with the furriness of lichens, the hardness of rocks, the softness of rotting branches, the sharp bite of the cold meandering stream.

How does one write nature in the active voice without letting the script over-write/ride the alterity of other-than-human life? Should we describe, or de-scribe? How do we come to understand life through its living inscriptions on rock and water and bark? In this interspecies deciphering, how do we weave description with de-cryption?   

The sun’s rays caressed the forest, and surfaces glimmered and faded in its moving path of light. One by one, the forest revealed its colors. The cool green of the budding fern in circinate vernation. The wet browns of mangled branches. The sudden flash of red of a scrambling spider. The ivory-white of the Plumwood petal. Some surfaces gave in, while others didn’t. The rock in its satiny garments of moss, crowned with their delicate tiaras of water droplets. The river, speckled with water-gliders and floating leaves. Cracks and fissures in the furrowed limbs of trees revealed themselves. The playful rays cast dents and grooves in the rocks into haut-relief. A neon pink plastic ribbon, tied around a nearby tree trunk to help visitors retrace their path to Plumwood’s home, glared at me. Its bright pinkness was somehow intrusive And yet I need it to find my way back. It is here because I am here.

The forest is a world of limbs. Gnarled, sinewy, splitting, rejoining, interweaving limbs. Vegetal and insect limbs spread and search for light, water, and sustenance, while human limbs search for words. And then there is the porous, formless limb that is the body of water (oh, so truly) before me.

The pulse of the forest makes me aware of my own breathing. I imagine the inhalations and exhalations of the vegetation and creatures around, above, and below me. A dispersed breath. The forest perspires sweet dew. Wetness rises from rotting vegetation. Invisible rhythms and growths enliven this invisible gaseous ecology. I am reminded in this moment of Potawatomi Nation citizen and environmental and forest biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s invitation to attune to more-than-human “grammars of animacy”—a term she develops from the Native word Puhpowee, which translates as “the force that causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight” and for which no comparable term exists in Western scientific idioms.[6]

While writing, I notice the shadow of a small spider cast across the page. Its legs scurry back and forth, up and down. I move my hand, it scuttles along. Where is it? How far? How close? I watch its moving shadow, its minuscule shape, the size of the scribbles along the page. I could be holding you. The spider hovers–backgrounded by an ink blotch on my finger. My little companion in the shadow moves across the words on the paper. It is making an environment of me as it builds its web, itself a web of parts and processes, a prey and predator. I wonder–why do I revel in your company in this place, yet resent you in my home? I resist the urge to name you. I want to be curious about you, but all I have is your shadow. I want to slow down and care about this encounter–in the way I experience it, and in the way I write it.[7] And then, suddenly, it is over.

Survival—etymologically, it means “to outlive another; to live at the expense of another.” To sur-vive. Yet this space I am in speaks less of sur-vival than of co-vival. Might that not be a better way to think about living and letting live?

​A Plumwood petal settles on the wet soil. It will continue. All of this. It will continue to change. As I stood to leave, I felt the urge to walk the opposite direction and follow the river that drops off below me. I wanted to stay in the wisdom of this place—unfathomable. I said thank you and goodbye. I am not sure to whom, or if I was heard. And maybe that does not matter. It will continue. And with you all, I know I was never alone.

[1] See e.g. Sophie Chao, “(Un)Worlding the Plantationocene: Extraction, Extinction, Emergence,” eTropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics 21, no. 1 (2022); “Plantation,” Environmental Humanities 14, no. 2 (2022); with Dion Enari, “Decolonising Climate Change: A Call for Beyond-Human Imaginaries and Knowledge Generation,” eTropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics 20, no. 2 (2021): 32–54.

[2] Key figures who have inspired my thinking in this respect include Anna Tsing, Christine Winter, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Deborah Bird Rose, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

[3] Val Plumwood, “Nature in the Active Voice,” Australian Humanities Review 46 (May 2009): 125–126.

[4] Anna L. Tsing, “More-Than-Human Sociality: A Call for Critical Description,” in Anthropology and Nature, ed. Kirsten Hastrup (Oxford: Routledge, 2014), 27–42.

[5] Manulani Aluli-Meyer, “Our Own Liberation: Reflections on Hawaiian Epistemology,” The Contemporary Pacific 13, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 124–148.

[6] Robin W. Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Press, 2014).

[7] Deborah B. Rose, “Slowly – Writing into the Anthropocene,” TEXT 17, no. 20 (2013): 1–14.

*Cover image: The author near the Plumwood estate.

[*Cover image description: A woman stands in a field of tall grass, hands tucked into her long brown jacket. Left of the woman a tree not much taller than the woman frames the photo. In the background a forest meets a white-grey sky near the top of the photo.]

Edited by Asmae Ourkiya, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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