Published 11 December 2016
For three days in November, walking to and from the ASLEC ANZ and SEI 2016 Global Ecologies – Local Impacts Conference, my hair was tousled by wind currents running along the streets of Camperdown in Sydney. This was nothing startling: land breezes are a part of everyday life for me. As I write, my backyard trees in the Wet Tropics of Queensland’s far north are swaying fitfully in the airstreams that bring relief from the increasing dry-season heat.
As a poet, these winds could simply become for me a literary trope of movement from areas of high pressure to low pressure. I could apply it to the flow of ideas from a researcher’s area of interest to others who have not yet encountered, considered or appreciated them. Yet as much as winds can provide me with metaphors, it is important to acknowledge their effects on our lived experience. As Tim Ingold reminds me, we inhabit a material ‘weather-world’ (2011, pp. 96,130). This is brought home to me with great force during the tropical wet season, when monsoon troughs bring areas of low pressure over the warm Coral Sea, forming tropical cyclones which can intensify to severe tropical cyclones with wind gusts over 165 kilometres an hour as they cross our coastline. If that figure does not catch your attention, consider a Category 5 severe tropical cyclone with the wind speed reaching over 280 kilometres an hour. Researchers who follow the effects of human-induced change in the long-term patterns of our climate-world warn that ‘the intensity of tropical cyclones is likely to increase in the future, while overall cyclone frequency may decrease’ (Turton, 2014, p. 14). We may have more breathing space in between, but the blows will be getting bigger and stronger.
In the face of such data, what use is a poem, or any work of art? At the conference’s ‘artists’ roundtable’ discussion, artist Debbie Symons showed how, in her work World Species Market (2014), she displays data on endangered and extinct species. The statistics are arranged country by country on a stock market board, deftly juxtaposing a common representation of capitalist values with evidence of the destruction they cause. Her moving images not only present data, they allow us to put it into the context of a wider narrative.
In their edited book, Nerves and Numbers, Scott and Paul Slovic consider the effect of statistics about the loss of human lives on ‘affect’ defined as ‘the faint whisper of emotion’ that is a feeling of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in response to the figures. Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll’s research reveals that as the numbers of lives lost increases, there comes a point of ‘psychophysical numbing’ where figures showing more deaths do not result in any greater concern. This can reach the point of ‘compassion fade’ with less concern and less likelihood of action as the numbers increase. Where numbers describing the ‘big picture’ fail to stir us to action, their conclusion is that we also need ‘stories and images’ which are powerful in helping us to comprehend ‘large, complex problems’ (2015, pp. 6-33).
So poets, alongside other writers and artists, have an important role in bringing narratives about our environmental challenges to stand alongside the numerical data. Evocations of personal lived experience from a subjective point of view not only stir affective responses but empathic, embodied, emotional states that connect us human-to-human and also to the more-than-human world. As part of my ‘performative paper’ at the conference, I presented my suite of seven poems, Cyclone Ita and I. As Cyclone Ita crossed the coastline to the north in 2014, I was ready with my camera and notebook so I could shape my experience into a spoken-word ‘cycloem’, synchronised with sequences of images. The cycloem begins with the buffeting of the huge webs of two Giant Golden Orb-weaving Spiders, Nephila pilipes, in my backyard. It tells a story of anxiety during intense preparation, fear and sense of helplessness, destruction in spider and human habitats, the warmth and support of neighbours, the time of regrowth and picking up the pieces, reaching out to communities harder hit and the cyclone’s voice warning of the inevitable return.
In writing and performing the cyclone experience, I have taken my cue from Caribbean poet Kamau Brathwaite who questions how rhythm can be used to ‘approximate the natural experience, the environmental experience’ of a hurricane (1984, p. 10). Because the power is bound to go out during a cyclone, I always fill in a tracking chart with data from the Bureau of Meteorology: numbers of longitude and latitude, central pressures, maximum wind gusts and speed of travel. As an important component of my rational decision-making, my scribbled figures feature on-screen during the performance. Yet it is in my experiments with poetic form, rhythm, and the sound of language, that the impact of the sensory story, the environmental experience, can be felt.
Am I wasting my breath poetically evoking an experience when I could be adding to the pool of numerical data on environmental crises or communicating the statistics to others? I’m lost for numbers here, not having encountered a meaningful quantitative metric of the immediate or long-term effect of an artwork. Yet I can offer the potential inherent in storytelling. If at least one person is drawn into the experience, perhaps recalling their own extreme experiences in the weather-world, and connecting that with what we know from numerical data about our disastrously changing climate-world, they are moved to contribute to positive action, my answer has to be ‘not at all’.
Helen Ramoutsaki’s poetry-in-performance work, Click!, synchronises spoken word with photojournalistic images to evoke her experience of living in the Wet Tropics bioregion of Far North Queensland. Her creative practice-led doctoral project, The Arachnophobe Poet as Natural Historian, is being supervised by Adjunct Professor Stephen Torre of James Cook University in Cairns.
Brathwaite, E. K. (1984). History of the Voice. London: New Beacon Books.
Ingold, T. (2011). Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Slovic, S., & Slovic, P. (Eds.). (2015). Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data. Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press.
Symons, D. (2014). World Species Market. Retrieved from http://debbiesymons.com.au/world-species-market/
Turton, S. (2014). Chapter 2: Climate Change Projections for the Wet Tropics Cluster. In D. W. Hilbert (Ed.), Climate Change Issues and Impacts in the Wet Tropics NRM Cluster region (pp. 14-24). Cairns, Queensland: James Cook University.