Opinion

We Need to Take up the Burden of Remaking the World

Astrida Neimanis and Jennifer Mae Hamilton consider how the past summer of drought and bushfire — and the rain that finally followed — is strangely foreshadowed in a 1943 short story by feminist Australian writer Marjorie Barnard.

Photo by Petrychenko Anton on Shutterstock

“Dry Spell” is a short story by Marjorie Barnard, published in 1943 in the collection The Persimmon Tree. It depicts a narrator making their way through a drought and fire addled city among other displaced inhabitants–both from the city itself and from the surrounding countryside. The city had not seen rain in ages, and everyone was heading towards the sea.

“The country with its endless, aching death pressed in on the city, the drought and heat pressed on both. In the city and its environs its stamp was no less clear. The bush on the outskirts was more than half dead. … Water could no longer be relied on to combat the fires.” (153)

Written almost 80 years ago, the temporal location of the story is ambiguous. It seems to be taking place in the author’s future, but just how far into that future it reaches is hard to say. The city, however, is clearly named; it is Sydney.

Reading Barnard’s story now is uncanny. We read it, and wrote about it, in early December last year, as the first signs of the (still ongoing) devastating summer were settling in for the long haul: Sydney (where Astrida was writing from) was blanketed in a smoky haze that cancelled out the city’s characteristic sunny blue skies. And around Armidale (where Jennifer was writing from) lightning bolts from storms were already setting the dry earth on fire. We could be characters in that story.

Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) was an Australian writer, historian and librarian.

 

Drought and fire pressed with a spectacular urgency, but their entanglement with each other and exacerbation by climate change also masked slower violences of environmental crisis that were—that are—also ongoing: species extinction, land clearing, extraction, fish kills, water sell-offs and buy backs. Like many others, we also knew the signs we were already seeing, and smelling, were all environmentally legible symptoms of bigger and deeper socio-political structures and ongoing processes: colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy amongst them.

These were the questions we were writing about, as we composed an introductory essay for the special issue of Australian Feminist Studies on feminist environmental humanities. Like the articles gathered in the issue, we wanted our introductory essay to underscore how these violences—slow and spectacular—were connected.

The kinds of disasters that were usually elsewhere—in another place or a future time—were right here and now. An op-ed in The Guardian that appeared during our writing reflected sentiments eerily similar to Barnard’s tale and our own experience: “It is, as ever, rural and regional Australia that has borne the heaviest costs of this crisis – in lives, homes and the gruelling labour.” But maybe, the op-ed’s author Josephine Tovey continues, this is a “turning point” for city dwellers—those “who often only watch these crises from a sympathetic distance.” Like Barnard writing decades earlier, Tovey knows that the “[c]ity limits won’t hold out the reality of the natural world and its changing climate” (2019). The interleaving of Barnard’s, Tovey’s and our stories captures our current predicament well: time and space have collapsed, old temporal delineations of past, present and future shift, and geographical distinctions between the city and the country are remade in the shared experience of planetary change.

The characters in Barnard’s story seem familiar today too. The inhabitants of her addled city are adrift, not knowing what to do or how to think. They “walk because there was no reason for stopping”. The “Captain-General” of the colonial town holds a fancy title, but has no sway over these ecological circumstances. Most of the characters seems to be walking, zombie like, towards the water, or each other, or aimlessly. While they are on the move, they do not have anything to move towards. They do not know what they want. They eventually gather in Macquarie Square around an anchor-made-monument, a remnant part of the First Fleet, and a reminder that the colonial apocalypse has long been going on.

As the story concludes, it starts raining. What kind of ending is this? The rain signifies salvation, but the rain of this story does not deliver on its promise. Back to the future, in our own essay we write:

Putting out these fires and ending this drought requires much more than water.”

Yet, while the uncanniness of Barnard’s story might suggest that nothing much changes, it reminds us that differences must also be taken into account. We are all in this together, but we are all in this in situated, specific ways. Like the characters in Barnard’s story, different bodies feel devastation differently, and react to and interpret it in many different ways. There are those of us who hang on to colonial costumes—holed up in the bunker of continuing settler violence. There are those whose ways of life the very existence of this city has already irreversibly altered. There are those who can’t undertake the journey to escape the fires. There are those who—like in Barnard’s story—are transfixed by the “metterology” bulletins as though all that is needed is a change in the weather. But although rain is needed, in the right places and in the right amounts, these devastations have never been simply meteorological.

Barnard’s story is cli-fi avant la lettre; that is clear. But it is also exemplifies a feminist approach to climate change – a feminist environmental humanities, if you will, avant la lettre. In the context of these devastating fires many academics like us are asking necessary questions about the value and point of scholarly research and writing. One of the important functions of the feminist environmental humanities projects we have been tracking and building is their ability first, to insist on the connections between environmental devastation and longstanding social injustices, and second, to refuse a homogenisation or flattening of how all beings fit into these stories. Third, such projects refuse the impetus to mastery.

Feminist environmental humanities does not purport to know what we all need now. We posit neither a technocratic solution, nor a singular, precise vision for what we are walking towards. But we need to continue modelling different possibilities to walk toward nonetheless. These possibilities are grounded in the world, but also wanting it to change. Even as the rain falls, the narrator in Barnard’s story concludes: “Nothing would come of it now […] We must take up the burden of remaking the world.” We too must take up the burden of remaking the world.

Reading Barnard now, as so much around us is in ashes, we are reminded—echoing the words of black feminist lesbian poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs—we are already after and with the end of the world. But even as it seems that space and time are torqueing and contracting—there is here and then is now—this does not mean that nothing changes. New particularities and convergences emerge, too. Thus, there is no single solution or essential escape route from this devastation, only temporally weird, spatially diverse and site-specific responses. We—a collective subject position always under constant renegotiation—can move us towards an otherwise, and slowly remake the world.

Sign at the Sydney Climate March in January 2020. Photo by Astrida Neimanis

 

 

References
1. Barnard, Marjorie. 1943. The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories. Sydney: Clarendon Publishing Co.

 

This blog is based on and partially excerpted from the article “Five Desires, Five Demands”, published this month in a special issue of Australian Feminist Studies. The issue, focussing on feminist environmental humanities, is co-edited by Neimanis and Hamilton and is available for open access here.

The special issue will be officially launched on 20 February 2020 at the University of Sydney.


Astrida Neimanis is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research is located at the intersection of feminist theory and environmental humanities, with a focus on water, weather and bodies.  Her books include Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (2017) and the co-edited collection, Thinking with Water (2013). Astrida is also Associate Editor of the journal Environmental Humanities. Her current project is investigating military and chemical legacies at the bottom of the sea.

Jennifer Mae Hamilton is Lecturer in Literary Studies and researches in the area of interdisciplinary feminist environmental humanities and ecocriticism. Her work explores the relationship between meteorology and anthropogenic structures that moderate the human-weather relation (like narratives and drains). With Astrida Neimanis she developed COMPOSTING Feminisms and Environmental Humanities reading and research group in 2015 and co-convenes the Hacking the Anthropocene events. And with Tessa Zettel, Kate Wright, Astrida Neimanis and Rebecca Giggs, Jennifer is one fifth of The Weathering Collective.