John Burnside was born in 1955 and lives in Fife, Scotland. He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. His poetry cultivates an intimate relationship with the pastoral, a world of landscape and light. He has published six collections of poetry: Feast Days (1992), winner of The Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and The Asylum Dance, winner of the prestigious Whitbread Poetry Award in 2000. His latest book is The Light Trap (2002). He has also written four books of fiction.
paulo da costa spoke with him at the 2001 Edinburgh Literary Festival.
paulo da costa: At this festival you stated being more interested in the relationship between humans and nature than the relationships between people. Will you please expand on your statement?
John Burnside: Obviously I am interested in human relationships, but I think we often stop there. Most literary art is about relationships between humans, most often about urban relationships, about marriage or romances. Prose writers don’t often address our relationship to what we call wilderness: other animals, the whole non-human world. It’s easier to write about the breakdown of a marriage, or a love affair, or office politics. I think there is an urgency to write about the rest of the living world, the non-human world, because the only way we’re going to stop ourselves from destroying everything in that sphere is for us to recognize our connections, our interdependence to that world.
In my own reading, Paul Shepard has interested me for a while in addressing such connections. There are important things happening in the States: people are thinking about the non-human world, relationships with animals, and pursuing the relationship between what we might call industrial modern Man and indigenous people, people who are different, people with a different method of dealing with different traditions. This shift is also happening in northern parts of Europe, Russia . But more importantly, what happens in North America dominates what happens in the rest of the world. North American writers are addressing that question.
Barry Lopez is a hugely important source of inspiration, as well as poets such as Mary Oliver. These writers are often women; it’s interesting to note that maybe there has been a delineation in the past of what is called nature poetry and it has been considered less important than political or social poetry or poetry that comments on the philosophy of language. Nature poetry belonged to women: they are allowed to do that stuff, write about nature or do embroidery. And out of that, women have turned it on its head and written new ways of relating to the non-human world, and new paradigms of nature. Instead of just writing about landscapes, doing little watercolours like a Jane Austen thing, or writing little poems about daffodils, they are talking about something fundamental to human existence in the world.
And so there are poets like Jorie Graham – especially in her first three books – and Mary Oliver, Linda Gregorson, Alison Funk: these women poets are so important. These people are addressing the non-human world in poetry. And the people who are addressing it in prose are often not seen as literary figures. Barry Lopez, how do you understand Barry Lopez? Is he a fiction writer? He does write fiction, but he is seen as writing about this thing called nature, isn’t he? He’s writing about ecology. Obviously a philosopher and an ecologist, but there’s a perception that there is literary art over here and then there is the rest of writing. I want to blur the distinctions. There are writers on science who are far more inspiring to me than mainstream novelists and prose writers. Even in their style. Stephen Jay Gould is a great stylist, as well as being somebody whose ideas are inspiring.
pdc: You may want to read the books of Wade Davis then.
JB: Wade Davis?
pdc: A Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotonist whose writings I find extraordinary. I think in Canada we have a stronger relationship to our environment than Americans because of our extreme weather, the ruggedness of the land, the magnitude of the landmass we inhabit and the relative small population density when compared to other parts of the world. In Canada , the presence and force of nature cannot be ignored on a day-to-day basis. It can easily kill you.
You have also mentioned that we are predominantly urban cultures in this century. How is an urban person going to relate to wilderness and to poetry, both infused with silence and space, containing the reflective, when urban lives tend to be antithesis to such experience of the wild, of space, of silences? In one of your poems, you begin by saying silence is possible… Could you connect these: silence, the wilderness, the cities, the future of this earth?
JB: I think the idea of wilderness is often used in a fragmented way. It creates discontinuity between our life and something out there, as the word nature has done too. We see ourselves as being here while nature is over there, somewhere. Of course nature is continuous – we are nature, aren’t we? But it’s most often used to describe pieces, islands if you like, of land that we haven’t started to destroy yet. There are parts of Alaska that are called wilderness, parts of Canada are called wilderness. Is wilderness a place you go on a vacation? Or where you go to explore for oil or minerals? We need to stop partitioning out of the wilderness, drawing border lines between civilized life and wilderness for example, or say man and animal.
I think the poetry that I like, the poetry that often inspires me, is about that blurring of the lines that we usually draw. Alison Funk is a poet on the edge of what you might call an urban environment. She has a garden reaching out into the wilderness, the wild life, non-urban life. Her poetry is usually about encounters, for example, deer coming through her garden. She writes about that moment, not of confrontation, but recognition or non-recognition sometimes. Do you know Paul Shepard’s work? He writes about how important it is for human beings, as they grow up, to learn by witnessing and being with animals, sharing the world with them. We learn things from sharing things: you can’t stay at home in your little world, playing with your toys as a child, and learn things. You have to go out and encounter others, and you encounter other humans but also other animals. That recognition comes into poets like Alison Funk. And of course Mary Oliver.
The question is a difficult one because I get worried when I end up sounding to myself as though I’m conserving something. It’s as if there is something out there, somewhere, and we say “Oh, we’ll draw a line around that, we’ll preserve it, we won’t damage it so much then and we can do what we like here.” Well, let’s stop and say, “It starts here and it goes all around the terrain,” recognizing different habitats and treating them appropriately. We were talking just now about the sparrows on Princess Street ? That’s part of the deal. Making sure that we’re doing something about the sparrows on Princess Street is part of the deal. I’m worried about portioning bits of the world out and saying, “We’ll call that wilderness, we’ll call that national park, and we’ll watch over the whole thing appropriately.” Of course there’s a large area of Alaska because it’s still there and it’s, you know, what’s left. We have to stop George Bush from destroying it. He has that fantastic justification about exploiting the world. There was an agreement among exploration companies that they would only go there during winter, when the land was covered with ice and the drilling machinery would have no impact because there would be this protective shield of ice. Does he understand anything? Has he got a backyard? You know if you walk across a backyard that’s covered in ice you’re going to damage the earth. He says that it’s going to be safe because it’s covered in ice, so it’s okay.
pdc: We suffer from ecological illiteracy, mostly because we are now overwhelmingly urban societies.
JB: That’s why I think that everybody should learn ecology in school and in college. But what does ecology mean? One thinks of ecology as being about plants and animals and earth and water, but ecology means the study of how to dwell. Ecology is dwelling. So we have to learn how to dwell on the earth, whether we live in the middle of a large urban area or in a field somewhere. Ecology’s a science of how we deal with that particular piece of terrain that we’re living in, how we treat it with respect and how we make it something that we don’t poison. So you could have ecology courses in schools that are appropriate for central London or Toronto or wherever. In New York or Chicago you would have a different ecology because they are different cities, and a different ecology as well as for someone in New Mexico or New Guinea or the Arctic Circle . I think if a seven year old could understand things that happen in the Arctic Circle have a direct impact on their lives, then they would grow up to be different people. And they could understand how beautiful the Arctic Circle or the desert are. Then they would understand how subtle changes have a great and devastating impact. And how attuned everything is to the weather and to the seasons.
For the British, the image that is probably most evocative is the bluebells, especially in Southern England . You have slightly open woodlands and you see bluebells across the floor of the woods, so you go out a certain time of year and all you can see is blue underneath these trees. And there’s a specific seasonal relationship between the canopy of trees and the bluebells. For example, if the trees were to leaf out a couple of weeks early, then you wouldn’t get the flowers. And because of global warming, as we insist on calling climatic change, there is a risk that trees will leaf out earlier. That is one small example. It’s like talking about mosquitoes. People think that’s a good thing if mosquitoes die out, but with the bluebells they get emotional. When I talk about ecology in England , I talk about the bluebell woods, because people say “Oh, I don’t want to lose the bluebell woods, where do I sign?” But if you go to the Arctic, and you learn something happening in the Arctic is going to change your bluebell woods or the water levels, then you are interested in global warming. It matters a lot more to you. Understanding the inter relation of species and showing the children what that means, showing that interrelatedness of things is central to life. Then we can connect back into this understanding and say “What I do can indirectly influence what happens to somebody else in another part of the world. I belong to the same biosphere as wolverines and giraffes.” It connects people back in again. I think poetry can help do that. Poetry is recording one’s own experiences and connections. It teaches you something about the whole universe.
pdc: I live in a city, near downtown, where deer wander down the river valley, and sometimes I hear coyotes howl as I am falling asleep. To me this is not unusual, however if I mention it to people in most European cities they say: wow, it’s unimaginable here. The equivalent would be to imagine wild boars or deer wandering through Edinburgh . Is this European estrangement from the wild the result of people not encountering the power of raw nature?
JB: The typical animal poem is D.H. Lawrence’s The Snake. The D.H. Lawrence poem is one of my favorites: he is out in the morning and the snake comes to the water trough to drink. He finds himself throwing something at the snake as though he has to fight it off, then he feels ashamed, because there is no threat to him from the snake, and he stands by and watches the snake drink, and respects it allowing it to move on. It’s a wonderful poem.
I think about the fact that we think of our houses as being somehow separate from the rest of the world. I would like to write poetry that reminds the reader that inside your house is a whole wealth of live things – there are flies, there are woodlice, there are beetles, there are spiders. People still go around stomping on spiders. Where I live on the coast, next to farmland, we get field mice coming in – not into the house – but into the shed in the yard. We could put out poison, but why would you poison a field mouse? What harm is it doing? People casually kill insects in the house. They recognize that some animals are worth saving and not damaging, and it’s the same with mites and flies and lice.
pdc: How did the experience of visiting the Arctic begin to leave its mark on your writing?
JB: I’ve been to the Arctic Circle three or four times. Either in Norway or Finland . When I first went , I felt very much at home. It was a strange feeling. I travel extensively because of writing and I find different places interesting, but when I got off the plane in Norway and I looked around there was something about the air, the light, the land around me. I felt right at home.
The next time I went, it was to Finland , in the middle of winter, and again it was astonishing. I had a little time to go and look around outside. It was minus 35 degrees but I went walking. And the next time I went to Norway , in September, and I spent a lot of time traveling around, walking. I was stunned by the landscape, if you want to call it landscape, the terrain, the space. It felt comfortable to me. I like space, I like openness. I like having to look for things. I haven’t been to deserts, but I know that people say that the first impression of a desert is silent rocks, bare stuff. Then you start looking and noticing the details, the plant life, and the animal life. It’s not so extreme as a desert, but all you see is scrubby little birch and moss, that is what you see first, and then you start seeing the details of different lichens and different grasses and different types of moss and different weeds. I am interested in botany and so I recognized the plants. If you went to the Amazon or some forest area, you would probably be overwhelmed by the richness. You don’t have to look hard to see how complex and interesting it is. But in the Arctic your first impression is of stones, a few scrubby trees and rocks. When you look harder you learn that there is much more . Compared to the Arctic, Scotland is lush, but Scotland when compared to England, the trees are limited and stunted.
When I first went to the Arctic it was like being a tourist, landing in a new place and looking at it and going away again. I started writing directly from the experience of being there. I had my son with me, he is one year old, so I wrote partly about being there with my son. I have also written about using that terrain as a metaphor for things to do with dwelling. I guess I am returning to that same question over and over again. I can’t solve it. I can’t find an answer.
Recently, I entitled a poem after an island up there. It’s a traditional village next to this astonishing seascape and it is rich in bird life. People seemed to be living in balance with what I thought was a military base. The building is the first thing you see when you drive in – it’s called rocket research base, I think – and your heart sinks. But in fact they are researching the Northern Lights. They are doing something interesting, they are not figuring out how to make bombs. I wrote about this place because I was interested in how human beings live in a place like that and even more provisional environments. I guess we tend to think in terms of where we come from as fixed and secure and stable. We tend to think that way of urban areas. We want to control the world. And when we go to somewhere like the Arctic Circle or a desert, we think of it as being more provisional. But say, for example, if you were living in Britain during the severe floods we had two winters ago, you start to realize that we live in a provisional relationship with the natural order around us, with the rest of the world.
I wrote a poem recently called Bleik, the name of an island up there, and Bleik, it seemed to me, was a wonderful place. It’s a traditional village next to this astonishing seascape and it is rich in bird life. People seemed to be living in balance with what I thought was a military base. The building is the first thing you see when you drive in and your heart sinks. But in fact they’re researching the Northern Lights. They’re doing something interesting, they’re not figuring out how to make bombs. I wrote about this place because I was interested in how human beings live in a place like that and even more provisional environments. I guess we tend to think in terms of where we come from as fixed and secure and stable. We tend to think that way of urban areas. We want to control the world. And when we go to somewhere like the Arctic Circle or a desert, we think of it as being more provisional. But say, for example, if you were living in Britain during the severe floods we had two winters ago, you start to realize that we live in a provisional relationship with the natural order around us, with the rest of the world.
An author called William Least Heat-Moon wrote a book called Blue Highways about travelling around the U.S. He also wrote an even more interesting book called PrairyErth about Chase County, which is right in the middle of the U.S. One of the concerns he has is about how people who live in Kansas deal with the fact that they live in a place where flooding, tornadoes, you name it, are common. How they live with that, how they build their houses accordingly. They use certain materials and they live in a certain way and build a storm shelter as a natural part of building a house. You live in a provisional relationship to the world; you know that you can’t control the world around you.
pdc: That’s more of a Buddhist approach.
JB: Yeah, yeah. I’ve actually been to Chase County and the people there are laid back, cool. They have that relationship with the world around them. I met people who were in the book. I met these guys who had been key in providing him with historical and anecdotal information. It’s interesting to see those people and their normal community. How they’ve made an appropriate response to the land around them. And obviously there were bad things too. There is a huge animal waste rendering plant. If you were in the house when the wind blew in a certain direction, your stomach turned, you felt sick. Basically the plant takes the waste from cattle, bones etc., and grinds it down. And it stank, it was horrible. If the wind was in the right direction, it was a nice place to be: blue prairie grass country and poplars, it was fantastic.
Britain’s been a sheltered place where we don’t have extreme weather, it’s polite weather we have here. Now things are happening that suggest that maybe it’s going to start changing here: we’ve had flooding before, but now it’s extreme. People have built in the wrong places. Prince Charles called it arrogance. I’m not a royalist, but when he said that, the flak he got about, who do you think you are, saying that. You know, he’s right. It’s an intense arrogance of human beings to say, “Right, we’re going to build on that flood plain there and not expect the houses to flood, and we’ll just put sandbags around the river, it’s just a river after all”. Rivers themselves, it seems to me, are such wonderful entities, and in any sensible religion, every river’s a god. Gods are attached to a river in some way, rivers are treated with respect. And it’s arrogant not to treat the river with respect. We’re living with rivers, we’re living with mountains, we’re living with the winds. And we have to respect them.
pdc: I heard you read from your forthcoming book: The Light Trap and it seems that you have entered the voices of beings, plants and the animal world as in a transmigration of species. Could you tell us what this book is about and what it means to you?
JB: I look back now as I’m finishing this poetry book and I realize that what I’ve been doing is moving more and more towards directly exploring questions to do with that other-than-human world. I’ve had a couple of discussions with other writers about the question of why there isn’t more interest in ecology and bringing ecology into literature. There are Americans, Canadians and people in other countries who are interested in this, but they’re still not the fashionable ones. Mary Oliver is not John Ashbery, I’m not saying anything against him, I love his work, but Mary Oliver doesn’t get the same attention; she’s not a well-read figure. One person said to me that he wishes we could form some club, you know. But of course that wouldn’t work, because writers aren’t like that, poets especially aren’t like that. They don’t belong, they’re wending their own way, they walk in the woods and they think up poems. But I sort of feel that what I’d like to do is call out to the other poets of Britain in particular, but also in other countries, and say, “Let’s start talking about these things, let’s start talking about the non-human world, about our relationship with the non-human world. Let’s start bringing some complexity, some subtlety into the argument.” It is the case, especially in England, say, that if someone labels you a “nature poet,” you’d still be seen as somehow nice and middle class and maybe a bit dilettante. You would somehow be writing about cute things, kind of post-Wordsworthian. And I think the only way you could do it is by example. Whatever flaws there are in this work, I’m stating with this writing that I’m committed, personally committed, to thinking and writing about those issues to do with the world around us, the wider world. History is how humans view the world and relate to other human beings. Poets who should know better, in my opinion, are still concerned with things like national identity or nationalism. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. If, in a magical sense, the world becomes uninhabitable, knowing who you are as a member of a nation will be of little importance. If it’s raining all the time and your house is flooded, do you care if you’re Scottish or English or Welsh or Irish or Canadian or American? No, you care about your house. That’s what interests you. I don’t want to be prescriptive and say “Don’t write about that, write about this.” But what I want to say is that I’m not interested in those things, I’m interested in this and I want to say to people, “Aren’t you interested in it too?”
I found an inspiring book by a guy called Jonathan Bates, who is a literary critic. He’s written about Shakespeare and other subjects. He wrote a book The Sum of the Earth. He says that one goes to any university and there will be a post-colonial expert in the literary department and at least one feminist critic, but there will be very few universities where you could go and say to the departmental secretary, “Where is the ecologist in this department who writes critically about ecology and poetry?” And he’s saying, why is that? These things grew out of sixties radicalism: ecology, race and feminist issues. Race and feminism have been taken up by the academic community and treated seriously, addressed and argued about. Some of it’s rubbish and some of it’s brilliant and inspiring. Where is the stuff about ecology? Ecology occasionally sneaks in through eco-feminist theory. But the subject of ecology directly, without any strings attached, happens rarely. I think you’d have trouble in most major universities finding people in the school of literature devoted to ecology. And the fact that Bates is asking those questions is important. I’m interested in poetry that addresses that area, but isn’t nature poetry. I’m not writing nature poetry. I don’t want to entertain, or make animals cute. And the message isn’t simple, either. It’s not some simple thing like Save the Whales, it’s about a complex of issues and it’s a philosophical question.
I’ve been doing a lot of work preparatory to writing a new book: writing some essays and looking at the history of the twentieth century and thinking of the philosophers who were considered major when I was a student. Looking back and seeing which ones interest me now. Heidegger’s later work on language and poetry is central to everything, I think. Rabelais, the French philosopher who writes about Judaism and responsibility to the other, which in my opinion could be the non-human other or just another human being. Benjamin, who talks about language and naming and the difficulties of that: he has a wonderful idea of how human beings name the world, but the real names of things are the names that were given at the point of creation by god and we have to somehow restore ourselves to using the proper names of things, to get a balance. People like Barry Lopez, people like Paul Shepard: they are essential philosophers who have been somehow marginalized, and shoved off to the periphery, almost seen as a new-agey thing and therefore dismissible. They’re central, and I want to write about them directly in an essay form, talking about how they have nourished me, not influenced but nourished me, kept my spirit alive in a world like this. So the poetry’s related to that. In the end, each poem stands alone, as an organic entity in itself. And it doesn’t need to preach or persuade or send a message. A poem for me is like a rock, an entity in a natural world that is organic and freestanding. But put them together and they should create an atmosphere that will raise questions to do with ecology and dwelling.