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The Robin, the Wolves, and the Library

Published onOct 26, 2023
The Robin, the Wolves, and the Library

There is always a robin, I say, when I am asked about my spiritual or religious beliefs. This may be evasive, but it is not a simplistic statement. I’ve cultivated the same garden for twenty-two years, and there is always a robin waiting close to my feet for the worms I turn up every time I dig over the flowerbeds. Given that the robin has a lifespan of roughly two years, I must have kept company with at least eleven generations. It is their continuity that matters to me, and speaks of my own relationship with this plot and by extension, with life itself. I regard myself as a tenant rather than the owner of a parcel of land that is, anyway, an artificial construct of fences and legal documents. 

My life philosophy is inextricably tied up with the books that I read, so if people look sceptical, I might point them in the direction of a work of popular science—Tim Radford’s The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things, perhaps, which plays the schoolchild’s game of panning out from “our house in the middle of our street” to a perspective that recognises the island on which we both now live as “a 500-million-year accident of geophysics, the story of how Scotland crossed an ancient, vanished ocean and attached itself to what would become England.”1

This geological history, of course, rather overwhelms my faith in the continuity of a single common or garden bird species, even if I also know from my reading that birds evolved from dinosaurs. A more urgent question was raised recently by an acquaintance whose response to my assertion was, “so what happens when there aren’t any more robins?” A couple of summers ago, during a prolonged heatwave, I found two thrushes dead in my London garden with no obvious sign of injury; one was a little bundle of speckled feathers in a drain, its body already desiccated, as if it had died in a desperate search for water. As I write, I am awaiting the return of the swifts from their winter home in Southern Africa with what feels like bated breath. They are the soundscape of the summer and, like their fellow migrants, swallows and house martins, are late this year. In 2021, they were added to the Red List of endangered birds by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, after suffering a 58 percent decline in population since 1995.2 The possibility that their extraordinary journey may be derailed by heat, or freak winds, or the destruction of the insect life that they feed on along the way, becomes more distressingly alive each year.

The whole idea of what would happen if there were no more birds leaves me numb; it is beyond an imagination that has been formed by thousands of years of storytelling. It was a bird that showed Noah all was not lost, in the Old Testament, by carrying an olive branch to the ark. “Our eschatological traditions tend to envision the apocalypse as happening very fast, with the dawning of one final, single, dreadful day,” notes the nature writer Helen Macdonald, in her essay collection Vesper Flights. “But the systems of the wider world do not operate according to the temporalities of our human lives; we are already inside the apocalypse….”3

In such scary times, I find I don’t want the new and untested in literature; I want fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that have proved themselves over time and can help me to find my equilibrium—and they are not always the books you would expect from a longtime literary editor. Back in 1957, the bestselling thriller-writer Nevil Shute explored the idea of a nuclear apocalypse that might not be immediate. I returned to his novel On the Beach last year for a reminder of how my parents may have felt, raising a small child on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, under the shadow of the Cold War. The survivors are in Australia, following the destruction of the northern hemisphere by a catastrophic sequence of nuclear blunders. In one haunting scene, a young naval officer ponders the challenge facing survivors of a blast whose fallout has yet to reach them but is certain to do so. “It’s the end of the world,” he says. “I haven’t had to imagine anything like that before.” He is comforted by the ship’s scientist, who reassures him that “it’s not the end of the world at all. It’s the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it.”4

Although it might take six months for the final few to be poisoned in the event of a nuclear disaster, it’s an end that seems quick and clean compared with the scenario that confronts us today. Jessie Greengrass, author of the haunting novel The High House, also looked to Shute when she was formulating her own take on climate fiction:

I think, on reflection, that the difference for me between climate books and apocalypse fiction is that with post-apocalyptic novels so often the apocalypse itself is actually just mcguffin. […] It could be anything as long as it gets everyone into suitably awful circumstances—plague or famine or a bomb. Whereas what I was trying to do was deal with the specifics of this particular event—that’s why On The Beach felt relevant: because it’s not just generically awful, but is awful because it deals particularly with how radiation fallout would affect a population.5

One of the three survivors in Greengrass’s novel sums up the bleak prospect facing us today:

The whole complicated system of modernity which had held us up, away from the earth, was crumbling, and we were becoming again what we had used to be: cold, and frightened of the weather, and frightened of the dark. Somehow while we had all been busy, while we had been doing those small things which added up to living, the future had slipped into the present.6

The combination of Shute and Greengrass threw me into such a state of anxiety last summer that I had to retreat to my garden for a few days, to immerse myself in those small things that add up to living. But while weeding and digging might provide physical comfort, they also turn up signs of distress, and it’s not only the birds that are suffering; the exaggerated cycle of heat and rain has created havoc in the delicate ecosystem. I used to dream of an English cottage garden, but I now grow sedums and banana palms, the thrusting shoots of which push up ancient paving slabs, in a portent of what would quickly happen if there was nobody left to control them. I’ve given up on lupins, delphiniums, and dahlias because the wet, warm winters have unleashed what, with a gardener’s fury, I regard as a plague of slugs and snails. The proliferation of these tyrannical gastropods has become so extreme that, in the spring of 2022, the Royal Horticultural Society declared a truce, giving up on decades of research into ways of controlling them to rule that, from now on, they will no longer be regarded as pests.7 Only a very bad gardener—a King Cnut of the herbaceous border—would deny that accommodation with the changing patterns of nature is necessary and inevitable: we are nothing if not pragmatists. But this capitulation, in the face of human-made imbalances in nature, makes me uneasy. “The time is out of joint —O cursèd spite, That ever I was born to set it right!” said Shakepeare’s Hamlet, one of literature’s most infamous ditherers. For all that he was speaking in the context of a feudal system of anointed kings that is obsolete today, his words, and his indecision, ring out.

“Apocalyptic thinking,” writes Macdonald in Vesper Flights, “is a powerful antagonist to action.” But she does not leave us there. In its earlier senses, she points out, “apocalypse” meant a revelation, a vision, an insight, an unveiling of things previously unknown, “and I pray that the revelation of the current apocalypse can bring us the knowledge that we have the power to intervene.” What science does, she also writes, “is what I would like more literature to do: to show us that we are living in an exquisitely complicated world that is not all about us.”8 The problem is that the concept of a complicated world that is “not all about us” challenges the very foundations of our storytelling.

In 2018, seven leading American writers were commissioned to write standalone stories, in the new genre known as “cli-fi,” to be published on Kindle under the collective title Warmer. The two most interesting stories make it clear how hard it is to write from within a world without a foreseeable human future. “Day after day, whittled down to vegetable essence, life as a docile chemical process,” writes Jesse Kellerman in “Controller,” a torpid existential tale of a man locked in a room with his bedridden mother, which is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis clos.9 Pulitzer Prize–winner Jane Smiley, meanwhile, resorts to twee allegory, looking through the eyes of a kindly horse at an animal inquisition, which has executed all dogs as collaborators and is about to eliminate the last humans.10 

In their effort to imagine a post-human life, both stories drain themselves of the human agency and energy that drive so many narratives. As a perceptive New Yorker reviewer pointed out: “Taken together, the stories raise the question of whether a poetics of climate change exists… The crisis demands a form of literary expression that lifts it out of the realm of intellectual knowing and lodges it deep in readers’ bodies.”11

I ponder this thought when I’m digging over my allotment, which is so often the best opportunity to think. What is the literature that can lift me out of the realm of intellectual knowing? Small creatures have nipped off the shoots of my autumn-sown broad beans, leaving the green tips lying on the ground. The profligacy of this enrages me. I remember D. H. Lawrence's poem “Snake,” written in a different place at a different time of year—Sicily, in midsummer—but it calms me nonetheless, with its sensual evocation of an encounter at a water trough and its exhortation to live and let live. “The voice of my education said to me / He must be killed,” writes Lawrence, who throws a log at the snake and immediately regrets it: “I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act! / I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.”12

“Snake” resonates so intensely with me because I grew up in a hot, snake-infested country: Nigeria. Foxes, on the other hand, were the stuff of dark fairytale, set in cold, bleak lands, so I’m always faintly surprised to see them loping around London in broad daylight. In summer, they sleep in a clump of day lilies in my garden, leaving fox-sized holes among the foliage. Foxes, weasels, and wolves introduced me to the physical reality of the corny old expression “it made my blood run cold.” It was a weasel who stuffed Alison Uttley’s Hare into a bag in Little Grey Rabbit and took him off to eat him, in a story so menacing that I tore the spine off the book because the mere title gave me nightmares (I have it to this day). Wolves came later, through C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Joan Aitken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Wolves are lodged so deeply in European literary imagination that Margaret Atwood could write, not entirely flippantly, in her novel The Blind Assassin:

There's escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.13

In their shapeshifting passage through the history of literature, animals have become part of the way we see and feel ourselves. I know a wolfish grin when I see one; I also know grumpy old badgers and cold fish. But this is the human imagination commandeering animals as emblems. The question confronting us in an age of apocalypse is how to disrupt the colonising imagination and find less complacent ways of relating to the natural world that are capable of restoring a sense of both awe and urgency.

In a polemic published in 2016, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh argues that the whole Western tradition of storytelling is no longer fit for purpose.14 Ghosh cites the literary critic Franco Moretti, who has written about the ways in which, from the late eighteenth century onwards, a literary “world-system” dominated by England and France had promoted the realist novel at the expense of other literary forms. “In every other literary tradition, even Western literary traditions that are premodern, always nonhumans speak,” Ghosh told an audience at the Hay Festival. “The Iliad and The Odyssey are filled with nonhuman voices. Voices of gods, of animals, of all kinds of forces. If you look at Chinese literature, one of their greatest books is [Xiyou Ji’s sixteenth-century novel] Journey to the West, and the protagonist is a monkey. The Indian epics too are filled with nonhuman voices. So how do we reclaim them?”15

One answer is through challenging the very structure of the novel—and Ghosh believes that, in the five years since his polemic was published, the tectonic plates of literature have begun to shift. “Something very important happened in 2018, which was the publication of Richard Powers’ Overstory,” he says. Though published and promoted as a novel, The Overstory takes the form of a series of stories which connect in unconventional patterns, reflecting recent discoveries that trees communicate in ways we are only beginning to understand. “I think that was really a landmark event. Not just because of the wonderful writing but also because the critical response to it was completely different to how it had been to other such books before. It was taken seriously—it wasn’t marginalised as genre fiction. And I think Powers has really penetrated to the heart of the literary problem of our time, which is: how do we let nonhumans speak again?”16 

The headline to a New York Times review of The Overstory read, “The Heroes of This Novel Are Centuries Old and 300 Feet Tall.” The review was by novelist Barbara Kingsolver and could also be read as her own artistic manifesto. “Using the tools of story,” she wrote, “[Powers] pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.”17 

Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior gestures at the vast unknowability of the natural world through the story of a freak migratory event: her protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, finds herself on a hillside aflame with orange monarch butterflies—a phenomenon viewed by locals as a message from God, and by an investigating entomologist as a natural phenomenon. Kingsolver sides with science but suffuses her story with biblical metaphor: the monarch butterflies transform the land as if “trees have turned to fire, a burning bush,” while the onset of spring drenches the land in a flood of Old Testament proportions.18 This rhetoric, Kingsolver seems to be telling us, is the only one capable of encompassing the disaster that may—or may not—sweep the world as it gets warmer. To exist inside a climate crisis is to live with constant uncertainty.

With such works, the novel is playing catch-up with other literary forms. Poetry has long buzzed with the distress of bees—coopting classical literature’s emblem of natural order as an advance guard of environmental collapse. What will survive of us, posits the nature writer Robert Macfarlane, in his latest book, Underland, is not Philip Larkin’s love, but “plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.”19 These lines ring in my mind as I wander through the recently reclaimed wetlands that lie close to my home, watching swans and coots build COVID-19 masks into their nests. Their heroic upcycling also brings to mind an anecdote from Macdonald’s book about swifts in Denmark and Italy, during the Second World War, which were found to have woven into their nests scraps of tinfoil that had been released into the air to confuse enemy radar signals.

In denouncing the inadequacies of the novel, Ghosh is happy to admit the exceptionalism of science fiction and fantasy, pointing to the Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, in which Han Solo lands on what he takes to be an asteroid, only to discover that he has entered the gullet of a sleeping monster. The film was released three years before the first of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which are set on a planet balanced on the back of a Turtle (and two years after Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which Earth is a defunct computer with biological components). At the time such scenarios seemed riotously implausible. Today their significance has shifted, in line with scientific advances in understanding that have brought James Lovelock’s once-pilloried Gaia theory, of Earth as a living being, in from the cold. “The humans of the future,” writes Ghosh, “will surely understand […] that only in one, very brief era, lasting less than three centuries, did a significant number of their kind believe that planets and asteroids were inert.”20 

In 1988, the American grande dame of speculative fiction, Ursula Le Guin, proposed what she called “the carrier-bag theory of fiction,” which replaces “the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero” with the image of the novel as “a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”

The reason for this reframing, said Le Guin, was that:

It sometimes seems that [the killer story] is approaching its end. Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another one, which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished. Maybe. The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it. Hence it is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.21 

Back in my London garden, I find fragments of this other story in the silver birch that keeps mycorrhizal company with an autumnal ring of toadstools, a mutually supportive relationship I only understood and appreciated after reading The Overstory. It brought into focus for me the dynamic thought, admittedly well-known to rewilders, that perhaps inaction can be an action too: I no longer rake over those little brown fairy rings. I find this same optimistic reframing of narrative in the sudden return of sparrows to London after two decades of absence22—a baffling event that has since been attributed to the rise, and subsequent discouragement, of diesel engines. And I am happy to report that “my” robin has just hatched a new generation of little brown pompoms, which are yet to acquire their bright adult plumage but are already squabbling and jostling, red in beak and claw (as the nineteenth-century nature poets would have it), clamorous for life.

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