I’m delighted to bring you this guest blog post kindly provided by novelist and poet Kenneth Weene.
Writing nature then and now
One of the great pleasures of reading Victorian novelists is their use of nature. There were a number of reasons for that use. They were writing in an era or great interest in the natural world, an era that was justifiably preoccupied with Darwin, with deepest Africa, and with a world that seemed ever expanding in its possibilities. It was also a time during which society seemed to be pushing up against the natural world; it was an age in which science and technology seemed almost ready to control nature and certainly to allow mankind to voyage beyond, beneath, and above the world as it had been the limit. Finally, people were curious, hungry for views of the world beyond their experience and at the same time nostalgic for the world that was being industrialized out of existence.
Today, much writing seems to leave nature out of the picture. Except for an occasional deus ex machina storm or the like, most modern novels, especially the popular fiction, assume that the reader will simply picture the natural setting of the story relying on a vast communal knowledge that rests on cinema. This has certain advantages – most particularly that it makes the story more attractive to the next cinematographer who is free to set it. To the degree that modern writers set their novels it is in human-created scenes. We are more likely to read about architecture than woods, more likely to read about industrial plants than fields.
Does this mean that readers have lost their connection to the natural world? I think not. In the U.S., while plot driven best-sellers may be set in courtrooms, situation rooms, and submarines, the critically recognized books are often from New England and Southern writers who draw on nature even if that nature is under attack by the destructive force which is man. Often these best of books are paeans to nature that is disappearing – just as Hardy was a celebrant of a rural England that was being enclosed.
As a writer, I try to find a middle ground between writing what the modern reader expects, books set in the human realm – urban and architectural, and a connection to nature. Often that nature is tortured rather than bucolic, but it is a realm beyond if co-existent with the human. In ‘Memoirs From the Asylum’ the madness of humans finds strange echo in the natural world. One of the protagonists, Marilyn, is a catatonic schizophrenic. We enter the world of her memory, delusion, and hallucination.
She hated bats.
In the summer when they went to the lake, there would be bats in the
chimney. Her father would lay a fire, and she could hear the bats shriek
as they slowly roasted and fell into the embers. It was a ritual. Her father
would make stern harrumphs, her mother would tsk-tsk, her brother
would screech his excitement, and Marilyn would cover her ears and be a
silent witness, a witness to the gruesomeness, a witness to the terror – a
witness to herself.
Johnny had once told her that Jews would slaughter Christians to
make matzo. She wondered if that was why her father roasted the bats.
Maybe they were Christian bats. They sometimes played softball in
school, but she hated to bat. When the ball came at her she wanted to run.
Running away was a good thing to do. Staying safe. The world through
the crack in the yellow-green plaster opposite her bed, that was safe, too.
Still there is a part of me that yearns to bring back a sweeter nature, to make it once again if not a haven at least a predictable world, one in which we can find comfort even as we recognize our inability to control it. That is why I have set my current project, ‘The Stylite’, in a world that allows man to be seen against the background of nature. The story of a man ready to leave life, this book is set in rural New England. The protagonist’s wife had kept chickens. Now she is dead, and the remaining chickens haunt him with her presence.
The cock crows against the feeble dawn.
Roused, in discontent, he gets about another day.
The snow crackles underneath his step, and he
sees memories in every breath. Hand and then
another hand of grain to spread. He sees her
then, another fallen hen.
Monique, his wife had named her when she had hatched.
A tough old bird not delicate as named,
but still a long producer of his breakfast eggs.
No more, not for many days.
Now, on this hard-packed frozen day she lies
held fast in frostian grip. He takes hold and
pulls a leg, feels an old bone break, as he
pulls her free, some feathers still remain. Ignoring these
he goes outside the wire pen, makes a circle
long and forceful with his arm, and launches her,
flightless bird, into the air. High trajectory.
across the yard to rest against a rock that quartz and
granite shows it’s head daring a farmer to try this land.
Monique’s collision is the worse for her; he does not care
but knows that scavengers will in the coming hours appear
to end her trace: nature’s end to death.
She would, he knows, have cried as she had cried for each.
No rural wife was she. The birds had been acceptance of
this way of life and statement of her love for him.
He knew it was no more; she was not born
for country life. Nor he, who would not hunt despite
the shotgun pegged high on wall. He could not have
used it for a kill, and never a rifle owned at all.
He had butchered capons and hens now spent.
That had been enough of death and more for him.
The blood of each still stained his nighttime hands –
with hers, whom he so loved. The cancer that
had taken her, was it not him? A question he
could not resolve nor self-forgive. A sin that
held his soul in crimson grip. Her womb, from which
their love had sprung, had in the end destroyed.
And he could not absolve himself though every doctor would.
The carcass lies, where he has flung,
a reminder of his negligence,
until the raccoons come and drag the hen away.
He watches as he had watched her death –
with pain filled heart and deep regrets. Yet,
knowing there is nothing left that he might do –
that in the end when all is said –
death is naught but death and is an end
enough to life.
Will there come a day when nature no longer matters in human experience? Will our progeny live in domed cities and eat food created by computers from carbon dioxide and water without need of farms and pens? Will wild animals only have existence in preserves and on videodiscs? If such a day comes, the natural world will no longer have relevance in novels; but at that point I fear that novels will no longer have relevance to humans.
Thank you Kenneth for suggesting such a wonderful topic!
A New Englander by upbringing and inclination, Kenneth Weene is a teacher, psychologist, and pastoral counselor by education. Ken’s short stories and poetry have appeared in numerous publications including Sol Spirits, Palo Verde Pages, Vox Poetica Clutching at Straws, The Word Place, Legendary, Sex and Murder Magazine, The New Flesh Magazine, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Daily Flashes of Erotica Quarterly, Bewildering Stories, A Word With You Press, Mirror Dance, and The Aurorean. Ken’s novels, Widow’s Walk and Memoirs From the Asylum are published by All Things That Matter Press. ATTMP will soon be bringing out Tales From the Dew Drop Inne: Because there’s one in every town. To learn more about Ken’s writing visit:
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me at email@example.com with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please” (while quietly bouncing up and down in my seat with joy!).