Nature Writing

At sixty-six years of age and best known for his books on the sociology of food, the American author and journalist Michael Pollan has become an unlikely figurehead for the so-called ‘psychedelic renaissance’. In How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan surveyed the recent revival of psychedelic drugs as adjuncts to psychotherapy, and the emerging evidence that supports their use in the treatment of depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. Globally prohibited since the early 1970s and still mostly illegal, these compounds – including the ‘classic’ psychedelics LSD and psilocybin (the main psychoactive alkaloid in magic mushrooms), as well as MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and ketamine – are once again the subject of clinical trials, including in Australia where the federal government has became one of the first in the world to fund research in the field.

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Towards the end of Thoreau’s Religion, Alda Balthrop-Lewis, an academic at Australian Catholic University, evokes an experience each of us has likely had in some form. The sight of a rainbow or the sound of a bird amazes you so much that you simply have to share it. Delight inspires you to share with others, so that it may alter them as well as your relationship bringing you, collectively, into a more intimate and responsible accord with the freshly encountered world. In a book about Henry David Thoreau (1817–62), the explicit aim of such a passage is to convey that, contrary to the inherited belief that Thoreau was a dour ascetic, he actually embraced delight, and that, in this spirit of delight, his writing might be understood as a type of exhortation to ‘Look!’.

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Wanting to belong forms the root system of Belinda Probert’s Imaginative Possession, marking the terrain – how can she, as an immigrant, ever feel at home in Australia? – and producing shoots of longing for the landscapes of her English childhood. Even now, forty-five years after arriving in Perth to take up a teaching position at Murdoch University, after which she lived briefly in Adelaide before raising a family in Melbourne, that question lingers. Specifically, given that she feels at ease with the people and culture, why does she still feel needled by the natural environment?

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At what point does a ramble or meander through the bush become a bona fide bushwalk? Was my two-hour stroll near Wolli Creek during semi-lockdown – when I locked eyes with the now-maligned fruit bat – a bushwalk or just a ramble? Answers to these questions vary wildly according to the conflicting approaches to bushwalking detailed in Melissa Harper’s updated version of The Ways of the Bushwalker (2007).

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Cave: Nature and Culture by Ralph Crane and Lisa Fletcher

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October 2015, no. 375

What is it about caves? An irresistibly enchanting hidey-hole to any small child and yet the birthplace of our deepest fears. Dragons, narguns, goblins, and gorgons are all born of caves, and yet who can go past an opening in the rock without peeking in? We cannot resist exploring this underworld of darkness which seems to provide safety from the perils outside, whi ...

Walking is the quintessence of human travelling. No other means so involves us in the place through which we move or makes us so aware of our bodies’ presence in it. Early in his book, John Blay writes: ‘walking has become thought. I feel I am in dialogue with nature, I understand it is telling me what I need to know.’ We can stretch Blay’s ‘nature’ to i ...

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

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June-July 2015, no. 372

The Western Isles arch across the north-west coast of Scotland, sheltering the mainland from the North Sea’s fury. In summer there are few places more magical than these islands, which Seton Gordon once described as standing ‘on the rim of the material earth’ looking west to the immortal realm of Tir nan Og.

On the northern islands, granite and gneiss ...

Once, when it was the beginning of the dry but no one could have known it yet, Dad drove us west – out past ‘Jesus Saves’ signs nailed to box trees, past unmarked massacre sites and slumping woolsheds, past meatworks and red-bricked citrus factories with smashed windows, and past one-servo towns with faded ads for soft drinks no one makes anymore – until we reached a cotton farm.

We stood on the old floodplain listening to the manager in his American cap, a battery of pumps and pipes behind him, boasting how much water these engines could lift once the river reached a certain height. To the left, an open channel cut through laser-levelled fields to the horizon.

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Samuel Johnson had some advice for aspiring writers. ‘Read over your compositions,’ he said, ‘and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ One imagines the impact of this recommendation on an eighteenth-century student of literature, clutching a page of overblown rhetorical flourishes and faux erudition. Our crimes of vanity in writing are very different now – more likely to take the form of descriptive tours de force of the kind fostered in creative writing classes.

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Many years ago, after working for a while in Europe, we returned to Australia via America. We picked up a car in Atlanta and drove through sprawling cities, alarming slums, and abandoned downtowns. Across Mississippi and the broad, reassuring openness of Texas, to Arizona and the Grand Canyon, we passed through the alien electrics of Las Vegas, down into Death Valley, and up over the Sierra Nevada to the west coast and San Francisco.

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