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Hira Ismail

Ecological Imaginings

Cross-Cultural “Nature” Writing

Gary Snyder’s call to see nature writing evolve into something less lackadaisical and calming, and less idyllic is expressed in “Unnatural Writing,” and “Language Goes Two Ways,” two chapters in his larger work titled “A Place in Space Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds.” He complains about how so much of writing does not take the relentless aspects the environment contains. He calls attention to how “life is not just diurnal and a property of large interesting vertebrates, it is also nocturnal, anaerobic, cannibalistic, microscopic, digestive, fermentative: cooking away in the warm dark” (Snyder, 169). Snyder argues that continuously painting a picture of the natural world as lovely, peaceful, quiet, and a place to escape into is problematic. This widens the gap between humans and their ecological environments. “Nature’s writing has the potential of becoming the most vital, radical, fluid, transgressive, pansexual, subductive, and morally challenging kind of writing on the scene” he insists (Snyder, 171). He wants this potential to be fully carried out, as a kind of wake-up call. Snyder hopes that painting a picture of nature in its dangerous and lethal capacity and having this perspective widened will help stop the ignorant exploitation and destruction of animals and their habitats that is fast happening today.

In an endeavor which required the examination of the differing experiences of the natural world across cultures, it occurred to me this exploration could lead to a discovery of wild aspects of nature in art across the globe. Snyder finds Western writing bereft of this connection with nature. Time and time again, examining literatures that deal with diverse cultural backgrounds and perspectives reveals what is being searched for in one side of the world might be already put into use in another side. Dilruba Ahmed, in her collection of poems titled “Dhaka Dust” demonstrates several aspects of what Snyder wants to see in nature writing. Numerous poems in her collection take the more radical parts of life into account. Four of her poems will be closely read here and tested for the aspects of writing Snyder searches for, specifically in poetic forms. Snyder calls for “language as wild system, mind as wild habitat, world as a “making” (poem), poem as a creature of the wild mind” (Snyder, 172). Ahmed’s poems approach using language in this way. Bangladeshi by heritage, but living in the United States, she writes of her experience upon seeing her ancestral homeland. Having grown up away from Bangladesh but still a practitioner of the culture, finally seeing the land sparked this collection for her. She brings to the poems aspects of her dual identity and her consecutive dual awareness of the significance of land and life in its expanded forms. 

“Dust and Ashes” (see Appendix A) is a historically loaded poem in this collection. It refers to plants that line the landscape of Dhaka as the speaker travels the road. Upon reading the poem, I was moved to look up some of the plants that are referenced in the poem and their possible affiliations with Bangladesh. These plants are mentioned with an apparent tension surrounding them, which is why I thought they would be worth exploring. This process will also prove useful in discovering whether Ahmed’s poem is “nature literate” (Snyder, 171). Does she have an awareness of “who’s who and what’s what in the ecosystem” (Snyder, 171)? There are several direct uses of plants within the poem. The speaker “hold[s] no pain” as she surveys the mustard flowers, she is “neither drawn nor repelled” by the poppies on the road, nor “turned brittle” by the jacaranda (Ahmed, 59). These phrases suggest there perhaps is a strong reason why the speaker should hold pain or feel disturbed by the presence of these plants.

The one signification I was able to recognize without research was the poppy and its relation to the opium trade so heavily pursued in British India. Previously having been a part of this colonized land, Bangladesh would logically still have poppies growing in many spaces. These poppies are heavily affiliated with British colonizers and officials, who along with supporting the Dutch East India Tea Company were participating in a roaring opium trade. While tea was being planted by the field, poppies were too. Locals were being put to work in slave-like conditions on these fields to help produce the poppies that would later be turned to opium, the revenue of which the field workers and other members of the native population would never see. Poppies are therefore a symbol of the control the British Empire had over the Indian subcontinent, and a reminder of how generation upon generation of natives was stripped of power, dignity, and independence through the planting of these flowers. It, along with tea, could be considered a weed, a foreign plant, though tea has become an integral part of a South Asian diet over the years. According to Michael Pollan’s “Weeds are Us”, and his definition of weeds as foreign plants not meant to be growing in the wilderness of an area in the first place, there would be great reason to be repelled by the poppy (Pollan).

This compelled me to look up the jacaranda, skimming some background history of the tree and its relationship to the Dhaka landscape revealed it as a native tree with lavender shaded flowers. Its presence is likely part of the effort to utilize urban forestry in Bangladesh (Urban). This was an effort by the government to reestablish trees that would have been seen profusely in the landscape before urban development began in the larger cities. The result? A human attempt at recreating the landscape to how it used to be ecologically before it was turned around due to the development of roads, municipal buildings, and what is otherwise known as infrastructure. Dissatisfaction with the rising number of jacaranda plants in the area might be triggered by a deep dissatisfaction with the government. There may be strong ideas about what the government should or should not be prioritizing present. So while government action may be ecologically viable on one hand, it may be ignoring other issues that the speaker wants to be taken care of as well, problems to do with poverty for example, which is a running theme throughout this book of poems.

Moving onto mustard flowers revealed that honey could be produced from these flowers and that it is a plausible industrial crop. Again this return to the earlier suggested theme of dissatisfaction with the industry and its mistreatment of workers might lead to dissatisfaction with anything the industry produces or supports. As for lavender and sage, the former seems to be an English plant, so is probably something that came over by sea from the colonizers, and the latter is a native plant, important in many native culinary dishes. This information explains the speaker’s indecision over whether to feel “dumb joy” or “bitterness” because these may be the conflicted feelings that others more familiar to the landscape have toward these plants. People living in Dhaka might both appreciate the contributions of the colonizers to the society they live in today, or wish to reject them entirely, and begin anew.

It is profound what is revealed about this poem when reading it with an ecological lens. The poppy was colonially imposed, the mustard flowers industrially expended, the jacaranda governmentally imposed, the sage important to native food, and the lavender another sort of weed, but not one particularly used to exploit native populations of people. The speaker seems to take neither extreme stance, but rather make the observation that these plants hold historically significant meanings, which the speaker, if she is assumed to be Ahmed herself, is an observer toward rather than someone who has to face the symbolism herself or has experienced firsthand the qualities or negativities these plants hold for people. The title, “Dust and Ashes” goes along well with the significance these plants hold. It suggests that the plants represent the many conflicts Bangladesh had to go through and overcome before arriving as a country at the place it is today. It had to undergo two fights for independence, one a break from the British Empire, the other a break from Pakistan. This title ties the plants to these events so closely; they serve a memorial purpose, sort of like wreaths at a gravestone; they are the dust and ashes of the past that blow over and affect the current cultural situation of the country. The very history of Bangladesh is expressed through these plants.

The speaker says “I live there no more;” this seems to be a further indication of the speaker being removed from the experience of these plants as a historical phenomenon, perhaps of her choice to live away and confined from it. The “well-bottom” may easily stand in for moving away from the country, fortified by the stone of the well away from this painful history, and living in hope, represented by the “copper coins.” The speaker has chosen to not choose a side per say, and instead live her own story. She seems to want to partially remove herself from this conflicted history. The feelings of indignation toward the history these plants evoke seem like something the speaker had to overcome; these feelings are ones the speaker has likely experienced herself and has now chosen to hide from. “Dust and Ashes” is both illumined by the ecological history involved in the plant references and itself illumines the ecological lens. It is an insight into how plants within Bangladesh may hold a political significance not found in the United States. Bangladesh is also a more recently decolonized country and the people’s relation to the plants there are also affected by the subservient conditions their ancestors had to adopt in order to cultivate. Poppies in a garden in the United States would signify something different to people there than those growing around the roads of Dhaka would to a local. This poem, through its understanding of that change of perception and relationship with nature which happens across cultures demonstrates the author’s awareness of the “social…and environmental history” of Dhaka (Snyder, 171).   

            “Dhaka Dust,” (see Appendix B) the namesake of the collection, is very much like a poetic Thoreauvian walk. Using the poem to represent a space within which she has just landed by flight and is now roaming around to explore, it seems like an attempt to explain and understand a landscape. The earth and people are tied in together in this recollection. In our class’s earliest postings about our individual Thoreauvian walks, most of us highlighted the plant growth on campus, while other’s used images that represented mainly the dorms. In our group reflection upon the project, we decided that a combination of the two would be a wholesome representation. In this poem, Ahmed combines three aspects of the space, emphasizing humanistic and animalistic, along with some mentions of plant life features within the cityscape. She mentions how a man “slaps the rump of a passing gray car as though it’s a horse or a dog” (Ahmed, 5). This immediately brings to mind the donkey or horse carts that go through many South Asian streets, pulling riders and goods across the roads. Comparing the two illustrates how the car may have substituted, but not entirely replaced these pack animals. The donkey or horse carts are still a part of many roads in Bangladesh, but more as a tourist attraction than as an actual mode of transportation within this large city. This section paints a picture of how animals are used in the city, just through the metaphorical use of the word “rump” (Ahmed, 5).

The dust on the streets is mentioned as well: “A woman breathes into her green shawl against the dust on the road’s median (Ahmed, 5). This verse sets up the overwhelming significance of the dust for the speaker as she walks around Dhaka. Dust represents the very essence of the space, negative and positive, signifying both “children’s songs” and “abject poverty” (Ahmed, 5). Dust is given an immense importance; it is both earthy and animalistic. “Dust sifts into your lungs and sinks—feline, black, to remain long after you leave” (Ahmed, 6). It is linked deeply to the experience of the place for the speaker. Ahmed first visited her hereditary homeland as an adult in her mid-twenties, and her connection to the earth, its very dust, is represented in this poem. The idea that the earth and dust of a place calls to you, makes you want to return to see a homeland is one I’m familiar with. Ahmed demonstrates this overwhelming feeling, its hesitations and many-layered emotions, skillfully. An elemental aspect is brought forth soon after; the speaker says the “ocean’s giant tongue has swept away miles of coastline, and bodies flood the water” (Ahmed, 6). The memory of how hostile the ecological situation can be is made plain here. Bangladesh is situated right above the Bay of Bengal, a part of the Indian Ocean, and the nation’s economy is affected positively by the resources available therein, like fish. This placement also means yearly floods and many lives are lost in the process. Here, once again, is a layered experience of ecology as useful and detrimental, loved and feared.

To move further along, viewing Ahmed’s “Jinn” (see Appendix C) with Snyder’s totems in mind would shed an intriguing light on the understanding of this poem. He discusses how the coyote and the bear are both totems that express varying qualities like shape-shifting for the former and fearlessness for the latter. He calls for, in his bulleted list, writing to “find further totems” to reflect upon and explore the “world of nature, myth, archetype, and ecosystem” (Snyder, 172). Jinn could fall under this category. Within the Islamic tradition, jinn are spiritual beings that inhabit the earth.  Humans are not equipped to perceive them fully; their relationship with humans is traditionally one of avoidance or lack of mutual awareness. In the Quran, they are mentioned as beings who will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment along with humankind, and are shown interacting with prophets. Solomon, who is considered a prophet, has the ability to understand the languages of the animals and the jinn. He communicates with one in order to manipulate the Queen of Sheba. Spreading from this Quranic tradition into cultural tradition, the jinn are participants in many stories, from being imagined as “genies” to the absolute certainty with which South Asian parents will tell their children that jinn dwell in the trees.

It is this story that more than likely leads the speaker to “wind one hair around a knuckle” to protect herself from jinn (Ahmed, 79). As unseen and unheard beings, jinn cause a fear, reluctance, and sense of nervousness. The speaker mentions how her mother taught her this mode of defense. Where the idea of the jinn as another totem comes in is when the wind and trees are likened to the speaker’s awareness of the jinn. The speaker experiences the wind as “giant hands against [her] form” (Ahmed, 79). “Gusts” are “pressing into me” she says, and this sets up how the trees rustle later on, making her think of the possible presence of jinn. Since she is not able to actually see the jinn in question, her experience of them would be similar to her experience of the wind—a presence tangible yet not visible. “Who can name what twitches in the leaves” she states, again referring to jinn or the wind, interchangeably or simultaneously (Ahmed, 80). Her relationship to the stories surrounding jinn affects her relationship to the nature around her, such as the wind and the trees. The jinn lend a sense of mystery, intrigue, but also uneasiness to her environment. Their presence touches upon the uneasiness the speaker feels while contemplating her interaction with the night, the changing season, and how it returns her name. “Jinn” exudes an aura of awe for the environment and what it hides as well as slight fear. This use of the jinn would be a very exciting theme to pursue in poetry, especially in relation to ecology. Because it is the stories people grow up with that frame and shape their experience of the world to a large extent, and if what causes intimidation affects our perception of the ecological world, then this is an avenue important to explore.

Doing so would help achieve the goals Snyder brings forth in a slightly different manner than he might have intended; acknowledging the reasons behind our fear of the natural world would hopefully lead to our coming to terms with it. In this culture, it is the jinn, in another it may be something else. The history of a place is pivotal; it affects not only our urban narratives but our ecological ones as well. Perhaps it’s because humankind fears the natural world that we seek to control it. This leads to demolishment and defacing, all done to cause the natural world to make more sense. It is by using nature as a resource that many people are able to understand or take comfort from it. If the environment started making sense in other ways which are less overwhelmingly destructive, in this case through fictional explorations which will stay alive within the academic and literary imaginations, then there would be less of a need to control it, to ravage it.

            As for Gary Snyder’s dismissal of nature writing portraying the environment constantly as a source of peace, I can understand his point, but do not think this former category should be entirely omitted. As I have discovered over a semester of site-sits, a setting mostly void of manmade material can be entirely calming. Because a pond and the reeds, grasses, and trees thereby are very still in comparison to me. This opposition is appreciated and reminds me to slow down and notice the natural world around me. Trees and water, these serve as indications of a larger picture, outside my daily, rushed life. They ground me in the idea that the natural world is a link to the globe. There are elements of ecological structures that are seen around the world. We all share a sky, a sun, a moon, some concept of seasons. This realization is calming. It’s unifying. It’s as important as knowing these same elements could come crashing down in the form of a monsoon storm or a hurricane. Nature is a binary, or more properly, is multi-faceted, multi-layered. To limit nature to a peaceful ideal isn’t doing it justice, but to limit it to its harsh qualities isn’t either. A combination of the two is necessary. Having literature that shows the environment at its best, in other words its many modes, the sense of calm it can bring, the terror it can strike is vital. Doing otherwise leaves the story incomplete.

            Dilruba Ahmed’s poems uncover aspects of nature that are enlightening, both about possible historical relationships to nature in Bangladeshi culture, and to the ways in which nature writing might be achieving in one part of the world what someone in another part is seeking. Thus collaboration amongst cultures leads to exciting new prospects in writing and representation, along with renewed respect for the other. Ahmed unravels and reveals aspects of her relationship with the environment and how this includes both natural and human-made elements. Her book of poems does not necessarily fall under the category of “nature writing” but the fact that her poems cover so much of what Snyder is appealing for regardless is a testament to how nature stories differ culturally. A lot of her references to nature seem to happen unintentionally. The references mentioned in the poems analyzed are so enmeshed in the narratives Ahmed tells and the pictures she paints of her ancestral city. What would happen then if Ahmed were to purposefully write “nature poetry?” How would that change the seamlessness of the poems presented here?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix

 

A:

 

 

Dust and Ashes

 

I have seen the spiked lavender, sage,

spiny as a sea creature, and felt

neither dumb joy nor bitterness.

Mustard flowers in hills as

high as a horse, and I hold

no pain. Poppies glow

in scattered patches by the road

and I'm neither drawn nor

repelled. No longer turned

 

brittle by the shushing of jacaranda

nor by the hot, dry scent of summer.

I live there no more. I live now

at the well-bottom, mouth

open to catch copper coins.

 

B:

 

Dhaka Dust

 

Can’t occupy the same space at the same time

unless, of course, you land in Dhaka, rickshaws

 

five or six abreast. They are all here:

studded metal backboards ablaze with red flowers,

 

Heineken boxes, a Bangladeshi star with blue eyes,

peacocks, pink fans of filigree. The drivers sweat

 

and strain in the plaid lungis, and each face

seems to say Allah takes and Allah

 

gives. A woman breathes into her green shawl

against the dust on the road’s median. A man

 

with a plaid scarf (surplus from The Gap)

slaps the rump of a passing gray car

 

as though it’s a horse or a dog. You are there, too,

your maroon sleeves begin to stick

 

despite your deodorant. Under your orna,

a laminated map and digital camera

 

cradled in your lap. One strand of silver

wiry by your ear. Bits of children’s songs

snag in your windpipe. Other words surface:

sweatshop and abject poverty, and you let them.

 

They mix with the low rumbling that began

on the plane, ms and bs tumbling, amplified

 

in the streets: the rickshaw bells’ light metal,

the nasal peal of horns. On this continent,

 

the ocean’s giant tongue has swept away

miles of coastline, and bodies flood the water.

 

Dust sifts into your lungs and sinks—feline,

black, to remain long after you leave.

 

 

C:

 

Jinn

 

            My name comes to me like an angel.

                                    —Tomas Tranströmer

 

I walk into the wind

                                    any excuse

to stray before the storm         gusts

pressing into me          giant hands

against my form. This was proof

 

that I existed.

                        Spring, and I'm

melancholy—backlit

blue sky

            full moon

to remind me.              Waft of chlorine

            a pool

shaped like a kidney.

                                    The trees

are my keeper          their rustle

            of history           yet

 

 

I wind one hair

                        around a knuckle

just as my mother

taught me. And then this—

                                                a gift—

my name

                        returned to me

wrapped in a voice I recognize

                       

                        a sound the wind

will steal or lift

                        the way

the night pulls a web

from the water.

                        I'd like to think

it's one beloved on the way

            to another

but who can name

            what twitches in the leaves

 

or what's drawn from my body

like a vapor

                  like a kiss?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

 

Ahmed, Dilruba. Dhaka Dust-Poems. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011.

Gary Snyder, "Unnatural Writing" and "Language Goes Two Ways." A Place in Space: Ethics,      Aesthetics, and Watersheds. New and Selected Prose. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995.         163-180.

Michael Pollan, "Weeds are Us." The New York Times Magazine. November 5, 1989.

"Urban forestry status in Dhaka City-A parametric study on avenue."

            <http://bdbcs.blogspot.com/2011/12/urban-forestry-status-in-dhaka-city.html>.

 

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Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

Content and form

hira--
I'm delighted to have you apply some of our theoretical reading from this course to some poetry that you know from elsewhere (...but where is that? The arrival of Dilruba Ahmed in our midst seems unmotivated, and is certainly unexplained--how did she get here? Are you reading her poetry in another class, or….?)

I also especially appreciate the cross-cultural dimension that Ahmed's poetry, and your explication of it, adds to our largely U.S.-based discussion. And as we acknowledged in class last month, the older "praise-song school" of nature writing saw landscapes as scenes for reconciliation, while the newer generation of ecological critics thinks inclusively of "environmentality" as a property of any text. So your reading of a poet whose work isn't really categorizable as "nature writing" is entirely appropriate, and nicely expansive.

What puzzles me about your readings, though, is that they attend entirely to content: to the identification of plants, the history of place, the movement of animals, the quality of air, the economic and spiritual dimensions of the stories told in Ahmed's poems. All rich topics for review, but what you don't look @ at all is the form in which these stories are told--which seems to me central to your project here. Snyder's call is not just to what is wild in nature, but to what is wild in our writing about it, to the ways in which we shape and represent our experiences.

One other notation about ending the essay with a description of your own experience. Several of your classmates have built their projects, this time 'round, on that basis--see both sarahj's and smacholdt's rendition of the idea that personal experience is a valuable source for ecological thinking. My suggestion would be that you begin the story you have to tell here w/ your own experience of the calming effect of your site-sits, and then "write out" from yourself, using the paper to explore that which lies beyond what you know experientially. The "complete" story that you are seeking--ecologically complete, that is--should enlarge the concentric circles of self and the world which surrounds her, rather than narrow them over the course of the paper.

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