The slow apocalypse of the natural world
Madeleine Watts, author of The Inland Sea, on tackling the climate crisis through fiction
In 2013, a whole swathe of land on the edge of the city was in flames. I have a photograph I took that evening, from my bedroom window. A plume of smoke had drifted across Sydney and turned the sun red.
In 2013 I was 23 and living in Sydney, the city where I was born and had lived my whole life. I spent that year working odd writing jobs and in Australia’s emergency call centre, connecting people to the police, the fire brigade and the ambulance.
The centre was national, and so I developed a sense of the large-scale disasters affecting the country – floods in Melbourne, tropical storms in north Queensland, heatwaves everywhere. In early October of that year it was unseasonably warm in Sydney. Anyone native to the city knows what fire weather feels like, and walking to work that day I knew there would be fires.
By the end of my shift a whole swathe of land on the edge of the city was in flames. I spent the day taking phone calls from people whose homes were taken out in a flash and people unable to breathe the smoky air. I have a photograph I took that evening, from my bedroom window. A plume of smoke had drifted across Sydney and turned the sun red. I was terrified. I interpreted those unseasonable and uncommonly forceful fires as a sign of things to come.
I began writing what would become my first book in 2015. I had left Australia and moved to New York by then. On Christmas Day that year I went for a run in the morning. The weather was unseasonably warm, and had been for days. Halfway through the run, I took my jumper off and ran in just a T-shirt. In Williamsburg’s McCarren Park, the cherry blossoms, I noticed, had begun to blossom. They were beautiful. They were four months early. The book I had begun writing was about the idea of emergencies, but it was around this time, when the cherry blossoms bloomed at Christmas, that I began to suspect I was missing a vital connection to the natural world, and that it was the natural world that portended the biggest emergency of all.
As I wrote, I became increasingly preoccupied with nature and landscape and environmental history. At the Manhattan bookstore where I work I asked to be put in charge of the nature section. I read Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson and Nan Shepard. I bought plants, and then more plants. I talked often of moving, so that I could have a garden. I noticed that others increasingly shared my longing for a connection to the natural world. A new plant store opened seemingly every month in my gentrifying Brooklyn neighbourhood. Classes were offered in nearby parks on composting and permaculture. People developed a newfound fondness for hiking and outdoor swimming.
But as I grew increasingly aware of the natural world, the natural world became more unpredictable and seemed poised to unravel. During the time I was writing my book, I habitually collected what I regarded to be incidents of the environmental uncanny. Twenty-five octopuses found crawling, without explanation, along a Welsh beach. Melting glaciers in the Alps revealing hundreds of mummified corpses. The bodies of bats falling en masse from trees outside Sydney when the summer grew too hot. A mass stranding of 130 whales on the coast of Western Australia.
As these incidents mounted, and with each new flood or hurricane or heatwave that broke yet another record, it began to feel like perhaps we were living through the apocalypse already. It was just that the apocalypse was happening slowly.
The slow apocalypse was part of the fabric of daily life. It was there as either background or foreground as I walked home from work, as I drank with friends in bars, as I read in bed at night before falling asleep. Around that time I located all the books about climate change in the bookstore and moved them to the nature section. The books about the death of the Great Lakes and the drowning of Miami were nature books as well, I argued. This was the natural world of the slow apocalypse we inhabit, and inhabiting the end of the world and carrying on with everyday life is not a new state of affairs – for many of us who are young, and have grown up in the shadow of climate change, it is how we have lived the vast majority of our lives.
In the middle of writing my book, I read The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh argues that conventional, realist storytelling makes it difficult to grapple with the sheer breadth of climate change, its non-humanness, its timescale, and the many knots of capitalism and imperialism that have produced and exacerbate it. He suggests that writers have a duty to write about the climate crisis, and to find new forms to do so. Reading The Great Derangement and my increasing awareness of the natural world fundamentally affected the way that I wrote, re-drafted and edited my novel. To not write about climate change, the most important issue of our time, seemed like lunacy.
The novel was set in 2013, the last year that I had lived in Australia before moving to America. On one level, it was about a young woman, adrift and unsure of herself. On another level, the book was about the weather, and the way the weather and its unpredictability wove its way into all the emergencies of her life, reflecting and interacting with them.
Every climactic event that I depicted in my book actually happened in the year that I was writing about, 2013. I scoured old newspaper reports and notebooks and kept to a strict chronology. I noted that when the facts were arranged in this way it sometimes read like the book might edge over the line into the science fictional or the magical realist. The uncanny nature of these events only became meaningful to me in the aftermath when I could examine them from afar. This method was the best way I found to express the reality of the world, in which we have love affairs and fight with our parents and attend the forces of history and barely notice that the price of bananas has gone up because an unprecedented hurricane has wiped out the national crop.
Australia, researchers have observed, is “ground zero” in an unfolding climate catastrophe, experiencing the effects of the crisis more rapidly than many other countries. For the last few months I have watched from afar as fires and floods ravaged the country I am from. The weekend before Christmas I sat at a computer refreshing the radar map of New South Wales’s Rural Fire Service, watching a fire encroach on my mother’s house in the Blue Mountains.
The house survived. But for the first time, my mother said things I never expected to hear from her: “There’s nothing we can do to stop it. The important thing is that we get out alive. All we will lose is the house.” Christmas carried on, in spite of the fires, filled with the same family tension, the same gossip and the same kind of glazed ham and roasted potatoes. A new anxiety was just introduced as its backdrop.
At such times writing or making art of any kind can feel pointless, living itself an overwhelmingly futile task. What art can do, I believe, is deliver us back the slow-moving horror, and sometimes beauty, of the world we all now live in.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts is published by Pushkin Press, priced £14.99, and is reviewed in The Irish Times tomorrow