Behrouz Boochani’s prize-winning book No Friend but the Mountains is a genre-breaking metanarrative produced under extraordinary circumstances. The response to it has been deep and will likely last. But I find that the attention that the Kurdish writer pays to the natural world is all too often subsumed under other layers.
Perhaps this is only right, given his incisive criticism of Australian immigration policy. Translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian, the book articulates ‘Manus prison theory’, named for the Papua New Guinea island on which Boochani and more than 500 other men have been languishing for six years, most of them refugees. The theory is based on the concept of kyriarchy, which strips individuality, identity and independence from those caught in it. It is borrowed from feminist thinker Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who seeks to capture multi-positional systems of domination and privilege.
I attended a seminar on Manus prison theory the month before Boochani won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. At the Q&A, I asked via Skype how he subverts the system that he criticises; as a writer I expected to hear something about writing.
He replied that he tries to ‘work beyond the system’, refusing to participate in its mechanics, such as queues, case management and clinics. He publishes outside its control. ‘In front of this system, how we can survive, how we can keep our identity, individuality and freedom [is to] rely on nature, rely on dance, music.’ He makes this point twice.
His reference to nature catches. I had been struck by his attentiveness to natural aspects of his environment: the moon, the ocean, particular trees, assorted creatures that find their way into the prison. Some of the most luminous passages in the book are about things that are not man-made, including a poem about flowers resembling chamomile:
Gasping as though in love with the cool ocean breeze
I love those flowers
A tremendous will for life bursting out from coils and curves of the stems
Bodies stretching out to reveal themselves for all to witness.
Boochani notes elsewhere that as the days passed, the footsteps of men ‘annihilated’ the flowers and vegetation, making the prison appear ‘more barbaric and brutal’.
The contrast he makes between built and natural environments is not incidental. In a post for the Guardian in late 2017, he records that a tree has fallen over the fence. He amusedly dubs the incident ‘The Victory of Nature up against Steel’, then adds:
I have a theory based on the idea that had the ecology of Manus not been so pristine, if it had not been so pure, perhaps all of us incarcerated here would have succumbed to the torture by now … we would have broken under the regime of torture and died.
Tofighian confirms this in the translator’s preface to No Friend but the Mountains:
Behrouz is adamant that had the refugees not established a relationship of respect with the environment and animals, the oppressive force of the prison would have killed them a long time ago; nature works with the prisoners to combat the system.
During all these years Australian immigration has been destroying the nature on the island; the desecration of the natural environment has been relentless. Australia has violated the sanctity of nature by disrespecting the habitat and constructing a prison.
Is this not also the national founding story? Land being made to accommodate those whom society had failed—at least 165,000 British convicts on 806 boats in 80 years. Some were sent to Tasmania as placeholders for free settlement; pristine forests and wetlands making way for brutal prisons and slave industries.
Yet people were already here, made culturally and materially inextricable from the land through the sheer volume of time. We still do not grasp what was sundered, though glimpses of it might be seen in the waning resilience of our major riverine ecosystems.
The contours of punishment—from the colonial era to state carceral regimes to the indefinite detention of refugees—run along the boundaries between natural and unnatural states. Decontextualising humans. This is what Boochani resists and is how his analysis of the circumstances becomes an act of transcendence.
Central to the lush sensory detail in the book is a man who senses: ‘the sound of the jungle’, ‘the haunting music of the waves’, ‘the pungent smell of the ocean’, ‘the tender sand’ into which bare feet sink. His dreamscapes are charted in the same way: ‘a river that maps the earth’, ‘mountains the colour of milk’. This is also resistance: a fundamental human awareness, bare and profound.
It is a kind of love without object. Nature is oblivious to our motive and history. It asks nothing. It takes nothing. The forest receives us as we are; as do the rivers, the shores, the mountains and the plains. To be received as we are—the heart of a refugee. Sometimes in deep attention to nature we sink back into a whole that is seldom perceived. ‘There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,’ as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it. It is a line wrested from a life of anguish.
Hopkins was an Anglican convert to Catholicism, an English poet-priest who lived for a time in Ireland and died there. He struggled with duality, including what he saw as artistic indulgence versus vocational austerity. He is known for the ‘terrible sonnets’, written during a desolate period: ‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.’
This same mind was also closely attuned to the natural world, marking ‘dappled things’, lamenting felled ‘aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled / Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun.’ In Hopkins’ most circulated poem, ‘The Windhover’, he observes a kestrel in flight: ‘My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!’
What does it mean to notice things in nature, or to notice in a certain way? I remember watching auburn leaves fall and being struck by the absurd idea that shedding leaves and shedding tears is much the same. I needed to know this at that time in my life. My heart in hiding, stirred by drifting foliage.
Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann uses the phrase ‘deep calling to deep’. It is drawn from biblical psalms (she is Catholic) to explain dadirri, a dimension of Ngangikurungkurr spirituality that means quiet, still awareness. ‘When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again,’ she once said at a conference. Ungunmerr-Baumann is an Aboriginal elder, educator and artist from the Daly River community of Naiyu. She has been the leading proponent of dadirri since 1988. I met her in 2018 in Melbourne to record an interview for a podcast.
I found myself having to slow down, to meet on her terms. She spoke about how she was always looking out the window, checking for rain, watching people sitting at a park. She mentioned the birds pecking at crumbs on the ground from morning tea. She told me about recent major flooding in the Daly River area, which she reckons had never happened twice in a year. She remarked that people in the city talk too fast.
A film project on dadirri resonates with her voice: ‘To know me is to breathe with me. To breathe with me is to listen deeply. To listen deeply is to connect.’ For Ungunmerr-Baumann, the modes of listening, stillness and waiting that anchor Indigenous perceptiveness to nature are available to all. Aren’t non-Indigenous people human, too?
Throughout our evolutionary history we thrived in close, sustained attention to the environment. Things that could be safely eaten when and where, how it may be obtained, whether it could be stored. Sourcing water and welling. Coexisting with other predators. Constructing shelter against variable weather. Withstanding illness and injury. Being able to retain a sense of location and time.
Aboriginal knowledge that European colonisers had dismissed as primitive is only now being acknowledged as sophisticated, a realisation propelled recently by Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu. But what else could the longitudinal, contextual, multidimensional, consequential accumulation of data have been?
Science at its core is a human response to being here. One could die from inattention, as British explorers found, sometimes much too late. The laconic Indigenous assessment of Burke and Wills is that they had died of starvation in a supermarket.
Our proximity to nature shaped us for 160,000 years (from when our Homo sapiens ancestors emerged) or for at least 40,000 to 90,000 years with the surges of tool-making and symbolic thinking that distinguished us as modern humans. But it is only in the last two to three centuries that the paradigm shifted.
We broke from what we knew. Colonisation, the rise of factories and urbanisation are interlocked phenomena that play out inexorably to this day. As British scientists Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin put it: ‘The Anthropocene began with widespread colonialism and slavery; it is a story of how people treat the environment and how people treat each other.’ Everything for the taking until it runs out.
Inevitably the stable conditions that had made our natural systems diverse—and therefore resilient—are no longer stable. Our survival to this point relied on that stability. Land is a critical part of this picture, particularly the forests and grasslands that have made way for cities. Less than one-third of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 1950. By 2030 city dwellers will constitute two-thirds of humanity. In Australia, an even greater fraction already live in cities and towns.
Here are things to know: the average floor size of a new, freestanding house in Australia is 186.3 square metres; apartments are just under 125 square metres. The fat-tailed dunnart has a nesting range of 50 metres. The eastern barred bandicoot has a habitat size of two to four hectares. Tiger quolls range for 550 hectares. What are they going to do?
The incalculable cost of our inability or unwillingness to pay attention is starting to show. It is hard to notice something we no longer hear or see; a kind of object permanence that makes us think—if it even occurs to us—that something must still exist beyond our senses. At what point would we realise that the silence of the kookaburra is permanent or that the eucalypts are empty? That butterflies, bees and lizards are missing? How would we know that certain patches of earth should have been disturbed by small marsupials in the night? Why should it matter that we have lost touch with the natural world?
People are drawn to cities because that is where jobs and vital services are readily available. But cities are also where pollution is most concentrated: solid waste, water contamination, particulates in the air from industry and transport. Noise pollution. Light pollution. Lifestyles of constant movement (the default mode of economies).
It is not just that losing touch with the natural world keeps people from being concerned about environmental issues, or from being concerned enough that it would form choices of lifestyle and politics. It is that this disconnect goes deep into our wiring and may be making us feel ever more unhappy and less able to cope, which would in turn diminish our capacity to confront challenges like climate change.
A 2014 meta-analysis of the relationship between connectedness to nature and happiness found that those who are more connected to nature tend to experience more vitality, positive affect (associated with confidence, enthusiasm and openness) and life satisfaction. For all the advances we’ve made as a species, we may still be most compatible with natural settings.
In 1964 psychologist Erich Fromm coined the term ‘biophilia’, which biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson built upon 20 years later to describe ‘the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life’. This is more than just finding animals cute. It is deep calling to deep, the psalmic phrase that Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann uses to describe dadirri. It stirs hearts in hiding, as Hopkins found. It is the pristine ecology of Manus Island that has helped Boochani resist dehumanisation. It is being human in context.
Natural surroundings reinstate something in us from before language. When I am out by the river, in the bush or up a hill, I usually see birds—rainbow lorikeets, willy wagtails, wood ducks and others—going about their business. I might smell eucalypts, tea trees or wet moss. I might hear water gurgling at a distance. I peer at lichens on rock and bark. I spot iridescent beetles in leaf litter. I watch the light brush over it all, the dappled things of Hopkins’ poetry. I have dwelt in the twilit silence of the plain.
But this is what really happens. I am made aware of the independent reality of other living things. I am put in my place, neither too small nor too big, just here. My sense of time tapers to the moment—tuned in to what I see, hear or feel—but it also expands in awareness of the land. It is so old.
Time contracts and swells like a heart. It feels like love. It feels like freedom. ‘I am made whole again,’ Ungunmerr-Baumann said. Maybe being made whole has much to do with feeling part of a whole, where things are restored to size, where the things we do to one another only run parallel to a world that exists despite us. Still it fades from our inattention. We can’t love something we don’t notice. We can’t save something we don’t love. •
Fatima Measham is a writer and (aspiring) conservationist in outer-west Melbourne. She was on the nonfiction panel for the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards that considered No Friend But the Mountains.