Me and Nature by Sophie Cunningham
My need to get a sense of the physical landscape my characters have lived in and walked on is both a joy and affliction. In the case of my latest novel, This Devastating Fever my focus on the natural surroundings of my characters almost derailed the novel. I trekked in India for — well so I told myself — reasons of historical research for my second novel, and undertook a second walk in the research stages of This Devastating Fever. Little did I know that walk would became a cornerstone of the work.
I walked the South Down’s Way back in 2007. It’s a beautiful, ancient, long-distance foot (and hoof) path that runs along the South Downs in southern England. You have right of way through fields and walk on public paths, up and down more hills than I care to remember. I only trekked half of it; from Amberley through to Lewes where my characters Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived, then along the Ouse, where Virginia died. Finally I walked up and over the Seven Sisters the around Beachey Head to Eastbourne. The escarpment stretches some hundred and sixty kilometres. The vivid green of its heights are dotted with clumps of beech, oaks and yew, atop dazzling white, undulating chalk. You move though what feels like oceans of golden canola. Spring lambs frolicked. Birds hopped through hedgerows. People walked their dogs and played frisbee in the sun. To my Australian eyes, the landscape had rustic and olde world vibes (except for the frisbees). However in 2017 when I revised a series of scenes based on that walk the thought (belatedly) occurred to me — might the Downs might have changed dramatically since the early 20th century, the period I was writing about? Had they, in fact changed in the ten years since I did my walk in 2007?
So, finally, I did more homework. Centuries of human habitation have shaped the Downs and the earliest settlements along the walk date back 5000 years, to the Iron Age. But while, at the beginning of the last century the South Downs could have been described as a landscape that was relatively unchanging, that changed in and after WW2, both because of need to build fortifications in case of a German invasions, and because of a change in agricultural methods. Crops became more homogenous (all that Canola . . .) and pesticides became the norm. Leonard Woolf, one of the novel’s main characters campaigned to make the South Downs a national park from, as far as I can gather, as early as the1930s. However the South Downs only became a National Park in 2010 — after I did my walk. And all those crickets and birds I heard as I walked? Well, in seemed that in the decade between walking the Downs and revisiting them fictionally, birds, insects and many other creatures were in a precipitous decline. Some of the lands on the border of the park are the only place in the British Isles where all our native reptile and amphibian species can be found. Overall a quarter of the native species of Britain are at risk of extinction. The South Downs National Park Trust and the South Downs National Park Authority are currently raising funds to allow the rewilding of up to a third of the South Downs.
Learning all this made me realise what a risky business writing about natural places can be. If writing about a place based on information that is ten years old seems a stretch, writing realistically about a place as it might have been a hundred years ago is even more of a fool’s errand. This realisation opened a fissure in the timeline of the novel and made me realise that I could walk and muse and meander all I liked but the was no walking back in time to the place that south Downs once were. I had to go back to resources written at the time and give up on some authentic, lived ‘experience’. And so I made a decision to create a contemporary character who was experiencing escalating climate change, and what feels like the end of days at the beginning of the 21st century, and then to compare that to the apocalyptic nightmares of the early 20th century. (Wars. Pandemics). This also helped me understand the dilemma I was having when it came to writing the novel in the first place, by which I mean why they whole damned thing took so long. How do we write authentically about historical events? Perhaps in response to this I found I became less interested in the officially interesting experiences of my characters and more interested in the minutiae of their experience in the natural world. How bright were the stars (then, now) how loud the crickets (then, now) how robust the wild life (then, now)?
My desire to try and capture landscapes over time also extended to Sri Lanka (once Ceylon) where Leonard Woolf was an administrator during the first decade of the last century. When I spent time in Sri Lanka in 2005 I has a chance to see first hand the impact of the devastating tsunami that had hit the coast line a few earlier forever. At the time I was struck by how much worse things were in sections of the coast where dynamite fishing had destroyed the reef. The more I researched Sri Lanka’s history and wrote about a colonial figure the more I understood that colonialism and capitalism were at the root of most of the environmental issues we are dealing with globally today. From over clearing, erosion, deforestation, desalination, to human and livestock’s vulnerability to disease and pandemic. The sustainability of agriculture has been, it seems, precarious forever though the ways in which it is unsustainable morph as the population increase, the climate changes and corporations take over a system that once worked on a model of small holdings, cared for by a single family. Our wildlife was once ravaged by big game hunters and is now by bushfire and habitat loss.
For the Australian sections of the novel I drew I drew on the my experiences, on all our experiences, of the devastating fires of 2019 and 2020 and the pandemic. I also was influenced by my time near Nowra, NSW where I did a residency in 2017. Bundanon sits by the Shoalhaven River, is on Wodi Wodi and Yuin land and was once the property of Arthur Boyd.It flooded while I was working there, on This Devastating Fever, and in more recent drafts of the book I drew on my experience of those — in retrospect — relatively minor floods. Water started to move through my writing, my work, my dreams. I was, creatively speaking, swamped. In the days before her death Virginia Woolf looked across meadows that seemed akin to an ocean, because the River Ouse had broken its banks. I sat writing at a desk listening to the waters of the Shoalhaven River move across the paddocks. I came to realise that the natural world —beautiful, liminal, devastated, glorious, resilient, delicate, ruined — is the subject that underpins all my writing, fiction and non fiction and that the characters I care enough to write about feel similarly.