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Listening To The Light Of Grass: Elizabeth-Jane Burnett's The Grassling
Stephanie Sy-Quia , April 27th, 2019 09:03

Activist, environmentalist and poet, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett's new book, The Grassling is a heartening read, finds Stephanie Sy-Quia

It is Gary Snyder, itinerant scholar-poet of the Pacific Rim, who called upon us, some forty years ago, to speak on behalf of the non-human classes in our relationship with the land we live on. Snyder’s suggestion is of an eco-marxist ethos of treating each element of one’s ecosystem, be it animal, vegetal, or mineral, with dignity and respect. He does so in his practice as a poet, but he asks for private citizens, scientists, historians, legislators, and others to join him. He gave us a mythopoetics with which to tackle the emerging environmental movement, which required the aid of poetry as a consciousness-raising device. In my mind, Snyder is by far the finest bro-poet of the West Coast: in the late sixties, after many years in Japan, he returned to the Sierra mountains near where he grew up, made a house out of fallen trees, and was photographed by Life magazine in 1972 bathing naked with his sons and wife in a rocky mountain stream.

In this country, we have no such figure, and, if we did, would not know what to do with them. We have environmentalists who write paeans to the natural world and issue warnings, such as Chris Packham and David Attenborough. We have historian-poets who plough up the mists of our folklore to be rehashed with the hyperlocal, such as Simon Armitage or Max Porter. But we have few specimens of people who do both, which is where Elizabeth-Jane Burnett steps in, and on a scale befitting of our small island: here climate change is less about superstorms with names, or even necessarily rising sea levels. It is to do with bird and insect life, soil erosion and carbon capture.

An activist, environmentalist and poet (and avid wild swimmer, as her poetry collection Swims attests), Burnett’s book opens on “the land my father’s fathers farmed”, in the remote Devon village of Ide. Her father is dying and she is commuting from Birmingham to spend time with him. Tagged a ‘geological memoir’, The Grassling is placed in dialogue with an earlier local history of the village written by her father, which investigates the derivation of place-names, historical land usage, and changing farming practices since the pre-Roman period. Her book picks up where he leaves off, by looking at how climate change and our urban-dominant societies have impacted small-scale farming on the Jurassic Coast. It shares a native reverence for our Anglo-Saxon forebears, but married with Snyder’s sense of geological time-spans and elevation of the non-animal.

She details the flora, fauna, and places particular emphasis on the geological make-up of the surrounding acres with loving, ennobling detail. There are long lists of wildflower names and she takes care to enumerate each inhabitant of ancient hedgerows in language which approaches the incantatory: “The willow, the beech, the birch, the conifer, the eucalyptus, the oak, the ash, the elder, the hawthorn, the apple tree, the plum tree, the wood: they breathe”. Readers will be reminded of Seamus Heaney’s full soil cloddedness, but she waxes also scholastic in bright flashes: “To be classed ancient, these hedgerows only have to have existed before the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth century, and to be considered species-rich, contain five native woody species, or be rich in herbaceous plants”. In so doing, Burnett manages the delicate feat of maintaining our sense of reverence for the nebulous Anglo-Saxon romanticism which has been our main mode of approach in the rural memoirs of this country, but twins it with astute scientific nous which never strays into the esoteric. She does this with such joy that we cannot help but want to join in.

Burnett is also mixed race (her mother is Kenyan), and as such she brings a rare, valuable gaze to the English countryside. “Though I have lived here a lifetime,” she writes, “it is a mixed motion for me. While others see [my father] as belonging, even without knowing his story, they do not see that in me.” Burnett does not dwell on this element much, but it is a welcome addition to her exploration of the hyperlocal so fetishised by her predecessors in the genre: “In its very material way, farming brings together the local and the global. An unfavourable weather event in one part of the world may create demand for produce in another”. In this world of weather systems, windstreams and ocean currents, we are a world without borders – a deeply troubling notion for an island nation. Crop failure, drought and flooding in countries far away can and will touch us, and sooner than we think. This is a gentle subversion of the nostalgia which has characterised writing English rurality since the nineteenth century, which would place the furze-seamed fields as a pre-industrial, prelapsarian green and pleasant land under threat (think Thomas Hardy, Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford). These are all fine books, but in their preoccupations with notions of purity and ancestral ways of life under threat, they are, to put is strongly, well-meaning blood and soil-lite, which politely decline to acknowledge global supply chains predicated on colonial exploitation. (Of course, this occlusion is not the fault of Hardy, Chatwin or Thompson and their ilk, but of a national sense of self which over-amplifies them.)

Burnett achieves all this, and more, with a great deal of love, which is what makes The Grassling such a heartening read. To stay in touch with generations of ancestors on a patch of land it not isolationist, in her view, it is to become interconnected with all the world’s living and sustaining things: “I have expanded. I am more of my fathers now. ... I have grown towards them and our roots have touched, we are part of the same system”. The return to her ancestral lands has made her “a wider thing, with strange beatings” and tasked her with translating them: “I have listened to the light of grass and typed it out.” The book’s endnote is one of flawed pragmatism and grief which has become the hallmark of present-day climate activism: “I am damaged, but it is not quite over. Whatever part of me is here is not quite over”. The moment we live in now demands scholars, poets, artists, activists - people to speak in “grass voice, in field voice, in open-throated hill voice” with determination and eloquence. Burnett is many of these, and rises to meet us with compassion, eloquence, and warm words of welcome: “Here is a space for salvaging. I am speaking in a thickened voice now. All the voices of the advocates. All the voices of my family. All the voices of the sea, rising. There is still time. I am still. Here.”

The Grassling by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is published by Penguin Books