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Article A green economy manifesto

Ecofiction: creating environmental awareness

“They kept coming at him from the air—noiseless, silent, save for the beating wings. The terrible, fluttering wings. He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, upon his neck. If only he could keep them from his eyes. Nothing else mattered.” — The Birds, Daphne Du Maurier

The earth’s environment is not the sole property of the human race. Something fragile is endangered when millions of gallons of oil enter into oceans, when deforestation occurs on a large scale, and when animals are poached and hunted. Something precious is lost when the natural habitats of birds and animals are destroyed, or exposed to pollutants and dangerous elements.

Commercial interests are wearing out our association with nature. However, this annihilation of the earth’s environment is insidious. It is gradually thwarting and upsetting the ecological balance of the planet. Environment on the whole or specific to a particular region and its relation to the organisms constitutes ecology. The environment and the organisms that live in it are interdependent. The biological significance of this symbiotic arrangement is immense.

To tamper with one small portion means puncturing the whole. Therefore, this coexistence needs to be maintained. Human beings need to understand this need for ecological balance. They should be informed and made aware. Although non-fiction has an active role to play in the dispersal of this knowledge, storytelling is considered a reliable conduit to transfer this information because people absorb fictive stories deeply. Fiction also has the ability to reach readers who otherwise have no interest in any scientific discussions on the subject.

Written narratives create awareness

Storytelling in the form of written narratives can also thereby create this awareness among humans. An offshoot of fiction called ecofiction has been a platform for creating environmental awareness, for a long time. In the following passages are delivered two narratives, to serve as examples of ecofiction. These two stories are merely representative of a substantial range of ecofiction already written.

The story The Birds is written by Daphne Du Maurier, an English author. This narrative is reflective of a dangerous but possible outcome of climatic change. In the story, environmental destruction has caused severe climatic upheavals, birds have become hunters, and this has directly affected humans.

Nat Hocken lives on a wartime disability pension and works three days a week on a farm in England. His family includes his wife and two children, Jill and Johnny. The Triggs, a farmer and his wife are their next door neighbours. The farm is in a town in Cornwall, quite a distance from London. Winters are approaching, and the cold east wind has swept into the region. His neighbour tells Nat that it would be colder this winter, and he turns out to be right.

Overnight, the temperatures drop, the skies darken, and a threatening haze looms over them. Shockingly, Nat and his children are attacked by ordinary birds – robins and wrens – during the night, having left their windows open. Nat wrestles with the violent birds, a blanket over his head, and protects his family from the sudden onslaught. In the morning, when he returns to the children’s room, there are fifty dead birds on the floor.

Jill goes to school the next morning. However, the day turns into a series of unexpected events. Nat discusses the bird attacks with Mrs Triggs, who does not believe him and asks him to write to the Guardian instead. Nat heads towards the beach, to bury the dead birds from the earlier night, but is shocked by the sight of thousands and thousands of seagulls riding the waves, waiting, for something. They are gathering – but for what? Nat does not know for sure, but he already has an idea.

He plugs the doors, windows and chimneys of his house. He fetches Jill from the bus stop and warns Mr Triggs on the way. The farmer shows him the gun with which he is planning to shoot the gulls and asks him to join him. Nat refuses. On Nat’s request, Triggs takes Jill to Nat’s cottage in his car, while Nat follows them on foot. By the time Nat nears the door of his house, the gulls, wheeling above, dive into him, injuring him. He survives a fierce suicidal attack from a gannet before his wife pulls him inside the house.

Some climatic imbalance has caused an unnatural reaction from the birds, and as is broadcast on the wireless, no city or town in England is being spared by the hooligan birds, including London. People are advised to stay indoors, and a national emergency is announced. Nat fends off bird hostilities in the following days. Hawks, kestrels, buzzards and falcons also join the suicidal mission. Nat later finds out that the gulls attack only with the flood tide.

The killer seagulls kill the Triggs. Nat stocks his house with food and essentials from the farm that would last them a couple of days while the seagulls are away and the other birds are resting. The family waits for news from the city, but the broadcasts have stopped. Birds have turned into predators. And they will not stop. Now only his family’s survival is on Nat’s mind.

This story is representative of the grave repercussions of climatic change, apart from the author’s personal inspirations for writing the story. Severe consequences could be faced by future generations if concrete and metal gradually replaced large portions of greenery and water bodies on the planet. No wonder there have been continuous missions to find life sources on other planets.

The Hermit’s Story, by Rick Bass, an American writer, and an environmental activist, is a story with a subtle message. The story could redirect many readers’ thoughts to the natural world. It is a story set in an icy and snow-capped landscape. There is no terrifying message being sent out in this story as in the first story. However, the evocative description of a few shades of the natural world in the story causes one to gasp at the beautiful offerings of nature in the winters. It also portrays results of environmental ruins, hidden under layers.

The story opens in descriptive tones of a beautiful blue and white blending of light and snow. Susan and the narrator are in Ann and Roger’s house on the hills, away from the plains, for Thanksgiving dinner. Ann narrates to them a personal incident in Saskatchewan from twenty years ago. She had been training six German shorthaired pointers, all at once, and was going to return the dogs to their owner, Gray Owl, and spend some time with them. She wanted him to know how to work the dogs.

To show him what the dogs had learned, they set out the next day. Ann was carrying live quails in a bag, birds she let loose, only to be retrieved by the dogs. After spending several days working with the dogs, Gray Owl and Ann decide to return to the cabin. However, post a snowstorm, they find out they are lost. They helplessly continue walking in the snow desert, helped by the thought that have a tent and some food in a backpack in case they have to camp for the night.

Soon after, they come across a frozen lake, and Gray Owl walks on it, kicking it, looking for water for his animals. He disappears into the lake while Ann is watching him from a distance. Fearing she has lost the backpack too, Ann follows him to the edge of the porthole. Ann peers into the hole, but instead of water, she sees Gray Owl waving at her from inside – there is no water in the lake. It is a dry lake, with a coating of ice. She climbs down into the hole on Gray Owl’s persuasion and with his help.

It is warm under the snowy-layering. Gray Owl explains to her that due to a cold snap in October, water has seeped into the earth, disappearing during the winters. And the snow and blizzards have turned the surface of the lake into a shroud of opaque crystal. The lake is only about eight feet deep nearer shore. Ann walks for a while and then crawls out of the lake, to guide the dogs through the same entry point. Ann and Gray Owl decide to spend the night underneath the ice, on a surface made of marsh grass, to avoid puddles on the ground.

From under the sheet of ice, translucent in places, they gaze at the starry night sky, gradually washed out by the moonlight. The cold winds from the outside merge with the warmth held under the wintry skin of ice, and Ann relives the vivid experience as she narrates. They spend a night and a day under the layer of frost. However, the group eventually find their way to the southern shore the next day.

Close to the shallow shore, they see migratory birds, snipes, immured under the ice, having found their way inside through rifts or fissures. A climatic change has perhaps destroyed their habitat and they are waiting for spring to arrive. The birds bang their heads against the ice, to avoid them, but fall unconscious to the ground. Ann tucks them in her pockets and puts the unconscious birds on the branches of trees, once the group crawl their way out. They find their truck parked on the road and return to the cabin. Ann leaves the next day.

As Ann finishes the story, the narrator feels Ann still strongly holds on to the memory of the magical journey that had taken her into a unique and revealing place. The blue lingering luminosity of snow, escaping and entering – the orange flickering fire with which Gray Owl and Ann find their way back to the southern shore – are beautifully described. Without explication, the story binds the readers to nature and also politely gives readers signs of the threat some species might be facing.

Range of Stories

Stories that elucidate the subtle and grave consequences of climate change and destruction of the environment are numerous. Barbara Kingsolver has written many popular ecofiction novels. Some of her works include Prodigal Summer and Flight Behaviour. The latter is a fictional account of the plight of monarch butterflies, who as a consequence of climate change, are moving to another region to survive. The story of their appearance in millions, interspersed with the life of a young mother is one of the important features of the novel.

Similarly, Eco-Fiction, a brilliant collection of short stories that reveals man’s position in the environmental crisis, edited by John Stadler contains fantastic stories, including the beautifully written A White Heron by S.O. Jewett, and The Fair Young Willowy Tree by A.E. Coppard. Some other titles are also part of a remarkable range of ecofiction. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam also belong in the category.

Where the Wild Books are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction by Jim Dwyer is for readers who wish to explore ecofiction in further depth. The book contains notes, insights and recommendations on several pieces of ecofiction. It is extensively researched by the author and would appeal to many readers. According to the author, “The terms “environmental fiction,” “green fiction,” and “nature-oriented fiction” are sometimes used interchangeably with “ecofiction,” but might better be considered as categories of fiction.”

Through ecofiction, one can understand the many aftereffects of environmental devastation and how it may affect all living forms in one way or another. These stories are relevant in the context of human beings and their relation to the natural world. Their ability to create awareness about the sensitivity of the earth’s environment and climate and how this impacts us is essential.

Writer’s Website: www.trishabhattacharya.com

Photo Credit: Diego Torres

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