The Word for Literature Is Ecofiction

The thirst of this mountainside is insatiable. Day or night, the rain comes in all tempos. Furiously sluicing through the forest in arrows or tumbling down in grim sheets. A reassuring drizzle tapping on the roof or the gossamer touch of monsoon mists. Through it all the mountain drinks steadily, absorbing each bead of water that filters through the canopy to touch her soil.  

Every year I come here alone, with a two-point agenda: to walk and to read. Unshackled from the grime and chaos of the city, I am in the thrall of the Himalayas. This is where priorities shift and perspectives expand. My daily rambles through the forest scour my city-rusted senses. My feet seek footholds on the mountain paths; my eyes search for fungi and wild animals; my hands caress textured bark. I inhale the scent of the saturated earth and fill my lungs with air that tastes like spring water. 

My usual literary tastes narrow when I am here. All the millions of brilliant books that do not centre nature now seem dull. I am instead ravenous for ecological fiction, the only genre that can possibly allow me to relish or understand the brutality and beauty of the world more intimately.

A forest ecology is a delicate one. If the forest perishes, its fauna may go with it. The Athshean word for world is also the word for forest.’

In Ursula K Le Guin’s stunning 1972 novella The Word for World Is Forest, the peaceful natives of the fictional planet of Athshe revolt against the cruel colonisation of their world by yumens (humans) from Earth. Half a century after it was first published, the novella seems to be more relevant than ever. Book blogs persistently categorise it as sci-fi, but its commentary on war, colonialism, machismo and environmental destruction is almost certainly a thinly veiled critique of the world we live in today. In fact it is so unbearably prescient that I had to double-check its date of publication.

In popular culture the time we inhabit is labelled the Anthropocene: the epoch of human domination, where our actions shape every ecosystem in the world and even influence the climate. I like the term, but I do feel it smacks of human arrogance. We humans view the world from the narrow scope of our umwelt—the unique sensory world of each organism—and have claimed our perspective as universal truth despite much evidence to the contrary. We are special. We are different. We are apart from nature, are we not?  

Yet every environmentalist I know reassures themselves by rejecting this perspective. They zoom out from what feels so intensely personal and tragic to a place of wider objectivity. We are just one ephemeral form in an endless ocean of energy. It is a perspective I have stumbled across uncountable times in the books that have moved me. ‘Man does not possess the soil: he is possessed by it. He can grip the soil in his fist, but it laughs, and waits; and one day he drops down, and the soil is enriched. Grass and mandia and rice grow out of him, and they too fall back into the soil…’ writes Gopinath Mohanty in Paraja. Published in 1945, it is the agonising story of the downfall of a tribal family in the Koraput hills of Odisha. Richard Powers is fleetingly less lyrical than usual in his sprawling 2019 Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Overstory. Each one of us, he writes, is just a ‘sack of rotting meat wrapped around a little sewage tube that’s going to give out in—what? Another few thousand sunrises?’

In one sense, I believe all literature is ecofiction. Anything that has ever been written and that will ever be written is rooted in the ecology of the planet. The millions of exclusively human-centred books are what might actually be niche. My father suggests that every book ever printed is steeped in the essence of ecofiction: the result of the transmutation of nature, in the form of trees, into the fantasy evoked by words.

Exploring Ecofiction

Ecofiction focuses on nature-oriented stories, but beyond this fragile common thread , these stories are genre-defying and diverse. I imagine that the two extremes of ecofiction that I have discerned are wonderment and warning. In exploring natural history, themes of environmental balance and the consequences of environmental exploitation, books in this category regularly elicit wide-eyed wonder and uneasy dread.

You can slip between the two in seconds, or you can traverse the entire spectrum of human emotions to arrive from one to the other. See how quickly Hanya Yanagihara first exults and then disappoints us in her riveting, unsettling 2013 debut novel, The People in the Trees, which follows an expedition to a remote island in search of a lost tribe and their secret to immortality:

[I]n that white flower I was reminded of the blossoms I had grown up with…[I]t seemed the loveliest thing I had seen for many days, and I stood there staring at it. But as I continued stumbling over to the creek, I saw that the flower was no flower at all but rather a crumple of tissue, at its heart a smear of blood. I felt a sort of fury…’ 

I’ve never seen H P Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness (usually described as sci-fi or horror) included on any ecofiction list. But it has a place on mine. It was written in the 1930s, but to read it in this decade, when we have been warned that thawing permafrost can release deadly viruses, is to appreciate its foresight. The novella details the exploration of a fictional Antarctic mountain range and contains this ominous warning:

It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.’

Barbara Kingsolver’s more conventionally ecofiction novels Prodigal Summer and Flight Behaviour are chockablock with gorgeous nature prose. Both books tell interweaving stories set in the mountains of Appalachia, and both centre specific species. The former holds a hidden den of coyotes close to its heart, and the latter orbits a monarch butterfly migration. She writes:  

‘Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen.’

When I am in wild places, I read ecofiction to further compound my wonder. When I am distressed by environmental crises, I read ecofiction to find solace and companionship in my woes. When I am trapped in the city, I read ecofiction to alleviate my ecological boredom—that dissatisfaction that arises from being alienated from the wilds that we have so recently in evolutionary history isolated ourselves from. It’s a handy term borrowed from George Monbiot’s highly recommended non-fiction book Feral.

This essay is inadequate, as all essays that seek to explore literature will be. I have not touched upon cli-fi such as Clade, The New Wilderness or Hummingbird Salamander, nor conservation stories such as The Tusk That Did the Damage or What’s Left of the Jungle, whose spine I am yet to crack. Hot favourites Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain and Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island too have been neglected, even as they sit patiently on my bookshelf. And I have not approached ecofiction for young adults, whose champions in India include Bijal Vachharajani, Ranjit Lal, Ruskin Bond and Stephen Alter. I am both resigned to and elated by the fact that reading ecofiction is an endless endeavour. In her book Latitudes of Longing, which starts in the tropical heat of the Andaman Islands and ends in the rugged beauty of the Karakoram mountains, Shubhangi Swarup writes, ‘[C]ompared to all the glorious lives one can lead, the human one is quite a chore.’ 

Ah, but eco fiction temporarily vanquishes the tedium and allows us to taste, for a moment, other glorious lives. 

On My Bookshelf

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

Greenwood by Michael Christie

The Bear by Andrew Krivark

The Upheaval by Pundalik N. Naik

The Book of the Hunter by Mahasweta Devi

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Everything the Light Touches by Janice Pariat

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The inaugural Kodai Chronicle Environmental Fiction Prize is accepting entries till 31st January, 2023. For more details, click here.

Cara Tejpal

Cara Tejpal is a reader, writer and wildlife conservationist.

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