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Ecological Consciousness and Local Action: Prophetic Voices of the Limestone Plains


A woman stands at a lectern on a stage. - click to view larger image
Kate Rigby

Kate Rigby

Kate Rigby is an Associate Professor in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University and a member of the Association for the Study of the Literature of the Environment. Kate completed her PhD at Monash University and her primary research interest in German Studies is in the literature and philosophy of the Age of Goethe, and in German thought in the twentieth century. Her research has recently concentrated on the ecological humanities, with a particular emphasis on ecofeminism, ecocriticism and ecology and religion.


Prophetic speech is enabled by imagination, and fueled by a sense of justice. The imagination, that is, to see beyond and through those conventional attitudes, assumptions, and patterns of behavior that engender or support oppression and wrong doing, and the sense of justice underpinned by compassion that cannot tolerate complacency in the face of another's suffering. Dr Kate Rigby's work connects ecology, religion, philosophy, and literature.

Ecological Consciousness and Local Action

Recording includes a reading of Judith Wright's Dust from Collected Poems with permission from HarperCollins.
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Presenters: Kate Rigby, Associate Professor in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, Monash University

LIBBY ROBIN: A talk from Dr Kate Rigby from Monash University, whose work is at the intersection between ecology, religion, philosophy, and literature. She's from Monash University, but she's really from Canberra and she's come home. She's going to talk to us about Ecological Consciousness and Local Action: Prophetic Voices of the Limestone Plains.

KATE RIGBY: The limestone plains, of course, is what this region was dubbed by early explorers and settlers, and I am going to end up talking about some local action here in Canberra of a prophetic nature. But I'm going to begin at some remove from here both in time and place. In fact I'd like to kick off with a quote from the German-speaking Czech Jewish writer Franz Kafka. Actually I'm also a Germanist. I can't resist putting some German stuff in. This is how the young Kafka once described the function of literature in a letter to a friend:

I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So it can make us happy? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Kafka's violent imagery here possibly owes something to the rebellious spirit of youth. And it certainly betrays a classically modernist conception of the vocation of the writer — to shock, rather than to please his readers. But there's also an echo here of the Jewish prophetic tradition, and it is this that I want to pick up on today in relation to the arts of environmental anxiety.

In the Biblical tradition that haunts Kafka's work, the role of the prophet is not to predict the future, but to remind the people that if they carry on as they are doing, the future will be exceedingly bleak.

By contrast with apocalyptic narratives, in which a cataclysmic end is seen as inevitable and even embraced as a necessary precursor for a glorious new beginning, the Jewish prophetic writing assumes that no matter how dire the current situation might seem, there remains a chance that the worst can be averted on condition that the people change their ways in time.

The central trope of prophetic writing is that of turning and returning on the part of both the people and their god, whose relationship is conceived as dialogical. Prophetic speech is called forth by the cry of the oppressed. And the prophet is both implicated in and wounded by the wrong-doing he or she sees driving the world headlong into catastrophe.

Prophetic speech is enabled by imagination, and fueled by a sense of justice. The imagination, that is, to see beyond and through those conventional attitudes, assumptions, and patterns of behaviour that engender or support oppression and wrong-doing, and the sense of justice underpinned by compassion that cannot tolerate complacency in the face of another's suffering.

Enabled by imagination and fueled by a sense of justice, prophetic speech is also profoundly poetic, using figurative language to undercut ideology. Breeching the fortress of royal consciousness, the mindset of mastery and privilege that renders us insouciant to the suffering of others and unmindful of our own vulnerability, the prophet speaks with the voice of grief, but also implicitly or explicitly with the voice of hope.

Prophetic speech incites lamentation in order to engender transformation at the same time that it warns of what will ensue if the people fail to heed the call. In the Hebrew Bible, the dialogical relationship between people and earth is triangulated by the figure of the land or earth, which is often shown to bear the brunt of human wrong-doing. In the drying up of the land, and in the dying of their fellow creatures, the people stand accused of breaking their covenant with God.

Because of this, we read in Jeremiah 4:28, for example, 'The earth will mourn and the heavens above grow black'. And again, in Jeremiah 12:11, 'They have made it a desolation. Desolate, it mourns unto me. The whole land has been made desolate, but no one lays it to heart'. There is a suggestion here that among other things it is precisely in their failure to lay it to heart, to cherish the land - that the people are courting catastrophe.

Drying up or mourning — amazingly the Hebrew verb used in these passages means both. The earth itself cries out and the prophet exhorts the people to heed its call by turning back to God and forestalling divine vengeance.

Well, this Biblical motif of the drying up or grieving and mourning of the earth is echoed in a secular key, in work of the pre-eminent Australian eco-poet Judith Wright. Here I am reminded in particular of her extraordinary poem Dust, penned in the war-torn, drought ridden summer of 1942–43. This is how it goes:

This sick dust, spiraling with the wind,
is harsh as grief's taste in our mouths
and has eclipsed the small sun.
The remnant earth turns evil,
the steel-shocked earth has turned against the plough
and runs with wind all day, and all night
sighs in our sleep against the windowpane.

Wind was kinder once, carrying cloud
like a waterbag on his shoulder; sun was kinder,
hardening the good wheat brown as a strong man.
Earth was kinder, suffering fire and plough,
breeding the unaccustomed harvest.
Leaning in our doorway together
watching the birdcloud shadows,
the fleetwing windshadows travel our clean wheat
we thought ourselves rich already.
We counted the beautiful money
and gave it in our hearts to the child asleep,
who must never break his body
against the plough and the stubborn rock and tree.

But the wind rises; but the earth rises,
running like an evil river; but the sun grows small,
and when we turn to each other, our eyes are dust
and our words dust.
Dust has overtaken our dreams that were
wider and richer than wheat under the sun,
and war's eroding gale scatters our sons
with a million other grains of dust.

O sighing at the blistered door, darkening the evening star,
the dust accuses. Our dream was the wrong dream,
our strength was the wrong strength.
Weary as we are, we must make a new choice,
a choice more difficult than resignation,
more urgent than our desire of rest at the end of the day.
We must prepare the land for a difficult sowing,
a long and hazardous growth of a strange bread,
that our son's sons may harvest and be fed.

(Judith Wright, Collected Poems, 23–4, with permission from HarperCollins)

In this work of eco prophetic witness, Wright traces the dawning of ecological consciousness. As the speaker of the poem moves from resentfully blaming the land for failure of the harvest, the remnant earth turns evil, to acknowledging her own culpability in the disastrous consequences of this drought. 'The dust accuses'.

For she comes to realise, this was no purely natural disaster, but a natural/cultural hybrid wrought by the mismatch between the distinctive climatic patterns, soils, and biotic communities of the southeastern Australia and the agricultural practices, social relations, and cultural attitudes of its European colonisers.

The earth that is now running with the wind, having previously been stolen from its Indigenous landholders, is said to be steel shocked — forced to breed an unaccustomed harvest for the private profit of its new owners. Settler Australians, who evidently value it primarily as a means of achieving upward social mobility for their son, who must never break his body against the plow and the stubborn rock and tree.

This aggressive and exploitative attitude towards the colonised land pertains to what the speaker finally recognises as the wrong dream. Responding imaginatively to the cry of the earth, Wright issues an urgent call for a new way of thinking and being — a new ethos of right relationship with the land as a necessary precondition for collective survival that our son's sons may harvest and be fed.

Well, in the context of climate change, this poem ought to speak powerfully to the people of Canberra, a city to which Wright herself was drawn in the early 1970s in connection with her work for the Whitlam government on the first national inquiry into the condition of Australia's natural environment.

Now as I see it, the relevance of Dust to the limestone plains is twofold. Firstly, according to paleoclimatologist Timothy Barrows, the Canberra region is likely to be particularly hard-hit by global warming, becoming considerably warmer and dryer than previous projections have estimated. In the dust storms to come, here on the limestone plains, the weather itself will accuse us.

Secondly, Canberra is, of course, the federal capital, and if cataclysmic climate change is to averted, our national government in consult with others around the world must take urgent and courageous action, overruling narrowly commercial interests and countering those whose desires to control and consume the earth as Wright so clearly recognised have for too long been allowed to prevail in our society.

If such urgent and courageous action is not taken soon it is most unlikely that our children's children will harvest and be fed.

Well fortunately, Canberra is not only the seat of government, but also a city of inordinately articulate, creative, and increasingly concerned citizens. And it is with their voices that I would like to conclude. Actually, you've already heard from them yourselves this morning in the excerpt from Glenda Cloughley's remarkable work of contemporary eco-prophetic work, The Gifts of the Furies — another song from which will be sung later this afternoon.

Although inspired by Greek tragedy rather the Hebrew prophets, this work too speaks with the voice of grief but also of hope. Responding to the cry of the oppressed and lamenting the consequences of human wrongdoing, the Gifts of the Furies calls for radical change in order to avert catastrophe.

Here too, the land is drying out. But rather than mourning to a god beyond, Earth is conceived here as prosecuting her own suit. In the mythic guise of Gaia's avenging Furies, Earth itself threatens to wreak disaster should the people continue to transgress her ancient laws: 'I'll bring droughts and fire and filthy skies. I will scorch the farmland and torch the forest. I will raise the oceans, drown the cities, and spare no human being'.

Well, in Glenda's rewrite of the classical Greek tragedy, this violent end is averted by the mediation brought forth by the figure of Ethos, the embodiment of civilised wisdom, whose statue incidentally graces Canberra's city centre.

Ethos prophesised, 'Only when reason and love sing together will cities and nature be reconciled'. This is the kind of love that seeks above all else the flourishing of the other. A love that longs for the flourishing of Earth's more than human life, with all its beauty and terror, now and in the future.

Untempered by such love and at odds with laws of earth and sky, the Gifts of the Furies warns us. The logic of the city today, largely driven by powerful political and transnational commercial interests, will be the death of us all — rich and poor, human and non-human alike, albeit poor and non-human for starters.

Canberra's chorus of citizens continues to engage audiences locally, but hopefully also nationally and perhaps even internationally, with their compelling performances and inspiring conversations, disclosing through story and song the catastrophic implications of the wrongdoing of which we are all to a greater or lesser extent both the victims and perpetrators.

They will be helping to facilitate the grieving process that I believe is a necessary precondition for the kind of radical action that might yet reconcile our cities with the Earth.

In conclusion then, it's my hope that works of the eco-prophetic imagination, such as the Gifts of the Furies, will be able to bring an axe to the frozen sea within us, to recall Kafka. For as we're reminded by Ethos, lament is the start of renewal.

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